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BIBLIOGRIND

Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Books Read Lately: love, punishment, philosophy

 

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

Written between 1934-37 in Berlin, Nabokov elucidates the German mentality via a young Russian émigré, full of spirit, poetry, love, and wonder (along with a lot of memories of his father’s long absences to collect butterflies and moths around the world). The young man’s desire to write about beauty in the world, and his love for Zina (his landlady’s daughter) keeps him from losing his mind in a world not his own, or even of his choosing. Nabokov is honing the wit in this story that he shows so brilliantly in later novels.

 

The Punisher’s Brain by R. Hoffman

Where does our penchant for punishment, forgiveness, and revenge come from? Societal convention, or somewhere deeper within the psyche? Trial judge Hoffman explores these questions from several vantage points, each stemming from brain functions that, over 100,000 years ago, designed our minds to cheat, find other cheaters, and punish the members of our tribe (not to mention outsiders!).

 

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch

A large group of former Oxford grads are in various stages of stasis, growth, decline, and mental anguish as they approach middle age. One man is the central point of solidity: David Crimond is a brilliant thinker who has been working on a book for 25 years (or more!) that will reposition political thought and argument. But the coterie that has funded his ability to think & write all these years without encumbrance, has some questions. Meanwhile, hearts are afire. Iris Murdoch delivers some great dialogue about modern society and how it all may end (or end up).

 

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“Max, the blind guy” is a story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. The manuscript is now out with agents; it may be in print as early as December 2014.

What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s 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.

 

 

New Year’s Book Total — 2013 Reads

The year 2013 was good for many things, and books also, but not for total books read. At least, not according to my standards. Lots of reasons can be sited, but none particularly worthy of the let-down. I had time, and while not having wasted it, made use of those minutes and hours for other — equally important — passions: food, travel, writing work, loving, thinking.

Yet I did read some good books in 2013, some of them having big page-counts. The statistics hold up well:

22 books read

7,924 pages

3,317,125 approx. words

 

So without anymore fanfare nor excuses, her is my list, in chronological order:

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Tunc by Lawrence Durrell

2666 by Roberto Bolano

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

Nunquam by Lawrence Durrell

In the Hand of Dante by Nick Tosches

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester

 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Cordial & Corrosive by Sophie Hannah

Letting Go by Philip Roth

Bleeding Edge by Pynchon (suck!)

Operation Shylock by Philip Roth

The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Aligheri

The Night Train by Carl Purdon

Art & Lies by Jeanette Winterson

Darkness Visible by William Golding

Under the Autumn Star by Knut Hamson

Max, the blind guy by Mark Beyer (pub 2014)

 

I shan’t give my faves, though you all must understand, I don’t read bad books (ie. anything with vampires, zombies, or sentimental love, and, NO, I am not sorry for that). Please tell me, on FB or in the comments below, what you’ve read, your list, your stats, or just your faves.

Happy New Year!

Philip Roth for the Nobel … a test post :-)

Nobel Prize for Literature is to be announced Thursday!

Philip Roth has given us timeless literature, universal stories, and relationship themes that span human experience. So have many other authors. Roth is my choice this year for the Nobel. His books are both challenging and mind opening. You can start reading this man’s work from his first book and, dozens later, not get tired of where he takes you and what you find. Sometimes he frightens you as to how clearly you see yourself; other times you laugh at the ridiculousness of “others.”

There is a particular delight and discomfort when reading Roth. I think this comes from “feeling” — and allowing your  intellectual response to be tested. A profound example can be found in “When She Was Good” — Roth’s 1967 novel about a young woman who lives a life of moral perfection, and won’t hear arguments other than her own. This novel that is saturated with lives portrayed in detail, multiple perspectives on pointed issues of life/love/death/children, and questions about “being good.” Every character is highly flawed; none of their lives is bad. Roth asks, through their eyes, “What is it to be ‘good’ — and how does one communicate this desire to others?” The answers may surprise you. I could not fault any of the characters for how they reacted to so many incidents and troubles.

The purpose Roth serves his stories, and the readers of those stories, is to create an “un-simple” problem confronted by people of every character, intellect, upbringing, and socio-economic status. This is an American writer of the American-experience-in-the-universal. Odd? No. Roth leaves you wondering how often you have known such people. That’s devilishly brilliant storytelling.

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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.

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.

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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.

The Reader as Reviewer

The egaletarian nature of the internet has been known for some time: we all have a voice, and, we can express our opinions to the world. Whether someone is listening, or even knows your voice is out there, well, that’s another subject altogether.

In a recent post on getting no reviews for “What Beauty” from the establishment reviewers (ie., newspapers, magazines, and popular websites), I lamented the small-press lockout that the reviewers play. One commenter on this essay-lament said that BigPublishing has created a scare throughout the reviewing world because of the advertising dollars spent in the dying print journalism publications, and therefore some payback is expected: review our books only, or else!

