Friday, August 15, 2008


It’s not every day you read a book written in the second person singular, present tense. It’s even more rare for a writer to have the skill to write in this POV and actually pull it off, to make the narrator’s second person perspective appear seamless, and not jarring.

When Stewart O’Nan’s A PRAYER FOR THE DYING opens, all’s quiet in the aptly named rural
town: Friendship, Wisconsin. Jacob Hansen, a soldier fresh from the killing fields of the Civil War who is haunted by the ghastly things he had to do to survive returns home, only now he has three jobs. Describing his dual role as sheriff and undertaker, Hansen notes: “… you haven’t had much business of late, which is fine with you. Not that you mind earning your money, but when folks have need of you it’s someone’s misfortune one way or the other. The undertaking’s easy; being a constable is hard. When you put them together it can be too much, though that’s only
happened once since you’ve been back.”

There’s some nice hints that the town has seen its share of conflicts, but that’s nothing compared
to what lies ahead for Hansen, a modest, devout man who’s sometimes laughed at for being the town preacher as well as sheriff and undertaker: “Preach a little,” you said, trying not to sound proud. He really wasn’t interested, only joking, so you didn’t go into how you see all three as related, ways to give praise and thanks for this paradise. He wasn’t that kind of man – he would have laughed at you. Others around town do, some kiddingly. It’s all right. They’ll all come to you someday, and they know you’ll do right by them. It’s a contract, an honor, you tell them.”
Friendship’s my town, you say, and they think you’re a fool.”

In spite of the fact that he experiences the townspeople at their worst, Hansen constantly
strives to see the underlying good in everyone, to understand their motivation and forgive them their shortcomings, but when a diphtheria outbreak occurs, desperate and rebellious locals prove they’re capable of a whole new level of evil. It’s Hansen’s job as undertaker to risk exposure to the disease when he handles the dead, it’s his job as pastor to succor the dying and their families, but more so it’s his job as sheriff to enforce the quarantine and ensure that
nobody, not even those seemingly uninfected by the plague tries to escape.

But the disease isn’t limited to humans; it affects pets and live stock as well and some of the
most harrowing moments in this novel come from Hansen having to capture and burn the animals. When Hansen’s wife begs him to let her and their infant child flee the plague his role as husband and father, as protector of his family, come into conflict with his moral obligation as sheriff to not let anyone leave. How would it look, he asks, if he makes exceptions for some, even his own wife and child, but not others? His struggle with this and many other life-and-death decisions not only add to the suspense but constantly force the reader to stand in Hansen’s shoes
and ask themselves: What would I do?

I’ve said this before in other reviews: forcing your character into a rock-and-a-hard-place choice
is the most effective way to get the reader to connect emotionally with a character, to make
them want to turn the page.

Could it get any worse? Oh yes, and that’s one just one reason why this novel is such a standout.
The dry heat of summer that helped fueled the diphtheria outbreak has also spawned another disaster: a brushfire is raging in a nearby town, and it’s headed for Friendship. And worse, in the face of this impossible dilemma, Jacob falls victim to bouts of madness. The conflict ratchets up a hundred fold when the fire forces everyone, including Hansen, to flee the town, only they can’t
because they’re under quarantine.

Early on, Hansen contacts his friend and fellow sheriff in the next town over, Bart Cox, to help
enforce the quarantine, but when the brush fire consumes Friendship the only way to safety for Hansen and the remaining townsfolk who’ve been spared the plague’s death grip is past the very man Hansen authorized to not let anyone pass through. Hansen has two choices: kill a fellow officer and former soldier to gain passage, or turn back and face certain death for himself and the very people he’s responsible for. This has to be one of the most gripping, nail biting scenes I’ve
ever read, and it’s the culmination of an eminently satisfying and suspenseful novel..

In an interview, O’Nan said A PRAYER FOR THE DYING was inspired by Michael Lesy’s
historical montage WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, which documented a real-life diphtheria epidemic that swept through the region in the 1890s. “I ran into the book in a library somewhere, he said. “I read it and had this weird, queasy reaction to it, that gothic feeling of being terrified of and attracted by something at the same time. I thought, if I could get that
feeling into a book, into a piece of prose, that would be amazing.”

I would say he succeeded.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story – Glenway Wescott

This slim novel, first published in 1940, takes place in a single afternoon. Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate and wannabe-novelist, is visiting his friend Alexandra Henry in a Parisian suburb. One day, a well-to-do nomadic Irish couple drop by, unannounced.

With deft shorthand, the author describes the couple through Tower’s perspective on Alexandra’s assessment of the Cullens as “…self-centered but without any introspection, strenuous but emotionally idle. It was a type of a humanity that she no longer quite respected or trusted, but evidently still enjoyed.”

The Cullens aren’t traveling alone. Madeline Cullen, much to her boozing, boorish husband’s chagrin, has brought along one her true love, Lucy, a trained hawk. Madeline dotes on the bird (their hats match) and insists on it being fed the same fare as the humans (the bird prefers her pigeon raw, not cooked, hold the currants). Lucy, all dark charisma, is the center of everyone’s attention and a fascination for Alwyn (as well as the reader). She’s also a constant source of ire in Larry Cullen. While the philandering husband tolerates his wealthy Protestant wife’s financial support and lodging of Irish Catholic rebels, no doubt out of his own guilt, but Madeline sheltering this wild bird is something he cannot abide.

Larry knows Madeline’s moral code and upbringing will allow a flirtation with an Irish rebel to go only so far but no further, but her all-encompassing devotion to the hawk is something he can’t overcome, and it drives him to the breaking point.

When dinner is delayed, the ladies decide to rest up a bit. Before doing so, Madeline ties Lucy to a bench in the yard outside. With the hawk finally outside his wife’s dominion, a drunk and enraged Larry sees his one chance to do away with the bird.

And Alwyn, the aspiring writer, is all too keen to watch this drama unfold, recognizing its potential for story material. Drawing parallels of live and love with that of a captive, wild bird, he muses, “…if your judgment is poor you fall in love with those who could not possibly love you. If romance of the past has done you any harm, you will not be able to hold on to love when you do attain it, your grasp of it will be out of alignment. Or pity or self-pity may have blunted your hand so that it makes no mark. Back you fly to your perch, ashamed as well as frustrated. Life is almost all perch. There is no nest….”

There’s more drama, more insight into the complexities of human nature, the drinking life and the writer’s way, and the subtle undercurrents of the war known as marriage in this literary novel’s mere 100 pages than there are in all the modern novels I’ve read this year put together.

Michael Cunningham, in his introduction sums the merit of this oft overlooked must-read classic: “… the enormous is amply contained within the small; that the ingredients of tragedy can be found in abundance among genteel, indolent people passing an afternoon together in a parlor and a garden.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow – a memoir by Harriet Wasserman

Could an agent-client relationship start more disastrously? When a notorious womanizing author decides to seduce his agent’s young assistant, Harriet Wasserman is just a girl who can’t say no. After all, it’s Saul Bellow. When their date (and the sex itself!) ends badly, they make the decision to put the unpleasantness behind them as if it never happened.

