Thursday, December 31, 2009

Another Appalling Cost--Pulped Books

The numbers of pulped books are for Great Britain alone--77 million--a great many of them "literary fiction."  If someone begins to actually look at these numbers it may eventually dawn that literary fiction just isn't a lucrative proposition in the old tree-pulping world of publishing.  But, if we could consider, if only for a moment, Bookify, we might find ourselves in a position to continue to support the best writing today while also better serving the economy, the environment, and in many cases the reader.

I love books.  I love the feel, the smell, the tactile sensation, the heft, everything about them; but it has long since become time to consider viable alternatives that treat our resources and our economies more gently.  That booksellers fail to recognize this, is simply the blind panic of those who have not yet figured out how to make the business models work.  This will happen, and the publishers that make it happen are the ones who will succeed in the coming years.

Bookstores, even large chains, were bookstores until the advent of Amazon, and while there is still a place for bookstores (like furniture stores, there are those of us who just need to see and hold and feel the books in our hands to make a decision), the same may not be true in the straitened economy when it comes to publishing.

Geoffrey Hill and J. F. Powers

An interesting lecture by Geoffrey Hill on Milton.

And a brief appreciation of the short fiction of J.F. Powers.

A Poetry Meme from Dylan

The Answers to some questions:

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was ..... either "A Skeleton in Armor" or "The Wreck of the Hesperus"

2. I was forced to memorize "The Village Blacksmith" in school and I loved it and made fun of it ("And the muscles of his brawny arms were as strong as rubber bands.)

3. I read/don't read poetry because I like it; I tend to shy away from much modern poetry because the things I like best--rhythm and rhyme are often absent, but I also tend to shy away from poems in which these elements are too facile, too slick.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is there are several: "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" ( T S Eliot), Holy Sonnet XVI (John Donne), "To His Coy Mistress" (Andrew Marvell), "The Hunting of the Snark" (Lewis Carroll), and "The Owl and the Pussycat" and "The Jumblies" Edward Lear.  And I don't suppose we should forget that all time favorite from which the title of this blog derives its name "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."  (Oh, and there are really too many more from Sappho and Catallus to Kay Ryan--good and indifferent.  I think fondly of "The Goblin Market" and of Chidiock Tichborne, of Geoffrey Chaucer and the Stanzaic and Alliterative Morte D'Arthur, of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Villon, Prevert, and Apollinaire.  When asked for a favorite, dozens, perhaps hundreds flit through my head "Caliban upon Setebos" (Robert Browning), Shakespeare, Michael Drayton and Robert Southwell; Robert Herrick and Henry Vaughn; Dana Gioia and Rita Dove.  And probably one of the great neglected poets of our era Edward Arlington Robinson, and Sterling Lanier; Coventry Patmore and Gerard Manley Hopkins--wow, I haven't really helped anyone who wanted to know a favorite, have I?  Perhaps Abou Ben Adhem,  and despite its overweening hubris Invictus (when has not each of us felt in some measure the same?))

5. I write/don't write poetry, but . . . hmmmm, I haven't anything to say to this.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature ..... it doesn't--there's every bit the satisfaction or the intense desire to fling the book across the room--however, I suppose I'm less likely to cut a poet any slack whatsoever.  I can tolerate miscalculations in prose--but in poetry.  So for example, I'm in complete concord with Seamus Heaney in his remarks of the poetry of James Joyce.  (In short: he oughtn't to have done it.)

7. I find poetry ..... everywhere--cereal boxes, newspapers, the dullest droning critic--it's all around and hidden inside the most unlikely packages.

8. The last time I heard poetry ..... yesterday reading psalm 139 in the magnificent KJV AND psalter of the c. 1652 BCP. I was reading to a friend in the hospital who requested it.

9. I think poetry is like .....
poetry, or air, or water, or nothing else, or everything else

I invite your participation, either in the comments or on your own blogs--if on your own, I'd really appreciate it if you would drop me a comment so that I could stop by and read your responses.  Thank you!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Yiyun Li on Tang

My favorite writer of the year in a small gem discovered in a book of small gems.

from "Orange Crush"
Yiyun Li
in Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table (ed. Amanda Hesser)

Even though Tang was the most expensive fruit drink available, its sales soared. A simple bottle cost seventeen yuan, a month's worth of lunch money. A boxed set of two became a status hostess gift. Even the sturdy glass containers that the powder came in were coveted. People used them as tea mugs, the orange label still on, a sign that you could afford the modern American drink. Even my mother had an empty Tang bottle with a snug orange nylon net over it, a present from one of her fellow schoolteachers. She carried it from the office to the classroom and back again as if our family had also consumed a full bottle.

In addition to the delightful essay from which this is excerpted, there is a superb piece by George Saunders-- "The Absolutely No-Anything Diet"--and writing from Billy Collins, Tom Perrotta, Chang-rae Lee, James Salter, and Ann Patchett, among others.

The Passport--Herta Müller

I should start this review by being as fair as possible to Ms. Müller: despite its brevity, I'm not certain The Passport is a good place to start within Ms. Müller's oeuvre.  If one should choose to begin here, one might be well advised to set aside considerably more time than one would normally invest in a 90 page novella and attempt to swallow the work whole--take it in one large dose.  My feeling, and it is only a feeling, because I did not choose to partake of it in this way, is that it would enhance the experience of the work.  I found as I read the larger part of it while in a hospital waiting room, that the unnerving weirdness recounted in the post yesterday began slowly to work in favor of what would otherwise be a very slight, very overdone tale.

