Tag Archives: writers

Lost On The Journey

The Point Is

The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death and Everything in Between by Lee Eisenberg (Twelve, $26.00, 279 pages)

Who am I? Where am I going? Why am I here? Is that all there is? What’s the point?

Over-promising and under-delivering.

Having spent years in college studying philosophy and religion – the very things meant to explain birth, death and everything in between, I was skeptical that Lee Eisenberg could supply these answers. I think I was right. This is a sometimes interesting, sometimes rambling, journal about various insights that dropped into Eisenberg’s mind as he attempted to give meaning to life.

Eisenberg is one of the people that he references as thinking too much about things in life. As such he often seems to miss the living forest while he’s wandering around writing about the trees.

Eisenberg is first and foremost a writer and he sees life and living from a writer’s perspective: “The point is to write the best story we can.” Fine, but being a diligent writer-detailer is not the same as understanding the deeper what and why of existence.

Eisenberg may have intended this to be a book of modern philosophy, but even here it falls short. One often-covered subject he tackles is happiness. The conclusion is best expressed by P.D. James: “…happiness is a gift not a right.”

the point is 3d

The Point Is might have been titled Random Thoughts and Ruminations. It’s less, far less, than satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Singer Not The Song?

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or the reviewer?”   Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.   I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”   When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.   Why do I say this?   Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.   So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.   It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.   I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences…   Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.   Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?   Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.   I certainly concur with this.   We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.   Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.   And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.   The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.   I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   Since the paperback’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.   But now I will likely do so.   Why?   Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.   There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.   At Amazon, for example, you might be informed that, “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”   But guess what?   These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U. C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg:  “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie…  you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.   I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.   Matters of taste are almost physiological.   It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.   Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t agree with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome!

Joseph Arellano

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.

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The Author’s Perspective

Roy Peter Clark wrote the 2010 bestselling book, The Glamour of Grammar, and on September 21, 2011, his new book will be released.  The new book is entitled Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.   Mr. Clark joins us here for a guest post, answering a key question for us.

Joseph Arellano

JA:  Should you write the ending of your story first?  

RPC:  The paragon for this paradigm is J.K. Rowling, who has told the story many times that she began writing the seven-book Harry Potter series by writing the ending first.   Not the ending of the first book, mind you, but the ending of the seventh book!   She even teased her faithful readers with the news that the last word in the series would be “scar.”   She changed her mind.

It helped me to write to an ending for my 1999 newspaper serial novel “Ain’t Done Yet.”   The story, in 30 chapters, described a burned-out reporter hired to investigate a cult planning a terrorist attack for New Year’s Day 2000.   Max Timlin, the reporter, feared two things most of all:  lightning storms and high places.   So, of course, he would fight to the death with the villain on top of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a fierce storm.   Because I knew the big arc of the story, I could focus on the little arcs, those moments of surprise that reveal patterns, cliff hangers, and character.

I like the advice of a novelist (don’t remember his name) who said that writing fiction was like driving a car at night along a winding country road.   You don’t need to see all the way to your destination, as long as your headlights can illuminate a stretch of the road ahead.   In other words, if you can write your way to the end of a scene, you can build narrative momentum toward what’s coming next.

Interested in winning a copy of Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces?   If so, just return to this site on Wednesday, September 21st to see how you can win one of five (5) copies that we’re giving away!

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Coming Up Next…

Roy Peter Clark, author of the new guidebook Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, answers a key question for us.

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re continuing and concluding our two-part interview with writer Jenna Blum, author of the novels The Stormchasers and Those Who Save Us.

3.   What is the hardest part of publicizing a novel?   Is it answering personal questions, the time spent traveling, trying to write the next book as you travel, missing friends and family, etc.?

I actually love publicizing my novels, so I don’t find anything about it difficult!   I do admit that I’m something of an extremist.   I travel a lot more than many writers do, 300 days of the year, to events, fundraisers, book clubs, colleges and libraries across the country  — literally from Seattle to Florida and everywhere in between — to talk about my novels.   I absolutely love meeting readers and consider it an honor, so whomever asks me to come and speak, I’ll try to make that happen!

This is a considerable challenge sometimes to  my personal energy levels, and I miss important events back in Boston, where I live:  weddings, births, milestone birthdays.   That’s hard.   I feel bad about that.   And I spend at least four hours a day in correspondence and with social media, so I have to protect and ration my time wisely.   Really, though, when I’m promoting, I promote full-time, and when I’m working on a book, I’m in the Writer’s Protection Program, leaving the house only to get more coffee and walk my black Lab, Woodrow.   My life is kind of like crop rotation, with distinct times for both activities.

4.   Lessons I’ve learned…  What do you wish you had known before writing your first novel and/or the second?

I wish I’d known that frustration is part of the process — when you’re asking the questions and the answers just won’t come, until they do.   Getting frustrated about my own frustration instead of just saying, “I did the best I could do today, I’ll try again tomorrow, let’s go have a beer!” only compounds the issue.   The creative process always has its ebb and flow.   (Ask me how I feel about that in a couple of months, when I’m starting to circle Book 3!)

5.   Support from your fellow writers…  Is this important to you?   It seems from the outside that more and more women authors are discovering and supporting each other, which is quite positive.   But is there a point at which you run up against the need to be competitors?

I’m thrilled that Facebook and Twitter are providing new channels for writers to find and support each other.   And I really do see that happening!   There’s nothing to be lost and everything to be gained, I feel, from getting to know each other and our work, sharing that and broadcasting to the world when you really love a book and its writer.

