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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Books Read Lately: Philip Roth, Jonathan Lethem, Iris Murdoch

For the last month I’ve gone to three authors I trust. I wanted to go out of the year (27 books read) with some strong fiction. Roth is always good, and I ask myself each time I read him “Why weren’t you reading this guy 30 years ago!?” … while Lethem is an author I know through his journalism more than his fiction … and Murdoch always surprises me; I think she must have surprised herself most of the time.

When She was Good by Philip Roth

Philip Roth accepts the notion that there are many ways to see a particular incident, or life. Evaluation is all about point of view. A young woman finds that her life must be made acceptable, even livable, through her own strength, intelligence, and management. But what happens when other people become part of that life, or when people from the past reenter? Who’s at fault if things go wrong? I must admit that, by the book’s end, I could accept most of the different points of view, when looked at from only it’s angle. So the question erupts: who are we to judge someone’s course in life?

The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

This collection of Lethem’s book-culture journalism (with smatterings of his short fiction) has a central theme of “those books/authors/events/things that influence a writer’s work/thoughts. The title is a riff on Harold Bloom’s once-seminal “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973) in which Bloom argued (in terms of poetry) that every writer’s precursor creates a particular anxiety in him/her that makes the new poetry find uniqueness, or fail. While that argument has its detractors, Lethem takes the tack that any influence should be yearned for, accepted, and used to a writer’s greatest advantage. Most of the essays are writerly-centric, and not exactly fit for the general audience, but the good thing about Lethem is that his language is always accessible within its literate scope.

The Good Apprentice by Iris Murdoch

Iris’s 1985 story of “being good” and “finding goodness” is of course half-ironical because her characters can hardly get out of their own way. How very human, I kept thinking, though the drama of fiction keeps that thought kindling. In this story, Edward Baltram has accidentally killed a friend; his brother, Stuart, wants to drop out of society and into a monastery; and meanwhile, their father is having an affair with a friend of the family. Each character is in search of, or already thinks he/she’s living a good life. Irony abounds. Characters witness their own failures and others’ triumphs. What we learn is that no set plan can make life good, per se, but the half-righteous desire to simply live is … pretty damn worth living.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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