Friday, July 23, 2010

Dara Horn

Many cities do a One City One Book event where they try to get as many people as possible to read a selected book, plan lots of events, and bring the author in for readings. Philadelphia, where I live, does it, but we also have a Jewish One Book program. The books featured in this program have included two memoirs, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lugnado and My Father’s Paradise by Ariel Sabar, and this past year a novel by Dara Horn called All Other Nights.

All Other Nights is a story that takes place during the Civil War and explores some of the Jewish war experience. I had heard good things about Horn but never read her, so I looked forward to reading this book. Before I had a chance to read the book, I went to hear the author talk. She has a very impressive resume. Here’s just a bit from her bio:

Dara Horn received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. In 2007 Dara Horn was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists. Her first novel, In the Image, published by W.W. Norton when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. (this is from her website,

The talk she gave was terrific. It was a very thoughtful, complex presentation – you could tell she had spent a lot of time preparing her remarks, and I appreciated that. I see a lot of author presentations and readings. Recently I went to a writers conference where the keynote speaker just kind of played it by ear. She had a few notes of things she wanted to touch on, but she just kind of casually chatted about her writing life in a way that sounded to me like she’d discussed the same thing over and over at other workshops. I didn’t feel like she had done any special presentation for this particular conference. I really appreciated that Dara Horn seemed to think we were an important audience, an audience worth working for!

One of the things she discussed that stayed with me most had to do with why she chose to set her novel during the Civil War. She said that when an author writes an historical book, they’re not necessarily writing about that period in history, but instead using that historical period to comment on contemporary life. She felt the Civil War was very fitting to discuss America today (red states, blue states, lots of partisanship…). I thought it was really interesting to look at historical fiction this way.

I finally got around to reading the book recently. The history is interesting, and I learned more about the Civil War and something about Jewish life at that time, but as a whole the story was a bit of a romance, with a bit of the overwrought language of the genre. (Many writers have certain word or sentence quirks, I find. I read a book recently where characters were always wincing. Someone or other winced on practically every page! I started to notice this because it’s a strangely-spelled word and doesn't look like it would be pronounced the way it's spelled, and then before I knew it I was just looking for the winces and not the actual plot. This book had its heroine “brushing another loose curl back behind her ear.” It drove me crazy. I thought: if that chick brushes a curl behind her ear one more time I’m going to recommend getting her a haircut! And then sure enough, she’d do it again!)

I decided not to give up on the author, however, and now I’m reading the book everyone says is her best one, The World to Come. So far, so good. Much better than All Other Nights. This is writing you can admire, interesting sentences, unexpected plot turns. None of the above in All Other Nights (sorry, Dara).

Reading The World to Come, by the way, I feel a course shaping up here – if I did a course on contemporary American Jewish writers, a great combo would be The World to Come, Away by Amy Bloom, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. They feel like they all fit together really well. Then maybe throw in some Shalom Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ready to enroll, anyone?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Jonathan Carroll

One of the benefits of working in the publishing business is attendance at Book Expo, the annual book convention for the industry. I learn a lot at Book Expo about forthcoming books, and I am lucky to be able to pick up galleys (advance copies) of some of them. I recently discovered on my shelf a galley I picked up two years ago because the story sounded appealing, and finally decided to read it. The book is The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll. I don’t know anything about him except what it says on the galley – he’s American, he’s written lots of books, and he lives in Vienna (where if he’s smart, he eats a lot of pastry!).

In The Ghost in Love, Ben, our protagonist, has an accident—he slips in the snow and falls and hits his head, hard, on the concrete. Ben is supposed to die, and a ghost is quickly dispatched to earth to check in with Ben and commence any necessary post-death follow-up haunting. Ben, however, for unexplained reasons, does not die, and thus commences a jolly romp through an alternate reality that would do Harry Potter proud. I’m not at all saying it’s the same kind of book, it’s merely similar in that the author has imagined an alternate reality that is smart, well-thought-out, interesting, entertaining, and later in the book when it gets more psycho-babblish, thought-provoking. There is one Harry Potter similarity when Ben begins to see life through someone else’s eyes, where I am reminded of Harry seeing through Voldemort’s eyes, but the book is truly original and charming. Oh and there’s also a whole animal theme so dog-lovers will love this book.

If I had to guess, I’d guess that Jonathan Carroll is very well-read himself and also that he has been in therapy. The ideas that bounce around in this book strike me as ideas that come from someone who has thought a lot about Meaning-of-Life type questions, and has his own complex system of understanding these challenging questions, which he tries to present through this lively and quirky story—ideas having to do with alternate versions of ourselves at different ages and what we can learn from our experiences, questions of memory and what we retain and what we lose and, in losing memories, what is lost in life. Questions of self-worth and value, and how badly we often treat ourselves. And questions of love and relationships and what we can expect from them and how we can make them work. All of this is woven into this book, some lightly and, in the denouement, a bit more heavily. You can follow this thread of self-evaluation through the book, or you can just appreciate it on a lighter level as a fun story. I did a bit of both.

I may look into some of Carroll’s earlier work. . .