Category Archives: Books
The other day I heard an interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper, currently on tour for the English edition of his book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life (Pope Francis has himself just published a book called The Church of Mercy, mercy apparently being the theological flavor of the season). But I suspect the real reason the cardinal rated an interview on my local public radio station is because he’s known as “the pope’s theologian,” much as Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) was known as “the pope’s [recently sainted Pope John Paul’s] Rottweiler.” Having Kasper in studio must have seemed like the next best thing to having the pope himself there and a golden opportunity to pick the cardinal’s brains about the course of Roman Catholicism under Francis’s papacy.
But first the host Brian Lehrer, a gentle but intelligent interviewer, questioned Kasper about the meaning of the word mercy and the reason for its being so high up on the new pope’s agenda. The cardinal happily distinguished mercy from compassion (active versus passive), mercy from justice (complementary), the biblical origins of the virtue (Sermon on the Mount, among others). After several minutes of Q&A, though, little light had been shed on the subject either for the host (who is Jewish) or for me or, presumably, for other listeners to the program. But Lehrer had not denied Kasper his ten minutes for flogging the book, which was after all his immediate reason for appearing on the show or, for that matter, his being in the US in the first place.
Lehrer then moved on to the questions he, and much of his audience Catholic and non-Catholic alike, wanted answers to: Did the pope’s emphasis on mercy and understanding mean there would be any change to the church’s position on birth control or homosexuality or divorced and/or remarried Catholics receiving the Eucharist, etc.? To all of which Kasper replied in diplomatic and noncommittal terms. He said Catholics are already making up their own minds about birth control, though he reminded us the church is not against all kinds (presumably he was referring to the “rhythm” method). And in the case of Catholics who have divorced and remarried, that choice is their own responsibility.
If you’re one of those Catholics, ex-Catholics or non-Catholics who have been hoping for something truly different from this pope compared with his predecessors, if in other words you have been hoping for a reassertion of the kind of liberal attitude with which John XXIII shook up the church fifty years ago, I’d say the prospects are dim. John XXIII was an anomaly, a tragic mistake in the view of the church itself or at least that part of it that has put into power all popes since John XXIII and before.
The cardinal didn’t indicate anything had changed doctrinally for Catholics with the ascension of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papal throne. In case you missed it, just a couple months back Pope Francis threatened the Mafiosi of southern Italy with eternal hellfire if they don’t mend their ways. As long as the church continues to keep hell (and heaven) in the picture, no amount of mercy-talk will change the fundamental use of fear and reward with which the church has always kept the faithful in line. Justice requires a hell by this logic, but it’s the sinner who condemns her/himself to eternal torment, not God, as the church sees it.
Kasper and the pope are simply staking out the themes of the new papacy, much as candidate Obama put forth the themes of his candidacy during the 2008 presidential campaign. Remember “Hope and Change”? The traditional John Paul/Benedict XVI authoritarianism (attended by the revelation of a church-wide, decades-long cover-up of priests’ sexual abuse of children) got nowhere in the developed world, however much the church’s continued harping on homosexuality, the use of condoms and an insistence on a males-only clergy appealed to the conservative mentality of the hierarchy and the faithful in Africa and Latin America where the church is doing quite well, thank you.
John XXIII’s papacy was an attempt to return the church to a more collegial governance combined with a “preferential preference for the poor” that spawned a Liberation Theology movement which the church itself, with the help of like-minded friends in the US government and its armed forces, has since been doing its best to suppress, sometimes with murder.
Two hundred years ago the papacy was a feeble office to which the rest of the church paid little attention. The Kings of France, not the pope, appointed that nation’s bishops, a shocking example of papal impotence by today’s standards. The revival of the papacy as a “unitary power,” to use the phrase favored by those who want the same kind of extreme authority for the president of the United States — a preeminent, unassailable last word in matters doctrinal and ecclesiastical — started, as best I can tell, with Napoleon’s agreement to put the pope back in the driver’s seat if he, the pope, sided with the Little Corporal in his Italian wars. The consolidation and expansion of papal power has continued under subsequent popes until today it is all but forgotten that ultimate power in the church used to reside in councils of bishops with the pope acting as first among equals. Today we assume the pope is not only the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals but is the sole initiator of policy in those areas. No synod of bishops can do more than humbly offer advice. The pope is dictator, elected by a body of cardinals themselves appointed by, yes, previous popes. And, the last I heard, no ordinary Catholic or even ordinary priest or bishop gets to cast a ballot for anyone. The church is no more democratic than was the politburo, which also “elected” the head of the Soviet Union.
