Friday, April 29, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Memoriam: Madelyn Pugh Davis

Over the years, I worked with hundreds of authors but the
news that Madelyn Pugh Davis has passed away brought me to tears.  I had the distinct privilege to work with her to promote her 2005 memoir, Laughing With Lucy: My Life With America's Leading Lady of Comedy.  A proper obituary can be read here:

She was one of the great television comedy writers, penning over 100 episodes of I Love Lucy and a genuine pioneer in her field.  Madelyn liked to say, when she started out, "you could have held a meeting of all the women television comedy writers in a booth at McDonalds".   All these years later, she marveled at the amount of fan mail she continued to receive and the unbridled enthusiasm people had for shows she'd written 50 years earlier.
We spoke often enough that she would ask after Mrs. Next.  Often enough that I knew she got her hair 'done' every Thursday morning and when I decided to leave publishing, she was among the first authors I called even though we hadn't been actively promoting the book for a few years and she and I were out of touch.   

Oddly, I never met her face-to-face but the photo above is how I like to think of her. She was a woman of class and gentility, of charm and kindness, of warmth and humor.  I will miss her.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle

I received a wonderful gift from my dear friend, Ms. Chicken Lips: an advance copy of Roddy Doyle's forthcoming short story collection, Bullfighting.

It is a book about men.  Empty-nesters still in love with their wives, guys who are no longer 'lads' but aren’t yet ‘oul ones’, all of whom remember the Ireland before the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger and its more recent aftermath.  It is a collection of mid-life crises, of decline, of having the scent of death grow stronger and come nearer than it ever has before.  

Moreso, it is a book about men who, having reached the middle, find themselves uncertain of both their pasts and their futures and torn by questions: When did the fun end? Why did I lose interest?  Why do I feel so useless? When did I change? Thankfully, these are not broken men.  They know full well they are capable of answering these questions with actions and answers that will right their own ships.  Still, the questions linger and hover and persist.  Some find resolution in small places; in a conversation with a school-age girl awaiting her Mum at a bus stop.  Others find solace in doing their jobs well or in the company of friends and family.  Still, some remain at sea.

This is not the Doyle of The Commitments or Paddy Clarke, nor, thankfully, of the Henry Smart trilogy.  This is an author in autumn, approaching winter.  In the hands of another writer, Bullfighting could easily be a dreary affair but, as ever, Doyle is deft, sprinkling humor and pathos across the pages.  Throughout his career, Doyle has always allowed us, entreated us to join him for the ride but now, as the ride gets closer to the station, what is important has changed and he asks us to stay strong and stay true to ourselves.  In The End, it will all work out. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Long Story Short

Our short story club will meet soon and it is my wife's turn to make the next selection.  When it is my turn, I take to it with glee and abandon and read and read and read but, bless her heart, having to choose a story makes Mrs. Next rather anxious.  In an effort to calm her nervous heart, I bought a few collections and pulled out a few other suggestions from the bookshelves.

She is enjoying A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (who I once saw in person and couldn't believe an actual human could be so strikingly beautiful).  

In an effort to help her cover more ground, I'm reading Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by the wonderfully-named Wells Tower and revisiting Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine by Tom Jones (no, not that Tom Jones).  Tower has the goods and it is a wild ride of a read.  Jones' third collection isn't holding up as well as I'd remembered but he can still stop me in my tracks.

Esquire recently ran Twin Forks by Daniel Woodrell, which I found quite powerful.  My beloved One Story recently published Surprise Party by the marvelous Etgar Keret.  I found it hilarious and sad though I must admit it's not likely to be Mrs. Next's cup of tea.  

I also suggested two from recent issues of the New Yorker, the confounding Going For a Beer by Robert Coover and The Other Place, a dark and frightening story by Mary Gaitskill.  

She will make her choice soon but it's been such fun to "cram" all these short stories.

Look for upcoming posts on Emma Donoghue's ROOM and Stephen Kelman's forthcoming novel, Pigeon English.

So much for keeping it short.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

My how the month has flown.  Reading and writing have taken a back seat recently to a marvelous trip to New Orleans with Mrs. Next.  It was my first visit and I admit to having a rather serious crush on the Crescent City.  

At last I finished Karen Russell's Swamplandia! and I must say I wholeheartedly agree with Joseph O'Neill's backcover blurb:
"A wonderfully fertile novel by an unfairly talented writer."  Russell is only 29 years old and her writing makes my head spin like a radar dish.  In a good way. 

Swamplandia! itself is a down-at-the-heels theme park (the theme is alligator wrestling) on an isolated island in the Florida Everglades.  The story begins with the death by cancer of Hilola Bigtree, the park's main attraction and matriarch of the Bigtree clan.  Told alternately by Ava, the youngest of the three children, and her older brother, the fussy Kiwi, the novel Swamplandia! is a moving story of family, of deep love and crushing loss, of gators and ghosts.  

As Janet Maslin suggested in her NYT review, some readers might be turned off by the offbeat family and their strange exploits but I found them charming, maddening, upsetting, and lost in their own worlds.  Much like real families. 

The novel isn't without a few faults.  Without spoiling anything, I can't quite understand the need to put Ava through a terrible ordeal within an already painful ordeal.  As for the ending, I suspected there might be problems but the author pulled it off well enough that I was satisfied. 

Karen Russell is an immensely gifted writer and one deserving of a readers' time and full attention. She has the ability to make the mundane fascinating and the arcane seem like common, though worthwhile, knowledge. Because of her youth, there is also the promise of so much more to come.