Tag Archives: Late Last Night Books

NaNoWriMo: Yes or No?

This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2017.


Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, in an 11/14/17 tweet: “I just stumbled on this quote and thought it was good advice for this point in NaNoWriMo. ‘One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going.’ — Goethe . . . Sometimes you have to write as if you’re Mr. Magoo.”

In a month otherwise dominated in America by Thanksgiving and the increasing notoriety/hysteria that characterizes Black Friday, NaNoWriMo has become a thing, to the point that even non-writers have heard about it. Having originated in San Francisco almost twenty years ago, National Novel Writing Month urges its participants to do one thing: write.

Yes, there are “rules”: the stated objective is for participants to write 50,000 words of a novel within a thirty-day period. For reasons unclear to folks responsible for planning, preparing, and hosting a major holiday—not to mention being on the hook for the one that follows hard upon—that period was chosen as November 1-30. Not April (taxes, I suppose), June (end of the school year), or September (start of the school year). The Scots have copied the concept as “Write Here, Right Now,” with the less-overwhelming objective of producing 28,000 words during February (29,000 in leap years?). Certainly, it’s hard to be overly ambitious in February.

Perhaps the inherent point is that there is never an optimal time to write, and we can all deliver a universe of excuses for why right now is worse than any.

Many structures have sprung up nationally in support of NaNoWriMo—a bureaucracy of sorts—and activities are organized at state and local levels to urge writers forward in achieving their word counts. Oddly, many of these are social activities, on the theory that being around similar-minded folks will serve as a focusing function rather than a distracting time sink. Writers can officially upload content to the NaNoWriMo servers so that word counts can be toted up and graphed, and official prizes are awarded to those who slog or blast across the finish line with 50K words or better.

(I’ve listened in on earnest discussions about the validity of word counts, since it’s entirely possible to cheat, as well as the concern voiced by so many over the possibility that, by uploading their work, someone will steal their words and ideas. Turns out someone has come up with a solution to that anxiety: feed your words into the app and it neatly replaces all the letters with Xs, complete with original word breaks, ready to be uploaded and counted. I wonder if someone programmed that app instead of making their word count.)

People who consider themselves “real” writers are typically dismissive of NaNoWriMo, finding it both laughable and insulting that anyone could imagine they will produce a viable work of fiction banged out over thirty days. These folks are missing the point as much as those who worry about word count cheaters.

I consider myself a “real” writer, but the amount of time I have spent avoiding or procrastinating, forgetting to write or preventing myself from writing, taken together, could legally go out and buy itself a drink by now.

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo as such—I don’t announce my intention or join any of the groups, nor do I agonize about achieving a particular word count—but I completely appreciate the intent behind the hoopla: Write. Write. Write. Stop over-thinking it, stop pre-editing yourself, stop stopping. Sit down, shut up, and write.

Writers are often asked whether they are planners or “pants-ters”: that is, whether they plan out their story in advance or write by the seat of their pants. My problem is that I’m an inherent pants-ter who somehow believes that it must be preferable to be a planner. But I’ve learned the hard way that forcing myself to plan causes me to freeze into inaction. The best way for me to figure out where to take a story is simply to start writing. I figure out solutions to problems on the fly. Ideas flow, characters and situations emerge onto the page, sometimes fully formed, like Athena erupting from Zeus’s forehead and bellowing a battle cry. I find myself wondering, “Where did that come from?” The answer: it came from writing.

Leading up to this November, I made a pact with myself that I would write something on my novel-in-progress every day, which I have not been doing for the better part of a year. It’s my intent to use my thirty days to re-establish the habit, the discipline, of working on this project daily, because—another thing I’ve learned—that is what keeps my brain working in the background on all those characters, situations, and solutions, so that when I sit down to write, they might erupt onto the page as though I never needed to think them into existence at all.

At the end of November, I will not have a completed novel. Nor, I would argue, will anyone who delivers their official, award-eligible 50,000 words. What we will have, though, is wildly more written material than we would have had otherwise, and—at least for me—a reminder that this is how the work gets done. After all, it’s impossible to get to your second draft if you’ve never written your first.

Book Review: Get to Know KNOW THE MOTHER

This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2017.

Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction entitled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.

Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?

The title story in the collection asks these exact questions, as a daughter mourns the gradual loss of her mother to Alzheimer’s, tenderly caring for her as she watches for any sign of recognition. The daughter senses that her mother, even as she gradually ebbs, enjoys an interior life that her daughter has no share in. “She is leaving me so easily, I wonder if her love ever rose above duty.”

Another story, “Nocturne”, beautifully renders a life through a series of losses, all that point to the loss of a dream: “At age seven, Jeanine lost the family dog. She had been practicing scales on the piano . . . Jeanine was thirteen when she lost the citywide Chopin competition to Grace Lee . . . she couldn’t forgive herself for putting passion ahead of perfection.”

Most of these stories run just a couple pages — and some just a few paragraphs — but Cooper’s ability to evoke entire lives in just a few strokes is magical. Because so much is packed into such compressed space, attempting to describe or illustrate any one of them risks draining them of their wonder. You simply have to read them for yourself.

Cooper writes to the dynamics of race, gender, age, culture, and families, often all at once. She illustrates the universality of experience through situations that are fully recognizable to all of us, such as the jumble of thoughts and emotions that course through a mother who sits and waits through the night for her errant daughter, in “Mourning Chair”. She envisions all the worst possible scenarios: “My daughter is easy to recognize, officer. She’s the one with her heart beating in my pocket.”

And what American of a certain age can’t identify with either the parents or the kids — or both — in “Reporting for Duty, 1959”?: a family trapped together in a hot car on an endless cross-country road trip, the kids restless and bored, tormenting each other, Mom’s increasing threat level incapable of making them behave, until the moment Dad — silent until now, authority held in reserve for the nuclear option — pulls over and stops the car.

In this case, however, the family is African-American, the dad is an Army sergeant in uniform in the south in 1959, moving the family from a base in San Antonio to another in Tampa. The kids are two boys, twelve-year-old Junior and nine-year-old Curtis, and the story is told primarily from their point of view. At one point, Junior watches as his father pumps gas into their car. “All the other dads were sitting in their cars, waiting for the gas-station people to serve them. His was the only dad who knew how to pump the gas himself.” Cooper expertly builds the tension in this story such that I almost felt the need to close my eyes.

There are many other gems in this collection — heartbreaking, elegiac, fraught, nuanced, thought-provoking — and they stay with the reader long after the volume’s covers are closed. One of the wonderful things about flash fiction, of course, is that you can re-read to your heart’s content. You’ll want to do that with Know the Mother, knowing that you’ll notice something new each time.

A Reader’s Reader

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
                                                          —Jorge Luis Borges

The following column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 May 2017.

Tom Shroder, Jenny Yacovissi, and Michael Dirda at the 2017 Washington Writers Conference.

I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.

As part of preparing for the panel, I read two of Michael’s several books: his most recent, Browsings, and his memoir of the first third of his life through college, An Open Book.

One thing that both books drove home for me is what a sweeping diversity of books Dirda reads and loves. You will not find a more erudite critic of the highest of high-brow literature, and yet he is an unapologetic fan of sci-fi, horror, and other sub-genres of pulp fiction. He is a walking object lesson in the value of having wide, all-embracing tastes in reading.

An Open Book ripples out from a central image of toddler Michael crawling into his mother’s lap as she sat on the floor each night to read to him, and expands in concentric circles from home to neighborhood to city and beyond. What I loved most about the memoir was how closely he was able to map favorite, memorable books to when he discovered them, practically year by year, and describe what they meant to him then and now, as though he had just read them. In some cases, he had just read them, because not only is he a prolific reader, he’s a prolific re-reader.

For someone like me, who thinks she reads a lot, attempting to comprehend the breadth of Dirda’s lifetime of reading is humbling. (As I said during our panel session, “I read Michael Dirda when I have delusions of adequacy, and that snaps me right out of it.”) At the end of the book, he includes two lists of the “major” books he’d read by age sixteen and by the end of high school—meaning not including the dime-store stuff—many of which I still have never read.

