Winter Journal by Paul Auster
Holt • $26 • ISBN 9780805095531
on sale August 21, 2012
Thirty years after his breakthrough debut, the memoir The Invention of Solitude, Paul Auster returns to the medium in Winter Journal.
With the hindsight of Didion, the narrative elegance of Nabokov and the mesmerizing writing for which he himself is known, Auster (now 65) steps into what he calls "the winter of [his] life" by looking back on a lifetime. He shares his memories and the fleeting moments of his body—places it has been, things it has felt (both wonderful and terrible)—through threaded vignettes constructed of languorous sentences that feel much like memory itself. Each fragment careens toward death, a boat against the current.
Auster writes as "you," a device which could feel like an assault were it not for the accomplished writer behind it. At times, the "you" seems removed, peering at his former self in a distant way, as when he recounts the hours immediately following his mother's death: "No tears, no howls of anguish, no grief—just a vague sense of horror growing inside you." At other times, the "you" seems to be surprised and thrilled all over again, such as when he discovers his own penis at age five: ". . . how fitting that you should have a miniature fireman's helmet emblazoned on your person, on the very part of your body, moreover, that looks like and functions as a hose." And always, the "you" is hypnosis to trick you, reader, into remembering a life that isn't your own.
It's a fast read, never waning to nostalgia, that will move you to chew the cud of your own mortality and (somehow) still find time to disappear into your own memories.
You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.
Your bare feet on the cold floor as you climb out of bed and walk to the window. You are six years old. Outside, snow is falling, and the branches of the trees in the backyard are turning white.
Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said. Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.
Will you keep an eye out for Auster's new memoir in August?
Mother's Day is this Sunday! Our May issue features five great books for moms (grandmothers and expecting moms, too!). Below are the book trailers for two of these books: Up by Patricia Ellis Herr and Bloom by Kelle Hampton.
Up is the memoir of a mom and her pint-sized hiking partner. Patricia Ellis Herr and her five-year-old daughter climbed nearly 50 New England peaks during their year-and-a-half adventure. Our reviewer called it "half hiking reference manual and half meditation on how to instill independence and confidence at a young age—an odd and oddly compelling combination."
Kelle Hampton, best known for her blog Enjoying the Small Things, shares the story of giving birth to a child with Down Syndrome. Her memoir, Bloom, is a "searing and brave portrait of her baby’s first year . . . [that] gives a whole new meaning to the term 'open book.'"
No sugar-coated motherhood stories here. Will you check these out? Do you know a mom who would love to read one of these incredible memoirs?
Don't feel bad if Jenny Lawson, aka the Bloggess, makes you laugh at terrible things (dead pets, etc.). It's not your fault—her life has been ridiculous, her humor is questionable and her memoir, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, captures it all.
Here's what our reviewer had to say about Lawson's riotous book:
"This is the kind of book where, once you’ve got the lay of the land, a sentence like '[My neighbor] seemed more concerned this time, possibly because I was belting out Bonnie Tyler and crying while swinging a machete over a partially disturbed grave' makes total sense. It might also make you laugh and cry simultaneously, since the grave held Lawson’s beloved pug and she was swinging at vultures who were trying to dig him up. If that doesn’t make you laugh, there’s a story about her multiple miscarriages and the subsequent birth of her daughter that’s an absolute howler. No, seriously. Plus: Chupacabras!"
Is this a must-read?
Our April Top Pick in Nonfiction is Wild, the magnificent memoir by Cheryl Strayed. After the death of her mother, Strayed decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. She starts her journey alone, grieving and misguided (her pack weighs more than 70 pounds) but discovers "a visionary state of solitude" while battling blisters and the elements. Writes our reviewer:
Wild is never simply a survival memoir. . . It is also a guidebook for living in the world, introducing a vibrant new American voice with a deceptively simple message: Go outside and take a hike.
Is this a memoir you will check out?
guest post by Beth M. Howard
I get asked all the time how long it took to write my book, and my answer is “Three months.” But the fact is I’ve been writing my book over a period of nearly two years. In real time. On my blog.
Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie came about in part because of my blog, The World Needs More Pie. The theme of my blog was about how pie can make the world a better place, how making a pie by hand represents nostalgia and simpler times. In my essays I evangelized about how pie was an antidote to the high-tech world we live in, a way to nurture our overworked souls. In fact, it was an antidote to my own overworked soul. I had had a dot-com job where I spent 16 hours a day in front of a computer. I finally said, “Enough!” The money—all six figures of it—wasn’t worth the stress. I quit and got a job baking pie. And started a blog.
