Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

lillianboxfish

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (January 17, 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250113326
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250113320

 

It’s New Year’s Eve 1984. Once the most celebrated poet and highest paid female advertising writer in America, Lillian Boxfish is now 84 years old, her fame forgotten. Most of her friends now dead, she’s left only with the resonance of a once-glittering life in Manhattan. Realizing her age makes it possible she won’t see another New Year’s Eve, Lillian’s mood is a mixture of nostalgia and appreciation for the rich life she’s lead. Still fit and an inveterate walker, Lillian walks Manhattan Island, the sights and sounds of New York City triggering the remembrance of things past.

Kathleen Rooney tells Lillian’s story through flashes forward and back, pursuing ongoing chronological narratives to flesh out her main character’s backstory. It’s a Mrs. Dalloway-esque blueprint, one day in the life of a woman with a specific agenda, her focus derailed as memories rush in on her.

Lillian Boxfish is an effective novel,  striking just the right note of pathos without condescension. For a writer so young, Rooney achieves both boundless empathy and realism so striking she’s wise beyond her years.

If there’s fault to be found, it lies in the editor’s reluctance to excise non-essential scenes. Padding that doesn’t advance the plot puts space between reader and story. It’s one of my personal pet peeves, the bane of contemporary writing. It’s right up there with the three-quarters slump, when a writer either brings a story to a satisfying climax or gets lost in the woods. Many a book has been ruined by a writer who forgot to bring the bread crumbs.

Lillian Boxfish could have been streamlined, should have been fifty pages shorter. Still and all, it’s a good read. Imperfect, but enjoyable.

I love novels stories about older people digging into trunks stuffed with memories. As a child I had an elderly friend, a woman who lived a block away in a huge turn of the century home that could have stood a lick of paint and cosmetic repair. Popping in and out when the spirit moved me, we mostly watched soap operas, chatting a little, then I flew off back home again.

I gave her the gift of a young person’s stories, rattling off tales of my mostly uneventful life. Never having children herself, I was her surrogate grandchild. As a high school student, I brought her pictures and stories about trips I took to Europe as a student ambassador. She’d never gone, and never would. My experiences were the next best thing, her vicarious world tour. I was her young Lillian Boxfish, all my life ahead.

When she died, in her late 90s, I hadn’t visited in years. After graduating high school and going away to college, time slipped by. I have no doubt she understood, though it doesn’t eliminate regret. Life’s filled with them. We forget each other too easily. It’s only now that Kathleen Rooney plucked that string that I remembered.

Lillian Boxfish and novels like it remind us that lines on a person’s face suggest stories untold. A person’s public face is a mask that doesn’t reveal experiences they’ve had, but there isn’t one, single person who’s not lead an interesting life. Not one, single person without stories that would astonish you.

The people Lillian passes on her walk see either a refined elderly woman or nothing at all, because once a woman’s past a certain age when sexuality is no longer relevant she slips past, unnoticed. Once upon a time she was celebrated, toasted, desirable and desired. Now, near the end, her lovers are dead and her fame past. What endures are her memories, the stories she could tell if someone would stop to hear.

Kathleen Rooney hits the mark, strikes just the right chord. Her novel is the winding down of the life of a character who’s accomplished great things and achieved dizzying heights. It’s poignant and celebratory, at the same time, which is just as it should be.

A bit over-long, yes, it’s that. But sometimes that’s a forgivable sin.  When a book makes you feel, it’s done its job.

 

Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

 

gorsky

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press; Reprint edition (November 22, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1468313622
  • ISBN-13: 978-1468313628

My first read of 2017 did not go as planned. I should have fallen in love with this retelling of The Great Gatsby, set in 21st century London and featuring Russian characters in place of Fitzgerald’s Roaring 20s New Yorkers. The thing is, I didn’t.

The book starts with a rich Russian businessman named Gorsky walking into a sleepy bookstore, plopping down $ 250k as down payment  on what’s to be a magnificent personal library, the likes of which any book lover would envy: rare books, signed books, books sought after by collectors – all this on a nearly unlimited budget. Store clerk Nikola, accustomed to spending his working hours reading since the store rarely sold anything on any given day, is of course flabbergasted. Who is this man, where did he come from, and why on earth did he choose this small, out of the way bookshop?

If you’re familiar with The Great Gatsby, it’s immediately obvious who Gorsky is, and as you read further Goldsworthy’s novel follows the path of Fitzgerald’s original fairly faithfully. It hits the highlights: orgiastic parties, two lovers separated by the passage of time and marriage to another, suspicions about the shady background of a mysterious man who throws his money around perversely, murders and all manner of interactions between the super-wealthy.

