Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 5: Lisa Tuttle

Pleasures (Reading) of 2011
by Lisa Tuttle

My reviewing duties were severely slashed back this year, and while that was a cause for concern financially, I’m finding it pleasant to read where my fancy takes me, instead of being overwhelmed by the need to keep up with what’s going on in SF and fantasy from the mainstream publishers.

I have been thinking a lot about books, writing, publishing, and “the literary life” – what makes some people yearn for it so, endure poverty, hardship, and rejection in pursuit of a dream, and what is that dream, anyway? If you write, you’re a writer...but of course more than that is required to be an author: publication, an audience, positive feed-back, financial reward, the promise of eventual wealth and lasting fame. Think of the guides, the handbooks, the websites, the courses, the inevitable panels at conventions: How to Make a Living as a Writer. There seem to be ever more people urgently needing to know how to do it even as the real possibility for making money out of books is shrinking; not just for the writers, but for booksellers and publishers.

I’m not going to go into an extended rant on the subject here, but I just wanted to mention the topic because, as I looked over the list of books I read in 2011, I realized how many of them were about writers, and the whole question of what that means – or is that just me, seeing what interests me, everywhere I look? Here are my most memorable reads of the year:

Just Kids by Patti Smith -- Portrait of the artist as a young woman. A beautifully-written memoir, and so wonderfully evocative of time and place, both specifically (New York in the late '60s) and more generally, of a particular type of young bohemianism, when it seemed perfectly natural to put up with all sorts of discomforts and physical deprivations in order to feed the soul with the things that really matter: art, music, love, poetry, books, ideas and self-expression. I was also struck by how much sheer chance – random meetings, being in the right place at the right time – can affect the shaping of a career, and, less happily, how important a woman’s hairstyle is to how she is perceived and what she is allowed to become.

Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton – I’ve long been a big fan of Edith Wharton, but this one has been sitting in a to-be-read box for years. It’s about literary life in America in the early part of the 20th century, focusing on a young man (possibly modelled on Thomas Wolfe) whose determination to become an important writer causes much heartbreak and destruction around him as he pursues his foggy ideals. It’s not Wharton’s best novel, but it has some wonderful scenes, and I found her own ambiguous attitude toward the main male character especially interesting: sometimes she mocks him, at others, she seems to believe in his importance every bit as much as the wealthy, artistic woman who devotes herself to furthering his career when she might better have done her own work (or so this reader felt).

Insinuations by Jack Dann (2010, PS) – A brief autobiography about his own literary and non-literary life by a very fine writer; I only wished it had been longer.

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini -- More about collecting and eccentrics who become obsessed with individual authors than it is about the literary life; I loved it, but then I would, having a slight obsession with collecting books about Proust.

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère (translated by Linda Coverdale) Mélanie Fazi mentioned this book to me as having greatly impressed her, and since I knew other books by this author had been translated (I’d read his biography of Philip K. Dick) I looked for this one, and am very glad I did. The subtitle is “A True Story of Murder and Deception” but it is like no other true crime story I’ve read. Here’s the opening: “On the morning of Saturday January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our oldest son.” It’s a powerful, harrowing, fascinating, horrifying book, brilliantly written.

Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp. I think it is Martha Wells I have to think for alerting me to the existence of this book. At any rate, someone mentioned it on Facebook, I think ‘twas she, and as soon as I read the description I knew I wanted to read it. (Actually, the title alone is reason enough. It is taken from her line “I spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down.”) Frances Marion was the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood for three decades. She was friends with a number of other women who also were extremely important in the early days of film, even if now mostly forgotten. Although it gets a bit dull toward the end (as biographies of successful people often turn into lists of awards and achievements), the adventures and stories of her earlier life go a long way, and may change your perception Hollywood history. Especially interesting read in close conjunction with Glen David Gold’s novel Sunnyside, as the same names pop up in both books.

Best novel I read this year has got to be ‘Was...’ by Geoff Ryman. I hope everyone knows how wonderful that book is, but if you somehow missed it, find a copy and read it soon. Or re-read it.

As for the new novels of 2011, my personal best: Dark Tangos by Lewis Shiner; The Thing on the Shore by Thomas Fletcher; The Islanders by Christopher Priest; and City of the Dead by Sarah Gran.

Lisa Tuttle is the author of numerous novels and short story collections. She has also published nonfiction and more than a dozen books for younger readers. Aqueduct Press published her novella, My Death, in 2008 (which is now available as an ebook). Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she has made her home in a remote rural region of Scotland for the last twenty years.

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