Monday, November 27, 2017


As I'm a bookseller, I thought I'd post a few of my favorite books for consideration this holiday season.  Of course you can buy them as gifts,  but you could also be a devil and buy one for yourself - for that quiet moment curled up in a corner after Christmas dinner, when everyone else is taking a nap.

 I wrote these up as staff picks for Politics and Prose.  There are many obvious choices this year in the literary fiction category, such as Lincoln in the Bardo, Exit West or Underground Railroad, but what about a lesser known title - such as this, by one of Ireland's greatest living writers.

It's been years since he came out with a new novel, but in Midwinter Break, Bernard MacLaverty gives us an elderly Irish couple living in Scotland, who take a brief trip to Amsterdam.  Over their long marriage, Gerry and Stella have forged a deep understanding, mutual fondness and regard.  They share habits, anecdotes and history and have a son now living in Canada with his wife and child.  But the title of this novel hints at another, more serious midwinter break: that of their marriage. Gerry is a retired architect with a serious drinking problem.  Though he's been trying to hide the full extent of it, Stella has had enough.  Unbeknownst to Gerry, she's arranged to visit a Dutch Beguinage where she imagines she might start a new chapter, filled with contemplation and purpose.  With heartrending insight, MacLaverty explores how the intimacies in a long marriage can sometimes obscure its deep fault lines, in this case, going back to a personal trauma the couple experienced during the Troubles.  MacLaverty's writing is pitch perfect and in this novel he's at the top of his game.

And where would we be without something to read by Karl Ove Knausgaard?

Here he is.  It was a joy to meet the man himself!
  His six volume epic My Struggle astonished us with its brutal candor and self-awareness.  It primarily centered on the author's painful relationship with his father.  By contrast, Autumn is a slender book with beautiful illustrations by Norwegian artist Vannessa Baird.  It is the first in a projected quartet, and gives us Knausgaard as a tender father speaking to his unborn daughter about everyday objects.   His descriptions run about two and a half pages in length, and flow in a seemingly random cascade, on subjects as diverse as doors, porpoises, vomit and labia; buttons, apples and chewing gum.  "It is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this, " he writes. "Showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living."  In one piece he writes of a family photograph where everything about the lives has been stripped away so that what remains is "what we ourselves don't see... that our lives are written in our faces and our bodies, but in a language so foreign we don't even know it is a language." Knausgaard's perspective is compelling and razor sharp, and as in My Struggle, he makes the ordinary feel vivid again, and strange.

I didn't tell you - but I had the extraordinary experience of working the event at Politics and Prose when Knausgaard came to town.  He was straight out of central casting.  Oh, the lilt of his Norwegian accent as he read from his memoir! And then afterwards, to be in his actual physical presence as he signed endless copies of his book - and towards the end ducked out to smoke a cigarette! Yes this was the actual Karl Ove himself!

For the more religious minded,  Garry Wills' powerful little book What the Qur'an Meant is the perfect choice.  His aim is to teach readers about the real Islam as it is laid out in the Qur'an. "Living with fear is corrosive,"  Wills writes.  "Ignorance is the natural ally of fear." He finds beautiful parallels between various canonical writings, as well as some poignant differences.

Many Hebrew prophets appear in the Qur'an, and here Adam and Eve are both tempted together.  But Eve is unnamed, as are all other women, with one exception: Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The Qur'an considers Moses and Jesus to be the two most important prophets prior to Muhammad, who stresses peace between the three faiths as well as obedience to one God.  It is Allah who works through all of them.  Conversely, Jihad is found nowhere in the Qur'an and the word Shariah appears only once, in reference to Muhammad following Allah's path.  This is a scholarly but thoroughly absorbing book which will make an unusual gift for anyone seeking new ways to revive their faith over the holiday season.

And no list would be complete without an art book.  There are many amazing coffee table titles to choose from this year - the obvious one being Pete Souza's incredible volume of Obama photographs.  But my pick for the season is Andy Goldsworthy's Projects, which chronicles 44 installations around the world, as they change and evolve with their environments.

