Tag Archives: Book Review

135 Journals Interview: Meet Kid/YA Author Timothy J. Bradley!

4 Nov
Timothy J. Bradley

Timothy J. Bradley uses illustrating as a way to get a feeling for the books he writes.

Recently, I reviewed a quirky and entertaining book called Infestation. (check out: https://135journals.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/135-journals-ya-and-kid-book-club-infestation-by-timothy-j-bradley/) This book made me realize just how much I didn’t know about huge mutant ants–a shameful knowledge gap, I know! Writing the review gave me the opportunity to communicate with Infestation’s author, and he kindly agreed to answer some questions about how he writes (and illustrates) and what inspires him. Read the interview below to learn more.

Infestation cover

Infestation (cover design by someone else) is about Andy, a boy who is sent to a very strange reform school with an outsized insect problem.

  1. It seems in the book as if each of the main characters has a weakness that turns into a strength. For example, the main character’s roommate’s love of blowing things up comes in handy. Is that true of all the characters? Will it show up in future books?

Yes, I tried to give each of the characters some kind of talent or interest that ended up being a benefit to the group of boys in some way. I think that people in real life are like that—we all have hobbies or interests, and it’s fun when we get a chance to put that part of our personalities to good use. In Pyro’s case, it’s probably the only time in his life that blowing things up could serve a constructive purpose! I definitely would want those character attributes showing up in future installments, and more as we find out more about them all. Right at this point in time, INFESTATION is a stand-alone adventure, although I certainly left the door open to possible future books (I’ve thought a lot about what would happen in those, and they’d be a blast to write and draw). INFESTATION has been nominated for the 2014-2015 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award (I’m pretty sure it’s the only book with giant, mutant ants), which might spark some interest with a publisher.

  1. How did you get the idea for Infestation?

I was a big fan of monster movies when I was a kid, especially the “giant bug” films, which were made in the 1950s and 60s. When I started writing fiction, I thought it might be fun to write a story that was an updated version of one of those 1950s “creature features”. One thing I knew I had to do is to come up with a logical method for actually making a bug really huge—in real life, bugs can’t grow beyond a certain size because their muscles wouldn’t be able to move their limbs. Muscles attached to an exoskeleton aren’t as effective as muscles attached to an internal skeleton (like we have). Once I thought of a plausible way to accomplish that, the rest of the story just fell into place.

  1. How long does it take you to write a book, and how do you do it? Do you have a special place where you work or a special schedule?

Typically, what I’ve done is to let things percolate in my brain for a while before I actually sit down to start writing. I also spend a couple of weeks nailing down the plot and significant story events, sketching up lots of thumbnails of things from the story. Once I actually start writing, it might take 2-3 months to generate a first draft. Then I send it out to an editor, and usually do several rounds of rewriting and revising.

I have a studio at home that I use to write and draw, but I can be creative anywhere—it’s something I had to master when I worked as a freelance artist. I don’t have a set schedule—I’ve always been pretty disciplined about taking advantage of little bits of time here and there to write. I usually spend a lot of time during the day thinking about the part of the story I’m working on so that when I am able to sit down and write, I know pretty much what I want to accomplish.

Soldier Class ant illustration by Tim Bradley.

Soldier Class ant illustration by Tim Bradley.

  1. You said you liked horror movies from the 50s. Can you tell us more about that and what they were like? What interested you about them?

My favorites were the ones that at least attempted to have a thin layer of science attached to them, along with the explosions and destruction. I also really disliked if the “monster” was obviously just a guy in a rubber suit (like “The Thing From Another World”). I really liked any kind of dinosaurian-type monster (like the original “Godzilla” movie), or stop-motion animation creatures. But my all-time favorite monster movie is “THEM!”, which was about giant ants in the New Mexico desert, mutations from the original atom-bomb tests. The creatures in the movie were life-sized “robotic” ants that looked pretty good—remember that this is waaaaay before computer graphics had been invented. Not only were the creatures great, but the story was well-written and very compelling. So when I decided to do an updated version of a monster movie, I put in plenty of nods to that movie (the setting is one of them).

  1. Did you study bugs in high school or college? Were they a special interest for you? Are the facts about bugs in this fictional story accurate? If so, why did you think it was important to be factual in a fictional story? If they are accurate, what kind of research did you do? And was doing research fun or was it torture?

I’ve always been fascinated by bugs—they’re so different from us, yet, if you go far enough back in time, there is an ancestral creature that gave rise to both arthropods and us. I have always found that mind-blowing. Although I never studied insects in any formal way, I did do a lot of reading on my own, and I watched the bugs that lived out in my back yard when I was a kid.

