Category Archives: Nonfiction

Lives of the Novelists – John Sutherland

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Okay, I did not read every single one of the 294 lives profiled in this 797-page book. But I read a fair few and was fascinated. John Sutherland has selected an historical sampling of major and who-was-that? authors who write in English. (I think that was the criteria–didn’t read any whose work is translated into English.) He claims that these writers have produced work that holds up for at least a century–but the brief bios are not uniformly enamored of the mad, disorderly, drunken, colorful, retiring, religious, impecunious, imaginative lot. Lives of the Novelists is a good read, to be attempted in a marathon or savored in bits over time. I would love to add it to my bookshelves to peruse at leisure.  Sutherland has saved us a lifetime of research and pulled aside a curtain on novels and writers who might have been forgotten.

There are quite a few women included–yay!–but not nearly as many as men. Lots of white guys, of course, but not exclusively the pale and privileged.  You could argue forcefully for those left out and fill another volume with them–if you had years to devote to the task. You could also just enjoy the story of Aphra Behn–free spirit, spy, playwright, novelist of exotic fiction set in locales like a Surinam slave plantation. You could relish the dish about all the du Mauriers–a made-up patronym that replaced the pedestrian surname Busson and allowed the family to give itself airs about forced exile, until the fabrication was exposed. James Joyce studied medicine in Paris but left after a year, considered becoming a professional singer and abandoned that idea, too. Ian Fleming wrote a James Bond book each year after the publication of the first, Casino Royale, until his death. He also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Alice Sebold was brutally raped while in college and her memoir Lucky and her novel The Lovely Bones are now staples of university classes on victim fiction. Sutherland doesn’t think much of her subsequent writing.

These very short “lives” are a glimpse of the person behind the fiction–some glimpses are mere sketches because so little is known. But it is compelling to see what formative years and experiences were like, who was influenced by whom and which motivation drove writers to the long labor of producing a book. For a very large number of them the inspiration was cold hard cash–not much has changed in nearly 400 years. Market forces determined what would sell; talent turned more than a few of those scribbles into art. Great classics languished unsung for years. Potboilers made their authors rich but were soon forgotten. Writers published any way they could: good connections, serialized in broadsheets, self-published, slipped through under a nom de plume. A messy business for messy lives, and often messy books.  Somehow, that’s reassuring.

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives   John Sutherland | Yale University Press   2012

Follow Your Passion, Find Your Power – Bob Doyle

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I pulled a novel from the stack of to-be-reads and opted for a self-help book about the Law of Attraction instead. I am really curious about the relationship of imagination and creativity to material things and manifestation. Science is still sorting out various iterations of physics–helpful but not the whole story–so I regard these alchemical efforts to merge magic and molecules as brave experiments that may reveal significant truths. Follow Your Passion, Find Your Power is an interesting take on creating the life you want in the middle of the muddle that is. I began it a bit tired and skeptical–Bob Doyle tells you what he is going to tell you and does that several times so I floundered for a while in repetitive. But I’m as guilty of resisting change as anyone and overcoming resistance is what this book is about so I read on.

It got better and better. There are no surprises here–I’ve learned and tried EFT (got rid of a headache with it while reading), understand and accept that everything is made of energy and that our attention impacts what we observe (science, not self-help theory! actual published studies in serious journals!), and I have digested a bookshelf of Law of Attraction books. Doyle was featured in “The Secret” so he contends with the negative reaction to that material, and even addresses it in this book. But the message floated in a bit deeper as I read Follow… The drama queen in me periodically gets all angsty and panicked about financial freefall in this wrecked economy. I stubbornly hang on and then watch a kind of hurricane beach erosion swallow chunk after chunk of my life. Yet, at the same time, I get it. I do understand that we can choose our reality–I’m just such a creature of conditioning that stepping into a different reality feels like a fatal heresy to me. Despite all evidence to the contrary.

