Dear BUHB: the advice column

Top news story: Novelist Haruki Murakami is going to “offer words of wisdom to troubled readers in an advice column on his website,” says an article in Japan Times.

On occasion, writing these blog posts has had a little bit of that “advice column” quality. But to be given actual permission to straight-out give advice? Wow. A fantasy come true for a person with a lot of opinions.

Dear Book Under Her Bed—My husband and kids don’t take my writing seriously. What should I do? Yours in perplexity, Budding Writer

Dear Budding: Sorry to say you’re not alone. I hear this all the time, and it’s a tough nut to crack. I recommend that you move out immediately. Enough of that wife-and-mom nonsense—let them get their own dinners. Strike out on your own! Be the writer you always wanted to be!

Dear BUHB—My mystery novel keeps getting rejected by agents, so I can’t get a foot in the door at any of the Big 5 publishers. Should I self-publish? All best, Ambitious

Dear Ambitious: Super idea! Join the hundreds of thousands of self-published authors out there and learn what it’s like to become one of the gang. It’ll be so easy and it won’t cost much either and then that big book marketer—what’s it called? can’t remember—will turn it into an obscure e-book and your career will be made. Best of luck!

Dear Book U.H.B.—I have this great idea for a novel, but I work 85 hours per week and I don’t have time to actually write it. If I could find someone to write it for me I’d be happy to share the profits! How do I find that person? Sincerely, Confused

Dear Confused: I know how you feel. I have a great idea for a novel too, and all it needs is writing. All that money to be made, just going to waste because I haven’t found someone to write the book for me. Wish I could help, but let me know if you find that perfect person to do the work. 

Dear Book/Bed Lady—I’ve heard that every writer kneads editting but I don’t think that could be correct. Some writers (like I) have so much natural talent. They do not require outside help to get there books into shape for publishing. Do you agree? Yours truly, Naturally Talented

Dear Nat: Totally.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Face in a Book, El Dorado Hills, CA

The Annapolis Bookstore, Annapolis, MD

BookBar, Denver, CO



Roz Chast: pictures worth a thousand words

9781608198061_custom-035ffdc5e88431604aa7739c254c44f7148f65e0-s300-c85Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?  may well have been the best memoir published in 2014, and of course it is like no other. Roz Chast, prolific writer and artist, uses standard book form so inventively, so enticingly, filling the pages with so many visual delights that you’d follow her anywhere. Right into the Place [sic] where her ancient parents wound up, right into their bedroom, right into their illnesses and deaths. Painful as the material gets (psychologically, emotionally, physically), there’s no way you don’t see it through to the bitter end.

Chast’s drawing is unique, but what she does on the page as an artist isn’t completely new: other writer/artist/book designers have done similar things: combined panels with no-panels, used hand-drawn headlines, created pages that mix text with large images, and so on. Maira Kalman, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, for example. The design vocabulary exists; the question is what the writer/artist does with it.

Like these other luminaries, Chast perfectly uses the pictorial as a medium for her own clear, intelligent, funny, insightful voice. Or maybe the right word is “support”: her visuals support her writing. Neither would be as strong without the other, but the evidence suggests that despite all those years of withdrawing into drawing, Chast is a writer first. She has something to say, and her drawings are the delivery system. IMG_1138Take a close look: there’s hardly a drawing that doesn’t use words in one way or another. That’s not an accident.

Since her book is a memoir, she’s also wrestling with all the issues that every memoirist must confront. Her parents are dead, so she seems unconflicted about revealing their quirks and weirdnesses, as well as the peculiarities of their marriage and their parenting. IMG_1136She’s straightforward about her own difficulties with her parents too.

If there’s a flaw in the book, it’s the almost total absence of her own husband and children. When it comes to Chast’s own marriage and parenting, the shades are almost all the way down. Her daughter is mentioned several times and pictured once or twice; the word “husband” comes up a few times.

This is a perennial problem for nonfiction writers trying to tell a family story: they are entitled to tell their personal stories, but what do they do about the other family members? How far can they go in revealing what their children and partners don’t want revealed?

I imagined this conversation between Chast and her husband:

“Sweetie, I’m going to write a book about my parents.”

“Great, Roz, just leave me out.”

“How can I leave you out? You were there.”

“Maybe, but leave me out. I don’t want to be in the book.”

