The Camera’s Eye

The Camera’s Eye (New Libri Press) by Judith Kirscht is a novel that I’m convinced should be the first of a mainstream mystery series. The central characters, Veronica and Charlotte, are so likable and so well drawn the reader doesn’t want to let them go away for good at the end of the novel. For me, that means, “Series, please.”

Veronica Lorimer is a professional photographer with a camera she calls “Constance the Nikon.” Charlotte McAllister is a retired prosecuting attorney. They share a house and property on an island in Puget Sound, where they live contentedly until someone throws a pair of rocks through their front window—first move in an increasingly destructive series of hate attacks.

With her narrative drive and her talent for placing the reader firmly and tangibly in the setting she has chosen—in this case the islands off the northwestern coast of Washington—Kirscht grabs the reader by the horns and pulls him or her into the story. But The Camera’s Eye has another gravitational pull—that of the two main characters, who take on the challenge of the attacks with unflinching courage.

As the attacker (or attackers) become more brazen, Veronica and Charlotte, described by the former as “gray-haired white ladies who looked like English teachers,” become more determined to get to the bottom of the incidents. In the course of their unofficial investigation, Veronica finds she must communicate with her estranged son and daughter, which sparks additional complications.

In the end, the reader comes to know, and admire, these two intelligent and persevering women. As with any novel that introduces engaging central characters, and a mystery that must be unraveled, the author has the obligation to detect and resolve—but also the option of letting the characters live on. Series, please.

Who is Colm Toibin and how do you pronounce his name?

Probably the hardest thing to know about Colm Toibin is how to pronounce his name. After that, reading his work is a smooth ride, with pleasant bumps and grooves along the way.

The author himself pronounces his name as CUH-lum Toe-BEAN. The “lm” in “Colm” is a separate syllable.

In the film, Brooklyn, the name of the young immigrant woman, Eilis, is pronounced AY-lish, though many Irish people would say EYE-lish.

Somehow, this brief look at Irish pronunciation helped me to enter the fictional world of Toibin. The world itself is front and center for me right now, as I’ve read three of his novels and am poised to read more.

My first introduction to Toibin—before I was familiar with the author’s name—was reading the script for Brooklyn, then watching the 2016 movie. Then I read Nora Webster, The Master, and Brooklyn, in that order. Then I watched the movie again, with fresh eyes and an appreciation for the filmmaking that was heightened by the books I had read.

I am now a Toibin reader. I like his style, and I like his stories. He is at ease with his settings. Nora Webster takes place in Ireland; The Master is set in England and Italy; Brooklyn is set in Ireland and, of course, Brooklyn. The time frames extend from the 1890s (The Master) to contemporary (1950s, 1960s, and beyond). The characters range from a fictional Henry James (The Master) to young and middle-aged women as they search for their identity and their unique place in life (Brooklyn and Nora Webster).

Toibin’s style is deceptively simple. He uses dialogue generously, and trusts the reader to place himself or herself in the setting and time frame he has in mind. Except for The Master, which is divided into chronological sections, he does not tell the reader where he/she is, or what year it is. Toibin simply tells the story, trusting the reader to fill in the blanks. Not for him the intense detail and sophisticated style of, say, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

What is it about the Irish that makes them such natural and engaging storytellers? I put this question out there without knowing the answer. It’s like the magic in one of their own legends of leprechauns and pookas. It’s just there, and I accept the gift, gratefully.

Of the three Toibin novels I’ve read so far, I am most drawn to Brooklyn. It is the immigrant story told from a fresh point of view. Not Ellis Island around the turn of the twentieth century or earlier. Not dire poverty and escape and/or banishment from one’s homeland. Eilis is a 1950s character, with strong family ties, who comes to America freely, is sponsored by a friendly priest, has a job in place and is enrolled in night school. She faces the prospect of a new life and new relationships—as well as the option of returning to the familiar community and people of her birth.