And there is a lot of evidence; I am not insensitive to signs and portents. Doyle’s book is a big “Listen up” to how your inner chat controls your outer actions. A most excellent reminder. Words of wisdom about acting on intuition are also pragmatic and not the least woo-woo. It is, like all self-help books, equipped with the exercises and lined pages for you to write (again) your intentions, dreams, etc. But it also has an appendix full of useful resources for exploring the ideas he talks about in greater depth.

I intended to divert my attention from depressing reality but instead I reminded myself to get back in the game and stop buying into the brainwashing. We live in a mess but this is also a turning point. A new paradigm is pushing up from the muck and anyone who is serious about change can water it, clear away the weeds, give it some sun. Definitely a hopeful thing to grow that little weed into a beanstalk. Follow Your Passion is a nice idea but Find Your Power is even better. 

Follow Your Passion, Find Your Power: Everything You Need to Know about the Law of Attraction  
Bob Doyle | Hampton Roads Publishing   2011

Sunflower Houses – Sharon Lovejoy

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It’s August and I am longing for the consolation of sunflowers. When the light begins to fade and harvest season approaches, a stand of giant sunflowers is assertive and cheerful. Alas, we have no garden and even the mean little deck we converted to an outdoor aerie is forbidden. Not so much as a windowbox is thriving around here–and certainly nothing as fabulous as sunflowers. So Sharon Lovejoy’s Sunflower Houses seemed like an optimistic read.

This book will appeal to the secret earth-goddess-hippie in you. It’s about much more than sunflowers, although they do appear in charming formation. The book is a collection of vignettes, children’s garden games and magical interactions with nature. You can learn how to make daisy chains and grow giant cucumber fish in a bottle. There are reminders about creating commons for the fairies, using rain barrels and mulching to save water. You could design butterfly gardens, clock-shaped gardens, pizza gardens, try some worm composting, cultivate ladybugs.

A tall teepee of branches planted with vines makes a wonderful tent as it fills in. And the sunflower house in your garden can be a place of wonders with soft green grass for a floor, huge sunflowers for sentinel walls and morning glory vines for a green and blue roof. Green gourds make very useful birdhouses when you cut doors in them, scrape out the insides and let them dry suspended from a fence or some cross poles.  Pumpkin patches are brilliant–plan to carve one on the vine into a jack-o-lantern to scare the goblins out of your garden.

Sunflower Houses describes a world light years away from this urban-asphalt-concrete summer.  It’s an inspirational gardening book full of stories and reminiscences about flower and vegetable and berry patches. Perfect  fantasy reading for a city-dweller in dire need of green and paintbox-bright and growing things.

Sunflower Houses : Inspiration from the Garden – A Book for Children and Their Grown-Ups   Sharon Lovejoy | Workman Publishing  1991

The Classic of Tea – Lu Yu

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It’s worth hunting for a copy of the 1974 translation of the eighth-century The Classic of Tea by Lu Yu if you are fascinated by tea lore. Lu Yu was an herbalist and tea master who wrote the first and the definitive manual about Chinese tea preparation. His chapters include explicit instructions for the utensils used in preparation and every step of the ceremony involved in brewing fresh tea. The best ladles should be made from pear wood. The best water is from mountain streams. River water may do but it should never be from a part of the river that is turbulent or cascades. Well water is “quite inferior.” 

Tea, according to Lu Yu, is best picked in the second, third and fourth moons, early in the morning when the dew is cool and only on a perfectly clear day. The finest tea leaves may “shrink and crinkle like a Mongol’s boots…look like the dewlap of a wild ox…like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds do when they float out from behind a mountain peak…” Lu Yu was also a poet of some note and he waxes most eloquent about his favorite beverage.

Tea is a complex subject, the most common drink in the world beside water for thousands of years, and one that has elaborate rituals surrounding it in several cultures. The Chinese started the whole thing and Lu Yu’s “best seller” on tea spawned generations of competition to find and serve the most exquisite teas with the most extraordinary accessories. Tea is a culture and Lu Yu is its guru and he campaigned for purity in cultivation, roasting and brewing.

