Showing posts from November, 2009

More on How Not to Conduct Yourself as a Scientist


An Excellent Critique of the Meaning of Peer Review


Thanks to Books INQ.

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce

While talking about my favorite books with my wife, she pointed out the the conjunction of James Joyce and Lewis Carroll was not nearly so unlikely as it might seem with only a moment's consideration.  In fact, it makes a great deal of sense.  The playfulness that I love in Ulysses (and even more in Finnegans Wake) is already present in Carroll as a kind of verbal surrealism.  "It's a poor sort of memory that works only backwards."  But most particularly in the dialogue of Humpty Dumpty and Alice, in which Humpty explains:

from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

Lewis Carroll

`Certainly,' said Alice.

`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "…

Accompaniments to Gascoigne

Two posts from the Maverick philospher that complement the earlier from Gascoigne.

Control Your Mind


William James on Self-Denial

Some excellent thoughts for what has become the season of greed.  Perhaps one would do well to spend a bit of time reflecting on the origin and meaning of the season rather than whatever it is one tends to get distracted with.  (Personally, it's cookies.  Anyone who wants to be in my good graces can send cookies, any kind, any time. Cookies, cookies, cookies, oops!  and self-denial.  I'll control my thoughts about the c-word, maybe.)

Jacques Barzun--102 Today

And I liked this quotation from him that I found at Books INQ.  So I just lifted it (with most sincere gratitude"

"Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred."
- Jacques Barzun, who turns 102 today

Any Poem About an Octopus, and I'm In

"An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster"

No credit line, so I assume it's an original (and delightful) work.  Also gives me a chance to fill that elusive Authors: Q spot.  Next up, X.

Gascoigne's Lullaby

Another poetry break for your busy day:  Gascoigne's Lullaby--poem and commentary.

A Key stanza for my daybook:

And lullaby, my wanton will:
Let reason's rule now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill
How dear I have thy fancies bought.
With lullaby now take thine ease,
With lullaby thy doubts appease
For trust to this, if thou be still,
My body shall obey thy will.

Another on My List of Dislikes

A third to add to my list of pet peeves--sloppy use of language under two categories:

(1) general--using nauseous for nauseated, continuously and continually, imply and infer, etc.  With the most skilled writers, these lapses are generally few.

(2) technical.  And I cite as my example here one from Philip Roth's Exit Ghost. There is a small scene in which he describes the mating of box or snapping turtles (I forget which) in the course of which he refers to these reptiles as amphians.  NO!  They may be facultatively amphibious in habit of life, but they are not amphibians/class Amphibia, they do not obligatively live part of their lives in water (that is, they don't start with gills and eventually develop lungs.)  They don't reproduce in the water and they are not frogs, toad, newts, salamanders, or caecilians.  Indeed, they are tetrapod amniotes.

Why should this bother me as much as it does?  For those who understand these things, they are distracting.  We talk about atte…

365 Sonnets

Is up to 334, and some of them are quite nice. Check it out.

Sir Arthur As You've Never Seen Him Before

(And are unlikely to again.)

Wandering through the bookstore this afternoon, I happened on this delightful marketing gimmick for one of the "lesser" books in the Holmesian canon.  My feeling is that if it garners a single additional reader for the Great Sherlock, more power to it.  But it was, overall a delight to see and compare to the others in the Hardcase series.  Don't you just love the lurid red cover and the promising "inspired by a true story?"

My Two Finds

This year I've made one find myself, and through a list found another author whose work I will pay close attention to in the future.

My own find: Yiyun Li.  I'm not claiming to be the first person reporting on her work.  Rather, I found her by picking up A Thousand Years of Good Prayers in the Libary. While not yet a perfect stylist, her stories lead to natural ephiphanies--unexpected light that throws the whole tale into a different perspective.  This is a rare and valuable gift.  Her novel, The Vagrants can be read a a recounting of the horrors of China after an abortive attempt at democracy, or, as much more challenging, the trials of people seeking meaning outside of love--the vagrancy of the title.  The whole novel centers around deep questions of what and how we mean to one another.

The other writer I found through a list in a recent issue of Bookmarks: Elinor Lipman.  She's witty, she's sly, she's smart about people, and she writes in a light way about heavy…

My Five Favorite Books (This Week)

Favorites are such a fickle thing.  One is tempted to put them into all sorts of categories so one can have so many more favorites.  After all, is it fair to measure Harry Potter against Marcel Proust?

But I was talking about the very subject of this post with my wife and son, and thought I'd share the results of that conversation with you because it comprises my five favorite books of the moment.  Always subject to change, but it records the zeitgeist.