Toibin’s style is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t reach for the right word. The right word—or phrase or paragraph or dialogue—seems to flow effortlessly from what preceded it, and into what follows. I didn’t find myself marking memorable passages. His is an even-handed style that grows out of the story, rather than one that is imposed on the story. The seamless fusion of style, story, dialogue, and narrative is a magical art that is not necessarily Irish but is always impressive. Jane Austen does it as well as anybody.

More about Toibin to come. I am just beginning to put my thoughts together—and I have some more reading to do.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, and died on July 18, 1817. This year marks the 200th anniversary of her death. It’s strange that we mark the year of her death with conferences, events, exhibits, and celebrations. It seems more appropriate to mark the anniversary of the year of her coming into the world rather than that of her going out of it. But Jane Austen societies throughout the world would not, I feel certain, agree. We hang our tributes to the celebrated dead on two hooks: the entrance year and the exit year.

I have been reading Jane Austen’s six novels since I was in my late teens. She has influenced my writing profoundly. I admire her, most especially, for her use of dialogue. Jane Austen’s dialogue is superb in several respects: It is, first of all, ahead of its time in its effortlessness, its grace, and its informality. One could dump the first chapter dialogue of Pride and Prejudice into a TV script, update the grammar and contemporary references, and create a modern couple, Mr. and Mrs. B. They are comically—even tragically—mismatched, dependent upon one another, living in the dim afterglow of a long-lost attraction.

Mrs. B: Have you heard? Someone has finally bought the old Netherfield house down the street.

Mr. B does not respond. He is watching ESPN.

Mrs. B: Well? Don’t you want to know who bought it?

Mr. B: Obviously, you want to tell me, and you can’t wait for a commercial break, so go ahead. You have my divided attention.

Mrs. B: Well! Mrs. Long next door says the house was sold to a young man—a rich young man—from London—or maybe it was New York. He came here on Monday in a Jaguar—or it might have been a Mustang—to see the place. Mrs. Long says he was sold on it almost immediately, or at least before he left. It’s such a fine old place! He’s to move in by late September. They’re starting work on the house next week. Pouring money into it, I’m told.

Mr. B: What’s his name?

Mrs. B: Bentley. Or maybe it was Barclay. I didn’t hear his first name

Mr. B: He has a wife, I assume? A family?

Mrs. B: That’s the thing, Mr. B: he’s single! A single man. Rich. Living right here in our neighborhood. I hear he’s a millionaire. Maybe a multimillionaire. What a great thing for our girls!

Mr. B: What does it have to do with them?

Mrs. B: How can you be so dense? He’s single! He’s rich! You must know that he could easily fall in love with—even marry—one of our girls.

Mr. B: I see what you mean. A single man, rich, possibly a millionaire, must want a wife to help him spend his hard-won fortune. Why not one of our girls? Is that why he’s moving into the neighborhood?

Mrs. B: Of course not! He doesn’t even know us. But he has only to meet our girls to fall in love with one of them. It’s up to you to get to know him, so he gets to know our girls. You can stop by, offer to help him get settled, introduce him to your business cronies, invite him over for a backyard barbecue—that sort of thing.

Mr. B: Thank you for your confidence in me, Mrs. B. and, God knows, the household and student-loan bills are piling up. But I don’t think I’m cut out to be a matchmaker. You and the girls go—or you can send them over by themselves, one by one, so he can look them over and choose the one he likes best. Come to think of it, since you’re as pretty as any of them, that might be the better plan. We wouldn’t want this Bentley or Barclay fellow to choose you instead of one of them.

And so on.

In addition to its easy grace and modern feel, Jane Austen’s dialogue brilliantly reveals character. The author doesn’t have to tell the reader about her characters; the dialogue says it all—although she may give us some insight, and often does. Here’s her description of the Bennets:

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

I always have a complete set of Jane Austen’s novels on my bookshelf, which I replace when they become dog-eared and begin to fall apart. I don’t know why I keep going back to them. She died two centuries ago. We live in a different world—or do we? Is there a way a novelist can capture character—and express that character through dialogue—that is so solid, true, and revelatory that it never goes out of date? Isn’t that why her novels, which are essentially six variations on the same story, seem so fresh, even today? She never went out of her depth. She wrote only peripherally about the historical events of her time, and only insofar as they impinge on her characters. Her stories are character driven, and her characters are money driven, sometimes by greed, but usually by necessity.

