Category Archives: Uncategorized

Saying yes

Roz-child-reading[1]I was a reference librarian at several libraries early in my career (before the Internet changed reference work forever). I loved the interaction with people who needed information. What would the next question be? Would I be able to help find the answer? What new piece of information would I learn from this person’s question? I loved telling people that, yes, I could help right now and we’d work together until we found the answer or the book they wanted. I could often see the relief in their faces. So many times–I’m talking before this virus–we navigate through phone trees that don’t have the option we want; we can’t find the staff in retail stores to help us find what we need; we wait for someone to notice that we’re waiting to ask a question; we speak to people on the phone who are reading from scripts that don’t pertain to our lives; we hear “no we don’t” or “no we can’t” or “we don’t have/do that anymore.”

That’s why I loved library work: we said “yes.”  So I was delighted to read this short article titled I Miss the Library by Amy Shearn, about just that aspect of visiting the library.  Shearn hits all the right points. Her article, which I found on LitHub, was originally published in the online magazine, Human Parts. It’s short and it will remind you how great libraries are and how much we’re missing them. 

Tyll by Daniel Kehlman

tyllI’ve been reading a great deal since 2020 began, and while most of what I’ve read has been enjoyable (or I wouldn’t finish), only a few books have hit that high note that makes reading truly exciting. That’s why I had high hopes for Daniel Kehlman’s Tyll. I was not disappointed. Tyll  is set during the Thirty Year’s War in central Europe and it ranges widely: from domestic to royal settings; from rural peasant life to circuses and war;  and from witchcraft to pseudo-science. All this in under 350 pages: a full canvas of human emotions.

Tyll is based on the German folk character Tyll Ulenspiegel (there are various spellings). He’s a joker and trickster with magical powers: a magician and an exposer of human foibles. The original stories about Tyll are set earlier, in the 1300s, but many writers and musicians have made use of this archetypal character ever since. Kehlman’s book is set in the 1600s which allows him to take advantage of the political turmoil of the Thirty Year’s War, a horrifically bloody contest between Catholics and Protestants and a struggle for hegemony among various states.

This was a time when Satan could be blamed for almost anything and frequently was. Tyll grows up in a rural village; when his father is executed by the Jesuits for heretical beliefs, Tyll runs off with a neighboring girl, Nele. They travel from town to town where Tyll’s skills as a tightrope walker bring in spectators and a little cash. Their adventures and misadventures bring them close to danger and put them in the middle of war and politics. There’s a fair amount of satire. It all felt very Brechtian to me–a good thing. There have been many adaptations of the Tyll Ulenspiegel story in all types of media: music (Richard Strauss), films, novels, and comics. You’ll often see the story used in children’s books, but it’s really quite dark and satiric. There’s very little in Kehlman’s version that would be suitable–or understandable–for children.

Characters in folktales are often enigmatic so they provide fertile ground for writers to create character and motivation. For readers, it’s a chance to see a story from a different angle. One of my favorite novels is The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s brilliant retelling of the story of the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad reimagines the life of Penelope as she waits for Odysseus to return. And Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, about Briseis, the woman who played a pivotal role in the Trojan War, is also excellent and a great companion piece to The Story of Achilles. And now you know my weakness for literature about the classical era.

Deirdre Bair, a Great Biographer

Parisian livesI was privileged to know Deirdre Bair, who I met several years ago through my friend Jane Kinney-Denning. I can’t consider myself more than an acquaintance, but it was a delight to know her. She died last week, not from the virus. She was in her eighties, but was working on another project, a book about T.S. Eliot. Deirdre didn’t shy away from complex, difficult topics! She was always kind, elegant, and made you feel like your words were important to her.

She started out as a journalist, then went back to graduate school for a degree in Comparative Literature. Her thesis was on the novelist and dramatist Samuel Beckett. She had a different approach to his work, one that incorporated his life as an Irish writer into an understanding of his writing. This was during the time when that approach was anathema in academia. The text was all!

She decided to write to Beckett to see if he would cooperate with her on a biography. To her delight, he was willing. In an enigmatic and revealing comment, he said that he would “neither help nor hinder her.” She began several years of traveling back and forth to Paris to talk to him, his friends, and do research. She had a variety of experiences with various factions of friends, each of whom had his or her own agenda (often self-serving),  to protect Beckett from this young biographer. Bair was caught up in the turmoil of personalities, trying to unearth the truth, determined to verify stories from multiple sources. Beckett, true to his word, didn’t help or hinder her. Many people thought this young woman was not up to the job of writing Beckett’s biography. It was not easy for her to persevere.

