Category Archives: authors

Another Year, Another Used Book Sale

There’s a sameness to this season, always — the turn of the leaves, the chill of the air, the encroaching dark. Even the beginning of the university year feels like an ending. And this year, like last, I also marked the end of a relationship whose time had passed.

But there are compensatons, like the extra week of summer that appeared out of no where last week. And the annual used book sale. As always, I present a photo of my haul. I am most excited by the five Rowan magazines I got for 10 cents each, and Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, which I have been seeking for a while. The books are all used and have been read before by people who came to their end and discarded them. But they offer a new beginning to me.

Book Sale 2011

Melissa Banks, Again

There’s another passage from The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing that always sticks in my mind and has been in my thoughts lately.  It comes right at the end of the book, on the very last page.

He hands me my wine.  And I tell him that his cartoons are beautiful and funny and true.

He smiles.

I ask him what else the review of his dreams says about him.  He likes this question.  He thinks.  Then he says, “Robert Wexler is a goofball in search of truth.”

I think, I’m a truthball in search of goof, and I realize that I can say whatever I want now.  And I do.

Why do these lines stick in my head so.  A goofball in search of truth.  A truthball in search of goof.  I am still not sure which one of these I am, and it is a question I have pondered often.

Which are you?

Random Thoughts on Death and Men

Hearing of the death of Elizabeth Edwards yesterday reminded me of my favourite story from Melissa Banks’ first collection, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, about the continuing adventures of Jane Rosenal. Melissa Banks is a much underappreciated and underestimated writer by the way (and yes, I know she is very popular, but she deserves much more attention than she already receives), in that way women who write about love are never taken seriously as authors.

Anyway, my favourite story is the second last one in the book, “You Could be Anyone.” It marks a shift in tone from the rest of collection, both because it is written in the second person, and because it tells the story of how Jane discovers she has breast cancer while she is dating not the right man. The relationship ends, and radiation treatments begin. Jane sees a therapist.

It was easier when the menace came from the outside, you tell a therapist; she nods, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Thursday after Thursday, you tell her about your relationship with him. You talk and talk, waiting for the cure. After a while, though, it occurs to you that even a perfect understanding of failed love is the booby prize.

Judith Merkle Riley dies at 68

I was very sad to learn this morning of the death of Judith Merkle Riley from ovarian cancer. When her A Vision of Light, about an unusual medieval mystic in the tradition of Margery Kempe, came out in 1989, it was a groundbreaking work, fitting an imagined character into a convincing and well-realized medieval setting. The last of her books I read was The Oracle Glass, about poisoners and witchcraft in seventeenth-century France. Like her first book its main charm was the compelling character of her female lead.

Here is her obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Sixty-eight is much too young.

An Interview with Alison Pick

I am very excited today to be able to bring you an interview with my very own cousin, Alison Pick, about her most recent novel, Far to Go, published just recently by House of Anansi Press. It can be ordered from Canada, and will be released in the States by Harper Perennial in summer, 2011. Don’t sorry, I will be reminding you when it comes out in the States! Far to Go, inspired in part by the lives of my grandparents and my father, is the story of one Jewish family’s experiences during the lead-up to the Nazi occupation in 1939 in Czechoslovakia. Paul and Annaliese Bauer are affluent, secular Jews whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the German forces. Desperate to save themselves, they manage to secure a place for their six-year-old son, Pepik, on a Kindertransport to England. Far to Go is also the story of how what happened to the Bauers is remembered by those who survived, and the stories that are told about them.

The events of 1938 and 1939 unfold through the eyes of Marta, the governess, a woman uncertain of her own origins.  Why did you decide to make her the viewpoint character?

Good question. Truthfully I can almost never remember why I did anything in a particular way, beyond the fact that it felt intuitively right. But the idea of an unreliable narrator was appealing. I often turn to Jack Hodgins’ ‘A Passion for Narrative,’ – my novelists’ bible – and I think it was his suggestion to view the main characters, in my case Pavel and Anneliese, through outside eyes. That said, through the process of writing Marta grew to become a main character herself. She is a liminal character, not Jewish but close with Jews (and, as you point out, unsure of her origins, so with the possibility of being one); not the mother of a child sent away but close enough to understand a mother’s perspective. She is both on the Bauers’ side and, if only accidentally, against them. I wanted this tension to work in concert with the plot so the reader wouldn’t be certain what they could trust. The desire to keep reading would be to discover how the story turns out but also how Marta—who is still young and naïve—resolves as a person.
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Prop. 8 Falls

Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic has an interesting and revealing list of the facts the judge found in making his decision. These are facts, not opinions — propositions for which the plaintiffs found evidence and the defendants could find no compelling counter evidence. Go over there and check them out. Don’t worry; I’ll wait. Now, how many of these statements could have been accepted as facts twenty years ago? Ten? Five?

