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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What Are You Reading These Days?

If you are always on the lookout for a book to add to your list, you might like those interviews of celebrities or successful industrialists who mention the latest book they have read.  The New York Times always conveniently tucks one into page two of their “Sunday Review.”  This week, Kate Murphy obliges with her interview of Patricia Fleet, the voice behind the AT&T announcements.

What is Fleet reading?

A book I really enjoyed was recommended to me by the manager of the liquor store in this podunk town in Kentucky.  She didn’t have the cabernet sauvignon I was looking for but recommended a book – “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern.  It is fantasy and I’ve never like fantasy, but this just grabs you.”

When someone asks me what I have read, I usually draw a blank – one of the reasons I write lists and comments – to remind myself not only of what I read, but whether or not I liked it.

Francine Prose, author of My New American Life (which I would have forgotten had I not reviewed it), notes that this problem strikes her too.  Her response to “What are you reading these days?” in an interview for The Atlantic on her book Reading Like a Writer:

“…whenever anyone asks you for a book recommendation or what you’re reading, everything just flies out of your mind; you just can’t think of a single book you’ve ever read…So now at least I have this list and I can say, Go look at the list. Don’t ask me. Read the list!”

I can relate; I have a long list.

Still looking for ideas?  Prose concedes:

“… let me look at my desk and see what’s on it…

I’ll just add those to my list of books to read – thank you very much.   What’s on yours?

My New American Life

You may be able to take the girl out of the country, but it’s harder to take the country out of the girl.  In the case of Francine Prose’s My New American Life, the country is Albania. Twenty-six year old Lula has left Albania to find the American dream, and lands a job in New Jersey as a nanny to a sullen teenager. His father, Mr. Stanley, a Wall Street banker, has a lawyer friend, who can pull strings to get her a work visa.

She settles into an easy life of being around for Zeke when he comes from school, making egg-white omelets on Sundays – substituting for the mother who left abruptly on a Christmas Eve.  Encouraged by Mr. Stanley and her lawyer, Lula tells and writes stories about her homeland, exaggerating her family’s participation in the war and the horrors they endured – using old folktales to enliven her plots – letting her narrative seem to be real experiences she never had.

“It was nicer to mine the mythical past.  Wasn’t that the Albanian way?  Five minutes into a conversation, Albanians were telling you how they descended from the ancient Greeks…”

Her secure new life is threatened by a group of young Albanians, led by handsomely dangerous Alvo, who conveniently find her alone one day and ask her to hide a gun.

“She wondered which was more dangerous, ditching Alvo’s gun and pissing off the Albanians, or holding on to it and worrying that someone would report her to the INS. The latter seemed less likely.”  

Prose uses Lula’s sarcastic observations of American life to reflect her own opinions of post 9/11 and immigration during the George W. Bush era. Whether or not you agree with her political leanings, the comments are biting and humorous.  But Prose has a hard time sustaining the irony, and it’s tempting to move quickly over the excessive cynicism. Through Lula, Alvo, and friends, Prose also offers glimpses into an immigrant’s life in a strange country, the longing for acceptance, and the search to be with those who share a common history.

The plot line dissolves into a crazy Christmas Eve spectacle with Lula and Alvo in bed,  a surprise intruder, and the gun firing.  Alvo disappears, Zeke finds a college, and  the story takes another turn, with Lula conveniently discovering the possibilities of a court reporting career – almost as though Prose could not figure out how to end her story.  For the finale, Lula gets her American dream with all the trimmings…

“She wanted it all, the green card, the citizenship, the vote. The income taxes! The Constitutional rights. The two cars in the garage. The garage. The driver’s license.”

With tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and a contrived plot, My American Dream may make you think about what it is to be an American.

In Honor of Edgar Allan Poe – Father of the Short Story

Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday; the “father of the short story” would be 202.

The New York Times book review section uses the insights of three famous authors – Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roxanna Robinson – all who have written both novels and short stories – to capture “Small Moments,”  their reflections on the short story form, with lots of ideas for short stories to read in …

  • Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family
  • Charles Baxter’s Gryphon
  • Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision

Toibin’s collection sounds a little depressing, with tales of melancholy and regret; likewise, Baxter’s disturbed Midwesterners;  Pearlman’s ” perceptive and funny” stories sound right for me.  

“Pearlman writes about predicaments – odd, wry, funny, and painful – of being human.”

My library only has her second collection – Love Among the Greatsguess I’ll start there.

For the New York Times Book Review article: http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/review/

and for more on Edgar Allan Poe:  http://knowingpoe.thinkport.org/default_flash.asp