Yesterday it was learned that Pulitzer Prize winning author Carol Shields passed away. She was best known for the book that won her the prize, The Stone Diaries. They broadcast an old interview with her on NPR yesterday, and Shields talked about how she squeezed in an hour of writing each day between teaching and taking care of her young children and after nine months she had written The Stone Diaries. Her last book, Unless, didn’t recieve a huge amount of press, but it sold tremendously well at my bookstore and was much loved by the readers I spoke to about it. If you want to learn more about her, here is her obit in the New York Times.
The wind was blowing as morning broke over Beirut. In the kitchen, I poured a glass of milk for our daughter. Firing up the iPhone, there it was: New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid had died on assignment in Syria. He was 43 years old. "Kelly!" I hollered, running down the hall, into the bedroom, where my wife was entombed in warm sheets. "Anthony Shadid is dead." She shot out of bed, ran to her computer, and a few minutes later was filing a news spot for NPR. About the death of a man she'd sat on a panel with, a guy who'd met her parents, a neighbor of hers in Baghdad, a colleague in the Middle East, and one of the best reporters in the business. He was also a father of a kid our daughter's age, and one of the main reasons we thought it was a good idea to move to Beirut. In a daze, I put Loretta into fresh clothes and watched Kelly pace the room. Rain came down in sheets. We were late for school, and I loaded Loretta into the stroller. "Daddy, I'm cold," she said. "It's bad out there." She was right: A new squall was rearing up, water slapping against the pavement, the storm drains overflowing. The kind of day you dread. According to reports, Anthony was allergic to horses. He had asthma. He and photographer Tyler Hicks squeezed through barbed wire on the border with Syria and Turkey. They would be traveling with horses. Anthony had trouble breathing but recovered after resting. Days later, on the way back out of Syria, his lungs apparently gave out. Tyler says he tried for 30 minutes to revive him, but Anthony was dead. There would be an autopsy in Turkey. At my daughter's school, I held Loretta's hand, walking in a daze. I was confused to find an administrator waiting for me with open arms. She smiled, clapping me on the back. "Congratulations!" she said. "You should be so proud." What? Of all the mornings, Loretta had just been accepted into the school's exclusive kindergarten. In a steady rain, I stood outside, holding the acceptance letter, suddenly bereft. Where did Anthony's son go to school? The letter in my hand began to turn to mush, and my chest tightened with grief. You could read any one of Anthony Shadid's recent dispatches and see he was a man who told the story with heart, who did whatever it took to get it right. The Middle East isn't an easy place to work, and everyone was in agreement: no hands were as deft as Anthony's. Siting there in my living room, my wife about to cry, I tried to picture his empty shoes, knowing it was just as hard to imagine them ever again being filled. Then Kelly picked up the phone. It was a colleague. They had been in conversation the other day about crossing into Syria. Now what? I shuddered, for his family, for my family, and for everyone else, too. RIP. Image: Luciana.Luciana/Flickr
The last time I saw Elmore Leonard alive was in 2004 at a now-defunct New York bookstore, where Leonard had come to promote his latest novel and I had come to pay homage to a literary hero. The novel was called Mr. Paradise. I lurked in the back of the store while a long line of fans waited to get their books autographed, maybe exchange a few words with the author. The atmosphere was more like a church than a place of business, for Leonard had developed a large, loyal, and nearly reverent following during a career that had been chugging along for more than half a century by then and kept on chugging until Tuesday, when Leonard died at 87 at his home near Detroit. As Leonard signed books that day in New York, I noticed that he rarely looked up and he exchanged a minimum of small talk with his fans. He was well into his 70s by then, and the book-flogging drill had obviously lost its luster for him long ago. In that moment I realized my act of homage was going to be even trickier than I'd feared. I had been a fan of Leonard's writing for years,so I didn't doubt my sincerity. But I could see that paying homage to a writer as famous and seasoned as Leonard was a fraught transaction. It's almost impossible not to come across as sycophantic and fawning. Or, worse, creepy. When the last fan had gotten his book signed, I took a deep breath and stepped up to the table. Leonard gave me a look I took to be frosty. ALWAYS A STRAGGLER, it seemed to say. I held out a signed copy of my own first novel, Motor City, and said, "Mr. Leonard, my name is Bill Morris. I played football with your son Pete at Holy Name School back in the '60s. I wanted to give you this copy of my first novel and let you know I've loved your writing for years." Leonard's face changed. A warm smile melted the frost. He thanked me for the book, asked after my parents, who he claimed to remember, told me with evident pride that his son Pete had started publishing novels of his own, which I knew. Terrified of pressing my luck, I cut the conversation short, thanked him and left the store. Leonard's warmth had been palpable. So had his relief that his duty was done --- until next time. The first times I saw Elmore Leonard were in the 1950s and '60s, when we were living near each other in a Detroit suburb and I was playing football with his kid. All I knew about Pete's dad back then was that he wasn't like my father and most of the other fathers in the neighborhood, who boarded big shiny cars in the morning and went off to make money making cars. Mr. Leonard was different. He worked in something mysterious called advertising -- then came home and wrote stories and novels. Even as a grade schooler, this