(1) Ulysses--James Joyce (I'm sure that's a stunner)
(2) Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass--Lewis Carroll (My guess is, sitting within the rest of this list, this may come as a bit of a surprise.
(3) Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner
(4) To the Lighthouse--Virginia Woolf
(5) The Sound and the Fury--William Faulkner

The first two are fairly solidly entrenched as life-transforming books.  My son and I are often quoting to one another, "It's a poor sort of memory that works only backwards."  Or, &qu…

Reviewing: Reflecting on what is here so far

Having composed now a number of reviews for this blog, I realize that I really need to work on the art of reviewing.  I share some impressions, but I don't give the kind of discursive, lengthy, thought-provoking review that I like to read. 

On the other hand, perhaps the sharing of impressions is enough.  I'm not a scholar, nor can I pretend to be--I don't care much for the scholarly apparatus and the set of scholarly assumptions that often surrounds a work.  I certainly don't mind reading scholarly reviews, articles, and analyses--but I don't have the mindset that would allow me to produce such work--I'm constitutionally opposed to the idea that most authors write or even revise with all of the assumptions in place that seem to make up most of the scholarly analysis.  Did Shakespeare really reflect on anti-semitism, racism, or Oedipal anxiety in composing "The Merchant of Venice," "Othello," or "Hamlet?"  I actually think Joyce do…

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders--Daniyal Mueenuddin

In Other Room, Other Wonders made several lists of notable books.  It is a sequence of eight closely interrelated short stories that centers around the servants and the family of K. K. Harouni and traces out the lives, hopes, fears, and in some cases the deaths of some of the main characters.

What I loved about the book is the sense that it gave me of every level of Pakistani society.  I have gllimpses of the very wealthy, of the middle class, and long excursions with the lower class, the servants, the peasants, and the downtrodden. In the course of this novel in stories, we come to learn about the societal structure of modern Pakistan.  Perhaps what came as the greatest relief is that it wasn't another collection of expatriate stories that tell, from a slightly different point of view, the same woes and trials of any dweller of New York City.  That isn't to say that wealthy expatriates of other countries don't have stories that closely approximate those of urban Americans…

The Death of the Heart--Elizabeth Bowen

I would like to say that I postponed posting on this book out of courtesy to Nigeness who reported being in process.  But that simply isn't the case. I delayed posting because I didn't care for the book.  I wanted to be able to see why it had been placed on the "Best of the 20th Century list."  However, I couldn't.  But, then that is a matter of taste, and very likely, in my case, a matter of mood.  I didn't find the language compelling, nor did I really care much for the story--which seems to trace the history of a young woman who has recently become an orphan and is taken in by her half-brother and his wife.  She falls for a ne'er-do-well young man and spends the rest of the book in the entanglements that result from that. Her own predicament in the present is used to help cast the history of the sister-in-law in a somewhat different light. The novel seems to move at a snail's pace through various drawing rooms, dining rooms, tea shops, and parks.  …

Various Famous People List Their Favorite Books

No one tells us why we should care--but a listing from various famous writers of their favorite books of the year.

Financial Times Best Books

This book list had a lot on it that I'm reading/want to read, so I'm recording it here so that when I go out to the library, I have a ready reference.

Link via The Literary Saloon

Times Notable Books

Has the good sense to recognize the remarkable accomplishment of Yiyun Li; however, I've noted that most reviewers and readers are so caught up in the politics and history of what happened that they miss or dismiss the whole point of the book--clearly given by the title.  There is a sense in which all of humanity comprises The Vagrants, and it is from this universal element that the book achieves its power--not from the accidentals of its historical basis.

(Link via The Literary Saloon)

New York Times Notable Books 2009 Ed.


Thanks to Literary Saloon

How It Ended--Jay McInerny
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders--Daniyal Mueenuddin--to be reviewed shortly
Love and Summer--William Trevor
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Love and Music--Kazuo Ishiguro

Wolf Hall--Hilary Mantel
Let the Great World Spin--Colum McCann
Love and Obstacles--Aleksandar Hemon

Want to Read
The Casebook of Victor Frankestein--Peter Ackroyd
Every Man Dies Alone--Hans Fallada (A nice counterbalance to present reading of The Kindly Ones.)
Generosity--Richard Powers
The Lacuna--Barbara Kingsolver
Lark and Termite--Jayne Anne Phillips

The Little Stranger--Sarah Waters

My Father's Tears and Other Stories--John Updike
Once the Shore--Paul Yoon
Too Much Happiness--Alice Munro
The Year of the Flood--Margaret Atwood
Lit: A Memoir--Mary Karr

Came Close to Reading

The Anthologist--Nicholas Baker
Invisible--Paul Auster
One DOA, One on the Way--Mary Robison
The Song is You--Arthur Phillips

I think probably the major miss here was Yiyun Li's The Vagrants

Things That Ruin a Work of Fiction for Me

Not that you care: but I have a number of small distractions that can often spell a wasted novel for me:

(1) Extraneous political intrusions--In a novel about the disintegration of the suburbs, I really don't need to read the author's opinion of the war in Iraq.  Or in Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, an otherwise excellent novel, I don't really need Roth's own intrusion on the story to tell me about how much he hates George Bush.  I'm just not that interested.

