Tag Archives: Essay

Practicing Reverence

“The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate. You might even decide not to kill anything for twenty minutes, including the saltmarsh mosquito that lands on your arm. Just blow her away and ask her please to go find someone else to eat.

With any luck, you will soon begin to see the souls in pebbles, ants, small mounds of moss, and the acorn on its way to becoming an oak tree. You may feel some tenderness for the struggling mayfly the ants are carrying away. If you can see the water, you may take time to wonder where it comes from and where it is going. You may even feel the beating of your own heart, that miracle of ingenuity that does its work with no thought or instruction from you. You did not make your heart any more than you made a tree. You are a guest here. You have been given a free pass to this modest domain and everything in it…”

—-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World.

The Next Shiny New Thing by Georgia Rose

Georgia Rose 2

Author Georgia Rose

I’m sure I am not alone in this writing world when I say that I’m not a fan of having to get involved in the marketing of my books. In fact, I would give a lot to be able to hand that task over to someone else. I am a person who likes to have some control in the things I do, this is a reason why I love being an indie author, but I find the marketing world a confusing one. Someone on Facebook recently described trying to run a successful book promo like throwing darts in the dark and I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been struggling with setting promotions up recently and wading through the bewildering array of promotion opportunities is enough to make your head spin.

Perhaps I should clarify this a little because I understand the concept of spreading the word in as many different ways as your time, and energy, will allow in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. However, it’s the plethora of advice available over which routes to take, which sites to sign up to, which sites to give your shiny pound/dollar to if you get granted the opportunity, of course, to be accepted onto their site in the first place that’s hard to decipher.

I must however give a huge round of applause to the indie world out there who being endlessly generous and supportive of each other think nothing of having a decent sales spike after a promo and then willingly tell everyone how they achieved it.

Rather unusually, but please indulge me, I’m going to use a football (soccer) analogy here because seeing authors leaping onto the bandwagon of ‘the next big thing’ I’m reminded of watching my son play when he was an 8-year-old when he and his team moved as one, huddled around the ball which attracted them as if it had magnetic powers and much as a laser does to a tumble of kittens (see YouTube for examples).

I’m finding that this is happening to me. I start out reasonably focused on the marketing tasks I’m planning, I pop onto the internet to, you know…tweet…and all that then before I know it I spot a blog post discussing how someone shifted goodness knows how many gazillion copies of their book in a day which, obviously, sounds like a great idea and I will be derailed. This happened to me last Sunday when I ended up setting up an Amazon Giveaway for a couple of paperbacks of my first book. It wasn’t planned and I really need to stop these spur of the moment, and distracting, decisions.

What it comes down to is that we are all after the next shiny thing. The latest, and greatest, marketing whatever that has worked for someone and will also give us some, hopefully, spectacular results. I guess I should make up a proper marketing plan. Now, I just need to know what one of those looks like…I’ll pop onto Google to try and find out… it won’t take a moment. 😉

Georgia’s background in countryside living, riding, instructing and working with horses has provided the knowledge needed for some of her storylines; the others are a product of her overactive imagination! Her busy life is set in a tranquil part of rural Cambridgeshire where she lives with her much neglected family of a husband, two grown up children and two dogs.


Thicker than Water (Book 3 of The Grayson Trilogy)

Amazon US
Amazon UK


Website and Blog:- http://www.georgiarosebooks.com/
Twitter:- @GeorgiaRoseBook

A Poet Finds Her Voice–Christine Burke

My poetry started life in the wee small hours after my husband left me for a younger model. I couldn’t sleep or think straight and used to write my thoughts down to try to get them out of my head. I suppose it was like screaming on paper.

Headshot of Christine Burke

Poet Christine Burke

The silver lining is that when I moved house years later, I found what I’d written and realised some of it was poetry. I started taking writing holidays and online courses with the aim of publishing – I didn’t want what I’d been through to be for nothing. The best MOOC online course I did was with the University of Pennsylvania led by Al Fireis – Modern Contemporary Poetry – being with thousands of other students learning about poets from Emily Dickinson thru Robert Frost to Sylvia Plath was extraordinary and changed my life. Poetry became something other than therapy for me, it became my new world.

