Friday, October 30, 2009

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?"

"Yes. I was in a hurry to get away. I thought I'd go back later and clear things up."

"I'm afraid you've been counting too much on me. You mustn't do that. I have no home to offer you. This is a changed house here now, I see no one whatever."

She smiled with anger.

"I stopped seeing them after she ran off, when I found them asking question of Katharine in the hall outside. I go out to mass, that's all.  When I got your telegram, I hadn't the heart to stop you. You need a change. It's natural that you should want to pay a visit here. But more than that, no. It might have been different, maybe, if you'd been with me when he died. But you weren't here."

It is helpful to note that this is a relatively cordial moment in the book.  Mrs. King rarely smiles in anything other than anger or irritation and Anastasia spends much of the story hoping for a thaw.

But dialogue is not Ms. Brennan's sole strength as a writer:

from The Visit
Maeve Brennan

The mass proceded slowly as though to the time of a swinging pendulum. Altar boys, tall and short, genuflected and passed each other back and forth across the altar. The priest's arms opened and shut, and his head bowed down. He blessed the people without looking at them, his eyes far over their heads. The people rustled and moved on their knees. They listend to the organ and the choir. They were alert for distraction. The people were a ruffled lake, surging gently, and the altar in their midst an island, with one live movement on it.

*****

She paused, thinking dreamily back. All the years in Paris seemed to be gathered and enclosed in one word, and she could not remember the word, although she sat thinking familiarly of it.

*****

"Everything was more slowly paced then," said Anastasia. "No radio, no telephone, no cars--"

She stopped. She was astonished at the dullness of what she was saying.

The book is superbly controlled, quiet, intense, and a little mysterious. The transformation Anastasia undergoes in a very short time entirely convincing and heartbreaking. The novel is bleak--as bleak as the people-scapes of Muriel Spark, but lacking some of the savagery.  Indeed, Ms. Brennan allows the savagery present in some people to speak entirely for itself, and she does so superbly.

*****Highly Recommended

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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 light around them, and settled down for the night.

I can only hope that these small word portraits reveal the rest of the wonder that awaits me as I read this book.  If so, I can only think that I will want to read everything I can possibly find by this fine writer.

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 story.  These ephiphanies illuminate all that has gone on before richly.  Some examples have been given in previous posts.  But each story is studded with gorgeous or startling moments that light up obscure corners of our own perceptions:

from "Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

The morning sun is halfway up in the sky. Three old men are sitting under the north wall of the alley, their eyes closed and their toothless mouths half open, enjoying this unusually warm winter day in Beijing. On the other side of the alley, four girls are jumping rope, chanting a song I have never heard before: "One two three four five. Let's go hunt the tiger. The tiger does not eat man. The tiger only eats Truman." It will be years later when I realize that the Truman they are singing about was the American president during the Korean War, so in the winter of 1979, the song makes little sense to me. I sit there and chant the song silently to myself. After a while the four girls stop singing and start to draw squares on the ground. I jump down from the lion. "Can I join you?"I ask.

"Say the pledge," a girl says and the four of them quickly surround me hand in hand, waiting solemnly.

"What pledge?" I ask.

"You don't know the pledge?" a girl says, making a face. "Where are you from?  The Java Island?"

"No, I am from the institute."

"What institute?" the girl says.

"Let's not waste time," another girl cuts in.  "Say with me: I promise to Chairman Mao--she who does not obey the rule is Liu Shaoqi."

All in a moment.  It is evident that Yiyun Li is not particularly enamored of the communist regime of China; however, not all of her characters feel the same.  In one story, when a man discovers that his daughter is an adulterer, his one consolation is that the man she has chosen to be with is an American from Romania, so at least he grew up in a communist country.

The communism of China pervades these tales.

from "Death Is Not a Bad Joke If Told the Right Way"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

I have to admit twice to my mistake, once to my mother and then in a louder voice so that all the passengers can hear me, before my mother drops the topic and the passengers turn their eyes away from my burning face. I watch my sandals and hum my favorite song to myself: "Let me sing a song to the Communist Party. The Party is dearer than my own mother. My mother only gives me a body. It is the Patry who gives me a soul."


One of many chilling insights that fills up the stories in the book.  While there is no direct attack against the party or the ruling powers, the stories are filled with these subtle and shaping insights into what life was like in the communist regime.

But it is also filled with a deep wisdom and understanding that comes from the simple thought of ordinary people. 

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

"In China we say, Xiu bai shi ke tong zhou," Mr. Shi says when Madam stops. It takes three hundred years of prayers to have the chance to cross a river with someone in the same boat, he thinks of explaining to madam in English, but then, what's the difference between the languages?  Madam would understand him, with or without the translation. "That we get to meet and talk to each other--it must have taken a long time of good prayers to get us here, " he says in Chinese to Madam.


Madam smiles in agreement


Madam speaks only broken English and Persian. The two often chat with each other, each using his or her native language.