This book, a companion volume to Goldsworthy's Ephemeral Works, includes stunning photographs, site maps and an extensive interview.  You'll find his usual cones and labyrinths made of wood and stone, but unlike his "ephemeral" works, whose construction marked an endpoint, these pieces begin life only when Goldsworthy finished them, for they evolve as they are weathered by the seasons.  He documents, for example, walls covered in porcelain clay, as they dry, crack and tear away, and enormous slate chambers, enclosing wind-fallen branches, which gradually transform as moss and fungi cover them.  He repaves an ancient forest track with rectangular stones and cuts a new path across an Ohio estate, always maintaining 950 feet above sea level.  An igloo of woven braches sits inside a pit, accessed through a doorway via steps in a terraced wall.  A flowing line of fallen cypress weaves through eucalyptus trees, which overtake a California landscape.  But whatever he does in these installations, Goldsworthy invites us to experience nature freshly.  This gorgeous glossy volume will make an extraordinary gift for the art or nature lover in your life.

And that, my friends, is it.

Except of course for the first volume of Philip Pullman's new projected trilogy The Book Of Dust. When I listened to the audiobook of La Belle Sauvage narrated by Michael Sheen I was completely transported to another time and place.  How could Pullman possibly outdo His Dark Materials? But he has!  The setting is again an alternate Oxford, complete with daemons, althiometers and Lyra, who in this first novel is only a baby.   The hero of the story is Malcolm Polstead who works at The Trout in Oxford and embarks on an epic journey in his canoe La Belle Sauvage, when floods threaten to destroy the world and Lyra's destiny.  Both the story and writing are extraordinary. And I have to say, this book is my favorite of the year!
It was my staff pick at Politics and Prose

Thursday, November 16, 2017


on the road again

It's been over a year since I posted on this blog.  I thought it was time to go dark since I had moved beyond it.  I had published one novel, and was busily finishing a second - and the second was in the hands of a new and capable agent who loved it.  It was going to be a great book club read, she said, and her British counterpart would also get busy pitching in the UK.

This wonderful new agent had given stellar advise during the revision process, much insightful criticism and superb suggestions about where I should take the narrative and the main character. We spent hours on the telephone talking about the book, and once she believed in it enough to represent it, she said she would not give up.

Then she gave up.

After sending it to nine editors who thought the narrative didn't have sufficient momentum, she told me she was sorry but she'd run out of steam.  But I should not give up.  I should keep on going, she said.  Oh, and she'd be happy to consider my NEXT book. 

Many of us have heard that one before - and I guess it's mean as a compliment. But this IS the book I've written, and it might be years before I finish another. 

 I remembered something a previous agent told me, when I asked what book she would love and also be able to sell.  She shook her head ruefully. "It doesn't exist," she said.  "You've already given me the book I love. But the book I could sell?  Well, that would be the next Obama memoir."

I was in a cafe in London's West End drinking flat whites with my daughter Rozzie and our friend Walter. "Maybe I should write that Obama memoir," I said. "I will call it The Stupidity of Hope."

"I've got a better title," Rozzie said with a smile. "How about The Irrelevance of Hope?" 

Thus this blog was born: something to occupy, amuse and glean a readership. I wrote for pure enjoyment.  I wasn't trying to sell anything. I was just writing - and it was fun to write freely and find readers who responded.

Then my agent actually sold my first novel to a small independent publisher in London.  I was thrilled.  Sure, there was no distribution - but what did I care!  The spell of non-publication had at last been broken and I could move on.

So after a while I stopped writing this blog. I was now writing a new book.  But just like the game Monopoly you do not always pass go or collect your $200.  So I'm going round the board again with a new book which evidently cannot sell. 

At least, not yet.

"You aren't at square one," said an optimistic colleague - a bookseller and poet. "You've learned something new." 

Yes.  I have. And though disheartened, I will no doubt keep on writing just as I keep on reading.  I'm taking stock. And will revise. 

Also, the writing and reading world rolls on and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. 

What a tonic it was to host Chris Matthews, when he discussed his book Bobby Kennedy A Raging Spirit.

I have stimulating discussions every month in my book clubs with other readers - and I'm honored to be involved with Fall For The Book Festival

Here's Mohsin Hamid - who spoke at 2017 Fall for the Book

And here's Colson Whitehead, another featured speaker at our festival

I'm going to post new material here about book events or books I'm reading or maybe the writing process itself and I hope we can get a conversation going.  Maybe there are new frontiers in publishing and maybe we can talk about those.  This is The Irrelevance of Hope Take Two!  And hope is not irrelevant.  I was only joking.  So please come along for the ride!

Friday, September 2, 2016


The cheese man is packing his parasol into a grey canvas sleeve.  The olive man is talking to the fois gras man and we in the cafe underneath the trees are talking to each other. We are drinking rose.   Francois writes his postcards. Rozzie is annoyed at Rilke and reads out passages. Then we are talking  about the enigma of arrival and the enigma of happily ever after and there are other conversations all around us, in French and Basque. Also a baby is crying in the background.

On other days we have walked with Noreen and Bardan from their house to the beach. We have taken that long walk sometimes twice a day,  down the grassy path and up across the road and down the hill past a little school and the field which once had donkeys, through the underpass and into this square and across to the bakery to buy our pain au chocolat. We stop at the overlook and gasp at the breathtaking view - then head down the winding path and steps to the beach.  And then comes a favorite interlude: drinking our coffee and eating our pain au chocolat, talking and watching the water.

Later, we might swim.  But today we are not swimming because it feels too hot. Also Noreen and Bardan have gone to a lunch party.   So we came to the market to purchase supplies for an evening picnic.  And now we have them and now the market is closing.

There are beards and earrings and flip flops, tanned arms and faces. Here there are bottles of perrier and laughter and coffee and in the square beyond the cafe is a lot of packing up and stacking up of left over boxes and produce.

Some of the children are bored by now, but the day continues with its hot blue sky and red slate roofs and green leaves pruned to reach upwards.  I love the solid dark red of the balconies. 

In the sunlight and shadow of the town hall entrance, children scamper round the pillars playing peek a boo.  The view through the archway is shaded and empty,  it's the only empty place,  framing its distant view of hills, sea and sky.

The panama hat seller calls it a day and heads through the archway, leaving the stage of Place Sauveur Atchoearena. A child sits on the steps and mists his face with water.  The air smells ripe, like melon.

The frowning brown girl in an orange halter, her neck and arms covered in tattoos, sits at a cafe table with sunglasses on her head, eating pizza.

White vans pull in behind to take away crates, collapsed awnings and left over produce.

A mother and daughter at the next table wear big summer hats. They are chatting with the tall thin woman with tattooed arms and yellow framed glasses, who balances a crate on one hip.

Tired children are hauled up and carried home by their mothers.  The waiter in an apron straightens chairs, his tray full of glasses and bottles.  A pretty girl in a blue t shirt and cap sweeps the paving, her gold hoop earring glinting in the sun.    Then down comes the hand painted sign Marche Gourmand. 


Dear Stranger,

I found your triple band Cartier ring on the beach in Bidart.  It was dusk and I was walking with Noreen.  The beach was practically deserted.  I left for America early the following morning.  I now have your ring on my finger.  Contact me here and give me the inscription and I will gladly return it. 


Thursday, August 11, 2016


Mechanicals and Fairy kings
My dear friend Charlie Weber just sent some photographs he'd taken of our Midsummer Nights Dream party this year. I feel compelled to share them - as well as a few others taken over the years, of summer celebrations, friendship, fairies, lovers and mechanicals.

Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?

Sometimes Ben or Elliot and others organize readings from the play.

There might be sparklers or even fireworks.

One of the things I love most, is that younger members of our party, have grown up coming here on midsummer night.  Val, who is getting married next month, was remembering this year how she came to the party as a child and danced around with sparklers!

Helen blowing bubbles - and Molly watching

Charlie - who took the best pics on the blog post!

About ten years ago, we celebrated in Rome.
 Walter came from London and rearranged the apartment while I was out purchasing the wine and cheese.  The place looked like a set by the time he had finished. Lucy also came from London, wearing a good amount of glitter and are Walter and Lucy and above them Silvia and Noreen chatting together in their fairy wings.

Last year Alex flew in from Australia. That was a beautiful moment.  My sister in law Clare drove up with him from New York.
Elliot and Alex

And Louise can always be counted on for some kick ass fireworks, fairy wings, recitations - you name it.  Noodles!  This year she brought all kinds of noodles!


There's something about being under the trees as the moon and fire flies come out.

How I love thee. How I dote on thee!

Saturday, August 6, 2016


So what have you been reading? I love it when somebody asks me that question - or when I can ask that question and hear some interesting answers. Although I  won't be on holiday myself until late August when I'll visit my dear friend Noreen in Biarritz,  I'm already wondering what should I bring her.  I work in a bookstore! Surely I must find something unusual. Here are a few top choices.

 Han Kang's The Vegetarian winner of this years Man Booker International prize, was a favorite at our bookstore this summer. Several colleagues were reading and discussing it, so I also picked up this electrifying, erotic story about compulsion and damage.  It's told from several points of view and centers around Yeong-hye, who after a series of troubling dreams, announces she's becoming a vegetarian.  But her traditional Korean family sees this decision as subversive.  Then her brother-in-law, a painter,  secretly recruits her for his art installation and paints her body in flowers. Who is damaged? And what does it mean to take a stand? And is Yeong-hye the blank canvas everybody thinks she is, or is she more complex than her well-adjusted sister?  I was riveted by this story from start to finish, and utterly drawn in to its peculiar world.

Which brings me to Hanya Yanagiharaso's A Little Life- National Book Award finalist and runner up for the Booker Prize. This hefty novel follows a circle of New York friends from their twenties into their fifties. One of them is scarred by childhood abuse and trauma. He's also a cutter, so the scarring continues. If you thought The Vegetarian was a heart breaker, try this on for size. I found myself wondering if it is ever possible to love a damaged person out of their damage and beyond it. How we want that answer to be simple! Accompanying these characters through their struggle is at times Dickensian, if not downright Voltairian in scope, but in the end, maybe my question about damage no longer makes much sense.

And now I desperately need something light! That's where Geoff Dyers' White Sands comes in.  I zipped right through these essays for their intelligence, humor and range. If you liked  his collection Yoga For People Who Cant Be Bothered To Do It, you will enjoy this too. His essay on visiting the northern lights is laugh out loud Dyer at his best.

But my favorite read of the last several months has to be Magda Szabo's The Door.  It's a story of  fierce loyalty and deep incompatibility between Magda Szabo  and her housekeeper Emerence. Magda is an important writer devoted to the life of the mind. But Emerence is a Hungarian peasant, immaculate, tireless, and with rules that are set in stone. You will become thoroughly engaged in Magda's struggle to find intimacy with this woman who although very close to her heart, frequently drives her to distraction.

And by the way, look out for an upcoming release - Szabo's novel Iza's Ballad  newly translated by George Szirtes- in another New York Review Of Books edition to be published in October.

Another lovely book I picked up this season was I Refuse by Per Petterson. His Out Stealing Horses was recommended by novelist and friend Anna Jaquiery.  In poetic, unpretentious and precise language,  it delivered complex characters facing down their demons  And here, a chance early morning encounter, rekindles painful memories for two friends who have since grown apart. Petterson is great on the deep longings  and the essential loneliness of his characters against a sparse Norwegian landscape. It's a trip worth taking.

