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Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading and More

Jeanette Winterson was the keynote speaker at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, just wrapping up. Here’s Maria Popova’s feature taken from her blog Brain Pickings.

Jeanette Winterson on Time, Language, Reading, and How Art Creates a Sanctified Space for the Human Spirit

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“Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

In September of 1994, beloved British writer Jeanette Winterson joined Canadian broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel on the air for a spectacular conversation, later published in More Writers & Company: New Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (public library) — the fantastic collection that also gave us Chinua Achebe on the meaning of life and the writer’s responsibility.

Winterson — who was raised in a church and began writing sermons at age six with the intent of becoming a missionary, only to leave home at age fifteen after falling in love with another girl — reflects on what the preacher’s technique has in common with the artist. (After all, if the commencement address is the modern secular sermon of our time, it’s no wonder that the genre’s greatest exemplars are delivered overwhelmingly by celebrated writers.) She considers what evangelizing can teach a writer about compelling storytelling:

Of course it was extremely useful training to be brought up in an environment where you must attract other people to your way of thinking, you must win them over; it’s the art of persuasion, it’s rhetoric in the old-fashioned sense. I learned how to handle language and the spoken word and the written word, and I learned how to persuade. That’s what preachers do, that’s what preachers are, and the most successful preachers are the ones who are able to convince their audience that the audience themselves have got it wrong and the preacher’s got it right. And the artist tries to do this too—there are close parallels — except the artist does it in its own right, for its own sake, not for some higher purpose, not for God. You can see from the look on somebody’s face whether or not you’re persuading, and that does translate itself to the way you then write. It’s not that you have an audience in mind, it’s simply that you can imagine what will perhaps tilt the balance in your favor, how to get underneath the barriers and the defenses which people normally put up to protect themselves from intrusion.

Contemplating her greatest learning from the Bible, Winterson complements Virginia Woolf’s meditation on the glory of language by considering the liberating power of words:

For me, language is a freedom. As soon as you have found the words with which to express something, you are no longer incoherent, you are no longer trapped by your own emotions, by your own experiences; you can describe them, you can tell them, you can bring them out of yourself and give them to somebody else. That is an enormously liberating experience, and it worries me that more and more people are learning not to use language; they’re giving in to the banalities of the television media and shrinking their vocabulary, shrinking their own way of using this fabulous tool that human beings have refined over so many centuries into this extremely sensitive instrument. I don’t want to make it crude, I don’t want to make it into shopping-list language, I don’t want to make it into simply an exchange of information: I want to make it into the subtle, emotional, intellectual, freeing thing that it is and that it can be.

Illustration by Sydney Pink. Click image for details.

When Wachtel points out Winterson’s signature sensitivity to “the artifice of language and its limitations,” the writer responds:

Yes, it is artificial, but it is, as yet, the best way human beings have found to communicate to one another their deepest, their most difficult, feelings. And that is the preserve of poetry and of true fiction, to put roots down through the surface into the subsoil of the human heart and to draw up those elements that would otherwise lie locked there, unheard, unspoken, perhaps unregarded. Language can do that, and I think that it is the duty of the writer to go on pushing language forward because if it’s not developing, if it’s not growing, if people aren’t using it in unique and different ways while at the same time regarding its tradition, then that language is going to start atrophying.

For Winterson, indeed, the artist has a moral obligation to this forward-facing elasticity of form. Echoing Henry Miller’s memorable assertion that “all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” she adds:

Art forms must always change… You cannot stop in art, you cannot fossilize art in a redundant form, and you cannot take a point in history and favor it above any other point and say, ah yes, this is the way to do it. If you want to read nineteenth-century novels, there are plenty for you to read, and you may as well read the real thing and not go out and buy a reproduction. Personally, I loathe reproduction furniture; I’d rather have something made by a living designer, just as I’d rather have something made by a writer now who, whilst recognizing patterns and traditions, is prepared to go on pushing the experiment forward.

