Sunday, June 29, 2014

What readers can do for writers

 Writer, former publisher, teacher of writing and co-host of the Book Club, Stephanie Dowrick, makes a plea that we would all invest more in writing, in living writers - and in our own personal and collective intellectual and even spiritual development.  Buy more books. Read more widely, she argues. Support bookstores... support libraries... contribute to the world of ideas and ideals through your own constant and committed reader activism.

I've been involved in publishing, editing, teaching writing and writing for many years. I landed my first, exhilarating publishing job in 1972 (at George Harraps in London). And that's quite some time ago. There are many current mature, prize-winning writers who were not even born then! So I think I am fairly entitled to claim that there has never been a more difficult time for professional writers to make even the smallest living from their writing. Yes, I know some prominent writers are earning mega-bucks (tho' in reality it's very few), and - more positively - writers are using new media in all kinds of creative ways to reach readers. But many of those "creative ways" return few if any dollars and cents. And while it can be exhilarating to reach new readers and interact with them, most writers still have to pay their way.

Don’t assume that just because your favourite authors “love” writing, they can survive on inspiration and affection alone. They need your support.

When I mention to readers and newer writers that things are increasingly tough at least in the English-language writing world, they often assume it's because more and more readers are buying their books on-line. On-line sales do, though, return at least some royalty to writers (though often smaller in real terms), so that's not the entire answer.  At least two other reasons stand out.

The first is that many real-time bookstores have closed, including significant chains in both the USA and Australia. This is where the losses from on-line buying really show up, and the knock-on effect for writers is brutal. Real-time bookstores allow for and facilitate a depth of browsing that on-line buying cannot. Holding a book in your hand, you may be far more likely to take a punt on it (and on the writer who created it) than when you see an unfamiliar postage stamp-sized image on the screen in front of you.

Book-buying is, for many of us, instinctive. That lovely sensual adventure of casual bookstore browsing and pouncing will be lost unless we actively and emphatically support the real-time bookstores that remain to us. Even now, many bookstores buy their stock increasingly conservatively (the same books everywhere...). We need to make it worth their while to stock books that are not entirely predictable. We also want to show them - through our buying and our conversations with them - how keen we are to discover and read writers whose work matters.

One more reason, and this time it's more hunch than reason, but it seems to me that increasingly people are finding reasons not to read books and instead to interact with social media, to pick up an article or two on line, or to seek out an encapsulated version of whatever it is that interests them. Time is the big cry here. Yet we continue to have the same 24 hours in every day that we've always had, so I suspect it's more a question of attitude than time itself. It's also a matter of what people explicitly value. As long as people tell themselves they haven't time to read, they will turn on their tv or computers instead. And the losses are very real.

The greatest gift we can give children is to show them how much we value books - by reading to them and especially through the time we give to our own reading.

The losses are real in our individual intellectual and spiritual development. And in our collective development. Good books feed and stimulate the mind as no other media can. A well-written magazine, newspaper or on-line article may be fascinating. It may even be mind-changing. But a good book - a book that's saying something of real value - will always offer a far greater depth of thought, reflection and risk than a short article or a Facebook post (or a tweet) ever can.  And I strongly believe our hungry minds need that depth. If our lives are to be half-way satisfying and meaningful, we need to grow in intellectual agility as well as in experience and wisdom. We need to be challenged, jolted and sometimes soothed. We also need entertainment, perhaps even distraction; fine writing also gives that. To be "lost in a book" is, for many of us, an experience close to bliss. So we all need to be made newly aware, I believe, that real books, the books in which we can lose and re-find ourselves, are crafted over years, take time, take massive commitment, take obsessive amounts of order to give what readers seek. They don't happen by chance. And they cannot happen at all if there are insufficient readers willing to buy, read and support them.

What can you do?  Lots, I would suggest. Here are some initial ideas. I'd love you to add more in the comments boxes below. Or add them on my Facebook page. Can we save good writing and good writers? I believe we can - and must.