Bair won the National Book Award in 1981 when the paperback edition of Samuel Beckett: A Biography was published, a great vindication of her talents and perseverance. She went on to write an acclaimed biography of Simone de Beauvoir, also while the author was still alive. Bair’s subsequent biographies, of Carl Jung, Anais Nin, Saul Steinberg, and Al Capone were all written after the subjects’ deaths.

It’s important to understand that these biographies were written by a woman who struggled to hone her craft in a time when women were disdained for the kind of work she did. How could a woman do important literary work? Biography was looked down upon by academic faculty members. She taught in a university but was refused tenure. She still had to fulfill the responsibilities of a mother and homemaker. She writes about the hours of cooking and filling the freezer before she went to France, the guilt of being so involved in her work.

I know all this because her last book was about the years she spent writing the biographies of Beckett and de Beauvoir. It’s called Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and MeIn it, she was able to tell some of the stories that she couldn’t put in the book. I spoke to Bair when she started working on the book: she was having a hard time writing about herself, after years of never putting her own life in her writing. What could she call the genre of the book? I sent her a quote from Ursula LeGuin: “Genre, a word only a Frenchman could love.” She liked that.

It’s very sad to realize that she’s gone. My nonfiction book group is reading Parisian Lives this month and I was hoping that Deirdre would Zoom with us at our next meeting so they all could meet her. But it’s not just sad for me; she’s a great loss to the literary community, where she was not only a great writer, but also a support for writers in general. You can read more about her here. You can also hear her speak about Parisian Lives here, at a talk she gave in November at the Philadelphia Public Library. Enjoy.

More Bookish Thoughts

Pacific_Sea_Stacks[1]If you like to hear stories read, here are some especially good opportunities.

Years ago, I went to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, Tennessee which takes place over a weekend in October. The entire town is turned over to the festival and there are huge tents for the storytellers. It’s a feast for the ears; a wonderful variety of stories by professional tellers. Some were so funny that I entered that stage of laughing where high pitched squeaks comes out of your mouth and there’s nothing you can do to about it. That was a story by Donald Davis about mule trekking in the Grand Canyon. Some stories were so intense and heartfelt that I cried. A great weekend. I wasn’t able to find the Grand Canyon story online, but I did find this great Tedx talk that Davis gave titled “How the Story Changes the Storyteller.”  He talks about how his wise grandmother helped his father change his attitude toward the story of his life. Memoir writers and readers will enjoy this.

Symphony Space is offering stories from its popular Selected Shorts, so wander over (virtually) to Symphony Space, which is offering a new short story every Sunday. You can listen to the current one or others from the archive. Symphony Space always has the best readers. I listened to the hilarious story Yma Dream by Thomas Meehan and read by Christine Baranski, a wonderful reader of this clever tale.

If you are a devotee of the Moth, which empowers ordinary people to tell their interesting stories, their Story Library has lots to offer. If you’re not familiar with the Moth, this is a good time to investigate. Normally their performances are live, but so crowded that it’s hard to get in. I’ve been shut out of performances but was lucky to be invited to one with a friend who has a membership.

 

 

Roz Chast and Patty Marx in conversation

When I posted that clever photo of the books whose titles spelled out a message about the COVID-19 virus, I didn’t know who created it. Now I know the source so I need to give credit to the artist. It’s Phil Shaw; here’s his website.

You Can Only YellLast Tuesday evening I Zoom-ed into a chat with Roz Chast, the great New Yorker cartoonist and her collaborator, Patty Marx, hosted by the novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz. Roz and Patty were, of course hilarious, even playing their ukuleles briefly for us. Chast and Marx have collaborated on several recent books, including the funny and poignant Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant.? Their new book is You Can Only Yell at Me for One Thing at a Time: Rules for Couples. What we all wanted to know is how the two collaborate but I don’t think that there’s really an answer to that. Chast said that the words come first, but whose words? For two such creative minds, I imagine that it’s like constant brainstorming, the two of them riffing off each other. Their editor, Deb Futter, was on the chat and she said her meetings with the two were “not like any other meetings I have.” I can only imagine. Regarding her process, Chast commented that “if you get an idea that is good, you have a responsibility to it and you need to take that responsibility seriously.”

One piece of interesting information from Chast was that she doesn’t like the New Yorker cartoon contest. She feels it demeans the work and suggested that Alice Munro wouldn’t leave her stories unfinished, to be finished by her readers’ suggestions. I’ve never seen a Chast cartoon in the contest; now I know why. Here’s a link to Chast’s website with some of her inimitable cartoons.

