Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Stephen Policoff

Stephen Policoff is the author of Beautiful Somewhere Else, which won the James Jones Award, and was published by Carroll & Graf. His second novel, Come Away,
won the Dzanc Award, and was published by Dzanc Books in 2014. He was writer-in-residence at Medicine Show Theater Ensemble, with whom he wrote Shipping Out, The Mummer’s Play, Ubu Rides Again, and Bound to Rise, which received an Obie. He was also a freelance writer for Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, New Age Journal, and many other publications. He helped create Center for Creative Youth, based at Wesleyan University, and has taught writing at CUNY, Wesleyan, and Yale. He is currently Clinical Professor of Writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU, where he has taught since 1987.

Policoff's newest novel is Dangerous Blues.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Policoff's reply:
Like my taste in music, my reading list is extremely eclectic.

I recently read two books by acquaintances of mine. Funeral Train by Laurie Loewenstein is a wonderful, atmospheric mystery set in the Great Depression; I rarely read mysteries but Loewenstein writes such great characters and creates such a vivid picture of life in the Dust Bowl that I was immediately drawn in. Ghosts of the Missing by Kathleen Donohoe is a lovely, elegiac novel about love, loss, and being haunted, subjects of particular interest to me. It’s a beautiful novel and should be better known.

Meanwhile, I have just re-read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson because I am teaching it in my Creative Writing class this semester. I admire and have sometimes sought to emulate Johnson’s ability to write melodically about horrid human behavior, to intertwine melancholy and dark laughter. I also have been reading Ling Ma’s first story collection, Bliss Montage. I am always looking for fiction which my students will not have read already (not that they read that much anyway), stories which show different ways of approaching the idea of writing fiction. Ma’s stories are intriguingly odd—surreal at times, science fictionish at times, beautifully detailed and truthful at times. She is a useful model, I think, for anyone seeking to write stories which do not necessarily fit into any preconceived
Visit Stephen Policoff's website.

The Page 69 Test: Come Away.

My Book, The Movie: Come Away.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Vicki Delany

Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than forty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing four cozy mystery series: the Tea by the Sea mysteries for Kensington, the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane Books, the Catskill Resort mysteries for Penguin Random House, and the Lighthouse Library series (as Eva Gates) for Crooked Lane.

Delany is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada and co-founder and organizer of the Women Killing It Crime Writing Festival. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards. Delany is the recipient of the 2019 Derrick Murdoch Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Her newest novel in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series is The Game is a Footnote.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Delany's reply:
I do most of my best reading on airplanes. I love the isolation of being on a plane, just me and my book. I find that it’s about the only time anymore I have the time and space to simply immerse myself in a book, with none of those pesky distractions like Twitter, Facebook, and household chores.

Over the Christmas holidays this year, I went to Nelson, British Columbia to visit my daughter and her family. Not a lot of reading got done during the visit (the kids being 4 and 13 months doesn’t lead to much free time) but I did take several books with me for the long flights.

Prior to a recent trip to Italy, I read The Color Storm by Damian Dibben specifically because it’s set in 16th century Venice. I enjoyed that book enough to see what else he’d written and was delighted to find Tomorrow. The book is told entirely from the POV of a dog. And not just any dog. In the year 1815 a dog is in Venice, waiting for his master to return. He’s been waiting for two hundred years. And so begins a story of loyalty, friendship, love. And the price of immortality. Perfect airplane reading.

I also read This is the Night they Come for You by Robert Goddard. I’ve been a fan of Goddard for many, many years. He’s been called “the master of the triple cross”. His books are usually about some average English guy who finds himself embroiled in events far beyond his control. I’d rank this book as just okay, and definitely not one of his best, although it does provide an interesting look into the modern history and current situation of Algeria. I’d recommend an earlier book of his, that I also recently read, Days without Number, as an example of just how Goddard can work one twist after another.
Visit Vicki Delany's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: The Game is a Footnote.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Darcie Wilde

Darcie Wilde is the award-winning author of stylishly adventurous historical mysteries and romances, including the Rosalind Thorne Mysteries, a Regency-set series inspired by the novels of Jane Austen, as well as the Regency Makeover Trilogy. She has also written, under the name Sarah Zettel, Locus and Philip K. Dick Award-winning novels, including Fool's War, a New York Times Notable Books of the Year selection.

