Finished!

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Thrilled. Not as thrilled as William is with his stick, but pretty close.

Do you know how you know when your epic, year-long, blog-destroying novel revision is finished?  When your agent e-mails you and says, “nice work.”  Just like that.  I feel like William looks.  It’s so nice to be finished with something like that.

So now, it’s back to:  books, food, and why a stick is more exciting than anything you could possibly imagine.

Books:  Robert Caro.  The Passage of Power.  The fourth in this big-ass biography of Lyndon Johnson.  Whatever Johnson was (and he was a lot of things — talented, flawed, tragic) he was huge.  He was also 6’4″.

Janet Flanner’s Letters from Paris:  Her New Yorker columns from the late 1940s after the war until the early 1960s.  Wonderful evocations of daily life in Paris as the city and the country picked up after the war.

And now, I’m off to see how everyone is doing.

xo

The Untailored Spy

I adore George Smiley.  You probably do too, because you probably have already read all the John leCarre books that feature him.  Lucky me, I had not, which is why I chose two of them as my BlogLily Summer Reading Program (which I like to think of, acronymically, as B-SLURP) genre choices.  The first, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the second, the Honorable Schoolboy, are among the best books I’ve read in a very long time.

George Smiley, who is at the center of both books (and a third I haven’t yet read, called A Perfect Spy thank you Joe, for pointing out that the third book is actually called Smiley’s People), is basically all about righting the sinking ship that is the British secret service in the 1960s and 1970s. Smiley’s work is not triumphant or inevitable, as maybe an American’s might be — in Smiley’s world, there are no rocket launching cars or poison gas shooting pens.  Instead, budgets are tight, and notes are delivered later than they should be because people get busy, there’s little political support for Smiley, and plenty of Americans who look down on the British as the worst kind of amateurs.  These books are imbued with a kind of melancholy, not so much about a lost world or lost values, but more about aging and endings in general and the losses that come with them.  They are about the cold war, of course, but also about the compromises of age, about the fatigue of living, and about the way in which we still go on and try to protect, as best we can, the things we have built or have admired as they were built.

Which brings me to Smiley — a man in his sixties who wears beautifully made suits that are too big for him, marries a beautiful woman (Lady Ann) who, like his suits, doesn’t fit him, and so leaves him again and again to his sorrow, but never anger.  Smiley closes his eyes and thinks when someone tells him something you’d expect to make him shout, and pads around and patiently figures out the most complicated things, not with flashes of insight, but by looking closely at the budgets for old projects, while he never puts sugar in his tea or coffee — always saccharine — because he is, regrettably, watching his weight (how delicate is that?  he is never “on a diet.”) In most spy books, characters either have no limits or their limits are weaknesses they must fight against.  Not so with Smiley.  He has plenty of limits, but they seem to all be external.  He is a man who appears to some — the more foolish people in these stories, in fact — to be weak and ineffectual, but he is anything but.

If it is true that plot is simply character in action, then leCarre’s plots are also brilliant.  After a while you don’t care that the twists and turns of the story are difficult to follow because you realize, or you accept, that the plot isn’t really the point — the point is that the world is terribly imperfect, and dangerous and difficult to understand and men struggle with these things bravely and often fail but sometimes don’t.  And that occasionally, and at great price, a temporary equilibrium is achieved.  It is leCarre’s greatness that this balance is created not by strong confident men with sports cars but by almost finished men who nevertheless have a kind of wisdom that I, for one, am grateful to have come across this summer.

French Lessons: Champagne All Around

A few years ago, I did a writing residency at the Atlantic Center for  the Arts in Florida.  It was magical, that place.  They had a room full of beach cruisers for us to ride — and the ocean wasn’t very far.  The writer who was the “master artist,” Antonya Nelson, turned out to be called Toni, and to be not in the least bit scary, which was my great fear.  I got a lot done there.  And I became friends with some really remarkable women.

One of these women was Ellen Sussman.  I’d been seeing her anthologies around in bookstores with provocative names like Bad Girls, and Dirty Words (which has an essay in it by my first writing teacher, Thaisa Frank) and honestly, I was as intimidated by her as I was by Antonya Nelson.

And then I met Ellen and she wasn’t intimidating in the least.  What she is, among many other things, is a really disciplined writer.  While we were in Florida, she sold French Lessons, a novel that she had been sweating over for quite a while, to get it just right.  Apparently, she got it even more than just right.  There was an auction and a glamorous trip to New York to meet with her new editor and a bunch of other stuff that left me speechless because it seemed so, well, professional.  And then there was champagne.

And here’s the book.  It just came out.  It’s wise and bright like Ellen.  And quite moving.  It’s the sort of book that makes you feel just a little bit more alive, more awake, and grateful that Paris exists and people like Ellen are around to write about it.

So, champagne all around.