Book News: Maine's King of the Nursing Home
Judith Rosen -- 11/13/00
An Algonquin writer just might be the most prolific male writer in Maine

An amusing, tough
look at nursing homes.
Stephen King might want to watch his back. With 29 published books to his credit, an old-timer named John Gould might just earn the title of most prolific male writer in Maine. Gould's latest, Tales from Rhapsody Home: Or, What They Don't Tell You About Senior Living, is out from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill this week. And, as the 92-year-old Gould told PW, that whippersnapper King once wrote for him, when he edited a local Maine newspaper.
This older gent, or "defiant old geezer" as Gould refers to himself, has broken a few other writing records as well. He's been carrying a press card for the past 76 years, and has written a weekly column for the Christian Science Monitor since 1942. Gould boasts that that makes him the longest active columnist at one newspaper in the United States. He may not be the only writerly Maine-iac, but Gould might be the only author to get a new home as a result of advance publicity for a book.

Thanks to an early review in the Christian Science Monitor and interview in the Boston Globe, which aired Gould's views about the poor treatment of the elderly in the U.S.--with a focus on the pseudonymous Rhapsody Home, where he lived for the past five years--the author received offers from four other homes to move right in. He and his wife chose an assisted living facility in Rockland, Maine, boasting such amenities as windows that open, hot meals and clean china--all unknown at Rhapsody.

Even more astonishing, given Gould's age, is his busy publicity tour for the book, which opened last week with a signing at the headquarters of L.L. Bean, located in his hometown of Freeport. Gould is scheduled to appear on the nationally syndicated radio program The Connection out of Boston and will be featured in Book Street, an insert in USA Today. Maine Public Radio has also expressed an interest in the nursing home king. L.L. Bean president Leon Gorman's blurb on the jacket sums up his appeal: "John's wit and zest for life prevail. Tales from Rhapsody Home gives us all something to ponder as we approach our Golden Years."

Granted, Gould has slowed down a bit in recent years. One sign that he's taking it easier is that he's only managed to complete four books since he turned in the finished manuscript for Tales from Rhapsody Home. Also, this is his first book to be agented; previously he handled all the details himself. The New York-based Toni Mendez, who has known Gould's sons for many years, agreed to take him on as a client. "He's just a delight," she said. "He's able to capture a way of life that he combines with a wonderful New England satire."

Tales from Rhapsody Home is Gould's first book to be published by Algonquin. "A lot of people my age are worrying about their parents," said Algonquin editor Amy Gash. "This manuscript came in, and I fell in love with it, and with him. The great skill in this book is he's able to be crotchety, but you still love him. If it were just a book about an old man complaining about where he lives, I wouldn't have bought it. But he's still fighting. I don't think there's been a book about nursing homes from an insider's perspective."

The humor in Tales from Rhapsody Home rings loud and clear. Still, Gould levels a serious attack at senior care, which he regards as "a miserable situation. What's the problem with the old folks?" he asks. "Why d sn't anybody care about them? These homes cost too much, and they don't have any services. The press is sleeping on its elbows, and the politicians don't care. They fight over things that amount to a hole in the snow. What d s it matter about free medicine, when the old folks can't get a bowl of hot soup for supper?" "

Gould's complaint is starting to be heard. Several weeks before the book was published, the American Health Care Association in Washington, D.C., contacted Algonquin because it was getting calls from its members about Tales from Rhapsody Home. It couldn't locate the book in the Washington/Baltimore area, an association representative told Algonquin, and bookstores offered to add the association to their already growing lists of advance orders.

Aware of a specific alternative market for this title, Algonquin has been fielding calls from individual assisted-living homes. Sales manager Craig Popelars told PW that one such home in North Carolina, which was about to sign a management agreement with a company in Maine, wanted to make sure the company didn't run Rhapsody Home.

In-house buzz has been equally strong. "Tales from Rhapsody Home was one book that I heard several reps say, 'It's my pet book,'" said Popelars. "Our rep in Florida said that this is the book she sold the best on the fall list."

Not surprisingly, New England booksellers are primed for John Gould's latest. "He certainly has brand recognition," said Nancy Burnham, manager of the Mr. Paperback in Belfast, Maine. "Regional writing is very big, and he has an ongoing following. He's a little curmudgeonly, and people in Maine like that."

At the Maine-based ID wholesaler Magazines Inc., book buyer Pamela Williams noted that her store clients do well with Gould's books. ""John Gould is a bigger buy for us than many books on the New York Times bestseller list," she added.

But the big question remains: Will this 92-year-old author garner a national audience? For Marti Reed, owner of The Personal Bookshop in Thomaston, Maine, who held a signing at "Rhapsody Home" for Gould's last book and sold more than 100 copies, the answer is a resounding yes. "As I read the book, I could actually see this becoming a bestseller," she explained. "The book is perfectly honed, tugging at your heartstrings, and yet it's so funny.

In Memoriam: Tribute to a Writer and to Love

As soon as agent Ed Victor submitted a rare short story written by the late Iris Murdoch, W.W. Norton editor Bob Weil said he just knew he had to publish it. While both beloved and mourned by many, the author of The Sea, the Sea and many other acclaimed novels, occupies an admitted soft spot in Weil's heart. Just before her death in 1999, Weil, then at St. Martin's, edited Elegy for Iris, the poignant and critically acclaimed memoir of love in sickness and health by Murdoch's husband, John Bayley. A film version of Elegy is in the works, with Richard Eyre set to direct and Judy Dench to star.
Words by Murdoch,
pictures by McCurdy.
Published as a tribute, Something Special: A Story, according to Peter Conradi, Murdoch's authorized biographer (who, incidentally, is under contract with Weil for that bio), was written in 1955 while Bayley was wooing a reluctant Murdoch. "There is certainly biographical resonance in it," said Weil.
The 64-page story is one of only three of Murdoch's works that features her native Ireland, and is the only one set in Dublin, where she lived in the '50s. The plot revolves around an ordinary, not-quite-so-young Irish woman, none too thrilled about either her prospects for marriage or her future. Weil compares it to James Joyce's The Dead. "It d s have that sense that life revolves around things which are so unpredictable, where the movement of the wind could change a woman's course," he added.

The small, gift-size book is illustrated with engravings by Michael McCurdy, whose latest children's title, An Algonquian Year: The Year According to the Full Moon (Houghton Mifflin), was published in September. Norton will publish Bayley's Widower's House: Or How Margot and Mella Forced Me from My Home in June.
--Bridget Kinsella