The CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, good writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, The Cat's Tableopens the shutters and windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje's writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje's writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat's Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

The Cat's Table (Vintage International)

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

It is a pleasure to announce the release of my new novel and an exciting new character: Beyond These Woods -- featuring epidemiologist and rogue scientific gadfly, Dr. Lotte Keene.

Beyond These Woods

Lotte has fought and won many virus battles, yet after witnessing the death of her closest friend, Charley, in a horrific Brazilian disease outbreak, she has put the Centers for Disease Control and her high stakes war against pathogens in dangerous hot zones behind her.

Her skeptical relationship with authority and inconvenient habit of being right have stunted her career and undermined her professional reputation. Now, as she struggles to come to terms with life without Charley, she glimpses a telltale repetition of the symptomology of Charley’s sudden death … this time in California’s High Sierra Thunder Peak Wilderness. This clue to the cause of her greatest loss ignites an obsessive need to eradicate the killer. She breaks protocol and goes to Longwood, CA on a mission to confront her darkest fear.

To the CDC, Lotte’s breach of protocol is insubordination. To the environmental activist, Gabriel Fox, she is a complication of his master plan. For America’s elite intelligence apparatus, she is a threat to the nation’s security. For Longwood doctor Ben McCandle, Lotte challenges everything he thinks he knows about medical science.

Lotte Keene must identify the killer in the Sierra old-growth forest, determine if the ‘Ahwahnee Stroke’, as locals call it, is a corruption of Natural Law or a criminal act, and she must stop it before it spreads beyond the Thunder Peak Wilderness. Local suspicions of her motives mount, calculating corporate interests grow more sinister, dark operatives from Washington move against her work… and time is running out.

Dr. Lotte Keene is about to rewrite the rules of biogenetic science and cross the thin red, white and blue line between American principle and power.

BEYOND THESE WOODS is currently available for the Amazon Kindle and desktops, laptops, tablets, iPhone, Android and all handheld devices with the Kindle App available free from your favorite App Store.

Amazon KINDLE

gadfly -- a person who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions.

The term 'gadfly' was used by Plato in the Apology[2] to describe Socrates' relationship of uncomfortable goad to the Athenian political scene, which he compared to a slow and dimwitted horse. (source: Wikipedia)

 

 

Mission: The Best Reading Experience

Recently, I learned that the edition of SAINT available on-line at Amazon contained formatting errors that diminished the quality experience I strive to achieve for every reader. In response, I have thoroughly reviewed SAINT's .mobi file, resolved formatting issues and added new features to enhance your reading experience.

New Features

  • Formatting refinements
  • Table of Contents
  • Improved chapter layouts
  • Titles

Thank you for your patience and enthusiasm for this novel. Please check out the newly improved SAINT (v1.1) at:

      Saint - Mark Bailey      

IT'S FINE BY ME | Per Petterson

True, Lonely, and Uplifting

Rare is the author or his/her work that I can order sight unseen and know. Know that the book will be a permanent presence on my shelf of quality literature, revisited and reread often. Per Petterson's novels are among the rarest for me.

I promised myself that I would understate these observations about Petterson's third book, the novel, IT'S FINE BY ME (1992), but I've failed already.It's Fine By Me

With the exceptions for love and great ambition, restraint is a desirable quality in most things. Writing, in particular. Petterson's mastery of restraint shows in his spare use of adjectives, and his refusal to embellish any description of setting or action. He simply writes what is, what happens, period. It's up to us to figure out the why of it. Just like life. And he does this without affectation or apparent effort, which reinforces his credibility with the reader and simultaneously sets the stage for profound, moving and often tender human insight.

Audun Sletten is Petterson's 13-year old protagonist in IT'S FINE BY ME, a working-class teen who identifies with Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, and is annoyed by adult hypocrisies, and his sister's choice of her James Dean wannabe boyfriend. He has outgrown the rules of childhood and is experiencing the contradictions of adulthood as he strives to understand his emerging identity, which is being defined as he responds to the messes that parents, sisters, friends, strangers and co-workers create for themselves. The culture of adulthood is a strange and chaotic bazaar of public selves and private rules that his elders seem to have accommodated in their own failed personal dreams of freedom and success. In this world seen through Audun's adolescent senses, adulthood is life lived under a succession of truces in which the line between what might be and what is shifts and morphs like light under water.

