Best novel? Dude. Best criticism? Dude. Best poetry collection? A tie between two dudes. Best biography? A dude, writing about another dude.
It was shocking!
Okay, it was not shocking at all. When you’ve got an organization whose members flat-out admit that they find the male voice more powerful and persuasive than female one (and, mind you, these are the lady members saying so), what chance does a book like Olive Kittredge, linked stories about the goings-on in a small Maine town with a heroine who’s a grumpy middle-aged schoolteacher, have against Roberto Bolano’s sprawling, bloody 2666? None chance, that’s how much!
In other bookish news, I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one who noticed Times critic Janet Maslin’s strange foray into hot-or-not territory…and that I’m not the only one who’s noticed the Times Book Review’s strange practice of calling female writers by their first names and men by their last. Not that publishing Joan Acocella's letter (which began, marvelously, “I am writing, as I have before…”) means the Times will change its practice, but, you know. Baby steps.
I visited London and Dublin last week on my UK book tour (Certain Girls just came out over there), and had a marvelous time. I did a few TV interviews, a bunch of print and radio stuff, and ended up talking more than I normally do about being a Jewish-American author.
Over here, it doesn't feel like that big a deal, except for the odd critic who wants to turn it into one, but over there, writing explicitly Jewish characters who do Jewish things, like celebrate bat mitzvahs and make shiva calls, seemed a bit more...exotic? Or maybe it was just my publisher's way of distinguishing me from the pack.
I flew over Saturday night and had a wonderful Sunday all by myself, wandering lonely as a cloud, sans kiddos, enjoying the wonderful springlike weather, taking myself out for tea and curry, exploring the city, grooving on the accents and trying to restrain myself from telling Scottish men that they sounded exactly like Shrek.
In the course of the week I got to visit a number of bookshops. It’s always interesting to see what books are selling, and what covers are working, overseas. My books look very different over there than they do over here. For instance, there’s an actual human woman’s face on their CERTAIN GIRLS cover, a sight you’d never, ever see here in the states, where you can show body parts and the backs of heads, but showing a woman’s face seems to be verboten.
The James Frey novel seems to be going gangbusters in paperback, for reasons nobody there seemed able to explain. Eat Pray Love? Not so much. I wonder if that’s because the notion of travel as a catalyst for spiritual growth doesn’t resonate as deeply in a country where students are expected to explore the world between high school and college, and where it’s easy for adults to hop on a plane or a train and jaunt off to Paris or Spain or Italy.
I broke out my new Kindle for the flights and, just as I’d hoped, after a while I did manage to forget that I was reading on an electronic device and just enjoyed reading. The book that did it? Laura Lippman’s LIFE SENTENCES, which I adored and am now urging all of my friends to buy (because I bought it for my Kindle, so I can’t pass it on. Sigh).
It’s about a writer named Cassandra whose first two books – tell-all memoirs about her family history and her sex life – were huge bestsellers. Her third book and first novel, though, is a flop. We meet our heroine on the eve of an excruciatingly rendered, poorly attended book reading, where nobody wants to talk about the new work and everyone has questions about the old ones and (reader, take note) about what gives Cassandra the right to tell the stories.
Half-asleep in her hotel room later that night, Cassandra overhears a snippet on CNN about an old grade-school classmate who served seven years in prison for infanticide because she refused to tell authorities where her infant son had gone, or what had happened to him. Cassandra decides to go home to her old neighborhood in Baltimore, look up her old friends, and get to the bottom of the mystery and turn it all into a book.
What happens after that is a delicious tangle of secrets and lies, complicated histories, divided loyalties, and the ways memory turns into a mirror in which we all seek our most flattering reflections. I can’t say enough about the book, and I probably shouldn’t say any more. Just get it. You won’t be sorry.