And this same story ends with this epiphany:

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


"It is what we sacrifice that makes life meaningful"--Mr. Shi says the line that was often repeated in their training He shakes his head hard. A foreign country gives one foreign thoughts, he thinks. For an old man like him it is not healthy to ponder too much over memory. A good man should live in the present moment, with Madam, a dear friend sitting next to him, hold up a perfect golden ginkgo leaf to the sunshine for him to see.

And it is on this golden thought that the books ends.

The stories are powerful, the writing better than good--approaching great.  With a little refinement, it will be perfect.  The moments captured are powerfully drawn and the reader is drawn into intimate contact with an alien world--a world turned inside out--but a world full of people, ordinary, loveable, hateable, good and awful people.  Every writer would give more than eyeteeth to have a first collection this fine.  You would do yourself a favor if you were to find a copy and read it.

****1/2--Highly recommended.



Wednesday, October 28, 2009

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 epiphany artist, who unfolds for us a variety of revelations in the course of her stories.  She also seems to be a person of deep compassion and moral sense, although that is somewhat more difficult to state categorically.

from "The Princess of Nebraska"
in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Yiyun Li

As if responding, the baby moved. A tap, and then another one, gentle and tentative, the first greeting that Sasha had wished she would never have to answer, but it seemed impossible, once it happened, not to hope for more. After a long moment, people in the street shouted, and children screamed out of excitement. Sasha looked up--the lights were lit up in the trees, thousands of stars forming a constellation. She thought about the small Mongolian town where her mother lived alone now, her long shadow trailing behind her as she walked home along the dimly lit alley. Her mother had been born into a wrong time, lived all her adult life in a wrong place, yet she never regretted the births of her two daughters. Sasha held her breath and waited for more of the baby's messages. America was a good country, she thought, a right place to be born into, even though the baby had come at a wrong time. Everything was possible in America, she thought, and imagined a baby possessing the beauty of her father, but happier, and luckier. Sasha smiled, but then when the baby moved again, she burst into tears. Being a mother must be the saddest yet the most hopeful thing in the world, falling into a love that, once started, would never end.

While the language isn't perfect, the thoughts and the feelings and the atmosphere captured create a sense of person and place that is unlike any other I have encountered in reading short stories.

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

Of course, Han wants to make a joke. Her god is just like a Chinese parent, never running out of excuses to love a son. But he stays quiet when he looks up at his mother, her eyes so eager and hopeful that he has to avert his own.

This is the very end of the story that works perfectly to capture the two--mother and son--that it portrays.  What a powerful and mixed ending--now, you must get the book and read the rest that leads up to this end--it is well worth your time.

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 Wardrobe C.S. Lewis****
15. Great Expectations Charles Dickens*****
16. War and Peace Leo Tolstoy**** (really dull history lectures aside, this is a great book)
17. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov Tried, always severely repulsed by the subject matter whether or not apologia--On this issue, you may want to look at this blog entry from Wuthering Expectations.
18. Animal Farm George Orwell ****
19. Crime And Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky****
20. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy****
21. Lord Of The Flies William Golding*****
22. Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh*****
23. Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie
24. Love In The Time Of Cholera Gabriel García Márquez****
25. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams****
26. Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë*****
27. The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien****
28. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf*****
29. Middlemarch George Eliot Have started many times, but something (usually shorter) intervenes
30. Rebecca Daphne du Maurier Started several times, but same problem as above
31. Dune Frank Herbert*****
32. Brave New World Aldous Huxley*****
33. A Prayer For Owen Meany John Irving Lost interest in this writer after meeting him in person
34. Watership Down Richard Adams
35. The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner*************
36. Little Women Louisa May Alcott
37. Invisible Man Ralph Ellison****
38. Anne Of Green Gables LM Montgomery*****
39. Emma Jane Austen
40. Memoirs Of A Geisha Arthur Golden***
41. Beloved Toni Morrison--Tried twice, failed, haven't recovered the spirit to try again
42. Of Mice And Men John Steinbeck***
43. The Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad*****
44. Les Miserables Victor Hugo
45. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame
46. The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown* --Writing execrable, puzzle--fun but transparent
47. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
48. Winnie the Pooh A.A. Milne
49. Birdsong Sebastian Faulks
50. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin Louis de Bernieres *
51. Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut****
52. Life of Pi Yann Martel*****
53. A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess*****
54. The Count Of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas*****
55. A Passage to India E.M. Forster*****
56. Moby Dick Herman Melville--Tried before I was ready, I'm wondering if I'm ready again
57. A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
58. The Stand Stephen King Version 1 ****, Uncut **--A powerful argument for sensible editors
59. Possession A.S. Byatt--Have Tried twice
60. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert--Tried dozens of times
61. A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens****
62. The Trial Franz Kafka*****
63. I, Claudius Robert Graves****
64. The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood**
65. The Secret History Donna Tartt
66. His Dark Materials Philip Pullman*
67. The Harry Potter Series J.K. Rowling***
68. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky--Have tried several times, managed half-way once
69. Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes--tried several times
70. Sons and Lovers D.H. Lawrence (Don't recall enough to rate)
71. The Pillars Of The Earth Ken Follett***
72. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce******
73. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain****
74. The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini****
75. An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
76. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll*********
77. Bleak House Charles Dickens (Actually about 1/2 way through)
78. The Time Traveller’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger***
79. A Fine Balance Rohinton Mistry*********
80. The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemmingway*****
81. Nostromo Joseph Conrad
82. Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry
83. The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing
84. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Carson McCullers
85. The Stranger Albert Camus****
86. Native Son Richard Wright*****
87. Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pynchon (Tried several times)
88. The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver*** (quite good up to the political diatribe in the third section)
89. Perfume Patrick Süskind**
90. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
91. David Copperfield Charles Dickens*****
92. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl*****
93. Pale Fire Vladimir Nabokov (Tried several times)
94. Persuasion Jane Austen
95. Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand
96. The Tin Drum Gunter Grass (Tried several times--new translation, additional opportunity)
97. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray
98. Atonement Ian McEwan
99. Light in August William Faulkner*****
100. The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett

I even appropriated Mr. Moleskine's rating system.

Very few I didn't take to--some whose attraction I fail to understand (anything by Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, and some that I love beyond reason.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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 cities liked to watch one kind of imported doll, all of them having a foreign name, Shirley Temple.  Decades later, movie stars will be the most studied faces among the pregnant mothers. But at this time the dictator is the only superstar in the media, so the mother has been gazing at the dictator's face for ten months before the baby's birth.


The son is born with the dictator's face, a miracle unnoticed by us at first.


And, I leave it to you to discover what immediately follows.

John Llewellyn Rhys Award


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies's The Thing Around Your Neck has been nominated according to Granta Online.

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 and feeling and looks backward to justify it in some manner.  I don't like Gertrude Stein, so I'll intimate that she has no knowledge of English or of composition (but how can that be as her sentences strive one by one to dismantle ordinary understanding of the language.)  I love James Joyce, so I'll show how his language reaches perfection.  But does it?  Can one really say that Finnegans Wake reaches perfection? If so, what is one saying when one writes such a sentence? 

In short, critical judgment is not a science; things are said that have and can have no substantive backing.  One can quote an entire book in defense of a central thesis; however, one may be no closer to proving the idea, because another laughingly comes along and dismantles it.  Finnegans Wake is perfection: ah, then, why is it incomprehensible to most who try to read it?  The Waves is a masterpiece: of what then? character? plot? language? Why is it in any way superior to To the Lighthouse?

Each critic you read can make their point forcefully.  Harold Bloom despises the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe: Charles Baudelaire thought it the apotheosis of literature.  And so forth.  Critical judgment is interesting not in what it says about a work, but in what it says about approaches to a work.  In a critical piece one learns more about the mind of the critic than the soul of a poet.  And perhaps the value of that learning is that one sees how to read with more passion, more engagement, more attention to the little details that can make such a delight of reading.

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 missed in her younger years,  hand in hand with a dear boy, not asking him to tell her the secret she is not allowed to know.

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; not necessarily through his own pleadings but through context.  I must admit that this is my experience every time I try to pick the book up.  I'm overwhelmed by a nausea that trumps any attempt to read the book.  I can't find the triumph of the language for the dubious morality that is inadvertantly inculcated.  I think it is probably true that Nabakov had no sympathy for Humbert's pathology--but like any writer worth his salt, he had deep sympathy for his characters and can't help but to convey that to the reader.  The net result is an art that distorts our perceptions ever so slightly--just a little twist in the mirror, that over time results in a complete distortion of thinking about this moral matter.  A great amoral writer can be an enormous force for malice in the world--not necessarily purposefully, but with, unfortunately, potential for enormous effect.

Monday, October 26, 2009

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 where does one place Kurt Vonnegut?  David Markson?  William Burroughs?

To some extent what we must select is a matter of individual taste.  But are there "classics" that transcend mere taste and become works "required" of everyone?  If so, what does this list of classics look like?  Some call it the Western Canon.  Harold Bloom made an attempt at codifying such a list some years back, and even the "short list" is far too long for even the most serious reader who has anything else to do in life other than read.  If your occupation is not "professional reader," then it would not be possible for you to make it through this list with any deep understanding of the great number of works on it.

So, we come back to the question--how do we choose what we read?  Certainly by taste, for me it is often by mood--but are there objective criteria to be used in the evaluation of reading, and if so what are they?  I know that one of mine is certainly a major constraint--whatever I read must be in one of the languages that I can read with some fluency--English, French, and to a far more crippled extent Latin.  I can puzzle out some Spanish and Italian, but not enough to say that I've truly read anything.  So, that's one, highly limited criteria of my reading.  Fortunately, we have very capable people opening up worlds of literature in translation.  Thanks to them I can read Naguib Mahfouz and Herta Muller.

How do YOU go about choosing something to read?  What are your limiting criteria?  Is enduring value a "selling-point" for you or is it more likely to be a barrier?  Given our limited time, I would be most interested to know, if you would be willing to share.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Nice Find found at The Literary Saloon

A interview with Naguib Mahfouz

And 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 "Fattening for Gabon" or the story in which the title of the book is spoken mother-to-child in the midst of the Rwandan devasatation "My Parent's Bedroom."