Previous Reviews of Per Petterson's works:

IN THE WAKE 

OUT STEALING HORSES

A trained librarian, Petterson worked as a bookstore clerk, translator and literary critic before he became a full-time writer. He cites Knut Hamsun and Raymond Carver among his influences.

Readers Rule

...if the writer has the energy, determination and persistence to develop more stories, and is open to learning and perfecting his or her craft, then s/he can offer another story, and maybe get a second date, and a third, and perhaps become a couple. How great is that?

Read More

Who is Reading Your E-Book: Trace Its DNA

When a book interests you, what compels you - its genre, theme, cover art, protagonist? If you read more than the first 50 pages, why? What pulls you forward?

What is the optimal length of a novel in the e-book format?

When you finish a book, do you know what it was in the story that drew you on, turning hundreds of pages to the last scene, the concluding paragraph, the cathartic final sentence?

If you are a woman reader, are your answers to these questions different from those answers a man might give?

HipType created this infographic based upon some of the data it gathers from e-readers for authors.  It analyses a wide range of book types and genres.

 

DNA of Successful Books

 

Resonance: Dreams give us lift...

Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.

 

 

Dreams give us lift ...  The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.

Ivan Doig HEART EARTH (p. 133)

Your Brain on Fiction

NeuroFiction

An article in the New York Times published on Saint Patrick’s Day caught my attention for its premise: fiction improves our minds. I believe this to be true, but haven’t looked too deeply into the science of it. Science author Annie Murphy Paul has. Her article confirms my personal experience of the effect of reading fiction on mental, social and life skills.

AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

This got my neural processors firing away in anticipation of a good intellectual workout. Paul makes a compelling case for the power of the novel to engage, exercise and improve the brain.

The brain, the article reminds us, does not distinguish between imagining an experience as we read about it and actually experiencing it in real life. To the brain, one is as real as the other. This is a key principle of achieving excellence in any endeavor, practicing it in our minds so thoroughly that our mind cannot accept less than the perfect execution.  High performance athletes understand this. Just as jet fighter pilots, high steel workers, leading corporate innovators, and neurosurgeons do. The fact that a good novel engages our mind and thrusts us into the heart of risk, danger, adventure, romance, achievement functions the way it does because our minds understand sensory details, evocative metaphors, and stimulating situations with such rich and complex experiences of reality that we discover and learn much as if we actually travelled, trained and risked as the novel’s characters do.

According to two scientific studies cited in the article, our experience of a novel hones our real-life social skills. The more we read fiction, the better we are able to understand other people, empathize with their challenges, and credibly see the world from their perspective.

Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

Previously I held this truth to be self-evident. Now, I have proof that my preference for the novel literary form is pragmatic and has a basis in science.

Related Links

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, NY Times, March 17, 2012

Annie Murphy Paul | Science Author  -  TED     Nov. 2011

 

 

 

WOLVES EAT DOGS | Martin Cruz Smith

In the shadow of the devastated Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, nature is reclaiming the wreckage of humankind's worst nuclear accident. Outlaws and corrupt militia co-exist in the toxic detritus that is left in the wake of the government-ordered evacuation years earlier. Scientists come to conduct pure research. Surviving residents with nowhere to go wait for the end that never comes. Weary, they attempt to live with the terrible knowledge of their doom. One telling detail of their reduced circumstances: they cannot have pet dogs because the wolves in the surrounding forests eat dogs. This is not a cliché. It is a living Darwinian metaphor. Arkady Renko, the iconic detective from GORKY PARK, is challenged by his most baffling and enigmatic case yet: the death of an oligarch, by suicide perhaps, but Renko is certain it is the result of a murderous plot.

Smith's prose is deceptively elegant. It seems straightforward like Renko's description of action, yet it is always painted in shades of light, color, and tone. This and Renko's cynical, quietly subversive, brilliantly analytical, melancholy character keeps the mind turning - amused and utterly engaged.

