by Campbell Geeslin
If, at the beach this summer, the water is too cold, critic Janet Maslin suggests, choose “something else to dive into.” In Sunday's New York Times she wrote that “we have entered the fun season with the sandy nickname, the one known for books impossible to put down.” Her articles about beach books are an annual event.
This summer? “If there’s one overriding motif, it’s this: "The crazier, the better.” The longest title: You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About.
Maslin wound up with “Here’s a sure way to tell when the summer reading season is ending. . . . Leaves will change color.” The ones on trees. Not those in books.
BLURBS: The illustration was a drawing of a book being inflated with a bicycle pump, and the essay was titled “All Blurbed Out.” Jennifer Weiner, author of All Fell Down, wrote it for the Times.
She said that blurbs for books “have gotten so over the top.” One she quotes was Maria Semple’s blurb for Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. Semple wrote: “So dazzling, so sure-handed and fearless, that at times I had to remind myself to breathe.”
Weiner suggests that instead of bothering to read blurbs, one should “Check out your favorite writers’ blogs and interviews, follow them on Twitter or Goodreads, and then follow the writers and critics they follow. Take note of the books they mention. Oh, and please: Remember to breathe.”
UNEXPECTED PRIZE: Edward St. Aubyn, British author of seven novels, has published a comic satire about London’s literary scene. The title is Lost for Words, and it has won a 2014 prize for “best capturing the P.G. Wodehouse spirit.”
St. Aubyn told The Guardian, “The only thing I was sure of when I was writing this satire on literary prizes was that it wouldn’t win any prize. I was wrong. I had overlooked the one prize that has a sense of humor.”
LONG WAIT: J.R.R. Tolkien finished a prose translation of Beowulf in 1926, then declared it was “hardly to my liking” and filed it away.
Last week, 88 years later, it was published with the title: Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. The poem takes 90 pages and the notes and comments take up 320 pages. Some scholars are not happy about this.
Kevin Kiernan, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Kentucky, told The New York Times, “Publishing the translation is a disservice to [Tolkien], to his memory and his achievement as an artist.”
Kiernan quotes the fictional Gandalf from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, “'All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’ [Tolkien] decided he didn’t want to waste it on a translation. He worked on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings instead.”
NEXT WAVE: The warning was out: the season of political campaign bios is upon us. Mark Leibovich in The New York Times Sunday Magazine described it as “the expanding political subgenre of Inoffensively Clichéd and Calculated Titles Composed of Inoffensive Clichés and Calculations.
The wave begins, he said, with Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices.
AWARD: A prize of $10,000 has been awarded to Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock by the New York Historical Society. The story is set at a junior high school in the same district as Little Rock Central High School, where National Guardsmen prevented nine African-American students from entering the school for more than three weeks in 1957. President Eisenhower finally sent in federal troops.
COIN MAN: Eric P. Newman, 102, is a retired St. Louis lawyer and the author of more than 100 books and articles about coins. A notable collector, he has begun selling off some of his coins and has raised $44 million for charitable and non-profit projects.
Newman told The New York Times that coins appealed to him because they gave “a wonderful window into history and other fields for me. Numismatics involves economics, politics, geography, metallurgy and art.”
FREE TRIPS: Amtrak got a lot of press attention when it offered a “residency program for writers on its long-distance routes.”
CNN said that the free trips include accommodation on a sleeper car with a bed, desk and electric outlet for a laptop. The trips take place on 15 long-distance routes. Writers can apply on the Internet.
ALL ABOARD: British author Geoff Dyer spent two weeks on a U.S. aircraft carrier. He hated the food but managed to write a book: Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush.
Dyer told The New York Times, “The thing about aircraft carriers is that they are big.” But he wrote in his book that the ship was as “crowded as a Bombay slum.”
The author compared his short stay on board to the more ambitious kind of reporting done by writers like Dexter Filkins and David Finkel, whom he admires. To do that kind of writing, he said, "you have to be so embedded that they forget you….My stay was relatively risk free, and it made me realize that, jeez, I’m not really a reporter. It bores me to render facts. I have more faith in the idea of just surfing one’s own failings.”
AUTOBIO: Tom Robbins, who's always had catchy titles for his fiction, has now written an autobiography, Tibetan Peach Pie. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, he defined an era with novels like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976) and Still Life With Woodpecker (1980).
In The New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote that this new book “should be sold in one of those marijuana vending machines now extant in Colorado. Like them, it provides an afternoon’s affordable buzz.”
The Times Sunday Magazine ran a full page of just Robbins's quotes. The title Tibetan Peach Pie is “the punch line to the shaggy-dog story. It’s a parable about always aiming for the stars, but if you only get as high as the moon, accept that cheerfully.”
About writing, Robbins said, “Even though it can sometimes take me an hour to write a sentence that I’m happy with, I’ve never considered it a struggle.”
FAMILIAR ROUTE: Stephanie Laurens lives in Australia with her husband and their two daughters. She is the author of a bestselling historical romance: The Masterful Mr. Montague.
Laurens was a scientist who worked in cancer research. According to an autobiography on the Internet, one day she ran out of books to read. “I just sat down and wrote the story, writing at night and on weekends, primarily to entertain myself. To my surprise . . . I actually finished the book—mainly I suspect, because I wanted to know the end.” The result: Tangled Reins (1992).
According to Amazon, she had since published 53 books, and 31 have been bestsellers.
DISGUSTED: The last book that made Leah Hager Cohen furious was The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown. She is the author of No Book but the World.
Cohen told The New York Times Book Review (May 25) that she picked up an illustrated, coffee-table version, thinking she would just look at the pictures. “The next thing I knew, some vortex, some literary Bermuda Triangle, had sucked me in. It was like demonic possession. At the end of every chapter, I’d glance up and announced in increasingly disgusted tones: ‘What schlock! This is unbelievably bad.’ My boyfriend would good-naturedly start to respond, only to have me violently shush him, ‘Can’t talk—busy—got to see what happens next.’”
WAITING FOR THE WAVE: E.B. White told Writers at Work (1988): “Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.”
WHICH? Anna Holmes, author of The Book of Jezebel, was asked by The Times Book Review if “the demands of book promotion [were] frivolous? Or necessary?”
She wrote: “I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have—conversation or silence?”