In the early 70’s “Male Jewish American Writers” were considered the high point of literary culture. Since Diarmuid Russell already represented Bernard Malamud, when his rival agent and partner read a Bellow story in Harper’s Bazaar, Henry Volkening wrote a letter offering his services (Bellow’s first two novels were already out, having been published without benefit of an agent’s negotiating skills).

At that time, young agent assistant Harriet Wasserman already has her hands full: she worked for the two senior partners who were not on speaking terms with each other! The two agents would “communicate” by standing in the hallway outside their respective offices and issuing “proclamations” for the other – and Harriet - to overhear. When both chain-smoking agents contract terminal lung cancer within months one of one another, it’s not long before the young assistant becomes a full fledged partner. She takes on her ex-lover and future Nobel Prize winner as her primary client.

They spoke on the phone at least once a day for more than twenty years. Ms. Wasserman reveals that Bellow trusted her so much that he never read any of his contracts; her say so was enough for him to sign them.

Through Harriet Wasserman’s eyes, we learn about the complex workings of a literary agency as well as get an insider’s look at the publishing biz, including her opinion on exactly what it takes to get a book onto the NYTimes bestseller list.

What’s her advice to agent clerk/assistants on how best to learn about the biz? Read everything you file. “Filing isn’t just filing if you read what you are putting into that folder.”

Of Russell and Volkening’s justification for taking on a particular client: “Their only criterion for taking on representation of a writer was their belief in the work’s high literary quality. They never compromised for commercial reasons. Once they made their commitment, their faith in the author was unshakable, and eventually rewarded, sometimes after years of rejection after rejection.”

Agent/editor feuds are related along with the pros and cons of one- vs. two-book contracts (with or without the vacation rental in Spain thrown in to entice the author to sign). Bellow’s power as a client is also made clear: any unknown writer he recommended got signed by the agency and his publisher.

In one hilarious incident, Bellow, at a public appearance is besieged by a gaggle of wannabes all wanting to foist their manuscripts on him. Always keen to accompany Saul anywhere, Harriet is standing close by. He points her out to the crowd of budding scribes and says: “Oh, here’s my agent. You can talk to her about your manuscript.”

One author recommendation that does pan out for Wasserman is that of Bellow’s late-in-life friend, Allen Bloom. His nonfiction title: THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND not only outsold Bellow’s books, but landed Bloom that most coveted of author positions, a seat on Oprah’s couch. It’s Bloom, not Bellow who brought the agent her biggest commercial success.

She reveals that Volkening taught her a dirty trick, one utilized by agents who are too pressed for time to actually read a manuscript in advance of an author meeting: Just memorize a couple of lines from the MS and recite them back to the author as “proof” they’ve read the entire work.

More revealing was the role Harriet Wasserman played as not only Bellow’s first reader but as critique partner. That the Nobel winner would need constant, ongoing feedback and creative input from his agent on his works-in-progress, that he’d send freshly written sections to her piece-meal for her approval, that he was insecure about his writing and badly hurt by reviews (which he read!), came as surprise because his blustering public image and persona was that of the arrogant, confident literary legend. An astute observer, Ms. Wasserman notes that “the subject of each new work seems often to be a reaction to the criticism of the work that came before it.”

From his trip to Sweden to pick up the Nobel, through his 5 marriages and four divorces, through serious illnesses and fun trips to exotic places, through incredible critical acclaim and harshly negative reviews, through it all Agent Harriet was there at Bellow’s side. But as the great man aged, as his health faltered, Bellow attracted the attention of Andrew Wylie, an agent who prefers that least troublesome and demanding of authors: the dead kind. There are reasons why this carrion sniffer is nicknamed “the jackal.”

Years earlier Wylie had become infamous for making a vulgar and highly public insult of Bellow’s book, MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK. In spite of the many witnesses to this disgusting gesture, Wylie not only denied it to Bellow but decided to convince the author to sign with him. When Agent Harriet gets tag teamed by “the jackal” along with Bellow’s son (and literary executor) she doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a stunning blow she suffers, but Wasserman relates this final episode without rancor; she leaves the reader to their own outrage over how her 25-year long relationship with Bellow came to its awful end.

Spanning nearly 30 years of the publishing industry, this well written, lively memoir is a must read for anyone who's in the biz or aspires to be in it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Greene on Capri: A Memoir by Shirley Hazzard

There’s meeting cute, and then there’s meeting writerly cute.

When Shirley Hazzard first crossed paths with Graham Greene on the island of Capri, she makes a decidedly literary impression on the great man. Wisely, she makes a fast exit, one that leaves him wanting more of the young Aussie writer, the wife of his passing acquaintance, Francis Steegmuller. Hazzard later notes that their meeting was characterized by what Graham valued most, the unexpected.

She paints a picture of her new famous friend, describing his presence as, “immediate and interesting, with its emanation of expectancy and experience. His face was charged with feelings unhallowed and unmellowed, and lit by the blue extraordinary eyes… they were part of his magnetism and he knew it.”

There’s much in this memoir of his opinions on other writers, including Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, and Muriel Spark – whom he privately supported with money through her early lean years as a writer. Greene was quick and eager to tout books he liked, but intolerant of anyone who dared defend a book he found lacking.

Most interesting were Greene’s youthful influences. He lists Henty, Haggard, Hornung, Kipling, Stephenson and Conan Doyle. One book in particular stood out for the budding author: “When – perhaps I was fourteen by that time – I took Miss Marjorie Bowen’s The Viper of Milan from the library shelf, the future for better or worse really stuck. From that moment I began to write… one could not read her without believing that to write was to live and enjoy.”

Much later on his death bed, he’d make a cryptic reference to Flaubert.

Included in this slim memoir are descriptions of Greene’s Capri writing space along with a
chronicling of his writing habits: in the mornings, before doing anything, before going anywhere, he met his daily word quota. On Greene’s early writing career Hazzard relates that his first “literary successes were short-circuited by misfortunes, some of them self-inflicted.” With a family to support he climbed onto the journalist’s treadmill of article writing. He was over forty before he could afford “to write on his own terms.” Hazzard notes that after his death critics rebuked his commercial success, his mass appeal (the implication no doubt being: how great a writer could he have been since he sold millions of books).

Without judgment Hazzard portrays aspects of Greene’s mercurial personality, offering an intimate portrait of the man’s prickly, complex nature. She notes that Graham “often appeared indifferent to harm done, hurt inflicted, trust eroded. Trust itself was an unwanted claim on him, another infringement. Chaos relieved the monotony of outward order.” Michael Shelden, in his review of this book in the Daily Telegraph, describes Greene as “a manic, obsessed character who had escaped from the pages of a Patricia Highsmith t
hriller.” Hazzard describes many such character revealing details, particularly Greene’s lack of remorse, and, in my opinion, these are more indicative of psychopathy than mental illness. It comes as no surprise that forensic psychology textbooks cite Harry Lime, the villain of Greene’s The Third Man, as the greatest example of psychopathy in all literature.

In the latter third of this memoir, Hazzard spends too much time on Capri’s history and people, visitor or native. Still, Greene on Capri offers a nice intimate portrait of these writers as they enjoy the pleasures of this picturesque island.

Friday, July 25, 2008

To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia

A traditional amateur detective drama, To Each His Own starts when the town pharmacist, on the eve of the opening of hunting season, receives a death threat in the mail. "This letter is your death sentence. To avenge what you have done you will die."

