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.



2016 NBA finalists announced






And then there were five…

I’m still set on Colson Whitehead winning the 2016 NBA. Seeing that distinctive red cover of The Underground Railroad, I paused nary a second. He’s got this. While not the greatest living American writer, he has undeniable cachet. His kaleidoscopic imagination is impressive; his status as a writer of serious literary fiction cannot be contested. Having read and reviewed his prose, I’m well aware how very good he can be.

The Underground Railroad has serious forward momentum unrelated to its NBA nomination. The Oprah endorsement unleashed the great masses, bringing Whitehead a much-deserved wider audience, but I’m wondering if snobbery will rear its head when the judges bring down their gavels. While Whitehead is a literary writer, opinion about Oprah’s seal of approval is a lot more mixed. There’s a chance she’ll do him more harm than good.



Colson Whitehead’s novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes.



“I lianotherbrooklynfted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, we were all headed home. At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”

– Another Brooklyn


I’ve read pieces of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, a short but meaty novel easily downed in the space of an afternoon. Effortlessly elegant, it’s very heavy in ideas and depth of truths revealed. But for all its smooth perfection, I don’t see it beating out the Magnificent Whitehead.

It’s simply not big enough: not in scope, not in power.



Paulette Giles I know purely through osmosis, from bits I’ve read becoming lodged in my consciousness forming my vague impression of her. From what I’ve gathered, she writes great book club picks. Never have I considered her works heavily literary. I was a bit surprised seeing her here.

If one of these things is not like the others, I’d have to pick Paulette Giles.

Reviews of her book are sparse, a little curious considering the NBA committee pushed her through to the final round. Even the Kirkus review I found says precious little of substance:



In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.


A bit less than compelling.

I found no long-form reviews of News of the World. Curious.

About the other two I know not at all, so I did a little digging:






In his wistful and elegantly written fourth novel, “The Throwback Special,” Chris Bachelder plays Jane Goodall to a large group of middle-aged men who assume the role of his chimpanzees. Bachelder observes their rituals with a blend of affection and befuddlement over the course of a weekend, when they have gathered to take part in an activity that feels somehow both wildly imaginative and completely familiar. For 16 straight years, they have re-enacted one of the most iconic and gruesome plays in football history, when the Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked the Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann in 1985, shattering Theismann’s leg and ending his career.


I could never have imagined a book about sports-addicted men appealing to me, but dammit, this one does. The review left me bug-eyed. I can’t imagine a premise less appealing, yet I found it fascinating.






The New Yorker:

In “The Association of Small Bombs” (Viking), Karan Mahajan’s second novel, Shaukat (Shockie) Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist, considers the explosion he has just set off at a busy market in Delhi and glumly concludes that it “was all anticlimax.” This is a dark thought about mass murder, and a dark joke about the narrative nature of terrorism.


Reading The New Yorker’s review, it becomes readily apparent this is a heavy-weight contender. Are we ready for such a treatment on the topic of terrorism? Mainstream as it’s become, ubiquitous in its everyday-ness, I think so.

“Too soon” has passed.

The Association of Small Bombs is described here as “daring(ly) imaginative,” and “promiscuous.” But don’t imagine his is a dismissive treatment of terrorism, nor any silly rendering:


“In the first few pages of his new novel, he renders the spectacle of the bombing with a languid, balletic beauty, pitting the unhurried composure of his prose against the violence of the events it describes.”


Terrorism is another topic near the bottom of my list of favorite fictional themes, but this review is simply phenomenal.




Count me on Team Whitehead, though if any other book comes back to bite The Underground Railroad, it will be The Association of Small Bombs. Because if there’s one thing a literary award should honor, it’s big, relevant themes – which both these books share.

That’s where the money is.

NBA, we’re waiting.

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth (July 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553418874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553418873


The Sunlight Pilgrims is Fagan’s second novel, following her much-lauded The Panopticon, a novel about a teenage girl named Anais who, following a childhood spent bouncing between dozens of foster families, is sent to a live in a home for chronic young offenders. Anais’s arrest record is long, including hundreds of offenses. Thrown together with offenders of all stripes, The Panopticon tells the story of a group of equally damaged young people who form a family of sorts.

