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Showing posts from October, 2009

London Review of Books--30th Anniversary Issue

Don't Want Any More Surprizes from That Pesky Nobel Committee?

Then read this brief list of "happening people" in world Literature.

Don't You Just Love Those Lists?

This one from John Cowper Powys circa 1916 of the 100 best books.

Robert Bolano

Robert Bolano has been getting a lot of attention since his death in 2003, with the publication of 2666, one might say there has been a veritable media feeding-frenzy.  You can find a review of his novel The Savage Detectives (now available as a remainder in many bookstores) here.

I own the book, and I have read at it (sampled) but I have not yet read it.  I found 2666 ponderous and slow, though, I'm always quick to point out, that may be my failing, not the failing of the novelist.

PW: The Year's Best

Here.

Found via Books Inq.

The Visitor--Maeve Brennan

Having now completed the very short novel, indeed novella, The Visitor, I am quite eager to read everything else written by this author.  It is with some relief that I can report that much is still in print. I will probably seek out the books of short stories one by one.  In the afterword to the novel, the editor suggests that The Visitor is an excellent place to start for an introduction to the themes of Maeve Brennan's fiction.  To this, I cannot speak, but it certainly is an excellent introduction to a writer of enormous power.

The Visitor is the story of a young woman who returns "home" to her Grandmother's house after the death of her mother in Paris.  She returns with the intent to stay, however:

from The Visitor
Maeve Brennan

"Grandma, what did you mean just now, 'only for a visit'? I was really hoping to stay here for good."

Mrs. King turned to her.

"No, Anastasia. That's out of the question. You kept the flat there, didn't you?&qu…

A New View of the Irish

Actually, an old view, but one that I have only recently come into contact with.

from The Vistor
Maeve Brennan

Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. Then what resentful wonder, and what half-aimless seeking. It is a silly state of affairs. It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward.

******

The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railing around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the color from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flat circles of…

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers--Yiyun Li

The stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers are uniformly good.  They derive their strength from the sometimes mythic overlay on the lives of real, struggling people (as in "Immortal," excerpts of which have been posted before.)  Yiyun Li is still not in full control of her language; there are sometimes awkward phrasings, or perhaps innovative phrasings that don't really accomplish what the author intends (unless momentary disorientation is the effect she wishes to achieve.  One small example is when she has when one character "shoveled" a pot of dregs at her daughter.  These moments are few and my comment is a quibble, but it goes to show that there is a little seasoning required for this author to emerge into her own vast and beautiful domain.

While the language has momentary trouble spots, the stories never do. They are intricate, well-told, and often end with epiphanies that can be fully exposed to everyone without giving away anything at all of the sto…

Some Beautiful Moments from A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

I've read more than half of the book at this point, and I must note that it was actually an intruder into the line-up which was to have been Ron Hansen's Exiles, Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart, and one of several books by William Trevor. But I sampled and found myself irresistibly drawn in.

from "Immortality"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

Accepting that our town is too shallow a basin to contain a real dragon, most of us give up and marry our daughters off to local young men. Yet some among us cling to the nonexistent hope, waiting for the day when he will realize the incomparable beauty and virtue of our daughters. For a number of years, scores of girls in our town are kept untouched by their parents. Too much looking forward makes their necks grow longer each year. It is not an unfamiliar sight to see a girl with a crane-like neck walk past us in the street, guarded by her parents, who have grown to resemble giraffes.

Ms. Li seems to be an…

Lists, Lists, and More Lists

I'm a sucker for lists and I found this one at A Guy's Moleskine Notebook:



Read/Want to Read/Don’t Care/Never Heard of It

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell *****
2. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald *****
3. The Grapes Of Wrath John Steinbeck (Tried to read, no longer interested)
4. The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger (too long ago to rate--suspect it would get a lower rating now.
5. Catch-22 Joseph Heller (Tried, may try again after some others)
6. One Hundred Years Of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez *****
7. Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell ****
8. Ulysses James Joyce*********************
9. On The Road Jack Kerouac (Tried, read through half, decided I didn't care)
10. The Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien*****
11. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
12. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen****
13. Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë****
14. The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeC.S. Lewis****
15. Great Expectations Charles Dickens*****
16. War and Peace Leo Tolstoy**** (real…

