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FICTION IS A MAGIC TRICK of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

Jami Attenberg, Author of All Grown Up
Interview, NY Times Book Review, March 26, 2017

And in the other corner . . .

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A GREAT OBSTACLE to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, …[t]he result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.

Thomas Jefferson 
Letter to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818

 

 

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Have you noticed
the number of absent mothers at the heart of new novels lately? So far I count SEVEN—in the first quarter of this year alone—and surely there are more.

1/10  The Sleepwalker
1/31 I Liked My Life
1/ 7 Swimming Lessons
1/ 7 Universal Harvester
3/ 7 Rabbit Cake
3/ 7 Close Enough to Touch
3/28 Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Then there are last year's books, as well as those over the past several years—most famously, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. We can even go back to the early-aughts.

The missing mothers in these stories take off…or wander off…or die…or are killed…or kill themselves. Sometimes it happens before the novel opens, sometimes within the pages.

Whenever or however they disappear, fictional moms leave heartbreak and loneliness in their wake—a grief so profound it shapes a character's motivations and actions throughout the novel.

It is an age-old literary trope, which authors use to set their protagonists on the path of the Hero's Journey—a quest for self-discovery, belonging, and self-acceptance.

One of the best missing mother novels? Dickens' David Copperfield—the mother of all missing mother stories.

By the way...I've written on a this subject a number of years ago. See Lost Mothers—Why authors bump off moms.

reinvent novelRachel Cusk, wants to reinvent the novel, at least according to the New York Times Book Review.* Just writing that makes me break into a sweat. Why do we have to reinvent the novel?

Okay, I get it. It's not unlike composers wondering where to take symphonic music after Beethoven. Ludwig pretty much said it all.

Poor Johannes Brahms: when folks heard his first symphony, they went, "Oh...whaddya know: it's Beethoven's 10th!" Or so the story goes.

After 200+ years of the novel as art form, it's understandable that authors might want to try something different. And so they are.

Perhaps you've noticed the trend toward SHIFTING POINTS OF VIEW, different characters taking turns at the helm…

. . . surely you've noticed the frequent use of SHIFTING TIME FRAMES, the lack of straightforward chronology…

. . . or maybe you've noticed the use of ALTERNATIVE TEXTS: news clips, diary entries, handwritten letters, scholarly papers, emails, even PowerPoint…

. . . how about the use of ALTERNATE REALITIES?

Sometimes it's hard to tell exactly where you are...or what character you're following—one of the criticisms leveled at Paul Auster's otherwise highly touted new book 4321. Other times, all this narrative disruption can make it hard to engage with the characters.

Yet we know people see and experience life differently. And that is precisely what the new fiction is trying to get at—to point out that the human condition isn't monolithic, that there is more than one way of seeing a particular event.

It's even got a name: the "Roshoman effect," from the 1950 Japenese movie by Akira Kurosawa. The film is considered a classic because of its varying perspectives — new 70 years ago, not so much now. Anyway, Faulkner got there 20 years before Kurosawa did with As I Lay Dying. Okay, okay: Joyce did it even earlier with Ulysses, a book only academics can read, or try to.

Still, don't you miss the comfort of a single, forthright narrator? I do. I have a yen for that 19th-century style of writing in which someone steps onto your front porch, claims a seat, and tells you a grand story.

I hate being old-fashioned and curmudgeonly. But I'm weary of the fact that EVERY new book I pick up messes with point of view and chronology. Friends, I just had to get that off my chest.

* New York Times Book Review, January 29, 2017, cover review of Rachel Cusk's Transit.



criminal librarians3Ha! And you thought librarians were goody-two-shoes. Well, here's a TRUE CRIME story that'll make your toes curl.

The AP reported that the county library in Sorrento, Florida, was caught red-handed in a devilishly clever SCAM. Over the course of nine months some 2,000 books had been checked out by a fake card holder.

Now THAT is registration fraud; it's the real thing. But get this: the books were always returned. Within an hour. Undamaged.

The Big Reader was Chuck Finley, except Chuck Finley doesn't exist (at least with an East Lake Library card). It turns out two librarians had dummied up an ID and used it to check out books, dozens at a time—everything from John Steinbeck's Cannery Row to Why Do My Ears Pop, a children's book by Ann Fullick.

It was all for a good cause—to save them from the chopping block because books that haven't been checked out for a period of time are removed from the county system. So the two librarians took it upon themselves to save as many as they could.

Until someone ratted them out. What a kill joy.

But who's the bad guy here—the fink or the perps? Bleed though our hearts may, it's hard to say. With some 300,000 titles published a year by major U.S. houses (50,000+ for fiction alone), libraries face a serious shortage of space. Budgets aren't the only thing being squeezed…so are books on shelves.

Still, how can we NOT relate to these two benighted—or beknighted—souls, so enamored of books that they can't bear to have them tossed in the dust bin of history? (Btw, I've no idea what's become of our librarians—to say nothing of all the BOOKS.)