struck me as impossibly romantic and exotic. It was possible for a respectable middle-class man to be a writer, an artist! Leonard was rightly revered for his impeccable ear for spoken English, his clean prose, his insistence that the author must remain invisible, and that writing should never be writerly. But I think his achievement went well beyond what was in his books -- and in the uneven movies they inspired. Leonard won the favor of some high literary types, including Walker Percy and Martin Amis, a sign that he had accomplished something that once seemed unthinkable: he lifted genre writing out of the ghetto and made readers and critics see that fine writing cannot be bottled or diminished by labels. Loren D. Estleman, another prolific Michigan-based author of high-quality crime and western fiction, was saddened by the news that his friend Elmore Leonard had died. "All he cared about was his work," Estleman said by phone on Tuesday. "He was the absolute last of the ad men --- the Mad Men --- who went from writing ad copy to writing for the pulps and then on to the world market of writing quality novels." Leonard was among a handful of pioneers -- Philip K. Dick, George V. Higgins, and John le Carré also come to mind -- who opened the world's eyes to something that now seems self-evident: the quality of the writing is the only thing that matters. I've often wondered if Elmore Leonard read that novel I gave him back in 2004. Probably not. I don't care. It was enough to spend a few moments in the presence of an immortal. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on "How the State Imagines" were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: "I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit." His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about "getting lucky" often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy... even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift - the sustained good luck - of everyday life.At the height of his powers... say, from 1959's The Poorhouse Fair to 1996's In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory - American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban - that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike's cartography. Collectively, the novels of the '60s and '70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His "rules for reviewing" remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike's "spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude," which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike's critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too... Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit - more than a decade has passed since Updike's fiction felt urgent - both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike's gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.
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One of the world's great photographers and perhaps the greatest portrait photographer ever, Richard Avedon died today. Avedon started out in the fashion world, and then he became equally well known as a portraitist in the documentary style. He was known for placing his subjects in front of an all white background, for eliciting hidden emotions from his subjects, and for his meticulous darkroom work. Photos, a timeline, and various other goodies can be found here. Here are his most comprehensive collections: Evidence: 1944-1994 and An Autobiography
Thumbtacked to the wall above my desk is a line from Grace Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. It runs: "Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life." Paley could speak of "open destiny" with some authority. A writer to the marrow, she was also a mother, a rabble-rouser, and an inspiration. It must have been hard for her to imagine, working as a typist in the 1950s, that she would someday be honored as a national treasure. That the strikes against her (Radical; Working Class; Daughter of Ukrainian Immigrants; Woman) no longer seem like strikes is a testament to her trail-blazing.But Paley's most significant significance (to this writer, anyway) is her voice. In 1959, when vernacular prose and aesthetic refinement seemed like the opposed ends of the literary jumper cables - contact to be avoided at all costs - The Little Disturbances of Man crossed wires, and made sparks. Paley came on like a philosopher and a carnival barker, like a reporter and a poet (which she very much was). Her sentences met her friend Donald Barthelme's criteria for greatness - truth, beauty, and surprise - without the slightest sign of strain. They could rival the richness of Ulysses while seeming as spontaneous as a shout in the street.In "A Conversation with My Father," for example, Paley's fictional stand-in, Faith, tries to heed her Dad's deathbed request: "to write a simple story [...]. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next." She spins a story about a neighbor whose son becomes a junkie, and her father insists that she end it there. "I had promised the family to always let him have the last word when arguing," Faith tells us, "but in this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She's my knowledge and my invention. I'm sorry for her. I'm not going to leave her there in the house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.) Therefore: She did change. Of course her son never came home again. But right now, she's the receptionist in a storefront community clinic in the East Village. Most of the customers are young people, some old friends. The head doctor has said to her, 'If we only had three people in this clinic with your experiences...'"Grace Paley died yesterday, at age 84, having battled breast cancer. But given the buoyancy of her spirit and her passionate engagement with the world, hers is not the kind of death that leaves readers bitter. Rather, it offers us a reminder of our own "open destinies." I'll be raising a glass to Paley tonight, and revisiting her remarkable body of work for years to come.
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