But Manno, the man who receives the warning, is convinced he has done no wrong and dismisses the letter as a joke. The next day, he and his hunting companion, Dr. Roscio, are found shot to death. After a cursory investigation by the town marshal, there are no obvious suspects and no obvious motives until Professor Lauranna, a literary minded schoolteacher who still lives with his mother, spots a clue in the letter that the police had dismissed. He decides to investigate the crime himself – more out of need for some intellectual distraction than out of a sense for justice. As he digs deeper, this curious and repressed mamma’s boy discovers that the motive for murder lies in the town’s politics as well as in family loyalty. Since the setting is a small town in Sicily, secrets, lies, collusion and violence penetrate every single aspect of life, especially family and politics, and because of this, the ending is shockingly unexpected for the genre.

Very well done and highly recommended.

A word of caution: The New York Review of Books recently reprinted To Each His Own under its "classics" issues. Beware, the edition published by the New York Review of Books has a wonderful introduction to the novel in the beginning. Save this for after you have read the book. While the introduction is good, it gives too much of the plot away!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Executor: A Comedy of Letters by Michael Kruger

Translation from the German by John Hargraves

With far more moments of exquisite irony than pure comedy, this novel tells the tale of a hapless
unnamed German narrator summoned to Turin upon the suicide of his friend, the literary legend and professor, Rudolf. His assigned task is that of literary executor. His main purpose is to find the much celebrated writer’s final manuscript, his magnum opus, but to do so he must pick through dozens of boxes of documents, and navigate the messy leavings of the famous writer’s life: namely a dying wife, a mistress and a bossy, possessive secretary – all whom operate from a sense of entitlement to the estate. On top of that, the narrator must contend with a miniature zoo which the deceased maintained on his apartment’s terrace. As if the demands of three women and a menagerie of pets weren’t enough to deal with, the university where Rudolf worked believes it has certain rights to the author’s papers. The school’s president too stakes a
claim to the author’s legacy.

Kruger, himself the head of a German publishing house as well as an editor, offers keen insight
into the mind-set of a literary legend, one lacking in empathy, mostly for his own kind. Of Rudolf
he reveals: “Nothing was more repugnant to him than a gathering of authors.”

One wry bit of business was the disclosure that Rudolf attended other writers’ readings in order
to avoid having to actually read their books.

But the most oft quoted line from The Executor is: “The public has no idea that writing is a
disease, and that the writer who publishes is like a beggar who exhibits his sores.”

Rudolf has few illusions about his own talent: he knows he’s hailed as a literary star not because
his talent rates among the very best, but that his writing is the least worse of most other
writers; he’s a success because he’s not quite as bad a writer as the rest.

As the narrator pokes through box after box searching for the final manuscript, he unearths a
shocking secret, one guaranteed to destroy Rudolf’s reputation and legacy. He reels from the knowledge of how truly little he knew of the man he considered to be his closest friend. The ensuing conflict does not stem from any interior debate as to whether or not reveal this secret to the world, but to keep all the competing parties who lay claim to the estate from getting their
hands on the damnable evidence.

As the novel progresses, surprising turn of events happen in rapid succession and the ironic
twist at the end is a tour de force on par with Michael Frayn’s Headlong. With his insider’s view, Mr. Krueger has created a most satisfying story about the vagaries of a writer’s fame, and the responsibilities and limits of friendship in the face of death.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman

To me the best, most memorable books are those about a character forced to make a choice. I don’t mean a simple choice like good vs. evil, or a clear cut black and white dilemma. No, I’m talking about the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place, the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t big themed, life or death, high stakes consequences kind of choice.

The setting of Lying Awake is a Carmelite monastery located outside present-day Los Angeles, and it's a mysterious cloistered world. Home to Sister John of the Cross, it’s the peaceful sanctuary from a troubled life, the sacred place where she’s written several best-selling inspirational books, books whose income provide support for the aging monastery.

Of all the nuns, Sister John alone experiences religious visions of such dazzling power and insight that she is viewed as a spiritual master, even by her superiors. But the sister’s visions are accompanied by powerful headaches, and when a doctor reveals that they may be dangerous, she faces a devastating choice. Are her spiritual gifts, her intimate connection to God, and her ability to write luminous books on the subject, symptoms of illness – temporal lobe epilepsy - rather than grace, gifts from God? Will a "cure" – a life-risking surgery - mean the end of her spiritual visions and her talent? Will her soul revert back to one that is “dry and searching?” Will the loss of income from her books threaten the survival of the monastery, crowded in by urban sprawl? Will Sister John’s progressing illness excessively burden the other sisters with her care?

Like all great novels, I easily put myself in the shoes of this character, and my emotional involvement with the book was heightened all the more so because as a writer, I kept asking myself: What would I do? Wondering if the character would chose as I would is what kept me turning the pages. With spare prose, and astonishing metaphors, there’s not a word out of place or a single mis-step by Salzman in this slim novel. And those are the reasons why this book was the best (modern) book I read in 2007.

To read more about Mark Salzman and the Lying Awake writing process check out this Salon interview:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Origin: A Novel by Diana Abu-Jaber

Versatility is a rare trait in a writer. Diana Abu-Jaber has proven herself an author capable of writing both compelling non-fiction, and genre and mainstream literary fiction. Her first book, Arabian Jazz is a novel about a Jordanian widower and his family as they adjust to life in upstate New York. Her second novel, Crescent, is set in Los Angeles and vividly portrays the lives of immigrants and Iraqi-Americans, in particular, a female chef named Sirine who cooks Arab specialties for Middle Eastern students eager for the taste of home. Ms. Abu-Jaber’s delectable third book is The Language of Baklava, a foodie memoir that mixes flavorful recipes with tales from a multi-cultural family.

The author’s newest release is Origin: A Novel, a literary crime thriller set in the winter chill of Syracuse, NY. Among the many things this novel’s accomplishes is creating a strong sense of place. In such frosty detail is the snow and ice, the dimly lit days, the wind blasted nights portrayed that this sweltering Florida reader felt positively cool.

Like an exotic gourmet cook, Ms. Abu-Jaber combines the seemingly disparate elements from the book Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the Jodie Foster film, Nell, and the news headlines - including paranoia about terrorists, the anthrax scare, and the Love Canal toxic waste cover-up. The result is an interesting and complex story narrated by an equally interesting and complex character. Lena Dawson is a forensics investigator – a finger print technician who rarely ventures from the lab until a rash of SIDS baby deaths rouses suspicions among police. Reluctantly famous for having already solved one child murder case years earlier, Lena is drawn into this new investigation by the distraught mother of one of the suddenly dead infants.

Complicating her involvement in the case is that the investigation forces Lena to come cross paths with her brute-of-a-cop estranged husband, as well as a detective with a troubled past and a strong attraction for her. More than anything, the revelation that the murders are somehow connected to an illegal foster family placement service run by the Catholic Church, a plot eerily similar to the recently released Christine Falls, personally haunts Lena. Just as the main character from Benjamin Black’s thriller wrestles with his own abandonment as child and his subsequent status as a ward of the illegal baby ring, so too does Lena Dawson discover more truths about her own beginnings. As an abandoned baby placed in a damaged and flawed family that could never pass the scrutiny of a legal adoption, Lena grows up believing she was raised in a tropical rain forest by an ape mother. These “memories” of a lush, hot, animal-filled setting are in stark contrast to the icy reality of a Syracuse winter.

