A Yankee Girl’s Thoughts on Reading Go Set a Watchman

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanAs others have noted, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is very much a first draft of a first novel. When PBS aired an episode tag on the book’s publication one of the people interviewed said the manuscript was published “without changing a word.” This is wholly believable. The dialogue is choppy. The internal monologues (and most of the external ones) are didactic. Literary devices—like the tactic Lee uses of alternating between Jean Louise’s internal thoughts and her external conversations—feel forced, awkward, and indulgent.

Where Lee is at her best is exactly where you’d expect her to be: in the scenery, the atmosphere, the descriptions of the daily life of the quiet and not so quiet denizens of a small southern town. To the town of Maycomb itself she brings all her considerable powers to bear. Even if you are one of the eight people on this planet who have not read To Kill a Mockingbird (or one of the two who haven’t seen the movie), you know exactly what the courthouse looks like, and what parts of it smell like. You know what the ice cream shop looks like. What the clearing above the bluff and the steps down to the river look like. Lee has a talent for landscape and it is lovely to lose oneself in its shimmering clarity.

But was Lee really writing a eulogy for the small Southern town? If Go Set a Watchman was her first attempt to wrestle with the implications of the South’s cultural racism and the country’s movement towards modernism and desegregation, then readers owe that first editor a debt for derailing Lee from her intended path, challenging her instead to rewrite the story from Scout’s perspective. As an exploration of racism and modernism, the book is unbearably preachy—it is preachy about being preachy. There is a long digression into the misguided attempts of snobby Yankee church music directors to change or get rid of the old tried and true southern hymns. That’s how preachy it gets. Basically, whenever Lee has a point she wants to make, one of her characters launched into a speech.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdBut the flashback scenes are pure imagination, by far the best part of the book, so we can be thankful they are also a significant part of the book. “Jean Louise” is an emotionally cramped and uncertain young woman, top-heavy with ideas of how the world should be. “Scout” is everything we’ve always known her to be: relatively unencumbered by expectations—other people’s or her own—and thus free to see how the world is. It’s always dangerous to speculate how much of the writer is in the character, but one wonders. It is illustrative, for example, to compare side-by-side Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia in Go Set a Watchman, and Scout’s intrusion into the scene in front of the jail in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are beautifully described. Both scenes simmer with grief, violence and rage. But Scout walks into a crowd of angry men, protected only by her innocence, and sets the world to rights (at least for one night). Jean Louise walks into a crowd of grief-stricken, angry men and women wearing her obliviousness, and even though no one so much as raises their voice to her, she comes away with her world in ruins, questioning everything she has ever known.

For the people who have picked up Go Set a Watchman wanting to know “what happened” to some of their favorite characters in a favorite book, it is probably facile to suggest they stick to the flashback scenes, but it would be good advice. The water-tower episode, especially, is a marvel. A marvel. And the scene where the children play at “Revival” is impossible not to love, even for an unchurched Yankee. But the reader who picks this book up hoping to find a more coherent and mature exploration of cultural racism and the effects of desegregation in the South will be disappointed. A reader who hopes to find a good story will be disappointed. Lee was neither coherent nor mature as she struggled to write around these issues, and it shows. And the book is not a novel so much as a series of scenes and ideas for scenes strung together along the fragile question of whether or not one can go home again (you can and you can’t). In the end the story fizzles in the face of Lee’s own indecision. Jean Louise has lost a few idols, gained, perhaps, an understanding that even Atticus Finch must have feet of clay. But this is a pallid comfort that does nothing to assuage anyone’s feelings about the racist pamphlet Jean Louise discovered among her father’s books, or the way he tolerates the ugly diatribe given by a frothing-at-the-mouth speaker in his “Citizen’s Council.” Jean Louise learns she can still love the people she has always loved, even when they hold opinions she despises. But it’s noticeable that this revelation—which teaches her how to be reconciled, after a fashion, with her father and friends—does not reconcile her to Calpurnia.

All in all, I’m glad I read it, but even more glad that I read it unencumbered by any real nostalgia for To Kill a Mockingbird, book or movie. It is interesting from a literary standpoint to think about how this book evolved into the one almost everyone agrees you should read at some point in your life. And I think the questions the story asks are worth asking—such as how much of our identity is built upon, and therefore dependent on, racist principles, and what is the cost of keeping that identity? Or questions about the differences between ideas and action, between what we say and what we do. And even questions of what happens when we discover the people we love stand for everything we hate. All these, even if they are posed in language left a little raw, are well worth asking, and certainly worth discussing. If the book leaves us feeling uneasy and dissatisfied, that in itself is an improvement over the sense of benevolent tolerance and nostalgic complacency that we all seem prone to after reading To Kill a Mockingbird.


Pocket Review: Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz
New York Review Books, 2015

Summer reading lists, the midyear staples of literary sites, blogs, and review pages, are necessarily the stuff of fantasy: what we will pack to read on the beach in between dips in the azure ocean, what we will take on that plane trip to exotic lands or read in the train compartment as we rocket off to parts unknown. Even if the reality is more about what will best distract us from the sweltering dead heat of the subway platform on the same old daily commute, it’s a nice construct.

Discovering your book of the summer, on the other hand, happens in real time. Like the song of the summer, or your summer love, you look up and realize that it will be forever linked to a particular time and place. The time is usually mid-August, maybe late July, and even if the place really is the sweltering subway platform with no vacation in sight, it’s still a moment of confectionary clarity that makes the absence of that azure ocean a little more bearable.

Elsewhere (OK, Twitter) I described Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz, as my literary summer soundtrack, and I’m not sure I can come up with a better description than that. First published in 1968, Talk is a transcript of three friends having a months-long, meandering conversation in the Hamptons during the summer of 1965—originally a number of people taped by Rosenkrantz, distilled down to two women, a writer and an actress, and their gay male best friend, a painter. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s, involved in the ’60s New York art scene—Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler are name-dropped—and everyone, as was the fashion, is in analysis. They talk on the beach, in cars, over meals and drinks, packing, unpacking. The conversations veer from banal to deep, self-centered to compassionate, trite to interesting, and cover a lot of bases—at least where sex, art, food, relationships, and therapy are concerned.

EMILY: What’s the matter, darling?
VINCENT: I’m so sad.
VINCENT: Because that’s what being alive is.
EMILY: I know it, I’m sad all the fucking time, you have no idea.
VINCENT: I heard something last week about what makes humans different from animals, some gorgeous basic thing, like that humans have memories, but it’s not that.
EMILY: What is it?
VINCENT: Something absolutely beautiful. Are you putting garlic powder in too? Wow, is that cheap. Why use fresh garlic then?

Do people even talk to each other about their therapy anymore? I don’t mean the way everyone airs their mental and physical health on Facebook, but in-depth discussions? The friends in Talk analyze their analyses, and their analysts, as if they’re talking about their favorite sports teams:

EMILY: When I was going over the Emil Reinhardt affair with my doctor, he said it sounded like a threepenny novel.
MARSHA: My doctor says my life is a soap opera.
EMILY: Mine said a threepenny novel
MARSHA: Soap opera.
EMILY: His grasp of dialect is different. Anyway, the point is that my syndrome is just the opposite of yours.

Rosenkrantz has clearly done her editing work; Stephen Koch’s introduction mentions that she began the process with 25 characters and 1,500 pages of single-spaced transcripts. The resulting dialogue is deceptively artless, often with implied stops, starts, changes in tone that register in the reader’s ear before any visuals begin to form.

EMILY: And there’s a certain kind of man’s body I love—it’s a body on which clothes just hang because he doesn’t care about them, but that looks beautiful in bed. It’s a secret body. I love people with secret bodies, secretly beautiful.
MARSHA: I love mayonnaise on my arm, that’s one of my great pleasures.
EMILY: Leave it there, it’s good for suntan cream.

In fact, the chatter is weirdly delightful, even when the speakers themselves get tiresome—the rhythms of the conversation of friendship are what makes the book work. It doesn’t read like a stage play or even a script, as there’s almost no movement, physical or plotwise. But there’s a kind of music to it, even when the reader thinks—often—that they’re all slightly narcissistic and immature.