About writing a second novel following a very successful debut, Fagan writes:

panopticonThe second novel is always difficult and I certainly found that to be true. I had to ignore what anyone else thought to a certain extent. I knew it was a risk in some ways to write a novel that was quite different to my debut but there is not point to writing for me, unless I am willing to put something on the line, emotionally, intellectually or otherwise. I loved spending time in the world of The Sunlight Pilgrims, it was difficult and challenging but I wanted to be there. 


The Sunlight Pilgrims, similar to her first book, features a main character struggling outside the mainstream, this time a transgender teen who’s reinvented himself as a girl named Estelle/Stella. Prejudice is a large part of Stella’s experience, as classmates in the fictional small village of Clachan Fells in the Highlands of Scotland cast her out, lifelong friends turned vicious enemies.

It’s the year 2020,  global warming now a dangerous and lethal force threatening to freeze over the globe. An iceberg the size of a house drifts into the bay at Clachan Fells, locals equally transfixed and terrified about what it portends. Snowfalls creep up the sides of homes, burying cars and killing people through white-out storms, as temperatures plummet below – 48 F. Local emergency facilities are set up, villagers scrambling to keep each other alive.

In the midst of the chaos transpires the inevitable conceit of a love story. Tall, dark and handsome Dylan MacCrae, whose mother had bought a caravan in this remote village for reasons he doesn’t immediately understand, moves to Clachan Fells following the deaths of both his mother and grandmother, in rapid succession. Carrying their ashes, he leaves behind the family movie theatre that’s gone bust, looking for a new life in Scotland.

Immediately  he and Stella’s mother fall in love, to the great joy of Stella, who wished this from the moment she met their new neighbor – a conventional, “fated” moment allowing for some rather cringe-inducing prose:


Dylan tries to be subtle about watching Constance, but it is compulsive. It’s like watching a fire. She is the fire and her daughter the wind – howling long the rooftops, rattling at his windows all last night, warning him she could blow his house down and it is not a house, it is a caravan – d.e.n.i.a.l.. It’s not a river in Egypt, that’s what the kid would say.


It’s like Wuthering Heights, only cheesy. The land is windswept and menacing, the handsome man insanely in love with the beautiful woman on first sight. Then Fagan starts writing high-flown prose about love, and it all falls apart. As dramatic writing, it doesn’t work. As dramatic writing with an attempt at humor thrown in, it’s like watching a train wreck – or reading about one, in this case.

The killer winter is terrifying, but at the same time there’s a certain beauty to it. Aside from the awesome iceberg, the illusion of a triple sun – known as a “sun dog” – thrills the small community. As there’s nothing to be done to prevent the weather, the villagers flock to see this natural phenomenon, the one literal bright spot in the ever-increasing dark of a long, lethal winter.

If the world is going to end, they may as well take in the awesome spectacle in the time they have left.

Sun Dogs - illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Sun Dogs – illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Despite ominous threats to the lives of the characters , the plot is disappointingly lacking in urgency. What she does well is interweave complex plot lines, juggling multiple characters and their stories. What she doesn’t do as well is pull taut the strings, to maintain forward momentum. She left room for just enough sway to let the reader’s attention drift – the crucial dividing line between a good novel and a great one.

Fagan also descends into moments of purple prose, overwritten passages that derail the book. The world around them is doomed, yet her characters at times bounce around like Tigger. The effect is jarringly inconsistent. This is not quite a romance, not quite post-apocalpytic, lacking definitive purpose.

The Sunlight Pilgrims could have used one, last really tough edit which it unfortunately did not get. In the end, the support structure just wasn’t there. Maybe there was too much pressure to produce a great second novel, maybe she felt rushed. Whatever the reason, The Sunlight Pilgrims is an okay book with moments of very good prose, just not enough to tip the balance.


