Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | August 3, 2021

Humor from the New Yorker

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | April 17, 2021

What does an editor do?

What does an editor do?

{sigh} I had a phone meeting with a potential new client. She’s not quite done with her book, her manuscript, but is exploring the world of self-publishing. She’s already imagining hiring a professional photographer to do a photo of her for the front cover—her personal experiences figure prominently in the book. She has two coaches who are helping her get through the writing process, which is of course the most arduous part of producing a book—except for promoting it! And she’s looking for someone who will be able to design it all and make it look attractive.

But an editor? “I thought an editor was just the person who corrects the spelling, the grammar, the punctuation,” she said. I let out an involuntary laugh—almost did a spit-take because I was drinking coffee. {sigh}

The Red-Pen Editor

That’s the image many people have of an editor—a stern schoolmarm-type with a red pen in hand, applying obscure rules of the English language to an author’s precious manuscript, leaving it a bloody mess. Well, yes, it’s part of the job to correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But editors actually do much, much more. (See below: The 6 Stages of Editing)

Believe it or not, there have been books written by and about famous editors. (See especially Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. Perkins edited authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and James Jones. Perkins not only edited their books, but discovered several of these authors, persuaded them to make changes, and held their hands while they struggled to finish a manuscript.)

What Else Editors Do

Editors are the first “real” people to read the writer’s book (manuscript). NOTE: spouses and friends don’t count as “real” readers, unless they are writers or editors themselves.

Editors know what to look for in the first reading, and the second reading, and the third, fourth, and however many readings/edits it takes to get a book from the manuscript stage to the publication-ready stage.

For many writers, their editor is like a safety net that allows them to just get it out on paper, without having to worry about all those picky little things like spelling and punctuation. Those writers know that a copyeditor or proofer down the line will clean that stuff up. For some writers, the editor is a coach, a hand-holder, a cheerleader, a sounding board. For many writers and editors, their discussions are not just about their writing, but about the book design and the publication process.

6 STAGES OF EDITING

In the publishing industry, the different levels of editing are distinctly different jobs, though very frequently these jobs overlap, especially in self-publishing. A lot depends on what stage the manuscript is in when an editor first sees it.

1. Developmental Editing—This involves editing the very concept of the book, basically helping a writer in the beginning stages when their book may be mostly an outline. At this stage, I make sure the writer’s arguments line up or their stories are in the right sequence, and that everything seems to flow. Some writers then need coaching to help get from outline to full manuscript. This is when I feel like I’m acting more as a sounding board or advisor or coach, commenting on the writing in almost real time, aka/ writing workshop style.

2. Evaluation Editing—The key difference from developmental editing is that you need a finished manuscript, not just an idea to edit. At this stage I read as a discerning reader would, looking at the big picture. Does the beginning grab my attention and make me want to read on? Is there a logical sequence, a compelling reason to continue reading, i.e. a promise that I’ll be entertained or learn something? If it’s a novel, do I want to find out what happens to the characters? As an editor I would not only give feedback on these things, but advice on how to improve the manuscript so that it could be a compelling read.

3. Content Editing—This is substantive editing, digging into the words at the paragraph level, but also evaluating tone and style and voice, especially in relation to the potential readership.  At this stage, I shouldn’t be moving chapters around, but I might recommend re-organizing sections or paragraphs, or moving content to different chapters, or deleting content entirely.

4. Line Editing—At this stage, I’m not looking at the big picture, but focusing on word choice and eliminating wordiness, tightening up each paragraph and each sentence to make sure it has the intended impact, almost polishing it like a jewel.  I would still not be so concerned with punctuation and such, but rather the words used to communicate with the reader.

5. Copyediting— a meticulous editing for the mechanics of language—spelling, punctuation, and grammar. This is the stage in which the editor becomes that stern, red pen-wielding English teacher. Quite frankly, using Word’s spell-check, grammar-check, and other apps are hugely helpful at this stage.

6. Proofreading—the proofer’s task is to review the final proof copy before the book goes to print. In a big publishing house, this would be a completely separate position from the copyeditor’s job, but in self-publishing—yeah, that’s frequently me also.

