To the NYT Book Review

TO THE EDITOR

As a reader of the Book Review for decades and as an author of eight books, I object to the inclusion of five pages (out a total of 32 pages) of advertisements listing works from self-publishers such as Xlibris, AuthorHouse, and iUniverse. Some of your readers may be unaware that these titles weren’t vetted by legitimate publishers, and, by seeing them listed in the Book Review, you have tacitly bestowed your august imprimatur by association, equalizing them with titles that have been rigorously selected by publishing experts and that have been professionally edited and designed. I am not castigating the individual publications—some may be worthy—but these ads are paid for by the authors, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of self-promotion and to say the title appeared in the New York Times. Secondly, I doubt very much if anyone reads these ads because of the tiny type and the briefness of the copy. In essence, they do not serve your readers needs at all. The Book Review may be unable to discriminate when they make decisions about which advertisers to feature, but in the interest of your readers, who expect value from your pages, these self-publishing ads waste precious space. Why not create collective ads to promote small independent presses instead?

Sincerely,

Laury A. Egan

 

 

 

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“A Certain Loneliness” by Sandra Gail Lambert

“An ‘Outsider’ Writer” by Laury A. Egan

I became aware of Sandra Gail Lambert through a fine article in Poets & Writers about “Outsider” writers—in her case, a writer crippled by polio since her early days. Immediately, I ordered the book of memoirs, and as I began reading, I kept thinking that most readers would consider Lambert brave: for kayaking when she is disabled (in waters frequented by alligators) and for often living alone when she is wheelchair-bound and dealing with constant pain and fatigue. Yes, she is brave—as an author—to write honestly about her life, but I suspect Lambert would deny that she’s personally brave. Instead, her life is about conquering logistics, deciding how much physical strength she will have each day, how long her wheelchair battery will last, and how she will negotiate tricky terrain, all doing as much as possible by herself, without help. A number of times in the book she allows strangers to lend a hand, but if she is able to calculate ways to get from Point A to Point B and succeed alone, that’s her first choice.

As a semi-disabled woman and a writer, A Certain Loneliness made me aware of how strongly I felt about being independent, in part because there are times and places where no one will come to the rescue or others (including friends) will disappear and avoid a disabled person. Independence becomes a primary aspiration, because if you don’t develop and hone this trait, you’ll fail to live the fullest version of your life. I completely get this attitude and applaud Lambert for becoming expert at independence and for rejecting self pity. The latter is really hard because it’s so easy to compare one’s limited existence with those who never think twice about walking on uneven pavement, bumpy ground, or thick snow and sand, or to deal with the terrors of stairs; who never have to pace themselves and marshal their energy; who never have to deal with the deleterious effects of chronic pain. Each reader—particularly those who are disabled—will find valuable lessons in coping and adapting to adversity and loss in this book. Others will have their consciousness raised and, hopefully, will become more sensitized to the ongoing struggles of women and men who must live with impairments. All will admire Lambert’s deeply passionate writing about Florida’s birds and wildlife. She is also refreshingly open about her lesbianism, presenting it smoothly in mentions of ex-lovers and the community of women who surround her.

For me, I heard Lambert’s quiet message about giving myself permission to be tired, to not be ashamed that I can’t do as much as others or what I once was able to do. She teaches us to live to the maximum—to our individual maximum—on our terms, regardless of restrictions. A Certain Loneliness is an inspiring and uncompromising book, written with candor, directness, and humanity.

2018, University of Nebraska Press      Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Certain-Loneliness-Memoir-American-Lives/dp/149620719X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1537545968&sr=8-1&keywords=a+certain+loneliness&dpID=41QBnuOj-BL&preST=_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

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“Call Me by Your Name”

Last night, I watched “Call Me by Your Name” and found my reaction was surprisingly uneven. I’d love to know what other viewers thought about the film. Please comment! The first issue was the rudeness as displayed by Oliver, arriving and crashing on the bed, skipping dinner on his first night with a new family (and other times), and his overall thoughtless and unlikable behavior. Whether the filmmaker/writer was trying to portray an arrogant American dropped into a sophisticated household or to set up the character’s later change into a more sensitive man, I had trouble feeling any sympathy for Oliver and–other than he looked like a handsome god–couldn’t believe that Elio would fall for him, except in a very plastic way, which didn’t seem to fit Elio’s deep personality. This was a big hurdle to get over, one I never quite managed. The father’s conversations with his son also grated. Why was he whining about never having the same kind of love (as Oliver and Elio) in his life when it seemed that he and his wife were quite close and a great couple? Felt a little like the father-son dialogues were an opportunity to moralize and “tell” us some of the movie’s themes in case we were too dim to figure them out. Give me the depth and complexity of “Brokeback Mountain” any day. While I applaud the subtle and beautiful nature of the film, it needed to begin with the Oliver character less obnoxious so we didn’t have to travel so far to get into the relationship.

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“The New Valley” by Josh Weil

The New Valley is an extremely impressive collection of three novellas, the first two more akin to each other, but the third, “Sarverville Remains,” is one of the best pieces I’ve read this year. Told in the voice of a “diminished” young man, it is brilliantly written, with a plot that circles around until the story is fully told. Maintaining the style of Geoffrey, the story’s narrator, must have been a difficult task but is seamlessly handled by Weil. The first two novellas are also very fine and more classically approached. As reviewed, this author’s style, settings, and moods share similarities with Kent Haruf and Annie Proulx. Highly recommended. Available in paperback.