A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

Review copies:

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – finished

Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres

The Past by Tessa Hadley

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

Mercury by Margot Livesey

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano (transl: Mark Polizzotti)


Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton

Every Single Minute by Hugo Hamilton

Current reading:

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Recently finished:

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – review to come


As autumn rolls in, I imagine reading in front of a roaring fire, while orange and red and yellow leaves drift languidly to the ground outside my picture window framed by heavy velvet drapes, a bottomless cup of coffee at my elbow, a loyal dog at my slipper-clad feet. The unfortunate reality is I live in an 80s vintage apartment building sans fireplace, count myself lucky when I have clean clothes – not daring to dream anything matches – and the closest I get to open flame is candles I own but seldom burn, partly because I have two cats with not enough sense between them to avoid setting themselves – and my apartment – on fire.

And the dream goes *POOF*

No leather armchairs reeking of wealth indenting oriental rugs, no polished mahogany bookshelves crammed with leather bindings, no crackling and popping of exploding sap, no scent of seasoned logs licked by fire… Just a suburban apartment  furnished half by The Room Place, half by Target (which sells serviceable books shelves at really great prices, by the way).

One does what one must, which doesn’t stop one from bitching about it the whole time.

Fall is my favorite season. Fleeting though it is, I hope to make some time to enjoy it: shuffling through the leaves, carving pumpkins, feeling the crisp air that reddens the cheeks, the annual pulling out of the sweaters. I’ve always loved the colors most, then the smells of what I know is actually decay in preparation for the hibernation of winter, but still it’s the best and most glorious time of year.

I look forward to it all as October arrives.


At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost. – Rainer Maria Rilke


Before I go any further, I have to admit a most embarrassing truth: I’ve purchased and received several – okay many, many – books over the course of the past two weeks that I’d love to list here for posterity, however, in the process of quick-cleaning my apartment I tossed them onto random shelves and can scarcely tell what’s new and what’s been here for years. I’m sitting here looking at the fruits of my labor, semi-pleased with myself for having made the place look remotely habitable, and though I could perhaps paw through the stacks and stacks and stacks in order to locate every recent book purchase or advance copy, I’ve scattered them to the extent it would be a challenge.

This is when you know – in case it hadn’t already dawned – you own an awful lot of books. And by awful, I mean tremendously wonderful, mind-blowingly awesome numbers of them.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a serious discrepancy between numbers of books arriving and those making the “finished” list. Of late, both my credit card and the review fairy have been rather generous, which I assume to mean I’ve been extraordinarily deserving, as what other explanation could there be?

Victorian Bloomsbury

Victorian Bloomsbury

Today, Bloomsbury means Virginia Woolf and her coevals but, as Ashton shows so vividly, it was the district’s reputation as a centre of intellectual life that in reality drew the “Bloomsberries”: they didn’t create the area, the area created them. – Judith Flanders



Also with the onset of fall comes a certain desire for a bit of more planned, structured reading, possibly because it’s the start of the academic year, which in my formative days meant assigned books and syllabi. Tossing around a few ideas, one I’ve settled upon is a planned reading of a mystery series. An embarrassing number of hours frittered away spent Amazon researching later, I decided to go with a series suggested by one of my favorite Scots, Chris of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour,  who tipped me off about Scottish mystery writer Christopher Brookmyre.


Christopher Brookmyer

Christopher Brookmyre

The best source for Brookmyre’s books – price and availability-wise – is a shop in the UK,  so I placed an Amazon order for the first three titles to make sure I like them well enough before buying the full series:

Quite Ugly One Morning

Country of the Blind

Not the End of the World

I considered lots of series mysteries before making my decision, including: works of Ngaio Marsh, the Maisie Dobbs series, Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels, all the popular Scandinavian noir writers, among loads of others. What lead me to go with Brookmyre was the promise of a rather off-beat and quirky style, different from the sort of grim mysteries I normally gravitate toward – though no promises I won’t turn back to those before winter snows thaw.

It was partly to counter the grim nature of the frozen winter that I chose this series, which sounds quirky in a way that’s not cringe-inducingly precious. Because I despise cloying prose.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the book that made Christopher Brookmyre a star in his native Britain, establishing his distinctive, scabrously humorous style and breakneck, hell-for-leather narrative pacing … Quite Ugly One Morning introduces Brookmyre’s signature protagonist, the hard-partying, wisecracking investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who is not afraid to bend the laws of the land (or even the laws of gravity) to get to the truth … Laced with acerbic wit and crackling dialogue, Quite Ugly One Morning is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller.  – Amazon blurb

I’d like to decide on another course of planned reading, though what I don’t know. It’s a delicate balance as I read and review advance copies, sneaking in a few titles from my own collection in between. And always the postman brings more.