Amazon - Wolves Eat Dogs

Wikipedia - Wolves Eat Dogs

 

Birds In Fall | Brad Kessler

Life is Fragile as Flight

This novel is one of those surprise discoveries. My wife brought it home for me on a whim with some journals. I read the opening sentence and sensed immediately that my priorities for the weekend had shifted.Birds In Fall by Brad Kessler

It’s true: a few of us slept through the entire ordeal, but others sensed something wrong right away.

I was hooked. Wished I’d written it. The voice possessed a sense of moment, a texture of imminent tragedy that gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. The first chapter transported me to far away Nova Scotia and continues to resonate in unexpected ways after the final page of the novel 238 pages later.

BIRDS IN FALL was a critical and popular success. An excerpt was published in The Kenyon Review in the spring of 2006. It won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. And the Los Angeles Times named it one of the ten best books of 2006.

A Novel for Novelists

The story begins aboard a transatlantic flight from New York City bound for Amsterdam. The style is contemporary, spare in setting, and emphasizes action.  It is told in the first person voice of Russell, Ana’s husband. The action is carefully and effectively modulated as he takes up conversation with the woman seated next to him, a concert cellist who is stressed by the airplane’s bumpy ride through increasingly violent stormy night skies.

For example, one of the most visually compelling moments is Russell’s presence of mind in writing his NY address on his forearm with the cellist’s Japanese Maple lipstick. He shows it to her and encourages her to do the same. Ironically, she encourages Russell to include his name in his message to his rescuers, yet he cannot bring himself to do so. This foreshadows his fate as another anonymous casualty of tragedy, vanished, forever lost at sea. Indeed, eighty minutes into its flight, the aircraft ‘enters the sea.’

From there we shift to a small community setting on Trachis Island off the coast of Nova Scotia and the events following the crash. The narrator’s voice changes to third person omniscient and never returns to Ana’s husband in any meaningful way. Despite several telling details set up in the first chapter, few are referenced later in the narrative in which bits and pieces of airplane, passengers, and luggage debris are recovered.

From chapter two onward we follow the innkeepers Kevin and Douglas on Trachis Island and Ana Gathreaux, Russell’s ornithologist wife, who travels from New York City to the inn to visit the site of the catastrophe and learn something more about Russell’s fate. Other victims’ families travel to the island from all over the world for the same purpose. Over time, they each experience punishing, withering grief, hope, frustration, abandonment, and transformation into new lives without their loved ones.

The writing improves in this second voice and occasionally soars like the migrating birds that serve as such an apt metaphor for the flight of time, events, and souls. On more than one occasion, I was reminded of Michael Ondaatje’s poetic prose. That's profound praise for how deft many of Brad Kessler’s passages are.

Recommended

Birds In Fall is remarkable. It is rich with masterful writing and compelling insights into the lives, drives, and lessons that shape us as our migrations intersect across time, place and circumstance.

 

Related Links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brad_Kessler

 

 

IN THE WAKE | Per Petterson

When the Old Life is Gone

Per Petterson's novel of personal grief, guilt and redemption is palpably authentic as release, if not renewal.

Petterson's set-up is inventive - Arvid Jansen regains consciousness pressed against a bookstore's closed glass door - and his writing is masterful. He hews close to a minimalist style with just enough character bubbling through to reinforce our sense of the narrator as human, in pain, and shouldering on. Arvid is flawed, not very much of the good person most of us hope for ourselves, yet he possesses the strength of the genuine loner. He is not railing against God or others. He is just afloat and fighting the drift.

Disoriented and beside himself, Arvid is buffeted by flashes of sorrow. We discover that his parents and brother are dead, killed in a ferry fire that was nearly his own fate. He is estranged from his wife and daughters, one of whom recognizes her father's free fall and is showing signs of  the girl child mothering the grown man. Arvid navigates turbulent dark emotions, confronts the paralyzing losses, climbs back to his feet and takes the first courageous steps toward resumption of life. Not his former life, for that is utterly gone, but a life to be lived.

IN THE WAKE is the novel that Petterson wrote prior to his breakout bestseller, OUT STEALING HORSES, which is a more restrained and ultimately more timeless work.

 

Blogging is not Writing... or is it?

Blogging helps us keep our writing skills in shape.  It helps us raise our stake in the writing process.  We focus our minds, organize our schedule, invest in research, and engage with ideas.  We do so in a post that we may or may not publish, testing ourselves against an idea that may or may not merit a short story, a poem, a novel, or a screenplay. By this description, blogging sounds like writing with a capital W.