As the number of SIDS death increase, reporters hound the shy and reclusive Lena while she searches for clues. What she discovers is that someone had sent anonymous baby gifts to the parents of the stricken children – baby blankets dyed with metal-based poisons, fatal toxins that penetrate skin. The danger for Lena is ratcheted up when Lena is lured into the frozen woods by a schizophrenic-neighbor-turned-suspect, and she needs to be treated for hypothermia. Lena is then transported to the apparent warmth and safety of a hospital wherein the killer laces her bed sheets with poison in an attempt to kill the one person who is closest to figuring out their identity.

In the end, it is Lena’s discovery of the mystery of her own origin, and the resulting transformation of her ability to form bonds with people that distinguishes this complex novel from traditional thrillers.

Monday, June 30, 2008

"Midlisters" by Kealan Patrick Burke

Cover Art and 5 Interior Illustrations by Keith Minnion.

Fear is the stock in trade of the horror writer. But what horror does the horror writer (or any writer for that matter) fear most?

The blank page?

The neglected lonely spouse who keens for the company others? How about the over zealous fan, the one with the psychotic glint in their eye? Or worse, the indifferent fan who shows up at a conference much preferring to meet a certain writer, not you? Have you ever lugged boxfuls of books to a signing and then faced the grim prospect of hauling that unchanged burdensome weight back home? What about the loathed rival, the lauded man with the glamorous author photo, the guy who turns out to be an unrecognizable sad sack of an ordinary man (a disappointing image much like the one that looks back from the mirror)? Ever cross paths with a femme fatale at a conference, the man-eater determined to lure you into a dangerous hook-up?More frightening is the stark fact that however good a writer you are, there’s always some other writer who’s better, whose prowess with the prose makes you want throw your computer out the window and get a job at McDonald’s.

But there’s another, far greater fear that haunts writers.... All these and more are the subject of Irish-born horror writer, Kealan Patrick Burke’s illustrated novella, Midlisters. Main character Jason Tennant has a small but loyal fan base for his violent horror novels, stories full of “the graphic, the grue, the gore,” but his career is permanently stuck in close-but-no-cigar purgatory; he’s a writer with just enough success that justifies hitting his head again and again against the glass ceiling of being not quite good enough; in other words: a midlister.

If only Jason had the critical and commercial success of erotic science fiction author Kent Gray, a writer whose cache is all the more enhanced by the rarity of public outings, along with his literary high-brow disdain of Hollywood film options, whereas Jason “would gladly have donated one of (his) balls if it meant some fresh-faced cocaine-snuffing fuckwad at Paramount would even glance at something with (his) name on it.” The catalyst that brings Jason and Kent, midlister and best seller, face to face is an invitation to the upcoming Aurora Science Fiction & Horror Convention in Baltimore. Hard up for funds, Jason decides to pocket the allotted plane ticket allowance and drive to the conference instead. On the road, in spite of the blustery cold weather, Jason ignores his guilt pangs and decides not to pick up a conference bound hitchhiker, remembering too well a scene from his own novel where a hapless salesman picks up a hitchhiker.

Eager to press on and distance himself from imagined dangers, Jason hits the gas only to have a tire not just blow out but shred. He’s too busy cursing the fact that his left behind wife with the Triple A card in her wallet is not answering her cell phone – again - and why not, he wonders, is she with another man? – to notice that hitchhiker has crept up behind him. Realizing he’ll not get the car on the road without the young man’s help, Jason offers Walt a ride in thanks. After identifying himself as a conference panelist and expecting the usual awestruck reaction upon meeting a genuine author – any author - the midlister’s ego is deflated when Walt tells him he’s just dying to meet Kent Gray. Not wanting to seem an ingrate, Walt displays interest in the boxed books crowding the back seat. Jason gives his newest fan several freebies. When asked to sign them, a pathetic Jason makes Walt wait until he sees the midlister seated beside Kent at the conference to come up and ask for his autograph.

Upon arrival at the conference hotel, the two men part company. Here Mr. Burke gives the reader a spot on portrayal of a science fiction/ horror conference and its denizens; the faded film stars hawking their wares, photo-crazed Asian teens, the geeks in goof ball antennae head gear, and the Goth girls with their pale skin and black lacquered lips. But the action mostly takes place at every desperate writer’s favorite conference spot – the hotel bar. Jason’s flirtation with conference coordinator, Audrey Vassar, is disrupted when an unkempt conference attendee meekly complains about the toilet in his hotel room. Taking in the man’s bulbous nose, weak chin, and thinning, badly died combed-over hair Jason doesn’t realize that it’s this great man himself standing before him, Kent Gray. Relief and envy subside as Jason gets to know the famed science fiction author over a drink; he sees that just like h
im – and every other writer – that Kent Gray puts his pants on one leg at a time.

So caught up am I with all these writerly insights, and with such subtle deftness does Mr. Burke lay out the clues and cunningly introduce the killer, that I've forgotten that murder's afoot here.

And after the shocker, lurid slaying, the biggest demon Jason must wrestle is his perceived responsibility in this tragic event.

Written with muscular, lean prose by a consummate storyteller, and with its delightful illustrations, Midlisters will be appreciated by all who write, and by those many readers who enjoy a terrific yarn, one that ends with a wicked and thought provoking plot twist.

Born and raised in Dungarvan, Ireland, Kealan Patrick Burke is an award-winning author described as "a newcomer worth watching" by Publishers Weekly. Some of his works include the novels Currency of Souls and The Hides, the novellas The Turtle Boy (Bram Stoker Award Winner, 2004), Vessels, Midlisters, and the collections Ravenous Ghosts and The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others. Aside from his accomplishments as an author, Kealan also edited the anthologies: Taverns of the Dead (recipient of a starred review in Publishers Weekly), Brimstone Turnpike, Quietly Now: A Tribute to Charles L. Grant (International Horror Guild Award Nominee, 2004), the charity anthology Tales from the Gorezone and Night Visions 12 (also recipient of a starred review in PW). You can learn more about Kealan and his books by visiting

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls was written by Benjamin Black, pen name of Man Booker Prize winner, John Banville. It begins a tad awkward with Mr. Banville not exactly sure-footed in his use of third person omniscient point-of-view. Early on, the author switches between characters’ POV’s - sometimes mid-paragraph. The effect is jarring and off-putting. Eventually the author settles down and, for the most part, effectively uses a version of the more limited third person POV.

Quirke, the wonderfully complex and conflicted main character, is a coroner in 1950’s Ireland. As a child, he was rescued from a Catholic orphanage by a corrupt judge, and raised alongside Judge Griffin’s own biological son, Mal. That the judge favors the foster child over his own flesh and blood is just one cause for resentment among many between the two men. Mal is a prominent OB-GYN. His involvement in the cover-up of the death of pregnant Christine Falls, and his “brother” Quirke’s suspicion of him as the girl’s killer are the crux of the matter.

What will Quirke do with what he believes to be the truth about what happened? And what of the newly appointed Papal Lord, Judge Griffin’s role in the church- sanctioned baby smuggling scheme that the coroner unearths? Will Quirke rat on the man who provided him with a home, love and every opportunity that money can buy?

