25 January 2014

The latest lovely Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell
The English writer Maggie O'Farrell is a favorite of mine. She has a tender voice, lyrical and descriptive. Her characters are real, in fact, we think of them as people we know. Vivid, flawed, heartfelt. In this novel, members of an Irish family return in the heat of a dry summer to their mother's home when they discover their father has disappeared without a word. Parched, you might say, for connections, and understanding.
            I encountered O'Farrell first years ago with "After You'd Gone" a magical little novel that kept you hanging. After that, I read "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" which also focused on siblings and was surprisingly fascinating, followed by my favorite O'Farrell, "The Hand that First Held Mine." That novel subtly and incisively captured the essence of loss and trauma.
            Last year she published "Instructions for a Heatwave" which garnered a few modest reviews. I finally got around to it and yes, it is not as compelling as the others, but still on the upper rung of storytelling. O'Farrell speaks in a lilting tongue here, befitting the setting. I found myself often stopping to re-read a passage because she is so insightful.
            My critique would be only that the plot line too easily comes together. Few surprises, and these not terribly profound. Touching, but not earth-shattering, which they don't always need to be. The nuanced novel is a joy in the hands of a nuanced writer. O'Farrell traffics in tortures of the heart and this story centers on the struggles created by simple misunderstandings. Although when it comes to family dynamics, is anything simple?
            Most impressive to me was the one character [oddly named Aoife as in Eve, Irish style] one of the three siblings whose relationship dominate the tale. She is an undiagnosed dyslexic. O'Farrell deftly depicts the way words formed mazes in her mind, through which she found it hard to find her way. And, like the amazing "The Reader" this character too would rather struggle through life than confess her despair, preferring to accept the opinions of family and friends that she was stupid, disorganized and belligerent, despite her obviously elevated intellect. In fact, I might have preferred the novel to center on this character and her difficulties, which was the best part.
            If you are looking for a touching but not hyper-sentimental tale with interesting characters and story line, one that once again reveals the fault lines in families, and in a repressive culture, "Instructions for a Heatwave" is good reading. 

            Available in hardcover or for your favorite e-reader. Happy reading.

"Colors of the Wheel" now available in paperback at select bookstores, Amazon and B&N, and for all e-readers. Perfect for book groups. Cheers.

17 January 2014

The thing about Twitter

I found a writers' community at Twitter. Writers of all types and flavors. Editors. Publishers. Book reviewers. E-zines. Lit-zines. Indy book promoters. Strangers all, until that first reply, the retweet, the favorite. Suddenly, friendly acquaintances. Bonded by mutual interest. A world-wide community.

What I like best about a Twitter feed is the focus. We tweet about reading and writing. We share each other's recommendations, and frustrations. We delight in the discovery of great writing. We shout out: what are you reading this weekend?

Of course now and then, some members of the twitter feed talk about their kids. Their struggles for time to write. Occasionally I counsel or console. They do the same. Bonded by anonymity, we nonetheless care about each other. Strange, isn't it? I wouldn't know any of them if they sat down next to me at a cafe.

I wrote a blog for Women Writers Women's Books [@womenwriters] entitled Age: A Writer's Ally, which they tweeted to their universe, and suddenly I had followers in the UK and Canada, and all over the states. All sorts of writers and thinkers. They commented on my blog, I comment on theirs. We announce our book launches. We encourage each other's words. We applaud our small achievements and minimize defeats. Bonded through tweets.

They speak to me at home on the desk, on the road on the tablet, and at all times on the phone. We are constantly connected in some way, and in that, a truer community than others. Yes, I saw "Her" [a fabulous script.] I appreciate the potential artificiality of technology. But that's the thing about Twitter, it doesn't feel artificial to me. My Twitter crowd is thoughtful and courteous. We are kind to each other, more so I dare say than other communities jockeying for position.

Far more than the posturing on Facebook, the short-form posting is never intrusive. Tweets say you might find this of interest. Or not. I will not post a photo on your page or tag you in a compromising position. I will share in order to inform. You may read or not at your leisure. Respond or not. Or bless my thoughts with favorite status. That's all, no need to comment. No need to flex any muscles.

I don't concern myself with what's trending, that's a whole other sort of Twitter world. I prefer my writers' world. Discreet. Civilized and interesting.

I look forward to the latest tweets. I trust my tweeters. I look forward to followers. I learn something every day and I appreciate their brevity. Twitter works, for me.

And if you are one of my tribe, I will follow you and you can follow me, or not: @ocbookblogger.
Available now in paperback or e-book.
Amazon, B&N, select stores.

10 January 2014

New fiction by the great E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow
 Andrew's Brain. The tantalizing title of Doctorow's stunning new novel. Deceptively simple. Far from the sweeping works of the past, and like his more recent work, compelling, gripping, smart and readable. And, surprising. But I cannot say more without a spoiler.
A man named Andrew sits in an office speaking to a probing unidentified inquisitor/counselor about the life and loves of a man named Andrew. Needing, for reasons unidentified, to speak of himself in the third person.
We don’t know exactly where he is, or why, or why he is wherever he is or why he speaks to this person, but we know from the first that he despairs. Perhaps trauma. Perhaps PTSD. Perhaps merely one too many losses.
In this compact novella Doctorow presents a portrait of a man who has suffered much for what might otherwise be considered negligence. We discover early on that he lost a child with his first wife, and when his second much younger wife passes [we learn much later how] he brings their newborn baby to his former wife and her boorish husband, as if repayment, but in truth, in need of someone to care for the child, because he cannot. We’re not sure why not and the story hinges on this moment.
As Andrew recounts his tale, and all the nuances and details of his life and marriages, we meet a man conflicted and regretful, but also defensive. Questioning. A brilliant professor, he has to struggle through half his life before he begins to understand himself and, as the title suggests, the workings of his own brain.
But when did the brain become the mind, he asks? And the reader might ask the same, as he expounds on the workings of the brain, that organ that dictates to all others, including the heart. As the great DeLillo said in a recent commentary on Doctorow's writing, “...the reach of American possibility, in which plain lives take on the cadences of history.” Yes, Andrew’s monologue conveys a much larger meaning.
I admire every novel E. L. Doctorow has written, from the remarkable “Ragtime” and “The Book of Daniel” to the starkly chilling “Billy Bathgate” and the post-modernist “Homer & Langley” and “The March.” He has won just about every great literary award and still publishes enigmatic short stories in literary magazines like The New Yorker. I saw him speak a few years ago at UCI about science and humanity and he was truly spellbinding.

A new novel from this master is cause for joy and I can tell you that this late-life masterpiece will see a lot of publicity because, without spoiling anything, Andrew’s recitation suddenly places him into a political conflict of the most insidious nature, and while this story shift pulls you up short, it takes the novel to a higher plane. 
I must confess, I wanted more of the book, it was too brief for me, and the ending not satisfying in that way that novels wrap up and make sense, but of course, Doctorow leaves us to think for ourselves. What is the trajectory of our lives? How do we find ourselves in prisons of our own making? And what, or who, can alter that destiny? Read for yourself and decide.