Monday, November 30, 2009

More on How Not to Conduct Yourself as a Scientist

Here.

An Excellent Critique of the Meaning of Peer Review

Here.

Thanks to Books INQ.

Lewis Carroll and James Joyce

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

from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

Lewis Carroll

`Certainly,' said Alice.


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

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

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

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

And that IS the question, isn't it.  And in the case of Lewis Carroll and Jame Joyce, the answer is obvious.  And it is this similarity that places them very, very high indeed in my esteem.  The control, sensitivity, and sheer flexibility and vibrancy of use that marks the works of these two gentlemen is seldom matched.  Not never, there are a handful more, scattered here and there. But these two, of recent date, stand out from all the rest.

Later:

I did forget to note here that there is an important moment in Finnegans Wake that chronicles Humpty-Dumpty's fall from the wall with one of Joyce's 100 letter words--similar to the crack of thunder earlier on.  I'll have to seek out the passage and see if it obeys the rule of three--but perhaps the connection is acknowledged by the master.

And Later Still:

Unable to leave well enough alone, I found this introduction to the Wake, in which we find the following note:

4) More than Viconian patterns or dream logic, a reader is immediately confronted with the Wake's language. Joyce essentially created his own language here, one based on English (and, despite some very long sentences, based on English grammar) but in no way limited to English. Just as a dream's details are overdetermined, almost every word in Finnegans Wake is more than one word packed into a single lexical unit. The words are often considered puns—that is, a play on words in which the sounds turn one set of letters into two different words or in which two different meanings of one word can both operate at one time.
 
    But a better description of the Wake's words is the one that Humpty Dumpty tells to Alice as he interprets "Jabberwocky" in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 6. Humpty Dumpty is explaining "Jabberwocky"'s first line, "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves," and he says: "Well, slithy means 'lithe' and 'slimy.' 'Lithe' is the same as 'active.' You see, it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed into one word."
 
    Almost every word in the Wake is a portmanteau word, whether visually or aurally, or both. Sometimes the double (or triple or quadruple or more) meanings are profound, sometimes trivial, often both at the same time. For example, at one point the text says "Wipe your glosses with what you know." Every reader has to do this: you respond to each word and interpret it ("gloss" it) based on what you recognize in it. But you also wipe your glasses, and you wipe your asses, not only with what you know but with you know what.
 
    Famously, the title of the book is a portmanteau word. At one level, it refers to an Irish pub song called "Finnegan's Wake," about the funeral of a man named Finnegan who fell off a ladder. It can also mean "in the wake of Finnegan," that is, everything post-Finnegan. It can also be "Finnegan is awake" or "Finn again is awake." Because it doesn't have an apostrophe, it can be "Finnegans, Wake!"—wake up, all you Finnegans. "Finn" is Finn MacCool, a hero in Irish legend (who lies sleeping under all of Dublin and who will once again wake up). "Fin" is French for ending. And this is just a start.
 
    The title is very often printed incorrectly with an apostrophe. Now you know better and can feel superior to those who make the mistake.

Which, had I been thinking, should have been seen as an obvious rejoinder to Carroll, and so, by a commodius vicus of recirculation we are returned to the initial thesis, now borne away on the bosom of Anna Livia herself.

And in the Wake, we witness the triumph of Humpty-Dumpty even as he falls because Joyce indeed makes words to mean precisely what he wishes them to mean, whatever that may be to whomever may be in the process of decrypting them. As much as I love Ulysses in the light, I love the Wake in the dark--I say less about it because I know it less well, but then anyone who claims to know it well must not really know it at all.  It is Joyce's koan for us all and to encompass it entirely, we need to follow the sage advice of St. John of the Cross--"To seek to know all, one must desire to know nothing."

Don't you just love James Joyce?  If not, why not?  A five hundred work theme set for Thursday Next.  Oops, she's already busy isn't she?

Accompaniments to Gascoigne

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

Control Your Mind

and

William James on Self-Denial

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

Jacques Barzun--102 Today

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

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

Any Poem About an Octopus, and I'm In

"An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster"

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

Gascoigne's Lullaby

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

A Key stanza for my daybook:

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another on My List of Dislikes

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

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

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

Why should this bother me as much as it does?  For those who understand these things, they are distracting.  We talk about attention to detail, and here a detail has slipped out of whack.  Most third graders could tell you that a turtle is not an amphibian.

I got over it and finished the novel and enjoyed it, but I was disappointed that so great a writer made so sloppy and error.  (And I say sloppy, because elsewhere in the same passage Roth refers to the animals (correctly) as reptiles.)

This kind of technical sloppiness is actually more attritubutable to the fact that some writers get to a point where their editors are reluctant to touch a word.  They shouldn't be--every writer, no matter how exalted, could profit from someone looking over the work and suggesting these kinds of minor touch-ups.  Every author needs a continuity, consistency, and technical editor.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

365 Sonnets

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

Sir Arthur As You've Never Seen Him Before

(And are unlikely to again.)

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





My Two Finds

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

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

The other writer I found through a list in a recent issue of Bookmarks: Elinor Lipman.  She's witty, she's sly, she's smart about people, and she writes in a light way about heavy things.  She is a breath of fresh air in a literary world that has forgotten how to make meaning with a smile.  Perhaps the one serious writer intent on turning that frown upside down as she still shows us what makes for a deep and meaningful life.  I'll be reading everything I can find by her in the near future.

My Five Favorite Books (This Week)

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

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

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

The first two are fairly solidly entrenched as life-transforming books.  My son and I are often quoting to one another, "It's a poor sort of memory that works only backwards."  Or, "My you live in a very slow country. Here, you must run as fast you can to stay in the same place, twice as fast if you want to get anywhere."