Gorsky is predictable if you’ve read Gatsby. And while some enjoy the reworking of classics into modern adaptations, I do not. The Great Gatsby is a monumental novel, one I’ve read and re-read, loved and treasured. It’s the portrait of a very specific point in American history, a metaphor for all that the 1920s symbolized. It belongs where Fitzgerald intended; it is an American classic.

 

gatsby“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

The Great Gatsby

 

To take that out of context, wrench the soul from the story and attempt to drop it into another context is jarring. Not to say Vesna Goldsworthy is not a very talented writer, nor that I don’t understand what would impel her to take another stab at Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I get that. What I don’t like is such an obvious robbing of the plot.

To run parallel alongside The Great Gatsby, renaming the characters through thinly-veiled tweaks is not a terribly challenging effort. It’s taking someone else’s intellectual property, using it as a template you don’t bother pretending to disguise. It’s little short of plagiary, explained away through admiration.

But whereas Gatsby is towering, Gorsky is not.

Had Goldsworthy not so closely mirrored the original, instead taking the spirit of Gatsby and making it more than a second-best retelling, I could see the merit of her effort. As it stands, I’m unimpressed. Contrary to the opinions of the critics, I see this as a deeply flawed effort.

Such is the way of things. My experience with and love for The Great Gatsby is individual, and very personal. Because I have such an intimate experience with it, associations with specific events in my life and memories that hang on passages from the novel, my patience for imitation runs very thin.

Saying I liked it or I didn’t, qualifying the book based on my usual standards of what makes good writing, feels a bit wobbly here. Its premise and intent are one thing, my visceral reaction quite another. I did not enjoy the book. I was disappointed, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another reader may have the very opposite reaction. That’s the remarkable thing about reading. Each of us brings our personal experience to every book, and what works for some fails dismally for others. Gorsky failed dismally for me, yet I’m reluctant to pan it for the very reason I’m not able to be completely subjective about it. I don’t feel it abides by what I consider ethical conduct in re-imagining a classic work of literature.

But then, most retellings fall flat for me. If a book’s done well the first time, I say leave it where it lies. Go make your own original art. This was someone else’s creation. Borrow from it, yes. Pick and choose elements that have deep meaning for you, of course. But don’t attempt to re-write what’s not yours unless you have something profoundly different to say.

Reading Gorsky was a mistake, a bad way to start out my reading year. I won’t let it linger, won’t allow the experience to color the rest of 2017. I wish I’d made a better decision, but didn’t.

Onward to better things.

Reading 2016: The best of the best

 

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post

 

For all that 2016 was a shite year in general, reading-wise it was actually pretty great. Though I didn’t finish as many books as I’d have liked, only 50ish, the majority were above par. Loads of top-notch writers published new books, literary award offerings were impressive, and I scored more review copies than I could possibly read.

Game, set and match.

Irvine Welsh and Robert Olen Butler were the only two writers I met, the only two author events I attended. Ah, but they were lovely.

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler

Irving Welsh, in conversation with Jessa Crispin

Irvine Welsh, in conversation with Jessa Crispin

My modest goal is to post a brief summary of my best books of 2016, and when I say brief I’m not kidding. As always, I hope the next year finds me posting to Bluestalking much more regularly. What I lack is not material, but organizing and planning posts.

I didn’t keep perfect track of my 2016 reads. I’ve been spending the past two days trying in vain to track down what I’ve read this year, a futile and irritating endeavor that’s left me frustrated. Very few books made it to Bluestalking for review. Several made it no further than Amazon, and I haven’t even looked at Goodreads.

It is what it is. I need to bring this reading year to a close, then hitch up my trousers and vow next year will be different.

Enough blathering. Let’s get to it.

 

My Official, Very Best Reads of 2016, in no particular order:

 

2017 was my year of all things Bronte, spurred by the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. The Bronte Cabinet is a study of the family through objects owned or relevant to them, and a fascinating exploration of their lives and the Victorian era.

  • Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s been on my reading list at least fifteen years. Outer Dark was my gateway into his works, and did not disappoint. It’s dark and troubling and lovely, one of the true novels worthy of the description “Faulkneresque.”

Katherine Mortenhoe is dying in a post-death world, and a reality television producer sees her as a cash cow. The reporter assigned to cover her last days finds himself caught between a lust for the glory of fame and human compassion. Written before the age of reality television, this novel’s prescience makes it an especially relevant novel.

Prior to a planned visit to Scotland, I wanted to research a bit more about Scottish writers. RL Stevenson is one of the giants, and this work tells the history of his family’s instrumental contributions to lighthouse technology and how they changed the landscape of Scotland.

Agostino is the story of a 13-year old boy’s budding adolescence and sexual awakening, as well as the simultaneous and horrifying realization the madonna-figure mother he adores is also a sexual being. A disturbing, beautifully written book.

  • Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

Lesser Bohemians tells the story of a virginal young Irish woman who immigrates to England, meets a very sexually experienced middle-aged actor and falls in love. Only, the course of true love does not run smooth. Their love becomes all-consuming, threatening to destroy her. This is a highly erotic  novel touched with violence, its highest merit the superior quality of its prose.

So winds up my 2016 year in reading. Far from doing it justice, at least I’ve made a stab. You’ll just have to trust me. As far as books and reading, it kicked some serious ass.

On to 2017. Wishing you all well, and hope your reading last year and next is simply magnificent.

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

 

victoriangoodwin

First, let me qualify: I am not a fan of historical novels based on real, high-profile figures. I haven’t had good luck with them. I chose to review this book based mostly on my great interest in the Victorian period, its literature and history. My curiosity got the better of me, my hopes raised due to the praise I’ve read about author Daisy Goodwin, and the fame she’s achieved.

It was worth a shot.

My problems with historical fiction are two-fold: first, the question of what’s historical fact and what’s been embellished to further the plot and create interest; second, the artificiality prevalent in the prose style, the inability of many writers in the genre to write in any way that doesn’t come off self-conscious, jerking me out of the story when dialogue attempts to convey historical fact in a way that’s gratingly unnatural.

It would be something like one character telling another: “As you realize, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066…,” or “As queen of England, you know I must wear a specific crown at my coronation, and this is kept in the Tower of London. Which is in London, a bit further down the Thames. The Thames being a major route of commerce for the city.”

Of course the other character realizes this, unless he’s a complete dolt. And if he’s an idiot, how the hell did he attain a position reporting directly to the queen?

Sets my teeth on edge.

The onus is on the author to find a way to relay historical and biographical information to the reader without creating dialogue that’s stiff and obvious. It takes much more work, which is why lots of popular writers just don’t bother. The audience must not mind, popular as these books have proven. If it’s making money, it’s not worth a writer’s time sweating and toiling in order to write at a higher level, appealing to a more literary audience.

In short: it sells. Nothing more is expected of it, thus nothing more given.

Daisy Goodman’s Victoria does, unfortunately, fall prey to all the lazy  quirks inherent in historical fiction. There is a large amount of artificiality in the dialogue, as well as terribly irritating and overly-precious writing, especially when it comes to describing how Victoria interacts with her dog. She loved animals, yes. Her dog was important to her and brought her comfort in her otherwise cold and impersonal upbringing, of course. Yet, her behavior is child-like to a cringe-worthy degree, and her dog anthropomorphized as if this were a children’s novel. Her pet’s response to her is nothing short of Disneyfied, inappropriate in a work meant to be taken seriously as a novel written for adults.

Victoria was 18 years old when she ascended to the throne. At 18, young women were then, as now, adults. That she was sheltered is unsurprising, considering the precarious position of heirs apparent, yet her words and actions are those of a much younger girl. Is this truly how she acted? Maybe, but then let’s portray that without beating it to death. A bit of understatement goes a very long way, presenting her as someone immature but not someone you want to slap.

That being said, I presume Goodwin’s done her research, that the novel does inform the reader as far as important points in Victoria’s early life. For lovers of historical fiction, have at it. Enjoy. I’m sure this book will be successful and highly popular. For those with a more literary taste, take a pass.

Time after time, historical fiction leaves me cold. It’s past time I threw in the towel. I’d be much better off reading a straight biography. At least then I’d know what’s true, unless it’s hagiography, and then all bets are off. Still, I’d rather pick my way through that than struggle with books like Victoria.

Another genre struck off the list. Just as well, considering how much really good writing there is. I won’t feel the lack. In fact, I appreciate the time this frees up in my reading, and the guilt of disliking these books lifting off my shoulders.

No genre is for everyone. This one, most definitely, is not for me.

On the Reading of Books About Books

 

 

James Archer - "The Picnic" - detail

James Archer – “The Picnic” – detail

When I’m not reading books, I’m reading books about books. Ditto books about or featuring librarians, the history of books and reading, book making (not as in gambling, only because I don’t have the money because I spend it on books), book art, book cover art, paper making, and anything even remotely connected to the subject of books. Single-minded much?

Why yes. Yes, I am.

And because this is a post about books, I’ll leave notebooks and pens and Post Its and fountain pens and other paper products out of it, showing admirable restraint. Though, when I’m not reading or reading about or writing about books, I’m dreaming of stationery…

 

Stationery, about which I am not talking.

Stationery, about which I am not talking.

 

According to Goodreads, the books I’ve listed at the bottom of this post are the top 10 most popular books about books (the list goes on pages and pages, have a look). The majority are popular books, crossing into the mainstream becoming the go-to titles you see everywhere, yet it’s still surprising they’re popular because we’re constantly told no one reads anymore.

If that’s the case, why are books about books popular at all?