Building a House: Taking the manuscript from blueprint to “the big reveal”

Tucker Max, founder of Scribe and best-selling author, likens the process of producing a book to the process of building a house:

Think of it this way, Marx says: A developmental or evaluation editor helps you build the house (the book) and figure out which rooms (chapters) should go where.

With those rooms in place, the content editor’s job is to help you arrange the furniture (sections and paragraphs) inside those rooms in a way that’s appealing.

Unlike line editors, they’re not concerned with the decorations (sentences).

Extending Max’s metaphor, this would mean that the editors working on the final stages of a book—copy editors and proofreaders—are like the designer’s helpers going through a staged house right before it is to be shown to potential buyers, picking up a stray toy left behind by a child, polishing some fingerprints off a mirror, spraying an inviting scent in the kitchen, fluffing up the pillows on the couch.

The work of an editor, if done correctly, is invisible

If the editing is done right, you’ll never see the inconsistencies, the redundancies, the repetitions that have been corrected. You won’t notice the paragraphs or chapters or sentences that have been removed or moved around. You won’t even be aware of the fact that the ending was completely re-written or that a novel’s main character’s name, or the plot, was changed somewhere along the way. You will not see the insertion or removal of commas, semi-colons, or quotation marks.

The work of the editor, if done correctly, is invisible.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | February 10, 2021

‘Tis the season for entering book contests!

A writer I worked with last year on his first novel recently sent me an email from the North Street Book Prize committee, which informed him that before they made a public announcement on February 15th, they wanted to let him know that his final rank in the 2020 contest is Semi-Finalist. They added that they “regret to inform you did not win a cash prize, but we admired The Risk in Crossing Borders and I hope you will feel encouraged. We received 1,915 books and yours was among the top 3%.”

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Well, congratulations, Bill McClain! You now have bragging rights to being a Semi-Finalist in the 2020 North Street Book Prize! That’s the type of thing authors can include in their press releases and on the covers of new editions of their book, and on the covers of books still to be written. Even more than the promotional aspects of it, it is very gratifying to a writer to receive positive affirmations about their efforts.

Is it worth it to shell out $65 or more to enter a contest? Yes, says one writer, Rhonda Rees, for The Independent Publishing Magazine. Among other things, Rees surveyed LinkedIn groups devoted to independent writers, and found that “Most agreed that what is important is to actively market your award. Just like with anything else, the prize itself is not enough to boost sales – but it can certainly open doors if you know how to work it.” In other words, the prize itself did not necessarily generate sales, but book buyers (librarians, bookstore owners) and agents paid more attention to book covers that touted the winning of a prize and had the seal of that prize on their covers.

The North Street contest is just one of many of the many that award prizes, including cash prizes, to independently published authors. No, these are not the Pulitzers, the Bookers, the Edgars, or the National Book Critics Circle awards. But many are legitimate, and many are geared to the ever-growing ranks of self-published authors and independent publishers.

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Writing for BookBub, Evelyn Maguire concurred with this finding. She said that in an “A/B test” BookBub conducted, “readers responded well to mentions of an author’s accolades, including awards the author has won. Blurbs that named prestigious, genre-specific awards boosted CTRs by up to 25%, with an average increase of 5%.” Maguire included mention in her article of 30 book awards that authors should know about, with many of them being a “must enter” for indie authors.

Book Contests, Prizes & Awards for Indie Authors: I have gradually been putting together a spreadsheet with contests, awards, prizes of interest to independently-published authors, and am happy to share the LINK. Many of these have a deadline of this month, February 2021. And many others have deadlines that start this spring, with earlier submissions getting a discount.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 29, 2021

Jon Bunn’s “Shoal’s Bluff”

Talk about a labor of love! Jon Bunn’s new novel, Shoals Bluff, was three years in the making—one year for him to write it, and then two more years for him to revise it a bit, and me to edit it a lot, and Dawn Daisley to design it, and then publish it through Jon’s publishing arm, Mayhaw Press, using IngramSpark as the printer/distributor.

