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This will be my fifth, and final, Contemporary Fiction Views diary. It has been a great pleasure to fill in for bookgirl. You should try it. Limelite will be writing a diary here on Tuesday, January 8th, but it would be great if YOU could write a diary for Jan. 1st (or maybe the 15th?). If there is some recent book that interests you, or if you have something to say about books in general, please send me or Limelite a message.

As I write this, there are 2581 diaries with the R&BLers tag. Every day there are more of them, both the one-off diaries people are inspired to write, and the weekly series that Susan from 29 organizes into her schedule (see my tip jar). You can click on any series, and find a whole shelf of diaries. My New Year's Resolution will be to dig a little deeper than that, to go back and read - I was going to say dozens, but in fact it will be hundreds, of the fine book diaries these archives hold. I will get to know this community better, and look for inspiration in some very thoughtful, illuminating diaries.

You can find all the Contemporary Fiction Views diaries by clicking that link in Susan's magic schedule. Perhaps my resolution will inspire you to dig back through the work of some of your favorite R&BLers diarists. But today is Christmas, so I'll make it a bit easier for you. As a thank you to bookgirl, for letting me tend her stall, and as a farewell to this series, I have organized the whole shelf of Contemporary Fiction Views diaries, so far, and put it at your fingertips.

This is a Catalog, so you may just want to skim through and survey the extent of bookgirl's fine work, or you may want to click on some of the links, and read the essays that appeal to you. Everything between the two lines is the Catalog. When you're finished with that, I'll suggest some things you might put in your own comments, to share with everyone else reading this diary. Here's the Catalog:


A new series.

Bookgirl introduces herself, discusses her earliest influences:

I was one of those geeky kids (before there was the word "geek" in pop culture nomenclature) who headed for Edith Hamilton, L. Frank Baum, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Jules Verne in grade school before beginning to inhale Jane Austen, Dickens and the Brontes during junior high. The foundation led naturally to many genres and I spent many years happily burrowing into mystery, SF, fantasy and historical fiction. Happy as I was, there remained, however, something missing. It's like wanting the occasional lobster while usually being happy with stew or macaroni.
It gets better from there, as bookgirl explains how, living in a small North Idaho town, she got exposed to interesting contemporary authors, and how their various enchantments caught hold of her imagination. Explains what 'Contemporary Fiction' is, and why it matters.


Family and Music.

Most of bookgirl's diaries are looking at specific books she's read. I won't tell you much about the books. Whichever books intrigue you, read those diaries, because bookgirl explains them all in fair-minded and well-crafted prose, showing what worked for her in each book. I will excerpt enough to show which books each diary covers.

Southern fiction is particularly adept in ringing true when it affirms that you never left home. It's in your heart wherever you go. And your kin is right there with you, welcome or not.

Two novels that delve into the depths of family strength and the despair kin can cause are The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis and Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass.

The Lost Saints of Tennessee has dual timelines, and a family of complicated individuals who judge each other and (sometimes) condemn themselves. "This novel celebrates the beauty in hardscrabble, ordinary lives and the second, third and fourth chances we give those we love if we give in to that love."

Nashville Chrome is a "fictionalized account of the Browns. They were a sibling trio who created remarkable harmonies that pioneered American music, and they crossed paths with everyone from Elvis and, in passing, Johnny Cash, to Chet Atkins and Jim Reeves.

The writing about music and harsh survival by a family living off the land is beautiful. So are his depictions of family relationships, as complicated as any layered harmonies created by the siblings in their music."



Deep into historical novelist Thomas Mallon's latest novel, Watergate, it all falls into place. This is the Nixon presidency as viewed through the lens of Mad Men...the farce Mallon has constructed shows its sturdy underpinnings in tragedy.

The Baker's Daughter.

When it fits just right, there's nothing like a dual storyline to shine lights from varying perspectives on aspects of the human condition. For The Baker's Daughter, by Sarah M. McCoy, stories in two timelines illuminate questions of loyalty, decency, secrets and the importance of feeding one's body as well as soul.

Gritty country tales.

Sometimes the world just doesn't seem to contain all that much hope. The slivers of it that exist have to be found in quiet moments and in the resilence of people mourning loss. Those people are like the ones who live in Krafton in Alan Heathcock's Volt, a series of connected stories.

Krafton is a farmtown in the middle of nowhere. Nobody is rich. A lot of people are poor and the mean-spirited run rampant. The main characters in each story try to take charge, or control a small part, of their crazy world after events show them just how helpless they are in controlling their own destinies.



Sometimes it takes only one element to move a novel from mainstream fiction to contemporary literary fiction. For Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters, that one element is her ability to use plural first person so effectively and movingly in a story of three sisters who find their way home.

The Weird Sisters has a distinctive voice that is entirely captivating. While each of the three sisters, who share billing as the main characters, is the focus in an overseeing narration, the words used are not third person omniscient or the standard first person, but the plural "we" and "us". This is the story of all three sisters, not a trio of stories. This literary device is one of the most charming features used to make certain each of the sisters takes her rightful place within the novel.