The last three are subject to "the shifting and the solid" as Ms. Woolf would have it.  The works themselves change with rereading and sometimes it's Mrs. Dalloway, others its The Waves or Light in August.  There are moments with The Violent Bear it Away intrudes into the list and other such books. But the top two are the top two.

Reviewing: Reflecting on what is here so far

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

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

But denying the position of critic and forming a good review of a book that would be helpful to other in determining whether or not to pick up a book are two different modes and magnitudes of work.  Presumably the latter falls within the capabilities of one who flies in the face of critical apparatuses of various sorts.  Anyone can report reasonably well on the nature of a book, yes?

So, I'll give it some thought and perhaps rethink some pieces I've already thrown together and see how they might be better structured to give the reader information he/she desires before choosing the next book from the shelf.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders--Daniyal Mueenuddin

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

What I loved about the book is the sense that it gave me of every level of Pakistani society.  I have gllimpses of the very wealthy, of the middle class, and long excursions with the lower class, the servants, the peasants, and the downtrodden. In the course of this novel in stories, we come to learn about the societal structure of modern Pakistan.  Perhaps what came as the greatest relief is that it wasn't another collection of expatriate stories that tell, from a slightly different point of view, the same woes and trials of any dweller of New York City.  That isn't to say that wealthy expatriates of other countries don't have stories that closely approximate those of urban Americans, but if so, I'm not really interested anyway.  Because, in point of fact, I'm not really interested in the what-I-did-before/during/after-my-divorce/affair/courtship stories that make up the malaise of modern Urban literature.  Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and others all fall into this trap from time to time.  In showing us that the modern, with-it African or Asian is no different from the modern dweller of New York City, I am not being shown anything of interest to me. The nature of their distress takes on an appalling sameness.  And so, in contrast, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, stands out from the crowd.  In showing me just how the modern Pakistani is different, I am better able to see the interesting commanlities we share.  I do not live in Islamabad, Lahore, or the other locations mentioned in these stories, but as a result, I am better able to reflect upon where I do live and how it resembles and differs what I'm being shown of the lives of the Pakistani's. 

The prose is at times wonderful--deeply engaging, and deeply respectful both of the characters and of the place.  There is an obvious love of the countryside, mixed with a concrete realization that the suburbs of major Pakistani cities are not paradise.  Interestingly, if there is a "paradise" in these stories, it is Paris.  The story set in Paris was so rich in its incidentals, so profound in its telling, that I once again desired to visit Paris and see what it is that seems such a universal magnet.

The prose, the characters, the revelation of so much of life in Pakistan made this one of the must-read books of the year.  It certainly didn't start out that way, but with continued reading, I grew to love the characters and the overall arc of the story.

****1/2--recommended

The Death of the Heart--Elizabeth Bowen

I would like to say that I postponed posting on this book out of courtesy to Nigeness who reported being in process.  But that simply isn't the case. I delayed posting because I didn't care for the book.  I wanted to be able to see why it had been placed on the "Best of the 20th Century list."  However, I couldn't.  But, then that is a matter of taste, and very likely, in my case, a matter of mood.  I didn't find the language compelling, nor did I really care much for the story--which seems to trace the history of a young woman who has recently become an orphan and is taken in by her half-brother and his wife.  She falls for a ne'er-do-well young man and spends the rest of the book in the entanglements that result from that. Her own predicament in the present is used to help cast the history of the sister-in-law in a somewhat different light. The novel seems to move at a snail's pace through various drawing rooms, dining rooms, tea shops, and parks.  The long winter that begins the novel, permeates the whole, giving us the sense of the death of the heart, the dashing of expectations, and something more. In some ways, I think Bowen may have been before her time, chronicling what I think must be the experience of many, if not most, young people now with our considerably diminished expectations of behavior.

Part of my problem was that I wasn't engaged on any level.  I didn't care for any of the characters except one who is the butt of everyone's jokes.  I didn't care for the pace of the development of the plot--I thought we could have lost a couple hundred pages without any great loss to the story.  And probably most importantly, I was not engaged by the language of the story telling.  It struck me as very workable prose with an Edwardian sensibility that approximated that of E. M. Forster without ever rising to its power or flexibility. 

I forced my way through this book in order to understand why it might have been selected as one of the best of the century.  And there is a way in which I can understand that--everything in this novel is below the surface--nothing of any importance seems to actually HAPPEN.  There is a visit to Europe by the adoptive half-brother accompanied by a visit to a seaside resort on the part of the heroine Portia.  During this visit, she makes the portentous, and ultimately foolish decision to invite the ne'er-do-well, and we end up with something approximating the mess of "Daisy Miller."  Although, that would be an overstatement.

The truth of the matter is that my reading of this book was probably much affected by my mood.  I had a dickens of a time (pardon the pun) launching myself at Room with a View, Brideshead Revisited, and any number of other works that I had subsequently come to love. And so it is possible that I just failed to engage intellectually with the author.  Perhaps another time would provide me with the key I would need to unlock the doors that this book seemed so fond of slamming in my face.

But I think there is more to it than that.  I just am not part of the Bowen sensibility--when I read her book, my mind is crowded with other things that push her whispered and highly nuanced conversation out of my head.  Perhaps Bowen is better for a less crowded, less rushed, less sensation-seeking part of life.  Perhaps it would be good to take on vacation when one intends nothing more of an evening than to sit by the fire and read long and involved books.

Because I'm so out of sorts in the matter, I will not rate the book--it would be unfair to the reader, to the Author, and to myself.  Moreover, it is unllikely to prove useful. For a more positive reaction, you may want to check out what Nigeness had to say in the matter.

Various Famous People List Their Favorite Books

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

Financial Times Best Books

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

Link via The Literary Saloon

Times Notable Books

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

(Link via The Literary Saloon)

Friday, November 27, 2009

New York Times Notable Books 2009 Ed.

Here.

