Darkness in Kids Books

Last month, there was an essay in Time Magazine by Matt de la Pena, author of the childrens’ books, in which he discussed the importance of writing about painful experiences in the books he writes.

Matt de la Pena

He says, “A few weeks ago, illustrator Loren Long and I learned that a major gatekeeper would not support our forthcoming picture book, Love, an exploration of love in a child’s life, unless we “softened” a certain illustration. In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty old fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable. This discouraging news led me to really examine, maybe for the first time in my career, the purpose of my picture book manuscripts. What was I trying to accomplish with these stories? What thoughts and feelings did I hope to evoke in children?”

“This particular project began innocently enough. Finding myself overwhelmed by the current divisiveness in our country, I set out to write a comforting poem about love. It was going to be something I could share with my own young daughter as well as every kid I met in every state I visited, red or blue. But when I read over one of the early drafts, something didn’t ring true. It was reassuring, uplifting even, but I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity.

“So I started over.

“A few weeks into the revision process, my wife and I received some bad news, and my daughter saw my wife openly cry for the first time. This rocked her little world and she began sobbing and clinging to my wife’s leg, begging to know what was happening. We settled her down and talked to her and eventually got her ready for bed. And as my wife read her a story about two turtles who stumble across a single hat, I studied my daughter’s tear-stained face. I couldn’t help thinking a fraction of her innocence had been lost that day. But maybe these minor episodes of loss are just as vital to the well-adjusted child’s development as moments of joy. Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.”

He went on to say that he was in Rome, Georgia, reading to some school children, when “I decided, on a whim, to read Love to them, too, even though it wasn’t out yet. I projected Loren’s illustrations as I recited the poem from memory, and after I finished, something remarkable happened. A boy immediately raised his hand, and I called on him, and he told me in front of the entire group, “When you just read that to us I got this feeling. In my heart. And I thought of my ancestors. Mostly my grandma, though … because she always gave us so much love. And she’s gone now.”

“And then he started quietly crying.

“And a handful of the teachers started crying, too.

“I nearly lost it myself. Right there in front of 150 third graders. It took me several minutes to compose myself and thank him for his comment.  On the way back to my hotel, I was still thinking about that boy, and his raw emotional response. I felt so lucky to have been there to witness it. I thought of all the boys growing up in working-class neighborhoods around the country who are terrified to show any emotion. Because that’s how I grew up, too — terrified. Yet this young guy was brave enough to raise his hand, in front of everyone, and share how he felt after listening to me read a book. And when he began to cry a few of his classmates patted his little shoulders in a show of support. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved inside the walls of a school.  That’s why I write books. Because the little story I’m working on alone in a room, day after day, might one day give some kid out there an opportunity to “feel.” And if I’m ever there to see it in person again, next time hopefully I’ll be brave enough to let myself cry, too.”

I have to add that the illustration Matt is talking about is evocative.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on line, but is it focused on a grand piano with a small boy, hugging his legs, head down, sheltered beneath it.  His dog is cuddled up next to him.  On the left is a woman, covering her face with her hands, and on the right is a man, leaving the room.  The text says: “But it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover.  And friendships.  And people.”

Review: Fire and Fury

I have to admit that I bought a copy of Fire and Fury inside the Trump White House.  I’m not  a Trump fan and I wanted to see how bad it really is.  The book is written by Michael Wolff, based on over two hundred interviews and and two hundred days in the White House, ending with the appointment of General John Kelly as chief of staff and the departure of Steve Bannon..  Mr Wolff claims that he had the agreement of the President to be a sort of fly on the wall, beginning during the campaign, though the President has denied ever speaking to Wolff.

