Consultation 1: With Victor Hugo




Note: Since I’ve gone out on a limb and blamed my boredom with (particularly) current American fiction on a sense of ennui on the part of the authors, this post begins a series of imaginary interviews with authors who did manage to pin down the passion of their time and commit that passion to characterization and story. I had planned to deal exclusively with American authors and their works, but I thought, Who better to start with than Victor Hugo and his monumental work, Les Miserables?


GF: Monsieur Hugo…

VH: Please call me Victor, won’t you? It’s not often that someone calls me out from this temporary state of blissful abandon to answer to the future. Or Vic. Either way.

GF: All right, Vic…

VH: Second thought, let’s make it Victor.

GF: Victor, I thought of you immediately for this project, because you come from passionate people, you lived in a passionate era, and you wrote perhaps the most passionate book in the history of European novels.

VH: (A long pause) Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose I wouldn’t have put that way, but you’re quite right. The richness of the novel, the personages who inhabit these works of art are all built on an undercurrent of passion.

GF: Please go with that if you will.

VH: Of course. All passion is built on love, you see? Amour. Even when you despise the actions of the landed elite, something in you is crying out with love, not just for the downtrodden, but for the elite themselves.

GF: How so? With the elite, I mean.

VH: But don’t you see? Love and hate always coexist, but love is always the stronger. Love isn’t always as showy, as demonstrative as hate and its flaming fireballs. Quite simply it endures. Take for example, my opus, Les Miz, as the philistines among you call it, in which I have my countrymen take down our monarchy and its wicked domination of the poor.

GF: I understand you watched it happen as you wrote about it.

VH: (Winking and smiling) So they say. Quite journalistic, don’t you think?

GF: Sure was.

VH: Permit me to preemptively reply to your next comment. You were going to say you Yanks have problems with novels that are -ah – too instructive, shall we say.
GF: Yes.

VH: But this is where your country’s overarching lack of subtlety comes into play. It was the characters, my friend, the characters! They and they alone gave my story its passion. The revolution was merely a backdrop.

GF: But your characters rampaged. They destroyed, they murdered.

VH: Ah, yes, they did. For love of France, for one another, for the simple human freedoms denied them. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Without love each stood alone against an oppressive regime. With it, they were France.

GF: All right, I suppose I can concede your point. But you can’t do ghastly things and call it love.

VH:  Yes, yes. But love is at the basis of it, you see? Regardless of its distortions.



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‘I Don’t Believe In Writer’s Block’/The Atlantic




The article linked below is one all writers should read, and it’s one that certainly speaks to me. I’ve spent years lost in the woods (read: another career) while writing virtually nothing. But what I subsequently discovered is that those woods did indeed leave me with much soil from which stories might grow. And, to espouse a cliche, it’s a process. At first, unsure of my ability to extract stories from these raw experiences, I outlined, organized, and after I wrote I analyzed what I’d written. Now I favor taking off as Steinbeck did in To A God Unknown, i.e., I write without knowing where the writing will take me. This is truly being lost in the woods. Dear writers (and readers) you always find your way out of the woods if you’re determined to do so, but it’s a path you can never retrace and walk a second time.




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The Transformational Nature of Literature


The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt


Imagine a book written in the twenty-first century with pen and pencil in notebooks, work on the novel taking place over ten years. What would such a book be like? How long would it be? What impact would it have on readers? Judging by sales charts in the New York Times and others, this 770 page book is wildly popular. But why would so many readers tackle such a book in this, the age of thirty-second attention spans? I may not adequately answer the pithier of these questions, but here goes.

Ms. Tartt has created a bildungsroman here, its first-person narrator and principal character a boy named Theo Decker. Theo’s father has wandered away from his parental responsibilities, his mother has died in a museum explosion that Theo not only survives but he walks out with a priceless painting, The Goldfinch. He manages to hang on to the painting (or he thinks so) through life with a rich, troubled New York family, then with his father in Vegas, a friendship and drugs with a Russian boy alienated from his father (mother dead), and finally college and apprenticeship to a New York antique restorer. The painting’s presence in Theo’s life allows him to hang onto his mother and his childhood until he realizes that it’s wrong to cling to the past, that it must be returned to its rightful place in society.