The best scenes in this book are the one’s that take place in the morgue. Mr. Banville expertly captures this dark and nether word, and accurately portrays sort of the characters whose sensibility allows them to easily commune with the dead.The action switches to Irish Catholic Boston where the author ventures deep into Lehane territory, a place where deeply flawed characters at cross purposes are bound to each other by debts and favors owed.

Like any master of suspense, Mr. Banville lets the tension build by letting exquisite details play out, knowing that the anticipation of violence is far more frightening than the thing itself; in one scene, the action cuts away just as the thugs move in for the kill, and the author let’s the reader do the work – to use his or her own imagination to enact violence that is far more personally horrifying than any Mr. Banville could portray. Any character deemed sympathetic is killed or hurt “off camera” - so to speak; an interesting choice for a new crime writer to make. The only extreme violent assault that is actively shown is that of the villain - Andy Stafford -when he has the crap beat out of him. In this bar room brawl scene, Banville perfectly captures the “zero state” of the sociopath – the moment just before the Andy lashes out at the man in the bar who dared insult him:

“A heave of suppressed merriment passed along the table. Andy looked at the floor, his lips pursed, then sauntered forward, carrying his beer glass. He stopped in front of McCoy, who was wearing a checked lumberjack shirt and denim overalls. Andy had gone chill all over, as if he was breaking out in a cold sweat, although his skin was dry. It was a familiar feeling; there was almost a kind of joy in it, and a kind of happy dread that he could not have explained. 'Better
watch your mouth, pal.'"

About a third of the way through the novel, we’re introduced Andy, an edgy American truck driver. Both he and his tragically besotted wife, Claire, are pivotal characters; introducing them so late in the game slows down the forward momentum of the book. But the conflict surrounding Andy builds quickly. Childless Claire opts to take in a foster child – Christine Fall’s smuggled baby. Andy’s resentment and malevolence toward the infant is palpable, and I held my breath every time Andy went anywhere the doomed child.

Later, when the baby dies, Andy has the sociopath’s rationalization of his actions – the baby was crying – and denial of guilt – the child must have a flaw in its brain that made it die when violently shaken. As a student of forensic psychology, I can attest that Mr. Banville has a pitch-perfect ear when it comes to psychopathy.

However, like a lot of male writer’s, his portrayal of woman leans toward the clichéd and one dimensional, most of the women in this book are weak, tearful, victimized and put-upon. There were a couple of sex scenes when some randy gals gleefully jumped into bed with men they barely knew. I rolled my eyes and moved on.

At best, the plot is convoluted. With it built around the corruption and skullduggery of the Catholic Church, I half expected Silas from The Da Vinci Code to pop out of the woodwork. I never quite bought the premise of babies born to un-wed Irish Catholic girls being smuggled into the US, farmed out into temporary foster care with the expectation that when the children were grown, they’d become priests and nuns; thus fulfilling their obligation to the church-run orphanage. Was there are shortage of priests and nuns in the 1960’s? I doubt it. That this would be the set up of a Byzantine murder plot challenged this reader’s suspension of disbelief.

In spite of these flaws it is pathologist Quirke’s inner conflict over betraying the very people he owes and loves that makes Christine Falls a decent read. According to the jacket flap, we’re to see more of Quirke for this book is the start of what promises to be a psychological and character driven crime series.

Am I the only one who noticed that the Christine Falls book cover is nearly identical to A Woman in Berlin? – a book I highly recommend.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"A Welcome Grave" by Michael Koryta

I’ve seen it before – books that feature an ex-cop-now-a-private-investigator-with-a-dame-troubled past – you know – the stuff that noir thrillers are made of - but I haven’t seen it this well done in quite a long time.

With a deftly handled complex plot, nail-biting suspense and thoughtful characterization, Michael Koryta’s A Welcome Grave is a stand out – but some might argue that it’s not exactly a stand alone.

Every writer of series fiction has decisions to make. Near the top of this list are the choices to create a mostly self-contained work, or to craft an individual novel part that’s of a greater – and still continuing - whole. Mr. Koryta seems to have decided upon the latter.

Make no mistake, A Welcome Grave wraps up all this episode’s main plot lines in a neat and entirely satisfying package, but there’s unfinished business from past books that comes into play here, as well as changes to new and old relationships that will no doubt be relevant in the next books to follow. Bottom line: having read this book, I now plan on reading the earlier books in Mr. Koryta’s Lincoln Perry series, starting with the winner of the annual SMP/PWA Prize for Best First PI Novel, and Edgar award nominee: Tonight I Said Goodbye.

A Welcome Grave starts out simply enough: the husband of Lincoln’s ex-fiancé, Karen, turns up not just dead, but viciously tortured prior to death, leading the cops to think that this homicide is personal – and who would be so inclined to do such a heinous deed, none other than the man whose fiancé dumped him so she could marry the lawyer-turned-homicide-victim, Lincoln Perry himself. Complications ensue.

Convinced that he’s gotten over Karen’s rejection, Lincoln reluctantly agrees to help investigate the murder of her much older husband, Alex Jefferson – a lawyer who got rich by being the go-to guy for the seriously rich when they get themselves into a big, stinking heap-load o’ trouble.

But the not-so-rich, like Lincoln Perry, have a fixer of their own – a soft-spoken, knife wielding Russian mobster named Thor, a character who appears to have been a big player from a previous Lincoln Perry novel, and a villain/anti-hero who’s so charismatic and complex you can understand full well why Mr. Koryta would bring him back on stage for an encore. As the true murderer of Alex Jefferson sets up Lincoln Perry to take the fall, it’s Thor whom Lincoln turns to when both the cops and the killers close in on him.

In A Welcome Grave there are enough red herrings to keep the most careful reader and savvy thriller fan guessing, with plenty of raised stakes, riveting twists, and sudden shockers to keep the pages turning till the very end. What makes this slim novel even more impressive is the way Mr. Koryta weaves into the plot the up and downs in Lincoln’s key relationships, in particular, the evolution of his partnership with Joe Pritchard, as well as his tenuous romance with reporter, Amy Ambrose; character developments play out in tandem with the action, and only serve to enhance the plot. At the heart of this novel is the theme of just how and why we perceive someone as guilty, and the life-and-death consequences of getting it wrong.

With its rich characterization and intricate plot, it’s no surprise that A Welcome Grave was nominated for a Quill Award in the mystery/suspense category.

To learn more about the author and his books, please visit:

And be sure to watch for his next book, Envy the Night, coming August 5th, 2008.

Here's what Publishers Weekly has to say about this upcoming release: "Revenge drives this superb stand-alone... Koryta's dialogue is as sharp as the knives his characters wield, and his plot twists at the most unexpected moments. This thriller places Koryta solidly in the company of the genre's most powerful voices." - (starred review)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan

Every so often a novelist’s first book blazes across the literary firmament, inspiring “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from all who read it. Cold Mountain comes to mind, along with Snow Falling on Cedars – two books that received glowing reviews and wide-spread acclaim.

