NY Times Review: ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Graeme in two new annotated editions

A Second Wind for Toad and his Pals

By CHARLES McGRATH / NEW YORK TIMES

The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.

Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.

“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”

The adventures depicted in the book include the famous riverine idylls and a couple of almost equally well-known scenes of cozy underground bachelor life, which Mr. Lerer says owe something to Ruskin’s ideal of British domesticity. There are also the much wilder episodes of Toad’s manic car theft and car smashing; a Bolshevik takeover of Toad’s great manor house, Toad Hall, by the lower-class stoats and weasels; and, most bizarre of all, a moment of sexual and religious ecstasy when Mole and Rat behold, in the silvery, creeping light of dawn, no less than a naked, shaggy-flanked goat god, Pan himself, taking a break from his piping.

This scene is so charged that Ms. Gauger detects an element of homoeroticism. But then she, by far the more extensive and detailed of the two annotators, is quick to find an erotic subtext throughout a work that Grahame declared to be “free of the clash of sex.” After Toad and Mole companionably spend the night together, she notes, “If this were a novel for adults, Mole and Rat would perhaps consummate their relationship amorously.”

This kind of observation is indicative of the problems inherent in annotating a classic text, even one as well known as this. On the one hand, parts of the cultural landscape that inspired the book are already lost to us, and there are echoes and allusions that we remain deaf to even after having them pointed out, others that we are apt to misinterpret from our habit of seeing sex everywhere. On the other hand, the book is still perfectly readable without pedantic notes or explanations, and Ms. Gauger’s edition, in particular, is so laden with commentary that it sometimes resembles the Talmud, with more commentary than text on the page.

Both editors devote vast amounts of space to defining words like “panoply,” “repast,” “provender,” “vouchsafe,” “sniffy,” “fusty,” “hummocky” that are all in the dictionary and whose meaning hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1908. And neither is entirely reliable: both think that a “well-metalled road” is one literally paved with metal when a glance at Google would have told them that the term is a synonym for what we think of as tarmac.

Both editors, to be fair, are very good at picking up echoes of Romantic poetry, huge chunks of which were clearly swirling inside Kenneth Grahame’s head while he was writing “The Wind in the Willows,” and both illuminate the text by suggesting, among other things, that Toad — blusterer, aesthete, jailed prisoner — was inspired in part by Oscar Wilde. He probably also owes something to Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant, gasbag journalist and politician of the time. Mr. Lerer further suggests that Toad’s mania, his grandiosity, his compulsive lies and self-deceptions may derive from Grahame’s reading in Krafft-Ebbing’s “Textbook of Insanity.” A simpler explanation of Grahame’s understanding of wild, unpredictable personality may be that he grew up with an unreliable, alcoholic father who eventually abandoned his two sons.

In general Ms. Gauger is more willing than Mr. Lerer to find the roots of “The Wind in the Willows” in Grahame’s biography, and though she sometimes overdoes it, or explains the parallels at tedious length, her commentary nevertheless provides a sad and illuminating subplot of sorts. In many ways Grahame resembles A. A. Milne, who in 1929 dramatized the Toad sections of “The Wind in the Willows,” which always remained his favorite book. Both, though they had little use for women, were married to remote, difficult wives (Grahame courted his by writing to her in baby talk), and each had a single son whom he both doted on and neglected.

“The Wind in the Willows” began as a bedtime story and evolved over a series of letters (reproduced in the Gauger edition) that Grahame wrote to his son, Alastair, during the long months when he was farmed out to a nanny. Alastair Grahame was born part blind (an inspiration for Mole?) and appears to have been emotionally disturbed. After a miserable experience at school he lay down on some train tracks while an undergraduate at Oxford and was decapitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s own early life was scarcely much happier. His mother died when he was 5, his father ran off, and he was raised by relatives who were too stingy to send him to university. Like P. G. Wodehouse, another aspiring writer with a blighted childhood, Grahame went into the banking business. Unlike Wodehouse, he stuck it out, and by the age of 39 had risen to become secretary of the Bank of England, a post that doesn’t seem to have required him to do a whole lot.

