Bravo à mon nouvel ami, le blogueur Club Jimmy
Bravo à mon nouvel ami, le blogueur Club Jimmy
I first read this book in New York in 2011, and several times after that. Carol Anshaw is one heck of a writer, with a weighty resume of books behind her. Seven Moves is the go to write a novel about the vagaries of deceit, self-doubt and … well, the title Seven Moves, tracks the protagonist Christine’s slow recognition that no one can ever really know another’s soul. I love it. If you’re looking for a two-way mystery, outward into the mysteries of those around us and inward into the mysteries of our own souls … this is your pup.
Of all the novels I’ve read in the last year (and I honestly couldn’t count them all) one that stands out with fierce determination is Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club. Set in the no-man’s-land between Juarez, Mexcio, and El Paso, United States — where a distinct cross-border culture has developed — It’s written in a most difficult form, a pastiche of short stories and long vignettes that stitched together form a novel.
Few writers can successfully carry the form off (but do try … I encourage you). However, one writer who can is Benjamin Alire Sáenz.Scholars find Saenz to be one of the best American writer. He was voted one of the fifty most inspiring writers in the world. Presently, he’s Chair of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s stories reveal how all borders—real, imagined, sexual, human, the line between dark and light, addict and straight—entangle those who live on either side.
Take, for instance, the Kentucky Club on Avenida Juárez two blocks south of the Rio Grande border with the United States. It’s a touchstone for each of Sáenz’s stories. His characters walk by, they might go in for a drink or to score, or they might just stay there for a while and let their story be told. Sáenz knows that the Kentucky Club, like special watering holes in all cities, is the contrary to borders. It welcomes Spanish and English, Mexicans and gringos, poor and rich, gay and straight, drug addicts and drunks, laughter and sadness, and even despair. It’s a place of rich history and good drinks and cold beer and a long polished mahogany bar. Some days it smells like piss. "I’m going home to the other side." That’s a strange statement, but you hear it all the time at the Kentucky Club. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is a highly regarded writer of fiction, poetry, and children’s literature. Like these stories, his writing crosses borders and lands in our collective psyche. Poets & Writers Magazine named him one of the fifty most inspiring writers in the world.
He’s been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and PEN Center’s prestigious award for young adult fiction. Sáenz is the chair of the creative writing department of University of Texas at El Paso. His Awards include the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Lambda Literary Award and the Southwest Book Award
Although I use the word stereotype purposefully, I don’t mean to imply anything other than … well, what the word means. Equally, I love the French (as they and you know), and all cultures have their … hmm … let’s go with quirks. So … let’s have a look. For the most part they are contemporary, as in drawn or filmed in the last couple of years:
Unfortunately, the last bit was translated into English for the British market … but you get the idea, I hope.
I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves, but worse.
Although Meg Wolitzer is known more for her blockbuster novels, my absolutely favorite is her shorter, tighter, vastly more gut-wrenching novel, Surrender, Dorothy. As Elle said, the novel is, "Devastatingly on target." So, if what you want to write is a novel that looks into a mother’s grief at the death of her daughter as well as the grief of her gay friends, and then try to bring the two groups together … this is your model. Of course, it goes without saying that your novel doesn’t have to have that particular configuration. However, this one is a total winner. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, "A deeply moving exploration of what it is to be a mother and a friend, and, above all, what it takes to heal from unthinkable loss."
For years, Sara Swerdlow was transported by an unfettered sense of immortality. Floating along on loving friendships and the adoration of her mother, Natalie, Sara’s notion of death was entirely alien to her existence. But when a summer night’s drive out for ice cream ends in tragedy, thirty-year-old Sara — "held aloft and shimmering for years" — finally lands. Mining the intricate relationship between love and mourning, acclaimed novelist Meg Wolitzer explores a single, overriding question: who, finally, "owns" the excruciating loss of this young woman — her mother or her closest [gay] friends? Depicting the aftermath of Sara’s shocking death with piercing humor and shattering realism, Surrender, Dorothy is the luminously thoughtful, deeply moving exploration of what it is to be a mother and a friend, and, above all, what it takes to heal from unthinkable loss.
This book will make you cry, feel angry, feel sad … in fact, as all good novels should do, it will make you feel … and feel for a long time. I’ve read the novel four times now, every summer since 2010. It’s utterly brilliant, from the ever-so-important first sentence, "Immortality was the vehicle that transported me, every summer, to the squalid little house we call our own," to the equality important last sentence, "She would go someplace her daughter had never been."