The insect information in INFESTATION is accurate—I’ve always enjoyed stories where the adventure aspect is balanced with a helping of actual science information, sort of what Michael Crichton was so good at. I had written a nonfiction book called PALEO BUGS: Survival of the Creepiest, which contained information about prehistoric insects. The research I did for that book involved traveling to the London Natural History Museum, and having a paleontologist walk me through their amazing fossil insect collection. All that information helped when I was writing INFESTATION. I also read a bunch of book from my local library, and did some research on the internet. I actually find researching a book a tremendous amount of fun—I end up learning so much about a topic as I go.

Illustration of a running mutant ant by Tim Bradley.

Illustration of a running mutant ant by Tim Bradley.

  1. Did you also like to read when you were a kid? What are some of the books that influenced you most? What about as an adult?

I was a voracious reader when I was a kid, and I discovered many of my favorite authors at the little library in my town. The books that influenced me most were Rendezvous With Rama and 2001: a space odyssey, both by Arthur C. Clarke, The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury’s collections of short stories. I still love to read as an adult—my favorite authors now would be Connie Willis and Robert Charles Wilson, as well as Michael Crichton.

  1. Do you have another job outside of writing, or is that your full-time job? How did you break into publishing? I know it’s a tough field!

I do actually have a full-time job—I am the in-house illustrator for Teacher Created Materials, an educational publisher in Huntington Beach, California. I write at night and on weekends, for the most part. Getting a book published is a challenge, for sure, but I think what I have in my favor is that I’m pretty disciplined about getting things done, I’m not afraid of putting my work out there (my years spent as a freelance artist made me used to doing that), and I’m pretty tenacious. I don’t give up on something easily, which is good, because it can take a long time to break in. I’ve been pretty fortunate so far, and it’s been a tremendous amount of fun. Breaking in was just a matter of continually knocking on doors—sending out queries, following up, all the nuts-and-bolts that have to be done in order to get a publisher to read your work.

  1. If you were to offer kids advice about how to become a writer, what would you say? What helped you?

I would say to go for it, but realize that writing, (or art, or music, or any creative endeavor) is a lifelong journey. It’s more important to enjoy the work itself (and it is a tremendous amount of work), and not worry about making it big as an author. It’s a very competitive field. Patience and perseverance are essential qualities for a writer. Also, I think it helps to read a lot, and try to figure out why a particular author’s work appeals to you.

  1. What are some other things that fascinate you?

Anything with a high weirdness factor. Zombie ants, parallel dimensions, black holes, prehistoric animals, other planets, future spacecraft, robots…yikes, there’s a lot of stuff. It’s all great source material for the type of stories I liked as a kid, and that I write now.

10. Why do you like writing for kids?

I think I enjoy writing for kids for 2 reasons. I think there’s a part of my brain that has never matured past the age of 8, and “8 year-old Tim” still gets excited about some crazy science story in the news. The second reason is that I remember vividly how awesome it was to discover a book that really reached me. I still enjoy finding a great book as an adult, but the sense of having these huge ideas that I had never thought about leap off the pages of a good sci fi novel was a very powerful force when I was younger.

I have the third book in my “Sci Hi” series, called TIME JUMP, coming out in November [ed. note: It just came out on November 1], and I have started working on a new middle-grade, illustrated, sci fi novel called EXPEDITION, which mixes my interest in natural history with my fascination with robots. I am very excited about it—I think it’s going to be a fun read (and I can’t wait to work on the illustrations!).

Covers that Tim designed for some upcoming books

Covers that Tim designed for some upcoming books.

(Oh,  I also forgot to ask where you live, at least in a general sense, and if you have kids, and if so, if they like reading your books). Are you familiar with the Southwestern setting because you have spent time there, for instance?)

I grew up on the East Coast, north of Boston, but I currently live in Southern California (I love the sunshine and palm trees!). I have a wife and a college-age son who is interested in a lot of the things I am, which is really fun). I use both my wife (who also writes for children) and my son as “sounding boards” for my ideas. My wife is great at spotting where I need to add description or character development, and my son has a nicely warped sense of humor, which can lead to some interesting points of view. I couldn’t have accomplished the work I’ve done so far without them.

Writing Prompt: Did you get any ideas from Tim to spur your creativity? What inspires YOU?