Thanks to Literary Saloon

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

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

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

The Little Stranger--Sarah Waters

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

Came Close to Reading


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

I think probably the major miss here was Yiyun Li's The Vagrants.  I'm only catching up with modern fiction, but if I had to cite one "to read" book for the whole year--I think it would be likely to be this one. In one review it had been likened to Ha Jin, but the spirit is nothing at all the same.  Other reviews had it relentless, horrifying, and basically depressing--which, I suppose in some ways of reading it could be.  But what it said and what it represented to me was the endurance of the human spirit, and the commonallity of humankind in search of being loved.  I'd make this part of my notables for 2009.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Things That Ruin a Work of Fiction for Me

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

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

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

I'm sure there are others, and I'll add them as I think of them, but that's it for now.  If you can't make your point without foul language I'm not interested. Or if your point is how much you hate George Bush--write that book, short story, poem, or play.  Make it funny and I'll probably enjoy it.  Make it serious and I'll probably set it down after two or three pages, but at least I will have known upfront what I'm getting into and I'm not likely to be annoyed at you as a writer.  Assault me with your political agenda, and I'll do a The Handmaid's Tale on your book and send it soaring (another otherwise very fine book marred by the author's relentless assault against everything she doesn't care for, and seemingly doesn't understand particularly well.)

Charlie Brooker--The Hell of it All

Reviewed at Bookmunch.

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

Interview with Imre Kertész

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

Lest We Forget

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Writing about Writers

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

Again from Books INQ.

Becoming Catholic

Here.

Once again via Books INQ.  (I think)

Mary Karr talks about becoming Catholic.  A quotation:

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

Zadie Smith on Zadie Smith

Here

Found via Books INQ.

A Poem By Wendell Berry

Here.

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

"The Red Wheelbarrow"--A Response

 F. J Bergmann's "An Apology"

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Making a Place Come Alive

from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin

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

Each reader finds the things within a work that appeals to him or her, in this case it is the litany of small details--the shoes around the necks of the animals, the orange light of the cook fires, and the smell of the mango blossoms, really transforms this scene for me into something immediate and real.  I can see it, smell it, almost taste the perfume of those blossoms (though I'm not much interested in tasting the rest).  It is masterful, controlled, clear, and to a purpose.  That's writing.

The Vagrants--Yiyun Li

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

The novel is wonderfully constructed and centers around the aftermath of the arrest and trial of a counterrevolutionary "criminal."  To say much more than this would give away too much of the main line of the story.  But it isn't in the main contours that this novel has its greatest interest.  The real interest lies in the careful development and revelation of the characters, in their transformation, and in their interactions. In fact, there are so many characters, so fully developed, following so many different story lines and fates, that you might term this an "ensemble novel."  It's difficult to determine who the "main" characters are.  It is hard to identify a protagonist among all the characters.  Not because there are no characters with the qualifications, but because there are so many possibilities--teacher and Mrs. Gu, whose daughter precipitates the actions; Kai, the young lady who once went to school with Shan Gu; Old Hua and Mrs. Hua (the almost literal "vagrants" of the title); Baishi and Nini, two innocents each in their own way. Yiyun Li presents us with the array of humanity, noble, repulsive, cynical, diabolical, loving, gentle, nurturing, manipulative--there is no aspect of the human condition that does not have some play here, and with her knack of character development, there are few who come off as completely unlikeable and reprehensible and few who come off spotless, without flaw. 

Sometimes the novel is like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  You see where the actions of the characters is leading and you want to reach out and stop what is happening.  A prime example of this occurs when Little Tong signs a name to a petition. Sometimes, you think you are going to get a train wreck and what you end up with is a pastoral--broad, open and beautiful fields, flowers, sunlight, and willow.   However, one does well to warn the reader that Li stays close the verifiable reality of the events in China at the edge of democratization.  Endings are not entirely unexpected and one reads, as it were, through one's fingers, occasionally cringing, occasionally wanting to cry at the personal disaster that is recorded as impersonal history.

Li showed herself to be master of the epiphany in her short stories, and that skill shines out in the novel as well.  She showed herself a master of the gentle arts, of the art of transformation--and again that skill is borne out.  Li showed herself to be knowledgeable about the state of the human heart and the need that makes us all the eponymous vagrants of the title, as amply demonstrated by this selection:

from The Vagrants
Yiyun Li

The moment would come when, in gentle, yet firm words Mrs. Gu and Teacher Gu would forbid her to hurt herself again.  She was not ugly at all, they would tell her, embracing her when she did not resist. They loved her, they would say, and in their eyes she was as precious as a jewel. She would not believe their words, but they would tell her again and again, until she softened and cried. Nini had learned to make her stories longer each time until she could not stand the wait for the final moment when her loneliness and hunger were soothed by the two people who cherished her as dearly as their own lives. When the moment came--it could arrive anytime, on the way to the marketplace or the train station, or when she was putting the baby to sleep or cooking supper--Nini held her breath until she was on the edge of suffocation. Her heart would pump heard afterward, and her limbs would remain weak with a pleasnat numbness.

Often a master of a short story fails in longer form--the compression required to make a short story right is not so easily expanded to make a novel-length work correct.  And there are a few places where we seem to be promised more and it never materializes.  There are flaws.  But it is a first novel, and it is a luminous one--drawing us in and making us care for the ordinary people of a village that we can hardly imagine.  The hardships, the difficult lives, the surroundings are all alien, but the pulse, the heart that beats at the center and drives us on--that belongs to all of us and moves us from a story trapped in a time and a place, to a story that says something to each person, regardless of where or when they live.  It transcends the historical moment and makes its own moment.