Winterson argues that ordinary readers are much more receptive to the type of experimentation that pushes art forward than professional critics can be:

Readers, I think, are more sophisticated on the whole than critics. They can make the jumps, they can make imaginative leaps. If your structure is firm and solid enough, however strange, however unusual, they will be able to follow it. They will climb with you to the most unlikely places if they trust you, if the words give them the right footholds, the right handholds. That’s what I want my readers to do: I want them to come with me when we’re going mountain-climbing. This isn’t a walk through a theme park. This is some dangerous place that neither of us has been before, and I hope that by traveling there first, I can encourage the reader to come with me and that we will make the trip again together, and safely.

Discus chronologicus (1720s) from Cartographies of Time. Click image for details.

One of Winterson’s most pause-giving points transcends the realm of art and touches on cosmology and philosophy. Reflecting on her intense use of history in fiction, Winterson reminds us that time is an abstraction that both contains and responds to our experiences, and examines the relativity of “reality”:

I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time. As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it; as far as we know, it is yet another construct of ours, this worship of the clock and the idea that there is a past and a present and a future which trot along obediently in line and never swap places. In our own lives we know that that’s not true because human beings seem capable of moving imaginatively, backwards and forwards, of pushing out of the body. I think of it really as an out-of-the-body experience — that’s not something that only shamans and New Age hippies have. It’s something that we all have quite often in our lives. And I wanted to bring that into fiction because it seems to me to be a more honest reality than the rather dull reality of the clock.

Responding to a line from her novel Art & Lies that Wachtel cites — “The nature of a work of art is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world, but a world in itself.” — Winterson expounds on the limitations of time and, in the process, shines a beautiful sidewise gleam on what all great art does for the human experience:

Art & Lies is a journey into deep inner space, and the characters in the book are not characters in the physical sense that we know them on the street or perhaps even in our own lives. They are consciousnesses. They are ways of talking about ourselves, writ large, as we might be, more than we are. I know that the world of Art & Lies is a strange one, but it is a deeply emotional one and it is one which probes and peels away at the complacencies and habits that we take for granted and drag behind us as so much baggage in our lives. The worlds that I create are always worlds where it’s possible to find new space, not to be cluttered any more, to leave behind things which perhaps drag you down, things that you don’t need. In the book there is this freedom from gravity that we’ve been talking about. It is a sanctified space. And when you come out of it, what you do is up to you; but for a while it puts away the clutter and the jangle of modern life and gives time, infinite time. It may take four hours to read the book but actually it takes an entire life. The journey that you make is not one of the clock: it’s an interior one, and in it you travel through time, through space, through place.

To Wachtel’s question of “why sanctified space,” Winterson answers:

Because it’s a space that has been cleansed of other associations. It is itself, it’s coherent, it’s self-realized, it exists in its own right. Every work of art must be that; it must be a closed world. That is, you must be able to enter it and find it coherent and orderly, and be able to return to it to discover things you hadn’t found at first. But there is something cathedral-like about it: it’s a place where you can rest, contemplate, refuel and go out again knowing that it remains there for you. All art presents a sanctified space.

And in order to be able to craft this sanctified space, Winterson argues, the artist must come at it from a place of love. Echoing Ray Bradbury’s spirited defense of the right motives and Bukowski’s poetic homage to the only reason to write, she tells Wachtel:

If I wasn’t in love with language, what right have I to be here talking to you? What right have I to put pen to paper? It’s more than a job: it’s a life, it’s a vocation, it’s everything to me, and I must fulfill myself in that way and by fulfilling myself, I hope that I can give the best possible work to my readers.

But for a writer to do this wholeheartedly, Winterson — whose habit of reading five hours a day is rivaled only by Susan Sontag’s — argues for the essential, systematic immersion in language:

Unless I have a thorough soaking in all writers who have written in English then I cannot call myself an English writer. It’s a fantastic language, and to be ignorant of it as a writer is a sin that must exact the ultimate penalty, I think. If hell exists, that’s why one would go there, for calling oneself a writer and not knowing anything about English literature.

Illustration from ‘Henry Builds a Cabin,’ a children’s book about Thoreau’s philosophy. Click image for more.

Winterson returns to the role of art in human life and society — something she has since explored beautifully in a short essay — and adds to history’s most memorable reflections on art:

Art can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself. It gives you a kind of self-reliance. We all feel powerless and we can’t really manage to do anything because there’s just so much. I want to try and cut through those feelings of apathy and powerlessness and be a kind of rallying point, offer a rallying cry, to people who would otherwise feel dispossessed.