(2) Excessive use of foul language and/or sex.  Haven't been able to get through a book by Stewart O'Nan, among others for this particular vice.  I do not know people who speak this way in real life and I have no desire to make their acquaintance in ficiotn.  This is also a heavy distractor in a great many Stephen King novels.

I'm sure there are others, and I'll add them as I think of them, but that's it for now.  If you can't make your point without foul language I'm not interested.…

Charlie Brooker--The Hell of it All

Reviewed at Bookmunch.

A quick dip into the Amazon "Look Inside" feature suggests that Mr. Brooker might be worth the ducats it would cost to read him.

Interview with Imre Kertész

In German, but you can puzzle some sense of it out with the google translator

Lest We Forget

I should be composing my Thanksgiving list.  However, one thing I am thankful for is that we live in a world where crawly, evil things like this can be brought struggling up into the light to be purged.  It is unfortunate that this should happen in Germany, reminding us as it does of the horrors of the last century.

Or perhaps I'm just a mite sensitive, as I'm reading Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

Succinct summary here for those who neither read German nor wish to try to endure the Google translation.

Writing about Writers

Pardon the long line of links today, but the blog also serves as  "tickler" file for things I'll want to visit again and again.  And this short article is likely to be among them.

Again from Books INQ.

Becoming Catholic


Once again via Books INQ.  (I think)

Mary Karr talks about becoming Catholic.  A quotation:

"When I'm in Syracuse, I go to a church called St. Lucy's. They have a banner out front that says "Sinners Welcome." I like that."

Zadie Smith on Zadie Smith


Found via Books INQ.

A Poem By Wendell Berry


I'm not a Garrison Keillor fan, by any stretch, but this site looks interesting.

"The Red Wheelbarrow"--A Response

 F. J Bergmann's "An Apology"

This says it all, succinctly and beautifully.  I love "The Red Wheelbarrow,"  but I also like those who feel free to comment on its iconic status.

Do They, or Don't They--Global Warming Revisited

I haven't said much about global warming and the whole cult surrounding it.  Nor, on a literary blog, have I any intention of doing so.  Let this suffice in the next round of volleys.  If true, it is sufficient to say, that science achieves with these actions the true cultic status it often hovers around--where is the much-vaunted scientific objectivity?  I recall doing my own research contra a very popular hypothesis that has subsequently gotten much less press, that I was handed on a golden platter not merely the raw data, but the full analysis done by the researchers and told--"Show us to be wrong--it will be a great contribution."  I did nothing of the sort, neither did I end up supporting the hypothesis that was being tested--but if we're really interested in the truth, the sort of interaction I experienced is the way to advance it.

Making a Place Come Alive

from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin

The next evening Jaglani returned to Dunyapur at dusk, after a day spent on the farms, the jeep's twin lights poking into the night. Peasants bringing their buffalos back from watering at the canal stood aside and saluted, the heavy bells hanging from the animals' necks making a mournful hollow gonging. Some had old shoes tied around their necks, as amulets against the evil eye. Only Jaglani's house had electricity, and as they drove along the dusty main street of the village, lanterns glowed in the unshuttered windows and cook fires threw orange light on the mud walls.  The village smelled of dung and dust and smoke and of the mango blossoms in the surrounding orchard.

Each reader finds the things within a work that appeals to him or her, in this case it is the litany of small details--the shoes around the necks of the animals, the orange light of the cook fires, and the smell of the mango blossoms, really transforms th…

The Vagrants--Yiyun Li

It was not until I had finished the book and allowed it to rest overnight that I realized one of the major triumphs of this skillful first novel by Yiyun Li--she managed to allow the reader to forget, for a moment, fact and history as we knew them--until she was ready to slap us in the face with them at the end of the novel--reminding us of what happened in the real world.

The novel is wonderfully constructed and centers around the aftermath of the arrest and trial of a counterrevolutionary "criminal."  To say much more than this would give away too much of the main line of the story.  But it isn't in the main contours that this novel has its greatest interest.  The real interest lies in the careful development and revelation of the characters, in their transformation, and in their interactions. In fact, there are so many characters, so fully developed, following so many different story lines and fates, that you might term this an "ensemble novel."  It's di…

Yiyun Li--A Glimpse of Communist China

I said in a prior entry that Yiyun Li is rapidly becoming a favorite.  I read the book of short stories A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and had the same frisson I felt when I had read Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies.  Now I'm hoping that I don't suffer the same disappointment that I did with Lahiri's subsequent, somewhat lackluster books. I found A Thousand Years of Good Prayers far more readable than Ha Jin's Waiting, and her novel-length fiction, The Vagrants, verifies this for me.  Alternately poetic and horrific, the novel capitalizes on her observational and poetic strengths, while showing that she has the ability to sustain suspense and storyline in the long term.  How wonderfully satisfying.  And here is an example:

from The Vagrants
Yiyun Li

In the period of indecision and uncertainty, old winter-weary snow began to melt. The ground became less solid, the black dirt oozing with moisture in the sunshine. The willow trees lining both side of the m…