The absence of her own husband and kids in this family story seems in an odd way to reiterate Chast’s childhood isolation. IMG_1140In other words, it appears as if her life with her difficult parents was still—in this tale of their last years—a closed circle. I have no idea if this is true or not; I only know what the writer/artist has put on her pages.

What I do know, though, is that even a memoir done right (and this one is done very right) will always have gaps. There’s no way to tell the entire story, and one component of writing artful memoir is how you use what you’re allowed to use.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Warwick’s, La Jolla, CA

Union Ave Books, Knoxville, TN

The Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA

A small Ayn Rand story

Ayn Rand is a writer you grow up and grow out of. ayn-rand-nycTeenagers love her novels: the plots are grandiose, unequivocal, uncompromising, morally unambiguous. The characters are idealized, romanticized, larger-than-life, and the Strong Guy always prevails. Her novels are adolescent, and adolescents are welcome to them.

When I went to Pratt Institute as a third-year transfer student in the art school, I had to take a couple of liberal arts courses to complete Pratt’s requirements for all art students. At that time—1965—most art schools advocated that their graduates should be well-rounded. Therefore a semester of philosophy was part of Pratt’s curriculum.

Our philosophy instructor was a young man, probably in his first teaching position, and he began the course with Plato and Aristotle. Boring, boring, boring. Most students in the class spent the fifty minutes doodling in their sketchbooks, and I did too, until the day Mr. X began to lecture about something called Objectivism.

From the way he taught it with complete conviction, and because we were utterly unschooled in philosophy, it sounded like a real thing. Rational self-interest, concept formation, inductive logic, and a lot of other jazzy terms meant zero to us until the magic name finally emerged: Ayn Rand.

Why on earth Pratt Institute would hire a proselytizer for a modern philosophy that was generally rejected by academics is a large question. But hire him they did, and the best I can say for the administration is that art students barely paid any attention to their liberal arts courses anyway, so the choice of teacher probably didn’t matter much.

In his quest to make the course relevant to us, Mr. X focused on Rand’s theories about what art was supposed to be: realistic. Period. Unknown-1If paintings weren’t representational, they weren’t art.

“As a re-creation of reality,” Rand wrote and Mr. X quoted, “a work of art has to be representational; its freedom of stylization is limited by the requirement of intelligibility; if it does not present an intelligible subject, it ceases to be art.”

I think most of the other students were napping that day, but I happened to be awake and I thought something must be wrong with my hearing. There we were in 1965, with Abstract Expressionismfranz-kline-untitled_1-150x150 already deeply embedded in the art world and op art rapidly developing—and Ayn Rand didn’t believe either movement was legitimate?

That isn’t even putting it strongly enough: she rejected them completely, and so, of course, did Mr. X. I raised my hand, and we began a weeks-long argument that took us all the way to the end of the semester.

To give him his due, Mr. X was not in the least unhappy to be challenged; he encouraged the discussion unreservedly. He was young enough to relish the debate and enough of an ardent Rand disciple to surrender not an inch in the matter of abstract art.

At the end of the semester, he used his connections with the Objectivist crowd to arrange for Rand to give a lecture in the large auditorium at Pratt. The school considered it a great coup—she was, after all, famous—and Mr. X took me aside at our last class and invited me to arrive early for the lecture in order to meet Ayn Rand.

It must have been late May or early June and quite warm by then, but the sixty-year-old Rand showed up wearing a full-length mink coat and black heels that probably dated to 1947 or 1948. Mr. X beckoned me over and introduced us: “Miss Rand, this is the student I was telling you about, the one who believes in Abstract Expressionism. She’d like to ask you something.”

“What is your question for me?” Rand asked, clearly impatient.

I said, “How can you claim that abstract art isn’t art?”

Tilting her head back so she could look down her nose at me—in two-inch heels she was just my height—she said, “But my dear, it isn’t.” With that she turned and strode off.

There is a coda to this story. Setting aside her politics, which repel me, I will admit that there’s one phrase in the Rand lexicon that stuck in my head and still makes sense to me, if artists and writers are going to do their work: “the virtue of selfishness.”

There’s an ongoing argument as to whether, in her book of the same title, Rand intended this phrase to mean something broad or something narrow. She claimed it simply meant “concern with one’s own interest.”

How much, how often, and in what way you practice the virtue of selfishness—all of that is up to you. But if you plan to accomplish your artistic goals, it’s likely that you’ll have to accept a certain amount of your own selfishness, and recognize it as a virtue.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Andover Bookstore, Andover, MA

Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, UT

Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore, Munising, MI



Well, well, well…Now even the self-published Amazon writers are having  some difficulties with the gorilla. I wonder how they’re feeling about being on the receiving end of the gorilla’s wallops.