Two of my favorite songs … listen, enjoy … and let me know what you think? "Selfie" is my favorite, favorite … but I adore them both. "Rimbaud Eyes" would be better if they pronounced his name correctly, though apparently (according to one New York Music critic) they wanted it to rhyme with bimbo. Hmm. Okay.
If you’re writing a novel about the ravages of war, with a focus on one individual and his (or her) family, you can find no better example than Canadian W. D. Wetherell’s A century of November. This novel, which I read in Washington, D.C. in 2010, is one of the most moving novels I’ve read. It made me feel an emptiness, a pain, a sense not so much of loss as of devastation with only a glimmer of hope in new life. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune critic said, it is a novel about "the wrenching grief and unanswerable questions it leaves in its wake." The San Francisco Chronicle called it, "Murderously beautiful … with a time-bending gravity. It truly is an amazing book, from the first line, "He judged men and he grew apples and it was a perilous autumn for both," to the last line, "And as for which direction west lay, that was my lodestone, the sunset, the tug of it, the one thing in life I could always find by heart," It keeps you spell-bound in horror.
Publisher’s Weekly described it thusly: "Wetherell (Morning; Chekhov’s Sister) traces the arc of a father’s loss in this poignant, probing story about a Canadian judge who journeys from Vancouver to the European battlefield where his son died during the waning days of WWI. Charles Marden is a widower quietly absorbed in his life as a rural magistrate, but his foreboding is also revealed immediately: "He judged men and he grew apples and it was a perilous autumn for both." When he learns that his son, William, has been killed in battle, he immediately decides to visit his grave. Marden is initially denied permission to visit Flanders by the British authorities, but the sudden end of the war changes his situation, and his journey becomes more urgent when he learns that William had impregnated a girl from Belfast, Elaine Reed, who is already in Europe at the battle site. The plot takes several odd, macabre turns once Marden reaches the village where William died, especially when he has to make a deal with a shell-shocked soldier in order to visit the exact death site and learn the particulars of William’s final hours. Wetherell’s prose and character writing are unflinching, and the final meeting between Marden and Reed is gut-wrenching. Though the novel travels a well-trodden route, Wetherell’s take on a parent’s anguish is deeply moving.
Max Winter from Booklist wrote, "This taut and mesmerizing novel, Wetherell’s fifth book, leaps from an apple orchard in Vancouver to the blasted trenches in the aftermath of World War I, where Charles Marden searches for his son. As the book opens, Marden learns that his son died in battle, and he leaves for Europe right away, although uncertain of any gratification in the journey. Marden meets many embittered people on his trip to the front lines, all cast with an expressionistic dark haze. When Marden discovers that his son made a lover pregnant, the woman becomes the goal of his search, but his purpose becomes lost in the act of looking at his surroundings, and at himself. By interspersing third-person observation with wrenching first-person rumination, Wetherell achieves the rambling reflective quality of W. G. Sebald but with even more hard-hitting angst. And Wetherell’s charred battlefields–rife with unexploded mines and poisonous gas–create one of the more arresting recent portraits of war’s devastation, a profound statement that reminds us, unforgettably, of war’s personal and universal tragedies."
One of my favorite types of novels are those that set out to … hmm … well, to capture the spirit of a city within the lives of its inhabitants. In my own novel, Shirtless in Iceland, my goal was to see Paris more or less through the eyes of the twenty-something characters who formed a group of friends. In many ways, this is the premise of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which looks at a group of young people in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. New York is indeed the Emperor, but does he still have clothes? Are things the same or not? Does life go on after such an unexpected and traumatic happening in a city used to being the envy of the world … not the pity of the world.
No surprise that the novel was the New York Times Best Book of the Year. It deserves many accolades. As the Washington Post said, "Flawlessly drawn, engrossing … arch and elegant phrased, …. like waking to an early frost: refreshing, enchanting and deadly." As the publisher said, "The Emperor’s Children is a richly drawn, brilliantly observed novel of fate and fortune—about the intersections in the lives of three friends, now on the cusp of their thirties, making their way–and not– in New York City. In this tour de force, the celebrated author Claire Messud brings to life a city, a generation, and the way we live in this moment."
