Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

My Conflicted Feelings about Bree Tanner

In Uncategorized on June 30, 2010 at 9:47 am
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 24:  Author Stephenie M...

Image by Getty Images North America via @daylife

Here’s the thing. I don’t think Stephenie Meyer is a very good writer.

I know I’m not her target audience but, in my own defense, I am a voracious reader as happy with a fun, well-written young adult book as I am with an engrossing Russian novel; as happy with JRR Tolkien as I am with Lorrie Moore.  I love reading.

So, when Twilight first came out and shot up the best seller lists, I was curious. And I really wasn’t all that impressed. But, I figured maybe it was just me, maybe it was my mood at the time. And as the subsequent books came out, I gave them a chance.

And each time, I found them — eh.

Now she’s out with a new novella in the same series, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner and I also found it, eh.

And I’m not the only one.  The Guardian said the book is “woefully, leaden-footedly pedestrian throughout.”

Indications are that even Meyer may be close to having had her fill of vampires.

It’s really all besides the point, though.

As The Washington Post pointed out: “The satisfaction of “Twilight” novels cannot be measured by such terms as “good” and “bad.” This goes double for “Bree,” which was not originally intended as a stand-alone novel and which all fans will read and all haters will skip regardless of the reviews.”

And the numbers back that up.

“Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight Saga, has yet another smash hit on her hands,” the Associated Press wrote earlier this week, reporting that Bree Tanner had sold more than one million copies since being published June 5.

And really, that’s the important thing. Meyer has written a series of books bought by millions, which means that millions have been reading. And I think that’s great. Maybe she’s not the world best writer. Big deal. She’s got people reading and, as far I’m concerned, for that she deserves a medal.

Because maybe those people reading her books will then move on to other (and hopefully better) stuff.

After all, it’s the reading that’s fundamental.

Managing Mailer

In Entertainment, Media, Uncategorized on June 24, 2010 at 9:16 am
Norman Mailer, Miami Book Fair International, 1988

Image via Wikipedia

In 1969, Norman Mailer – already a successful novelist and somewhat notorious character – decided to run for Mayor of New York with the already legendary columnist Jimmy Breslin as his running mate.

The brilliant Joe Flaherty wrote a marvelous memoir of the campaign called “Managing Mailer.”

While the title is technically correct since Flaherty was the campaign manager, reading the sadly out of print book (excerpts can be read here), it quickly becomes clear that there really was no managing Mailer.

When I interviewed him in 2007, he said of that campaign:

“Looking back on it, there was something highly comic about the whole thing,” he said. “Not at the time, of course. Breslin and I worked as hard as we ever worked. One of my favorite remarks at the time was that my mother didn’t raise me to work this hard. The press thought it was a lark, but it wasn’t a lark. It was a bone-depleting journey.”

“What is comic about it, what I find comic about it, was how little political sense I had compared to how much political sense I thought I had. What I didn’t understand was that a freshman doesn’t run for president of the fraternity.”

I bring this up because there are two books out that deal with managing Mailer later in life. One by Norris Church Mailer, his sixth and, as she likes to point out, last wife. She was with him for about 32 years, pretty much longer than he was with his other five wives, combined.

Her book, A Ticket to the Circus, is a loving though very honest memoir of those times. It’s not always pretty but even when she writes of Mailer — or her — having an affair, there is no question that the bond that held them together was love (though, as she makes clear, sex was also a part of it (“No matter the circumstances of our passions and rages, our boredoms, angers and betrayals large and small, sex was the cord that bound us together”).

It was a relationship apparently few thought would succeed. After all, when they met, he was a 52-year-old literary giant and she was a 26-year-old single mother from Russellville, Arkansas.

“Bella Abzug gave me her phone number and told me to call her, at any hour of the night, if I needed to get away from him, and she would come get me,” she writes of an encounter soon after moving to New York.


“His clear blue eyes lit up when he saw me,” she writes of their first encounter. And she was leaning toward smitten as well. “He had broad shoulders, a rather large head (presumably to hold all those brains) with ears that stuck out like Clark Gable’s, and he was chesty, but not fat, like a sturdy small horse.”

It was clearly a complicated relationship.

During the publicity swing for his novel Harlot’s Ghost — a time when she figured out Mailer had been having an affiar — Sam Donaldson was doing a story about Mailer and he asked her what it was like to live with him:

“Well, Sam, it’s kind of like living in a zoo, One day, Norman is a lion; the next he’s a monkey. Occasionally he’s a lamb and a large part of the time he’s a jackass.”

She tells of their trips, their love letters, their children, their grandchildren, their tender moments and their fights, which could be just awful.

