Category: authors

* Twenty * Women * Twenty*

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week exercising his feminine side and delving into women, women and more women.

It used to bug me how, at a certain point at parties, half a dozen of the most interesting women would get up and stroll to the ladies room.

Their reason, I came to understand, was neither cosmetic nor functional — they just knew a better party was to be had sitting on the edge of the bathtub, chatting among themselves.

One night I did what I’d wanted to do for years: I followed them.

An exception was made and — be still my heart — I was treated like “one of the girls.” And I understood why they fled the living room: A better time really was to be had without men. That is: greater intimacy, sharper sharing, edgier stories.

That is also true of Susanna Sonnenberg’s “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.” I’d read her first memoir — Her Last Death — and greatly admired her account of a childhood spent with a drug-soaked, sex-addicted, wildly destructive mother and an eccentric, distracted father. Sonnenberg’s story was compelling, but what really impressed me was the writing. By now pretty much anyone can serve up a lurid tale; Sonnenberg not only faced the truth about her family’s pathology, she crafted it with style, wit, and, remarkably, distance.

“She Matters” tells twenty stories: Sonnenberg’s intense friendships with twenty women. That number alone is impressive — I don’t think I’ve had twenty friends in my life. And I don’t know anyone who would say that friends are as crucial to life as oxygen.

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‘Champagne for my sham friends, real pain for my real friends,’ Noel Coward said. Here is real pain. Because Claire Bidwell Smith is a real friend.

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week bringing you down — and then up.

“The Rules of Inheritance” is a memoir about a bummer. Two bummers, really. When Claire Bidwell Smith, an only child, was 14, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. When she was 18, her mother died. When she was 25, her father died.

Why, you may wonder, am I writing about this book?

Initially, my reason was personal.

When my wife was 11, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. When she was 13, her mother died. When she was 17, her father died.

Claire Bidwell Smith is now a grief counselor and hospice worker — she’s not only come to terms with her losses, she’s learned how to use them to help others. My wife has taken paths to healing that do not include the writing of a memoir. And in this, my third marriage, I am not so stupid that I believe asking my wife direct questions about the biggest tragedies in her life is endearing or useful. But here was a book. And I thought… okay, just this once….

“The Rules of Inheritance” is sensationally good, and if you have lost someone you love or are in the process of losing someone, I’d put this book on top of the pile. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

But that’s not the reason I want to write about it. As I was reading Smith’s memoir, I happened upon a blog by Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion. She writes:

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books that play it safe. Conventional narratives, characters whose edges are smoothed out to a palatable degree. Can I just say it? These books bore me. I’m bored. It’s like eating muesli when I want a charred, juicy steak. I want to read about messiness. I don’t need the pieces to fit together in fiction — I mean, when do the pieces ever fit together in life? I want to encounter characters who feel, who do the unexpected. Who think human thoughts — no matter how dark and flawed and uncomfortable. I want to be reminded of my own inner landscape, my own complex humanity.

I also seem to be getting a lot of those books. Description? For pages. Plots? So exquisitely graphed that they’re airless. And long? My pet peeve. So very, very long.

For these “term-paper” writers — because they write as if a kindly teacher is going to give them an “A” and send a nice note home — and their suicidal publishers, it might as well be 1910. Did the Internet happen? Did reading habits and attention spans change? “Yes, of course.” And the implications of that? “We’ll adjust our marketing.”

The most important question — might readers be more inclined to read shorter, more crisply edited books? — goes unanswered, largely because it seems not to be asked. And that is one of the reasons I have such high hopes for the novel I’m writing. “The Great Gatsby” is a thin book: 47,094 words. Mine won’t top 47,000. And it’s written in the style I’ve developed in 15 years of writing on the Internet: short sentences, short paragraphs, more dialogue than description. “Prose like a windowpane,” Orwell said. Well, I’m trying.