How To Make A Dictator (Clone)

from  "Immortality"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

This is how the son is conceived, in a chorus of Communism is so great, so great, and so great.  The same song is broadcast day after day, and the young mother hums along, touching her growing belly, and cutting carefully the dictator's pictures from newspapers. Of course we never call him the dictator. We call him Our Father, Our Savior, the North Star of Our Lives, the Never Falling Sun of Our Era. Like most women of her generation, the mother is illiterate. Yet unlike the others she likes to look at newspapers, and she saves the pictures of the dictator in a thick notebook. Isn't she the woman with the greatest wisdom in our town? No other woman would ever think of watching the dictator's face while pregnant with a son. Of course there has always been the saying that the more a pregnant woman studies a face, the greater the possibility of the baby owning that face. Years ago, young mothers in the c…

John Llewellyn Rhys Award

Some Ramblings on the Art of Criticism

When one notes "perfection of language" as one of the qualities of a work, waht is one saying? Is there any sense in saying that "her sentences work perfectly?"  Isn't that just much nonsense? Of course they work perfectly, if they convey her meaning.  When I read about how marvelous Gertrude Stein is, I can only scratch my head and wonder about what might make her so--complete opacity? total indecipherability? babbling nonsense? She writes on the page what anyone else speaks and the speaker is remanded to custody for his own protection. I read the doped up, drunken blitherings of a Jack Kerouac and cannot deny the energy of them even as I find myself in rare agreement with Truman Capote.

Is the language of Henry James perfect?  Gustave Flaubert? James Joyce? Virginia Woolf? William Faulkner?  If so, in what does the quality of perfection subsist?  How can all of these writers be perfect?

Sometimes, I'm of the opinion that one starts with one's reaction…

From Communist China

But without the usually large political message.  The politics is certainly there, embedded in the story lines, but the story have such wonderful lines.

From "Extra"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

At night as he sleeps, he mumbles in his dreams, his arms and legs thrown to all four directions on the blanket. Granny Lin tucks him in and watches him for a long time, the unfamiliar warmth swelling inside her. She wonders if this is what people call falling in love, the desire to be with someone for every minute of the rest of her life so strong that sometimes she is frightened of herself.
*****

They are still the happy couple on weekends, but Granny Lin worries as she counts the missing socks that she has put out for Kang. She wonders if she needs to talk to him and find out the reason for what he is doing. But every time she opens her mouth, she loses her resolve.

On weekends, as they sit in the shadow of the wisteria, Ganny Lin wonders if this is the love she misse…

The Black Box of Fiction

from "Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra"
in The Braindead Megaphone
George Saunders

I'd understood the function of art to be primarily descriptive: a book was a kind of scale model of life intended to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think just what the writer had. Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He eneters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to "real life"--he can put whatever he wants in there. What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.

And that undeniable and nontrivial occurrence has moral content.  I was reading an essay the other day on reading Lolita, and it was suggested that despite Nabokov's mastery of language and story, the content of Lolita was pernicious: Humbert Humbert, a monster, is made, despite the author's intent synmpathetic; n…

Hilary Mantel on Historical Fiction

from Guardian.co.uk
Hillary Mantel


The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it. The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator; he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and the vagaries of his personal temperament, and he is often obliged, in order to make his name, to murder his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events from the one that held sway when he himself learned the discipline; he must make the old new, because his department's academic standing depends on it.

Read the entire thing here.  Sincere thanks to Books, Inq. for the lead.

So Many Books, So Little Time

The reader's lament.  And it's not going to get any better.  If all book production stopped this minute, we would still have more books than any one person could read in a lifetime.  Even prodigious and rapid readers couldn't master all the languages required to take in the literature available in print today.  The problem then becomes one of deciding how one should spend one's reading time.  How does one choose the best of the best to read?