135 Journals Book Club: Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen

21 May


I guess George Flegel was also teed off that he was left with all the dishes in his 1635 “Still Life with Stag Beetle” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a novel that is written with such tightness, and works so well that at the end of it, I had to open it up and start over to see if it was as good as I thought it was. And it was. I don’t necessarily think it is a classic that will live forever—but I do think it is a novel that asked questions and answered them, that created appealing characters whose rightness or wrongness for each other was instantly clear, and that it created a world that made sense and which left the reader completely satisfied. It also contained a lot of unpretentiously stated wisdom that was resonant with the characters and the lessons they had learned through their lives. At the heart of this book is an inevitable-but-how? romance between Rebecca Winters, a 60-year-old divorced photographer from NYC who had fallen on hard times and moved to a dumpy cabin in upstate New York in order to be able to rent out her own lovely New York apartment so she could save money to pay for her mother’s nursing home bills and various other expenses, and Jim Bates, a 44-year-old roofer who is so much more than a roofer. Rebecca and Jim meet at the beginning of this book, when she is confronted with one of those problems you don’t find on the Upper West Side—raccoons in the attic. Jim Bates, who is known for his ability to find things. He is pleasant and interesting in a low-key manner. Oh yeah, ladies. We know this guy. He fixes everything, he’s caring, he notices how good you look in your sloppiest clothes, but none of your annoying habits ( “Oh, I see you like putting PEANUT BUTTER in the REFRIGERATOR,” for instance), and who is handy with a snowplow just when you were getting cabin fever. Anyway, Jim eventually he offers her a part-time gig sitting with him in trees while he identifies particular tagged animals and she takes pictures of them. They get to know each other through thermoses of of sweet coffee (brought by him, of course) and long hours of chitchat—though they actually reveal little about the secret family responsibilities and worries that wear them down.

Meanwhile, she, who fits the classic novelistic trope of “Woman comes to town” starts exploring her new world. She takes hikes and finds strange little crosses, some decorated with trophies of photographs, and takes pictures of them. She gets to know the garrulous but loyal Sarah, owner of a local shop called “Tea for Two” that serves English food such as mouthwatering scones and Toad in a Hole, and soon, Rebecca is a regular, through Sarah’s no-good husband Kevin is a bit off-putting.

In addition to sitting in trees, reading the Classics and taking pictures, she reflects back on her own life,, about her former marriage to a selfish but glamorous English, Peter Symington. It was after a dinner party where he rudely went to bed without helping, AS USUAL, that she snapped a photo she called “Still Life with Breadcrumbs” of the mess. It was the first photo that made her famous but it would not be the last. She became wealthy and famous from her photos, (which would thoroughly irritate Peter, Despite living with the evil Brit (I’ve seen movies—aren’t they all?). But now, the cash flow is a cash drip and New York is no fun. So now she was trying to make do and sacrifice. It is always interesting to hear how people struggle with money, and it is also interesting to see how they cope with a new environment. And, it is intriguing to read about any artist’s “process.” For someone like Rebecca, al lot of her art comes from looking and looking until she captures the right moment. What that moment means remains mysterious—she is not a woman for putting things into words. She just has a feeling. And that is much like Jim. At a meeting of a fancy Women’s League where she is invited to speak, she is asked. “Could you tell us the secret to your success?”

“The secret is that there is no secret,” she replied. “That’s true of almost everything, in my opinion. Everything is accidental.”

When I read those lines, I almost laughed. For a character like Rebecca, whose calling is to look, that is true. But for the novelist who creates her world, NOTHING is accidental. There is a saying about playwriting that if there is a gun in the first scene, then the gun needs to go off by the end of the play. The very first SENTENCE of Still Life with Breadcrumbs, is “A few minutes after two in the morning, Rebecca Winter woke to the sound of a gunshot.”

In fact, one of the most interesting features of this book is just how different objects, thematic ideas, etc., come together by the end of the book. Just for the fun of it, I will share a few themes to look for: crosses, ladders, white flag, dog, houses, England, guns, money, ways of seeing, Mary Cassatt, thingsthat happen by accident.

There are many other appealing features of the book. Minor characters are drawn with efficiency, charm, and consistency. Rebecca’s evil ex-husband who taught about the erotic world of the medieval era is known as “Professor Porn.” Rebecca’s parents always had a fear of space heaters (emphasizing their urban side). Rebecca’s appealing son Ben is characterized by his dialog—“Don’t go all Lady Chatterly on me, Mom,” he says after learning of Jim. The chapter headings are succinct, colloquial, and delightful. For example: “How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2).