And so is Claire Bidwell Smith. Her book is a chronicle of a decade-long nervous breakdown. In her case, that means a doomed relationship with an obsessive lover, aimless travel, a joke of an assistant’s job for the West Coast editor of a magazine that sounds suspiciously like Vanity Fair and a bout of nursing her father. And it means the thoughts she has along the way.

“Champagne for my sham friends, real pain for my real friends,” Noel Coward said. Smith writes for herself — she hardly dares to imagine that she has friends — in an effort to become a friend to herself. So her thoughts are brutal.

Claire, your mother is dying. Nothing. I feel nothing.

My mother is dead. She has been dead for three days. My mother has been dead for three days. I say it out loud over and over…

My mother is gone. My father is 78 years old. This is it. I am on my own.

I would do anything to have my mother back.

Like that, for 260 pages. A collection of anecdotes, with glimmers of possibility along the way. And a final chapter that is everything you hope it will be — for her, for you, for us all.

Could Smith have filled 400 pages? Why not? All the others do. But Smith matched method to story. She gave us a book that’s reads right for right now. And sounds as if it will be true forever.

A sample. She’s 18. It’s her last night in Spain. She meets a boy, a smart, sweet boy. And goes home with him:

Moments can be so simple sometimes. In this one I realize that I have convinced myself that nothing could ever hurt as much as my mother’s death but in fact, the opposite is true.

Everything hurts.

Tears well up in my eyes. It occurs to me that I have been pretending, that I thought I deserved this. For the first time, I feel the knife slide in just a little.

I turn my head to one side to hide my tears and I feel Alvaro’s heavy silence.

I’ve never done this, he whispers.

I turn back to him, searching his face.

A few days ago his girlfriend of two years – his first love – left him. His voice is a whisper as he tells me this. She already has a new boyfriend.

I knew, Alvaro says, the moment my fingers closed around your camera, that I would sleep with you.

My mother is dead, I say in response. She died a couple of months ago.

I knew I would sleep with you too, I say.

We spend the rest of the night talking, face to face, our legs crossed Indian-style on the bed, and then perched on stools at the kitchen counter drinking cold juice, and later back in his car, the stars are high and clear above us.

It doesn’t occur to me until later how much this night is like the one I spent with Michel, but when it does, I will again marvel at the power people have to unlock each other.

I call that an “A.” And perhaps this note to the author will suffice.

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is my favorite modern American novel. Buy it. Read it. Hate it? I’ll buy it from you.

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week making you an offer you can’t refuse.

It was the spring of 1983. On a long plane trip, I started reading “The Queen’s Gambit.” The author was Walter Tevis, who had also written “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Hustler” (and who would later write “The Color of Money”). I had read none of those books. Nor had I seen the movies made from them. I just had a hunch.

I was never smarter — this is a novel that, very simply, cannot be put down. The woman who would become my first wife tried to make conversation; I shushed her. A meal came; I pushed it aside. All I could do was read, straight to the end — weeping, cheering, punching the air.

I got off the plane and optioned the film rights to “Queen’s Gambit,” and was soon at work on the greatest script I will probably ever undertake. Every young actress wanted to star in it, a half dozen “hot” directors wanted to direct it. Then the parade moved on. I couldn’t afford to keep the option. Walter Tevis died. His widow, needing money, sold the movie rights to people who, in 25 years, have not been able to get the film made. The book went out of print.

Two decades later, a paperback edition appeared. No Kindle; the publisher is asleep. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)

What’s the fuss about? An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon. Who turns out to be the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she’s alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). So she gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, as 17-year-old Beth starts pulling herself together, she must face the biggest challenge of all — a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance.

You think: This is thrilling? You think: chess? You think: Must be an “arty” novel, full of interior scenes.

Wrong. All wrong. “The Queen’s Gambit” is “Rocky.”

But here is the catch. Although this is a very adult book — what is more grown up than the realization that we cannot really succeed in life, no matter how “gifted” we may be, if we are alone and unloved? — it is so artlessly written it seems almost to have no style. This is the dream novel: 100% story.

Here, for example, is Beth, freshly orphaned, breaking through her shyness to confront the silent giant of a custodian who spends his days playing solitary chess in the orphanage’s furnace room:

”Will you teach me?”

Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing “Bringing in the Sheaves.”

She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: “I want to learn to play chess.”

Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. “I don’t play strangers.”

The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.

“I’m not a stranger,” she said to him two days later. “I live here.” Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. “You can teach me. I already know some of it, from watching.”

“Girls don’t play chess.” Mr. Shaibel’s voice was flat.

She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already labeled a cannon in her imagination. “This one moves up and down or back and forth. All the way, if there’s space to move in.

Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a slashed lemon on top. “And this one?”

Her heart leapt. “On the diagonals.”

See? You don’t need to know anything about chess. Tevis was a storyteller whose genius was to tell great stories; there’s nothing between you and the people.

I believe that you will care about Beth Harmon more than any fictional character you’ve encountered in years and years.

I believe that you will grasp the wrench of loneliness — and the power of love — as if this book were happening to you.

And I believe that you will weep, and cheer, and, at the end, raise your fist like a fool for a little girl who never existed and a game only nerds play.

If you don’t love it, I’ll buy it from you.

All alone by the telephone…..

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week contemplating that indoor sport: the affair.

You wait for the phone to ring.

That’s your life, waiting.

You never know when he’ll call, so you leave your home as little as possible. Hair dryers and vacuum cleaners make noise that could drown out a ringing phone; you use them sparingly. And then, without warning, there’s the voice you crave — he can be free for a few hours without his wife getting curious.

In a panic, you bathe. Frantically clean your home. File your nails so there’s no chance you’ll leave a mark on him. Lay out drinks, ice, his favorite snack.

Then the door opens and your life begins. You barely speak, this isn’t that kind of relationship. Later, he looks at his watch. You sigh. He showers, dresses. A final touch, and he’s gone. Your life once again turns to waiting.

That’s a woman’s story. (It’s the rare man whose life revolves around an unavailable woman who has trouble finding a moment to call and has an even harder time arranging a rendezvous.) Indeed, it’s Annie Ernaux’s story — a lightly fictionalized account of a two-year affair she had with a married Eastern European diplomat.

The whole story takes just 64 pages. And nothing really happens; it’s mostly waiting. But the waiting is so acutely observed that in France — Ernaux lives in a suburb of Paris — ‘Simple Passion’ was the #1 bestseller for 8 months, with more than 400,000 copies sold. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle download, click here.]

The appeal of the book is, if you will, how manly it is. How matter-of-fact. Writing, Ernaux tells us at the start of the novel, should be like sex. That is, there should be “a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction. a suspension of moral judgment.”

So you won’t get any speculation about his feelings. Or if he’ll leave his wife. No, this affair is about sex. It’s about “lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon.”

The man, like the woman, is nameless. He’s 38. He likes “Yves Saint-Laurent suits, Cerruti ties and powerful cars.” He watches bad TV. He drinks. But these preferences hardly matter. For the narrator knows at the beginning of the affair something that most woman only learn at the end: “The man we love is a complete stranger.” As is, perhaps, the woman.

Something happens at the end of the book — nothing dramatic, like a murder or even a confrontation, but I don’t want to spoil the experience for you — and we’re forced to consider her anew.

Who is Annie Ernaux? You’ve probably never heard of her, but she’s one of the biggest names in French fiction. Born in 1940, she grew up in a small town. She became a literature teacher in Paris. And, from her first book to her most recent, she had her style down pat: short, autobiographical books, so honestly told you feel she’s scraping off skin with every word. She never presents herself as a victim or a hero; she just is. Her books win prizes. And, though they’re chilly, they sell. Her humanity — that honest expression of desire and weakness — only looks simple. It’s a bitch to write.

Ernaux says that passion is the luxury of adults. I think I understand what she means: It’s time out of time, a shared secret, a deep and wordless acknowledgment of need and a gloriously hot way of satisfying that need. I think that’s why women, in particular, gravitate to Ernaux’s short, disturbing books — they know they’re real. How? Because, at one point or another, they’ve been that woman looking at her phone, praying for it to ring.

