Books Worth Reading

July 2014

The Gorgeous Nothings: The Envelope Poems of Emily Dickinson

By |07.18.14|


For Proust,” Susan Howe writes in her Preface to The Gorgeous Nothings, “a fragment is a morsel of time in its pure state; it hovers between a present that is immediate and a past that […]

January 2014

Skyscrapers: A Cure For Loneliness & Overconsumption? Judith Dupré on the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings

By |01.09.14|

Books Worth Reading
Skyscrapers: A History of the World’s Most Extraordinary Buildings
By Judith Dupré. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 176 pages

Architecture is the art form we spend the most time with in our daily lives, and […]

December 2013

Gwarlingo’s 26 Favorite Art, Photography, Film & Design Books of 2013

By |12.12.13|


As an ex-librarian and book collector, one of my favorite things to do is to ferret out new publications and share them with readers. Whenever I’m traveling, I scour local bookstores and museum shops for […]

Chop-Suey, Automats, & Diamondback Terrapin: Michael Lesy & Lisa Stoffer on Dining in America

By |12.01.13|

Wisconsin Death Trip
My first introduction to the work of Michael Lesy was a chance encounter many years ago with his classic photography book Wisconsin Death Trip. Flipping through the images of children in coffins and grim-faced […]

November 2013

Writer Howard Mansfield on Clutter, Home Improvement & the Most Hated House on the Block

By |11.19.13|


“Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” -Samuel Mockbee
The Click & Clack of Clutter

I am fascinated by how houses succeed or fail to shelter us, body and soul, ” says writer Howard Mansfield […]

A New Orleans Hospital Becomes Hell: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial

By |11.04.13|


How do we cope with a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina? Do we learn the necessary lessons and adjust accordingly, or do we simply slip back into a state of denial? How prepared […]

September 2013

Daily Rituals: How Artists Create (And Avoid Creating) Their Art

By |09.25.13|


One Sunday in 2007 Mason Currey was sitting alone in the office of his employer—an architecture magazine—trying (and failing) to finish an article that was due the next day. Instead of getting down to business, […]

Postcards from a Prison Teacher

By |09.11.13|


2.3 million people are currently imprisoned in the United States, that’s one out of every 100 adults—more per capita than any other country in the world. (Repressive China is a distant second, with one in […]

June 2013

I Never Knew How Blue Blueness Could Be: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

By |06.12.13|



One of the joys of Gwarlingo is meeting art lovers from around the world. Sigrun Hodne and I found each other early in Gwarlingo’s short history, and though she lives in Norway, and I in New Hampshire, I’m constantly amazed by how similar our passions are when it comes to books and art. (If you aren’t familiar with her excellent arts blog Sub Rosa, I encourage you to subscribe.)

Sigrun has studied architecture in Oxford, art history and film in Stavanger, Norway, and literature in Bergen, Norway. (She wrote her Master’s thesis on “Self and Subjectivity in Samuel Beckett’s trilogy; Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable”). She has taught aesthetics in art schools and universities and has done research in language and psychosis. She currently works as an art and literature critic and is attempting to make a living as a writer (no small feat!).

There has been a strange serendipity with Sigrun across the miles. She will write about a particular artist, book, or subject at the same time I’m also investigating that specific topic.

So it was with Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009). I was late to the party with this one, but I quickly discovered why this slender volume is considered a literary masterpiece in certain circles (and a cult classic in others). Nelson’s meditation on the color blue, lost love, and depression is a brilliant, effective experiment that defies categorization. This is not only one of the best books I’ve read this year, but one of the best books I’ve read, period.

When Sigrun posted about Bluets on her blog at the very moment I was also discovering Nelson’s publication, I emailed and asked if she would be willing to write a short piece about the book. What follows is her essay, and a special excerpt from Bluets.

A special thanks to Sigrun Hodne, Maggie Nelson, and Wave Books for sharing their work.



I Never Knew How Blue Blueness Could Be
by Sigrun Hodne
Lets dive in, give in, lets go where things already have gotten tricky, messy – confused, where words and meanings are bouncing off in different directions, lets have a look at fragment number fifty-one:
51. You might as well act as if objects had the colors, The Encyclopedia says. –Well, it is as you please. But what would it look like to act otherwise?
Indeed, what would it look like to act otherwise?

Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets (Wave Books, 2009) is a bastard, a hybrid, transgressing all and every genre, as they are yet known. Partly essay, partly poetry, it’s a collection of fragments, of quotations, a memoir with a hint of philosophical investigations. Bluets won’t land in any category. But let’s, for the sake of simplicity, call it a long lyrical essay.

A long lyrical essay on the color blue—blue in a public, scientific, and historical sense, but also blue in the most personal sense.

There are several plot-lines: love, pain, friendship, and loss, to mention just a few.

This is how it all begins:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
In art-history, color has often been understood as secondary to form, as something that “fills” the form. In Nelson’s work color take on the lead role (– just as love, the color blue is not an optional supplement, an accidental add-on).
2. And so, I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
A book about the color blue, what a peculiar idea!
13. At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than an ash of sleeve falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
Let’s go back to where we started, repeating our initial question: “… what would it look like to act otherwise?”
53. “We mainly suppose the experiential quality to be an intrinsic quality of the physical object” —this is the so-called systematic illusion of color. Perhaps it is also that of love. But I am not willing to go there—not just yet. I believed in you.
“Acting otherwise,” rejecting the systematic illusion of color is, I believe, to abandon a very central social norm: an understanding of the world as a place looking in a certain way – the same way – for each and every one of us. Systematic illusions are the basis of our impression that we share an external reality; it’s the place we meet and interconnect. Systematic illusions make us believe in a common world. ‘Acting otherwise’ is to reject common sense, renouncing the company of humans, and thereby subjecting oneself to alienation and solitude. The extreme consequence of rejecting the systematic illusions of humanity is finally ostracization, solipsism—
—falling silent.
“… But I am not willing to go there—not just yet….”



Bluets, An Excerpt
by Maggie Nelson
14. I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book
about blue without actually doing it. Mosty what happens
in such cases is that people give you stories or leads
or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead
of with words. Over the past decade I have been given
blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks,
precious stones, watercolors, pigments, paperweights,
goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man
who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli,
solely because he loved the stone, and to another who
worships blue so devoudy that he refuses to eat blue food
and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden,
which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives.
I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo
in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s
Blue in heartbreaking drag, and another with the face of a
derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this
one the prince of blue, which was, in fact, his name.
15. I think of these people as my blue correspondents,
whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.


Architect Says: Less Is More. Less Is a Bore.

By |06.05.13|



Philadelphia is a city awash with memorable architecture, so it’s fitting that I stumbled across The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s store, which offers a well-curated assortment of books inside of Horace Trumbauer’s imposing Greek structure prominently situated on Fairmont Hill.

Laura Dushkes, the book’s editor, works as a librarian at NBBJ architectural firm in Seattle and began collecting quotes about architecture while purchasing, reading, and cataloging books about design for the firm. The Architect Says: Quotes, Quips, and Words of Wisdom is an elegant compendium of quotations from more than 100 of history’s most opinionated—and dissenting—minds.

The book offers a fascinating glimpse at the creative process. “It’s not a sign of creativity to have sixty-five ideas for one problem,” says Jan Kaplicky. “It’s just a waste of energy.” Then there’s this quote by Charles Eames: “Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem — the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible — his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time and so forth.”

Dushkes’ layout and sequencing of quotes also highlights sharp differences of opinion in the field of design: Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is more” versus Robert Venturi’s response, “Less is a bore” is a good example. I also like these rifts on Louis Sullivan’s observation that “form ever follows function”: “Form follows form, not function,” says Philip Johnson or “Form follows profit.” (Richard Rogers).

Also interesting is the relationship between architecture and other creative fields. “I learn more from creative people in other disciplines than I do even from other architects because I think they have a way of looking at the world that is really important,” says Seattle-based architect and MacDowell Colony fellow Tom Kundig.

But there are differences between creative fields too, as Renzo Piano points out: “You can put down a bad book; you can avoid listening to bad music; but you cannot miss the ugly tower block opposite your house.”

(Click pages to enlarge)













March 2013

“Naughty Nun” Mary Johnson on Existential Crisis & Mother Teresa

By |03.07.13|





When Mary Johnson left Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity after 20 years of service, she had to learn to pump her own gasoline, to use a microwave and ATM, and to make her own decisions. For this self-described “naughty nun” to begin life again at the age of 39 was not a transgression, but an act of bravery.

With so many stories in the news about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the investigation of American nuns, and the Pope’s recent retirement, Johnson’s memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst, offers a rare and provocative glimpse inside an institution that typically remains hidden from public view. The political maneuvering and willingness to turn a blind eye to harmful, even criminal, behavior that Johnson describes should not come as a surprise, and yet it does.