Sometimes a writer takes several books to hit their literary stride, and after slowly building a masterful command of literary writing, they take a sudden quantum leap forward with a book that out-shines anything they’d previously written. In my opinion, Ian McEwan fell into this category when he published Atonement. One reviewer said, “If God could write a novel…” while another stated that in 100 years it will still be read and considered a classic. They were right.

After reading all these stellar books, I ask myself the following questions: What the hell are they gonna do next? How in the world do they top this?

Harper Lee certainly knows the answer: They can’t.

Still, I was eager to read McEwan’s follow-up to Atonement, but was only able to muddle through the first few pages of Saturday. After that bitter disappointment, I had no intention of reading On Chesil Beach - not until literary agent, Nathan Bransford, convinced me.

Chesil’s a pint-sized novella, a worthy read that at first seemed more like a character study than a fully-realized story....until I came to the end. The plot: two virgins have a disastrous wedding night. But this is so much more than just a Masters and Johnson case file on sexual dysfunction.

Some reviewers pooh-pooh’d the idea that anyone would be a virgin, let alone a dysfunctional one, at the start of the 1960’s. These reviewers cited the Stones, the Beatles and The Pill as proof positive that everybody experienced the sexual revolution. Cleary, Mr. McEwan addresses all these naysayers (did they even read the book? in particular this part?):

“The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tales about America. The blues he heard at the Hundred Club suggested to Edward that all around him, just out of sight, men of his age were leading explosive, untiring sex lives, rich with gratifications of every kind. Pop music was bland, still coy on the matter, films were a little more explicit, but in Edward’s circle the men had to be content with telling dirty jokes, uneasy sexual boasting and boisterous camaraderie driven by furious drinking, which reduced further their chances of meeting a girl. Social change never proceeds at an even pace.”

The author paints a complex and detailed portrait of two people whose lifestyle and background preclude jumping into the drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll fray; 1962’s rural Turville Heath and cloistered Oxford are not the same place as 1968 London. The relationship between the two main characters: up-market violinist, Florence Ponting, and down-trodden grounds-keeper-turned-historian, Edward Mayhew, reminded me of the English characters, Chris Nolan and Chloe Hewett from Woody Allen’s film, Match Point – the motivation and backgrounds of the husbands-to-be are quite similar, all the way down to the calculating tennis games with their much more well-off and sophisticated in-laws (am I the only one to notice the resemblance in plots?). The bride’s appeal seems to lie more in what she represents than what she is – not exactly the main ingredient for a loving marriage for Florence and Edward:

“In fact, he was entranced, he lived in a dream. During that warm summer, his desire for Florence was inseparable from the setting – the huge white rooms and their dustless wooden floors warmed by sunlight, the cool green air of the tangled garden breathed into the house through open windows, the scented blossoms of North Oxford, the fresh hardback books piled on tables in the library – the new Iris Murdoch (she was Violet’s friend), the new Nabokov, the new Angus Wilson – and his first encounter with a stereophonic record player.”

But unlike Allen’s film, there’s no third-party sultry siren to muck up the bride and groom’s future; McEwan’s characters do that just fine on their own.

The author beautifully lays the groundwork for the final scene by revealing both characters’ damaged and loveless relationships with their mothers. Flo’s mom is a prickly, Oxford don, and a brainy, brittle woman devoid of affection for anyone. Edward’s mother barely functions due to a horrific brain injury suffered while pregnant with twin girls; their house is pig-sty due to her inability to focus on, or complete the most basic housekeeping task. Clearly this isolates Edward from his school friends and later, girls – although Florence, to her credit, never once disdains or looks on askance at the squalor of her future-in-laws.

Flo’s mother, Mrs. Ponting, made the choice to grin-and-bear the demands of marriage and motherhood while pursuing her true love – her career as a lecturer and college professor, whereas her equally ambitious musician daughter, coming of age on the cusp of the sexual revolution, wrestles with the still limited choices of her generation. As a character written in the tradition of Henry James himself, a man who enjoyed the comforts and joys of friends and family while at the same time preferring the solitude he believed was required to pursue the artist’s life, Flo’s plan as woman and an artist is to perpetuate the charade of a marriage, and therefore garner the social position expected of her while at the same time putting all her energy and passion into her music career.

Edward’s lack of sexual experience stems from the time and place he lives in, as well as the dysfunctions and deprivations of his own family. It comes as no surprise that he’s a rather over-eager groom on his wedding night, or that the chaste Florence is anxious about losing her virginity. The surprise comes from Flo’s proposal to Edward
when they come together on Chesil Beach: that of an unconsummated marriage-in-name-only, with Edward given the freedom that most men dream of – carte blanche to sleep with whomever he pleases while Florence chases after the fame and glory of the concert stage.What did Edward chose? What were the consequences of his reaction to Flo’s flight from the marriage bed? Reader, I’ll leave it up to you to find out. While Chesil – (nor any other book for that matter) lives up to the perfection and glory of Atonement, I’m grateful to Nathan Bransford’s recommendation to give this novella a second chance.

Of course, if you want to read a truly great novel about a woman forced to chose between a career in the arts and the conventions of marriage, read Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffett

I’ve read a great many thrillers where the bad guy is almost always portrayed as a sociopath. Sure, these writers do some research, most likely online, and create an over-the-top portrait of extreme villainy without ever fully understanding the subtle complexities, the common ordinary fact of evil among us, and hardly ever do these authors even attempt to understand just what makes their bad guy tick. What’s also missing in these modern thrillers is that for the diagnosis of psychopathy to be accurate, the person must also have been diagnosed in their teenaged year as what psychologists call a “conduct disordered” youth.

So, rarely do I see sociopaths accurately depicted; and even more uncommon is to encounter a novel that explores psychopathy as a trait inherited across generations, but when I started reading Kelly Braffet’s debut novel Josie and Jack, I knew I was in the hands of a bold and mature author with insight into the dark recesses of the human psyche that few writers possess. After I was done, I put the book down and thought: This book should be required reading in every forensic psychology class. Ms. Braffet nails it.

While some have compared Josie and Jack to V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (a book, I confess, to have never read) I can attest that it is much more on a par with Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and John Fowles’ The Collector in that the reader is in a constant state of unease as they turn the page; they know that unlike more conventional and less realistic thrillers, that good will not prevail in the end and that true evil is not some liver-and-fava-bean-eating caricature of a monster but is as ordinary seeming as the paper delivery boy. Or your brother, sister or father. What the readers of these books far more sophisticated books can never guess is: How will it end?

Bored and boozing teenage siblings Josie and Jack pass the time during their abusive college professor dad’s long absences by driving into the small Pennsylvania town where they live; Jack’s purpose is to use his sultry sister as bait to entice a young
pharmacy clerk to steal drugs for them. When Kevin falls for Josie, Jack’s incest-fueled jealousy turns violent. Withdrawn and repelled by Jack’s rage, he lures her back to unquestioned loyalty by reminding Josie: “There’s a gap between us and them and you can’t bridge it.” With their mentally ill mother “Crazy Mary” long dead from suicide, and their supercilious father gone away all week, caught up in academic politics and scandal at a college that’s too far away for him to drive home every night, Josie has no choice but to acquiesce to a brother who is both tormentor and protector. And lover.

