Friday, 23 December 2016

Happy Holidays

As I write this in the comfort of my living room with the fire burning and hubby playing the guitar, Storm Barbara has swept in. Luckily our region has a yellow zone warning and we're only expecting heavy rain and wind. For us the weather doesn't really matter, it's almost Christmas time and we're not heading anywhere - the next days consist of good food, reading and sleeping. I start Christmas Eve morning with good coffee before preparing the dessert, risalamande (rice and almond pudding) that I serve with home-made cherry sauce in the evening ... delicious! Around lunch time tomorrow we enjoy Swedish braided bread and hot chocolate while the smoked lamb (Icelandic tradition) is cooking. In my mind, the ideal julehygge.

I would like to wish you, my dear blog readers, Happy Holidays and my best wishes for 2017. Thank you for all the blog visits this year and your kind comments and likes on other social media sites.


Monday, 19 December 2016

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb

Book review: Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · Lisa Hjalt

There is a reason Toni Morrison's Beloved wasn't the first part of a long novel and why you may have read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller instead of Catch-18. That reason is editor Robert Gottlieb, who recently published his memoir Avid Reader: A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Memoirs often have too much of name-dropping but in his case we could call it title-dropping. Whether it's too much is debatable. He tells his story through his work, at Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf, and The New Yorker, and because of all the book titles his style may at first seem to lack depth. As the reading continues, it makes sense, and gives an insight into his world of publishing. Apart from Heller and Morrison, other feathers in his cap were e.g. Doris Lessing, John le Carré, John Cheever, Chaim Potok, Charles Portis, and in non-fiction, Jessica Mitford, Nora Ephron, Robert Caro, Lauren Bacall, and Bill Clinton. Even Miss Piggy. This is a man who loved his job; editing was his life. For the bibliophile, also interested in publishing, this is the book to read.
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · coffee · Lisa Hjalt

In 1955, after studying at Columbia and Cambridge, the extremely well-read Gottlieb, then twenty-four, started working at Simon & Schuster, where his role was somewhat undefined. He was doing everything: reading manuscripts, writing jacket copy, making editorial suggestions. Two years later his boss died and key executives left the company. Suddenly, Gottlieb, Nina Bourne, the legendary advertising director (she went with him to Knopf in 1968), and a few others were running the show. Gottlieb, now eighty-five, became a canon in the publishing world, mainly for being the right man, in the right place, at the right time, who happened to be good at editing. In the book he doesn't brag, even though he has every reason to.

For me, Gottlieb's thoughts on the editor-author relationship and the role of the editor are one of the book's strengths. Doris Lessing was one of the S & S authors he had a great relationship with and she followed him to Knopf. When Gottlieb became the editor of The New Yorker (in 1987; there was drama when he succeeded former editor William Shawn) Lessing continued to show him her work. He was 'dumbstruck' when she told him she was 'always hoping for' his 'approval'. Earlier he observes that her novel The Golden Notebook 'sold very few hardcover copies . . . [b]ut they were the right six thousand copies' (p. 136). It shows that for him the job wasn't about publishing a bestseller but to reach the right readers. Since then the book has of course done very well and Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. He reminds us of the moment she received the news in front of her London home 'grumpily expressing her irritation at having her life interrupted this way' (p. 139). If you haven't seen the clip please look it up online. She had no idea why the reporters were waiting outside when she came home from doing her grocery shopping, and her reaction to the news was: 'Oh Christ!'

Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · book covers · Lisa Hjalt
Some of the book titles edited by Robert Gottlieb

Toni Morrison was another author of his who was awarded the Nobel, in 1993, and they had a good working relationship. Between the great successes there were of course less successful titles and bad editorial experiences (he disliked Roald Dahl (so did the Knopf staff) and thought V.S. Naipaul, also a Nobel Laureate, was a 'snob' but a 'superb writer'). Some authors jumped ship (e.g. Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo):
It's hard to convince a colleague (or oneself) that it's not personal—that a writer's chief concern is, and should be, protecting himself and his books as he thinks fit. If the editor and publisher don't provide that sense of security, they're not doing their job, which is first, last, and always a service job: What we're there for is to serve the writer and the book. That doesn't mean I haven't been stung when an author I valued moved on. (p. 176)
When it was time for Bill Clinton to write his memoir, Gottlieb was the chosen editor (he was back at Knopf after five years at The New Yorker). If you have read My Life I'm pretty sure Clinton's name-dropping is still fresh in your memory (my father-in-law returned my copy; he gave up), but it doesn't diminish the fact that it was a well written book. I think it sums up their editorial relationship when Gottlieb wrote in a margin: 'This is the single most boring page I've ever read.' Clinton sent it back having added: 'No, page 511 is even more boring!' (p. 253).

Gottlieb's book isn't flawless. The talk about him and his family holidaying with, or becoming close to, this author or that co-worker and their family members becomes repetitive, and reaches a point where one no longer cares. At least I didn't. There are exceptions, a few witty stories. When the late Katherine Graham was working on her autobiography Personal History he used to visit her in Washington to view her writing and stayed in her Georgetown house. '[O]ver the years we established an easygoing routine—breakfast, for instance, in slippers and dressing gowns at side-by-side tables in the library, with the Post waiting for her and the Times waiting for me' (p. 242). Her book became a bestseller and won the 1998 Pulitzer.