In the holiday season, here’s my idea of the best possible news.

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, with a gift of personal peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh doesn’t use a telephone, so when I interviewed him for America Online, I had to pick him up and drive him to the office. TNH practices “walking meditation.” That is, he walks very slowly, breathing very consciously, so that every breath and step become prayers. I knew this. And walked very slowly. But not slowly enough. Every ten paces, I had to stop and go back.

That is not because I am a speedwalker, but because I’m not truly mindful. My loss. For as TNH points out:

The Buddha confirmed that it is possible to live happily in the here and the now — even if you still have lots of pain and sorrow within yourself. Mindful breathing helps you become fully alive. And when you are really there, you can touch all the wonders of life that are available in this very moment for your enjoyment…for your nourishment…and for your healing
.

This is a very happy man presenting a joyous view of life. You think Buddhism is nihilistic because it lacks a God-figure and does not offer a road map to eternal life? Well, listen to this:

This body is not me. I am much more than this body. The space of 50 or 60 or 70 years is not my lifespan. It is not true that I did not exist before I was born. It is not true that I will no longer exist after the disintegration of this body. My ground of being is the reality of no birth, no death. No coming, no going. It is like water is the ground of being of a wave. The wave might be afraid of being or non-being. But if she knows that she is water, she will lose all her fear. Nothing is born…nothing dies. Birth and death cannot really touch us. If you know that, you will be able to enjoy every second of your daily life — even if you are in terminal illness.

I take great comfort in those words. And in the notion that meditation can be as simple as a conscious in-breath, a conscious out-breath. And that the key to everything is to be wide-awake — to be “mindful.” [To buy the paperback of “Essential Writings” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Who is Thich Nhat Hahn? He became a monk in Vietnam at 16. He studied Zen (no, Zen is not just a Japanese strain of Buddhism), but in an “engaged” form, so, in the early 1960s, he founded the School of Youth for Social Services — a Vietnamese Peace Corps — to help his war-battered countrymen. A university and a magazine followed.

In 1966, TNH’s non-violent appeals caused him to be exiled from Vietnam. He taught at Columbia University, then founded a retreat in rural France called Plum Village. He comes to America about once a year and gives lectures in a voice so quiet and peaceful you have to lean in to hear him.

His themes resonate deeply for me:

Do not be bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones… Avoid being narrow-minded… Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge…. Do not force others to adopt your views… Do not avoid contact with suffering…. Do not maintain anger or hatred… Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.

Dreamer? TNH is the ultimate realist. “Do not believe that I feel that I follow these precepts perfectly,” he says. “I know I fail in many ways. However, I must work toward a goal. These are my goals. No words can replace practice, only practice can make the words.”

It has long been clear to me that this peace starts with the personal — before I can help others create peace, I must be at peace within myself. Over time, I have found that TNH is the teacher who best helps me do this. Maybe you will find that to be true for you as well.

TNH is prolific. Where to start? Easy: a 163-page paperback, “The Essential Writings.”

Laurie Colwin: Our Own Jane Austen

Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, this week making his contribution to a cult — a good cult.

On October 23, 1992, with her daughter tucked in and her husband next to her, Laurie Colwin went to sleep. She did not wake up. She was 48 years old.

The memorial service was standing room only, for Laurie Colwin was much loved. Some people there knew her from the 1968 campus uprisings at Columbia, when she cooked for the student protesters who had taken over university buildings. Some knew her from the soup kitchen where she cooked for the poor and elderly. But most were writers, with writers’ stories, like Scott Spencer, who talked about the early days, when Colwin pretended to be an agent and shopped his first manuscript around town: “She saw me in ways I had never seen myself before and never since.”

A curious thing happened after Laurie Colwin died. Her books remained in print, all of them. And that’s saying something, for she was prolific: five novels and three books of short stories, with two more books published after her death. Eighteen years after her death, her website launched.