MARSHA: That’s the thing, you always have to warm these guys up, keep the fires burning, have the blankets ready and the hot tea, all these spiritual heating pads. Who needs it?

But aren’t we all sometimes?—and even more to the point, don’t we think so about our nearest and dearest, inwardly rolling our eyes even as we still love them? Talk is like that exactly, and it swings along cheerfully even as it takes some dark turns. It’s a fine summer read, and it’s guaranteed to put a little burnish on your own shooting the breeze with friends—like a summer song, it’s frothy but still reverberates in your head for a good while after it ends.


A Novelist in the Poet’s Village: On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Toíbín

On Elizabeth BishopOn Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Toíbín
Princeton University Press, 2015

The critic David Kalstone said about Elizabeth Bishop in 1977 that “she is probably the most honored yet most elusive of contemporary poets.” How does one capture such an elusive prize? This is the challenge faced by Colm Toíbín. Bishop upped the ante as well when she said in an interview in 1950 that she was not opposed to all literary criticism but that she “was opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it.” Colm Toíbín rises to the occasion with his slim, elegant book, simply title, On Elizabeth Bishop, which embodies two of the qualities Bishop valued most: modesty and concision.

Though Toíbín, known primarily as a writer of fiction, might seem an odd choice for this assignment, commissioned as part of the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series (other titles include Notes on Sontag, by Phillip Lopate, and On Whitman, by C.K. Williams), it is clearly an “effort of affection,” to borrow the title of Bishop’s appreciative essay for her mentor and friend, Marianne Moore. In these pages he talks about the poets who were important to him as a young man and nascent writer, recalling a trip to Dublin when he was 15 in which he bought Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist. By the time he reached university in 1972, he had read some poems by Robert Lowell and came across Bishop’s name. He may also have learned about Bishop from Heaney, who succeeded Bishop in her position at Harvard and was a friend and great fan of her work. He picked up Bishop’s Selected Poems, published by Chatto and Windus, in the Compendium Bookshop on Camden High Street in London during the Easter break in 1975. As a teenager in Cleveland around the same time (I see from Toíbín’s bio that he is older than I am by one year), I was making similar stealth purchases (such expenditures were never encouraged) that got packed into the car when I headed to college in 1974 (a truly mixed bag: May Swenson, T.S. Eliot, Diane Wakoski, Howard Nemerov). But alas, I do not share Toíbín’s cultural inheritance of poetry recitations on the beach by his “Auntie Maeve,” as described in his introduction to The Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems (2011).

The story of his growing affinity to the work of Elizabeth Bishop is one that Toíbín wants, even feels compelled, to tell, and the personal narrative is woven gracefully throughout the book. He sees Bishop’s early losses and subsequent itinerant life as analogous to his own. On page two he says, “In certain societies, including rural Nova Scotia where Bishop spent much of her childhood, and in the southeast of Ireland where I am from, language was…a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.” This is also the territory of Toíbín’s most recent novel, Nora Webster, which he has said in several interviews is drawn from his early memories related to the death of his father.

He clearly loves Bishop’s poems and knows them well. He also knows what others have said about them. Readers who are not already well-versed in Bishop’s work and life may find this a good place to start, as Toíbín provides a useful framework that can be applied to future reading. I hope also that readers who have enjoyed Toíbín’s novels but remain, like a large proportion of the reading public, poetry averse, will open this book in admiration of the author but will stay with it because of the arresting power of Bishop’s poems.

The first authoritative biography of Bishop, Brett Millier’s Life and the Memory of It, came out in 1993 (University of California Press). Since then, the public has gained access to her letters, early drafts, and unpublished work, and this material was available to Toíbín as well, as he clearly states.

Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the first and only child of Gertrude Boomer and William Bishop. Her father died of acute and chronic kidney disease when she was eight months old, after which mother and daughter moved to Great Village, Nova Scotia, the home of her maternal relatives. When Bishop was five years old, her mother was committed to an insane asylum, where she remained for the rest of her life. Bishop’s story “In the Village” is a recollection of the scream she associated as a child with her mother’s illness and abrupt departure; she would never see her mother again. She was sent away from her well-loved maternal grandparents to live with her father’s parents in Massachusetts and from there to boarding school and Vassar.

Though she never knew her father, his family’s modest wealth provided her with a small income that meant for most of her life she did not need to work. After college, Bishop moved from New York to Key West, spent time in Paris, and later settled in Brazil, a stop on a planned trip to visit a college friend and a woman she had met once in New York, the self-taught architect and aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares. When Bishop became seriously ill from an allergic reaction to cashew fruit Lota nursed her back to health, and the two fell in love. She lived with Lota for 15 years in the mountain town of Petropolis, with an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. That relationship ended tragically with Lota’s suicide in New York in 1967. After a short sojourn in San Francisco, Bishop moved to Boston to take over Robert Lowell’s teaching position at Harvard while he was on leave. She remained in Cambridge and Boston until her death in 1979.

After Millier’s biography, and a delightfully readable oral biography, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), the next big event was the publication of a large volume of Bishop’s letters, edited by Robert Giroux, called One Art, in 1996 (FSG). A decade later her 30-year correspondence with Robert Lowell was gathered into a separate volume called Words in Air (FSG, 2008). The letters collected by Giroux are funny and sad in turn and make good reading, illuminating aspects of her life that would otherwise be hard to capture in narrative form. The letters between Bishop and Lowell are more than that; they document an important and rare literary friendship for which there are few precedents.

Newly extended compilations of the work unpublished in book form before she died later became available, including a condensed volume from the Library of America in 2008, but the most contentious volume by far is a selection of Bishop’s unpublished poems, drafts, and fragments edited by former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, titled Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (FSG, 2006) This book provoked the wrath of the estimable critic Helen Vendler, who stated parenthetically in her scathing review in the New Republic, “I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts”—to which Quinn’s editor, Jonathan Galassi, responded: “Most of them [poets] should relax. Elizabeth Bishop is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of American poets, which means that everything she wrote is of interest.” Galassi went on to say that the aim of the book was not to “present these texts as canonical” but to give her passionate readers a better sense of how she wrote. Lloyd Schwartz, a critic and poet who became close to Bishop toward the end of her life, says that “Bishop never really ‘repudiated’ most of her drafts. If anything, she was quite prepared for their posthumous publication, since her will actually gibes her literary executors ‘the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the process.” (Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century; University of Virginia Press, 2012)

Toíbín uses these resources well. He mentions, for example, a letter from Bishop to Lowell from 1958 that describes the apartment Bishop shared with Lota in Copacabana, Brazil: “Top floor…a terrace around two sides.… Ships go by all the time, like targets in a shooting gallery.” He also cites an unpublished Bishop poem set in Brazil, “Apartment from Leme,” from 1969, which describes the beach seen from her apartment window in the morning. Although Toíbín knew Bishop’s work when he himself visited Brazil in 1985, he would not have read this letter and this poem. In addition to making good use of this new material, Toíbín also shows his skill as a close reader of primary sources. He sees a pattern in the way her seemingly casual narrative poems often begin with a simple statement of fact that cannot be argued: Here are a few of many examples: “I caught a tremendous fish” (from “The Fish”); “At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee” (“A Miracle for Breakfast”); “Here is a coast; here is a harbor” (“Arrival at Santos”). Then, as Toíbín observes, Bishop habitually corrects or qualifies herself, “often as a duty or a ceremony,” as in “The Map,” where, Toíbín goes on, “she wrote the word ‘Shadows,’ and then wrote, ‘or are they shallows.’” The same movement occurs in such poems as “The Weed”: “I lay upon a grave, or bed” and in “The Armadillo”: “the stars…planets, that is.” These are conscious moves toward a precision that is the least the poet can offer in this shifting world where what we see cannot be trusted to stay in place.