When Jon first told me about the story he wanted to write—about this old guy he met one time back in the 60s in southern Indiana, the man’s physical afflictions, and the other family and worldly afflictions the old man had endured, and yet was still living, working, alive—I knew it was a saga, a birth-to-death story of the life of a semi-fictional character. But in the first telling, it sounded like a rather sad story of just one damn thing after another that happened to this poor guy. And who would want to read that? (Except of course, those who would want to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, or even Dicken’s David Copperfield to marvel at the particular struggles one character faces, and what gives that character the strength to go on).

All that labor over this story was well worth the effort. The reviews are still coming in, but already the story of Paul Chandler of Shoals, Indiana obviously resonates with a lot of people, especially those who understand what it was like to grow up in southern Indiana. Especially if that reader or their relatives had farming blood in their veins. And especially if they—or their parents or grandparents—had eked out a living from the land in the first half of the 20th century, a period that included the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, the stock market crash of 1929, and the ensuing Depression and Dust Bowl years—in which the Ku Klux Klan and the Women’s Temperance Union flourished—only to be followed by World War II and the somewhat prosperous post-war years. All of these are part of Paul Chandler’s life in Shoals Bluff, and the lives of the characters who populate this novel set in and around Shoals, Indiana (current population about 789; population then about 1,030).

Here’s the thing: Jon’s story is not just about all the downs and ups suffered by the key character, Paul Chandler, or even the travails of his long-suffering and supportive mother. Though Paul Chandler experienced a tragedy early on, resulting in lameness in one leg for the rest of his life (a tragedy closely related to the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father), Shoals Bluff is also very much about how small communities become close-knit, and how neighbors rely on other neighbors to get through life, and how farmers as entrepreneurs are very innovative when it comes to figuring how to make the most of their most important asset, the patch of earth they call their own.

Jon Bunn’s background in the theater shows in this novel, as well as his first novel, The West Bluff—his scenes and characters are vivid, and his dialogue is a significant part in driving the plot along. He’s a born storyteller, and I can hardly wait for his next novel, which I am certain is already brewing in his brain as I write this.

PS: If you ever run into Jon, ask him to tell you about the Wise sisters, to whom he dedicated his book!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | August 16, 2020

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is a book every American  should read, if they want to understand the history of the United States after the Civil War—especially if you are a white person, and you think that somehow black people were “free” after the Civil War. It is also a page-turner, as fascinating a read as anything I’ve read by the great biographers of our times.

If you’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary about the Reconstruction Era, or read (for instance) Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Ulysses S. Grant—Union general under Lincoln during the Civil War, and then president during Reconstruction—you would, even before launching into Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent, well-written, amazingly researched, and absorbing book, already have an inkling of the lack of “freedom” afforded to those whose skin color was not white, not after the Civil War, and not after Reconstruction.

If you lived through the Civil Rights era of the 60s, as I did, you would be similarly astonished that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not resolve everything.  And now, living through the Black Lives Matter era, it is finally becoming self-evident that people of color in the United States still face routine discrimination, if not outright physical violence against their bodies, that hampers their ability to pursue the fabled American Dream, which is supposedly the right of every American, guaranteed by the Constitution.

Wilkerson’s book is first of all a history book, but she interviewed over a thousand people before arriving at three specific people whose life stories are used to illustrate the course of history that led almost six million black American citizens to migrate out of the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life, in the period 1915—just 50 years after the Civil War ended—to 1970, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The three stories are very different, but all fascinating biographies in and of themselves. One interview subject was from a Mississippi sharecroppers’ family and wound up living in Chicago. One was from the Florida citrus groves area, and therefore the equivalent of a migrant worker, but attended college briefly, became a porter on a Florida to NYC train, and wound up in Harlem. And one was from a professional family in Louisiana, became a doctor and emigrated to Los Angeles. But the three share similar experiences of overt discrimination in the Jim Crow South—i.e. with laws and social norms governing just about every detail of how they were expected to live their lives, and what they could and could not do.  And all three also share the experience of traveling to, and arriving in the north, or California, only to find that they had not escaped discrimination after all.