There are many good people who serve humanity in the name of Jesus — nuns who look after the most destitute cast-offs, who literally each day moping up the waste of people who have no chance of recovering from AIDS and other degenerative diseases. I know someone who has held babies who would not live out the night, would die untouched and unloved by anyone but those nuns. Those women don’t make the nightly news broadcasts.
There are others too, some of them clergy, who lead lives of dedication to the poor and who sometimes lose their lives because they do. The popes and bishops rarely represent these Catholics. The hierarchy’s preoccupation is with the institution of the church, just as it was a thousand years ago when they had the power to execute anyone who deviated from the doctrine they laid down. Berdoglio/Pope Francis did not get elected pope to upset a two-thousand-year-old organization that is still recovering from the changes attempted by his predecessor half a century ago.
We get the leaders we are willing to settle for, whether it’s in Rome or Washington. We will get different ones when we demand them. But I have yet to hear anyone call for a democratization of the Roman Catholic Church (admitting that I don’t get around much in Catholic or any other religious circles). The idea, I suspect, is not even up for discussion, just as the idea of ordinary people taking over their own political and economic destinies is not up for discussion, the failure or Bolshevik communism having apparently proven the inevitability of corporate feudalism and top-down, money-driven politics.
At the risk of sounding like yet another pie-in-the-sky/pinko idealist living in La La Land, I suggest reading Rudolph Rocker’s Anarchosyndicalism, written (elegantly) in 1938 and as fresh and full of good, practical ideas as anything you’ll come across. All it proposes is what has already been demonstrated in other parts of the world as well as right now in many places in the US: that ordinary people are quite capable of ordering their own lives and of cooperating with their neighbors to their mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, if you’re still a Catholic, I suggest you start asking for the basic right of any human being to elect the people who claim to have the right to lay down laws by which they, the faithful, will get to spend that part of their existence called eternity. Democracy was good enough for the earliest version of Christianity. Why not now?
In “A Reader’s Manifesto” (August, 2001 Atlantic Monthly), his briefly infamous attack on the American literary establishment, B. R. Myers made the argument that gatekeepers of that establishment (university professors, literary critics, reviewers) define for the rest of us what is and what is not literature according to a narrow, ideologically-driven view that has nothing to do with the traditional meaning of the word, and they do so with an arrogant contempt for the common reader.
I say “briefly infamous” because Myers’s essay was itself attacked from every quarter with a vehemence that seemed all out of proportion to what those same critics insisted was the author’s insignificance and lack of credentials. They even accused him of being insufficiently American, and at least one noted establishment figure refused to ride the same elevator with Myers. But then he was assigned to oblivion, the most effective way to silence dissent.
The article received a more sympathetic hearing in the U.K. and Australia. Reading the reactions there, one gets the sense that it provided a refreshing gust of truth that the lit-crit establishment in those places dared not express on their own. I noticed, for instance that following the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” the Man Booker Prize in Britain announced that future nominees would be selected partly with an eye toward reader accessibility. The American penchant for post-modern French theory probably never struck as deep in the UK, and some must have resented having to follow an American lead unquestioningly.
My reading of what Myers says in his essay — as well as in his short book of the same name from which the article was extracted (A Reader’s Manifesto, Melville House 2002) — boils down to this: The evaluation of fiction writing has been hijacked by an ideology that defines literature in a way that has nothing to do with traditional values like engaging characters, interesting plot or even simple entertainment. In fact, any writing that celebrates these elements is categorized as sub-literary or “genre.” The result of this hijacking has been the canonization of a mediocrity lavishly praised for what anyone with common sense would regard as obscurity, wordiness, and plain old-fashioned dullness.
But you couldn’t read the attacks on either Myers’s argument or his person without wondering not whether his attackers were wrong or right but what could be the reason for so much anger. True, he was questioning the fundamentals of the establishment’s esthetic, but he was doing so in a reasonable way. Why the campaign to discredit him personally? Why the attempt to question his nationality? Why the refusal of one of the better of their bunch, Michael Dirda, to even address the issues Myers raised, or apparently even to read his article?