If you’re a fan of the writers Karen Armstrong or Kathleen Norris, I highly recommend An Unquenchable Thirst. Johnson is compassionate in her criticism, but portrays a religious institution in the midst of an identity crisis. As Johnson shows us, even saints have their faults, and a rabid focus on suffering is not only demoralizing for those who serve the Church, but ultimately to the Catholic religion as a whole.







February 2013

Ai Weiwei’s Little Black Book

By |02.06.13|



I didn’t expect a publication that has been touted as one of the “Best Art Books of 2012″ to stand just six inches tall and contain only two photographs. But as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new book Weiwei-isms proves, small can be powerful.

This slim, pocket-sized volume compiles quotes made by Ai in interviews, in newspaper articles, on his blog, and via Twitter.

“Chairman Mao was the first in the world to use Twitter,” says Ai. “All his quotations are within 140 words.”

Weiwei-isms, published by Princeton University Press and designed by Pamela Schnitter with art direction by Maria Lindenfeldar, is brilliantly executed, and the high-quality paper and sewn binding are a pleasure to leaf through.

Ai’s reference to Mao is important, for his book cleverly satirizes the Chairman’s infamous book of quotations, ironically referred to as the Little Red Book in the West.

Like Weiwei-isms, Mao’s book of quotations was also pocket-sized for easy reading. The Little Red Book is reportedly one of the most printed books in history and at one point “was essentially an unofficial requirement for every Chinese citizen to own, to read, and to carry it at all times during the latter half of Mao’s rule, especially during the Cultural Revolution.”

According to Wikipedia, “studying the book was not only required in schools, but was also a standard practice in the workplace as well. All units, in the industrial, commercial, agricultural, civil service, and military sectors, organized group sessions for the entire workforce to study the book during working hours.” The small, red volume frequently appeared in propaganda posters from the period, some of which I’ve collected here…









It is impossible to fully grasp the political punch of Weiwei-isms without some knowledge of Mao’s own publication. By creating his own little black book of quotations, Ai is drawing a bold line in the sand and daring his government to cross it.

And that is exactly what the Chinese government did in April of 2011 when police arrested Ai at the Beijing airport and held him in an undisclosed location for 81 days without filing official charges.

Friends and family were desperate for news. The U.S. and E.U. protested his detention and supporters around the world responded with a Free Ai Weiwei campaign that included protests in Hong Kong, Germany, and Taiwan, a Release Ai Weiwei sign atop the Tate Modern, and a 24-hour silent protest at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where individuals sat in two Chinese chairs for one-hour periods in collective protest. Creative Time’s “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” asked artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world “to sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release.”

When Ai finally was released from jail, he emerged from captivity thinner and visibly shaken. He was sentenced to house arrest and prohibited from leaving Beijing for a year.

“The 81 days of detention were a nightmare,” Ai says in Weiwei-isms. “I am not unique; it happened to many people in China. Conditions were extreme, created by a system that thinks it is above the law and has become a kind of monstrous machine. There were so many moments when I felt desperate and hopeless. But still, the next morning, I heard the birds singing.”




January 2013

Soaring High: The Art of Auto-Giros, Rocket Planes, Airships, & Strange Aircraft

By |01.18.13|



It’s Friday and another week has almost come and gone without a mid-week post on Gwarlingo. Apologies to Gwarlingo readers for neglecting everyone but the poets the past 14 days. I’ve been traveling on business and working on an exciting (arts-related) project down in Philadelphia. While Gwarlingo is my priority, other projects and deadlines sometimes intervene. I’ll be catching up on new stories, reviews, email, and members profiles in the coming days.

I have an in-depth story about film, Yo La Tengo, and Buckminster Fuller to share with you next week. But while I put the finishing touches on my interview with filmmaker Sam Green, here’s something fun to kick-off your Friday and the coming weekend.

Perusing the shelves of used bookstores is one of my favorites ways to spend an afternoon. Recently, a friend and I were rifling through boxes and teetering stacks of used books in an overstuffed shop when I found this little gem, Soaring High.



The book is a mystery. There is no publication date or publisher name. It only says Printed in Japan. I could find nothing like it online.

I love the colorful illustrations and the glimpse of air travel almost a century ago. (When is the last time you heard the word auto-giro used?) The page showing Strange Aircraft and a Rocket Plane is downright comical.

One of the things I miss most about working in a library is browsing books by the dozen, most especially children’s books.

There is so much history in these wrinkled, torn pages.

Enjoy your Friday and have a fabulous weekend!


(Click on images to enlarge)














December 2012

The Complete Creative Part 4 : Christian McEwen on the Art of Happiness

By |12.18.12|



The holidays have their bright spots: the homemade bourbon balls, the annual viewing of Charlie Brown and the Grinch, the twinkling lights, spending quality time with family and friends, the Messiah performances and sing-a-longs.

But for most of us, the holidays also mean stress. The extra errands, the shopping, the cooking and baking, the decorating, etc. are hard enough, but it’s our attempt to satisfy the expectations of others that causes most of our anxiety over the holidays. There is pressure to find the right gifts, to have “the perfect” Christmas Day, and to make family, colleagues, and friends happy. Whether this means we make the same-old Jell-O salad or sausage stuffing for Christmas dinner, participate in the Yankee Swap at the office, spend more money than we should on gifts, or lapse into our usual daughter/mother/brother/son/father/sister/friend/favorite aunt/uncle roles, attempting to please others is stressful, particularly when our own values are not aligned with those around us.

If you’re like me, you begin to feel a bit crazy when you don’t have quiet time to think, process, and work on your own creative projects. As artists, we need to “make” and “create” and the holidays disrupt this usual routine. The onslaught of ads urging us to buy, buy, buy! and the frenzy of Christmas consumerism can easily make us feel out of sync with the rest of the culture. It takes intention and awareness to remain true to our own values at this time of year.



I’ve been struggling to maintain a healthy balance myself this holiday, but a chapter from Christian McEwen’s book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down recently stopped me in my tracks and forced me to step back and think about priorities.

Gwarlingo readers had an overwhelmingly positive response to my last feature on Christian McEwen, and I know some of you have purchased her book already. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and give World Enough & Time to yourself this holiday season. Christian has much to say about living slowly and deliberately, and this is the perfect book to keep you centered through the holidays and into the New Year. (It’s a thoughtful gift for stressed-out friends and family too.)

Though McEwen currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, she grew up in the Borders of Scotland “in a big old-fashioned house” with “beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens” and “a perpetual drone of adult anxiety about school fees and taxes and the latest heating bill.”

In this excerpt from the final chapter of World Enough & Time, “A Day So Happy,” Christian ponders subjects like consumerism, gratitude, slowness, generosity, and happiness, and shares insights from some of the world’s most interesting writers, thinkers, and artists.

I hope you find Christian’s writing as enriching as I have. But I also hope you find time over the next two weeks to slow down and savor the small, pleasurable moments.

This excerpt from World Enough & Time is my gift to you this holiday season. Enjoy.





World Enough & Time by Christian McEwen
From Chapter 12:  “A Day So Happy”



Take someone who doesn’t keep score,
who’s not looking to be richer, or afraid of losing, 
who has not the slightest interest even
in his own personality. He’s free.


“I want! I want!”
In May 1793, William Blake published a strange little etching. It shows a naked sprite poised at the foot of a long ladder that leads up and up into the sky, grazing the slim crescent of the moon. The sprite’s voice is visible in the caption underneath. “I want! I want!” it says.

American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. But here on earth, the sprite’s thin voice still whines across our airwaves: confirmation of our “hungry ghost” economy.  In the Buddhist tradition, the hungry ghost has a huge belly and a tiny throat, but however much it eats, it’s never satisfied. In the same way, we in the United States live with continually exacerbated “wanting-mechanisms,” always hurried, harried, obsessive, greedy, yearning. Such greed and neediness shows up even in our children, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes in one of her poems:

Since when do children sketch dreams with price-tags attached?
Don’t tell me they were born this way.
We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

What has been planted is the I want! I want! of advertising, which thrives on envy and dissatisfaction. Advertising tells us that happiness can be bought if we will only put our minds to it, that we need only acquire the right house, the right appliances, the right car and TV and personal computer, and perpetual satisfaction will be ours. In the last sixty years, we have listened attentively to such messages, and done our best to put them into practice. We consume twice as much now as we did in 1945. Our houses are three times as big as they were then. We are forever stockpiling more possessions. But happiness has continued to elude us.



According to a recent health survey, Americans are, in fact, the unhappiest people on the planet.  9.6% of us suffer from depression or bi-polar illness – the highest rate of all the nations surveyed. In 2006 alone, some 227 million antidepressant medications were prescribed in the United States. Even the very richest among us claim an average happiness of 5.8 (on a scale of 0 to 7), the equivalent of the Inuit people of Greenland, and the cattle-herding Masai of Kenya. Meanwhile, the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, whose people live in mud huts with no electricity or running water, and whose only currency is pigs, has been rated as the happiest place on earth.

