Category Archives: Books Read

How do you choose books to buy?

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  — Winston Churchill

Sam Shepard

In another word, perseverance.  Success and what it means has been in the back of my mind this week.  Sam Shepard died as the week began, and reading about his life as a playwright, writer, and actor proved provocative to my mind. Shepard told an interviewer once that he felt most comfortable in the theater, writing for the theater. That made me ask myself where do I feel most comfortable in my creative life? How does that feeling relate to production and success? I know I am happiest when I am writing fiction.

This morning, I ran across a short essay by Hope Clark, a mystery writer who has a well-known newsletter called Funds for Writers. In this essay, Clark wrote about what the most important thing is about being a writer.  Is it getting credit for writing and publishing? Or is it giving the world a great story experience?

My next thought was that maybe success could be measured in just how great the story experience was that you’ve created. But how does anyone know that? And could one person’s great story experience be another’s failed story experience? Today, for example, I finished reading a novel that has won rave reviews and that I’d heard friends and acquaintances rave about for a long time.  I didn’t think it was that great at all.

I don’t rely solely on what my friends and acquaintances recommend when I’m looking for a great story. I read reviews, I subscribe to the NY Times Book Review newsletter, as well as reading the review sections of other papers and magazines. I have to admit that I don’t pay much attention to marketing blurbs or any kind of promotional pitches. What I pay attention to are the descriptions of the novel’s story, and then a little to genre. I love books, though, that blend genres or bend them. So I guess it’s important to know your own taste and interests before going off to Amazon or a bricks and mortar store to buy books. I do miss bricks and mortar bookstores where I could wander around and actually see, touch, and smell the books!

In her essay, Clark describes the kind of promotional copy that will turn her off a book, and the kind of promotional copy that will spark her interest. Her ultimate point in the essay, though, is that authors need to remember their responsibility to readers, i.e. to provide them with a great story they’ll be glad they paid good money for and spent their time reading. That whatever they say in their pitches and promotions, they focus on the story.

So, Mr. Churchill, I think I’d define success for a writer in this way: Committed to writing the best you can, knowing what makes your stories great,  giving your readers one great story after another, and attaining the recognition of being a writer who produces great stories, i.e. the kind of stories that people want to buy and read.

What draws you to a book? How do you choose the books you buy? What was the last great story you read? Please respond in the comments section!

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Book Review: “Devil’s Trill” by Gerald Elias

For me, the mark of a good story is if I continue to think about it long after I’ve finished reading it.  Well, Devil’s Trill, a mystery by Gerald Elias has been on my mind since I finished reading it at lunch yesterday.  There are two reasons my mind won’t let go: first, it’s a good, fun story that I enjoyed, and second, it’s a story set in the classical music world like my own novel Perceval’s Secret. Not many writers have chosen to set their stories in the classical music world, so I’m always interested in reading one that is.

The protagonist of Devil’s Trill is violinist Daniel Jacobus, getting on in years, blind, and the ultimate curmudgeon, but still passionate about music and instilling the love of music. Set in 1983 — pre-computers and cell phones and Spotify or YouTube — Jacobus has agreed to take on a young Japanese student sent to him by a good friend in Japan. Yumi Shinagawa turns out to be the real deal in many ways and receptive to Jacobus’ pedagogy. The following weekend, he decides to attend the recital at Carnegie Hall of the 9-year-old winner of the Grimsley Violin Competition, held every 13 years for violinists no older than 13 and run by the Musical Arts Project or MAP. He also attends the post-concert reception where the extremely valuable and rare violin the winner had played, the Piccolino Stradivarius, disappears. Jacobus becomes the top suspect in this theft. Into his life walks Nathaniel Williams, a musician friend who’s become an insurance investigator, who wants Jacobus (along with Yumi, it turns out) to assist him in finding the stolen violin. From this point on, the mystery of the stolen violin intertwines with the political and financial intrigues of the classical music world, along with the murder of the Grimsley winner’s violin teacher.

Elias does an excellent job of illuminating the value placed on certain violins over others, the fine line music organizations walk between pure entertainment and art, and the importance of music to humans. The title refers to a violin sonata composed by an Italian named Tartini. It’s famous for its difficulty, and for its backstory.  Tartini claimed to have had a dream of the Devil playing the violin and when he woke, he tried to capture on paper the music he heard in his dream. The difference between dream and reality is a subterranean stream that flows under this story, giving it depth.  I loved that Jacobus was also a teacher — it gave Elias the opportunity to also illuminate music as well as his knowledge about violin playing and the violin itself.