Wachtel, an elegant interviewer, springboards this into the grand question of how to live — perhaps the only common denominator between everything I read and write about here on Brain Pickings — to which Winterson answers with equal elegance:

It’s an individual answer, and it’s certainly not an answer that can be got easily. It’s the answer of a lifetime. It seems to me to be the work that we are here to do, to answer that question — first of all in our own lives and then as a community… But I do think [the question] has to be asked, and if people then begin to ponder on it and ask it of themselves, then that is a good thing. I do believe that when you start asking these questions, you find the answers that you need, if you’ll put in the effort, even if it takes a lifetime.

But the answer art gives us is that of many lifetimes. Winterson speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that, as Mark Twain once bluntly put it, everything is a combination of second-hand ideas, that art builds on what came before, that to create is to uncover existing relationships. Winterson reflects on the very origin of the word “invent,” which originally meant “to come upon” rather than to “devise” or “fabricate” out of nothing:

It’s from the Latin invenire, which means to come upon. This takes us back to Plato’s idea that we are in a continual state of remembering, that the human life span is to remember, to remember the things that we are, that we can be, that we’ve left behind — to remember the glories of the soul, as Plato would have seen it.

[…]

[For the artist] it is a question of always going back and uncovering what is already there because the artist is something of a dredger: you have to let down your net and pull up things from the mud, from the silt, that are unrecognizable, that have been forgotten, that have lain disused and ignored for a long time. You bring them up and you clean them off and you look at them and you bring them back into the present where they can speak, where they have a place. I think it’s a dual role of dredging and of cleaning, but then also of re-creating so that you are always offering something that is right for your own time, that is new in itself.

‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Lisbeth Zwerger from Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance, Winterson returns to art’s function as psychoemotional therapy, its power in fortifying our psyche:

To learn how to heal yourself seems to me to be the most important thing that you can do because at that moment you are genuinely self-reliant, and if other people hurt you — as they will — it won’t matter because you have now in your own hands the tools of healing.

[…]

I have to believe that in the end what is good, what is honorable, what is exceptional about human beings will triumph over what is simply small and mean and devious. If I didn’t believe that, I might as well slit my own throat now and certainly stop work, because writers have to believe that their words will carry on speaking to people and that there is a people worth speaking to. You have to believe in a kind of continuity, and you do especially because you look back at the past and you were glad that those books have been written, that they exist, that they are there for you now, and you want to go on adding to that.

More Writers & Company, a sequel to Wachtel’s first compendium of interviews, is a superb read in its totality, featuring conversations with such literary icons as Harold Bloom, Oliver Sacks, Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, and John Berger.

Complement this one with Winterson on adoption, belonging, and how we use storytelling to save ourselves and the value of art to the human spirit.


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THE BEST SHORT STORIES YOU’VE NEVER READ

The Best Short Stories Never Read, by Ara Bontemps Hemenway (Huffington Post)

 

One thing that’s great about short stories is how quickly they can ruin your life. Maybe you start reading one over your lunch break and, if it’s the right one, before that peanut butter cup you brought for dessert even has a chance to finish its melting shape-shift into some kind of sugary cement, the whole world has been destroyed around you and then rebuilt, and nothing is quite the same again.

This happens whether you like it or not. Great stories practice this violent beauty on you in a variety of ways: some by making an absurd world familiar (or vice versa), some with a slow burn, some with a voice that colonizes your thoughts. Some do it quietly, almost without you even noticing, and some do it with high wire acts of imagination or intellect that make you into a breathless witness.

The trick, then, is finding the right story, one that is capable of such a thing. This is no easy task. Tastes differ, of course, and it can be confusing to spot the small boat of a great story on the wide sea of fiction. What any reader can offer you in terms of guidance is actually the same thing that any good writer can offer you with the story itself: a way of saying, This is what moved me and made me feel strange and alive in some way; here, why don’t you give it a try?

In that spirit and in no particular order, here are ten short stories you might’ve missed that ambushed me with their odd wonder:

1. The Zero Meter Diving Team y Jim Shepard (BOMB Magazine)

This curious, masterful story is about a set of brothers who work as managing engineers overseeing the Chernobyl power station on April 26, 1986, but, as with most of Shepard’s work, it’s also about the invisible planets of loss that our personal lives orbit. It is both an education and an elegy. Shepard’s forthcoming novel of the Warsaw Ghetto, Aaron Only Thinks of Himself, promises more of the same.