Not for Lu Yu were flavored teas with the base additions of spices or other herbs. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “such items as onion, ginger, jujube fruit, orange peel, dogwood berries or peppermint are boiled along with the tea. Such ingredients may be merely scattered across the top for a glossy effect, or they can be boiled together and the froth drawn off. Drinks like that are no more than the swill of gutters and ditches…”  So, let’s just be really clear about that.

There is some great dish about royal and distinguished tea drinkers of the time and careful lists of the best tea-producing regions–some of those areas still grow the most sought-after teas.  I collected some rare teas on trips to China that are fun to brew and delicious to drink. I’m pleased that many of them would have met Lu Yu’s exacting standards. But his touchy spirit has infused the business of tea even today. I was able to find tiny-rosebud tea at a little shop in Hong Kong, along with some very fine white tea. The shopkeeper, however, made it plain that she was selling the rose tea to me under duress. I suppose ignorant foreigners get special dispensation. No true Chinese ch’a connoisseur would dream of polluting delicate taste buds with anything as fey as rosebud tea. Lu Yu, I’m reasonably certain, would be haughtily dismissive. 

The Classic of Tea   Lu Yu (translation by Francis Ross Carpenter) | Little, Brown and Company   1974

The Conversations — Michael Ondaatje


Michael Ondaatje got to know the film editor Walter Murch when Murch worked on the film version of Ondaatje’s The English Patient. He discovered a Renaissance man who is not only a brilliant film editor but a translator of a prose work he admires into English poetry and a creator of the musical flow of a movie. A good editor, working with a gifted and confident director, can shape the story of the film. Murch works with Lucas, Coppola, Minghella and other luminaries–the oldest relationships date from early days in film school–and has worked on legendary cinema like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and American Graffiti.

Ondaatje’s idea is that editing film is a lot like editing a novel, with its many iterations of revising and rethinking and carving away the words until the story emerges.  He explores this and other notions with Murch in a far-ranging series of  conversations that stretched over a year and covered a lifetime of distinguished work and invention. Lots of wonderful anecdotes about what stayed in and what got cut–and what went back in eventually. Even more intelligent chat about music (revolutiuonary Beethoven), strokes of genius (Thomas Edison) and the effects of extremely subtle sound on a movie audience.

It’s a very readable record and one I hope I find time to skim again before it goes back to the library. As a writer, I am fascinated by the observations and I can make the connections between the crafts. Much to learn from two people honored for their contributions to their professions who can critique Japanese and French New Wave filmmakers as easily as they share stories about Marlon Brando shaving his head after he read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Good book. Good idea to write it. A ton af great movie stills and archival photographs on every page. Recommended to novelists and cinephiles everywhere.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film   Michael Ondaatje | Alfred A. Knopf   2002

Tibet Through the Red Box – Peter Sis

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Peter Sis creates a spellbinding tale of magic and terror, the memories of a small boy filtered through the journal of his father during a remarkable experience. Tibet Through the Red Box tells the story of the invasion of Tibet as witnessed by a filmmaker and revealed in the book locked away in the red box. When Sis was very young his father was hired by the Chinese government to teach documentary filmmaking to students in Beijing. He left his wife and two young children in post-war Prague, a city in  a country occupied  by the Soviet Union.

It was the mid-1950s–many things observed could not be spoken aloud.  Sis’s father did not return home that Christmas, or the next Christmas. Nothing at all was heard from him. He disappeared. And then, when the boy was drifting in and out of consciousness after a serious accident, his father was suddenly at his bedside, bringing him back to health, telling him endless stories to explain his absence. The stories were connected to the mysterious red box that no one opened.  