To start, the best of the best is a necessarily subjective categorization.  Best how?  Best written?  Most provocative? Best to me?  And even,  to some extent, the question of best written does not stand up well to scrutiny.  Is James Joyce better written than Saul Bellow?  By what criteria?  Is Virginia Woolf better written than Eudora Welty?  We have a general view of the morphoscape of literature--we know that Shakespeare occupies something near the pinnacle and that various other luminaries are arrayed on their own peaks.  But …

A Nice Find found at The Literary Saloon

Say You're One of Them Uwem Akpan

I know that Oprah is controversial in a number of ways.  I know that some authors don't particularly care for Oprah's book club.  I know that it is not considered savvy to speak out in her favor; however, I have to say that I have tremendous respect for anyone who encourages people to read.  And I especially have respect  when Oprah asks her audience to indulge in reading as harrowing, and beautiful as Uwem Akpan's powerfully written Say You're One of Them.  I was reminded of the luminous stories in this collection as I read through Adichie's book.  Akpan's stories are powerfully written, brilliantly imagined.  But they are relentless, unsparing, and occasionally brutal.  Even the gentlest of them "What Language is That?" is heartrending in its depiction of the destruction caused by sectarian sentiment and violence. However, "What Language is That" is a walk in the park compared to either the tale of preparing to sell children into slavery &…

The Thing Around Your Neck--Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie gives us an uneven collection of 12 short stories.  All of them are beautifully written, but some, touching on themes of identity and domesticity quickly become repetitive.  I would start reading a story in the collection and wonder, haven't I read this before?  And realize that I wasn't skipping around in the collection, so I couldn't have, and yet I couldn't shake the feeling I had seen it.

The most powerful stories in the collection deal with some of the darker aspects of life in Nigeria.  "Cell One," "The American Embassy," and "Ghosts" all achieve some of their power through the reality of life in Nigeria. "A Private Experience," recounts the story of a Muslim woman and a Christian woman trapped in an abandoned shop during a riot.  The story is reminiscent of some of the bleaker, more desperately moving moments in Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them (a book filled with little but bleak and desperate) In fac…

Hemingway Loves/Adichie's Characters Hate

Refering to Baroness Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen.

As if the name Count Seraphina didn't give it away at a glance:

from "The Deluge at Norderney"
from Seven Gothic Tales
Isak Dinesin

"Count Seraphina," said Miss Malin, "meditated much upon celestial matters. And, as you must be aware, who have read his poems, he was convinced that no woman was ever allowed to enter heaven. He disliked and mistrusted everything female; it gave him goose flesh.

"His idea of paradise was, then, a long row of lovely young boys, in transparent robes of white, walking two by two, singing his poems to his music, in such lovely trebles as you yourself once possessed, Mr. Jonathan, or otherwise discussing philosophy, or absorbed in his books upon arithmetics. The estate which he owned at Angleshorn in Mechlenburg he endeavored to turn into such a heaven, a Von Platen waxwork elysium, and in the very cernter of it he had, most awkwardly for himself and for her, this little girl,…

The Problem with Short Stories

One problem with short stories is that you can read a great many at a time and if an author has certain recurrent themes, one is likely to get the impression that the repetoire is extremely limited.  Such an evaluation, on the face of it, is hardly fair, especially if that author specializes in the novel.  Such were some of my thoughts while reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck.  A lot of the stories end up sounding much the same.  It is a tendency I noted as well in Jhumpa Lahiri's most recent book of short stories--there we have tales of marital disquiet and alienation. Here we have tales of alienation and marital disquiet, but there are others as well, and so, my statement about too many stories clustered giving too narrow an impression of an writer's work.

I was impressed, as I often am, by the insights provided in such works into ordinary American life, and suggestions of why things might be the way they are.  In Rohinton Mistry's A Fine B…

500 Words on Dubliners

Because I'm in a dreamsome mood, let us suppose for a moment that some unnamed someone were to approach me on the street say, yesterday, and were to say, "We need 500 words on Dubliners, stat.  We're doing to press next Thursday.  I'll need them by Tuesday if we're to set them."  (Why they should say such an unaccountable thing, I cannot begin to imagine, but it's my dream, so let's let that be for a moment.)  And let us also say that this mysterious someone offered me both monetary remuneration and copies of the monumental study of which this 500 words is to be a part  (or more likely, the bird-cage liner that needs a filler.)

Let us suppose this bolt from the blue.  What then, would I do?

Before anything else I would sit down and read three stories from the collection--the three that, for whatever reason, have left an indelible impression on me.  (Actually four--but let's start with three).  First, I would pick up "Araby,"  next I woul…

Proust, Anyone?