2.  A Tiny Feast by Chris Adrian (The New Yorker)

Titania and Oberon, the immortal Queen and King of the Fairies, live under a hill in a modern city park. To save their marriage, they adopt a mortal toddler and begin to raise him, only to discover he has developed terminal leukemia. What follows, set in a fairy den and an oncology ward, is one of the best (and, somehow, realest) short stories ever written, a haunting exploration of love and death that has followed this reader, at least, into marriage, parenthood, and nearly every subsequent day spent on this earth.

3. Raja by Madhuri Vijay (Narrative Magazine)

One of the newest voices on this list, Vijay tells the story of Indian children mining the ore used to construct Olympic stadiums in China with remarkable poise and vision. While the inherently political nature of the story is certainly important and the writing is ruthless in its detail, to approach “Lorry Raja” in only that way is to miss the quiet power of Vijay’s prose, as well as its ability to look honestly into the subtleties of family and the scales of desire without denying beauty where it lurks.

4. Bluebell Meadow by Benedict Kiely (The New Yorker)

Published in 1975 at the peak of The Troubles in Ireland, Kiely’s unlikely story of a small country park and the two young people who spend a few afternoons together in it is sly, funny, and tremendously affecting. A lesson simultaneously in understatement and heart, this story is really about the near misses of the lives we almost live, as well as what time does to the things that could’ve been. Long forgotten by most, author Colum McCann miraculously resurrected it for The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, and it is best experienced in his wonderful voice.

5. Some Other, Better Otto by Deborah Eisenberg (The Yale Review)

It’s difficult to say exactly why this story–the reflections of intelligent, grumpy Otto about his aging partner William, his own aging, his uneasy relationship with his family, the sanity of his troubled sister, loneliness, and the new baby of his upstairs renter–is as wonderful as it very much is. The story is, in the end, a testament to the power of a whole person–caustic, funny, articulate, alone, lost and found, cruel and loving–given life on the page. Originally published in The Yale Review, eager readers can find it in The Best American Short Stories 2004 anthology.

6. City Lovers by Nadine Gordimer (The New Yorker)

Also published in 1975, sixteen years before she would be awarded the Nobel Prize, this is Gordimer’s story of the relationship between Austrian geologist Dr. Franz-Josef Von Leinsdorf and a mixed-race Johannesburg shop girl, an affair that is illegal in apartheid-era South Africa. One of the most overlooked pieces of Gordimer’s writing, this is also one of the quietest, and most effective. The uneasy dynamics of race, class, and power (especially when it comes to love and sex) are nimbly explored here, and build to a devastating end. It was similarly saved from obscurity, this time by author Tessa Hadley, for The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast.

7. Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov

“Spring in Fialta is cloudy and dull,” begins this amusing and heartbreaking story, perhaps the most underappreciated narrative Nabokov ever wrote. Waiting behind Nabokov’s admittedly long and wry sentences is the plainly moving story of a love affair pursued through the years. Every detail works together here to render Nabokov’s testament to the illusiveness of love and memory, and a reader’s patience is richly rewarded. Those interested can find it online, or in the excellent anthology of love stories, My Mistress’ Sparrow Is Dead.

8. Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU by Carmen Maria Machado (The American Reader)

By turns funny, disturbing, canny, and inventive, this novella takes the form of fictional episode summaries of the famous show (but if the show, as one reader puts it, were directed by David Lynch). Machado, another new voice in American fiction, manages to create an engaging, strange, and wholly original story that draws into conversation sexual violence, popular culture, and our own weird-feeling relationships therein.

9.  Inventing Wampanoag 1672, by Ben Shattuck (FiveChapters)

While this very short, very tricky story purports to be about the birth of the tribal language used to print the first Bible in the Americas, it is really about the death of it, and the way history itself is a colonizing narrative. Shattuck’s facility with prose makes this a funny, winning story, even as it is a bitter and sad one: a clever and unique creation that will stay with you long after you’re done reading.