Sometimes Toíbín’s enthusiasm leads him a bit astray. As a novelist, he may be overeager to prove his “poetry chops” in detailed analyses of Bishop’s prosody. Mostly he gets it right, but a listing of some of Bishop’s paired rhyming words along with their precedents in the work of other greats, including Shakespeare, seems like overkill. Another quibble is that he dedicates a full chapter to a comparison of Bishop’s work with that of Thom Gunn. Clearly, Toíbín is passionate about both poets, and his insights about the way each obliquely works through the trauma of an early loss are worth sharing, but the chapter feels like a stand-alone piece. It is a bad fit for this book.

I was also disappointed in Toíbín’s characterization of the poet May Swenson, whom Bishop came to know at Yaddo in the early 1950s and described, in a letter to Robert Lowell, as “a nice girl” and “not a bad poet.” In a portion of the book that looks at Bishop’s relationships with other women poets, Toíbín recounts a familiar story of the rift that grew between Bishop and Marianne Moore when Moore sent Bishop a revision of Bishop’s poem “Roosters” (about, yes, roosters, and set in Key West). Moore and her mother had spent most of the night working on this revision, in part to eliminate the language they saw as coarse or crude, like the term “water closet.” This anecdote leads Toíbín to conjecture about Moore’s possible discomfort with the sexual implications of some of Bishop’s poems; he brings Swenson into the discussion because he sees her as being more receptive to the sensuality in one of Bishop’s more explicit love poems, “The Shampoo,” than Moore might have been. Unfortunately, he uses as an illustration a bad and embarrassing poem that was not published in Swenson’s lifetime. Many better examples are available, like this lightly flirtatious poem from Swenson’s book, Half Sun Half Sleep (Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1967), written in the form of a letter to Bishop in Brazil:

Yes, I’d like a pair of Bicos de Lacre—
Meaning beaks of “lacquer” or “sealing wax”?
(the words are the same in Portuguese)
“…about 3 inches long, including the tail,
Red bills and narrow bright red masks…”
You say the male has a sort of “drooping

Toíbín does a disservice to both poets by setting up this false dichotomy, and he should know better. Bishop is, after all, the poet who said jokingly to Richard Howard “I want closets, closets, and more closets.” And Toíbín’s fictional treatment of Henry James in his earlier novel, The Master, makes it clear that he understands well the language of constraint and secrecy. In Bishop’s work, identity might be masked by the lack of third-person feminine pronouns or through elaborate conceits about flora and fauna, but this characterization needs to be interrogated further. I am reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s insistence that she painted flowers, not genitalia. We cannot know the poet’s intention, or that of the painter, but the quality of the artist’s attention (and we know that Bishop was very attentive) makes every gesture personal. The sexual act also serves to dissolve that layer of self-consciousness and may be better approached by indirection.

A small handful of the drafts in Alice Quinn’s compilation clearly depict lovemaking between two women, with no need for a magic decoder ring. One of these starts as a plainspoken description of a rock formation that resembles the shapes of roses but then takes a major leap into what Lloyd Schwartz calls a “remarkably rhapsodic conclusion”:

rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate rose of sex—

The ending long dash is Bishop’s own. It is more of a ripple than an end stop. Whether Bishop held back such a poem because it was not quite finished or because it made her feel too exposed, I am grateful to have it now.

Further down in the “Bicos de Lacre” poem, Swenson says she’ll make the birds “a little Brazil on Perry Street.” That would be Perry Street in Greenwich Village, where Swenson lived with her then-partner, “P.S.” I got in touch with P.S. on the advice of another poet, and we quickly became friends who would meet for an occasional dinner in New York and exchange letters in between. In one of those letters, she asked me if I would like her to send me the two letters she had received from Bishop in 1968 when Bishop had left New York for San Francisco after Lota’s suicide. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. One of them is a folded note card with a child-like graphic showing a parachutist, an American flag, the sun, and a small house or barracks. It is signed, “Love, & gratitude always—Elizabeth.”

In 1993, when Brett Millier’s biography had just come out, I took a week off from my day job and made a road trip with my partner to Key West for a Bishop festival. Alice Quinn was there as well, along with such poetry notables as Richard Wilbur, Frank Bidart, and J.D. McClatchy. I was on assignment from Lambda Book Report and had an essay on May Swenson coming out in Kenyon Review; I had dreams of a book contract and eventually being able to quit my day job. Life turned out otherwise, but James (Jimmy!) Merrill’s recitation from memory of Bishop’s poem “Exchanging Hats” is still with me today: “Costume and custom are complex./The headgear of the other sex/inspires us to experiment.” The experiment continues.

Sue Russell’s essays, book reviews, and poetry have appeared in such publications as the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, Library Journal, Lambda Book Report, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Killing the Buddha, and the Readerville Journal. She lives in Philadelphia and works in medical publishing.


Pocket Review: The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

SunkenCathedral.coverimageThe Sunken Cathedral
Kate Walbert
Scribner, 2015

Here is an interesting, almost Oulipean, challenge: How does one write a modern, urban novel without referencing technology? Maybe modern is the wrong word, with its connotations of sleekness and smooth surfaces. How does one write a contemporary novel, then, set in—say—New York City, without mentioning cell phones, laptops, the Internet?

Kate Walbert has calibrated The Sunken Cathedral to the very real concerns of New Yorkers in the second decade of the 21st century without ever taking an easy step. Rather than Google and Amazon, her characters are thinking about real estate, progressive private schools, the lovely, ubiquitous High Line, and—perhaps most urgent, as it is firmly out of the control of even the most carefully insulated city dweller—the weather. For those of us who, in the past five years, have lived through Hurricane Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, and even an earthquake—remember the earthquake?—not to mention reports from around the world of far more devastating events: tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes that level entire towns, Walbert’s book neatly calls up that sensation of previously solid ground shifting under our feet. As New Yorkers, we expect certain kind of chaos: crime, noise, social unrest. When the elements level our respective playing fields, on the other hand, we’re undone. This was not what we planned for. 9/11 made us jumpy, and as Walbert gently points out, we’re jumpy still.

Marie and Simone, the two elderly women around whom The Sunken Cathedral orbits, know a thing or two about how life spirals out of control. Both survived the occupation of France during World War II, and both have grown old in a city that has changed radically since they met as young mothers in a Brooklyn playground. Their children are grown and moved away, their loved husbands are dead.

So they do what old ladies at loose ends in the city have done for time immemorial: they take an art class. Taught by one Sid Morris—an aging beatnik in a shabby Chelsea studio with questionable credentials—The School of Inspired Arts welcomes a cast of players that, like true New Yorkers, cross paths both randomly and irrevocably, expand outward, and multiply. Thus, in and out of Sid’s studio, we also meet Elizabeth, who rents an apartment in Marie’s brownstone with her husband and teenage son; the movie star who lives in the building behind hers (and his cat, Roscoe, who has a name, whereas the movie star doesn’t); Dr. Constantine, the old-school feminist interim head of a lefty private school; Carlos, the mounted policeman, for a heartbreaking minute; and Helen, the painting class’s resident art historian in thick black plastic glasses, who

peered through the lenses as if trying to see in murky water, her eyes exaggerated and a little off, Simone thought—she’s been through something; and did Marie notice how certain times she went so close to her canvas it seemed she might be smelling it? And other times she squeezed her eyes shut like she was trying to paint in the dark.

There’s an appropriately underwater quality throughout The Sunken Cathedral, and Sid’s classroom discussions of impressionism add a layer of watery, wavery visuals that serve the interwoven plot lines well. New York may not be under water just yet, but the characters flow by each other, refracted and sometimes drifting; the mermaids and ghosts that put in token appearances are entirely at home. When Helen offers the class her vision for a painting inspired by Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, she recalls visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with her husband, where she got “the first inkling of a loosened world.”

Time is fluid here too, viewed through the wavy lens of memory. And while you might expect a certain imprecision from Marie and Simone, it turns out that everyone’s sense of personal history is subjective, and subject to change. It’s not just the elderly whose sense of time is mutable; everyone in Walbert’s book moves forward and backward through their reminiscences—in a way that’s sometimes confusing, but more often, if the reader is willing to flow with it, reveals a pleasing Pentimento effect.