Joe Raeburn, their father, returns to the role of full time father during the Christmas break. Tensions between father and son come to a head when Jack betrays Joe by providing an academic rival with the ammunition to destroy his career. Jack storms off, leaving Josie in such a state of such lonely destitution that when he returns briefly to raid the house for valuables to pawn, Josie begs her take him with her, even if it’s to his new girlfriend’s house.

As the transient siblings end up in New York City, they drift from hustle to con, sponging off a series of women easily fooled by Jack’s seductive wiles. But as each
woman in turn suspects there’s more between the siblings than just filial loyalty, things can only turn ugly, especially since the sort of people who don’t mind housing a couple of petty thieves tend to be criminals themselves. Jack’s last mark is Lilly, a woman with movie star glamour who’s as corrupt and amoral as he is. Josie learns the hard way there’s no honor among thieves. After being drugged, she’s raped by two men, friends of Lily. In what seems like homage to the Paula Fox classic Desperate Characters, Josie is bitten by a ferret as she stumbles her way through her rapist’s apartment. She’s later treated for rabies. The subsequent events represent a turning point for Josie, and the reader is stunned by the unexpected violent culmination of this dark and twisted tale.

Kelly Braffet's first novel, Josie and Jack, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. She was born in Long Beach, California, in 1976, and has lived in Arizona, rural Pennsylvania and Oxford, England. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, and has taught novel writing at the Sackett Street Writing Workshop. You can read more about Kelly at her way cool website

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell

Did you know that Ernest Hemingway called Dawn Powell his “favorite living writer?”

In “Turn, Magic Wheel,” written in 1936, Dawn Powell began a series of books satirizing literary life in New York City. Powell’s biographer, Tim Page, has stated “if there is another novel that manages simultaneously to be so funny and so sad, so riotous and so realistic, so acute and yet so accepting in the portrayal of flawed humankind, I have not yet found it.” All this high praise is much deserved for I haven’t read a book this good in years!

Ambitious novelist Dennis Orphen decides make a name for himself by writing a book based on the life of his close friend Effie Calingham – ex-wife to a Hemingway-like literary legend. Fifteen years have passed since Effie graciously let Andrew Callingham run off with another woman. At the time the scorned wife made a conscious choice not to put up a fight or indulge in any melodramatic scenes in the belief that he’d love her all the more for making it easy for the literary legend to pursue what she thought would be a temporary dalliance. But was it the right choice?

Long after her divorce has gone through and after Andrew’s marriage to Marian, her rival, Effie valiantly upholds her ex-husband’s legend and her connection to him. She wears his name like a banner; she admits to no one that she has been thrown over and rejected; she feeds on her memories, exalting Andy as a hero, she nurses a secret, romantic hope that some day he will return to her.

During Andrew Callingham’s self-imposed exile abroad, he has become a writer of extraordinary repute, inciting the up-and-coming novelist and notorious womanizer Dennis Orphen to seek out a platonic friendship with a much older woman, the author’s ex-wife, as a means of access to the great man. Although they are the closest of friends, Dennis and Effie see each other daily; though he has an angry pity for her, though his attitude is one of half-worshiping affection, Dennis wants to make a name for himself as a writer, so he cannot resist the temptation of putting Effie into print.

Dennis has a ravenous curiosity about other people’s lives, and Effie’s romantic story offers him tantalizing material. “Turn, Magic Wheel” opens on the eve of his tell-all’s publication and the revelation of his blatant betrayal of Effie. Under the thinnest of disguises he’s written a book about the Callinghams, exposing Andy as an egotistical rake, proof that Effie’s life is founded on pathetic lies.

While Effie, whom he despises himself for hurting, is attempting put on a game face to the world, Dennis has his own problems. For several years he’s been stringing along his girlfriend, Corinne, an aspiring writer and devoted, desperate housewife who deceives her prosperous husband with breathless innocence. For all her frivolity, her alternating clinginess and flirtations with other men, Dennis and Corinne share a powerful sexual attraction; while he has no illusions about her, she is a necessary evil to him. Corinne, then, has the power to arouse his passion and his jealousy, but--by a strange quirk--it is to Effie that his loyalty is given – for she’s the one woman who will never try to tie him down.

The newspapers’ proclaim the debut of Dennis Orphen’s roman-a-clef of Andrew and Effie marriage and break-up, they also bring news that Andrew has thrown over Marian for a Swedish dancer. In an ironic twist, Effie can only empathize with Marion while secretly hoping for Andrew’s return. When word reaches Effie that Marian is dying of cancer in a nearby hospital, Effie has enough kindred spirit in her to attend to her now pitiful rival in her desperate time of need, she also recognizes the opportunity to connect once more with her ex-husband when Marian enlists Effie’s help in summoning Andrew to her death bed.

The scenes between the two Mrs. Callinghams, their dialogue and inner thoughts as they re-hash their roles in the great man’s life and career, their feelings for each other as rivals who share a past and man only they can understand are alone worth the price of reading this book.

Will literary lion Andrew Callingham tear himself away from his new girlfriend, from his splendid life of wealth and acclaim to re-unite with Marion? Or Effie? Both? Neither? And what of his opinion on Dennis Orphen’s just released libelous book and Effie’s connection to its author? More so than any thriller I’ve read this year, this book kept me up nights, turning the pages to find out the answers.

But “Turn, Magic Wheel” is about so much more than this. With the advent of Dennis Orphen’s book, and its subsequent sensation, Ms. Powell satirizes the NY literary world, skewering publishers, agents, editors, and writers in equal measure. What surprised me was how little the industry has changed since the 1930’s when hype and controversy ruled over talent, and derivative pedestrian writing still finds an audience.In the tradition of the best old Woody Allen films, this book pays homage to Manhattan; the lyrical descriptions of the city will leave you breathless. Every minor character in this book is distinct and exquisitely drawn, and the main characters are complex, each a study in contrasts, inner conflicts and irony. With its fully realized characters and scenes that are both hilarious and heartbreaking in the same moment, this is the ideal teaching novel – a level of perfection to which every writer should aspire. The more than satisfying ending is an inevitable surprise, a moment when you say “of course” and at the same time say, “God, I never would have guessed.”

Dawn Powell was born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, on November 28, 1896, the second of three daughters. Her father was a traveling salesman, and her mother died a few days after Dawn turned seven. After enduring great cruelty at the hands of her stepmother,
Dawn ran away at the age of thirteen and eventually arrived at the home of her maternal aunt, who served hot meals to travelers emerging from the train station across the street. Dawn worked her way through college and made it to New York. There she married a young advertising executive and had one child, a boy who suffered from autism, then an unknown condition.

Powell referred to herself as a “permanent visitor” in her adopted Manhattan and brought to her writing a perspective gained from her upbringing in Middle America. She knew many of the great writers of her time, and Diana Trilling famously said it was Dawn “who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit.”

When Powell died in 1965, virtually all her books had gone out of print. Not a single historical survey of American literature mentioned her, even in passing. And so she rested in peace, seemingly destined to be forgotten – or, to put it more exactly, never to be remembered.

How things have changed! Twelve of Powell’s novels have now been reissued, along with editions of her plays, diaries, letters, and short stories. She has joined the Library of America, admitted to the illustrious company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Edith Wharton. She is taught in college and read with delight on vacation. For the contemporary poet and novelist Lisa Zeidner,

writing in The New York Times Book Review, Powell “is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland, and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh.”For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell’s sudden popularity: “We are catching up to her.”

