Public Property, by Andrew Motion

One night last week I went to a reading by Andrew Motion, thrilled at the opportunity to hear one of my favorite poets, and so close to home! I heard Motion, Poet Laureate of England from 1999 to 2009, read once before, in Toronto, at the International Festival of Authors. I was profoundly moved and changed by that experience, partly of course by the poems themselves with their richly evocative detail, their deeply felt experience, and my own sudden shock of recognition, but also partly by the way he read, the way he presented them.

At many of the readings I attend, the authors give the briefest of introductions to their poems or story excerpts, if indeed any at all, and then read in a monotone. When this happens, I have trouble paying attention and find myself thinking If you are so bored with your work, how do you expect me to be interested?

When I heard him in Toronto, I felt Motion hit just the right balance of talking about each poem, giving it some context, before reading it. He was engaged with the audience, a huge one, filling the large auditorium. Slipping in some dry wit here and there to keep us alert, he at one point provoked a spurt of laughter from someone in the back, causing him to smile wryly and say, “Exactly!” And, although the poem he then read, one that is in this book and that he read again last week, is enough to break your heart, the laughter was not out of place. The world can be confusing and chaotic; by focusing in on one moment in time, going into it fully, we find ourselves grounded again.

Hearing him last week, his introductions to the poems somewhat different for an audience that was almost entirely students, writers themselves, I understood suddenly that when I first started reading my poems, when my initial collection came out, I had unconsciously based my reading style on his. The introductions, yes, but also the way he read the poems themselves which, while not flamboyant in any way, gave each line the attention it deserved, honoring the emotions it encapsulated and evoking them in us.

This collection from 2002 contains his first poems as Poet Laureate. I picked it up at a used tool and book sale in a market town in England, because it was by him, of course, but also because I was curious as to how so private a poet would write for state occasions. The answer takes me deeply into what it means to be a writer, one whose work is out in the world.

I wrote poetry for many years just for myself; it was my way of making sense of the world. When my first book came out, I honestly didn't expect anyone to read it. I didn't feel that my privacy was violated in any way, but I just didn't think anyone would care about these poems that were so personal to me. And yet some people do, as I was reminded just today by my friend Laura.

Some of the poems in this book come out of Motion's childhood experiences. While I never went to boarding school or fly fishing with my mother, I recognise the reactions and emotions he conjures. What is private to him nonetheless touches a shared experience. Similarly, his poems about England in the section The Stormcloud of the Nineteenth Century and his other poems commissioned in his role as Laureate are clearly written out of a deeply private feeling but capture something that we hold in common. His short poem on the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, for example, moves me to tears no matter how often I read it because it so perfectly sums up the beauty and tragedy of her life and her own struggles with the boundary between what is private and what is public.

Motion's investigation into that boundary in this collection touches on what I value most in this work I have taken on: reading and writing enable us to experience the world through someone else's eyes. As a result, our own gaze becomes more empathic. We are reminded that while we may each be our own private spinning world, there is much that we hold in common and a shared aspect to our lives.

This is a good thing. However, finding the right balance between what is private and what may be made public becomes more challenging every day, with the proliferation of technology that can track our every move and changing social mores that seem to make reticence a thing of the past.

What challenges have you encountered in balancing your privacy with what is shared publicly?

Under My Skin, by Doris Lessing

A friend loaned me this first volume of Lessing's two-volume autobiography. The Nobel Prize winner passed away November 2013 at the age of 94, and reading the articles about her reminded me that I hadn't read any of her books for a long time. Back in the 1970s I gobbled up books like The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series. They were a huge influence on my emerging understanding of myself as a person and of women's roles in society. The Golden Notebook also influenced me as a writer, one who was just beginning to appreciate experiments in form.

I decided to reread these books and also catch some of the books I'd missed. Then, much to my delight, this autobiography fell into my hands. Now I almost wish it hadn't, or at least not until I'd reread the books.

Don't get me wrong: it's beautifully written. I raced through it, intrigued by her early life in Persia and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), thoroughly enjoying the beautifully detailed descriptions of life in the bush, such as this when she hears a rustling at night:

It is as if the thatch is whispering. All at once, as I understand, my ears fill with the sound of the frogs and toads down in the vlei. It is raining. The sound is the dry thatch filling with water, swelling, and the frogs are exulting with the rain.

I was also captivated by her later involvement in politics. Lately I've found myself more and more interested in the communist and socialist movements of the 1930s and 1940s, so I was fascinated by her description of a now-lost (“killed by television”) culture of working men's colleges, political study classes and lectures. I paid close attention to the workings of the groups and shifting attitudes she describes, so familiar to me from my activist days, yet tempered by her looking back from old age (77 when this book came out).

. . . why do we expect so much? Why are we so bitterly surprised when we—our country—the world—lurches into yet another muddle or catastrophe? Who promised us better? When were we promised better? Why is it that so many people in our time have felt all the emotions of betrayed children?

Her description of how things changed with the advent of the Cold War is chilling: “From one week to the next, we became pariahs.” What makes this especially harsh is the thought that (as I now believe) the Cold War was cynically manufactured by those in power not only to sell more guns and missiles, but also to create a false sense of emergency to use as a weapon against labor organizers and others attempting to help the working class.

Lessing's parents are richly presented, their courage and limitations, their dreams and the harsh reality. They met during WWI when he was in hospital recovering from having his leg amputated, and she was his nurse. I marveled continuously at his wrestling a farm out of the bush with his wooden leg, and sympathised with her making the best of a rough isolation after her gay social life in London. I look forward to reading Alfred and Emily, Lessing's novel based on them.

