Here’s what I love about my dog, Bodie. He doesn’t worry about the Supreme Court, climate change or the point of life. He’s all about eating, sleeping and running (off-leash whenever possible). ¶ I realize I lost a number of you with my first sentence. And pre-COVID-19, I would have been among those who tuned out.
I’ve always been a sucker for oddballs. Especially when it comes to literature. Misfits, outcasts, characters who operate outside of societal norms — they make the most interesting protagonists. ¶ Unconventional characters often act as a mirror to the world around them, reflecting all the human aspirations and foibles therein.
Indulge me for a moment. I know our natural world is going to hell in a handbasket. But reading dire prognoses and apocalyptic scenarios doesn’t rally me to action. Rather, it makes me want to hide my head under the blankets. ¶ What really works is remembering why I love nature, the strong, sensory emotions brought on by a fiery red maple tree or rushing mountain stream. Watching my local woodpecker drill a telephone pole.
Remember letters? Taking pen to paper and expressing your love, friendship, congratulations or condolences, sometimes even writing a practice draft on scratch paper, so once you committed to the good stationery, it would be perfect?
I’m trying to write a novel. I know, I know. Me and everyone else. I’m telling you for a reason. As I come to understand how really, really difficult it is to write good fiction, it’s making me think hard about literary criticism. ¶ I’ve reviewed books in the past, on radio and for newspapers. I still send mini-reviews to a list of friends and family when I read something I really like.
I forgot how much I love Graham Swift. His new novel Here We Are reminded me of his genius at creating a richly imagined world in a short novel (he also wrote Mothering Sunday), this one just 144 pages.
The main characters are a trio of performers in a variety show in Brighton in 1959: Jack, the smooth-talking compere (or emcee) of the show; Ronnie (aka The Great Pablo), the show’s magician; and Evie, the leggy magician’s assistant.
They’re captured at a moment in time, post-War, just before television dulled the public appetite for such live entertainment. Ronnie is the novel’s true center. As a child he was evacuated from a bleak homelife in London to a dream-come-true, loving family in a (to him) posh house in Oxford. There he learned the magician’s art from his new “father,” a skill that sets the course of his life.
The story, told from Evie’s point of view, is of a love triangle, but really about abandonment and attachment, guilt and love, and, over all, the power, mystery and illusive quality of life.
I’m not sure how Graham accomplishes a book of such resonant power in so few pages. Maybe we should just chalk it up to magic.
It’s hard to believe that Brooklyn was once Manhattan’s ugly stepsister, an embarrassment, especially for creative types who wanted nothing more than to make what author, editor and Brooklynite Norman Podhoretz called “one of the longest journeys in the world”: going from his native borough across the river to the literary elite in Manhattan.
There’s an (unwritten) rule that writers often choose other writers as friends. ¶ It makes perfect sense: Who better to bounce off ideas or share the excruciating experience of writer’s block? ¶ There are many examples of famous author friendships, none perhaps more documented than the bond between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the 2001 biography “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship,” author Scott Donaldson describes how Fitzgerald helped the young Hemingway, acting as his agent and advocate and performing some crucial editing on ”The Sun Also Rises.” Alas, Hemingway repaid Fitzgerald by belittling him to mutual friends and creating a snide, condescending portrait of him in Hemingway’s memoir ”A Moveable Feast.” Ernest equals “bad friend.”
I’m so lucky to write this column, not only because I get to read and write and think about books, my lifeblood. I also get amazing feedback from you, my readers, and often learn about books I might never have read and encounter books I haven’t thought about in many years. ¶ A recent column about Irish writers brought a number of letters with recommendations, fond memories of trips to Ireland and vivid reminiscences of experiences in San Francisco’s fine Irish pubs, one of which ended in a wedding!