Flannery O'Connor Technique

In his recent biography entitled, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Brad Gooch describes how O'Connor (1925-1964) avoided using any word twice on the same page. I avoid repeating words in paragraphs, but entire pages? That sounds like a stretch. It is, and that's the point. Fresh, inventive expression of similar ideas adds to voice, creates a more forceful narrative, and improves the reading experience. Like jogging new, unexplored miles every morning.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor's works at Amazon

OUT STEALING HORSES | Per Petterson

Alone, Not Lonely

Several Decembers ago, while walking up a side street in the Colorado Rockies, I experienced a sense of being transported across time to another life. It should have scared me. Yet I knew exactly where I was - the Silver Boom-era Victorian houses, the approaching winter storm’s metallic taste in the air – and knew to a certainty that I had not been there before in this life. I was in surroundings that felt like home, just not my then current home. This effect happened to me again when I read the first page of PER PETTERSON's novel OUT STEALING HORSES, which begins:

Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

That paragraph evokes sense memories that clarify and transport. Per Petterson has said that he worked extensively on the English translation with Anne Born and that he prefers the English text to his original Norwegian.  Reading this, it is possible to understand why.

We imagine other lives in the flickering cinema or while reading a good book.  This is the effect when Per Petterson’s narrator in HORSES, Trond Sander, includes us in his thoughts as he adjusts to life in the rural cottage to which he has retreated after the death of his wife and a career as an Oslo professional. We are drawn into his shrinking world and the occasional tricks of his memory as he shares past events with candid, unassuming, transparent detail. Trond is without artifice.  We like him immediately.  Even when he is not so accepting of himself, perhaps the more so because of his mild surprise at his own decay.

It is this contract of decent, at times self-deprecating truth-telling he establishes with us that enables some significant coincidences to pass into our accepting state of mind.  His meeting the former boyhood friend, Lars, half a century after life altering tragedy seems right in Trond’s contracting universe.  His daughter Ellen’s sudden reappearance after his abrupt escape to anonymity brings still more validation of his life’s choices and in Trond’s chosen time.  We trust that we will learn what we need to know. And we do.

Literary Northern Light

OUT STEALING HORSES is a book for writers.  We read, hope to occasionally glimpse a little of how he does it, perhaps detect a pattern, some clue to technique, yet Petterson’s style is organic, so thoroughly in tune with his mind that it is unlikely any of us can parse it successfully for its underlying machinery.  He may not even be aware of precisely how he accomplishes such precise emotional resonance.  One gets the sense that Per Petterson trusts himself to navigate the cross currents of the average life’s rapids, like when as a boy he discovers one of his father's secrets, he knows he should be troubled yet intuits that he should keep it to himself until he can determine its meaning.  When young Trond drops from a high branch to a horse’s back, he trusts that Zorro’s ghost will guide him to a suitably valiant flight on the mare’s back through the ancient Norwegian forest.  When instead his crotch meets the horse’s fence line of bone at the withers, he suffers the ignominy of busted balls and blinding, legendary pain, we wince and shift in our seat, relive our own first such catastrophe and invest a little more of ourselves in Trond’s story.

There is an intimate quality to Petterson’s writing here that brings Barry Lopez’s writing to mind. It is hard to imagine a more unexpected connection. Lopez, who is best known for his excellent non-fiction accounts that compete for impact with the best fiction, is a master of erudition, intimate detail, ethics and how the individual relates to him/herself. Petterson's writing is simultaneously understated and precise, a daring combination for fiction.

OUT STEALING HORSES won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007. I have added Per Petterson to my list of authors to watch and look forward to reading his other work.

Publisher's Blurb

OUT STEALING HORSES is the story of a man who has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated part of eastern Norway to live the rest of his life with quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on a fateful childhood summer. Petterson’s subtle prose and profound vision make OUT STEALING HORSES an unforgettable novel.

Graywolf Press

Avoid Mind Reading

Except your own. Writing to the market always falls short of the mark. Besides being a soul-numbing experience (because you end up essentially writing someone else’s inspiration), it cannot be researched sufficiently, drafted, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, shopped, edited, and published in time to capitalize on the market trend.  So, you have invested valuable time, energy, and effort in a project to which you are less than 100% committed, and about which you are less than passionate.