1.     Identify the writers you care most about. Know who's writing the books that actually enhance your thinking and your life. Buy their books. Give their books to others. Write positive, encouraging on-line reviews about them. Talk about them. Make sure your enthusiasm is contagious and active.
2.     Read adventurously. (No need to see if a book is in the top 10 before it impresses you. Many brilliant, tender, insightful, wonderful books never will be.)
3.    Value books and the time you give to reading. We encourage this in children then often find reasons why our own reading is left to the tail-end of the day. Yet what other small investment of money and time can enrich our lives so magnificently? 
4.     Use public websites - including on-line bookstores - to write brief, positive reviews of books that matter most to you. Share details with others of websites where readers' reviews are being written and enjoyed. Contribute to them. Enjoy your new role as Writers' Advocate.
5.     Use social media (FB, blogs, Twitter) to stay in touch with writers. Actively “like”, “share” and spread the word about their work. Let others know what it means to you. Post reviews and discussions on your own social media. Develop and value your "reader's voice".
6.     Join or start reading groups: the social benefits are terrific and you will certainly broaden your mind as well as your reading.
7.     If you have local booksellers, support them. Tell them about the books that have moved or impressed you.If you are buying on-line from Australia or NZ, please please avoid buying US editions of local writers. The "cheap" editions return virtually nothing at all to the writer. And further weaken local booksellers and publishers as well as the writer.
8.  Join your local public library - but also take the time to request copies of every book you wish other people would read. You will benefit many readers - and writers.
9.  Many books are now available also in audio editions. This can give you a fresh perspective on favourites; it's also a way of introducing worthwhile books to people who may claim to have no time to read but have to drive a car to work, or would listen to audio while doing household tasks.
10.  Give books for all and every occasion. And when there is no "occasion", give books anyway!

Stephanie Dowrick's most recent book for children is The Moon Shines Out of the Dark 
Her most recent book for adults is Heaven on Earth - Gold Medal Winner in this year's Nautilus Awards: Books for a Better World.  (All her books are available postage free within Australia.)
Stephanie has a public Facebook page where you can read daily inspirations - but we hope you will also want to read and respond to her books!
Feel free to comment in the comments box below. We love to hear from you.
We also have bookstore links above right - both local to Australia (for local books PLEASE), and for our readers in the Northern Hemisphere, we have links for you also.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Joyce Kornblatt applauds Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree

Novelist and writing teacher Joyce Kornblatt reviews and applauds Andrew Solomon's latest book, Far from the Tree, an extraordinary testimony to "passionate resourcefulness".  She adds:"You will be changed by it, and for the good."

In his address to the 2014 Sydney Writers Festival, Andrew Solomon described himself as "a student of adversity". Hidden like seeds inside that phrase, Solomon’s humanity and courage emerge in powerful detail from each page of his masterpiece, Far From The Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. In twelve memorable chapters, each as realized as a book in its own right, he renders the experiences of parents of  different children, and of the children themselves.  He explodes the myth of  normal  and asks us to consider that  “all offspring are startling to their parents," some more dramatically so than others. This is not a romantic book—the suffering is named and spoken, unforgettably—but it is an inspiring one. "Sometimes people end up thankful for what they mourned," he tells us, and these narratives are revelations of that transformation.

     After a decade of interviewing 300 families, and immersing himself in research, Solomon narrows his epic down to eleven categories of personhood, of which he is one: the tormented young gay man who grows into the fulfilled gay father and husband. Although his table of contents names each chapter by condition, it is the genius of this book that the often-stigmatizing label gives way to the rendering of real people, fully realized, complex, beyond the reach of any stereotype or cliché. The voice is intimate and epic, scientific and lyrical,  sociological and spiritual. Oliver Sacks comes to mind, the neurologist who writes with such compassionate depth about his patients and their illnesses, and about the mythic significance of their lives.

     "The children I describe have conditions that are alien to their parents,” Solomon writes, "they are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down’s syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people who are conceived in rape or commit crimes; they are transgender."  He re-names these kinds of difference horizontal identities. These children rupture the continuity of the family’s experience, challenge generational assumptions the parents were ready to impart to their child, and ask for a radically-openhearted responsiveness to the unknown. Both children and parents enter a  medical, legal and societal wilderness that only love can navigate. For some, resources are available. For others, the beaureaucratic tangles of insurers and government assistance only serve to further the Herculean determination to find for their children the support they need: medical, educational, therapeutic, material. 

