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.)


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.


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