As The New York Times put it, “A Ticket to the Circus is not a tell-all memoir; it’s a tell-enough memoir.”

Meanwhile, the other book about Mailer, Mornings with Mailer: A Recollection of a Friendship by Dwayne Raymond who worked for him the last four years of his life, helping as he wrote his last books, is surprising.

Picking it up, it’s hard to escape a first impression of someone who worked for Mailer, probably didn’t know him so well and is trying to cash in.

But then you start reading it and you quickly see how much Raymond not only cared about Mailer but was involved in his life the last few years (a point of view, I later discovered, is fully supported by Norris in her book).

Raymond had been a waiter in Provincetown when the Mailers convinced him to come work for them, helping Norman as an assistant but also doing the cooking and shopping and helping Norris who was battling cancer.

While Raymond had had the writing bug and was a reader, his knowledge of Mailer at the time was thin.

“I had no basis for what to think about Norman Mailer. I knew he lived in town, but I’d never seen him and knew nothing about how he lived. I figured if hew as crazy enough to stay here all winter long, he was probably a fairly regular guy.”

And, if you only knew Mailer from Raymond’s book, that’s probably the Mailer you would know: a fairly regular guy who, while maybe having some eccentricities, loved his family and cared about those around him.

“To look back on my time with Norman now is like peering through a kaleidoscope: vibrant images churn in imprecise order. What emerges as I shadow more than a thousand days with him should be clear but that is not the case. The memories that do rise to the surface are often as inexplicable as the fog that gathers over the harbor of our town.”

Okay, maybe a little purple but it’s hard not to see it — and the whole book — as a heartfelt, loving portrait of Mailer. And while Norris’s book gives us Mailer the Man, Raymond’s book really is about Mailer the Writer, taking us into his office as he crafted his final work.

Spending time with either book is time well spent. Spending time with both gives you a a deep portrait of a man, a writer, who while not always loved, was clearly a giant who was not always so well managed.

Loving the One You're With

In Entertainment, Uncategorized on June 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Mary and Wallace Stegner

Last month marked the passing of two literary widows — Mary Stegner and Inna Grade — who, from all accounts were not only inspirations for their husbands and protectors of their legacies, they were forces all their own to be contended with, respected. And, certainly in the case of Grade, apparently — feared.

Now, I should make it clear that I had never met either woman or their husbands except through their work and I suspect they also probably didn’t know each other.

So, why write about them together? What do they have to do with each other?

Read the descriptions of them, their relationships with their husbands, Wallace Stegner and Chaim Grade.

The New York Times wrote about Grade’s “zealous guardianship of her husband’s legacy” and how “she repeatedly declared that translations of her husband’s writing failed to do justice to the vitality of his language and the breadth of his cultural insights.”

The LA Times quotes Wallace Stegner telling interviewer James Hepworth:

“She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse’s ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive”

and adds:

“We’ll never know what his work might have been like without his wife Mary, but it sounds like he thought there would have been less of it, and it would not have been as good.”

And Grade was apparently no less of a force in her husband’s life though not everyone was enamored, claiming her zealousness about his work prevented it from reaching a wider audience.

Some do see it differently speculating that “Grade was apparently more afraid of poor translations and bad adaptations (which she thought had already diminished her husband’s reputation) than she was of no translations or adaptations at all.”

Here’s the thing. Both were married to their husbands for more than 50 years. Maybe their relationships were perfect, maybe they weren’t but I’d have to say that the evidence is that they worked for those involved.

I know this is corny but sometimes it’s important just to take a moment, recognize not only the love that others have but the love that you have in your life. Things may not be perfect but it’s always nice to know there’s something special to hang on to.

So, I read about Mary Stegner and Inna Grade and the long relationships they had with their husbands and think about how lucky I am for what I have in my life.

The Irony of the Internet

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2010 at 12:13 pm

For as long as I can remember, a pen and piece of paper have been the tools of my trade.

Somewhere — a box in my house or maybe my grandfather’s — exists a poem written when I was about five and trust me when I tell you, it was probably the most wonderful poem ever by anybody.


Even now, in this age of computers where emoticons (see above) are now as prevalent as semi-colons (if not more s0) and I sit here writing this post on my MacBook, there’s still something about grabbing a pen and piece of paper and starting to work out my thoughts that way.

Whether it’s been an article for a newspaper, a short story, sometimes even just a letter, I like to put pen to paper before I put fingers to keyboard.