I am writing this in October 2008, when the $700 billion bailout package has just been signed into law. The aging colossus of American capitalism has already begun to falter. It is clear, even now, that our easy assumptions of privilege, our many years of greed and peace and prosperity, are finally drawing to a close. Not even the richest and most well ensconced can be certain of what lies ahead. At such times, a capacity for happiness is far from trivial. It is, instead, one of the few crucial strengths we have available: potent antidote to self-absorption and despair, welcome guide to grace and gratitude and praise.



November 2012

What is Love? Joan Wickersham’s The News from Spain Has Some Surprising Answers

By |11.28.12|



“A story . . . can become close, airless. You cannot stay shut up in your own head anymore; you need a break, some fresh air. Let’s go outside: We’ll take a walk, down a New York City side street. It’s 1944 . . . ’’

This line from Joan Wickersham’s new book, The News from Spain, could easily be a comment on the author’s own view of short stories. At recent readings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peterborough, New Hampshire, Wickersham explained her love/hate relationship with the genre. “Too often every word and sentence in a short story points to some pivotal ‘a-ha’ moment. Many stories lack the roominess and depth of novels, which is a quality I appreciate in long fiction.”

Henry James famously called novels “large loose baggy monsters,” a wonderful description of the genre as realized by Tolstoy and Thackeray if ever there was one. But frequently it’s this “bagginess” that gives us a sense of life beyond the pages of the book. Novels are splendid at conveying the whole sweep of history, whether it’s personal or geographic history. While we, as readers, are only privy to specific scenes, conversations, or memories, writers like Flaubert, Franzen, and Faulkner excel at providing clues to both future and past. There is life beyond the pages of the novel, and in the hands of a talented writer, we have no trouble imagining what that life might be like.

As a friend of mine once said after completing a novel whose title I can’t recall: “After I finished, I couldn’t stop worrying about the main character. What’s going to happen to her?” Such an emotional, concerned response is a sure sign that the writer has accomplished his or her task.



The brilliance of The News from Spain is that Joan Wickersham has ambitiously aimed for the scope and depth of a novel, but contained her writing within seven elegant “love” stories, each titled The News from Spain. How she has managed to squeeze so much insight, humor, and inventiveness into 208 pages astonishes me.

Wickersham understands that love comes in many forms and turns the traditional notion of “a love story” on its head. In The News from Spain we experience the rocky, but profound, love between mother and daughter, the discomfort of “settling” for a marriage partner, and the naivete of a young girl at boarding school being used.

As Wickersham poignantly demonstrates, love is a product not only of good and bad choices, but also of chance and timing that is beyond our control:
You meet someone, you fall in love, you marry. You  meet someone, you fall in love, it turns into a disaster. You meet someone, you fall in love, but one of you is married, or both are: you have or don’t have an affair. You meet someone, you fall in love, but are never quite sure if your feelings are returned. You meet someone, you fall in love but you are able to keep your feelings mostly hidden; occasionally they cough, or break a dinner plate, or burn down the kitchen (accidentally? On purpose?), but mostly they stay out of sight when other people are around. At night they have the run of the house. It’s a creepy, even sinister, ménage.
Wickersham’s greatest strength is that her empathy for the human condition runs deep, and she is able to transport the reader into her characters’ lives with humor, precision, and (let’s just be honest) some damn fine writing. If you write fiction, brace yourself for some serious pangs of jealousy. This is some of the best fiction writing I’ve encountered in years. While reading, I couldn’t resist marking the sentences that stunned me–the passages that hit me like a splash of cold water on the face. By the time I finished Wickersham’s book, my review copy of The News from Spain was a mess of check marks, asterisks, underlines, and marginalia. That’s how good it is.



In one of my favorite stories, a biographer, his wife and young child visit a former actress named Alice, who is the widow of a race car driver the biographer is researching. Alice’s  youthful, glamorous days in the spotlight, with its cocktail parties and world travels with her famous, handsome husband Denis, are long gone. Her alcoholism is luckily in check, but she now lives and works as a companion for a rich couple in order to make ends meet. There is affection and humor between Alice and her boss, Marjorie, but the class divide creates tension, as in this passage where Alice tries to say “No” when Marjorie asks her to go to town to pick up her library books:
So Alice had this perplexing, nuanced job, which had saved her life and which made saying even a rare “No” to Marjorie somewhat complicated and difficult. Alice thought it was a bit like a pinball machine, the “No” a little silver ball that you shot off as strategically as you could, but always with a sense of randomness, and then you stood and watched it ricocheting and bouncing off a series of moods and obligations and generous acts and small stored resentments and moments of gratitude and ingratitude, wondering curiously where it would come out. It might help to send another silver ball after it, to careen around and run into, perhaps altering its course: an explanation.
“It’s just that I have these young people coming to spend the day,” she told Marjorie. “A writer, in fact. He’s working on something about Denis.”
“Oh, how exciting,” Marjorie said, vexation apparently forgotten. “Now is this the same one who was here—let’s see, was it two years ago? Three?”
“No, that was a screenwriter,” Alice said
“And did anything ever happen about that? Do you hear from him?”
“He sent me a couple of Christmas cards, but not this past year. No, I’m sure I would have heard if a movie had actually been made.”
“Yes, we’d probably notice that, wouldn’t we?” Marjorie said laughing. “We’d notice if we were at the movies and it was the story of Alice. I think we’d notice.”


In each tale, Wickersham masterfully weaves in the phrase, “the news from Spain.” This is an idea that could be gimmicky, but in Wickerhsam’s deft hands it gives the collection an even greater sense of momentum and cohesion. In this comic scene the biographer, Charlie, questions Alice about the day her husband Denis died. Charlie is annoyed that his wife Liza has decided to tag along, but the two women quickly bond:


September 2012

15+ Books Worth Reading from Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine

By |09.19.12|


I do quite a bit of traveling for Gwarlingo these days and one of the best things about being on the road is discovering out-of-the way, independent bookshops. For me, walking into a deftly run, well-curated bookstore is almost as good as losing myself in a bang-up novel: there’s a sense of forgetting, as well as discovery.

That is exactly how I felt when I walked into Lacy Simons’ shop Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine, in late August.

I was fresh from a week on a boat and was literally finding my “land legs” when I stopped into the Rock City Cafe for a cup of coffee. Hello Hello Books is tucked away at the back of the cafe, but don’t let its location or size fool you. As one Hello Hello customer recently said, the store “is small, but powerful.”

I knew I was in the right place when I saw The McSweeney’s Book of Lists (funniest book ever), Mary Ruefle’s Selected Poems, and The Cloud Collector’s Handbook (an obscure, personal favorite) near the register and overheard the store’s owner, Lacy Simons, giving passionate, personal advice to a customer about a particular author.

Almost two hours later, I emerged from the shop with my arms full and my hunger for a little oceanside culture entirely satisfied.











Simons grew up in Maine, worked as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Sitka, Alaska (which Lacy says, also has “an awesome bookstore), and then went on to earn her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminar in 2003. For three years, she worked as the Managing Editor of Alice James Books, a forty-year-old independent poetry press based in Maine and one of my own favorite publishers.

Lacy is hardly new to the book scene in Rockland. “I worked for the previous business from 2003-2006 as the assistant bookshop manager (one of just two employees) and then returned in 2009 as the manager,” Lacy told me via email. “In early 2011, Susanne Ward (Rock City’s owner) decided she just couldn’t do the bookstore business anymore, and offered to sell it to me. I got my act together super quickly, and just a few months later, June of 2011, it became officially mine; in August of that same year, I officially opened for business!”











At Hello Hello Books the shelves are teeming with unusual children’s books, quality magazines like The Paris Review, Uppercase, Lucky Peach, and The Believer, handmade cards, one-of-a-kind artist books, and funky finds like decorative Japanese tape and journals handmade from record album covers, as well as plenty of well-chosen books from every category under the sun. Simons doesn’t waste a single inch of space in her carefully curated store. There is a mixture of new, used, and sale books as well, which only adds to the fun.