These people had to have felt deeply threatened to react that way — threatened the way a religious fundamentalist feels threatened by a creed or life style that seems to flaunt the basic tenets of their faith. Myers seemed beyond the kind of fraternal dialogue they could accord to one of their own who had strayed into the foothills of heresy. He was Moloch, the Evil One — and a threat to their bread and butter, to boot. To allow him a legitimate voice was to open an artery in a closed system they had spent decades stitching together. Closed systems, whether physical like our bodies or social like the Soviet Union or the Catholic church, cannot sustain that kind of breach. A great deal of inward pressure is required to maintain them. Any insult is like sticking a pin into a balloon. The lit-crits knew this intuitively. So they closed ranks as instinctively and as shamelessly as bishops do around pederast priests, assuring themselves, if any doubts arose, they were doing so for the good of literature, not just to maintain their control.
I also got some insight into the reasons for the violence of the establishment’s reaction to Myers’s article from a recent reading of the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, a genealogy of the West’s appropriation of everything Eastern not just physically but as the West’s intellectual “creation.” It is Said’s contention that the Orient/East exists only as a resource and cultural archive for the West, and it’s hard not to see the same kind of attitude at work in the American attitude toward indigenous foreign fiction. We are willing enough to read Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs and any number of Spanish-speaking authors as long as their characters have an American connection and the landscape of their native lands is presented as appropriately exotic but easily accessible, the way our travel books make accessible the touristy landmarks and back-alley bargain spots of the dark continents beyond Coney Island and the Golden Gate. Africa—black Africa — in this respect, is virtually off the map, with rare exceptions. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught universally in our schools from elementary through graduate school. But the title of that novel indicates what kind of reader it has in mind, and the text itself, while worthy, is the work of a university man who has read his Iliad and his Shakespeare. Had he told his story, an historical novel of pre-colonial village life, without those Western literary frames of reference, would he still be at the top of the academic reading lists? Would he even be published in the West?
What we do not admit is the kind of fiction, even fiction written in English, that must be taken on its own terms where its references are largely intra-cultural– though very little fiction written in any language anymore entirely escapes some intrusion of Western culture, and probably takes it for granted. I am not talking about entering into exotic mentalities akin to the mysteries of deep Sufism. Said’s Orientalists assume that in the East—and the same can be said largely about Africa or Latin America—there is no there there until the Western mind and sensibility gives it form and context. Nothing, consequently, is be taken on its own terms, and no attempt is made to experience it that way, because the East is by definition without form, chaotic, lawless, excessive, crying out for the West to organize and dominate it.
A hundred years ago Western artists discovered traditional African art and, after giving it a European medium and theory, presented it as their own, probably without realizing they were merely imitating because until they presented it to Europe on their canvases it did not, in effect, exist. Western composers have been lifting Arabic themes and stories at least since the time of Mozart. Western science is built on the back of an Islamic science that flourished when the capitals of Europe were still mud huts. The Renaissance grew out of the rediscovery of a Greek culture that had been preserved in the East by both Islamic and Christian scholars. Today’s American Neo-Con ideology of a world made over in the image of the United States, or as an imitative vassal thereof, was not born in the mind of a University of Chicago neo-Platonist professor. It belongs to a tradition that used virtually the same words and ideas two hundred years ago when Napoleon’s army “liberated” Egypt. The same ideological imperatives continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, propping up the colonial adventures of Europe and eventually spawning the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Paul Wolfowitz & Co. are just echoes of this same intensely chauvinistic tradition.
I was not surprised by the existence of this tradition as Said describes it, but I was amazed by its strength and respectability. In this light the excesses of fascism and Nazism make perfect sense, given the acceptance that was for so long accorded ideas of cultural superiority and the “racial” conclusions that follow. Authors like Nietzsche are frequently blamed, but the intellectual discourse was solidly in place by the time he came along. Both the British and the French established the East—everything from North Africa to China and, later, Africa—as areas of the world that existed culturally only in the deep past, if at all. In the present, they are like the primitive earth, void and without form, savage, irrational, incapable of self-government. The living people in those parts of the world were seen—and largely still are viewed–as degenerate as their cultures, without the European virtues of logical thought and self-restraint. There is no hope for them except through a benevolent European domination or, now, an American one.
