I’ve had email from a number of people over the last few months saying they haven’t been able to find a copy of Dawn on a Distant Shore in England. Just today Jill — my agent — got back to me about this, after talking to the publisher in London. Whatever the problem was, it seems to be fixed — Amazon UK now does have copies in stock, and your local booksellers should be able to order it. Sorry for the inconvenience. I don’t pretend to undertand that mysterious goings on, but Jill does. Thank dog.
One of the basic rules about telling stories, or at least one of the rules I agree with, is that somehow, in the course of the story, the main character has to change. Not in any particular way or direction, but the story itself has to work on the main characters in some observable way. Cathleen Schine took a main character I didn’t like much — Helen, 42, divorced, the owner of a bookstore in a small New England town — and shook her up, and I liked the result.
This is a novel about a selfish, amusing, charming woman who is side-swiped by an inappropriate love affair with a man much younger than she is — someone she should be able to control, because she does that so well. Things get away from her. It’s gratifying to watch.
It all starts because she comes across an anonymous love letter which upsets her view of her world and paves the way for Johnny. Schine does an interesting job with Johnny; he’s young, but not shallow; he’s interesting but not quirky. Schine is just plain good when it comes to quick, vivid characterization. Here’s Helen’s mother:
“Lilian was severe and short-tempered with a throaty voice. She smoked in the bath. When Helen was growing up, her mother treated her like an adult who, for reasons no one cared to go into, was too small to reach the light switches. Helen trailed around after her mother in a soft haze of half understanding. Adult conversations, thrilling and somehow important, surrounded her, as indecipherable and compelling as new art. Lilian, propped against the pillows, would gossip mercilessly and good-humoredly into the telephone. Lolling on the bed, at the foot like a lapdog, Helen listened contentedly to her mother’s side of the conversation.”
The only problem I had with this novel, which is witty and wise and sharply observed, is that the pacing seemed very slightly off once or twice. Otherwise it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a good long while, and thus, a success.
The Authors Guild (the largest organized group of published authors in the U.S.) has a bulletin that comes out quarterly. Each issue contains a number of articles on publisher-author interactions and contracts, book sales, censorship, and other serious subjects. These are important and well written articles, but I’d bet most people turn immediately to the signature, recurring column called Along Publishers Row, written by Campbell Geeslin (who also writes children’s books). It’s a compilation of news about recent book deals, authors acting out, booksellers of note, and gossip. APR is about half the whole bulletin. We’re a gossipy bunch.
In this newest issue there are items like this: former presidential candidate George McGovern, 81, has opened a bookstore in Stevensville, Montana… what are book clubs reading these days? This roundup…Maurice Sendak is working on a book inspired by Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale…
This bit is also from the current bulletin:
The late Lewis Thomas was author of Etcetera, Etcetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher. He wrote:
“Any writer of prose should be compelled, by law if necessary, to submit professional credentials and undergo a waiting period of seven days before placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Writers of poetry are automatically excluded from such use, almost by definition. There may be occasions when an exclamation point is excusable, perhaps even justified, in certain kinds of writing — public street signs, for example, like STOP! DANGER!, TERRIBLE DOG!, but not among the sentences of any ordinary paragraph.”
a confession: I don’t like doing readings. No matter the venue — a few kind people in a small bookstore, or a big crowd in a fancy auditorium, no matter how genial the people there, it just always feels… not quite right.
The only place where I don’t mind reading very much is at our own independent bookseller here in town. I know many of the people who come and the owners and the booksellers and it just doesn’t feel like such a big deal; it’s just me, and them, and a half hour of noise. They ask questions and laugh at my answers. I sign books and set off for home, ten minutes later I’m there.
another confession: I’m not even comfortable going to somebody else’s reading. I only go very rarely, if it’s a close friend who’s reading. In fact, the more I’m interested in the author’s work, the less likely I am to go listen to him/her read. It feels too awkward. Should I go up afterwards and get my book signed? Do I identify myself, if this is somebody I’ve had some indirect contact with? Will that feel intrusive? A word of praise, perhaps? No, that would be condescending. So I generally stay away, although I’m often tempted.
Guy Vanderhaeghe (what a great name) will be here soon to read from his new novel The Last Crossing. I do intend to read the novel — it’s historical, after all. Will I attend the reading? Probably not. I’ll let you know.
One other thing about this particular novel. It was recently named the 2004 Canada Reads winner, a very big deal up there, as you can see here. This is how they chose it:
During this year’s competition, broadcast over the [..] five days on CBC Radio and CBC TV, five panellists each championed a work of Canadian fiction as the one that all Canadians should read.
Hard to imagine something on this scale on this side of the divide, though Homestead once was chosen by Orcas Island in the San Juans as an all-island read. People ran around with pins on that said “I’ve read Homestead. Have you?” That was fun, I’ll admit. Though I still disliked doing the reading.