His ostensible life was that of a proper Edwardian gent, with lots of male bonding and messing about in boats, and yet privately he burned to write, to live in his imagination. For all its apparent celebration of neatness and domestic orderliness “The Wind in the Willows” is really a book about letting go. It begins with Mole, tired of spring cleaning, putting aside his whitewash brush and taking to the road, and its true hero is Toad, who is anarchy incarnate.

Officially the text seems to disapprove of him: vain, swaggering and boastful, Toad is reprimanded and briefly chastened, and at one point the other characters even stage what we would call a full-scale intervention to confront him with his car-wrecking addiction. But he nonetheless runs away with the book, just as he runs away from prison disguised as a washerwoman, and supplies most of its narrative energy.

Though Rat is supposed to be a poet, Toad’s Song of Himself, sung to an imaginary audience near the end, is the novel’s most exuberant creation. To say that he is Grahame’s alter ego is too simple. More likely he’s the alter ego Grahame wished he could have but was also a little afraid of. Like a surprising number of stuffy-seeming Edwardians, Grahame was half in love with, and half terrified of, the idea of Pan, who never grows old, never goes to the office, never even bothers to put on clothes, and yet embodies all that is magical about the world we imagined we grew up in.

July 10, 2009 at 4:49 pm Leave a comment

SF Chronicle Review: ‘A Short History of Women’ by Kate Walbert

Heller McAlpin / SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

The common thread in Kate Walbert’s fiction is an exploration, at once intellectual and lyrical, of women throughout the 20th century (and into the 21st) coming up against society’s limiting expectations and constraints.

In her exceptionally promising first novel, “The Gardens of Kyoto” (2001), an unhappy mother tells her life story to an offstage daughter, conveying unshakable heartbreaks. “Our Kind” was a 2004 National Book Award finalist about former country-club housewives unbuckling their straitjackets.

Her new novel, “A Short History of Women,” is a complex, exquisitely rendered consideration of what used to be called “The Woman Question.” Told through the interwoven stories of five generations of highly intelligent but variously thwarted women, it considers women’s place in society over the course of more than a century, a time frame that spans both world wars and our current multi-fronted wars.

The novel opens during World War I. Teenager Evelyn Townsend narrates this initially disorienting chapter, which begins: “Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far. Mum said she had no choice.”

The death of Dorothy Trevor Townsend is the seminal event in Walbert’s novel, which traces its roots and then follows its reverberations in the lives of her daughter Evelyn Townsend and granddaughter Dorothy Townsend Barrett, down to two great-granddaughters and great-great-granddaughter Dorothy “Dora” Barrett-Deel, who writes in her Yale profile, “My great-great grandmother starved herself for suffrage. Color me Revolutionary.”

The danger of a multigenerational saga, and particularly one as compressed, elliptical and nonlinear as Walbert’s – in which so many characters share the same name! – is keeping the various generations straight. Walbert’s lineage chart is as essential as the patronymic-heavy dramatis personae in Russian novels. Also helpful are chapter headings carefully spelling out time and place. Even so, the novel’s early chapters demand a level of attention some readers may find off-putting.

There’s payoff aplenty, however, as Walbert’s intricately structured, vividly researched narrative unfolds. Alternating between Evelyn’s compelling first-person life story and the close third-person perspectives of her other heroines, Walbert transports us convincingly from Cambridge University in 1898 to V-J Day in New York City to a 1970s suburban American rap session to an anxiety-ridden post-9/11 playdate in New York City.

In 1898 Cambridge, smart women like Dorothy Trevor, “Girton (College) girls,” could attend lectures only with special permission, were not allowed to speak in class and were not granted degrees. A generation later, her orphaned daughter finds an intellectual home at Barnard College in New York, thanks to a scholarship and benefactor. But Evelyn, who absorbed the hard lessons of her mother’s shortened life, achieves professional success in part by eschewing not just her past, but marriage and children.

To continue Dorothy’s lineage, Walbert creates Evelyn’s clubfooted younger brother, Thomas, a piano prodigy sent to be raised by friends in San Francisco after his mother dies when he is 10. Even when Thomas’ daughter eventually tries to find her long-lost aunt, Evelyn heartbreakingly sticks to her resolution to be “done with family.”

