Thursday, November 17, 2022

Soraya M. Lane

As a child, Soraya M. Lane dreamed of becoming an author, recreating the types of stories she devoured day and night. Fast forward more than a few years, and Lane is now living her dream. Working as a full-time author, she writes every day around her other job of being a mom to two little boys. She describes being an author as “the best career in the world,” and she hopes to be writing for many years to come.

Lane loves spending her days thinking up characters for her novels, and her home is a constant source of inspiration. She lives with her husband and two sons on a small farm in New Zealand, surrounded by animals and with an office overlooking a field where their horses graze.

Lane's new novel is The London Girls.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Or more accurately, I’ve just finished reading it!

I honestly don’t know where to start with this book. It’s so uniquely different to anything I’ve ever read before, and I was about 10 pages in when I realised that it was going to be a very special read. I loved the way the story unfolded and how cleverly it was told, weaving the past with the present, and Evelyn was such an incredible, bold and different character. The old Hollywood glamor really appealed to me, as did the glimpse into a world I knew nothing about. Absolutely the best book I’ve read this year, and although I never usually re-read books, I could definitely re-read this one, it was so good.
Visit Soraya Lane's website.

Q&A with Soraya M. Lane.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, November 16, 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 Europeans by Henry James:
No one remembers John Jay Chapman; scarcely anyone still remembered him in 1938 when Edmund Wilson, the twentieth century’s most important literary critic, reviewed a volume of Chapman’s letters published in 1907. Only Henry James, according to Wilson, “had anything like the same sureness of judgment, the same freedom from current prejudices and sentimentalities” as Chapman, who wrote of the “debasement of our politics and government by unscrupulous business interests,” which is “the whole history of America since the Civil War.”

Everything had changed, and nowhere with more tragic results than among those who were educated in the American university.

“In the seventies, the universities were still turning out admirable professional men, who had had the old classical education, a culture much wider than their professions, and the tradition of political idealism and public conscience which had presided at the founding of the Republic.” Ten years later, “the industrial and commercial development which followed the Civil War had reached a point where the old education was no longer an equipment for life.” Those who “had taken it seriously, were launched on careers of tragic misunderstanding. The rate of failure and insanity and suicide in some of the college ‘classes’ of the eighties shows an appalling demoralization.”

It was the world of business, Big Business, a world in which “seriousness about man and his problems was abrogated by Business entirely in favor of the seriousness of Business about things that were not serious.” A man who had been educated for the old America could either “become the slave of Business at one extreme or drink himself to death at the other, but in any case absorb, perhaps unconsciously, enough of the commercial ideal to neutralize any other with which he might have started out. For one of the most depressing features of the American world of this period was that it hardly knew what was the matter with it.”

Something fundamental had changed. Henry Adams, the great-grandson of one president and the grandson of another, thought to find the cause.

“The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900,” he wrote in 1909, “but, measured by any standard known to science - by horse-power, calories, volts mass in any shape - the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were full a thousand times greater in 1900 than 1800; - the force had doubled ten times over, and the speed, when measured by electrical standards as in telegraphy, approached infinity, and had annihilated both space and time.”

None of this could have happened, this astonishing acceleration in the rate of movement, had there not been an acceptance, a belief, that wealth and its pursuit were more important than anything else. The predatory values of business could become the motive power, the driving force, in the new American Empire only if materialism was no longer thought a sin. That meant, if the question were seriously pursued, that what had happened to America, what had become by the end of the nineteenth century clear evidence of a world unhinged, had been there from the beginning, that America had been unbalanced from the start.

Henry James wrote about the tension between the idealism and the greed of Americans when it first appeared, when the speed of things first began to change the standards and the conditions of American life. The Europeans, published in l878 when James was thirty-five, is set thirty years earlier, in 1848, a dozen years before the Civil War, more than a generation before industrialization had changed America out of all recognition. The Europeans are a sister and a brother, Baroness Munster - Eugenia - who is in her thirties and Felix, in his late twenties. Their parents were, directly or indirectly, American, but they have never been to America, and have come now for only one reason: to marry money. Eugenia - the Baroness - is already married to a member of a European royal family, but her husband, perhaps for reasons of state, is divorcing her. They have come to meet their uncle and their cousins who live in “an ancient house - ancient in the sense of being eighty years old.” George Washington had once spent a week there, and everyone, every American that is, thinks the house a “venerable mansion.” Felix, who has lived in every ancient city of Europe, tells his sister that “it looks as if it had been built last night.”