And, I have to say, for a long time, I’ve been a bit of a pen snob. There was a long stretch where it was just Mont Blanc ballpoints and now I alternate between a Waterman and a Cross.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this was the story in the New York Times the other day about Mark Twain as literary critic, which included an interactive feature that allowed you to scroll through pages and examine Twain’s own handwriting.

This wasn’t the first of the Times’s literary postings. Late last year they put on their website the one and only complete handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. As the Times pointed out in an accompanying article, looking at the manuscript in Dickens’s handwriting allows you a glimpse into this thoughts, as he crosses out sections only to reinsert them later to draw out the dramatic effect.

The manuscript draws you into the magical world of creation, the  pen strokes, the scribblings that become art. Not to take anything away from anything created on computer, but there’s something about being able to see the work that’s gone into something. It’s not like politics and sausage-making.

And more often, libraries are beginning to recognize the appeal.

The British Library has even developed special software, Turning the Pages, that they say allows you to “leaf through our great books and magnify the details.”

The online gallery they’ve created allows you to read Jane Austen’s handwritten, satirical history of England and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

One of my personal favorite examples of this is an early draft of what would become the Story of Babar posted by The Morgan Library.

The online exhibitions of handwritten pages come at a time when — and I actually feel a little silly saying this because it seems to obvious — a probable majority of work these days is created on keyboards.

Just look at the announcement from Emory University, which has acquired Salman Rushdie’s archives in the form of his old computers.

The point is that there’s a certain irony in the fact that thanks to the beauty of the digital age, it is now so much easier to appreciate the beauty of the written page, the work that goes into creating art.

Natalie Merchant and the 'Flat, Dead Pages'

In Entertainment on April 20, 2010 at 9:02 am
NEW YORK - APRIL 13:  Singer Natalie Merchant ...

Image by Getty Images North America via Daylife

In February, Natalie Merchant appeared at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference where she performed songs from then-upcoming album, Leave Your Sleep.

The album, 26 poems set to music, came out last week and is a delight to listen to. But that’s not why I’m writing about it.

When Merchant performed at TED, she spoke of the joy of taking the poems and setting them to music.

Unfortunately, as Carolyn Kellogg, the smart and talented writer at the LA Times pointed out, Merchant wasn’t all that delicate.

“What I’ve really enjoyed about this project is reviving these people’s words, taking them off the dead flat pages, bringing them to life,” Merchant said.

“What poet sees his or her work as being written for “dead flat pages’?” Kellogg responded.  “Most poems are written for the page, and many poems use the page layout as part of their expression. That would include the work of e.e. cummings, one of the poets whose work Merchant has set to music.

“Seems to me that poems set to music are a nice novelty, but that doesn’t make them new and improved. It transmutes them as lyrics, but it would be a mistake to think this improves on their original form.

“Flat pages? Sure. Dead pages? Maybe not.”

Kellogg is dead on in that regard.

Where I think she is a little off is in her sort of dismissive “seems to me that poems set to music are a nice novelty.”

Without a doubt, setting a poem to be music — no matter how beautiful the result may be — doesn’t mean it’s better.

At the same time, there’s always the chance that the adaptation — which is really what Merchant’s come up with — is quite good in its own right.

My Fair Lady vs. Pygmallion, for instance. Or Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and King Lear? Emma and Clueless?

The Godfather the movie and The Godfather the book?

Merchant maybe came across as a little full of herself, maybe a little less than elegant. But the thought of adapting a work of art to another medium, adding a little of yourself and exposing a new audience to the original work (and Merchant is selling her album with a 74-page book with the poems and essays on the poets) is an admirable one.

Certainly a little more than a “nice novelty.”

Surfing the Wake

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Image by eduardomineo via Flickr

I’ve read every word of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake but can safely say that I’m not sure that I’ve actually read the book.

Filled with beautiful language but written in a series of dreamlike streams of consciousness, the book has been imposing when it first came out in 1939.

Reviewing it for The New York Times, Padraic Collum wrote:

“How, in two thousand words or less, is one to review a book which even a cursory examination shows to be unprecedented, a book of considerable length by a thoughtful and tremendously equipped man who has spent sixteen years writing it? The only thing one can do is to indicate the value of the work and to show a way of approaching it with lessened perplexity. I say lessenedperplexity, for a certain perplexity cannot wholly be removed from a reading of it and the present reviewer freely acknowledges that there is much in the book that he is still seeking explanation for.”

The book — while not quite as much a part of popular culture as Ulysses — has spawned a veritable culture of its own.

There’s a Finnegans Wake Society in New York, which was the subject of a New York Times story and numerous websites devoted to the book.

And now comes word that a new edition is about to come out — an edition that makes more than 9,000 changes to the text.

Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon have spent the better part of 30 years going through the more than 60 notebooks that Joyce used to write the novel as well as the more than 20,000 pages of manuscrupt from various drafts.

The result is what they call 9,000 “minor yet crucial” corrections, covering everything from typos to misplaced phrases.

The Irish Independent recently referred to it as “Finnegans second wake… the greatest publishing event in Irish literature since James Joyce’s Ulysses appeared.”

Hopefully the reception will be less rocky than when the “Corrected” version of Ulysses was published in 1988

The new edition, published by Houyhnhnm,, is expected to be unveiled Thursday at Dublin Castle

Let the Real March Madness Begin!

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2010 at 12:05 pm

The Sixth Annual Tournament of Books got underway this morning.

The contest, sponsored by venerable website The Morning News (they’ve been around since 1999; venerable in web terms), takes 16 of the best books of the past year and pits them against each other, judged by well known literary figures (this year’s panel includes Jane Ciabattari, short story writer and president of the National Books Critics Circle, New York Magazine’s Sam Anderson and Carolyn Kellogg, who reports for the LA Times and writes their Jacket Copy blog.

Previous winners include Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

This year’s competition includes The Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and  Let the Great Wold Spin, Colum McCann’s National Book Award winning novel, which just won round one.

The winner will be declared on April 5. In the meantime, follow the tournament, read the books.

Coming Soon: Cathleen Schine's Book

In Uncategorized on March 8, 2010 at 11:59 am

It was one of those reviews that just gets you excited to read the book.

On the front page of The New York Times Book Review on February 14 was what can be understatedly described as a glowing review of Cathleen Schine’s new novel, The Three Weissmanns of Westport.

Schine’s book “has it all: stinging social satire, mordant wit, delicate charm, lilting language and cosseting materialistic detail,” wrote Dominique Browning.

The book is “richly inhabited” with characters, minor and major, that have “a precisely imagined presence.”

For those who don’t know Schine and her work, she is no stranger to great reviews.

So, I headed over to Powells, the next day where they told me they had not yet received the book but hoped to have it soon. On Friday, the book was still on backorder, unavailable from them.

Apparently, they weren’t the only ones having trouble stocking the book. Amazon had it but said it would be six to ten days before they could ship it.

So, I emailed Laurel Cook, Schine’s publicist at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux to ask her what was up with getting the book.

Cook said FSG is “thrilled that Cathleen Schine’s book is getting such great reviews and so many readers are buying the book.

“Even though there were a substantial number of copies printed and advanced, the demand after the NYT review was unprecedented….

Cook said the book went back to press for second and third printings before the Times review hit the newsstands but because of weather problems around the country, some have been slow in getting to stores. And, she added, the book has just gone back for a fifth printing so it should be available everywhere. Soon.

Sounds good to me.

The second and third printings were ordered before the review officially appeared (publishers get the NYTBR a week early) but were delayed from reaching accounts as quickly as they might have by the weather. Books should be available at this point, and the fifth printing is coming off press as we speak.

Cover Stories

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm
Cover of "Let the Great World Spin: A Nov...

Cover of Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but what about simply judging a book’s cover?

Earlier this week, The Millions posted a nice feature comparing the US and UK book covers of some of the top novels of the past year, showing how designers (or at least marketing executives) think different constituencies are going to be attracted by different designs.

And how sometimes how those designs have absolutely nothing to do with the book.

For instance, the US version of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs doesn’t hold a candle to its UK counterpart, especially when it comes to conveying what the book is about while the UK version of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin is almost laughable compared to Matteo Pericoli’s intricate, elegant drawing on the cover of the US version.

Speaking of McCann, check out the cover of his next book, In the Country Below.

The book is described as:

“In the 17th Century vast numbers of Irish men, women and children were forcibly transported to the American colonies by the British government. In this spectacular reinvention and examination of history, Colum McCann goes to the heart one of the great untold stories of our times as he follows a group of Irish indentured servants on their voyage to the West Indies, their plight on the Atlantic seas, their subsequent serfdom and their eventual liberation on the wave of a bloody revolution. This is a gripping portrayal of another century, another continent, another loss, told in McCann’s unique trademark prose, simultaneously stripped down and lyrical.”

Sounds great, right?

Well, the thing is I won’t be able to read the book because it doesn’t exist.

It’s part of a project called The Hypothetical Library being undertaken by Charlie Orr, a part-time book designer.

“I ask each writer to provide flap copy for a book that they haven’t, won’t, but in theory could, write, and then I design a cover for it,” Orr writes on his blog.

I’d say he’s off to a great start.