Wilde's new novel is The Secret of the Lost Pearls.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m writing this during the first week of 2023. 2022 was a rollercoaster of a year for me personally, as I know it was for a lot of people. One of the ongoing bright spots was the number of good books that came my way.

Sister Novelists by Devoney Looser. Warning: This is a total fangirl moment. I loved this book! I started reading it for research, which rapidly turned into reading for pleasure and more than a little amazement. This is a biography of Jane and Maria Porter, sisters who were contemporaries of Jane Austen, and between them invented the genre of historical fiction years before Sir Walter Scott came along and took credit for it. It’s a big book, but perfect for reading on a long winter’s night. The writing is approachable and yet full of amazing detail about these women’s lives and the world they moved through. Anybody who reads or watches works set in the English Regency should read this one. It is nothing short of amazing.

The Haunting of Maddy Claire by Simone St. James. This one was off the beaten path for me. I don’t read horror on a regular basis, but I do love a gothic. Daphne DuMaurie’s Rebecca is one of my all time faves. Maddy Claire was a real discovery for me. I heard about it on the She Wore Black podcast and shoutout to the host, because I am now a superfan. Set in the 1920s about a woman who is tired of her dreary, lonely life, and who ends up in a job as an assistant to a paranormal investigator going out to the countryside to investigate a particularly active haunt. It’s well-written, got great characters, loads of suspense, and a great love story all told with gothic flare. There is definitely going to be more Simone St. James in my upcoming year.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill. I recommended this one to a friend. When I asked her what she thought of it, she said, “That book is a real mind-bleep.” She’s right. It’s a piece of meta-fiction where in between chapters we’re getting letters about the process of writing the book. This kind of structure can, frankly, get annoying in a hurry, unless the author’s got a good reason for it, and they handle it with energy and expertise. Gentill does both, and her letters helped increase what was already a suspenseful mystery.
Visit Darcie Wilde's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Secret of the Lost Pearls.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, is due out soon. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann:
To have any worth at all, a course on twentieth century intellectual history would have to start with nineteenth century intellectual history, because any twentieth century intellectual history worth talking about is dependent on Friedrich Nietzsche, who died, conveniently enough, in l900, a date so perfect for the purposes of connecting the intellectual history - and perhaps not just the intellectual history - of the two centuries that it might make some wonder whether, despite what Nietzsche claimed, God is dead after all.

For at least the first third of the twentieth century, anyone who wanted to think seriously, or to write something that serious people would take seriously, read Nietzsche. The most important book of Martin Heidegger, the most profound thinker of the twentieth century, was not the famous and unfinished Being and Time, but his commentaries on Nietzsche himself. What some regard as the most profound novel of the twentieth century, Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus, a novel about genius and madness, has as its central character a man unmistakably based on Nietzsche.

It goes further than that. It was Nietzsche, Mann admits, “to whom I looked as a master, for from the start he was not so much for me the prophet of some kind of vague ‘superman,’ as he was for most people when he was in fashion, as rather the incomparably greatest and most experienced psychologist of decadence.” For Mann, decadence means most of what the modern world admires. Decadence meant civilization, democracy, the equal rights of everyone, progress, security, material abundance; it meant the “last man” of Friedrich Nietzsche, the man who aspires to nothing, who sees, and understands, no difference between what is noble and what is base, who thinks - who can think - of nothing except what he wants in the present moment, whose only desire is to be entertained. Civilization is at war with culture, which is “the principle of artistic organization and formation, of the life-preserving, life-glorifying principle.” Culture is great art, and the greatest art is great music, and music, great music, destroys civilization, civilization understood as “modern ideas, Western ideas, the ideas of the eighteenth century.”

The importance of culture, of music, was nowhere better understood than in Germany. For Thomas Mann it seemed obvious that “depth and irrationality suit the German soul, which shallower people find strange, disgusting, even savage.” It is “that daemonic and heroic something that resists accepting the civilian spirit as the highest human ideal.” Three days after German troops invaded neutral Belgium and the First World War began, Thomas Mann wrote to his brother, Heinrich, “Shouldn’t we be grateful for the totally unexpected chance to experience such mighty things?”  Famous, known throughout the world, the author of Buddenbrooks, for which he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mann greeted the war as a liberation. “Deep in our hearts we felt that the world, our world, could no longer go on as it had.” The world of the “last man” had to be destroyed. “Didn’t it seethe and stink of civilization’s decay?”