Thomas’ daughter, Dorothy Townsend Barrett, born in 1930, follows the projected path for women of her day, “a calculated abandonment to marriage – clubfooted father to emotionally crippled husband.” Walbert paints a nuanced portrait of Dorothy’s decades-long marriage to a man who, as a POW in Japan, was kept contorted in a bamboo cage.

We meet Dorothy in her 70s, fed up with marriage and society, angered by the death of her son, the eldest of three children, of cancer in middle age. Interestingly, Walbert treats her rage with gently mocking levity: “She wore boots. She wore a beehive. She wore babydolls. Maybe she just wore out.” After repeated arrests for attempting to photograph soldiers’ coffins on government property, “just trying to DO something,” she channels her fury into a deeply personal blog, which leads to an unexpected connection with her financially successful but lonely, divorced elder daughter.

And so it goes, from generation to generation, in this resonant portrait of a legacy of struggle for self-fulfillment.

“And what do we women do?” the original Dorothy asked disgustedly from her deathbed in 1914. “We play our roles; we speak our lines. Christ. We go along.” Until, at some point – the point that most interests Walbert – they refuse to do so anymore.

Heller McAlpin reviews books for The Chronicle, Newsday and other publications. E-mail her at books@sfchronicle.com.

June 30, 2009 at 4:11 am Leave a comment

‘Crazy For the Storm’: Best of the Month at Amazon

Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad

Crazy for the Storm

The story itself could take your breath away: an 11-year-old boy, the only survivor of a small-plane crash in the San Gabriel Mountains in 1979, makes his way to safety down an icy mountain face in a blizzard, using the skills and determination he learned from his father. But it’s the way that Norman Ollestad tells his tale that makes Crazy for the Storm a memoir that will last. He almost has too much to tell: a way-larger-than-life father–former child actor, FBI man (who took on Hoover in a controversial book), and surfer who drove his son to test his limits in the surf and on the slopes; a youth spent in the short-lived counterculture paradise of Topanga Canyon; a stepfather who could give Tobias Wolff’s a run for his money; and of course the crash. But writing 30 years later, Ollestad is wise and talented enough to focus his story on the essentials, cutting elegantly back and forth between a moment-by-moment account of the crash and his memories of the difficult but often idyllic year leading up to it. More than a story of survival, it’s a time-tempered reckoning with what it means to be a father and a son. Tom Nissley

June 22, 2009 at 3:57 am Leave a comment

Chicago Tribune Review: Edward Dolnick’s ‘The Forger’s Spell’ and ‘The Man Who Made Vermeers’ by Jonathan Lopez

NEW BOOKS TAKE A LOOK AT THE MAN WHO FORGED VERMEER ‘MASTERPIECES’

By Wendy Smith

Published within months of each other, these two wildly contrasting books about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren strikingly demonstrate that attitude indelibly shapes content.

In “The Forger’s Spell,” Edward Dolnick spins the swashbuckling tale of an outrageous con man who should have fooled no one, whose forgeries were so blatantly bad that the real mystery is: Why did all those so-called experts fall all over themselves to declare the works genuine?

Dolnick’s tone is zestfully cynical, his chronology impressionistic, as he romps through Van Meegeren’s misdeeds, placing front-and-center the painter’s most famous victim, Hermann Goering.

The author of “The Rescue Artist,” a well-received account of the 1994 theft and recovery of Edvard Munch‘s iconic masterpiece “The Scream,” Dolnick paints Van Meegeren as a high-living rogue, downplaying his Nazi sympathies and displaying considerable affinity with his disdain for the dealers, curators and scholars who authenticated his bogus works.

Art historian Jonathan Lopez takes a sterner approach in “The Man Who Made Vermeers.” He depicts Van Meegeren as a talented, albeit second-rate, painter who turned to forgeries for easy money in the 1920s, much earlier than he ever admitted. Lopez also identifies the artist as an admirer of Hitler as far back as 1928, when Van Meegeren founded a reactionary magazine (unmentioned by Dolnick) that denounced modern painting as the degenerate output of Bolsheviks, “negro-lovers” and Jews in terms quite similar to those Hitler employed in “Mein Kampf.”