Room with a View (of Pakistan)

I don't quite know what to make of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders yet.  I've read through two of the eight linked stories that comprise this work of fiction/novel and I've been alternately charmed and put off by some of the things in it.  Rather like life itself.

from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin

Though he had become crooked on a large scale, Jaglani did not believe himself to have broken his feudal allegiance to K. K. Harouni, but instead felt himself appropriately to be taking advantage of the master's incapacity and lack of oversight, not seceding but simply expressing a more independent stance. He continue to run the farm extremely well and profitably, and continued sending money to Lahore, a larger share of the net in fact than he used to send, because he himself had developed other sources of income. As his political ambitions grew, he moved his family and household from the village to a large but plain house in the small city of Firoza, the subd…

What I'm Reading

Because the list shifts too quickly for me to keep track via Goodreads or any other reasonable mode, and because such a list is not really trackable and because this blog is for my own reference in addition to whatever pleasure or edification it may offers others, I offer this list.  Please feel free to ignore it:

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders--Daniyal Mueenuddin
The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts--J.M.G. Le Clézio
Goldengrove--Francine Prose--I have another blogger to thank for this--one who has championed this book at least two or three times since I started reading lit blogs.  I don't know who it is, but when I find the reference again, I intend to credit.  If you stop by, read here, and have commented on this wonderful book, my sincere thanks to you.
The Ambassadors--Henry James (Month 9)
Ulysses--James Joyce--(Month 6)
The Vagrants--Yiyun Li--rapidly becoming my favorite author of recent date
The Collected Short Stories--William Trevor
Counterfeit Gods--Timothy Keller
Can Poetry Matt…

Chirstmas Lists

What writers want to give and get.

Includes authors such as Jan Karon, Leonard Maltin and Chang-rae Lee

Seamus Heaney

A New Poem.

I owe someone credit for this, but I've been reading so quickly and calling up links from any number of places all in tabs.  My sincere apologies.  If I happen back over the place where I got this link, I'll make certain to correct my oversight.

Bruno Schulz e-text

Not an author I was familiar with Nigeness provides this link to a e-text of Cinnamon Shops.

This link is to a larger collection of translated works.

But be certain to read Nigeness's recommendations and background first.

The Highly Prestigious Bad Sex Writing Awards

Available here

Not surprisingly, considering his literary obsession with the subject, Philip Roth's The Humbling is a contender.

100 Best Books of the Decade

Is led up by Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Certainly a deserving choice and one that would be very high on my list of the best of recent date.  Find the full list here.

List courtesy of Reading Matters.

Wow!  I should warn you that the list contains Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code relatively high up  (above McEwan's Atonement).  I think this tells us something about how to regard the list. Unlike most Catholic bloggers I'm aware of, I'm not a Dan Brown detractor.  On the other hand, worse prose is really hard to come by--one needs to deliberately seek it out.  But I do love the puzzles--even if some of them betray a suprising ignorance of settled fact--(thinking here of the pope that doesn't have to be Catholic--according to Brown.)

Later:  They have been redeemed by this list of the five worst books of the decade.  Dan Brown's DVC makes both lists, an interesting trick.

National Book Award Winners

And the winner for fiction is Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin.  I can only hope that this book gets better as one continues to read it, because so far, I'm not particularly impressed.

Poetry--Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy

Gore Vidal was awarded the medal for distinguished contribution and Dave Eggers took the 2009 Literarian Award.

As you can see I left non-fiction for last, as I've placed these roughly in the order of interest (poetry and fiction being somewhat at the same level): T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

National Book Award Site--includes interviews with some of the nominees

Center for Fiction Prize to Woodsburner

Has awarded the prize for best first novel.  And it does look like one that would be most interesting to read.

I have one of the nominee's (Yiyun Li) novels on my short "to read list" based on the magnificent collection of short stories A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.

More About Portia and Daphne

Just a little later in the book, giving you a sense of the humor present.

from The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

" And also, Portia comes from abroad."

"Oh! And what do you think of our English policemen, then?"

"Daphne, don't always joke, dear. Be a good girl and tell Doris to clear tea."

