by Campbell Geeslin
There’s no better way to start things off than by quoting from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927).
He wrote that a character (referred to here as “it”) in a book “is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows—many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden. But he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable, and we get from this a reality of a kind we can never get in daily life.”
Forster ends his chapter on “People” by writing: “And that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us; they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power.”
WORTH IT: Dana Stevens writes about culture for Slate. In an essay for The New York Times Book Review on the “utility” of literature, she writes, “Literature is life’s long-lost twin, its evil double, its hidden velvet lining, its mournful ghost….[it] may not be in a strict sense useful … but its necessity seems self-evident from the mere fact of its continued existence, so inextricably bound up with our species’ own.”
It’s “as practical as a Swiss Army knife,” she says, “or in Kafka’s stunning description of what a book should be, ‘an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.’”
A BORING INTEREST: Last week David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks was getting all the attention. This week it’s Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog. The review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, describes the novel’s narrator as “a lost and tormented New York lawyer.”
An article in Sunday’s Times Magazine says that this lawyer has a thing for parentheses “which layer like Russian nesting dolls, sometimes four deep.” O’Neill told the Magazine, “It did feel natural to this guy—the sort of person who would be detained by questions of accuracy.” The author admitted, “I’ve always been interested in parentheses, one of most boring interests you could possibly have.”
SWEET FIND: A lost chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was found after Roald Dahl’s death in 1990. It has just been published in The Guardian. The chapter begins in a room where visitors see a mountain of chocolate being chipped away by workers. It is loaded onto wagons and hauled off through a dark hole in the wall. Two children jump on the wagons and are hauled away to be chopped up with the fudge.
The Guardian said the chapter was cut from the book because it was “deemed too wild, subversive and insufficiently moral for the tender minds of British children almost 50 years ago.”
The book has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide in 55 languages.
LESSON LEARNED: Matthew Thomas’s first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. Thomas taught high school English for seven years and has two masters degrees in creative writing. He was quoted in the “On Books” column.
The one thing he learned by working alone, he said, was “not to look away at the moment when I should be paying the most attention. The closer I got to the heart of a scene, to the really difficult material to write, the emotionally challenging stuff or the exchange in which the conflict is made most explicit, the more I’d look for a way out of writing it. This was out of fear, obviously, because you don’t want to run up against your limitations in craft, intelligence or heart. It’s much easier to duck the really vital material, but it kills what you’re writing to do so, kills it instantly.”
BIG MOVE: The first house John Updike lived in, in Shillington, a suburb of Reading, PA, is undergoing renovation and will be known as John Updike Childhood Home.
The curator is Maria Mogford, a professor of English at nearby Albright College. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “He said if he ever had a ghost, it would haunt this house.”
In 1945, on the day the family moved to a farm, the 13-year-old Updike hid under the dining room table. “For the rest of his life,” the Inquirer said, “through his fiction, essays, and poetry, Updike expressed bitterness at his mother’s determination to leave the Shillington house.”
In a short story he wrote 50 years later, Updike said that he “saw his entire life . . . as an errant encircling of his forgotten center.”
ONE NEW STORY: Trigger Warnings: Short Fictions and Disturbances, a story collection by Neil Gaiman, will be published next February.
The author was quoted in The Guardian, “I’m finishing the very last short story of the next collection RIGHT NOW. Everything else has been written.”
“Black Dog” is the title of the one new story in the book. It is a return to the world of “American Gods,” a story that won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001.
ANOTHER NOVEL: Harold Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage came out in August and has hit No. 1 on the Times’s bestseller list.
His next book, due out in a couple of months, has been announced, and the title is The Strange Library. The narrator is a boy who stops off in a library, is held hostage and forced to memorize books. He learns that his captor plans to eat his brains. Knopf editor Sonny Mehta said the book is “as scary and surprising as anything [Murakami] has ever written.”
REISSUED: A 1972 novel, Augustus, by John Williams, was reissued recently by the New York Review of Books. Williams died in 1994 and his bestselling historical novels about ancient Rome had gone out of print.
Sam Sacks writes about books for The Wall Street Journal. He wrote, “The American novelists of the 1960s and ‘70s who are read today fall along two poles: those, like Updike and Roth, who anatomized the main stream middle class and those like Burroughs and Pynchon, who undermined the foundation of the realist novel. But we need novelists who stake their relevance solely on the quality of their execution and the originality of their vision. John Williams wrote three novels of superior craftsmanship and deep reserves of emotion. It’s good to have them back in print; they deserve to remain so.”
MANY NAMES: When he began trying to support himself by writing, the late Gore Vidal cranked out pulp fiction. As Edgar Box, Vidal wrote three mysteries, which were reprinted during his lifetime. As Katherine Evenard, he wrote a romance novel. As Cameron Kay he wrote a crime thriller set in Egypt in 1952. The title is Thieves Fall Out, and it will be re-issued in April by Hard Case Crime.
That imprint’s founder, Charles Ardal, told The New York Times that, like most pulp fiction, there would be a near-nude female on the cover. Ardal said, “Our feeling is that if a cover doesn’t shock the person next to you on the subway, then the book you’re reading isn’t really a pulp.”
THE NOVEL’S DUTY: Critic James Wood, in the September 6 New Yorker, wrote, “Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a ‘medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.’”
KEN’S KEY: Ken Follett’s most recent novel is Edge of Eternity. He was interviewed in Times Book Review and asked, “What is the key to a great thriller?’
Follett said, “A thriller is always about people in danger. The key is to make the reader share the hero’s anxiety. In all popular fiction, the author’s aim must be to get the reader to feel the emotions of the characters. That’s what makes the reader turn the pages.”
LOVE SELLS: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, published 10 years ago, is No. 1 on The New York Times’s bestselling fiction list. On the same list, another book in the eight-volume series is Dragonfly in Amber (1992). Their popularity has been boosted by a TV series.
Gabaldon and her husband live in Scottsdale, Arizona. They have three adult children. A son, Sam Sykes, is a fantasy author. His bio says that “he has eaten at least one of every animal on earth.” In his photo, he has chubby cheeks to prove it.
Fans of his mother have provided quotes about love from her Outlander books. These make a long list on the Internet.
ALL STARS: Does putting a star in the title make a book a bestseller? The Fault in Our Stars by John Green has been on the young adult list for 91 weeks. The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls has had 18 weeks on the paperback fiction list. Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Return of the Padawan by Jeffrey Brown has had four weeks on the middle-grade list.