Read “Writers Are Mixed Over Amazon Unlimited” by David Streitfeld in today’s NYT.

Good NEWS: wordplay for New Year’s Day

2 0 1 5

is promising.

BUT don’t wait for good news—

find your own good news. 

NEW work

NEW job

NEW deal

NEW music

NEW dances

NEW movies

NEW York 

NEW Yorker

NEW Mexico

 NEW Jersey

NEW Zealand (could be interesting)

NOO ners (if you’re into that sort of thing)

NEW borns (if you’re into nooners)

NEW puppy (if you’re not into babies)

NEW kids on the block

NOO dles

NEW spapers

NEW sletters

NEW s flashes (the positive kind)

NEW s briefs (the briefer the better)

NEW briefs

NU dists (well, why not?)

NEW moon

NEW lyweds

NEW clothes

NU ances

NEW England

NEW Orleans

NEW port Jazz Festival 

NEW books (of course)

NU trients (for mind and body)

NEW experiences

and NEW friends

But don’t forget the old ones…

The Book Under Her Bed

wishes you joy in 2015.

The memoir-novel–or the novel-memoir?

What accounts for our current—or recurrent—fascination with memoir-novels? That’s the question posed in the NYT “Bookends” feature of December 23.

Two very good writers take it on: Leslie Jamison (of The Empathy Exams) and Daniel Mendelsohn (essayist, book reviewer, memoirist). Their points are interesting, Mendelsohn’s perhaps a little more than Jamison’s if you’re looking for an answer to the posed question, since he addresses the issue more directly.

Both Jamison and Mendelsohn write about the memoir-novel from the reader’s point of view. Jamison says, for instance, in an analysis of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, “We feel ourselves subject to the opaque terms of an authorial presence that refuses to neatly categorize its offering: We are, at once, deeply immersed in the Icy North, its extreme exposures, and deeply aware of the hands that built it for us.” Reader’s POV.

Mendelsohn writes, in dissecting the slippage between memoir and fiction, “What’s interesting is how many readers, judging by the online reviews, weren’t all that bothered by the literary frauds perpetrated by [James] Frey and others: They came for ‘redemption’ and they got it, even if it turned out to have been provided by fiction rather than fact.” Reader’s POV.

Either Mendelsohn or Jamison could easily have discussed the memoir-novel from the author’s point of view, but that was not the question with which they were charged. They did their jobs; now I’m thinking about my job, which happens to be writing a memoir-novel. Or—more accurately—a novel-memoir.

It is not splitting hairs to reverse the order of the terminology. At least, not in my own case.

There are writers who quite deliberately translate memoir into thinly-veiled fiction, and there are legitimate, even good, reasons for doing this: taking a small step back from reality may allow more clarity of thinking; it may also give the writer the freedom to adjust history a bit, for whatever personal requirement—reconciliation, perhaps, or even fear of lawsuits.

The difference between a memoir-novel and a novel-memoir is this: in a novel-memoir, the claims of novelistic thinking come first. A novel-memoir, no matter how closely it is or isn’t based on a “true” story, must work first as a novel. If you have a “true” story to tell in fiction and you cling to the “truth” instead of thinking like a novelist, you may find yourself sacrificing good writing to the demands of your own psychological needs.

Too rigorous? Then don’t write a novel-memoir; write, instead, a memoir-novel, in which you will more easily be able to justify clinging to what (you think) actually happened. You will more easily allow yourself to maintain loyalty to the “truth,” rather than loyalty to good writing. You will not think first like a novelist; you’ll think first like a memoirist.

Of course, if you do that you may risk losing narrative steam, arc, good dialogue, action, depth, breadth, and a dozen other novelistic options. On the other hand, you may feel better about the story you’re telling; you may feel you’re conveying the “truth” with more integrity.

But the novelist’s responsibility is to the novel.

On a small scale, this injunction to think like a novelist brings us back to that annoying “kill off your darlings” concept. Annoying because the phrase is used both to intimidate and chasten writers, when all it really means is that a writer does well to consider the design of her entire novel rather than become attached to small baubles that shine for only a moment and do not add to its overall quality. If the “darling” works, fine; if not, let it go.

