Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton has been short-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize (and is one of five women out of the six people nominated) for her novel, The Rehearsal (earlier referenced as one of the books that has called to me). This is what I thought of it when I read it a few months ago:

This book has the feel of a mid-century all-girls school story, think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but you quickly learn that it has a meta twist to it that makes it so much more than your conventional novel.

Two stories unfold together—a student and teacher have a relationship, and the whole school is abuzz. Several other students, including the girl’s sister, take sax lessons from the same woman, a Miss Brodie-like figure. They discuss the drama with her, and she seems to feed off their confessions, all the while hiding her own secrets from the world. Meanwhile, the drama school next door decides to use the account of the student-teacher relationship as material for their end of year play.

The dialogue can seem quite stilted at times, but keep in mind that the feeling the dialogue creates is very intentional. Every word and scene feels deeply intentional, in a way that almost feels creepy, like when the camera lingers on a closed door or fluttering curtain in a horror movie --you just know something is behind it.

Hilary Thayer Hamann answers our Top Five

Hilary Thayer Hamann is the author of the novel, Anthropology of an American Girl (Spiegel & Grau). She will be reading and signing at the bookstore on Thursday, Sept. 23rd at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Let’s see, there are about ten or twelve thousand books on my nightstand right now, so many in fact that I really ought to take a picture and e-mail it to you! It looks like a brick wall. And by no means does the quantity indicate my ability, just foolish, blind ambition.Lately, I’ve been interested in sparsely written fiction by women with strong underlying stories, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a really great collection of her short stories, Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and The War. I’m curious about voice, about the possibility of establishing something idiosyncratic and unforgettable for the protagonist in a neatly written package. A lot of times what comes through a tight plot-driven book is basically the author (this is true of Jackson) in another guise, which is fine, because it’s economical. But I’m finding that, as a writer, I prefer a firmly shaped character to lead the way. I like motive and plot to reveal itself somewhat organically from the behaviors and preferences of the characters. I’ve also been doing research for my next book and so have been reading about the Vietnam era, lots of non-fiction books from the library and new works like Tim O’Brien’s excellent The Things They Carried and Karl Marlantes’ beautiful Matterhorn. I’m reading the O’Brien book to my kids (10 and 12). They are completely involved.

2. How do you write?

Following the May release of Anthropology of an American Girl (AAG) by Random House, writing became my full-time job. Prior to the release, I worked with them on the re-edit, going back and forth with the manuscript, and that took lots of time. Also, I’ve been involved in a family business for many years, which I have turned over almost entirely to my ex-husband. And, most importantly, as I mentioned, I have two young children, and one teenager in her second year of college, so my life is devoted to them and to giving them a balanced education and a happy home life. Sadly, there are not a lot of cool coffee shops where I live now, so typically I go to the public library every day and work there. Even if I feel I can’t write too many words on a given day, I know that I at least have to be with my ideas in solitude. I will read, listen to music, and organize my work. For most of the summer there was a lot of publicity happening for AAG, so I had to be ready to accept opportunities at the drop of a hat. I was working in the round, collecting and sorting, building character sketches, etc. I have one gigantic file of notes with alphabetized labels like: architecture, clothing, dialogue, music, names, scenes. This is the more or less organized dumping ground for all things connected to the project. I also have an image folder full of things from the period pulled from the web. I can play this on slide show sometimes. Last, I have a music playlist for each project. There is the AAG playlist, which I never return to now that it’s over, and I have a new one for the latest book. I build very eclectic lists that I gather meticulously, so my lists will have songs few people have ever heard of.

The song list from the book is:

Follow you, Follow me, Genesis
Can’t Find My Way Home, Traffic
You’re All I’ve Got Tonight, The Cars
Cow Cow Boogie, Ella Fitzgerald
Here I Am, Come and Take Me, Al Green
Who’s Gonna Be Your Sweet Man When I’m Gone? Muddy Waters
Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, Allman Brothers
Turn the Page, Bob Seger
Jesus Met the Woman at the Well, Peter, Paul, and Mary
Rock On, David Essex
Bernadette, The Four Tops
Tell Me Something Good, Chaka Kahn and Rufus
Bennie and the Jets, Elton John
Mainstreet, Bob Seger
What’s Going On? Marvin Gaye
Hey You, Pink Floyd
Fire, Ohio Players
Let the Sunshine In, The Fifth Dimension
Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, Four Seasons
Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits
Point Blank, Bruce Springsteen
She’s the One, Bruce Springsteen
The Cisco Kid, War
My Cherie Amour, Stevie Wonder
How Soon is Now? The Smiths
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, Bob Dylan (Judy Collins version)

But I listened to lots of other things that did not appear in the book (Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Beth Orton, Nina Simone, etc).

I will often work on something late into the nght, or will get up and work again. The best part about writing is when you are about “seven-tenths wet,” you know, like almost all the way in the water. Not wet enough to start retreating, but just immersed enough to have to keep plowing forward in order to survive. It’s when all your intent lay directly ahead. I am only about three tenths wet right now! I need the one voice to click in. Right now I have three in tandem, and I am waiting for one to take the lead.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

There are lots of these moments, and they come in a variety of ways. I remember being in high school and starting using journals for self discovery and self preservation. I kept these books for several years. I could have just left off there as many people do and felt that I was a writer. After all, I was writing. I got a lot of feedback on academic writing while in college and graduate school, and that was fun. I guess I was halfway through AAG when I wrote the “This is Where I Falter” scene, which falls halfway through the book between high school and college years. The book contains two distinct sections and in the middle I write in my own voice, asking for some sort of divine inspiration!