This is a wonderful book. It is charming, humorous, poignant, sniffly-inducing, heartwarming and has not a whiff of saccharine or tweeness.


Delusions and North Korea.

At first, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son appears to be a straight-forward story set in a nation surrounded in secrecy and deception, North Korea...The novel throws some strange twists at the reader and tries more than one way to convey narrative.
This diary has twists in it too. Bookgirl says "The Orphan Master's Son is ultimately about the ways that, when leaders deceive us, we not only go along with it in order to survive, we find new ways to fool ourselves." She then considers how characters in the book deceive themselves; how we in America are deceived, and deceive ourselves; and how this insight made her reassess the characters in the book.


A communal fairy tale

This communal passing on of a story is the key to Arcadia, the latest novel by Lauren Groff. So is the sense that, while the novel takes place from the 1960s to the next decade, it is timeless, a tale the Grimm Brothers may have heard to pass along: "The forest is dark and deep and pushes so heavily on Bit that he must run away from the gnarled trunks, from the groans of the wind in the branches."


Unreliable, naive narrators.

A discussion of Unreliable Narrators in fiction. That second link goes to wikipedia; their article includes some theory, some signals of unreliable narration, more than 30 books that have it, and five different unreliable narrator types: Picaro, Madman, Clown, Naíf and Liar.

Bookgirl looks at the concept, and then applies it to a particular book:

Sometimes deciding whether the narrator can be trusted takes up a good deal of the reader's attention. This was the case for me when reading Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which won the Man Booker Prize last year.
In most of these diaries, I didn't find time to read the comments. But I did here, with illuminating examples provided by papa monzano (Smilla's Sense of Snow); quarkstomper (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Nevermore); Dumbo (Huck Finn); and greblos, with a fine, three comment analysis of feminism in Gone With the Wind. There were many other worthy examples, but these four make nice capsule reviews in themselves.


Let's Go Meta.

Half this diary is about Carolyn Parkhurst's The Nobodies Album, and the other half is about metafiction in general. It discusses Patricia Waugh's Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, Charles Palliser's Quincunx, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, and it mentions Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, Carolyn Parkhurst's Dogs of Babel, E.M. Forster's Howards End, Paul Auster, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Since we're talking metafiction here, I'll avoid the comments that encapsulate one clear idea, and show you this thread, where upstate NY says "I never understood the term metafiction", and gets into an interesting debate with pico and with papa monzano about metafiction, with several examples.


Imagining a Life.

Elisabeth Gille was five years old when her mother was taken to Auschwitz and didn't return. Her father suffered the same fate a few months later. She and her older sister survived when a German officer saw the older girl's blonde hair and told their governess they were not taking any children that night. The governess understood. She and the children disappeared.

Decades later, when she was older than her mother ever became, and although she remembered nothing about her, Elisabeth tried to see the world through her mother's eyes. That attempt is The Mirador. Her mother was the once acclaimed, then forgotten, then reclaimed, writer Irene Nemirovsky.


Innocence Lost.

The loss of innocence is a common theme of fiction. It's not unusual for a young man or woman, or even a middle-aged one, to look back on the year that things changed. The year they grew up.

For young Cal in When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man, it is the winter he discovers what it may have been like for the good captain in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island before he became a pirate. And because of what he learns and what happens, he leaves Loyalty Island in Nick Dybek's novel of innocence lost. Cal believes he can never return home because he will never regain his innocence...

My classical choice of a novel conveying innocence lost is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, as Pip learns about his real heritage and whether he can trust the girl he has grown to love. John Irving writes a great deal about innocence lost. A novel set in my part of the world, the American West, that tells a brilliantly moving tale of innocence lost is Larry Watson's Montana 1948. And there there is The Catcher in the Rye. I also would add Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye and Donna Tartt's The Secret History.


A Saramago fable.

Men have been many things over the years -- ignorant, greedy, forgetful, inconstant, loyal, intelligent, hard-working and inspired. To the fortunate, their companions have been animals. When that happens, animal companions represent the best of these qualities that mankind wishes or believes it displays.

Such is the case with the quiet, stolid Indian elephant Solomon in one of Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago's last novels, The Elephant's Journey. Saramago, who died in 2010, the year this was published, took the true tale of an elephant that was regifted from King João III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian as a wedding present in 1551, and turned it into a rambling fable of small acts and, when least expected, large emotions.


Anne Lamott's mother and daughter.

Bookgirl is discussing the third book of a trilogy, so first she fills us in on Anne Lamott's two previous novels about Elizabeth and her daughter Rosie: Rosie and Crooked Little Heart.

Rosie is on the verge of many changes. In 2010, those changes come into full fruition in Lamott's Imperfect Birds. In a novel bursting out of its seams with little moments, the chronicle of Elizabeth, now an anxious, recovering alcholic, and force of nature Rosie continues. And oh, what a wallop some of those little moments carry.

