Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I just finished reading Maggie O'Farrell's The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox last night, an absorbing novel that Ron Charles, in his insightful Washington Post review, compares to Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Not bad company.

Here's an excerpt. O'Farrell's novel--her fourth-- is in flap-copy speak, a "gothic, intricate tale of family secrets and lost lives." At its heart, the novel is an indictment of how society (in this case British) used psychiatry to control women--eccentric, nonconforming, intelligent women. (One of the author's listed sources: The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter.)

The structure of the novel intrigued me. There are no chapters! The tale shifts between three characters--third POV: Iris, the contemporary woman, her great-aunt Esme, and Kitty, her grandmother, who suffers from dementia. Kitty's recollections are fractured, beginning and ending mid-sentence-- but this sort of stream of consciousness works as her memories come and go. Esme's sections grapple with the present (as she leaves the institution where she has lived most of her life and enters the jangling modern world. She marvels at seeing an airplane.) Esme is also haunted by the past, as she wrestles with the wrenching, painful memories of being committed at sixteen. Again, I agree with Ron Charles:
The structure of the novel is a challenge, more like a dare, the kind of purposefully scrambled puzzle that makes you wonder if it's all just too much work to figure out who's talking and when this happened and what that means. But forge on: O'Farrell isn't merely showing off; she's forcing us to participate in a family's ghastly conspiracy of forgetting.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Online "Titlepage" to Launch in March

An excellent idea for the digital age and an intriguing way to reach readers: this "round-table discussion" show will feature interviews with authors...and will be streamed online. From the NYT:

New Literary Program to Make Its Home Online
Daniel Menaker, who left his post as executive editor in chief of the Random House Publishing Group in June, is moving online in March to be the host of a new Web-based book show.
The show, to be called “Titlepage,” will feature a round-table discussion between Mr. Menaker, 66, a former fiction editor at The New Yorker, and a group of four authors. The first episode will be streamed online at on March 3. The idea is to take advantage of the fact that it’s much easier to post video online than to get a show on television.

“Titlepage” will combine elements of “Apostrophes,” a popular French literary program; “The Charlie Rose Show” on public television; and “Dinner for Five,” in which a group of actors discussed their craft, on the Independent Film Channel.

The show is the brainchild of Odile Isralson and Lina Matta, documentary filmmakers. “It’s not really a brilliant idea in the sense that I grew up with it,” Ms. Isralson, 46, said. “I’m originally from Belgium and I grew up watching ‘Apostrophes.’ I moved to New York in 1983 and always wondered why it didn’t exist.”

Ms. Isralson and Ms. Matta, who is now head of programming for an English-language television channel in Dubai, approached Mr. Menaker last summer with the offer to be the host and to act as editorial producer.

Mr. Menaker said the idea appealed to him immediately because he had always been frustrated that he didn’t have enough opportunities, either as a publisher or an author, to speak directly to readers.

“We’re hoping to let people listen in on the kind of conversation they might like to have themselves if there were a group of three or four people in a room,” said Mr. Menaker, who is married to Katherine Bouton, deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine, and has written a book of humor with Charles McGrath, a writer at large at The Times.

The first episode will feature Richard Price, who wrote “Clockers” and the coming “Lush Life”; Susan Choi, author of “A Person of Interest”; and Charles Bock, whose debut novel, “Beautiful Children,” went on sale last week.

The second, which is to be posted online two weeks after the premiere episode, is to feature all first-time authors: Sloane Crosley and Julie Klam, memoirists, and Ceridwen Dovey and Keith Gessen, novelists.

Ms. Isralson said that initially the program would be financed by private backers, but that it was seeking corporate sponsorship, though probably not, Mr. Menaker said, from publishers, so that the content could be kept independent.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Patry Francis

From the "I'm glad there are people in the world like this" file:

Today more than 300 bloggers are featuring Patry Francis.

Her debut novel THE LIAR'S DIARY is out, but she's also, as M.J. Rose says:
"putting all her energy into a brave and successful fight against cancer right now. Sure books matter, but other things matter more. Which is why we're all buzzing for Patry who is putting all her energy into a brave and successful fight against cancer right now. Life sucks. Buy the book. Now. Please."

Read Patry's blog about her fight here.
Read a Backstory about the book here.

Watch the video here:

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of of Oscar Wao

Just finished Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of of Oscar Wao. (I'm a fan of Diaz's short stories from his collection Drown. Each story packed an emotional punch in the gut.) At first, I was put off by the footnotes in the novel, since it seems a gimicky technique--show-offy, too clever--at least in other works I've read. But the footnotes--from the narrator-- work here. They fill in the history of the Dominican Republic in a witty way, and it's part of the narrator's style to impart the background that way. (The first footnote: "For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history...") No kidding. It's shameful how little I--like most Americans-- know about the DR.
This tale is masterfully structured, too, with multiple perspectives from the past and present, DR and New Jersey. The Brief Wondrous Life of of Oscar Wao passes the "still thinking about it long after I finished reading it" test. Good reading.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Now THIS is a book signing

The author spoke to a packed auditorium at the library. The local independent bookstore, The Open Book, was on hand selling his books--selling a LOT of them. After a glowing introduction from the director of the library--who had clearly read and loved the book-- the author spoke about the backstory of his novel, the setting, the inspiration, and how several of his characters were based on family members. When he read from the novel for half an hour, audience members--old and young-- were attentive, tittering and nodding, some of them following along in the books in their laps, their fingers moving along sentences. When the author took questions-- dozens of hands went up-- discussion ensued for another half an hour. A book signing followed. The line of people snaked across the auditorium, waiting to talk with the author.
Stephen King? Pat Conroy? James Patterson? Dan Brown?

