Friday, December 14, 2012

The Next Big Thing - Blog hop by Jan Alexander

Novelist and financial journalist Jan Alexander has been "tagged" to participate in this blog hop — a series of self-interviews answering 10 questions about upcoming or recent  books that each author is invited to post on his or her own blog — and then to "tag" other authors for further entries.

In addition to posting on our collective "Thoth" blog, Jan has her own site at

What is your book's title?
Getting to Lamma is a tale of an American woman, recently divorced and searching for a deeper meaning to the “I” that inhabits all of us, goes off to the other side of the world. Oh—should I have called it “Eat, Pray, Love”? Well, one might say it’s of a similar genre, but speaking strictly for myself, my imagination leapt much further than anywhere I could go on my own—ie. this is a novel, not what really happened.  My heroine, Madeleine, finds political intrigue, a business scandal, and inner contentment, not happily-ever-after love. I’ve never wanted to write a search-for-Mr.-Right story because the hero and heroine would have to either die or start bickering about how to fold the laundry.  My new novel, which I hope will be finished soon, is about two young women who go off to China—and instead of finding true love they find a man with very special powers, who helps them turn the hyper-capitalist world of contemporary China into a paradise for the broke and artsy.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I did go off to China and Hong Kong after a divorce. I got a masters in Chinese studies before I did that, so it wasn’t actually running away on a whim. This was the 1990s and China was a lot grittier than now. A number of things that happened in my travels came together – a bicycle accident in Shanghai when cycling was still the way you got around, a defection to the West, a daily dose of business scandals while I was working as a reporter in Hong Kong. And yes, a lot of romantic adventures, borrowed from my life and others’.

What genre does your book fall under? 

Unless there is an actual seeking-adventure- in-exotic- places genre, Getting to Lamma is just plain literary fiction. I wrote fiction of the sort I like to read—with something bigger than my heroine’s own family, friends and ambitions haunting her. My new novel is speculative fiction. But since it’s a fantasy, I felt like I had permission to poke fun at a lot of things—the price of real estate, bad books that get published, childish parents, uneasy love, and friendships that work in spite of human flaws.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

For Getting to Lamma I always wanted Mira Sorvino to play the heroine. She studied Mandarin, you know. And Keanu Reeves, or someone who looks like him, definitely has to play the leading man in my new novel.
 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? Getting to Lamma is like following an escapee from a Woody Allen movie as she looks for love and meaning amidst the moral ambiguities of post-Tiananmen China.

Is your book self-published or trade published? (The original form of this question said "or represented by an agency?")  

It was published by a small publisher, Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, in 1997, but the U.S. distribution comes through, a POD publisher.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? 

About five years from start to publication. Then I rewrote it again for the U.S. edition. At one point I quit my job and worked on the novel seven to eight hours a day. That was my idea of a life of luxury. Now I write fiction for about two hours a day, starting at 5:00 a.m. So it takes a long time. That’s why in my second novel hyper-capitalist contemporary China does an about-face and starts valuing art and letters more than money. It doesn’t last, though.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s kind of in the eye of the beholder, but I look to the great writers for inspiration, and wrote it with a fantasy of being a female Graham Greene. I felt at the time that not enough women writers had run off to Asia.

 Who or What inspired you to write this book? 

The aforementioned Graham Greene. And Virginia Woolf. I always wanted to write novels, then I found some stories in China.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?  

It has a happy ending, but only in the sense that happiness means you’ve found a moment you’d like to hang on to. People have read it and asked me what happens to Madeleine after the ending; to my mind that’s a measure of a novel engrossing the reader. 

Other writers coming up in the blog hop:
Maudy Benz- Author of “Oh, Jackie”, a heartfelt tale of a troubled girl on the cusp of adolescence at a time when the tyranny of innocence reigned.
Patricia Eakins- Author of “The Hungry Girls and Other Stories” and “The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste, Father and Mother, First and Last.” She has combed a body of lost history and created  magical realism in magical prose.
Delorys Welch-Tyson—Author of “Ginger Snaps”, “Ladyfingers”—and more “cookie” titles on the way.     Rollicking, rowdy tales of women who just won’t do as they’re told.
Previous blog-hoppers include:
Geoffrey Fox, who talks about his recent novel A Gift for the Sultan on his blog Literature & Society
Mary Tod, a writer of historical fiction whose blog has just that title:
Sophie Schiller is a writer of historical fiction and spy thrillers. She has a recent book called Transfer Day. Her own blog is at
Richard Sutton has written two novels, The Red Gate and Gatekeepers about the O'Deirg family and the ancient secret they are charged to protect. He blogs at
Kirstie Olley lives in Australia and calls herself a speculative fiction writer. And she is pleased to have completed NaNoWriMo. She blogs at

