Eavesdropping

Julian Barnes, on William Trevor:

My wife, who was his long-term literary agent, told me that he liked to sit on park benches and eavesdrop on conversations; but that he never wanted to listen to a whole story, so would get up and move on as soon as he had heard the small amount he needed to trigger his further imaginings.

May 20, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“The best you can say is that New York is held together by competing antagonisms that tend to cancel one another out.” - Tom Wolfe

May 19, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“All the time, I've felt that life is a wager and that I probably was getting more out of leading a bohemian existence as a writer than I would have if I didn't.” - Christopher Hitchens

May 16, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Doughnuts

I love this passage from The Country of the Pointed Firs. The narrator, her landlady Mrs. Todd, and Mrs. Todd's mother, Mrs. Blackett, are riding upcountry to a family reunion, when they stop at a farm to water their horse.

We stopped, and seeing a party of pleasure-seekers in holiday attire, the thin, anxious mistress of the farmhouse came out with wistful sympathy to hear what news we might have to give. Mrs. Blackett first spied her at the half-closed door, and asked with such cheerful directness if we were trespassing that, after a few words, she went back to her kitchen and reappeared with a plateful of doughnuts.

“Entertainment for man and beast,” announced Mrs. Todd with satisfaction. “Why, we've perceived there was new doughnuts all along the road, but you're the first that has treated us.”

Our new acquaintance flushed with pleasure, but said nothing.

“They're very nice; you've had good luck with 'em,” pronounced Mrs. Todd. “Yes, we've observed there was doughnuts all the way along; if one house is frying all the rest is; 'tis so with a great many things.”

“I don't suppose likely you're goin' up to the Bowden reunion?” asked the hostess as the white horse lifted his head and we were saying good-by.

“Why, yes,” said Mrs. Blackett and Mrs. Todd and I, all together.

“I am connected with the family. Yes, I expect to be there this afternoon. I've been lookin' forward to it,” she told us eagerly.

“We shall see you there. Come and sit with us if it's convenient,” said dear Mrs. Blackett, and we drove away.

“I wonder who she was before she was married?” said Mrs. Todd, who was usually unerring in matters of genealogy. “She must have been one of that remote branch that lived down beyond Thomaston. We can find out this afternoon. I expect that the families'll march together, or be sorted out some way. I'm willing to own a relation that has such proper ideas of doughnuts.”

As Mrs. Todd later notes, there's no shortage of relatives (whether close or shirt-tail) in the area. But only one that has such proper ideas of doughnuts.

May 9, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the recluses are a sad kindred...”

"There is something in the fact of a hermitage that cannot fail to touch the imagination; the recluses are a sad kindred, but they are never commonplace." - Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

Jewett's narrator refers to the sad story of Joanna Todd, who was so distraught and guilt-stricken after being abandoned by her fiancee that she hermited herself on a desolate, rocky island off the Maine coast for the rest of her life. The narrator visits the island decades after Joanna's death, hoping to get even the slightest glimpse of Joanna's former life there. Though there's little of that to be seen, I wish Jewett had continued the story for at least a few more pages.

I'm really, really enjoying the book - thanks to Paul for the recommendation. According to the promo copy, no less of an authority than Willa Cather believed that this book, The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were "the three American works most likely to achieve permanent recognition." Clearly, history has not been as generous to Jewett as it has been to Hawthorne and Twain, possibly due to her great book not being mandatory reading in high schools anywhere, other than perhaps in the state of Maine.

May 8, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Where the Marshland Came to Flower

I am very pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Where the Marshland Came to Flower, a short story collection in which each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood. The book is being published by the wonderful Pablo D'Stair at Kuboa Press (who also published Wheatyard) sometime by the end of May.

The collection has been a long time coming, with plenty of twists and turns - I started writing it in 2007 but didn't finish the first draft until June 2010, the second draft in January 2012, the third draft sometime in late 2012, and the fourth and final draft in April 2013. (My compiled comments about Marshland over the years are collected here.) Finishing and selling Wheatyard took up a lot of my time between 2007 and 2013, of course, but so did my chronic bouts of non-productivity. And since I finished it, I haven’t been aggressive about finding a publisher.  

My biggest concern about Marshland is that it might be too Chicago-centric, and not necessarily of great interest to many non-Chicagoans, and so when trying to sell the book I specifically targeted Chicago indie publishers, in the hope that they'd be more receptive. But though the city has a few great indies, it's far from a big publishing center, and when I had no luck with those indies I thought of Pablo, who has made Wheatyard a great experience for me. Though he had no Chicago connections that I'm aware of, I pitched him the book, and he readily agreed, saying he loved the stories. Which gives me hope that the book will appeal to a broader audience than I had first assumed.