Dphne put her head back and bellowed, "Doris!" and Doris gave her a look as she nimbled in with the tray. Portia realised later that that tomblike hush of Smoot's library, where she had to sit all day, dealing out hated books, was not only antipathetic but even dangerous to Daphne. So, once home, she kept fit by making a loud noise. Daphne never simply touched objects, she slapped down her hand on them, she made up her mouth the gesture of someone cutting their throat. Even when the wireless was not on full blast, Daphne often shouted as though it were. So. when Daphne's homecoming step was heard on the esplanade, Mrs. Heccomb had learned to dra…

Flaubert to De Maupassant

I saw the essence of this at another blog yesterday, but as I tend to be shy of vulgar language (a post about that to come) I didn't link to either the blog that originally presented or the original of the post.  However, if you look at the last entry in this post you'll find some wonderful advice from Flaubert to de Maupassant regarding the writer and writing.

He's Rapidly Becoming a Favorite Writer

I continue to read, very slowly, through M. Le Clézio's collection The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts.  It is a collection to be read slowly.  I think rapid reading would tend to be overwhelming.  Each story needs to be given its breathing space, time to grow, expand, and form in imagination.

from "Ariadne"
in The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts
J. M. G. Le Clézio

On the banks of the dry riverbed stands the high-rise project. It is a city in its own right, with scores of apartment buildings--great gray concrete cliffs standing upright on the level asphalt grounds, surrounded by a sweeping landscape of rubble hills, highways, bridges, the river's dusty shingle bed, and the incinerator plant trailing its acrid, heavy cloud over the valley. Here, it's quite a distance to the sea, quite a distance to the town, quite a distance to freedom, quite a distance from simple fresh air on account of the smoke from the incinerator plant, and quite a distance from human contact, …

For Christie Fan's--Her Notebooks

Commented on here.

Young, Orphaned, and Left on One's Own

Elizabeth Bowen has a knack for creating moments.  And in this book they are moments with largely unlikeable characters, though I must admit, I haven't seen enough of Daphne to know what to make of her.

from The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

As Portia came round the curtain Daphne did not look at her, but with unnerving politeness switched the wireless off. It snapped off at the height of a roar and Mrs. Heccomb looked up. Daphne popped the last piece of macaroon into her mouth, wiped her fingers correctly on a crêpe-de-chine handkerchief and shook hands, though still without saying anything. She gave the impression that she would not speak till she had thought of something striking to say.

I must say that the world would probably be a good deal better off if more of us adopted the assumed attitude of Daphne in that last sentence.

What It Means To Be Upper Class and Bored

Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart was on one of many lists of the best books of the twentieth century.  I have been attempting to read it for some time, but because of my multitasking reading and the relatively low interest I have in the book (not that it isn't good), it keeps getting moved further down the list.

The passage below is one reason why I shouldn't allow it to continue to slip.

from The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

The most stubbornly or darkly drawn-in man has moments when he likes to impose himself, to emerge and be a bully. The diversion of a raindrop from its course down the pane, the frustration of a pet animal's will in some small way all at once becomes imperative, if the nature is to fulfil itself. Thomas took pleasure in thrusting Portia into the study away from Eddie, to talk to Major Brutt. A hand on her shoulder-blade, he pushed her ahead of him with colourless, unadmitted cruelty. Eddie, dogged, determined to be as much de trop as he…

Fear and Trembling--Amélie Nothomb

I first encountered the name Amélie Nothomb at Tony's Book World and given the high recommendation there and elsewhere concluded that I had better get cracking.Given my fondness for all things Japanese, Fear and Trembling seemed like a good place to start.

Fear and Trembling is the story of a young woman of European ancestry who has spent a great deal of time in East Asia applying for and receiving a job with the Japanese firm.  The story centers around her progressive discovery of the sense of Japanese Business culture and her attempts to accomodate it. No matter what she does to please her supervisors, most of them come back with insults and criticisms of her work. 

This sets the mood and the tone of the book:

from Fear and Trembling
Amélie Nothomb

Mister Haneda was seion to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one.

You could put this another way. I took orders from Miss Mori, who took orders from Miste…

The Robert Louis Stevenson Archive

can be found here.

The Family Man--Elinor Lipman

I found The Family Man on one of the endless lists of "best ofs" that the web seems so populated by. (Although, I think this list may have been in Bookmarks.  This after I had read numerous reviews of Elinor Lipman being the new Jane Austen, writing the comedies of manners of our times.

Perhaps.  But then we know all such comparisons and reviews are prone to hyperbole.  So let me indulge in another.  I would probably compare Elinor Lipman to Thorne Smith without most of the fantastic elements.  Ms. Lipman produces fine characters and (if this book is any indication) intricate plots with many twists and turns.  Often referred to as screwball comedy, I had to agree with this evaluation as the plots seem to update Bringing up Baby, The Lady Eve, and other such fare of the thirties and forties.

The Family Man--what can I say about it that doesn't give away one feature or another of this incredibly intricate plot? Well, I can say what happens on the first two pages as a gay la…

15 Authors Name Neglected Masterpieces

An Amusing Moment in an Amusing Book

Listed in Bookmarks as one of the Best Books of 2009--I picked it up and it had a light touch, something I needed after a steady diet of things seeming very heavy.

from The Family Man
Elinor Lipman

"For better or worse," says Henry, "Denise took an instant dislike to Leif based on the most superficial reasons---"

"His looks," says Todd. "Whereas Henry delved below the surface to the man's undetectable personality."