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“Beautiful Gravity” by Martin Hyatt

Beautiful Gravity: A Novel

by Martin Hyatt

Antibookclub, 2016

 

“They say towns like this don’t exist anymore, but I know that they do because I live here. Noxington is one of those towns where the big stores that sell everything…have yet to be built.” The opening lines of the first chapter lay out a small, hardscrabble Louisiana town where thirty-six-year-old Boz Matthews lives, not completely by choice, but because when he attempts to leave, he feels sick. He is trapped by his anxieties and loneliness, his awareness of his homosexuality, and his feelings of responsibility to his grandfather, who took him in after his mother walked into his family’s burning home and died. As Boz says about himself: “…no matter who I am with or how many people I am around, I never feel like I’m truly with anyone but me.” Boz escapes his claustrophobic existence by watching movies, listening to music, and fantasizing, until his friend Meg, who is chronically suicidal, returns after discharge from a mental hospital. Then, a glamorous, world-worn singer, Catty, arrives with Kyle, an ex-boxer. The four eventually form a fluid nuclear family of sorts, in which each shifts from heterosexuality to homosexuality in a rotation that fulfills unspoken deep needs. Hyatt handles this flexibility with smooth skill, applying an almost post-gay mentality in which his characters exist as themselves rather than as figures with fixed sexualities, a new trend in contemporary literature that should be applauded. Each person is treated with respect and sympathy by the author, an attitude that reflects his own humanity. He has also created a contained physical world for this novel, one more reminiscent of an intimate theater piece, despite the astutely observed backdrop of Noxington. Most action takes place in the diner, where Boz works, and his room above the diner; the tightly enfolding setting seems to amplify the intensity of the relationships.

Although the location is extremely different, there are some similarities between Hyatt’s novel and the work of the South African writer, Damon Galgut, who usually features an outsider, a young man wandering in search of something he can’t define. The characters in Beautiful Gravity have all united in one place, however, but the narrator evinces much of the same quiet, tragic solitariness, the quest for meaning and self-understanding. Throughout, Hyatt’s writing is fresh and accomplished, with numerous memorable lines that sizzle with simple and piercing honesty. Boz provides this telling analysis about himself: “Most of us in towns like this stay put. Besides, it’s the only thing I know how to do well. I am excellent at staying.” And as Meg says to Boz, “Your being alive and my desire for death are the only things that make me happy.” Or, as Boz says about his grandfather: “You can’t just leave someone that takes you at a time when there is nothing about you worth having.”

Beautiful Gravity is a blend of bleak realism and uplifting transcendence, of despondency and hopefulness, told tenderly by the narrator. Because of the outstanding success of this novel, Martin Hyatt’s next work will undoubtedly garner major publishing interest. I look forward to reading it!—Laury A. Egan, author of The Outcast Oracle and, forthcoming, Fabulous! An Opera Buffa

https://www.amazon.com/Beautiful-Gravity-Novel-Martin-Hyatt/dp/0997592303/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503937764&sr=1-1&keywords=beautiful+gravity

 

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Review: I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon

I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody

by Sinan Antoon

City Lights Publishers, 2007

“Pentimento” is a fine descriptor for Sinan Antoon’s layered novella, one that incorporates a young student’s gritty and terrifying incarceration, poetic and beautifully rendered romantic memories, and recollections on life under Saddam Hussein’s harsh totalitarian regime. The text whirls between joy, humor, sadness, horror, and fear; dipping in and out of what the protagonist is experiencing or has experienced; blurring the lines between past, present, reality, dreams, and hallucinations. The evocative first line: “Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky” soon collides with the line uttered by a member of the secret police: “If you move again, I swear to God I’ll crush your teeth.” This is a rhapsody to the author’s country as it once was, to the proud spirit of the Iraqi people, yet it is also a cry of profound grief, as Antoon has witnessed his nation being trampled by dictators and its riches plundered. The work is powerful and complex, authentic and honest, a devastating warning. –Laury A. Egan

 

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A Swirling, Deftly Written Collection

The Jungle Around Us: Stories by Anne Raeff

2016, University of Georgia Press – Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Stories

These stories are beguiling in their quiet simplicity, but, as one proceeds through the collection, they gather mass, until, at the book’s end, the reader marvels at their accumulative weight. Raeff achieves this, all the while maintaining a light elegance in her prose; she is that rare writer, a humble one, who keeps her head down and hides her power, or attempts to do so, yet her brilliance shines through. She draws her characters with deftness, interconnecting many of them throughout the book, which is why, perhaps, it feels that the author keeps cracking open doors to show a bigger picture than the one within the pages. Indeed, each story seems to contain a novella or a novel within, as if the text had been gently whittled down. Though Raeff is expert at this short length, it would be wonderful to have these stories expanded into longer works.

Due to the interweaving of some characters, the collection eddies in our consciousness, as, one by one, we meet the protagonists and then move on to another set of people, only to return to the original characters again. This swirling effect is increased by their heady dislocation into humid jungles, literally and psychically, and then their escape into the cool, colorless cities of New York or Leningrad. The extreme contrasts inherent in these environments are augmented by the peculiar displacement of the characters and their families—most are of Jewish/Middle-European heritage, who have escaped Nazi Germany. These transplants seem incompatible in their new locations, places such as Bolivia, yet they often find unexpected solace and self-awareness there.

This collection should be read twice in order to draw the strings more tightly between stories with repeated characters and also to experience the nuanced themes more fully–Laury A. Egan, author of Fog and Other Stories and Fabulous! (forthcoming, November)

 

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