And the writing holidays are amazing too – meeting great writers and being encouraged and inspired by fabulous, fun people from all walks of life who love writing and all have stories to tell. I learned that I have to write a little each day rather than wait for inspiration to strike – exercise my writing muscle – and then the Muses will visit!
The poem I’ve chosen to talk about is the first of my poems that made someone cry. (yes, other poems have done it since then!!!) I thought it might be interesting to some of you. It was my first unintentional attempt at prosody, I’m still learning…

The little light came on,
the only warmth in this cold place.
She reached for sustenance,
hesitated, withdrew
from the two eggs,
the rotting carrots,
and the meal for one –
calorie counted,
past it’s sell-by date.

Once upon a time there was cake, fresh cream;
wine, ginger, Brie,
St. Agur (her favourite)
and Stilton.

Still surprised by the emptiness,
she could have cried for the Stilton.

I suppose it’s obvious that what shocked me even a long time after my husband left was that there was nothing in the fridge. In my head the fridge should have been full for a party or a dinner, as it used to be (no-one has that variety of cheese unless it’s a dinner party!). So when I opened the fridge in a fruitless search for physical and mental sustenance, there was nothing there, and I thought I was ‘past my sell by date’. And I guess this touched some people, maybe they empathised, because it was one of the poems Encarna Dorado Cuenca chose to illustrate for me. It’s amazing how she paints the coldness of the kitchen. You can see some of her illustrations on my website illustration page if you’re interested – I love them all.

My website is www.christineburkebooks.com

If anyone would like to contact me through the contact page on my website I’ll email you BREAK-UPS SUCK! FREE!
I haven’t got automatic downloads set up yet so you might have to wait a couple of days …

With all best wishes, bye for now…


Christine studied languages at school, worked in computing and lived around the world for fifteen years, including three years in the US. She enjoys dog walking, metal detecting and modern jive.  She has indie published six books of poetry and is working on the next one.

Christine’s Amazon Page
Christine’s latest collection is LEGACY

Cover Legacy


How To Plan a Book Launch

This week’s THIS LITERARY LIFE essay, author Dawn Downey offers a funny–and angst-filled–look at how even the most carefully planned book launch can go wrong.


“How To Plan a Book Launch”

by Dawn Downey

Relax. You’ve written a book. You’ve ordered your first shipment.

Give in to spontaneity. Schedule three launch parties in three different cities. Bask in the good vibrations of your wonderful friends who volunteered event space, email lists, and creative prowess. They enjoy promotion. With friends like this, allow yourself to feel enthusiastic about marketing.

At 3:00 a.m. two weeks before Party #1, awake in a panic. Ask yourself if you actually ordered books from the printer. Stub your toe on the nightstand while feeling around for your glasses, trying not to disturb your husband. Suppress your desire to wake him up, even though you should not have to suffer alone. Click around the printer’s website. Locate the order. Find no definitive proof the order went through, but no indication there’s a problem. Go back to bed.

Postpone Party #1, because you have no books.

Having relieved the pressure of a potential disaster at Party #1, feel a renewed enthusiasm for marketing. Create a Facebook event for Party #2. What fun! Post, share, like, comment, message, invite.

Examine the printer’s website again. The eight-point font hieroglyphics reveal 1) they’ve charged your credit card for 100 books, and 2) the order reads “pending” instead of “shipped.” Decide that “pending” means the books are on a UPS truck heading toward your house.

Friday, write a blog post extolling the joyous time to be experienced by all who are lucky enough to attend Parties #2 and #3.

Saturday, postpone Party #2, because you have no books.

Sunday, decide it’s time to call the printer’s customer service line. Do you remember how telephones always remind you of your mother calling to tell you that your sister’s acting out again, and it’s your fault? Well, don’t think about that. Convince yourself you’re a businesswoman.

Monday, phone customer service. Offer up a prayer of gratitude when your call goes immediately to a recording, because you know they’re going to call you stupid. After a man says, “Good morning. Can I help you?” talk slowly so he cannot hear your voice shaking. Hold your breath while he researches your order. When he says, “I’ll put a rush on this, it was not your fault,” stifle the urge to respond no, really, it was my fault. Thank the nice man. Resolve to stop picking on yourself.

Arrange a book order from an alternate printer. Express delivery in plenty of time for Party #3. Right? Right?

Having relieved the pressure of potential disasters at Parties #1 and #2, feel a renewed enthusiasm for marketing. Take a nap.

Author Dawn Downey

Author (and expert book launch planner) Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey is the author of From Dawn to Daylight: Essays.

