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Writers on writing

One of my sons sent me a link to an interview from the Paris Review: Adam Begley interviewing Don DeLillo. The interview was published in 1993, before DeLillo had written the novel I’m currently listening to, Underworld. Right away, DeLillo says something wonderful in response to Begley’s question: “Do you have any idea what made you a writer?”

DeLillo says, “I have an idea but I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe I wanted to learn how to think.  Writing is a concentrated form of thinking.” That’s a great way of expressing the act of writing. Putting your thoughts on paper requires a sharp focus, digging down to find what you mean to say and how to say it. It’s also a very considered response; an indication of the quality of the interview to follow. That’s not a surprise, given the seriousness of DeLillo’s novels and the intellectual credentials of Adam Begley. The full text of the interview can be found here.

I came across another gem about writing in a LitHub article about Lucy Ellman by Lois Feather. Ellman is the author of Ducks, Newburyport, shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year and gathering lots of press for its unusual style and structure.  Ellman says, “Fiction is like a rock that sits there in your way. How do you break a rock? You give it everything you’ve got.” Not so different from DeLillo’s comment, in the way Ellman references the concentration required to create great fiction.

LitHub is a constant source of interesting tidbits about writing. In the October 15th edition, there’s a short interview with Elizabeth Strout. Her recently published book, Olive, Again is a follow-on to Olive Kitteridge, following Olive as she ages. I read it last week and it’s just as wonderful to spend time in Olive’s prickly company as it was when the original Olive stories were published. Here’s what Strout has to say in response to the question, “What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?”

“I seldom get asked specifically about point of view, so I try and bring it up myself in any way that I can. But the fact that every person in the world is locked into their own specific point of view just amazes me.  And when I write I try as hard as I can to imagine what it feels like to be another person. Reading fiction is one way—small but hopefully true—that we can experience, even momentarily, what it feels like to be another person.”

I never get tired of hearing writers talk about their craft.

Best Books of the 21st Century

Oh, the best lists are beginning to arrive as we approach 2020. This list from The Guardian is heavily British, so some of the books haven’t been published in the U.S., but I thought it was worth a look. I would dispute the inclusion of some of the titles, but that’s what makes it fun.

Another list, from LitHub of the best books of the last ten years. I read most of the titles listed, enjoyed several, found some of them meh, and others unreadable. Reading is for pleasure so find the ones you enjoy.



The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

World We KnewIn recent years, Hoffman has occasionally turned her magical realist lens to Jewish subjects–many of you may remember The Dovekeepers. This title is more like her earlier novels, although it is a historical. It’s set in Europe during World War II and follows 3 teenage girls who join the Resistance. It opens in Berlin in 1941, where Hanni, very much aware of what the Nazis have in store for the Jews, is desperate to find a way to protect her daughter Lea. She convinces Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi, to make a golem to protect Lea. The golem, called Ava, must travel with Lea and keep her safe. Hanni tells Lea that once she is safely out of the war, she must do what is done to golems, that is, to kill her by erasing the first letter of the word on Ava’s arm. The word is emet, truth. By erasing the first letter, it turns the word into “met” which means “death.” So that’s hanging over the story as we travel with Lea and Ava. Ettie, the teenage maker of the golem, also leaves home, with her sister Marta. 

Hoffman tells the story of how these young women, and several other characters, find the courage to survive–or not–in rural France. You may recognize the names of the French villages, convents, and orphanages that were refuges for Jews during this time, but despite these historical elements, the story has all the trademarks of Hoffman’s magical realist fiction, where events don’t have quite the consequences that they would in the real world and Ava, the golem, provides that witchy quality that Hoffman’s loves. Ava is a lovely creation, reminding us that the monsters we create don’t always remain inert creatures. There’s danger, murder, romance, and a tearjerker ending.

This novel reminded me of the very recent wildly popular novel All the Light We Cannot See. They’re both very much fairy tales, with elements of coincidence and not-quite-believable elements furthering. If you’re a Hoffman fan, or if you were swept up in All the Light We Cannot See, then this is for you. I think it would provide good discussion for book groups. Since the main characters are all teenagers, I tried to think about whether this would be a good novel for  high school age readers. Many teens do read Alice Hoffman’s novels, so this one may work for them too. 

Dr. Siri Paiboun, coroner of Laos

Coroners lunchI’ve started many mysteries that I’ve never finished. I have trouble finding the ones that hold my interest and are well written. What do I mean by well written? For starters, the dialogue should sound like real people are speaking. The author should know how to use the grammar and syntax of the English language correctly, including setting an appropriate level of colloquial and formal language. I’m always surprised at the number of books I can’t read because the English language is improperly used. (For example, I came across a novel–well reviewed–where the author wrote “slowly by slowly” instead of “little by little.) The characters should be well delineated so that the reader recognizes them and their motivation every time they appear on the page. There’s more, but enough ranting.

I’ve been listening to a mystery series that fills all my criteria: the Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill. O joy; there are 14 of them. I’m currently listening to the fourth one, Anarchy and Old Dogs, and feel like I’ve made new friends. That’s how vivid and delicious they are. Dr. Siri Paiboun is the national coroner in Laos when the series begins in 1975. The Pathet Lao have recently taken control of Laos and Siri, an aging revolutionary, is assigned to be the national coroner, a job he doesn’t want. As a faithful (but cynical) Communist cadre, he has no choice but to accept the job. The bodies that come to him contain secrets and the good doctor is compelled to solve the mysteries of their deaths, along with his nurse Dtui, his old friend Civilai, and a few others. In the first novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, Siri discovers that he is the reincarnation of a thousand year old shaman, which explains his nightly ghost-infested dreams. I don’t usually care for books where the spirit world plays a role, but the author never uses the apparitions as a deus ex machina. They are part of the spiritual folk life of the Laotian people and provide an interesting–and sometimes scary–dimension to the good doctor’s crime solving skills.