But reviewing those lists did prompt me to think about the books that forged my love of reading. Those early ones were T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and, yes, I fell in love with the wildly politically incorrect Mr. Rochester), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I loved Greek mythology, and I’m pretty certain that I had read The Illiad and The Odyssey by early high school. Memorizing poetry was a favorite pastime, and I remember reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” for my sixth grade class. (They didn’t appreciate that nearly as much as when I recited the well-known limerick about the pelican, after which the teacher told me to sit down. I said, “But I’m not done,” and she replied, “Oh, yes, you are.”)

Dirda recounts how it bothered his hard-working, mechanically inclined father that his one son was such a bookworm. These days we tend to worry that kids aren’t reading enough, given all the electronic competition and our decreasing attention spans. Yet I just spent all of today at the magnificent Gaithersburg Book Festival, where each year the children’s authors are mobbed. Watching that recurring scene—children clutching books in their arms, dancing a little in line as their excitement threatens to spew like over-carbonated soda—always makes me hopeful that we continue to raise generations of avid readers.

I’m with them. Reading both An Open Book and Browsings made me eager to double-down on my reading intake, though with a full-time job and lots of other commitments, it’s hard to see where it fits in. I know I’ll never catch up to Michael Dirda’s reading accomplishments, but I can certainly give them a run for the money.

A friend of mine once observed of me, sadly, that she worries that I’ll end up as a hermit, shut into my house and surrounded by nothing but books. I’m sure I got a dreamy look about me as I sighed and said, “And that’s how I’ll know I’m in heaven.”

Happy reading!

Let the Book Speak for Itself

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on March 20, 2017.

In my last Late Last Night Books posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.

Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.

That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.

Vance is the product of a strong and insular culture that is familiar to the heartland of middle America but which feels like foreign territory to the outlying populations on the east and west coasts of the U.S. Vance’s introduction does an excellent job of sketching out the bigger-picture issues that he’s spent a lot of time considering, based on his own experiences: that of the firmly embedded, cohesive/corrosive, and almost unchanged culture of the Scots-Irish of Greater Appalachia, a huge, sweeping region that ignores the traditional ideas of a north-south cultural divide. The migration of large Appalachian populations en masse to places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have in effect transplanted that insular culture along with its attendant strengths and weaknesses.

Though the author grew up in Middletown, Ohio, in what had been a solidly middle-class town supported by the local steel factory, Vance’s heart and soul resided in the holler of Jackson, Kentucky, the locus of his extended and fractious family. His fondest early memories of feeling grounded and secure came from spending time with his beloved grandmother, Bonnie Blanton Vance—Mamaw—at the home of her mother, Mamaw Blanton, in Jackson. Vance’s stories of the Blanton family, in particular of the men, would make for some wonderful fiction, while at the same time they illuminate a society steeped in clan loyalty so deep it embraced “honor” killings, the most famous of which was the Hatfield-McCoy feud.

In Middletown, where Vance was surrounded by family and neighbors who had all migrated from the general vicinity of northern Kentucky, things were less stable. His troubled mother, who had grown up in a chaotic household when Jim and Bonnie Vance were going through a brutally tumultuous period in their marriage, was nevertheless an excellent student in school and described by several as brilliant. She also dropped out before graduation—pregnant—and later succumbed to drug addiction, continually upending her children’s lives with an ever-changing cast of stand-in fathers and endless drama.

Vance makes it abundantly clear that he owes any success he’s had in life to his beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw (Jim Vance), who provided a bedrock of stability that he otherwise completely lacked, and instilled in him the absolute necessity of education. His readers can’t argue that living with Mamaw during his critical adolescent years were the difference between failure and success for Vance, but it’s interesting to consider that Mamaw and Papaw, to an outsider’s viewpoint (say, to someone from Child Services), might have looked like frighteningly inappropriate caregivers for a child. His grandparents didn’t even live together, the f-bomb was one of Mamaw’s favorite parts of speech, and a Marine recruiter once told Vance, “Those drill instructors are mean. But not like that grandma of yours.”

It’s important to realize that if the courts had been aware of the custody agreement worked out informally between his mother and grandmother, Vance would never have been allowed to live with Mamaw. It was fine by the courts for Vance to remain with his unstable mother, but if he didn’t want that, he’d have had to go into the foster care system; his grandmother would not have been seen as an acceptable guardian.