 The book is one that I cannot recommend highly enough, and I also must recommend Oprah's dedication to the cause. Is it untinged with the commercial, with the crass, and the callous world of media?  Is anything?  One can ask oneself a million questions about motive--but as long as Oprah is recommending books of this caliber to a reading republic that thinks Twilight is la creme de la creme, and makes a best seller of Dan Brown, I will remain her staunch ally in at least this facet of her public-career. 

Whether recommended by Oprah or not, you would do yourself a tremendous favor to get this collection and read it--cover to cover without pause.  It is breathtaking, beautiful, brutal, and enlightening in the same way that Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance helped shed light on another dark place.

*****  Highest possible recommendation

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 fact, it reminds one of "Luxurious Hearses," a story dramatizing the same kind of conflict. Unlike that collection, The Thing Around Your Neck is more consistently readable (not better) because it is less bleak.

Less bleak, but never happy.  Very few moments are captured here wherein the participants in events are truly happy or at ease.  When the strife is not political or ethnic, it's domestic; and this is where the book begins to lose some of its impact.  If no one can ever be happy in any situation--well what's the point. Adichie succumbs to the same mysterious disease that affects another expatriate author, Jhumpa Lahiri.  There is no happiness for people no longer part of their own country.  And,  not having had the experience of being expatriate, perhaps it is true.  But it eventually makes for some wearisome reading.

The collection is very strong, very well written.  The story about the writer's workshop in South Africa mentions some of the great writers of the past who were African or who wrote about Africa--Amos Tuotela (The Palm-Wine Drinkard), Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), and others inform the writing and the sensibility of the book.  They form the context for another writer of great talent and ability.  My only hope is that the range gradually increases to encompass moments of pleasure, happiness, and joy.  Surely even in strife-torn Africa, there must be some such.  I would love to see some of them.

****--Recommended

Friday, October 23, 2009

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, about whom he had doubts as to whether or not she might pass as an angel.


About which what can one say but ick. The pathology here is deep and disturbing: gothic, one might say.  One thinks Les Chants de Maldoror.

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 Balance, some of the statements of the person who dealt in human hair were like this.  Here's Adichie's take:

from "On Monday of Last Week"
in The Thing Around Your Neck
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from diappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents as if caring for one's child were the exception rather than the rule.  It used to amuse Kamara, watching women on television talk about how much they loved their children, what sacrifices they made for them. Now, it annoyed her.

More about this collection when I've had a chance to read the whole and analyze.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

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 would look into "Clay"  and finally I would sit down for the evening, or more likely the entire weekend and read the most glorious story in English written in the 20th Century--"The Dead."

More ink has been spilled, more time spent, more students subjected to endless tirades, on the subject of "The Dead" than all of the other stories (fine as they are) combined.  Indeed, "The Dead" may be the Joyce Scholar's third hangout, after Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (I remove Finnegans Wake from the competition because one must be more than a Joyce scholar to appreciate it--the exact warp and weft of such a mind would need volumes to expound upon.)

"The Dead" has been the subject of a beautiful, but only intermittantly successful film directed by John Huston--who leaned heavily upon certain interpreters of the work to come up with his portrayals and vision.  It is a key subject of discussion among many college freshmen and sophomores, who I hope, undeterred by the experience return to the story in later years to take it up once more and fall under its spell--for it is quite a different story at 20 and at . . . ahem, sorry something got lodged in my brain and I had to knock it out.

All of Dubliners is worth your time, but "The Dead" is worth your time time and again. 

And perhaps in a few days, when I've written my 500 words, I'll think to share with you why.

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 his or her thesis about New York City.

Both fiction and nonfiction come with agendas.  Sometimes they are very didactic, very clear, and very pointed. Sometimes, they are not so clear.  However, I know that fiction always has an agenda, whether announced or otherwise, I come to it prepared.  Nonfiction, I'm inclined to want to be truthful.  I'd like to be able to read it and think I have an understanding of the matter under consideration. The truth is, of course, I never can have, because even the simplest matter in reality is too complex to relate in all of its aspect in prose.  Add to that that once one leaves the realm of the physical sciences or the tangible, measurable, empirical world, and enters the world of human congress, all bets are off.  Was Washington religious or not?  Deist a la Jefferson and Franklin (or were they) or not?  Did he free his slaves or not?  Was he opposed to the institution of slavery or not?  Was he a good or a poor general?  President?  Was he cold, distant, formidable?  Was he cold, distant, and stupid (Jefferson's evaluation)?  What exactly did he die of?  Did he have "wooden teeth."  And so forth.  And these are not even necessarily touching on all the core issues.  I can pull from the shelves of "nonfiction" any number of books about Washington.  I would read them all and still not really know anything about Washington.  I would have formulated an impression of him, but that impression would be more formed by who I am than by who Washington actually was.   And that is the way it works in the world with people I can talk to today--there is a limit to what I can know.  However, what I can know from nonfiction is further constrained by the array of facts the author chooses to present to me.

