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Readin’at: West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

West of SunsetWest of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan
Viking
2015
289 pages

“He’d had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky. But wasn’t he lucky now, again?”

Luck was in short supply during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years. Instead, the famous writer best known for The Great Gatsby had an abundance of misfortune and difficulties that are brilliantly rendered in West of Sunset by Pittsburgh author Stewart O’Nan.

“Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West,” writes O’Nan in his essay “The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset” and posted on his website. “I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.”

Indeed you do.

And with his writing, O’Nan more than succeeds in capturing this aspect of Scott during these last troubled three years.  At 40, Scott’s literary success is well in the past and his wife Zelda is institutionalized for psychiatric issues. When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, he is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

Nonetheless, Scott heads west in somewhat desperate hopes of making it once again in a town where everyone else’s star seems to be rising but where his is uncertain. He’d answered California’s call before. (“There were years like phantoms, like fog. Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place.”)  Those early Hollywood years and what, exactly, transpired that made Scott so full of self-doubt remain a bit fuzzy to the reader, but that’s all right; West of Sunset stays in 1937-1940.

As the novel progresses, Scott’s own health and emotional well-being becomes more precarious as his battle with alcoholism becomes more prominent. He’s in the midst of an on-again, off-again affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who has her own demons to conquer. And when his passive-aggressive egocentric co-worker isn’t being an editorial pain in the ass, his writing career is beholden to the whimsy of the studio powers-that-be who kill any scintilla of hope and motivation (and the possibility of a credit and continued paycheck) with each cancelled movie.  Money is a constant source of uncertainty, and every writer will be able to empathize with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frustration on his stories being rejected by the popular magazines of the day – most of which adored him once upon a time.

To be sure, West of Sunset has some bright moments. The reader gets to hang out by the pool and at the studio commissary with the likes of Fitzgerald BFF’s Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart – not to mention Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, George Oppenheimer and more than a few others making cameo appearances.  Quite a cast of characters, this novel has. If you’re a literary and/or film bub, this one’s for you.

Dust off the Hollywood glitter, though, and there’s something universally relatable about West of Sunset. Anyone who has ever gone through a difficult professional or personal stretch of time (which would be …oh, all of us) will likely find something to identify with in the F. Scott Fitzgerald that Stewart O’Nan presents. West of Sunset is about coming to terms with real and perceived failure, the drumbeat of self-doubt and loathing that accompanies it, the quest for self-redemption, and what happens when our self-reliance runs out.  (“Somewhere in this latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He’d failed so completely that he’d become his own man again.”)

This is a 5 out of 5 stars novel. I was in love from the first three pages and I feel very confident in saying that West of Sunset – the first Stewart O’Nan book I’ve read – is likely going to be one of my favorite novels of this year.

(Are you local to the Pittsburgh area? Come hear Stewart O’Nan tomorrow (Saturday, February 7) when East End Book Exchange hosts the author for his final stop of his West of Sunset book tour. Event begins at 7 p.m.)

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town and I wanted a way to emphasize this.  As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” an occasional feature here focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works, events, and the writers who call this awesome city home. 

 

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november

Burning Bush - 2014

 

nearing the end

holding on together

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for the fair daffodils, and for those who have hastened away so soon

Daffodils - 4-14-2014

It’s hard to get the full effect from such a small picture, but trust me … my daffodils were absolutely stunning on Monday after a glorious weekend of 70 and near 80 degree temperatures.

And this morning, not even 48 hours later?

Daffodils in snow 3

Daffodils in snow 2 Daffodils in snow 4 Daffodils in snow 5

 TO DAFFADILS

Fair Daffadils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you;
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or any thing.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) 

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The Sunday Salon: Unplanned Reading

The Sunday Salon

As a reading year, 2014 is off to a different than anticipated start. Like many book bloggers, I tend to give much thought to the beginning and end of year insofar as books are concerned. I like the idea of my first book of the year being a significant one – a book that propels you toward a goal or one that provides inspiration to break a habit or start a new one.

I mulled and contemplated what my first book of 2014 was going to be. Maybe a writing book. Maybe a memoir. Maybe, as has been my tradition for the last few years, some poetry.

And then … I was stuck. Maybe it was the result of too many choices. I told myself to stop overthinking and just read a book already. Any book. Seriously, several days – almost a week into 2014 and there I was – still bookless because I was holding out for the perfect book when I had piles on my nightstand, more than 1,100 on my Kindle, and hundreds in my house. How ridiculous. And what if the first book wasn’t the perfect book to begin 2014 or one I had been planning to read? Who cares?  