I thought as much.

 

browsingsdirda

 

Beyond this, there are hundreds of titles too esoteric for the loud world of popular books. I know, because I collect them and never see them beyond reviews in highly literary periodicals, or by happening upon them while browsing Amazon, or in my bookshelves. There are books about favorite books of writers both popular and literary, books about peripheral topics like the history of the circulating library and popular bestsellers, books that are lists of books so you can add more books to your reading list. Actually, they’re all that.

It’s a shame I don’t have my books in this sub-genre listed anywhere, otherwise I’d be able to pass titles along to other obsessives. Mental note: update my Goodreads library.

 

Recent Book News published in The New York Times

 

As soon as I catch sight of a forthcoming title of a book about books I run to Amazon. If it’s not yet published, it either gets pre-ordered or I throw it on my Wish List – as in I wish I had the money to buy it. Inevitably, I break down and my Buy it Now finger sends it careening out the door of Amazon’s warehouse and onto my credit card, though occasionally titles slip through and I miss them altogether.

Even the best of us.

Half Price Books is another incredible source for serendipitous finds of these little lost lambs. Born with the fore-knowledge they ‘ll wind up remaindered, books about books are destined for used/re-sell bookstores. Bad for the publishers, but very good for me.

Online, there’s also Hamilton Books. Have a look: their range is phenomenal, mostly for difficult to find books. If you’re a total nerd like me, your specialty genre is probably there. Shipping is $ 3.50 per order, 40 cents per item.

 

booksaboutbooks2

And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter. Books are so necessary to me that when in a railway train I have become aware that fellow-travellers have come away without a single one I have been seized with a veritable dismay. – W. Somerset Maugham

 

If you’re outside the U.S, and don’t have access to a HPB, I hope you have the equivalent because my dear God above. Most used bookstores peddle excess copies of Patterson and Sparks and Mitch Albom in indecent numbers; HPB has those, but also obscure works by major authors, beautiful editions and imports you’d never find elsewhere, especially not at these prices.

Older books about books – those out of copyright – can be found in Kindle editions, often for free. Some are delicious little beauties it’s unlikely you’d have heard of, both long form and short pieces in story collections. Coming across those makes my stomach flip.

Now that I’ve broached the topic, I should be a good egg and list these somewhere, shouldn’t I.

Meanwhile, enjoy this from Goodreads:


 

10 Most Popular Books About Books

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak (own, haven’t read – I KNOW)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin – (read)

The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield – (review copy, read)

The Eyre Affair (# 1 Thursday Next) – Jasper Fforde – (own, read)

84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff – (own, read and read)

Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – (own, read, chose for Community-Wide Read for my library, read again)

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader – Anne Fadiman (own, read)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer (own review copy, haven’t read)

The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett (own, read)

Inkheart (Inheart #1) – Cornelia Funke (own, read)

 

A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

New advance review books:

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Victoria: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin

Finished:

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Reading:

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart

 

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post

 

Well, then. What have we learned this week?

I had a kick in the teeth of sorts, one FB-active divorced parents will identify with: my ex’s next wife has befriended and begun posting photos with my youngest child, something I know not because I’m stalking her – though, okay, sometimes I do: HI! – but because it’s the first time I’ve had to see her face pop up on my personal timeline along with one of my children’s.

Key word: MY.

So yes, if she stumbles past here now she knows target acquired. But then again, if she stops by she won’t stay long. Because I write mostly about literature. And, well…

No. I don’t think so.

 

Can I get a nerdy boom?

Can I get a nerdy boom?

 

Moving past. In my special place, in my special place.

 

Latest Binge Wathing Time Suck: Dexter.

Latest Binge Wathing Time Suck: Dexter.

All around shorter lists this week, bound to happen from time to time. Not as much came through the door, and I continue to progress in my reading at a snail’s pace. Part of this is due to excuses reasons noted previously, but it’s time I admitted it’s also directly related to my fixation with the series Dexter.

A serial killer is my guilty pleasure. When I get home from work every day I watch at least two episodes. Sometimes more. I switch to books when I hop into bed, but several hours’ worth of potential reading time are given over to watching people get hacked into pieces, then tossed into the ocean.

There is some bleeding over into my daily life directly resulting from my binges – and yes, that’s a freebie. Discussing fictional, theoretical murders (I swear, because prison libraries could never rival my own), I mentioned to my older son that Dexter‘s full of great advice regarding how to get rid of bodies. Over breakfast we discussed the most efficient way to kill: severing the aorta with one good thrust of a knife well sharpened.

Then I asked him to pass the salsa.