I’d go … well … farther than the publisher did. I’d say that Claire Messud’s unique eye and style make her, as one critic said, a modern-day Edith Wharton. As someone familiar with New York’s children and families of privilege, I can say that Messud’s insights are absolutely spot on, flawless even. For example, after a day spent (as New Yorkers do) rambling through the Metropolitan Museum, which is everything in terms of crowd control that the Louvre is NOT, "Museum pace, the idling drag of it, had tired and frayed them both, particularly Randy, whose three-inch heels … had made the soles of her feet hurt and pinched her bunioned toes." Okay … hello … if there is not a New Yorker, female or male, who can’t identify with that … including their decision to hit the restaurant early, then … well … I’m speechless. It defines New York.
So, if writing a city-based story … read The Emperor’s Children first … you won’t regret it.
If you’re in the mood to write one of those amazing first person, knock-your-socks-off novels, then you need to read Darren Greer’s simply amazing novel, Still Life with June. I read it once in New York and then again in Paris (which seems to be a pattern), and each time I felt drawn into an extraordinary story by an extraordinary writer. Darren Greer is a story-teller, with a talent for using the first person tense skillfully, purposefully, and in the tradition of Dostoevsky. He speaks directly to you, and I have never felt comfortable with direct address, so kudos to Darren Greer. I should love to meet him, actually … the more so since he grew up in Nova Scotia and I have a "thing" for Nova Scotia.
The novel begins with the startling line, "The people in gay bars on Christmas Day are so desperate for basic human contact that they’d go home with a Doc Martens shoe if it made a move, and maybe even if it didn’t." As the publisher accurately says, "Cameron Dodds [is] a disenfranchised writer who visits gay bars on Christmas and works at a Salvation Army Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in order to steal the stories of the people he meets there. But when Cameron finds a patient hanged in the utilities closet, his infatuation with other people’s stories becomes an obsession. Assuming the man’s identity, Cameron seeks out and forges a relationship with the victim’s mentally challenged sister, who lives in a home uptown. As Cameron becomes more involved in the woman’s life, he begins to discover truths that will challenge him to the very core of his existence.
I particularly love the critique written by the author Andrew Lewis Conn, "Mordant, hilarious, and unsparing, [the novel] is reminiscent of Henry Millers Tropic of Cancer, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, or Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground." This is your go to book if you fancy writing in the present tense.
If your literary muse drives you thematically toward a novel about great family loss, struggle and ultimate recovery (of a sort), then the best model I could possibly suggest to you is Lisa Moore’s February. Set for the most part in wintry Newfoundland, the novel is simply hauntingly beautiful. I’ve read the book twice (remember, I also note where and when I read a novel, in that blank page in front), once in cold and rainy Paris in late winter and once in New York in the summer. It’s a stunner. Propelled by a local tragedy, in which an oil rig sinks in a violent storm off the coast of Newfoundland, February follows the life of Helen O’Mara, widowed by the accident, as she continuously spirals from the present day back to that devastating and transformative winter.
After overcoming the hardships of raising four children as a single parent, Helen’s strength and calculated positivity fool everyone into believing that she’s pushed through the paralyzing grief of losing her spouse. But in private, Helen has obsessively maintained a powerful connection to her deceased husband. When Helen’s son unexpectedly returns home with life-changing news, her secret world is irrevocably shaken, and Helen is quickly forced to come to terms with her inability to lay the past to rest. Honestly, this novel is the best example of families in crisis, an unforgettable glimpse into the complex love and cauterizing grief that run through all of our lives, February tenderly investigates how memory knits together the past and present, and pinpoints the very human need to always imagine a future, no matter how fragile.
Three times now I have read Keith McDermott’s disturbing and yet inspiring novel Acqua Calda. It remains one of the most vivid evocations of setting I’ve ever read, and one of the most nuanced texts you’re likely to read. As the novel begins, our protagonist Gerald is preparing to die. During the last of his three hospital stays, he has drawn up a last will and testament, a living will, assigned a health care proxy, and arranged his own cremation. He has thrown out hundreds of photos accrued over his twenty-five years as an actor, boxes of gay porn, all his journals, and acquired a hefty collection of barbiturates for when things got too "icky." Then, from out of nowhere, Gerald’s health is revived by the new miracle drugs.