In Wilkerson’s newest, just-released book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, she explores further the laws and social systems that she describes in Warmth of Other Suns that “keep people in their place,” i.e. caste systems.  I’ve got that on my reading list also, as her research and writing exemplify journalism at its best. 

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | June 11, 2020

It was the worst of times, and yet it was the best of times …

They are among the most famous opening lines in literary history— “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The book is of course Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

The two cities were London and Paris. Over the course of the story, Paris and all of France explodes into insurrection, anarchy, and the toppling of the monarchy. It was the French Revolution, the one that inspired Les Miserables. It was written in 1859, just as the U.S. was about to explode into a war between northern and southern states over slavery and states’ rights. The French Revolution started in 1789—less than a decade after the American Revolution had ended. All of these were civil wars, with one strata of society at war against another. (Does this sound familiar and pertinent to our present times?)

In the French Revolution, it was the Citizens (the comrade-like term that French revolutionaries were required to use when addressing each other) against the Aristocracy, who were, in Dickens’ telling, hunted down like dogs and gleefully led to the guillotine, described in lurid and gory detail. Though his story makes clear that the Citizens were justified in their cause—they were literally starving and treated like slaves—Dickens also portrays some of the revolutionary characters, the Citizens, as sadists and brutes who, in their bloodthirsty lust for dismantling the whole aristocratic system, went after even innocent men, women, and children. Hence, the worst things about these times was the how the absolute worst of humanity was exposed.

However, Dickens also characterized these as the best of times. Citizens uniting and rebelling against entrenched historical injustice was to be applauded. The best of humanity is also portrayed through a love story which winds its way through the book, and in the love, support, and loyalty shown by the key family-and-friend characters towards one another as they navigated extremely difficult times. And the culmination of the book involves the most selfless, noble act a human being could ever make, that of willingly sacrificing one’s life for the lives of others.

So, it was indeed the worst of times, but also the best of times, and I won’t bore you with the whole plot of this book and descriptions of Dickens’ usual huge array of characters, always drawn so vividly that you can practically see them on screen or stage playing their roles. SparkNotes provides a wonderful little summary.

I adore Dickens works (almost as much as Jane Austen’s works!). I love his memorable characters—David Copperfield, Peggoty, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep and Betsy Trotwood, Oliver Twist and Fagin and the  Artful Dodger and Nancy, Tiny Tim and Scrooge, Pip and Miss Havisham, and all the rest. Many of them were delightfully captured again recently in the 20-episode BBC series, Dickensian, which is not an enactment of one of his  books, but instead brings many of the Dickens characters together in a newly imagined plot.  The casting was impeccable.

However, until now I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages of Tale of Two Cities.  It was not only the best/worst of times—because the sentence doesn’t end there—but it was also the age of wisdom/foolishness. It was the epoch of belief/incredulity. It was the season of Light/Darkness. It was this, but it was also that, the opposite, and so on and on and on until, finally—as I discovered when I committed myself to reading past Chapter I— in Chapter II some characters are introduced, with their typically Dickensian 19th century personalities and ways of talking, and then the action begins.

In Tale of Two Cities Dickens is, like all his works, a bit melodramatic, and sometimes downright vaudevillian, which is why he’s not every reader’s cup of tea. However, it was the age of Victoria, and that was the style. And nobody did it better than him. And nobody milked it better than him for all it was worth. Tale of Two Cities, like most of Dickens’ novels, was published first in serialized form (he must have been anticipating streaming video!) in a magazine, All the Year Round, a new publication that he was launching. The first chapter of the book was featured in its first issue. At the time, Dickens was as popular in America as he was in Great Britain—a regular rock star!—so much so that people stormed the docks in New York In 1841, “waiting for a British ship to dock with the latest chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop and word of whether the orphaned Nell had died in poverty or yet survived.”

 On his only trip to America, Dickens arrived at Boston Harbor in 1842 having already made it into literary upper circles. At the time he was the most famous writer in the world. He milked the experience for everything it was worth, but not just to enhance his reputation and pocketbook. He used every opportunity to make the case for international copyright law, partially because he never made a farthing on all those editions of his stories that were printed in the U.S. In 1891, the U.S. finally did pass the International Copyright Act, but that was 29 years after the author’s death.

Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, was inspired by Thomas Carlyle’s “massively influential” The French Revolution (1937), which was a non-fiction historical book, but contained “intensely dramatic scenes of the falling of the Bastille.” Prisons—like the infamous Bastille in Paris that several key characters in the book wind up in—also figured prominently in Dickens’ life. His father, who was somewhat of a spendthrift and n’er-do-well, landed the family in debtor’s prison, causing pre-teen Charles to have to abandon his studies to go work in a bootblacking factory to support the family. His embarrassment and resentment of this episode of his life was depicted in his most autobiographical work, David Copperfield.

In addition to everything else going on in his life at the time of writing Tale of Two Cities, Dickens was in the process of leaving his wife of twenty-three years, mother of his ten children, because he had become enamored of a young actress he’d met during one of his many forays into the theater. So, you might say that for Dickens himself, it was indeed the best/worst of times, and obviously a time of wisdom and a time of foolishness.

Recently, the Charles Dickens Museum in London announced a new exhibit, in which they have colorized many of the vintage photos of the man, including replicating the colors of the clothing he wore at the time. The exhibit includes a new photo of Dickens when he was 47, the year he wrote Tale of Two Cities. The curator of the exhibit notes that the “technology of the times”—studio photography—usually made Dickens appear very stiff. But “that is not at all what Dickens was like,” the curator said. “He had a great sense of humour and was full of passionate energy. He absolutely loved fashion and loved quite colourful and daring clothing and of course all of that is lost in those images. That’s the power of colourising, it is putting some of that personality back.”

I hope to see those colorized photos in that museum one of these days. In the meantime, I guarantee you that if you read any of Dickens’ novels—including Tale of Two Cities—you get a pretty good idea of just how colorful the man was. But also you get a sense of how passionate he was about social injustice, and how compassionate he was about his fellow humans.

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | June 1, 2020

Wings Over Iraq – Now Available Everywhere!

Wings Over Iraq is a real man’s book—war, intrigue, RAF bombers, a likeable and inventive main character, and even sex—and it was written by a real man, Eric Forsyth, who has managed to pack more into his 80-plus years than most. I’m all the more honored that Eric let me work with him on this book, given the subject matter. However, I thoroughly Wings_Over_Iraq_Coverenjoyed the story myself, as well as the experience of editing and and the process of seeing this book published. (Kudos to Jay Pizer of IMAX Productions for the outstanding cover and interior design!) I highly recommend “Wings” as a good read for both men and women! But then I’m prejudiced, so I’ll share what the first three reviewers have had to say about this just-off-the-presses novel:

“John” gave the book 5 Stars on Amazon and described the book as an “exciting adventure of a young R. A. F. Pilot in Iraq following WW 1” and called it “a great read about air battles, planes, & intrigue,” and “a gripping tale of RAF air warfare in Iraq in 1931.” “You are in the air over Iraq in the 1930’s, enmeshed in flying adventures, and terror, Intrigue, violence and death. The book is impossible to put down and I had to finish the 278 pages in one sitting.”

Another Amazon reviewer also gave the book 5 Stars and called it an “extremely informative story of the struggle to control Iraq and it’s Oil by the Brits following WW1” and said that it provided “amazing insights into the development of early military aircraft and the Men that flew them.” He noted also that “the Author a former RAF pilot and World Renowned Sailing Adventurer has written a very interesting and factually based history of the period and the people that that influenced the time.”

Captain Russ Roberts, retired from Delta Air Lines, wrote after reading a proof copy: “Forsyth’s imagination takes us from the desert upward to the sky. He gets the flying details right. With authenticity and historic detail, he launches us into the beginnings of the modern Middle East and the build-up to WWII.”  – Captain Russ Roberts, Delta Air Lines, Ret.

So, this is where I might normally link the title to where you can find it in the Amazon bookstore, in both print and e-book formats, but I’d like to take this opportunity to say that Amazon is not the only online bookstore open for business!  You have lots of options.