There’s also humor: very dry, very droll, and funny enough that I often laugh out loud. The crimes themselves are often gruesome, but take place offstage. Siri, who received his medical degree in Paris, loves the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon, and often sighs about how everything works out so neatly for inspector Maigret, but not for him. There’s lots of mid-twentieth century Laotian and Vietnamese history that’s dropped into the stories, mainly as background to the characters; it’s quite interesting and always neatly done. The aging coroner and his friends stay up late and drink too much, pondering their lives and the mysteries that come their way. Usually there are two or three mysteries to solve and sometimes the details are a little obscure, but it hardly matters. I can feel the heat and the tension before the monsoon breaks, taste the terrible coffee, hear the sounds of the mosquitoes. and rejoice that I have lots of time left to spend in good company.



The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker

Limits of worldThere are many books about family secrets and the toxic effects they have on family life. Many of them are formulaic but fun to read anyway, mainly to see what complications the author has dreamed up. The Limits of the World goes far beyond the formula. I picked it up because of the excellent pre-publication reviews and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is easily explained: Urmila and Premchand Chandaria came to the U.S. from their family home in Nairobi, Kenya. Premchand, a doctor, found satisfying medical work in Ohio and they raised their son, Sunil, there. The secret is that before Sunil there was another son, Bimal, who lives in Kenya with Urmila’s sister and brother-in-law. Sunil was never told he had a brother. Bimal is injured in a car accident and Urmila rushes the family off to Nairobi to see her firstborn. Sunil, a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, has a secret of his own: he is married to Amy, who is not East Indian. Sunil learns that he has a brother; Urmila learns that Sunil has married out of their culture; and Amy finds it difficult to cope with Urmila’s aggressive disapproval.

Acker’s sensitivity to all these concerns is tied together by Sunil’s philosophical studies. He’s working on his dissertation, struggling with his belief that there exists a morality that stands outside of culture. He’s stalled in the writing and Harvard may cut off his funding. All the characters struggle with the choices they’ve made and Acker renders their angst with clarity and compassion. The Kirkus reviewer wrote, “It’s a rare but honest look at the way parents, children, and spouses talk to one another but don’t always hear what’s being said.”

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel

Ninth St WomenThe subtitle of this wonderful book is: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art. Mary Gabriel’s brick-like book is an excursion through the artistic world of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s as Abstract Expressionism took the art world by storm. These five women were in the thick of it, inspired and inspiring. They were driven to be artists despite the demeaning critics (women couldn’t make good art they were told); despite the early ridiculing of Abstract Expressionism; and despite those who wanted them to just nurture the male artists who were doing the “real” work.

Gabriel tells the stories of each of the five. Beyond that, she brings the reader into the bohemian milieu that developed around the artists, male and female, especially the Ninth Street East Village neighborhood where they lived, painted, drank, fought, loved, and partied. What raucous lives they lived! They often made bad decisions but produced great paintings. Gabriel writes about the women’s relationships with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Mike Goldberg, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and many others. Money was mostly scarce since there were no buyers for the works for many years. 

There’s so much content in this book that it’s hard to know how to explain its effect on the reader in a few paragraphs. Gabriel incorporates the social history which influenced the artists, like the turbulence of the 1930s and early 1940s that brought abstraction into being. In tandem with the personal stories, the result is total immersion in a heady, gossipy, intellectual world. The five women of the title were more than painters; they were part of the intellectual underpinnings of the movement in fundamental ways. It’s an absorbing, exhausting, thrilling experience to read about their lives.



Annelies by David Gillham

AnneliesIn the past decade, several authors have used Anne Frank’s story as a basis for novels that imagine, “what if.” What if Anne’s sister Margo had survived and come to the U.S., what would her life be like? That was the novel Margo by Jillian Cantor. In another recent novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, by Ellen Feldman, imagines what Peter’s life would be like if he came to the U.S. , assimilates, marries, and tries to hide the past, only to be blindsided by the publication of Anne’s diary.  But no one, to my knowledge, has done what Gillham has done in the novel Annelies; that is, to imagine that Anne herself survives and returns to Amsterdam and tries to pick up the remnants of her life. That’s the premise of Annelies.

Gillham starts with the Franks’ life before they were betrayed and sent to the camps. In this part, he’s relying on known facts for the most part, and, of course, Anne’s diary. Once Anne return from the camps, Gillham is on his own. We all have feelings about Anne, we feel we know her. This is a brave thing for a writer to do. Can he possibly succeed in developing a character for the survivor Anne, that people will recognize as the Anne in the diary? And there’s also Anne’s father, Otto, who returns to Amsterdam.  Otto wants to put it all behind him; Anne can’t do that–she’s filled with anger and survivors’ guilt– and their relationship is very tense. She makes some bad decisions; can’t seem to find her footing; she’s churlish about her father’s new wife. Does the story work? I think that’s something you have to determine for yourself; I don’t want to give away more than I’ve said. It wasn’t a complete success for me, but I think that it could generate some interesting discussion, not just about Anne but about the decisions that authors make when they write historical fiction.