A summary of the mainline of the story suffices to prove the point.  A miller, Windisch, a member of a German ethnic minority in the plains of Romania wants to leave Romania.  To do so, he must obtain a passport--a work requiring many months of bribes and work on his part and a compromise of the virtue of his daughter to be effected.  In the meantime bad agents from the government come and tax the small holding he has to the point where he might have to given up the holding.

Done.  That's all there is.

But Ms. Müller takes this spindly fiber of a story and by judicious choice of detailed weirdness turns it into something out of the early David Lynch.  And because the work is short enough to sustain the effort, The Passport largely succeeds in creating an outlandish, odd, and creepy atmosphere, that is, at times, compellingly interesting.

from The Passport
Herta Müller

Windisch's wife is standing in the yard behind the black grapes. "Aren't you going to mass?" she asks. The grapes grow out of her eyes. The green leaves grow out of her chin.

I'm not leaving the house,"says Windisch., "I don't want people saying to me: now it's your daughter's turn."

Windisch puts his elbows on the table. His hand are heavy. Windisch puts his face in his heavy hands. The veranda doesn't grow. It's broad daylight. For a moment the veranda falls to a place where it never was before. Windisch feels the blow. A stone hangs in his ribs.

Windsich closes his eyes. He feels his eyes. He feels his eyeballs in his hands. His eyes without a face.

With naked eyes and with the stone in his ribs, Windisch says loudly, "A man is nothing but a pheasant in the world." What Windsich hears is not his voice. He feels his naked mouth. It's the walls that have spoken.

This demonstrates both the power and the problem.  Too often I was aware of the writing and I don't mean that in a good way.  I found myself thinking about the writing more than what was being written about.  The very best writing, while compelling and worthy of contemplation as writing, is transparent.  Even Joyce is transparent for all of the verbal fireworks going on.  One gets the feeling of Hemingway locked in a to-the-death struggle with Man Ray and Andre Breton--but, let's be fair, I'm not reading this in German.  I can't.  And it is possible that there is a rhythm, a poetry, and a power in the German that eludes translation into English.  Perhaps these staccato sentences sound very different in their native tongue.

We get even more mannered and more arcane and draw even more attention to the writing in passages such as this:

from The Passport
Herta Müller

Each morning dew fell. The boxwood hedge was sprinkled with white. The stump was black.

The sacristan took the faded roses from the altars and carried them outside behind the church. He passed the stump. The stump was his wife's wooden arm.

Charred leaves whirled around. There was no wind. The leaves were weightless. They rose to his knees. They fell before his steps. The leaves crumbled,. They were soot.

The sacristan took the faded roses from the altars and carried them outside the church. He passed the stump. the stump was his wife's wooden arm.

No, that isn't a transcription error--the fourth paragraph is nearly identical to the second. And this occurs after the episode of . . . well, perhaps I ought not so say more.  Because despite what one might take as the tenor of these comments, this is a book I recommend reading.  I think that my approach to it may have been wrong and may have colored my over-all experience of it, because I found myself falling into the rhythm of the work as I continued to read.  I DID NOT feel that the surrealism in its most extreme expressions was particularly beneficial to either progress or atmosphere, but it did provide moments, such as the short story that precedes the passage excerpted above.

While I don't recommend this book as a place to start in Herta Müller's work, I do find myself thinking that a great many people would both enjoy and derive much from reading this small but dense fable/parable/surreal geste.  Once again, we own a humble debt of thanks to the Nobel committee for bringing this writer to our attention, for selecting a writer of interest NOT for his or her politics (as is sometimes their wont), but because of the intrinsic merit of her work. 

Recommended ****

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Surrealism in Literature: Herta Müller--The Passport

I'm reading, among other things, Herta Müller's The Passport and finding it very rough going--not because it is difficult to understand, complex, or in any way semiotically thick.  No, rather, my difficulty stems from what I think is a major problem with surrealism from the get-go.  Surrealism, to achieve its affect properly, enforces (to put it in Aboriginal terms) the dreamtime into the present reality.  This is essential a visceral, visible experience.  The attempt to capture it in words must be succinct, precise, and with purpose.  Too often, from Les Chants de Maldoror and Nadja on what happens is merely very worked up weirdness.  In the novel I am reading now, Ms. Müller pauses her narrative to relay the significant fact that "His pupil was cold."  How was it cold?  Did he feel it?  Was it projected outward and thus give other a cold feeling?  Even in this odd novel, how is that a significant datum?

I say this advisedly because surrealism may be my very favorite mode of the painting art and even to some extent the art of film.  Properly done it can be as mind altering and vision expanding as anything I've read about in Castenada and it lacks the potentially deadly side effects.  Rene Magrittte, Joan Miro, and Yves Tanguy are among my very favorite artists (I don't even mention Salvidor Dali who IS surrealism--ask him yourself!)  Now that I've waved my credentials about in your face, I'm certain that my credibility has been boosted a few points and so I continue.

It is fortunate that Ms. Müller's novel is short.  Despite its deliberate weirdnesses, it is likely that I'll be able to hurdle most of them and get to the end.  But literary surrealism is a sort of dead end in itself.  Other than poetry which is most surreal when it is most imagistic, literary surrealism sets itself the unenviable task of attempting to convey abrogated reality in prose that doesn't sound as worked up as the situation being described is.  That is, the tendency of language to help to formulate verbal pictures undermines its essential utility in attempting to convey most surrealism (other than a certain atmosphere) because it ends up sounding overworked or sardonic--not particularly otherworldly or surreal.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Do I Read Next?