This is not the easiest of reads. Walbert’s tenses can shift multiple times in a single sentence; her scaffolded viewpoints and voices require close reading. But the book moves with the condensed momentum of a short story, packing a rich sensory pastiche:

The powders were caked in tubes gone dry, or pressed into compacts from the fifties, their plastic clamshell lids and palm-size mirrors flecked with black. How many times had her mother seen her own face in these, and now Katherine looking back, a stouter version of her mother, more her father’s build, stocky, short-waisted, but in this mirror none of that, only her face, pretty like her mother’s though not as pretty, not nearly as pretty, she thinks, dumping the tubes and compacts, the dried-out mascaras and spent lipsticks, the beveled-glass bottles of perfume—some nearly empty, others almost full—and the one her father gave her mother every year for Christmas, her mother pretending she had no idea, squealing like a little girl—into a cardboard box she believed she would throw out but on which she later wrote with Sharpie, MOTHER.

Urban life, art, aging, and death are all considered; perhaps as they are, maybe only as we imagine them, but in the end the distinction is not so important. The Sunken Cathedral is as contemporary as can be, yet carries the timeless sense of the neighborhood back yards you can’t see from the street:

…behind, in the back, the small gardens of the Chelsea brownstones and tenements—some just dog runs, others planted, each a tiny terrarium of hope.


Dreaming of a Cold and Rainy Fourth

Polar_Bear_16-3Confession time: I’m hoping it rains tomorrow. I know, I know—that’s a terrible thing to say. People have beach plans and grilling plans and fireworks-viewing plans. Me, I have a very beloved ten-year-old dog who is absolutely terrified of anything percussive, and I live in a neighborhood of obnoxious dumbass teenagers who like to blow things up in the street. I’ve seen plenty of fireworks in my life, and I honestly don’t care if I see another one. But I have only one dog and I fear for her heart when the pyrotechnics start.

It’s a selfish wish, I realize this. Although I’m not as selfish as I could be. For instance, given the fact that I’m getting mightily tired of winter and icy sidewalks and shoveling snow—I am not getting any younger, people—you still won’t find me wishing for even rapider climate change. (In fact, let’s get this straight: you won’t find me actually controlling the weather—this is all a sort of whinging atmospheric ideation.) Nor do I spend summer, which I also don’t really like much anymore, waxing wistful about the next ice age. I know, in my heart of hearts, that ice ages are no fun.

So rather than invoke the weather gods and call great sheets of ice down on the world during July and August, I mainly just try to stay hydrated and inert. Reading is an excellent way to accomplish this; reading in front of the fan is even better; reading in front of the fan with a pint of ice cream is about as good as it gets. And I like to read cold when I can: tales of the Icelanders, Ernest Shackleton, doomed searches for the Northwest Passage.

As it turns out, my compadres at Open Letters Monthly feel the same. The July issue is up, and in it a number of fine reviews, poems, and observations—more on those at a later date. It also has, for like-minded cool readers, an expanded Summer Reading 2015 section (in two parts), including my shivery book for this summer, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

So put that box fan in the window, sprawl on the bed in as few clothes as possible, dig a spoon into some Ben & Jerry’s, and read something that gives you the chills. The suggestions here are great.

And if it rains tomorrow, think of it as a good chance to check out the rest of the issue. And order in a pizza. And take a nice nap. You’ll thank me later, really. (If you’re jonesing for some snapping and banging in the privacy of your home, check out the Museum of Firecracker Label Art. Awful-looking homepage aside, they’re quite beautiful, and they won’t scare the dog.)


The PEN Literary Awards: Picking The [Under] Dog

I fully intended on going to the PEN Literary Awards last night, I really did. I RSVP’d, for one thing, and anyone who knows me knows I’m compulsively polite on that count, because the PEN people certainly must have set aside those two plastic cups of Merlot and a couple of cheese cubes with my name on it. But more than that, I just liked the shortlists. They looked like I could happily read my way straight through them, and the books there that I had read I liked very much. Plus I wanted to see James Hannaham, whom I had the great good fortune to meet on an otherwise miserable flight out to Portland, OR, and then see read at Powell’s a few months ago, emcee.

I even chose my reading accordingly. A while back I had picked a book somewhat randomly out of the giveaway pile at work, a slim short story collection called The Dog by Jack Livings. I didn’t know the author, didn’t know the title—I’m basically as attracted to anything with the word “dog” in the title as your average eight-year-old. I might have thought, at first, it was Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog which a few friends had read to mixed reviews. But this book, in fact, was not on the radar of anyone I know.

And that’s always an interesting factor, when I get to feel like an innovator. It’s not as if I run in any kind of rarefied literary circles—my life is not the Algonquin Round Table—but I talk about books a lot, online and in person. It’s rare, honestly, to find something that looks promising that no one I know has mentioned. Finally, and maybe predictably—cf. my comment above about titles with the word “dog” in them—Steve Donoghue reviewed it at Open Letters Monthly and piqued my interest.

Of all the titles on the PEN shortlist, this was the only one I’d heard pretty much nothing about. It was an underdog in every sense of the word, including the fact that it was languishing at the bottom of a pile of books on my desk at work. So when I decided I would be hitting the PEN Awards, I dug it out and started reading.

And it’s good. This isn’t a review, as I don’t review books I haven’t finished and I’m only halfway into Livings’s collection. The stories are set in corners of contemporary China that don’t see a lot of literary action, each one finely detailed, dusty and smelly and bearing a hint—often more than a hint—of menace. I need some kind of method for picking books from my pile, and this one, I thought, worked exceptionally well.

But then, as perhaps you can guess by the overarching tone of regret—at least there’s supposed to be one here—I didn’t go. It had been a lousy week and a half in my world, the highlights of which included a serious home breakin and burglary, a bad case of poison oak, and a birthday. By the end of my workday I was tired as dirt, and it was a Monday. The thought of getting in at 11:00 and having to take out the recycling just made me want to weep. So I went home, ate enchiladas, crawled into bed.

underdogBut around 9:00 an email popped into my inbox announcing that The Dog had won the Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction—which was, for some reason, oddly validating. I might not have been sitting in The New School auditorium holding my breath along with everyone else, poised over my phone to tweet the winner, but still. I picked the dark horse! I picked the underdog! At least I picked it out of my big pile of books. And I so rarely get to be the first person I know to read anything with a buzz around it, that made me happy. When everyone I know is racing to get their copies, I’ll have my battered galley safe at home, thumbed through and studded with sticky notes. “Let me know when you’ve finished,” I’ll say, “and we can talk about it.”

Congratulations to all the PEN winners! Sorry I wasn’t there. But it was fun anyway.


Sunday Links, January 18, 2015


The category winners in the 2014 Costa Book awards have been announced.  The Book of the Year will be announced on January 27.

The nominees for the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award have been announced.

Best of 2014

The Book Smugglers have added a number of new writers to their Smugglivus celebration, which I first discussed in my last Sunday Links.  Here are some more writers, bloggers and lovers of the written word giving you guidance on the best reads of last year:  Sophia McDougall; S.L. Huang; Rebecca Hahn; M.R. Carey; Max Gladstone; Sarah McCarry; Michael Wojcik; Merrie Haskell; Saundra Mitchell; Rochita Loenen-Ruiz; James Dawson; Stephanie Burgis; Genevieve Valentine; Andrea K. Höst; Catherine F. King; The G of Nerds of a Feather Flock Together; Jody of Lady Business and Book Gazing; Cuddlebuggery; Gavia Baker-Whitelaw; Jared Shurin; Foz Meadows; Sunil Patel; Paul and Renee of Fangs for the Fantasy; and Kelly and Kim of Stacked.  (Some movies, television and games sneak into the recommendations, too.)

Bibliotropic lists the top five urban fantasy novels of 2014.

