Sunday, March 25, 2007

Women Who Write; Women Who Read

Clockwise from left margin: Yasmin Shiraz, Linda Francis Lee, Jennifer Crusie

Saturday, March 24, I spent the day at the Broward Library Literary Feast at Nova University.

The morning was dominated by female authors. I have much respect for these women and their readers. It's not their fault that they don't happen to write the kind of books I most enjoy reading. The panel discussions were wide-ranging and thought-provoking. An especially heated exchange ensued when the moderator of one panel asked the women to discuss the concept of "Chick Lit." All the authors agreed that there's no such thing, it's just a label that people who don't read made up to organize shelves in book stores or something. Jennifer Crusie made the point very strongly: "80% of all novel readers are women. I object to the idea that there is such a thing as 'women's fiction.' Since women are the vast majority, if someone is going to be ghetto-ized, it should be the men: 'men's fiction' for that 20% of readers who are male."

The women on the panels discussed literary trends, differences between men and women, recipes, family, balancing career and kids, traditions, culture, and love. In contrast, the afternoon session I attended that consisted of two men, moderated by a man: they simply presented facts and discussed their books. Some of the difference may be attributable to the contrast between fiction and non-fiction, but it seemed to me that I was witnessing a fundamental difference in communication styles.

One of the authors really made an impression: Adriana Trigiani. In addition to writing books, she also directs and produces movies and television shows. She was a writer for the Cosby Show and she is also an actress. She is from Virginia, and her books are about rural southern culture, but I'm sure she has no problems fitting in where she lives now: New York. Adriana has a fun website where she connects with her readers. She really loves her fans and they love her back. Her latest book is Home to Big Stone Gap--it's part of a series and the first book in the series is currently in the process of casting for the movie version, which Adriana will direct.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Heyday, by Kurt Andersen

heyday n. The period of greatest popularity, success,
fashion, power, or the like; prime.
interjection Archaic. (used as an exclamation of

cheerfulness, surprise, wonder, etc.)

Kurt Andersen's first book The Real Thing, was a collection of humorous essays, published in 1980. It's still funny, I still read it, I still quote it. If it wouldn't interrupt the flow of this narrative too extremely, I would whip out one of the essays and quote it in its entirety, right here. (*Pause while I peruse the book, debate which essay is the "real thing" of Real Thing essays, and talk myself out of quoting it here.*) You would laugh. But the world has moved on since 1980 and many of the cultural references are now defunct.

Andersen's second book was published in 1999: Turn of the Century. It was a novel about the future--the immediate future--as in: look out, this is what your world is about to become. It was clever and engaging, but somewhat doomed to be quaint as soon as the time period came and went.

And now, the third book has arrived, a large, ambitious historical novel. This one will not be dated anytime soon. Heyday is an enthusiastic, meticulously researched story set against the backdrop of two amazing years in a remarkable country: 1848-49, the United States of America. The reader gets a front row seat and is offered various viewpoints: English, American, French, male, female, upper class, working class, conservative, revolutionary. Andersen lets the tide of history sweep his fictional characters along, and they periodically bump up against actual historical personnages: Frederick Engels, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Allan Pinkerton. The big events that shape the history of America also have an immediate impact on these individual people; e.g., last week the telegraph line from New York to Chicago wasn't completed, but this week it is. That changes everything.

Because the research was done so well, the reader is breathless to see what happens next even though it is history, since many of the events and characteristics of the 19th century have faded into oblivion for those of us living in the fast-paced 21st. Who knew, for instance, that early busses in New York City, pulled by horses, had a primitive version of the system used today to signal the driver--a leather strap that the passenger was threaded along the side of the bus, up to the driver where it was fastened around his ankle, so that when the passenger pulled it, he felt it and knew to stop the vehicle.

America is a character in this novel, and so is the American language. A new word crops up at every turn. It's always surprising. Either it is a word that we use every day and take for granted that it has always existed--sidewalk, OK, metropolis--or it's phraseology that we never use because it came into existence and then vanished from the collective vocabulary before we were born--picky wicky, black house, aspirationalism. Either way, the interjection of the words lights up the narrative like sequins on a dress--they are almost distracting, but in the end I can't imagine the book without them. One of the characters keeps a word journal, just in case you are in danger of missing the importance of language to the story.

A novel that tackles the big themes--war, human rights, guilt, sex, revenge, insanity, utopia--with enthusiasm and wit, Heyday illustrates ideas whose relevance is extreme even today:

At the next pier upriver from Polly and Priscilla, a cattle boat was docking, and the animals were skittish, pawing at the deck and lowing. They were frighted by the July Fourth ruckus, but unaware of the slaughterhouse knives that would actually kill them before sunset. We're right to be scared, Polly thought, but in our ignorance, we're scared of the wrong things.
p. 327

In fact, the overarching theme of the book might arguably be that if we don't learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. The parallels between the Mexican War and our present conflict in Iraq are heartbreaking. Lincoln is quoted as as a freshman Congressman, "[daring] to call President Polk's prophylactic invasion unnecessary and unconstitutional and 'half insane.'" But this is not a political novel with an axe to grind. Essentially it is a portrait of a young nation full of energy, vision, and possibility, plunging heedlessly into an unknowable future, and glorying in--yes--its heyday.


Don't take my word for it. The New York Times has an effusive review by Geoffrey Wolff. This is my version of "distributed journalism." After you've slogged through my amateur review, I help you find the professional version. You're welcome.