A Little Nothing

A friend sent me the poem below by Eduardo Chirinos; she subscribes to Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation. I thought it was lovely and looked up Eduardo Chirinos on the Poetry Foundation website.  Enjoy!

Le petit bout de rien

There’s no cause for vanity and none for

pride: it’s just a matter of assembling

words in lines, then dividing them up (or

letting them divide themselves), hoping

they sound good or bad. (What’s important

is that they sound like something.) It’s all

a question of staying alert so that red doesn’t

bleed into orange or orange into yellow or

yellow into silence. There’s no cause for

rejecting silence and none for accepting it,

either. We should speak when there’s noth-

ing to say and be quiet when others talk.

That’s the poet’s business, so get used to it.

There’s nothing glorious about it. The future

doesn’t count for anything and the past just

laughs at us. There’s no cause for writing

this poem and none for deleting it, either.

The Weight of Ink, or where’s the writer?

Weight of InkIn the July 15th New York Times Book Review, in a review of Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, J.W. McCormack writes: “In Chee’s telling, the writer’s life always lurks just beyond the page…”  I’m always interested in the writer lurking just out of reach and the relationship of the book to the writer’s life. I don’t mean that I expect incidents to reflect personal experience or characters to be modeled on friends and family. There’s a much more subtle relationship that I’m interested in.

For the past 18 months I’ve been on the reading committee for the new Jewish Fiction Award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries; the winner announced this past spring was Rachel Kadish’s novel The Weight of Ink.  The book is set in London in the 1660s and today, an example of what I call a “split-screen” novel. In the historical plotline, Ester Velazquez is a young woman working as a scribe for an eminent blind rabbi. Women were never scribes; it’s an endeavor hedged about with strictures and tradition, closed to Jewish women who, in any case, usually didn’t receive much education. In the modern part of the story, the rabbi’s papers are discovered hidden in an old house and a Cambridge scholar is hired to examine this unusual treasure trove. The reader knows that Ester is the scribe; that knowledge dawns on the Cambridge scholar and her assistant only slowly. From hints and clues they piece together Ester’s remarkable life. The reader always knows more about Ester and the ending is bittersweet as we realize that her life will never be fully known by the researchers.

I’ve heard Kadish speak several times about the genesis of the novel. Her comments made the connection–for me–between the writer’s life and the story she tells. Before she knew what the story would be and where it would be set, Kadish thought about the women whose pens and voices were mostly silent through the centuries. What if a Jewish woman had had a chance to write and make her voice heard on paper and explore her philosophical interests in correspondence with the great philosophical minds of her day? How could it transpire that a woman have that opportunity? What would her life look like? So the title, with its nod to the transgressive nature of Ester’s life, is quite appropriate. Ester and the rabbi carry the weight of their arrangement, the secret that sets her apart from her contemporaries and from the London Jewish community. It’s a great story with compelling characters in both plotlines.

Kadish’s interest in telling such a story is the personal connection, the writer lurking beyond the pages. I believe that every novelist sets out to solve a problem and the novel is the result. Not a problem in the sense of something needing to be fixed, but an artistic challenge, an effort to represent ideas on paper in a way that rings true. The nature of that challenge comes from the writer’s life: the mixture of lived experiences and concerns lurking behind the creative process that drives the resulting story.

 

Madge Jenison and the Sunwise Turn

Sunwise Turn memoirLast week I wrote about the book I co-authored, Women in the Literary Landscape, which contains an overview of the role of women in various fields related to books. One of the joys of doing the research was discovering Madge Jenison, known as a “minor novelist” and the co-owner of the Sunwise Turn Bookshop, which opened in New York City in 1915. Madge wrote a memoir about her bookselling experiences, called Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. Her personality shines through on every page: warm, buoyant, idealistic and exuding positive energy. Jenison felt that putting the right book in the hands of the right reader might just save the world. One of my favorite lines from the memoir is, “Books– do I made too much of them?”

In 1915, women were opening bookstores all over the U.S. and running the bookselling departments in department stores. For much of the 20th century, department stores believed that selling books raised the tone, made the store appear more like an intellectual endeavor rather than just a temple of of commerce and brought in more educated and wealthy customers. In the early years of the century bookselling was deemed a suitable profession for women (more about that in another post). Here’s a paragraph from Women in the Literary Community about Jenison.