Andrew Solomon
     Again and again, I was moved by the utter doggedness of devotion, when circumstances seem so daunting. Talking to Michelle, the mother of Down’s syndrome child who counsels and supports other such mothers, Solomon  “…asked her about people who didn’t share her dynamism, spirituality and sense of purpose.  ‘They all do,’ she said. ‘That’s the wild thing with special-needs parents.  This comes raging out of you.  I feel such strength and courage in these women.’” And men, too. Bill is the father of two profoundly disabled children who die young. He writes to Solomon:“ I think most people I know, if a child had been given to them  who was profoundly disabled, would have risen to the occasion.  I need to believe that.  It’s how I construct a good world….How could I trade the love I experienced with these two human beings?”   

Andrew Solomon, his husband John Habich, and their son
     What emerges in Far From the Tree is the discovery by these parents of capacities they would not have thought they possessed, until the birth of their children called them forth. Do these mothers and fathers struggle and falter and face despair?  They do. Of course, they do. But such suffering is surprisingly secondary to their passionate  resourcefulness, that "wild thing", Michelle calls it, that great love.

     And the children themselves, through Solomon’s empathy and respect—there is no "othering" in this book, no patronizing solicitude—often reveal to us their creative and valiant determination to live a full life. A full life is a life lived fully, whatever one’s illness or orientation or social situation might be. It is not reserved, Solomon argues, for those who fit a so-called "normal" mold, which he suggests does not even exist. A full life is the birthright of each being born into a body, whatever the details of that body turn out to be. And from that bodily reality may grow an identity forged out of meaningfulness, value and peer community, rather than one that languishes in the territory of  stigma. It is only schizophrenia, for Solomon, which cries out for a cure.  The ordeal of this illness is so great, he says, that one can’t make a case of it as a "difference" to be protected but rather as an affliction that needs a remedy.  

        But it is in the chapter called "Crime" that I found the most heartbreaking and humbling of all of Solomon’s portraits. He interviews the parents of  Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenage boys who carried out an attack on their own U.S. high school, Columbine, in Littleton, Colorado. They killed thirteen, and themselves, using guns and bombs to terrorize and annihilate. Solomon finds himself  "deeply mystified" that these  conscientous and caring parents, whom he comes to like and respect enormously, had raised a son capable of mass murder.  The parents are no less stunned, though as they read Dylan’s journals, returned to them by the police a year after the massacre, they discover a depth of pain in their son they had not realized existed, attuned to him as they believed themselves to have been.  As a young boy, “ ‘he was a wonderful, marvelous, near-to-perfect child,'" Sue Klebold says, and even as teen-ager, in a school where he was bullied and shows some worrying impulsiveness, nothing prepares these loving parents for the act in which their son will participate.   After years of unutterable grief, guilt, trauma and becoming marginalized in the community where they continue to live, Sue Klebold realizes that “ ‘I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born.  But I believe it would not have been better for me.’” In the aftermath of  his inconceivable deed, which includes his suicide, his parents discover that the one thing unshaken in them is their love for their son.

     Far from the Tree is not an easy book to read. For some, its sheer length—960 pages—will be daunting. And the varieties of pain the book brings to life on these pages is sometimes terrible to learn about, in such unflinching particularity.  But the thread that grows and strengthens as the book progresses, that holds together all the people for whom Andrew Solomon is witness and friend, is three-ply: indestructible love, insistence on dignity and the capacity to be transformed for the good by what others might consider a curse. As many have already said in reviews, award-bestowing speeches, and to one another as they read this remarkable book: You will be changed by it, and for the good. Andrew Solomon has undertaken a pilgrimage, a quest, an odyssey of the heart. What a great privilege he has given us, allowing us to accompany him.