 

Books to read now

elephant and readerEveryone’s posting their list of books to recommend in this strange time, so I thought I’d do it too. I went back over my reading list to find a few books with themes of  strength and resilience. Here they are. (They are all available as e-books or e-audiobooks, but I can’t guarantee your library will have them.)

Memoirs

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Grove Press, 1999. A classic coming of age story that reads like a novel, about a boy, his feckless mother, and the skills he developed to survive.

An American Bride in Kabul by Phyllis Chesler. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. What was Chesler thinking–a Jewish girl from Brooklyn–when she married a Muslim from Afghanistan? It was 1961, and that harrowing experience sowed the seeds of a distinguished feminist career.

The First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood by  Thrity N. Umrigar. HarperCollins, 2004. Novelist Umrigar grew up in a middle-class Parsi household in Bombay, surrounded by extended family, well-loved but caught in the undercurrents of family quarrels and jealousies. This is a sensitive, poignant coming-of -age portrait.

The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa by Douglas Rogers. Harmony Books, 2009. A terrifying and hilarious story of how Rogers’ parents managed to keep their farm-cum-resort and their sanity during the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Fiction

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Random House, 2011. The Major tries to stand his ground against friends and family when he starts a romance with a neighboring woman who comes from India.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. Knopf, 2016. Several young men and women leave India to work illegally in England in this intense and heartwrenching story about the difficulties they face, the hardships they share, and the drama of their lives.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Random House, 2013. After retirement, Harold Fry wonders how he’ll fill his days until a letter arrives from a former colleague that changes his life.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles. William Morrow, 2016. After the Civil War, itinerant news reader Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is offered $50.00 to transport an orphan who was kidnapped by Indians to her relatives 400 miles away. The difficult journey is complicated by the girl herself, who has lost touch with what Kidd refers to as “civilization.”

Check here to see what books are most requested at New York Public Library in recent weeks. A very different list!

 

 

 

 

Book Covers tell a story

I received this in my email this morning and enjoyed the cleverness–books telling a story in a different way! These are all real books. Thanks to Lisa Silverman for sending. (although she’s not the creator.)

corona books

Bookish thoughts

Marg AtwoodI read a great essay a few days ago in the Guardian by Margaret Atwood about some of the unusual things she’s doing in this time of isolation. She’s such a witty, clever writer that if she wrote about the proverbial telephone book it would be worth reading.  In this essay, titled Margaret Atwood’s Lockdown Diary, she describes making firestarters out of egg cartons, dryer lint, and candle ends to give to friends.  Aside from the firestarters–which I now really want to make–and her grandmother’s knitted washcloths, she mentions the plethora of remote events that are “multiplying like mice.” An apt phrase!

Interior ChinatownMy calendar, which has been pretty empty, is now filling up with these event mice, some of which I quite enjoy so I thought I’d tell you about some of them. I have a reservation for a book discussion this week at Poster House, the new museum in Chelsea. I’ve been there several times; they always have interesting exhibits. I particularly enjoyed the one of handpainted movie posters from Ghana (called Baptized by Beefcake) and saw it twice. The posters were mainly for horror and scifi movies and were trucked from village to village around the country with portable screens and projectors. Vibrant, scary, and huge, I’m sure they brought in many viewers! The book discussion this week is related to the current exhibit, titled Sleeping Giant: Posters and the Chinese Economy. The book for discussion is Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, published in January, 2020. I’ve been listening to it in preparation for the book talk. Great reader, quirky and insightful genre-bending story about the paradoxes of life for an Asian immigrant who wants to graduate from being “Generic Asian Man” to “Kung Fu Guy” on the silver screen.

Great BelieversI also signed up for a “writerly chat” this evening between Rebecca Makkai and Jean Hanff Korelitz. Makkai is the author of The Great Believers, one of the best novels I read in the past year. Korelitz runs an organization called Book the Writer, where she connects writers with reading groups. She also holds what she calls “Pop-Up Book Groups” where a small group of people meet with a writer in someone’s home in NYC. I’ve been to several of these events and they’ve been wonderful. Since there’s no way now to meet in person, Korelitz has created these online chats. I’ve heard Makkai speak before, so I knew I wanted to attend. She said some very interesting things about the writing process the last time I saw her, so I’d like to hear more.

BooksellersThe Film Society of Lincoln Center is streaming a movie this week that is a delight to watch. It’s called The Booksellers and it’s about the antiquarian book trade. Ho hum, you think. Not at all. It’s a lively and engaging look at the people who are passionate about hunting down, collecting, and selling old and rare books. There’s some history, some of it referencing Book Row, the stretch of Fourth Ave. in New York that housed dozens of antiquarian bookshops from the 1890s to the 1960s. Most of the film consists of interviews with book dealers: how they got into the business, what they love about it, and their thoughts about how it has changed and where it’s going. Fran Lebowitz provides some funny interludes. These collectors are interesting, thoughtful folks; you will probably feel differently about rare books after seeing this film. And, if you haven’t seen the movie Bathtubs Over Broadway, another film about collecting, now is definitely the time to stream it from Netflix.