For example, there is the time Elizabeth finds pills in her daughter's jeans and rationalizes their existence. After all, she's a good kid. She's tried cocaine, done a little pot and booze, and is sexually active. The cocaine "upsets" Elizabeth, but Rosie is a good kid...

Perhaps it's best to say this novel isn't about a main character, but instead is the chronicle of how a relationship is assumed to be close and yet veers close to the edge of an emotional abyss.


Whole Universes Contained Therein.

This is a diary about short stories, and covers various collections: John Cheever, Alan Heathcock's Volt, Elissa Schappell's Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Melissa Banks's Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melinda Moustakis' Bear Down Bear North, Charles Kitteridge's The Last Great Place, Shann Ray's American Masculine, Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision, and Alice Munro's Dear Life.

The diary has many thoughts on short stories, and collections. Here's the first:

Different types of writing can be served best by different kinds of reading. Although it didn't strike me immediately, once I became a teacher and started deconstructing reading strategies, eventually I realized this applies to me as an experienced reader as well as those a lot younger, just embarking on their reading journeys.

Short stories became more meaningful when I started reading them in one sitting, and not reading more than one at a sitting. I didn't do this during my first joyful short story binge. When John Cheever's stories were published together in that glorious Ballantine paperback edition in red in 1980, I devoured as many as five or six in an evening. It was like discovering steak and lobster were fine, mighty fine, and getting sick on gorging oneself.

It took decades, but I started reading them one at a time again in the aughts. This was after discovering Alice Munro in the '90s and realizing how I appreciated that they were published one at a time in The New Yorker. Putting the magazine down and savoring the impact made each story all the more special.

And that's how I still read short stories. But it wasn't until I went into education that I realized this was a deliberate reading choice, aka a strategy. It's my version of slow reading. I want to take the time to connect ("Only connect ... live in fragments no longer" as E.M. Forster wrote), to see how this new experience fits in with what I already know and have read and have felt.


Inspired By novels.

Some of these "inspired by" novels I'll never have the time to read, and that does not bother me. Pride and Prejudice alone must have nearly as many imitators as there are Sherlock Holmes pastiches. One of the most successful was Bridget Jones' Diary. It even inspired a new genre in chicklit, although I thought Helen Fielding's portrayal of an updated Mrs. Bennet was at least at successful and interesting a storyline as that of Bridget and Mark Darcy (Fielding actually was inspired by her crush on Colin Firth in the BBC version, and who can blame her?). Others seem to follow the lead of the ultra-steamy genre read The Bar Sinister by Linda Berdoll.

And this isn't the first time Austen has inspired a entire new genre or subgenre. The Regency stories by Georgette Heyer owed their wit and wordplay as homage to Dear Jane, and spawned thousands of romances with several published every month on a regular basis for years.

Edith Wharton is another author much admired whose work is not left alone. Published this month is Francesca Segal's The Innocents, a retelling of The Age of Innocence. Peter Carey's Jack Maggs is Great Expectations from Magwitch's point of view. Zadie Smith's On Beauty pays tribute to E.M. Forster's Howards End. "Only connect" indeed, as Rembrandt scholar Howard Belsey flounders, his wife Kiki is far too good for him and the Kipps are, well, all over the place. Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and newly named Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller owe their inspiration to what survives of Homer.

Not that these "inspired by" works or even borrowings are new. Much of Shakespeare consists of retold tales, after all. And then there are the novels based on real people...[bookgirl mentions eight of them]


Retelling a Myth.

Following on from the last diary,

When A.S. Byatt was a young child, she spent hours reading about the bloody fate that befell the Norse gods. Since she was reading while WWII was raging, it's no wonder the myth and the war drew sparks off each other in her imagination.

In Ragnarok, part of the Canongate series on myths, Byatt does not merge the stories or force their comparison. Nor does what happens to a thin child evacuated to the British countryside, who is certain she will never see her father again, overshadow the mythical world.

Instead, Byatt presents two entwined, long setpieces -- one of the evacuated thin child, who is nameless, and the other a retelling of the destruction of the gods with just a touch of meta commentary. She ends with a comparison of the destruction of the gods to the destructive acts of foolish mankind today. Again, Byatt is not forcing a comparison but noting that today, people are trying to destroy the world as surely as the gods' actions made their fate a foregone conclusion.


Detour into Memoir.

Although the focus of this diary series is, and will remain, contemporary fiction, occcasionally another book comes along that deserves attention. One such book is a memoir by Antonia Fraser of her life with the late Harold Pinter, Must You Go?

The title alone grabbed me. Lady Antonia Fraser, from outward appearances, seemed to have a lovely life. An 18-year-marriage to a Conservative MP, six children, author of highly respected historical biographies and a wide circle of friends. While saying goodbyes at her sister's dinner party, playwright Harold Pinter asked her, "Must you go?" And both of their lives changed.


Noir as social commentary.