Once is a reminder, twice is synchronicity, three times confirms.  I have been reminded recently of the necessity to distinguish want from need.  Then I picked up a small book by Marietta McCarty titled How Philosophy Can Save Your Life.  The first chapter is dedicated to the simple life to the philosohy of Epicurus (amongst others) and to the idea of prudently distinguishing between what we want and what we truly need.  And finally I went today to see with wife and son, The Princess and the Frog. Besides being a delightful, colorful, musical film, it also imparted an essential message--go after what you need, not what you want.  Add to this that I was watching Up! again and something that had slipped by me the first time struck me upside the head.  In order to get his house to fly at a crucial point in the film, the old man needs to discard everything within--everything that is unnecessary to do what is necessary.  Now, I tend to be somewhat slow on the uptake, but this many things converging on this one point kind of made me think about what is necessary (needed) and what is desired (wanted).

I have spent a lifetime in reading without a plan.  I doubt seriously whether now is the time I adopt some systematic approach to reading.  But in reflecting on need and want, I did ask myself a key question--why am I reading?  Other than for enjoyment and filling up time--what is my purpose in reading?  How can I decide what to read next if I don't know what I'm reading toward?  Is there a goal--a reason for reading that can guide what is read?

I know that one purpose is to read the best that has been written.  But why do I want to do that?  What ultimately do I hope to gain from reading the best that has been written?  And how do I recognize it?  How do I know the best when I bump up against it?  And what exactly constitutes "the best?"  Reams of lists, thousands of opinions, erudite commentary and thought that goes into the review of each book, and yet I am no closer to knowing what is really the best.  And what is worse, I don't really know why I'm looking for this elusive best--what is it I hope to achieve by reading it?  If I read the best and am not changed by it, has the reading any purpose? 

Obviously, I have just barely come to terms with the questions, so I certainly can't offer any answers or advice on what to do about it.  But as we compile our lists of things to read, perhaps some thought should be directed to WHY we are reading and what end we hope to accomplish in our steady consumption of the best of literature. In thinking about purpose, undoubtedly we will be better able to come to terms with the what of reading.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Season's Greetings

For those of us in the Catholic and related liturgical churches, Christmas season has at least 12 days (although this is highly debated in some circles--those who hold that it continues until The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.  Given the great length of Lent, I tend to side with those vying for a longer Christmas season.

Nevertheless, we are merely now a day after, and I trust that all of those who celebrated this great feast had a wonderful celebration.  I was stirred to momentary envy when I thought of my brothers and sisters overseas, who having the foresight and diligence to create what has been called elsewhere their "fruit composts," were able to bring to the Christmas tables their plum puddings with whatever sauce (Devonshire cream, hard sauce, brandy sauce) they chose.  (I'm afraid that one of the places that I do fall victim to the English cuisine is in the area of sweets--plum pudding, stick toffee pudding, spotted dick, any of those sweet cake-like bread-like things that make up the marvel of British cuisine called a pudding--let's not, for the moment deal with the savory versions of same.

And now we're on the Feast of St. Stephen and in Great Britain, and perhaps elsewhere throughout the world, we're also celebrating boxing day--a tradition I know very little about, except that it is a "bank holiday" occurring the day after Christmas. 

So, whatever you're celebrating, a wonderful day to you.  And if you are celebrating nothing at all, may your day nevertheless be as though you were.


Talking About Detective Fiction--P. D. James

In several post over the last few days, I've exposed some of what I've considered the weak points of this short and lively survey of part of the world of Detective literature.  Ms. James admittedly confines much of her work to a consideration of the British Detective novel, though truth to tell, this intent does not emerge until late in the book.  So there is no mention of Rex Stout, Ed McBain, or any number of American authors.  All those mentioned tend to be in the mode of the Noir Detective--Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, Dashiell Hammett, and so forth.

However, once one realizes and and adjusts to the scope of the work, much of what Miss James has to say about individual works and contributions seems accurate, if laden with a certain amount of chronological bias.  Her comments on the Golden Age female writers and treatements of women,while balanced does betray a preference for the "modern" treatment. However, her comments on Agatha Christie, as I pointed out, are about as far off the mark as it is possible to be.

And there is good cause for this upon reflection.  This is in the genre of what I have come to call "ghetto books" in which one of the purposes of the author is to defend the integrity of the work or field against those who would denigrate it for "not being literature."  Detective fiction is frequently perceived as light entertainment, Ms. James makes out the case that it is and can be much, much more--a genre worthy of attention.  But this is a cry from within the ghetto which will bear no weight for those who have already dismissed the genre as lunchtime reading before returning to the concrete poets or worse.  As a result, much effort is taken to push forward those writers who are perceived as having some sort of validity in the literary world--Dorothy Sayers, Chandler, Hammett, Ngaio Marsh, etc. 

But ghetto books are special pleading.  Those of us who read them, whether lightly or seriously, don't need the justification--we will continue to read them and the scholars inclined to will continue to neglect them--and so much the better for all of us. 

This book of special pleading is a real delight--ghetto book or no.  It is the thoughts of a master (one whose fiction I don't particularly care for) on the field she loves.  The reflections have no intention of completeness or of even distribution, or even of being reasoned arguments so much as observations.  And in those observations there is the occasional touch of poetry:

from Talking About Detective Fiction
P. D. James

East Anglia has a particular attraction for detective novelists; the remoteness of the east coast, the dangerous encroaching North Sea, the bird-loud marshes, the emptiness, the great skies, the magnificent churches and the sens of being in a place alien, mysterious and slightly sinister, where it is possible to stand under friable cliffs eaten away by the tides of centuries and imagine that we hear the bells of ancient churches buried under the sea. 

With that last phrase one is reminded of Debussy's La Cathédrale Engloutie.  Additionally, I am gratified by one of the first uses I've seen in print of the word "friable" outside of a geology text.