Read the latest news about the book launch that can’t get off the ground at http://dawndowney.com/

Matt Abraham: “My First Review Troll”

For a writer, there’s nothing like the punch in the gut that comes with our very first one-star review. When that review is grossly malicious? It definitely twists the knife that much deeper. In today’s installment of This Literary Life, author Matt Abraham talks about his first review troll and how he turned the tables on her–sort of.

“My First Review Troll”                                                                                                                                       by Matt Abraham

Candid of Matt Abraham, author

Author Matt Abraham

For those of you who don’t know I got my first Amazon review troll this week, and subsequently went through the following 3 stages… before exacting revenge. WARNING: this isn’t for the squeamish, and if you’re a follower or a personal friend I hope I don’t lose you, or your respect. But sometimes we got to do what we got to do:

Stage 1: The Reaction

I’ll admit, once I got my first review troll I was excited. But that quickly that turned to rage. Who the hell gives a one star rating without even reading the book? Trolls, that’s who. So I decided not to take this lying down, I was going to hunt my troll. So I went on her Amazon page, and looked at all the things she bought, and I kid you not I found her real name. I found her work place. I found her address, and her email address. I even found a picture (don’t look at me like that, I write detective novels, what did you expect?). Now the only question is, “What would I do with this information?” The answer is scheme.

Stage 2: The Scheming

So as I lay in bed that night, scheming like a champ, I came up with three possible acts of vengeance:

1. Email her and avail myself to her human side, making my case politely, and asking her to take down the unfair trolling review. Maybe I’d quote God or something.

2. Email her and threaten to cook her children if she didn’t take down the unfair trolling review. Maybe I’d quote God or something.

3. Join Ashely Madison and every swinger site there is under her real name, get a good following, then ask for dick pics and porn and give out her work address.

As you can imagine I chose to go with option 3. Does that make me a bad person?

Stage 3: The Execution

So the next morning I hopped back onto my Amazon page, and looked up my troll. It was time to exact some sweet revenge. But here’s the thing; right above her nefarious vitriol sat seven reviews from independent book bloggers, and each one was really kind. And I remembered how they made me feel, and that general happiness outweighed my righteous anger. It also reminded me of the old saw in fiction: everybody’s the main character of their own story. So what kind of main character did I want to be? A villain, or a hero?
I knew the answer. So I put my dreams of revenge aside.
But I still needed closure. And then it hit me, and I smiled as I pressed ‘edit’ and added Dorothy A’s comments to my editorial reviews. So now when you visit Dane Curse’s Amazon page you’ll see this:

 Editorial Reviews

“Written with intelligent humor, easy dialogue, and an action-packed story line, Dane Curse is a must-read.” – Please Pass The Books

“Five stars… Filled with lots of action and humour, and will keep you engaged and entertained.” – Jael’s Reviews

“One Star- I didn’t read it…” Dorothy A. (AKA Muffiemae)

Yeah, that just feels right.

And… The Obligatory Moral

I learned a few things from the past few days of self-torment. The first is that if you fight fire with fire you just end up with more fire, and lowering yourself like that won’t make you feel better. The second is that the bullies of the ether should be afraid. It’s getting easier and easier to discover their identities, which lets us show the rest of the world the kind of people they really are. And finally, revenge may be a dish best served cold, but justice served with a smile and a pinch of irony is a hell of a lot more fun to eat.


Matt A. and Kal

Matt with his son Kal

Matt Abraham currently lives in China with his criminally insane cat Durden, his beautiful one month old son Kal, and his supportive wife Jenny. If you’d like more information on his (mostly) critically acclaimed novel Dane Curse you can contact him at authormattabraham@gmail.com or visit him at danecursepi.wordpress.com . Or just write to say hi, he loves that.”

Guest Post: Author Lisa Vogel on What Makes for Believable Fiction.

Lisa Vogel and her cat

Author Lisa Vogel and feline friend.

It’s a good thing writers are different because readers certainly are. If you want to see some evidence, go onto Amazon or any other website which allows readers to review books. You’ll soon have no doubt in your mind that there are an awful lot of opinions about what constitutes good writing, and many of those opinions contradict. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows! The bottom-line is that what readers want differs. This is good news because it means there is a lot more leeway for writers than many of us might have originally thought. Of course, you should definitely be the best writer you can be. What constitutes being the best? That’s the part that varies. So, there is hope your individual style will connect with some (although definitely not all) readers.