There is also a chapter about dancing that I have my doubts about. Gottlieb, a great fan of the ballet, became a dance critic for The New York Observer. Those following the NY dance scene will probably enjoy this chapter but the only reason I connected with it was that a few years ago I read the memoirs by former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, Dancing on My Grave and The Shape of Love.
Avid Reader: A Life by Robert Gottlieb · coffee · Lisa Hjalt

Gottlieb is an editor who, without planning to, became a writer himself. Some of his works are Collected Stories, a collection of Rudyard Kipling's stories (it made Susan Sontag exclaim in a bookshop: 'Bob, I didn't know you could write so well!' (p. 295)), Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt (for the Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press), George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker, Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, and Reading Jazz.

During the reading I kept asking myself how the guy found the time and energy for everything he accomplished (supportive wife, actress Maria Tucci, is definitely one of the reasons). I got my answer in the final chapter:
Why, also, considering that my personality is so relentlessly ebullient, have I since childhood felt so melancholic, perhaps even depressive? I suspect that I've summoned up my hyper-energy to keep running fast enough to ward off that depressive tendency—the few times I brushed against the real thing were so distressing that it's no wonder I've done everything possible to avoid it. (p. 311)
He was brought up in a dysfunctional family - they read at the dinner table instead of talking - and he seems to remember his childhood in books. Early in the book he admits doing eight years of psychoanalysis. That's when I thought, Okay, he doesn't find the need to dig deep in this book. He's done. I'm not saying his book is shallow. He simply doesn't dwell on things and seems to have a healthy dose of detachment. It's also good to keep in mind that he had no intention of writing this book. He only did it for his daughter (thank you, Lizzie!) who wanted her twin sons to know about the life work of their grandfather.

It has been a few weeks since I finished reading Avid Reader: A Life and I still keep it in the stack I take with me from room to room. I'm still browsing through it and noting down titles that I would like to read. This is a book I really enjoyed reading. My advice to the bibliophile: keep a notebook next to you during the reading because your to-read list is about to get longer!

Avid Reader: A Life
By Robert Gottlieb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 337 pages, illustrated

Friday, 9 December 2016

Literary postcards | № 6 final 2016 reading list

Literary postcards by Obvious State | № 6 reading list · Lisa Hjalt

'Give me books, fruit, French wine, fine weather and a little music.' These lines by John Keats are on a postcard in front of me. It's an Obvious State design, a creative studio that makes paper goods and items for the literary minded. Searching for a Christmas present for the book lover? Your search will end in their online shop that offers notebooks, bookmarks, tote bags and more. They are even offering a holiday discount. I received four postcards in the mail, a surprise gift for adding their #osfall tag to one of my bookish photos on Instagram, the one related to my early autumn reading list. Speaking of reading lists, it's time for the last one of 2016.
Literary postcards by Obvious State | № 6 reading list · Lisa Hjalt

When you have like thousand books on your to-read and wish lists it's not easy to prioritise them, but I'm certain to find the first two on the list under the tree after dinner on Christmas Eve (that's when we open the presents; a Nordic tradition). I wanted to give a nod to some bookish blogger for recommending Carrión's book but I lost the link when my hard drive crashed some weeks ago. Carrión has written an extended essay about why bookshops matter and takes his reader on a journey around the world, visiting various bookshops such as Shakespeare & Company in Paris, Strand in NYC and Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier, just to name a few. James Wood is a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker and his book is a blend of memoir and criticism. Here is my last list of 2016:

· Bookshops  by Jorge Carrión
· The Nearest Thing to Life  by James Wood
· The Makioka Sisters  by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
· The Noise of Time  by Julian Barnes
· All We Shall Know  by Donal Ryan
· A Man in Love: My Struggle 2  by Karl Ove Knausgård
· Boyhood Island: My Struggle 3  by Karl Ove Knausgård
· The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between  by Hisham Matar

In my notebook I had started writing down ideas for a Japanese reading list to share later. Tanizaki's book has been on my list for so long and I just couldn't wait any longer when I realised I could order a copy at the library. I still haven't finished Zadie Smith's works from my last list but I'm already reading the books by Barnes and Ryan. The latter is an Irish author that I only discovered recently and I like his writing style. I cannot wait to continue reading Karl Ove Knausgård's autobiographical novels. When I finished his first My Struggle book I wanted to go straight to the library to borrow the next. All the good things that have been written and said about it turned out be true and I believe the next two will live up to my expectations. I'm looking forward to picking up The Return, a memoir by the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar. He was only nineteen when his father was kidnapped in Libya, then under the rule of Gaddafi, and probably died in prison in Tripoli. I read Matar's novel In the Country of Men many years ago. I no longer remember it in details but I remember being moved by it.
Books and pasta | № 6 reading list · Lisa Hjalt

I enjoy connecting with my blog readers and it's always wonderful to receive an email from a perfect stranger who has been following the blog (some prefer emails to comments and that's fine), and perhaps loved a book I shared. Since I started sharing my reading lists I have received a few emails with questions like: Did you like this book? Will you write a review about this one? In my replies I have said that the reading lists are mainly there for my love of books; to give my blog readers ideas for reading. I have no intention of writing a review about every single book on my lists. Clearly, some readers are curious about or interested in knowing my thoughts so perhaps from now on I will write just a few lines in the comment section of each list when I'm done. Let me think about it.

With a few exceptions, I have enjoyed the books on my 2016 lists. Perhaps I will put those thoughts into words in a separate a post. Let me think about that as well.

And one reader asked what's my favourite reading spot. I have a few but these days I have been reading a lot in the dining room while enjoying long lunch. I snapped a photo recently of a common scenario: On that day it was pasta, today it was hummus and pitta bread.