Another example, I can conclude from "nonfiction" that our climate is becoming increasingly warmer at a prodigious rate.  I can conclude that this climatic warming is human-mediated--or if I have a deeper-time perspective, I could conclude that it is inevitable coming out of an Ice Age and one of the coldest times in Earth's history.  Which of these conclusions is valid?  What has a perusal of "nonfiction" told me except that I live in two very different worlds depending on whose opinion I cleave to.

I suppose this is by way of saying that nonfiction uses the same techniques as fiction to similar purpose--to create a picture of the world.  The intent in nonfiction is to convey as sense of the world as it really is, but this must necessarily fall short because the array of detail necessary for a true picture of the world qua world would stymie the Marcel Proust of nonfiction.

This present attempt at discussion is admittedly anecdotal, sketchy, and perhaps not tautly reasoned. This is an issue I reflect on a lot, so it's likely I'll return to this theme from time to time. Suffice to say for now, that I read nonfiction as a species of fiction that needs verification and research to determine its veracity and to sort out the agenda from the information.  It is, therefore, far more work than even the most complex of fictions, and therefore--being the essentially lazy person that I am I tend to prefer the path of least resistance.

"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" counts.

I have to admit, that I'm not certain I'm ready to deal with "Billy Budd" today.  While I found the reading difficult and not nearly so captivating as "Bartleby the Scrivener," "The Piazza," and "Benito Cereno," that may be due to the relatively unfinished state of this work. (He died in 1891 leaving behind an uncollated manuscript which his wife preserved.  The story was ultimately published in 1924.) Part of the problem may have been the relatively heavy hand in both language and symbol.  Billy Budd is pure.  Pure beyond pure: likened at times to Jesus and at others to Adam.  Claggert is evil--he is Iago--so bent upon the destruction of innocence that he takes no count of the potential cost to himself.  Vere is ambiguous--neither evil or good--a man of intelligence but extreme prejudice.

Again, I don't wish to give away the plot to those who have not yet had the pleasure (and it is a difficult pleasure) of reading the work.  Suffice to say that within the pages is an elemental story of the battle between good and evil, and one is left wondering, to some extent, who has won. 

As with any fine work, there are any number of interpretations that can be brought to it--and I don't pretend to be scholar enough to have examined the stray thoughts that make up this series of impression in any detail.  But at least one theme I do see clearly in the work is the question of how we can know the truth when it is filtered through so many different lenses.  "Billy Budd" is narrated by someone who intrudes occasionally with necessary history or with an outside anecdote or with a demurral about what exactly was said and how it was phrased. This narrator certainly seems to have his preference about how one views the various characters.  It concludes with three short chapters, one of which flips the incidents of the narrative on their head and gives us an opposite reading of the incidents in the work.

As with any great work, there are as many ways of encountering it as there are readers to read it.  Make a decision today to encounter it for yourself, and then wrestle with it for a few days.  I think you will be glad that you have done so.

**** Recommended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

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 well for him.  His settled conviction were as a dike against those invading waters of novel opinion social, political, and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own.  While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, Captain Vere disinterestedly oppposed them not alone because they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting instititutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.

Add to this the fact that Budd is removed (impressed) from the Rights of Man, and deployed on the Bellipotent. It's my suspicion that Melville is trying to convince us of something regarding Captain Vere's character in these details.  Coming from an Emersonian liberal directed at what seems to be an aristocractic Burekan conservative, what might he be trying to convey?

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.  I'm fairly certain that much of Flannery O'Connor's time spent in writing was a time of prayer.  She's the most obvious example, but by no means the only one.  Prayer requires interior silence and solitude.  Prayer calls upon the faculties of memory, imagination, and will.  Often one reads a passage from scriptures, the writings of the saints, or other work providing sufficient substance for meditation and engages the text with a thorough-going participation in it.  Finally, prayer, engaged in frequently and with faithfulness, results in the transformation of the pray-er.

I think it would be correct to characterize writing in the same vein.  It requires silence and solitude, but often incorporates events of life (memory) in the act of imagining and participating in a series of events that results in a story or poem.  Both efforts are directed toward coming into contact with the great unknown.  Both are creative acts--prayer is a participation in creation and redemption. Recall St. Paul's admonition that he "fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church" (Col. 1:24, KJV)--it may likewise be translated [NIV] "fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.")

Perhaps for me the most telling feature of both is that while memory, imagination, and will may involved, the actions of prayer and writing require an immediacy, a complete participation in the present moment.  That is, one can neither pray nor write while wandering through linear time.  To write, one must become "unstuck in time" and flow with the present moment.  To a writer all time is present time because one is present to one's work and to the creative impulse that inspires it.  So, too, in prayer--no matter what action is engaged in, it is in becoming unstuck from our own linear maunderings and thought trails that we become engaged in the eternal present--the only moment we have for prayer or for anything.  St Thèrése of Lisieux reminds us that all of our sorrows lie in the past (regret) or in the future (anxiety) but very few of them can be found in the working out moment-to-moment of our existence--the only time that we really "have" at all.