An online reading group of the monumental classic--In Search of Lost Time.

Nonfiction and Fiction

The nonfiction and fiction theme is a subject I come back to time and again. It is a subject that intrigues me for the claims on both sides.  I am a partisan of the claims for fiction, but as for nonfiction, I must admit to some skepticism.

For example, people tell me that when they (or I) read nonfiction, I am getting facts.  The same holds true of fiction--fictional worlds are composed of carefully selected facts.  The New York of fiction and that of nonfiction may be very similar realms.  However, the advantage of the New York of fiction is that you know it is made up.  You don't have to ask why Battery Park City abuts the Lincoln Center--it just does in that world.  On the other hand, in nonfiction, facts are selected as well.  In a book about New York City, the writer will choose to tell me some things and leave out others.  In some cases these are details irrelevant to the thrust of what he or she is trying to get across.  In other cases these are details that run counter to…

"Billy Budd"--Herman Melville

Many of you may have encountered this in high school.  Back before we all got canon-shy, it sat alongside Lord Jim as one of those books every junior or senior had to grapple with.  It's what got you those valuable AP credits in English (along with a lot of other works that most seniors in high school are not ready to understand). 

One of the disturbing failures of our educational system is the lack of understanding about what a junior or senior in high school can internalize from what they read.  Just because you can read the language does not mean that you can make any sense of the story, theme, or idea that drives the work.  "Billy Budd" is and always has been a work for a mature reader.  I remember blitzing through this in high school and wondering what all the fuss was about.  I also remember sitting through some sort of film version.  Neither made a lasting impression, unless a distaste for Melville and for being bludgeoned to death with "Christ symbols" …

Blasphemy Laws--Censorship from the Left

Hate speech is deplorable.  I avail myself of the off switch, my legs, earplugs, and various other expedients to remove myself from its presence.  However I do not support this.  If accurately reported, it is truly an abomination.  What an ironic and iconic reversal.

Melville on Captain Vere--You Decide!

What's your impression upon reading this?

from "Billy Budd, Sailor"
Herman Melville

With nothing of that literary taste which less heeds the thing conveyed than the vehicle, his bias was toward those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines: books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era--history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne, who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities. In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts--confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions which he forefelt would bide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired. In view of the troubled period in which his lot was cast, this was…

A Late Encounter with Lovecraft

Can be found here.  It is worth your time--especially in October.

And from the link above, a link to a true Lovecraft fan.

The Faith of a Writer

Joyce Carol Oates titles her book The Faith of a Writer with great intent.  One does not want to interpret, but it seems in some of the essays, that art, in this case the art of literature, replaces God for Ms. Oates.  If it is so, then this is where we part company--amicably.  Art in no way replaces God, although, I can see how one might mistake it for doing so, because art can be a powerful attractive force, and viewed in a certain way by people so inclined, art can, in the same way that nature can, reveal something of God to us.  It is in those transcendental moments that the mistaken perception can occur.  I belabor the point--I do not know what Ms. Oates spiritual outlook is--judging from much of her fiction, I'm not sure I'm inclined to want to know.

What is interesting in the book is the way in which authors are viewed as Acolytes, Crucifers, and priests.  The act of reading shares many similarities with the act of praying and there are times when the two can coincide. …

A Dissenting Opinion

is always refreshing when well-spoken and written with an eye to continuing the discourse.  And here is one on Beloved, a novel I never managed to finish.  (Do keep in mind that is not a reflection on the novel, necessarily, it is always (and of necessity) a reflection on me. ) I can't agree or disagree with the opinion--but I do enjoy the ongoing discussion that great, not-so-great, good, and even bad books can cause.

The Haunting of Hill House--Shirley Jackson

I  shall let another enthusiast encourage your perusal of this fine book.

"Benito Cereno"--Herman Melville

What might I say to encourage and every one of you to go and seek out the marvelous little story?  Well to start, it's by Herman Melville, and if there were ever disincentive to an act, I'm sure that name is it.  But in charity, let us avert our eyes from the educational system that taught us this aversive behavior and say that there is always time to recover from early traumas. Give him time and undivided attention, and Herman Melville will repay you--often in the form of a story like no other.

