Early Spring Fever

Inspired by Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, I’ve been folding shirts and finding joy in mindless tasks.  The book –  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – caused a decluttering craze when it was first published, but I avoided it.  When short clips appeared on You Tube and Netflix, however, I succumbed and found solace in folding pants and shirts.

When Kondo proclaimed books were not to be kept  but donated or – horrors – thrown away, I immersed myself in my overflowing bookshelves to read a few waiting to be read; I made a dent in the stack – soon to be filled with other books.  None warranted a review, but you might find some distraction in them:

81oX4ShsrZL._AC_UL436_That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

A rambling historical fiction with Winston’s mother, Jennie, as the heroine.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

When the New York Times featured the 25th Anniversary edition, I found a copy – full of lists and advice.  My “creative soul” couldn’t finish it.

41yKgsnf1fL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

For dog lover’s everywhere, this touching first person account of a woman who almost loses her rent controlled New York City apartment when she adopts the Great Dane of a friend who died, has the dog as the hero who saves her life – of course.

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

One of my book clubs is about to discuss this one – a timely and harrowing story of a woman who was abused in her youth by a politician now climbing the ladder of power and success.  Set in an unnamed South American island nation, the story is topical and disturbing.

MCD-Dont-Throw-AwayAnd now, my library wait list finally delivered a book by one my  favorite authors  – Eleanor Lipman’s Good Riddance.  With a nod to Marie Kondo, Lipman acknowledges  the fear may of us have after shredding and throwing items away – what if you disposed of something you should have kept?  I’ve stopped tidying and starting reading.

 

100 Years Is A Long Time to Last

December has the centenary anniversary of two of my favorite authors – Shirley Jackson and Penelope Fitzgerald.  Have you read The Lottery or The Blue Flower? If you have not, consider celebrating with a few of these authors’ good stories.

unknown-1A few years back I was so excited to hear a local book club had invited the author of The Lottery to speak; imagine how disappointed I was to discover it was a local author with a fictionalized memoir of buying a winning ticket in the sweepstakes.  Sadly, many in the audience had not read or heard of the famous author of horror and fantasy, Shirley Jackson.  When I read Jackson’s short story The Lottery as a young girl, her eerie Gothic world fascinated me, and I soon went on to read The Haunting of Hill House.  Her practice of writing one thousand words a day – more ambitious than Virginia Woolf’s goal of two hundred fifty – cemented her place in my list of writers to model.  December 14 is her 100th birthday.

unknown-2 Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald’s short novels accidentally opened a quiet escape for me.  I have her Man Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, on my to-read list, but my two favorites of her writing are The Blue Flower and The Bookshop.  In her obituary for The Guardian, Harriet  Harvey-Wood wrote of her: “Throughout Fitzgerald’s novels, there are certain recurring themes, the most striking of which is the single-minded and blinkered innocent (usually male), whose tunnel vision causes disaster to those around. There is an example in almost every book, the most satisfying perhaps being Fritz von Hardenberg, Novalis in The Blue Flower.”  Perhaps because she found her voice later in life (writing The Blue Flower when she was 78), Fitzgerald represents an author to emulate. December 17 is her 100th birthday.

Addendum:

22trevor-obit-blog427 Today, a friend told me William Trevor died, and I looked for his obituary in the New York Times.  Although his birthday is in May, he deserves recognition.  I discovered Trevor when I read he was a favorite author of the revered British actress Maggie Smith, and I enjoyed his lyrical Irish flavor in The Story of Lucy Gault.  Have you read it?

 

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night

9781609453701_p0_v1_s192x300  Elena Ferrante’s children’s book The Beach at Night has magic, danger, and adventure, with scary episodes and somewhat raunchy language not usually found in a children’s book. Never fear, the story does have a happy ending.  Best known for her anonymity and her Neopolitan novel series, Ferrante weaves a simple but dark story, reminiscent of the original Grimm fairy tales, about a doll left behind at the beach.

