O’Neill Speaks

No, not Eugene, although that would be quite a trick.  Last Friday, the Beverly Hills Literary Escape hosted an intimate coffee with Joseph O’Neill.  He was in town to discuss his recently re-released memoir, Blood-Dark Track. The book was initially published a month after 9/11 (i.e., before Netherland) in such a way that “it wasn’t in any bookstore.”  O’Neill said it was safe to say that the only people who read it then were his family.

The book is the tale of O’Neill’s two grandfathers.  His Irish grandfather was an extreme activist, heavily involved in the IRA.  In contrast, O’Neill described his Turkish grandfather as an extreme bystander, someone who felt he could continue on with business ignoring the implications of the brewing world war.  Both views landed them in jail during WWII.  The Irish grandfather was imprisoned for his IRA involvement.  The Turkish grandfather travelled to Palestine to pick up a crop of citrus fruit to sell in Turkey and was arrested as a spy for the Axis countries.  O’Neill used both characters to ‘bore a hole through history.’  He recommended people discover their ancestors to learn more about their family and the bits of history that cling to them.

O’Neill admitted that as a result of the book tour, he was thinking about connections between Netherland and Blood-Dark Track.  The writing of Blood-Dark Track organized a lot of his political thoughts that otherwise would have spilled out in Netherland.  Without Blood-Dark Track, Netherland would have been a different book.  While Netherland is a post-9/11 book, he feels Blood-Dark Track is also.  It shows how his family dealt with a dramatic event, WWII, and the confusion caused by evaluating what they believed in and were willing to fight for.  He sees a connection in the books concerning how we view ‘the other’ or whether we see them at all.  His Turkish grandfather was alive during the Armenian genocide, yet his family said they ‘didn’t see it.’  O’Neill argues that they created a life that resulted in ‘not seeing.’  O’Neill consciously used cricket as a metaphor for the American vision, how far are we willing to see others who engage in activities were are completely unfamiliar with.  How we create lives so that we don’t interact with ‘others,’ and what the result can be of our unseeing.

O’Neill doesn’t think he could write Netherland now because he has lost his outsider view.  He described the advantage of being an ‘insider’ is the access to information, but the upside to being an outsider is that the person doesn’t have blinders on.  O’Neill’s lived here a few years and what stood out to him in the past is now just part of the scenery.  Although, he said he is still surprised Continue reading

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A Sartorial Look at Authors

With all the writing awards being handed out lately, I feel like we’re all getting a little TOO fixated on books. There are more important things to take into consideration when judging the greatness of a literary figure. Thank goodness someone agrees with me and has taken the time to put together a list of the best dressed authors of all time.  Check out the piece and if you have anyone or anything to add to it, let us know.  Also come join the discussion on our new Facebook page.

Now excuse me while I go spend several hours figuring out what to wear to my reading at Vroman’s Bookstore this afternoon (at 5 pm, if you live near Pasadena and are interested).  I’m bummed I didn’t make the best-dressed list this year, so I’m upping my game in the hopes of taking Jane Austen’s spot next year.  Maybe if I wear my new zipper-rose high heeled shoes to this thing . . .

Oh, fine, since you asked, here’s a photo of them, taking by my friend Dawn.

Nice, right?

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Here an Award, There an Award, Everywhere an Award

I love the beginning of October.  Not because of the fall weather, in Los Angeles autumn means everyone covers their lawns in manure so it smells like, well you get the idea.  Plus, we have the Santa Anas which blow the smog to me and causes fires anywhere.  Despite the environmental hazards, October means literary award activity.  In case you’ve been too busy caring for your lawn or enjoying the changing leaves in other parts of the country, here’s a recap:

On October 7th, the Swedish Academy named Mario Vargas Llosa as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”.  Although some literary critics are unhappy with the choice because Llosa is no longer a socialist and they see this as a victory for the right.  Remember, one country’s right can be another country’s socialist.  I was grateful they picked an author I knew and read (loved reading Conversations in the Cathedral when traveling in Peru a few years ago), it feels like years since that happened.  The betting was pointing heavily towards Cormac McCarthy, which generally indicates the author will not be picked.  Hope he didn’t stay up late waiting for the call.

Earlier this week, Howard Jacobson won my favorite book award, the 2010 Man Booker Prize.  Actually, it’s my favorite short list and the start of my Christmas list every year.  Jacobson’s book The Finkler Question won him the award.  I didn’t know anything about the book, but the title alone made me giggle.  Rightly so, it’s a comic novel.  Jacobson penned an essay about the need for comedy in serious novels in The Guardian.

To my ear the term “comic novelist” is as redundant and off-putting as the term “literary novelist”. When Jane Austen rattled off the novel’s virtues in Northanger Abbey – arguing that it demonstrated the “most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour . . . conveyed to the world in the best chosen language” – she wasn’t making a distinction between the literary novel and some other sort, or between the comic novel and the not so comic. The liveliest effusions of wit and humour are simply what the reader of a novel has a right to expect.

Again, the odds makers were wrong.  The betting was so heavy for Tom McCarthy’s C that one betting house stopped accepting bets.  They should have taken the risk, all that money they left on the table.

Last, but not least, the National Book Foundation announced the finalists for the National Book Award:

  • Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
  • Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)
  • Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
  • Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)

And now my Christmas list is just about complete.  Of course, the scuttlebutt was more about who was not on the list, Jonathan Franzen for Freedom.  I’m not surprised, I enjoyed the book, but there wasn’t a single sentence that I underlined as stunning.  We’ve been having a discussion about Freedom on the Bookstore People Facebook page, hop over and tell us what you think.

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Bookstore People has a Facebook Page!

Claire and I feel sassy and cutting edge now that Bookstore People has a Facebook page! We’re still figuring it out, causing some humorous moments.  Yesterday, Claire sent me an e-mail asking “why is it doing that?”  I responded, “did we break it already?”  No worries, we have young family members who love the opportunity to help us and laughing at us.

We’re planning on conversation and bookstore tidbits that we won’t be writing about on the blog, click here to join us!

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Verghese Speaks


What better way to kick off the Beverly Hills Literary Escape than a cozy conversation with Abraham Verghese, the author of Cutting for Stone? Verghese genuine interest in discussing his book and medical practice left everyone spellbound.  Here are some highlights:

  • A Wandering Writer. Verghese wrote Cutting for Stone over a seven year period, a little bit every day.  He told me before the talk that he believes in the process of building one piece at a time.  He started with a mental picture of a nun in an operating room having a baby.  That was already shocking, yet he upped the drama by giving her twins.  He doesn’t write from an outline, but through experimentation.  That’s how he came upon Marion’s voice as the narrator, moving fairly seamlessly into, then out of, and then into again, first person.  He worked to combine the intimacy of first person with the omniscient knowledge of third person.  His model was the opening scene of The Tin Drum when the grandson tells how his grandmother was impregnated, but how would he have have known? [An excerpt of just this scene is in Wherever I Lie is Your Bed.]  About three quarters or approximately five years into the book, Verghese’s editor said it was time to end the experimenting and find the conclusion.  There were too many options and Verghese needed to narrow in on where the book was going.  In a state of anxiety, he flew to New York and free associated with his editor until he mapped out the remainder of the novel.
  • Size Matters. Initially, Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s story was to return at the end of the book with few hundred pages of text.  However, the author noticed that when people in bookstores pick up a long, large book, they tend to put it back.  He felt size matters and if a book is too long, it can discourage people from buying it.  I look at long books and think it’s more likely than not that the book needed a stronger editor.  I affirm his choice, this ending works.
  • Shiva. He didn’t want to give Shiva a clinical diagnosis, but as the reader suspects, Shiva has Asberger’s Syndrome.  At one point Verghese’s editor said “I can’t really see Shiva,” and he answered “precisely.”
  • Inquiring Minds Want to Know, What Does the Title Mean? His goal was for the title to be a bit mysterious, I’d say he accomplished it.  My mother read the book first and asked me as I was reading it, do you get the title?  My first thought went to sculpture, cutting marble/stone for a statute, so I kept looking for art references.  Don’t go that route, it took me nowhere.  Verghese explained that there is a line in the Hippocratic Oath that a doctor promises not to cut for stone.  In the olden days, people suffered from bladder/gallbladder/kidney stones that caused extreme pain and ultimately death.  Charlatans wandered the countryside cutting the stones out bringing immediate relief but also death from a hacked and germ infested procedure.  New doctors still promise to not perform these operations.  It’s a phrase that resonated with the author whenever he repeated the oath.  Cutting for Stone was always the title of the book.  The characters’ last names were initially Pickering until it occurred to Verghese that naming them Stone tied the title to the book.  He wonders if maybe the title was a little too mysterious.  Hmmm, maybe.
  • Reading. Verghese sees little difference between practicing medicine (which he does at Stanford) and writing, they stress observation of and curiosity about  humans and their stories.  Verghese tells his medical students, “If you aren’t reading novels, the imagination part of your brain will atrophy.” Of Human Bondage directed Verghese to medicine.  The main character, Philip, failed as an artist but viewed medicine as an opportunity to see humanity “in the rough.” Verghese felt that a few may have the natural talent to be an artist, but if one worked hard enough, a person could be a good doctor and that’s what he set Continue reading
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