 

rockwelldinnerparody

 

 

Perhaps most disturbing, I’m finding myself rooting for a serial killer. It’s true his victims are reprehensible, have taken innocent lives, and he’s taking them out before they can do more harm (since they’ve slipped through the justice system and gotten away with murder – literally), but the man’s killing people. The guilty are one thing. Not that I condone murder (this got weird, didn’t it), but an eye for an eye, now that I can get behind. But now, when a character gets annoying, I’m thinking, “Dexter, you know what to do!

Out of context, that sounds disturbing. Hell, in context it does. But if you’ve watched the show, you’ll know he’s an endearing psychopath. Much like how I’m an endearing raving lunatic. You do agree, right…?

I ASKED YOU A QUESTION.

The TV alternative to bingeing a great series is watching Donald Trump having his tantrums. I like my psychopaths fictional, thanks.

 

In what I’m realizing is more free time than I admit to having when anyone asks if I want to do something, I’ve been book blog jumping much more often. My Twitter feed is my first source for all news – books included – but it’s satisfying complementing that through reading what kindred souls have been enjoying – voracious readers whose opinions I respect. It does make my TBR list grow proportionately, but that’s no reason not to enjoy myself threading my way from book blog to book blog.

treepersonwall

 

Actual reading-wise, I’ve finished both Matt Bell’s latest collection and the surprise upstart Molly Fox’s Birthday. I plucked it off the shelf at random, curling up in bed with it like a squirrel does its nuts. Remember how I don’t need a man in my life? This is why. He’d roll over on my books and cause me to lose my place.

 

Don’t make me go Dexter on your ass, son.

Reviews of both books to come.

 

“I realise that a certain school of thought says that who we are is something we construct for ourselves. We build our self out of what we think we remember.” – Molly Fox’s Birthday

 

 

In current reads, two are for review: Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians and The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart. The former forces me to switch gears to more stream of consciousness prose, working out reading muscles I’ve let atrophy. I’m getting into the rhythm, but slowly.

The latter took a bit of warming up to, due to the fact it started out weighted too much toward Stewart’s relationship with his father. A book should build interest in the main theme, concentrating on developing the hook that’s in the blurb – in this case, and more urgently, the subtitle – before trotting off in another direction to a more personal theme. Get me interested in your project, what the book’s ostensibly about, then tell me about your complex feelings about your father.

Now that I’m about halfway, it’s growing on me. I expect my thoughts to be positive.

I have a goal of getting more detail into these commonplace posts, including more conventional commonplace book content , i.e., quotes and specifics about other elements of my reading – ephemera, in other words. This includes trending topics I’m following, sidebars such as my decision to re-subscribe to The New York Times and why, what I’m picking up from other bloggers, and other details I’d like to track.

Developing the habit of posting on this theme was the first step. Fleshing it out is next.

Speaking of fleshing, maybe I’ll watch another episode or two of Dexter this evening. You know, while I’m sharpening my knife set. Because I watch Chopped, which is about cooking.

Sheesh! So touchy.

Have a lovely reading week. Until next time.

 

You don’t know Pooh: 12 Facts about A.A. Milne on the 90th anniversary of Winnie the Pooh

 

14 October 1926.

Publication of A.A.Milne’s Winnie the Pooh


A.A. and Christopher Robin Milne

A.A. and Christopher Robin Milne

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.“  – Winnie the Pooh

 

Facts about A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh:

On this 90th anniversary of the publication of Winnie the Pooh, here are 12 facts about one children’s author who lead a life far more complex than you may know.

Happy Birthday, Pooh Bear.

 


1). In 2008, a collection of original illustrations featuring Winnie-the-Pooh and his animal friends sold for more than £1.2 million at auction in Sotheby’s, London. Forbes magazine ranked Winnie the Pooh the most valuable fictional character in 2002; Winnie the Pooh merchandising products alone had annual sales of more than $5.9 billion. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion, a figure surpassed by only  Mickey Mouse. – Wikipedia

2). The Milne family home was at Cotchford Farm, Sussex.

It’s also where original Rolling Stones member Brian Jones – who bought the property in 1968 – was found dead in his swimming pool in 1969.

 

The Milne Family - Cotchford Farm

The Milne Family – Cotchford Farm

 

3). Winnie the Pooh was the name of Christopher Robin Milne’s teddy bear.

Pooh was purchased at Harrods department store in London, and given by A. A. Milne to his son Christopher Robin on his first birthday – August 21, 1921. He was called Edward (proper form of Teddy) Bear at the time.

The rest of the toys were received as gifts by Christopher Robin between 1920 and 1928.

Christopher Robin Milne and the original Winnie the Pooh

Christopher Robin Milne and the original Winnie the Pooh

Christopher Milne also played with a stuffed piglet, a tiger, a pair of kangaroos and a downtrodden donkey, and grew up near a forest that became the fictional 100 Acre Wood.

hundredacrewood

 

4).  A.A. Milne wrote much more than Winnie the Pooh.

punchmagazine

 

After earning his mathematics degree from Cambridge University in 1903, Milne pursued a career as a writer, and was soon producing humorous pieces for the magazine Punch. Milne became assistant editor at Punch in 1906.

