Rather than give an update about my novel or recent life events, I want to tell you about the book Siracusa by Delia Ephron. I spend Wednesdays in the library, hunched over a desk, noise-canceling headphones on, polishing a scene I intend to share with my critique group later that night. Sometimes, if I’m running early, I’ll browse the “Choice Reads” shelves on my way out. Other times, it’s the “New and Interesting” tables. I’m always on the lookout for books that might, possibly, serve as comps for when I query Tailwinds Past Florence.
Siracusa is about two couples, each struggling with their marriage, who decide to vacation together in Italy. First to Rome, then to the Sicilian town of Siracusa. Sadly, the struggling marriage in Italy part is where the comparisons with my own book end (ultimately, it’s a bit quieter and more literary than mine). Fortunately, the book was entirely worth reading. Siracusa is written first-person multiple POV style, with each character telling their version of the events in the past tense, as if they were being interviewed for a documentary. The only character to not get their own chapters is Snow, the tween daughter who accompanies cloying mother Taylor and distant dad Finn.
It’s a drama, it’s a character study, and it’s peppered with an excellent blend of laugh-lines and frustration. Ideally, the individual character voices would be more unique, but the internal dialogue really stands out and sets the characters apart. There’s Taylor, the helicopter mom, Michael the two-timing playwright, Finn, the restaurateur who doesn’t know what he wants, and Lizzie, the one just trying to make it all work. Or so it seems. Lizzie is the snark-filled vessel in which the reader best connects with the characters. Her viewpoint is whose we trust the most. And it’s through her POV that Ephron delivers a paragraph of internal observation that I can’t help but share. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at someone’s obsession with hand sanitizer, this is for you.
The setup: Lizzie is alone with high-maintenance Taylor at a cafe near Rome’s Pantheon. They both know this trip was a bad idea (an idea concocted on the spot when they had run into each other in London the prior year). They don’t really care for one another. Lizzie (and the reader) knows Taylor is absurd. Taylor has just extracted a small bottle of Purell from “one of six compartments of her efficient purse” and offers Lizzie a squirt. Here are Lizzie’s thoughts (author’s emphasis):
I didn’t know about the Purell. I don’t think I would have wanted to vacation with someone who brought Purell along. I even fantasized later that if I’d known about the Purell, maybe the vacation wouldn’t have happened. I didn’t remember Purell in London, perhaps it was a new fetish. Purell is a fetish. Once one carries it–I have noticed from those who do–it seems necessary throughout the day to cleanse. It reflects a constant awareness that the world is awash with bacteria and you, going about your innocent carefree way, are all the while collecting microbes that can murder you or at least give you the twenty-four-hour flu. It’s awkward to turn down Purell, so I didn’t. That struck almost as powerfully as the Pantheon, I’m ashamed to admit. It’s as if one is saying, I prefer germs, I prefer to eat with dirty hands, I have poor hygiene, I am a pig.
I really enjoyed Siracusa. Or maybe it’s just that I respect it. It’s very well-written. And though I agree with the reviewers who commented on the ending being predictable (and even then, I was still disappointed it wasn’t tied up a little differently) that’s not to say it wasn’t worth reading. It’s just not for everyone. It’s a bit more experimental, thin on action. In fact, the events that could best be described as high action scenes occur off the page (including the climax). But don’t let that stop you. Check it out here.
- Toni Morrison is More Hemingway Than Hemingway Himself – Here’s a statistical look at the usage of adverbs in modern fiction. Ben Blatt analyzed thousands of novel-length books in three different categories: fan-fiction, bestsellers, and award-winning literature to see if fewer adverbs really is the hallmark of higher quality writing. Like many authors, I tire of the so-called “writing rules” and welcome quantitative looks at the books we respect.
- How to Overcome Rejection by 200 Literary Agents – This guest column discusses the pain and agony and determination that helped an author overcome 200 rejection slips and finally land an agent. Frankly, if I rack up even 100 rejection slips (after continuing to revise based on any feedback I get) I’m going to self-publish and get back to work on the second novel, which I will have already begun writing. Nevertheless, for those who yearn for that stamp of approval or those who find the heartbreaking process of submissions/querying/rejection interesting, this is a good read. It’s equal parts torment and inspiration.
- Danielle Steel Loves the Weather… Literature by the Numbers – Here’s another statistical look at trends in literary fiction, including the use of exclamation points (it’s a lot more than 3 per book, contrary to popular advice), the use of cliches, the length of first sentences, and the frequency in which authors open with a line about the weather. For writers who think (fret) about such things, this is a must-read.
- How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die? – It seems Lithub is taking the place of all my Guardian links this week. This article is by Emily Temple and attempts to answer the age-old bar question: how many books will you read in a lifetime. Naturally, it all comes down to how many you read per year, how old you are, and how long you’ve been a reader. I’ll probably come in somewhere around 1,700 if current trends continue. I see no reason for them not to.
- Forget F. Scott: In ‘Z,’ Christina Ricci Tells Zelda Fitzgerald’s Story – Have you watched Z yet? It’s the very (very!) good Amazon Original series starring Christina Ricci about Zelda Fitzgerald and her life with husband F. Scott. Only one season is available so far on Prime Video, but it’s so good. Even if you’re not a reader and the only Zelda you know lives on a Nintendo system, it’s a great show. This article on NPR will bring you up to speed.
The Sumo Matchup Centuries in the Making – My wife and I really enjoy sumo. Thanks to the NHK World app, we can even watch the nightly recap from each tournament (tournaments are 15 days and take place, roughly, every other month throughout the year). We were in Osaka on the final day of the March Basho in 2015, to see Hakuho win the tournament. And we watched in amazement last month as Kisenosato win his first tournament after his promotion to Yokozuna (miraculously winning after sustaining a significant injury on day 13). Kisenosato is the first Japanese Yokozuna in nearly twenty years. Anyway, the article I linked to is a deep-dive into the history and present era of sumo. Fantastic sports reading.