*****--A superb first novel, highest recommendation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Yiyun Li--A Glimpse of Communist China

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

from The Vagrants
Yiyun Li

In the period of indecision and uncertainty, old winter-weary snow began to melt. The ground became less solid, the black dirt oozing with moisture in the sunshine. The willow trees lining both side of the main street took on a yellow hue, which lasted a day or two before the buds turned green. It was the best green of the year--clean, fresh, shining. Boys from middle schools cut off the tender tips of the willow branches, took out the soft pith, and turned the sheaths into willow flutes. The few musical ones among them played simple melodies on the flutes and made girls their age smile.

The ice in the river mumbled at night, resisting the spring, but when the daytime came, its resolve was melted in the sunshine.

All of this in the aftermath of some of the more horrific moments of the book.  And, who knows, perhaps more horror to come?  But the tone is so wonderful, gentle and still firm.  Like the willow itself, grounded in reality, but flexible, supple, bending, and shaping space and time around it.

Room with a View (of Pakistan)

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

from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin

Though he had become crooked on a large scale, Jaglani did not believe himself to have broken his feudal allegiance to K. K. Harouni, but instead felt himself appropriately to be taking advantage of the master's incapacity and lack of oversight, not seceding but simply expressing a more independent stance. He continue to run the farm extremely well and profitably, and continued sending money to Lahore, a larger share of the net in fact than he used to send, because he himself had developed other sources of income. As his political ambitions grew, he moved his family and household from the village to a large but plain house in the small city of Firoza, the subdistrict headquarters, in order to be closer to the courts and to the government administration. He kept his house in Dunyapur, and often spent nights there. An old sweepress cleaned the house, and he ate the food prepared in the dera, the administrative center, where many visitors, buyers and sellers, came and were fed and housed.

What I'm Reading

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chirstmas Lists

What writers want to give and get.

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

Seamus Heaney

A New Poem.

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bruno Schulz e-text

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

This link is to a larger collection of translated works.

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

The Highly Prestigious Bad Sex Writing Awards

Available here

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

100 Best Books of the Decade

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

List courtesy of Reading Matters.

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

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

National Book Award Winners

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

Poetry--Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Center for Fiction Prize to Woodsburner

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More About Portia and Daphne

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

from The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

" And also, Portia comes from abroad."

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

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

Dphne put her head back and bellowed, "Doris!" and Doris gave her a look as she nimbled in with the tray. Portia realised later that that tomblike hush of Smoot's library, where she had to sit all day, dealing out hated books, was not only antipathetic but even dangerous to Daphne. So, once home, she kept fit by making a loud noise. Daphne never simply touched objects, she slapped down her hand on them, she made up her mouth the gesture of someone cutting their throat. Even when the wireless was not on full blast, Daphne often shouted as though it were. So. when Daphne's homecoming step was heard on the esplanade, Mrs. Heccomb had learned to draw a shutter over her nerves. So much of her own working life had been spent in intercepting noise that might annoy others, in saying "Qiuetly, please, dear," to young people, that she may even have got a sort of holiday pleasure from letting Daphne rip. The degree of blare and glare she permitted Daphne may even have been Mrs. Heccomb's own tribute to the life force it had for so long been her buiness to check.  So much did she identify noise with Dapthne's presence that if the wireless stopped or there were a pause in the shouting, Mrs. Heccomb would get up from her painting and either close a window or poke the fire--any lack felt by any one of her senses always made her imagine she felt cold.

Flaubert to De Maupassant

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

He's Rapidly Becoming a Favorite Writer

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

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

On the banks of the dry riverbed stands the high-rise project. It is a city in its own right, with scores of apartment buildings--great gray concrete cliffs standing upright on the level asphalt grounds, surrounded by a sweeping landscape of rubble hills, highways, bridges, the river's dusty shingle bed, and the incinerator plant trailing its acrid, heavy cloud over the valley. Here, it's quite a distance to the sea, quite a distance to the town, quite a distance to freedom, quite a distance from simple fresh air on account of the smoke from the incinerator plant, and quite a distance from human contact, for the project looks like an abandoned town. Perhaps there really is no one there -- no one in the tall gray buildings with thousands of rectangualr windows, no one in the stairwells, in the elevators, and still no one in the great parking lots where the cars are parked. Perhaps all the doors and windows have been bricked up, blinded, and no one can escape from within the walls, the apartments, the basements. An[d] yet aren't the  people moving around between the great gray walls -- the men, the women, the children, even the dogs occasionally -- rather like shadowless ghosts, disembodied, intangible, blank-eyed beings lost in lifeless space? And they can never meet one another, never find one another. As if they had no names.

From time to time, a shadow slips by, fleeing between the white walls. Sometimes one can get a glimpse of the sky, despite the haze, despite the heavy cloud drifting down from the chimney of the incinerator plant in the west. You see airplanes too, having torn free of the clouds for an instant, drawn long, cottony filaments behind their shimmering wings.

M. Le Clézio obviously loves language and winds words out in long and sinuous streams, beautifully formed sentences and thoughts that burst with life. The images dazzle and disorient. Despite the fact that much of what he writes about is depressed and potentially depressing, there is a power, life, vibrancy to the prose (at last in these stories) that is extremely attractive.  He creates a mirage in his writing and creates a world unique in present literature.  I must say that some elements of his writing remind of elements of Albert Camus, but M. Le Clézio is a distinctive and enticing voice.  You know, sometimes it's good to be led to a voice worthy of our attention.  So perhaps we shouldn't be quite so much in arms when the Nobel Committee names someone we've never heard of.  As I've said elsewhere--it shouldn't be a surprize if someone unknown to us is named.

For Christie Fan's--Her Notebooks

Commented on here.

Young, Orphaned, and Left on One's Own

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

from The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

What It Means To Be Upper Class and Bored

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

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

from The Death of the Heart
Elizabeth Bowen

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

One would think from this passage that Eddie is some sort of benefactor or hero, but so far, that is not the picture one has formed of him.  We'll have to see how it all plays out.  Unfortunately for Portia, the title of the novel does not bode well for any within.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fear and Trembling--Amélie Nothomb

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

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

This sets the mood and the tone of the book:

from Fear and Trembling
Amélie Nothomb

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

You could put this another way. I took orders from Miss Mori, who took orders from Mister Saito, and so on up the ladder; of course, orders that came down could jump a level or two.