10. Painted Ocean, Painted Ship by Rebecca Makkai (Ploughshares)

This humorous, deceptive story, loosely descended from Coleridge’s most famous poem, follows an unreliable English professor as a single compound error (mistaking a bird, then a student) births another and another, eventually threatening her potential marriage, job, and fate. The best part, however, is the turn at the very end, which reveals the entire story to perhaps have been something different all along, a sneakily stunning mediation on the limits of self-awareness, guilt, and penance. Originally published in Ploughshares, curious readers can find it in the pages of the Best American Short Stories 2010 anthology.

 


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It Keeps Getting Better! New titles for the next six months

 

In case you felt that the latter half of the year  would offer a book drought, don’t despair! Thanks to The Millions for a sneak preview of what’s coming on the shelves of a bookshop near you.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be. Scroll down and get started.

July:

 California by  Edan Lepucki: Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by the likes of Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)

The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection,  How to Escape from a Leper Colony s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place;Edan)

Friendship  by Emily Gould: Gould turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)

Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist.Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)

High as the Horses’ Bridles’  by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)

The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. Laurelfield is a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though —  here a powerful United Nations carry out a plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. (Garth)

August:

Colourless Ysukuru Tazaki and His years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel,  1Q84 was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since  Norwegian Wood  (Kevin)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested. It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)

Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)

 Your Face in Mine by Jess Row:  Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)

Flings by Justin Taylor: Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)

 Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous,, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s  Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing  into international bestseller  Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together.  It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)

Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Davis has now updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)

September:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)

Not That Kind Of Girl  by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris, though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)

The Children Act  by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)

Stone Mattress, Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in 2011 and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)

 The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning  Netherland about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what has been described as “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)

 Wittgenstein, Jr by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)

The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt))

Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)

Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)

October:

The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)

Lila  by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping  in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead she followed up four years later with Home,   retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark)

  Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first instalment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)

300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s  2666 The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)

Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance”and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)

  The Heart is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetryThey’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.”

The Book of New Strange Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)

Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)

November:

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)

 Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)

Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)

 A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)

 Selected Stories 1995-2014  by Alice Munro: 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since her 1968-94 collection and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)

Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)

Why Religion is Immoral by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)

December:

Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s.

 


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Overcoming shyness – the making of Sian Prior

sian

My review was published in June’s Australian Book Review

SHY: A memoir by Sian Prior    Text Publishing       $32.99
Shy is a strange beast – part memoir, part journalistic investigation, part cri de coeur. Reading it, you are immersed in the interior life of an intelligent and sensitive woman. The experience is unsettling, almost voyeuristic. You wonder whether you should be sharing such an intense and honest self-scrutiny, and often feel as if you were breaching the sanctity of the confessional. But discomfort is Sian Prior’s aim: she wants the reader to feel the unease and embarrassment she has had to cope with all her life. For Prior suffers from a common but crippling social anxiety: she is painfully shy.

Prior is a well-known media personality. She has written opinion columns for the broadsheets, covered arts for ABC radio, hosted literary forums, taught creative writing at RMIT. She appears, on the surface, to be cool, calm, collected; one colleague described her as a ‘sphinx’. But that, Prior tells us, is the calculated façade of a professional woman determined to show that she is completely in control.

At a party some years ago, Prior experienced a severe panic attack whenfaced with the daunting task of making small talk with strangers. ‘It was as if someone had spiked my drink,’ she writes. ‘My limbs were growing rigid and my smile was the tight rictus you see on the faces of young ballet dancers… sweat was trickling down the insides of my arms.’ Fleeing the party, she determines to find out more about shyness in order to write an article or book about the condition.

Prior, ever the journalist, prepares a focused list of questions. ‘What exactly was shyness? … Was shyness the same as introversion? … Was shyness born or bred, or both?’ And then, more tellingly, ‘why was I still fighting this battle after all these years? And why did it matter so much to me?’ Prior’s quest is therefore not simply rhetorical but a personal and anguished search for self-knowledge and identity. ‘Sian-ness’, as she admits herself, sounds a lot like shyness.‘ Shy … a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: shhh.’