There’s one that made me tear up a little:

5. Same-sex love and intimacy “are well-documented in human history.”

Thank you, John Boswell. Sometimes even a medievalist can have an impact that lasts beyond his death.

Historical Fiction Online

I know that a lot of people who find my blog come to it by doing searches for historical fiction of one kind or another. I think many of you might like to know about the discussion board Historical Fiction Online. Its audience is people who love to read historical fiction, and it is a great place to discover novels from all periods and places, and to enjoy spirited discussion about your favourites with intelligent fellow readers. Many of the contributors are prolific book bloggers so you can use it to find new places to spend time on the net. And there are also many well-known authors who participate in its forums (hey, authors read too and writers of historical fiction are its greatest fans) so you just might find yourself discussing your favourite book with your favourite author!

Sex Sells?

(Oh dear, the google hits on this blog are about to get really thrilling with that title!)

A staple of contemporary historical fiction is the novel about the famous man or woman, and a staple of those novels is some speculation about said famous person’s love life. Why not? That’s exactly the kind of information the academic historian is in a poor position to discuss, and it allows the author to reveal the personal, emotional side of a character, which is the reason many come to historical fiction.

But how far can you go? How far should you go? One answer to that question is that you can write whatever you like and speculate as much as you want as long as you do it well. But what if, as an author, you really want to stay close to historical fact, or at least plausible legend and contemporary rumour? The fact is, we can’t prove who loved whom in the past about anyone. We can’t even prove who was whose father if we go too deep in time.

There is a good deal of discussion about this question out there on the intertubes. Susan Higginbotham has been fighting the good fight to save Margaret of Anjou’s reputation. Kathryn Warner is fighting the good fight over on her blog to defend Edward II against the most outrageous attacks. And a really interesting discussion over on Historical Fiction Online about who Alison Weir’s recent Captive Queen and who Eleanor of Aquitaine may or may not have slept with is what started my interest in this whole thing. I can’t speak to most of the rumours used by Weir in her book because they cover Eleanor’s later career and I just don’t know enough about the sources. But in a future post (soon!) I want to discuss the original charge against Eleanor, that she had an affair with her uncle while on the Second Crusade. Today, I want to talk in a general way about how an author might deal with what counts as evidence about a medieval person’s romantic dalliances. An author is of course free to do what he or she likes, as long as it works. But what can an author use, and still claim that she or he is following history?

Rumours that emerge after, say, 1500 are extremely suspect. They usually come from academic circles, not really the best places for buried oral tradition to surface. Stories that are contemporary with a given person’s life are obviously the most deserving of credence. But that doesn’t mean they are true. Historians in the Middle Ages didn’t write because they wanted to get the facts down, and we make a mistake when we treat their works as simple unfiltred repositories of information. The wrote to make an argument and they used standard tropes and moral lessons, one of which was the wayward queen whose lust/greed/jealousy brought down the kingdom. So ideally we will have more than one piece of independent evidence that will confirm what we say.

But, to argue for the other side for a moment, how often do we have more than one piece of evidence about anything that happened in the Middle Ages? Often the chronicler who is the only one to tell us the queen was a bit naughty, is also the only one to tell us exactly what went wrong at the battle of Damascus. Does it make sense to dismiss the rumour, while taking the Damascus account unquestioningly as gospel truth? Not really. We must constantly ask why our sources write down everything they tell us , whose agenda did it serve, how the different stories support each other, and how credible we find their tales. Well, this is why writing history, fictional or non-, is difficult. But also why it is fun!

Next post: Eleanor and her uncle as a case study of how to read our sources.

Alison Pick has Far to Go.

After sales in Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands (am I forgetting any?), Alison has cracked the U.S. market. From Publisher’s Marketplace this morning:

Alison Pick’s FAR TO GO, an epic historical novel set during the lead-up to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and the fate of one Jewish family, to Claire Wachtel at Harper Perennial, in a good deal, by Barbara Howson at House of Anansi Press.

Can a U.S. book tour be far behind? Here’s hoping for Chicago.