Jane Austen writes about people who happened to live in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because she lived at that time—but they are timelessly humorous, flawed, governed by their quirks and their frustrations. They behave as they do because their lens onto the world is clouded, as is ours, to a greater or lesser extent. They see as we see—through a glass, darkly.

Interview with Toni

Judith Kirscht is a fellow novelist and a good friend. She and I met in Ann Arbor in the 70s. We have a long history as fellow writers.

To mark the publication of the print edition of my novel, One Who Loves (New Libri Press, 2017), Judy recently reprinted her “Interview with Toni Fuhrman.” In the interview, I talk about my writing background, style of writing, and sources of inspiration. Here’s the (slightly revised and updated) interview.

Tell us about your writing background. When did you begin to write?

I always liked writing, including the act of writing, which involves handling pencils, pens, and paper. I still like touching the page with a writing instrument—that closeness, that physicality. I once took a calligraphy course so that I could indulge my love of writing by hand. I also write the first draft of my novels by hand. This may seem labor intensive but it’s not, if one is working on a few pages at a time. The pages just pile up and, some months later, there are several hundred pages and that wonderful thing—a novel manuscript. Once the first draft is complete, it’s much easier to edit and rewrite on a mechanical device. Over the years, I’ve transitioned, without too much difficulty, from manual typewriter to electric typewriter to word processor to desktop to laptop.

I didn’t write extensively while studying English literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t write a novel until a few years after that, when I took myself off to England and wrote a very bad first novel, sitting in front of a rented typewriter at a gigantic claw-foot desk, in a bed-sitting room on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea—across the street from the Thames, just down the street from the former residences of Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I took my first writing course—and got my first rejection (from The New Yorker)—as an undergraduate. Following graduate school, I took two other writing courses, one at Windsor University (with Joyce Carol Oates) and one at the University of Michigan (with Robert Haugh). That was the extent of my formal training. I was accepted at the Iowa Writers Workshop but did not attend. One of my few regrets. I was in love, and Iowa seemed much too far away. I still have (filed away somewhere) the letter of acceptance from Vance Bourjaily, at that time a writer and teacher at the Workshop.

Where do you get your story ideas?

Story ideas. Where do they come from? They are often a momentary thought, realization, or insight, during which I visualize the story, or the key elements of the story, sometimes from beginning to end. It might simply be a title—at this point nothing more than a place marker. More often than not, the title, and its accompanying note, land on a stray piece of paper. I try to remember to put the idea in some more permanent place, like a journal, before the idea is lost and gone forever. Inspiration is ephemeral. It needs to be captured and pinned down before it dissipates. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”

An idea for a novel is not much more complicated than an idea for a short story—at least in the beginning, at least for me. I know the main character or characters. I know what the thrust of the story is. I know how it ends. The rest is process. The story unfolds as I write it.

I often write plot outlines, but only after I’ve drafted the entire manuscript, and only to assist me in recalling the sequence of events, or because a potential publisher has requested it. I don’t map out novels or stories before I write them, or as I write them, because, for me, the story and the characters have lives of their own. My job is to get the story down on the page and allow the characters to progress in their own way and at their own speed. They’re often fated, as I may already have determined the ending, but they have a lot of freedom within that boundary. Yes, sometimes they force me to rethink my endings. That’s when I know I’ve created strong characters.

In several of my novels, including One Who Loves, I’ve written in the ending, or some portion of the ending, at the very beginning of the story. Even though some might consider this a “spoiler,” I’ve found it an effective way to launch a story. Most readers, I believe, will become too involved in the story to put down the book because they know the ending. The stories I tell are not about plot but about character development.

How would you describe your style of writing?