Author Jeff Somers shared his favorite reads of the year at My Bookish Ways.

Powell’s listed its best blog posts pf 2014.  There are some great essays by some great writers among those links.

Larry Nolen of the OF Blog of the Fallen is as perverse as ever; instead of a “best” post, he wrote a “worst” post — and I disagree with at least five of his six choices.  To each his own taste!  I suppose when you read more than 400 books in a year, some books that might appeal to a reader who luxuriates in prose might not seem as good (a comment that particularly applies to Nolen’s choice of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, which I thought was one of the best books of the year).  (Nolen also listed the top books of the year:  1-20, 21-30, 31-40, 41-50, debuts, foreign language releases, short story collections, and translated fiction.

SFGate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, listed the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2014.

Bibliotropic lists the best speculative fiction of 2014.

The moderators at BestFantasyBooks.com list the best fantasy of the year.

BuzzFeedBooks lists the most exciting literary debuts of 2014 in fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Kirkus lists the most overlooked books of the year.

io9 lists its choices for the best science fiction and fantasy of 2014, calling it a “crazy good year for books.”

BuzzFeed lists the 28 best books by women this past year.

Mashable lists 21 page-turners “that took us on journeys, opened our eyes, and made us laugh in 2014.”

BookRiot has links to the ten best literary TED talks of the year.

Bookworm Blues lists the best science fiction and fantasy of the year, broken down into nine subgenres and including an honorable mentions section.  It’s probably enough reading to keep most folks going for the first half of 2015.

Tangent Online lists the best speculative short fiction of the year — short stories, novelettes and novellas.  I wish they’d linked the stories that were published online, because a great many of the favorites were — but you can probably find them just by inputting the title of the story into your favorite search engine.

Tor.com also lists short fiction favorites based on its readers’ opinions, and does provide links.

Omnivoracious lists the top ten graphic novels of the year.

My Bookish Ways asked a number of authors to name their favorites of the year; the round-up of the posts they wrote in response is here.

The Qwillery has a short but sweet list of great books from 2014.

The SF convention Concatenation lists its favorites from last year.

What to Look Forward to in 2015

Kirkus tells us of the “must buys” coming out in 2015.

Rob’s Blog o’ Stuff has a different take on the science fiction and fantasy to look forward to.

The Guardian lists the most highly anticipated fiction and non-fiction of 2015.  Sounds like there are some grand biographies coming our way, as well as some excellent debut novels.

GoLocalPDX lists ten novels to look forward to from writers living in the Pacific Northwest.

Speculating on SpecFic’s list of forthcoming fantasy has me excited; lots here I want to read.

Hello Giggles lists the most eagerly awaited young adult fiction.

Bookish takes a more seasonal approach, listing the best books coming out this winter — so some of these you’ll already find on bookshelves.  Here are the listings for nonfiction; mysteries; children’s books; teen books; science fiction and fantasy; and romance.

Barnes & Noble lists some good books coming in the first five months of the year.

Paul Weimer of SkySeaStone.net lists the science fiction and fantasy he’s looking forward to in 2015.

Tor.com lists some of the notable books by women coming in 2015 in genre fiction, noting that it’s impossible to give a comprehensive listing these days — good news for women!

What to Read Next

My Bookish Ways lists the January books not to miss in science fiction, fantasy and horror, as well as in mystery, suspense and fiction.  And they’re way ahead of me:  here are the February books not to miss in science fiction, fantasy and horror and in mystery, suspense and fiction.

Tor.com does its usual excellent job of listing all the science fiction and fantasy books being published in January in a whole bunch of subgenres:  paranormal/urban fantasy and horror; paranormal romance; fantasy; science fiction; and genre-benders.  That last category is almost always my favorite, and with books by Peter Carey, Michael Moorcock, Sarah Pinborough and Jo Walton, this month is no exception.  British releases are noted as well.

Kirkus suggests the best science fiction and fantasy reads for January.

Always wanted to read Stephen King, but don’t know where to start?  BookRiot tells you the three novels you should start with.  The first two strike me as odd choices; I’d go with Misery instead of Dolores Claiborne, for instance, and probably IT or The Stand instead of Under the Dome.

The Huffington Post suggests nine true crime novels that fans of the podcast “Serial” will probably like.  If you haven’t read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote before, it’s time; it’s an excellent book.  Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision is another one worth reading.  I’m going to have to try some of the others.

Damien Walter lists seven literary science fiction and fantasy novels that everyone should read.

Walter seems to be getting his lists of “musts” out of his system.  Here is his list of the three books every author should read.

The Wall Street Journal takes a look at a new generation of graphic novels written by women.  They don’t all have to be about superheroes, you know.

Seventeen writers tell us of their favorite young adult novels.

Lynne Truss lists her top ten gothic novels.

NPR says that all the writers I love love Dorothy Dunnett.  I’ve been meaning to read her books for years; maybe it’s finally time.

Reading and Writing

Jamie Todd Rubin writes about the difference between listening to a book and reading that book.  He’s changed his mind, having some years ago rejected the notion of audiobooks but now come to think that they’re quite wonderful.

Bookish suggests some bookish New Year’s resolutions.  I don’t think hitting a particular number of books is a good resolution, not unless you’re a sparse reader (and I don’t expect many people reading this post fall into that category).  But reading more classics?  Check.  I’ve got Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Little Women and most of Jane Austen’s output on my list this year.  And I’ve got to do more reading from my own shelves.  Too many books, too little time!

Perhaps reading outside one’s comfort zone, to follow different races, genders, countries, languages, is a more achievable resolution.  BookRiot answers frequently asked questions about reading diversely.

2015 looks like a big year for women in science fiction and fantasy.

The Atlantic looks at what it means to say a book is “difficult,” and concludes that that varies from person to person.  The essay takes off from an earlier essay about how you should finish what you start, especially if what you’ve started is a classic of literature.  Both essays seem a bit — well, snobby.  But they’re the kind of snobby I approve of.  Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is harder to read than Pride and Prejudice, at least for me.  Your mileage may vary.  In any event, I suspect that the essay was prompted, at least in part, by an old essay from The Millions, in which it stated its intention to take on books that are more traditionally considered “difficult” with a series of posts introducing and describing those books, even though that series seems to have petered out in 2010.  (Which is a shame; those were interesting posts.)

Words Without Borders has a special issue on alternate histories.  This publication focuses on international literature and translation.  We pay too little attention to the literature of non-English speaking nations, but that may be changing; and this may be a way to help that process.  My only complaint about this publication is that there doesn’t appear to be a way to download the whole thing in one fell swoop.  Fortunately, Readability let me download it article by article, so I’m all set.

It will surprise no one, I think, that I was the librarian for my third grade class.  I took great joy in arranging and rearranging our books — we didn’t have many, though in my memory there were plenty.  I got lots of compliments for my work in making the library look appealing.  But I felt compelled (oh, dear, I was so preachy and such a teacher’s pet!) to remind my class that books were to be read, not just looked at.  The nun who was my teacher, Sister Mary Martha, had those words put on a banner that then hung above the library.  I still feel that way — books are utilitarian objects, even when they are also beautiful and/or valuable — and a book should be used, in the best sense of that word.  Jamie Todd Rubin agrees with me in a lovely essay.

NPR celebrates literary magazines, noting their longevity in a world that would seem to have passed them by.  The Paris Review has three times the circulation it had ten years ago, which is good news for literati everywhere.

Maybe you already knew about unglue.it?  Free books!  How could I not have known?  There’s a huge range of material on offer, from the abstruse scientific treatise to short science fiction stories.  Take a look around and see if anything strikes your fancy.

I don’t usually link to interviews or profiles of authors, but this article about Ted Chiang just strike me as special.  If you haven’t read Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, make it your next purchase — it’s wonderful.

Writer Jo Walton explains how owning an e-reader has changed her reading habits:  “What it is, of course, is a library in your pocket,” she says, and there’s a part of me that has to agree.  We both still want actual physical books too, though, I hasten to add.