Her books live, and with these newly designed editions, with their reading group guides inside, more people than ever before will be able to hear Dawn’s distinctive voice.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Washington Irving: An American Original - Brian Jay Jones

By combining a lively and engaging voice with scholarly acumen and artful attention to details, Mr. Jones has written a biography that is, by far the best I’ve ever read.

What a delightful surprise to come upon this book right after the conclusion of the HBO mini-series on John Adams. Washington Irving: An American Original picks up where that mini-series leaves off; it fills a void made by wondering what happens next in the lives of those larger-than-life political and historic figures.

That Washington Irving was the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, that he built a picturesque house on the Hudson River, I knew because I’d visited the house and read the story as a child, but that Washington Irving was an attorney, an adventurer, a devoted theatre goer and scathing drama critic, a political insider, an ambassador to foreign countries, a friend and confidant of presidents and royalty, a prolific biographer and the first commercially popular author produced by this brazen nation, this was revelation.

In the hands of a writer of lesser skill, the subject of a life as large and all-encompassing as this might have proved daunting, but with a master biographer’s touch does Mr. Jones seamlessly chronicle the personal and family history with the travels and political duties of Washington Irving along with his writing life and career as America’s first best-selling author.

By describing the behind-the-scenes maneuverings and upheavals of national and international politics, by rendering an economy, and in particular a publishing industry in serious financial trouble, Mr. Jones wisely lets his reader draw their own parallels with the current political and economic conditions. By painting such an intimate portrait of the vicissitudes and triumphs, the chronic doubts and sudden successes of Washington Irving’s process and progress as a writer, Mr. Jones allows the modern day writer to draw their own personal analogy to his or her self, and they are all the more engaged as readers because they see their own course, experience and struggles reflected in Irving’s.

Irving coined words such as “Gotham” and “Knickerbocker,” and yet grammar and spelling were not his strong suit. More than anything, he is a writer who not only got that publishing is a business, but that the best way to succeed in it is blatant self-promotion and hype. At nineteen, to distract from the doldrums of law school, he created the persona of Jonathan Oldstyle. Under this guise, he wrote Gawker-styled gossip pieces and took pot shots at theatre performances. At age twenty-three, he passed the bar. As a way of avoiding having to actually work in the legal profession, Irving, along with his rabble rousing friends, the “Lads of Kilkenny,” started Salmagundi – a magazine designed to “‘….ridicule the follies and foibles of the fashionable world,’ and generally poke fun at just about anything.” With an exuberant hubris, they inform readers that “like all true and able editors, we consider ourselves infallible… that every opinion which we may advance in either of those characters will be correct, we are determined, though it may be questioned, contradicted, or even controverted, yet it shall never be revoked.”

Men after my own heart, indeed.

Irving’s next – his first full length project – was a parody of another author’s earlier work considered by many as pompous and mundane. However, as most writers Irving let distractions lure him away from his unfinished task. It took the death of his seventeen-year-old fiancé, Matilda Hoffman, for Irving to seek the solace of endeavor. He did a massive re-write of what he’d already completed, taking the work in a different direction than originally intended. Under the new pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker he published A History of New York. Along with that he concocted an over-the-top marketing plan – a genius hoax perpetrated against his readers. By placing notices in newspapers, he both worried and piqued the public’s curiosity with the “account” of a small and feeble minded man named “Knickerbocker” - an elderly gent who’s gone missing. Subsequent pot-stirring notices told of brief “sightings” of the eccentric geezer, and Irving even offered a “reward” for knowledge of his whereabouts. But Irving proves his marketing brilliance with the follow-up, buzz-inciting ad from Knickerbocker’s “landlord”:

To the Editors of the Evening Post

Sir, - You have been good enough to publish in your paper a paragraph about Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was missing so strangely some time since. Nothing satisfactory has been heard of the old gentleman since; but a very curious kind of book has been found in his room, in his own handwriting. Now I wish you to notice him, if he is still alive, that if he does not return soon and pay off his bill for boarding and lodging, I shall have to dispose of his book to satisfy me for the same.

New York was on the edge of its collective seat fretting the fate of this book. They didn’t wait long. A couple of weeks later the “landlord” announced the publication of Knickerbocker’s book – a ambitious satire that opens with a brief history of the world, that once dispatched, gets down to its most significant event: Henry Hudson’s discovery of the island of Manhattan. And thus was the author’s career launched.

But not for long. Doubts went hand in with fame and positive reviews: “Reading… some of these criticisms… I feel almost appalled by such success, and fearful that it cannot be real – or that it is not fully merited, or that I shall not act up to the expectations that may be formed…. now that it is so extravagantly bepraised I begin to feel afraid that I shall not do as well again.”

Irving’s life as a writer was marked by innumerable distractions, health problems, crushing financial losses that stemmed from both his and his family’s poor business decisions, and stunning reversals of fortune followed by sudden windfalls, and golden opportunities.

Often, his writer’s ego was bruised by a fickle reading public. There was even an anonymous stalker/troll who taunted him with bad reviews. There was a period where he came dangerously close to slipping out of print. He had a prickly relationship with his famed publisher as well as fellow celebrity author, James Fenimore Cooper. Loopholes in what little copyright laws they had then both enhanced and drained his bank account. Irving was even accused of doing sock-puppet laudatory reviews of his own work, and there were claims of plagiarism. Frequently, he’d lament his role as a tabloid celebrity.

Sir Walter Scott was an early fan and mentor. In later years, as Irving’s reputation grew in stature, young up-and-coming authors such as Charles Dickens and a wily Edgar Allen Poe sought his counsel and approval. When Irving began his ministry as America’s diplomat to Spain, he met a young politician’s aide eager to show the literary legend a manuscript written by his brother. So impressed was Irving that he touted the book to his own publisher. Thus Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, came into being.

From a youthful Irving attending the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr when Burr was charged with treason and high misdemeanor, to his on-again/off-again friendship with Martin Van Buren to his diplomatic service in England and Spain, to his role as biographer of subjects as diverse as George Washington, John Astor and Muhammad, to the chronicle of his travels through Italy, Spain, Mexico and the Oregon Territory, Irving was not only politically active, he had a front row seat to much of history.

In spite of the many hats he wore, Washington Irving was above all else a New Yorker. On the day of his funeral the courts in New York City shut down so that government officials could pay their respects. All across New York flags were lowered to half-staff to honor their native son. In Tarrytown, more than a thousand mourners filed past his casket. In a later memorial service, Longfellow stated: “We feel a just pride in his renown as an author, not forgetting that, to his other claims upon our gratitude, he adds also that of having been the first to win for our country an honourable name and position in the History of Letters.”

Of the accomplishment that Mr. Jones has achieved with this book I think it best to repeat the quote made by another much feared reviewer - Edinburgh’s Francis Jeffrey - whose sentiments towards Irving’s work mirror my own on this most excellent and readable of biographies: “We have received so much pleasure from this book that we think ourselves bound in gratitude to make a public acknowledgement of it.”

Well done, Mr. Jones! Well done!

To learn more about Brian Jay Jones please do visit his website:

And don’t forget to stop by his blog:

And to learn about my own connection to Washington Irving and Sunnyside, read this: