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!