This was no passing thought, the immediate, but short-lived, enthusiasm of a German patriot. Mann had not only “lived in a certain protest against this material culture….,” but his work, the fiction he wrote, “has meant hardly anything less than intellectual criticism of reality.” All of which culminated in an article, ‘Thoughts In Wartime,’ written at the beginning of the war. The First World War, the Great War, was not a war for territory; it was not a war of imperialism or revenge. It was a war for culture and against civilization, a war in defense of the deeper feeling of great art, a war against domesticated, politically demoralizing capitalism, a nation of bourgeois philistines. It is why, for Thomas Mann, “only a German victory can guarantee the peace of Europe.”

Instead of a German victory, there was a German defeat, but the question whether this meant the defeat of culture and the victory of civilization became a question that made a mockery of reason, and made Thomas Mann turn against the country whose victory he had thought the only chance to save the world. In l930, when the Nazis were about to take control, Mann wrote another article, this one entitled, ‘An Appeal To Reason,’ in which he described in a single sentence Germany’s pact with the devil: “Fanaticism turns into a means of salvation, enthusiasm into epileptic ecstasy, politics becomes an opiate for the masses, a proletarian eschatology; and reason veils her face.” Three years later, in l933, when Hitler came to power. Mann, on a European tour lecturing on Richard Wagner and the effect of his music, was urged by family and friends not to return. After five years in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States where, living in Los Angeles, he wrote Dr. Faustus, the novel Mann considered the novel of the twentieth century.

Mann began writing Dr. Faustus in l943, or, as Mann writes, Mann’s character, Serenus Zeitbloom, Ph.D., began writing the tragic story of his friend, Adrian Leverkuhn on May 27, 1942, three years after Leverkuhn’s death, “three years, that is, after he passed from deep night into the deepest night of all.” Bloom is not writing a novel; he is writing the biography of a musician of genius; writing it, moreover, in the middle of a war, a world war, which unlike the first one, the one in which Thomas Mann hoped for a German victory, Zeitbloom hopes for a German defeat. The “national new birth of ten years ago, that seemingly religious intoxication - which then betrayed itself to any intelligent person for what it was by its crudity, vulgarity, gangsterism, sadism, degradation, filthiness,” has brought Germany to the brink of destruction. The Germans, “who trod the boards of history as the heralds and bringers of a world-rejuvenating barbarism,” had instead sent Germany and half the world on the road to hell. The question is not why Germany entered into a new age of barbarism, but why Germany had chosen the wrong form of barbarism to pursue.

Adrian Leverkuhn had understood, from the beginning, as it were, that there was a choice and what that choice entailed. A brilliant student, he looked down on the subjects of the various branches of learning which, like Nietzsche, on whom Thomas Mann has modeled him, he “so competently and carelessly dismissed.” Serenus Zeitbloom, a traditional scholar who loves the ancient languages and the ancient authors, listens and records Adrian’s complaint that the present age “is civilization,” and that “we should have to become very much more barbaric to be capable of culture again.” The bridge, the connecting link, between barbarism, i.e., the rejection of the comfortable self-preservation of twentieth century Europe, and culture is music, the “most intellectual of the arts,” the only one in which “form and content are interwoven and absolutely one and the same.” Music addresses itself to the ear, but only in so far as hearing, like seeing and the other senses, “is the deputy, the instrument, and the receiver of the mind.”

Adrian, like Nietzsche, suffers from blinding, disabling, migraine. Like Nietzsche, he also contracts syphilis, but unlike Nietzsche he gets it on purpose. Adrian had no interest in women, or anything else that has to do with human passion. He had gone to a brothel with friends and, while he had done nothing, he met a woman, Esmeralda, to whom he feels strangely drawn. Months later, when he goes back to find her, she warns him she has the disease, but that is precisely the reason he has come: “what compulsion to compromise the punishment in the sin, finally what, deep, deeply mysterious longing for daemonic conception, for a directly unchaining of chemical changes in his nature was at work, that having been warned he despised the warning and insisted upon possession of this flesh?”

Like Faust, Adrian wanted something only the devil - the angel of death - could give him. Halfway through Dr. Faustus, in chapter 25, Adrian’s ‘secret record’ is revealed, a dialogue with the devil that his friend, Zeitbloom, “cannot believe in the depths of his soul Adrian himself considered to be actual that which he saw and heard - either while he heard and saw it or afterwards, when it put it on paper….” It is perhaps an entirely fictional account, a dialogue, not with the devil, but with Adrian’s own darker side, the madness that is the source of his remarkable genius, the madness he needed, and deliberately acquired, to accomplish what he had to achieve.

