If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.
If you are the proprietor of a second-hand book shop, thank you. If you can spend an afternoon in a dusty shop, consider yourself lucky. You never know when you might find the key. It may lead to a decade of further study.
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
William Butler Yeats
Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature 1923
Do you read to be entertained, to be edified, or to expand your horizons? I suppose most of us would answer all of the above. Some writers can do all three in one book. That goes triple for John Irving. Starting with The World According to Garp that won the National Book Award in 1980, I have been a fascinated and loyal reader of his work. The character driven stories and complicated yet subtle plot-lines have always appealed to me.
In One Person is our selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club this month. The story centers around a young man’s desires, as he comes of age in Favorite River Academy. Sexuality is a complex subject, and the protagonist is confused as to whether his preferences are settled or remain in flux. The theme of tolerance runs through the novel from start to finish, making us question our beliefs, and our rigid limitations, as we follow Billy’s journey. Through high school and into maturity, Billy Abbot is an endearing character.
When authors speak of their work, you will often hear these words. “I wanted to explore…” It is a great achievement to go from that statement to a fully fleshed out novel where the reader is then put into a position of questioning their thoughts on the matter. Hence, the fodder for a great discussion.
John Irving says,
“Billy is not me. He comes from my imagining what I might have been like if I’d acted on my earliest impulses as a young teenager. Most of us don’t ever act on our earliest sexual imaginings. In fact, most of us would rather forget them-not me. I think our sympathy comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings-to be honest about what we felt like doing.”
Irving states that he writes from the perspective of emotional and psychological truths. He writes having envisioned the ending first. The fully complex architecture of his novels is something I can absorb viscerally, but cannot quite identify. I feel it, but I cannot see the scaffolding. In other words, I don’t know how he does it. That is fine by me. He is the man behind the curtain, a man I admire, and a man who sets my imagination on quite a journey. He will have a new book coming out soon. Stay tuned…
The year was 1976. The nightclub in Aspen where I worked had booked a two week gig with comedians from The Comedy Store. Steve Martin had been our guest a few weeks prior and I thought whoever was sent from L.A. could not come within a hundred miles of his rising star. Since I would be hearing the show night after night, I thought I would be in for a big snooze.
On the night I met Robin Williams, I arrived at the club early and checked in with my friend who worked in the office. He said the guys were setting up backstage. Remembering I had left my black, high-heeled boots there earlier in the day, I thought I could sneak in unobserved and retrieve them. I pushed the curtain aside and reached down to pick them up, almost bumping in to a handsome young man wearing a long sleeved tee shirt, suspenders and khakis.
“I’m sorry to disturb you. I just came to get my boots.” I put out my hand and introduced myself.
“I’m Robin,” he replied. “I was going to use those in my act.” He took one boot from my hand and put it on like and evening glove. As soon as he started making jokes, I thought the week might be looking up after all.
Being that I was the lowly coatroom girl, I was free to watch the show. I stood in the back when he took the stage introducing himself as “Russia’s only comedian.” After the show, we all gathered for our one free drink, sponsored by the owner, and then went out on the town after that. Word spread like wildfire and the crowds grew larger every night.
Robin came back in the summer to open for a band that ended up canceling at the last minute. It was like a classic movie scene where we learned the business would fold if we couldn’t come up with some wild scheme to fill the place. The idea of asking Robin to do the whole show was absolutely preposterous, but knowing we would all be out of work if he failed to save the day, we persuaded him to say yes. He didn’t know if he would be able to do it, to go from fifteen minutes of comedy to performing a one man show. He wasn’t sure if he had enough material from what seemed to stem from a stream of consciousness. We offered all the help and encouragement we could. He asked me to come onstage with him, doing a few bits when he lost his train of thought, or came to a dead end. While I watched for those times when he might need a new direction, I realized that he had a far greater wealth of material than we knew. He had characters and voices, he had skits, and bits, like one of his favorites, “Attack of the killer chairs.” Observing him made me stand back in wonder. He killed it, night after night. He had the quickest wit I had ever encountered in my life. His gift was staggering, yet he bore it with humility. Some nights he would stay “on” for an hour or two after the show, but once done it would all close, just as if someone drew a curtain across his eyes. Then he would be quiet.
We all knew that someone would discover him soon and it was only a matter of time before he would go on to far greater heights. The privilege of watching his career unfold, seeing him live up to his full potential, thrilled me over and over. I knew his offstage persona, his sweet, shy manner, his dazzling intellect, his moral compass, his gentlemanly sensibility and his heart. I can honestly say that I truly admired the man, and had a fondness for him that never wavered. Under what lucky star was I born that I would bump into someone like him?