Many years later, Sis gets a letter from his father telling him the box is now his. He returns to Czechoslovakia, to his father’s room, and opens the box with a rusty key. Inside he finds a book–a cross between a field journal and a diary, with entries in pen and specimens of flowers and butterflies pressed between the pages. His father spent the missing time in Tibet, in the tense period of the Chinese invasion, lost in the mountains, trying to reach Potala and tell the boy-God-king about the threat to his kingdom, magicked by all manner of apparitions and legends.

Tibet Through the Red Box is an oversize book filled with exquisite art and a kind of poetry. There are beautiful mandalas and terrible Tibetan dieties and pages of cursive on parchment and the boy’s memories of the gentle stories his father told him to help him heal. In those times, events the father lived through could not be discussed, so he turned his adventures into fables. The art is Tibetan-inspired, the musings on colors, deities, enchanted characters and a confusing and sometimes frightening world seen through the eyes of a small boy, are dreamlike and reflective.

This isn’t a children’s book although you could easily explore it with a child who is curious and–well, intelligent, open to the unexpected,  maybe a bit of an old soul. It’s a book full of lessons and information but it is first an experience–of words, colors, textures, dreams and sorrows. Very, very beautiful and intriguing–impressions of a lost place and time. The Dalai Lama is there and not there in the pages of the book. But it called him vividly to mind and made me wish I could see him again and hear him laugh.

Tibet Through the Red Box (Caldecott Honor Book)   Peter Sis | Farrar, Straus and Girous  1998

Imagine – Jonah Lehrer

NOTE: Cover art for this alleged nonfiction book apparently yanked by Amazon. Book was a fraud and Amazon is Big Brother. Literature is many things but never dull. (It was, despite the perfidy of the delusional author, a very attractive cover.)

Original post–pre-disclosure of certain fictional elements in the book:

Jonah Lehrer has assembled a fascinating study of how creativity works–where it lives in the brain, what in a culture acts as a petri dish. Imagine is fun to read, hopeful, filled with examples of genius at work–from Steve Jobs to Shakespeare–studded with genesis stories of brilliant new products–from Scotch tape to Swiffers–and awash in statistics and study results that make sense. Lehrer has a gift for translating nerd to common language.

Bob Dylan burnt out on tour and gave up music, heading for a house in Woodstock where he was inspired to scribble down a wonky poem that became “Like a Rolling Stone.” He invented a new kind of music that changed his work and the music world profoundly. Milton Glaser couldn’t stop fiddling with the art for a New York ad campaign, even after it had been approved. The result was a do-over that became the famous “I [heart] NY graphic. Jack Kerouac lived on Benzadrine while he wrote “On the Road” in near-continuous sessions at the typewriter for three weeks straight. Shakespeare ripped off Marlowe and everything else he could find to create his masterpieces.  

So, what’s up with all of that? (And where are the women in this epic tale of genius?  — but that’s another story, isn’t it?) Turns out the brain lights up in interesting ways when creative juices start flowing. A good idea might sneak up on you while you are doing something else. A chance encounter with a stranger in a crowded city or a co-worker in a coffee bar could trigger the Next Big Thing. Scientists can measure bits of that process now and they have mapped the various parts of the brain that get in gear, connect with other brain areas, or relax their guards and allow uninhibited ideas and behaviors to flow.  

But it’s not all neurons and anterior superior temporal gyruses. It’s also just noticing something from a different perspective–like the guy who invented Post-it notes did. It’s about encouraging alpha waves so your nice, relaxed mind coughs up an insight. It can also be about caffeine, amphetamines and alcohol–not too much, though, or you slide right past creative into incoherent.  And studies conclude that cities are hotbeds of genius (sometimes, and some cities), the urban experience is more conducive to a rich foment of ideas than the suburbs. Widely available education that encourages making things and de-emphasizes filling in bubbles with a #2 pencil  is a societal predictor of innovation. Critique sessions, but not creative brainstorming in which all ideas are supported, lead to breakthroughs and new inventions. Pixar gets some ink in this book and the story of how its culture developed is as much fun as any of its movies.