"Either way, nothing fuels a daughter's interest like a parent's disapproval, " says Henry.

Revisiting "The Escapee"

I know there is a point at which one tires of hiring about any enthusiasm, and I'm afraid that I may try the patience of what few regulars may visit this place as I continue to mine the slender volume I'm reading for wonderful glimpses into language and other realities--reallities that it behooves us to be better aware of.  Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I didn't share what I thought was the best of the best, and so here is another small excerpt from an amazing story.

from "The Escapee"
in The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts
J. M. G. Le Clézio

The stars come out very faintly, then grow brighter and brighter. Never had they shone so brightly before. Resting his head on the grass, Tayar watches them in delight. Just as he had the night before he recognizes them. He finds their positions in the sky, the patterns they make, right down to the very smallest ones that barely glimmer, so low and close to the earth.  Tonight, there is something different about them, as t…

Why "A Momentary Taste of Being?"

from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
tr. Edward Fitzgerald


A Moment's Halt -- a momentary tasteOf Being from the Well amid the Waste -- And Lo! the phantom Caravan has reach'd The Nothing it set out from -- Oh, make haste!  I have read much recently, and grown quite tired of the current academic emphasis on the unreality of everything that is read. I suppose it is something like a new toy, shiny and appealing, but nothing more than a rattle, spinning and humming the same tune, saying the same thing time and again.  Perhaps it's just a spin-off of the wonder at a preoccupation of so many people--"if it's not real, why do so many people spend so much of their time engaged in it?"  I suppose I tire of it because it is so obvious, but it is so inflated with the notions of those savvy young children who really want to show how-in-the know they are by tellling us all there is no Santa Claus and all magic is merely a set of tricks done by the magician.  Even if true, …


This just struck my fancy--words and images--I especially liked the image of the basket of apples that sums things up.

A List of Books for Laughs

can be found here.

Found originally through Books Inq.

50 Books to Read in 2010?

A Great Deal of Good Sense

I find myself in agreement with the principle and practice outlined here.  It reflects my own policies (mostly) and helps maintain blogsanity.

"The Sign of Death"

from "The Escapee"
in The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts
J. M. G. Le Clézio

The child is trembling in spite of the sun. The barren sky weighs so heavily upon him; the light blinds him, parches his throat. From time to time, like the sun glinting out from behind a hawk's wing, he catches sight of something resembling the sign of fear. The sign of death is there. It's a sign you see when you close your eyes, a terrifying mark. The silence is endless. The child cannot stand up, cannot call out; he must not.  The soldiers are like insects: first there's no sign of them, then all of a sudden they're there, and you can't understand where they came from. The soldiers are walking along the cracks in the earth, just like ants. Where do they come from? What do they want? What are they looking for?

What I find amazing in this prose is the way thatLe Clézio is able to take an open landscape like this and somehow transform it into something claustrophobic and oppressiv…

Q and A with Chinua Achebe

Thanks to the Literary Saloon, this interchange with Chinua Achebe, considered one of the grand men of modern African Letters.

Love and Summer--William Trevor

I had only recently become acquainted with William Trevor in the form of The Hill Bachelors when I recommended reading this to the small book group I am part of.  One of those book group members stops by often, and so I must be very careful with what I say and how so as not to ruin any of the book for her.  However, that shouldn't be too difficult because this is not so much a book run by plot and story as it is a book suffused through and through with character and individual history.

Love and Summer is the story of a young married woman who discovers the thrill of being in love for the first time--with a man not her husband.  In the hands of lesser writers, we would have had far too many intimate details of this liaison.  But Trevor is less interested in the details of the affair than in the details of the lives of the people involved.  In the course of this short history, we learn about the past of at least six characters--the lovers, her husband, a brother and a sister and an u…

You Must See

Ulysses seen

Only able to glance through Telemachus--but much worth your while. Along with a read-along (novel or comic) commentary.  Suggested for those who have already enjoyed the book or for those convinced that they never will--but all others--experience the book as Joyce wrote it first, then enjoy the book as one Joyce fan sees it.  Lovely and interesting.

Amazon's Top 100 0f 2009

Brought to my attention via Reading Matters.

I have two of the top five on my to-read list and one more on order from the Library.  (Let the Great World Spin, Brooklyn, and Wolf Hall.)