June 2012

Rajesh Parameswaran’s Dazzling Tales of Captivity & Freedom : I Am An Executioner

By |06.28.12|


If like me, you find most summer reading lists too beachy and lacking in inspiration, Rajesh Parameswaran’s I Am an Executioner: Love Stories is the perfect antidote. (After all, our brains don’t go on holiday just because we do).
Over the past week, I’ve been savoring the imaginative, moving stories in Parameswaran’s debut collection. While these tales have their fantastical elements, the author never loses his sense of humor or empathy for his characters. Both dark and elegant, these stories are about love in the same way that Kafka’s tales are about bureaucracy. They are this, but so much more.
“Love” in Parameswaran’s world is both complicated and unruly. The opening story of I Am an Executioner: Love Stories is a good case in point. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” is narrated by a lovesick tiger who mauls his zookeeper not out of anger or fear, but out of affection.
In one of my favorite pieces in the collection, “The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan,” an ex-CompUSA employee opens an office in a Texas strip mall and pretends to be a doctor, tending to day laborers. The story is both disturbing and surprisingly poignant. It was published in McSweeney’s 21 and won the fiction category in the National Magazine Awards in 2007. It was also nominated for the Kay Cattarulla Award for Best Short Story 2007 and appeared in the Best American Magazine Writing anthology, as well as The Best of McSweeney’s anthology.
The author says that the story was inspired in part by the steady stream of newspaper articles he encountered about people practicing medicine without a license. This is an original, outrageous take on the idea of immigrant self-invention—self-invention taken a step too far. It’s a testament to Parameswaran’s skill that he manages to create compassion for his main character, in spite of the horrific consequences of his impersonation.
One of Parameswaran’s strengths is his use of narrative voice, which is constantly shifting and adopting unique points of view. The collective narrator of “The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan,” for example, reminds me of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”—another fabulous gothic love story that is told from the point of view of the town’s inhabitants.
Parameswaran was born in Chennai, India, but left for the United States when he was still an infant. His family spent time in Michigan before moving to Houston. Rajesh studied English at Yale and went onto graduate from Yale Law School. His tenure there overlapped with another talented fiction writer, Adam Haslett. Parameswaran never practiced law, but worked as a law clerk for a federal judge, while also maintaining a freelance and fiction writing career. Residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Ucross, and Yaddo have given Parameswaran much-needed time to complete his story collection and to begin his next project — his first novel.
At 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 11th, New Yorkers will have a chance to hear Rajesh read from his new book. Parameswaran will be sharing the stage with
Nell Freudenberger and Alex Shakar at the Happy Endings Music and Reading Series at Joe’s Pub. The event also includes music by Ana Egge and live drawing by Michael Arthur. It’s the final show of the season. More details are available on the Joe’s Pub website.

Recently, Yuka Igarashi of Granta magazine sat down with Rajesh Parameswaran to discuss I Am an Executioner: Love Stories. (Note: “The Infamous Bengal Ming” was originally published in Granta and was one of the highlights of the magazine’s Horror issue.) Granta has kindly granted me permission to reprint the interview here.


Yuka Igarashi: The settings and points of view in these stories are fantastically varied. One takes place in turn-of-the century India, another in the Andromeda Galaxy in the year AD 2319. What struck me, though, were the themes that repeated across these stories. I think they explore the gap between intentions and effect: we all mean well, but cause incredible harm anyway. How aware were you, as you were writing, of recurring motifs?
Rajesh Parameswaran: This question reminds me of that Borges parable: ‘A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.’ This parable seems to suggest that if you are inclined towards certain themes, it is difficult to avoid them, regardless of your intentions.

These are tales of longing and devotion that just happen to include maulings, a botched surgery, stoning and impaling. What compels you to mix love with gore?
To be honest, I didn’t know these were going to be ‘love stories’ or that they were going to tilt towards violence until I’d finished them. I could tell you that love and violence are basic forces interwoven through all of nature and human affairs, and that’s why I mix the two – but to some degree I’d be approaching your question retrospectively, as a reader, so you should take that answer with a grain of salt.

The characters in your stories are often trapped by their circumstances, and by their own delusions about their circumstances. Even Ming, our tiger on the loose from the zoo, is still in some ways trapped by who he is. Is it fair to say that you’re interested in the idea of captivity?
You are suggesting that the stories are about captivity on a literal level, and also the ways identity itself can be confining and/or liberating. That’s an interesting point, and I do think it’s there in the collection (although it would be difficult to measure to what extent this was a prior interest, and to what extent I discovered this interest through engaging with the stories).

Also, of course, captivity and freedom are fundamental themes in American history and in literature broadly. Vladimir Nabokov says that Lolita was inspired by the story of an ape in a zoo ‘who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing every charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.’


What Makes a Healthy Life? Writer Roger King Explores Love & Fatigue in America

By |06.11.12|

What does it mean to live in between?” writes novelist Andrea Barrett of Roger King’s latest book. “Not only between geographical locations, but between health and illness, commitment and freedom, love and loss?”
It is the promise of the American West and potential for a new career that lures the unnamed British narrator of Roger King’s new autobiographical novel, Love and Fatigue in America, from London, England, to Spokane, Washington. But after collapsing and being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, the narrator and his dog Arthur suddenly find themselves wandering across the country searching for somewhere to settle. His travels take him from Washington, to New Mexico, to San Francisco, and eventually to Western Massachusetts. He endures doctor after ineffective doctor, anonymous motels, and the suspicion of coworkers (men in particular), as he struggles to discover who he is and what he’s to become at the age of 40.

When I first read Love and Fatigue, I was struck by its original blend of literary genres. While reminiscent of Sebald, the book weaves together a number of literary styles and traditions. There is the outsider’s view of American life (Dickens and Fanny Kemble), the American road trip (Kerouac, Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon), and the question of what it means to be male in this culture (Hemingway, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, and Fitzgerald), and the struggle to love and be loved (Updike, Miller, and Roth). But the author has woven all of these fascinations together into a literary work that is entirely unique. It would be easy for a book about illness to lapse into self-pity, but King avoids this trap by giving his narrator a succinct, removed voice (a voice, I must add, that is strikingly different from King’s real personality). It is a fictional device that serves the novel well.



What I admire most about King’s fiction is his ability to combine the personal with the political and to accomplish this task with an original and concise literary style. King’s first novel, Horizontal Hotel, was written while the author was working in international development in Africa and was published by British publisher André Deutsch, where King became close friends with the editor and writer Diana Athill. Sea Level and A Girl from Zanzibar remain two of my favorite contemporary novels and could easily hold their own against Graham Greene’s best fiction. Both books reveal so much about the inner life and its relationship to the larger political world we inhabit.

While the author’s novels have received interest from film producers and continued praise from the New York Times, The New Yorker, TLS, O Magazine, The Guardian, and Publisher’s Weekly, and have attracted a loyal audience of readers, they have never found the prestige or popularity in the American literary community that they deserve. In part, this could be a result of King remaining outside of the MFA system, and also a result of a literary style that is more European than American. As King says in his interview, many graduates of MFA programs “come ready-equipped with mentors and referrals to editors”–a luxury he has never had as a self-taught writer. Like the main characters in his novels, King hovers between two worlds–the UK and America without embracing (or being embraced) by either.

You’ll have a rare opportunity to hear King read on Thursday, June 14th at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, New York, and on Saturday, June 23rd at 3:30 p.m. at The Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, New Hampshire. (I’m planning to attend both events and would love to see some Gwarlingo readers there). King will also be appearing on NHPR’s Word of Mouth with Virginia Prescott between 12-1 on Thursday, June 21st, so tune in!

This week I had a chance to have an in-depth conversation with Roger about his his new book, his illness and writing routine, and the state of the novel today.

Your first career was as an economist working in international development. You traveled extensively in Africa, Pakistan, Asia, etc. But somewhere along the line you became frustrated with this work and began writing fiction. After so many years traveling abroad, why did you decide to trade this successful career for fiction writing and filmmaking?
I’d been saying I would be a writer from the age of 9, when I decided that it was my sacred responsibility to describe the real nature of childhood before I was too old to understand it like all the grown-ups. There followed 25 years of sidetrack before my first novel was published. During the time that I was working at universities in Nigeria and England, finishing a PhD in agricultural economics and then traveling around the world for UN agencies, I was scribbling in notebooks in preparation for my real life. But working for the world’s rural poor seemed compellingly important, and exciting, as well as a living. I published my two West African novels with UK publishers – Horizontal Hotel and Written on a Stranger’s Map – before the need to choose between careers became inescapable.



There was really no choice, but I agonized anyway. By this time I had become exhausted by the difficulty of making international aid genuinely effective for the poor. The poor had no political power and other interests shaped the world. We all had a narrative about how we were doing good, but it was not the true narrative. I started writing about this, publishing “The Development Game,” a story set in northwest Pakistan, in Granta – under a pseudonym, so that I could return to my work. The need to pretend I was someone else in order to write was a final straw. I needed to choose, and I chose writing, moving to America to teach it. My next novel, Sea Level, was an exploration of the moral damage of international finance, which I published under my own name.

The deeper stream through this is that I always thought the novel, with it’s ability to show lives in their full emotional and social complexity was the best medium for understanding and illuminating the world. I thought it more important than any non-fiction I could write as an academic, or journalist, or “expert.” It seems an almost old-fashioned view, now the novel has lost its place at the moral center of our culture, but I still believe it. And I still hope to channel my nine year-old self one day, and write a childhood book that puts the grown-ups straight.


The style of your new book is very different from your previous novels, which are more narrative and plot driven. The book contains lists, prose poems, and jumps around in time. Can you talk more about Love and Fatigue’s experimental style?
I treasure all novelists who dare to extend the range of what can be done successfully in novels. The license becomes broader all the time.

