Monthly Archives: November 2012

Bloom and Roth

The Atlantic published a story this week about novelists who published their first books after they turned 40. Charles Bukowski, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Raymond Chandler are among the few “late bloomer” novelists they profile.

The Atlantic article links to a website, Bloom, which is dedicated tohighlighting, profiling, reviewing, and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older.” What a great concept for a blog. Being a bit of a late bloomer myself, I appreciate a blog that looks at those who need some time for their accomplishments. And in a culture where we worship the young, it is nice to find places where age can is not considered a deficit. The first book I reviewed in this blog, The Lifeboat, was written by Charlotte Rogan, a woman in her 50s.

Although the premise of this blog is to write about first novels, I keep thinking about Philip Roth’s decision to stop writing novels. As in a way making a decision to stop writing, after penning 31 books over 52 years, is as brave as a decision to start writing at any age, let alone over 40. In the New York Times article about his decision he says that he stopped writing in 2010, but waited two years to make the announcement public, just in case he wasn’t able to stick to it. I know many novelists who toil away at their first book for a year, two or three, before sharing with the world that they have embarked on a novel for fear that they too might not stick to it.

“Mr. Roth stopped because he feels he has said what he has to say.” This is marvelous and soundly sane. Most writers start writing because they “have something to say.” And yet we live in a culture where success is not always measured by the depth or importance of what we say, but how much we make for saying something or how popular our ideas may become. While making his decision, Roth reread all of his books in reverse chronological order, but he lost interest in his own work and did not reread the first four, (meaning he did not read his first book). Roth’s decision is a nice illustration of how a writer can be more than his art. Although Roth is currently working with a biographer to tell his life story and collaborating with an 8-year old on a novella, he is also spending his time reading, entertaining and enjoying a slower pace of life.

I respect Roth his decision. 31 books is a fantastic accomplishment. Would he be remembered more if he wrote 33 or even 34? I’m not sure. I will remember him for being brave enough to say he has written enough and that life can be about more than one pursuit.

I will also applaud an author for publishing a first book at any age. A novel at 41 is no less a feat than at 62 or 29.

 

 

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Absolution, by Patrick Flanery

Absolution

By Patrick Flanery

Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2012

388 pages

Sam Leroux, a white South African academic living in New York City, is invited to write the biography of Clare Dane, an eminent white South African novelist. Sam returns to South Africa to interview and work with Clare in the Western Cape before moving to Johannesburg with his American journalist wife to live. From the first page of the book it is revealed that the Clare and Sam have a connected history, but neither discusses their past connection as the stories of their lives unfold.

Told in four voices the book captures Sam’s present story, both of their histories and Clare’s fictional world via chapters titled, Absolution. Flanery, an American now living in the UK, does a great job capturing the precarious social situation of contemporary wealthy white South Africans who live in large homes with plenty of help and yet exist behind walls and carry panic buttons when they go out. He also provides a brief look into the anti-apartheid movement.

Absolution is one of the best books I read this year. It is ambitious, thought-provoking and very real. It is also a book that unfolds as you read it. As details are revealed about the characters’ present and past lives, the connections between Clare and Sam twist and turn. This book is as much about storytelling as it is about the story itself and I liked how seamlessly Flanery did that. He kept me turning the pages, eager to put the story together and learn the “true” histories of Clare and Sam. I don’t want to give much more of the story away as the reward of reading this book is to read it without knowing where it will take you.

Nominated for many book prizes this year, Flanery is a remarkable author.

 

 

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Guardian First Book Award Shortlist

The Guardian First Book Award is a reliable place to learn about new books and authors. I was surprised that one of the books I think is one of the best debut novels of the year, Patrick Flanery’s, Absolution (review forthcoming here), did not make the shortlist. But two others that I want read, Kevin Powers’, Yellow Birds and Kerry Hudson’s, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma made the list. The list also includes non-fiction works, most notably Katherine Boo’s, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

 

 

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The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child

By Eowyn Ivey

Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, 2011

389 pages

Alaska, the 1920s. After giving birth to a stillborn baby, Jack and Mabel leave the comfort of Pennsylvania to become homesteaders near the Wolverine River, Alaska, where their lives turn to the magical. The book begins with the arrival of winter and at the same time, the hotel in the closest town, which has been buying pies from Mabel, cuts off their order, leaving them to survive off the land. As the Wolverine River starts to freeze over, and Jack and Mabel wonder if they have enough food for the long winter, they meet a young girl in the woods—their snow child.

This book is exquisitely rendered. The story is small, with most of the action happening near or around Jack and Mabel’s cabin. The only other characters are the snow child, Faina, and the Benson family, who live a few miles up the road, but the story is expansive and moving. Jack and Mabel are a middle-aged couple who, after living through tragedy, reinvent themselves and their love for each other in this new world. The first 200 pages cover their first winter in Alaska, when they struggle to make ends meet. But then the abundance of summer arrives and they see the land where they have relocated anew.

This book is as much an homage to life in an Alaskan cabin as it is to the story it tells. Ivey lives a subsistence life with her husband and children. They haul water to their home weekly. I felt her closeness to the land in every page.

I can’t say I would love to live in an Alaskan cabin, but I loved this book.

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