Nowhere is this more the case than in relation to characterization. There isn’t a right answer. There is only personal taste. And, since I, as both a reader and a writer, tend to like books that delve deeply into negative attributes, that’s what I’m going to address. I’ll use two books to illustrate what I mean. Both We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III contain a plethora of deeply flawed characters and, ultimately, a bad ending for just about everyone. One book I found completely realistic. The other book left me feeling that the author had gone too far.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, the main characters are all part of one family (Mom, Dad, one daughter, one son), and everyone has personality issues. Kevin, the older child, is clearly the most flawed of the bunch, and Shriver never really says what’s wrong with him. Rather, she expertly leaves it to readers to interpret for themselves. What do you call a teenage loner who has murdered his fellow classmates? At the very least, he is extremely troubled. I didn’t personally relate to him (that’s probably a good thing), but I did completely relate to the manner in which the other characters were affected by him. And, as I know there are young people who have murdered others, I understood that his personality type, although rare, does exist.

On the other hand, I was easily able to relate to the other characters, especially Kevin’s mother Eva. I could feel within myself her struggles, her need to withdraw, her inabilities as well as her strengths. The same was the case with Eva’s indecisive husband Franklin and emotionally pale daughter Celia. All the characters were flawed but, other than Kevin, they seemed to me to be not so different from my friends, my neighbors and, well, myself. The problem for them was that they were tied to the railroad tracks of their lives and were therefore unable to get away from that out-of-control locomotive that was Kevin. Because Kevin was the only character that, of his own accord, went truly over the edge, it allowed me to believe in both the entire characterization of the novel as a whole and what I interpret to be a somewhat open ending.

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog, which also has characters murdered and in prison by the end, is a novel I had a lot more trouble relating to. No one is quite as troubled as Kevin in We Need To Talk About Kevin, but the three main characters in House of Sand and Fog are far more troubled than I am. And isn’t that how we all judge things in the end? I could believe that someone would be as troubled and oblivious as Kathy. I could believe that someone would make as many critical errors in judgment as Lester. I could believe that someone would be as controlling and stubborn as Behrani. But, although I could feel myself in Eva, Franklin, and Celia, I couldn’t quite feel myself as Kathy, Lester, or Behrani, just as I couldn’t feel myself as Kevin. While one hard to digest character can make for excellent fiction, three in one book is too much for me. It just didn’t seem realistic.

And then, too, are how the books end. In my opinion, given the nature of Kevin (as well as the other characters) everything in We Need To Talk About Kevin happened in a logical progression. True, a number of characters die, but it happens due to a worst-case scenario based on the actions of ONE character. In House of Sand and Fog the ending requires that a worse case scenario occur in the lives of all three main characters separately. It’s like a perfect storm of misery converging into one humongous pile of poo. Though it was masterfully done, I still didn’t quite buy it.

There are, of course, many readers who feel differently. As of August 14, 2014, there are 275 five star reviews for House of Sand and Fog (out of 836). No doubt those reviews represent readers who did not feel the book’s conclusion was over the top. We Need To Talk About Kevin has 441 five star reviews (out of 828). Both books were made into motion pictures. Whatever you think of them, you can’t say they were commercial failures.

So, what is the message that writers might walk away with from these two novels? I think it’s to not be afraid to write hard to sympathize with characters. If the novel justifies it, some readers will go there with you. On the other hand, don’t make things dark unnecessarily. Take a look at what feels true to you and write that. No book is for everyone but, if the way your plot unfolds is based on what you perceive to be realistic characterization, it will be a real plus for some readers no matter how bleak that road is. But even more than that, the larger lesson is this: write what feels true to you. Readers don’t all want the same thing. Don’t let yourself be talked into someone else’s idea of what sells.

LISA VOGEL lives and writes in Cascabel, Arizona.

Five Ways to Make Your Editor Cry

What I like most about editing is getting to work closely with writers. I love the energy that’s generated as we slog through a project together, discussing and debating all possible solutions to the endless riddles posed by a newly completed (but not quite polished) novel, memoir, or short story collection. Ideally, the process of editing a manuscript, though laborious, becomes a true partnership, the coming together of the objective and the subjective, the critic and the creator.

That said, there are ways to crush the author-editor relationship before it’s sprouted, much less grown strong roots. What follows are the top five ways a client can make me sorry I ever said “love to!” to their book.