The Guardian lists the top 10 magical worlds in children’s books.

Urban fantasist Max Gladstone thinks that the movie “Die Hard” might just be a fairy tale.  He builds a good case for his proposition.

Bookstores, Libraries and the Business of Books

An Amazon addict at BookRiot tried shopping local to see if it could cure her Prime addiction.  She found that the bond she developed with her nearby bookseller paid off enormously with great book recommendations and a closer tie to her community.

Author Jeff VanderMeer was on book tour for his Southern Reach Trilogy this past year, and he visited a lot of great independent bookstores he’d like you to know about.

Thomas Lee says booksellers did everything wrong in negotiating with Amazon over the past year.

Joyous Links for Bookworms

Here’s a vacation I’d love:  traveling about the world visiting libraries and bookstores.

BuzzFeed tracks down t-shirts for book nerds.  I want the Atticus Finch, Attorney at Law t-shirt myself; glad to see it’s available on Etsy.

Wherever I happen to vacation, I visit the homes of authors.  It’s really something to stand in the room and stare at the view that was Herman Melville’s when he was writing Moby-Dick.  Next best to being there is this article full of photographs of writers’ homes.

BuzzFeed is looking for words that book lovers really need.

A videogame that can teach you to write poetry?  Cool.

Bustle offers 10 signs that you’re a bibliophile.  As if you needed them.

I’ve linked before to the gorgeous sculptures made by a myserious, anonymous artist who leaves them in libraries and other bookish places.  The artist spoke with BBC News about her work in an interview that will leave you none the wiser about her identity.

And on a more sober note, BuzzFeed offers 15 inspiring quotes from writers we lost in 2014.

But we can’t end on a sad note, so here you go:  the story of Harry Potter if the leading character in the books were Hermione Granger instead.  A rare pleasure, this bit.


“The Most Mundane and Human Holiday”


My relationship to New Year’s Day has changed as I’ve gotten older. It’s funny; you’d think that as a younger person I would have been more concerned with looking ahead, at all the untapped energy of those blank calendar pages. But maybe because they were so abundant I could take them for granted, I was always more interested in looking back, reflecting on the year just past. These days, with presumably more January firsts behind me than ahead, I really like the thought of the days ahead, the datebook with its spine uncracked (I’m as dependent on my Outlook calendar as anyone else, but for the minutiae of life I still lean heavily on an old-fashioned analog planner). All is possibility.

2014 was an A-1 banner year for me, and probably just for that reason I’m not even remotely interested in thinking about it anymore. The year was all about onward and upward, and that seems like a good (and necessary) trajectory to maintain. Today, though, is a fine spot to rest and catch my breath. No work, a little enforced downtime thanks to the tail end of a nasty cough, a clear and sunny day here on the East Coast. Life is good.

From poet Dana Gioia:

New Year’s

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality,
The most mundane and human holiday.

On other days we misinterpret time,
Pretending that we live the present moment.
But can this blur, this smudgy in-between,
This tiny fissure where the future drips

Into the past, this flyspeck we call now
Be our true habitat? The present is
The leaky palm of water that we skim
From the swift, silent river slipping by.

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

(From Interrogations at Noon, Graywolf Press, 2001)

(Image is “Skiing at Pollfoss, 1923,” by Kristian Berge.)


You Don’t Tug on Superman’s Cape

supermans_capeI don’t imagine everyone dreams exclusively of a full-time job doing whatever it is they love best. There are probably plenty of artists who want to make art on their own terms, in their own time, thank you very much, and are happy to work at something completely unrelated in order to pay the rent. Doing something for fun and doing something for money can be two very different animals.

But not always. I’ve been the news editor at Library Journal since the end of the summer, and the work agrees with me one hundred percent. I spend my days researching and writing and editing stories about public, academic, and special libraries—legislation and innovation, personalities and programs, news both good and bad. There’s no compromise involved; I’m not covering libraries until something better comes along. Rather, I believe in libraries with a geeky lefty fervor: what they do, what they could do, and the general promise they hold out for the world to be a better place. I got to write a positive story about the events in Ferguson last month, and a story about what worked right when a gunman shot three people in the library at Florida State University before Thanksgiving; I get to write about open access and homeless outreach and information literacy. It’s an awesome beat, and I generally consider myself the luckiest girl around.

Last week I wrote an article about a couple of documentary filmmakers who are making what’s eventually going to be an extremely cool film about public libraries. When I spoke to them, one of the two mentioned the Voltaire quote in the Like Fire banner. I was a little surprised that they’d found this place, but not unhappily so—after all, it’s my job to Google the hell out of them before we talk, so why shouldn’t they see what they can dig up on me? I was actually kind of pleased. Pleased… and then a little sad. Poor Like Fire.

I am trying so, so hard not to be that person who neglects everything else in the wake of a new job. My spouse, my pets, my friends, my already tenuous grasp of housekeeping, my ability to eat balanced meals on a regular basis—all of them have been getting shorted these past few months. The only thing that’s improved is my pleasure reading, since I spend a good two and a half hours on the train every day. Other than that, I don’t have much in the way of free time: up before six to walk with the dog—the only exercise either of us get all day, so it’s important—shower, dress, eat breakfast, pack lunch, so I can be at my desk by 9:30. Come 6:30 or so, depending what I’m working on, I pick myself up, go home, eat, play with the kitties, brush my teeth, and try to get my sorry self in bed at a reasonable hour. Not a lot of wiggle room. But, I keep thinking, surely enough.


I know this blog is my own project, to give up or keep on with as I want. Nobody is holding my hand to the fire here. But that’s kind of the point. I started it up with no real support other than some encouragement from friends, and kept it chugging along through day jobs, freelance work, grad school, work on a second website. Even when I felt stretched as thin as I thought I could get, it was always a relief to have a place to bring my thoughts, strut my stuff a bit, talk about what interested me. Not to mention the fact that all the work I did here, online, for free, is what turned me into a halfway decent writer and, eventually, got me this peach of a job.

And it’s not that I don’t have that same desire to trot out my opinions. But I’m realizing what some of the circumstances were that got me writing online in the first place: a nine to five job that was actually nine to five; that didn’t take up all my attention or acuity for all of those eight hours; and—most important—where I was seriously undervalued. I worked for a journal that published book reviews. But the few times when a reviewer punked out on us and I said Hey, how about I write the review?, my editor—an elderly and vaguely misogynist, old-school fellow who still had to be reminded not to call people’s assistants their “girls”—responded as if I were kidding. No “Really, you write reviews?” No “Well then, let’s see what you’ve got.” He reacted as if I’d said, “You know what, I found James Wood’s home phone number online—why don’t I give him a call and see if he’ll write us a book review for $100?”

LZ_Wonder_WomanGranted, I never pushed it. I didn’t feel like getting into it with him, for one thing. Plus that was a lot of what made the job tolerable—having a secret identity. I don’t dispute that I learned a lot editing under him, to the point where I could have written for him. But he didn’t deserve me. I was a superhero in my own literary life, changing into my spangled costume in the phone book of WordPress.

And now I have no secret identity. I’m recognized, professionally and otherwise, for what I can do, and it feels good. But is it lethal to my personal writing? If I’m not my own superhero, do I still get to fly? Jim Croce offered us the basic tenet of common sense that tugging on Superman’s cape and pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger were roughly analogous to spitting into the wind, and sometimes I wonder if I haven’t done something similar. Have I messed around with Like Fire?

Or am I just still in the process of getting a handle the work-life balance, of figuring out how to allocate my energies the right way so I can do both things: write about libraries during the day and write about things literary at night? (Or at 5 in the morning? Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind.) Maybe things just need to settle out a bit.


I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, as a rule. My way of thinking is: I’m either doing something or I’m not doing it, and if I want to do it I should just shut up and, you know, do it. I understand the desire for accountability, but that’s usually not my thing. I’m accountable to myself; that’s enough. I’m not lazy, I’m not self-deluded, and I have never once failed when I set out to do something.