I’d highly recommend wandering through Imagine for insight about how your own strokes of creative genius come about–or how you might encourage some. The anecdotes that prove the points are terrific and the focus down on what makes creativity happen is instructive. I doubt anyone will ever be able to define creativity and imagination with the pure application of science but Lehrer makes a noble effort and his ideas are good ones. Now someone needs to write a book about why there aren’t more female names in the roster of Western genius–and how we might encourage that.

Imagine: How Creativity Works  Jonah Lehrer | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   2012

Coda: It seems this post was miscategorized as nonfiction. Galleycat reported today (July 30) that Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker after it was revealed that he manufactured Bob Dylan’s quotes for Imagine. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is “halting shipment of all physical copies of the book,” according to Galleycat reporter Jason Boog. The subtitle of Imagine is How Creativity Works–or doesn’t.  And so it goes… 

The Magic – Rhonda Byrne

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I never read bazillion-seller The Secret, although I did see lengthy excerpts from the movie. It seemed like a very cleverly packaged version of the Law of Attraction and other manifestation practices based on older traditions of being in harmony with what surrounds you. Interesting enough. So, as I reluctantly returned A. N. Wilson’s The Elizabethans (great book) to the library half-read–can’t renew it if someone else is waiting for it–I picked up Rhonda Byrne’s The Magic which was sitting on the new-book shelf. I believe in magic–a deep, pagan, animistic, astrophysical, inspiriting force that is omnipresent, innate and infrangible–and I am always happy to explore theories and thinking about it. This was not that book.

What The Magic is is a book-length reminder to practice gratitude, not a bad thing to consider. Real gratitude, the understanding and appreciation for what exists in our lives, is more or less trained out of us in this consumer culture. Gratitude requires reflection, focus, savoring the moment, recognizing a true gift, seeing with the intelligence of the heart. It is very positive and very powerful and can shift your mood, your behavior, your relationships, and your beliefs almost instantly. For me, at least, it’s a lesson to learn over and over again and has more to do with stepping outside the facade of this illusory world and into clear, spare being. Needs more work.

Byrne has produced a workbook with essays in the popular self-help format that targets a general audience. Some of the logic is, um, forced. It’s predictable. You could find several suggestions silly. But beneath the packaged lessons are a few good ideas and a basic premise that can open your eyes. Think about what is good and delightful and valuable for you. Be glad you know it/have it/enjoy it. Say so, if only to yourself. Gratitude can push back the veil that obscures the light we really live in.

I won’t take up Byrne’s 28-day chapter-by-chapter program to change my life–there are stronger ways for me to tap into magic.  But I do like the advice about the magic rock that you hold every night before you go to sleep as you conjure up the best thing that happened in your day. That’s a great idea. So much negativity batters us from all sides, all the time, that it’s easy to forget what blessings we have. I have just the rock, a smooth, palm-size chunk of white quartz that was sitting on the kitchen counter next to a jade plant that has stubbornly survived every possible kind of neglect. Pure magic.

The Magic (The Secret)   Rhonda Byrne | Atria Books   2012

The Art of Fiction – David Lodge

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David Lodge collected a series of newspaper columns and embellished them–restoring the edited-for-length bits–to make this exploration of how fiction is constructed. As a writer, I find The Art of Fiction fascinating, if somewhat frustrating. There’s a little bit of everything in it: beginnings, point of view, time shift, showing and telling, stream of consciousness, epistolary novels, magic realism, weather, comic novels, different voices, suspense, surrealism, narrative structure, unreliable narrators, symbolism–a long list. There’s even a chapter about lists.

Each subject is illustrated with an excerpt from a novel that Lodge diligently deconstructs to show how the thing works. Pretty useful but occasionally too ambiguous to leave you with a clear sense of how you might achieve the same effect, or what the general elements of a particular style might be. Lodge rips through some of my favorite writers–John Fowles, Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett, Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence, et cetera, et cetera, and points out what I never noticed. There are a lot of classic and sort of contemporary (not current) excerpts and their authors.