A humorous yet sad tale.


moon-lib-book-bundles2So imagine: you're walking into one of your local library branches, as I was recently, and you find right in front of you a sumptuous table, positively laden with tote bags—each of them charmingly tagged by theme and filled with used books.

For $10 any Book Bundle could be yours. Patrons get the books (from 4 to 6), AND they get the tote bag. It's enchanting.


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boy-a-girl2Oops ... about to show my age. Remember A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford? Back in 1979 it was yuge, a bestselling book and later a TV movie.

Today it would be "A Girl of Substance." Talk about lost in translation.

What's the big deal? Well, if you have to ask, you're too young to have been around during the nascent Woman's Movement in the late-'60s and '70s.

You've seen Mad Men, right? It was like that, even into the 70s. I was there. To be called a "girl" was dismissive. "My girl can get you coffee." Or, "Nah. Don't bother. The girls can clean that up." Age didn't matter—21, 41, or 61—we were just girls, not women of substance.
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Which is why
I get all dithered-up by the use of "GIRL" in the dozens and dozens of recent BOOK TITLES—some 200. I know because I made a LIST. (Click button for a laugh!)
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Girl Titles sell books—The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo series made it so, starting in 2005; then came Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. It's a hot trend, and publishers want in on it—to the point that they're REVISING PREVIOUS TITLES, hoping to breathe new life into older books. Take a look ...

Newly Revised Titles
By publishers

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Girls Who Dug Rocks

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Girls

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Girls Who Wore Corsets

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
The Girl Who Made It to the Supreme Court

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
The Girl Who Left Her Daughter (But Kept in Touch)

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Girl Who Runs with Arrows and Other Sharp Objects

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The Girl Who Went for a Walk and Then Felt Better

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
The Girl Who Kicked Corporate Butt

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Girl with Prejudice and the Man with Pride, or Vice Versa

Obsessive Genius: The Inner Life of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
This Girl's the Bomb

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
The Girl Who'd Better Win the Nobel Prize

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kid
The Girl Who Owned a Slave Who Was Also a Girl

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Climate Change Girl

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Girl Who Watched Fungus Grow and Became Famous

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
The Girl in Cabin 10



 

crimes-misdemeanors2As "crimes" go, the literary ones are of the lesser sort: plagiarism and phony memoirs don't injure, maim, or kill anyone.

Even so, a few misdemeanors on the docket have managed to show a depressing lapse in ethics or taste.

1. The money grab.
The "discovery" of Go Set a Watchman ranks at the top of the list. Harper Lee's lawyer Tonya Carter claimed to have discovered the original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird in February 2015. But others insist it had been discovered in 2011 by an agent from Southeby's—and that Carter had been present when it was found.

Only after Alice Lee, Harper's sister and long-time protector, died did Carter announce her "discovery" of the book. The entire episode reeks of an easy money scheme and, worse, the manipulation of an 89-year-old stroke-afflicted woman. You can find two good articles here: one in the New Republic and another in the New York Times.

2. The tattle tale.
Elena Ferrante's real name, a long-kept secret, was just revealed the other day. In the scheme of things, it's hardly serious—except perhaps for the author of My Brilliant Friend (plus two sequels).

So for what higher purpose did Italian journalist Claudio Gatti spill the beans? Sheer self-aggrandizement, most likely. As the owner of Ferrante's publishing house put it: If someone wants to be left alone, leave her alone.... She’s a writer and isn’t doing anyone any harm.” Amen to that.

3. The whitewash.
Although I haven't read it all the way through (God knows I tried), the new YA novel, My Lady Jane, shows a tone-deaf insensitivity toward one of history's more horrific events—the beheading of 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey. I'll let the book's opening speak for itself:

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[O]nce upon a time, there was a sixteen-year-old girl named Jane Grey, who was forced to marry a complete stranger (Lord Guildford or Gilford or Gifford-something-or-other), and shortly thereafter found herself ruler of a country. She was queen for nine days. Then she quite literally lost her head.

Yes, it's a tragedy, if you consider the disengagement of one's head from one's body tragic. (We are merely narrators, and would hate to make assumptions as to what the reader would find tragic.)

My Lady Jane
Cynthia Hand and Brodie Ashton

What . . . ?!

Okay, maybe I'm overly sensitive. But I recall an account of Lady Gray Jane in a grad school course on the English Renaissance; her short life was depressingly sad and her end brutish. Sugar-coating is one thing, but there's enough misappropriation, misreading, and misuse of history—why must we have "just plain fun" with this? (That quote comes from a Booklist review, which also suggests "joyfully punting" history "out of the way.")

More to the point, the world has been horrified by certain news from the Middle East—and, yes, we do consider those kinds of events tragic.

See? I'm sensitive AND cranky.



Lady Jane's beheading had a powerful effect on artists, even 300 years after the fact. Here are two renderings: The Execution of Lady Jane Gray (1833) by Paul Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey Preparing for Execution (1835) by George Whiting Flagg.


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