Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Breaking into the Boys' Room: VIDA runs the numbers

Gender representation in book criticism is getting a little more even,but not much…

Paint a landscape. Anything you want. Only, you can’t use green. Or, let’s be fair, you can, but only a smidge – say no more than a nickel-sized dollop on your palette. And not, you know, too green. OK, then? Go wild.

Picturing a desert? You’re in luck. Same with, say, a high mountain scene or maybe a particularly stormy night. And if you prefer to work in black and white, as many of the greats do, then this prohibition won’t bother you in the least. Your viewers, who presumably know your style, will have no cause for complaint. The rest of them? They can go look elsewhere.

Unless they can’t. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with gender underrepresentation in the media. Yes, it’s that time of year again and yes, VIDA, an association of women in the literary arts, has released its fifth annual tally of the number of women critics in major literary publications as well as the number of works by women being reviewed. And while the numbers are getting better – notably better in some places – they’re still not good.

As a woman author, I can tell you this sucks. (Though, in all fairness, I am almost equally up in arms about genre as well as gender discrimination – because, you know, traditional mysteries are not as important as slash’em up thrillers. Though, come to think of it, trad mysteries – “cozies” – are usually written by women, while thrillers are still overwhelmingly penned by men, hmmm…) But really this isn’t simply a women’s issue. It’s a reader issue. Because if people of any type are looking for guidance on what to read next and they are not hearing from a representative population, then they are not seeing the full spectrum of what is out there. Yes, they can look for themselves – but as bookstores stock newspaper-list bestsellers or (at best) “heard on NPR” shelves, and radio and magazine features focus on the same – these review sections function as gatekeepers. To readers, and thus to aspiring writers, critics, authors.

As I’ve said, it sucks. How bad is it? A quick look at the charts tells the story. Although this year’s count has expanded to include some cool journals – the VIDA Larger Literary Landscape – the mainstream media is still undeniably slanted. The New York Review of Books, for example, still has 212 male critics and only 52 women. You think that might be why 307 of the works reviewed were by male authors, while only 80 were by women? Ditto Harpers, with its 24 male critics to 10 female – reviewing 49 books by men, and 19 by women. Other members of “Dudeville,” as VIDA puts it, include The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, and The New Yorker. “Drumroll for the 75%ers,” says VIDA. Would that it announced the coming of a tumbrel.

There is some good news. The New York Times Book Review and The Paris Review have both gotten better. The Paris Review went from 70 male bylines and 18 female in 2012 to 47 and 48 in 2013. The Times has added critics – and added more women than men: last year the paper had 400 male reviewers and 327 female. This year, it had 412 male and 393 female. Counting numbers of critics, bylines, and books reviewed brings the Times up to a full “VIDA Count” of 894 male, 725 female, and 1 transgender. (VIDA is aware of the issues surrounding binary classifications of gender but not at this point prepared to address them, says an editor’s note, for fear of “mission drift.” Not that others can’t take up these and further battles.)

Here in Boston, things are marginally better than the literary world at large. The Boston Review has equity in reviewers this year (10 of each), but not in authors reviewed (22 male authors to 10 female). Counting number of bylines and also micro-reviews, that comes to an overall count of 143 male to 106 female. The New England Review has an overall count of 53 male to 35 female. The Boston Globe isn’t in the count, but it does have a woman editing the book reviews (which helps). Plus, they let me write for them (as well as such better known names as Caroline Leavitt and Katherine Powers). So, yeah, maybe there is hope. But count in the backlash – Jennifer Weiner, anyone? – and you know that we’re not close to an endgame yet.

We will be. The VIDA count is part of it. So is getting angry. Read the report. Spread the word.

This essay originally ran in the Arts Fuse.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Publishers Weekly likes my upcoming "Panthers Play for Keeps," too!

Very psyched to see the early reviews for "Panthers Play for Keeps," the fourth Pru Marlowe pet noir, are beginning to come in - and to come in favorable! Here's the first word on "Panthers," which Poisoned Pen Press will publish on April 2:

Panthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir

Clea Simon. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-59058-872-7

At the start of Simon’s engaging fourth mystery featuring animal behaviorist Pru Marlowe (after 2013’s Parrots Prove Deadly), Pru and Spot, a service dog she’s training for a wealthy man who is going blind, discover the badly mauled body of a young woman while walking in the woods outside the Berkshire town of Beauville. To all appearances, a large animal, most likely a wild cat, killed the woman, yet no cats like this have been seen in the area in years. Det. Jim Creighton, the man in Pru’s life who has recently become uncomfortably chummy with the attractive therapist sponsoring Spot, is inclined to think the woman was murdered. Pru, whose psychic powers allow her to understand animals’ thoughts, receives conflicting and confusing suggestions from Spot, as well as from her tabby, Wallis. In the end, Pru’s sleuthing instincts guide her to a satisfying resolution of the crime. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 02/17/2014
Release date: 04/01/20

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"Grey Howl" gets two very big thumbs up!