Most independent publishers, like Eric Forsyth, publish and distribute their books through IngramSpark, a division of LightningSource. As such, their titles are available all over the world in just about every online outlet there is for books, such as the traditional Barnes & Noble online and Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon and of course Amazon.

If you are a strong supporter, as I am, of the numerous (cherished) small independent brick-and-mortar bookstores across the U.S., many have banded together to create their own online cooperative, Bookshop.org, which returns over 75% of the profits to independent stores, publications, and authors. Since their founding just this January 2020, they have raised over $2 million for this cause.

I have just discovered an outfit called The Book Depository , based in the UK, which touts that they offer “free delivery worldwide”!  And Eric’s book will soon be available also through a UK-based publisher/distributer, YPS (York Publishing Services), which carries his first book, Inexplicable Attraction: My Fifty Years of Ocean Sailing, in their online bookstore, the YPD Bookshop.

And then there are also many outlets for purchasing the e-book version —  including the outlets already mentioned above — such as Kobo  and Apple Books.

And then there are the many places where you can rate and review a book, starting with Amazon—but that is a subject for another time!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | February 24, 2020

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

I wanted to read Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owen because 1) it’s an unexpected best seller; 2) the descriptions in reviews of how nature played such an important part in the narrative sounded intriguing; and 3) when I read that this is the first novel for the 70+ year-old author, I was hooked.

Where-the-Crawdads-Sing-3-1500[1]It was a good read. The evidence: I read it almost all on one of those lazy, cold Saturday mornings when I allowed myself the indulgence of putting off working, house-cleaning, bill-paying, cooking, and curled up in bed with a heating pad on my feet. I read till I had to admit that I was starting to doze off, even though it was getting to the good part—the denouement, the reveal about the murder mystery. When I woke up the next morning, I immediately reached for the book and didn’t get out of bed until I finished it. I just HAD to find out how it ended!

It was a compelling read, and yet it vacillated between being a fascinating character study and a somewhat cliched romance novel. The main character, Kya, is basically orphaned at age seven, as every one of her family members gradually abandons her—a mother we only get glimpses of in Kya’s memories, a mostly drunk father who beats the joy and the tar out of everyone in the family when under the influence, and all of Kya’s three older siblings.

And yet, this tough, resourceful little thing figures out how to survive, in large part due to the fact that she is truly one with nature. Nature is not just a backdrop to the story, it is almost another character in the book. References to nature are not at all self-conscious or forced, but instead permeate every chapter:

Above the roar of pounding waves, Kya called to the birds. The ocean sang bass, the gulls sang soprano. Shrieking and crying, they circled over the marsh and above the sand as she threw piecrust and yeast rolls onto the beach. Legs hanging down, heads twisting, they landed.

And nature is the essence of the character Kya. She observes nature, collects its artifacts, especially bird feathers and shells, and records her findings—this despite the fact that she does not learn how to read until she is almost a teen-ager. Instead, she draws and paints as a way of recording what she finds. In other words, she is a natural scientist, not unlike the author, Delia Owens. Kya even figures out how to make a living from nature by fishing and gathering mussels and selling them to a local, who becomes a father figure to her.

The short bio accompanying the book says that Owens is a zoologist with a Ph.D. in animal behavior, and coauthor of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa. She now lives in Idaho — according to her web site, though her book bio says she lives in the mountains of North Carolina. The book is set in the coastal wetlands of North Carolina, in the marshes. The main character is called the “Marsh Girl” by the many backwoods, small town, redneck-like townspeople who populate the book. It’s hard not to get the feeling that the Marsh Girl is a stand-in for the author, at least in the areas of study that interest the author.

Of course, the Marsh Girl triumphs in the end—thanks to an unlikely suitor, a sympathetic young man who teaches her how to read and seems to understand that she is a skittish as a wild animal. He’s her childhood sweetheart before she even knows what a sweetheart is. By the end of the book, the Marsh Girl has not only learned to read and continue her inclination to observe, collect, gather and organize the world of nature around her, but she becomes a regional publishing sensation, the author and illustrator of dozens of books profiling the minutiae of nature in all its forms in the marshes of North Carolina—the birds, the plants, the mushrooms, the shells.