She reads widely, interviews psychologists and scientists, finds fellow sufferers who share their experiences, investigates the biological and social reasons behind shyness. She also reveals much about her journey from ‘Shy Sian’ to ‘Professional Sian’. Prior’s father drowned in the year ofher birth. Despite a loving relationship with her mother and stepfather, Prior keenly feels the loss of a parent who, it transpires, was also shy. Her mother, a psychologist, recognising the signs o fa withdrawn child, helped and encouraged her. Her shyness appeared more pronounced because her elder sister was an extrovert. Prior depicts herself at secondary school as tall, awkward, and androgynous-looking, desperately wishing to be noticed and to make friends, yet shrinking away from attention. These conflicting push-me, pull-you emotions plague her for years.

Until she discovers sex.  Relationships provide much-needed security. She can want and be wanted in return, without the scrutinising gaze of society. Nevertheless, there is a degree of rescuing behaviour towards her lovers. Her first boyfriend is agoraphobic – she launches a campaign to rehabilitate him. Years later, she meets ‘Tom’, her great love, whom she weans successfully off heroin. Through helping her men, she is clearly trying to help herself.

Prior candidly examines the apparent dichotomy she displays between a life in the public eye and the agonies she experiences in social settings. She explains that she is an expert in adopting personae, and ‘Professional Sian’ is more than willing to interview the famous, make speeches, host political debates. For someone who fears rejection, collective praise is empowering. Still, she faces a furore because of an article she wrote about Julia Gillard. Gillard had described herself as shy, and Prior’s opinion piece described that admission as a sign of weakness. Now she recognises the article was more about her own response to shyness than about Gillard herself. But Prior takes such criticism on the chin: she has no wish to be invisible.

Yet when she returns to the home a fear of the reflections . Prior invested much in this failed partnership, and Shy is an attempt to put the record straight after being sidelined by a man who no longer wanted a monogamous relationship. Despite meticulous and intriguing research
into social anxiety, it is the arc of this affair that remains the fulcrum of the book.

Prior’s style is fluid and confident, from Q&A to scientific analysis, reminiscence to interior monologue. She writes with great sadness about her post-breakup trauma, and here there is passion and poetry. It is common knowledge that Prior was musician Paul Kelly’s partner for ten years, yet she insists on calling him by the pseudonym, ‘Tom’. Why such coyness? Prior explains that this is her story, not his, and that Kelly’s fame could detract from her account. But this seems a spurious argument. By not naming Kelly, Prior is evading a reality that would see her reflected compellingly and indelibly in that fickle mirror. •


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An extraordinary museum – Alice Hoffman’s magic realism

hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman            Simon & Schuster  $19.75

Apologies, readers – writing deadlines have pushed my pen into other directions recently, but I will try and make amends!

Alice Hoffman is the author of 1998 Oprah’s Book Club pick Here on Earth. This, her 24th novel, has all the hallmarks her fans have come to expect – magic and mystery, the richness of folktale, the haunting power of myth.

“Museum” is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Coralie is the only daughter of “Professor” Sardie, the proprietor of the The Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island, resplendent with freaks such as the Wolfman, the Birdwoman, Butterflygirl and many animals, including an ancient tortoise. But the Museum is failing to bring in crowds. Coralie, a keen swimmer, is turned into a human mermaid, resplendent with swishing tail, as she dives and surfaces in a ginormous tank. When she turns 18, her father forces her to perform a lascivious routine before high paying, male-only customers to make ends meet. She also accompanies Sardie as he tries to recruit more and more oddities and freaks in low-life parts of town. By now she loathes both her father and the Museum, and wishes to flee but has nowhere to go. And she also has a secret shame: she was born with webbed fingers.

After training in the Hudson River (in 1911 there were repeated sightings of a silvery “sea monster” and Sardie believes he can capitalise on Coralie’s swimming expertise by turning her into this beast), she comes across Eddie, a young man who lives in the woods. He has fled his Orthodox Jewish community and is now earning a living on the fringes of society as a newspaper photographer and detective. As a young boy he was apprenticed to the “Seer of Rivington Street,” and has become adept at tracking down missing persons.