5. Come into the relationship without understanding what an editor does–especially YOUR editor.

As a content and development editor, my job is to take your “final” draft and show you where it falls short. The opening passage that fails to entice. The sagging middle or undeveloped subplot. Characters who take up precious space but offer little to nothing in return.

Line editing/proofreading focuses on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. This vitally important final step makes a book ready for public viewing.

If your book has a cracked foundation and damaged framing, you can’t come to me expecting a lick of paint and some pretty curtains. If you refuse to see the problems in your work, I cannot help you address those problems. That will make me sad.

4. Expect a fully re-worked manuscript for the price of a proofread.

Few writers have an unlimited budget for editing services. Yet thorough editing takes time. The more work the manuscript requires, the longer it will take the editor–and the bigger the blow to the writer’s wallet.

There are ways to ease the financial strain. Buddy up with a fellow writer who is as good as OR BETTER than you are. You will each bring an objective eye to the other’s work.  Take an editing course through your local community college. Write more. The more books you write, the better each one will be. Over time, you’ll notice you need less and less help with your basic structure and content. The point is to get your work as close to DONE as you can before you seek an editor.

What you should not do is come to me with a book requiring a major overhaul and ask me to cut my rate by a third or a half (or more!) with promises of “many more manuscripts to come.” What you are actually offering me is a lot more labor at under-market rates. That will make me cry.

3. After an editor quotes a turnaround time of three to four weeks, call, email, text every other day to “just to see how it’s going.”

I get it. Your book is your baby. You’ve trusted me with something precious to you, and you need to know that it’s okay.

Your book is important to me, too. I want to give it the attention it needs. I want to become engaged by it, build a relationship with it. I can’t do that if I’m being interrupted or need to spend editing time returning dozens of calls and emails. This will lead to tears.

One-on-one discussions are an important part of the editing process. To offer the most value, they need to be focused.  After working through your manuscript, I want to be excited to sit down with you (in person or virtually) and tell you everything I’ve discovered and show you chapter by chapter how to make the book as good as it can be.

2. When an editor is in the middle of your project, send her new/re-worked scenes or chapters.

Have you ever seen a toddler break down in the grocery store? Wild screams. Pounding fists. Face red and twisted.

That’s what happens to me, internally at least, when I’ve spent hours working through a section of a manuscript and the author emails me to say, “Hey, I had a great idea for when Reginald betrays Marigold in chapter five. I mailed it this morning. Oh, and I’ve added a scene to Josephine’s stage debut in chapter nine.”

Don’t do this. Just. Don’t.

1. Call demanding to know why your beautifully edited manuscript was turned down by an agent, publisher, or movie producer.

The reception of any creative work–a book, a film, a symphony–comes down to personal sensibility. The best editor in the world cannot make an agent fall in love with a novel. Nor can we turn a published book into a bestseller.

What we can do is set the stage for success.

Working together with respect and understanding, the writer and the editor can make a novel, memoir, or short story collection shine its brightest, so that it has the best chance possible of catching the attention of publishing professionals and, ultimately, readers.


My Love Affair with LOLITA

Being a fan of 18th and 19th century fiction, developing my “Modern Masterpieces” feature for this blog posed a challenge. I could think of plenty of good books I’d enjoyed over the years, but Good is not the same as GREAT, and I wanted to spotlight those novels with the best chance of becoming “classics”. You know, the ones destined to be foisted on the high school and college students of two centuries from now, who will probably be more interested in tooling around on their flying scooters than reading dusty narratives from long-dead authors like Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison. Luckily, I have Facebook friends with a much better grasp on modern and contemporary fiction than I do. They provided me with enough ideas to carry this monthly feature through 2025 at least.



But there was one book, I knew I’d discuss–Vladimir Nabokov’s delightful, delicious, disturbing Lolita. To explain the importance of this novel to me, I need to go back two decades to early 1993, when I realized how little reading I’d done in the seven years I’d spent earning my B.A. and M.A. degrees. Granted, I’d majored in Anthropology and not in English Literature. But, still…there I was, a highly educated person, a book lover, and I’d never read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, Henry James or Willa Cather. Add this to the wonderful poetry and fiction being published year after year after year…How could I catch up, much less keep up?