But James also attempts some observations on serious questions confronting literature, those who write it, and those who read it:

Source: As above

Does every novelist have a moral responsibility for the possible effect of what he writes, and if so, what is this morality from which his responsibility derives?  Are we not implying that there is an immutable value system, an accepted view of the universe, of our place in it, and a recognised standard of morality to which all right-minded people conform? Even if this were true--and, in our increasingly fragmented society, manifestly it is not--is it the business of the creative artist in any medium to express or promote it? And does it matter? . . . But how far any writer, even of popular fiction, has a duty to do more than the best of which he is capable within the law, is a question which is likely to concern more than detective novelists increasingly in our secular and morally confused age.

The observation itself is a little confused because it seems evident that Ms. James would hold that there is an immutable value system, even if it is not universally accepted and so her contention that "manifestly it is not" true seems a little contradictory.  But the questions are of interest, and as she rightly points out, they are of interest beyond the backwater of the detective story.

Overall, this is a quick read full of interesting insights and opinions. It is fun to decide on which side of the P.D. James divide one falls--pro- or anti-Christie and her continuing influence in the world of the detective novel.  There are a great many other issues that Ms. James brings up that are worthy of the time and effort to think about and decide.

I would caution that this is not necessarily a book for beginners--while there are not many spoilers, there are a few critical ones and some of the issues Ms. James addresses are really for those who are fairly well acquainted with the works that she addresses.  But there is nothing here that anyone with a casual acquaintance with the genre will be surprised by or unfamiliar with. 


Thursday, December 24, 2009

W. H. Auden "The Guilty Vicarage"

W. H. Auden's study of Dectective Fiction (referenced in P. D. James's Talking About Detective Fiction) is available online at the Harper's Archive.

Ms. James and Mr. Brown

For all her insistence upon reality and the fact that the reading public has rejected the "ingenious" mystery in favor of "psychological depth," Ms. James does not pay much attention to what people are actually reading.

from Talking About Detective Fiction
P. D. James

There is one way in which Dorothy L. Sayers was very much a writer of her own time, and that is the ingenuity of her complicated methods of death.  This is one aspect of her talent which ahs had little influence on modern novelists, and one which we have largely outgrown.

We have not now, and will not outgrow the clever puzzle. This is demonstrated time and again in what sells well both in book and cinema. It is my contention that Dan Brown's books do as well as they do based largely on the ingenuity of the built-in puzzle factor.  (They certainly don't take any awards for good writing.)  And the National Treasure series of films succeed (if they have been deemed a success) on the clever construction of interlocking, ingenious, and tremendously unlikely elements that pull us through an intricate puzzle that we can all participate in.  Even in Children's books we see the trend in such books as Chasing Vermeer.

Really, I think much of what Ms. James has to say on the matter of ingenuity is better leavened with a dose of the reality of the market.  It simply doesn't hold water.  We have not and we will not "outgrow" the allure of clever, intricate, fascinating puzzles.  Reading itself is a clever, intricate, fascinating puzzle that some of us never seem to tire of.

P. D. James Talks About Talking About. . .

A P. D. James interview thanks to BooksINQ.

Bookstores of Conveyance

Shorn of its snobbery, the following passage might work well in describing the bookstores of a more modern form of conveyance.

from Talking About Detective Fiction
P. D. James

In 1851 The Times complained:

Every addition to the stock [of the bookstalls] was positively made on the assumption that persons of the better class who constitute the larger portion of railway readers lose their accustomed taste the moment they enter the station.

P. D. James--A Lapse in Judgment?

I was a bit disappointed to read the following critical judgment from P. D. James:

from Talking About Detective Fiction
P. D. James

Agatha Christie hasn't in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story. She wasn't an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre. What she consistently provided is a strong and exciting narrative, the challenge of a puzzle, an accommodating and accessible style and original detectives in Poirot and Miss Marple, whom readers can encounter in book after book with the comfortable assurance that they are meeting old friends. Her main influence on contemporary crime writers was to affirm the popularity and importance of ingenuity in clue plotting and of surprise in the final solution, thus helping significantly to set the limited range and convention of what were to become the books of the Golden Age.

My argument is mostly with the first sentence here; although, much depends upon how one views some of those subsequent.  To say that she wasn't an innovative writer and then to go on to point out the ingenuity of her puzzles and solutions seems to be speaking out of both sides of one's mouth.  Yes, Agatha Christie was  not James Joyce--she didn't strive for the subtle and nuanced, she didn't fracture her narrative and invent new digressive and transgressive techniques of story telling.  Neither, for that matter, did P. D. James.  To say the the range and convention of the Golden Age was limited is not to give a true picture of what was available at the time.  The stories were certainly of a certain set of molds, but to place Rex Stout, (undoubtedly Golden Age, if from the American side), A. A. Fair, Erle Stanley Gardner (Yes, I know they were the same person), Carter Dickson, John Dickson Carr (see previous note), Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Christianna Brand, Craig Rice, Anthony Berkeley, Cyril Hare, S. S. Van Dyne, Earl Biggers Derr, Ronald Knox, Clayton Rawson, Hake Talbot,  and countless others into a bag and say "There's not much difference," seems to show a massive indifference to the breadth and depth of what made up Golden Age writing.

Allow that to pass as perhaps a misreading of Ms. James's intent, how one can get away with saying that Agatha Christie did not have much of an influence on the genre is a profoundly misguided statement.  It may not have been much of an influence on the sector of the genre Ms. James prefers--but the entire world of the "cozy" mystery stems largely from Agatha Christie.  Even those mysteries of Robert Barnard and others that loving poke fun at the Mayhem Parva sub-genre are in direct response to its genius loci.  Ms. James may not care for the likes of Dorothy Cannell, Mary Daheim, Katherine Hall Page, Joan Hess, Carolyn Hart, Jill Churchill, and others of this ilk, and we may all curse the cat, dog, knitting, tea, stamp collecting, crossword solving, catering, cooking, and home-repair spin-offs from the mayhem parva school--but they are undoubtely a direct product of it and a direct product of the work of Agatha Christie. In fact, much of the shape of the modern mystery is either formed by or in direct opposition to (thus formed by) the school founded by Agatha Christie, among others.  I see the influence of Agatha Christie, for good or for ill, as pervasive in the realm of the mystery and in the realm of detective fiction.