It’s probably easier for someone else to describe my writing style than for me to attempt it. My primary stylistic model and ongoing inspiration is Jane Austen. I am almost always reading Jane Austen. I read her six major novels over and over because I admire her stylistic clarity, her utter lack of sentimentality, her smooth, effortless narration, her satire, her witty and engaging dialogue, and her timeless stories of family conflict and romantic mishap. She is a realist in the best sense; that is, she portrays her flawed characters with wit, humor, and compassion. As she said in one of her letters, “Three or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” Modestly, she refers to her literary output as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”—a reference to the miniaturist art (watercolor on ivory) that was popular at the time. I’ve always believed, however, that she knew how good she was. After all, at his invitation, she dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was an admirer of her novels.

What other authors have inspired you?

Lined up behind Jane Austen are many other novelists and philosophers whose works have inspired me.

For its narrative drive: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (a favorite from age 12). For style: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the short stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For imagination and originality: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. For majestic storytelling: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

For language and subtlety: Henry James’ Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. For brilliantly capturing a particular period and social class: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and her New York stories. For enlightened discipline: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (another early favorite, from age 18), Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography, and B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. For voice: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. For compelling story: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For its iconic character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

For fearlessness: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. For empathy: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. For combining mystery with narrative mastery: Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. For narrative style and personal warmth: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For shattering impact: Paul Bowle’s The Sheltering Sky and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. For their clear, inviting style and stories of ordinary people: the novels of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller.

What inspired One Who Loves?

One Who Loves had several layers of inspiration, all of which came together at one point, and became the story it is. One layer is the title itself, which comes from a line in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.” I’m drawn to what I can only call Maugham’s “voice”—and I found that line, which is very thematic to his novel, and to mine, most intriguing. Do we ever love equally? Does the balance always tilt one way or the other?

Another novel that inspired me was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Stegner is a great favorite of mine, and this is a novel I like particularly well, and have read and reread. It’s about two young married couples who meet at the University of Wisconsin and form a deep bond of friendship, which continues throughout their lives. It’s one of those novels in which nothing extraordinary happens, but which sweeps the reader into the adventure of living one’s life and enjoying one’s closest relationships.

The third layer of inspiration was not so much inspiration as observation. My son, David, lived in a co-op while attending the University of Michigan, and I was an occasional visitor on the premises. I kept a picture in my head of several of the co-op houses, and imagined one that had its own look and personality. Co-op life is a source of close and lasting friendships, as the residents share not only space but responsibilities and a special kind of interconnectedness. It seemed to suit the story I was writing, so I used it to launch my two couples—who are a generation older than my son—on their life journeys.

Can you describe, in a few sentences, what One Who Loves is about?

One Who Loves is a story of friendship and love—including obsessive, misdirected, and frustrated love—troubled and challenging friendship, and the extraordinary conflicts that impinge on seemingly ordinary lives. Liz, Patrick, Tess, and Jon meet at a University of Michigan co-op in the 70s. They quickly form lasting friendships, which continue through the 80s and 90s. Liz, the narrator, takes us on her journey as she grapples with crises of love, loyalty, and the inexorable pull of sexual attraction.

What has sustained you as a writer through the years?

Stubbornness. While continuing to write and submit short stories and novels, I worked as a creative director in the marketing field and, more recently, as a feature writer. Some of my short stories were published and, intermittently, I made an effort to hunt down an agent for my novels. Then, I began submitting to independent publishing houses, and New Libri Press accepted One Who Loves. Independent presses are the lifeblood of contemporary literature.

I should add, however, that, were I not published now, I would continue to write, as I have always done throughout my adult life. Why? Because, gratifying as it is to have readers out there who are enjoying what I’ve published, I have stories I have to tell—or, perhaps, one story that I have to keep telling—and, readers or no readers, I’ll keep telling that story as long as I’m able. Although my writing is character driven and revolves around family and relationships, it is—as is all literature—influenced by a personal quest, our search for—what? Love. Purpose. Rootedness. A sense of belonging. A room of one’s own.

What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?