Winnie the Pooh himself debuted in a poem called “Teddy Bear” in a 1924 issue of the magazine.

Following his service in World War I, Milne became a successful playwright. Along with some original plays, he wrote dramatic adaptations, such as Toad at Toad Hall, adapted from The Wind in the Willows.  Milne also authored a popular detective novel, The Red House Mystery (1922).

 

redhousemystery“In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta. There was a lazy murmur of bees in the flower-borders, a gentle cooing of pigeons in the tops of the elms.” – The Red House Mystery

 

 

5).  Milne served in both WW I and WW II, and worked for a secret propaganda unit.

During World War I, Milne saw action as a soldier, including the Battle of the Somme. When illness rendered him unfit for the front, his writing talent led to his being tapped to join a secret propaganda unit, MI7b, in 1916.

 

aamilnemilitary

 

6).  Milne grew up at Henley House School, 6/7 Mortimer Road (now Crescent), Kilburn, a small public school run by his father. One of his teachers was H.G. Wells, who taught there in 1889–90.

 

Henley House

Henley House

 

7). The success of his children’s books was an annoyance to him. He wished to break out of the Pooh books, but they became so popular he found himself stuck in that niche.

 

8). In 2006, Winnie the Pooh received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

 

Winnie Goes to Hollywood

Winnie Goes to Hollywood

 

9).  In 1951, Christopher Milne, the muse behind Christopher Robin, opened the Harbour Bookshop with his wife Lesley.

 

Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth

Harbour Bookshop, Dartmouth

 

10). The original Pooh bear, Piglet, Kanga, Tigger and Eeyore now reside at the New York Public Library

 

poohnypl

 

11). In honor of the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II and 90th anniversary of Winnie the Pooh, a new story titled “Winnie the Pooh and the Royal Birthday” has been narrated by actor Jim Broadbent.

 

winnieroyal

 

12). There’s an upcoming Biopic of A.A. Milne in the works.

Domnhall Gleeson and Margot Robbie Fox Searchlight/David Appleby

Domnhall Gleeson and Margot Robbie
Fox Searchlight/David Appleby

 

“So they went off together. But wherever they
go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in
that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a
little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

-The House at Pooh Corner

Throwback Post: June 2006 – Lost in Digitization

 

From 2006 through 2011, I wrote a blog for North Suburban Library System, the now-defunct consortium which included the library I worked for. I wrote about books, authors, libraries in general and my own, and topics relevant to that period of time. Looking back over the posts is nostalgic. It’s like a time capsule.

Re-reading what I wrote reminds me of the urgency serious readers felt upon the upsurge in eBooks, the fear bound books would give way to digital. J.K. Rowling was still publishing books in the Harry Potter series, and I was still a librarian.

Some of these are a bit rough, hopefully not as well-written as I’d produce today, considering it’s been a decade and I’d like to think I’ve grown as a writer. Still, I wanted to keep a selection and thought what better way than transplanting them here.

The first of these I’ve left as is, no edits.


 

booksthethinglogo

 

Ever thought about how the age of the blog will impact the future of arts and letters? Specifically, what will become of the collected letters and diaries of today’s great authors once they’re gone, considering so many of them are using online forums to blog their thoughts?

Imagine if such great diarists as Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf had lived in the age of the internet. How different would their collected letters and diaries be?

Pepys constructed a rather elaborate code in the writing of his diaries, a fact that indicates he knew people would puzzle over them. He probably snickered all the way to the grave, knowing how people would scratch their heads over his diaries. It worked for a long time, too, and the literary detectives were baffled a good long time. Pepys died in 1703 and the first edition of his diaries wasn’t published until 1825.

The fact of the matter is, the cheeky thing had actually tucked a key for his shorthand into some books shelved above the actual diaries themselves. Still, it took years for scholars to locate it and then puzzle out his volumes and volumes of handwritten diaries.

If Pepys were writing today would he just make up a blog pseudonym for himself (a blogonym?) and hide behind that, instead of his elaborate system of shorthand? Instead of scratching out his diary on sheets of vellum, employing his trusty quill pen, he’d type them out on his laptop.

Decidedly unromantic, if you ask me.

Virginia Woolf left behind a wealth of letters, diaries and manuscripts. If she hadn’t handwritten them we wouldn’t know about her penchant for violet ink, nor would we see her scratchings out, her little doodles along the margins, etc. If she’d typed them on her computer all we’d have to analyze would be her choice of font, use of bold and italics, and how often she failed to scan for homonym typos. Spell check would take care of all her endearing mispellings (and she did have a few of those), and all would be uniform and sanitized.