My seventh Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery, "Grey Howl," pubs on March 1 and I am pleased as punch that both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly have given me glowing reviews. Here are the reviews in their entirety:

From Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly

Grey Howl: A Dulcie Schwartz Feline Mystery
Clea Simon. Severn, $27.95 (208p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8346-9
Academic politics and the world of literary scholarship provide the background for Simon’s charming seventh Dulcie Schwartz mystery (after 2013’s Grey Dawn). Harvard grad student Dulcie, who’s been researching The Ravages of Umbria—a gothic romance—and the role of women in 18th-century society, is looking forward to a prestigious academic conference in Cambridge, Mass., at which she’s to present her first paper. On the eve of the conference, Marco Tesla, a visiting scholar, is found dead with a broken neck, having fallen from a balcony. Detective Rogovoy and Dulcie, with the help of three cats she communes with for assistance (one of whom, Mr. Grey, is deceased), determine that Tesla was murdered and try to uncover who, among the scholars vying for the position of department chair, is the culprit. Extracts from The Ravages of Umbria add to the fun. Agent: Colleen Mohyde, Doe Coover Agency. (Mar.)



by Clea Simon
More adventures in the dangerous groves of academe.

Doctoral candidate Dulcie Schwartz is thrilled that she is getting the chance to read a paper she wrote on aspects of a gothic novel by a so-far-unidentified woman author who’s the subject of her thesis. The literature conference is being held for the first time at a prestigious university in Cambridge, Mass. Dulcie has been pressed into service as a liaison and fixer of problems by her nervous department head, Martin Thorpe, who’s fighting to keep his job. Dulcie would prefer Renée Showalter, a Canadian professor who’s made available to her some highly interesting documents that will help in her research—at least, until she meets charismatic Paul Barnes, another candidate for Thorpe’s job who hints that he’d like to work with Dulcie. When a paper that Stella Roebuck had planned to read vanishes from her computer, professor Roebuck, blaming her former lover Barnes, demands that Dulcie’s boyfriend, Chris, a computer expert, find it. Then Marco Telsa, Roebuck’s newest lover, falls off a balcony at an evening party, and the police suspect murder. Dulcie, who often seeks advice from the ghost of her deceased cat Mr. Grey and her new cat, Esmé, is worried about Thorpe, who appeared to be drunk at the party, and Chris, who’s acting strangely. Although she’s survived several murder investigations (Grey Dawn, 2013, etc.), her immersion in all things gothic gives her a distinctive slant on sleuthing that puts her in peril.

Though Dulcie’s rather scatterbrained approach to sleuthing may put readers off, her seventh provides a plethora of suspects that keeps them guessing.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride

There is more than one way to tell the truth, “The Good Lord Bird” reminds us again and again, and many reasons to cloak it in humor. (first published in The Arts Fuse)

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. Riverhead Books, 432 pp. $27.95

By Clea Simon

James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird serves up history as a morality tale, played out in faith and plumage.

That doesn’t mean The Good Lord Bird, a historical novel, is without humor. On the contrary, McBride’s National Book Award winner – his fourth novel – is at times a howler, its message sugarcoated with broad farce. Considering that its subject – the unsuccessful raid by abolitionist John Brown on Harper’s Ferry, a quixotic attack that would spark the Civil War – is both tragic and honorable, that approach is daring. Indeed, its voice – the ungrammatical and often scatological first-person of an unwillingly freed slave – might border on the offensive if the author were not also African American. But despite the idiosyncratic, unconventionally educated voice, the tale evades minstrelsy because of both the protagonist’s unvarnished honesty and the author’s sly wit. There is more than one way to tell the truth, The Good Lord Bird reminds us again and again, and many reasons to cloak it in humor.

Henry “Onion” Shackleford, the fictional protagonist, knows something about disguise. Mistaken for a girl by Brown in the sortie that kills his father and results in his being taken up by Brown’s raiders, our picaresque antihero gives up trying to correct the error when he realizes that being female may just keep him out of battle. Ten years old, he’s slightly built, and Brown isn’t one to give up on a notion once he’s seized on it. Instead, the bible-thumping abolitionist takes Henry – whose name he has heard as “Henrietta” and who is wearing a sack that he mistakes for a dress – under his wing, declaring the child his good-luck charm and giving him a feather of the “Good Lord Bird,” the now possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, as his own token.