Start with what you want to read. Do what you think is right. Draft your concept.  Outline it, write a few chapters and share it with someone whose skill, perspective, judgment, interests, and discernment you respect.  Odds are that those pages will jump to life in the reader’s mind because you care, because you’re invested in something you want to say, in a tale you want to tell.

Trying to forecast the market, or read editors’ or agents' minds wastes your time.  It also paralyzes your writer’s instrument.  The skills that you develop as a writer are important, high performance, precision tools.  Don’t use your scalpel as a screwdriver.  Don’t use your best sagacious voice to make someone else’s hero sound interesting. Respect yourself, your ideas, and your time.  Follow your muse, your heart, and craft the stories you think matter, the ideas, subjects, and characters that wake you at 3:00 am.

ABSOLUTION | Olaf Olaffson

This is the story of a frozen heart. Peter Peterson fell in love with a girl who tolerated him, perhaps even led him on. Peter followed her from Iceland to Denmark in 1941 where he learned that she opened to another young man. He still loves her, denies that she is lost to him and arranges a weekend away with her.  When in his burning desire for her he attempts to make love to her, she rejects him utterly. He takes revenge by informing on her lover to German authorities in occupied Copenhagen.  This crime imprisons him for the remainder of his damaged, closed life.

The writing is spare and lucid. The slow-burning fuse of the narrator's guilt propels the reader forward through the thickets of an average lonely life. There is a distance in the narrative, however, that holds the reader at arms length. As a result, this reader's take-away is qualified; similar to a footnote that sticks in the memory after details of the tale break apart and fade.

The LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL | John Le Carre

John Le Carré's tenth novel, The Little Drummer Girl (1983), set the bar for tackling the passions and persistent complexities of the "Palestinian problem."  It presented the big picture issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of specific personal crises and moments of life-and-death will.

The Plot

Fed up with cautious politicians and bureaucrats, Israeli intelligence officer, Martin Kurtz, gathers a small army of spies, malcontents, specialists, master operators-in-training, schemers, and fierce veterans of dark deeds behind the news headlines to craft an elaborate, complex mission to snare a Palestinian terror mastermind.

Kurtz's most trusted associate is Gadi Becker, a seasoned warrior veteran of every Israeli success of the last 20 years.

At the heart of their scheme is Charlie, a bright, young, unresolved English actress of uncertain distinction. They attract her interest while she is on holiday in Greece with fellow troupers, a largely dissolute lot.

A dark mystery man she comes to know as Joseph (Gadi Becker) sweeps her off her feet and shows her a more intriguing and mysterious life. Soon, Charlie is brought into Kurtz' fold and offered a chance to make a difference in the theater of the real.

Trained and prepared for the terrible loneliness of deep cover work beyond the protection of her elite team, Charlie becomes the bait that gradually attracts Khalil, the terrorist, to her in ever cautious, ever closing circles through a progression of dedicated soldiers of the Palestinian cause, each more adept and committed than the last. Finally, Charlie is tested by Khalil, who involves her in the assassination of a prominent Jewish intellectual.

Afterwards, when Khalil trusts her, and takes her for himself, he becomes distrustful and is about to kill Charlie when...

Casts a Spell

Rather than spoil the ending for you, I'll stop there.  If you haven't already, read this minor classic of the spy genre. We have seen the effects of the irreconcilable claims by Israelis and Palestinians to the same small area of land astride the eastern Mediterranean. LeCarré brings the passions, vexing contradictions, and cultural imperatives alive. The characters are fully realized.  The settings are sensory-rich. The plot has enough switchbacks and chicanes to keep the most demanding reader turning pages.  And it casts a spell by hewing closely to emotional truth.

The Little Drummer Girl was published in 1983.  Hodder & Stoughton (UK), Alfred A. Knopf (US).  ISBN 0-394-53015-2 (US hardback)   George Roy Hill directed the feature film adaptation in 1984, which starred Diane Keaton (Charlie),  Klaus Kinski (Kurtz), and Yorgo Voyakis (Gadi/Joseph).

The Little Drummer Girl: A Novel