29 November 2013

Subtext and Nuance: The Infatuations

Javier Marias
This fascinating novel by the renowned [in Europe] Spanish writer, Javier Marias, revolves around the narrator’s first person account of her relationships, in fact, infatuations, with a very few people. In truth, the story has to do with the very concept of storytelling: the subtext and nuance that reveals the heart of the story. What really happened, who speaks truth and who deceives, and, in the end, does it matter?
“The mistake of believing that the present is forever, that what happens in each moment is definitive, when we should all know that as long as we still have a little time left, nothing is definitive. We have all experienced enough twists and turns, just in terms of luck but as regards our state of mind. We gradually learn that what seems really important now will one day seem a mere face, a neutral piece of information.”
            Quotable passages abound throughout the book, and if you like existential banter and interior monologues, you will love this novel. I was infatuated with the words more than the story, where little happens, but much is revealed, slowly, and much left to the reader to decide.
            We don’t know much about the narrator, Maria. She has breakfast every morning at a café where she admires a couple also there every day, imagining their nearly perfect lives together. Their existence seems to bolster her spirits, as if guiding her into their satisfying universe. However, when he is tragically murdered, and she befriends the wife, another man enters her orbit and through him, all imaginings are torn apart, although our heroine is the least touched by all that happens in the book. Marias reminds us that what happens in life is mirrored in fiction, and equally forgettable, or so it seems.
“What happened is the least of it. It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and the ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.”
            Many of us become infatuated not only with people but with our ideas of those people and our concepts of self within their orbit. So it’s no surprise that Maria works for a publishing house and grapples with novelists to the point of exasperation. She has no real appreciation for their incessant musings, even as she lives within her own. Oh yes, The Infatuations is a lot about storytelling. 

            A literary page-turner, for the language and the simplicity of the story, this novel is not for those who thrive on high plot, rather that place where romanticism and reality coincide. I loved it.

The Signature of a Great Writer

For some reason, when I moved blog sites, some of my reviews were lost, so I am reposting my review of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Signature of All Things" because this book deserves as much attention as possible.

Elizabeth Gilbert
If you loved “Eat, Pray, Love” be warned that this is a very different book: not only a novel, but a sweeping historical and scientific novel, 500+ pages of great writing. Think Barbara Kingsolver meets James Michener and Charles Darwin. Utterly divine, but totally different than the memoir.
If you did not love “Eat, Pray, Love” and if you love a big juicy interesting read, you will love this one, because Elizabeth Gilbert, when released from neurotic navel-gazing, is a smashing writer with brilliant insights
I hated to say farewell to the protagonist, Alma Whittaker. A botanist in the 1800’s [who even imagined female botanists at that time?] she is a force of nature. Raised by an ambitious father and a stoic hard-edged mother, her intellect is prized, and she ends up taking command of the family’s personal and professional lives, including their massive homestead and her father’s thriving pharmaceutical business. Alma takes control of many things, including her libidinous passions, and like so many true intellectuals, she is curious and wise about the ways of the world, in this case the plant world, but often completely ignorant of personalities and penchants.
But Gilbert’s Alma is neither arrogant nor dismissive. She is a student of all things, including her own nature, and she learns from her mistakes with a determination rarely seen in anyone much less a woman of the 19th century.
The title stems from the writings of Jacob Broehme, a 16th century German who had mystical visions about plants, which he dubbed the signature of all things. Broehme contended, and what is commonly accepted among medicinal herbalists and shamans, that hidden clues for human well-being are embedded in the design of flowers, leaves, fruit, and trees. As such, basil is shaped like liver, walnuts like brains, etc.
Alma also comes to believe in the concept of multiple timeframes. Human time as a limited narrative based on collective memory and recorded history. Geological time, about which Charles Lyell and John Phillips had written, that moves at a snail’s pace. She also accepted the idea of Divine time, which is eternal, and she ultimately postulated what she called Moss time, blindingly fast in relation to geological time because mosses expand so rapidly by comparison to geographical phenomena. Over a lifetime of study, Alma “observed these great, inaudible, slow moving dominions of green as they expanded and contracted. She measured their progress in fingernail lengths and by half decades.”
Trust me, mosses, and algae, are fascinating!
Once Alma recognizes that she will devote her life to science, she rejoices in the possibilities: “Alma’s existence at once felt bigger and much, much smaller – but a pleasant sort of smaller. The world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in generous miniature… She would probably die of all age before she understood even half of what was occurring in this one single boulder field… it meant that Alma had work stretched ahead of her for the rest of her life. She need not be idle. She need not be unhappy. Perhaps she need not even by lonely.”
And what a life she lives! From Pennsylvania to Indonesia and to Holland, Alma leaves an indelible mark on the people in her midst, and on the reader, and in the pages of this remarkable novel lies profound universal and personal truths, as well as emotional and scientific fascinations.

I read a lot of good books and I can tell you this one is a true winner. Brava Elizabeth Gilbert and thank you.

Finding Lost Time

Years ago, a good friend in her mid-forties was working on a Masters degree, and a professor urged her to pursue a PhD in order to teach. She demurred. “I’ll be fifty by the time I complete the requirements,” she said. The professor replied: “You will turn fifty in five years – you can be fifty with a Doctorate or with a Masters.”

I never forgot those words. They apply to everyone with a dream. The only thing we know for sure is that we will age. What matters is what we do with our years. There is no statute of limitations on a dream and no rush.

I was in my late forties when I completed my Masters in Writing. My first novel had already been roundly rejected and I saw that was like training wheels on a bike – great for beginners but better stored in the shed. I was in my fifties when the next novel attracted a serious literary agent, and a slew of raves for writing, but no acquisition, and the agent gave up quickly. So did I. Perhaps, I thought, time had run out.