During my brief stints as a teacher of freshman composition, I told my students, at the beginning of each term, that becoming a better writer was an ongoing two-step process, and that both elements of the process were absolutely essential for success. The two steps, in order of importance, were (and are):

  1. Read.
  2. Write.

I would reiterate this advice often during the term, but I doubt if it made much of an impression. It’s like that timeless advice for losing weight: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s just too damn simple.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a novel, as well as submitting for publication another novel that was first developed some years ago and has recently undergone a considerable makeover. It’s a novel about family (sound familiar?) in a small town (think: “Three or four Families in a Country Village”). The characters will, I hope, be fully realized (at least to the best of my ability), but their quest—in all fairness to my readers—will be only partially fulfilled. As a realist, I don’t believe in happy endings. I do, however, believe in the resilient human spirit. We aspire. We struggle. We take risks. We often fail. But we are sustained by friendship, family, and love.

“First shut the door”

East Hollywood is a neighborhood of some 80,000 souls in central Los Angeles. It’s shaped like a rough-cut diamond, cut through the middle by Santa Monica Boulevard, edged (roughly) by the Hollywood Freeway (101), Western Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and Virgil Avenue. On its borders are Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Koreatown. Within its borders are Thai Town, Little Armenia, The Church of Scientology, Los Angeles City College (UCLA’s original campus), and a thriving Spanish-speaking population. From atop Mount Hollywood to the north, Griffith Observatory benignly stands sentry over all.

It is here, in this neighborhood, that Harry Northup lives, walks, and writes the poetry collected in East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason (Cahuenga Press, 2015). This is Northup’s eleventh book, and the voice we hear in the poems is exuberant, Whitmanesque.

Northup is a poet who seems to say what he thinks as he thinks it – so that one moves through the poems impressionistically, prepared for open-endedness, unexpected twists and turns, side trips, lyrical (or narrative) interludes. “Poetry puts you right where you are:/no door, no closure, empty shoes, empty/chair, the walk around & return,” he says in “Poetry.” In many of the poems, “where you are” is walking the streets of East Hollywood. In “Place,” he says:

—walking has my/soul, furtive wanderings on fountain,/mariposa, de longpre, alexandria,/lexington — to walk in the night air/tonight, i walked to franklin &/vermont & home later … buying a six-pack of bud light at/7-eleven, a cut-in-half, zankou/chicken with pita bread & garlic/spread.

After his long, rambling, walks, Northup delights in home: “home in front of a fan, my wife’s/through teaching for today, home.” In “short love song,” it is a “home of light & reason/clean, bare, full, home with wife,/love, cats, song & tv, primrose/darling”

There’s also the ongoing spell of the writing process itself. “First shut the door. Write what you want to write,” he advises in “Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles.” And, in “Hot Night”: “The words open, fall apart &/rearrange themselves. One word/files a nail. One holds up a rose/opening … One word springs water.” In “In Memoriam,” he reminds himself “To not bully or order words around./To not interrupt words”; and, in “stillness not quite,” “to be still & thankful/for one & two syllable/words”

Northup’s love of poetry followed him from Nebraska to Manhattan to Santa Monica in 1968; there, he discovered the literary center, Beyond Baroque, where “the themes of youth & struggle, loss & place, were ever present.” In Los Angeles, these days, he says his main themes are “aging, acceptance.” But there is a youthful vigor to the poems, an energy that keeps him walking, observing, listening, conjuring fresh word patterns. This is from “no death heart”:

i will never be lost/ as long as i have words/I will never be lonely/as long as i have my wife/i will never be cold/ as long as i have cats … i will always be young/as long as the lakers thrive/i will always love summer/as long as the dodgers struggle/i will always love the dark/as long as movies play …

Northup is not only a poet and a sports fan. He’s an actor who, “as a man just past 21 hitchhiked/to new york to make it as an actor” (“ridiculously simple”). His acting life is infused in his poetry, his recollections. “I came to Los Angeles to act in Westerns,” he says in “Remains.” He also studied Method acting with Frank Corsaro in New York, and acted in 37 films, including Martin Scorsese’s first six feature films. “At this moment,” he muses in the same poem, “I am eternal.”

