Archive | September 2013

Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night”

I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane and love all of his books. His latest novel, Live by Nightbook[1], which I just finished, is superb too. It evokes a whole range of emotions—from sadness to heartache to rage to laughter to joy and back to heartbreak.

We as readers expect authors to pull us into their novels right from the start. Well, Dennis Lehane does just that with his first paragraph. Even with his first line.

“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.”

How much more intriguing can a beginning be? It raises so many questions: Who is Joe? What has he done, to deserve such a horrible death? Why is he giving credit and blame to Emma Gould for the good and the bad in his life? Who is she? His femme fatale that he can’t forget even when he’s facing his final hour on earth?

Interestingly, with no answers to these questions yet, just based on these few lines, you still get the impression that Joe is not a bad person. He’s proud, for one thing. He’s not begging his executioners for sparing him. Instead, he’s watching the water and reflecting on his life, thinking about this woman. And you’re already rooting for him. You don’t want him to die. You want to get to know him.

That’s how I felt, anyway. And I wasn’t mistaken in my opinion of Joe till the end. (A little spoiler: I cried at the end.)

Live by Night is a story about gangsters and bootleggers during the Prohibition years. It’s about unspeakable cruelty, crime, corruption, betrayal, fight for control. But it’s also about great love and friendship and trust and hope.

Joe Coughlin calls himself an outlaw. Others call him a gangster. Both “occupations” sound strange for an offspring of a renowned Boston PD captain. Well, as it often happens, Joe grew up in a dysfunctional family, in which, paradoxically, strict upbringing went hand in hand with indifference. In his early teens, Joe takes to petty crime. At twenty, he gets associated with mobsters and participates in nefarious activities. Dreaming of power and money, he gets so used to this way of life that he can’t even imagine himself living a normal “day life.” Actually he prefers “living by night”—dangerously, making money by dishonest ways. Later, he admits, “Every time you sold off another piece of yourself in the name of expediency, the easier it got.”

This is one of those stories when you sympathize with and even like a highly flawed character (not to mention a criminal) because he has goodness in him. But…not to give away spoilers, I’ll stop at this point.

I love this novel so much that I would recommend it to everyone who likes great prose, nerve-racking suspense, and unforgettable characters. Oh, and humor too.

 

Author Interview: Gillian Flynn discussing “Sharp Objects”

I just posted my opinion on Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, so I thought an interview with her talking about the novel would be timely.

As I stated in my blog, I didn’t like the novel for its disturbing excessive violence and evil, with no hope for redemption at the end, so I’m glad that in this interview the author explains the reason for her portrayal of this unhealthy community, run by maniacal women.

Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects”

sharp-objects-book-cover[1]I recently blogged about Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl, which I called “brilliant” (because of its prose and themes) and “shocking” (because of its ending, highly dissatisfactory for me), and now I’d like to express my opinion on her first novel, Sharp Objects, published in 2006.

Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter from Chicago, is assigned to write a story about the disappearance of two preteen girls in a little town in Missouri. She dreads this assignment because this happens to be her hometown, which she has been avoiding for a decade.

Needless to say that once she arrives there, she faces a lot of challenges both on professional and personal levels. In order to write a story, she has to unravel the mystery of the murders, but she can hardly function in her former claustrophobic home because she is assaulted by painful memories of growing up in her highly dysfunctional family, and of her own “crazy” behavior as a teen. Piece by piece, the truth about Camille herself and her family secrets are coming out.

The novel is so dark I felt I would suffocate from all the terror depicted in it. The author seemed to have thrown every horror possible—alcoholism, violence, child abuse, self-abuse, animal abuse, bullying, murder—into her narrative, to disturb the reader on purpose. In fiction, just like in real life, any one of the above would be enough to scar a person for life. To have all of that is not only excessive, but unrealistic. Furthermore, all the characters, both primary and secondary, are highly unsympathetic.

Despite the disappointing ending in Gone Girl (Flynn’s third novel), I hoped that Sharp Objects (her debut) would end on an uplifting note. After all, this is what we as readers (most of us, that is) expect to see in fiction, knowing that in real life it often is not so. Unfortunately, in this book there is no relief, no hope, and no redemption.

I must say that as much as I admire Gillian Flynn’s literary talent, reading two books out of her three is enough for me. I wish her a long and successful career and hope, perhaps selfishly, that she includes something positive or uplifting in her future work.

National Book Festival in Washington D.C.

Yesterday I went to the annual National Book Festival in Washington D.C., organized by the Library of Congress. What an exciting experience! Huge white tents representing each genre, hovered like parachutes over the Mall, serving as pavilions for hundreds of book lovers listening to their favorite authors talking about their work;  dozens of volunteers in orange T-shirts handing out to attendees bookbags and bookmarks, programs of the events, brochures  with information on the U.S. copyright, e-books, various reading programs, and whatnot. There were activities galore for all ages of readers.

Joyce Carol Oates

I had the pleasure of listening to Joyce Carol Oates (connect with her on Twitter here), an award winning author of 70 works, 40 of which are novels. She is just as brilliant a speaker as she is a writer.

She talked about her latest book, The Accursed, a historical novel with elements of the supernatural, set in Princeton, early 19th century. She brought into it some famous people, like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Oscar Wilde, presenting them as they were, instead of idealizing them, she said. I felt intrigued. I’ll certainly read it.