Arthur Puskis has devoted his life to the Vaults, the repository of all the official records of The City at the height of its rough-and-tumble, pre-war days. The orderliness, the routine, the proven veracity of his work provide all his existence requires. Until the day he discovers a file has been duplicated.

Ethan Poole is a tough guy trying to redeem himself after a crooked career in the ring. Now a PI, he blackmails corrupt city leaders and loves a fiery union organizer.

Top newspaper reporter Francis Frings, paramour of nightclub singer extraordinaire Nora Aspen, hears from a top city leader who has had enough and is ready to sing.

This is the setup for Toby Ball's debut novel, The Vaults traces, in these three narratives, events set in motion by that duplicate file, a blackmail case and a corrupt official's decision to come clean. Combine them with a headstrong, flawed crook of a mayor and his efforts to get a group of Polish businessmen to sign a business contract, and the ensuing crosses, counter crosses, last-minute decisions and long-range plans result in an engrossing story that the original Warner Brothers should have had the chance to film in glorious black and white.


Dark fables.

A small Alpine community appears to have recovered from a great war in which young men from the village died. Most did not return. But one did in Philippe Claude's novel Brodeck.

Brodeck survived a prison camp by degrading himself, crawling on all fours with a dog collar on to amuse the guards. He writes reports now, chronicling the changing of the seasons and noting the passage of time.

Time passes very slowly for the village, as well as for Brodeck, his wife, daughter and
the woman who raised him as her own child. It's not quite a time of healing, but it is a
time when the townsfolk give the impression they are not ready to live again.

They don't have much of a choice when a stranger arrives, a larger-than-life figure with a donkey and a horse, who follows people around. Then comes "the thing that happened", when the stranger is killed. The leaders of the village charge Brodeck with writing a report to explain what happened, to justify any actions taken.


Lifted to the surface to breathe.

Even if short stories are not explicitly connected in a collection, although linked short stories are slightly trendy right now, their themes still can weave together connections. The connections in three stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise create a larger story of loss as the world grows older, but ties to nature and parenthood hold strong....

[bookgirl discusses each of the three stories, and how they relate to each other]

....Bergman, a Southern girl married to a veterinarian and now living in New England, connects the disparate parts of her background into the fiber of these stories. They made me think of my mother who raised three children while her husband was serving overseas, of my grandparents who made it through the Depression by knowing how to use the gifts of the land wisely, and of my child beginning university studies and what I have passed on. The stories made me think of the joy I had growing a garden while living in a climate more hospitable to beans and tomatoes than the irrigated vineyard countryside where I live now, and of camping near Yellowstone under the stars as a child and walking through woods where the summer sun heat poked through the branches near North Idaho's deep lakes. The stories made me think of how I should use that knowledge more often in the ways I think about what I see going on around me these days, and how they may help me hold true to the things that matter.


The rich are different.

It is not essential to love or even admire characters to be engaged in a novel. But it is a marvelous reading experience when characters represent figures who in real life have earned disdain, yet on the page have earned at least curiosity and at best a bit of empathy as they try to fit in their world.

Such is the case in debut novel Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. The first-world problems of a Manhattan banker and his family during the weekend of the oldest daughter's wedding would seem the least likely subject for care or concern. Even if she is in her third trimester. But the more the reader learns about Winn Van Meter and his family, both his children and those who came before him, the more his situation is apparent. He thinks he is the ultimate insider, yet it is revealed that family things he grew up believing may not be so. He is trying to hold together a view of the world that upholds certain standards, doing his bit as a part of the establishment, yet he doesn't fit in as firmly has he had believed.

At the same time, his youngest daughter could use a little understanding. She's not getting it, mainly because Winn is trying to uphold perceived standards about what is and is not proper. And in trying to uphold those standards, his conduct is far from becoming.


Telling themselves stories in order to live.

Joan Didion's statement that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live" is one of my touchstones. Its truth is shown to me every time I try to figure out why someone believes even an absurd thing -- often because he has tried to form a narrative around something he wants to be true -- or that someone becomes a reader because a story resonated with her -- a cause for celebration.

The other touchstone is E.M. Forster's "only connect -- live in fragments no longer" from Howards End. The entire quotation, speaking of both connecting prose and passion, and of human love being seen at its height, is powerful to me precisely because of the connection between being able to write, to communicate, about the better aspects of human nature and one of those better aspects -- the ability to care for another, to love others. (I'll leave the part of the quote about the no longer isolated beast and monk dying -- those "unconnected arches that have never joined into a man" -- to someone more able to discuss it.)

Both touchstones came to mind as I got to the end of Skippy Dies. Paul Murray's sophomore novel, which was longlisted for the Booker, is about the students and teachers at a well-established Dublin board school and those they love, or would love. It's also about string theory, drugs, music and other dimensions. And how grownups let children down. And how the good guys rarely win. And how sometimes people get a second chance and, when they are certain characters in this sprawling novel, the reader wishes them well.