Far from the Tree is available postage free from this LINK. You may also want to read Andrew Solomon's earlier acclaimed non-fiction book, The Noonday Demon, available via this LINK; or his novel, A Stone Boat, from this LINK.  (All postage free.) For your general book buying, we hope you will choose to use our bookstore links above right. That's a small but significant help to our volunteer-run Book Club! And, as always, we welcome your comments below!  For details of reviewer Joyce Kornblatt's magnificent writing courses, please visit her webpage.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Walter Mason on gratitude and reading "9/11 and the Art of Happiness"

“Feel gratitude for everyone who has been or currently is in your life, remembering that everyone has brought you a gift.” Rev. Jerry D. Troyer, Coming OUT to Ourselves

Dealing with pain, professional disappointment and personal dissatisfaction can be overwhelming. Despair, it seems, is always just at the borders of our existence, waiting to creep into our mind at the slightest invitation. When we crumple into bed at the end of an exhausting day it can be hard to really keep any perspective and go through all of the wonderful blessings that are doubtless ours. Instead, we are much more likely to indulge in a litany of complaint, regret and even anger. We go to sleep with our worries and wonder why our jaws are clenched hard when we wake up in the morning.

Recently I have read Simon Kennedy’s extraordinary memoir 9/11 and the Art of Happiness, and it has caused me to confront my ingratitude head on. An account of the death of his mother, a passenger on the plane that went crashing into Pentagon in September 2011, the book is a loving and hopeful testament to a son’s love and the memory of his mother.

There is much for Simon Kennedy to be mad at. He could have chosen the route of bitterness and spent his years railing at the world and the various forces in it that contributed to his mother’s death. But instead he has taken this terrible experience and turned it into a tale of healing, an account of how humour, resilience and abiding love ultimately triumph and prove most of us to be unstoppably, wonderfully strong and wise.

A wannabe stand-up comedian who made his living at a stationery shop between gigs, Kennedy’s life is irrevocably changed when he learns of the death of his mother. Suddenly he is a minor celebrity, a figure of macabre fascination, a local representative of a global event of terrifying proportions. He negotiates the corporate apologists, the press, the boorish priests and the strange reminders of his mother’s life that keep popping up, perhaps reminding him to treasure her happy memory rather than be caught up in the tragedy of her end.

In Western cultures we have a strange relationship with gratitude, not really being comfortable with those people who too readily express satisfaction with life, no matter what its challenges. In a recent and very stimulating piece on gratitude, The Philosopher’s Mail wrote:

We know in theory that we should be grateful for what we have, but day to day, we are dominated by striving: for better relationships, working lives, communities and nations. The advocates of gratitude sound like they are recommending that we be content with how things already are.

And that is, perhaps, how we could critique Simon Kennedy. Does his resignation allow his mother’s murderers off the hook? Perhaps. But perhaps his attitude encompasses a more generous vision of the universe, one that recognizes that the wonder and blessing of his mother’s life is something to be celebrated rather than used as a platform for some kind of political vendetta. His experience seems to accord him a world-weary wisdom arrived at too soon in life. He sees quite quickly the bigness of the world and its events. When the airline sends him a letter confirming the fact that his mother, in all likelihood, is dead, he writes:

I laughed to myself at its pointlessness – I had determined all that information by myself by the time the sun came up on 12 September...My initial feeling that American Airlines had wasted my time quickly turned into the realisation that I had been wasting my own time. I hadn’t been an active participant in life over the past few weeks: I’d been sitting around waiting for someone to tell me something new that would jump-start my life beyond this point. I was starting to get sick of my own company and despite my occasional teary episodes, I knew it was time to get on with it.

This is the source of the wisdom and beauty of Kennedy’s book: the realisation that, in spite of the immensity of his suffering and the drama of his mother’s end, it could all be so much worse. He has a Zen-like cognizance of the preciousness of human existence.

And so it is with all our lives. The endings, the beginnings, the difficult middles, all are sources of sadness and exasperation but also, very often, the reason why we should be glad to be alive.

I am so grateful for having read this beautiful book and for being made to gain a little perspective in my own life.

You can purchase this highly praised book 9/11 and the Art of Happiness postage free. A small % is returned to us. You can also use our bookstore links above right. Most of all, we cherish your comments. Add them in the box below.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Walter Mason's favourite literary memoirs

 Book Club co-host Walter Mason turns to other writers' lives to reinvigorate his own.