And so the comparison of prayer and writing.  The same might be said of any action that takes place more or less selflessly--hence St. Benedict's famous Ora et labora and St. Paul's injunction to "Pray constantly."  It can be done--but to do so one needs to seize the moment each moment and be aware not of passing time, but of time as it always is.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

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 rhetorical flourish, an exaggeration.  But what is one to do?

You've read (I flatter myself, perhaps I should say, you may read) a bit of the prose in a post earlier in the day, and to that I have only to add that this is story-telling of the highest caliber.  It recounts in three short sections two antipodean horrors and ends with an ambiguous resolution revolving around a single statement of Don Benito himself,  "The negro."  Is it singular?  Is it plural?  Given the dual horrors of the story, does it matter?  But now you must find "Benito Cereno" and read it yourself and unravel the deep mysteries of storytelling that results in so fine a tale. When you've done so, please return here and tell me how I might produce such a fine work. It's the least you could do considering I was the one who set you on the path to enlightenment.

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 playful use of language.

When I was in Dublin I saw and did not buy a book that looked wonder by the title of Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce's Masterpiece.  The author, as you might suspect, seems also to support my belief. Now a review is available, and I think perhaps I ought to pick it up after all.  If I pick it up, I'll be sure to review here as well.


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 in my own writing and journals that track, if not word for word, so closely as to be mistaken for a draft of her final essays.

Here again, she traces much of my thought--though I do think that it may be more possible to know oneself than Ms. Oates intimates.  On the other hand, I may still be in the throes of self-delusion.

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 written rather the lived, that it is made of words and not concrete experiences. Facts suffer a profound change when they are transformed into words.

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.

Monday, October 19, 2009

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 instance; or Faust. That the writer labors to discover the secret of his work is perhaps the writer's most baffling predicament. . . 
Deadpan, Stanislaus Joyce noted in his diary in 1907: "Jim says that . . . when he writes, his mind is as nearly normal as possible."

Authorial intention is largely a smokescreen because many authors--perhaps most, have only the broadest sense of what they intend when they sit down to write.  You can read it over and over again in their diaries as they are feeling out the contours of the story.  Certainly in the redraft, there is considerably more control, more sense of direction, but even here, not every choice is deliberate, not every ambiguity erased, not every stray hair tacked down into the perfect coiffure.  Even in the redraft, while the author's intent may be made more manifest, it is equally like that deliberate small changes made throughout the work are likely to stray off in a direction completely unnoticed by the author.  So, while Joyce could construct or reconstruct Ulysses to include an art, a chief symbol, a certain manner of presentation,  once the wild Irish sea is in the work, it is up to the reader to make sense of it.  The cracked lookingglass of a servant means one thing to me, another to Seamus Heaney reading from a different history and a different perspective.  Joyce has no control over this, and in a sense, once the work is out of his hands, it goes rogue--there becomes no "correct" interpretation--and the more powerful and universal the work, the more lights it will light up in the academic critics' circle--marxist, feminist, queer, semiotic, desconstructionist, poststructuralist--you name it and, in a robust work, you can make the system light up with possibilities.  (Witness Marxist and Feminist interpretations of Shakespeare.)

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 divine or supernatural origin; of course, they are anonymous. As if, on some dreamlike a level of human consciousness, we are identical and the intrusive "individuality" of more modern times is not yet a problem. As beat and melody underlie the most formally intricate works of poetry, so romance underlies prose fiction, and is perhaps indistinguishable from it. All writers--all artists--may be classified as romantics, for the very act of creating, and of caring passionately enough to create, is a romantic gesture. What begins as child's play ends, not ironically so much as rather wonderfully, as a "vocation," a "calling," a "destiny". . . . But the origins of the impulse remain tantalizingly mysterious. . .

I have sensed that almost all story is surreal in its origins, and, in fact, life is often more surreal than real.  And perhaps that is one helpful diagnostic for a writer's view of the world.  Others might not see it so, but the way a writer looks at the world can be quite atomistic and hence rife with possibility for surrealism.

One quotation I really loved referred to the art and craft of writing:

"One is frequently asked whether the process becomes easier, with the passage of time, and the reply is obvious: Nothing gets easier with the passge of time, not even the passing of time.

And add to that:

"One has only to glance at Chamber Music to see why James Joyce specialized in prose."

A point completely supported by Seamus Heaney.

I could go on to quote passage after passage in these wonderful essays--every point building on the last and confirming entirely the vision I have long held (and experienced) of the writer and his or her world.

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

Why certain individuals appear to devote their lives to the phenomenon of interpreting experience in terms of structure, and of language, must remain a mystery. It is not an alternative to life, still less an escape from life, it is life; yet overlaid with a peculiar sort of luminosity, as if one were, and were not, fully inhabiting the present tense.