Coralie and Eddie are immediately drawn to each other. They share much in common. Both are outcasts and live on their wits, seeking a place to belong. Their paths cross briefly, disperse and meet again, brought together through a tragic and true event, the famous fire at Brooklyn’s Triangle shirt factory. When it burns down, killing 146 Jewish (and mainly female) workers, Eddie captures the blaze on film. He is subsequently hired by the father of one of the missing seamstresses, and during his investigation, is pulled back into Coralie’s orbit, when he discovers Sardie has found a drowned woman in the river and has gruesome plans of his own for the body.

There is much to admire in this story – the impact of modernisation and industrialisation on New York – electricity had begun “snaking through Brooklyn, turning night into day,” the birth of the union movement and the exploitation of migrant workers are beautifully described. So too is the twilight world in which Coralie lives, with its freaks and fantasies. At the same time, something jars. The plot, which combines the real-time tragedy of the Triangle conflagration with a purely imagined and grotesque world, never quite gels. Coralie’s world of magic and peep-shows blends uncomfortably with that of a lapsed Orthodox Jew. Still, Hoffman has researched this piece well and for the most part, her prose sings.


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15 Writers’ Bedrooms – an insight into creativity

capote woolfhemingwayo'connor

masters  burroughs  plath  thoreau

hugo  dickinson  seymour  roach

proust  morpurgo  faulkner

Reblogged from Susan Johnson on Twitter, via Literary Style, http://t.co/XO0u3TJC2y

It’s true; we find the secret lives of others fascinating. Especially if those others are writers. We get to know them through their work, and we yearn to learn more about them as people…

We feel a kinship, with their experiences or with their characters, and we begin to imagine what their lives must be like. We read biographies about them, tour their homes and visit their graves, all in an effort to gain insight into their own particular genius. And nowhere is the essence of the artist more present than in the bedroom. It’s here that one can intuit much about a writer’s process. Is it a hermit’s lair? A sanctuary? A work space? Is it the place where they do all of their best work, or the place that allows them to leave that work behind?

Whatever it may be, often what it is most is a space that reminds us that, genius aside, writers are people… just like you and I.

Top row, left to right: 1. Truman Capote: The author’s bedroom at his Hamptons beach house is simple, but elegant.

2. Virginia Woolf : Full of details — the bookshelves house the author’s artful collection of books, many of which she recovered with colored paper. 3. Ernest Hemingway: Light floods the Nobel Prize-winning author’s bedroom at his Key West home.

4. Flannery O’Connor: The author did most of her writing at the desk in her bedroom. The aluminum crutches were used to help her get around her parents’ dairy farm.

Second row, left to right:

5. Alexander Masters: This author’s bedroom reflects his process — he just wakes up and starts writing. The crocodile above his bed is a talisman and was featured on the cover of his book, Stuart: A Life Backwards.

6. William S. Burroughs: Patti Smith, a friend of the Beat writer, sits on the bed in his room at The Bunker on the Bowery.

7. Sylvia Plath: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author stayed for several months at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. This image is taken from an advertisement for the hotel and suggests what Plath’s room may have looked like at that time.

8. Henry David Thoreau: Intent on simple living, Thoreau furnished his 10’x15′ home with only the necessary basics – a bed, a table, a desk, and three chairs.

Third row, left to right:

9. Victor Hugo : Dark, rich and red – Hugo’s bedroom at his home on the Place des Vosges in Paris’ Marais district is all that you would expect from a writer heavily influenced by the Romanticism movement.

10. Emily Dickinson: Most of the poet’s writing was done at a small writing table in her bedroom.

11. Miranda Seymour: Another author that prefers writing at a small desk in her bedroom, this writer has slept in the same room, on and off, since she was 14 years old.

12. Mary Roach: One might expect something a bit more macabre from the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but the bedroom in the writer’s craftsman home in Oakland, California is simple and serene.

Bottom row, left to right:

13. Marcel Proust: A victim of asthma and severe allergies, Proust’s bedroom was a masterwork in shelter and seclusion. All apertures were shielded or sealed, and the walls and ceiling were covered in cork to protect the author from the dust and noise of the outside world.

14. Michael Morpurgo: Technically a writing room — the author of War Horse designed this room around the bed, where he does all of his writing — in longhand.

15. William Faulkner: More of an office with a bed — the Nobel prize-winning author outlined the plot of The Fable on the walls of the room and then shellacked his notes to preserve them.