The lit-crits see the world the same way. Literature does not exist until they recognize it as such, whether it’s a domestic product that does not conform to their literary ideology or foreign work that is the organic result of forces beyond the control of Western ideologues. Bush’s wars and the lit-crit’s imperial parochialism are of a piece. You are either with us or against us, good or evil, literature or “genre.” We all are losers in either case, except perhaps for the very rich who become even richer by war and the expropriation of foreign resources, but even they as human beings ultimately have to be impoverished by the narrow range of our cultural spectrum.
It almost always comes as a surprise to me, and I suspect this is true for most fiction writers, which of my stories — whether novels, novellas or short stories — are most read and best liked. Sometimes the reaction is downright incredible: a story I may have put into a drawer (actually onto a stack or into a box full of other stories) because I thought it had no chance of pleasing anyone, not even myself, eventually gets read and praised and very possibly published as well.
“Pigeons,” one of my latest short stories, turned out to be just such a surprise. I liked it well enough, but that was partly because I had been highly motivated to write it, so intrigued was I by an encounter someone had related to me that occurred in a drug store when she was looking for something to…enhance her motility. I had to write the story (actually to bring forth the story the anecdote kindled deep in my imagination, which developed in its own way independent of the anecdote I had been told) for my reasons I at best only dimly understand. Stories get told because they demand to be, something drives one to write them. Others lie fallow for years or forever because whatever it is that causes one to express them never reaches a point of combustion.
Had I not chanced upon a magazine that solicited material from older writers (55 and up), “Pigeons” might still be lying in a box unread. But the story seemed tailor-made for The Feathered Flounder (since defunct, I regret to report; and there’s a good true-life story there), and it was accepted within days instead of the usual weeks or months. More importantly, it was immediately popular and I was told by more than one person who had read other stories of mine that it was my best work.
I found readers’ reaction to the story gratifying, of course, but also perplexing. The story seemed to me similar to others I had written — similar in the sense that even I can see I handle certain themes one way and others in another way, and that sometimes I succeed in making a story engaging and satisfying and sometimes I don’t. But I could see no special virtue to anything about this one, and still can’t, at least beyond the satisfaction that I achieved what I “intended” — whatever that may have been — in its creation.
Look at Me Now, my novel published in 2007, had a very different fate, though it too started from an anecdote, a series of anecdotes actually, though I was cautious at first not to assume it would amount to anything longer than a single short story, which became two, then three, then clearly was turning into something that was going to stretch out much further, all told in the voice (it’s in diary form) of a woman in the process of leaving — escaping, really — her husband of twenty years.
I find first-person narratives the easiest and most enjoyable to write (as long as they are not autobiographical). They seem to be pre-written in my subconscious. All I need do is take dictation from that source with little active effort from my conscious mind. I write as much as I can on any given day for as long as I can — not all that much, really, and never enough to empty out my imagination, so that I can take up where I left off the next day — it’s amazing how easy it is to continue a story if I can recall what the next sentence is to be, and how difficult when I have to start without anything like that to prime the pump.
I tend to underestimate, though, what is involved in these relatively painless acts of creation. While the process energizes me in ways I still find surprising — increased confidence, a generally heightened sense of my environment, even increased libido — all that masks the drain I also experience. I sometimes think this is what a medium must feel like after a seance, assuming the medium is not a charlatan and actually does go into a trance, whatever the value of what s/he claims to communicate while in that trance. I also feel justified, made whole and unapologetic for my existence and for the life I have led — in a word, happy.
The initial reaction to Look at Me Now was encouraging. Two agents took it on, one saying the book had changed her life — which I took to mean she was undergoing some sort of marital crisis and was influenced by the way my character Deirdre dealt with hers. That reaction to the book was flattering, as well as frightening (I didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup of a marriage in real life, however indirectly; I knew someone who proposed to a woman because of some lines in a movie he had seen). But the agent’s reaction was also confusing because it seemed oddly unprofessional, like a doctor telling you about his youthful experience of STD, when all you wanted was some medication for a bladder infection.