Though he doesn’t ring twice. It’s a myth.

In reading, I’ve just finished Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, for review later this week. Current advance copy reading is Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a thick book of short stories, and one of several half-started volumes lying on the bed next to me or on the table beside the bed.

I’m between books for the most part, too overwhelmed by the wealth of riches to have settled on anything outside Bell’s book. No wonder, considering the tide coming in, but by the end of this evening I should have a clearer picture of my reading week, and what’s to come through the rest of the month.

In the not too distant future, it will be time to wrap up My Reading Year, 2016. But that gives me a headache. I think I have enough to keep my hands from becoming too idle in the meantime.

Among other things, I can search for my new books to name in my next round up. Yes, I think that’s the goal I’ll set for myself. Big enough without being too overwhelming.

And a very happy October to all.


The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton



  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (July 5, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590179714
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590179710


In an ambiguous future when death has become all but extinct – save for accident and old age – Katherine Mortenhoe is dying. She has weeks to live, her doctor’s estimate about four at best.

Her decline will be particularly awful. Beginning with seizures and shaking, confusion and double-vision will follow, then incontinence and the inability to walk or care for herself.  But the final indignity is yet to come: smarmy Human Destiny TV executive Vincent Ferriman will not rest until he’s blared Katherine’s last days for the entertainment of a fascinated public hungry for novelty.

DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is at once a prescient work of fiction anticipating the era we live in, one obsessed with voyeuristic sensationalism, and an exploration of one man’s choice of humanity over fame and fortune. A young, up and coming reporter named Roddie, hired to shadow Mortenhoe and equipped with a camera installed behind his eyes, recognizes the beauty inside a middle-aged woman haunted by the specter of her own death. As they meet and become acquainted, he sees in her strength a humanity forgotten by a society in which death has lost its power to inspire fear.

Following her around becomes a quest of sorts. Growing more ill, she comes to depend on him. In turn, a sense of protectiveness spills out of Roddie. As what he sees is transmitted to the control room where Ferriman’s men edit and broadcast it, Roddie is forced to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies – with the expensive cars and instant fame celebrity brings, or in nursing a woman no longer able to control her bodily functions as she rapidly descends into death – from the glamorous and sexy to the messy reality of the end of a life.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a lovely, lovely book.  It’s a story about living and dying, about regrets and the unfortunate tendency of humans to forget mortality and believe themselves invincible. It asks the question: what would you do if you found out you were dying, where would ultimate meaning be found, and how and with whom would you choose to spend your last moments?

There’s loads of symbolism in the book, from the prefix “mort” – meaning death – in Katherine’s name to the all-seeing eye in Roddie’s head that allows him not just to transmit but to penetrate the soul of another human being. It explores relationships, separating the superficial and fleeting from the truly deep and meaningful. Compton skewers celebrity and avarice, voyeurism and the danger of a society that loses the understanding of what humanity means.

Absolutely breathtaking. Yet another worthy classic brought back into print by NYRB editions.





A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:


The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Novel by Alfonso Zapico

Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss by Donald E. Pease

Review copies:

Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan

He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Up Soon in Reading:

The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors – The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton (NYRB)






Loads of overtime hours this week: 14, to be precise. Overtime means time and a half, and time and a half means money I’m lusting to spend. A responsible adult, I realize no money should be squandered, which is why I wasted none of it on groceries or rent. As long as there’s money jingling in the buy one, get one Egg McMuffin fund, I see no problem here.

It was a bookwhorish week dreams are made of, both purchased and review books hitting the doorstep with a frequency impressing even me, no stranger to One Click frenzies – the nerdy equivalent of drunk dialing. But books arriving unbidden, oh GOD what a beautiful thing.

