by Campbell Geeslin
The New York Times Book Review devoted last Sunday’s edition to “spiritual matters.” Writers were asked to recommend novels with religious themes.
Poet Christian Wiman suggested Fanny Howe’s Indivisible. He said, “Any real faith includes, rather than simply refutes, atheism.” This “brilliant novel . . . gives as stark and marvelous a rendering of this truth as any book I know.”
Novelist Christopher Beha named Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honor trilogy. Beha said it is Waugh’s “most explicitly religious” work.”
Cynthia Ozick named The Second Scroll by Canadian poet A. M. Klein. Ozick said, “Think not of Roth but Blake.”
P.S.: In the same issue, Ozick reviewed H.G. Adler's novel The Wall. She began her review with this: “Of Homer we know nothing, of Jane Austen not enough, of Kafka, more and more, sometimes hour by hour; and yet Achilles and Elizabeth Bennett and Joseph K. press imperially on, independent of their makers. Lasting works hardly require us to be acquainted with the lives of the masters who bore them—they have pulsing hearts of their own.“
PAYOFF: Thanks to the Nobel Prize, Paris novelist Patrick Modiano should be having a merry Christmas. Before the award, one of his most famous novels, Missing Person, had sold only 2,031 copies in the U.S. Since October, it has sold 13,000. Yale University Press has sold more than 30,000 copies of Suspended Sentences, published last month
Modiano’s most recent novel, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, is being translated, and publication is scheduled for late 2015. It’s a bestseller in France.
DISAPPEARING INTO BOOKS: Colum McCann is the author of six novels including Let the Great World Spin and TransAtlantic. His father was an author too. The son heard the older McCann typing his books in a shed in their Dublin backyard.
McCann wrote “The Word Shed” in The New Yorker of Dec. 29. In that essay, the son remembered when he first read one of his father’s books. It was about a boy who played soccer. McCann wrote that “what stunned me was that another boy could emerge from my father’s ramshackle shed, as real to me as the dirt that caked on my soccer boots. This was new territory: the imagined coming to life. My father’s typewriter sounded different to me now. More and more, I disappeared into books.”
SOMETHING NEW: Gail Goodwin is known for her novels but her latest book is nonfiction. The title is Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir.
The book's review in PW said that “the book succeeds at giving an eye-opening look at the reality of what it takes to publish just one novel—or in Godwin’s case, 14.”
The memoir is due out in January.
REASON: The late P.D. James wrote a nonfiction book, Time to Be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography. The author of many murder mysteries said, “As a writer I find that the most credible motive and, perhaps, the one for which the reader can feel some sympathy, is the murderer’s wish to advantage, protect or avenge someone he or she greatly loves.”
BOOKS AT WAR: Molly Guptill Manning is the author of When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II It was published earlier this moth.
In 1943, The U. S. War Department and publishers printed 120 million paperbacks for U. S. troops. The largest was thin enough to fit in the pocket of a soldier’s pants. The Wall Street Journal said, “Soldiers read them on transport ships, in camps and in foxholes. Wounded and waiting for medics, men turned to them on Omaha Beach, propped against the base of the cliffs. Others were buried with a book tucked in a pocket.”
The paperbacks cost 35 cents in Navy stores, and one seaman read the great Russian writers while standing guard duty on docks in California. There were no pockets in my bellbottoms, but one of these books could be tucked out of sight in the waistband. The Navy blouse hid it during inspection.
The Journal said the most popular novels were “nostalgic books and those with sex scenes.”
MURDER MAN: Paul Doherty is the author of The Book of Fires, his 14th mystery novel about Brother Athelstan, a medieval English priest.
Doherty told PW, “My aim is to create a true murder mystery, but I also see my stories as historical novels. . . .I do spend hours pondering how to murder someone. I admit that sounds terrible coming from a Catholic head teacher, yet it’s the most relaxing exercise and so easy to focus on. I puzzle constantly.”
HOT COPY: The information that James Patterson’s books earned him $90 million last year has made him a media darling. Vanity Fair devoted seven pages to recount the now familiar tale of Patterson’s life and work habits.
The magazine’s Todd Purdum did provide quotes. Stephen King said that Patterson was “a terrible writer” who is “very, very successful.” Another quote about Patterson’s skill is attributed to a nameless publisher who told Purdum, “It’s a little disrespectful to say it’s paint by numbers, but it is a little bit paint by numbers. Does that make him bad? No. I think it makes him smart.”
Patterson himself is quoted on how his obituary would begin: “He was slowing down at 101, and had only finished four novels this year.”
START WITH A: Professor Patricia Crain teaches at New York University and is the author of The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America From The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter. She wrote about five new alphabet books for children in The New York Times Book Review.
Crain said: “A good alphabet book is like a raucous playroom for language, persuading children to internalize the ABCs by turning the letters into toys. Rhymes and rhythm, metaphor and simile, alliteration, assonance and consonance—the ABC book’s verbal gymnastics match the alphabet’s inherently visual nature, making the genre not just a feast for young readers but a rewarding medium for illustrators and designers too.”
SHARING: Frances Itani, 72, is author of Tell, a novel to be published in January in the U.S. It is already a bestseller in her native Canada.
In a PW interview, Itani talked about the inability we have to share one’s deepest feelings. She said, “It’s the human condition. People can be married forever and not totally understand one another.“
“It’s loneliness and isolation that we are always fighting against. That’s why we have to communicate with each other, we have to try to live communally, to be a solid being.”
BIG SHIFT: Jeff Herman is a literary agent in Stockbridge, Mass., and coauthor of Write the Perfect Book Proposal.
He wrote a “Soapbox” essay for PW about the impact of self-publishing. He said, “The traditional houses possess solid platforms upon which new alliances can be structured. They own valuable backlist licenses and copyrights, and exclusively provide the highest level of credibility writers can achieve. . . .But self-publishing. . . is full of authors with the energy and determination to create their own place in the publishing marketplace.”
SEASONAL GREETINGS: One holiday tradition that seems to be fading is the annual Christmas letter. Robert Frost wrote his in the form of a long poem: “Christmas Trees: A Christmas Circular Letter.”
In it, Frost told how, before one Christmas, he was offered $30 for a thousand fir balsams on his property. He figured that, although he needed money, a beautiful little tree was worth more than three cents.
He ended the poem about the trees with: “I can’t help wishing I could send you one,/In wishing you herewith a merry Christmas.”
The complete Frost poem-letter is included in A Christmas Treasury (1982), edited by the late Jack Newcombe.
POST SCRIPT: As for me at this season, I send 26 letters of the alphabet and a few numbers arranged in an order that I hope pleases. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.