I have always loved Anna Quindlen’s writing, ever since she wrote essays about life and parenthood for the New York Times. Back then, I lived in Hoboken, NJ, and so did she. I always dreamed I would run into her but never did. I wanted to thank her for her writing, if we had somehow met at Lisa’s Deli or Fiori’s Mozzarella shop where a wooden sign read, “The Taste of a Good Mozzarella is Remembered Long after The Price is Forgotten” (so true). But I can thank her now, for a thoroughly enjoyable book that was a treat from start to finish.

Many of the chapter headings in Still Life with Breadcrumbs could be used as writing prompts. Try using one of the three above–“How she Wound Up There—the Inspirational Version.” “Get a Job” “This is How These Things Happen—Part 1” (and 2) and write your own story.

135journals Book Club: In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust, Part 5: Grandmother’s Death

18 May


Photo: Super famous Dr. Jean-Marie Charcot teaches a lesson on “hysteria” at his also super famous clinic at Salpetriere. (Wikimedia commons/Public Domain)


After attending a very elaborately described party, the narrator turns his attention to the growing weakness of his grandmother and his youthfuly blasé manner toward her as she got sicker and sicker. Indeed, this section of Guermantes Way is extremely harrowing and horribly comic as the same time. Physicians are called in, and one is more useless than the next, adding “milk diets” or, more repulsively, leeches, among other ineffectual cures. But at the same time as the narrator presents himself as insensitive toward his grandmother’s suffering, his later reflections show that he has thought deeply about it. This could be in part because of his own suffering. As he writes, pain is a fierce enemy:

“It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Say that we met a brigand by the way, we might yet convince him by an appeal to his personal interests, if not to our own plight. But to ask pity of our body is like discoursing before an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides, and with which we should be appalled to find ourselves condemned to live.”

Meanwhile, the narrator watches his own impatience as he takes her out on a day he had friends to meet, with dreadful results. When he returns with her grandmother in a terrible state, When his mother sees her, she is appalled, protective, full of tenderness. Proust wrote, in words that actually brought tears to my eyes, and made me think of the preciousness of my own mother. “. . . my mother went up to my grandmother, kissed her hand as though it were that of her god, raised her up, carried her to the lift with infinite precautions in which there was, with the fear of hurting her by any clumsy movement, the humility of one who felt herself unworthy to touch the most precious thing, to her, in the world.”

Yet despite the family’s evident wealth, their ability to bring in the most expensive doctors, the grandmother is treated with little but condescension as she suffers dreadfully.

In one terrible but funny scene, an imperious Doctor De Boulbon, who is a former student of the famous neurologist Dr. Charcot (Dr. Charcot is real, often called “the founder of modern neurology” and is a remarkable figure—among his discoveries was Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and research into other diseases such as MS and Parkinson’s disease, though he was also controversially involved in his experiments with “hysteria”) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Martin_Charcot

who basically tells the suffering woman that all she needs to do is change her thoughts and stop malingering. Proust writes “Dr. Du Boulbon when he came decided against . .my grandmother . . . Instead of sounding her chest, fixing on her steadily his wonderful eyes, in which there was perhaps the illusion that he was making a profound scrutiny of his patient, , . . .  tells her, “’ You will be quite well, Madame, on the day. . . which you realise there is nothing wrong with you, and resume your ordinary life. You tell me that you have not been taking your food, not going out?”

“But sir, I have a temperature,”

He laid a a finger on her wrist.

“Not just now, at any rate. Besides, what an excuse! Don’t you know that we keep out in the open air and overfeed turbuculosis patients with temperatures of 102.” .

. . . it was with the superior smile of a Parisian who, in conversation with a peasant, might hope to surprise him by using suddenly a word of the local dialect that Dr. du Boulbon said to my grandmother: “Probably a windy night will make you sleep when the soporisfics wold have no effect.”

“On the contrary, Sir, when the wind blows I can never sleep at all.” But doctors are touchy people. “Ach!” Muttered du Boulbon, knitting his brows, as if someone had trodden on his toe. . .

In the land of well-meant-(perhaps) but  ineffective care,  many positive thinkers are inclined to dismiss the very real and damaging sufferings of those in pain. There is almost a comedy of errors. The Duc de Guermantes walks over to shake the father’s hand in condolence while the grandmother is in her death throes—and doesn’t want to be kept waiting. Her two sisters don’t want to leave Combray to come to Paris because they found a musician they love to listen to, and his music is much more pleasant than sitting by the bedside of an old dying lady. On the other hand, their friend Bergotte, the famous writer (whom the author, unfortunately, no longer venerates as he once did) visits frequently.