Tartt’s voice here is stupendous; her Theo consistently presented, and her narrative descriptions of New York’s busy hustle, Vegas’ barrenness, and Amsterdam’s freewheeling life are among the best I’ve ever read, seemingly tossed off as if in conversation over a glass of scotch. But she isn’t satisfied to depict the seaminess of youthful drug taking, abandoned children, the danger and depravity accompanying the art underworld. At book’s end, she gives us a philosophical treatise on the true value of art and of life itself. We may never understand life as we live it, but the true artists of each age allow us to see bits of life in perspective, as Carel Fabritius did by painting his goldfinch, a beautiful bird, but chained to its perch by a chain so finely rendered that a viewer may not at first notice it. Art, then, reveals the patterns and fixtures in life that both free us and imprison us, as family does, as childhood freedom does, as romance and marriage do, as education and career may do as well.

No novel is perfect, and one may select certain passages to fault here, but the value of literature isn’t in the precision of its grammar, the lapses in inspired prose, it’s in the energy that drives the life of the novel. So of what artistic value, then, is Tartt’s The Goldfinch? What impact does it promise its readers? In a certain sense it transforms the pre-Victorian urges of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into those of a postmodern, existential reality. In doing so, Tartt has proven that art is perhaps the better depiction of ethics and wisdom than those of religious texts and dogma. As times change, but as the underlying patterns of life remain a safety net between us and existential collapse, literature adjusts, it paints the picture anew for each age.


My rating: 20 of 20 stars


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Atlantic Ascendant

The Atlantic, January/February, 2014


Perhaps Editor-in-Chief James Bennet has developed the complex touch of a successful pro sports team coach. Or maybe the world is handing him better and better stories. Whatever the reason, this issue of The Atlantic is one of the best balanced, most newsworthy, and downright interesting issues yet. And that’s with a minimal emphasis on things literary.

What does it take to find the next grand inventor? Derek Thompson writes, correctly, that such new gizmos are the thing of basements and garages. But how to make use of them? Technology sharing, says, Thompson, that’s the way to co-opt these gadgets for biz benefit. Only partly correct, I say; businesses are hidebound for the most part and resistant to new ideas and gadgets that compel change.

James Fallows talks cancer with Eric S. Lander, as well as new developments in the field of genomics. Is this the breakthrough approach? Lander says there are usually no “AHA!” moments in such things. It’s a process.

Why do the eminently cinematic Elmore Leonard books end up as crappy movies? Christopher Orr gives us a glance at both media. Justified is a hit now on TV, but why? I think there’s been too much devotion to every detail of Leonard’s work in cinema. Movies aren’t books, and movie adaptations need to be willing to do that: adapt the book. A TV series may very well be the better device to morph books such as Leonard’s into a cinematic format.

These Unites States have always looked the other way as criminal enterprises seek the bread to generate legitimacy. Taylor Clark gives us a look at Jesse Willms, a 26 year-old techie scam artist and a purveyor of technology and the Internet in doing just that.

Scott Stossel reveals the aches and pains of his life-long struggles with anxiety. Is there a solution here? Perhaps, but Stossel seems to be saying that the solutions are as varied as the persons afflicted with such anguish.

Too, there’s a glance back at poet Marianne Moore and her life.

More good things within, of course. And this is an issue that is to me an oddity – one I could read over and over.



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The Rages of Poverty in the Provinces

Harper’s Magazine, January 2014


Thomas Frank’s essay here is one every self-styled liberal or progressive should read. It’s a screed, not against the Red State folks, Republicans, Tea Partiers, et al; instead he’s raging against the Democrats, liberals, and progressives for not taking advantage politically of the ever-shrinking white, male, etc. conservative base. And he’s right, In my mind. Waiting for the Republicans to self-destruct won’t get it done; they just keep up a steady litany of political noise that’s much larger than their base, and they’re good at it.