Van Meegeren was an outright collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Holland, charges Lopez, pointing to paintings he did in the 1940s under his own name replete with heroic images of the Volksgeist, “the essential spirit of the German people” touted by the Nazis. This same imagery, Lopez persuasively argues, pervaded Van Meegeren’s most successful forgeries: the series of phony Vermeers painted from 1936 to 1945, snapped up by museums and collectors (including Goering) as newfound examples of the 17th Century artist’s previously unknown “biblical” period.

Dolnick and Lopez differ considerably in their treatment of these biblical fakes. (They even translate the Dutch titles slightly differently; for the sake of simplicity I’ve used Lopez’s versions.) Both agree that “The Supper at Emmaus,” the first in this line, was by far the best and that it was modeled after a painting on the same subject by the Italian artist Caravaggio.

“Caravaggio was a brilliant, mischievous choice because there had long been speculation in art circles that Vermeer had studied Caravaggio’s work and been much influenced by it,” writes Dolnick.

“The forger needs to anticipate the connoisseur’s expectations and build in precisely those touches that will move the expert to say, ‘Just as I figured.’ ” These comments are in keeping with Dolnick’s vision of art experts as practically begging to be fooled.

Lopez notes more soberly that “Caravaggio was known to have exerted a strong influence over Dutch painters” and that “by imitating the sense of suspended action that pervades Vermeer’s paintings [as opposed to Caravaggio’s flamboyantly theatricality] Van Meegeren gave ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ a crucial measure of credibility as an example of the master’s ‘missing’ biblical period.”

He moves on to examine the Germanic echoes, not just in “The Supper at Emmaus” but in all the biblical forgeries, including “Christ and the Adulteress,” the one sold to Goering. That canvas, he contends, “seems to lift its composition almost literally from a well-known 1940 painting by the Nazi artist Hans Schachinger.” Side-by-side photos buttress his argument, as well as the underlying point that Van Meegeren’s forgeries succeeded in part because they “exerted a strong subliminal attraction on viewers steeped in the visual culture of the day.” It’s a provocative, though debatable attempt to explain why so many experts were fooled by these works, which look obviously fake to the modern eye. Dolnick is content to paint a vivid, gossipy picture of feuds and backbiting among scholars and curators more eager to discredit their rivals and burnish their reputations with sensational finds than to carefully examine works about which they should have been skeptical.

Lopez’s portrait of the art market is fuller and more damning. He extensively discusses Van Meegeren’s 1920s apprenticeship with restorer/forger Theo van Wijngaarden (skated over by Dolnick, who prefers to see the artist as a buccaneering individual). Lopez delves into the interactions among shady art dealers, crooked businessmen and experts who were sometimes betrayed by corrupt associates coaching the forgers to appeal to their preconceptions. He shows the wealthy American collectors and dealers who were their initial marks becoming increasingly wary as some of Van Meegeren’s 1920s fakes were exposed.

The stage is thus ably set for the biblical forgeries, less vulnerable to damning stylistic comparisons, since there were so few authentic biblical Vermeers. This extensive background also leads naturally to the moral dilemmas faced by the art market in Nazi-occupied Holland.

The invading Germans preferred purchases, however coerced, to outright looting, except of course from enemies of the state. Panicked Jewish dealers and collectors sold to middlemen at bargain prices or hid their paintings; informers reaped big rewards for uncovering them.

“Commerce and pillage cohabited,” writes Lopez. Even reputable dealers were reluctant to ask awkward questions about desirable works of unknown provenance coming into the market.

It was a situation custom-made for Van Meegeren, as both authors demonstrate. They take very different approaches, however, to describing his shrewd maneuvers. “. . . Hitler and Goering were rubes who fancied themselves connoisseurs,” writes Dolnick. “Faced with the hideous prospect of Dutch masterpieces falling into German hands, Holland’s art establishment and its great industrialists flung money at the sellers.” The tone is mocking, the emphasis on the buyers’ gullibility.

Lopez reminds us that the Nazi collectors had darker motives: “to validate, in a material way, the Reich’s complete domination of Europe.”