Nah. Tommy Hays.

Tommy is now a famous author around these parts. His novel, THE PLEASURE WAS MINE, was chosen as the first book for our community's "Amazing Read" program. You've probably heard of the "One City One Book" movement--from Chicago to Salt Lake City to Seattle.

If last night's kick-off reading was any indication, the Amazing Read is already a success. Certainly, organizers have done an awesome job of promoting this community-wide program.
There are a dozen or so events lined up for the next several months, including:
  • a staged reading of THE PLEASURE WAS MINE at a community theatre
  • a public reading in spanish
  • a contra dance
  • radio interviews
  • extensive newspaper coverage
  • a county council proclamation
  • Alzheimer panel discussions (The nonfiction handle of the book is Alzheimer's; the protagonist struggles to care for his wife who has the disease)
  • And-- cool, cool, cool-- through sponsorship funds, the library PURCHASED and GAVE AWAY more than 400 copies of the book.
A writer's dream.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I'm Glad There Are People in the World Like This...

As Aretha Franklin says, Rescue Me
Hidden in the "Pet" section of my local paper comes this article: ("Unwanted pets get taken for a ride to keep them alive.Volunteers run a interstate 'railway' to save animals facing death here")... about an incredibly passionate group of folks who have started The Global Rescue Welfare League, or GROWL. They have formed an "underground railroad" to transport animals from overcrowded "high-kill shelters" where they face euthanasia, to shelters where animals are adopted. One of the things they do is organize a network of volunteer drivers who transport animals [in short one-hour trips] from overcrowded shelters to families who want to adopt pets. See more pictures of the rescued ones...
Learn more, donate, volunteer:

The Global Rescue Welfare League is an all volunteer org
anization which was started to help raise awareness in regards to all the homeless animals all over the world. It is our mission to help save as many innocent animals as possible while raising awareness about altering (spay and neuter) and responsible animal ownership. GROWL is directly involved in pulling animals from high kill animal shelters, coordinating volunteer transports to safety in rescues, raising funds for animals in need, educating the public on the importance of spay/neuter and assisting individuals in finding their ideal furry family member.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Batleby the Scrivener...NOT

After reading about it in the NYT magazine, I tried Scrivener, "a word processor and project management tool created specifically for writers of long texts such as novels and research papers." You can download a free 30-day trial on this website. I did. I gave it a whirl, but no chemistry there. I did appreciate the bells and whistles-- letting you keep and organize clippings, links, video clips, notes (on "notecards" on a "corkboard,") but in the end it seemed I was doing more process than content. I know there's a learning curve, but...I actually like using real notecards...doodling, coloring, flipping them around, posting them on my real door. I use color coded highlighting in my regular ol' Word in my drafts [ green means good stuff buy maybe not in this paragraph; yellow means this needs scrutiny; blue means delete this tomorrow with a fresh eye, etc.] Not that I'm a luddite...I love technology and the digital age... but I also like working with my hands and the actual physical act of occasionally writing by hand or scrawling on a flipchart or arranging notecards, stimulates my creativity. So when it comes to Scrivener, in the words of Melville's Bartleby: "I would prefer not to, sir."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Snow Show

Snow is rare enough around these parts to be a treat...cancelling school and meetings and delaying work. I fill the bird feeders. My backyard is transformed overnight, elegant in white...a mantle of snow on the roof, the trees draped in formal finery, the ice glistening like jewels.

Dust Of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Robert Frost

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tips and Clips File

As a former newspaper reporter-- I wrote obits and features, covered council meetings and politicians--I know newsrooms are cynical, noisy (and, until recently, smoky) places. But you can't help but notice the fourth estate is looking a little shabby with all its biased coverage. More and more hard news or "investigative" pieces make no bones about including opinion or subjective interpretation. Example: "A meager crowd of bored people who appear ready to bolt" at a political rally with no mention of HOW MANY people [estimated by a police officer, for example]? And who said they looked bored? And all of them were ready to bolt?
One of the best things about The Wire this season is the focus on the Baltimore Sun, and the sad fact that coverage of complex issues--like drug addiction-- deserves nuanced reporting. From MediaBistro:

Which is Better at Covering Drug Addiction, The Wire or The Baltimore Sun? (STATS)
Maia Szalavitz: As The Wire brings a fictional version of the Baltimore Sun to life, the real paper recently "exposed" abuse of the new addiction medication, buprenorphine. But as it turns out, HBO's dramatic series does a far better job of examining the complexities of addiction than what appeared to have the factual power of a real journalistic investigation. WaPo: Baltimore Sun's Wire portrayal fuels a hot debate.