A good narrative can’t be without conflict, however. In this story, the Marsh Girl’s outsider status figures prominently, not just in her lack of social standing and social skills, and her conflicts about how to interact with the small community she lives near, but even more so in the men who enter and exit and re-enter her life. It’s these men who are the less credible characters in the narrative. One is a savior, though not exactly a saint, who not only shares Kya’s love of nature and pursues it as a post-doctoral career, but he (and his father) have an appreciation for poetry and opera. The other is a stereotype—the swaggering high school jock; the spoiled only child of successful parents. He is the kind of guy who has to brag about sexual conquests, even when there’s been no conquest; the kind of guy who will say anything to a girl just to get in her pants.

What keeps you reading, besides wanting to find out the story of this unusual, resourceful, fascinating young girl, is the murder mystery, hints of which are woven throughout the book, but culminate in a trial. I couldn’t possibly spoil the ending for those who haven’t read this book yet. But let me tell you—it was totally unexpected!

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 20, 2020

Book Reviews: Memoirs About Drinking

I’m working with a writer who is writing a memoir about the drinking life, so I decided to read some memoirs that were specifically about this topic. I had been wanting to read Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life, simply because it’s by Pete Hamill, after all. He’s a damn good writer, and I was very aware of his reputation as a reporter in the days when others like Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer were also writing for NYC’s daily newspapers and tabloids, like the Post and the Daily News, and essays from other “New Journalism” writers like Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Truman Capote and others made the news.

In fact, I had read a review of Hamill’s book in the New York Times and it whet my Pete Hamill_A Drinking Lifeappetite to read more. The book was, indeed, a very good read, with a vivid portrayal of what life was like growing up in Brooklyn, in Prospect Park West/South, in the 1950s and 1960s, in a struggling Irish Catholic family, when the Neighborhood was your World, the local pub and the Dodgers and Coney Island and the turmoil and ecstasies of pubescence were so important, and New York City—just a subway ride away—beckoned those with aspirations for the experiences of a larger world, especially in the areas of art and literature and journalism. Intertwined with that narrative is the story of how alcohol became such an integral part of Pete Hamill’s world.

As the reviewer (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt) notes, Hamill wrote in his memoir that, “Drinking was part of being a man. Drinking was an integral part of sexuality, easing entrance to its dark and mysterious treasure chambers. Drinking was the sacramental binder of friendships. Drinking was the reward for work, the fuel of celebration, the consolation for death or defeat. Drinking gave me strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true.” Eventually, after he started writing for The Post, Hamill said he approached “the third stage of the process” which he said was described in the Japanese saying, “First the man takes the drink, then the drink takes the drink, then the drink takes the man.”

Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story is a very different story. For one thing, she came from a small, fairly well-off Boston family, father a psychoanalyst and mother a painter, Caroline Knapp_Drinking, A Love Storyboth parents from families with even greater fortunes and histories. Unlike the boisterous world of Brooklyn that Hamill describes, Knapp’s family sounds sedate and undemonstrative, very WASP-y, and she seems to spend as much time searching to understand her father in this book as she does sharing her own gradual decline into full-blown alcoholism, and then recovery. When she does relate alcohol-infused stories, she invariably shares stories also from other people’s lives, people she met through AA, as if to show how common these behaviors and experiences are among alcoholics, especially alcoholic women.

Knapp’s first story in the book is about the incident that turned her around, her “hit bottom” point, which made her admit that she needed help. While drunk, and playing with her friend’s small children, she had an accident and nearly injured the children, and badly injured herself, her knee. This incident also happened after her parents died, within about 18 months of each other, and she realized her father was an alcoholic—one who had been having an affair with another woman, on and off again, his whole married life.

Knapp gives credit to a stint in rehab, followed by intensive participation in AA, for helping her to get sober and remain sober, and her book includes an appendix with information for where to get help. Hamill, on the other hand, says he made a decision to go cold turkey (New York’s Eve, 1972) when he began to feel he was just playing a role in his own life, rather than actually participating in it.