And, this story is it. The difficulty is how to entice without revealing too much?  Perhaps a description--take "The Fall of the House of Usher," strip it of its lovely excesses, bathe it in a briny solution for an hour or two, flip it on its head, and voila, "Bentio Cereno."

Not helpful, you say.  And you're right.  So, what if you take Treasure Island, strand it in the doldrums, have a desert island with a thousand axe-wielding Fridays. . . okay, I admit a rhe…

On Reading Ulysses

As you may have noted, I am a sincere fan of James Joyce.  I am a true, non-scholarly fan of Ulysses. I've read it as a scholar-in-training (never quite made it to Scholar), and I have/am reading it as an ordinary reader.  And I find that when I abandon caring about what James Joyce intended, planned, thought, or said about Ulysses, I experience greater joy and more profound understanding and interaction with the real and wonderful world that Joyce has created. (Mind you, I find what he intended, planned, thought, and said interesting in itself, but really the subject for a separate study.) Ulysses is not easy reading, but when one gives up the need to try to wheedle out every nuance, every dram of meaning, and one begins to enjoy the story and the characters, the reading becomes richly rewarding. 

Joyce deserves an audience greater than his academic readers.  He deserves to be read by the common reader, the person interested in great literature and great characters and great and …

Reflecting on Self

from "The Enigmatic Art of Self-Criticism
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

To have a reliable opinion about oneself, one must know the subject, and perhaps that isn't possible.  We know how we feel about ourselves, but only from hour to hour; our moods change, like the intesity of light outside our windows. But to feel is not to know; and strong feelings will block knowledge. I seem to have virtually no opinion of myself. I only publish work that I believe to be the bes I can do, and beyond that I cna't judge. My life, to me, is transparent as a glass of water, and of no more interest. And my writing, which is far too various for me to contemplate, is an elusive matter, that will reside in the minds (or, as Auden more forcefully says, the guts) of others, to judge.

By now I expect even the most patient reader is just about sick-to-death of Joyce Carol Oates.  But I really am amazed at how proximate our thoughts, how convergent.  When she writes, I can find traces …

Another Joyce Anecdote presented by Joyce

from "The Enigmatic Art of Self-Criticism"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

James Joyce believed, or wished to believe, that Finnegans Wake, on which he had labored for sixteen years, was not one of the most diffiuclt, abstruse, and demanding novels in the English language, but a "simple" novel: "If anyone doesn't understand a passage, all he need do is read it aloud." (Then again, in a less inflated mood, Joyce confessed: "Perhaps it is insanity. One will be able to judge in a century." Joyce offered no rejoinder to his brother Stanislaus's judgment that Finnegans Wake is "unspeakably wearisome. . . the witless wander of literature before its final extinction. I would not read a paragraph of it if I did not know you.")

Crusaders Against Perversion

Take that all you RSV, JB, and NJB readers.

Updike and Vargas-Llosa on Fiction

I find that I have far greater tolerance for John Updike in nonfiction than I do in fiction.  I'm still trying to get to the bottom of that mystery; however, until I do, I'll go on enjoying the nonfiction and sharing what I find fascinating.

from "Fiction: A Dialogue"
in More Matter
John Updike

Put it this way: Fictional persons are objectifications of actual impression of life received by the author. Because they are not actual, the author is free to invade their privacy and confide to us their thoughts and sensations, however evanescent and trivial. Thus he . . . provides the reader with an image of life more close-textured and vivid than any reality-bound genre, such as history, sociology, and even autobiography can provide. Fiction is realer than real, one could say.

and contrast that with Mario Vargas-Llosa

From Making Waves
Margio Vargas-Llosa

Because it is not the story which in essence decides the truth or lies of a work of fiction, but the fact that this story is…

Gothic On Board

Herman Melville exercising (or is that exorcising) his Gothic bent:

from "Benito Cereno"
Herman Melville

He [Captain Delano] leaned against the carved balustrade, again looking off toward his boat; but found his eye falling upon the ribbon grass, trailing along the ship's water-line, straight as a border of green box; and parterres of sea-weed, broad ovals and crescents, floating nigh and far, with what seemed long formal alleys between, crossing the terraces of swells, and sweeping round as if leading to grottoes below. And overhanging all was the balustrade by his arm which, partly stained with pitch and partly embossed with moss, seemed the charred rruin of some summer-house in a grand garden long running to waste.