There is, from the beginning as it were, a difference between the way Felix and Eugenia see things. With the vague ambiguity that allows Henry James to search for a deeper understanding of things, he describes Felix as “not at all a serious young man but there was somehow more of him - he had more weight and volume and resonance - than a number of young men who were distinctly serious.” His nature “was not a restless, ambitious spirit, running a race with fate, but a temper so unsuspicious as to put Adversity off her guard, dodging and evading her with the easy, natural motion of a wind-shifted flower. Felix extracted entertainment from all things….”

Henry James mastered the language with the same skill, and with a similar effect, as a French Impressionist, working in the same period of time, applied his brush strokes to a canvas. That Felix makes his living painting portraits makes us wonder how far James himself might have drawn the parallel. The method, and the result, is the same when he paints the picture of Felix’s older sister, Eugenia, “who, when she desired to please,” was “the most charming woman in the world.” Nothing “that the Baroness said was wholly untrue. It is but fair to add, perhaps, that nothing she said was wholly true.” Unlike her brother, “she was a restless soul…”

Another author might have stopped here, but James adds: “She was always expecting something to happen, and, until it was disappointed, expectancy itself was a delicate pleasure.” Instead of a woman distracted and ridden with anxiety, always wishing she were somewhere else doing something else, Eugenia is as much, or perhaps even more, interested in the thought, the dream, of what might actually result. Whatever else Eugenia may be, she is not superficial.

Felix describes his American cousins with an insight James has led us to expect. “They are sober; they are even severe. They are of a pensive cast; they take things hard. I think there is something the matter with them; they have some melancholy memory or some depressing expectation.” His uncle, “Mr. Wentworth, is a tremendously high-toned fellow; he looks as if he were undergoing martyrdom, not by fire, but by freezing.” Despite all this, his uncle and his cousins “are wonderfully kind and gentle.”

Eugenia is not nearly so generous. She thinks America a “dreadful” place and tells one of her distant American relations, “You Americans have such odd ways! You never ask anything outright; there seems to be so many things you can’t talk about.” When Robert Acton, who has taken a particular interest in her, an interest she does nothing to discourage, introduces her to his mother, she tells her that her son often talks of her, “as such a son must talk of such a mother.” Robert Acton had barely mentioned his mother, and Eugenia understands that she has been “observed to be fibbing. She had struck a false note. But who were these people to whom such fibbing was not pleasing?”

Eugenia is interested in Robert Acton because he is rich. Felix is drawn to Gertrude because she is the youngest, prettiest, and most outspoken of Mr. Wentworth’s two daughters. Every novel, every novel worth reading, is driven by some action. The highest, and best, action is conversation. The conversations between Felix and Gertrude explore the tension between how Americans in the latter part of the first half of the nineteenth century thought they should live, and what, some of them at least, really wanted.

While Felix is painting Gertrude’s portrait, she remarks about her family, “There must be a thousand different ways of being dreary, and sometimes I think we make use of them all.” Felix is sure that no one in her family “has anything to repent of.” She replies, “And yet we are always repenting. That is what I meant by our being dreary.” Felix tells her that “the tendency - among you generally - is to be made unhappy too easily.” And then adds that it “is not what one does or doesn’t do,” it is instead “the general way of looking at life.” Gertrude does not disagree. “No one is happy here.”

The proof of American unhappiness - an unhappiness, as Felix observed, that has nothing to do with what anyone does or does not do - is embodied in a young clergyman, Mr. Brand, who wants Gertrude to marry him and fully expects that, being the virtuous young woman he knows her to be, she must want to marry him.
“I care for the things you care for,” he explains, as if there could not be any doubt about it. “ - the great questions of life.”

“I don’t care for the things you care for. They are much beyond me.”

“There was a time you didn’t say that.”

“I think you made me talk a great deal of nonsense,” she tells him, and then adds, with an intelligence that he is not capable of understanding, “And it depends upon what you call the great questions of life. There are some things I care for.”
Before Mr. Brand can even begin to wonder what that might mean, she makes a confession that goes to the heart of the dilemma faced by men and women taught that passion meant sin and sin meant perdition.
“I have been pretending all my life.” As for the great questions of life, she simply does not care. “I care for pleasure - for amusement. Perhaps I am fond of wicked things; it is possible.”

Mr. Brand is stunned. He “remained staring; he was even a little pale, as if he had been frightened.”