Michael Wolff does not have a gold-plated reputation as a journalist.  The Independent said : “He became well-known for writing that explored the lives of the rich and powerful, often written with colourful and bombastic language. His New York Magazine column, “This Media Life”, explored a world of which he was very much a part – he has surfaced periodically in the New York Post’s Page Six, a gossip hub for the city. . . While he achieved prominence and visibility with his work, Mr Wolff is not necessarily beloved by his compatriots in the media world. And he has embraced that, as shown by a past book featuring blurbs that excoriated him as toxic. “Far less circumspect – and sometimes more vicious – than the other journalists,” The New York Times is quoted as saying. “Possibly the bitchiest media bigfoot writing today,” suggested The New Republic.  “This Wolff excerpt (the book) has a 500-word-long chunk of recreated verbatim dialogue between Bannon and Ailes,” The New York Time’s Nick Confessore wrote. “Come on”.  But it turns out that Wolff hosted the dinner for six at this Manhattan town house.  “I was one of the 6 guests at the Bannon-Ailes dinner party in January 2017 and every word I’ve seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate. It was an astonishing night,” Janice Min said.”

Michael Wolff

The reader has to decide for herself whether every word in the book is the unvarnished truth.  There are relatively few direct quotations from named individuals.  Further, there are almost no kind words for anyone in the book: can everyone in the White House be that bad?  However, the preponderance of hear-say evidence in the book points overwhelmingly to the President’s short-comings in the vital learn-analyse-act-review cycle that leaders must master to be fully effective.  In particular, the Learn and Analyse stages are almost void.  He does not read memoranda longer than two pages (and those, reluctantly).  His preferred style of information gathering is watching television and speaking on the telephone with friends.  Reportedly, he has an aversion to ‘experts’, and tends to be swayed by the last person he spoke with on the subject.  Analysis is also a weakness (though to put it in context, perhaps Obama sometimes seemed to engage in analysis-paralysis), as numerous examples were cited of the President referring decisions to others.  Act, unlike Obama, is one of Trump’s strengths (though this is not mentioned in the book); one has to only count the record number of presidential orders that he has signed.  And, as to Review, no examples are given but, in fairness, it may be too early to review many of the actions taken.  Overall, one has the impression of a man with an enormous, but very fragile ego.

If one has been reading the daily newspapers and watching the evening news, there isn’t much in the way of surprises in this book.  However, until reading it, I did not appreciate the extent to which Trump did not expect to win (nor did he want to win) the 2016 election.   The win he wanted was all the publicity with no follow-on consequences.

Why Children Need to Read

This was the title of the cover story in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph on 20 January 2018.  The author is Katherine Rundell, author of The Explorer, which won the 2017 Costa Children’s Book Award. She begins the article by talking about a “state of consciousness that comes without calling.  It is as if the clamorous world has quietened and thinned. . . The other times I have experienced it were as a child, while I read.  It would take perhaps three pages, then the world became mute.  Its urgency vanished and its demands fell silent.  I could sit waiting outside a ballet class, music vibrating through the walls, and hear nothing.

“Children’s fiction accounts for 39 of the 100 bestselling books of 2017, and for about 24% of the UK book market.  There’s a lot of it about.  Still, the question I get asked most, when people hear that I write for children, is: why?  Why not write real, serious books for adults?  Because, I think, only for a child, can fiction crowbar open the world.

“The intricacies of reading evade description in the same way that dreams and music evade it, but there is, I think, something unique about the way stories colour the imagination of a child.  What do you see as an adult, when you read?  Do you deck out the characters in shoes, buttons, fingernails.  I think I don’t.  I read ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich’, and I conjure up, in the space behind my eyes, an atmosphere rather than a distinct picture, colour, nose or lip. But children are doing something different when they read.  They have sometimes described to me in painstaking detail, scenes from books of mine which do not exist.  It happens relatively often: a child will tell me she loves the dance across the Paris rooftops in my book Roofhoppers, or the moment when a girl jumps from a tree onto the back of a wolf in The Wolf Wilder –  scenes I never wrote, although I wish I had.  Children, as they read, paint bright colours in the margins that fiction leaves open.  Their imaginations are snowballs.  When, as an adult, I read some of  my favourite childhood books, I was startled to see how slight some of them were, how many of the details I thought I knew by heart never even appeared; houses I had furnished myself, clothes I had embroidered, journeys  had added.  This is part of why I write for young people: children read the world into largeness.  When you write for a child, you build them a house; when they read, they expand it into a castle.