The stakes were higher than Dolnick’s lighthearted summary suggests. Context is a problem throughout his enjoyable narrative, which leaps frequently into modern times to consult contemporary forgers or refer to Clifford Irving’s bogus Howard Hughes biography. It’s all great fun, and we learn a lot about the psychology of fakes, but it places Van Meegeren in a lineup of loveable scamps. It whitewashes the man who inscribed a book of his drawings, “To the beloved Fuehrer in grateful tribute.”

This damning inscription was one of the many pieces of evidence never introduced at Van Meegeren’s 1947 trial for forgery. (He died of heart disease shortly after being convicted and slapped on the wrist with a one-year sentence.) Indeed, as both authors note, he confessed to the Vermeer forgeries to evade the far graver charge of collaboration. Characteristically, Lopez focuses on Van Meegeren’s clever manipulation of Joop Piller, the Dutch Resistance leader who arrested him in May 1945 and who fell for the painter’s story that Van Meegeren faked the Vermeers to revenge himself on the critics who had scorned his own paintings.

Dolnick takes this explanation of Van Meegeren’s motives more or less at face value, and his hilarious account of the trial quotes generously from the embarrassed testimony of “seduced experts and suckered millionaires,” as well as the judge’s admonishment that “hopefully this history will teach the experts modesty.”

Lopez points out that the trial repackaged “a Nazi-loving art forger” as a folk hero who gulled Goering. His caustic comment about this sanitized view of Van Meegeren—it “transforms the tragedy of the Nazi era into light comedy” could also stand as a harsh but not entirely unfair assessment of Dolnick’s vivid treatment.

Breezily written and immensely entertaining, “The Forger’s Spell” will appeal to casual readers, especially anyone who thinks that critical pronouncements about art are mostly high-class hogwash.

Those with a more serious interest in the subject, however, will close Dolnick’s book with an uneasy feeling that it leaves out a lot, an impression amply justified by perusal of Lopez’s more detailed and thoughtful work in “The Man Who Made Vermeers.”

The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century

By Edward Dolnick

Harper, 350 pages, $26.95

The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren

By Jonathan Lopez

Harcourt, 352 pages, $26

June 22, 2009 at 3:44 am Leave a comment

Boston Globe Book Review: Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ by Geoff Dyer

Exploring life, and all its madness

Geoff Dyer's new novel is set in Italy and India. Geoff Dyer’s new novel is set in Italy and India. (Jason Oddy)
By Ted Weesner Jr. Boston Globe Correspondent
In properly versatile hands, the loose baggy monster that is a novel can be made to demonstrate its manifold versatility. Or, as writer Geoff Dyer might put it, were he to continue to channel his karma-tuned protagonist in “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” a novel’s true versatility becomes evident only when one is convinced of its complete and utter bagginess.

Which is to say that this British writer – master of multiple genres, including the essay, cultural study, novel, and travelogue – has packed this particular casing with a lot of varied cuts and yet managed to produce a memorable taste event. The last 20 pages approach magnificence: a virtuosic melding of style and repertoire that come together as a sort of yogic “one.”

As suggested by the title, the novel is divided down the middle, the first half set in tourist-soaked Venice, the second in death-tinged Varanasi, India. Jeff, the protagonist and point-of-view character, is a jaded, 40-something arts journalist who’s covering the Biennale in Venice over a very hot summer weekend.

Then along comes a lovely American named Laura, who is predictably elusive. Dyer amps the elusiveness by claiming neither of them has a cellphone. Even if this ratchets up suspense – all encounters must be left to chance – it’s about as buy-able as finding a tourist-free trattoria in the City of Canals.

Luckily, Laura doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to seduce. With Dyer’s great ear for flirtation, the two banter famously. In a sense she’s the female equivalent of Jeff. She’s got some “life” under her belt. And yet through the thin air of an uncommitted life, Jeff falls for Laura. It’s hard to know whether this amounts to more than passing fancy, because Dyer cuts to Varanasi, and Laura vanishes from Jeff’s mind.

If there’s an engaging undercurrent to the Venice section – beyond Dyer’s highly atmospheric rendering of the city and spot-on portrayal of the chic/shallow art set – it’s Jeff’s struggle with his evaporating youth. In the style of Gustav Aschenbach, an earlier visitor to Venice in Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, Jeff dyes his hair for the visit.