And so it was that, within the import-export division of the Yumimoto Corporation, I took orders from everyone.

And so it starts.  Throughout we meet people, both kind and unconscionably viscious.  We learn that envy is an admired trait amongst Japanese Business people and humilation of others is a consistent and highly admired goal.

The book is long on acid humor and short on really likeable characters; although, without saying anything more, that is subject to change rapidly in the book.

The book is sufficiently well-written, detailed, and amusing to encourage me to seek out more of the same.  Ms. Nothomb is no waster of words, and her novels tend to be the length of longish stories and so three or four of these could pass easily in the frame of an evening.  And so, I must go seeking three or four bon-bons for some future evening's entertainment.

***** Recommended

The Robert Louis Stevenson Archive

can be found here.

The Family Man--Elinor Lipman

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

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

The Family Man--what can I say about it that doesn't give away one feature or another of this incredibly intricate plot? Well, I can say what happens on the first two pages as a gay lawyer reengages with his ex-wife after the funeral of her second, third husband as a result of writing her a condolence note.  This wife is one with whom he does not wish to reengage; however, once the note is written, the ex-wife is impossible to shake. Add into that a step-daughter that he hasn't seen in years and who is the source of one of his deepest regrets in life, and you have a full-charged screwball comedy situation.

And, for the most part, Ms. Lipman manages to pull it all off.  What was fascinating and wonderful to me was the way in which every person in the story is engaging. It isn't often that one reads serious fiction that is also upbeat and positive about people.  And the fact of the matters is that it is possible to have both serious treatment and a more positive attitude.  But as with the nightly news--trauma tend to make a better story.

So, in her handling of intricate plotting, likeable characters, and believable interactions, Ms. Lipman has shown herself, in this book, as one likely to join the ranks of Thorne Smith, Angela Thirkell, and other such purveyors of buoyant and yet sharp observations of humanity.

**** Recommended.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

15 Authors Name Neglected Masterpieces

Here.

via Neglected Books

An Amusing Moment in an Amusing Book

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

from The Family Man
Elinor Lipman

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

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

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

Revisiting "The Escapee"

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

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

The stars come out very faintly, then grow brighter and brighter. Never had they shone so brightly before. Resting his head on the grass, Tayar watches them in delight. Just as he had the night before he recognizes them. He finds their positions in the sky, the patterns they make, right down to the very smallest ones that barely glimmer, so low and close to the earth.  Tonight, there is something different about them, as though they carried a hidden mesage. A sort of music that goes straight to the very core of his being and makes him restless. Tayar watches the path of stars flowing across the black sky; he listens to their shrill buoyant song scattering into the void. The sky is all encompassing; it covers everything, and below it, time is eradicated in a multiple vortex. Endlessly, new patterns, new stars appear. Tayer is aware that he no longer has a face or a body but that he's become a steady pinpoint in the night, there, upon the cold earth. Without closing his eyes, he slips, leaden, into an ice-cold sleep that slows his heartbeat and respiration.  Above him, the stars are quick and intense with life, dazzlingly bright, their strident songs interweaving in the night, like the calls of insects.

Do yourself a favor and give this wonderful writer a chance.  I suspect that you will be glad that you did.

Why "A Momentary Taste of Being?"

from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
tr. Edward Fitzgerald

XL

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

As with any art, the art of writing is about stripping away the unnecessary and show the essential--it is about form and order, even when it seems to be about the opposite,  it is about choice and detail.  In short, writing, like all the arts is a lie that tells the truth.  (Sorry for the cliché, but it works well here.)  When I take time to step into the world of a book, I'm stepping into a highly artificial, highly purposeful created world--the world is not formed of paint, plaster, and marble, even less of the dust and grit of the street I walk through every day.  Rather it is a world formed by well-chosen words--words chosen for the artist's purpose, which, is not fully knowable by anyone--and in this, I include the artist.  There is certainly conscious intent and motive, but there is also something that drives one to write that cannot be fully grasped or defined.  Why do millions of people spend hours of our days crafting words for blogs read by, perhaps, twenty, twenty-five people?  I can't tell you why life is better--lived life that is, when I spend time each day writing.  But it is, and it is so for many of us.  Perhaps because we spend time constructing our sense of things as they are and resolve momentary doubts.

Stepping into literature is, for me, exactly as described above.  It is a momentary and raw taste of being.  I am reminded of Keats's hyperexultation in the real:

from "To Autumn"
John Keats

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells. 

An indulgence in literature is a moment at the cider-press of all that is real.  In quaffing its sweet and mellow brew, we stand open to what is at the core of all that is. It is a taste of being at its core because everything extraneous has been stripped away. It is not real, and yet it pierces straight to the heart of the real--and only the unreal can do this because the real world is too complex to reveal meaning. We live in it as high-functioning autistics--filtering and making sense of what we can, but rarely touching whatever may lay underneath.