Ms Rundell tells about the illness of an older sister who died.  “I read through long periods of being alone, in hospital waiting rooms, and car journeys and friends’ houses.  Afraid, I took The Jungle Book or What Katy Did into bed with me alongside my bear, so that if my own fear overwhelmed me, there would be an exit door; I would fall asleep with an escape hatch clutched in one hand. . . . the stories I read then allowed me to believe that my sister didn’t only lose; she also won.  To fight with such gallantry and love is to win.

“The value of children’s books cannot, of course, be predicated on pain – books aren’t only valuable when we have something to escape – but, in fact, I am not sure that escapism is a large enough word for what those books did.  They taught me through the medium of wizards and lions and spies and talking spiders that this world I was newly inhabiting was one of wit and endurance.  Children’s books say: the stories of the world are infinite and various and unpredictable.  They say: you will count for something. They say: bravery will matter, love will matter.”

I was fortunate in having a mother and a grandmother who liked to read aloud.  They were probably motivated, in part, by the rapt attention I paid to stories by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and J Howard Pyle.

Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

Award

Seeking Father Khaliq has been awarded first place, Religion/Spirituality in the Royal Dragonfly Literary Awards, 2017

The synopsis of Seeking Father Khaliq is as follows:

Kareem al-Busiri is a tenured professor of philosophy at a prestigious Egyptian university.  A woman whose eyes alone are visible, invites him to meet a Princess Basheera.  After doubt and discussion, he agrees.  Princess Basheera asks al-Busiri to find Father Khaliq, who is apparently her very old father, and she suggest that he find him on the Hajj.

Kareem is a secular Sunni Muslim, a widower, with three children: Naqib, the oldest is a leftist lawyer and secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Wahida, like her late mother is a Copt, working for the Red Crescent; Kalifa, a handsome, principled conservative plans to be an army infantry officer.  Adeeba is a winsome widowed Copt, Kareem’s late wife’s best friend, professor of archaeology, and an expert in ancient Coptic history, culture and language.  Adeeba’s younger adult daughter, Sagira, has a romantic interest in Kalifa.

On the Hajj, which Kareem undertakes with Hafez, a busy-body, agnostic colleague, there are near encounters with Father Khaliq.  The religious fervour of two million pilgrims, and the mystery of the Hajj make an indelible impression on al-Busiri.

Princess Basheera encounters Kareem on several occasions, appearing unexpectedly, wearing casual clothing, but always a niqab, exposing only her eyes.  She discusses his findings, she suggests new pilgrimages, and there is often an exchange of views on the ideas of important Arabic philosophers.  Kareem wonders: Is she real, or do I imagine her?

On a trip to Medina, al-Busiri visits the Prophet’s tomb and finds that, next to the Prophet is a vacant tomb reserved  for the second coming of Jesus.  He narrowly escapes a suicide bombing in the Date Market, and hears a woman crying out for Father Khaliq.

Persuaded to go on Arba’een, the pilgrimage of over twenty million to the Shia shrines in Karbala, Iraq, Kareem joins eleven Shia scholars from the University of Bagdad.  He becomes caught up in the intensity of the emotion at the tomb of Ali, the Prophet’s grandson and Shia icon.  During the return to Bagdad, the professors are taken hostage by a violent ISIS cadre and held for ransom.  Locked in an abandoned house in Ramadi, they are rescued by a Shia militia in a bloody shoot-out during which four of the Iraqi professors are killed.

On his return to Cairo, Kareem finds that Kalifa has been posted to north-eastern Sinai, where the army is engaged in almost daily skirmishes with Wilayat Sinai (the ISIS affiliate in Egypt).  Wahida suspects that her older brother’s law firm is providing material support to the terrorists.  Kareem reports the law firm, anonymously, to Egyptian intelligence, and meets with his son in an attempt to moderate his increasingly strident views.