His AIDS-related death is put on hold, while, at the same moment, William Weiss reenters his life. A brilliant director and his old boss, Weiss invites Gerald to perform in a play at the Palazzo d’Arte in Sicily. From the first rehearsal, Weiss nurtures the chaos in which he is most at home. Only a few close associates on the play are even aware that Gerald had been so close to dying, a secret he keeps guarded from his fellow actors. Sicily, the Italians, an unexpected romance, and his love of the theater reconnect Gerald with lost joy. Even as his health fails, he finds himself transformed by the ecstasy of everyday life. Personally, I found the end of the novel a bit difficult to handle … but it fits the theme, no doubt about it, and if you’re itching to write a tragi-comedy, well here’s your model. With a stunning and startling first sentence, "Gerald was as well prepared for death as anyone could be," to the last worrying sentence, "His sash was missing, and as he ran down the path, his robe flew behind him like a cape."
David Benioff’s City of Thieves is that rare novel, which situates itself within the Hellish conditions of war (St. Petersburg during the infamously brutal Nazi siege) and manages to find humor, moments of affection and love, and yet never sacrifices suspense. If you’re in the mood to write a coming-of-age book set during war, this book is your model. It’s superb. As the publisher’s correctly put it, "During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible.
During Lev and Kolya’s journey for the eggs, they come across an assorted cast of characters, including cannibals and a group of Russian partisans. At the brink of death, Lev and Kolya encounter a small cottage hosting three young girls, who are kept there for the German soldiers to rape at night. Lev and Kolya plot to attack the next Germans to come, and as they start their attack, they meet the Soviet Partisans. Eventually, Lev and Kolya venture into a poultry farm outside the city and allow themselves to be taken prisoner by the Germans. To gain the coveted dozen eggs, Lev must beat a sadistic German officer with the death squads in a game of chess. Kolya and Vika (a female survivor of the partisan group) kills the officer and his guards before escaping, and Lev loses half a finger in the fight. Vika leaves them to find another partisan group and they return to the city. As they approach the city on their way back, Kolya is shot by a Soviet soldier. He is taken to hospital but bleeds to death anyway, while Lev discovers that the colonel had three dozen eggs airlifted in while they were out struggling to find some.
By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men." From the first pearl of a sentence, "My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was 18," until the last sad and perfect sentence, "One thing you should know about me, Lyova. I don’t cook."
I do not hyperbolize when I say that I can’t estimate the number of times I have read and enjoyed Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz. This beautiful and short novel is the tale of a young woman’s coming of age, with hints of Lehmann’s own lesbianism, and a look at the struggles Britain faced in the aftermath of World War I. I’ve taught it to Sophomores and Seniors both, and they equally love it. I even had a group of students turn it into a play … which was nothing short of astounding, they found the music, did the costumes … everything.. The first sentence draws you in to a special world (particularly if you’re not British), "The village, in the hollow below the house, is picturesque, unhygienic: huddle shapes of soft red brick sad towards gardens massed with sunflowers, Canterbury bells, sweet-Williams," while the last sentence acknowledges your … well, membership in Olivia’s life club. She is standing in the back garden and, ‘On it came, over ploughed fields and fallow; The rooks flashed sharply, the hare and his shadow swerved in sudden sunlight. In a moment it would be everywhere; Here is was; She ran into it."
As the publisher’s blurb says, "A diary for her innermost thoughts, a china ornament, a ten-shilling note, and a roll of flame-coloured silk for her first evening dress—these are the gifts Olivia Curtis receives for her 17th birthday. She anticipates her first dance, the greatest yet most terrifying event of her restricted social life, with tremulous uncertainty and excitement. For her pretty, charming elder sister Kate, the dance is certain to be a triumph, but what will it be for shy, awkward Olivia? Exploring the daydreams and miseries attendant upon even the most innocent of social events, Rosamond Lehmann perfectly captures the emotions of a girl standing poised on the threshold of womanhood.’ Yet, for me, the real highlight of this novel … and, well, hmm … clearly the most socially challenging part was writing about the ball itself. Most of the men are war veterans. One is blind and querulous, and though Olivia thinks him handsome, he is objectionably rude … on the assumption that her interest is simply pity. The Waltz made World War I’s collateral damage so vivid to me: amputees, men with coughs from poison gas, blind men, and others with the flesh-remnants of ghastly wounds, including burns.