My wretched work method is mainly trial and error, trying to discover the voice, form and content that bears on the particular subject that is on my mind. I took some risks combining lyricism and cooler writing in earlier books, but this new book takes it further. Also I trust more and more that readers will connect disparate episodes in instinctive, creative ways without my leading them laboriously from place to place by the nose. Love and Fatigue expressed that trust. I have been surprised to be continually told that it’s a easy read. I thought I was probably asking a lot of readers

Even with the earlier books that have more conventional plots, I would not say they were plot driven. My plots tend to develop late in the writing process. I don’t have a plan, but explore my subject by trying this and that in writing, then later create a more definite plot as a way of organizing material and drawing the reader through the book. We all enjoy a story, but the story is not the real point. The plot is an offering to the rational brain so that it will let the writing enter somewhere deeper.



Love and Fatigue in America is about an immigrant very like myself making a home in America while suffering from a debilitating illness that affects both mind and body. It covers a decade, dozens of characters, and moves through much of the United States. My general subject was the resonance between our understandings of personal health, and social health – and what makes a healthy life. All this, and I wanted a short book. I was looking for elegant compression. Brevity also suited me because I was ill and writing was tiring.

The short chapters in different forms – story, memoir, essay, verse, lists, permitted a variety of takes on my subject – and the shifting tone also expresses the rollercoaster of a changeable illness that affects perception. The form is part of the content. It took a while to find the structure I wanted for this book, and at one point pinned up a hundred chapter headings on the walls of a studio at the VCCA artist colony and spun around in my chair drafting and ordering them by intuition.

Finally, I wanted the book to be entertaining, even funny. I was offering a book about chronic illness, along with social commentary, and with a subject like that, I owed the reader a good time. The short dissonant sections keep it lively and fend off anything resembling a misery memoir.

You’re a voracious fiction reader, particularly of international authors. How does the literary community differ between the U.S. and Europe? Which authors do you think are under-appreciated here in the U.S.?
When I lived in the UK twenty years ago, I read more American writers than I do now that I live in America, so a measure of perversity may be involved. Or a wish for my reading to always take me into a bigger world. Or could it be that the American novel that has become less interesting?

But the main thing is that literature, like everything else, is becoming more and more international, so it’s natural to be reading mostly foreign books if you want to pick the best from everywhere. And the invigoration in fiction is coming from new places.

I’ve just finished The Wandering Falcon by the Pakistani writer Jamil Ahmad, the best book I’ve read in years. A couple of years ago Pakistan also gave us the wonderful Daniyal Mueenuddin.

Everyone now knows Haruki Murakami –  one of the world’s most universally loved novelists. But twenty years ago, when I was first bowled over by him, he was an entirely fresh voice in literature. He offered a take on being human quite different from anyone else’s. I can also vividly remember the grateful quieting of attention I experienced when I first started reading Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and realized it was rich and true, and unlike anything I’d ever read before.



There are other European writers far from new, who I still find fresh. Two French women for example, Annie Ernoux and Marguerite Duras. Duras’ books still takes my breath away with sentences that – even in translation – are a delight beyond all reason. The list is long and I have not even touched on Latin American literature. I read British writers a lot, but my taste for them may be adulterated by nostalgia

I enjoy and admire a lot of American writers, so why do I rarely feel that special thrill of new vision, and when I do it’s often writing from immigrant writers? My favorite living American writer is probably James Salter, who’s in his eighties.
The world is opening out and American writers still tend to be looking inwards. What it is to be an American, and how hard it is, is still a central subject. Then there is the big book syndrome, with all that dialogue and detail ponderously spelled out – all that showing – while the world has grown far more nimble in its understanding.

At the other end of the scale from the bloated literary heavy hitters, there are the brilliant young writers of irreproachable prose, who have nothing much to say with it. These are writers who have never been in the world, and therefore have little to offer beyond style and fashion. Once American writers were typified by outsiders invading polite society after being knocked about in the big bad world. Now they are usually insiders, hatched in MFA programs. The anointed ones come ready-equipped with mentors and referrals to editors. It’s a ridiculous generalization of course, but I’m straining to work out why I am often disappointed these days.

As an old economist I can’t help seeing the literary industry in America, where writers mainly teach to live, having a lot in common with a Ponzi scheme. Callow writers attend writing programs taught by writers whose experience of life is teaching writing. When the young writers leave, many hope to also find work teaching writing in the ever-expanding empire of writing programs. Like any Ponzi scheme this will become unsustainable when the new investors – writing students –   lose hope and stop increasing at which point the ability to reward old investors – all those MFA graduates – with employment will vanish, further discouraging new students – and so on in the classic cycle of collapse. Though much slower.

If I have a personal bias in reading, it is that I am drawn towards economy combined with reach. This requires a language of layered meaning where every word counts. I don’t want to chew my way through plotty tomes and feel I have gained little but a long distraction. I want a book that makes me want to read slowly. I want illumination, wit, seduction, daring, the fruits of a subtle mind, characters that are alive without lengthy construction.

But when you talk of literary communities, I never knew one in England. I finished my first novel before I met another writer, and my world was international economists and immigrant Londoners. America gave me my first experience of  the richness of artistic community when I started to visit that brilliant American institution, the artist colony. In the UK, the dominant literary community of my generation was a clique of public school, Oxbridge men: Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, Hitchins, Boyd etc. A talented elite, but still an exclusive class-based elite.


Your new book is called an “autobiographical novel.” Was this your decision or the publisher’s? Can you talk about the complications inherent in publishing such a personal story? (We all remember what happened to James Frey.)

That was my decision. It was also offered to publishers as a memoir in the belief that they would understand this more easily and know what shelf to put it on, but that never felt right to me. My publisher kindly let me choose. There are a number of reasons why I think “novel” is the best descriptor. The first is the general one that memories are in fact re- imaginations, and memoirs can never bear the burden of literal accuracy people want to put upon them. We don’t remember perfectly and we don’t know when we are remembering imperfectly. Added to that I was suffering from ME/CFS which involves brain damage affecting the formation of new memories and recall. More specifically, I deliberately changed some Identifying details to give protection to the people who’s confidences I use in the book. And the narrator’s voice is not quite my natural voice, so that he is also an invention in the novel. The noveI is the baggiest literary form and I felt most comfortable with that freedom.

At the same time the book is faithfully autobiographical – that is, I have tried to truly portray experience, even if it is not possible to offer complete and literal truth. This was important to me because otherwise the cumulative conclusions of the book would have no genuine basis. So, an autobiographical novel, but not the sort where the story is invented.

Your book has had an overwhelmingly positive response in the CFS community. Many have written to you to share their own stories and to let you know how comforting it is to see a CFS sufferer depicted in fiction. Until now, your work has largely found an audience in the literary world. Has this response surprised you? After many years of trying to mask your illness, how does it feel to come out officially as a “sick person”?

It has surprised me. I have received a lot of emails telling me that I have portrayed the writer’s own experience. Very often they express gratitude that there is now an entertaining book that will help others understand what it is like to live with the illness. I have been very touched by these and by the amount of pain and courage the stories represent. CFS, more properly called Myalgic Ecephalopathy (ME disease,) is widespread, very debilitating and frequently misunderstood. Estimates are between one and three million sufferers in the US alone. It’s a complicated illness that involves immune failure and viral brain damage affecting the regulation of autonomic body systems. There’s no cure yet. Sufferers are often not taken seriously because they look OK and usually don’t die – except from suicide. It was at one time insultingly called Yuppie flu, but it affects all sorts of people. They must struggle against both illness and prejudice.

I did not know that my coming out as a sick person – an identity I’ve done my best to avoid – would be so important to others. I tried not to think much about it when writing the book – I’m English and we’re not a confessional breed. But now I’m seeing what it means to others, it means at lot to me, and I’m glad. Activism was not my primary motivation. I wanted to use the perspective of illness as a way into more universal understandings. I was thinking more of a literary audience, and I thought the experimental nature of the book might put off more general readers. I’m delighted to be wrong.


Suffering from CFS is terrible for anyone, but there is something particularly poignant about an active, successful man in his prime suddenly being struck by this illness. Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced as an ill male in this society? What has the experience taught you about the way Americans cope with illness both personally and culturally?


January 2012

Believing is Seeing: Errol Morris Uncovers the Mysteries of Photography

By |01.16.12|



What makes an “honest” photograph—a “true” photograph? Is the medium of photography more factual and authentic than other art forms? What makes a photograph “a fake”? Can a photo be objective or does it always have a point of view? When does a photograph document reality? When is it propaganda? When is it art? Can a single photograph be all of these things simultaneously?

These are some of the questions Academy-Award winning film director and MacArthur fellow Errol Morris tackles in his brilliant book Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the medium of photography and is one of my favorite publications from 2011.

Morris’s fascination with photography began at a young age. His father died before Morris turned three, so the photographs on display throughout the family’s home were one of his only connections to his father. “In a sense, the photographs both gave me my father and took him away,” Morris explains in the introduction to his book. “Photographs put his images in front of me, but they also acutely reminded me of his absence.”

