My Book Orgy

For as long as I can remember, I was a monogamous reader. I’d start a book and read it straight through no matter how much time that took. Even if I didn’t like it, I had to finish it.

College and graduate school didn’t change my book monogamy. Even when my reading load was very heavy, I never read a book on the down low. That seemed shifty and wrong. Once during my MFA program I had to read Bleak House, The Wings of the Dove and two novels by Iris Murdoch all in one week, but I didn’t cheat. I slogged along serially, losing sleep but determined to be faithful. My roommate later claimed I was prone to hysterical laughter that week, but monogamy can make anyone desperate, right?

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Years later, when I was reviewing for a handful of magazines and newspapers and two public radio stations, I still didn’t cheat. My motto: One man, one book.

Now I’m a hopeless book slut. I can’t seem to keep my hands off all the books piled in my study, by my bed, in the den, and sent to me by publishers. I’ll try to stay focused but then a new book shows up in the mail, somewhere on line and I go all Iggy Pop: “You look so good to me….”

2015-03-06-1425654025-1513773-multiplebooks140277145889_xlarge.jpegThis has nothing to do with competition from downloading music, Facebook or Twitter, texting, or binge-watching the latest Netflix original show like the hilarious Lovesick. It’s the books that compete with each other. Some months I’m reading as many as five to six books at a time. That means bookmarks, Post-it notes, a pen or pencil, a napkin, a comb, my phone, a restaurant receipt or whatever else is handy will be poking out from books all around the house.  Keeping my place(s).

That also means some weeks I shun all book reviews, especially the New York Times Book Review. I don’t want to hear about another new book in any genre, don’t want to risk being tempted.

So what’s in my book harem right now? Biographies of President Buchanan and Thomas Beckett.  Rebecca Mead’s memoir about reading Middlemarch.  A short novel by Anthony Trollope.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of Bunker Hill.  Susan Jacoby’s The Age of Unreason. Poldark by Winston Graham.  And a book about contemporary populism worldwide, just to stay connected to current events.

And I’m about to order a biography of the art collector Peggy Guggenheim because I just saw a documentary about her and I still remember visiting her famous museum in Venice….I just couldn’t resist her life, her loves, her art.

peggy_guggenheim_1Lev Raphael is the author of Book Lust! and twenty-four other books in many genres.

Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott Biography is a Hot Mess

When a friend told me she was reading Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury about Emerson and his circle in Concord, I was intrigued, because I’d read Cheever’s memoir about her father years ago and had lost track of her career after that.

I went to Amazon, but was drawn to Cheever’s biography of Louisa May Alcott instead. I didn’t know much about Alcott and I’m a huge fan of biographies (I have hundreds in my study). The book grabbed me based on the sample: Alcott didn’t want to write Little Women–her editor pushed her to.

What a great hook.

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When the book arrived, though, I gradually discovered it was awful. I hadn’t bothered reading the thoughtful critiques on Amazon–I learned its varied faults myself (reviews of American Bloomsbury are even more scathing, btw, and more numerous).

Cheever’s assessment of Alcott is marred by trivialities. You learn things like this: Alcott dropped a pie box in Boston. Not only that, it tipped “end over end.” Wow. Alcott was teased by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. about her height, and in Boston she had hyacinths in a window box. None of these details (and more just as inane) add to an understanding of Alcott’s life or writing.

Cheever’s prose can be gag-worthy: “Death is a mystery, but life is filled with light and clarity.” Sounds like a Hallmark Card. Then there are dubious assertions like “good writing is almost always subversive.” How? Why? Makes a good quote for Pinterest or Tumblr, I suppose.

Cheever claims that the Transcendentalists in Concord “essentially created American literature as we know it.” Seriously? The first two American authors to be international best sellers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, got there before Emerson et al. and had a huge influence on major authors like like Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne. Perhaps to hedge her bets, Cheever loves mentioning Hawthorne as often as possible, but he was peripheral to the Concord crew and mocked them in his novel The Blithedale Romance.

hawthorne

Just as egregiously, Cheever totally misrepresents Alcott’s relationship with Henry James and basically gives Alcott credit for more books of his than you can imagine. Without her, we apparently wouldn’t have The Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller, The Bostonians or any of his books with a young woman character. They were also fast friends, Cheever says, despite every James biography I’ve read which barely mentions Alcott–and Cheever doesn’t offer any proof of this supposed relationship.

james 1890Sadly, Publishers Weekly gave the book an attention-getting starred review and called it “authoritative.” Somebody at PW didn’t do homework.

Why did I keep reading? Morbid curiosity. That’s right: I couldn’t believe how badly written, researched, and edited a book by a well-known author could be. In the end, it had a kind of freakish charm.

Lev Raphael books is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction.

How Reading Henry James Changed My Life

I had an amazing senior year of college reading (and reveling in) George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James.

While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42.

lady(Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s 1996 film of Portrait)

That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

It may sound like a cliché, but I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for.  My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining.  It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction in a wide range of genres.

 

Has a Teacher Changed Your Life?

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and I’m giving a shout-out to the writing professor who changed my life.  Her advice and guidance in college echo in my mind decades later now that I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University as a guest for several years.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus that I fell in love with writing itself.

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She was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia myself right after graduate school to teach for a few years before I quit to write full time. She didn’t believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.” Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She tried to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, to see it the way you did, making you feel like she was communing with you, not knocking you down.  And her overall goal was to create a community of learning, not set students against each other as rivals.

I took every class she taught and read two authors in her American Novel survey course who’ve stayed with me for thirty years, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Dr. Lauer is one reason why years later my second mystery The Edith Wharton Murders has two (fictional) Wharton societies at war with each other. In a tribute to her, I made my sleuth the author of a Wharton bibliography, just as she was. I also based one of the continuing characters in the series on her because she loved mysteries so much and I wanted to feel her presence in the books as I wrote them.

She said to me more than once in college–privately–that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something emotionally real. That was my El Dorado, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication. It was a story drawing on my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

I had already graduated and was in an MFA program, but she midwifed the story because she knew I was so anxious about broaching the subject matter. She made me read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, editor of The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which then had an audience of 4.5 million readers. It wouldn’t exist without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and mentoring.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the author I am today whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries. When MSU’s English department invited me to start teaching for them a few years ago as a guest, I realized that Dr. Lauer’s imprint was still so strong on me that I was teaching the way she did, interacting with students the way she would–filtered through my own personality, of course. And I remembered that after a terrific class one day I asked her how I could thank her. She smiled and said “Just pass it on.”

great-teachersLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.