With Hafez, on a trip to Jerusalem, the great mosques on the Noble Sanctuary, the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter, and a Druze settlement on the Golan Heights are visited.  Again, there is the illusive Father Khaliq.  Kareem walks the Via Dolorosa with a Christian guide.

Kalifa and Sagira are married in jubilant Coptic and Islamic ceremonies.

Adeeba takes Kareem on a trip to Rome where he is impressed with the splendour of Christian pageantry, music and art, and the two become lovers.  She tells him she has found that ‘Khaliq’ is one of the lesser-known of Allah’s ninety-nine names.

Kalifa is killed in an attack on his base with a rocket which Wilayat Sinai was not known to have.  Wahida suspects that Naqib was involved in the supply chain.  Kareem washes his son’s body for burial; a grieving Naqib appears at the burial.  Wahida finds damning circumstantial evidence, which she passes to an intelligence officer, of Naqib’s involvement with the terrorists.  Naqib, and his law firm partners, are arrested, tried in secret, sentenced to death, and hung.  Again, Kareem washes the body of his son.

Kareem is grief-stricken, and visits his mosque for prayer.  He hears a voice offering reassurance.  Is it Allah?  Adeeba, whom he has now married, suggests that he must seek a new identity in his remaining family and his profession.  In a vacant classroom, Princess Basheera appears once again.  She debates with him the meaning and relevance if an idea of the philosopher Ibn Sina.  Kareem understands her message; she disappears.

Seeking Father Khaiiq  have recently won another award: the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award, Spiritual Fiction, 2017:

 

Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.

Critique of Criticism

“There are many differences between critics and sensible human beings, but the main one is this.  Critics are fixated, above all else, with novelty.”

This was how Michael Deacon began his review of the Magpie restaurant on Heddon Street on London.  The Telegraph  lists him as a ‘Parliamentary Sketchwriter’; Wikipedia says he is a British author and political satirist.  In any event, I thought, ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about’.  The review appeared in The Telegraph Magazine on the 2nd of September.  If you’re interested in food, he gave the Magpie four stars and said, “With no menus, adventurous taste buds and an acute sense of smell are required.  Most of the food was terrific.  Essentially, it was dim sum, but with all kinds of influences”

Michael Deacon

He went on to say, “It’s the same in every field of creativity: books, music, film, theatre, painting.  In the eyes of critics, the highest accolade they can bestow is to call a work original – or groundbreaking, bold, radical, seminal, revolutionary.  To them, it’s more important for a book to be original than readable.  More important for music to be original than tuneful.  More important for a play to be original than enjoyable.  Novelty trumps all.  Pleasure is a lesser concern.

“There are two reasons for this.  First, insecurity.  A critic is anxious about dismissing a work that is experimental for fear of how he’ll look to his fellow critics.  He’ll look stuffy, provincial, dim.  He’ll look as if he doesn’t get it.  He has to show them that he’s intelligent enough to understand and appreciate what the artist, this subversive innovator, this trailblazing auteur, is doing.

“The second reason is just as crucial.  Boredom. Think of a teacher marking a stack of essays from an exam in English literature.  In essay after essay, the same topics recur.  An exhausting majority of students have written about the set texts.  Read in isolation, their essays might be perfectly well-written – but read one after the other, they start to seem drainingly uninspired.  So a student who writes about an unusual topic – about novels, plays or poems that weren’t even taught  on the course may get a higher mark than those who wrote about the set texts, even if his essay is inferior.  The marker is simply relieved by the change in scene.  That’s what critics are like.  Sooner or later they run out of things to say about the conventional.  Hey ho, another romantic comedy.  Yawn, another detective thriller.  So when something unusual turns up, they embrace it with desperate gratitude.  What the paying customer is likely to make of it is irrelevant.  What matters is, it’s given the critic something new to write about.  The artist has done the critic a favour – and, more often than not, can expect to be rewarded.