I find the rest of Ms. James's critique measured and fair.  Agatha Christie was not the best writer in the genre--her prose was workmanlike.  She often recycled plots to the point where, if you are familiar enough with the canon, you can pick out the murderer not from the clues left in the text, but from the similarity to another work.  As examples take The Peril at End House and Funerals are Fatal or Appointment with Death and A Caribbean Mystery.  And in total work, short story and novel, how many folies á deux can one find.  Why in the famous filmed versions we find at least two right off.  But to say that Ms. Christie was not influential is a critical misjudgment of the first water.  To say that you don't care for her influence--that certain would be defensible in some circuits--but to say that it isn't there and it isn't pervasive, I think really misses the point of the rest of the passage.  Her ingenuity WAS her influence, at least in part.

Agatha Christie set a high bar--in mysteries such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  and even Curtain, Christie threw away the rule book and gave us full out, fair, and interesting diversions and fantasias on her central themes. She had among the most original and painfully clever minds in the business--a point Raymond Chandler saw fit to take her to task for.

We must remember that sometime ingenuity is influence.  Innovation need not be only in the writing, but in the thinking and the contrivance that underlay it.  So, while I respect Ms. James's opinion in much of this little volume, I would have to say that she's made a critical misjudgment in this one area.  We're all allowed a blindspot.

Merry Christmas to All

And God bless us, every one.

No matter how often heard, nor how badly played, the thought and the feeling behind the words is eternal.  May you be blessed this Christmas with the blessing God has prepared for you from eternity.

And now, for something completely different--a less well known Night Before Christmas c/o Laudator Temporis Acti.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Insight from P. D. James

Ms. James continues to define and analyze the detective genre. 

Talking About Detective Fiction
P. D. James

A distinguished novelist, Reginald Hill, . . . wrote in 1978, "Let me be clear. Without a police force there can be no detective fiction although several modern writers have, with varying degrees of success, tried to write detective stories set in pre-police days." The opinion seems rational: detective fiction is unlikely to flourish in societies without an organised system of law enforcement or in which murder is commonplace. Mystery novelists, particularly in the Golden Age, were generally strong supporters of institutional law and order, and of the police. Individual officers might be portrayed as ineffective, plodding, slow-witted and ill-educated, but never as corrupt. Detective fiction is in the tradition of the English novel, which sees crime, violence and social chaos as an aberration, virtue and good order as the norm for which all reasonable people strive, and which confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible and moral universe.  And in doing this it provides not only the satisfaction all all popular literature, the mild intellectual challenge of a puzzle, excitement, confirmation of our cherished beliefs in goodness and order, but also entry to a familiar and reassuring world in which we are both involved in violent death and yet remain personally inviolate both from responsibility and from its terrors. Whether we should expect this detachment from vicarious responsibility is, of course, another question and one which bears on the difference between the books of the years between the wars and the detective novels of today.

This is, so far, a quick read.  I don't know that it has the depth of some previous studies--but then I haven't progressed far enough to make any reasonable evaluations--rather, I am presently just enjoying the tour of the grounds with Ms. James.  I hope the rest of the book bears out the premise (and promise) of these early excerpts.

Little Pitcher remarks on "The Kindly Ones"

Last night I was talking with my wife about The Kindly Ones, saying basically that I needed to buy it because it was going to be a long haul and I wouldn't get through it all.  As I was saying something about it I heard fromt he back seat of the car, my son, say, "That's a name for the Furies."

I was astonished.  I had forgotten that it was such until I read some of the reviews and was reminded, but here is my eleven year-old telling me that the Furies and the Kindly Ones were one in the same.

"Words have power, so while they were the Furies, they were called the kindly ones so they would be nicer."

And how did he come by this treasure-trove of understanding?  A YA/Children's series (the first of which is destined for the silver screen soon) called Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It shows the power of myth even in today's world--it was wonderful and refreshing.

Yiyun Li's Favorite of the Year--Tinkers--Paul Harding

While browsing yestereve, I stumbled upon an article at Granta more a blurb, that listed favorite books of 2009.  To my surprise and pleasure the person featured was Yiuyun Li and the book she chose was one that I happened to snatch off the shelves in my historic look for short novels tour a few days back.

Naturally, given that Yiyun Li has captured my reading heart this year, I had to take a look at what captured hers and almost right off fell into this:

from Tinkers
Paul Harding

But he was nearly a ghost, almost made of nothing, and so the wood and metal and sheaves of brightly printed cardboard and paper (MOVE FORWARD SIX SPACES TO EASY STREET!  Great Grammy Nodden, shawled and stiff and frowning at the camera, absurd with her hat that looked like a sailor's funeral mound, heaped with flowers and netting), which otherwise would have crushed his bones, dropped on him and fell away like movie props, he or they facsimiles of former, actual things.

There he lay among the graduation photos and old wool jackets and rusted tools and newspaper clippings about his promotion to head of the mechanical-drawing department at the local high school, and then about his retirement and subsequent life as a trader and repairer of antique clocks. The mangled brass works of the clocks he had been repairing were strewn among the mess. He looked up three stories to the exposed support beams of the roof and the plump silver backed batts of insulation that ran between them. One grandson or another (which?) had stapled the insulation into place years ago and now two or three lengths of it had come loose and lolled down like pink woolly tongues.

