On the Nightstand

It has been a cold bitter winter, to say the least.   Except in the polar north, where glaciers are melting and icebergs are falling into the Atlantic at a record pace, the rest of North America is cold cold cold.

You would think that means I have spent the last three months reading and reading and, to some extent, that’s true.  Actually, I’ve been reading and …writing.

After a year in production and editing A Novel Approach, my non-fiction series of lessons on the craft of writing your book, is close to publication.  I have edited and revised most of the lessons, added some, and organized the book into five sections:  ‘Getting Started’, ‘Planning the Book’, ‘Telling the Story’, ‘Characters, Scenes, and Dialogue’, and ‘Wrapping up.’

This is the cover by our graphics design team.  They do a great job!

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00054]

Okay, so I wrote a book. Now, for the reviews.  Wait – not so fast!

I also spent a lot of those cold winter nights writing on the third volume of French Letters, tentatively titled Children of a Good War.  Part of that effort is now with editor Mindy Reed.   All I can say is, those of you who care about Sandy, Virginia, Will, Hoyt, and … more, have something to look forward to.

Now for the reviews.  Just a reminder about the objective assessment of this process.   A book that keeps me awake at night gets rated by its candle power, 100 watts.  A clunker that helps me sleep gets 20 watts.  And, then there are those all in between.

Just finished:

The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson.  This is the third installment of his trilogy of the history of the American army in Europe in World War II.  His first two books, An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle, were magnificent, writing that successfully ranged from the frightened thoughts of citizen soldiers trapped at Kasserine Pass and in the Rapido River to the vanity of colognes and inks used by demagogue commanders, covering very complex histories with the flair of Barbara Tuchman and John Keegan.   The Guns is very, very good, but the subject may have been too vast.  Attempting to cover the allied success from planning the invasion of Normandy to the entrapment of the last German unit near the prison camps, Atkinson succeeds in capturing much of the pettiness and acrimony between allied commands and the uncertainties of where to go after breaking out of Normandy.  He does not, however, equal his first two efforts in either the little picture, the pathos of soldiers trying from hedgerows and snowbanks to stay connected to the world from which they were plucked as citizens, or in the big picture of telling the story of the bewildering array of battles taking place on hundreds of sites at the same time, while trying to keep the reader sorted out with the unit numbers that become almost indistinguishable between the overwhelming numbers of armies, corps, divisions, brigades, battalions, and companies.  Having said that, his three volume history is the best American work on the American army in WWII Europe in over fifty years.  90 watts.

The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.   Is this trilogy winter?  Hmmm.   Prisoner is the third of Zafon’s Barcelona trilogy, alongside the much acclaimed Shadow of the Wind and the lesser-acclaimed but better written The Angel’s Game.  It takes us into the Barcelona of the aftermath of the Spanish civil war and the cruel vengeance of the victors over the good guys, from the ghastly prison in Montjuic to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, hidden under the back alleys of the Ramblas.  85 watts.

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh.   Maddening, delirious, hilarious, ghastly, this novel of utter and total losers in the drop out heroin world of mid-1990’s Edinburgh is a piece of work.  Written (mostly) in the vernacular dialogue of drugged out Scots and their accents (‘When ah telt this tae Rents, he sais thit Carol wis right.’  Translation:  When I told this to Rents, he said that Carol was right.) this is one of the funniest books I have ever read.   100 watts when you dial into the dialogue, but not so many watts when you struggle with it.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Stop reading detective novels and bodice rippers.  Try it.

And…. The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes.  Oh, my.  This won the Man Booker prize for best novel, 2011, and it is easy to see why.  Adrian Finn becomes one of the guys except that he is brilliant.  When the class is called on to answer ‘What is history?’ the usual answers are ‘the lies of the victors,’ ‘same old story,’ ‘war and peace,’ Finn answers in a way that will come back to haunt all of them:  “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”   It sounds too clever by half, too smart, until one of them commits suicide, for no obvious reason, and leaves a note that says only “Sorry, Mum.”  100 watts.   If I had a bigger socket, I would put in a bigger bulb.  What a wonderful book.


On the Nightstand:

The News:  A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton.  I am gleeful just waiting to start.

Freedom, Jonathan Frantzen.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2013, featuring thirty works from that year.  Hint:  I have already read ‘Black Box,” by Jennifer Egan.  Oh, my…

See you when the weather warms up.


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