“But of course, the above doesn’t apply only to critics of books, music and the rest.  It applies to restaurant critics, too.  And so when I go out to review a restaurant that’s in some way out of the ordinary, and decide that I like it, I have to ask myself: do I, though?  Am I genuinely enjoying myself?  Honestly?  Or am I just grateful to the chef because he’s just made  my job easier?”

Five stars to Michael Deacon!

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, St Martin’s Press, 2016, comes to some unexpected conclusions.  The book was reviewed by Sandra Elliot in the June issue of The Florida Writer.

“Through an analysis of recent best sellers, Authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers claim to have identified the elements that move a novel to the top in sales.  They begin with an overview of what makes people read, including insights and quotes from Stephen King’s On Writing.  He says no one really knows what makes a story a hit, and advises would-be professionals to choose topics they know and blend in others like relationships, sex and work.  The Bestseller Code authors arouse reader interest by debunking King’s adages.  No sex in popular novels?  No, they say, and use their research findings to support their statements.

“. . . One of their first questions: themes that promote or limit a story’s commercial popularity.  Sex, drugs and rock and roll are among those tested and found wanting.  Few bestsellers are based on these themes.  What about Fifty Shades of Grey?  . . .  Not the sex, they say, but a living, breathing side of the narrative that readers feel it like the thrum of nightclub music.  The Da Vinci Code is the only other book to have such a powerful rhythm, they add.

“. . . (The book) identified John Grisham and Danielle Steel as authors who used themes of interest to many readers.  Grisham’s signature theme is ‘Lawyers and the Law’, Steel’s ‘Domestic Life’.

“Overall, bestselling authors allocate a third of their novels to one or two themes; less successful authors include more. . . . These findings are particularly relevant for debut writers who tend to write about too much.  An in-depth story is easier to follow than writing heavy with description and detail.  More women than men gain popularity with their debut novels.  Does a feminine writing style have payoff?  No, it’s not gender but an understanding of audience and language that pays, that, and the nurturing of skills through practice.

“Gender differences were noted.  Protagonists in recent female-oriented novels are internally complex and externally challenged, odd or different gals with power and motivation.  Characters in bestselling novels, male or female, are high-energy people who set out to achieve what they want to be.”

A three star review by EVS on Amazon.com says, in part: “I found myself simultaneously impressed with the depth of the research and disappointed with the triviality of the findings. Moreover, as much as the authors hope that their formula will open publishing industry to new writers overlooked otherwise, I have a feeling it will only serve to build more, higher walls, imprisoning writers in even tighter cells. Ironically, what would mediate the potential for abuse is making the formula available to the public in the form of a readily accessible test. It’s just the question of time until application of this or similar math becomes obligatory among agents and publishers. If the potential success or failure of an artist’s project is going to depend on a formula, the artist should have the right to face his accuser.”

I tend to share EVS concerns about agents and publishers using this, or a more ‘perfect’ algorithm in selecting works for publication and thereby building higher walls and imprisoning writers in even tighter cells.  But, I also guess that it will indeed be helpful in coaching overlooked authors to better hit the mark.  And I suspect that, in any case, there will always be a writer who finds a route to success that the algorithm overlooks.

In view of all this, I am motivated to get a copy of the book and report to you in more detail.

Review: Song of Solomon

A couple of months ago, in this blog, there was a post about the 100 greatest novels, and how many of them had been read by the average reader.  In order to improve my score, I said I would read Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison.  I’m very glad I volunteered: it’s a wonderful novel.

Toni Morrison

Wikipedia says this about Toni Morrison: “(born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, teacher, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The novel was adapted into a film of the same name (starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover) in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison wrote the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, President Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016 she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.”