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Jenghiz Kahn Miniatures
Designed by Bedrich Forman, Design and Production by Artia for Spring Books, London 1963, printed dint Czechoslovakia.  Text by J. Marek and H Kn√≠zkova
 The descendants of Genghis Kahn (1162-1267), his grandsons and great grandsons, ruled from the Chinese shores of the Sea of Japan across northern India, what are now called the ‘stans, and through Turkey to part of what is now Serbia.  They quarreled, made and broke alliances, and held magnificent courts. They adapted to the local cultures; Kublai Kahn became a Chinese emperor; others became Buddhists, others Muslims. His great grandson Ghazan Kahn who ruled in roughly the area of Iran commissioned a history of the descendants of Genghis Kahn in the early 1300's
 Toward the end of the 16th century Akbar, the greatest of the Islamic rulers of India and (approximately) a 15th generation descendent of Genghis Kahn through Tamerlane, commissioned an illustrated version of this history.  Akbar was a great synthesizer. He understood that he could not impose Islam on India and that he could not rule only through a Muslim minority, and gave prominent places in the sophisticated administration he created to many Hindu and some Christian men. Among his many wives, mostly married for political purposes, were Muslims, Hindus, and Christians.  Illiterate himself, Akbar was one of history’s’ great patrons of literature, the arts, and architecture.  His favorite grandson built the Taj Mahhal.  He employed philosophers and theologians and listened thoughtfully to their debates. His own attitudes and thought underwent a historical development; he grew from a rather narrow cultural background to the synthesis for which he is known.
 Miniature painting was an important area of his patronage.  A Hindu tradition existed before the coming of the moguls, and he also imported masters from the Persian court (the source of the tradition celebrated in Orhan Pamuk's fascinating novel My Name is Red).  The greatest ornament of this school of artists was the illustrated edition of the Genghis Kahn history.
 The images lack the least effort at historical verisimilitude or the slightest suggestion that things in the past may have looked different from how they look now.  All the men and women wear the clothing of their class in Akbar’s time. When Genghis Khan attacks the encampment of an enemy, it looks like a The Red Fort. The armies of whatever period are borne by the camels, elephants, and elegant horses of Akbar’s India and involve firearms and cannon.  Islamic aniconism does not prevent the representation of thousands of human figures and faces from all levels of society and many occupational groups.  There are few puritanical restrictions on the depiction of women. They are all clothed, as are men. Their heads are usually covered, but there are no burkas; the drawing often accentuates their curves, and dancers and the like wear filmy outfits.
 The sum total is rather like the shield of Achilles. The whole world as it was present to sophisticated folk of Akbar’s time is represented: forests, farms, forts, rivers, mountains, orchards, gardens, armies, great hunts, the multifariousness of cities, thieves, beggars, courtiers, warriors, harems, dancers, jugglers…. It is an intensely social world. There are very few isolated figures like the mountain sages of Chinese landscapes or the country folk of Constable landscapes. The society portrayed is hierarchical and sexist.
 To my untrained, western eye, the illustrations present a flatish surface full of detail.  Objects appear in front of one another but near objects are not consistently larger than far objects.  Foreshortening is inconsistent, chiaroscuro is absent, and distant objects are usually as distinct a close ones.  There is no representation of space as in western historical painting or even as in many Chinese landscapes.  As far as I recall no horizon line ever appears.
 If you draw a scale between cartoon caricature at the one end and, say, Holbein at the other, the exquisitely painted miniatures hover in an intermediate location hard for me to define.  They are portraits of typical people rather than portraits of individuals.  They show feeling and attitudes: fear, love, contentment, rage, generosity, submission, but do not suggest an individual.
 As maybe you can tell, the historical and cultural implications of this book interest me somewhat more than the art itself.  The miniatures are wonderfully painted. They are pleasant and engaging. They are interesting.  But they do not move me. I suppose this is because of the lacks I have mentioned, of portraiture of individual consciousness, or chiaroscuro, of a sense of things being organized around space. Perhaps I have become dependent on these things to get the historical hit. But, for example, Chinese and Japanese landscapes that omit the same devices often move me. Perhaps it was different to viewers in Akbar’s time.
 The Sanskrit tradition of literary criticism holds the purpose of art as to create a mood rather than to teach a lesson, and this seems to be the goal in these paintings.
 The book is nicely printed and arranged with many pages usefully showing details of the larger views.  Reproduction on book-quality paper is appropriate for these paintings.  The text that appears of the pages is usefully translated with discussions of the many lacunae and confusions in the MS.  A long and informative introduction explains the historical context of the family of Genghis Kahn, the artistic community of Akbar's court, the history of the manuscripts, and issues of artistic influence and technique.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Writers' Favorite Punctuation Marks

Just for a moment, when you lift your gaze from whatever it is you're writing (and which must certainly be more important than this), you may be amused to ponder these ponderings on a most ponderous issue.

Writers' Favorite Punctuation Marks - Entertainment - The Atlantic Wire

I miyself favor the em-dash — don't you?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

One of Freud's Favorite Novels

Warning: These comments contain spoilers.

Conrad Aiken is not talked about much now but he was a distinguished literary figure from the early to mid-20th century.  He is most remembered as a poet but he wrote several well-received novels and a couple of much-anthologized short stories.  He was poet laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize.  His poetry uses the prosody of English richly, and it was through listening to him reading his poetry that I became interested enough to pick up his novel The Great Circle.