My pie blog entries were charming and light, which was all well and good, but my blog didn’t become important to me—or popular with others—until I started blogging about something else, and nothing to do with pie: my 43-year-old husband Marcus’s death. Because I couldn’t find anyone willing to talk about the love I had lost, I used my blog to vent my feelings, my sadness, my very acute and complicated grief. And then people started writing me emails thanking me for being so open and honest, telling me that my stories about my struggles were helping them. So I kept writing. I kept sharing. I kept blogging.
When people ask "How did you get your book published?" I always tell them that they should start a blog. It’s free. You will get instant gratification seeing your work live in a public forum. Blogging will encourage you to keep looking for story ideas. You will hone your writing skills (hopefully!). You will home in on your theme. You will get feedback from your readers. You will be motivated to keep writing. And then, one day, you’ll realize that you’re ready. Ready to chain yourself to your desk for three months, not bothering to get dressed or comb your hair. Ready to turn down dinner invitations and weekend road trips. Ready to sit at your desk and wrestle with words and sentences and story structure. Ready to commit and realize your dream of becoming a published author.
Beth M. Howard is the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie.
Big news for fans of comedy, rock music and women with a story to tell: Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag, Sleater-Kinney and recent pop-culture phenomenon "Portlandia" will be publishing a memoir with Riverhead Books. Publicity director Jynne Martin tells us that it will be "a memoir of her life in music, from ardent fan to pioneering female guitarist to comedic performer and luminary of the independent rock world."
No title or release date has been announced, but we'll be sure to share more details when we have them. I saw Brownstein live in Nashville during a stop on the live Portlandia tour (see blurry iPhone photo for proof). The audience was pretty wrapped up in the performance, to the extent of storming the stage when one audience member was invited up during a performance of "Dancing in the Dark."
While you wait for the memoir, check out this fascinating profile of Brownstein and Armistead in the New Yorker. Or watch one of my favorite "Portlandia" clips below.
Celebrate with a kiss, a pint of green beer or a bit of great literature -- it doesn't really matter, because we're all a little Irish on St. Patrick's Day. But since BookPage is neither kissing booth nor pub, we'll cover that last one: Irish stories.
For such a small island, Ireland has a vast history of notable (though often incredibly sad) writing: Swift, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney, McCourt, George Bernard Shaw, etc.
And the great books keep coming. Check out these three new epic tales, each taking inspiration from the Emerald Isle:
The O'Briens by Peter Behrens feels like the next generation in Irish literature. The poor O'Brien family seems caught between its potato-famine heritage, its isolation in the Canadian wilderness and the desire to grasp the 20th-century American Dream. It's a fascinating depiction of how Irish sorrow ripples through time. (Pantheon, 3/6)
May the Road Rise Up to Meet You by Peter Troy hits on familiar touchstones of Irish literature--famine, loss, the near impossibility of survival--but against the fresh backdrop of the American Civil War. This debut's four voices (Irish, Spanish and two slaves) tell a classic tale that feels equally Irish and American. (Doubleday, 2/28)
The Last Storyteller by Frank Delaney is the conclusion to the beloved Ben McCarthy trilogy. These novels, set in impoverished 1950s Ireland, tell of the epic romance between Ben and his lost love Venetia. The masterful depiction of this tumultuous era in Irish history makes this series the perfect fit for historical fiction buffs. (Random House, 2/7)
For admirers of Frank McCourt and classic Irish memoirs, here are two great examples from the BookPage archives:
Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman by Nuala O'Faolain is the second memoir from one of the most powerful female Irish voices on bookshelves. In this book, she details her reinvention as she enters middle-age. Her process of aging as a "semi-American" is funny, candidly emotional and a great read. (Riverhead, 2003)
Midlife Irish by Frank Gannon is a humorous account of one man's exploration of his Irish heritage. He travels to the Emerald Isle to uncover his family's history and, in the process, begins a likeable, critical discussion of the country's past, present and future. This one just might send you searching for the untold stories lurking in your own family's past. (Warner, 2003)
And for kids with a little green in their blood, these picture books celebrate the spirit of ancient Irish traditions:
A Fine St. Patrick's Day by Susan Wojciechowski introduces a brand new fairy tale to the holiday. Children will love the story of the competition between the towns of Tralee and Tralah. (Dragonfly, 2008)
Finn MacCoul and His Fearless Wife: A Giant of a Tale from Ireland by Robert Byrd gives a loveable makeover to a classic Celtic legend. How can you go wrong with a tale of dueling giants? (Dutton, 1999)
Do you have a favorite Irish author or story?
guest post by Rick Lenz
Not having been exactly a megastar actor, I knew my memoir North of Hollywood would have to be different—unstereotypical. I share with you some of the guidelines that came to me in a scalding blast of inspiration as I considered this.