One of the things that is so excellent in the narrator’s recounting of this sequence of events is that again, he is able to be very clear about what is going on without connecting the dots for the reader. A few comments make it clear where the narrator’s sympathies lie. Naturally, old ladies are known to die, but how difficult it is when a family is confused, when nobody knows the right thing to do, when a good and gentle lady cannot advocate for herself, and, even though she belongs to one of the richest families in Paris, gets not one to take her seriously. This sort of thing goes on today. One WANTS to believe doctors. But when one is both in agonies of pain and is bein accused of being neurotic and of needing to have a sunnier attitude and to get —when one is being “Brightsided,” as Barbara Ehrenreich called the phenomenon, in the book of the same—it can add to the pain a hundredfold. This unforgettable section of Proust’s masterwork is a reminder that the pain of those who are old, even if inevitable, matters as a deep human tragedy.


Writing Prompt: Have you ever suffered and felt as if you have not been heard?

135Journals Book Club: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

11 May






Fukushima accidents overview map. (thank you, WIimedia Commons). Was Nao there?



Could Ruth Ozeki’s compelling A Tale for the Time Being be called a portmanteau book—i.e.; one into which many different things are thrown, as if into an old trunk? It could be, I suppose. It touches on many things—Proust, Japan (both modern Japan and historical Japan), teenage girls, bullying, the Pacific Northwest, the patterns of movement across oceans, including gyres and vortexes, and , Zen Buddhism, Martin Heidegger’s ideas about  Dasein, quantum physics (including Schrodinger’s cat), and more–the Japanese earthquake/tsunami of 2011, global warming, and even a touch of mysticism. But it is saved from being just a book about a lot of different stuff by having a compelling plot and two engaging narrators. One is Ruth, a writer who lives on one of the Canadian islands off the coast of Vancouver island, if I am getting my geography right, with her intellectual and charming husband Oliver. (Note that Ruth Ozeki lives on one of those islands with her charming husband Oliver).


One day, she finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox on the beach. It contains several fascinating objects, including a plastic-wrapped book on the beach. It has a cover of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Times, but inside, the book has been “hacked” with blank pages—which are filled with Japanese writing. Ruth, Japanese herself, can read it, but she does so slowly. As she does, she gets to know Nao, the 16-year-old narrator. We first encounter Nao writing in a sleazy French maid café where waitresses feed food directly to the male clientele. She is angry and rebellious, as she has a right to be. She had grown up partly in Sunnyvale, California, where her father worked for a computer company. He’d lost his job and was now unemployed, making attempts at committing suicide. Her mother was trying to calm herself by watching a tank full of jellyfish in an aquarium all day. She herself was caught between worlds—in Japan, students who had lived in America were considered impure and stupid—and so she was treated to a brutal, particularly Japanese form, of bullying called Ijime. The saving grace for her was her 104 year old Buddhist nun grandmother, Jiko, whose Zen Buddhist ideas inspired and interested her.


Meanwhile, Ruth is doing various kinds of detective work to find out what has happened to Nao. She takes some writings in French also found in the lunchbox and finds a burly French-Canadian to translate them. Her husband describes how the book may have reached Canada’s shores from Japan because of certain types of gyres in the ocean current. Strange things are happening on the small island—a special kind of Japanese crow also appears suddenly one day. We learn that Ruth is from New York, but met her husband at a conference in Canada, and that he could not tolerate being confined in the urban atmosphere of New York. It becomes more and more urgent for her to find out where Nao has gone. And particularly, to find out if Nao survived the earthquake and the tens of thousands of deaths it caused. Their cat, Schrödinger,, disappears—this is a kind of in-joke for those interested in quantum physics, because in Erwin Schrödinger’s cat experiment, (or theoretical experiment, thank goodness, although let’s just say in retrospect Germans and poison gas just don’t seem like a tasteful combination) a cat is put in a box with poison gas, and, the cat both lives and doesn’t live, until the moment it is observed. This refers to the smallest particles and the universe, which Werner Heisenberg (I believe) made his famous “Uncertainty Principle” –the inference that we can’t know both the momentum and the position of the tiniest units of the universe at the same time. In fact, the more you know about one, the less you know about the other. In fact, here’s a joke to illustrate the point:

Heisenberg and Schrödinger get pulled over for speeding.