This is one of those books in whose language you want to wander and cavort.  You want to see where the story will go--but that is ancillary to the rich pleasures of this voice, this sensibility, this guide to wherever it is you will go.  I don't know where the journey might lead, but I find myself not particularly concerned with that aspect of the reading, but there is such a luxury here, such a wealth of language and detail.  It is poetry crystalized into prose, but not in the way of dull and flaccid prose poems, but rather in the way of a prose artist who values the language and treats it, above all the aspects of his art, as the centerpiece.  Just as with Francine Prose's Goldengrove, the riches here promise to be in the language; and just as with that fine book, minor flaws in the plot, composition, characters, and incident of the narrative will not compromise the pleasure of reading the book.

Or so I think now upon short exposure--obviously, time will tell.

Favorite Reads in 2009 and Lists Elsewhere

So I'll give you two--well actually one and my pick for the best this year.  Let's start with the latter.  It should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time here that my pick for best of the year goes to Yiyun Li.  If it had to be for a book published this year, I would choose The Vagrants, but it's my blog and my rules, so I'll just pick Yiyun Li and list both of her books--A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.


And another list, which incidentally features Yiyun Li's novel, has on it Zoe Heller's The Believers.  When I glanced at it in the library it seemed like another "how I survived my divorce" saga so common to what people today think comprises great literture.  However, I have now seen it on two separate lists by people I respect and I know my own prejudices well enough to try to set them aside and read what better informed folks (those who have read the book) have to say about it.  Oh, and add to that, that the compiler of this list felt much as I did about Let the Great World Spin, and it suggests a sufficient similarity of taste (at least for the moment) to take the recommendation seriously.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mills and Boon

A chance line in P.D. James sent me to Google to figure out precisely what Mills and Boon referred to.  From there I went to the site.  It turns out that they have quite a generous library of online romances in the Silhouette/Harlequin mode (it would seem--I haven't indulged).  I thought there might be some readers out there who would be interested.

Free on-line reads from Mills and Boon.

Insights from Reading

There are many things that give me great pleasure in reading.  First among them is innovative and interesting use of the language--not language designed to be obsure or obscurantist, but designed to be read and to do something new--it can be difficult and challenging, just not to the point of lunacy.  In this realm both Ulysses and A Clockwork Orange spring to mind as particularly successful experiments in a kind of joie de langue which is found all too seldom.  Second to this are sharp insights into the nature of things as they are.  While I haven't decided about the first criterion, on the second Hilary Mantel delivers powerfully, again and again.

from Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Why are we so attached to the severities of the past? Why are we so proud of ourselves for having endured our fathers and our mothers, the fireless days and the meatless days, the cold winters and the sharp tongues? It's not as if we had a choice. Even Liz, once when they were young, when she'd seen him early in the morning putting Gregory's shirts to warm before the fire, even Liz had said shaprly, don't do that, he'll expect it every day.

If we think back on it, it seems sometimes our fondest memories and the bludgeon we use on those around us is tha hardship we endured.  How many times have I heard about the hardship of the Great Depression and rationing during the war?  I think these stories fascinating and interesting and insightful, and yet we cobble out of them some sort of trans-human mettle for having merely lived through the time.  And we use these experiences to decry the "softness" of the day.  But in this matter I guess I'm squarely in the corner of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who noted that each day is filled with mortifications enough, we don't need to go out of our ways to multiply our bodily penances.

P. D. James on Detective Fiction

When I was wandering through one of the many bookstores that permeate my existence I happened upon a book by P. D. James about Detective Fiction.  I am not a fan of Ms. James's writing, but the book was intriguing to me and I thought about buying it.  However, I always have recourse first to my library and I was surprised to walk in and find it on the shelves.  It will be worth owning if it lives up to the promise of this passage.

from Talking about Detective Fiction
P. D. James

Although the detective story at its highest can also operate on the dangerous edge of things, it is differentiated both from mainstream fiction and from the generality of crime novels by a highly organised structure and recognised conventions. What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in alike an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.   This is the definition I have usually given when speaking about my work but, it now seems unduly restrictive and more appropriate to the so-called Golden Age between the wars than it is today. 

And she goes on to qualify the definition to indicate changes that have occurred after the Golden Age.  It seems like it will go quickly and be a nice, light appreciation of the Dectective novel as a sub-genre of the mystery.

Silent Night Internet Duet

I love it when people come up with new means of collaboration.  I know, this isn't new, but it never failes to amaze me--the world, whether we like it or not, is transforming before our eyes, and we can choose to be part of the transformation and shape it in the way we would like it to flow, or choose to be obstructions and it will flow around and perhaps eventually over us.  When one can see the good uses technology can be put to, it makes the decision just a trifle easier.

Wow! A Really Great Best of List (Mystery and Detective edition)

Can be found at Novels, Stories, and More.  I'm sorely tempted to copy out the entire thing so that I'll have it to hand.  And perhaps I shall after the break.  Even if you stay here and read on--please visit the original site to get the details of how the list was compiled.  The least we can do to show appreciation for this enormous amount of work is to stop by and say hello.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Review of The Kindly Ones

A nice consideration of it here.  I had to give up, knowing that there was no way that I would get through the library copy in time and I wouldn't go and purchase the hardcover or e-text--so I'll wait for what is likely to be a quite-large remainder sale or for the paperback edition.

Planning our Reading

I'm noticing something called "The Sunday Salon" and the topic for the past week is planning the next year's reading.  Here's an excellent example. 