I am struggling with writing at the moment and in such times I like nothing better to read about the fabulous lives of other writers. I revel in the stories of their creative ease; the speed and swiftness with which the words flow from them, the great quantities of reviews they garner and the never-ending flow of cheques... Well, truth be told even the most famous writers rarely tell these kinds of stories. Mostly it's a series of endless grumbles and slightly gossipy tales about other people more famous than them.

Nonetheless, the literary memoir remains one of my favoured forms of entertainment. I never tire of comparing myself to others and trying to get a little insight into just how people manage to make a success of the writing life. Here are a few that I turn to again and again:

Conversation With Max by S. N Behrman - An enchanting account of the twilight years of the Victorian belletrist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm. Long out of print, of course, it is utterly charming and well worth hunting down. The diminutive Beerbohm, half-brother to the great Victorian actor Beerbohm Tree, was much more famous for his affability and friendliness than he ever was for his writing. He was everyone'spal, including, as a very young man, Oscar Wilde's. This exquisitely slight book is nothing but anecdote and gossip, all gleaned from the writer's cocktails with Beerbohm and his young German companion Miss Jungmann on the terrace of his villa in Rapallo. A gorgeous insight into the literary world of the late-Victorian era.

Love is Where it Falls by Simon Callow - Subtitled "The story of a passionate friendship," this is an account of acclaimed actor Simon Callow's intimate relationship with his manager, the theatrical impresario Margaret Ramsay. Her being 72 years old and he being an avowed homosexual doesn't muddy the waters at all. Indeed, it makes things considerably easier, allowing them to be devotedly but chastely in love with one another in the very best tradition of platonic relationships. The world's most unlikely love story, it is sprinkled with theatrical and literary gossip, and many people are still unaware of the fact that Callow is a brilliant writer.

Sir Vidia's Shadow by Paul Theroux - Charts the disintegration of a long friendship between two of the 20th century's most celebrated authors. Theroux writes a stinging account of his ex-friends failings, but you can't help but feel a grudging respect for the irascible elitism of Naipaul and even Theroux remains an acolyte of his old friend's self-declared genius. This book is utterly fascinating because it records the dissolution of a friendship, something rarely discussed in books and in our culture, and yet something that has happened to almost everyone in their adulthood.

Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo

The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons - An account of literary obsession, this is the tale of an antiquarian’s detective work searching for manuscripts by Frederick Rolfe, one of the most repugnant figures in literary history. Symons finds himself suddenly immersed in the world of Corvophiles, slightly OCD men who delight in trumping each other with even more terrible tales of Rolfe's nastiness. It is a book about being in love with books, and about the special thrill of discovering a cultish author who you can, almost, make your own.

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland - The title says it all really. What is most thrilling about this fascinating and incredibly touching book is the realisation that perhaps literary talent is passed down through the generations. Never having properly known his father, Holland attempts to tell the story of his strangely-protected life, one where he was only half-aware that his father was one of the most reviled figures of 19th century history. He tells a wonderful story of reading, for the first time, The Ballad of Reading Gaol which he discovers on a friend's bookshelf. A truly unique story of a child coming to terms with the fame and infamy of the most important man in his life.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson

Hugh by A. C. Benson - A true literary rarity (good luck with finding a copy), fans of the Benson family might be surprised that I pick this book above all the memoir written by that most productive family. When he wrote the book A. C. Benson was one of the most beloved Edwardian writers, and he was memorialising his brother, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, celebrated Catholic convert and himself a popular writer. Hugh had been, in his day, quite a scandalous figure, populating the fringes of Oscar Wilde's circle and being a rather unwilling friend of the aforementioned Frederick Rolfe. Being the son of a prominent Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Monsignor Benson was much beloved in the Catholic world, and he endlessly wrote works of popular piety and stories for Catholic boys. Once a well-known name amongst English-speaking Catholics, his fame on a par with people like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, R. H. Benson's star has mostly faded now. This makes this book all the more t ouching and fascinating, and it is a lovely introduction to the gentle prose of A. C. Benson, a man also largely forgotten.

You can find an e-copy of Sir Vidia's Shadow here. And please try our bookstore links above right. Or share your finds and sources via comments below. We love to hear from you.