“In 1916, friends Madge Jenison (1874-1960) and Mary Horgan Mowbray-Clarke opened a bookstore on 33rd street near Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan called the Sunwise Turn Bookshop. The unusual name came from Celtic belief that following the motion of the sun brought good fortune. As Madge wrote in her 1923 memoir Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling: ‘Our theory was that we meant to sell books in a more modern and civilized way than they were being sold, and carry them, if the powers were in us, into the stream of the creative life of our generation.’ With the judicious use of paint, pillows, upholstered chairs, and hangings, they created a cozy place for readers and book buyers. Theodore Dreiser was the first author to give a reading; other well-known authors followed, and exhibits by avant-garde painters and sculptors soon rounded out the picture of a welcoming bookshop dedicated to literature and the arts. The Sunwise Turn quickly became a well-known gathering place for artists and writers who were interested in the modernist movement. Peggy Guggenheim was an intern in those early years; she found her calling as an art collector there (as well as her first husband).”

This sounds to me like Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were ahead of their time, creating a welcoming space that allowed readers to browse, talk to staff members knowledgeable about books, and soak up culture. Sound familiar?

For a fun article on little (in size) bookstores and how they survive today, there’s a recent article in Publishers Weekly “Behind the Counter at America’s Smallest Indie Bookstores.” 

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Winter SoldierI read and enjoyed Mason’s The Piano Tuner when it came out in 2003 so I downloaded a galley of his new book, The Winter Soldier, from Edelweiss as soon as I could and read it in three great gulps. Since it’s set during and just after World War I, the reader already has some idea of the horrors, chaos and privations in store. Most of the World War I books I’ve read have been set in France or England. The Winter Soldier is set in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, mostly in the Carpathian Mountains, which arc from the current Czech Republic to Romania. In the novel, the high, lonely villages give the story a ghostly feeling, although the ghosts here are in the characters’ heads. The idea of borders and border crossings recurs as the characters reinvent themselves or lose themselves. They’ve all crossed into unknown territory in their lives; no one is left unscathed.

Lucius, the protagonist, is a young doctor, son of a wealthy family. He’s halfway through medical school in Vienna when the novel opens. The War has just begun. Due to shortages of doctors in the field, he is offered the chance to work in a hospital in the town of Lemnowice. Idealistically, he expects to find a fully functioning hospital where he can gain, from the other doctors, the clinical experience he lacks. What he finds there is only Margarete, an enthusiastic young nursing sister who knows far more than he does about what needs to be done. The soldiers who arrive at the hospital are not just wounded in body, but in spirit as well. Lucius learns to make do with inadequate supplies, amputating legs, arms, hands, and feet in an effort to vanquish the infections they can’t control.

As the war continues, Lucius, Margarete and their orderlies begin to see  men whose minds have become unhinged from the terrors they’ve seen. In particular, a soldier arrives one winter night in a wheelbarrow, curled up, mute. Lucius tries all the psychotropic medicines in his small arsenal but initially nothing will make the man speak, eat, or leave his pallet. Finally, slowly, something works to loosen up his limbs and tongue. He can briefly cross the border and return to life, but what will be his fate? Lucius and Margarete struggle with their attachment to each other and to the patient. As the war heats up in Carpathians, the borders that define their attachments become stronger. Lucius makes decisions that haunt him in the years after the war.

In some ways, this wonderful novel reminded me of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Mason’s writing is fluid and lyrical, his characters step off the page. The pacing is taut; there were times when I had to slow down to savor the language, putting aside my fears for the characters. The book is due out in September, but now that it’s the end of July, that doesn’t seem so far away.

Women in the Literary Landscape

Women in the Literary LandscapeI’m a member of the Women’s National Book Association, formed in 1917 by a group of women booksellers in New York when the all-male American Booksellers Association (ABA) refused to admit women. Those women booksellers were not to be put off; they  formed the WNBA, which celebrated its centennial last November. Of course, a short time after the WNBA, the ABA came calling, asking for a merger of the two organizations. The WNBA politely refused, specifying the value of a separate women’s group.

In November, 2017 when the WNBA centennial was celebrated, there were twelve chapters around the country, doing just fine, thank you. From the beginning, the organization was not limited to booksellers, but to any woman who was involved in the book world: authors, editors, publishers, librarians, printers, literary agents…you get the point. Membership for the past twelve years has changed my life and I hear that comment from members all the time. As a networking and professional development organization, the WNBA creates connections among members in many ways, fostering careers and friendships.

All this is preliminary to letting you know about the book that was published in conjunction with the centennial: Women in the Literary Landscape: A WNBA Centennial Publication. It contains a history of the organization, but more to the point, most of the book is taken up with an overview of women in the literary world in the U.S. from colonial times to the present with social-historical underpinnings.