And while this sounds like a really good thing to do, I know myself well enough to know that any sort of plan I make is likely to be discarded by the mood I'm in at the given time.  Being a very mood-driven reader, I seriously doubt I could do much other than broadly categorize what I intend to read over the next several months--relative proportions of library, e-book, and to-be-read materials on my shelves.  And if I'm lucky, the thousands of publishers who are knocking down the internet to get at my blog will be sending me hundreds of things to read--so many I couldn't possible stand up under the torrent.  Well, one can have one's dreams, yes?

Reflections on Literary Criticism

Mr. Myers's post on Categories of the Novel gives me the excuse I hardly need to spout off about my own thoughts on literary criticism.  I have had much training in the matter, but never much took to it because I rejected some of the basic axioms that are implied in the course of analysis.  Or perhaps I did not understand them as well as I thought and I rejected what they seemed to be rather than what they were. 

My central objection to most literary criticism is a series of beliefs or myths that seem intractable and provoke a certain flurry of consternation when addressed directly.  One of these is the idea that there is some objective criteria by which the value of a work can be weighed and measured--hence--in the article discussed "novels which call for serious literary criticism" and "novels which are beneath serious criticism."  The problem I have with this is that such a call is entirely arbitrary and entirely a sign of the times in which the work is done.  There is no clear indication throughout time that some works merit and others do not.  There is no real objective standard by which we can say Paul Auster is a better writer than Agatha Christie.  Indeed, there are a great many who would disagree and who would contend that Agatha Christie is more worthy of serious study than Paul Auster (and I'm not sure I wouldn't agree).  Charles Baudelaire thought Edgar Allan Poe a high genius of art and Harold Bloom can only barely tolerate being in the same room as a book of Mr. Poe's prose (or poetry).  H. P. Lovecraft was regarded as inconsiderable until work by S. T. Joshi.  In his time, Shakespeare wasn't particularly highly regarded as an artist and though his place in the Canon seemed firmly set now, it was not always so. If Virginia Woolf had had her way, Ulysses would have gone the way of Varney the Vampire.

The second bothersome myth of literary criticism is that authors deliberately work things into their novels that can be teased out.  Not that I object to that central notion, but when we get to all of the things that are woven into those works, one is struck by a question.  For example, when one considers the myriad interepretations, revisions, and investigations into Joyce's Ulysses, one is left with the fundamental question--did Joyce put all of that in, or are we pulling all of that out.  I tend to think it the latter--which is fine if we acknowledge that, as Harold Bloom puts is, we are being read by the book and thus "finding in it" things the author never put there.  There is a subjective element to reading a work and the reader works with the writer to come to a meaning together.  A good work allows an almost limitless amount of this kind of work; whereas a less good work, or a bad one admits of only two or three (or in extremis one) reading. 

Now, with regard to my second complaint, it is entirely possible that either through my own platinum-like density, or through the incapacity of my teachers to express their intent, I have come to a misunderstanding of the work of criticism.  Many would have it that criticism is work interpreting a text, I would hold that it is work interpreting ourselves using the mirror of the text.  What is said about a work in criticism (in many cases) is more about the critic than it is about the work.  That in iteself is endlessly interesting if it is openly acknowledged that that is what we're doing.  However, if so, then we remove from academia some of the prestige of doing it, because anyone can read and come to their own conclusions.  On the other hand, it is only the trained person who can read and come to their own conclusions and show clearly how the author brought this series of thoughts to the surface. 

How often in reading groups do we here "It seemed like. . . " followed by something plausible but slender.  And if we say, "Show me in the book where you got that idea" it is a will-o'-the-wisp, vanishing almost before it was said.  And that's okay because another thing a book can and will do is produce an atmosphere of impressions.  The real work of true criticism and interpretation is to cut through the vague atmosphere of impressions and dive into the heart of a work--even if we don't pull out of that heart anything true about the author or the work (and I'm not saying that we never do), the work still moves past the level of impression and into the realm of evidence. That is solid work--work that requires training, and work that opens up meanings to everyone who can read and enjoy criticism.

In sum, I'm not saying that criticism isn't worth doing, but I am saying that what is done by the serious literary critic needs to be examined for what it is--the work of an artist struggling with another artists and arriving, together at a meaning.  It's a powerful work when there are world class minds engaged in it.  It's often an amusing spectacle, and it is sometimes a ludicrous one.  (I think often of James Hynes's The Lecturer's Tale and the critique aimed at critics of certain schools of thought.  If you haven't encountered this wonderful satire, you might want to take a look at it--it may give you a different impression of the literary world.)

A List of the Best Debuts of 2009

New talent, great writers are always wonderful to find.  When you stumble across one, it's amazing.  It's especially nice if you happen on one who you haven't encountered before in a list or in discussion elsewhere.  Yiyun Li was like that for me.  She's probably been discussed to death in the blogosphere, but I picked her up off the library shelf and discovered something new, different, wonderful for myself.

Here's a list of promising new writers whose first books came out in 2009.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Delete Your On-Line Presence

Not for me, but The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine may be useful to those hopelessly addicted. (I consider myself hopefully addicted.)

A Bernanos Retrospective

Recalling Bernanos


Catholic Fiction

Shapely Sentences and Lovely Moments

I love the gentle flow of the prose of Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. 

from "The Lives of Strangers"
in The Unknown Errors of Our Lives
Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni

Aunt Seema sits at one of the scratched wooden tables with a group of women, all of them swaddled in bright shawls they bought for this trip. From time to time they look down at their laps with a startled expression, like sparrows who have awakened to find themselves plumaged in cockatoo feathers.

I probably would have opted for something like "enplumed" rather than "plumaged,"  but the simile is just wonderful and startling without being strained.