What happens next is complicated, despite the hindsight of history. Onion, as he is called, accompanies Brown, a drag Sancho Panza to the abolitionist’s Quixote, in his quest to end slavery. But although Brown is single-minded, the world as Onion sees it is infinitely more varied. Simply put, the issue of slavery – or of race or gender – is not just black and white.

For starters, Onion doesn’t want to be free. “I was never hungry when I was a slave. Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage barrels,” he notes early on. Two years later, he is still griping: As a slave, he says, “Your meals is free. Your roof is paid for. Somebody else got to bother themselves about you.” Nor are white people the only ones corrupted by the institution, and one of the most moving passages involves Onion’s stay at a whorehouse where one of the black prostitutes, whom he loves, is as racist and cruel as the white madam who owns them all. Onion’s disguise – the ultimate manifestation of the emasculated black man – has begun to weigh on him, his moral growth emerging with his sexual maturity, and this lack of self-determination, a basic freedom, perverts everyone’s sense of self. It will make fools out of more than one character, including a blowhard Frederick Douglass, who is portrayed as a lecherous drunk. In fact, the one touchstone of virtue throughout the book is a character’s willingness to allow for some fluidity of identity. As Harriet Tubman, one of the few truly noble characters, says, “A body can be whatever they want to be in this world. It ain’t no business of mine. Slavery done made a fool out of a lot of folks.”

The book is not flawless. The trope of oppressed people disguising themselves in less threatening guises is almost too constant, and McBride tends to repeat himself, as when he spells out why such deceit is not only justified but necessary. “The white man put his treachery on paper,” he has Onion say. “Niggers put theirs in their mouth. … Every colored did what they had to do to make it.” Plus, despite McBride’s keen ear for individual voices, the dialect can get wearying at times. But the subtle beauty of this book rewards the reader who stays with it. There’s a lot of heart here, love as well as anger, and redemption, too, in those glimpses where Onion shows his true face. “If you can’t be your own self how can you love somebody?” he asks at last. “How can you be free?”

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 14 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.

The Unwavering Gaze — Fabritius and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

The Unwavering Gaze — Fabritius and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”
(first published in The Arts Fuse)

In Donna Tartt’s much-lauded third novel, Fabritius’s painting “The Goldfinch” and the fleeting nature of, well, everything come together for a brief and shining moment.

By Clea Simon

I, perhaps like many birdwatchers, am suggestible. I watch the pecks and flutters out at the feeder and flesh out the squabbles these represent. Domestic drama, romantic rivalry, you name it. Give me a junco with or without his partner, and I recast Shakespeare.

Still, I do not think it was entirely in my mind when, last Sunday at the Frick Museum in New York, I looked from Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Elderly Man over to Fabritius’s The Goldfinch and saw a resemblance.

I was one of the record crowd who had come to see Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, a little gem of a show that for four months occupied two rooms of the mansion museum. One room was given over entirely to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The other 14 pieces lined the adjoining East Gallery, and while I had waited for what may be my only chance ever to examine each of the pieces up close, at some point I found myself in the middle of the room, looking from one wall to the other. While the gallery was crowded – timed tickets for this last day had sold out by the time we used ours – the Frick had kept occupancy reasonable, and whether because of their planning or some trick of fate, I had a clear sight line to both paintings – the fleshy old man to my right, the tiny bird to my left – and I saw it. Something about the gaze: direct, unwavering. A little weary. In both, I saw the self-awareness of souls chained to this material world. Who had grown increasingly conscious of their bondage, had experienced the world’s cruelty as well as its beauty, and who were resigned, perhaps finally, to giving it up.

There are similarities in style in these two paintings – both painted in the mid-17th century, the height of both Dutch painting and the small nation’s material wealth. And so maybe what I noticed was simply the technique delineating those dark, smudgy eyes. The free and rough brushstrokes that gave Rembrandt’s aged merchant his big, workmanlike hands and the little bird his soft body. Maybe it was their shared pose: staring out at the viewer. Maybe it was simply their placement across a crowded room.

Because there were certainly differences in the paintings as well as similarities, distinctions beyond species or intent. For while the Rembrandt is a full bust, nearly three by two feet, of a large man slumped in a chair, the Fabritius is so small (roughly nine by thirteen inches) as to make the little bird roughly life-sized. Throw in the domestic detail – its delicate chain, which connects the bird to what is described as a feed box – and you have a much more intimate painting, something more akin to the four devotional Piero Della Francescas that are currently making up another special exhibit, Personal Encounters, up the street at the Met.

Of course, the focus of private contemplation had changed dramatically in the two hundred years between Piero and Fabritius, and the Mauritshuis exhibit particularly focused on paintings from an era of unprecedented wealth and trade. In such a world, that little house pet is just one more luxury, like a Rembrandt portrait, while a painting of such a tiny treasure is less a devotional object, a focus for thought or prayer, than a private indulgence. And yet, that bird – those dark eyes… “By the time you see this,” that little bird is saying, “I will be gone.”