"We try. All of us. We try."

Most people who have heard about Richard Ford's latest novel, Canada, have heard about the opening lines:
   First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. ... Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank. They weren't strange people, not obviously criminals. No one would've thought they were destined to end up the way they did. They were just regular -- although, of course, that kind of thinking became null and void the moment they did rob a bank.
There is something about the arrangement of those words, the word choice, the voice, that draws me in like few books have since the glorious, Whitmanesque opening of Don DeLillo's Underworld:
   He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
Yet in writing about an American who ends up in Canada, it is neither American nor Canadian literature to which Ford connects. Rather, it is Thomas Hardy, that early modernist, that poet who saw the end of the Victorian age, and his man who throws away his greatest treasures, gains power and returns to nothing -- Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge -- to which Ford connects....

...The novels Ford references are The Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, The Sheltering Sky, The Nick Adams Stories and The Mayor of Casterbridge. It is possible to trace connections between each of these novels and the characters in Ford's Canada. Henchard's story is the one that struck the deepest chord with me, and not just because it is my favorite Hardy novel. It's also because of the way that circumstances and events are dictated by character in both novels...

In the comments, here is a short thread between cfk, Monsieur Georges, bookgirl, and Limelite, who talks about meeting the author, Richard Ford.


Now we have a triptych of diaries on Haruki Murakami's IQ84:

1Q84 Book One: "It wouldn't be make believe"

Haruki Murakami is not an author I would recommend to everyone, but he is an author whose work I love to fall into. It's sometimes magic realism, sometimes fantastical, sometimes just outright other-worldly.

His characters live quiet lives of routine, their sadness just beneath the surface. They carry on without giving the impression of having given up. Some have secret wishes or desires, reasons to continue on.

Such are the two main characters in 1Q84, Murakami's three-part work of fiction with two moons, Little People and either one reality, or not.

Tonight's diary is about Book 1, which takes place from April through June in the year 1984. Possibly. In the opening chapter, a young woman named "green peas", or Aomame, is in a cab stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge, recogizing a piece of classical music she realizes she shouldn't know. As she prepares to climb off the bridge at the cab driver's suggestion, he tells her that she should use her own eyes and her own judgment, and that "there's always only one reality".

The middle of 1Q84
Jung was writing about James Joyce's Ulysses, but his observation rings just as true for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 when he wrote:
   What is so staggering about 'Ulysses" is the fact that behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the dream of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course.
Two moons hang in the sky, and the reason for why that is so is revealed by Murakami in Book 2 of 1Q84...
"I'll never let go of your hand again"
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is one odd novel. It's one of those odd novels that is far too long but that, once the end is in sight, a reader may not want to end.

That's because in Book 3, Murakami pulls out all the stops and goes totally sentimental. The song quoted at the beginning of this massive novel is the old standard "Paper Moon" -- "but it wouldn't be make-believe/if you believed in me".

After three books and more than 900 pages, that's what it comes down to -- believing in another person. In their very existence. And in the existence of a world where two moons hang in the sky.

Bookgirl really likes this book. I should've read these three diaries thoroughly, because I'm sure there is plenty of fine writing in them, and comments too, no doubt. But I like Murakami, and I haven't read this book yet. If you want to know more, you'll just have to follow the links.


Literary journals.

Bookgirl talks about the journals she reads regularly: Narrative, One Story, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, TinHouse, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books.

In the comments, aravir talks about Granta, and gives the contents of two issues from thirty years ago, covering travel writing, and the best British contemporary authors. Impressive.


How awards matter.

Mo Yan has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, Hilary Mantel becomes the first woman to win two Booker Prizes the National Book Award nominees this year have some interesting contender and Seth McFarlane is hosting the Oscars. It's definitely awards season. And, yes, I just threw the last one in to catch your attention.

I admit to being two-faced about awards. While it would be ridiculous to slavishly agree that award-winners, and only award-winners, are worthy literature, paying attention to the awards has offered two valuable criteria to my reading life.

One of the most basic benefits of noting awards is the way it adds more books to my reading list. While it's true that the reading list didn't need a boost if you look at how many books are in my TBR mountains, it's also true that's not the point. I read to expand my world, so discovering new authors or new works and seeing what they can add to what I know about the way the world works and the ways of people who are not me is a joy. No matter how much I pay attention to what's being buzzed in the literary fiction world, there are always new discoveries to make.

Bookgirl goes on to discuss the Pulitzer, the Booker and the Nobel Prize, and about thirty authors she discovered through the various prizes.


A falcon wanders at the top of the world.

...Jamil Ahmad, at age 80, published his first work last year with The Wandering Falcon after spending years in the area.

It isn't quite accurate to call The Wandering Falcon a novel. It is part fable, part character study of a way of life rather than one singular character and part a setting down in writing tales that have probably been told there for years.