Imagine if, after she’d typed out her now famous suicide note to husband Leonard and best friend Vita Sackville-West, there’d been a delivery error. How ironic to get a Fatal Error message while sending your suicide note, eh?

What, then, will the future of the collected writings of authors be like? Instead of tracking down handwritten documents we’ll have to send in the Geek Squad to tap into their hard drives, as well as the hard drives of those with whom they corresponded. The search will be on for their Blackberries, their cell phone records and even their iPods. Handwritten documents? What are those?

While it is rather satisfying to read the blogs of today’s writers, it still gives one pause thinking what this will mean for the future. It’s a mixed blessing. We hear more from them during their lifetimes, and they’re definitely far more accessible, but once they’re gone what we’ll have left will be far less personal.

I guess we’ll have to reconcile ourselves to the inevitability of progress, but personally I think a lot of the charm will be lost in the process.

Art Comes from the Place You Dream: An evening with Robert Olen Butler

 

Not heavy on literary events, 2016, though I’m rather proud of the lengths I went to in order to see Stephen King. It involved ten hours of driving, then five hours broiling on a sidewalk in the Louisville heat like a toad in a frying pan, dehydrated to the point I was near-hallucinating by the time I fell into my seat in the shade of the pavillion.

Never have I come so near weeping at the sight of an ass-breaking plastic seat. It shone like a lake in the desert. If I’d had any fluid left in my body, I’d have wept.

There was Irvine Welsh, as well. Not as dramatic an approach, but one hell of a fun evening. There was beer, laughter, moments of insight into the human condition as it applies to Scotland and universally, and one of my favorite author inscriptions ever.

Few but mighty, my 2016 literary functions.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet a writer native to the state I’ve called home since the age of three. Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer winner for the story collection Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, was born in Granite City, IL on January 20, 1945. His father an actor and theatre chairman at St. Louis University, Butler worked in the steel mills, equally at home with artists and blue collar laborers.

 

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler and I have been as tight as any two Facebook connected strangers, lo these past couple of years. We’ve had our share of “Likes,” mostly mine in response to his posts. But who’s counting.

Not long past knee surgery, Butler’s currently engaged in a multi-nation book tour. When I saw he was coming to Milwaukee, I thought here’s my chance to meet him in person. It isn’t a long drive to Milwaukee, only an hour and a half or so. It’s also a very pretty route, if you avoid the expressways. There are many less pleasant ways to spend early autumn evenings.

Arriving at the venue, Boswell Book Company, like any 21st century being worth my salt I checked in via Facebook. Self-satisfied as likes began coming in fast and furious, I settled into a ridiculously comfortable leather chair in the front row, opening a review book to get in a bit of “work.”

Roughly ten minutes later, Robert Olen Butler himself strolled by, greeted me by name, shook my hand and chatted with me. Because he’d seen my post, in which I’d tagged him, of course.

 

butlertweet

 

Like!

Following a 37-minute reading from his new book, Butler and the moderator – a former writing student of his, now professor of English – spoke about what it means to be an artist, from where inspiration springs and briefly covered Butler’s career. The author of a couple dozen novels, several collections of stories and one book on the craft of writing, Robert Olen Butler admits he doesn’t fit easily into any genre, that in fact hardly do any two of his books seem to have been produced by the same writer.

The New York Times has called Butler a restless writer, one as comfortable writing literary fiction as thrillers, short stories and nonfiction. His range is broad, his gift translatable to multiple genres, fitting neatly into none. Asked to explain how each of his books inform the next, he replied his literary fiction is better for having written mystery/thrillers, and his mystery/thrillers better for his experience with literary fiction.

 

Akiro Kurosawa

Akiro Kurosawa

“To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.”  – Akira Kurosawa, as quoted by Robert Olen Butler.

 

 

They discussed how art comes from the creative unconscious, from “mucking about” in the mind with life’s big ideas and concepts. Butler’s own assessment is all art is about yearning, all fiction about yearning challenged and thwarted. We use politics and religion and race to define ourselves and justify our actions, but in the end it’s all about finding our place in the Universe.

As Butler said, “It’s about waking up every morning asking, “Who the fuck am I?”‘

When you think about it, he’s nailed it.

With his Pulitzer-winning Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he took somewhat of a risk speaking in the voices of multiple Vietnamese first person narrators, set in Southern Louisiana. During his service in Vietnam, Butler became enchanted, falling in love with the country and people.  Having learned the language prior to deploymen, he talked about wandering the side-streets of Saigon, solo but unafraid, armed only with his ability to communicate.

 

Moderator: What’s it like being such a lauded author?

Robert Olen Butler: You don’t sell very much.