So on a larger scale, if a memoiristic point enhances your novel, fine. If not, let it go.

This is what I think each day when I work on my novel: What actually happened was traumatic enough for one person to live through, and writing about it has not so much helped me as given me permission to stay with it and relive it as much as I need to. But when that phase is over, then novel-making must begin in earnest. I must take myself in hand and rethink all the parts that wallow in memoir and undermine the novel.

Writing a novel is a matter of artistry, not therapy. The creation of a novel-memoir may have to pass through a stage in which the therapeutic outweighs the artistry; it may, in the end, coincidentally, be therapeutic. Yet (with rare exceptions) a good novel-memoir transcends that private state of self-healing and expands enough to include the reader.

Questioning is the primary lesson I’ve learned—am still learning—while trying to nail this novel-memoir. That was not how I started out: I started out by spilling my guts onto the pages. When I’d had enough of that, I tried—am still trying—to be my own reader for as long as it takes to get to a complete first draft. It’s edifying. And it’s not even that difficult.

Disconnect just enough to read the pages as if you were someone else. Not a hostile someone else, not your partner or your mother, not the New York Times reviewer, not a reader who’d never in a million years buy your book or take your book out of the library. Think of a reader much like yourself, with the same expectations of fiction that you have, and read through her eyes. Let yourself know when your novel-memoir has turned in on itself and become, mistakenly, memoir-novel. Then fix it.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

The Novel Neighbor, Webster Groves, MO

Orca Books, Olympia, WA


so many lives to learn

This story from the New York Times is the stuff of novels, and I hope someone writes it. E.L. Doctorow, for preference.

“Book Behind Pulp Fiction Contest Hides a Respectable Past”

Christmas in Greenwich Village

writers who lived in the east and west village, back in the day, now and then
  • Edward Albee • W.H. Auden
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay • William Burroughs
  • Allen Ginsberg • Emma Lazarus
  • Willa Cather • John Cheever
  • Edgar Allen Poe • Edith Wharton
  • E. E. Cummings • Dorothy Thompson
  • Gregory Corso • Mark Twain
  • Marianne Moore • Jack Kerouac
  • Dashiell Hammett • Sinclair Lewis
  • Lorraine Hansberry • Frank O’HaraIMG_1060
  • John Dos Passos • Dawn Powell
  • Thomas Wolfe • James Baldwin
  • Jane Jacobs • Richard Yates
  • Henry Roth • Sara Teasdale
  • James Agee • Sherwood Anderson
  • Joseph Brodsky • Hart Crane
  • Denise Levertov • Bret HarteIMG_1066
  • Eugene O’Neill • Richard Wright
  • Theodore Dreiser




FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Valley Bookstore, Jackson, WY

White Birch Books, North Conway, NH

Best of Books, Edmond, OK

When writers flail

If you are required (or if you require yourself) to produce pieces of writing on a regular basis, flailing is unavoidable. The definition of “flail” is visually delightful: to wave or swing or cause to wave or swing wildly. lindy-e1378959751286Lindyhoppers and jitterbuggers come to mind instantly, their hands waving and flapping, the girls’ skirts swinging out, the couples dancing wildly.

Unfortunately, that picture leaves out the other part of the definition of “flail”: to flounder, struggle uselessly, thrash, writhe. Uh-oh. Now we’re getting closer to the writer’s truth.

This flailing issue presented itself when I was flailing around, trying to think of what to write for TBUHB for a December 22 post that very few people would be likely to read. Does anyone want to read blog posts when there are only three days until Christmas? This is discouraging to a blog-writer.

On the other hand, if people prefer to shop and bake cookies instead of reading a blog post, then it’s only fair for me to be allowed to flail as much as I want. Freedom to flail, without fear of flailure!

Anyway, flailing came up because my thought about what to write today was a bounce off a really wonderful article in the November 4, 2014 New York Times, called “As a Writer, What Influences You Other Than Books?” Okay, I lied: it’s a half-wonderful article.

The piece is one of the regular NYT series called “Bookends,” in which two writers answer the same question, each in his or her own particular way. In this case, Thomas Mallon aces it with this answer: “I keep photos around me while I write the way other authors keep music in the background, as a kind of atmospheric stimulation.”

Nice. Clear. A cogent explanation of how the photos work for him.

James Parker, however, answered the question like this: “From my fellow bakers, I learned about industry and cohesion and the moral obligation to be cheerful.”

Obscure. Obtuse. Moral obligation to be cheerful?