The paragraph in Wikipedia on the early years in Toni Morrison’s life helps me understand her great facility as a black writer: “Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs.”  Song of Solomon is full of children’s songs, traditional folktales, ghosts, and – in today’s terms – unthinkable racism.  All the principle characters have names one would never think of: Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, First Corinthians, Hagar and eccentric, engaging personalities.  The novel is set in a small, poor black community in Michigan, beginning in the 1930’s; it progresses through Pennsylvania into Virginia, but always in black territory.  It is the story of the development of Milkman against the background of a family whose origins are slaves and Native Americans, and whose strange history make them what they are.  There are numerous tensions within the family with various historic causes; and external tensions of being well off vs having nothing; sexual tensions; and tensions arising from differing circumstances and values. Milkman’s development as a person is facilitated by his dissatisfaction with his comfortable, but pointless situation, and by his search for identity in the personalities of his fore bearers.  He must learn, figuratively and mythologically, to fly.

For me, Song of Solomon was the best kind of reading experience.  One learns, or perhaps in my case re-learns, the savage history of racism in America, set against a background of ‘real’ people who are flawed but nonetheless our friends.  One admires their unique coping skills: songs, love, stories and tradition.  One is carried from one set of circumstances, expecting the outcome, to a new, more interesting situation.  The author’s inventiveness is breath-taking, and enjoyable.  The writing is voluble or terse as the situation demands, and the language is appropriately unique but always descriptive.  Most of all, I admire Toni Morrison as a great story-teller.

Review: Today

In my post of 3 March 2017 on the obituary of David Miller, literary agent, I mentioned that he wrote one novel: Today.  I have now read it, and share the consensus of other readers that it is a little gem of a novel.  Today concerns the gathering of friends and family of  Joseph Conrad on a bank holiday weekend in 1924.  Jessie, Joseph’s wife had recently been discharged from a nursing home.  During the weekend, Joseph dies unexpectedly.

Joseph Conrad was born into a Polish family in what is now Ukraine in 1857.  He traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in England, where he learned English.  He applied for and was granted English citizenship in 1886, but he remained a subject of Russia until he was granted a release from obligation to Tsar Alexander III in 1889.  Conrad had a nineteen year career in the merchant navies of France and England, rising from apprentice to captain. But in 1894, he gave up the sea, partly because of ill health, partly because of the lack of ships, and partly because he had become fascinated with writing.  Almost all of Conrad’s writing was first published in influential magazines and newspapers: The North American Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Illustrated London News, for example.  Nonetheless, financial success eluded him for much of his career, although a government grant of an annuity of £100 per annum greatly eased his situation.  His fame increased greatly with the publication of Chance in 1913, which is, ironically, thought to be one of his weaker novels.  Many of his novels include a maritime theme, and he is believed to be a writer who sailed rather than a sailor who wrote.  His writing style is thought of as poetic prose; his work is marked by exotic style, complex narration, profound themes, and pessimistic ideas.  He suffered from gout, malaria and depression.  Conrad wrote some twenty novels and a long list of stories.  His best known novels include: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissis’, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Joseph Conrad

Coming back to the novel, Today, it is written by a man who clearly admired Conrad and his work.  But Joseph Conrad, as a living character, never appears in Today.  Nonetheless, one feels his remote greatness by the way other characters react to him.  Today is a short, historical novel (160 pages) about the passing of a great author in 1924.  The setting and the culture of the time are accurately reflected.  The writing is fittingly oblique but engaging.  The characters, many of whom were real people – including Conrad’s son’s Borys (a disappointment to his father) and the younger, John; his wife Jessie, an ordinary, working-class, English girl, who was 16 years Conrad’s junior, and who was looked down upon by his friends, but was probably the supportive companion he needed.  And there is the middle-aged Miss Lillian Hallowes, Conrad’s loyal secretary.  At the end, Lillian receives not the typewriter on which she transcribed most of Conrad’s work, but, secretly, from John, the fountain pen by which the original manuscripts were written.  Did it really happen?  We don’t know: this is fiction.

I would certainly recommend Today.  Though it’s subject is death, it is largely about life.