He took a huge gamble with Jacobus, however.  This character is not at all a lovable curmudgeon.  In fact, for a while I thought he was definitely irritating and stuck at his own pity party. But I was also intrigued by his irritating me, and eventually Elias reveals more of Jacobus’ story — how he became blind, what is important to him and how the world frustrates him at almost every turn. He shouts a LOT. But he also has the kind of rat-terrier-like mind that’s perfect for solving a mystery, especially one that involves a stolen violin. The supporting characters were not nearly as well developed, primarily because they are “seen” through Jacobus’ experience and point of view.

I loved the mystery, though. Certainly not your usual mystery story, it had much different twists and turns to it than usual that grew out of character motivations as well as the reality of the music world in 1983. And the murder mystery turned out to be another twist that upped the stakes for Jacobus to find the Piccolino Strad. I loved also returning to the classical music world.  Not nearly as glam or stuffed shirt as so many people assume, it can get pretty cut-throat and dirty. And when a violin is worth $8 million, it can also involve a lot of money. I will say, however, regarding plot, that Elias provides the reader with a marvelous twist near the end, and then seems to drop it right there. It left me wondering what happened and if Elias knew what he’d done. As it turned out, and much to my relief, he knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t playing completely fair with the reader.  I hope that in his subsequent novels, he does a better job of that.

If there were as many novels about musicians as there are about police officers, doctors, or lawyers, not to mention all sorts of criminals, maybe the reading public would be more inclined to read more books set in the classical music world. Devil’s Trill is definitely a good place for anyone who enjoys mysteries to start.  And I look forward to reading more of Gerald Elias’ books.

It Can’t Happen Here?

Recently, I finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. This novel has become famous again, as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels that depict life under a totalitarian or fascist regime, because of the 2016 American presidential election.  Lewis’ concern was more about HOW  fascism could happen in America, not with life after fascism was established. According to the very good introduction by Michael Meyer (the English professor at the University of Connecticut, not the actor or the movie character) and the afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, the influences on Lewis in 1935 were the National Socialist movement in Germany, and Huey Long in Louisiana.  Long inspired Lewis’ Senator Buzz Windrip, and how the German people chose fascism inspired his American scenario.

When I was developing the America of 2048 for the Perceval novels, I knew I wanted a fascism in America that was established by a new political party that had arisen when factions from the GOP right and the Democrat right came together in support of Corporate America. The new party, the New Economic Party, participated in free democratic American elections which they won because they promised Americans wealth and security. When they won the presidency and a majority in Congress, they closed the borders, suspended the Constitution, and formed a dictatorship with some of the trappings of a democracy like elections and Congress. Like the Soviet Union, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A military coup would not work, nor would a civilian coup. There could be no forcible takeover of the government. It needed to be chosen by the people.

Lewis agreed with me. In It Can’t Happen Here, the American people elect Buzz Windrip despite all the signs that he would become a dictator: a 15-point manifesto promising people money and then abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court, the creation of his own personal army called the Minute Men, and his emphasis on showmanship rather than substance. Windrip himself wasn’t particularly wealthy, but he had a lot of very wealthy friends, and he had plans to steal from the US Treasury and ferret away millions for himself.  It takes Lewis a good third of the book to really get into the story, but once he does, around the point when Windrip wins the presidential election, it really gets interesting. Lewis lays out the steps Windrip and his administration take to make Congress obsolete, disband the Supreme Court, and restructure both the government and the country, creating 8 provinces instead of 50 states. The Minute Men become the thugs that enforce Windrip’s every wish, and anyone who speaks or acts against the government either disappears, is arrested, and/or shot. An Underground resistance arises, led by the Communists in America (I found this REALLY ironic) and by the man who lost the presidential election and fled to Canada.  Americans flee to Canada in droves, becoming refugees. Production and profits become the determinants of life or death.

It astonished me how familiar this all was.  I had not read Lewis’ novel before, but my thinking for what happens in America to produce my America in 2048 was much the same. Lewis shows how easily a fascist dictatorship can be established in America.  Just elect the right guy. And any fascism would be firmly grounded in Capitalism, i.e. the wealthy would have all the power and control, forcing everyone else to work for their benefit and profit. In the Perceval series, I’m concerned with how such a political system affects the people who live under it, psychologically and emotionally. Especially when violence and abuse are accepted and commonplace.

My May 2017 The Atlantic has arrived and with it reader response to David Frum’s article in the March 2017 issue, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Ezra Klein’s response in a Vox article (published as a letter in the magazine) included the argument that Congress has the power to stop any president from getting too powerful. He writes, “Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.”  Well, yes. But what if Congress agrees with the president and has no intention of stopping him?  We seem to have this situation now in America.  Congress, and the GOP leaders, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Klein writes that the 2018 elections when many of those in Congress face election, could be crucial for stopping the current president.  In the meantime, we are probably fortunate that the current president isn’t nearly as smart or savvy as Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ novel, and that he didn’t think to build his own personal army as Windrip did.