That perspective may well have been influenced by the themes of author Donna Tartt’s own blockbuster, The Goldfinch, the massive bestseller that reportedly helped drive Frick attendance to record levels. In this, Tartt’s much-lauded third novel, both the Fabritius painting and the fleeting nature of, well, everything come together for a brief and shining moment.

Yes, I did say brief. Because although at 771 pages, Tartt’s book has now been more often criticized for its length than for any of its characters, diversions, or convoluted plot lines, it is still finite. And since one can never read a book for the first time twice; that pleasure is ephemeral. More’s the pity.

Tartt, who graced the opening of the show and was reportedly in attendance on that last day, makes the Fabritius painting both a truly private devotional object as well as the ultimate treasure in the contemporary cutthroat mercenary world.

Her setup would be enough to make any curator wary, and it is perhaps just as well that the Frick was unaware of the upcoming publication when this show was being planned. As The Goldfinch opens, 13-year-old Theo Decker is on his way to a school visit with his mother – he has misbehaved – when a rainstorm drives them into a museum (the Met, in Tartt’s fiction) where the tiny masterpiece is on display. While they are sheltering, a terrorist bomb explodes. (As other critics have noted, Fabritius himself was killed, and most of his works destroyed, in an explosion the year that he painted The Goldfinch.) Waking, dazed, Theo sees the painting, “just about the first painting I ever really loved,” his mother had told him only minutes before, and takes it from the rubble. His reasons are complex, involving multiple manifestations of love (for a pretty girl, his mother, an old man’s memories, and more), but that one impulsive action will set his life on a strange and often harrowing course. Tartt uses Theo’s prized and secret possession as a means for studying not only love and beauty, but the nature of suffering: the deep soul-weary knowledge of mortality exposed in the little bird’s gaze.

“Even a child can see its dignity,” she has the adult Theo observe: “thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.”

For Theo, the price of this knowledge is steep. With his mother gone, he is first sheltered by the dysfunctionally detached family of a wealthy friend, where he exists in limbo – the familiar environs of New York and school providing him a bare framework for continued existence. When his absentee father surfaces and spirits him away to Las Vegas, he is forced to become a more active participant in his own life. His father, an alcoholic and gambler, seems more interested in Theo’s insurance payout than his only child’s welfare, and although this, like all relationships, will prove more complex than it first appears, Theo is largely left to fend for himself. He is sustained by his friendship with another lost boy, Boris. This brilliant if feral Russian both teaches Theo how to survive and involves him in an underworld of drugs and crime that will shadow his life.

Theo is susceptible, of course, because of the secret of The Goldfinch. As much as he loves the painting, his possession of it warps his youth, pushing him toward the anesthetizing properties of various substances even as it hones his love of beauty. These qualities, if not Boris, follow Theo back to New York, where he seeks succor, perhaps too late, with an antiques dealer who has also been left bereaved by the bombing. But although both Theo and his new protector, Hobie, have both lost those they most loved, Tartt is a neat stylist, who wastes nothing. Those losses and all the wildly colorful characters we have already met will come to play at least once more in Theo’s journey, with the painting surfacing for one more glimpse – a quick peek – before the end.

That’s a lot for a novel, and despite her cool-eyed precision and her own unflinching honesty, at times Tartt does flag. Just as one visitor at the Frick was heard to comment, “This is what all the fuss was about?,” so many critics have commented that The Goldfinch could do to lose a hundred pages or so, earmarking different sections for after-the-fact editing. I would, if anything, trim the final adventure, which brings Theo to Amsterdam for the kind of guns-and-guts finale more suitable for a movie than a novel, slow reading even if its visceral gore serves to update the concept of a memento mori. Still, this too passes, and the book picks up again once the action concludes, with Theo’s internal monologue taking over the last 12 pages. This last bit – largely rambling philosophizing – alone is worth the price of admission, and, yes, as glad as I was to have finished – to have seen how Tartt brought it all together, how she tied up all her themes – I was sorry to see The Goldfinch end.

Life may be fleeting, and beauty eternal – but art should last long. We sense, in our hearts, we must give it all up, and quickly, too. Rembrandt knew that, and that little bird has an inkling of it, as well, at least as Tartt sees it: “There’s only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape.”

So, yes, we have other books to read, I understand. We do not necessarily put down The Goldfinch only to meet the void. Still, why rush to the inevitable end? Too soon, it will all – like the Frick show – be gone.

A former journalist, Clea Simon is the author of three nonfiction books and 14 mysteries. A contributor to such publications as the Boston Globe, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, she lives in Somerville with her husband, Jon Garelick. She can be reached here and on Twitter @Clea_Simon.