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Archive for the ‘Author obituary’ Category

seamus-heaneyIt is always a sad day when a favorite writer dies. This morning, came the news that Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney died at the age of 74. We have written about Heaney here at BFGB before, about his masterful translation of Beowulf and his delightful collection Human Chain. I do not think I can describe Heaney’s work better than to repeat what I wrote about Human Chain:

[Heaney] writes thoughtful, thought-provoking, poems that display a love of language and life. Since the 1960s, Heaney has used his poems to explore the natural world, farming and farmwork, the violence that shattered his native Ireland, the intersections of the Irish and English languages, and above all his own place in the world.

Knowing that there will not be a new work from such a wonderful writer makes the day seem dreary and sad. But at least there is a powerful and extensive set of work to go back to. Here is one of my favorite poems from Heaney’s collection Opened Ground.

The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

Here are some of Heaney’s books in the WRL collection

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How many readers of science fiction or fantasy can attribute their interest in these genres to Ray Bradbury? I am certainly among that group, and I mourn Bradbury’s passing as much for the loss of a writer so influential to my reading ecology as for the loss of new works that he might have written.

I had just read Bradbury’s essay “Take Me Home” in the June 4 & 11, 2012 issue of the New Yorker when I heard about his death on June 5th at the age of 91. As always, Bradbury’s essay was clear, concise, and poignant. The magazine was the NewYorker’s science fiction issue, and Bradbury was thinking back to his early interest in space and in science fiction writing. It is a short piece, but in it he captures the excitement of first coming across a book or story that speaks to your condition as well as moving easily and seamlessly from the personal to the universal. These are the strengths of all of Bradbury’s writing.

He was equally at home writing fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction, and adept at both novels and short stories. In all of these genres and styles, it is the characters that continually come back to my mind. Whether they are young or old, good or bad, Bradbury’s characters are searchers for the joy in life. Sometimes they are seeking  futilely and often the are looking in the wrong place, but they are usually striving for some happiness or some understanding of their place in the community and in the universe.

Bradbury clearly understood human nature in its mixture of light and dark, of good and evil. His novels and short stories often have a sense of the uncanny or eerie about them, and there is frequently a palpable feeling of loss. Characters grow up, make decisions that take them in unexpected directions, and come to realize that the offer of happiness or your supposed heart’s desire comes with a steep price. I will return again and again to Something Wicked This Way Comes, to short stories like “The Illustrated Man” and “The Fire Balloons,” and Fahrenheit 451, for the lovely prose, the memorable characters, and the sense of hope that they offer.

Check the catalog for Ray Bradbury’s writings

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Pinhoe EggI have decided to take a risk and recommend one of my favorite books ever. It has a satisfying story, strong characters who are learning about themselves, magic and magical creatures, a magnificent horse, evil elderly relatives, a castle, and children who are better people than the adults around them. How could any book need more? In fact, my enduring ambition is to live in Chrestomanci Castle (they do have a librarian; it says so in the book!).

The Pinhoe Egg is shelved in the children’s section and is certainly enjoyed by children, but it is also a marvelous book for adults to relish. If you guiltily enjoyed the early Harry Potter books for their humor, magic, and “Englishness” you will probably love The Pinhoe Egg and the rest of the Chrestomanci Series.

Marianne Pinhoe lives in a quiet English country village. The school holidays are starting and she is looking forward to having free time and working on her story about romantic Princess Irene. Unfortunately for Marianne, her family has other plans. Marianne is to run errands for her ailing grandmother, Gamma, while her older brother Joe is to go to work as a boot boy at nearby Chrestomanci Castle and report back what he learns (to spy, in other words!). On Marianne’s very first morning at Gamma’s house things start to fall apart as the old woman is visited by members of the Farley family from the next village and Marianne’s Gamma appears to go mad. The entire, overwhelming, extended family gather round to look after the old woman and decide that they need to clear out her house to sell. The attics are forgotten, and one day in search of Gamma’s constantly straying cat, Nutcase, Marianne discovers a strange spherical object covered with strong “don’t notice” spells. Thinking that it is useless, Marianne gives it to Eric Chant (or Cat) from the Castle, unknowingly betraying her family’s Sacred Trust. What is the spherical object? Could it be an egg? And what is the Sacred Trust and has Marianne done a bad thing in breaking it, as her father says, or a good thing as the people at the Castle claim?

(Note that the object is clearly described as round and mauve with speckles, and not gold and hen’s-egg shaped as it is shown on this cover.)

This book can be enjoyed on its own, but readers of Diana Wynne Jone’s other Chrestomanci books will recognize plenty of characters. I enjoy series like this which include the same characters, but are told each time from a different person’s perspective. We get to see how our favorite characters are seen by other people in other situations–sort of like seeing your teacher in their tatty track pants in the supermarket during the weekend.

Although I have read The Pinhoe Egg several times, I have just listened to it on CD during my commute. Diana Wynne Jone’s wry humor and Gerard Doyle’s engaging narration have seen me looking like a fool and laughing out loud (those familiar with I-64 know that smiles are not necessarily easy to come by on this stretch of Hampton Roads).

Sadly, Diana Wynne Jones died on March 26, 2011 after a literary career spanning four decades. Her first children’s book, Witch’s Business, was published in 1973 and her last children’s book, Earwig and the Witch, was published this year. She won numerous awards including the Carnegie Medal. As Neil Gaiman said in his online journal about her “She was the funniest, wisest, fiercest, sharpest person I’ve known, a witchy and wonderful woman, intensely practical, filled with opinions, who wrote the best books about magic, who wrote the finest and most perceptive letters…” He adds, “… there was only one Diana Wynne Jones, and the world was a finer one for having her in it.”