“I don’t think you know what you are saying!”
Everyone in Gertrude’s family, especially her older sister, Charlotte, are constantly reminding her how much she owes Mr. Brand. If Charlotte is always taking his side, it is because she is, herself, in love with him; a feeling she has, of course, never revealed to anyone, and no one has ever suspected. With the instincts of a European, Felix immediately penetrates her secret and with masterful misdirection uses it to rid himself, not so much of a rival, as an obstacle. He tells Brand that Charlotte is in love with him. The ardent clergyman, certain of his rectitude, and that others must love him because of it, has been completely oblivious of “poor Charlotte’s hidden flame.” He is “offended, excited, bewildered, perplexed - and enchanted.” He forgets Gertrude and thinks only of Charlotte. Gertrude is relieved; Charlotte is ecstatic.

Everything is settled. Felix tells his sister that he has “secured Gertrude’s affections, but I am by no means sure I have secured her fortune. That may come - or it may not.”

The really wonderful thing about Felix and Gertrude is that neither of them really care. They are in love. “I will go away,” she tells him. “I will do anything you please.” What they are pleased to do, is to leave America and go to Europe, and live wherever, and however, they may from time to time decide. The money means nothing; Felix can always paint.

Eugenia has also secured someone’s affections, the very wealthy Robert Acton. She tells her brother that “Robert Acton wants to marry me,” and that he “is immensely in love with me.” Felix, who knows his sister, cannot resist: “And he has a large fortune.” Confessing that she is “terribly candid,” Eugenia acknowledges that “his fortune is a great item in his favor.” Felix senses there is still a problem. “Well,” she admits, “I don’t particularly like him.” That, by itself, is not an insurmountable difficulty. She could like him better if they lived somewhere else. “I could never live here.”

Like her brother, Eugenia goes back to Europe; unlike her brother, she goes alone. She had decided, Henry James tells us, “ that the conditions of action on this provincial continent were not favorable to really superior women.” In her own words, words Henry James imagined she would say, “Europe seems to me much larger than America.”

The Europeans, Felix and Eugenia came to America because America held the promise of great wealth and the wealthy indolence they wanted to enjoy. The Americans were wealthy, but did not think it quite right to enjoy it. Robert Acton was fascinated by Eugenia, though he knew she was not honest, and that her main, and perhaps, only interest was his money. The sanctimonious clergyman, Mr. Brand, believes himself entitled to more than the respect, the adoration, of first one daughter, then the other, of a family whose wealth makes marriage more than ever attractive. The scent of money is everywhere, a massive, but still unspoken, fact. The movement that will bring it all to the surface has only just begun; the movement that, years later, will have Henry James write novels about America, not at the end of the first, but the end of the second half of the nineteenth century, novels in which, Edmund Wilson tells us, “there starts into color and relief the America of the millionaires, at its crudest, corruptest and phoniest: the immense amorphous mansions, … the old men of the Rockefeller-Frick generation, landed, with no tastes and no interests, amidst a limitless magnificence which dwarfs them; the silly or clumsy young people of the second generation with their dubious relationships, their enormous and meaningless parties, their touching longings and resolute strivings for an elegance and cultivation which they have no one to guide the in acquiring.”

Leave out the longing for elegance and cultivation and we have as good a description of America at the beginning of the twenty-first century as we are likely to get.
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.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 7, 2022

Debra Bokur

Debra Bokur is the author of The Dark Paradise Mysteries series from Kensington. She’s traveled the world as a writer, journalist and staff editor for various national media outlets, with more than 2,000 print pieces carrying her byline to date. Her work has garnered multiple awards, including a 2015 Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism. For more than a decade, she served as the poetry editor at a national literary journal, and her poetry and short fiction have been widely published. Among her favorite writing credits are a series of original literary essays commissioned by the Celestial Seasonings tea company that appeared on the artfully illustrated boxes of ten separate tea flavors. She continues to travel in her capacity as the Global Researcher and Writer for the Association for Safe International Road Travel, and as a monthly columnist for Global Traveler magazine.

Bokur latest novel is The Lava Witch, the third Dark Paradise mystery.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

This slender volume of wisdom on writing and creative pursuits by author Steven Pressfield is never far out of reach on the desk in my writing room. Before embarking on any major writing project, I prepare by giving The War of Art a fresh read. In a series of short chapters — many no more than a paragraph long — Pressfield confronts the topic of creative block/procrastination as a malevolent force he names “Resistance.” Depending upon your own mental fortitude when faced by a blank piece of paper, flickering computer screen, or any project, it’s an unapologetic kick in the backside combined with hardcore practical advice and a lovely dose of inspiring observations that Yoda would likely approve of.