Still hopeful, I gave up my businesswoman persona and spent the rest of that decade as a journalist, and was nearly sixty when I started blogging. Writing is writing, whatever the form, and I learned a lot, and never gave up on fiction.

In truth, age is a writer’s ally. The greater the experience, the more we have to say. More time to learn important truths, to establish a more expansive point of view, to refine skills and find your voice, and infinitely more stories to be told. The novel I will publish in January could never have been written twenty years ago.

I would have loved to devote my life to fiction and I always admired those writers who woke before dawn to knock off five thousand words before getting a nutritious breakfast on the table for their children and heading to work. I don’t have that sort of stamina. I had a husband and children and turns out there is a shelf life on that time. Parents also needed tending. Friends needed a friend. I wanted to take vacations at the beach and save for retirement. I had a room of my own and carved out time to write, but never enough time. Or was it determination? Courage?

Time is on your side whatever the obstacles in your path, as long as you don’t let the calendar undermine your resolve.

I still make a living as a journalist and marketing writer, so I split my days. Mornings, I craft articles, book reviews, newsletters, brochures or grants. I work at home, the kids grown, husband gone. No distractions. However writing, as you know, is a lonely job, so in the afternoons, I write fiction at a café. I like the sense of camaraderie there, even if I rarely lift my eyes from the screen. With a change of scene I also change my voice from the expository to the novelist. Sometimes I use people at the next table for character sketches; sometimes I borrow snippets of conversation. Sometimes I read, which is never wasted time because I truly believe you cannot be a great writer unless you read great writers.

I wrote a story while in graduate school in 1999. An African-American nurse, a single mother with three children, tried to run three times a week or so to stay sane. The only time she had to call her own. A tragedy stops her in her tracks. I love to read short stories, but rarely write them, although some years later, I wrote another story about a depressed girl who takes up running, and I realized she might be the grown daughter of the nurse. What might have happened to the nurse? To the other children? Their kindly neighbor? Their father was Caucasian, so what challenges do brown people face these days in the land of black and white? Who might they encounter on their journeys? A novel was born. Many characters came and went, and direction shifted many times. Years passed. But now, as Toni Morrison advised, I wrote the book I wanted to read.

Age however crept up on me when I realized I had no desire to waste time querying agents or praying for an editor or wading through the labyrinth known as the publishing industry. No, I would rather be writing, so I will self-publish “Colors of the Wheel” in January and the many friends and colleagues I have known throughout this long life are rooting for me. Hopefully, they will also spread the word.

If you don’t count the original story, six years is what it took to get this book right. Six years! I might have had a PhD. 

This post was just published today on women writers, women's books: http://booksbywomen.org/age-a-writers-ally-by-randy-kraft/

20 November 2013


Cover design by Lindsay Wiley Designs.

It is official. The novel has an ISBN. Two in fact - long and short. Truly, what more iconic emblem of publishing? Exciting. In fact, this wordsmith is a bit speechless. January, "Colors of the Wheel" will be available in paperback and as an ebook. Only took 65 years!

05 November 2013

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Curl Up On the Couch Reading

I rarely take on books more than 500 pages, largely because I fear they will bog down, as they often do, and because there are so many good books to read, I rarely dally with anything too long. Not to mention a 100 page rule – if the book isn’t interesting enough by then, I’m done.
Oddly, this season alone, several great writers have released very long books, including the previously reviewed and much admired Elizabeth Gilbert, and Donna Tartt at 770 pages [the Booker winner Luminaries tops the chart at 880!]
For those of you also fans of Tartt's first novel "The Secret History" released twenty years ago, her just third novel is long awaited and has received mostly positive reviews. Thus, as the days grow shorter and winds pick up, seemed a good time to curl up on the couch with a great big book.
It is truly big, not only in heft but in depth of human experience. A few characters dominate the narrative and they are all a captivating. My favorite: Boris, a ne’er do well Russian émigré, dark at heart but light of spirit, whose voice is pitch-perfect and often hilarious and shows up at the oddest and most essential moments. 
However this novel is about Theo, orphaned at thirteen when a bomb blast rocks the Metropolitan Museum and in an odd twist of fate ends up walking away with a famous painting, The Goldfinch, by the Dutch painter, Carel Fabritius. You may remember the little gem: a golden bird chained at one leg to his perch. Ah, a metaphor is born.
Theo, chained to the memory of his mother’s tragic death, survivor guilt, the post-traumatic stress that ensues, to his self-serving, gambling-addicted father, and to loneliness. And, as it turns out, chained to the painting itself, which serves as both anchor and tormentor, and ultimately salvation.
Tartt’s descriptive prose is scintillating. Many scenes, occasionally too long, and dialogues, also occasionally too long, nonetheless enthrall the reader, as we move through a decade of Theo’s personal apocalypse. Through drug and alcohol-ridden escapades, thugs, well-meaning socialites, unrequited love, lost hopes, lost loved ones, and ultimate redemption, Tartt now and then slips an allusion to Dickens, as if the reader were not already aware that this novel is an homage to Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, among others.
I loved Dickens for the same reason that I so much appreciated this book – for the detail and the vividness of characters. We take the journey with them. Tartt peppers the narrative with profound observances related to relationships and the supremacy of friendship and concludes with some mighty fine existential stream of consciousness. She also deftly illuminates the weaknesses of the social services system, and the adult failure to fully understand the mind of an adolescent, as well as the human kindnesses that occasionally make up for that.

Curl up on the couch reading, for sure, but make sure to buckle your seatbelt, because the trip from NYC to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again is a wild ride, bumpier and faster than you might imagine and worth your time.