One of the Oft-Overlooked Horrors of Dracula

You can find it spelled out here. Very amusing.

Joyce Carol Oates, Redux

For those to whom it may not be apparent. James Joyce is one of my very favorite authors.  I collect and cherish anything written by or about him.  And so this little excerpt was of considerable merit:

from "Notes on Failure"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

The curious blend of the visionary and the pragmatic that characterizes most novelists is exemplified by Joyce's attitude toward the various styles of Ulysses, those remarkable exuberant self-parodying voices: "From my point of view it hardly matters whether the technique is 'veracious' or not; it has served me as a bridge over which to march my eighteen episodes, and, once I have got my troops across, the opposing forces can, for all I care, blow the bridge sky-high."  And though critics generally focus upon the ingenious relationship of Ulysses to the Odyssey, the classical structure was one Joyce chose with a certain degree of arbitrariness, as he might have chosen another--Peer Gynt, for …

The Faith of a Writer--Joyce Carol Oates

For a long time, I've felt an odd affinity to Joyce Carol Oates.  It is odd in the sense that while I do not like most of her stories, I often found myself in love with her prose, which is so mutable and so perfectly attuned to where she is going in her stories.  I've read only a very small portion of her opus (which is of Dostoevskian proportions and makes one wonder about the temporal lobe epilepsy theory).  I found a sort of spiritual home in this book because her view of the writing life, and my own coincide on all major points.

Let's start with an essential:

from "What Sin to Me Unknown"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

Not "realism" (a convention most people believe to be primary) but a kind of "surrealism" is the mode of storytelling that seem to have predated all others. Legends, fairy tales, ballads, the earliest preserved drawings and other works of "primitive" art are not at all realistic but magical, with claims of…

Gabriel Garcia Marquez on Writing Short Stories

from the introduction to Strange Pilgrims
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

[He finds himself growing progressively more tired from writing short stories] In fact, I did not have the energy to finish them. Now I know why: The effort involved in writing a short story is an intense as beginning a novel. where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm, length, and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing, the most intimate, solitary pleasure one can imagine, and if the rest of one's life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it.  But a story has no beginning, no end; Either it works or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, my own experience, and the experience of others, shows that most of the time it is better for one's health to start again in another direction, or toss the story in the wastebasket.  Someone, I don't remember w…

J.F. Powers--a review

Despite the fact that the author of this review says one need not be a coreligionist or even a believer to enjoy the stories (a point I cannot and do not protest), surely it doesn't detract from enjoyment.

A Moveable Feast--Ernest Hemingway

I've posted some excerpts from this volume in previous days.  As I finished the book last night I noted several more that I would like to share. A fair portion of the end of the book (two or three labeled sections) are devoted to F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife.

A Moveable Feast is an autobiographical reflection on the Paris Years of Ernest and Hadley (his first wife) Hemingway. In the course of it we meet Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, Sylvia Beach, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of others including either Hilaire Belloc or Alistair Crowley, depending on whether or not you believe Ford. Reading it, I reflected that if Hemingway were your friend, he would be a good friend indeed, and if he were not, well he might still seem so depending upon how dense you are.

Critics fault Hemingway's late prose for becoming a parody of the taut style he developed early in his career; but to my ignorant ears, the prose in this book did not sound that way.  There are other intere…

How Flannery Works

from a letter to Elizabeth McKee, June 19, 1948
Flannery O'Connor

I must tell you how I work. I don't have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again. I am working on the twelfth chapter now. I long ago quit numbering the pages but I suppose I am past the 50,000 word mark. Of the twelve chapters only a few won't have to be rewritten, and I can't exhibit such formless stuff. It would discourage me to look at it right now and anyway I yearn to go about my business to the end.

The novel referred to here is Wise Blood, her first.  And what she has to say about writing seems to be a frequent occurrence among writers.

Hemingway on Ford Madox Ford

The master of understatement and elision drops subtle hints about how he feels about Ford Madox Ford.  Challenge your ability to read between the lines in the passage that follows:

from A Moveable Feast
Ernest Hemingway

I always avoided looking at Ford when I could and I always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room, but this was the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks from my side of the table past his, so I took a good look at him, repented, and looked across the bouldevard. The light was changed again and I had missed the change.  I took a drink to see if his coming had fouled it, but it still tasted good.