Then, in India, his dance with mortality picks up as Dyer raises the travelogue ante, bringing the holy, filthy, mesmerizing city of Varanasi to fetid, rhapsodic life. Jeff’s listlessness starts to feel dire: “I sat on the bed and did not know what to do, and then I decided that not knowing what to do was a form of knowing what to do, which was to do nothing, so that is what I did.”

When Jeff truly goes off the rails, Dyer’s writerly versatility braids into something madly compelling as the narration becomes comically and tragically unreliable. For the first time one genuinely feels the character’s plight, his increasing undone-ness.

Yes, death and deprivation are everywhere in Varanasi, though where it’s usually at the far end of a tourist’s camera, Jeff begins to live it. Roosting in a strange hotel, he starts to renounce just about everything. Instead of dyeing his hair, he gets it shaved off (eyebrows and beard included). To the astonishment of visiting Westerners, he takes dips in the polluted Ganges and turns to worshiping his own version of a Hindu god. Finally, here, we’re in the grips of a core-shaken character. Where before we’ve enjoyed the sights along with the protagonist, in the novel’s last quarter the viewfinder is ripped from a reader’s hands, and we’re no less devastated than he is.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a writer living in Somerville.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

June 20, 2009 at 7:40 pm Leave a comment

Chicago Tribune Review: ‘Story Sisters’ by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s ‘Story Sisters’ leaves us bewitched

Julia Keller | CHICAGO TRIBUNE CULTURAL CRITIC
To create her latest novel, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart), Alice Hoffman rose each day before dawn to write. “I wanted to get that dream quality,” she said in a recent phone interview. “To get at that kind of truth. To be free.”

It worked. “The Story Sisters,” the 18th novel by a writer whose books have included an Oprah Book Club selection (“Here on Earth”) and the 1995 novel that begat the 1998 movie of the same name, “Practical Magic,” starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, is, like its predecessors, an intoxicating blend of cloud-cavorting magic and down-to-earth reality.

“I still don’t really understand why and how it came to be. I wrote it as a fairy tale, and I think I just channeled it,” Hoffman said of “The Story Sisters.”

Hoffman is celebrated for her ability to conjure plausible alternative realities, to sprinkle her landscapes with witches and other mythical creatures, while keeping her stories closely tethered to familiar terrain. There’s a mysticism that swirls about her works but, like a late-morning fog, it eventually burns off to reveal a physical and emotional topography that most all of us can recognize. She writes about parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives; she writes about people living in big cities and small towns, beneath a moon that waxes and wanes — and watches.

The characters in “The Story Sisters” include a trio of siblings — Elv, Meg and Claire — who share an ethereal bond that is tested by all-too-real issues such as drug addiction, abusive relationships and serious illness. The novel is whimsical and heartbreaking.

And she created it on a succession of dreamy mornings, Hoffman recalled. “It’s such a good time to write fiction. But this novel really did affect me deeply. When I was writing parts of it, I was having nosebleeds. That had never happened to me before. It was so scary.

“I did an outline. Then I completely changed it. These characters surprised me. They started doing their own thing,” she added. “It’s about how kids can all grow up in the same household and turn out so incredibly different. It’s about how mothers and children can never know each other completely. You live parallel lives.”

Despite the grim fates that often befall her characters, Hoffman is an optimist, she said. “I see the world as hopeful. As a writer, I believe in redemption. And I believe we make narratives out of our lives in order to make sense of them.

“No matter what happens with the Internet, books are not going to die. Fiction is the truest thing we have.”