It was “our plan,” the devil tells him, that he should “run into our arms, that is, of my little one Esmeralda, and that you got it, the illumination, the aphrodisiacum of the brain.” The disease, the madness, is designed to progress slowly, giving him enough time, “years, decades,” of “devil-time, genius-time.” The disease is everything. It gives him the power to see, and to speak, with the devil, the angel of death. In a line Nietzsche could have written, and did, the devil tells Adrian that, “The artist is the brother of the criminal and the madman.” The artist, the musician, overthrows the existing order and replaces it with one of his own creation.

The disease, the gift that Adrian has chosen for himself, will give him the capacity for “A genuine inspiration, immoderate, absolute, unquestioned, ravishing, where there is no choice, no tinkering, no possible improvement, where all is as a sacred mandate, a visitation received by the possessed one with altering and stumbling step, with shudders of awe from head to foot, with tears of joy blinding his eyes: no, that is not possible with God, who gives the understanding too much to do. It comes but from the devil, the true master and giver of such rapture.” This power, this gift of madness, will make Adrian the master of the future. “Not only will you break through the paralyzing difficulties of the time - you will break through time itself, by which I mean the cultural epoch and its cult, and dare to be barbarous, twice barbarous….”

Adrian is promised all this, and more; and only after twenty two years, too much time to worry about, will the devil come to take him. Having accepted the bargain, Adrian produces a new music. His last work, The Lamentations of Dr. Faustus, written as the counterpoint to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, is “the most frightful lament ever set up on this earth.” Leverkuhn’s Faust rejects the thought of being saved “because with his whole soul he despises the positivism of the world…the lie of its godliness.” The only solace left is at the end, after the last note is sounded, and there is nothing but silence, and the silence “abides as a light in the night.”

In the music, the new music of Adrian Leverkuhn, everything is based on a “fixed fundamental series. Not one note might recur until the other notes have sounded.” This is not “an arbitrary combination; rather it lies in the nature of things; it rests, I might say on the curvature of the world, which makes the last return into the first.” The new music of Adrian Leverkuhn is, like so much else in the novel, derived from Nietzsche’s teaching, in this instance, the eternal return of the same, the belief that everything is repeated, in exactly the same way it has happened before, over and over again, through all the infinity of time.

If the new music of Adrian Leverkuhn was derived from Friedrich Nietzsche, the technique, the rigid requirements of the twelve tone scheme, was taken from the musical theories of Arnold Schonberg, as Mann acknowledged in a note at the end of the novel. Like Mann, Schonberg left Germany when Hitler came to power. Schonberg was Catholic, but the Nazis assumed that anyone named Schonberg must be a Jew. Mann had been lecturing on Richard Wagner when he was advised not to return to Germany. Schonberg was giving a concert in Paris when he was informed by the German authorities that, because he was a Jew, he had lost his position in Germany and could not return. Schonberg, this good German Catholic, went to the chief rabbi in Paris and in a supreme, perhaps unprecedented, gesture of defiance, converted and became a Jew. Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann were friends, fellow exiles living in Los Angeles, but after Dr. Faustus was published, Arnold Schonberg never spoke to Thomas Mann again.

Leo Strauss, who left Germany at nearly the same time as Arnold Schonberg and Thomas Mann, once remarked that those were fortunate who preferred the novels of Jane Austen to those of Thomas Mann. I was not quite sure what he meant when I heard him say that, but now, on this, the third reading of Dr. Faustus, I think I know exactly what he meant.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third Reading: The Europeans.

Third Reading: The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Joy Castro

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of Flight Risk, a finalist for a 2022 International Thriller Award; the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home; the story collection How Winter Began; the memoir The Truth Book; and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also the editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT’s first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, and Afro-Hispanic Review; on Salon; and elsewhere. A former writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.

Castro's new novel is One Brilliant Flame.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m currently reading the novel Forbidden Notebook by Cuban Italian writer Alba de Céspedes, first published in Italy in 1952 and newly translated by Ann Goldstein (revered for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work).