It’s best when you don’t anticipate them coming, in a way. Don’t you agree? Slavering for the UPS man is all well and good, but boxes hitting the front door after you’ve torn up the stairs to find a dark place to sit and stroke your new presshussses, well that’s the equivalent of God leaning down and whispering he exists and has a place for you after all, despite all your atheistic snark.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is one of the Booker nominees I spoke of a mere couple days ago. It’s the easiest Shortlist title attainable, so I snatched it. Levy’s Hot Milk, Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Moshfeh’s Eileen (PEN Hemingway winner) are available now; Szalay’s All That Man Is and Graeme MaCrae Burne’s His Bloody Project are due in early October.

Resist, Amazon one click finger. Mama has bills.

I’ve paged through Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance during Barnes & Noble lurks, but never properly read it. Scoring one of the wingback chairs on my last visit, settled into read the first four or five pages and my hands couldn’t let go. A portrait of the economically depressed South that’s also home to my family, it appeals to my great need for an empathetic portrayal of my roots.

“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.” – J.D. Vance


Next up: a graphic books.  No good reason I haven’t read more save the old complaint about that thief time.  James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Biography leapt off the shelf and hit me in the head. No hesitation; this book was mine.

In 2014 I visited a Dublin bursting with echoes of Joyce. Of course I made a vow to read more of his work, and of course I haven’t since. Goodbye, guilt and hello to a genre I’ve neglected, all in one go.


The Literature Book by James Canton– $ 1.99

The Harvard Classics in a Year: A Liberal Education in 365 Days – $ 2.51

The Yellow Room by Mary R. Rinehart – $ 1.99

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – $ 1.99

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke – $1.99

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – $ 1.99


As much out of left field as the graphic bio, Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss happened. Ironic it’s another literary biography with A Portrait in the title. It’s like Barnes & Noble had a plan for me, like they’ve been stalking me. Looks like it worked.

Now, the review books – bookwhore crack that didn’t make my credit card scream in agony.

Atticus sent me two: Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan and He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even, both of which are completely unknown to me – books and authors.

Kevin Brockmeier, a writer I met a few years ago and whose writing takes my breath away, had this to say about Hoopty:

Hoopty Time Machines is much like a bag of M&M’s, in that it’s nearly impossible, once you’ve opened it, not to consume it down to the last morsel, and fast. It is less like a bag of M&M’s in that you never know what you’ll find beneath the candy coating: a peanut or an amphetamine, a rosary bead or a thumbtack.” –Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

A bit baffled by Aaron R. Even. He’s not coming up on Amazon searches. Seldom do I make time for writers with no creds, no blurbs by authors I respect. This one’s described as Southern gothic, an appealing term. Nevertheless, it’s a descriptive thrown around liberally, seemingly by those who have no idea of the true meaning – or less about the meaning than profit margins.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Two books I’m wildly excited about are also freebies:

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell. I hang out with Matt on FB, share taste in beer, and was floored by his 2015 Scrapper. I hadn’t yet worked up to asking him up for a review copy; it’s like his publisher read my mind.


And Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book which left me conflicted, but ultimately impressed. I said in my review I’d gladly read more of her work. I’m getting that chance.

I was going to write about current reads, but covering this week’s literary immigration into my apartment exhausted me. Disclosure: at least three others didn’t make this report. They were late night One Clickers that haven’t arrived yet, bless their papery hearts. Next time.

Always next time.

Booker Shortlist 2016: the blood-letting of Coetzee and Strout

Six novelists have made it to the shortlist, the last step in the Man Booker Prize competition. The 2016 finalists are from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Six novelists have made it to the shortlist, the last step in the Man Booker Prize competition. The 2016 finalists are from Britain, the U.S. and Canada.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images


Once more unto the breach.

The Shortlist is upon us. I protest I have not the time read them, yet I’ve never let this stop me from opining with gusto. I opine because literature is my life – qualification enough.

What’s interesting about this year’s shortlist isn’t only the titles that made it through, but those that didn’t: namely JM Coetzee and Elizabeth Strout. Lesser-to-unknown writers, of impressively eclectic range, leap-frogged right over them, which is the crux of my thesis.