Always, in Northup’s poems, there’s the intimate, soothing sensation of coming home, of love for his wife, Holly. In “For My Love Sleeping,” he reflects, “To find means to rescue/Stay within & not hide/To not escape means forever.” In “Careful Notion,” he juxtaposes poetry and baseball:

“The walks in East Hollywood, films at/local theatres, my wife’s cooking & the/fresh flowers she brings home, our bed,/her arm, cats & fan, poetry & baseball/save me, nourish my dazed spirit … I connect poetry & baseball – to lose/oneself in the shadows coming in out/of the sun”

As for his life in the neighborhood he calls home, he concludes, in “for my friend aram”: “I’ve had enough time to think about/living in los angeles and the answer is/simply yes”

Revisiting The Bridges of Madison County

Part of my work as a novelist is to ask myself this question: what makes a good story? What makes it compelling? What makes me want to read – and reread – a novel?

I asked myself this question not long ago, as I drove down the streets of Los Angeles, scanning the street posters for the touring musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which played here in December and January. I recalled having read the novel some twenty years ago, not long after watching the movie adaptation.

My first thought, as I scan the multiple street posters, is that it’s a damn good title. It is, in fact, a magical title – one of those titles that stays with you. But what is it about the story that resonates – so that it was made into a Broadway musical and, before that, a feature film and, before that, a hugely popular international bestseller?

I decide to reread the novel. “Ah, yes,” the librarian says, when I ask for the book, “a classic.” My first thought is, “Really? A classic? Is it old enough to be a classic? Is it good enough to be a classic?” But, then, if the librarian thinks it’s a classic, he’s probably not alone in his estimation. I take home a hardcover copy, published by Time Warner, photographs by the author, Robert James Waller. At the time, Waller lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He now lives on a farm in Texas.

I start reading the novel. It begins: “There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.” My response is, “What did I just read?” I still don’t know. I read on.

The wraparound story, which begins and ends the novel, is that, after the death of their mother, Francesca Johnson, her son and daughter discover papers and journals detailing her brief love affair in 1965 with Robert Kincaid, a traveling photographer, which took place while her children, and her husband of 18 years, were away at a state fair. The son and daughter decide to hire an author they’ve heard about to write their mother’s story. After some resistance, the author agrees.

I’ve heard that Henry James got story ideas from anecdotes picked up at dinner parties, but I can’t quite imagine this particular situation, and wonder why the author thought it added to the story. I read on.

The story itself – at about 36,000 words – is scarcely more than a novella. Each chapter is introduced with large type and a photo of a covered bridge. The Italian-American housewife, Francesca, meets Robert, the National Geographic photographer, when he stops at her Iowa farmhouse to ask for directions to one of the covered bridges. They fall in love. After four days, they part. I pause in my reading to wonder at Waller’s naming “Robert,” the attractive photographer, after himself. I read on.

The writing style strikes me as that of someone intent on lifting this simple story (and I love simple stories) to the level of exalted literary prose – and not quite succeeding. I try, as I read, to understand this disconnect. What would have made the writing better, more believable? I like the story. I’ve written stories about instantaneous attraction between a man and a woman. Perhaps it’s the author’s reaching for the sublime when the reality is all that needs to be told.

Francesca says of Robert, “God, what was it about him! He was like some star creature who had drafted in on the tail of a comet and dropped off at the end of her lane.” I pause while I contemplate this line and, among other things, the use of the word “drafted.” He says to her, when they are making love, “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” I ask myself, who would say this while making love? The author likes this line so much he repeats it in the letter Francesca writes to her children.

At any rate, I read the novel, finish it, and enjoy the epilogue, entitled “Interview with ‘Nighthawk’ Cummings,” a black musician whom the pretend author meets, and who provides some affirming insights into the character of Robert Kincaid. Unlike many of the overwrought passages in the novel, the interview seems simple and real, like the underlying story itself.

So now, having reread this “classic” novel, what do I think of it?

Although somewhat overwritten, sometimes clunky, The Bridges of Madison County is enough of a story at its source to sell in the millions, to be the stuff of a good movie, and to inspire a fine musical score. There is something iconic in the story, some nugget of truth that is felt by its readers, its moviegoers, and the theatre-going public – something that transcends the limitations of the writing, and soars.

