by Campbell Geeslin
“Is any sin greater, in the parishes of literary fiction, than sentimentality?” Alexandra Schwartz asked in the November 9 New Yorker. Schwartz, who won the National Book Critics Circle 2014 Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, continued:
“Novelists pride themselves on using artifice to get at the truth, but sentimentality is all falseness, emotion over-boiled by grandiosity of expression and served up rank and limp. . . .
“And yet life is full of excessive emotions and mawkish situations. We know them to be real: how to describe them without seeming fake?”
Schwartz’s musings were in the context of a review of Mary Gaitskill’s new novel, The Mare, in which she makes reference to a character from an earlier Gaitskill, Veronica (2005)—“one of the great American novels of the last decade.”
“By reputation,” Schwartz says, “Gaitskill is a writer not only immune to sentiment but actively engaged in deep, witchy communion with the perverse.”
ABOUT FEAR: Patricia Cornwell's 23rd crime novel, Depraved Heart, features Dr. Kay Scarpetta, the medical examiner she introduced to readers in 1990.
In a Guardian interview, Cornwell was asked why she writes about psychopaths. “It’s fear,” she said. “It’s because I grew up with fear.” Her father walked out on the family when she was five. She was molested by a policeman as a child and testified against him in court. Her mother was hospitalized when Cornwell was nine and she was abused by a foster mother.
“I’m supposed to be writing my memoirs,” Cornwell said, “and I keep going, ‘I kind of already am. I do it in every book.’ That’s what artists do. We take things and filter it through us and it comes out in a different form.”
Scarpetta says in the opening pages of Depraved Heart: “A select few of us come into the world not bothered by gruesomeness. In fact we are drawn to it.”
FIRST STORE: Last week Amazon opened its first “bricks-and-mortar” bookstore in Seattle University’s shopping mall. The shelves have been stocked with an eye to local book-buying trends as recorded in the company's vast database, and are placed face-out for quicker recognition. The Seattle Times quoted Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, on the prospect of a greater physical presence for the online company to come. “We hope this is not our only one,” she said. “But we'll see.”
NO PICTURES: Actor Nathan Lane is the author of Naughty Mabel. In the November 8 Times Book Review, he was asked, “If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?”
“It depends on who’s president,” he replied. “Based on the most recent group of candidates at the Republican debates I’d just be happy if I knew they could read. You know, a book without pictures they can color.”
WINNER: This year’s Prix Goncourt, France's premier literary honor, went to La Boussole (The Compass) by Mathias Énard, 43. The story, said the Times, is "set during a night of opium-fueled conversation" among a group of students of Middle Eastern studies. Énard is a French-born scholar of Persian and Arabic now living in Barcelona. His narrator, the Guardian noted, is "an insomniac musicologist in Vienna," and all four books short-listed for this year's prize "touched on the west’s turbulent relationship with Islam and the Arab world."
PLANT MAN: Richard Mabey is the author of The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination. For 40 years, the botanist has been writing books and articles about the flowering world.
“Mabey,” Tim Dee wrote in an extended review in the Guardian, “is a professional writer and has never been other than an amateur botanist. But his amateurishness, as written, has always revealed the roots of the word: to be an amateur is to be a lover, and this is the book of a man in love with both the known facts of plants and the dreams they sponsor…”
In 1972, Mabey published Food for Free, which told his readers how to forage. That book is still in print, and Mabey says it's his pension.
NO ADULTS: This week’s Times Sunday Book Review devoted 20 pages to children’s books, from beautifully illustrated picture books to middle grade and YA novels, to Norse mythology and a history of Daniel Ellsberg and the Vietnam war for children ages 10 and up.
Reviewing Louis Sachar’s Fuzzy Mud, Eliot Schrefer, the author of Immortal Guardians, wrote: “Adults have it rough in children’s literature. Mothers vanish, fathers get slain, grim teen societies herd all the grown-ups into their own boring corners of the planet. It’s not that children authors dislike adults, exactly. It’s mostly an issue of plotting: Stories are more interesting when protagonists have the ability to change the world around them, for good or for bad—and kids will be the first to tell you that they become pretty powerless whenever adults are on the scene.”
ONLY ONE HALF SHOWED UP: Last week, Jeff Kinney began a 33-day tour to promote Old School, the tenth book in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Kinney will stop in 15 countries, beginning in Tokyo and going on to China, Australia and throughout Europe.
Mobs of fans are expected at every stop. According to PW, Kinney said his appearances for his first Wimpy Kid book “drew a half a person. Sometimes there would be one; sometimes there would be nobody.”
MAGNET MAN: Bob Woodward is the author of a new bestselling The Last of the President’s Men. The New York Times described it: “More revelations from the Nixon White House, based on documents supplied by Alexander Butterfield, the aide who disclosed Nixon’s taping system.”
Woodward, 72, is associate editor of The Washington Post. This is his 18th book. Counting the two he wrote with Carl Epstein, it's his fifth related to Watergate.
NO.14: John Irving 14th novel is Avenue of Mysteries. His hero is Juan Diego Guerrero, a Mexican, who has become a famous novelist. In Irving’s book, reviewed in the November 16 Time, Juan “retraces in dreams and memories the long avenue of his life: ‘What leads us where we’re going, the courses we follow to our ends, what we don’t see coming, and what we do—all this can be mysterious, or simply unseen, or even obvious.’”
Mexico's most famous Juan Diego is the peasant to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared in Catholic tradition. Irving gives his Juan Diego a sister named Lupe.
LOWDOWN: J.K. Dineen is the author of High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco. His book was on a list of books recommended by sfgate, the online "sister-site" of the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Dineen… gives thirsty readers the lowdown on 26 of the city’s finest saloons, taverns and cocktail bars that he has investigated with vigor….[he] comes by his bar knowledge with two outstanding credentials — he’s a newspaper reporter [for The Chronicle] and an Irish American who enjoyed his first tipple as a kid well under drinking age in County Kerry, in western Ireland, when his father took him to a pub."
ON SATIRE: James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He contributed an essay for the Times Book Review Bookends page in answer to the question: “Is legitimate satire necessarily directed at the powerful?”
“Legitimate satire: sort of an oxymoron, isn’t it?” Parker asked. Several hundred words later, he concluded: “Power cannot satirize. It has too much to lose. When it comes to satire, power is mute. ‘All over the world,’ an Israeli man who lives on my street was telling me last week, ‘the quiet people are being pushed out by the vicious.” I prompted him: ‘So the meek shall inherit . . . ?’ ‘The ice,’ he replied. ‘The desert. The side of the mountain.’ And where the meek go, where the weak go, they take the satire with them.”