Forbidden Notebook is the story of a middle-aged petit bourgeois working housewife, Valeria Cossati, who secretly acquires a notebook. When she starts privately jotting down her honest observations, the livable fictions she’s constructed about her work, family, and social world all begin to crumble, and she has to decide what actions to take about what she newly perceives. Though published 70 years ago, Forbidden Notebook's insights about domestic, professional, and political tensions remain disturbingly and keenly relevant.

Author Alba de Céspedes was a feminist journalist, novelist, and screenwriter who was imprisoned for her antifascist work in Rome before and during World War II. She was also the granddaughter of 19th-century Cuban anticolonial independence hero Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. I'm intrigued by the way she merges political with personal concerns to create a breath-catching story.
Visit Joy Castro’s website and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: Hell or High Water.

The Page 69 Test: Nearer Home.

Q&A with Joy Castro.

My Book, The Movie: Flight Risk.

The Page 69 Test: Flight Risk.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Peter Blauner

Peter Blauner is an Edgar-winning, New York Times bestselling author of several other novels, including Slow Motion Riot, The Intruder, and Sunrise Highway. His books have been translated into twenty languages.

Blauner's new novel, Picture in the Sand, is the culmination of two decades of writing and research that took him from Brooklyn to Cairo a half-dozen times.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Blauner's reply:
The book that's made the strongest impression on me in the last year is Bambi. Yeah, that's right, I said Bambi. You got a problem with that?

Well, let me tell you, Bambi wasn't always a Walt Disney cartoon. It started life as a novel published in 1923 by Austro-Hungarian author, literary critic and man-about-town Felix Salten. He was part of a circle that included sophisticates like Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. Salten's novel has something of his compatriots' dreamy sensuality, which will come as a surprise to those who only know the Disney version. The Nazis also perceived a threatening cultural/political subtext. They believed that Salten, an outspoken Jewish nationalist, meant his story to be an allegory about anti-Semitism and banned it. Salten fled to Switzerland where he saw the Disney version before he died, and lamented having sold the film rights years before for a thousand dollars.

What struck me moost about Bambi is the beauty and brutality of the world Salten creates. He gives his animals human voices without sentimentalizing them. When violence occurs, he's calm and matter of fact about it, almost like a war correspondent. Salten himself was a hunter, so he's very sharp and observant when describing the stillness of the woods. In fact, when I was reading his book, the walls and ceiling of the room I was in seemed to melt away, so all I could hear was the wind in the trees.

I've read a lot of crime fiction, and I've written some in my time as well. And Salten is as tough-minded as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I'd recommend this book to anyone, except perhaps very young children. I've heard many people say they were deeply upset by the death of Bambi's mother in the cartoon. That particular episode is handled deftly and discreetly in Salten's book. But the rest of the story would be overpowering and frightening to a defenseless young person in a completely different way.
Visit Peter Blauner's website.

The Page 69 Test: Sunrise Highway.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, December 19, 2022

Christiane M. Andrews

Christiane M. Andrews grew up in rural New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine and still calls northern New England home. Her debut novel, Spindlefish and Stars, received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and Booklist, and was named a Kirkus Best Book of 2020 and a Booklist Editors’ Choice for 2020. A longtime writing and literature instructor, Andrews lives with her husband and son and a small clutch of animals on an old New Hampshire hilltop farm.

Her new novel is Wolfish.

I recently asked Andrews about what she was reading. Her reply:
This question finds me just finishing several wildly different works (which I suppose is fairly typical for me):

I most recently read Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov (translated by Boris Dralyuk), which offers a stunning portrait of the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine and the burden of violence its people have had to endure. Written before the 2022 invasion, Grey Bees mourns what was then already lost in Donbas—homes, land, security, everyday simple pleasures—and examines how even fear may turn to apathy in the habitualization of war. Kurkov’s main character, pensioner beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich, struggles to keep his hives safe; what normalcy—including simple human decency—he and others manage to preserve comes to seem heroic. The prose is admirably direct, unflinching and beautiful.

Another I’ve just devoured is Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker—a little marvel of a book and a masterclass in spare, startling prose. “Let words be nice,” says Treacle Walker early in the tale, which Garner, working in the language of myth and legend and folklore and comics and slang, certainly does. The story begins with the young boy Joe trading old pajamas and lamb bone for Treacle Walker’s chipped jar and donkey stone; it develops around the friendship the two form, and around the friendship that comes from a man Joe discovers in the bog, Thin Amren. A strange and wondrous tale.