When her father presents the little girl with a cat named Minu, the little doll finds herself abandoned and forgotten.  She is tortured by a mean beach attendant and his rake as they scavenge the night beach for bits of treasure left behind.  Although the main villain is the snarly Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset, the Rake, Fire, and Waves from the Ocean are personified and join in, as the poor doll tries to hang on.

Although the book is listed for children, the illustrations reminded me of Tim Burton caricatures – whimsically scary.  The subtexts of mother-daughter relationships, as well as the horrors of a deserted beach and the stealing of words out one’s mouth, seem targeted more for an adult audience. Adults, especially fans of Ferrante will enjoy the book, but beware – read it yourself first to decide if you want to share it with your young ones.

That Part Was True

9781455573653_p0_v2_s260x420By combining an epistolary with a few recipes and some self reflection, Deborah McKinley’s novel – That Part Was True – offers a romantic tale of two characters who live a sea apart but are confronting similar mid-life doubts. They inadvertently help each other through their letters and a mutual love of food, and possibly live happily ever after – but you will have to decide.

Jack is a 49-year-old American writer of a successful detective series; Eve, a lovely but insecure divorced mother who lives outside of London, writes to comment on one of his books, and the long distance relationship begins. The letters sporadically appear between descriptions of each character’s coping with assorted difficulties: Jack’s writer’s block, Eve’s panic attacks, a wedding, a divorce, midlife introspection and insecurities…

If you enjoy stories by Penelope Lively and Eleanor Lipman (her review in the New York Times motivated me to find this book), you will appreciate McKinley’s nuances and the familiar thoughts that surface in the characters’ relationships.

Curiously, reading their descriptions of how they each prepared favorite foods made me hungry, and the informal recipes sprinkled throughout the narrative were my favorite parts. McKinley includes a recipe for peanut cookies that Jack makes in the middle of the night to cure his insomnia. Worked for me too.

I’m including McKinley’s recipe so I can make them again after I return the book to the library:

Granny Cooper’s Peanut Cookies

3 ounces butter
1 small cup sugar
1 egg
1 good cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 dessert spoon cocoa
1 cup peanuts (She liked to roast them in the oven first.  I do , too.)

Cream the butter and sugar; add the beaten egg; then mix in the sifted flour, baking powder, and cocoa; and last, add the cooled peanuts.
Place spoonfuls on tray(s) and bake at 350 for about 15-20 minutes.

Serve with milk.

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I Liked the Book, But Do We Have to Talk About It?

Reading is personal, but anyone who has read that one fabulous book has a yearning to proselytize the story and convince everyone else that it is by far the best book ever written.  It helps if the reader is preaching to an audience who has not yet read the book.

Book clubs can be the place to confirm the wonder of the book,  if everyone agrees,  but most times, no one does. After listening to a dissection of the book’s plot, character, setting – the dedicated reader may even lose the original fervor for the book.   Author Francine Prose offered her thoughts on reading a book for a book club in an an interview with Jessica Murphy for The Atlantic…

“ … book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.”

imagesBut what happens if no one likes the book under discussion?  and you happen to be the author?  In this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, author Kevin Baker recalls his experience when he inadvertently spied on a book club discussion of his book in I Read You Loud and Clear.  Listening to readers critique his book “Dreamland,” he reluctantly kept his identity as the author of the book secret, when he realized that no one really liked his story. He became “Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral.”

When friends ask me about my own writing, I usually defer, change the subject, get a coughing fit…

It’s hard to hear what readers think of your writing, especially when they misunderstand or really don’t like what you wrote.  Most writers are too thin-skinned to want or invite criticism of their work in person; those scathing written reviews can always be dismissed by spilling a cup of coffee on them.  I laughed at the last line of Baker’s essay when the author said the book club still tore him apart when they realized he had written the book.  Everyone’s a critic – yet another reason many writers try to stay incognito – it’s easier on our fragile egos.


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