There is a curious story about this novel and Freud.  Freud was an admirer of Aiken's work and particularly described this book as one of his favorite novels.  Aiken was interested in Freud, and they corresponded, which led Aiken to set out by ship for England with the expectation that he would be analyzed by Freud.  By chance, Eric Fromm was on the same ship and Fromm persuaded Aiken that was a bad idea.  Aiken and Freud never met, although Aitken lived for some years in England.

This novel recounts in five long chapters a painful and chaotic few days in the life of its protagonist, a Cambridge intellectual of the 1920s or 30s.  In the first chapter, he is in a state of manic anxiety and loquacious overthought as he returns to Boston by train from New York because he anticipates that he may discover that his wife is having an affair with another man.  In the second chapter, he reaches his apartment where he discovers that what he feared was true.  He and his wife have a scene.  The third is a flashback to his middle childhood where at a beach resort he suffers tragic events that involve secrecy and infidelity.  Aiken is good with children, writing realistic child dialogue and realistically and movingly portraying their minds.  The fourth chapter really must be one of the oddities of psychoanalytic literature.  It is a sort of session with his analyst that begins when he arrives at his analyst's apartment, drunk, at 1 o'clock in the morning and with lengthy and creative verbal skill, talks to the long-suffering therapist about his painful feelings and problems in a richly evasive manner, all the while downing drink after drink.  The analyst eventually goes to sleep.  It makes it interesting to consider why Freud admired this work.  In the last chapter he meets with his estranged wife, they have a ambiguous conversation, and he departs to spend a few days alone at the beach resort were the tragic events of his childhood occurred.

The effective plot tension of this novel consists at first of wondering whether his wife is actually unfaithful, then of wondering what will become of them as a couple, all the while wondering if the protagonist can hold his shit together.  Characterization of the protagonist is rich, complex, and sometimes funny; the secondary characters are well drawn, particularly children, but only sufficiently to fill their places.  The prose (narrative, dialogue, and stream of consciousness) is quite a remarkable achievement.  His power as a poet and the richness of his imagination make us feel the role of unconscious images in our emotional life and relate the sufferings of his protagonist too much of culture.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Best Books for Writers | Poets and Writers

This selection from Poets and Writers may be of interest to many of us.

Best Books for Writers | Poets and Writers

"Welcome to My Contri" now available as e-book

The first publication of the new Thoth Books Editorial Collective: A new, expanded edition of what The New York Times Book Review described as a “frequently powerful collection of short stories" of Latin America that "leaves us thoroughly wrung out — and aware that we are in the presence of a formidable new writer.” 
Smashwords — Welcome to My Contri — A book by Geoffrey Fox

Cheap! Only $0.99. To make it available to as many readers as possible. We will welcome your comments on the Smashwords review page or on this blog.

For more information, see Thoth Books Editorial Collective.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Comments on James Plunkett's Strumpet City

I’ve recently read three substantial novels dealing with strikes or similar struggles: Frank Norris’ The Octopus, Zola’s Germinal, and now James Plunkett's  Strumpet City. Strumpet City portrays the lives of several characters affected by labor unrest culminating in a protracted and devastating lockout. The characters are fictional, but the story is based closely on events between the years 1904 and 1914 in Dublin. The characters range from the destitute to the upper-middle-class but they concentrate on the working poor.  There's a lot of good writing, vivid and often touching evocation of the city in strife. An important character starves to death. The novel is constructed like the currently fashionable genre of linked short stories. That is, sections of two to six pages follow a character in third person narrative. Each section tends to be artfully constructed with a beginning, middle, and end and a feeling of completion or even illumination at the last. The overall structure is not so good — the book has a feeling of being less than the sum of its parts. Important characters appear two thirds of the way through, and the end rather fritters away. The characters are not stereotypes exactly, but they're not richly endowed with inner life or individuality. You come away with a sense of suffering imposed by capitalist exploitation, and of the painful struggle that has brought us somewhat improved conditions today. The book has a humanity: the author has something good to show about every character and frequently shows how decent human beings can be to one another when you might not expect it. The most interesting characters are two men who have painfully mixed feelings in the class struggle. One is a priest (The official church is very much opposed to the labor movement.) who feels keenly the suffering of his parishioners and is destroyed by his helplessness to act upon his feelings and the unfairness of their treatment. The other is a member of the coupon-clipping class who gradually moves over to the side of the workers.

It is interesting to compare this novel to Ulysses, which takes place in 1904. Something like one third of the population of Dublin was living in dire poverty at that time, but you would never know it from Ulysses, which is mercilessly middle-class. Characters in Ulysses are hard up for money, but it is in a middle-class way, not the edge of starvation. Both novels celebrate the Dublin musical scene. Several characters are deeply involved in playing music, and playing music together in households. Going to light operas and similar performances is constantly in the background. The Lord Mayor of Dublin who was also one of Molly's lovers is mentioned in this book. The time when I thought most often of Joyce was in the sections devoted to any one of the three priests that are important in Strumpet City. Reading their conversations and their concerns about Catholic doctrine and their personal status, I felt I could have been reading Joyce.