And from the NO S%$!T, SHERLOCK file:
Hillary-ious: Press Bias Against Female Candidates (Inside Higher Ed)
"On the average," writes author Erika Falk, male candidates each "had twice the number of articles written about them as did the women, and these articles were on average 7 percent longer... In addition, the coverage that men received was more substantive (regarding issues) and its content was less tangential (e.g., about physical appearance or family) than was the coverage of women."

Monday, January 14, 2008

Author to Author: Quinn Dalton

The Writing Room, a local program I direct for writers, presented a seminar yesterday: “Pitching and Placing Your Writing,” with Quinn Dalton. The pitch: "Appropriate for writers of all levels, this three-hour seminar covers the steps necessary for writers who are ready to send out their fiction and nonfiction for publication." It was a great crowd, attentive, with lots of questions. (And they bought every copy of Quinn's book, Stores from the Afterlife, that we had on hand.) Quinn, who drove down from Greensboro, NC, was a real champ. She is, as I explained to the crowd when I introduced her, one of the hardest working writers I know.

Quinn's books include a novel, “High Strung” (Simon & Schuster), and two short story collections, “Bulletproof Girl” (Simon & Schuster) and “Stories from the Afterlife” (Press 53). “New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2006,” includes one of her stories.

Here's an article I wrote about Quinn for the Greenville Journal:

Quinn Dalton is downright sly when it comes to writing: “I’m like a teenager looking to sneak out when it comes to writing. I do it when I get the chance. I’m looking for the opportunity all the time and if it turns out to be 15 min, I’ll take it. That said, some days I don’t get a window at all. It’s OK—you get to do a lot of writing in your head, too, thank goodness.”

At 36, Dalton has written a novel and short story collection, both of which were published by Simon & Schuster. A third collection of short stories, "Stories from the Afterlife," was published in November by Press 53. Dozens of her short stories have appeared in literary magazines. Her essays and articles have appeared in publications such as Poets & Writers, The Writer magazine, and Media Bistro. She is equally savvy when it comes to new media; her name regularly appears on literature blogs across North America.

How does she do it? Dalton, who lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband and two young daughters, keeps several projects—nonfiction and fiction—going at once. “If I get stuck on one thing I can turn to something else,” she said. “The nonfiction I write is usually centered around business articles or writing craft—I find nonfiction isn’t that difficult because you have a point to make. With fiction, long or short, you don’t necessarily know what the thing will become. So in that way it’s harder because you have to have faith. With a novel, I think it’s more of a day-to-day relationship. You have to show up every day. But the work doesn’t disappear if you decide you need to take a break.”

Dalton will be in Greenville to lead a seminar, “Pitching and Placing Your Writing,” for the Writing Room on January 13, where she plans to share strategies about sending work out. For example, she keeps a list of publications to target her submissions. “I send to magazines that have a shorter response, less than three to four months. I avoid magazines that object to simultaneous submissions. From there, the page length of my submission and the times when magazines are accepting submissions narrows down the list further. I tend to send a story at least four to five places at one time.”

There’s a crucial point to keep in mind when submitting articles and essays, as opposed to fiction, she said. “When you pitch nonfiction, you’re pitching an idea. You have to identify the outlet--magazine or broadcast, for example--and the journalist/editor who will be most responsive, and angle the pitch to their needs. It’s not easier, but I think it’s more straightforward than placing fiction.”

Dalton also reminds writers their work doesn’t stop upon publication. When her collection, “Stories from the Afterlife,“ was published by Press 53, she discovered the small, literary publisher in North Carolina was “more hands on, face-to-face, and in general, more fun,” than working with a large publisher. “Don’t think I wasn’t thrilled to debut with a big house (Simon & Schuster), because if that hadn’t happened, no small press would have been seeking me out. But I have enjoyed feeling more like an equal with my publisher, and figuring out what we wanted to do together rather than having it dictated to me.”

“New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2006” includes a story from Dalton’s “Stories From the Afterlife.” Such an honor is thrilling, Dalton said, “Especially because the editor who selected my story, Allan Gurganus, is a writer I especially admire.”

Monday, January 7, 2008

Watching, reading

My household has been chosen as a "Nielsen" household. They're sending along booklets for us to faithfully! We promise! fill out so we can help determine what rocks on the tube. We'll probably skew their data. But how cool to be able to report our favorite show is:

Which is back as of last night, thank God. It's the best thing on TV--"Dickensian" seems to be the term thrown around a lot, but I think it's apt.

30 Rock is probably heading into reruns b/c of the strike, but you can get the first season on Netflix. It's a hoot!

And shocking-- I shocked myself here-- by warming up to a show that features high school football (yeah, I know, ick to that) but Friday Night Lights is surprisingly good and pretty addictive. Netflix it.

I'm reading the Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King. Haven't finished it yet, but I can definitly see the influence of "the King" in these selections.
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