Fun things poke their heads up in the middle of serious topics. For “Repetition,” we get an excerpt form Hemingway’s “In Another Country” that sounds as if Gertrude Stein wrote it. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in  the fall in Milan and the dark came very early…It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”  Oh, Ernest, how was I ever so smitten with you?

Lodge reminds us that chapters are not a sacred law of novels and early fiction was one continuous flow of writing without chapter breaks. This can be exhausting to read–note James Joyce–and chapters can serve to give the reader a breather or transition from one time or place to another. Sir Walter Scott started the fad for introducing a chapter with an epigraphic quotation. I’ve recently read mysteries where each chapter was introduced by a chocolate recipe. Distracting but delectable.

The Art of Fiction is worth a read. It opens your eyes to what the writer is really doing  to manipulate the reader–at times, successfully, at other times, annoyingly. I’m going to give it a quick re-read before I have to return  it to the library. Much to learn but little time to ponder it.

The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts   David Lodge | Viking   1993

Great Flicks – Dean Keith Simonton

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Great Flicks hinted at secrets of storytelling that splashed large across the silver screen so I read it as a break from the stories themselves. I don’t know that I learned as much about telling stories as I did about some of the odd, quirky, fascinating and disturbing relationships of the various parts of the cinema art to each other. Dean Keith Simonton has written a popular dissertation on the science of cinema and I am immensely grateful that he explains every step of his research and every stat in language my tired brain can comprehend.

This might be a how-to-put-together a blockbuster for a producer, or an award-winner for a director. Many elements of film are quantified, compared and analysed with surprising results. I thought the material held the seeds of any number of stories that might make a good book–the relative importance of the best actor and best actress awards at the box office, for instance. An Oscar for best female performance as a leading character has the same box office impact as a nomination for best actor. This makes me think of Ginger Rogers doing the exact same dance as Fred Astaire, only in heels and backwards. The entire section on stars and their career trajectories, awards and associations with critically-acclaimed films, mega-moneymakers, and certain film genres is an infuriating mirror of our unevolved, mysogynist society. Pause. Breathe. OK–rant over.

The chapter on music, mood and money examines Mozart’s enduring soundtrack popularity and the dissonance between best song and best score–and concludes that music is an expense in the film budget that doesn’t always justify itself. It’s not surprising that the dramatic and visual elements of a film are predictors of critical acclaim, awards and popularity. The actors, directors and story, as well as the cinematography and editing and all the art that goes into each shot, are what movies are about. Story does make a difference in golden statues snagged and tickets sold. The kind of story is the first criteria most people use for deciding whether to see a film–if you hide under the seat at horror you might opt for the romantic comedy. If you love to watch animated things blowing each other up you will pass on the art house examination of the poet’s life with those fine British actors. And here’s one for all you novelists who dream of your very own Oscar now that the movie option has been picked up. According to Simonton’s analysis, “No matter what the specific nature of the source–play, novel, or whatever–its creator tends to interfere with the process of producing a marketable script…films based on such author adaptations tend to open on fewer screens and to bring in a smaller first weekend gross.”  IOW, stick to fiction, baby.

Great Flicks is an instructive look at the science of cinema but it’s number crunching with insight. Useful, occasionally eye-opening, an enjoyable and exhaustive collection of film business facts and conclusions. But no prescription for how to wrap the magic of cinema around your black-and-white, pre-talkie, prose work-in-progress. For that, you’ll just have to go see a lot more movies to spark your imagination. Or read Story by Robert McKee for a deconstruction of some classic films.  Simonton will explain to you the Meryl Streep Effect and when to release your major award contender to increase your odds of marching down the red carpet. But you’ll have to come up with the dialog and the word-pictures for your page-by-page bestseller the old-fashioned way.

Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics   Dean Keith Simonton | Oxford University Press 2011