Why do I wish I'd waited? In the autobiography Lessing is quite open about using her own life and friends as material for her novels. Now that I've plunged into The Golden Notebook, I find it hard to distance myself from the so-similar autobiographical details and encounter the story ingenuously. Of course, as a writer, I find interest in what she's done with real life to create fiction. But as a reader, I miss the immersion experience I had expected. Still, I look forward to reading the second volume, which begins as she leaves Africa for London.

Does knowing about the life of an author change your perception of his or her novels?

Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane

I enjoy mysteries. I like the puzzle-solving aspect, the attention to characterisation, the recognition of the world's chaos and the restoration of order. I don't like detailed descriptions of brutality—some writers seem to compete to gross our the reader—but a good writer can overcome my reluctance. Dennis Lehane is one of those writers. He captured me with his first book, A Drink Before the War, and continues to engross me with his artistry.

I also like Boston. I lived nearby for some time and always meant to return. Perhaps I still will. So the combination made this book the perfect holiday gift for me. The stories are set in and around Boston, including Cambridge, North Quincy, and Watertown. Some of my favorite authors are represented: Stewart O'Nan, John Dufresne, and Brendan Du Bois. Some are new to me: Dana Cameron, Don Lee, and Lynne Heitman, among others.

The part I liked best was Lehane's introduction. He portrays Boston and her people in ways that I immediately recognized—the knucklehead humor, the war of gentrification. And he gives a succinct take on what constitutes noir. He suggests it can be characterised as a “working-class tragedy”, its heroes not going out in a blaze of Aristotelian glory, but rather “clutching fences or crumpled in trunks”. His terse and brilliant summation is that “Noir is a genre of loss, of men and women unable to roll with the changing times, so the changing times instead roll over them.”

It's hard to pick a favorite story from this collection, but it might be “Dark Waters” by Patricia Powell. It's about a woman who answers the door one night when the lights have gone out. “Her name was Perle, she was forty-seven, and just six months ago she got up one morning and decided she was leaving her marriage.” The subtle changes Perle and the person at her door undergo in these few pages left me breathless with admiration, sadness, and sympathy.

This book is part of a series, each set in a different location with an editor associated with that place. I find them an interesting way to visit or revisit cities here and abroad.

Have you read a book recently that is set in a place that is meaningful to you?

Hollywood, by Larry McMurtry

A few weeks ago I mentioned that memoirs about the lives of celebrities seem to find a ready market. McMurtry is a celebrity within the world of writers, thanks to the success of books such as Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment, and the phenomenal success of movies made from them. This third memoir from him is about his interactions with Hollywood, his screenwriting career, which began almost by accident before he was famous, and his later efforts to have his books made into movies.

One expects that memoirs supposedly written by famous people are actually ghost-written, but in this case we can be confident that McMurtry wrote it himself. It is a casual recounting, jumping here and there, with chapters ranging from one to three pages. A ghost writer would certainly have added some organization and filled out the brief text. We do get some brief mentions of actors, producers and directors with whom he's worked, and more substantial descriptions of a few people such as Peter Bogdanovich and his agent, Irving Lazar.

Reading this slight and rambling book is a bit like listening to a favorite uncle run through his store of anecdotes: they are sometimes mildly interesting or amusing, but there is not much substance to them. He occasionally repeats himself, but you let that pass because of the affection you have for him.

Do I care that he once sat at a table at an Oscar party with George Burns and James Stewart, both of whom—quite elderly—sat silently throughout? Or that he met Stephen Spielberg once but their conversation was interrupted almost immediately? Even celebrities with whom he claims friendship, such as Susan Sontag, Diane Keaton, and Barbra Streisand, are only mentioned briefly because, as he says, he does not kiss and tell.

I did enjoy descriptions of two not-famous people who influenced his stories, a former Texas Ranger named Joaquin Jackson and a tragic Wyoming lawman, Ed Cantrell. I also enjoyed his descriptions of scouting locations for Hud and The Last Picture Show in his native Texas. As a writer I was amused by his descriptions of staying in the penthouse at the Beverly Hilton and flying first class, though he would really prefer a private jet. No writer I know enjoys such luxuries, but this is movie-money talking, not book-money.

He does mention that after his heart attack in 1991 he no longer has the attention span to write screenplays. He says several times that fiction comes easily to him but scripts do not. After his heart attack he confined himself to fiction, “which doesn't really require a clear mind”, until he was able to persuade Diana Ossana to become his screenwriting partner. It was Diana's idea to offer Annie Proulx an option for “Brokeback Mountain” after reading the short story in The New Yorker.

One interesting insight I gleaned from this book is his take on the difference between fiction and screenwriting:

How different? Well, for one thing, movies are sort of talked into marketability, if they have any, the talk being mainly between writer and producer, or writer and director, or both. Actors will occasional ally offer an opinion, but these opinions are rarely heeded . . . The line producers who are responsible for the daily money flow rarely get into the aesthetics of the project either.

Another helpful insight comes when he maintains that his success at having his books optioned for movies is due to his ability to write characters whom famous actors want to play. Until an actor who is thought to be a success at the box office is attached to a project, it won't generate interest or the necessary funding. For instance, Terms of Endearment might not have been made if Jack Nicholson hadn't decided at the last minute to join the cast. That makes sense, though I hadn't thought about it in those terms before. Certainly McMurtry excels at creating characters with the depth and/or quirks to make them interesting.

All in all, this is a pleasant and undemanding read. There is rarely any continuity between the short chapters, so you can pick it up and read for only a few minutes. Like many readers, I tend to read several books at once, some light and some weighty, picking them up to match my mood and attention span.

Do you read multiple books at once or focus on one at a time? What movies made from books have you liked?