I’m currently in the midst of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, a book I’m reading partly for research for an ongoing project, but mostly for pleasure. Sheldrake offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of fungi, but additionally explores the interconnectedness of the entire living world and questions where “self” truly begins and ends. Relatedly, I’m also re-reading Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization—an extraordinary work that examines mankind’s complicated relationship with woodlands throughout history and in our cultural imagination. Though Harrison, like Sheldrake, sees humanity as “a species caught in the delicate and diverse web of a forestlike planetary environment,” he also describes the forest as “the correlate of the poet’s memory” and worries that as its ancient remnants disappear, the poet, too, will “fall into oblivion.”

Waiting next for me on my nightstand I have Arnée Flores new middle-grade novel The Spirit Queen, Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses, and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. I know Solnit’s and Flores’s writing well (and can enthusiastically recommend Flores’s work to parents and teachers seeking well-crafted fantasies for young readers). Of Okri’s novels, I’ve only read The Freedom Artist, so I’m excited to dive into this earlier text.
Visit Christiane M. Andrews's website.

Q&A with Christiane M. Andrews.

The Page 69 Test: Wolfish.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, December 18, 2022

D.W. Buffa

D.W. Buffa's recent novel is The Privilege, the ninth legal thriller involving the defense attorney Joseph Antonelli. The tenth, Lunatic Carnival, is due out soon. He has also published a series that attempts to trace the movement of western thought from ancient Athens, in Helen; the end of the Roman Empire, in Julian's Laughter; the Renaissance, in The Autobiography of Niccolo Machiavelli; and, most recently, America in the twentieth century, in Neumann's Last Concert.

Here is Buffa's take on The House of Mirth and The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton:
If you had, like a medieval scholar, spent years in the intensive study of the works of Aristotle, you would remember, if you remembered nothing else, the line with which the great philosopher opened so many of the tightly-reasoned things he wrote: “The beginning is more than half.” If you had not studied Aristotle you might still have a sense of how important, how essential, the beginning is if you had read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Published in 1905, it was her ninth novel and the first to become a great popular success, with 140,000 copies in print within the three first months it became available. The first paragraph reads:

“Seldon paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.” Then, a few lines later: “There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions.”

Toward the end of the page, the first page of the novel, Edith Wharton adds that Seldon had rarely seen Miss Bart more “radiant,” that she had, “against the dull tints of the crowd…regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. Was it really eleven years, Seldon found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her?”

When Edith Wharton was a very young child, a child who had not yet learned how to read but was, as children were in the middle of the 19th century, surrounded by books, she would hold a book in her hand and tell a story of her own invention as if she were reading it from the printed pages of the book she was often holding upside down. After she learned to read, she learned to write, and, born with a story-teller’s genius, she thought about how a novel should be written, a study continued through most of her long, and eventful, life; a study by which she became, along with her friend, Henry James, one of the very few serious novelists to write something worth reading about writing. In the middle of her autobiography, A Backward Glance, in a chapter entitled, “A Secret Garden,” she explains why she wrote The House of Mirth, and why what is written on the first page is more than half the story.

There are two rules which a novelist must alway follow. The first is that he “should deal only with what is within his reach, literally or figuratively.” The second is that “the value of a subject depends wholly on what the author sees in it, and how deeply he is able to see into it.” Edith Wharton thought it her misfortune that the only subject she knew well was New York, fashionable New York, “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers,” a subject “too shallow to yield anything to the most searching gaze.” Then, suddenly, as it were, she saw something she had not seen before, that “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” The answer to the question what could be made of New York and all its “flatness and futility” was “my heroine, Lily Bart."

This seems to suggest that Edith Wharton was interested in a situation: the way in which the fashionable New York of the late nineteenth century corrupted people and their ideals, but it was not that at all. Lily Bart was the source of the story. Literally. Edith Wharton’s own created character told her the story she, Edith Wharton, had to tell. This happened all the time. Suddenly, “a character will stand up, coming seemingly from nowhere. Again, but more breathlessly, I watch; and presently a character draws nearer, and seems to become aware of me, and to feel the shy but desperate need to unfold his or her tale.”

Lily Bart not only told her the story she should write, but speaks out loud the story, her part of the story, while Edith Wharton, listening, does nothing but write it all down. The “elusive moment when these people who haunt my brain actually begin to speak within me with their own voices…I become merely a recording instrument, and my hand never hesitates because my mind has not to choose, but only to set down what these stupid or intelligent, lethargic or passionate people say to each other in a language, and with arguments, that appear to be all their own.”