So okay, he’s opting for puckish in his answer to the basic question. He also states that his “greatest nonliterary influences have been drummers, comedians and bakers.” The rest of his text is—I think—supposed to be amusing and clever, whimsical and offbeat, a pyrotechnic display of references and allusions. Which reads a lot like flailing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of flailing (in writing) is confusion. Another is deflection. A third is showing off. All of these conspire to distract the reader from noticing that not much is being said. It amounts to the writer’s version of sleight of hand. As I read and reread the Parker half of the piece, I understood less and less of what he was writing about.

And as I read and reread Parker’s flailing, I cared less and less about whatever point he was trying to make. If there was a point about what influences him, it got lost among the jazzy phrases; it hared off in odd directions, one after another. It made me think of being cornered at a party by a stoned kid who was absolutely sure he was making scintillating sense and, worse, that his captive audience gave a damn.

And yet his wind-up brought me back to my holiday-season-induced flailing with a thump. Here he is still dithering on about the lessons learned in the bakery where he once worked:

If you’re depressed, maimed, crocked in some way, fair enough—let us know. But if not, then in the name of humanity stop moaning. Keep a lightness about you, a readiness. Preserve the digestions of your co-workers; spare them your mutterings and vibings. It’s highly nonliterary, but there we are: be nice.

I like that. It’s good advice, even if it has nothing to do with the original question. It’s a tough time of year: BE NICE.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Alley Cat Books, San Francisco, CA

Titcomb’s Bookshop, East Sandwich, MA

The Velveteen Rabbit Bookshop, Fort Atkinson, WI


Making pleasure last: trilogies, quartets, and series in fiction


No reader who’s ever devoured a book series needs to be convinced of the thrill: when you finish #1 and #2, #3 is waiting in the wings! And most avid readers can name at least a few beloved trilogies, quartets, or series. (If you’ve ever talked to a “POB”—Patrick O’Brien—fan, you know that series-readers are alive and well and obsessing.)

Every generation of readers has its childhood favorites. My own favorite series were Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames (a nurse!), and Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers. My friend Richard Esparza loved the Tom Swift series. Lots of my women friends are still devoted to Louisa May Alcott’s most famous trio: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

I’m afraid that any of these old series might be laughable to a twenty-first-century child, but whatever gets you reading is the book (or series) that counts.

Fortunately, one grows up and reads better books. Or not: In my twenties (twenties!) my then best friend and I got hooked on the Jalna books (also called the Whiteoaks Chronicles), by Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche. Recently I was wandering the fiction stacks in the New York Society Library and discovered that the Jalna series was right there on the shelf.

Excited, I pulled out a couple of the earliest volumes in the series, which eventually ran to sixteen books published between 1929 and 1960. They were very nearly unreadable. How on earth did we get so addicted back in the early 1970s? I’ll eat my shoe if any other reader out there has even heard of Jalna.

Book series are nothing unusual these days (Harry Potter, anyone?); there’s a good sf/fantasy series list on the io9 website, and mystery fans should take a look at FictFact’s mystery list, “Most Popular Book Series by Genre.”

But even if we ignore the sf/fantasy/mystery/thrillers groups for now, there are wonderful series of novels that will suck you in and keep you enthralled for book after book. Try some of these for your winter reading. They should get you through quite a few storms, mental or climatological.

  • The Old Filtha trilogy by Jane Gardam
  • The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durell
  • The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy, by Nick Bantock
  • The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker
  • The Bounty Trilogy, by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall
  • U.S.A., a trilogy by John Dos Passos
  • Earth’s Children, by Jean Auel
  • The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster
  • Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for this historical trilogy
  • The Trees, The FieldsThe Town, a trilogy by Conrad Richter, about frontier life in Ohio
  • The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott
  • The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett
  • Chronicles of Barchester and the Palliser novels, by Anthony Trollope
  • The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies
  • The Cazelet Chronicle, a quintet by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  • The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy
  • the Schmidt novels, by Louis Begley
  • the Rabbit novels, by John Updike
  • the Neopolitan novels, by Elena Ferrante

Thanks so much to friends who contributed their ideas for this post: Melissa Miles; Jane Ciabattari; Karen Baar; Marialisa Calta; Karen Wunsch; Barbara Garber; Richard Esparza; Sharon Javna.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY

Boneshaker Books, Minneapolis, MN

Children’s Book World, Haverford, PA