Morris also reveals that he has limited sight in one eye and lacks normal stereoscopic vision. He blames his bad eye sight on the fact that he refused to wear a patch after surgery for a misaligned eye when he was a boy. In an interesting twist, the man who performed his eye surgery eventually became his stepfather. “My wife Julia calls it a new version of the Oedipus story: my future stepfather blinds me and then marries my mother. If I share anything with Oedipus, it is asking one too many questions.” Is it any wonder Morris is obsessed with the subject of perception?



Believing is Seeing is part detective story, part philosophical meditation. The essays, which originally appeared in a different form on Morris’ blog on the New York Times website, generated a lot of comment and debate when they first appeared, and for good reason. They are fascinating, provocative investigations into the limitations of looking.

To understand a photograph, Morris argues that we must seize on small details as a way of answering larger questions. The case of Roger Fenton is a good case in point. In 1855 the British photographer took two nearly identical photographs of the Valley of the Shadow of Death during the Crimean War. One photo shows a road covered with cannonballs, and the other shows the same road without the cannonballs.

While reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Morris was struck by Sontag’s claim that the famous photograph of the cannonballs on the road was staged and that Fenton “oversaw the scattering of the cannonballs on the road itself.”





Sontag’s assertion about Fenton raises more questions for Morris than it answers. He wonders how Sontag actually knew the sequence of the two images? And why does she suggest “a certain laziness on Fenton’s part, as if he himself couldn’t be bothered picking up or putting down a cannonball but instead supervised or oversaw their placement”? And how can Sontag possibly know what Fenton’s motivations were while he was taking the photograph? Morris goes through remarkable (and humorous) lengths to answer these questions, and even returns to Crimea to see what revelations can be uncovered.

Morris reveals similar complexities in the iconic, Depression-era photographs of Farm Security Administration photographers like Arthur Rothstein and Walker Evans. Morris makes a strong case that Walker Evans rearranged furniture and moved objects when documenting the interior of the Gudger family’s sharecropper cabin. Evans’s images were taken for the FSA and also were included in the landmark book Let us Now Praise Famous Men. Morris scrutinizes James Agee’s household inventory from Let us Now Praise Famous Men and compares it to the corresponding photographs taken by Evans. Morris also examines the sequence of Evans’s images and the placement of objects in each sequential frame.



Some fascinating questions emerge: Why did James Agee list the objects on the Gudger’s mantle in such detail (including small details like a nail file, two large safety pins, and needle and thread), and yet fail to mention the Westclox Fortune No. 10 clock in the center of the mantle?

Comments Off

November 2011

“Hugo” Author Brian Selznick Shares 20 Favorite Children’s Books with Gwarlingo

By |11.27.11|

Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is out in theaters today.

Selznick’s remarkable book won the 2008 Caldecott Medal (the first young adult novel to win the award for children’s book illustration), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was chosen as the Best Illustrated Book of 2007 by The New York Times. Hugo is a unique hybrid–a picture book for older children, but also a graphic novel of sorts. The story is one of my personal favorites, and next to Goodnight Moon, it’s the book I’ve gifted most often to the young people in my life.


The book’s main character, Hugo, is an orphan, a clock keeper, and thief, who lives an undercover life in the walls of a busy Paris train station. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of Selznick’s intricate mystery.

If you haven’t read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you are in for a treat. Selznick’s book is nothing less than a masterpiece (and “masterpiece” is not a term I use lightly). Like the best classics of children’s literature, the book will appeal to readers of all ages. Younger readers will enjoy the characters, the mystery, and striking drawings, and adults will appreciate the author’s homage to cinema, most particularly the films of French filmmaker Georges Méliès and his groundbreaking 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon).


Brian Selznick (a first cousin, twice removed, of David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick), graduated from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design with the intention of becoming a set designer for the theater, but a job designing window displays at Eeyore’s Children’s Bookstore in New York City changed his mind. Working at the store became a crash course in children’s literature, and his first book, The Houdini Box, was published while working there.
Selznick’s career has come a long way since his job at the bookstore. In September, his latest book, Wonderstruck, was released, and today, Scorsese’s version of Hugo hits the big screen.
“I never expected anything like this,” Selznick told “I feel like I’m in the rarest position to be able to say I have a movie that’s as good as the book. It’s good in different ways, or better. The movie might be better than my book. The fact that I inspired Martin Scorcese to make this incredibly personal and beautiful movie is one of the great thrills of my life. It’s very satisfying to create something yourself, but it’s as satisfying or more satisfying to inspire someone else to make something new.”


If you’re a fan of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you’ll also love Selznick’s latest project, Wonderstruck.

The novelty of Wonderstruck lies primarily in its structure. The story of Ben, a young boy who is struck deaf moments after discovering a clue to his father’s identity and travels to New York City to find him, is told through words. The parallel story of Rose, which takes place 50 years earlier, is told visually through Selznick’s original drawings. The two stories are woven together seamlessly. The desire to see how these two stories converge and connect creates a sense of mystery and an effective momentum.


The alternating tales of Ben and Rose were so compelling that I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I read the entire 637-page book in one sitting. Even as an adult reader, I was transported. Reading Wonderstruck reminded me of the formative reading experiences of my youth–of countless hours spent squirreled away reading The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, and The Hardy Boys.

Selznick spends significant time and energy researching his books, and Wonderstruck is no exception. The author weaves details about deaf culture, the New York theater scene in the 20s, museum dioramas, 20s fashion, the New York World’s Fair, and more into the narrative, which gives the story a realistic weight.



Selznick told NPR that the concept for Wonderstruck began forming when he saw a documentary about deafness and deaf culture. “One of the deaf educators emphasized how hyper-attuned deaf people are to the visual world. So Selznick set out to tell the story of a deaf character in pictures. ‘We experience [Rose’s] story in a way that perhaps might echo the way she experiences her own life,’ he explains.”

When I spoke to Brian several years ago when the book was in progress, he was especially enthusiastic about a behind-the-scenes tour he had taken of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, one of his favorite destinations as a boy. The museum’s hidden storage rooms, attics, and basements excited him most. His idea to set part of the story in the building after hours predates the film Night at the Museum and was inspired instead by classic children’s books such as From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.


While Selznick is a capable storyteller, it’s his drawings and cinematic style that make his books unique. His rich, detailed monochromatic illustrations are nothing less than extraordinary.

I particularly love the way he communicates movement through still images by zooming in or pulling away one image at a time. Each turn of the page artfully conveys movement and progresses the narrative, a technique that is reminiscent of another favorite book in my library–Charles and Ray Eames’ Power of Ten. (For more information on the art of page-turns, see author Remy Charlip’s comments below).

“I think from an early age I was aware of how a camera can tell a story, how a movie camera can affect how the narrative is told,” Selznick said in a recent interview. “I think when I’m drawing, I’m seeing what’s happening on the page almost as if it were unfolding like a movie in my head.”

Selznick is a gifted illustrator and knows how to make the most of his medium. It’s no accident that Scorcese chose Hugo for his first 3D film (perhaps his first film with no body count!). Both Scorcese and Selznick are talented visual storytellers. They share a love of cinema history, and a passion for the medium of film.

I can’t recommend Wonderstruck and The Invention of Hugo Cabret enough. Both books are excellent gifts for the holidays and will appeal to adventurous readers of all ages.


To commemorate the release of Scorsese’s film and Selznick’s Wonderstruck, I asked Brian to share a list of his own favorite books for children and young adults. There are some well-known classics on his list, but many surprises as well.

I know I’ll be adding The Arrival and The Juniper Tree to my own collection in the coming weeks and purchasing a few of these books as gifts for the holidays. (Note: A percentage of the purchases you make through this site benefit Gwarlingo).

A big “thank you” to Brian for sharing 20 of his favorite young adult and children’s books with Gwarlingo readers. There are a lot of great titles here to explore…


1 Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

When Brian sent me his list, he said the books were in no particular order with one exception: “All lists like this should start with Where the Wild Things Are.”

“I’ve always loved the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak,” Selznick explained in an interview, “because the words disappear, the pictures take up the whole page, and we move forward in the story by turning the pages. The more I thought about this idea, the more I thought how interesting it would be to have part of The Invention of Hugo Cabret told with pictures, because the story involves the early history of cinema. The pictures would be like a series of silent movies running throughout the book, helping to tell the story. When I got this idea, I had to go back and take OUT all the text that I was going to replace with pictures.”

It wasn’t until Brian talked about this classic book during a community presentation at The MacDowell Colony that I fully understood the brilliance of Sendak’s illustrations. Take a look at that tattered copy of Wild Things you have on your bookshelf and notice how Max is drawn in a small square at the beginning of the book while he’s in his bedroom and how that box expands and eventually disappears as the forest grows and Max leaves the safety of his home.



2  The Arrival by Shaun Tan


This may be my favorite discovery on Brian’s list. Tan’s illustrations are breathtaking, and it’s easy to see how Selznick would be drawn to Tan’s dramatic, monochrome illustrations. Both authors are interested in telling stories through images.