There is a man in the book who is a wandering falcon. His parents are unfortunate lovers; she's the daughter of a tribal leader and he's a nobody. They ran away together, finding refuge for several years near an army fort. When her father's people eventually find them, the outcome is not good. Their child, the falcon of the story, survives. He's passed from mentor to mentor over the years. What he learns and how he became what he did is not told, however. He disappears for pages and pages.


Hiatus. Here's bookgirl's whole diary:

Although I love writing Contemporary Fiction Views, my work demands have increased lately and I've got to devote more time to them. So the diary is going on hiatus through the holidays. I'll see how my work schedule is going and hope I can return to writing about the depth and breadth of new literary fiction.

Thank you to everyone who has been so kind and supportive.

Bookgirl also mentions, in a comment, "I'm launching a new program at work that's a bit nebulous and calls for extra time on duty. But I'm hopeful it could be the start of something cool also."

So we hope she can succeed with her new program, and also write more Contemporary Fiction Views diaries. And if not, we know bookgirl's doing good in the world.


Once On a Moonless Night. By Limelite.

...How I come to books – or they come to me, for all I know – is exactly like the deciphered text of the long lost sutra written by the Buddha himself in Dai Sijie’s latest novel, Once On a Moonless Night.
   Once on a moonless night a lone man is traveling in the dark when he comes across a long path that merges into the mountains and the mountain into the sky, but halfway along, at a turn in the path, he stumbles.  As he falls, he clutches at a tuft of grass, which briefly displays a fatal outcome, but soon his hands can hold him no longer and, like a condemned man in his final hour, he casts one last glance below, where he can see only the darkness of those unfathomable depths.

    “Let go,” rings a voice in his ears, “The ground is there, beneath your feet.”  The traveler, trustingly, does so and lands safe and sound on a path running just a short drop below him.

That’s why I was delighted to discover this story about the Biblio-Mat, a book vending machine at The Monkey’s Paw bookstore in Toronto.  You pays your money and you takes your chance.  Las Vegas meets library.  Insert $2, pull the magic lever, wait in anticipatory suspense for the gears to grind and your book to be spit into your hands from the bowel of the wondrous one-armed bandit. “Every book a surprise,” it says on the refrigerator-sized dispenser of reading delights.  I need this machine!

The lure of the Biblio-Mat is that “People have a deep need to think the thing is actually being picked for them,” says the owner.  On this point and in my case alone, I disagree.  I don’t feel such a need to know.  I’m more like the trusting traveler and believe that whatever the book, I will enjoy reading it.  That is how great the power of the word is over me.  Almost without exception, once I drop into the pages of a novel, I am seduced by imagination.

Limelite then becomes a human Biblio-Mat; a voracious one, with a personal and discriminating esthetic. After discussing Once On a Moonless Night, Limelite gives capsule reviews of The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick, When the Night by Cristina Comencini, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, The Storyteller of Marrakesh: A Novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Vagrants by Yiyun Li, A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Untouchable by John Banville, The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, Gardens of Water by Alan Drew, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, Trojan Women: A Novel of the Fall of Troy by Byrne Fone, The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian, The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje, Caleb’s Crossing Geraldine Brooks, Baudolino by Umberto Eco, The Secrets of Jin-Shei by Alma Alexander, and Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss.


J. M. Coetzee & the Pursuit of Happiness. By me (= Brecht).

I just read Life & Times of Michael K. J. M. Coetzee wins many prizes (including two Bookers and the Nobel), and much praise. He is interesting and challenging...
I would like to tell you who J. M. Coetzee is, and what his writing tastes like. Or at least I should tell you the story of Michael K. But I'm not sure that's what's important here. I can't even tell you that you should read a book by Coetzee.

To be precise, you should read a book by Coetzee. I just can't promise that you'll enjoy it. Books are supposed to be fun. But that's not what Coetzee's books are for. If you want a book to make you think, and feel, and see things differently, Coetzee's pretty good at that.

Coetzee aims to do for his readers what Kafka does for him: ''I work on a writer like Kafka because he opens for me, or opens me to, moments of analytic intensity. And such moments are, in their lesser way, also a matter of grace, inspiration.''


Cultivating Conversation. By me, as are the next three.

I would say, if you want to read one Brecht diary, read this one, which is the most personal and meaningful. It includes the Beatles, Dante, Joan Didion, and a tale of boarding school days. I praise some Kossacks; analyze a resonant quote from E. M. Forster; discuss complex, subtle methods of conversation; and also how fiction can harmonize and clarify the world and our experience of it. That last is an idea I found woven into a lot of bookgirl's diaries.


What is Contemporary Fiction?

My brother says this is my best one. I chew on the question, "What is Contemporary Fiction?". I look for a definition on the internet, find it inadequate, indulge in some poetic metaphors (the internet is a sea, and written prose is a diverse forest), and consider what makes for great, eternal fiction. Then I look at what bookgirl said Contemporary Fiction was when she started this series.


Jhumpa Lahiri's subtle tapestries of the heart.