Any dyed-in-the-wool writer will tell you this is so--even those who as yet have not a large published oeuvre in their domain of choice.  NOT to write is not a choice.  Writing is an imperative, as strong as eating, sleeping, breathing.  And when the impulse is not obeyed the consequences can be devastating and far-reaching. We don't write for something to do, we write because we cannot do otherwise--writing IS life.  The world does not make sense--you might liken a writer to a type of autistic person in which all processing must take place through verbalizing in order for the writer to come to terms with it.  As a small example, I often don't know what I think about a work of literature until I sit down to write about it.  For example, I reviewed Rhinoceros the other day, and until I sat down to write the review, I had rather vague thoughts about it being dated and rather worked up.  But in writing, some of the knots of the prose came undone, some of the contextual complexities I was struggling with were made more transparent.  So it is with many aspects of life for a writer.

from "Inspiration!"
in The Faith of a Writer
Joyce Carol Oates

Why the need, rising in some very nearly to the level of compulsion, to verify experience by way of language?--to scrupulously record and preserve the very passing of Time? . . . For Nabokov as for many writers--one might say Boswell, Proust, Virginia Woolf, Flaubert; surely James Joyce--experience itself is not authentic until it has been transcribed by way of language: the writer puts his imprimatur upon his (historic) self by way of writing.

Whether this is true for all writers or not, I cannot say, but it certainly comes close to my experience.  Unless it is found in a journal, poem, or other piece of writing, it is not real, it has no validity in time and it is likely to vanish with all the other unrecorded shades.

I sha'n't go on--I have taken too much of your time, so indulgently given.  But I hope I've given you good cause to read this book--a marvelous, insightful, delightful collection of essays by an author for whom I have tremendous respects but whose oeuvre and worldview often leave me somewhat cold (to put it mildly.)  I have to say that five stars is insufficient an expression for how much I enjoyed this book and how profoundly it spoke to me.

***** Highest possible recommendation to those pursuing the writing life

Sunday, October 18, 2009

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 who, made the point with this comforting phrase: "Good writers are appreciated more for what they tear up than for what they publish."

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 interesting oddities, that I suppose, if one were of the mind to one could find cause for exception to: there were moments in which Hemingway deliberately left out some incident or some useful information--for example when he returned home to Paris to search and see if he had lost both the originals and the carbons of stories he had written when Hadley's suitcase was stolen in a Paris train station.  (Both originals and carbons were gone and Hemingway does something that he glosses over in the telling.)  There are a few other narrative gaps and places where the story trails off after giving enough of an indication--for example when he relates how he finally came to part with Gertrude Stein.

Much of a surface gloss here in review, but I think it is enough to say that the book is worth one's time even if one cannot always discern what Hemingway felt or whether or not the incidents recounted actually took place in just that way.  What we can know fairly well is that they are a "novelization,"  the author having had years and years in which to polish, reflect, and perhaps subtly alter events.  What you will get is a strong sense of Hemingway and of Paris in the 1920s, and of the romantic elements of Hemingway's make-up that can often be overlooked.

***** Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

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.

Friday, October 16, 2009

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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

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 not have to use a tremendous amount of critical acumen or my semi-developed reader's brain to make my way through Broccoli.  On the other hand, Hemingway's book was surprisingly demanding for being so easy to read.  So, what does a 4 in each case mean.  It is a subjective way of saying that in books of a similar class I enjoyed each of these to a level of 4.  So comparing Hemingway to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or William Faulkner, I found that he was not so enjoyable as they were, but nevertheless, a really good and satisfying read.  Likewise for Broccoli.

Another important point about rating--until people start paying me and giving me books to review here, it is unlikely that I'm going to waste my time reviewing or discussing a book that I would give a 3 or below to.  In fact, many books that merit a 4 are not likely to receive any more discussion than a listing in the side column that indicates that I've read them.  That isn't to say that they aren't worth reading, but that having read them, I found nothing worthwhile to add to them--I had neither insights nor critical comments that would add anything to the simple rating given.

So, I have talked myself into understanding that my rating system has no real utility or meaning.  What is it then, that I can indicate in a short-hand that would be helpful to a reader.  I know when I read reviews in other places one of the things I want to know is where does this fall in the literary world?  With modern books it's hard to say, but is the writer positioning themselves as canon-worthy, are they in the position of delivering serviceable serious fiction as entertainment, are they purveyors of light fiction?  Where does the author fall in the ranks of the eternal?  Tomorrow's remaindered bestseller, or tops on the next century's required for college lists?  Also a subjective measure and evaluation.  But as I dig up more and more books to read, I find I have less and less time for those that promise light entertainment.  There is certainly no problem with light entertainment, I enjoy such books.  But my enjoyment of them pales with the triumph of reading The Golden Bowl or Absalom, Absalom!

Perhaps then, as an abstract system of indicating enjoyment, it is sufficient to indicate a few stars and let it be--leave it to the reader to discern what those stars mean and whether the system is efficient for them.  But caveat lector: there is perhaps no system more pervasively shaped by its errors and subjectivity than my rating system.  Tread carefully and gauge your reactions against my own and see how compatible we are as readers--then you'll know if my rating system can help you.  Or perhaps more precisely, how my rating system can help.  Perhaps in the halls of eternal we are BBF, but in light reads we're double zero--at least then you'll know.  He likes it, it's light--stay away.  He likes it, it's heavy, maybe I should take a look.