But it wasn’t until later, after I had published the book with a writer’s collective, my two agents having failed to place the book, when I put the book up for review on LibraryThing, the online reader’s review site, that I got both positive and decidedly negative reactions that changed my entire mindset about the book and also divested me of what I will call my literary virginity.
Till then I naively believed that we all read the same book if the words are all the same, however much we may or may not like it. But the dozen or so members of LibraryThing who received review copies of Look at Me Now showed me otherwise, and since then I have been all too aware that once the creature of my imagination is let loose for anyone to handle or manhandle there is no telling what they will make of it. (One reviewer happened to share the name of a well-known British actress I like and had an address in London. I was hoping she really was that actress. I still don’t know if she is, but her review was long, thorough and devastatingly negative.) Between you and me and some sour grapes, I think the reviewers expected to receive finished copies of the book instead of the Advanced Review Copies I sent out — in some cases all the way to Australia. I had gotten more that 700 requests for a review copy, which LibraryThing whittled down to the twenty best matches.
There were many good reviews, at LibraryThing and elsewhere, but it was the negative ones that showed me how subjective we are in our reading and how much we read into as read. The less sophisticated readers (unlike my possible famous actress) simply wrote things like, “The narrator reminds me of my sister-in-law, whom I hate.” But all of the negative reviewers displayed real animus, an emotional reaction they sometimes explained like the woman with the detestable sister-in-law but usually did not, leaving me to wonder what could make someone so angry about a novel which they, after all, had got for free and only needed to write a few sentences about for their trouble — or do nothing at all, as some of those who received free review copies chose to do.
I didn’t want to consider the possibility that any of the reviewers, who were almost all women, resented the fact that the author is a man. I write mostly in the voice of or about women. I won’t pretend to know why. I do it well, or not, but I don’t think I need apologize for trying. I don’t believe I portray women condescendingly or otherwise in a chauvinistic way. And none of the reviewers suggested as much. But I do know some women, like some men, resent authors pretending to understand what goes on in the heads of the opposite sex. By that standard, I suppose I should never try to write about anyone but men who fall into the range of my own particular masculine background — an absurd suggestion, I would say.
But you can be the judge for yourself if you care to have a look at the excerpt from Look at Me Now on this blogsite. By way of pleading my own case, Look at Me Now is far and away my best-selling book, in its ebook form, though I have no idea in the great majority of the sales whether the experience of reading the novel was worth the .99 the readers paid for it or not. In a few cases they returned it for a refund, which makes the fact that so many others have kept and, hopefully, read it — having presumably sampled it enough before buying to realize it isn’t chick-lit or a “Woman’s Novel” — all the more enigmatic….
For them what cares, all my published work is available at Amazon – still the largest pool of potential readers despite their increasingly autocratic ways — Barnes & Noble and, most recently, Smashwords (.com), the latter being the new good guy on the block, at least for the present. Samples of each book are available at each of those venues. The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories is still currently free at Smashwords.com (available in eight different formats).
A recent discovery in an Anatolian (modern southern Turkey) cave has shed some light on the recent controversy about modern authors reviewing each other’s books, something those in the know have been aware of at least since Herbert Gold put himself on the lit-crit establishment’s blacklist back in the 1950s when he revealed how authors mutually back-scratch each other with favorable blurbs and notices.
The truth is, authors have always sought out good notices, especially from other writers whose reputation was at least as great as their own. The ancient scrolls found in that cave in modern-day Izafake only shows the practice goes back to ancient times.
The following is one of the first attempts at a translation at those scrolls, which apparently document a correspondence between an author in ancient Israel and one based on a Greek island in the Aegean. Some of the scrolls only exist as fragments, and some have parts too deteriorated to decipher. Where there is a gap the translator — Marc Eugenides at the University of Southwest Attica — indicates the missing text with points of ellipsis.
Greetings from the east bank (alas) of the Jordan to … most esteemed Hellenic brother.
It was with the greatest pleasure I read the manuscript you sent me. I am happy and honored to be the first to review it. We authors must support one another, especially these days when every other Philistine thinks he has a book inside him screaming to get out. I know all too well the frustration that comes of putting your heart and … into a creation, even one divinely inspired (though there’s certainly nothing wrong with books not so inspired), only to see it trashed by that small coterie of literary gatekeepers known as the scribal class.