 

 

The Mirror and the Light by Hillary Mantel

I’m listening to The Mirror and the Light now, the third novel in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by the brilliant writer Hillary Mantel. Every scene shines, every scene is a remarkable set piece. The reader, Ben Miles, distinguishes all the voices, and makes it all very dramatic. The book opens with the execution of Anne Boleyn, just where we left off with Bring Up the BodiesBring up the Bodies. The reader sees it from the point of view of Cromwell who is thinking about the events that led up to this day: the political intrigue and the trial. Mantel provides a few details about the gruesome event as Cromwell takes it in. In successive chapters she circles back to Anne repeatedly, so the reader has an ever-increasing awareness of the execution’s brutality and its emotional impact. It’s exactly the way it would happen: you take in what you can at the time, then it comes back to haunt you and you see more.

There’s a scene shortly after that where Cromwell visits George Boleyn in the Tower where he’s awaiting execution. Boleyn breaks down over the course of the scene and at the end, this formerly cocky peer is in tears, shaking, clutching Cromwell. It’s shocking but how could it be otherwise? We feel Boleyn’s pain and hear Cromwell’s thoughts at the same time; it’s a very powerful scene.

There’s so much detail in every scene; never just one thing going on. Sometimes Mantel adds domestic stuff–a cat stuck in a tree colors Cromwell’s attention to an important conversation; the minor characters, even young servants in his household are fully fleshed out, and she provides background to remind readers of things they may have forgotten. The scenes are very visual and full of tension. I can’t imagine how she wrote it. Did she add the layers separately? Scene by scene it’s a study in power and its abuses. At one point, the French ambassador, Chapuys, reminds Cromwell that he’s a man alone, not part of a large and powerful family like the Seymours or the Howards. There’s no one to protect him. It’s very poignant; although Cromwell may be second to the King, he is very vulnerable. He has surrounded himself with friends he trusts, but there’s no one who knows all his thoughts. “Since when was I an open book?” he says to his closest friends.

Since The Mirror and the Light is quite long, I won’t be able to finish it before the loan expires, so I’ll have to add my name to the bottom of the list and wait my turn. Frustrating, but I’ll gladly wait.

Victory for the Vote

Victory for VoteIn 1848, a small group of women gathered in the Seneca Falls, NY home of Mary M’Clintock. Their goal that Sunday morning was radical: to set in motion a movement to obtain the vote for women. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who went on to devote their lives to the movement, were among them that day. The women noticed that it was 72 years since the Declaration of Independence was published and they decided to use that document as the template for their own call for suffrage.

As historian Doris Weatherford points out in her fascinating history, Victory for the Vote: The Fight For Women’s Suffrage and the Century that Followed, it would be another 72 years until that goal was attained. What a thought! With the lens of hindsight, Weatherford is able to bring together the factual history and the social history of the suffrage movement–and the feminist movement in general–in dramatic and insightful ways. As she writes, “From the tiny town of Seneca Falls in 1848, a mighty flood of disruptive ideas reached around the world and into the twenty-first century.” None of those women at the first convention in Seneca Falls would live to see the the amendment passed in August, 1920 but where would we be without their determination and leadership?

Weatherford actually starts the story earlier, in 1637, the year Anne Hutchinson broke away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, rebelling when her right to religious dissent was curtailed. She goes on to write about the influence of the Quakers, who always gave women more of a voice than men. The fight for the vote is the centerpiece of the book, but true to the subtitle, Weatherford goes on to tell the story of the more recent fights for civil rights for women: for equal pay, for reproductive rights, for passage of the ERA, and for rights for minority women.

There are so many wonderful stories about individual women, many of whom we’ve forgotten. Weatherford tells the famous ones, like the one about the stirring “Ain’t I A Woman” speech by Sojourner Truth, but also the stories about the unknowns, the stories we should have been taught. She writes about Victoria Woodhull, who ran for President in 1872 before women had the vote and nominated Frederick Douglass as her running mate. I worked with Weatherford on the book Women in the Literary Landscape and was impressed by her depth of knowledge and the way she was able to tie together social and political history by bringing in just the right story to make a point. She does the same here. It’s a stirring reading experience, often inspirational.  Nancy Pelosi wrote the Foreword to this edition of the book, another example of the juxtaposition of the personal and political.