So I set a cut off for myself. 1950.  It seemed reasonable enough at the time. I could start with Beowulf and The Iliad and work my way forward. This way I’d cover all the important stuff, right? It was a fabulous plan. Until Lolita. I’d heard of the book. Of course. My century’s Madame Bovary. The book which dared speak the unspeakable–a debauched Old World serpent slithering through the cool green lawns of all-American suburbia. Published in 1955, it was out of bounds for me.

Thank goodness for tax season and rude library patrons. I went into the photocopy room to xerox my freshly prepared 1040A and there she was abandoned next to a pile of home and garden magazines. The cover: a pair of bare, knock-kneed legs in bobby socks and black-and-white Oxfords. The person using the copy machine warned me she’d be a while and suggested I come back later.

I picked up the book.

A brief forward by a fictional editor describes what follows as the memoir of one “Humbert Humbert,” who died in prison a few days before the start of his trial. The nature of his crime is withheld until the end of the book. And it’s not what the reader assumes. Then, chapter one:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Friends, he had me.

I still find it hard to believe that English was Nobokov’s third language, and he (as he states in his short essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita“) didn’t feel he wrote his best work in it:

“My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years

I don’t know about you, but I’d take his brand of English, second-rate or even third!

And yet it isn’t just Nabokov’s style that elevates his novel from good to Great.  The settings–from young Delores Haze’s cluttered, mock-genteel New England living room to the unending series of roadside hotels and motor inns Humbert and his young hostage inhabit during their time on the run–are beautifully realized accretions of detail. The latter were based on the author’s travels across the United States on annual butterfly-hunting trips with his wife.

For me, though, character is where Nabokov shines brightest. In Humbert Humbert, he presents us with a monster and proceeds to reveal its human heart. Don’t misunderstand me, the pathology depicted here is real and incurable. Humbert is a pedophile. He recognizes his perversion and is powerless to control it, though near the end of the book, during his years-long search to recover his lost Lolita, he manages to sublimate his behavior (if not his urges) through a semi-permanent relationship with an adult woman. It isn’t a perfect solution, and one wonders if, had his mental and physical health not been so broken down, it would have worked as well as it did. Yet in spite of his terminal, tragic flaw, Humbert changes over the course of the novel. Somehow, Nabokov redeems him to a degree that would seem impossible except that, by the end, we thoroughly believe in that redemption, that by some twist of fate and the human psyche, the predator’s lust turned to love and, more than that, to empathy for his prey. Ultimately, Lolita’s life (as a grown woman in a normal relationship with an ordinary man)  is more important to Humbert than his mania, and certainly more important than his own life.

Language, style, setting, character, humanity, chutzpah–there are so many reasons to call Lolita a Modern Masterpiece. Most important to me is that it was my first. Afterward, there was no going back to that neat, efficient, rational course of study I’d created for myself. My reading life since has been chaotic and messy and infinitely satisfying.

What is a Modern Masterpiece?

Attempting to define a masterpiece is like taking the proverbial long walk off a short pier–you’re going to get wet. Refining the discussion to modern works, for my purposes this means books published after 1950, ramps up the debate. These are the stories that have their genesis in the world we (and our parents) have known and experienced. In defining the modern masterpiece, we’re seeking to divine which of our stories are the classics of the future, destined to take their place alongside works by Dickens, Austen, James, Faulkner and all the other greats, and which will evaporate into time.

When I think of what makes modern fiction, I think of books that explore the complexity of human emotion in a world of constantly shifting social, cultural and personal boundaries. Unlike earlier works, which tend to deal in opposing values or symbols (good versus bad; beautiful versus ugly; right versus wrong), modern fiction wallows in shades of gray.  For the modern protagonist, conflict is most often internal, rather than a battle against the greater society. Drama lives in that place where even honest attempts fail–and the only way to reach the authentic self is through a hard road of rejection and re-invention. Think Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert as dangerous as he is pathetic. The anti-heroes of John Updike and Saul Bellow. Toni Morrison’s lost souls forever searching for a true identity and a place in this world.

The marked global emphasis of modern fiction shifts away from other cultures simply as colorful background or a convenient means of setting a narrative in history. Instead the view is from within. Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz. They sing of the displacement of the newcomer, of what is shed with transition and at what price, of what is lost in translation and never recovered.

Lacking the gift of prophesy, I don’t know for certain which modern masterpieces will cross into literary immortality. It’s also quite possible that the same book to which I apply the word “masterpiece” is someone else’s doorstop, roach smasher, or sleeping pill. My intention over the next year is to present suggestions–just one per month-works of modern fiction which just might survive long enough to become something more. I’m hoping at least a few intrepid readers out there will join me on the adventure.