But this once, I’m going to publicly resolve—at the very least—to be resolute. Shit or get off the pot. Blog or not blog, but not go around feeling this weird, inchoate, wistful pull that bumps up, night after night, against sheer exhaustion.

Maybe Like Fire just isn’t feasible, in which case I’ll figure that out and bow out gracefully, really I will. But I also have a sense that there’s something that might need to settle into place. Like one of those dreams where you discover an entire extra wing in your house—maybe that energy is there, and I just have to discover it. Maybe it’s like parallel parking, a skill that eluded me for years until one day the concept just clicked, and I’ve been happily parallel parking in the tightest of spaces ever since.

If anyone has any great ideas, please feel free to offer them up. And please, give up big props for Terry, who’s been saving Like Fire‘s dignity with her wonderful Sunday Links.

2014 was a hell of an interesting year. 2015 should be another. We’ll see.

(Wonder Woman image is a commercial laminated 184 mm. bookmark, illustration by George Perez, produced by One Stop Posters in 1987.)


Sunday Links, December 21, 2014


 The longlist of nominees for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has been announced.

The winners of the Rhysling Awards have been announced by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

The Folio Prize long list has been announced.

What to Read Next

Tor.com has done its usual splendid job in laying out the monthly releases in science fiction and fantasy.  The list comes in several subparts, so be sure to find your favorite subgenre’s listing and make sure you haven’t missed a book you’d love to be reading to ring in the new year:  fantasy, science fiction, paranormal romance, urban fantasy and horror, and my favorite category, genre benders.  A different Tor.com blogger lists all the British releases for the month.

Kirkus picks through the avalanche and lists the best bets for December in these genres.

Barnes & Noble also lists the best science fiction and fantasy for the monthMy Bookish Ways displays covers of SF/F/H being published this month, and it’s a somewhat more complete listing because it includes horror.

io9 has its own suggestions about what SF/F books you shouldn’t miss in December.  Barnes & Noble’s suggestions for December SF/F are up at Tor.com.  And The AudioBookaneers has a list of the SF/F coming out in audio in December.

BookRiot lists five favorite feminist books, none of which this particular feminist has come across before. It’s an interesting approach to feminism, in that the books aren’t really about feminism, but written by feminists and with a feminist sensibility. The Third Wave, perhaps?

The Guardian suggests ten books to read once you’ve finished The Hunger Games series.

Author Gail Carringer lists ten books to read when you need a good cry.

BookRiot lists the best biographies of dead writers.  What surprises me here is the absence of Hermione Lee’s biographies of Virginia Woolf and Penelope Fitzgerald, but perhaps they felt they could only list one book per biographer (Lee gets mentioned for her work on Edith Wharton).  I’m generally fascinated by biographies of writers and poets; I always think maybe I’ll figure out the secret to being a great writer.  It hasn’t happened yet, but hey, I’ve got a whole bunch of years left.  I hope (and now I’m looking around for some wood to knock on).

Best Fantasy Books lists the best modern young adult fantasy.  They have a number of other “best” lists too, should you be more inclined to a different sort of fantasy.

Horror Novel Reviews lists the 100 scariest novels of all time — just in case you want to frighten yourself out of your skin while staying up waiting for Santa Claus.

Listly suggests 100 Canadian novels to read in a lifetime.

FlavorWire lists genre books that should be classics.  Of those listed, the ones I’ve read brought me a great deal of enjoyment, and I’d have to agree with the assessment that they should be considered classics by thoughtful readers.  Pick one and give it a go!

The Huffington Post lists the best dystopian novels.  Start with Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery — you won’t be sorry.

BuzzFeed suggests some books by women that you might experiment with by suggesting that if you liked this book by a man, you might well like this book by a woman.  It sounds like a good way to find new voices you may have missed.

Want even more diversity in your reading?  BuzzFeed recommends 19 must-read books by women of color.  I’m going to be looking at this list pretty closely, as there are a number of books here I haven’t even heard of — and some others that I own but haven’t read yet.  Give one a try!

BookRiot recommends three works in translation being published during December.

Amazing Stories lists one book for each of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Masters, and suggests you read at least one this winter.  Some of the books will be hard to find, but others are still in print after many years; there’s bound to be something to your taste.

If you’re tired of reading epic fantasies sent in a vaguely medieval vaguely English countryside, try one of these quite different epics, instead.  I’ve started The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, and I can vouch for the fact that it is very different from any other fantasy I’ve read this year — and excellent, to boot.

A.C. Wise has accumulated a number of links from authors listing the work they had published in the past year.  Look up your favorite and see if you missed anything!

Best of 2014

So many lists!  You can find a list of favorite books of the year in virtually any genre whatsoever.  This is just a sampling of the many available lists; as I’ve mentioned before, the best place to go for a complete listing is Large-Hearted BoyPenguin Random House also has a list of the best of the bests lists.

Paste lists the top 25 comics of the year, and /Film.com has a list of graphic novels that would make good gifts.  I’ve got a few of these on my shelves already, and am especially eager to read Saga and Through the Woods, but these lists added quite a few items to my ever-growing wish list.  And I cannot recommend Locke & Key highly enough — these are just excellent work by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.  Those six volumes you should buy for yourself as well as for your favorite people, and you can all enjoy reading them together next to a toasty fire.

The Washington Post lists 50 notable works of nonfiction; the top 50 works of fiction; the five best fantasy and science fiction books of the year (a very odd list that most SF/F readers wouldn’t recognize); the top 10 graphic novels; the five best thrillers; the five best romances; the five best audiobooks; and the 10 best books of the year.

NPR has a lovely display of the covers of the best books of the year in all genres.  When your cursor hovers over a particular cover, you get comments on the book and links to full recommendations.  It’s one of the best ways of making a list I’ve ever seen on the internet.

The New York Times lists 100 notable books of the year.

BuzzFeed lists the 24 top novels and short story collections of the year.

Library Journal lists the best books of the year in multiple areas:  best genre fiction; romance; graphic novels; nonfiction; e-book originals; the top ten books of the year; and a catch-all category entitled “More of the Best.”  There are some odd choices here that I haven’t seen elsewhere, so it’s definitely a series of lists worth looking over.

Kirkus lists the top nonfiction of the year; the best fiction; the best children’s books; the best books for teens; the best books put out by independent publishers;

GoodReads lists the best books of 2014, as chosen by its members.

Huffington Post lists its best books of 2014.

Notes from Coode Street has a voluminious list of the best science fiction, fantasy and horror of the year.  The entry is denominated as “Part 1,” though there’s no Part 2 as yet; you might want to keep an eye out, because this is a phenomenal list.

Publishers Weekly has a long list of year’s best books in numerous categories.

Entertainment Weekly lists the ten best fiction books of 2014.

Oprah and her various organizations and publications list their best books of the year.

The LitReactor staff lists its best books of the year.  There are some interesting choices here that vary from the publishing industry’s general agreement.

BookRiot asked its contributors for their favorites, too.  Once again, the choices are often unique.  Isn’t it fascinating that individuals seem to pick different books that organizations do?

My Bookish Ways asked a number of SF/F/H writers to list their favorite books of the year:  Daryl Gregory, John Horner Jacobs, Gemma Files, Teresa Frohock, Jason M. Hough, and David Nickle.  There’s some very cool stuff to be found here, as the choices are as idiosyncratic as the writers themselves.

The Book Smugglers celebrated “Smugglivus” by asking SF/F/H writers to list their favorite books of the year:  Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Aliette de Bodard, Kate Hall, Fiona Wood, Catherine F. King, Rin Chupeco, Deborah Coates, Charles Tan, Kate Elliott, Y.S. Lee, Susan Jane Bigelow, Octavia Cade, Robert Jackson Bennett, Kate Milford, and Erin Claiborne.  If you take a look around the site after reading these wonderful columns, you can also find guest posts by bloggers, reviewers and others for more tips.  And one of the Smugglers, Thea James, writes in a panic about great 2014 books that she hasn’t gotten to yet.

