Ambiguous ‘Brooklyn’


Lots of books I read and enjoy but rarely think of again; it’s a rare few that take up residence,  that I find myself revisiting either in rereading or just thinking about, those books that I urge friends to read, both because I think they will like them and because I want the pleasure of discussion. Some of these I’ve written about here: “Middlemarch,” “Anna Karenina,” “The Golem and the Jinni,” “Mrs. Engels.”

“Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin fits in this group, but  I did not, upon finishing, immediately start urging people to read it.  I felt its peculiar force very vividly, but it did not occur to me this feeling would scale. It seemed to me then like a book particularly written – not just for me, that would be ridiculous – but for people like me, who grew up in families like mine. (I was wrong; it’s since become a best-seller, a major motion picture and Toibin’s best-known novel.)

I started it around 10 p.m. one weeknight, thinking I would read a chapter or two before bedtime. Continue reading


‘Longbourn’ and Pig Shit Realism



All the time I was reading Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” I had the sensation of not being able to decide if I liked it.  This is unusual;  feckless and tentative as I am in most realms of human activity, I am generally confident in my literary judgments.

The story, in case anyone  missed the large splash it made upon publication in 2014, is “Pride and Prejudice” from the viewpoint of the Bennets’ servants. A brilliant, can’t-miss idea. I like to imagine Ms. Baker, tormented by insomnia and casting around for her next idea for a novel, sitting up in bed.


New Beginnings, Old Problems

I’ve been away from this blog for so long I feel almost obliged to fashion some adroit explanation — picnic, lightning — but the truth is, I was doing other things. Reading, writing, rethinking, rewriting. (When does rewriting have an end? I can only say, not yet.)

After “The Golem and the Jinni” I proceeded to read a string of amazing books I wish I had stopped to write about, for now I cannot do justice to them: Continue reading

Twitter Shakespeare

Today, being on Twitter finally paid for itself.

This might seem absurd, as being on Twitter has never cost me anything, at least in monetary terms. I could say it’s cost me something in agony, time and effort, but that wouldn’t be true; since I became a part of the Twitter landscape back in 2009, I have been among the lamest Twitterers going. The problem was I never quite understood what I was supposed to be doing on it; in theory I understood, but practice eluded me. Why would strangers be interested in my 140-character effusions on subject like “Clarissa”? And they weren’t. I wasn’t, even. Twitter was like a movie I’d walked into the middle of, a series of disconnected conversations at a party where I did not know anyone; nothing ever seemed to have any resolution.

If Twitter had a cost, it was measured out in bafflement.

Twitter would be completely dead to me if I did not get those e-mails suggesting people I might want to follow (but why?) or those containing the news that people were following me (even more so why?).

When I learn I have a new follower (I can’t count my followers on the fingers of one hand, but if I had a few more fingers I could), I have to wonder what strange creatures they might be. I read their tweets, their little self-descriptions and I check their Web sites. That was how I learned this morning that Pam Mingle, fond of what-ifs and gelato and books, author of a novel called “Kissing Shakespeare”, had become my follower. “Kissing Shakespeare,” I was intrigued to learn, involves time travel, Shakespeare and love.

Pam Mingle’s blog was exactly the sort of writer’s blog I like best: serious without being self-important, full of practical advice and intriguing links. But I could not focus on the blog yet. I had to know more about the book.

Here is someone who had wrestled with exactly the problems I have been facing. Like, how do you send a person into the past in a way that is not annoyingly improbable and doesn’t become all about the science fiction? What would the time traveler notice when they got there? What would they be disgusted by? What would they like? What sort of person would they need to be? How do you solve the existential problems time travel creates without making too little of them or, again, making it too much about the science fiction? What about her decision to make this a YA book? Was that a good idea? What did she gain and what did she give up with that?

I had to know more about this book. It was the work of but a moment to log onto my public library Web site, download “Kissing Shakespeare” onto to my Kindle and start reading. I’ve only read a few chapters, but I am fascinated. She’s nailed it, I think. More on this later.

This is exactly what I needed to have happen this morning. And I owe it all to Twitter.

Bipolar Me

George Orwell, as usual, was there first and said it best:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.”

I read this long ago, but I used to think he was exaggerating. Now I see that he was understating the matter. And he left out something important: it’s like having, not just an illness, but a mental illness. With no disrespect intended, but instead deepest fellow-feeling, I think I finally understand what being bipolar must be like. Continue reading

Further Reading: Ivanhoe

Near the beginning of my current draft of “The Jane Austen Project” there is an allusion to “Ivanhoe.” As a matter of principle I have tried to read the books my characters read, and while I long doubted there was much to be gained from reading “Ivanhoe,” I downloaded the free Kindle version onto my phone anyway, just to have something to read in case I accidentally found myself on the subway between library books. This happened, and I started reading it.

I am perhaps a third of the way through, and it’s astonishing. Continue reading