I’ve been witnessed wailing and gnashing my teeth over slights to literary icons, frustrated it’s become fashionable to cry “entitlement” when the successful repeatedly excel. Is the purpose of literary awards not to honor the best of the best?

The purpose of literary awards is to honor the deserving. Politics and political correctness have no moral right to intervene.

And then there were 6:

Two Americans.

Two Brits.

Two Canadians.

News flash: literary icons get to the top through a hell of a lot of hard work. No one hands fame to undeserving writers. Strike that. Usually, undeserving writers don’t make it to award lists.

Okay. One hopes only the best rise to the top.

My argument against unknown writers eking through to the Shortlist is a nomination for the Man Bookers is a nod only a handful of writers will ever receive. Slapping “Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize” stickers on covers boosts sales. Boosting sales raises visibility. And when visibility rises, books get attention. And when books get attention, literary reputations are built. When literary reputations rise, the baton passes to the next generation of great writers.

In other words, they earn it the old fashioned way: writing highest-quality prose.

Honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards are very encouraging. I know that it might sound strange that a writer who has published many books still needs encouragement, but this is true.   – Joyce Carol Oates

Yet, I’m not blind to the other side. Underdogs are exciting; knowing the outcome of a contest is flat boring. This same eclectic group of Shortlisted writers have beaten the crowd, hand-picked by judges – I won’t get into the politics of judging  – who winnowed from who knows how many others, until only these few remained.

Even great writers occasionally stumble: see the list of phenomenal first books whose authors never managed to repeat. I wouldn’t rule out lesser-known writers besting the best of the best. It’s happened, and in these cases previous fame should have no influence. When a writer falters, he deserves no credit for past success. Likewise, when a writer crushes it, accolades are imperative.

The weeding process must, of necessity, be brutal. Sub-par writing deserves no sympathy. It’s here the door’s left cracked for better efforts to squeak past. And it’s here I understand lesser-knowns rising.

“Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” – Witold Gombrowicz

I cannot speak to the quality of Coetzee and Strout’s recent books. I have not read them. I know Coetzee to be a staggering talent, full stop. I’ve read several of his works, and know him as a giant. Even this should give him no advantage here.

Strout’s Olive Kitteridge fairly crushed it, but I know nothing of My Name is Lucy Barton.  Could be she faltered, I do not know. But if she did, all’s fair in love and literature.

I have not read these six left standing. Reviews and blurbs make them all sound remarkable, but then they’re designed to sell.

Literary awards are not the only thing. Books are not defined by awards won. However, literary awards are in place to judge books that have achieved a level of excellence above the rest. It’s a thing apart. None of these books is unworthy, but only one of them is the best of this particular lot. And the one that’s nearest perfection, regardless of who wrote it – their color or gender or ethnic origin or previous fame or  tough life story – should rightly win.

I’d say good luck to them all, but it should never be about luck. May the best win.








The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz


  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 4, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393352706
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393352702


You may remember me from such manias as a fascination with all things Brontë, evinced by several posts written earlier this year.  Upon the Grand Event of the purchasing of Claire Harman’s biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, as a preface to Harman’s book I began reading Lynne Reid Banks’s fictionalized biography of the family, The Dark Quartet, which lit a fire in me.

Thus began my Brontë year.

Over the past couple of weeks, in the midst of weeding my book collection, my hands again alighted serendipitously on Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet. I’d received this advance copy months prior to its publication in May of 2015, however, before I could crack the cover life intervened. The publication of the book coincided with the beginning of my divorce proceedings, so unsurprisingly I didn’t get around to reading it last year.

That’s since been remedied. Over the course of the past couple of weeks I fairly flew through it, thoroughly absorbed. I’m surprised the pages didn’t catch fire, I turned them so quickly. And I have the inky hands to prove how often I underlined passages and wrote excited notes in the margins.


” … I feel the deep mystery of the lives of others in this palpable emissary of past moments, now impossible to recover. The texture of those lost days settle into possessions that outlive their owners, it seems to linger in a mended tear, a stretched elbow, a corner’s roundedness.”

  • The Brontë Cabinet


Reader, I’m smitten by the Brontës,  all over again.