 

His newest, Perfume River, returns to the same themes as Good Scent:

 

“His new novel, however, plays it straight. Though compact, the book ­ranges widely in time and setting to trace the effects of war — primarily the Vietnam conflict — on several generations of a New Orleans family. Butler’s Faulknerian shuttling back and forth across the decades has less to do with literary pyrotechnics than with cutting to the chase. “Perfume River” hits its marks with a high-stakes intensity. ” – NY Times

 

As inspiration for his Cobb series of mystery/thrillers, Butler took a collection of fifteen postcards, written between 1906 and 1917, and chose one voice: a man writing about President Woodrow WIlson’s 1914 invasion of Mexico. From that piece, he was contracted to write three novels, historical espionage with a “backbeat of suspense,” as he describes them. He’s currently working on the latest in the series, titled Paris in the Dark.

Book One - Cobb series

Book One – Cobb series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cobb Series - Book Two

Book Two – Cobb Series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Three - Cobb Series

Book Three – Cobb Series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Endlessly inventive, in 2014 Butler shared his writing process through the creation of a short story, shared live in seventeen two-hour YouTube videos. That’s thirty-four hours of writing instruction given by a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. He describes it as “like watching paint dry.” I doubt that.

I followed him on Facebook when he was engaged in the project, but I’d entirely forgotten about it. Of course I want to watch them, and of course it’s easy to vow I will. I still may, now that he reminded me.

My Facebook bestie.

My Facebook bestie.

I’m so glad I peeled myself off the sofa for the drive to Milwaukee. I’ve not regretted a single author event I’ve attended, it’s just easier to stay put than drag yourself out the door. But every writer has wisdom to share, and I’ve never met one who wasn’t generous and kind, happy and willing to answer questions you know they’ve been asked hundreds of times.

It’s always worth it, every one.

Art does not come from your head. It comes from the place you dream.

– Robert Olen Butler

 

How well do we know authors? How well should we?: Elena Ferrante Unmasked

Elena Ferrante's Neopolitan Novels

Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels

 

Rather than being acclaimed as masterpiece of sleuthing, there was a decidedly negative reaction to Gatti’s investigation. Most people felt that Ferrante’s multi-decade anonymity had been unnecessarily violated, and crucially without her consent. – David O’Dwyer, Irish Times

 

I was reading a brief article in the Irish Times this morning on the topic of Elena Ferrante, anonymous author of the “Neapolitan Novels” series, who she is, and if it’s any of our damn business. Italian journalist Claudio Gatti took it upon himself to seek out the author, unmasking her. Though it’s easily Googled, I’m not going to speak her name here – HINT: it’s not Voldemort.

I feel what he did was terribly wrong, stalker-ish behavior disrespectful of the author’s personal decision to conceal her identity.  As readers, no matter how much we love an author’s work, they owe us nothing. They produce art for public consumption, and should they choose to share themselves with us that’s a bonus. But we certainly don’t deserve it simply because we wish we knew. Their works are stand-alone, not invitations to the general public to investigate or obtain any ownership of the writer.

 

She wanted anonymity so her work would speak for her – I fully support that. – Ian Rankin

 

This set me thinking about the common tendency to speculate an author’s fiction is a reflection of his or her own experience, that no work of fictional prose comes solely from outside. So, we presume we know all about an author from reading his or her work, as well. We deconstruct and presume to know, but believing does not make it so.

Prose fiction is certainly shaped by the sum total of an author’s education and experience – it cannot happen any other way, consciously or unconsciously – but this does not mean we can analyze the author personally based on what s/he produces fictionally. It’s far too complex a matter to separate what’s the writer’s personality and what’s creative inspiration based on experience and inspiration outside the writer’s mind.

 

I have written a memoir here and there, and that takes its own form of selfishness and courage. However, generally speaking, I have no interest in writing about my own life or intruding in the privacy of those around me. – Peter Carey

 

It’s tempting, of course, to presume all fiction comes from a deep, dark spot in a writer’s psyche, but just because a thought occurs to a person that doesn’t mean it comes from that person’s own belief system or experience. It’s faulty logic. Ideas come from all sources; there is no original idea. How a theme is expanded upon is necessarily colored by a person’s experience, but we cannot know where reality ends and fiction picks up.

Writers are not public property. They may become celebrated, and may choose to interact with fans, but what they give is a persona, what they want us to see. It’s the same with everyone, creative or not. We show what we choose to, and owe nothing we don’t wish to share.

 

Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. – Jill Lepore

 

Why should writers be held to a different standard just because readers want to know more? This sense of entitlement is over-reaching. It’s none of our damn business.

To the writer behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, you deserved your privacy. I was sorry to hear that was violated. Your fiction was gift enough.

It’s a shame human nature leads to the assumption we should be privy to a thing just because we wish it. It is what it is, but it’s one of many sad statements about the human condition.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear opinions.