Every writer, every serious writer, every writer who writes every day for hours and thinks scarcely any time at all has passed, will know exactly what Edith Wharton means. There are things that, when you read them, seem to have been written especially, or even only, for you; at least one author who, reading Edith Wharton’s description of simply recording what her characters are saying to one another, thought he was reading something he had written himself.

Lily Bart suddenly appears and makes herself known; but only, it must be said, after Edith Wharton had spent a great deal of time observing the world around her, the fashionable New York world, bright, charming, and hollow at the core. Then, once it happened, once she knew the story she had to tell, she had to decide how to do it. The first question, which seems so obvious as to be all but irrelevant, is who is going to tell it. “Who saw this thing I am going to tell about? By whom do I mean it shall be reported?”

There are several different ways to do this. Joseph Conrad, as she acknowledges, often had one of the novel’s characters tell the story. Anyone who has read Conrad will immediately think of Marlowe, the veteran sea captain asked by others to tell what he knows about some rumor of a vaguely remembered tragedy in some far away exotic place. When the one who tells the story is part of the story, when, for example, the narrator tells what he or she has gone through, what has happened to them, the reader is drawn closer and the story becomes more a confession, something shared, not with any of the other characters, but with the one person who has agreed to turn the pages and follow the author’s account. Edith Wharton did not do this; she chose instead the anonymous, omniscient narrator, who knows everything and tells everything: what her characters say, what they think, and what they do. Her friend, Henry James, did this as well, but did it in a way that is far more intimate. In his great novel, Portrait of a Lady, the narrator is always ‘I,’ as in “I am far from wishing to say.” But instead of telling the story to a vast, anonymous audience of unknown readers, he tells it to you and you alone. When he writes, “we have already perceived that she had desires which had never been satisfied,” the reader is almost tempted to look at James and nod his agreement. James and his reader, his confidant, listen together to what the characters not only say, but think, and, together, explore the antecedents, the histories, of the people whose lives they are following and beginning to understand. This is how, when it is done well, fiction, far more than non-fiction, can get at the truth of things.

Edith Wharton made her choice; we know who is going to tell the story. But how should the story be told if it is to hold the reader’s interest through three or four or five hundred pages? The start, for Edith Wharton, is to make the story, the whole story, implicit on the very first page. This can be done only if, before the first page is written, the last page is known, and, more than that, deeply considered.

“Nietzsche said it took genius to ‘make an end,’ - that is, to give the touch of inevitableness to the conclusion of any work of art.” This is particularly true of the novel. The “failure to end a tale in accordance with its own deepest sense must deprive it of meaning.”

The end of the story, in other words, has to be known before the beginning of it can be written. A “note of inevitability should be sounded at the very opening of the tale, and…my characters should go forward to their ineluctable doom….” The mystery is what happens in between, how what in retrospect will appear to have been inevitable is constructed. Though she knows from the beginning what is going to happen to each of her characters, knows that “their fate is settled beyond rescue,” they somehow “walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand.” Their speech, their action, “seems to be their very own,” so much so that she is “sometimes startled at the dramatic effect of a word or gesture which would never have occurred to me if I had been pondering over an abstract ‘situation,’ as yet uninhabited by its ‘characters.’”

The characters, those entirely fictional inventions of Edith Wharton’s extraordinary mind were, for her, “as real and as tangible as my encounters with my friends and neighbors, often more so, though on an entirely different plane.” Which is the reason why Lily Bart, the central character of The House of Mirth becomes, in the reading, as real, and as tangible, as anyone we have actually known. And we know her on the very first page, when we see her, as her sympathetic friend Seldon does, the girlish smoothness still there after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing; eleven years the best looking young woman in New York society, a young woman, by her own description, “horribly poor - and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.”