Vance is adept in helping us to see through his eyes a culture that few outsiders understand but nonetheless feel entitled to caricature and dismiss in ways that would be outrageous were they applied to other cultural or racial minorities. He very thoughtfully uses his personal experience to consider the larger issues that dog the poor whites who remain in Appalachia, as well as those who seemingly “made it out” only to find themselves trapped in the ever-rustier Rust Belt of post-manufacturing America.

Peeling back the causes and effects of enduring, multi-generational poverty—much like any complex issue with endless nuances and variables—is a thorny problem with no quick or easy answers. Hillbilly Elegy is a sincerely offered, deeply personal attempt at considering some of those thorny problems, and it deserves rational consideration and discussion.

Toward Compassion

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on January 20, 2017.

Words matter. It would be surprising if I as a writer didn’t believe that, since words are my entire stock in trade. Words have meaning. A shared understanding of the meaning of words is what allows us to communicate and function as a society. Words have shades of meaning, too—nuance—and understanding that nuance allows us all to send and receive exactly the message that’s intended.

There are roughly 130,000 words in the English language. It’s said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, which was not out of the ordinary for an educated man of his time. In comparison, modern Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. As we continue to pare back our words, nuance is lost. Shades of meaning are jettisoned, the subtle distinctions sacrificed, pounded out into the blunt instrument of whatever fits into 140 characters.

Words affect us. We may teach our children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as a lesson in resilience and the mature ability to walk away and elect not to engage, but we also know the power of words to hurt, as well as to heal. Certainly, we expect the leaders of our country, our shared community, to understand that fundamental truth and act accordingly.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the last year, and wildly more so since early November. Because I knew that I would be posting this essay today, I selected a few books to read that seemed to cut to the heart of the things that keep me awake at night.

It’s rare for a scholarly book of non-fiction to generate so much attention, but Paul Bloom hit a nerve with his 2016 book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. I know I did a double-take when I saw a quick synopsis of the book, which is basically that having empathy doesn’t make you a better person. Since I’m one of those people who believes that a lack of empathy leads us to parochial and isolationist views of the world, an us-against-them mentality that rarely leads to positive outcomes, I was intrigued to read his argument.

Bloom takes pains to clearly define what he means by empathy, because, in fact, words matter. Definitions matter. To make his argument effectively, he needs his readers to share the understanding of the word as he is using it. Here, the empathy that Bloom argues against is “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.”

He argues that for people who truly want to work toward a better world for all—and he’s a big proponent of that—relying on empathy is a bad plan. He also argues against the concept that empathy is an inherently moral attribute. Among its other poor qualities, empathy leads to tunnel vision and poor decision-making, and, frankly, it’s too exhausting to be sustainable.

He does make a strong case for “rational compassion” as the better guide for long-term investment in the world and people around us. (And it turns out that I’m more of a “cognitive empathy” person anyway, and Bloom isn’t against that kind of empathy.) The point is to engage with your world in a thoughtful, informed way that allows you to sustain that engagement over the long haul.

Next on my reading list was a completely serendipitous find, one that served as a companion piece to Bloom’s. Each Christmas, a friend of mine gives me a random book chosen because of its snarky or cynical title, knowing that it will speak to me. This year, he gave me a book the title of which is unprintable, but which neatly rhymes with glassbowls, so that’s how we’ll refer to it here.

Author Aaron James is a philosopher with a PhD from Harvard and some pretty serious publications to his credit. Despite its edgy title and the fact that James was inspired to write this 2012 book based on his experiences in international surfing, Glassbowls is even more scholarly than Bloom’s book. The two authors quote many of the same people, such as cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and reference the same research.

As with Bloom, James spends time defining his chosen term. There are specific nuances in definition that separate his subject from any run-of-the-mill jerk or douchebag: “he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

In short, the glassbowl feels a moral justification for behaving as he does, so it’s easy for him to dismiss any bellyaching from the rabble. He’s the guy for whom the rules do not apply. Those rules are for the rest of us. The reason he makes the rest of us so angry is his staunch refusal on a moral level to recognize us as his equal.

Because these guys constantly break accepted guidelines of cooperative social conduct, James explores what happens when we have an excess of glassbowls, all going around breaking the shared social contract and refusing to cooperate. It’s not good.