The Millions did much the same with a wholly different set of writers, though the question here was what the year in reading was like for each writer, so there are plenty of books discussed that are not 2014 publications.  There are columns by:  Emma Straub, Thomas Beckwith, Tess Malone, Rachel Cantor, Jean Hanff Korelitz, William Girardi, Bill Morris, Julia Fierro, Caitlin Doughty, Scott Cheshire, and Molly Antopol, Anthony Doerr, Eula Biss, Stephen Dodson, Jess Walter, Karen Joy Fowler, Blake Butler, Janet Fitch, John Darnielle, Leslie Jamison, Ben Lerner, Matthew Thomas, Garth Risk Hallberg, Laura van den Berg, Celeste Ng, Mark O’Connell, Nick Ripatrazone, Jane Smiley, Phil Clay, Tana French, Emily St. John Mandel, Philipp Meyer, Edan Lepucki, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Jayne Anne Phillips, Maureen Corrigan, Caitlin Moran, Lindsay Hunter, Eimear McBride, Walter Kirn, Porochista Khakpour, Tiphanie Yanique, David Bezmozgis, Dinaw Mengestu, Rabih Alameddine, Rebecca Makkai, Gina Frangello, Hannah Pittard, Michelle Huneven, Lydia Millet, Ron Rash, Darcy Steinke and Tom Nissley.  There are also columns by staff writers for The Millions, publishers, editors, and other associated with books; the comprehensive index is here.  I may spend New Year’s Day reading these columns and drawing up lists to guide my own reading — and then diving into the columns from past years, as I never knew these existed before.  They look delectable.

A number of other writers have written blog posts about their favorite books of the year.  A few of the best are by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jeff VanderMeer.

SF Signal asked a different set of authors for their best books of the year, and put them all together in a MindMeld post.

Tor.com’s reviewers listed their favorite books of the year.  Once again, there are some genuinely unique choices with good explanations for why those choices were made.

Tor.com also polled its readers by Twitter to learn their favorites.  While most selections are predictable (these are the readers who cause books to show up on bestseller lists, after all), there are some unusual selections that I didn’t expect to see here.

Powell’s Books has numerous best of the year lists:  cookbooks, kids’ books, nonfiction, fantasy and science fiction, Young Adult fiction, and fiction.

The Globe and Mail lists the 100 best books of the year.  A number of the books listed here won’t show up on this side of the pond until 2015, so this will give you a start on your new year’s wish list.

The New York Times asked all of the authors of its Bookend feature, which appears in the book review each Sunday, to list their favorite read of the year, new or old.  Almost no one listed a book first published in 2014, which I find rather fascinating.

Barnes & Noble lists the best anthologies of the year.  I’m a short story lover myself, so you won’t be surprised to known that I own most of these — but I’ve very glad to know about the ones I missed.

BookRiot has a lengthy guide to the best books published by independent presses in 2014.

Slate recommends 2014 books that have been largely overlooked, but that are worthy of your attention.

Holiday Shopping

Kirkus has a holiday gift guide for the science fiction nerd in your life.

CBS Connecticut lists the best books to buy as gifts based on the preferences of your intended recipient.  You’ll find books for cooks, bakers, music lovers, baseball fans, and many more.

Tips on Life and Love has suggestions on books to buy for boys to get them away from those videogames for a while.

/Film suggests the best movie and television book gifts of the year.  I’ll bet there are books here you’ve not even heard of, but that would be perfect for the movie lover on your gift list.

The Los Angeles Times suggests gift books for every interest.

The Sydney Herald suggests gift books for the lover of science fiction and fantasy.

The Nerdist has suggestions for the booklovers on your list that aren’t actually books.  Love the Batman book shelves, impractical as they are.

Powell’s has a good (and amusing) graphic to help you find the right book for the toughest person on your list.

And the best place to do your book shopping?  Your local independent bookstore, says Huffington PostBustle agreesSlate disagrees (though that article is a few years old).  In any event, independent bookstores should be having a very merry Christmas indeed, given James Patterson’s gift of $473,000 to their coffers.

Looking Forward to 2015

A Locus Roundtable features writers, reviewers and critics discussing what books they’re looking forward to in science fiction, fantasy and horror.  I know I say this a lot, but really, I want one of each.

Would you like to challenge yourself to read differently, more diversely, with more forethought in 2015?  BookRiot has some ideas on how you can do that.  I printed out the list and am going to give it a go myself.

Thinking about Books

Brain Pickings tries to figure out what makes a book great.

The Los Angeles Review of Books, through the scholarly pen of writer Nick Mamatas, looks at whether the canon — and the universe itself! — can survive the influence of H.P. Lovecraft.  Mamatas takes what may be a controversial question in some quarters:  whether Lovecraft is a bad writer or simply a difficult writer, and plumps for the latter answer.  LARB hasn’t been around for all that long, but it has definitely established itself as an important periodical for the literate.

BookRiot says that the Bechdel Test alone isn’t sufficient to judge whether women are properly represented in our literature.  Maybe the Mako Mori test will do it?  Or maybe — just perhaps — it’s the responsibility of readers to insist that women be portrayed accurately.

Kids read a lot more than the conventional wisdom would have you believe.

BookRiot talks about five book culture heroes of 2014.

Author Kameron Hurley gives us some insight into what it’s like to be a professional writer these days.  It certainly doesn’t sound like one halcyon day after another, does it?  But still, to see your name on the spine of a book; could there be any greater thrill?

The Business of Books

ABE Books lists its 50 most expensive sales in 2014.  I wonder who would spend $40,000 on a book ordered off the internet?  Wouldn’t you want to see it in person before laying out that sort of cash?

Hachette has purchased Black Dog & Leventhal, the latest in a string of purchases that seem especially designed to strengthen their backlist.  In the internet age, those older titles are more valuable; you can make them available virtually forever at almost no cost, so any sale is a win.  That makes me happy, because I hate it when books disappear.

Publishers Weekly talks about a new approach to writing for science fiction and fantasy:  crowdfunding.  I’ve donated to a number of wonderful anthologies and magazines through Kickstarter, but seeing this through the eyes of the traditional publishing industry is interesting.

Publshers Weekly also looks at the future of self-publishing.

Author Tobias Buckell suggests that Kindle Unlimited isn’t a good deal for anyone but Amazon.

Fun and/or Funny

Thought Catalog lists eleven things you should know before you start dating a bookworm.  We all know these things, of course, but perhaps it would make our lives easier if we simply printed out this post and handed it to potential suitors to avoid misunderstandings.

LitReactor has some suggestions for Stephen King about what he should write next.  It’s a more thoughtful article than you might immediately suspect.

Some Grace and Beauty to Cap Off Your Reading Year

Tor.com has listed all of the free fiction it posted during 2014, with links to each story.  With the right software (I’m using Readability), you can transfer all those wonderful stories to your ereader and curl up in your favorite chair to read them one right after the other, like the best box of chocolates you ever saw.

Strange Horizons did the same thing, and links not just to the stories but also to the podcasts of those stories.  It’s enough to make you think of fireplaces and hot buttered rum and a snowstorm that “forces” you to stay inside and read and read and read.

BuzzFeed gives us a look at the most beautiful book covers of the year.

Tor.com gives us photographs of the most fashionable villains in fantasy and science fiction film.  I’ve always thought that Spike (from the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” television show) was gorgeous, so he really does belong here, but if he’s not to your taste there are plenty of others to feast your eyes on.

BuzzFeed lists the 51 most beautiful sentences in literature.

These photographs of fairy tales come to life will make your eyes very happy.

Those photographs led me to these 1914 Scandinavian fairy tale illustrations by Kay Nielsen.  Aren’t they amazing?

And those, in turn, led me to these 1919 illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by illustrator Harry Clarke.  There is a sensuality to them that makes them all the more terrifying.

A body painter has turned humans into absolutely beautiful animals.

I hope these links keep you warm, dry, safe and happy over the holidays.  I wish you all the best, and look forward to giving you more good stuff to read in 2015.