Marriage is the only way Lily Bart can have what she thinks she needs, but the wealthy men - and there are quite a lot of them - are as dull and superficial, as bound to the narrow prejudices of their class as they are rich beyond all imagining. She would have married Seldon, if Seldon had had money; and Seldon would have married her, if money had not made her ignore the damage she was doing to her reputation by her apparent indifference to a hypocritical morality by which the wealthy covered their own moral failings. Eleven years, and instead of a woman every rich man wants to marry, Lily Bart has become the woman every married woman thinks is the paid for mistress of her husband. She is not what they think. She has a greater sense of honor than any of them, which no one - no one except Seldon - recognizes, and which only helps make her so poor that she is reduced to working, or trying to work, for wages. She no longer stands out “against the dull tints of the crowd;’ she has become part of it. Seldon, who discovers too late how honorably she has behaved, brings the story to its inevitable conclusion. Lily Bart has gone to her “ineluctable doom.” She has killed herself, something that, we now understand, was implicit on the very first page of Edith Wharton’s unforgettable novel. And we understand that because Edith Wharton was willing to pass on to other serious writers the secrets she had learned.
Visit D.W. Buffa's website.

Third reading: The Great Gatsby

Third reading: Brave New World.

Third reading: Lord Jim.

Third reading: Death in the Afternoon.

Third Reading: Parade's End.

Third Reading: The Idiot.

Third Reading: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Third Reading: The Scarlet Letter.

Third Reading: Justine.

Third Reading: Patriotic Gore.

Third reading: Anna Karenina.

Third reading: The Charterhouse of Parma.

Third Reading: Emile.

Third Reading: War and Peace.

Third Reading: The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Third Reading: Bread and Wine.

Third Reading: “The Crisis of the Mind” and A Man Without Qualities.

Third Reading: Eugene Onegin.

Third Reading: The Collected Works of Thomas Babington Macaulay.

Third reading: The Europeans.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Kitty Zeldis

Kitty Zeldis is the pseudonym for a novelist and non-fiction writer of books for adults and children. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, NY.

Her new novel is The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Zeldis's reply:
Since I have been writing historical fiction, I’ve found myself drawn to other such novels to provide both inspiration and guidance. Two that I’ve read—and liked—recently are Atomic Love by Jennie Fields and Cradles of the Reich by Jennifer Coburn. Atomic Love is set in the 1950’s and its protagonist is a woman who worked on developing the atomic bomb—not a subject you encounter very often! The novel is richly atmospheric, and contains both a tender love story as well as elements of suspense—spies, the FBI etc. Fields is a graceful, assured writer who brings her characters fully and exquisitely to life; I learned so much from her. The Coburn novel touches on the Holocaust but from an unexpected angle—the lebensborn program, which Nazi authorities created to increase Germany’s population. Pregnant German women deemed “racially valuable” were encouraged to give birth to their children at Lebensborn homes. During World War II, the program became complicit in the kidnapping of foreign children with physical features considered “Aryan” by the Nazis. It’s a chilling if not horrifying story, and I knew nothing about it until I read this book. Coburn did an enormous amount of research and has skillfully woven it into the fabric of the novel, which is no easy feat. And one of her character is a young woman who completely supports the Nazi regime and wants nothing more than to produce a healthy infant for the Reich. It is to Coburn’s great credit that we come to understand her even though she repels us.
Visit Kitty Zeldis's website.

My Book, The Movie: Not Our Kind.

Coffee with a Canine: Kitty Zeldis & Dottie.

The Page 69 Test: Not Our Kind.

My Book, The Movie: The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Lorna Landvik

Lorna Landvik's novels include the bestselling Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, and Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).

Also an actor and playwright, Landvik has performed on numerous stages. A recent DNA test determined she’s 95 percent Norwegian and 5 percent wild.

Her new novel is Last Circle of Love.

Recently I asked Landvik about what she was reading. Her reply:
I've been having a gay old time reading Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green.

In this witty (so witty), illuminating memoir, the daughter of legendary musical theater composer Richard Rodgers regales us with tales of her privileged (but angst-filled) childhood when her father worked with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein; her years as a young mother (three kids before the age of 26) scrambling to get work as a composer and writer herself, and her various careers as a renowned children's book (Freaky Friday) author, philanthropist and chairman of the Juilliard school.

Ms. Rodgers circle is a wide one and she doesn't just drop names -- she offers rich and vivid stories about Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Hal Prince, etc. (And the etc. is a long list!).

Reading this book is like nursing a Cosmopolitan at Sardi's, shoulder-to-shoulder with Broadway luminaries and listening to a wildly entertaining raconteur.
Visit Lorna Landvik's website.

My Book, The Movie: Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).

The Page 69 Test: Chronicles of a Radical Hag (with Recipes).

The Page 69 Test: Last Circle of Love.

--Marshal Zeringue