My first book, a long saga recounting the early wanderings of Abraham, met such a fate. “Overwritten,” they complained. “Been done and done better,” was another barb they threw at it, though the truth was they were referring to Sumerian … of the story… which are, of course, not accessible to most people. But, count on the lit-crits to praise anything out of Mesopotamia rather than give a leg-up to a home-grown talent.
I think you’ll find the accompanying review satisfactory, though I did have a few cavils. No one takes seriously a review that is unreservedly laudatory, and in any case I personally believe the best review is one that is … and honest. That way the reader has the impression the reviewer has no bone to pick or back to scratch and is more likely to take the reviewer at his …
Your hero is great. Reminds me of that Gilgamesh character in the goyish epic that’s been rattling around this part of the world since way back when. Ditto for his Trojan counterpart, the “Trainer of Horses” (great epithet, but what’s a “horse?”). Great battle scenes. Great psychology. Fantastic use of dactylic … [probably] hexameter–why can’t Semites write in that meter?
But I do have a problem with your polytheism, my friend. Athena. Zeus. Hera. Aphrodite. And dozens more. I couldn’t keep them all straight. Why not just combine them into one all-powerful deity like our YHWH? Saves so much time and …
There’s a lot of smiting in your book. That’s good. My YHWH smites a good deal too. But your gods and heroes finish off the men okay but sell the women and … [children?] into slavery. Now, slavery is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But you know some of those women and children are going to end up having kids by their masters, which means you’re literally going to bed with the enemy and helping him to … It’s not done that way in my part of the world. Over here everybody smites everything that moves, including farm animals. We do it. Our enemies do it. It makes sense.
Okay, that’s enough for now. As I said in my review, you’ve got a hell of a book there, H. I wouldn’t mind seeing my own … on it (not really, they’d drum me even further out of Israel than I am already; hence my use of a pseudonym for my review). I wish I could be there to hear your scribe proclaim it in the market place. Mazel tov! as we say.
P.S. I’m taking this opportunity to send you a … of my own little opus, an account of the tribes of Jacob from the creation of the world up to the time when they were delivered from bondage in Egypt and entered the Promised Land (not by me, as it turned out). Part history, part something else. If you don’t find it too much of a bore, I’d be very grateful for any … words you can find to say about it. I’ve decided this is my last attempt at a literary career. If they don’t like this book (five “books,” actually; is that too much?) it’s back to my brick factory and Israel can kiss my you-know-what.
Homer the Poet to his dear friend and colleague MSS of Israel.
Many thanks, old man, for your review. The book is doing nicely, though, as I expected, it’s being pirated and sold to guys from the mainland who memorize it and make a nice piece of change declaiming it to the bumpkins up in the hills, while I get squat for my …
I love your “Torah.” It’s got all the elements of a great piece of … An angry — I mean, really angry — deity, heroes, great female characters and a narrative that doesn’t stop holding your interest. I definitely think Genesis and Exodus are the best of it. In fact, you could devote a book of its own to each of the characters you just sketch out in Genesis. But maybe I’m just expressing my prejudice as a Greek for … We can spin out hundreds of lines about a minor … that you would scarcely mention. But, like they say, that’s what makes the world go round (I hear it actually does go round; who knew?).
Okay. But I have a few negatives (not in my review either, of course). What’s with this circumcision thing? I thought at first, I must be reading it wrong (like you, I have to depend on my scribe’s … as a translator). But it comes up again and again. Sorry, but that would never fly over here. In fact, I’d advise you drop it from any future books. The Red Sea thing I was fine with. The plague of frogs, the sticks turning into snakes. That’s all very portable. But you’d be run out of town if you tried to make a case for cutting someone’s … I don’t even want to think about it.
I have some problems with the pork thing too (have you ever tasted roast boar?) Ditto with the garments made of two … fibers (we should be so lucky). The stoning thing also not so nice, but I could live with it. But the anti-homosexual thing is also a no-no in these parts. We like our boys. You’d be laughed out of town for that one. Better than being stoned, I guess.