Here’s a review of The Arrival from School Library Journal: “Tan captures the displacement and awe with which immigrants respond to their new surroundings in this wordless graphic novel. It depicts the journey of one man, threatened by dark shapes that cast shadows on his family’s life, to a new country.

The only writing is in an invented alphabet, which creates the sensation immigrants must feel when they encounter a strange new language and way of life. A wide variety of ethnicities is represented in Tan’s hyper-realistic style, and the sense of warmth and caring for others, regardless of race, age, or background, is present on nearly every page. Young readers will be fascinated by the strange new world the artist creates, complete with floating elevators and unusual creatures, but may not realize the depth of meaning or understand what the man’s journey symbolizes. More sophisticated readers, however, will grasp the sense of strangeness and find themselves participating in the man’s experiences. They will linger over the details in the beautiful sepia pictures and will likely pick up the book to pore over it again and again.”






3 Fortunately by Remy Charlip



Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.

Poor Ned. What else could go wrong as he tries to get to the party? You’ll have to buy the book to find out.



Some fun trivia…Fans of Selznick’s work may recognize author, dancer, and choreographer Remy Charlip in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

“I was lucky enough to become friends with Remy a few years ago,” says Selznick, “and while I was working on The Invention of Hugo Cabret I realized that Remy looks a lot like Georges Méliès! I asked Remy if he would pose as Georges Méliès in my book, and he said yes. So all the pictures of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret are really drawings of Remy Charlip.”

Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu

By |11.17.11|

In recent years the London street art scene has been dominated by the brash, satirical, crowd-pleasing work of Banksy. His 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks, made Banksy a familiar name in certain American households, and his book, Wall and Piece, has been one of the best-selling art and photography books since its release.
But while the public lines up to see Banksy’s shows, and art collectors, like Brad Pitt and Christina Aguilera, fork over big money for his paintings and prints, a more polished street artist named Slinkachu has been producing brilliant, evocative artwork that has largely escaped the attention of an American audience.
Slinkachu is everything Banksy is not–subtle, empathic, poignant, contemplative.
While Banksy’s art relies on shock value, cleverness, and overt political statement, Slinkachu’s miniature street tableaux and photographs convey more complex narratives about the human condition. His art is often witty, but never clever for cleverness’ sake.
(Note: Click on images to enlarge)




Like most street artists, Slinkachu’s bio is deliberately vague. He says that his curly hair is what earned him the nickname Slinky–a name that eventually morphed into Slinkachu when the artist needed a name for his photography blog. He grew up in Budleigh Salterton, a small town on the south coast of Devon, As a boy, he played with bugs and creatures in the yard behind his house and helped his mother build dioramas for the children at the nursery where she worked.
In one interview, Slinkachu describes a critical “a-ha” moment he experienced while watching a stag beetle crawling down a London street. The unusual sight of the beetle in the city made the artist wonder if such insects actually were rare, or merely unnoticed in the busy flurry of day to day urban life. This intriguing idea of the “unseen” compelled Slinkachu to try his hand at creating his own small, urban dramas.

Slinkachu’s work has a dual existence as both a street art installation and a photography project. He often leaves his miniature scenes behind for observant pedestrians to find. The element of surprise is key. His street art may linger for days or weeks, or may be swiftly removed. Luckily, the work has a life beyond the street in Slinkachu’s large-scale photographs and marvelous book projects.




Slinkachu’s modified model train figures are the perfect expression of urban angst, for who hasn’t felt small or overwhelmed? As Slinkachu’s photographs and street scenes illustrate, each of us is only one tiny person among millions. The lonely singles, melancholy office workers, and misunderstood teenagers in Slinkachu’s art resonate because they’re familiar. Our own daily lives, like the lives of these little people, are filled with humor, tragedy, boredom, and surprise.

The banality of urban living with its crass commercialism and junk food litter is a well-executed theme in Slinkachu’s work. And when it comes to the subject of religion, I’m hard pressed to think of a contemporary visual artist who tackles the topic with such humor and poignancy. Slinkachu’s converted fire hydrant mosque in Lower Manhattan is pure brilliance. And while the British artist creates most of his street art in London and other European cities, his photograph “Jesus Saves” strikes me as a particularly American scene–a shrewd observation on the similarities between marketing a commercial product and marketing religion.

Slinkachu depicts our violent human impulses too. It is unnerving to see boys throwing Lego bricks off of highway overpasses or a miniature mugging. “Animals” is a fine example of Slinkachu’s talent for choosing the perfect titles. Who are the real animals in this photograph–the insects or the official-looking men in uniforms beating them with nightsticks?

Slinkachu’s moving photographs remind me of a passage from W.H. Auden:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;



Writer Jeff Sharlet: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between

By |11.02.11|

If you follow the subject of American religion, you have likely heard of author Jeff Sharlet.

Sharlet has published five books on the subject, including C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy and The New York Times best seller The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. He has profiled influential religious figures like Pastor Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs and spent time in Uganda reporting on the country’s anti-homosexuality bill — a bill that would have imposed lifelong prison sentences and the death penalty.

Jeff Sharlet is one of the hardest-working journalists I know. He is always hopping on a plane to follow some lead. He is a writer who believes in getting a story directly from the source. He will spend days, weeks, or months with a subject if he has to. He is never afraid to ask the hard questions, and never daunted by power, fame, or stacks of archival materials.

This combination of hard-hitting, investigative journalism, literary style, and historical knowledge is what makes Sharlet’s work unique. He has written about the intersection of religion and politics for publications like Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and Mother Jones and appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Daily Show, CNN, the BBC, and the Bill Maher Show. He has received grants and fellowships from the Pew Charitable Trust, The MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, The Nation Institute, and the Kopkind Foundation.

In 2000, Sharlet teamed up with novelist Peter Manseau to create Killing The Buddha, which has since become an award-winning online literary magazine. That led to a year on the road for Sharlet and Manseau, investigating the varieties of religious experience in America, including a cowboy church in Texas, witches in Kansas, a Pentecostal exorcism for a terrorist in North Carolina, an electric chair gospel choir in Florida. 

Sharlet is also the co-founder of two influential websites that cover the subject of spirituality and religion: Killing the Buddha (now edited by Nathan Schneider) and The Revealer (edited by Ann Neumann). In my biased opinion, both of these journals publish some of the finest writing on religion I’ve seen online or in print. Sharlet and the team of writers who keep these projects going deserve credit for filling a void. It’s rare to see the top of religion covered with such intelligence, humor, and open mindedness.

Although Sharlet has a reputation for his journalism and work at The Revealer and Killing the Buddha, he is best known for his investigative reporting on the Family, a powerful, secretive fundamentalist network in Washington, D.C., that has been influencing American government, the military, and foreign policy since the 1930s.

Working as an intern, Sharlet obtained unprecedented access to the group’s headquarters on C Street and is the only reporter to have written about the group from the inside. As reported in Newsweek and on NPR, the evangelical group’s views on religion and politics are so exceptional and inclusive that some other Christian-right organizations consider them heretical.

A year after the book’s publication, the Family was suddenly thrust in the media spotlight when several sex scandals involving Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford, both prominent members of the Family, made headlines. The group was also accused of illegally subsidizing the rent of certain members of Congress and enabling the anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda. It was Sharlet’s work that finally brought the group to the public’s attention.

The author’s most recent book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, is a collection of 13 essays about belief, skepticism, and spirituality. Sharlet writes about Brad Will, an anarchist journalist who filmed his own murder by police while covering an uprising in Mexico; BattleCry, an evangelical youth movement devoted to spreading its particular brand of the Christian message; a new-age healer named Sondra Shaye; and renowned intellectual Cornel West.

Entertaining, humorous, incisive, and original, Sweet Heaven is a unique melding of literary genres. In reviewing the collection for The Washington Post Michael Washburn wrote: The “book belongs in the tradition of long-form, narrative nonfiction best exemplified by Joan Didion, John McPhee [and] Norman Mailer…Sharlet deserves a place alongside such masters.”

My favorite essay in Sweet Heaven is “Born, Again,” a thought-provoking piece on hope that draws chilling parallels between artistic desire, parental loss, and the murderous, “coal-filtered” blues of Dock Boggs. Few writers can be as informative and entertaining as Sharlet, particularly when it comes to the subject of music:
Dock Boggs — a man with fists for hands and a voice like strychnine — belongs as much on a bill with filth-punk G.G. Allin…, grunge fatality Kurt Cobain…, and assassinated hip-hop genious Biggie Smalls — dead, respectively, of overdose, despair, and the murderous ebb and flow of insult and capital — as he does with old-timey all-stars Dick Justice, Aunty Molly Jackson, and Clarence Ashley. Maybe more so, for like Allin, Cobain, and Smalls, Boggs was a theatrical man, both a balladeer and a blues singer. He knew how to snarl and wink at the same time. That’s what makes such artists frightening — you can never be certain which is surface and which is true meaning. Is it the threat or the invitation?
What marks Boggs as different from other musicians murdered by their own songs is that he survived. That’s simply a fact, not a clue; it’s a result of chance, not the saving grace of art, much less the religion Boggs would find and then lose again.