I'd also like to recommend Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton for  its smooth as silk psychological complexity and heart.  Also Bonnie Nadzam's new novel Lion. Loved her debut Lamb.  So want to love this too.  But  I have to confess, I'm still only half way through...

And let me give a final shout out to Lara Vapnaya's latest novel Still Here. When Russian friends living in New York struggle to find meaning in the digital age, one develops an app called Virtual Grave, designed to maintain a dead person’s on-line presence.  But is the virtual grave technology itself?  Vapnayar’s best pages return to Moscow, where a messy and difficult experience is vividly recounted.

Happy Reading everyone!

Sunday, July 24, 2016


Our tree before it became a mob scene
A little downy woodpecker used to hop down the tree trunk in front of our terrace. He was on his way to a log of birdseed which we'd hung on a branch. It was specifically intended for birds like him, because it included hot peppers.  Squirrels don't like hot peppers but evidently birds can't taste them.

Our woodpecker had a system. He'd hop down quite deliberately and then when he could see the birdseed, he'd cock his head prettily before alighting on the feeder.  Cardinals and other small birds also visited frequently.  But the larger greedier birds couldn't get a grip on this bird feeder - and we liked it that way.

Then I was somehow convinced by the kind woman at For the Birds in McLean that I should buy a different bird feeder - with a grill and a stand that woodpeckers would be able to land on more comfortably.  I could also purchase a whole crate of bird seed cakes in one go. It would be cheaper and much more efficient.
friend or foe?

The unfortunate result was a mob scene. The whole bird feeder was flocked with noisy birds which before I hadn't noticed. At first I thought they were starlings but after a quick internet search I realized they were grackles.  Grackles are considered to be pests by farmers because not only do they flock but they fight and squawk and can destroy a crop in a matter of days.  In our case, they left droppings all over the patio furniture. I had created a monster!

So I took the bird feeder down, returned the bird seed cakes to the shop in Mclean and bought another roll of hot pepper bird seed - the one that only little birds can alight on. "Grackles are a pain," said the woman in the bird store.  "If you can figure out how to keep the grackles away from your feeders, we can make a lot of money." She told me her friends made fun of her sometimes - because she puts out seed to encourage the birds and ends up shooing them away.

I learned that neighborhoods can change, depending on what is there to attract them. I've also realized lately that there is another neighborhood emerging in the human population, with huge houses taking the place of large wooded lots.  Across the street they've just finished cutting down all the trees and shrubs, so they can lay an enormous foundation for a five bedroom, multiple bathroom house.

One street over, where I often walk the dogs, there are three empty houses side by side. One that used to belong to our neighbor Ted is slated for demolition. When Ted was younger, he walked his dog around the block and often stopped to chat.  But when his dog died, we didn't see as much of him - unless it was when he stepped out of his back door to throw peanuts for the squirrels.  A few months back, I routinely saw him making his way down the front path and holding a long stick with pincers on the end. He used the pincers to pick up his newspaper.  Then he made his ponderous way back and closed the door.  Ted passed away this spring and his house is now empty with a big developers sign in the front.

very old fashioned, but this was Ted's home

So the other morning, when I was walking the dogs, I decided to take a peak into Ted's garden. It felt a little intrusive, but also harmless - like visiting a secret garden from the past. After all, how many visitors will this garden have before it is no more?  Just outside Ted's sun room on the concrete porch, I saw a table with his old glass ashtray.  This must have been where he did his day dreaming.

In the back there's an enormous silver maple, also a brick path wending its way to a birdbath.  It's a path to nowhere, beautiful because it is something to follow with your eye, into the trees, across the grass. It is redolent with the past and with imagination.
Ted's tree and his path to nowhere

The house directly next door to us is also empty and it too will soon be torn down.  Sometimes I go into their back garden, just to pay tribute to someone else's dreams.  Because this is what a home used to look like, with plenty of room to dream.
These trees will soon be gone
Nowadays, people's dreams seem very different. And when developers dream, it starts off looking like this.

construction site across the road