Born as a novel in 1992, visualized as a movie in 1995, then resurrected as a beautifully scored musical in 2014, The Bridges of Madison County continues to resonate because so many of us, critics and skeptics as well as the susceptible, still want to believe that love, even well into and beyond the middle of our lives, even after our lives are supposedly set in cement, can rescue us.

And that, dear reader, includes me.

December

The last few months have been a time of discovery, excitement, anxiety, and plunging into the unknown. In other words, I’ve been preparing for the publication of my novel, One Who Loves.

The publication date is now on the horizon: some time this month. I finally let go of the manuscript – a difficult act of will. I’m now concentrating on announcing the event to family, friends, associates, acquaintances – in other words, everyone I know.

One Who Loves will be published first as an ebook. The publishing plan is to sell a certain number of ebooks before the novel is made available in print. I, for one, am a recent ebook convert. I’m now reading books on my iPad, and have my eye on a dedicated ereader – well, Christmas is coming up!

What’s the novel about, you ask?

Can a strong and resilient friendship between two couples survive the challenges of jealousy, emotional turmoil, sexual desire, self-interest – even death? Enter the mind of Liz, the narrator, in the soon-to-be-published One Who Loves.

Sur la route

Jack Kerouac published his novel, On the Road, in 1957. It’s one of the defining works of the ‘Beat’ generation, a roman a clef based on his travels across America. For Kerouac, ‘the road’ means “nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Sur la route (Quale Press) is Cecilia Woloch’s ‘road’ novel, with her first-person narrator, Susannah, traveling to Paris, meeting new and old friends, exploring – and remembering – affaires de coeur. It’s set in the mid-1990s, and reads as though it may have been written yesterday.

Woloch’s prose is graceful and effortless, always with the surprising turn of phrase or image that marks the poet. She has published six books of poetry. This is her first published novel, or novella. It is divided into just over 200 brief chapters, and reads as though the narrator were sharing her own intimate thoughts in her own intimate journal. The reader, or eavesdropper, is intrigued and titillated by Susannah’s daring as she journeys, sans argent, into the relative unknown – navigating the night streets of Paris, sharing living quarters with accommodating strangers, launching into a relationship that is at once foreign and warmly intimate.

When it’s time to leave Paris and return to America, Susannah retrieves her battered suitcases, bids friends and lover adieu, and sets her sights firmly on ‘home.’ Her life in Los Angeles is only slightly less precarious than her month-long Paris excursion, but, as Kerouac says: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”

Hawkins Lane

Judith Kirscht’s fourth published novel, Hawkins Lane (New Libri Press), is part love story, part family saga, part mystery. Set in Washington State, its principle characters, Ned and Erica Hawkins, seek fulfillment and redemption in the North Cascades.

Kirscht is a writer who plants her stories firmly in setting: place drives character; character is motivated and transformed by place. Kirscht locates her novels in settings she knows intimately – Ann Arbor (Nowhere Else to Go), Chicago (The Inheritors), Santa Barbara (Home Fires), and now the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle and the mountains that straddle the top of the state and extend into Canada.

In transitioning between two points of view, those of Ned and Erica, Kirscht is able to build the suspense that propels the reader through the narrative. Ned is reserved, reined in by his family’s past, hesitant about sharing his life with outsiders. Erica is impulsive, lively, stubborn – an outsider who falls in love with both Ned and his environment. Together, they become forest rangers, build a home in the mountains, and raise a daughter, Bonnie, who is both nourished and frustrated by their often incompatible natures.

Hawkins Lane is the story of a man’s struggle to escape the manacles of his past, and a woman’s determination to overcome her limitations. The narrative drive of the story is a tribute to Kirscht’s ability to simultaneously convey the pain of coping with adversity, and the joy of inhabiting the ‘place’ that brings repose. As W. Somerset Maugham famously said:

“Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.”

“My country is Kentucky.”

A good novel makes me happy. The Dollmaker, written by Harriette Arnow and published in 1954, makes me very happy.