The opening essay of the book — a piece that combines reportage with the story of an old college girlfriend who has found love and religion in the mountains of Colorado — is both funny and moving. It is Sharlet’s vivid descriptions of place that I often find most enjoyable:
On your way to Cañon City you pass Cotopaxi, one of Colorado’s many abandoned utopias, a trick played in 1882 by a Portuguese Jew on Eastern European Jews lured into a dark canyon with promises of farmland evidently false to anyone who bothered to consult a map of the region. Jews mined, Jews died, Jews moved. Cotopaxi is now a Christian town, inasmuch as one can worship a loving God in the deep armpit of dry, brown mountains.

Comments Off

October 2011

Photographer Bill Jacobson: A Rare Look at the Evolution of an Artist

By |10.19.11|



If you’re in New York be sure to stop by Julie Saul Gallery to catch Bill Jacobson’s new photography show. Into the Loving Nowhere (1989 till now) opens Thursday, October 20th with a special reception from 6-8 p.m. and will be on view through December 10th. The featured photographs were made over a 22-year span and offer a rare opportunity to see a select retrospective of Jacobson’s work.

I’ve been following Jacobson’s photography for many years now and have enjoyed watching his style evolve from the soft, out-of-focus black and white photographs of his early career, to his series of color landscapes and interiors, to his current exploration of space and geometry.

As Jacobson explains on his website, his work “parallels an inner journey through a world we are constantly experiencing with the uncertainty of the mind’s eye rather than the sharp clarity of a camera lens.” His photographs are intimate and deeply poetic, evoking the fragmented states of memory and dreams.




Looking at Jacobson’s earlier blurred portraits of people and places, I am often reminded of the vintage, out-of-focus snapshots I collect at thrift and antique stores. It came as no surprise then, when I discovered that Jacobson also has a fascination with 20th century vernacular photographs. He describes their influence in an interview with Ian Berry:

August 2011

Drainspotting: 61 Amazing Manhole Covers from Japan

By |08.14.11|


One of my favorite book discoveries this summer is Drainspotting by Remo Camerota. The book celebrates an array of fascinating manhole cover designs from Japan. According to Camerota, nearly 95% of the 1,780 municipalities in Japan have their very own customized manhole covers. The country has elevated this humble, practical object to its own art form. The designs depict everything from local landmarks and folk tales to flora and fauna and images created by school children.

Camerota explains the evolution of these custom covers in Drainspotting:
“In the 1980s as communities outside of Japan’s major cities were slated to receive new sewer systems these public works projects were met with resistance, until one dedicated bureaucrat solved the problem by devising a way to make these mostly invisible systems aesthetically appreciated aboveground: customized manhole covers.”







As the book explains, design ideas for the specialized covers originate with the local city or council and are then presented to in-house designers at a municipal foundry. Once local officials and the designers agree upon an image, a prototype is created before the final manhole covers are cast in metal. Hirotaka Nagashima, the president of the Nagashima Foundry, explains the process in Drainspotting:
“We carve the design on a piece of wood. Next we put sand on the wood pattern and make a negative sand pattern; then we pour melted iron into the pattern, clear up the iron,…blast and paint the cover black. When we have colored ones they are done by hand and painted with a thick tree resin, colored from pigment. The tree resin sets rock hard and lasts much longer than paint.”
The Nagashima Foundry, which is the second largest in the country, makes about 400 manhole covers a day. The foundry has made over 6,000 different patterns in all. Not every design finds it way to the streets and sidewalks, however. In Camerota’s interview, Nagashima explains how one design of a shrine gate was abandoned when local priests objected. The priests did not believe it was appropriate for a sacred image of a shrine to be driven over and walked on.





July 2011

The Discomfort Zone: Love and the Male Novelist

By |07.14.11|

Female writers are sentimental and have “a narrow view of the world.” At least that is how V.S. Naipaul sees things.

Back in June, in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society, Naipaul was asked if there were any female writers he considered his literary match. “I don’t think so,” the author replied. They are “quite different…I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

Naipaul argued that this is because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world…And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” Naipaul added. “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.” Of Jane Austen, Naipaul said that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.”

The British writer Diana Athill, whose work Naipaul flippantly dismissed as “feminine tosh,” handled the criticism with her usual grace and good humor. “He doesn’t realise what a monkey he’s making of himself,” she told the Guardian. Naipaul deserves to be taken to task for his sexism and hubris, as well as his lack of empathy. The best fiction writers are able to inhabit the lives of others, and assuming a position of superiority can only be a detriment to the literary imagination.

The recent Naipaul controversy brought to mind last year’s big sexism uproar in the literary world, which centered around the release of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. Franzen, through no fault of his own, found himself in the line of fire when the critical acclaim of his novel became a useful vehicle to debate gender inequalities in publishing.

Franzen responded to the “Franzenfrenzy” controversy in interviews and at public appearances. “There are too few books by women that receive the attention they deserve,” I heard him say at an event last year. Franzen is not simply paying lip service to his critics. He has consistently advocated for female authors and championed talented writers like Paula Fox, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, and Lorrie Moore.

The specifics of the Franzen and Naipaul controversies are worth noting for their dissimilarities. In one case a male writer has said something truly contemptuous about women, and in the other a male writer has simply produced a fabulous novel that critics loved.

If we want to discuss gender inequality in the literary world, let’s look at the numbers that reveal that 62% of the books reviewed between June 29, 2008 and August 27, 2010 in the Sunday Times Book Review were by men (male authors wrote 72% of the books that received two reviews in the paper). Let’s discuss new research that shows a huge gender imbalance in children’s literature with male characters far outnumbering females. But let’s not turn Franzen into a literary whipping boy simply because he is a gifted writer, who also happens to be white and male.

No stranger to controversy, Franzen has learned the hard way about the perils of being a public figure in the digital age. David Shields has criticized the author for his “nostalgic,” “Flaubertian” novels, and Franzen is nostalgic in his way. He has devoted his life to books–an “old fashioned” medium that requires ample concentration, time, and focus. Franzen is at his best when he is given this space to explore an idea in depth. But deep attention is becoming rarer these days and as Franzen has discovered, context and true meaning are quickly obscured when an hour-long interview is reduced to a 10-second sound byte. Is it any wonder Franzen remains skeptical of technology?

Regardless of your opinions about Franzen’s work, he deserves credit for his willingness to enter the fray of public discourse. Most writers choose their profession because they have a penchant for solitude and prefer to meticulously craft their ideas in private and let the work speak for itself. For many writers I know, public speaking is about as enjoyable as a visit to the dentist.

But Franzen, regardless of his appetite for solitude and love for the novel, has decided to leave his desk–to investigate politics in Washington D.C., the poaching of songbirds in Southern Europe, amongst other subjects. He is growing, both as a public figure and as a writer. He has become a more eloquent, impassioned speaker in recent years. When I recently listened to his interviews and readings from a decade ago during The Corrections tour and compared them to the latest round of interviews for Freedom, I found Franzen to be more open and honest not only about his personal life, but also about his fears and struggles as a writer.

But nowhere has this growth been more apparent than in the evolution of his fiction. Franzen has always had a sharp eye for social and cultural criticism. He excels at the big picture. It is one of the gifts he brings to his prose–the ability to make connections between our personal consumer choices, our relationships, and the environment we live in. In Franzen’s world, there is a direct correlation between the cars we drive, the places we live, the pills we take, the people we love, and the desire to relieve loneliness and personal suffering. A single choice–to take an anti-depressant, to marry, to use sex as a salve for unhappiness, to be your own child’s best friend, to let the cat outdoors each night–has a ripple effect, not only on the character’s internal life and the other characters they interact with, but also on the neighborhood, the song birds, the soldiers fighting a war in another country. The idea that everything and everyone is connected in some way is one of Franzen’s central themes.
While Franzen has always excelled at these larger thematic ideas, until recent novels, he has kept his characters safely at arm’s length. His ability to zoom out and obtain a bird’s eye view (as he did so well in The Twenty-Seventh City) can be a handicap when it comes to creating memorable, complex characters. But with each new novel, Franzen has moved in closer. He has risked intimacy not only with his characters, but also himself.
Franzen likes to quote writer Alice Sebold when she describes “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” But this is exactly what he has done in both The Corrections and in Freedom. He has waded into the messy murk of human emotions, exploring pain, longing, loss, insecurity, jealousy, and the most difficult emotion of all–love.
Love is tricky literary territory, especially for a male novelist. Many writers, such as Naipaul, prefer to avoid the subject entirely. But regardless of the writer’s gender, the pitfalls of writing about love are the same in fiction–sentimentality, triteness, melodrama, and maybe worst of all, the risk of being unhip, of being caught wearing your heart on your vintage t-shirt sleeve. Which book jacket symbol would be most embarrassing to a male reader on the subway I wonder–the Oprah Book Club logo or a bright red heart?