The cop asks Heisenberg “Do you know how fast you were going?”

Heisenberg replies, “No, but we know exactly where we are!”

The officer looks at him confused and says “you were going 108 miles per hour!”

Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries, “Great! Now we’re lost!”

The officer looks over the car and asks Schrödinger if the two men have anything in the trunk.

“A cat,” Schrödinger replies.

The cop opens the trunk and yells “Hey! This cat is dead.”

Schrödinger angrily replies, “Well he is now.”

ANYWAY, we learn more about Nao’s family tree, how her great-uncle was a suicide bomber for Japan during World War II—how he was forced to train for this mission, and what pain it caused for the grandmother. How Jiko teaches her the power of meditation as a “superpower” and it ends up helping her ground herself after a slide into seediness. How she and her father both hit bottom and struggle upwards. The translation of the material reveals the suicide bomber’s final thoughts.


We also learn about how similar Zen ideas about being and not being are to quantum physics. And also, how they have similiarities to German philosopher (and unfortunately, big NAZI) Martin Heidegger’s idea of their being such a thing as a “Dasein” (there-being—i.e; a being who is aware of being a being and who is therefore aware of his or her life taking place in a specific space and time, with complements of objects and other humans that have separate histories of existing and not existing at the same moment the Dasein (say you, as an aware human being) do.


And, we learn about a whole bunch of other things, in a gyre that seems to spin faster and faster, just as the gyre around the Pacific turns with an unusual quickness. Are too many ideas introduced too closely to the end? I think so. But at the same time, the solidity of the characters she has created, especially the character of the scrappy, thoughtful Nao, are strong enough to keep us holding on to the very end. I would highly recommend this highly readable yet quirky book. It is personal and stimulating and gives a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s future while at the same time finding fascinating connections between world events, science, religion, and more.


Writing Prompt: What is a book you’ve read recently that contains a richness of knowledge?

135Journals Book Club: In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust, Part 4

29 Apr







Alfred Dreyfus is stripped of his rank and publicly humiliated. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Now I have entered the third book, The Guermantes Way
The narrator’s family moves from Combray to Paris. They live in an apartment that shares a courtyard with the home of the aristocratic Guermantes family. This is the same family about whom he had often fantasized as a child (one of the two walks his family would take was “the Guermantes Way.” Although he hates the new apartment, he is OBSESSED with Madame Guermantes (which is confusing—is this is the same Mme Guermantes he found so ordinary before?). He takes endless walks just so he’ll cross paths with her, but she doesn’t really notice him.

There is a long section where he describes a second visit to the theater to see the famous actress Berma. Only this time he is not disappointed by her acting. Perhaps it is partly because he isn’t as sick with anticipation as he was the first time. But partly it is because he sees in her how she combines craft with something that is beyond craft. He also seems keenly, painfully aware to every intrigue among the various theatergoers—who, in high society, is there to see and who is there to be seen. Of course, Mme. Guermantes is there, so he practically has a coronary.

Later, he goes to a place called Doncières to visit his friend Robert St-Loup, a close relative of the irresistible Mme Guermantes. St.-Loup is a military officer, and spending time among the soldiers is quite fascinating to the narrator. Apparently St.-Loup has a high regard for the narrator’s intellect because he likes to show him off, and the other soldiers evidently find him charming as well. Meanwhile, he is quite engaged by long discussions of military history (interesting to me, perhaps not to the less nerdily inclined as it were), such as why certain locations are natural places for battles to take place because of their geography—either because they are at a crossroads of culture or because of their terrain. Also interesting is the discussion (and avoidance of discussion) of the issue of the day—L’Affaire Dreyfus. The subject of whether Dreyfus should have another trial is such a hot-button issue that in polite society—even in polite society, it is almost unbearable for anyone to speak about unless they are sure they are talking to fellow Dreyfusards or anti-Dreyfusards. (Here’s your handy guide to the Dreyfus affair in case you forgot the details. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair). St.-Loup, contrary to most aristocrats, is pro-Dreyfus. This event is very important because it stirred up a lot of anti-Semitism in France.