Hamill’s book is definitely the better read, especially if you want to get a deep sense of Brooklyn and NYC life in the 1950s and 1960s, especially for an Irish Catholic male. However, Knapp’s book speaks directly to women in ways that Hamill’s can’t. They both write about using alcohol to mask an innate shyness, to lubricate the social muscles, but Knapp also faces challenges that are unique to females—deflecting unwanted attention from males, the always looming prospect of getting pregnant, a rather weird father-daughter relationship.

However, these two books are solidly in the same genre. Both describe, probe and analyze how alcohol came into their lives and how it gradually became the most important part of their lives. They describe the effect that alcohol had on their social and personal relationships, and how it gradually became a destructive force. And they describe what made them stop drinking, and then end their book with a short description of how their recovery has gone since then. It is a now-familiar arc, but these two stories are from different times, different places, different perspectives, different families, different cultures. They are completely different voices.

This gives me something to take back to the writer I’m working with. Yes, it’s an old story, the memoir about drinking, but each is a unique story, representing a particular person’s time and place and culture and influences and outcomes and experiences.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to discover was that poor Carline Knapp died of lung cancer only six or seven years after she published her book. She was only 43 years old. Hamill, twice that age, is still going—if not going “strong,” then still plugging along despite several health problems over the last decade. According to a November 2019 report, he had just recently moved back to Brooklyn, and is working on another book. When it’s published, I plan to read it!

 

 

 

Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 14, 2020

Book Review: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

I bought this book because I got a good deal at the Brooklyn Book Festival (2019)—three novellas by classic, “canonized” authors for $10, sold at the booth of the publisher, Melville Press of Brooklyn. I picked novellas by George Eliot (The Lifted Veil), Melville (Bartleby the Scrivener), and Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilych)].

The-Death-of-Ivan-Ilych1-235x274Tolstoy, especially, is a daunting author for me (think War and Peace), but a novella—defined as a short novel or long short story—seemed like a less daunting way to approach such an author. I did read Anna Karenina many years back. It’s a fascinating and intricate story, but I have always objected to the first sentence of that book: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I know from experience that isn’t really true.

What is The Death of Ivan Ilych all about? It’s basically the story of the rise and fall of an upper level Russian bureaucrat, a judge, who prospers in pre-Revolutionary Russia.  But the focus on the rise is short, and the focus on the gradual decline and deterioration towards death is long, drawn out, and frankly rather grim. It is a “serious” novella. A man comes to terms with his imminent death. There is very little joy. It is told from a third person narrator point of view, and I don’t think the identity of the narrator is ever revealed. It could just as well be a movie script, one of those “serious” films with little dialogue that wins an award for its cinematography or best adaptation of a novella.

Tolstoy himself was from aristocracy—his mother was a princess, and he was born with the title “Count,” back in the days when Russia was still a monarchy, a pre-industrial country ruled by czars. You would think this upbringing might explain this seeming sneer at bureaucrats like Ivan Ilych. However, the flyleaf of my edition of the book notes that Ivan Ilych was written …

… eight years after the publication of Anna Karenina—a time during which, despite the global success of his novels, Leo Tolstoy renounced fiction in favor of religious and philosophical tracts—The Death of Ivan Ilych represents perhaps the most keenly realized melding of Tolstoy’s spirituality with his artistic skills.

During the writing of this book, one of Tolstoy’s 13 children died, which may have heightened his focus on death. However, he increasingly became an ascetic, renouncing the church, private property, and “the demands of the flesh.” Imagine how his wife, mother of his 13 children, felt about this royalty-to-rags trajectory! As Mary Boyd writes in the New Yorker (2013), Tolstoy died “from pneumonia, aged eighty-two, at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village, on November 7, 1910. He had left his family home on October 28, in the middle of the night, walking out on his wife of forty-eight years—the long-suffering and increasingly paranoid Sonya. Grim, right?

That said, I’m glad I read this book, this novella. Before this, I was in awe of Tolstoy as a writer. Now, I’m still in awe of his writing, but I have a better picture of where he was coming from, and where he was going with this.

 

 

 

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