This little manifesto, you can see, gives glimpse of one writer's highly supernatural weltanschauung.  Reality is reality--large, menacing, llife-giving, complex beyond even momentary comprehension.  But literature, writing, while never denying that complexity, strips away layers to reveal a core.  The worlds of literature may be unreal, but what we learn from them and take into the world, is highly real.  One stands in wonder when one hears a child justify his or her actions, appropriately taken in defending one weaker and less popular by saying that "there comes a time when one must choose between what is right and what is easy."  Literature, at very least in its cinematic form, has entered into and shaped reality.  And in a very real way, the fundamentals of our world are based on the realities of the "unreal world" of literature.  Withou the calculus of Leibniz and Newton, (an understanding of the real conveyed only through the medium of words and numbers) we do not have the marvelous inventions and constant innovations of our day.  Calculus is not something that could easily be conveyed in an oral tradition seeking to preserve reality.  So too with the complexities that drive the complexities of our lived existence.  Without literature we do not learn to build and maintain houses, energy-generating plants, airplanes, paved roads. Without the instruction and the shaping of reality that we take from literature, we lose much that we have come to value and cherish.  We lose the ability to make medical innovations because we lose the ability to record knowledge.  Literature, in this broad sense, stands at the base of the complexity of modern life.  It is the well amid the waste, it is the foundation of things as they are, but not of reality itself.  Despite its irreality, it is a fundamental shaping influence.

As we read, we train ourselves and shape ourselves to be a type of moral person in the world.  What we read influences this, perhaps not as much as other forms of experience, but certainly to a great degree. 

In sum, a dip into literature is a dip into the momentary taste of being--a sensation that you can finally come to terms with one small thing, you have finally constructed enough of the reality around it for it to be meaningful.  Literature itself is "the well amid the waste," the life-giving water, the ordering, that helps makes sense of the desert of our pilgrimage.  And doesn't the "return to reality" often feel like "the phantom caravan has reach'd/ the nothing it set out from?"  Isn't there a slow dying away of the euphoria of the other as we once again rejoin the living and the "real." 

Hence--"A momentary taste of being."  I hope that you have enjoyed what I've shared so far and what I will continue to share--those "moments of being" brought to the fore by a work well-wrought.  Not real, and yet, in some ways more real than the swirl of sensation that tugs at us every which way.

Apples

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

A List of Books for Laughs

can be found here.

Found originally through Books Inq.

50 Books to Read in 2010?

Or are they?

A Great Deal of Good Sense

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

"The Sign of Death"

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

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

What I find amazing in this prose is the way that Le Clézio is able to take an open landscape like this and somehow transform it into something claustrophobic and oppressive.  Everything is weighted by the light and by the lowering sky.  It's an amazing effect in prose, and he does it successfully at every attempt.  Truly, an impressive feat.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Q and A with Chinua Achebe

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

Love and Summer--William Trevor

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


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

Our young lady, Ellie,  has been persuaded to marry a farmer in rural Ireland and has lived with him for some time when she encounters her young lover, Florian.  At first he is an oddity in town, taking pictures in places that no one else can see the interest in.  But Ellie finds him interesting and attractive. In meeting him, she sees a new light on her relationship with her husband, a quiet man traumatized and held bound by a tragedy in his past.  So too, both Elli and Florian are bound to and held, in some regards, prisoners of their respective pasts.  The old man mentioned above, Orpen Wren, lives only in the past, seemingly incapable of seeing the present.  And the brother and sister, the Connulty's, are likewise shaped and imprisoned by the past. 

More than in the short stories, perhaps because there is greater length to expand upon a theme, Mr. Trevor is able again and again to remind us how we are shaped, molded, and in some ways managed by our past experiences--whether chosen or forced upon us, they change us and make us the people we become.  Fighting against the past is like wrestling the ocean, there may be momentary satisfaction in the actual tumult and trial, but no real victory.  What we must learn to do is to come to terms with it.  And in coming to terms, we shape our future choices.  All elements spelled out beautifully here.

Mr. Trevor also helps us understand the many faces of love.  When Ellie takes up her affair with Florian, it is because she realizes that there has been in her relationship with her husband a lack of an emotional engagement.  Her husband is neither distant nor uncaring, but the two were not "made for each other."  Ellie interprets this to mean that she has not been in love.  But Mr. Trevor shows us otherwise in the small actions and the little turns she takes--the climax of this being the culminating conversation between Ellie and her husband as they talk past one another and yet end up coming to terms.

The book is skillfully wrought and written in a way that makes for compelling but gentle reading.  I couldn't help but think of a more refined Angela Thirkell, or a more meaningful and focused Jan Karon.  The same gentleness with all of the characters, whether deserving or not, the same sense of place, the same pervasive sense of personal history informs this book.  Of course Mr. Trevor is in a league all his own, but reading his books is a welcome respite from the onslaught of many books of the modern era.  It's good to be reminded from time to time that we are not completely free agents--what we have chosen in the past shapes who we are and what we are capable of in the present.

***** HIghly recommended

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You Must See

Ulysses seen

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

Amazon's Top 100 0f 2009

Brought to my attention via Reading Matters.

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

More Details:  Of the top one hundred I

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

A Lovely Reminder of Fall

From First Today, Then Tomorrow

Joyce and Art

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

from Ulysses and Us
Declan Kiberd

How was the bourgeoisie trumped by the middle class? Joyce hated being called a middle-class writer. For him this was the greatest of all insults, to which he responded jocosely by saying that 'nobody in my books has any money'. But he maintained at all times a strictly bourgeois distinction between his art and his life: for instance, he might write four-letter words, but he would on no account utter them. This distinction was lost by many in the years after his death in 1941, so that what had once been permitted only in the imagination might now be enacted by individuals intent on proving how free they were. By substituting the search for sensations for the making of art, these people confused art and life--but Joyce knew that real art required hard work. Among the bohemians he had noticed a culture-worship that rejected the idea of an art devoted to everyday life. Hence his famous put-down of the young man who wished to kiss the hand the wrote Ulysses: 'No, that hand has done a lot of other things as well.'

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

Can be found at Laudator Temporis Acti

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

LeClézio Revisited

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

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

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


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

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Catholic Reading List

Archbishop Charles Chaput suggests

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

via  TSO

The Graveyard Book--Neil Gaiman

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

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

The writing is, as usual with Mr. Gaiman, solid and beautiful.  Not one moment did I pause over the choice of a phrase, nor did I ponder the implausibility of what he wrote about.  Indeed, the book makes me want to go and find a graveyard of my own to call home.  And that is the magic of his work--Gaiman makes it all real, and makes all of the dead come alive--not mythically but in real, tangible, and human and humane ways. 