Jhumpa Lahiri has achieved much with just three books. Her most remarkable accomplishment, which you spot before even opening her work, is that she has earned both popular success and critical acclaim. These goals are not contradictory, but they are widely divergent.

Lahiri has written two short story collections: Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008); also a novel, The Namesake (2003), which I have yet to read. If you have read any of these, please comment below, ideally before you even read this diary - then you'll add brand new opinions to the mix, instead of responding to my own.

Unaccustomed Earth entered the New York Times bestseller list at number 1, a rare feat for a story collection. But with her first book, Lahiri had already blazed like a comet across the literary firmament. Neither debuts nor story collections generally win the Pulitzer Prize. Interpreter of Maladies - which is both - won that and seven others. Since then, it's sold so well that it's been translated into more than 30 languages.


Christmas Catalog.

You are already reading this diary. This link is for the kids who, when they reach the bottom of the slide, run straight back up the ladder to slide down again. You are gifted: you know how to enjoy being where you already are.


Whew. When I go to a fine restaurant with an appetizing menu, I like to read every item on the menu. I am always afraid, though my first choice sounds good, that I might be missing something even better.

Finishing writing this catalog feels a bit like finishing reading a long menu: it took longer than I expected, and accomplished less. If I did it again, I'd pick my four favorite bookgirl diaries, and tell you a little more about each of them. So this has been a learning experience, for me, at least.

What should you put in your comment, to share for Christmas? Well, best of all would be an offer to write a Contemporary Fiction Views diary for Jan. 1st (or 15th). And please stop by for Limelite's next diary, appearing here at 8PM EST on Tues. Jan. 8th.

I mentioned above that I'll be looking back through old Readers & Book Lovers diaries. So if you have a favorite R&BLers diary, especially one you read a few years ago, put a link to it in your comment (or the title), to share with others who missed it the first time. Or give some props to your favorite R&BLers diarist, if you think we should go back and look through the whole shelf of their work.

Alternatively, you could just tell us all what's the best book you read this year, or your favorite book of all time. These are just suggestions; you're welcome to comment in any manner you choose to.

This will be my last diary for awhile. On the morning of Friday, January 25th, I'll be writing about a Book That Changed My Life, Tristram Shandy. Every Friday after that, starting on Feb. 1st, at 6PM EST, I'll be writing a new series, Books Go Boom!

I hope to see you all there. Thanks again, bookgirl, Limelite, cfk, Susan from 29, and everyone else who helped me with these diaries, or showed up for the conversation here. You have already enriched my life.

Merry Christmas, to each and every one of you.

Originally posted to Brecht on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar and Readers & Book Lovers' Weekly Schedule (11+ / 0-)

    DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
    SUN 6:00 PM Young
    Reader's Pavilion
    The Book Bear
    Sun 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy
    Book Club
    Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading
    don mikulecky
    MON 8:00 PM Monday
    Murder Mystery
    Susan from 29
    Mon 11:00 PM My
    Favorite Books/Authors
    edrie, MichiganChet
    TUES 5:00 PM Indigo
    Kalliope: Poems from the Left
    alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT
    Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
    Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary
    Fiction Views
    Brecht, bookgirl
    WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
    Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries
    THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
    Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly
    Thu (third each month - on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks
    FRI 8:00 AM Books
    That Changed My Life
    Diana in NoVa
    SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City
    Chitown Kev
    Sat 4:00 PM Daily
    Kos Political Book Club
    Freshly Squeezed Cynic
    Sat 9:00 PM Books
    So Bad They're Good

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Mon Dec 24, 2012 at 06:23:10 AM PST

  •  lovely review (6+ / 0-)

    as always.  looking forward to your new series, Brecht.  it sounds intriguing.

    Yes, we need to talk about this. Please sign the dKos Petition to start a national conversation about gun control.

    by Avila on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 05:04:31 PM PST

    •  I'm looking forward to the new series, too. (5+ / 0-)

      If I'm coming up with new ideas every week, I can use lots of suggestions of what to write about. So whenever you have a good idea for a diary, but don't have time to write it, just let me know.

      Thanks for showing up, Avila. Everyone's pretty busy today, so it's nice to have guests here. And you were so prompt!

      I hope you and yours are happy and peaceful :~)

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 06:00:52 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  happy holidays, Brecht (5+ / 0-)

        i owe you an email, and have one in my drafts, which i'll complete and send tonight or tomorrow (when i can get a few minutes of quiet here).  

        IQ84 sounds really interesting.  thanks to your last diary and the excellent suggestions, i'm midway through Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.  really a fascinating read.  thank you very much for the review of her work.

        on the opposite spectrum, i'm reading (for work) the . . . um, how to say politely? novels written by James Wesley Rawles, doomsday prepper with Authority.  and a living room arsenal.  i'm reading as quickly as possible, too.  the Evelyn Wood course i zoned out in during high school?  what i can recall of it is finally useful. haha!

        i'll think about some ideas for your new series, but i'm positive it'll be a beautifully written must-read event. ;)

        thank you, and i hope all is joyous and peaceful for you and yours as well, Brecht.