I knew lots of the basic facts from other reading, but my world was positively blown apart by the revelations Lutz imparted. Really amazing things, explaining much about how these mousy pastor’s daughters came to produce turbulent, passionate works of sensuality and darkness.

Lutz’s premise is this: she takes eight objects owned by the Brontë family and explains not only their relevance to the family, but also each particular object’s place within Victorian society. The result is at once fascinating and fanciful, as the author both flexes her scholarly research muscles and, occasionally, engages in melodramatic leaps of supposition, imagining how the Brontës may have felt or acted or experienced, even when there’s nothing to back it up.

I love hard facts, and can sometimes indulge possibilities. Where I draw the line is in making sweeping assumptions based on the most tenuous of connections. Still and all, this is a remarkable book I will probably read again and refer to in future.

Following are the eight Brontë-related items, and a bit about each as presented by Deborah Lutz:

Item One – Tiny Books

Tiny books made by the Bronte children

Tiny books made by the Bronte children

Brontë lovers will recognize these as the wee works “published” by the Brontë children.  I’d give anything to touch them, to turn the pages and get inside their minds, wouldn’t you?

“This mania for scribbling wasn’t an unusual activity for literary middle- or upper -class children in nineteenth-century England … Jane Austen filled the beautiful notebooks her father had bought her with sparkling imitations and parodies of fashionable society novels … Mary Ann Evans (who later took the pen name George Eliot) wrote a fragment of a historical novel in a school notebook … the young Stephens had their family magazine, produced weekly, in the 1890s, with Thoby and Virginia (later Woolf) as the main authors…”


Item Two – Pillopatate

Charlotte Bronte needlepoint sampler

Charlotte Bronte needlepoint sampler

Needlework wasn’t just a way to while away time. Young ladies were expected to be skilled in the art of mending clothing, as well as making pretty samplers, needle cases, etc. As with so many other aspects of life in the 19th century, thrifty recycling of fabric was a necessity. Small, handmade items also made very good gifts, useful things prettily made.

“The act of sewing itself had something of a public character, since women were expected to keep their hands busy, even among company. Advice manuals taught how best to show off skills and elegant hands while at needlecraft, even as a way to potentially attract a mate.”


Item Three – Walking Stick

Victorian era walking stick

Victorian era walking stick


The girls loved roaming the moors, and as the footing wasn’t always the most stable, it’s possible they may have borrowed their father or brother’s walking stick on occasion. These were fashionable and prized items to Victorians, who often bought beautifully crafted sticks and them handed down from generation to generation.

Walking with sticks wasn’t feminine, but Emily Brontë was well-known for thumbing her nose at society. She’s also the one of the sisters most passionate about perambulating the moors. If any of the girls used a walking stick, it was most likely to be Emily.

“The tallest person in her family except for her father, she “slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth.” A “solitude-loving raven,” Charlotte called Emily, “no gentle dove.”


Item Four – Keeper, Grasper and Other Family Animals


Collar of Emily Bronte's dog Keeper

Collar of Emily Bronte’s dog Keeper


Not just the family walker, Emily was also the family animal lover.  But she was no tender flower sitting around petting her dears. One famous story has her beating her dog, Keeper, for daring to lie on beds in the parsonage. After beating him nearly blind, she washed his wounded face. Forever after, so the legend goes, Keeper was inseparable from her. And, when Emily died, her animals kept vigil, waiting for her to return.

The “cult of the pet” was a very Victorian custom. We probably owe our affliction for cat videos to our 19th century forbears.

Thanks for that.

“Queen Victoria so loved dogs that she collected close to a hundred in her lifetime, most of them living in the kennels on the grounds of her castles. When she was dying, her Pomeranians kept her company on her deathbed.”


Item Five – Fugitive Letters

Letter from Anne to Ellen Nussey

Letter from Anne to Ellen Nussey

Oh, the Victorians loved their letters! But they were very expensive to send. Payment for letters fell on the recipient, not the sender, and costs were so exorbitant people often waited to send letters until someone they knew was visiting the area where the recipient lived, to hand deliver their missives. Counter-intuitively, sending packages was less expensive than letters. Knowing that, people often illegally tucked letters in with other merchandise to save on postage.