This situation doesn’t exist among readers. Book readers have had the chance to review books online since 1999, at least, and in some print venues, for at least a hundred years. They — these non-professional reviewers — sometimes wax eloquently, and other times give “book reports.” Nevertheless, they are the common voice that disseminate LIKES and DIS-LIKES in such an idiosyncratic manner that, outside the professional review journals (NYRB, TLS, London Review of Books, and BOOKFORUM), you can find some refreshing voices talking about good literature.

Some readers don’t know how to review a book. Others have a take-no-prisoners approach to their reviews, spewing damnation and invective with no moticum of evidence presented. Many seem to go counter to what John Updike wrote eruditely about the reviewer’s responsibility: (1) don’t give away the ending or spoil important moments; (2) “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” (I got one of these, for my first novel, The Village Wit); and, most importantly, (3) “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?” (Amazon reviewers relish in this inequity.)

Yes, idiosyncracies.

Then, of course, there is the reader who sees more of what the writer intended than even the writer thought was done. I have had just such a review recently, from a Smashwords reader of my latest novel. He wrote:

By the time his protagonist, sculptor Minus Orth, has decided to base his latest series of works on characters from classic lore, Beyer has already given his reader enough clues about the importance of the ancient Greek epics to his modern-day vision. There are chariots rolling down the streets of Manhattan, wars of wits with inscrutable fathers, aloof gods playing games with us mortals, wounded warriors waking to visions of beautiful temptresses, and a fascinating hero-in-disguise plot that unravels with amazing expertise. Orth’s ambition to succeed in the art world is a Herculean fight in our secular age, and he does battle with adversaries as dangerous in their way as anything Odysseus faced: critics, rivals, and a mentor he’s not sure he can trust.

Thanks for the accolade, Steve Farrell (himself a writer, if you hadn’t guessed; you can read the entire review here). Essentially, I hadn’t planned Minus Orth’s father to be a mythic figure, or the FaceCards (a quartet of card-playing arristocrats) as Gods-on-High messing with the pavement-bound mortals. But, within the realm of reason, as the Greek gods were themselves invented by mortals to describe life on Earth against the heavens they, lowly mortals, didn’t understand, it’s easy to see how regular, everyday life can be seen as bits of an epic.

While I’ll take good music from whichever direction I hear it, I’m humble enough to understand that I mustn’t take this review too seriously. Whom do I really believe — the reviewer who loves me, or the reviewer who says “he doesn’t have what it takes”? I have to believe in myself, and my writing, and, naturally, in the characters I create for the stories I write.

From the readers’ perspective, they are only reflecting their tastes, their knowledge, their likes & dislikes, and their way of judging good writing from bad, strong characters from weak, or even too-long-a-story from the-beach-book. I know this, and also I’m part of this, both as a professional reviewer, and as a non-professional blogger.

Ultimately, what I find is that readers are looking at the books they read and see something of themselves in them, or something of the world in which they live. Or they see nothing that they recognize. Both are mirrors, but, where one is looked at into the light of day, another is looked at into a prism, where all that dissected color glosses the true palate.

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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.

The Writing Life: a new novel

This afternoon I found myself looking over more than a half dozen piles of printed pages lying atop my bed. Not strewn, but in neat-enough piles. Their cover pages hold such titles (written in colored pencil) as “Vienna” and “Prague” and “Narrative Arc” and “O, Though I Walk Through the Valley of Death….” Together, these piles make up some 100 possible scenes for my new project, a novel tentatively titled and loosely outlined (a strong narrative arc, for now, these first weeks of teasing out the story, all of which need a writer’s engineering to connect the various bridge spans).

To say that my excitement — and trepidation — claws at me, would be an understatement.

In this state and at that moment I realized that, three years ago, I had stood in just this same position (though a few blocks away) as I had begun another novel, whose idea was put together in much the same way, as piles of loosely based notes and sketched-out scenes and vivid characters vs. vague characters. And all kinds of possibilities.

That project turned into “What Beauty” which came out exactly one month ago. Sales are okay, thanks for asking (with one nice review). What I didn’t know about that novel, three years ago (including its title), was how soon I would get from the notes to the last (5th) draft. I didn’t think about that. I didn’t know how I would write the press releases, or the galley letter. I hadn’t thought about the cover, or about the reviewers who would get a copy.

I simply began to organize the notes into a general chronological order. It was the second time I used my “Stepping Stone” method of organizing a story and the work that would consume my life, and my mind, for the next 2 1/2 years.

When I realized this afternoon that another project as daugnting as the last sat before me, I breathed deeply and, as I exhaled, a chuckle became a laugh. “This writing stuff is hard work,” is what that laugh told me. “Time to have fun; get busy.”

It’s good to work, to take a sustained time for a walk through a fictional world that is of your making, with people you’ve chosen out of all the others you found and — with luck — can use in some other story; but not this story. And while I don’t plan on “how long” a project shall take, I know that the time will be productive, frustrating, not-enough-or-too-much, and well spent, and worth the effort for the next three or four or ….

Don’t think, Mark — write and think.

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What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. 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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