We saw him when he came through Spokane in the spring of 2013, to do a retrospective show with David Steinberg. In the car on the way home, I expressed a thousand concerns and worries about Robin. That night while cheerful, generous and friendly, I sensed an overall exhaustion setting in that troubled me.
The news of his death and the manner of his demise shocked us all. He will be deeply and profoundly missed. Sometimes we forget that we are mortal. Perhaps genius at that level, comes along once in a hundred years. He inspired me, every step of the way. I have never stopped believing in the power of the imagination. He reminded me of a young colt that prances and dances as he is let out of the stall. A thoroughbred with the bloodlines of a true champion, Robin took comedy in a new direction. He knew we had more in common than we realized. His peers spoke of his generosity. He touched an entire generation of children.
We don’t have the answers. We don’t even know the right questions. After watching The Birdcage last night, I felt guilty for laughing. My ribcage hurts today, and my face aches. All those years ago in Aspen, one of our friends remembered the old English nursery rhyme and recited it as we gathered for our free drink. It was not familiar to most, but it was to me, as it was to him. These are the last lines:
“Enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears.”
The Washington Post
Anthony Doerr was interested in the magic of radio. The idea of millions of messages being transmitted all over the world captivated him. He wanted to write a story that would shed light on the miracle of wireless communication. The result is All the Light we Cannot See, one of the most stunning books I have read in a lifetime of reading.
The Best Food Ever Book Club, read The Memory Wall, a few years back. When the suggestion arose to read Doerr’s latest book, the answer came as a resounding, “Yes.” He is an author for whom we have developed an abiding affection. We were not disappointed by this latest choice. This story found an immediate home in our hearts.
If you want to create a protagonist readers will root for, give them a few vulnerabilities. Blind from the age of five, a little girl lives with her father in Paris, learning to find her way around. War breaks out and they must flee the city. The story is woven between the perils of Marie-Laure’s situation which is fraught with anxiety and that of a German orphan, who has been swallowed up by the Hitler Youth.
It is not the story alone that makes the tale so compelling. It is the power of Doerr’s prose which has the ability to make a reader stop and think before turning the page.
Marie-Laure ends up hiding in her uncle’s house. War ravages the coastal town in Britanny and France is occupied.
The following passage puts us right in the house with Marie-Laure, who is frightened and in hiding:
“The distress is so acute, it is almost unbearable. She tries to settle her mind, tries to focus on an image of a candle flame burning at the center of her rib cage, a snail drawn up into the coils of its shell, but her heart bangs in her chest and pulses of fear cycle up her spine, and she is suddenly uncertain whether a sighted person in the foyer can look up the curves of the stairwell and see all the way to the third floor. She remembers her great-uncle said they would need to watch out for the looters, and the air stirs with phantom blurs and rustles, and Marie-Laure imagines charging past the bathroom into the cobwebbed sewing room here on the third floor and hurling herself out the window.
Boots in the hall. The slide of a dish across the floor as it is kicked. A fireman, a neighbor, some German soldier hunting food?” p. 303
Werner, the German orphan, does not have an easier time of it either.
“Werner folds the map into his coat pocket, packs up the transceivers and carries one in each hand like a pair of suitcases. Tiny snow crystals sift down through the moonlight. Soon the school and its outbuildings look like toys on the white plain below. The moon slips lower, a half-lidded eye, and the dogs stick close to their master, mouths steaming and Werner sweats.” P.245
This book was ten years in the making. The result is stunning, beautiful prose.
“Storms rinse the sky, the beaches, the streets, and a red sun dips into the sea, setting all the west-facing granite in Saint-Malo on fire, and three limousines with wrapped mufflers glide down the rue-de-la-Crosse like wraiths, and a dozen or so German officers, accompanied by men carrying stage lights and movie cameras, climb the steps to the Bastion de la Hollande and stroll the ramparts in the cold.” P.331
This is exactly the kind of book that fills me with enormous awe and respect. It is my idea of a perfect summer read. It is a great subject in the hands of a master. I was dazzled by it.
My novel in progress has received a great shot in the arm. Hiring an editor to help with the finishing process has been an enlightening and rewarding experience. Some pages of the manuscript have few needed changes, and some have more, but each and every suggestion is thrilling. Is that an odd word choice? No. The suggestions give me goose bumps. My editor is a really good writer, and every line her pencil has drawn is an improvement. So many sentences slated for change, are ones that I struggled with and re-wrote time and time again. In some cases, I have eliminated them, making short work of the problem.
Four Stanley Cups and a Funeral, is a novel about a quest for identity, set in a very male arena. In a family torn apart by conflict, defined by winning and losing, a starstruck dreamer comes of age, seeking redemption. Lessons have been learned and grief has run its course. I would recommend the memoir form, or as in my case, an autobiographical novel, to anyone who wants to make sense of their life and times. While I would not venture to say the process has left me older and wiser, I can say it has left me older. The countless hours I have spent recalling snippets of dialog from loved ones who no longer walk upon this earth has left me with greater gratitude and affection than ever before.