Her answers to the questions from the audience were fascinating. Here are some of them (I paraphrase):

“We writers are so narcissistic and self-absorbed! When we have a problem with a novel in progress, we think, Oh, I have to finish it at all cost because if I don’t, what will happen to it if I die? But when we finally do finish it, we become melancholy, missing that angst…”

“There are times when we feel like we’re in a state of paralysis: we can’t find the right voice for our character. But when we find it, it feels sudden, like striking a match.”

“I like to write about something in American history that has never been solved.”

Her advice to aspiring writers: “Take time between writing the drafts of your novel and editing it. Take days or weeks. When you get back to it, you’ll look at it with fresh eyes.”

 

I was happy to “discover” Roxana Robinson, the author of several novels and collections of short stories. She is also a wonderful speaker and a very good writer, judging by aDSCN4258 big crowd of listeners she had gathered and the praise of her work she’d garnered.

Robinson introduced her latest novel Sparta, which is about the estrangement from society and normal life that modern soldiers experience upon their return from the war. I put it on my reading list.

The author talked extensively about her research for the book—reading documents, meeting with war veterans and their families, as well as the enormous challenge that she, a Quaker with a conscientious objection of any war, had faced while writing the novel.

Here are some of her quotes that I especially liked:

“As a novelist, my job is not to judge, but to understand what it’s like to be a marine and to fight in war.”

“As a novelist, I’m compelled by complex themes and experiences. When you write a novel, you go places where you’ve never been to, in order to depict people and their experiences (being a heroin addict or a policeman).”

To a question if it’s easy for her to write, Robinson said: “No, it’s not easy. You’re trying to do two things: First, you’re trying to put something beautiful on the page and do it the way you’ve never done before. Secondly, you’re trying to convey exactly what’s in your head and heart, and it’s hard.” I totally agree.

It was my fist time to attend a book fest on such a grand scale, and it certainly wasn’t my last. I’m hooked! 🙂

Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

51RRKMW0QNL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_[1]The first time I read Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was many years ago. This week I reread it for my book club gathering, and once again I enjoyed it greatly.

The women in the book club agreed that it’s one of those classics that stay in your mind forever, thanks to its memorable characters and wisdom, if not so much to its plot. The novel is not only profound in its themes but soulful too. One lady brought the dog-eared original copy that she had purchased as a young girl back in 1947! She has treasured it her whole life.

The novel is about the life of immigrants in Brooklyn, in the early 20th century. Betty Smith masterfully depicts all aspects of their life through the Nolans, a typical family of four: Johnny, an alcoholic father—irresponsible, but loving (not stereotypically abusive); Katie, a hardworking, headstrong mother—the breadwinner; and their children, Neely and Francie. There’s courtship and marriage, raising a family, love, friendship, loss, alcoholism, assimilation into the mainstream society, discrimination based on social status, you name it.

Smith describes in detail the Nolans’ wretched poverty and their struggle to survive. But it is through Francie, an ambitious prodigy, that the author elevates the mere survival to the realm of success. Having been read a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare by her mother every single night since her babyhood, Francie loves books. When she learns how to read on her own, she decides that from now on she will “never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends, for there is one [book] for every mood.” Thus thanks to her thirst for education and her perseverance, she accomplishes so much at fifteen that women in their twenties can only dream of.

There’s a lot of folk wisdom in the novel. When Katie complains to her sister about her husband, Sissy responds, “You married him. There was something about him that caught your heart. Hang on to that and forget the rest.” Timeless advice to all married people, I think.

Or, you as a parent can protect your children only so much. Katie says, “The time comes at last when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache. … One sunny day, they walk out in all innocence and they walk right into the grief that you’d give our life to spare them.” Sounds unfair, but very true.

I’m impressed by Katie Nolan’s dignity. She’s dirt-poor, but she is too proud to accept charity. She regards people’s pity as a disgrace. She can hardly make ends meet, unable to afford anything except for the very basics for her family, yet her urge to rise above her poverty is so strong that once in a while she “splurges.” She tips a waiter for ice-cream four nickels, instead of one, thus sacrificing three loaves of bread. “Keep the change,” she said grandly. And then, to her children, “I don’t care. For once I wanted us to feel like millionaires. And if twenty cents can make us feel rich, it’s a cheap price to pay.” Wow!

Despite the characters’ constant deprivation, the novel leaves you with warm feelings. I would certainly recommend it to every family with children.

Author Interview: Lisa See

I previously commented on two novels by Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, which impressed me very much, so today I looked up an interview with this wonderful author.  And here it is!

Lisa See talks about how she started to write, what she tries to say by her writing, and how she finds ideas for her books. She writes about universal things–things that all people can relate to. She is always excited about finding a part of history that has been lost and then write the truth about it.

I love how she talks about her passion for her work: “The goal has to be not how I’m going to be successful, but how I can make the best sentence, the best paragraph, the best chapter.”

Enjoy! 🙂

Neil Gaiman on Writing and Inspiration

What a lucky coincidence! I just wrote about the sources of inspiration for writers, and today, in Brain Pickings blog, created by Maria Popova, I get this wonderful advice to aspiring writers from Neil Gaiman, a successful British author.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/09/11/neil-gaiman-advice-to-writers/ Well, it’s right up my alley!

Here’s one of his quotes that I especially like:

“The process of writing can be magical — there times when you step out of an upper-floor window and you just walk across thin air, and it’s absolute and utter happiness. Mostly, it’s a process of putting one word after another.”

Exactly! I would add that not only do you feel like you walk across thin air, feeling exhilarated and thrilled, but you also have just created something good out of nothing…well, out of thin air. Of course, it’s “absolute and utter happiness.” 🙂