More Details:  Of the top one hundred I

have read-2--#19, 91
have on my to read, immediate--34, 66, 89
must add to my to-read--72, 77, 94, 98
will keep away from--74

A Lovely Reminder of Fall

Joyce and Art

Joyce is a most interesting figure in literature to consider--there seems to be much of the mythos about him--a powerful intellectual who had run the gamut of schools and pulled out all stops when it came to his writing: arrogant, willful, and self-involved.  But, here is a different impression:

from Ulysses and Us
Declan Kiberd

How was the bourgeoisie trumped by the middle class? Joyce hated being called a middle-class writer. For him this was the greatest of all insults, to which he responded jocosely by saying that 'nobody in my books has any money'. But he maintained at all times a strictly bourgeois distinction between his art and his life: for instance, he might write four-letter words, but he would on no account utter them. This distinction was lost by many in the years after his death in 1941, so that what had once been permitted only in the imagination might now be enacted by individuals intent on proving how free they were. By substituting the search for sensations for…

A Poem (and a nice one) For Veteran's Day

Can be found at Laudator Temporis Acti

As a general thing, occasional verse can be trying and not the best poetry, but this Richard Wilbur says what it needs to well, succinctly, and poignantly.  We do well to remember.  But we do well also to remember that this is Veteran's Day, NOT Memorial Day, so if you have the chance to do so today, thank someone in the Armed Services who daily sacrifices what little autonomy we have in action and thought so that we all might have the litte we do.

LeClézio Revisited

And he should be revisited often if this slender collection of stories is any indication.

from "The Escapee"
in The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts
J. M. G. LeClézio

The water of the torrent sparkled in the light. It leapt white and frothy over the smooth stones, flowed down toward the valley amidst tufts of euphorbia and scrawny acacias. Then the sky turned a deeper, almost dark, blue. The two boys shed their worn woolen tunics and bathed, stretching themselves out as the clear water of the torrent ran over their shoulders, into their airs and mouths. Lying flat on their stomachs, they let themselves go sliding gently down  over the smooth shingles, laughing.

There is something in this prose that I find fascinating and thrilling, and I'm not yet able to say precisely what it is.  It builds in few words an atmosphere.

A Catholic Reading List

Archbishop Charles Chaput suggests

Note the presence in the sidebar of other such lists by the likes of James Schall and Dave Armstrong

via  TSO

The Graveyard Book--Neil Gaiman

I first became acquainted with Mr. Gaiman's work through the illustrated Sandman stories and while I enjoyed these very much, I must admit that I did not follow the legions of fans into the world of his fiction and novels.  Apparently that was my loss.  Last year I picked up Coraline and found it one of the creepiest things I had read in years.  And yesterday I picked up The Graveyard Book.  While it didn't raise goosebumps the way Coraline did, it has its own special charms.

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a young boy adopted by ghosts in a local cemetary after he wanders away from the house where the rest of his family has been killed.  Having been welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Owens into the family they always wanted to have, Nobody is granted the Freedom of the Graveyard and is watched over by Silas and a host of others.  Owens grows up in the cemetary and, naturally, has any number of adventures there.

The writing is, as usual with Mr. Gaiman, solid and beautif…

Required Reading Outside the "Western World"

We're all pretty familiar with long lists of  canonical books in the "Western Tradition"  (I use the quotations advisedly because by most calculations both Africa and South America would be considered in the "Western" hemisphere.)  But what aobut great works from non-Western traditions?  What about works from Asia, South America, and Africa.

Well, I'm certain those lists exist too.  But I'm too lazy to go and look for them right now, so I'll post my very idiosyncratic beginning and invite those more knowledgeable in the fields to add to the lists.

East Asia:


The Tale of Heike
Murasaki--The Tale of Genji
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Haiku and poetry by: Senryu, Issa, Haiga, Buson
(Note the big chronological gap here)
Soseki--I Am a Cat
Tanazaki--Some Prefer Nettles
Tanazaki--The Makioki Sisters
Tanazaki--Seven Japanese Tales
Kawabata--The Sound of the Mountain
Kawabata--The Ma…

Liquidation--Imre Kertész

I've posted excerpts from Liquidation over the past few days, and now comes the time to make some estimation of the book as a whole.  It's very difficult to do, not because I don't know how I feel about it, but because it is difficult not to gush and enthuse.

I don't know enough about Mr.Kertész's opus to say whether this is a major or minor work in it.  Regardless, it is a major work of lliterature and one that parades a seemingly endless set of influences and patterns throughout. 

B., a writer and a translator and one of the rare few born in Auschwitz/Birkenau and surviving to adulthood commits suicide.  Those he has worked with, his ex-wife, his lover, and those closest to him (although I'm not certain that any one of these people could be called a friend) are affected by this in different ways.  The protagonist of the book Kingbitter is searching for a lost manuscript that he is certain exists.  Much of the book is told in the form of a clairvoyant play in …

Writers on Writing

"Dying is easy. . ."

I know what few readers may frequent here are probably bored out of their minds with the constant threshing of Kertész.  But I think he is a prime example of why one can't just completely dismiss the Nobel Committee as irrelevant (were one inclined to that position anyway.)  Here is an author who deserves a wider readership--and it has taken me a long while to get around to his work.

