by Campbell Geeslin
E.L. Doctorow died last week at 84. His most successful novel was Ragtime (1981). He “situated fictional characters in recognizable historical contexts,” The New York Times said in its front-page obituary. The author once said that it was his technique to stand at a remove, to invent a voice and let the voice speak, “to create the artist and let the artist do the work.”
His novel World’s Fair (1985), which Doctorow said was “a portrait of the artist as a very young boy, is narrated by a child.
“My mother’s one indulgence was to play the piano, which she did with authority, as she did everything. She had paid for her own lessons as a girl by working as an accompanist for silent movies. She was very good. What I liked, when she sat down to play, was that her rigorous thought was suspended. Her expression softened and her blue eyes shone. She sat with her back very straight, like a queen, her arms outstretched, and she filled the house with beautiful music that I thought of as waterfalls or rainbows. She could sight-read any score placed before her.”
PAGAN PLEASURES: Catherine Coulter’s 19th F.B.I. thriller, Nemesis, is on the bestseller lists. The newsletters she posts on her website, says The New York Times “reveal a far folksier, breezier side to her personality, complete with cat pictures and sports talk.”
Here’s what she had to say in her June dispatch: “Happy Summer Solstice. Isn’t it grand? We’re all playing volleyball outside at ten o’clock at night. I love the summer solstice, but the very next day, I swear you can feel it in your bones that the day is shorter. So enjoy the glorious long days before the twenty-first. And don’t forget your wild and unbridled pagan solstice dance. Consider not doing it solo.”
TO READ ALOUD: In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, children’s book Meghan Cox Gurdon recommended parents read aloud to their children as an antidote for the hours kids spend “lost in their iPads.” She included a list of the best read-aloud books.
Most are old and familiar, but she singled out some recent ones: Chris Wormell’s The Wild Girl and George and the Dragon; Brock Cole’s Good Enough to Eat and The Money We’ll Save, and Laura Amy Schlitz’s retelling of the Grimm tale The Bearskinner.
HOT ITEM: In its first week on sale, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman sold more than 1.1 million copies. There are now 3.3 million copies in print. The New York Times said, “Despite the disputes clouding the book’s release, and mixed reviews, readers flocked to bookstores to buy Watchman. . . . “ Barnes and Noble said it expected the book to be its best-selling title of the year.
Adam Gopnik reviewed Watchman in the July 27 New Yorker. “Though the new book is, to be blunt, a string of clichés, some of them are clichés only because, in the half century since Lee’s generation introduced them, they’ve become clichés; taken on their own terms, they remain quite touching and beautiful. The evocation of [the town of] Maycomb, with which the new book begins, and which recurs throughout its pages, is often magically alive.”
The Times quoted from an interview Lee gave in 1964: “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing . . . is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this—the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”
A SPLENDID CLOAK: Adam Kirsch is a poet and the author of a biography of Benjamin Disraeli. In an essay in Sunday’s Times Book Review, Kirsch wrote about literary boredom. He said that Proust noted that genuine innovation in art usually strikes us, at first, as mere incompetence, because it refuses to conform to received aesthetic standards.
Kirsch wrote: “This is not to say that a boring book is always a clandestine work of genius; but it does suggest that a certain kind of boredom—the boredom of incomprehension, rather than the boredom of over familiarity—should be taken as a challenge. The most useful question to ask about a boring book is not ‘Why is this author incompetent?’ but ‘What is this author trying to do that I don’t understand?’ Whether the book in question was published two hundred years ago or last week, our boredom may turn out to be merely the cloak of its splendor.”
RHYMING FIND: Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) died in 1991. In 2013, sixteen black and white drawings with rhyming lines typed and glued to the back of each were discovered by his widow and an assistant found in a box of old sketches. The set, which Seuss had labeled “The Pet Shop,” has just been published by Random House under the title of What Pet Should I Get?, and it made the cover of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, accompanied by a pastiche of familiar Seuss characters. The Times’ reviewer said the story is about making choices, and the boy and girl characters waver over getting a cat, a dog, a bird or a fish.
LIFE BEFORE MAC: I picked up a Paris Review collection from 1957-1958 the other day. It included an interview with the author George Simenon. The facts of his life are impressive: he was born in Belgium in 1903, spent much of his life in France and came to live in the U.S. in 1945. Simenon published more than 150 novels under his own name, and about 350 more under various pseudonyms. He died in 1989 at the age of 86. Dozens of Simenon’s Maigret novels are listed on Amazon.
All written by hand, before the laptop was even dreamed of.
EX-ARMY MAN: Brad Taylor was born on Okinawa and grew up in rural Texas. He served in the Army for 21 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He lives in Charleston, S.C., with his wife and two daughters. He started writing one night when his wife went out with her girlfriends. When she got home, he told her, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can write. The bad news is that it took three hours to get out one paragraph.”
Taylor has written more than a dozen novels since. The Insider Threat is his eighth thriller starring Pine Logan, a terrorist-chaser. On his website, Taylor says “Pike Logan is a fictional character, but he is real. He exists in greater numbers than the public is aware. Not as many as we need, but probably more than people believe.”
NO SELF-HELP: William T. Vollmann is the author of a new novel, The Dying Grass. In an interview in the July 28 New York Times Book Review, he was asked what sort of books he gives a pass.
He replied, “I try to avoid any book that praises instantaneous electronic communication although I might make an exception for something pornographic. I would rather read the phone book (and sometimes do, when hunting for my characters’ names) than any self-help book.”
FROM BRAZIL: Paulo Coelho, 67, is the author of the bestselling novel The Alchemist. He is a Brazilian novelist who has received many international awards. Alchemist has been translated into 80 languages and 190 million copies have been sold. Goodreads provides dozens of quotes from the book. A few samples:
“The secret of life . . . is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
“I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living now.”
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”
POEMS FOUND: Poet and novelist Forrest Gander is translating 20 poems by Pablo Neruda, found last year in Chile. The earliest one dates back to 1956. The New York Times said that “several are love poems, a form for which Neruda was famous.” The title will be Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda. Publication is next April.
ROAD TALK: Several writers commented in The New York Times Arts section on memorable moments they had while on the road promoting their books. Junot Diaz, whose The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the 2008 Pulitzer, said, “I remember my first book event in Boston. Two people attended, one of them my boy Shuya. Despite all the empty chairs, he said, I’m proud of you, brother.”
Sloane Crosley’s first novel, The Clasp, is due out in October. She has promoted two essay collections on the road. She said, “You write narrative nonfiction and people assume you’ve exaggerated everything; you write fiction and people assume you’ve swiped it from reality. So things on tour have always gotten pretty personal.”
Nell Zink is the author of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, both novels. She said, “Reading to a crowd resembles something I actually know how to do—sing Schubert in a clear mezzo-soprano—minus all the hard parts. Whee! Then comes the Q. and A., during which I am expected to display knowledge of—get this—myself.”