The narrator tries to get St.-Loup to wangle an introduction to Mme Guermantes because he can tell she thinks he’s an idiot because he always likes to take a walk exactly when she’s taking a walk. And he wants to get the photograph of Madame Guermantes St.-Loup has on his dresser.–a request that St.-Loup refuses. The intensity of his desires and his actions make  the narrator seem very manipulative and complex. He certainly doesn’t come off as a very noble person. I was thinking about that. He could have whitewashed what a dreadful little wretch he was—after all, it’s his book, he can write anything he wants. But I think—or rather, I feel, I intuit—that what he is trying to get at more than anything else is the truth of HIS STORY. To avoid speaking of this constant, painful yearning he has for one unsuitable object or person after another would be a way of NOT telling his story. He needs to lay out the facts of the case as he sees them. As he experiences them. Most importantly, as he FEELS them. It is strange to think of him as both sensitive and insensitive at the same time. But these two things are not at all opposites. He is deeply sensitive to himself. It’s other people with whom he is not in sympathy. In reality, that kind of person can be most unpleasant, or at least artificial in his dealing with others. But I will have to give him credit because he used this quality, this excruciating sensitivity, to write something that has a universal quality to it. The emotions he describes are deeply individual, yet at the same time, it is easy to relate to one’s own less than noble emotions, whether it’s spending time at a party trying desperately to get a seat close to someone you find amusing or attractive, rather than be in some boring Siberia with worthy but dull people, or making a fool out of yourself by arranging your days so you can “accidentally” bump into someone you have a crush on.

Writing Prompt: What is something foolish you have done to get closer to someone whose attention you craved?

135Journals Book Club: Notes on Reading the first 21 percent of Proust.

26 Apr


Charles Haas was supposedly the model for Charles Swann (Wikimedia Commons)


One of the things I’ve learned from reading the first 21 percent of Proust (my Kindle tells me I still have 31 hours to go, so this is not very impressive), is that it’s important to know who’s who. So, I will start a list to help readers of characters who I have come across and what I know about them:


The Narrator: A sickly man, bad at sleeping, who remembers with painful exquisiteness of spending time in the fictional village of Combray in Northern France. He also was a sickly boy, and was very high strung. He loved nature, the beauty of gothic cathedrals, love. He was passionate about reading under the chestnut trees, and had a passion for certain actresses about whom he’d heard. He was also madly in love with a girl named Gilberte Swann, who was the daughter of his family friend, Charles Swann, an elegant Jewish man whom the family did not know was in high society in Paris, and his wife Odette.


Maman: His mother is a much-admired figure, generally very kind to him. She would read to him in a beautifully dramatic way that let the power of the prose come through. Although he was obviously a very dramatic, high strung child, he was a very loved one, both by her and his exasperated Papa.


Grandmere: She also loved her grandson deeply, and when they went to an excursion to the ocean near Balbec and he grew very sick, she tended him with great care.


Charles Swann: an elegant Jewish man whom the family did not know was in high society in Paris, so they treated him with a rather indifferent if friendly air. An entire section of the book is devoted to his tortured relationship with his future wife, Odette, who is not at all his style, and yet, he cannot resist her. Yet, when they are married, they seem fairly happy together (so far), although often they won’t be “seen” because Odette is not considered respectable in Combray. The section about their courtship is set before the narrator’s birth.


Odette Swann: The narrator is almost as fascinated by Odette as he is by her daughter. He notices each piece of clothing she wears the way he notices color, books, and the beauty of Gothic churches and their windows. Odette has a “salon” in Paris to whom she invites eminent people of a slightly more louche type than the ones offered by the more proper Madame Verdurin, who is another famous hostess.


Gilberte Swann: A mysterious girl who tortures the author by being alternately kind and unkind.


Bergotte: A famous writer whose particular style the author admires, despite the fact that he is made fun of by certain others for loving him. The narrator gets to become friends with him at Odette’s salons in Paris, to which he is invited when he is older.


Verteuil: A famous composer whom the author knows who wrote a suite that is very important to him. The narrator doesn’t know it’s the same Verteuil he knew from Combray who doted on his obviously lesbian daughter. The daughter’s lover moved in and after his death, the lover spat at Verteuil’s photo. The narrator spied on them together so he saw it, and it makes him think about the nature of human beings, how some thrive on sadism. Clearly, this is a boy who likes spying—and this quality comes through in his text.


The Guermantes family: This is the most aristocratic family in Combray. The narrator has romanticized ideas about them until he sees the duchess or countess or whatever she is in person and is surprised that she is not magically beautiful just because she is of noble birth.


So here are SOME of the people that populate the narrator’s world.


Writing Prompt: Who are a few of the characters that populate your world?