But why is their a burr under the blue-collar saddle, one the Democrats can’t seem to pluck away? Jeff Madrick delineates the failed job promise of the digital revolution. Sure, there’s innovation and new products being made in this post-industrial world, but with an ever-shrinking worker base. Are we making the best use of technology? No. Are we making forward-leaning technologies, such as electric cars and wind and solar power generators.? No.

I’ll just leave those questions hanging, but they say a lot about our economic vision and will.

And just for irony’s sake, there’s a bit of reportage from Mujib Mashal in Afghanistan on the trail of a Taliban chieftain, and the Taliban’s resilience, thanks largely to our tone deafness, politically and militarily, in that region.

All the above, built around the centerpiece (the grander bit of irony) of this issue, a long-winded piece on learning how to be a modern-day servant for the nation’s rich. And so what’s a job seeker to do these days, if she can’t work for “the man,” either in his home or workplace. Now you’re beginning to see the roots of rage on both ends of the political spectrum.


As always, there’s more in this issue. Always more.



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The Months and Moments of War

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway



War novels have always seemed their best when written by a combatant who has been there, lived it. Galloway’s novel, however, shows that a good writer’s empathic instincts are sufficient, even though he/she hasn’t been there. The story of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian wars, the longest one in modern warfare history, has in this author’s hands been compressed to a fraction of that time.

In doing so, he allows the reader to experience the siege from three different points of view: Kenan, a family man intent on securing water for his family from a far away brewery, Dragan, a baker who simply observes the street scenes, and Arrow, a female sniper. The cellist whom the story surrounds is given only one chapter, his mission to play an adagio for twenty-two days in memory of twenty-two people killed in a mortar attack at the site of his playing. The cellist and Arrow are based roughly on real persons, the other two the author’s inventions.




In allowing his story to play out, Galloway gives the reader a true sense of war, its reducing life to a mere survival, its day-to-day routines that approach ritual. Still, he does more, and with irony. He depicts his characters’ reduction to self-preservation while showing how strangers become friends-of-the-moment. He depicts hours or moments of danger that seem to stretch to eternity for his characters. And while his characters are disparate, unique, he allows suspense to build in different ways for each as the book reaches its climax.

Galloway is a skilled, eminently talented writer. We’ll hear more of him.


My rating 19 0f 20 stars



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…And The Art Grows Tougher


There was an article in yesterday’s paper – the second in a month – about the demise of another indie bookstore: Accent On Books, in Asheville, NC. This one I know about – it’s the site of my most highly attended, most successful book appearance. But that was half a year ago.

I’ve gotten to know one of the store’s co owners, Lewis Sorrells, and as I talked casually with him about books, or as I listened to him  talk to one or another of a small but steady stream of customers, I began to realize the Lewis isn’t just a book seller, he knows books; he loves them. Too, he pays careful attention to the market. But why close the store? “I think thirty years is enough,” said the gray-bearded, dapper man. “I want to spend some time with my grandkids.”

Back in July when he first sprung the news on me that he expected to close the store at year’s end, I was a bit shocked, and that’s one reason I did what I could to draw a last stream of customers to the store. All in vain, however. He and partner Patrick Covington had survived the big box book stores coming to Asheville, but when I mentioned that some indie stores had made agreements with Barnes&Noble to sell Nook e-books, he  shrugged that away. He told me then that he hoped to sell the store and its inventory, but sadly that didn’t happen, and he was forced to sell his inventory as best he could before the end of January.

I stopped by last week to say my good-byes, and Lewis told me his biggest regret was that he offered certain types of books that no other store in Asheville would touch. Besides the big-list books, he carried a number of children’s books, odd historical books that only someone like me would read, and local, small selling writers’ books, such as mine. “But really,” I asked, “won’t someone pick up those books, just to take a chance?” His brow furrowed, evincing a second of anger, I think, and he shook his head.

We said our good-byes. I certainly wish Lewis and Patrick well, but it’s damned sad, you know? To them books were a source of enjoyment and experience in their various alternate worlds. Not just products, but art.



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