        Yes, we need to talk about this. Please sign the dKos Petition to start a national conversation about gun control.

        by Avila on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 06:32:35 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm glad you're enjoying 'The Namesake'. (5+ / 0-)

          I'm reading a sci-fi called Beggars in Spain, about children who are genetically engineered to need no sleep, then turn out to be kind of superhuman, and have to deal with great resentment from the 'sleepers'. Also a library book called The Realists, about Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Galdos, James & Proust.

          But for Christmas I got a book by David Byrne - his thoughts on music - which looks fascinating.

          Now I have to join the family, so we can start the Dr. Who Christmas Special. Earlier today I saw Les Miserables and The Hobbit. And I am gaining weight from too much deliciousness. Life is sweet and dandy. Thank you for being part of that, Avila.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 06:59:51 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  all time favorite (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Monsieur Georges, cfk

    work of contemporary fiction? Andre Dubus iii's House of Sand and Fog, (1999), a novel i reread once every year as my birthday present to myself.

    In this riveting novel of almost unbearable suspense, three fragile yet determined people become dangerously entangled in a relentlessly escalating crisis.

    Colonel Behrani, once a wealthy man in Iran, is now a struggling immigrant willing to bet everything he has to restore his family's dignity. Kathy Nicolo is a troubled young woman whose house is all she has left, and who refuses to let her hard-won stability slip away from her. Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself falling in love with Kathy, becomes obsessed with helping her fight for justice.

    Drawn by their competing desires to the same small house in the California hills and doomed by their tragic inability to understand one another, the three converge in an explosive collision course. Combining unadorned realism with profound empathy, House of Sand and Fog marks the arrival of a major new voice in American fiction. ---Barnes & Noble

    Unputdownable...a page-turner that's a mind-opener...a thriller with moral complexity. -- Mirabella
    Dubus's chronicle of the American Dream gone awry is distinguished by his sympathetic delineation of lower-middle class life. -- Publishers Weekly
    No one who reads this novel will ever forget it.  -- James Lee Burke
    House of Sand and Fog is a novel of terrible truths. Everyone here wants what we want -- love, justice, a home -- and all their good intentions collide, violently, inevitably, in a story of remarkable power and veracity and tenderness. Andrew Dubus III has a keen and generous eye, and a great gift of bestowing dignity on even the most confused of his people. I cared for them all, and mourned their fates.  -- Tom Wolfe
    why, yes. it is all that. -- A.D. Avila

    Yes, we need to talk about this. Please sign the dKos Petition to start a national conversation about gun control.

    by Avila on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 06:52:31 PM PST

    •  There's a diary in 'House of Sand and Fog', (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      once I read the book.

      I hadn't thought about answering my own question. I guess my all-time favorite novel changes every few years.

      Right now it's At Swim-Two-Birds, which is just marvelously whimsical, playful and clever:

      It is in the line of Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: its amazing spirits do not disguise the seriousness of the attempt to present, simultaneously as it were, all the literary traditions of Ireland....We have had books inside books before now, and characters who are given life outside their fiction, but O'Nolan takes Pirandello and Gide a long way further.
                                                                                  Graham Greene
      I have enumerated many verbal labyrinths, but none so complex as the recent book by Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds. A student in Dublin writes a novel about the proprietor of a Dublin public house, who writes a novel about the habitues of his pub (among them, the student), who in their turn write novels in which proprietor and student figure along with other writers about other novelists. The book consists of the extremely diverse manuscripts of these real or imagined persons, copiously annotated by the student. At Swim-Two-Birds is not only a labyrinth; it is a discussion of the many ways to conceive of the Irish novel and a repertory of exercises in prose and verse which illustrate or parody all the styles of Ireland. The magisterial influence of Joyce (also an architect of labyrinths, also a literary Proteus) is undeniable, but not disproportionate in this manifold book.
                                                                                      Jorge Luis Borges
      This is just the book to give your sister – if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl.
                                                                                       Dylan Thomas

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 08:22:29 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Swim-Two-Birds (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        has just taken the top priority on my to-be-read list.  one way or another, i'll start it this weekend, 'cuz if you like it, then i'll like it, too, and . . .

        This is just the book to give your sister – if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl.

        Yes, we need to talk about this. Please sign the dKos Petition to start a national conversation about gun control.

        by Avila on Wed Dec 26, 2012 at 02:32:02 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  My goodness, so much to digest here! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Avila, cfk

    Thanks for the thoughts and the links!

  •  What a lot of work! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, Monsieur Georges

    Thank you and Best wishes!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 08:02:49 PM PST

    •  I completely agree. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cfk, Monsieur Georges

      You're welcome, cfk, and thank you.

       May your next eleven days of Christmas go happily, and merrily, without wearing you out.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Tue Dec 25, 2012 at 08:28:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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