I was asked to be the editor of the book, but ended up as one of the main contributors. It was a collaborative project that took more than two years. At the start, I searched for other works that had linked all these literary fields–the due diligence part of the process. There were none that I could find. To clarify, no one had written about people in all these fields in one place. I realized that our project that would have real value in the study of women’s place in the literary community. This was thrilling. We began the research and writing.

We asked Doris Weatherford, U.S. women’s historian, to give us a basic narrative. Doris provided a wonderful history going back to colonial times and through the Progressive Era. With that backbone about the women who were movers and shakers (many now forgotten) as printers, publishers, and writers, along with Doris’s insightful comments about social and political history, we were off to a great start. I added information about booksellers, librarians, editors, and publishers, and brought the narrative up to 2017. In each historical section we featured exceptional women and information about what the WNBA was doing in those years.

The book was published in March, 2018, although we had advance copies available in time for the centennial celebration, held at Pen + Brush Gallery in New York  in November. Our publisher is C&R Press, a small independent press that was happy to make our book their first nonfiction title.

More about the book and the women who feature in it in subsequent posts…especially about the woman on the cover, Madge Jenison.

 

Ohio by Stephen Markley

OhioSometimes a novel is just a story; sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes a novel captures a place and time in such a way that it takes us beyond the characters’ lives. They’re part of the time and place, artifacts of it; their stories resonate with the social, political, and cultural environment. I’m thinking about Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn; The Girls by Emma Cline; City on Fire by GarthRisk Hallberg; and Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers to name a few.

Ohio, due out in mid-August, is as much about the characters as it is about the place and time where they came to adulthood. The title signals that as well as the Hopperesque cover, which is a brilliant entrée into the dark small-town story. The Hopper reference here is no accident. Markley’s genius is to recreate a dispiriting post-9/11 world of rust belt poverty, violence, drug addiction, and ennui, all delivered with a visceral punch. In fact, it’s harder for me to write about the plot and characters–there are many–than it is to describe that social milieu. That’s the good and the not-so-good about the book. There are many characters and I sometimes had difficulty remembering the backstories of each one when they reappeared. That didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this very noirish novel, just diluted it slightly.

Four characters anchor the story–high school alumni who converge on their home town of New Canaan one night, setting in motion a whirligig of violence and redemption. As they visit old haunts they meet up with other people from their high school days and Markley fills us in on the backstory of all their loves and losses. It’s pretty grim; no one has escaped from those dark high school years unscathed. A line from Nathan Hill’s The Nix is apropos: “Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.” Markley’s characters are not just supporting characters in their friends’ lives, they’re supporting characters in a larger story about the way we live now.

Fans of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom should enjoy this one.

 

 

 

 

 

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

TranscriptionAt the end of May I spent 2 wonderful days at the Javits Center in New York for the publishing trade show, Book Expo. If you’re unfamiliar with this annual book extravaganza, hundreds of publishers set up booths to promote their Fall titles and meet with booksellers from around the country. Advance copies of the titles that the publishers want to promote are given away, authors sign their books, and there’s lots of swag to be had. After 20 years of attending, I have a large collection of publisher-themed canvas tote bags. It’s a standing joke among friends and family. 

Over the 2 days, I lugged home about 25 books–books that have already garnered good reviews and the latest books from my favorite authors. And of course, I’m certain, as I am every year, that I’ll read them all—even though I still have lots of unread books from years past!

No surprise that I first chose to read Transcription by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors. Atkinson combines literary writing with warmth and humor in compelling ways. This novel, to be published in September, centers around a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited to spy for MI5 just before WWII. Britain in the late 1930s was dealing with fifth columnists: homegrown fascists, communists, and Nazis. Juliet goes from transcribing taped conversations to much more dangerous work, by turns tedious and terrifying. An orphan, Juliet has a great deal to learn about the world, but she’s more than willing to try the undercover life she’s been offered. What she doesn’t understand is that the choices she makes in those war years will follow her into later life. Nothing is ever finished and there are surprises for the reader at the end.

Atkinson’s writing is always a treat to read; Juliet and the supporting cast of characters are lively and well-drawn. The London wartime setting is very evocative. If you enjoy Ian McEwan’s or A.S. Byatt’s novels you will probably enjoy Transcription, too. Her previous two novels–Life After Life and A God in Ruins–were among her best; Transcription is lighter, maybe more accessible to readers who were put off by the structural complexity of the earlier two. I’ve read every one of Atkinson’s novels and loved them all. If you haven’t read any of her books, start with the first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum and you’ll be hooked.