Check the WRL Catalog for The Pinhoe Egg

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It is always hard when a treasured author dies. The news puts an immediate and definite halt to the pleasure knowing that at some point you will have a new book to read by that person. I find it particularly sad when the deceased is an author I have only recently discovered. There is a feeling that you have lost a new found friend. This is they way I felt hearing of the death of crime novelist Reginald Hill on 1/12/12. I only came across Hill in the past few years, but was immediately drawn in to his rich, thoughtful, and at times funny, novels featuring Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe of the North Yorkshire police force. Our review of Hill’s A Killing Kindness discusses the appeal of the Dalziel/Pascoe novels, and anyone who enjoys character-driven crime fiction should try them out. Hill also wrote a series of novels featuring Joe Sixsmith, a black private eye in a north England city. Hill had an eye for description and an ear for dialog, and he used those tools to great effect. He also had a great affection for his characters and conveys that in a powerful way to the reader. You come away from Hill’s novel not just having enjoyed a good story but having spent time with people who are important to you. I will miss my time with these characters, and look forward to the occasional re-reading.

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The world lost a powerful and compelling voice on Thursday, January 20, 2011 with the death of Reynolds Price. Price was 77. Equally at home writing novels, poetry, essays, memoirs, and biblical exegesis, Price drew the reader into whatever story he was telling.

I first came to Price’s work after hearing him as a commentator on National Public Radio. His radio essays were so thoughtful that it would have been unthinkable not to seek out his other writing. Price is sometimes classified as a writer of Southern fiction, and much of his work is indeed grounded in the red clay of Piedmont North Carolina. His writing often explored connections, between individuals, between generations, and between the past and the present. But he was not a regional writer, whatever that really means. Rather, Price spoke to the awe-full power of love to both heal and to break. He examined the lives of his characters with an unflinching compassion that never excused their faults, but never excluded the possibility of redemption.

It is difficult to say where one should start reading if you have never read any of Price’s work. Perhaps with the novels of strong women and their lives — Kate Vaiden or Roxanna Slade. Equally powerful is Price’s writing about his own physical challenges, a spinal cancer in 1985 that took his ability to walk. The story is in A Whole New Life. Maybe one of Price’s books on religion, where he explores the concepts of belief and faith — A Serious Way of Wondering. Or try the collected essays from his stint at NPR, those pieces that first drew Price to my attention, Feasting the Heart. The only thing missing here will be the resonant sound of Price’s voice reading the stories.

It probably does not matter where you start. The important thing is to take up one of Reynolds Price’s books and read it and to mourn the passing of this wonderful storyteller whose voice has been taken from us.

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It has been a bad start to 2010 for fiction fans, and, sadly, we now need to add Dick Francis to the list of voices lost to us. Francis’ crime stories were a blend of thriller and traditional mystery, drawing on the best of both types of crime fiction. There was always a puzzle to solve in the midst of what could be some very intense action.

What drew many readers to Francis was his deep understanding of the world of horses. Whether it was thoroughbred meets or steeplechases or equestrian competitions, all of Francis’ fiction was set in a frame of jockeys, trainers, owners, and fans of horse racing. This was a world that Francis not only knew well, but also had a great affection for. Francis gave equal time to both professional horsemen (and occasionally women) and to amateurs. He was equally at home with losing jockeys and washed up trainers as with those in the winner’s circle. Francis’  background as a champion steeplechase rider gave him an authoritative voice when writing about the equine world.

Unlike many crime writers, Francis rarely wrote more than a single book about a particular character; there are only a couple of recurring characters in his stories. But his assortment of heroes all share some traits. They are avid horsemen, quick thinkers, and champions of the truth. It seems that these are traits they share with their creator, whose death at the age of 89 leaves a large hole in the world of crime fiction.

Here are a few good starting titles if you have never read Francis.

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The last 10 days have seen the loss of three great figures in American letters – J.D. Salinger, Howard Zinn, and Robert B. Parker.  (Correction: news of Louis Auchincloss’ death came through as I was writing this.)  Each added, in his own way, to a portrait of the American sensibility.

Robert B. Parker is perhaps best known for his Spenser series.  Across nearly forty titles, Parker developed the character of the wisecracking private eye with his love of good food and good drink and of everything Boston.  His ongoing relationship with  Harvard psychologist Susan Silverman provided an element of stability in a world marked by shades of gray and frequent violence, but it was always plain that he wouldn’t be domesticated.

Spenser lives by a personal code that allows him to cross legal boundaries in search of justice – but not too deeply into the alien territory of the criminal mind.  He has a link to that world through the character Hawk, who serves as a kind of  guide and protector to Spenser.  His contacts in law enforcement also come in handy, and are often used to introduce the reader to a legal view of his cases.  But Spenser isn’t strictly a private eye.  He also reads and quotes poetry, and uses the lyrics to songs to give his thoughts focus.

Spenser wasn’t Parker’s sole creation – small town police chief Jesse Stone, Western lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, and female PI Sunny Randall offered Parker opportunities to explore other settings and other issues that challenged his main characters.  Stone, Randall, and Spenser all make guest appearances in each others’ books (though, like Hitchcock in his films, you may only find them in the background).  All share that same sense of honor, the same reluctance to initiate violence, and the capacity to unleash mayhem on those who cross the line.

Robert B. Parker may not be part of the literary canon, like J.D. Salinger; he may not have been a gloves-off provocateur like Howard Zinn.  But his stories did capture the American ideal of the loner seeking justice, and he wrote with flair and skill.  Those qualities alone should keep his books alive for many years.

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