I needed a new audiobook for my work commute, and as it turned out, that became the first book I read in 2014.

Next to LoveNext to Love by Ellen Feldman is a historical fiction novel set during World War II and the decades afterwards. It follows the lives of Babe and Claude, Millie and Pete, and Grace and Charlie – all close friends living in Massachusetts. When the men are sent overseas, leaving the women behind, all of their lives are changed. It sounds predictable, like any other wartime novel, but this is very well done. I enjoyed Ms. Feldman’s writing – she laser-focuses her words on the women and the societal and cultural changes of the times. As an audiobook, Abby Craden’s narration is excellent.

(I previously read and loved Ellen Feldman’s 2004 historical novel Lucy, about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s affair with Lucy Mercer, which is why Next to Love was of interest.)

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted

This week I listened to Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds That Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. When “MTM” premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. Rather, I watched it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I could appreciate it much better.

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading this book, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why that was so groundbreaking and how that shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as those on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises. (Some reviews suggest that this should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan.”)

This was entertaining, and the audio proved to be a good choice. I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers.

I’ve also been catching up on some back issues of The New Yorker and Creative Nonfiction, both of which we get at the library. This week I read the November 4 issue of The New Yorker, and the Winter 2013 issue of CNF.

Hope your Sunday – and your 2014 – are going well!

 

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The Sunday Salon: Randomness N’at

 

The Sunday SalonWeatherwise, this is a perfect rainy day for sitting on the couch and doing next to nothing. And that’s exactly how the day has gone. I’ve putzed around on Facebook, read the first section of the newspaper, gotten a shower, reheated pizza for lunch, and written this post. That’s it.

I am the epitome of lazy today.

I am listening to: the Eagles-Redskins game on The Husband’s iPhone. Actually, the Husband is listening to it – I just happen to be in the same room.

We are watching: the Steelers-Lions game on TV (or, should we say, the Killer Bees vs. the Lions. Those throwback uniforms of our Steelers! OMG, they are atrocious.)

I am reading: a few books at once. Sorta.

Andrew CarnegieAlas, I haven’t made much more progess with David Nasaw’s Andrew Carnegie since my last Salon post. The audiobook was due back to the library before I finished it and I’ve had a hard time picking up the book itself. At almost 900 pages, it’s not exactly one you curl up in bed with or toss in your purse. I’m on hold for the e-book and the audio again at the library, so perhaps I just may need to wait until one of those comes in before resuming this again.

The Reason I JumpI keep getting distracted by new books. (I work in a library.) The latest, which I picked up on Friday and started reading during my lunch hour, is The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida. This is relatively short, only 135 pages.

The Devil in the White CityMy current audiobook is: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson. This has been sitting on my TBR shelves forever. So far, at page 113, my verdict is that it’s one of those books that I thought I would like better than I actually am. I mean, I do like it (the foreshadowing is great) but the narrative has a lot more details about the architecture and the planning of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago than I expected. It does seem that this is necessary for the reader to understand the actual murder plot (that’s not a spoiler).

And, oh –  the fact that H.H. Holmes has Philadelphia ties! He worked at what is now Norristown State! A fun little tidbit.

My new favorite song: It’s a tie between “New” by Paul McCartney and “The Perfect Life,” by Moby (featuring Pittsburgh native Wayne Coyne). 

On the Blog: Obviously, not much lately. I’m averaging a post a week at this point, which … I gotta be honest, feels weird. I don’t like it. This working full-time again thing is still a bit of an adjustment in some ways, and I’ve accepted that fewer posts are probably going to be one of them, at least for awhile. Still, I’d be happier if that was more like 3 times a week or maybe 4. Strangely, my hits and blog traffic is off the freakin’ charts, which I cannot figure out AT ALL.

Around the Book Blogosphere: I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with anyone. Hoping to catch up a bit today. I did see today that Thankfully Reading Weekend is scheduled again for next weekend, so I’ll be participating in that. I have to work Black Friday, but that’s fine.

I Am Thinking: about one of The Husband’s bosses who passed away 9 years ago today. Our lives would be so very different if it wasn’t for this man. Since he passed, there have been a lot of ways – some very uncanny and eerie – that our paths have become even more similar. I know that he would have continued to be a mentor and support system to The Husband. He’s missed … so very much.

I am grateful for: mentors like The Husband’s former boss. And many of mine. And for second chances.

Around the house: We had some major electrical work done on Friday. There was some almost-drama. (Everything and everyone is fine.) That may be a blog post in and of itself.

High of the Week: Having dinner as a family last night at Eat’n Park.