Tales from the Perilous Realm by J. R. R. Tolkien

Whenever I feel sad, unwell, exhausted, or lonely, a plunge into the work of J. R. R. Tolkien is my remedy of choice. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve set out on the journeys contained within the pages of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or have deliberately become entangled and lost within the literary labyrinths of Children of Huron and The Silmarillion.

A few years ago, I made my way through the crowded exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City to view the collection of original Hobbit-related works on display, which featured many of Tolkien’s own sketches and drawings. I followed up this visit with a fresh read of the works, and found the journey more enriching for the experience.

I’d also been looking forward to re-entering the author’s assorted worlds via Tales from the Perilous Realm, a new compilation of short stories and poetry, but had been waiting for the right time. The moment arrived a few weeks ago, and I’m currently deep into my voyage. The collection, which includes an insightful Forward by scholar Tom Shippey, launches with this quote from Tolkien: “Faerie is a perilous land…” For lovers of Tolkien’s dense and complicated worlds, that’s an invitation that can’t easily be ignored. While I already have several of the included stories in separate volumes (including Farmer Giles of Ham), I love the idea of them being gathered under one roof. And the roof is gorgeous, with a jacket and story illustrations featuring the fantasy drawings of celebrated artist Alan Lee. For the full experience, be sure to read Lee’s Afterward, and the transcript of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” in the Appendix.

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Recently, I went on a Nordic noir binge that included Icelandic novelist Ragnar J√≥nasson’s thriller series featuring Detective Ari Thor, followed by the nail-biting Prime streaming series Trapped (also set in Iceland), and both seasons of the Swedish television series The Truth Will Out, which I could only watch with the lights on. After all of this, including the final episode of brilliant writing and spellbinding performances showcased in The Truth Will Out, I needed a serious mood shift and mental reset. According to local sources (or as they like to be called, my family and friends), I was wearing too much black, muttering to myself while making tea, and had limited my shopping to smoked salmon and cucumbers.

I was forced to admit these observations were spot-on, and immediately turned to my extensive P. G. Wodehouse library. I reached for The Code of the Woosters knowing it would immerse me in witty language, birdsong, and the predictably outrageous antics of one of modern literature’s best comic duos—Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves. At the center of The Code of the Woosters is a plot to acquire an antique cow creamer that’s overly complicated by demanding aunts, newt-obsessed friends, an egocentric chef, and the strident leader of a British organization that harbors some disturbing political goals.

My goal was to laugh away all images of fictional horrors taking place at Nordic latitudes and longitudes, and I’m pleased to report complete success. My Wodehouse obsession, incidentally, has paid off: Years ago, I was gifted with a Staffordshire cow creamer of my own, in commemoration of what someone very dear to me accurately termed a “frightening fixation on British literature.” It’s possible, I suppose, that I need to become less consumed by my reading choices.
Visit Debra Bokur's website.

Q&A with Debra Bokur.

My Book, The Movie: The Lava Witch.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 4, 2022

Lev AC Rosen

Lev Rosen writes books for people of all ages, most recently Lavender House, which the New York Times says “movingly explores the strain of trying to pass as straight at a time when living an authentic life could be deadly.” His prior novel, Camp, was a best book of the year from Forbes, Elle, and The Today Show, amongst others. He lives in NYC with his husband and a very small cat.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Rosen's reply:

I've been reading Joseph Hansen's David Brandstetter series, which was just re-issued. They begin with Fadeout, and follow an insurance investigator in California in the 70s (technically I think the first one was published in 69?). The series lasted a while, but is generally forgotten, possibly because Brandstetter, the detective character, is gay. Not much is made of it, though obviously the homophobia of the time is sometimes part of the story. He often encounters other queer folks on his cases, too. But the excitement of reading a queer mystery written over fifty years ago aside, the books are also just gorgeous. Beautifully written. There's still one sentence from I think the second book in the series, which I finished months ago, that I still remember, if not perfectly. Something like "Silence filled the room, but a typewriter was snipping holes in it." Just stunning stuff like that. And on top of that really well crafted mysteries, noir, but not the bloody, beat-em-up noir that you think of from that time - more like earlier noir: Chandler, Hammett. Brandstetter is smart and nosy and incredibly honest, just not always with himself. At the opening of the first book, his longtime boyfriend has just died, so watching him sort of unfold from that alongside his cases is just a beautiful character study in finding joy amid darkness. Really just stunning books, can't recommend them enough.
Visit Lev AC Rosen's website.

The Page 69 Test: Camp.

--Marshal Zeringue