Copyright Tribune Corp. 2009, All Rights Reserved

June 11, 2009 at 10:53 pm Leave a comment

Review: ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, June 2009: Colum McCann has worked some exquisite magic with Let the Great World Spin, conjuring a novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity. It’s August of 1974, a summer “hot and serious and full of death and betrayal,” and Watergate and the Vietnam War make the world feel precarious. A stunned hush pauses the cacophonous universe of New York City as a man on a cable walks (repeatedly) between World Trade Center towers. This extraordinary, real-life feat by French funambulist Philippe Petit becomes the touchstone for stories that briefly submerge you in ten varied and intense lives–a street priest, heroin-addicted hookers, mothers mourning sons lost in war, young artists, a Park Avenue judge. All their lives are ordinary and unforgettable, overlapping at the edges, occasionally converging. And when they coalesce in the final pages, the moment hums with such grace that its memory might tighten your throat weeks later. You might find yourself paused, considering the universe of lives one city contains in any slice of time, each of us a singular world, sometimes passing close enough to touch or collide, to birth a new generation or kill it, sending out ripples, leaving residue, an imprint, marking each other, our city, the very air–compassionately or callously, unable to see all the damage we do or heal. And most of us stumbling, just trying not to trip, or step in something awful.

But then someone does something extraordinary, like dancing on a cable strung 110 stories in the air, or imagining a magnificent novel that lifts us up for a sky-scraping, dizzy glimpse of something greater: the sordid grandeur of this whirling world, “bigger than its buildings, bigger than its inhabitants.” —Mari Malcolm

Amazon Exclusive: Frank McCourt on Let the Great World Spin

Frank McCourt was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, Angela’s Ashes, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Award. In 2006, he won the prestigious Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for Exemplary Service in the Field of the Arts and the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education. He is also the author of Tis and Teacher Man, both memoirs. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of Let the Great World Spin:

Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper.

Trust me, this is the sort of book that you will take off your shelf over and over again as the years go along. It’s a story of the early 1970s, but it’s also the story of our present times. And it is, in many ways, a story of a moment of lasting redemption even in the face of all the evidence.

There are dozens of intimate tales and threads at the core of Let the Great World Spin. On one level there’s the tightrope walker making his way across the World Trade Center towers. But as the novel goes along the “walker” becomes less and less of a focal point and we begin to care more about the people down below, on the pavement, in the ordinary throes of their existence. There’s an Irish monk living in the Bronx projects. There’s a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her dead son, who was blown up in the cafés of Saigon. There are the original computer hackers who “visit” New York in an early echo of the Internet. There’s an artist who has learn to return to the simplicity of love. And then—in possibly the book’s wildest and most ambitious section—there’s a Bronx hooker who has brought up her children in “the house that horse built”—“horse” of course being the heroin that was ubiquitous in the ’70s.

All the voices feel realized and authentic and the writing floats along. This was my city back then—and now. McCann has written about New York before, but never quite as piercingly or as provocatively as this. This is fiction that gets the heart thumping.

The stories are interweaved so that it is one story, on one day, in one city, and yet it is also a history of the present time. In Let the Great World Spin, you can’t ignore the overtones for today: suffice it to say that the novel is held together by an act of redemption and beauty. I didn’t want to stop turning the pages.

I’m really not sure what McCann will do after this, but this is a great New York book, not just for New Yorkers but for anyone who walks any sort of tightrope at all. And yes, it doesn’t surprise me that it takes an Irishman to capture the heart of the city… —Frank McCourt

(Photo © Kit DeFever)

From Booklist
*Starred Review* After the rigors of Zoli (2007), his historical tale of Romani life, best-selling literary novelist McCann allows himself more artistic freedom in his shimmering, shattering fifth novel. It begins on August 7, 1974, when New Yorkers are stopped in their tracks by the sight of a man walking between the towers of the World Trade Center. Yes, it’s Philippe Petit, the subject of the Academy Award–winning documentary Man on Wire and one of McCann’s many intense and valiant characters. The cast also includes two Irish brothers: Corrigan, a radical monk, and Ciaran, who follows him to the blasted Bronx, where he encounters resilient prostitute Tillie and her spirited daughter Jazzlyn. Gloria lives in the same housing project, and she befriends Claire of Park Avenue as they mourn the deaths of their sons in Vietnam. McCann’s hallucinatory descriptions of a great city tattooed and besmirched with graffiti, blood, and drugs in the midst of a financial freefall are eerie in their edgy beauty, chilling reminders of how quickly civilization unravels. Here, too, are portals onto war, the justice system, and the dawning of the cyber age. In McCann’s wise and elegiac novel of origins and consequences, each of his finely drawn, unexpectedly connected characters balances above an abyss, evincing great courage with every step. –Donna Seaman

June 10, 2009 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment

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