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész


Dying is easy
life is one enormous concentration camp
that God has established here on Earth for mankind
and that man has refined yet further
as an annihilation camp for his own kith
Taking ones own life amounts to
outwitting those who stand on guard
escaping deserting those who are left behind
laughing up one's sleeve
in this big Lager of life
the neither-in-nor-out neither-forward-nor-back
in this wretched world of lives held
in suspended animation where we grow decrepit
without time moving any further forward. . .
this is where I learned that to rebel is

National Book Award Nominees

Via Hungry Like the Woolf--This List.

The Critical Flame

An online journal, also found via Books Inq.

50 Must-Read Books of the 20th Century

The list may be found here.

Found via Books Inq.

And a curious collection it is too.  To put Kafka's "Metamorphosis" in a list of novels is a stunner of a start.  Follow that up with a list that conjoins Pearl Bucks The Good Earth (a book I very much enjoyed as a child and continue to enjoy in memory of that great pleasure) alongside Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Add to that Hermann Hesse's palid parable Siddhartha (every sixteen year-old's high fantasy)  and I'd say you had a pretty malformed list.  Must give us pause--it never said "best" although I had interpreted it so--it said "Must Read,"  quite a different sort of list.

Why don't we compile our own?  Leave a list of two or three must-read books of the twentieth century in the comments and we'll compile our own list of essentials.

I'll start us out, perhaps predictably with these seven:

Ulysses--Jame Joyce
Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner
Mrs. Dalloway--Virginia Woolf

Five Young Fiction Writers to Watch

Liquidation Revisited

Despite being such a short work, Liquidation is remarkably dense and requires both concentration and more of a brain than I tend to be able to gather up these days.  There are moments of humor:

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

What he wanted to say was: He floated like a phantom albatross of unspotted whiteness on the ice gray ocean. But he conceded that he had no way of justifying the simile. He had been reading Moby-Dick the previous evening before falling asleep.

And stunning moments of isolation and a sort of terror/horror

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

"But it's what happened," I protested.

That's precisely the problem, he explained. It happened, yet it's still not true. An exception, an anecdote.A speck of grit gets into the corpse-mincing machine. Who cared about his life, he said, exceptional only courtesy of the camp's Prominents, an anomalous, one-off industrial accident? And where does the nonexistent exceptional success story of this person called B. find…

Fatelessness--A Central Theme

Kertész, himself an Auschwitz survivor articulates what seems to be a recurrent theme in his writing:

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

"Man, when reduced to nothing, or in other words a survivor, is not tragic but comic, because he has no fate. On the other hand, he lives with an awareness of tragic fate. This is a paradox . . . which manifests itself in him, the writer simply as a problem of style. A striking notion I have to say, " he adds with the smile of approbation that he was clearly in the habit of awarding the more polished essays at the university. "In his classification, survivors represent a separate species. . . . just like an animal species.  In his view we are all survivors; that is what determines our perverse and degenerate mental world. Auschwitz. Then the forty years that we have put behind us since."

Sometimes I feel the wattage of the old bulb is simply too dim to cast anything like the light needed to elucidate a passage.  This is one of those time…

Another Country Heard From--Nobel Winners Redux

Browsing at two different libraries, I found a couple of books by Imre Kertész, his first Fatelessness and the book excerpted below.

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

(Kingbitter hurry in, a thick file under his arm.)

Kingbitter: Do forgive me. It couldn't be helped. Sorry, sorry. The conference ran way overtime.

Sarah: You look stressed. Did something happen?

Kingbitter: Nothing special: the publishing house is to be liquidated, that's all. The state is not going to throw money at the losses any longer. It has financed them for forty years; from today oward it is not going to finance them.

Obláth: That's logical. It's another state now.

Kürti: The state is always the same. The only reason it financed literature up till now was in order to liquidate it. Given state support to literature is the state's sneaky way for the state liquidation of literature.

Obláth (in ironic acknowledgment): An axiomatic formulation.

Sarah: And what is to become of the publishing house? Will i…

Angel Time--Anne Rice

Review copy received 11/04/09

From the time of its announcement, I had been looking forward to this new book by Anne Rice.  As I say in every review, I am not a die-hard Anne Rice fan.  I found Interview with a Vampire interesting and intriguing, but in hindsight, must lay much of the responsibility of the current vampire as victim and love-object obsession at its feet.  After that, I had no patience with her writing until Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. In that book I observed a kind of control and authorial voice that I had not seen in any of the books I had sampled since Interview.  So too with Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. Perhaps because of the subject matter, perhaps for other reasons, these two books seemed to witness a level of control of language and story that the other books did not.  Gone were messy florid passages that lavished two, three, four paragraphs on the description of the lace and flounce of a jabot.  These new books were spare, polished, poetic.

The autobiog…