I don't expect the book to be a smash success, but if it does nothing more than connect with anywhere near the hundred-something readers of Wheatyard, then that will be success enough for me. My current writing has been in a lull for much of the past year, and with any luck the enthusiasm of Marshland's readers will re-ignite me into working on my next book.

April 30, 2018 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do. First, not be too good; second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.” - Rebecca West

ZING.

April 27, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Maeve Brennan, The Springs Of Affection

Usually I find it hard to review short story collections, which are often disjointed assemblies of unrelated stories, with no overlapping characters or settings or even themes. But The Springs of Affection in an exception, as editor William Maxwell collected stories from throughout Maeve Brennan's career which are all set in Dublin. And the stories fit into three neat groups: the first is autobiographical pieces based on Brennan's youth; the second involves the married couple Rose and Hubert Derdon; and the third involves the married couple Delia and Martin Bagot.

The autobiographical stories are amusing but fairly inconsequential, and mostly useful as a glimpse at Brennan's upbringing. The Derdon stories are substantial but almost unbearably bleak, as Rose "grieves" for her son John, not because he died but because he left the family home to join the priesthood. It's a general cliche that every traditional Irish Catholic family longs for their son to become a priest, but that's not the case with Rose; she feels abandoned by John. She spent the first two decades of her marriage being devoted entirely to doting on John, but now that he's gone she has nothing left. Nothing, not even Hubert - although they still live together, she neglected their relationship as she obsessed over John for all those years, and now they have drifted far apart and have a marriage in name only. The Derdon stories are bitter and often difficult to read.

The Bagot stories also involve an unhappy marriage and a helicoptering mother, but take place earlier in life, when the Bagot children are still young and Delia Bagot realizes that you can't live exclusively for your kids and instead you must have your own life. Not that the kids should be neglected - just that there should be a balance, especially when looking ahead to when the kids have grown up and moved on to lives of their own. Showing the family at a younger stage, and Delia's realization, makes the Bagot stories somewhat more hopeful than the Derdon stories. But the Bagots will still be challenged as a couple - Martin leads a very independent life, sleeping in a separate bedroom and keeping his own hours - but at least there's a glimmer of possibility that Delia will make a meaningful life of her own and won't look back later with the same bitterness as Rose Derdon.

What really sets the Bagot stories apart is the long concluding story, the almost-novella “The Springs of Affection", which is told from the perspective of Martin's spinster sister Min, decades later, after Martin and Delia have passed away. Delia is a veritable ray of sunshine compared to Min, who never forgave Martin for marrying Delia and breaking up (in her view) the tight circle of Martin, Min, the two other Bagot sisters and their mother. (Martin married first, followed by the two sisters, leaving Min alone with her mother, and later to herself.) We never really see what kind of life Delia had after her kids grew up, but even if she felt as bitter and abandoned as Rose Derdon, and even if she never really reconciled with Martin, she still had a far happier life than Min Bagot ever had.

April 24, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Their names were the same, that was all.”

In Val Mulkerns' Very Like a Whale, 27-year-old Ben Ryan returns to his native Dublin after several years away, on the Continent.

In the week he'd been home he had met some of the old crowd around the pubs and he was meeting another fellow this afternoon in town. The trouble was that they were not the old crowd any more. Their names were the same, that was all. When they used to dump their crash helmets under his bed in the hospital and spend hours hanging around Dandelion Green with him on Saturdays and Sundays they were all heads. They wanted to get out of the rat race, as he did, and they talked for hours about going all together to a Greek island to live by mending fishermen's nets or picking peaches, shelling almonds, making hippy jewellery (there was one guy who was going to teach the rest). The plan was to sleep on the beaches in summer and make enough money to rent a little flat-roofed island house in winter where they could smoke their pot and play their Rolling Stones and screw their women until spring came. Nobody wanted to join a bank or take a Master's Degree or get into the Civil Service. Nobody wanted to teach. Nobody wanted a house in Celbridge and a mortgage and a car and a wife and three kids.

And of course, that's exactly what the old crowd ended up with. All except Ben, who is still wandering. Good book so far. 

April 19, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Opening Lines

“It had never before been a problem which of them to visit first because they had been together every other time. Every other time he had got off the boat, hoisted up his rucksack, and walked with the straggle of travellers to where familiar faces were waiting beyond the barrier.”
- Val Mulkerns, Very Like a Whale

"I’m not here by choice."
- Giano Cromley, The Last Good Halloween

”Even standing still, finally, Ray Welter's body remained in motion and subject to inner tidal forces beyond his control."
- Andrew Ervin, Burning Down George Orwell's House

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water."
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

"We slept in what had once been the gymnasium."
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

"Marley was dead, to begin with."
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

"The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear."
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

"A nurse held the door open for them."
- Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter

"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine

"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers

"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands

"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing

"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan

"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece

"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago

"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key

"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night

"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks

"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless

"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth

"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square

"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune

"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)

April 18, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)