Gertie Nevels is a woman I came to love and admire in the course of rereading the novel – in the same way I came to love Soames in The Forsyte Saga. I didn’t want Soames to die, after six novels, nor did I want Gertie’s story to end, after 549 pages.

Described as big and ugly, Gertie lives in Ballew, Kentucky. “My country is Kentucky,” she says, after having left it. Gertie is man-sized, physically strong, with long dark hair pulled back in a bun. She travels always with two things: a knife, with which she “whittles” and, in the lining of the old coat she wears everywhere, a hidden hoard of money, painfully saved over the fifteen years of her marriage, and the birth of her five children.

It’s the 1940s, during World War II, and her husband, Clovis, is about to leave for either active service or factory work in Detroit. Clovis is a mechanic, as skilled with machinery as is Gertie with wood carving, but completely unaware of the artistry of his wife’s “whittlen,” even though he gets angry when Gertie, who hates machinery, calls his work “tinkeren.”

Gertie’s mother, a terrifying woman, hypochondriac and religious fanatic, is also ignorant of Gertie’s gifts – as an artist, a mother, a farmer and homemaker. Only Gertie’s father, a farmer and woodcarver, empathizes with her. But he is, like his daughter, helpless in the face of his wife’s dominance.

Gertie is a woman who is completely at home in her environment. Her dream is to buy a house and property, so that she and her family no longer need to pay rent, which in their case is one half of their crop. To that end, she has saved, secretly, every dollar she has hidden away in her coat. After Clovis leaves for his war work, Gertie, with her treasure of more than five hundred dollars, buys her dream – the Tipton Place, a big log house surrounded by rich, fertile acres.

But before the deed to the Tipton Place can be recorded in her name, Gertie’s mother shames her into joining Clovis in Detroit, where he has been assigned factory work. Her money is returned. She and her children begin the bitter, tragically misdirected adaptation and assimilation necessary to survive in what is, to Gertie, an alien environment.

Here’s how Arnow describes Gertie early in the novel, gathering water at a spring:

. . . she squatted by the pool and dipped the bucket in, then lifted it and drank easily and soundlessly from the great thick rim as others might have sipped from a china cup. The water, cold with faint tastes of earth and iron and moss and the roots of trees, was like other drinks from other springs, the first step upward in the long stairs of the day; everything before it, was night; everything after, day.

Here’s how Arnow describes Gertie in the cramped, shed-like, multi-family project built for factory workers at the ironically named “18911 Merry Hill”:

The steamy, nasty smell of the drying, half-rotten, re-used wood mingled with the gas smell, the chlorine water smell, the supper-getting smell, and became one smell, a stink telling her it was the time of day she had learned to hate most. The time she had loved back home, the ending when the day was below her.

Gertie has two things to sustain her: her children and her carving, which, in her modesty, she persists in calling “whittlen.” Her masterpiece, which she ships by mail to Detroit and works on intermittently, is a massive block of wild cherry wood that is slowly, as she works on it in her spare time, revealing itself as a Biblical figure, by turns Christ-like and Judas-like. The symbolic center of the novel, the figure is faceless but otherwise beautifully rendered, with its long hair, sweeping robe, and uplifted hands.

Late in the novel, Arnow describes Gertie’s work on the figure,:

Gradually the man in the wood brought some calmness to her; he was alive; the hands, the head, even the face were there; she had only to pull the curtain of wood away, and the eyes would look down at her. They would hold no quarreling, no scolding, no questions. Even long ago, when only the top of the head was out of the wood, below it had seemed a being who understood. . . .

But understanding is not a quality Gertie finds in her new life in Detroit. Frustrated, stymied in her efforts to save money so that she and her family can escape the intolerable conditions around her, she must, finally, learn to “adapt,” as her children have adapted, as most of the families living at Merry Hill come to adapt.

Max, one of Gertie’s neighbors at the project, a young woman who periodically demands of Gertie, “Gimme a dream,” “I gotta have a dream,” manages to escape the project. But Gertie herself is left with no escape, and no dream to sustain her.