It makes sense that Laurie Colwin, in death, should be more popular than a lot of living writers who mine the same terrain. She hit the sweet spot. She wrote about privileged people so well you could legitimately call her our Jane Austen, But also, well before Nora Ephron, she threw in recipes, and in some of her perceptions, she was cousin to Woody Allen. In a time when “literary fiction” was mostly pinched and gloomy, she was the half-full glass — she even called one of her novels “Happy All the Time.” And her writing had that key element, energy; there was a reason they played Sam and Dave before her memorial service.

What to read?

The cooks and eaters among you will gravitate to “Home Cooking,” a collection of the columns she wrote for Gourmet magazine. (Here’s a spooky story. A few months before she died, she called Gourmet’s editor and said, “I have all my columns for next year, is it O.K. if I send them in now?” She did. And for almost a year after she died, a Laurie Colwin piece was in the issue.)

“Home Cooking” is exactly that. It begins: “Unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home.” She wrote a prose poem to the power of the dinner party: “It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.” But she wasn’t really complaining. This is quintessential Colwin: “One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating. And, for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

On to the fiction. Colwin’s cult is divided about The Best Book. Some insist it’s “Happy All the Time.” I understand why. Four lovers in their twenties, far from poor, highly educated, with the special tics of the intelligently self-obsessed. The writing is lush:

“There are going to be thousands of dinners like this, thought Misty. This is my place at the dinner table. This is my intended husband’s best friend and that is the wife of my intended’s best friend whom I am going to spend the rest of my life getting to know. Across the table, Vincent looked seraphically happy. How wonderful everything tasted, Misty thought. Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.
“It was just as she suspected: love turned you into perfect mush.”

One character is Jewish and mouthy, a stand-in for the author and a great humanizing factor — this is, in every other way, a story from the 1970s, when these self-involved lives were still possible. [To read Chapter 1, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

I prefer “Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object.” It has a word-perfect beginning, with a solid narrative voice and a keen appreciation for the Important Facts:

My husband died sailing off the coast of Maine, leaving me a widow at the age of twenty-seven. This was the time when a lot of girls were losing their husbands to the air war or the ground war; I lost my husband to recklessness, to a freak storm and a flimsy boat. I had no bitter, apologetic telegram to inform me, no grieving soldier at my door with the unsent letter, watch, and kit, no child to console.
His name was Sam Bax, and no one ever stopped him from anything.

Colwin nails grief and the ways it wants you to be by yourself even as it pushes you to be with people. It is inevitable in these 180 pages that the person Elizabeth Bax will be pushed toward is Sam’s far more solid (and appropriate) brother. Colwin gets the push-pull just right. And, for a Jane Austenite, she writes decent sex. [To read Chapter 1, click here. To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Colwin’s fans admit no flaws, but I see one. Each of these novels doesn’t end where it should. Each has an extra section that takes the characters where they don’t need to go, only to bring them back to the ending we could have had many pages earlier. True, without these sections, the novels would have been novellas. They would also have been perfect.

But this is to quibble. If you like old-fashioned novels of manners, here they are, regrooved. A pity there won’t be more of them.
———————–
ROAST CHICKEN À LA LAURIE COLWIN
Serves 4

‘There is nothing like roast chicken,” Colwin wrote. ‘It is helpful and agreeable, the perfect dish no matter what the circumstances. Elegant or homey, a dish for a dinner party or a family supper, it will not let you down.”

a 3- to 3 1/2-pound chicken
3 to 4 cups cubed whole-wheat bread
1/2 cup porcini mushrooms
1/4 to 1/3 cup broth
Salt and fresh ground pepper
Paprika
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon melted butter or water or broth for basting.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Rinse chicken and pat dry.

Combine bread and mushrooms in a bowl and toss with broth. Season to taste. Stuff chicken and secure with poultry pin or toothpick. Place in roasting pan and sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika. (If desired, surround it with carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic and a red pepper.)

Roast for about 2 hours, basting frequently with melted butter and pan juices. The chicken is done when the leg bone wiggles and the skin is the color of teak.

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