The Graveyard Book is a coming of age novel among other things.  But chief among the things that it is--a rip-roaring well-written novel with engaging characters and events and a real heart and soul amongst all of the debris of Ghoul-gates, sleers, Indigo Men, and Jacks of all trades.

Get it and read it--you won't regret the short time you will need to invest.

*****--Highly Recommended

Required Reading Outside the "Western World"

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


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

East Asia:

Japan

The Tale of Heike
Murasaki--The Tale of Genji
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Haiku and poetry by: Senryu, Issa, Haiga, Buson
(Note the big chronological gap here)
Akutagawa--Rashomon
Soseki--Kokoro
Soseki--I Am a Cat
Tanazaki--Some Prefer Nettles
Tanazaki--The Makioki Sisters
Tanazaki--Seven Japanese Tales
Kawabata--The Sound of the Mountain
Kawabata--The Master of Go
Kawabata--Snow Country
Mishima--The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Mishima--The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea
Oe--A Personal Matter
Oe--Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids
A collection of stories--The Crazy Iris
Hachiya--Hiroshima Diary
Endo--Silence
Endo--The Samurai
Endo--The Sea and Poison
Endo--The Life of Jesus

China:

Xueqin Cao--The Story of the Stone/Dream of the Red Chamber
Poetry--Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Anshi, Su T'ung Po, Ou Yang Hsui

South Asia
India
The Ramayana
The Mahabarata
Poetry of Rabidranath Tagore
It's hard to name the expatriate modern novelists and short story writers--Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni


Africa

And here I will admit to woeful ignorance knowing only a few and very few works--

Chinua Achebe--Things Fall Apart
Wole Soyinka--I know only as a name and cannot recommend of my own knowledge
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie--The Thing Around Your Neck
Amos Tuotela--The Palm-Wine Drinkard

I hesitate to add, but would feel remiss in leaving out


Alan Paton--Cry The Beloved Country, Too Late the Phalarope
Isak Dinesin--Out of Africa
V.S. Naipaul (?)--A Bend in the River
Naguib Mahfouz--Miramar, The Cairo Trilogy

And I won't even start on South America, Indonesia, and the Caribbean today because there's possibly more than anyone could endure.  So, let the list stand here for a start and I know I'm avidly looking forward to any additional suggestion to the list.  Of course I left off Haruki Murakami, and several other more recent Japanese artists, but I'd be interested in anyone's takes on "key works."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Liquidation--Imre Kertész

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

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

B., a writer and a translator and one of the rare few born in Auschwitz/Birkenau and surviving to adulthood commits suicide.  Those he has worked with, his ex-wife, his lover, and those closest to him (although I'm not certain that any one of these people could be called a friend) are affected by this in different ways.  The protagonist of the book Kingbitter is searching for a lost manuscript that he is certain exists.  Much of the book is told in the form of a clairvoyant play in which B reveals what happens several weeks, months, and perhaps years after his death.  The story is convoluted and keeps returning to a moment when the main characters are discovering that the publishing firm with which they are working is llikely to be liquidated. Each return to this central moments peels back layers of narrative and reveals yet another facet of the connections between people and with B. Each recursion adds depth to the narrative and twists it ever so slightly.  While Kingbitter is the main speaker throughout, narrative focus shifts to Judit, B.'s ex-wife, and to other characters along the way.

The structure is dazzling and disorienting.  There were moments when I was certain that I was in an Ionesco play, to whom brief hommage is played in the course of the narrative. But what am I to say in sum about the whole book?  Despite its shortness, there is such a wealth of material in and through it, that it becomes impossible to define it and summarize it.  It speaks to the delicate webs of interconnections between one person and his or her acquaintances and how these are never really made manifest--even in death.  It speaks to the difficulty of living with knowledge and the futility of any other choice. It speaks of Auschwitz and other atrocities, but not in the way one would expect.  And it speaks ultimately and mysteriously of love--whether mockingly or with a straight face, it is up to the reader to determine.

The depth of this short (130 pages) novel is astounding.  Imre Kertész is one of those writers for whom we should thank the Swedish Academy.  Their choice of him as a Nobel laureate is certainly merited if this short work is any indication. 

*****--Highest recommendation

Friday, November 6, 2009

Writers on Writing

A review of a new book.

via Elegant Variations

"Dying is easy. . ."

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

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

Bee:

Dying is easy
life is one enormous concentration camp
that God has established here on Earth for mankind
and that man has refined yet further
as an annihilation camp for his own kith
Taking ones own life amounts to
outwitting those who stand on guard
escaping deserting those who are left behind
laughing up one's sleeve
in this big Lager of life
the neither-in-nor-out neither-forward-nor-back
in this wretched world of lives held
in suspended animation where we grow decrepit
without time moving any further forward. . .
this is where I learned that to rebel is
TO STAY ALIVE
The great insubordination is
for us to live our lives to the end
and equally the big humiliation
that we owe ourselves
The sole method of suicide that is worthy
of respect is to live
to commit suicide amounts
to continuing life
starting anew every day
living anew every day
dying anew every day
I don't know how I should continue.

And then a commodius vicus of recirculation that powers the whole motive force of the narrative, brings us back to the scene in the office where we started and we lever up a new layer of understanding, information, and insight into B--who he is, what he did, why he matters.  I can't begin to describe how much I am enjoying this wonderful, short, dense book.

National Book Award Nominees

Via Hungry Like the Woolf--This List.

The Critical Flame

An online journal, also found via Books Inq.

50 Must-Read Books of the 20th Century

The list may be found here.

Found via Books Inq.