Americanah by Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie: A Book Review

20 Jan




Ifemelu and Obinze are lovers. They are two young Nigerians who are like two puzzle pieces, made to be together. But when life separates them, sending Efimelu to the U.S. and Obinze on a more complicated journey to England and back to Nigeria, they lose track of each other. Obinze’s, and especially Efimelu’s, journeys, their adjustments to their situations, their struggles against racism, poverty, cultural differences, loneliness, and finding their authentic selves and destinies is the subject of Americanah, Chimimanda Ngozie Adizie’s long, rich, complex, and delicious book Americanah.  


Adizie has a sharp eye, a wicked tongue (or pen) and a magical way of putting the truth of the strengths and weaknesses of three countries on the table without being mortally offensive or off-putting to any of them—while at the same time making clear that she means what she says.She skewers certain kind of people (including, ahem, people like me, a well-meaning white American liberal) without making you want to throw the book across the room and sulk.


I hate the word immersive. Why is everybody using this word all of a sudden? But Americanah is a deeply immersive book. When I finished it, I got a big headache. I wasn’t in Efimelu’s world anymore. I wasn’t going to see anything out of her eyes. I felt disoriented. When I feel like that, I know I’ve read a good book.


One of the things I admire about this book is how it doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by over-explaining. The author will write sentences in (Igbo?) or in some mix of Efi’s native tongue and English and expect the reader to get the meaning from context. She will have Efi meet some well-meaning white lady who will overexplains how she gives money to a charity in Africa and the incredible awkwardness of the Efi is put in (is she supposed to say thank you for helping my continent?) becomes clear. This, to me, is very lifelike. Most people who live in a multicultural environment, as, say, I am as a resident of the greater New York area, are constantly subjected—or gifted—I should say,  


Much of the book takes place as Efimelu is getting her hair braided in a salon for black women’s hair in a bad neighborhood in Trenton, New Jersey. Although she has a prestigious position as a Princeton Fellow, beaten-down Trenton is the closest place she can go for the proper care of her hair. Much attention is given to the subject of black women’s hair in this book—about what long, painstaking efforts black women have to make to have hair that seems acceptable and normal in the U.S., and whether or not she wants to compromise herself for that standard. Meanwhile, she notes the irony of how in Nigerian women also torture their hair with ironing and other treatments to make it look “good.” In the beauty shop she meets a variety of characters, African, African-American, and white, throughout the long day, listens to their chatter, and reflects on her life. Because even though she has reached a pinnacle of success in America—becoming relatively famous for her blog (Okay, this part—getting successful from a blog is like a beautiful fantasy to me, unlike the rest of the book). By the way, her blog is called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black” and it includes some of Efi’s excellent blogposts.) She is constantly looking at the world around her with a critical but curious eye. One dreadlocked white man whom she suspected would be a good guest blogger tells her, “Race is totally overhyped these days, black people need to get over themselves.. . “ and she writes a post called, “Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down.” And then, she meets a middle manager from Ohio in a boxy suit and expected him to be racist—and HE turns out to have adopted a dark-skinned black baby and talks to her about how this experience has taught him  “even black families” don’t want to adopt a dark-skinned child. She writes a post about HIM called, “Badly-Dressed White Middle Managers from Ohio Are Not Always What You Think.”


Ifemelu’s life in America is complicated. At first she is poor, desperate for work, until she gradually becomes acclimated to America’s ways, becomes a highly educated and confident woman, and claims her place as who she is. One of her ways of becoming authentic, for example, is not taking on an American accent. She refuses to be anything else but what she is. Meanwhile, she has relationships with an Anglo-American and later an African-American man that teach her many things about America. She finds Americans who are good and Americans who are bad. One thing that she does find is that race is a very powerful subject.


Let me repeat that. Race is a very powerful subject in the United States. In fact, I have recently been doing a lot of reading about race in the United States. One of the observations I have made from my reading is that many white people feel that racism is a thing of the past (“We have a black president”), but for black people, race is very much present and real. And that when people say they are “colorblind,” it can seem very insulting, despite the speaker’s good intentions. When they say racism was in the past, white Americans often mean that they themselves are not racist and would not do anything racist. But African Americans can feel that this is a denial of history and present day reality. The author puts this much better than I can.


This is so much more to say about Americanah and the author’s observations. (By the way, an Americanah is defined more-or-less as someone who went to America and became all American and now thinks she’s a big shot back in Nigeria). But this book would not be worth reading if the author did not hook you in with appealing characters and action that keeps the plot moving in a lively, satisfying way. This is not a treatise—it is a novel. And one I highly recommend.


Writing Prompt: What observations can you make about race in America (or your country)?