Okay. First of all, make sure you have nothing to say. If you have something to say, it means you’ve already begun organizing it, which—if you’ve done that before you begin writing—is death. Un-stereotypical writing has to be completely fresh.
Two: you can’t be unorganized either. Once you’re sure you have nothing to say and have said it inventively, make sure you then put it all in a sensible order. Just because you’re capable of covering a canvas with a coat of red paint doesn’t make you Rothko. Unconventional writing—just like anything else in the creative arts—had better have a lot of structure if it's going to be accessible unconventional writing.
Three: Make sure you’re at peace with yourself. Chaos never creates anything but a mirror image of itself. Don’t commit the day-to-day mess in your mind to paper. If you do, people will have firm evidence that that’s what’s in your head and they will not pay you for it.
Four: Make sure your writing is crystal-clear and avoid clichés like the plague.
The fifth, and perhaps most important, rule of unconventional writing is never to forget that everyone else is trying to be unconventional. We live in a time in which it seems as if we’ve watched too many absurdist comedies in a row. Our frames of reference have gotten bent around to the point that everything seems preposterous and nothing provokes surprise.
Ergo, at this very moment a million authors are thinking, “How can I shock the pants off them?”
Well, most readers’ pants are already down around their ankles.
To illustrate: an increasingly large proportion of writing in the 21st Century is for the Internet and television. If my late mother were to watch network TV today, she’d faint within a minute. The next night, she’d faint again.
But eventually, after some nasty falls and a few bruises, she’d make sure she was sitting in an easy chair when she turned on the television.
Then, gradually, her responses would turn into little more than faintly raised eyebrows.
Finally, she’d just stare at it like everyone else.
Meanwhile—and this more of a caveat than a rule—never forget we live on a continent that was only recently (in the big scheme of things) populated by people who deeply believed that plants, rocks, fire, water, as well as animals and people were imbued with a sacred inner life by the Great Spirit. Compare and contrast that with the man (also on television), warning men to seek medical help if their erections last longer than four hours.
To sum up: In order to write in an unstereotypical way, do not know what you’re talking about, but organize it well. Be peaceful (a lobotomy is permissible). Be lucid and remember that everyone else is trying to break the stereotypes too.
Maybe the best thing to do is simply to write old-fashioned, cleanly- stated prose and not worry about anything beyond that—unless you want to count being interesting and honest.
Rick Lenz has been acting on Broadway, TV and film since 1965. In his memoir, North of Hollywood—on sale today—he talks about a life spent acting alongside the likes of Walter Matthau.
Recently, Anna Quindlen has been focusing on fiction—but readers are sure to rejoice when they hear that the former Newsweek and New York Times columnist will be chronicling her own life once again this May in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House).
Marriage, girlfriends, kids, your mother, faith, possessions, solitude, and more—like her other nonfiction and her original New York Times column, “Life in the 30s,” this book gives us the heartfelt, insightful, wise Quindlen, the one who says for us what we wish we could have said ourselves.
As part of our Best Books of 2011 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
I don't read a lot of nonfiction (for no other reason than I devour novels like candy, and there are only so many books a girl can read in a year). That said, Townie, Andre Dubus III's memoir about a hard life in a poor Massachusetts mill town is one of my favorite books I've read in 2011—full stop, novels included.
There are a lot of interesting contrasts in the story: Gorgeous writing combined with a bleak setting. The man who becomes an iron-pumping boxer (and vicious brawler) must be reconciled with the man who writes House of Sand and Fog.
Most of all, I liked Townie because of the extreme emotions therein—rage and disappointment, embarrassment, loneliness, misery, love, joy. It's a tough book that may have you doing a few fist pumps during scenes of redemption. I really loved it. (And I agree with New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner, who wrote, "It could become, and I mean this fondly, one hell of a Ben Affleck movie.")