Reading my work with the editor’s marks has taught me more about myself than I imagined it would. The editor’s skill with the language has filled me with awe. She has added better words! She told me to be judicious with exclamation points! Who could ask for more? She has also reigned in my overblown enthusiasm, my too often repeated phrases, and spiffed up idioms passed along incorrectly through the generations. Writers tend to speak of editors in glowing terms. They thank them profusely when the work reaches the published form.
You can only do so much by yourself. No matter how well you did in school, or how praised your writing has been, you may have developed appalling habits over time. I know I did. Like golfers, tennis pros, or professionals of all kinds, we can all benefit from an unjaundiced eye. Yes, a friend can proofread the manuscript, but an editor can do so much more. Don’t hesitate to seek help. If your work is accepted and another editor comes on board, so much the better. It is the editors who choose to take on the work of getting a manuscript to publications. Spare them the tedious, obvious line editing, and let them get to what they do best. I, for one, am hooked on the process.
Born: January 1, 1919, New York, N.Y.
Died: January 27, 2010, Cornish, New Hampshire
Ron Rosenbaum, of Esquire magazine when describing the solitary nature of J.D. Salinger wrote:
“It is not a passive silence, it is a palpable, provocative silence.”
My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff spoke to a great fantasy of mine. While I do not read romances with shirtless men on the cover, I am not without special nooks and crannies in my imagination where the topic thrills me, and sends me off into delicious flights of fancy. What do I lust after in my heart, to quote President Carter? I want to gobble up all I can about the New York literary scene.
Joanna Rakoff, at the age of twenty-three, spent a year working at an esteemed literary agency in the heart of the best of all literary worlds. What drew me to the story right from the beginning was my abiding desire to step inside one of these establishments. My filing cabinets have folders holding rejection letters, letters expressing interest, letters asking for the full manuscript, and why I keep them all is a mystery to me. Writer’s conferences invite agents who are looking for new talent. Since they are the gate-keepers to the publishing contracts, it behooves any writer to learn something about the people who hold the keys to our kingdom. Over the years, I have learned a few things about these agencies. For one, they seem to stay in business. Two, they maintain the same address, and three, they grow in the numbers of employees. Four, they have graduate students and new-hires reading our query letters. Books on how to approach literary agents and how to seek representation are plentiful. Yet, as a voyeuristic and curious reader, I want to be right inside and sitting at the desk. Joanna Rakoff did an excellent job of putting me there. She writes about her year as an assistant, in the nineties, at the old and venerable establishment working for a woman holding the coveted post of agent for J.D. Salinger.
The period of time in my life where I gobbled every word written by Salinger, is still fresh in my mind. Rakoff, well into her time in at the agency, still had yet to pick up Catcher in the Rye. We know that Salinger is reclusive and must be protected at all costs. His agent must shield him from those who would make a pilgrimage to his front door. Rakoff has the job of answering fan letters. It has always been an accepted arrangement where a reader can write to a publisher if they want to contact the author directly. The publisher would be duty-bound to see that the mail reaches its intended recipient. Rakoff, given the standard form letter, began to veer from that, and answer letters addressed to Salinger personally. Intrigued by the emotional impact his writing has on the public, she finally reads Salinger’s work and like so many others, becomes a devoted fan.
There is such clarity to Salinger’s work that it seems he can write without effort. Of course, that is not the case. His desire to keep distractions at bay has always been admirable to me. Understandably, there are those who would disagree. It is my contention that he deserved to be able to do what he did best. Never, not for one day, did I imagine that he was not continuing to write out there in Cornish, New Hampshire.
Perhaps the last sentence from Catcher in the Rye says it all:
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”
When curled up with a good book, do you remember being transported to the moors of northern England, to the red roads of Georgia, or to dear little Prince Edward Island? The importance of place in a novel, or story, can sometimes be tantamount to the telling of the tale. Take Scarlet out of the old south and what do you have? Take Heathcliff out of the moors and who is he?
A sense of place puts the reader in the story, puts the character up against something- whether it is a harsh environment they are grappling with, or a cultural imperative which leaves them feeling as though the deck is stacked against them. What are the underlying layers of the place your character’s inhabit? What are the threats? Did the place start as a swamp, or a thriving port? Did they have to beat back the forest, or are the bushes full of snakes? Who came there first? Was it miners, or homesteaders? Who was indigenous? What was the climate?
Do you remember those green felt boards kindergarten teachers used to use as props? Remember how they would stick felt things on to the green board to teach us how to count ducks, or whatever. The setting of a novel is kind of like the green felt and the characters are then the ducks.