But none of these issues are in … , of course. Anyway, I hope your Torah flies. You’re a hell of a writer, MSS. If they don’t like it, you should consider thumbing your nose at the bastards and come up here to live. We know how to show a guy like you a good time. You could even help me with the new book I’ve started about one of the heroes from the Trojan war who gets lost on his way home and has all sorts of adventures with witches and monsters and Zeus knows what else. We could have a blast.
Keep in touch. My best to the wife and kids.
My new novel, Song of the Mockingbird, is now available as an ebook at Amazon.com. Soon it will also be available for Nook and at Smashwords for all other platforms. It will be out in paperback via my publisher Savvy Press early next year.
You can read the first three chapters here.
From the “dust jacket”:
“SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD is the story of a mature woman’s self-discovery. Five years widowed but still bound to the man to whom she was married for thirty years, Doris gradually comes to discover her life not only is not over but is just beginning in a way she had never imagined possible. In the process, she also discovers a good deal about her marriage that contradicts the ideal image of it she has nurtured all her adult life.
Meanwhile, her daughter’s own marriage is breaking up. After her father’s death Evelyn willingly took over his role as her mother’s guardian. Strong-willed by nature, she is nevertheless at a loss when she is no longer able to control her husband’s will. Alone with a small child, she comes to discover that the mother she has treated almost as a second child is a source of strength where she had least expected one.
Doris’s odyssey includes close friendships with two women who despise each other, a love affair which awakens her to a sense of her own sexuality she had never thought possible, and a new relationship with the daughter she has previously seen as merely a female clone of her late husband.”
This is one of my longer (78,000 words) novels. Usually I write that many words and then cut about 20,000. This time, even after the edit, the book is still hefty by my standards. That’s partly because I follow two story lines instead of one–the mother’s as well as the daughter’s–intimately connected, as you can see from the synopsis, but each treated fully as its own narrative. I typically don’t concentrate on more than one main character, but this time the material and my state of mind (on which I’ll elaborate shortly) were such that I felt like taking a shot at a more traditional novel form. It doesn’t quite match the four or five plot lines of a Dickens or Trollope, but following two characters in detail rather than one meant for me keeping a couple more balls up in the air than I typically do.
Now, to my state of mind while writing this book…
I think of this book as my “second symphony,” not because it was the second novel I wrote–I had written several before it–but because I wrote it in the kind of mood that I hear in Brahms’s second symphony and Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.
Brahms labored long and hard on his first symphony, always hearing Beethoven’s 9th thundering behind him. When that first symphony, a great masterpiece in its own right, was finally out of the way, he seemed to revel in the sheer joy of creative freedom evident in his second. It seems to sing for the pure pleasure of singing. It’s as if it was written while the composer was on a well-deserved vacation, which he may well have been.
I hear a similar delight in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, the one so rarely performed, though his first is a war-horse of every symphonic orchestra, or used to be. In this case it’s not so much a question of Tchaikovsky’s getting out from under the deep shadow of the greatness that preceded him as his finally finding full confidence in his own massive talent and allowing himself to enjoy it.
I remember writing some chapters of Song of the Mockingbird in Prospect Park seated at one of the deserted picnic benches near the children’s playground. It was autumn, this time of year, chilly but sunny and pleasant to be out of doors. I too was in a relaxed, happy frame of mind, as sure of my story-telling abilities as I am ever likely to be and delighting in the pure pleasure of recording each new line of narrative or dialogue in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. Something must have happened to give me that wonderful mental freedom and creative confidence–it may have been the period when I had an agent enthusiastically shopping around the novel I had completed before this one. I don’t really recall. What I do remember is the sense of working at the very top of my abilities and enjoying every minute of it.
Which is not to say this book is the best thing I have written, or to make any judgment of what I did or did not achieve with it. I can’t make that call, and in any case authors always think their last book, in my case My Bess (which also has a middle-aged woman as the main character, come to think of it), though my readers seem to prefer Look at Me Now, if sales are any indication. After a book is done, the author is just another reader, after all. What’s special to me about Song of the Mockingbird, though (all an author’s works are special to her/him in some sense, just as, to restate the cliche, each child is special to a parent), is that sense I had for the first time of being up to the challenge of writing a “real,” i.e. old-fashioned, multi-plot narrative like the Big Boys and Girls did back when the novel was the world’s greatest and most popular art form. That and the way the writing flowed as easily as the pencil did across the lined yellow paper as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground around me.