Turning Left

Provocative and amusing

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 other associated parts of Brooklyn.  Ms. Vapnyar's light-handed touch captures my (admittedly brief and sketchy) perceptions of the area.

from "A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf"
in Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love
Lara Vapnyar

On the street with the unimaginative name Avenue M, they walked through narrow stores that all looked alike to Nina, no matter what they sold: food, electronics, clothes, or hardware. After a while, it seemed that they were walking in and out of the same store over and over, just to hear the chime of its bell.  The February morning was cold, and the sunlight was pale. Nina hid her reddened nose in the fur collar of her Russian coat. She clutched her husband's elbow and carefully stepped over piles of garbage, reluctant to look up or sideways at the ashen sky or the motley signs of the shops.  She felt dizzy and a little nauseated from the flight and the all-night talk with her sister. Only one place attracted her attention: a small Korean grocery with fruits and vegetables set outside on plywood stands--colorful piles of oranges, tomatoes, and cucumbers, almost unnaturally clean and bright. Nina read the sign on the box of tomatoes: SUNRIPE.  She was still learning English, and every new expression seemed exciting and full of great meaning. SUNRIPE brought to mind a vegetable patch on a summer afternoon, the smell of the rich soil heated by the sun, pale-green branches sagging under heavy tomatoes bursting with juice. SUNRIPE reminded her of her family tiny vegetable garden when she was little. Nina wanted to touch the tomatoes in the box, hoping that their surface would still be a little warm from all the sun that shined on them while they ripened. She was reaching for one when her husband dragged her away to another store.
It is this sort of detail that helps to take the too-tried storylines to new places.  Suddenly, there is something new under the sun.  Yes divorce is always divorce, unhappy is always unhappy (and in this I suspect that Tolstoy was wrong--see Anna Karenina), but Ms. Vapnyar breathes new life into them through her juxtaposition of food and love.

**** Recommended--delightful, interesting, quick read

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, I mark how, by its deeper and inclusive dusk, it wiped away into itself all lesser shades of rock or fern.
 Who knew such rare gems lurked in the murky, wild, salt-sprayed prose of one of the dreaded and feared members of the oppressive (in the words of Robert Hughes) pale penile patriarchy? Hemingway before Hemingway was born, seeking the one true thing, the well-shaped and shapely sentence. I haven't the foggiest clue as to what this story is about or where it is heading; however, with sentence-paragraphs like those, I'm willing to follow wherever it may lead.  And no matter, whether to bright-lit cliff or trogdolyte cave, the journey has been made worthwhile.

("It wiped away into itself all lesser shades of rock or fern"--alliteration, assonance, rhythm and poise--poetry in prose, the lovely sound of the sea, the ebb and flow, the water of phonemes passing one to the other the coherence of meaning, the force of sheer sound.)

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 could encourage one person who has been an avid reader but avoided the classics either through fear of incomprehension or dread of the doldrums to reengage in his or her own time and own way, to read one page, one story, one chapter of a book that they have left alone, to apreciate beauty and humor and sheer mastery of the language wherever it may be found, then the purpose of the blog is fulfilled and I can be happy at my labors here.

I am too tenuous a scholar to contribute deeply to anyone's understanding, but I am a sufficient reader, I hope, to help contribute to other readers' appreciation of the fine art of writing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"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 college I would have mouthed whatever it was the critics and the chief critic (teacher/professor) had to say about it without any real understanding or regard for the text.  I don't think that I would have really understood the utter nihilism of Bartleby or the awed reaction of the Lawyer who employed him in the face of it.

My overwhelming sense of the story is the triumph of the nihilistic passive-aggressive over the material. I don't know whether I am supposed to feel any sympathy or commonality with Bartleby.  I can say with certainty, that I did not. The lawyer narrator keeps trying to get us to look at Bartleby sympathetically, but he is himself so unreliable and so variable in his own reaction that it is hard to listen to his more "Christian" interpretations and surmises about Bartleby.

Read simply it is a tale of the will to destruction and the will to nothingness. Bartleby is a walking dead man who gradually gives up even the remotest attempts at communication, cooperation, and humanity, spending his time instead staring into the abyss.

What is remarkable is how well done it is, and how believable even when unbelievable.  We've all known people who exhibit the worst characterisitcs of Bartleby, we've just never known (m)any who were so consistent in follow-through and so thorough-going about it. Melville nicely balances Bartleby's refusal to exist with the lawyer's constant attempts to drag him into being.

And perhaps more impressive to me, is how well structured Melville's prose is.  At one time I thought it ornate and overly fussy--a kind of butch version of Hawthorne's prose.  But again, I merely expose the impatience of my youth--now replaced by a desire to read only the best of the best.  And I'm not sure I'll know that until I see it, but certainly I have a better appreciation of Melville than I once did.  There is tremendous pleasure in being able to encounter and make sense of things that before one scorned as antiquated and irrelevant.