Last is a book that has been on my To Be Read stack for close to two years. Quoted repeatedly in Bloom’s book, The Empathy Exams is Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection of essays, and, like Against Empathy, was another unlikely bestseller. Jamison is well worth reading any time, but for me, I most appreciated the balance she brought as something of a counterpoint to Bloom.

Jamison acknowledges that she isn’t always looking for empathy in her doctors; she needs a calm, reassuring practitioner when she is riddled with anxiety, and a focused trauma surgeon who can stop the bleeding without attempting to feel what she is feeling. But many of her wide-ranging topics—such as serving as the support person for a runner in an ultra extreme race that few complete, visiting an acquaintance in prison, and participating in the annual conference of a support group for an ailment the medical community doesn’t recognize—illustrate the value of pushing outside the bounds of our natural impulse toward self-absorption.

Yes, words matter, but in this case—whether we call it empathy or rational compassion or simply a desire not to be a glassbowl—what matters is grasping in a substantive way that our experience of the world is not everyone else’s experience, and it’s worth our efforts to try to get a sense of, to comprehend, those other experiences. It expands our limited horizons, and strengthens what sometimes feels like a fragile social contract.

Words do matter, though, and when they are used like weapons to demonize and diminish, to draw lines between us and them, we all lose something. Our social fabric unravels just that much more.

I mentioned that Steven Pinker was quoted in two of these three books. Pinker is a words guy. He wrote The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought. His 2014 book is something of a “Strunk and White” for the 21st century, called The Sense of Style. When he signed a copy for me, I told him I was surprised he agreed that eager and anxious have become acceptably synonymous, since it’s impossible to separate anxious from its root in anxiety.

From my perspective, that’s not just nuance, that’s a basic difference in definition. Today offers a perfect example. Today, 20 January 2017, many people are eager, and many other people are anxious. Today, no one could confuse the two.

Jenny’s Year in Reading, 2016

I know lots of readers make this a habit, and Goodreads actively encourages it, but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to capture every book I’ve read during the year. And, sure, it would have been significantly easier if I’d simply noted each one as I read it, but scrambling to reconstitute the list on the last day of the year is so much more fun. Plus, I’m always amazed at the publications that put out their “Best of” lists way back in November or early December. What? I only just finished reading The Nix this morning!

Did I discover anything this year? I continue to be amazed at how many debut novelists show up as fully formed authors in thorough command of their voice. On the other hand, multi-published authors seem to suffer from an unwillingness by someone in authority to edit them. Also, I seem to read lots of relatively obscure books.

I’ve linked to any reviews I’ve written of the books listed, and I only noted the year if it came out before 2016.

My favorite book that should have gotten far more attention: They Were Like Family to Me by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner, 285 pp.) was originally titled In the Land of Armadillos. Changing the title could not have helped with marketing (though I guess my copy is now a collector’s item) but, under any name, it’s a set of beautifully interconnected short stories that left me a little shell-shocked and tingly, but in an entirely good way.

Other Stand-out Favorites:


Debut Novels:

  • Amour Provence, Constance Leisure, Simon & Schuster, 257 pp.
  • The Girls, Emma Cline, Random House, 355 pp.
  • Grief is The Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, Graywolf Press, 114 pp.
  • The Guineveres, Sarah Domet, Flatiron Books, 352 pp.
  • Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Liveright, 345 pp.
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 305 pp.
  • Hystopia, David Means, FSG, 320 pp.
  • The Mothers, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 275 pp.
  • The Nix, Nathan Hill, Knopf, 620 pp.
  • Surface and Shadow, Sally Whitney, Pen-L Publishing, 303 pp.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake, Scribner, 336 pp.

Short Story Collections:



Books from previous years that I finally read:

  • Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, 1955, 767 pp.
  • The Color of Water, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2006, 295 pp.
  • Crabtown, USA, Rafael Alvarez, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2015, 441 pp.
  • From Watergate to Hugo Chavez: An Ex-Diplomat’s Memoirs, Gonzalo T. Palacios, AuthorHouse, 2009, 132 pp.
  • The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2014, 480 pp.
  • The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Perennial, 2010, 507 pp.
  • Old Souls, Tom Shroder, Simon & Schuster, 1999, 253 pp
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler, Knopf, 2015, 358 pp.
  • The Tide King, Jen Michalski, Black Lawrence Press, 2013, 361 pp.