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

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

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

Ulysses--Jame Joyce
Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner
Mrs. Dalloway--Virginia Woolf
Complete Works--Flannery O'Connor (Yes--I know that's a cheat, but her complete works are close to being shorter than one work by Tom Wolfe)
The Master of Go--Yasunari Kawabata
A Fine Balance--Rohinton Mistry
Say You're One of Them--Uwem Akpan

Later: I suppose I would also add

The Demolished Man Alfred Bester
The Stars, My Destination Alfred Bester
Dune Frank Herbert
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Agatha Christie
Night Life of the Gods Thorne Smith (It was tough to choose only one)
The Grand Sophie Georgette Heyer

These are of a different category entirely--but no one who wants a sense of the popular culture of our time would want to be without at least a cursory knowledge of the "Genre" fields.

Five Young Fiction Writers to Watch

A list at Nigel Beale Nota Bene Books

Liquidation Revisited

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

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

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

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


from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

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


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

And a certain icy hot passion of thought:

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész


I struggled with critical philosophical issues in a self-imposed solitary confinement: I am no great believer in metaphysical powers, that's for sure, but ethical categories suddenly seemed to me to be rocky in the extreme. I was forced to an acknowledgment of the stark fact that man is, both physically and morally, an utterly vulnerable being--not an easy thing to accept in a society whose ideals and practice are determined solely by a police view of the world from which there is no escape and where no explanation of any kind is satisfactory, not even if those alternatives are set before me by external duress rather than by myself, so that I actually have nothing to do with what I do or what is done with me.

What is remarkable is how readable the translation is.  I cannot say whether or not it conveys the intent of the Hungarian or captures the essence--always a difficulty with translations, no matter how dedicated and well-intended the translator.  However, Liquidation  reads beautifully throughout.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fatelessness--A Central Theme

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

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

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

Sometimes I feel the wattage of the old bulb is simply too dim to cast anything like the light needed to elucidate a passage.  This is one of those times.  Obviously I need more context or more sleep--it's hard to say which would be likely to be of more help in this case.

Another Country Heard From--Nobel Winners Redux

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

from Liquidation
Imre Kertész

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

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

Sarah: You look stressed. Did something happen?

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

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

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

Obláth (in ironic acknowledgment): An axiomatic formulation.

Sarah: And what is to become of the publishing house? Will it cease to exist?

Kingbitter: In its present form. (He shrugs, a bit dejectedly.) But then, everything and everyone is ceasing to exist in its present form.

Yes, Kingbitter well recalled that morning nine years before. He recalled how, having come out of the editorial conference (the so-called editorial conference), a thick file under his arm, he had entered that room. . . . He himself had said near enough exactly what was in the play. The only snag was that by the time that scene was played out in reality, almost word for word, the person who had written the play, and that scene in it, was no longer alive.

He had committed suicide.


Interesting enough hook.  Let's see how it actually plays out.

Angel Time--Anne Rice

Review copy received 11/04/09


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

The autobiographical Called Out of Darkness continued the trend in a confessional mode.  And so, I had high hopes for this book.  And, for the most part they were borne out.  The language has gotten a little sloppy.  The introductory sections inviting us to meet the angel had a tendency to too many uses of "beautiful" and "soft".  The tight rein on language seems to have been loosened and some of the floridness and sloppiness of earlier books seems to have crept in.  Not much mind you--and do understand that I have a extreme allergy to it--break out in a rash, sneeze--it's just terrible.

The pieces of the story are a little awkward--we're given Lucky the Fox (Toby O'Dare) a man who became a hit man after a difficult early life setting out on his most recent hit and in the course of completing it encountering an Angel who reveals to him (and to us) his entire life and sets him out on a mission in Medieval England.  We're given a long introduction to his ability to play lute, which, one assumes, may become important in subsequent books because after its purpose in getting us through Lucky/Toby's story, it vanishes entirely, even though it was a pretty good prop against a medieval background.

Awkward or not, Ms. Rice buoys the story along, mission and all, to a reasonable and satisfactory ending, from a story-telling point of view.  However, there is much to be desired from a strictly moral point of view in the tale.  While called to believe and to act out that belief, the first mission is resolved by a series of lies and deceptions that left me a little puzzled.  We have a great theologian of his age and a new convert conspiring together to weave a fabric of lies that can only result ultimately in more harm than good.  All of this flying in the face of the great teacher of the Age, St. Thomas Aquinas who instructed that one may not do evil that good may result.

Okay, I'll admit that I'm being too hard in the first book in a series. Would it have been believable if after Toby's conversion he suddenly eschewed all of the tactics that helped him earlier in life?  No, it would have made for a more difficult read and buy-in.  Is it possible that through the series (and the structure of the novel and subtitle: Songs of the Seraphim suggest that it will be a series) we'll see some moral growth on the part of Toby?  All to be hoped.  Is it also possible that the lute will come back and play a more prominent role (given the time lavished on it in this book)?  One hopes so.

I've nitpicked and cavilled enough.  Truth is, that given the quality of the three books prior to this, I'm probably just a little disappointed in my expectations.  Not that I should be--for popular reading, this is head and shoulders above a great many other works in similar theme.  The control is still there and Anne Rice knows how to weave a tale and make characters.  She does so with superb flair in this book even when she uses an old device to trigger the alert reader to an entirely expected end.

The novel is slender, well-constructed, not larded (as some of her previous works have been) with overly descriptive passages and too much information about nearly everything.  The series is off to a promising start and the book allowed for the passage of several pleasant hours in the company of Ms. Rice and her characters.  This is a book for all of her fans, and perhaps for those looking for a light read, a dip back into the more expected fantasy realms of Anne Rice.  Nothing spectacular, but certainly nothing at all disappointing to those who have enjoyed that vast array of Ms. Rice's oeuvre.

***1/2--Recommended