A Question of Rating

I've been thinking a bit about the purpose and meaning of rating a book.  What information does it give a reader?  What information do I intend for it to give a reader?  The answer to the latter is simple--it should tell a person reading a review how much I enjoyed this book relative to other books.  But enjoyment is such a complex of things, that even such a simple concept becomes fuddled.  Let's take for example The Sun Also Rises and a book I reviewed here today Broccoli and Other Tales of Love and Food.  Let's say that I gave both of these books a 4-star rating.  What would that indicate?  It would suggest that I "enjoyed" both books a great deal and would consider recommending them to readers.  But to say that I enjoyed them both begs the question.  I enjoyed The Sun Also Rises in a very different way than I enjoyed Broccoli.  While more than a toss-off light read, Broccoli did not demand from me or engage me in the way that The Sun Also Rises did.  I did no…

Turning Left

Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love--Lara Vapnyar

Perhaps it would be wise to preface my remarks with a caveat--there is much in this collection that I have grown fatigued with--the modern insistence on our inability to communicate, our inability to sustain love, our inability..... you get the drift.  And were this were merely another visit to the bleak urban/suburban landscape of the divorced and the adulterous, I would find myself unable to review, much less recommend a book like this.  Yes, we're revisiting very tired territory--ultimately vicious-cycle territory--however, we enter it with such a new and delightful perspective and with such a vivacious sense of story and language that much would otherwise be unendurable is not only pleasant, but on occasion delightful.

Lara Vapnyar is from Russia, living in America, and as such she captures a real feel of "Russian" New York.  I was fortunate enough to have a New York native take me to Coney Island and then lead me through a tour of Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and …

A View from "The Piazza"

We return to Melville.  This time to another short, "The Piazza." 

from "The Piazza"
Herman Melville

In summer, too, Canute-like; sitting here, one is often reminded of the sea. For not only do long  groundswells roll the slanting grain and little wavelets of the grass rippple over upon the low piazza, as their beach, and the blown down of dandelions is wafted like the spray, and the purple of the mountains is just the purple of billows, and a still August noon broods upon the deep meadows, as a calm upon the Line; but the vastness and lonesomeness are so oceanic, and the silence and the sameness, too, that the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary Coast, an unknown sail.

*****

Something in those quiet words, or in that quiet act, it made me mute again; while, noting, through the fairy window, a broad shadow stealing on, as cast by some gigantic condor, floating at brooding poise on outstretched wings…

A Modest Sketch of a Bloggoal

If one can be so immodest and deluded as to have a goal for a blog and one may be so forward as to state it directly, mine would be to inspire readers to realize that what they had abandoned long ago as a lost cause, as a search through a jungle of meaningless symbols, as an exercise in mental frustration, as just plain boring, dull, and dry can actually be a source of intense reading pleasure.  Through my reading life I have wandered the wide roads of what is available, staying away from certain shady nooks and alcoves as too dark, dangerous, and defiled as to attract the attention of so tenuous a scholar as I tend to be.  And now, I have a mild regret that I have not challenged myself with these works--mild, because I found my challenges elsewhere and perhaps honed my skills to return to the great works of the expanded canon and because of this training am better able to appreciate the beauties contained therein.

Not to make too fine a point of the mission: if by posting here I coul…

"I Would Prefer Not To"

I'm amazed by my ability to read things now that I found way beyond the pale in high school and college.  Herman Melville has always struck me as the most unreadable of a passel of unreadable American authors (my opinions of all of whom have changed dramatically in the past few years). Can we all chant, "Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, ewwww!"  Well, that was then, and this is now and I'm grateful that I now have access to these previously opaque authors.

Last night I had the delightful pleasure of reading "Bartleby the Scrivener" for the first time.  (In high school I had read "Billy Budd" and in college I had read at Moby Dick, neither of which looms large in memory--but, I've discovered, that is less a comment on Melville than it is on Steven.) And while I have asked myself to review this particular work, I find that at present I would prefer not to.  (See the story.)

I have the distinct impression that had I read this in high school or colle…