Audiobook (+ print):

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, Adam Tooze, Viking, 2014, 644 pp. The sweeping breadth and fully coherent depth of this book is staggering, and I found listening to the audiobook invaluable to my overall retention and comprehension of the material that Professor Tooze weaves together seamlessly. At the same time, I loved having the hardcover, which I used to re-read passages and chapters I had heard on DVD.

Hands-down biggest disappointment:

Barkskins, Annie Proulx, Scribner, 736 pp. In addition to my review of this book, I wrote a blog entry about it called “When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”.

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, and reading-filled 2017!

When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart

This blog posting originally appeared on Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2016.

I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society. As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, reviewing also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.

But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books. I didn’t really consider this perq until just such an opportunity popped up late last year. My A-List of favorite authors is literal — all their first names happen to start with A: Annie Proulx, Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett, and Anthony Marra. When Marra’s second book, a collection of interrelated stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno came out in the fall, I groveled to be the one to review it for WIRoB (attractive? hardly). Setting aside starry-eyed fandom long enough to read with a critical eye, I was not at all disappointed. It was easily equal to his awards-strewn debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. My review didn’t quite bestow the cachet of the glowing New York Times review the book also received, but I was glad to join the chorus of huzzahs.

I’ve just discovered the painful reality that it doesn’t always work out that way. When I learned that Annie Proulx had a new novel out after 14 years, I jockeyed to get the review assignment from HNS. While perhaps I hadn’t known her writing in the earliest days when she was E.A. Proulx, I certainly got there while she was still E. Annie. She is the first writer I discovered as an adult who made me yearn to have such command of voice, tone, and language; she’s been on my list the longest. To try to explain what it is I love about Proulx’s writing, I’ll quote from my own review, which will be out in August  (the major downside of a quarterly): “She creates characters and situations and then sits back with an ironic, god-like detachment to observe what happens next. The sense of dread draws her readers in, like witnesses to a car accident who can’t bear to look away.”

The next sentence in the review is: “Unfortunately, that voice is almost completely absent from Barkskins . . . ” I sensed trouble when I realized the novel was 700 pages long. (As an aside, HNS reviews so many books that reviews are capped at 300 words. Now, I’m no math major, but even I can grasp that the ratio of effort [700 pages] to output [300 words] is pretty lopsided.) After my initial enthusiasm gave way to confusion, then concern, and finally despair, I kept shouting in my head, “Where are you, Annie? Where are you?” There was another little voice weeping in the corner, too, uttering the eternal lament of the betrayed, “How could you do this to me?” I felt bereft having to write an unfavorable review of my favorite author’s work. It doesn’t matter that all the big reviews have already been out for ages—some of which were glowing—and that a brief review from an unknown reviewer will make no material difference. It still hurt.

It also made me consider more closely something else I’ve noticed as a reviewer: Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically “showed promise”, and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command. Unfortunately, it also seems that as writers get “bigger”—larger sales, name recognition, what passes for celebrity—people stop editing them. Later works have a tendency to be more bloated, more self-indulgent, less coherent.

It’s not even a matter of length. I’ll compare Barkskins with another novel I read for the HNS August review. Stephen O’Connor’s debut novel, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings, weighs in at a girthy 600 pages, but what he does in those pages! (I’ll note here that those combined 1,300 pages were just two of nine books I reviewed for the upcoming issue. I use this as a convenient excuse for the sad progress of my own book.) O’Connor fully imagines the decades-long intimate relationship between Jefferson and Hemings, a relationship that left no documented evidence beyond DNA. He also examines a host of the moral, ethical, and philosophical issues surrounding the relationship using wildly different perspectives and scenarios that shatter the bounds of the conventional narrative, and, not incidentally, skewer the Jeffersonian myth. Not all of it worked—I think his editor could have cut a few of the scenarios to good effect—but I was enthralled through 600 pages.

What to do when your favorite author breaks your heart? That’s easy: find some new favorites. But you should also go back to the beginning, to remind yourself of what you fell in love with in the first place. Here I come, Postcards.