This book is one of the most perfect templates you will find for how best to write a novel that examines both a person and a time in history. I love it.
The far too-handsome Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 2009, tantalizes the reader with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s well-known (by his contemporaries) preference for me, as well as his attempts to sublimate his Gay identity. Foulds takes a tormented man like Tennyson, continuously in love with men he dare not approach (but not always) and at war with himself, and places him in a new house close to an insane asylum in which his brother is incarcerated as well as the famed poet John Clare. It’s an enigmatic, troubling, sensually rich novel, with a first line, concerning a villager, draws the reader in immediately, "He’d been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm," and the final sentence, "Mary," that is impeccable.
As the publisher’s materials describe it, "Foulds’s erudite, Booker-shortlisted debut follows three men–Dr. Matthew Allen, mad peasant poet John Clare, and prodigious pipe-smoking poet Alfred Tennyson–as their fates intertwine at the High Beach mental institution outside of 1837 London. Worried over the cost of the wedding for his eldest daughter, Matthew invents a machine to mass-produce filigreed wood furniture. Ignoring the asylum for his business pursuits, Matthew seeks investors, including the Tennyson family, of whom Alfred’s brother, Septimus, is a patient at High Beach. John, meanwhile, spirals into a fantasy world fueled by his obsession with a dead childhood sweetheart, Mary. Things become complicated when John deludes himself into thinking a fellow patient is his dead love. All the while, Alfred, who is at the asylum to be near his brother, is fruitlessly pursued by Matthew’s adolescent daughter, Hannah. John’s madness is richly imagined, and Matthew comes off as powerfully sympathetic as he grows ever more desperate to raise funds for his business gamble. There’s a manneredness to the storytelling that devotees of 19th-century British literature will appreciate.
Writing an historical novel of this complexity, takes bravery and time, and perhaps one would do well to follow my prescription ! ;-)
Australian writer Joan Lindsay’s profound and thought-provoking novel about jealousy, love, and possession, Picnic at Hanging Rock, is a perplexing look at our need to know the answer to … well, everything. Personally, I have loved teaching it to Seniors (17-18 year olds), because the lack of firm moral footing and the actual lack of a concluding conclusion leaves them baffled, irked, troubled, surprised, impressed and perplexed. It is one-of-a-kind writing, and yet it cleaves to the formula we’ve talked about in the page on writing.
Lindsay’s characters are marvels, in possession of their own voices, way of wearing their hair and school uniforms, and she clearly knows where she is (or is not) going. In case you don’t know, Picnic at Hanging Rock As the publisher’s blurb carefully says, "On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900 a party of school girls set out for a picnic… some were never to return. It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared. They never returned. Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the reader must decide for themselves."
I guarantee that it passes the hold your interest question with flying colors. You will not put it down until you’re finished … and sadly not finished. It can’t be finished. The first and last sentences are both marvels. "Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock — a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive," to "The spider scuttled to safety as the clumsy body went bouncing and rolling from rock to rock towards the valley below. Until at last the head in the brown hat was impaled upon a jutting crag." Of course, that’s not the complete ending, that’s just the ending of … well, put it this way, the last line of the novel is also, "Thus the College Mystery, like that of the celebrated case of the Marie Celeste, seems like to remain forever unsolved."
Read it … and learn from one of the truly great writers of the twentieth century.
Best known for his blockbuster television drama Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes also wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park and has a number of novels under his belt … well, more likely on his desk or in a bookcase. But who knows?
First of all, Past Imperfect has a perfect first and last sentence. A professor at university once told me that you can judge a book by the quality of its first and last lines. So try these elegant pups on for size: "London is a haunted city for me now and I am the ghost that haunts it," and, "With that we shook hands and I walked away down Brook Street." In between these pitch perfect sentences is a story of suspense, redemption and the facades of pretense behind which we live. It is as if Julian Fellowes followed all of my rules for how to write a novel ;-)
As the publisher’s blurb rather nicely puts it:
Nearly forty years later, the narrator hates Damian Baxter and would gladly forget their disastrous last encounter. But if it is pleasant to hear from an old friend, it is more interesting to hear from an old enemy, and so he accepts an invitation from the rich and dying Damian, who begs him to track down the past girlfriend whose anonymous letter claimed he had fathered a child during that ruinous debutante season.
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