Low of the Week: Two inches of snow on Tuesday. Really, I could have done without that crap.

Family Matters: My in-laws are coming out for Thanksgiving. Yesterday I ordered our entire meal from Whole Foods because there’s no way I’m spending the one day I have off cooking (see: Thankfully Reading Weekend). I truly believe if I factored out the time spent planning, shopping, preparing/cooking, and cleaning up, multiplied by the various food sensitivity/preference factors of six people, that would more than exceed the cost of ordering the dinner. All I will need to do is heat everything up.

The coming week: The kids turn 12 on Friday, so that’s causing much excitement in the house.

I’m keeping an eye on the weather to our west. We’re in an isolated tornado watch because of the storms in Indiana and elsewhere, so if you’re in the path of the storm too, stay safe.

 

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The Sunday Salon: The Home Stretch of the Reading Year

The Sunday SalonAs the holiday season starts revvin’ into full gear (and make no mistake, it is HERE), the literary year is coming into the home stretch.

Welcome to mid-November, when the pedal hits the metal – and every other cliche or metaphor I can possibly muster hits this blog post.

This is when things start to get real.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had Best Of lists on my mind lately. (I’ve been so remiss on reading blogs lately that I don’t even know if people are starting to think about this yet.) There are 20 contenders for my Best Books I’ve Read in 2013. I always feel like I need to limit this list, but I never can.

I’m also conscious of my self-imposed goal to read 75 books in 2014.

You see, I’m somewhat of a competitive type, even if it is with myself, and I like to achieve the goals I set.

As of last night with the completion of Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, I’m at 61 books read for 2013.

Fourteen books to go.

At first glance, that looks absolutely doable. But here’s the thing: my reading has slowed down considerably in recent weeks. Not only was Await Your Reply the only book I finished this week, but it is the only book I’ve finished in November so far. At this rate, 14 more books won’t be happening – unless they’re really short.

(I’m also in the middle of Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw, which at 896 pages is anything but a short book. I’ve been listening to that on audio during my commute to work.)

I guess the lesson is the same that it always is. In this case, at least, it’s not about the numbers. I don’t know why I need to remind myself of that every year, but I do. Reading shouldn’t have to be a competition. If I feel like curling up on the couch with a stack of The New Yorkers, I shouldn’t have to worry that they “don’t count” for my reading tally. There are enough problems in the world; why do we make something that’s supposed to be enjoyable into a chore?

Maybe this is a beginning of a shift, like so many long-time book bloggers have already made, a change after 5 years and counting of book blogging. A time when the numbers no longer matter. I let many of my Reading Challenges go for 2013 and frankly, I didn’t miss them. I doubt they’ll be resurrected in 2014.

Whether you’re coasting or speeding toward the end of the literary year, the main thing is to enjoy the ride, isn’t it?

 

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a blood draw to celebrate

Blood Draw

 

I am admittedly a bit squeamish at the thought of getting blood drawn. For starters, I can’t watch. I need to look away while they do what they do because the notion of seeing the blood coming out is just … well, it’s too much.

There’s a reason I’m not a nurse or otherwise in the medical profession.

There are a few such stomach-turning scenes in Blood Draw, the latest novel by my friend and author Melissa Luznicky Garrett, that made me want to clamp my eyes shut.  Being her editor for Blood Drawclosing my eyes through the rest of the novel wasn’t exactly an option. Then again, there were scenes that had me on the edge of my seat.

Blood Type

Blood Draw is currently available on Amazon for $2.99 and is the sequel to Blood Type (which I did not edit, but which is FREE until November 2).

About Blood TypePopular girl Blake Ehlert has it all: a prime spot on the cheerleading squad, a jock boyfriend who’s strong and sensitive, and the winning vote for Homecoming Queen two years in a row. But when she strikes up a conversation with loner John Kelly, her entire world starts to crumble.

John Kelly is a vampire—what’s known to his kind as a Compeller. It’s his job to recruit human Donors with a particular blood type.

And Blake is his next target.

About Blood Draw: After seventeen-year-old Blake Ehlert is brutally attacked and infected with vampire venom, she must choose between imminent death and eternal life. Unable to turn away from true love, Blake ultimately embraces the reality to which she’s been doomed. But life as a teenage vampire proves to be a lot more difficult than even she bargained for.

Blake struggles with the relentless warring between her lingering human emotions and cravings for blood. To make matters worse, Blake finds herself caught on the cusp of revolt, led by the Chief of Police and town’s most powerful vampire. In order to protect her human friends and family, as well as the vampires she’s come to love, Blake must take a stand against those sworn to protect their very existence.

Enjoy!

 

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