When I have met the writers I’ve connected with online, it’s as though we’ve known each other for years.   It’s a joy for me to have this venue to support them.

I never feel the need to be competitive with other writers.   There’s no point to it.   For one thing, nobody can write exactly the way you do, so really, there’s no way to compete.   And there’s enough of the pie to go around.   It’s not as though there’s a quota of books published per year, and if you publish one, somebody else can’t.   People will always be hungry for what we give them:  good stories, well told.

Thank you, Jenna!

Joseph Arellano

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Shattered Dreams

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books; $25.00; 336 pages)

“I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”   Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Paula McLain presents a convincing rendition of the unique but endearing relationship between Earnest Hemingway and his first wife, the conscientious and serene Hadley Richardson, in her novel The Paris Wife.

After a brief long distance relationship, the young but confident twenty-year-old Earnest proposes to his first wife Hadley, a conservative spinster in her late twenties.   On the quest for the ideal inspirational setting to write, McLain’s story takes us to the art scene in Paris in the 1920s as artists, on the brink of greatness, share their hopes and dreams in local cafes hoping to gain exposure for their new stories.

McClain’s story is so detailed and believable that you can imagine spending time with the Hemmingways as they meet fellow artists and enjoy tea with individuals such as Gertrude Stein.   Hadley actually recalls a conversation that she and Earnest had while sharing drinks with F. Scott Fitgerald as he announced his hopes for success with his recent novel The Great Gatsby.

The reader will understand why Earnest was so inspired during the couple’s trips to Europe, especially while watching the bullfights in Pamplona.   The reader will sympathize with Hadley, the ever-loyal wife who strives to maintain the attention of her husband – standing by his side through circumstances from which even the strongest of us would run.   The depth of the conversations and the personalities of the characters come alive through McLain’s dialogues and Hadley’s interpretations of the relationships that develop during this phase of Earnest’s life, including that of his second wife.

McLain does a remarkable job of defining all of her characters as well as describing the landscape and culture during the couple’s travels.   You will become so entranced by her story you will forget you are not actually reading Hadley’s autobiography.

The story left me with a desire to rediscover Hemmingway by re-reading A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.   I know that I look forward to my next trip to Paris where, while sitting at some of the same cafes visited by the Hemmingways, I will try and imagine what it was like for this young couple in the Paris art scene of the roaring twenties and contemplate what Earnest’s life might have been like if he had stayed with his first love, Hadley.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.


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On the Way Home

Pictures of You: A Novel by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt has built a reputation for insightful probing of motives, desires, and the emotional gears that mesh, don’t mesh, or can be worn to mesh as lives intersect.   Pictures of You (Algonquin Books) demonstrates that human gears, unlike their mechanical counterparts, have the ability to regrow and change shape, like calluses that evolve in response to physical exertion.

The synopsis on the back cover of Pictures of You does not do the book justice.   It sets up the bleak scenario of two thirty-something women, both married, one with a child and the other unable to conceive, whose paths cross in a violent collision on a foggy highway as they both flee unhappy marriages.   Isabelle survives the crash.   April, the mother of nine-year-old Sam, who is hobbled by severe asthma, does not.   Potential readers with an aversion to made-for-TV melodrama might hesitate to wade into an emotional journey so fraught with tragedy.   But that would be a mistake.   The story, alternately told from the viewpoints of Isabelle, Sam, and his grief-stricken father, Charlie, is an examination of assumptions and the actions that spring from them.   It’s not a book that leaves one with a happy glow of contentment.   Rather, it is a wake-up call to talk, ask questions, challenge operating principles and decisions, to dive below the surface and know the people you love, or think you might be able to love.

Sam witnesses the collision from the side of the road, and in the fog, he sees Isabelle, whom he assumes is an angel.   It is that childish impression – like a photograph without a caption – that drives the plot forward, prompting the intersections of Charlie and Isabelle’s lives.   And Sam ultimately provides the closure that eludes Charlie and Isabelle, as well as a note of hopefulness.   Ironically, however, Sam’s viewpoint is the only one of the three that sometimes rings false, his thoughts seeming too adult for a nine-year-old, or too precious.   “He didn’t care that people might say it was impossible.   Lots of things were impossible.   At school, Mr. Moto, his science teacher told them how light could be both a wave and a particle, which was supposed to be impossible.   You could go to a distant planet and somehow come back younger than you were when you left because the laws of time were all screwy.”

But the way Isabelle’s feelings develop – the clash of grief and guilt with the thrill of new love – and Charlie’s struggles to solve the mystery of April’s desertion and to balance his needs and his son’s are beautifully drawn.   Leavitt’s prose is luminous and her characters are layered.   Charlie, a house builder, takes bold steps, and then reverses himself; Isabelle, a photographer, watches, reacts, questions her own impulses.   Pictures of You is compelling, not so much because of the tragic intersection of paths chosen, but because of the characters’ failure to know each other as they envision their lives together.   It’s not the portrait of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam that will haunt you long after you finish the book, but its negative.   Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Pictures of You was released by Algonquin Books in January of 2011.

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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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Reeling in the Years

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed.   In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun.   I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.

Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot.   There are two protagonists.   There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution.   Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls.   Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone.   Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop.   The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.

Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller.   It is interesting enough, but just enough.

Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman.   When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort.   Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life:  “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory.   It was like a story she knew about someone else.”

A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy.   That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom.   Something key is missing here as the author admits:  “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”

Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution.   The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her.   Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.

A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete.   The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.

In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success.   However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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