Charlotte and her close friend Ellen Nussey were passionate letter writers. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of letters were exchanged between them. Something that made me cringe inside, after Charlotte’s death her letters were sometimes cannibalized, so mourning fans could have a small scrap of something written in her hand. Ellen, as well as Patrick Brontë, were guilty of this.

“Ripe for reform, the post service changed radically in 1840 when it instituted a countrywide penny post. All letters weighing under half an ounce traveled anywhere in England for one penny … Charlotte wrote jubilantly to Ellen in January 1840: “I intend to take full advantage of this penny postage and to write to you often … that is as often as I have time.”


Item Six – The Alchemy of Desks

Portable desk of Charlotte Bronte

Portable desk of Charlotte Bronte

Portable desks held writing papers, sewing supplies, sealing wax and pens, buttons and stashes of money. They were ubiquitous in the Victorian era, so even poorer ladies like the Brontë girls owned them.

They held little cubbies with secret openings to secure dear treasures.

“Another precious desk was Jane Austen’s mahogany one, its writing slope covered in leather, that she took along when traveling … on one trip in 1798, the desk … was accidentally placed in a chaise whose luggage was bound for the West Indies. It was saved just in time when she sent off a horseman to stop the carriage. “No part of my property,” Austen remarked, “could have been such a prize before, for in my writing box was all my worldly wealth.”


Item Seven – Death Made Material

Mourning jewelry - hair of Anne and Emily Bronte

Mourning jewelry – hair of Anne and Emily Bronte

So many books have been written about the Victorian cult of death and mourning. Ever the trend-setter, Queen Victoria was a model for widows everywhere. She never ceased mourning after her beloved Prince Albert died. Her sadness was unrelenting.

Treasuring locks of hair is another custom of the era, sending off tresses cut from the corpses of loved ones to crafters who turned them into beautiful pieces of jewelry. Alternatively, hair was kept within lockets and tucked into books.

After losing her sisters, Charlotte had a beautiful bracelet made from their hair – a beautiful tribute within a family which had known so much loss.

“Part of the body yet easy to separate from it, hair retained its luster long after the rest of the person decayed. Portable, with a shine like certain gems or metals, hair moved easily from being an ornamental feature of the body to being an ornament worn by others. By the 1840s, hair jewelry had become so fashionable that advertisements for hair artisans, designers, and hairworkers ran in newspapers …”


Item Eight – Memory Albums

Charlotte Bronte memory album

Charlotte Bronte memory album

FInally, the memory album. Snippets of poetry and prose, observations of life, and little souvenirs were kept within these albums. The Victorians were crazy about ferns and other plants, pressing them into books and what came to be called scrapbooks, i.e., little bits of life kept as mementos. Similar to commonplace books, these memory albums were to be treasured and sometimes shared. They told the story of a life.

“Victorians were prolific album compilers, creators of all manner of curated collections arranged in the little museum of the volume. Albums, along with Wardian cases, were part of the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting, containing, classifying, and organizing, especially when it came to saving the past by placing it into some sort of permanent system.”


This is only a small part of what’s to be found in The Brontë Cabinet, the treasures held in this book. I didn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage every lover of things Brontë and Victoriana to give it a read. It’s given me so much to think about, so many new interests and avenues of exploration.  Not least among them is the theory Emily may have written a second book, which Charlotte perhaps destroyed…

A second book. Possibly destroyed. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Or perhaps it’s still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found… Hey, it could happen,

I’m so glad to have run across this book again, especially in this year of all things Brontë. It was all pleasure, through and through.




9/11 Memorial, New York City. June 2015.

9/11 Memorial, New York City. June 2015.


“The Names”

  • former poet laureate Billy Collins, on 9/11


Names etched on
the head of a pin.

One name spanning
a bridge, another
undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled
into the skin.

Names of citizens,
workers, mothers,
and fathers,

The bright-eyed
daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in
a green field.

Names in the small tracks of birds.

Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on
the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled
into the dim warehouse
of memory.

So many names, there
is barely room on
the walls of the heart.”