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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer, Part 2

February 3, 2011 | by

This is the second installment of Ciabattari’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.


DAY FOUR

11:00 A.M. Go out to a café to read a first novel I’m reviewing. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is about a family of alligator wrestlers. Talk about Southern Gothic. I’m finding the language fresh and original. Describing a deserted house in the swamp: “A huge hole in the middle of the ceiling opened onto a clear night sky; it looked as if some great predator had peeled the thatched roof back, sniffed once and lost interest.”

6:30 P.M. The panelists for tonight’s National Book Critics Circle discussion I’m moderating, “Book Reviews, Revamped,” are all sitting in the office of Noreen Tomassi, the executive director of the Center for Fiction. I love this place. Floors of books, collections dating back to the nineteenth century.

Once the audience has gathered, we head downstairs to the second floor, where we have a discussion of the ways in which four publications are headed into the new decade.

Jennifer MacDonald, who is involved with revamping The New York Times Book Review, breaks news: in February Paper Cuts is merging into the ArtsBeat blog, and they have hired a new children’s book editor, Pamela Paul.

Robert Messenger, who launched the Wall Street Journal’s stand-alone print book section this fall, says he’s not reinventing a book-review section, he’s preserving an old form, and Rupert Murdoch wants him to edit for the reader, not for advertisers.

Craig Teicher talks about Publishers Weekly’s revival under a new owner, the poetry coverage, and the news blog he’s started.

Barbara Hoffert talks about writing the weekly prepub alert for Library Journal, and mentions the new opportunities for small presses and work in translation to be reviewed.

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A Week in Culture: Jane Ciabattari, Writer

February 2, 2011 | by

Photograph by Panya Phongsavan.

DAY ONE

8:42 A.M. I sit on the couch, drinking cold leftover coffee, reading through the printout of the novel I’m working on. The week’s first cultural artifact is the most elusive: a work of fiction in progress, still finding its shape. I’m working on the last quarter of the book, which is mostly rough draft. I’ve been weaving together three narrative threads, set in different time periods, from the 1830s, when two families work together on the underground railroad in small-town Illinois, to 2004.

To see how other writers handle structure with multiple points of view and chapters that slide around in time, I’ve been rereading Heidi Durrow’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. It’s clear by page twenty that young Rachel’s Danish mother jumped off a roof with her three young children, and that only Rachel survived. Durrow keeps building suspense. In the first chapter, Rachel has gone to live with her black grandmother. She is the “new girl” in school: “I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these facts into the new girl.”

I’m suddenly reminded of Quicksand, an autobiographical first novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen. It’s mentioned in Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s collagelike book of essays, Harlem Is Nowhere. I pull out the galley and double check. Yes, Rhodes-Pitt writes that Helga Crane, the narrator in Larsen’s novel, is both black and Danish, as is Larsen, the author. Rachel in the Durrow novel seems to be a cultural descendant of Helga, who has a fractured sense of self but finds temporary contentment in “Harlem, teeming black Harlem.”

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