4. What are you working on now?

I am writing a few books. The main one is about my childhood in the Bronx. It was not a very picturesque landscape, but I was happy there. I want to study lower middle class security and risks. What constitutes a win, or a loss? Loyalty? Sacrifice, etc. A second is about my later life and the reversals in fortune that have occurred to me. I work on this every day. It is very much like journaling. I am also developing a book about teaching classic music, film, and books, and general media awareness to children.

5. Favorite recent find?

I actually have a great answer to this. It’s a website called “The Selvedge Yard” (http://theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com/). It is a carefully curated home for high resolution photographs of fascinating design objects, sexy people, and cool tropes of the late twentieth century. You can find photos and essays on everything from Ford GT40 race cars to classic Schwinn Stingray bikes to the history of denim in Hollywood to the ancient art of Tebori Tattoo to amazing photos of the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Steve McQueen, etc. It’s awesome!

Friday, September 10, 2010

My super-gooey love for Our Tragic Universe

I totally loved this book. Meg is a modern British girl. She is staying afloat thanks to a number of thankless jobs, including being a ghost writer for a teen series, teaching weekend workshops on the special and very particular art of ghost writing, and reviewing crappy books for the local paper, all the while at work on her 'real' novel.

This book is very philosophical-- you'll hear ideas about storytelling, the origin and end of the universe, and New Age theories on everything. Thomas allows her characters to talk a lot, possibly more than anyone would allow in real life, but it's okay here because they're smarter and more interesting than normal people.
Meg is the literary nerd version of Bridget Jones. She's smart and curious as hell, floating through her early 30s but determined to find her place. I like her because I see myself in her-- I think many of us 'transient 20-somethings' (or whatever the New York Times calls people who are trying not to turn into versions of their miserable parents) would. Funny, with a story I actually cared about. Not easy to do.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

If you like the novels of Dan Brown, you might like ....

Read all of Dan Brown and looking for more? Try these.

1. Cabal of the Westford Knight by David S. Brody

Did the Templar Knights ever reach the East Coast of the USA? A fictional but interesting action story, based on the findings of real artifacts and mysterious carvings found all over America. I call it "The Da Vinci Code for New England."

2. Steve Berry's "Cotton Malone series"

This series includes: The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Venetian Betrayal, The Charlemagne Pursuit, The Paris Vendetta and The Emperor's Tomb (November). Cotton Malone, a bookstore owner in Denmark and a former US Justice operative, is always on the search for lost historical artifacts and treasures. With Steve Berry, you're sure to get a good dose of action combined with very interesting historical facts.

3. William Martin's Lost Constitution and City of Dreams

Peter Fallon, a Boston bookstore owner, brings the history of New England alive while chasing after historical documents that are either very important or valuable. Lots of local history and lots of action guaranteed.

4. William Dietrich's "Ethan Gage adventures"

This series includes: Napoleon's Pyramids, The Rosetta Key, and The Dakota Cipher. Ethan Gage is an American who some how ends up in Napoleon's army. Willy-nilly, Gage always gets involved in treasure hunts. Spectacular escapes, wild actions, history, and a lot of humor make those books very enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Feeding the dystopian fever

So you've finished Mockingjay. You're looking around, not sure what to do now that you don't need to worry about the fate of the world and everyone you've come to love (or maybe you just don't know what to read next--either way). Don't worry, we've got a few suggestions.

1. The Maze Runner Trilogy by James

This is one of those books that you won't need a bookmark for-- you'll read it in one sitting (or at least you'll want to). Thomas wakes up with no memory of who he is or where he is from. All he knows is his name. He finds himself being lifted in a metal box, and when the box opens, he is surrounded by other boys his age. Slowly he learns that they are stuck in the center of a maze, and that solving it is the only way out. Part Lord of the Flies, part Orwell, part fascinating mystery/thriller, with a little romance thrown in too. Absolutely addictive. Book two, The Scorch Trials, comes out October 12th. This was my favorite YA book from last year. And there is more to this story then just a maze--it promises to be just as large scale and political as HG.

2. The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking Series Book One by Patrick Ness

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him -- something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn't she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd's gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.

3. Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien

Set in the future in a world affected by environmental damage and political collapse, Gaia lives with her parents outside the Enclave, the gated community reserved for the rich and privileged. She and her mother are midwives, and must deliver a quota of babies to the Enclave each month. When her parents disappear, Gaia must solve the mysteries that surround her family and her community. This has adventure, mystery and a bit of romance. I couldn't put it down!

4. Epitaph Road by David Patneaude

Fourteen-year-old Kellen lives in a future in which 97 percent of the world's male population has been killed off by a virus. Women have taken over all governments and have relegated the remaining men to second-class-citizen status. Boys like Kellen have very few options. Something sinister is brewing, and an uprising of men who live independent of female rule coincides with a new outbreak of the virus. Kellen and his friends, Sunday and Tia, travel to the Olympic Peninsula to investigate and make sure that Kellen's dad, who lives in the colony, is protected from the virus. Each chapter begins with a haunting epitaph for one of the deceased. Most of these epitaphs express sorrow, but some are clearly for men who were abusive and are not missed by survivors. The story is fast paced, and the concept intriguing. The competent world-building allows readers to fully accept the book's premise. (School Library Journal)

5. Life As We Knew It trilogy by Susan Beth Pfeiffer

Miranda's disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove. In her journal, Miranda records the events of each desperate day, while she and her family struggle to hold on to their most priceless resource—hope.

What are you reading after Hunger Games? Hmm?

Photo at top by Eva Skewes