The House of the Seven Gables: Why Can’t Nathaniel Hawthorne Keep His Mouth Shut?

It wasn’t easy settling on the first Carrie’s Classic. Many a masterpiece have I read and loved in my forty-year reading career. A Jane Austen might have been nice. She has a voracious audience full of enthusiasm and opinions. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the book that was introduced to me–via that mellow-voiced older man who used to present Masterpiece Theater on PBS–as the (technically) “perfect” novel. Only perfection isn’t the point here. Nor is popularity. My intention is to present Carrie’s classics–the books that have impacted my vision of my world and, yes, in many ways molded my writing style. The hope is that those of you following this blog will create your own list of classics and begin to think about how your reading has shaped you.

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables

The House of the Seven Gables (1850) is an imperfect work. The plot revolves around the four surviving members of a great family that–cursed by the misdeeds of its founding ancestor, the severe and terrifying Colonel Pyncheon–has fallen into ruin.  Their condition is reflected in the dilapidated, ghost-filled mansion where elderly spinster Hepzibah and her brother Clifford, mentally broken by many the many years he spent in jail for murder, live out their narrow, angst-ridden last days. Their cousin, the slimy and conniving Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, is the actual heir to the estate. He’s obsessed with old tales about a deed hidden in the house that would restore the family to its former glory. Worse, he believes Clifford knows where the deed is and plans to get that information by any means possible. Rounding out the cast is young Phoebe, a country cousin who unexpectedly shows up and brings a little light into the House of the Seven Gables, and Holgrave, an artist lodging with them.

     The House of the Seven Gables, Salem MA (right) 

The House of the Seven Gables. Salem, MA. Actually one of four houses believed to be the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorn's novel.006


008I first read this book back in 1994, after visiting Salem, Massachusetts where there is a real House of the Seven Gables, though it is actually one of four properties in the region that Nathaniel Hawthorne mashed together to get his ancient pile of cobwebs and rotting timbers. The romance of the historical site, a complex of 17th and 18th century buildings, including Hawthorne’s birthplace, led me to crack my signet classic edition with high hopes. Reality…well, there was plenty of creepy, old Salem atmosphere…along with a tangle of overblown exposition, author intrusion, digression, and moralization. I’d go on, but I truly don’t want to put readers off the book. Because, despite its extravagances and weaknesses, there is a lot to admire.

Written only seventy-five years after the Declaration of Independence, The House of The Seven Gables takes on the subject of the triumph of the common man over the aristocrat. The ruin of the Pyncheon dynasty lies at its very beginning, Colonel Pyncheon, a British-born favorite of the crown, builds the his luxurious gabled palace on land snatched from a working man named Matthew Maule, whom he helped get convicted of witchcraft during the great witch hysteria of the 1692. It is Maule’s son who engineers the disappearance of the property deed that will become so vital a century and a half later. And it is a Maule descendant who recovers the document and saves the tattered remains of the aristocratic line. The families actually fuse through marriage. By doing so, they wash away the ancestral sin that has dogged the Pyncheons and step into a bright (egalitarian) future.

In the course of the story, Hawthorne also explores the motivation behind what was in his day a raw, embarrassing wound–the arrest of over one hundred and fifty citizens and the execution of nineteen of them (with almost as many dying in prison) for the alleged crime of witchcraft. Hawthorne is a religious man and believes the strength of Puritanism directly led to the success of the uprising against the British. Yet, he recognizes how the puritanical world view also led to the horror of neighbor destroying neighbor on the most flimsy and fantastical of pretexts. We join him in his struggle to to make sense of this paradox. Ultimately, Hawthorne blames arrogance and greed, an aristocratic poison brought to the shores of the new world along with its first settlers.

So when it comes to The House of the Seven Gables, the very thing that makes for a convoluted and imbalanced novel–Hawthorne constantly poking his nose into our reading experience–is also its enduring value. How often does an author centuries dead make himself and his creative process so available? Hawthorne overtly seeks to open a discussion, talks to us about his rambling character sketches and historical digressions, points them out to us and laughs at them.  There is a dual purpose to this Gothic clowning and stumbling, a thinking man’s attempt to reflect the idealist values of a new nation and also make sense of a very real horror story that, in its way, will always be alive in our country’s collective memory.