These are details that can make or break a story.
By taking a look at the great ones, we can gain many tips, as we set out to describe the places where our characters live and the role that place plays in the story.
It occurred to me that I actually love place driven stories. While a place can never be the whole story, it can be a huge part of shaping the action of a story. There is nothing that defines a writer more completely than the concept of really honing in on the character of his home town, or region, and then becoming synonymous with that place. Consider Margret Mitchell with Atlanta, James Joyce with Dublin, the Brontes with the moors and Pat Conroy with South Carolina and then my perennial and personal favorite and the best selling book of all time, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Prince Edward Island.
Other writers may not be from a region, but can go there and define it nevertheless. Take James Mitchner with Hawaii and the middle east, Leon Uris with Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Passage to India’s, E. M Forester and then of course, Shakespeare himself. The place will shape the lives of the characters as they adapt to changes through time.
Here are some pages from the opening chapters of Anne of Green Gables:
“They had driven over the crest of a hill. Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, were an amber hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues- the most spiritual shadings of of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows. Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tip-toeing to her own reflection. From the marsh at the head of the pond came the clear, mournfully- sweet chorus of frogs. There was a little gray house peering around a white apple orchard on a slope beyond and, although it was not yet quite dark, a light was shining from one of its windows.
“That’s Barry’s pond, “ said Mathew.
“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it- let me see- the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that’s the right name for it. I know because it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”
When they had driven up the further hill and around a corner Mathew said, “We’re pretty near home now. That’s Green Gables over-”
“Oh don’t tell me,” she interrupted breathlessly, catching at his partially raised arm and shutting her eyes that she might not see his gesture. “Let me guess. I’m sure I’ll guess right.”
She opened her eyes and looked about her. They were on the crest of a hill. The sun has set some time since, the the landscape was still clear in the mellow after-light. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” she said pointing.
It was broad daylight when Anne awoke and sat up in bed, staring confusedly at the window through which a flood of cheery sunshine was pouring and outside of which something white and feather waved across the glimpses of blue sky.
For a moment she could not remember where she was. First came a delightful thrill, as if something very pleasant: then a horrible remembrance. This was Green Gables and they didn’t want her because she wasn’t a boy!
But it was morning and, yest it was a cherry tree in full bloom outside of her window With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash- it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.
Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning her eyes glistening with delight. Oh, wasn’t it beautiful? Wasn’t it a lovely place? Suppose she wasn’t really going to stay here! She would imagine she was. There was scope for the imagination here.
A huge cherry-tree grew outside, so close that its boughs tapped against the house, and it was so thick- set with blossoms that hardly a leaf was to be seen. On both sides of the house was a big orchard, one of apple-trees and one of cherry-trees, also showered with blossoms; and their grass was all sprinkled over with dandelions. In the garden below were lilac-trees purple with flowers, and their dizzily sweet fragrance drifted up to the window on the morning wind.
Below the garden a green field lush with clover sloped down to the hollow where the brook ran and were scores of white birches grew, springing airily out of and undergrowth suggestive of delightful possibilities in ferns and mosses and woodsy things generally. Beyond it was a a hill, green and feathery with spruce and fir; there was a gap in it where the gray gable end of the little house she had seen from the other side of the Lake of Shining Waters was visible.
Off to the left were the big barns and beyond them, away down, over the green, low sloping fields, was a sparkling blue glimpse of sea.
Anne’s beauty -loving eyes lingered on it all, taking everything greedily in; she has looked on so many unlovely places in her life, poor child; but this was as lovely as anything she had ever dreamed.
She knelt there, lost to everything, but the loveliness around her, until she was startled by the hand on her shoulder. Marilla had come in unheard by the small dreamer.
“It’s time you were dressed,” she said curtly.”
So the stage is set. We are caught up in the drama of Anne’s situation, and we want her to be able to stay at Green Gables because we know how much she has fallen in love with the place. This rapture has drawn thousands upon thousands of tourists to Prince Edward Island ever since the book was published. The powerful description not only puts us in this place, but makes us want to go and see it for ourselves. I doubt there is a writer, living or deceased, who has ever captured the beauty of a place better than L.M. Montgomery.
Breaking news: We have just learned that Anne of Green Gables is slated for the silver screen.
My copy of Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf is old and the pages have yellowed. It has been many years since I studied it in school, but each year when June rolls around again, I am reminded of this passage:
“She stiffened a little on the curb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass. A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next store to one in Westminster) ; a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness. There she perched, never seeing him, waiting to cross, very upright.
For having lived in Westminster- how many years now? over twenty,-one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected they said by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning; musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria street. For heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating every moment afresh; but the veriest of frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”