The women smile, pleased at having had the foresight to leave sweaty Calcutta behind at the height of summer for a journey which is going to earn them comfort on Earth and goodwill in heaven. They hold their chins high and elongate their necks as classical dancers might. Plump middle-aged women. . . already they are transformed into handmaids of Shiva. . . .

Comfort on Earth, away for  the summer in Calcutta; and good-will in Heaven as this is a pilgrimage. But I love the juxtaposition of motives and what it tells us about the traveling group.

There is a lot more, but his Bengali is full of long, formal words that Leda does not know and her attention wanders. He ends by saying something about sin and expiation, which seems to her terribly complex and thus very Indian.

I will continue to savor through this book and into The Palace of Illusions.

More Personal Best of Lists

I have to post this one just because of the category into which Ann Patchett's Bel Canto falls.  Oh, and Rabbit, Run.  These two alone have earned the writer a permanent link.

And this one has a great deal of literature in translation

A Dissenting Opinion on Murakami

And one that I find myself largely in agreement with.  Tried The Wind Up Bird Chronicles and Kafka on the Beach several times to no avail.  That doesn't mean I won't try again, but I've come to the conclusion that Murakami is a specialty taste.  I'll stick with Oe, Akutagawa, Kawabata, Tanizaki, Murasaki, Basho and Issa, and Soseki if I need a dip into Japanese literature (for the moment).

The Background on The Spare Room

As much as I love my Kindle, I still carry around a number of books in a separate bag--a book bag.  Among them presently is Helen Garner's The Spare Room; there because a great many have recommended it and dipping into it at the library I found the prose remarkable.  Now, thanks to Times Flow Stemmed we have a bit more information about the whys and the wherefores.  I'm uncertain of whether or not I should read this before the book, so I'm posting the link without having read the article.  I can return to it once I've finished the book.

The [NT] Tin Drum

I had wondered whether the new translation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum was worth the time and effort, given that the old one has sustained us up until now.  This reviewer reports that it is.

Fear of Objects on the Right Side

A visitor stopped by and asked for the technical term for fear of objects.  I said I didn't know of one that referred to fear of objects or things by themselves--I knew pantophobia which is fear of everthing.  However, doing a little research I found The Phobias Page, which presents a lengthy list of named fears.  Among them are fear of things on the right side of the body--dexterophobia and fear of things on the left side of the body--levophobia.

Isn't language wonderful.  If you're pathologically fearful of almost anything, you can find or make up a word for it.

What a delight.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Crowdsourced list of what's to come


See the Difference Engine Work

I grew up as a fan of science fiction.  As such, Charles Babbage and the Difference Engine loom large in my imagination--as large as the book by Gibson and Sterling, as large as Lady Byron and her program for it.  So it is a great pleasure to me to be able to see, even if only in video, a working example of the difference engine.

A Penchant for Personal Bests

As you've seen by now, I have a penchant for personal bests--lists not compiled by one or more editors sitting around and agreeing about what they liked that year, but solid recommendations that come from a single reader's experience of books.  This list is just that; and additionally, it seems to be a list the coincides with, complements, and challenges my own taste (always helpful).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tool Use Amongst Cephalopods

If you linger around here very long, one of the many tics you will be subject to is my deep love of the invertebrate world.

Witness this video of the Veined Octopus's use of half coconut shells.  A more complete story here.

A Measured Evaluation

D.G. Myers gives us a nice list of the best books of the decade.  It is only a list, so there isn't much in the way of explanation; however, the site is deep and though I haven't searched thoroughly, I suspect that many of the works on the list are treated in greater depth in individual posts.

Places of variance--I was disappointed to note that Russo's Empire Falls ranked so highly in his evaluation of works--but then de gustibus non est disputandum.  Likewise with The Dying Animal; I could see nothing that would rank this work with the timeless--but there I'll admit my own fault--Roth's brilliance often eludes me. And finally the less said of the vastly overhyped Let the Great World Spin, the better; I've rarely encountered a less readable, less interesting, less linguistically diverting work receiving so much praise.  Again, I always must point out that the fault may not lie with the author but may rest solely with me--nevertheless, I've gotten tired enough of seeing it hyped that I'm now putting out warning flags to those interested.

Places of concurrence: William Trevor's Love and Summer.  What fascinates me about this book is that I recognize its quality, I know how well it is written, I applaud its structural integrity, I admire the language. But in point of fact, I don't like the book very much--least of all of his books that I have read.  I don't think you need like a book to recognize that it is truly well-written.  In this particular case, I'm not part of the intended audience--it's ambiance misses me entirely.  And that, Harold Bloom would remind me, is a mark of my deficiency--the work has read me and found me wanting.  I'm okay with that.  A great many works and/or people have expressed similar opinions in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, whatever its merits, Mr. Myers have given this more thought and more consideration than I have done or am ever likely to do and he gives us a list to react to and to add to our own vastly inflated lists of things to read.  There are many titles of interest, and given that some of them have had time to age and mellow, there is now more distance to allow for more objective evaluation.

But I'm still wondering where our Joyce, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare are hiding out--because I don't find them in these lists.  I wonder if we've forgotten (except for William Trevor) how to universalize the particular, or, more likely, I've greater immunity to its charms in the postmodern age.

For Future Reference--Neologisms of the 00's--Noughtyisms

New phrases--I love new phrases.

Picasso porn

Lovely--Reader's Regrets

A nice list at Good Reads--go and gnash your teeth and tear your clothing with the many mourners.

Catholic Church Sinks His Dark Materials Sequels

To quote from some of my favorite philosophers, as if.

Yes the Pope of Bill Donahue frowns and Hollywood trembles and hastens to kowtow.

Rilke in Translation

A review here

More on Lydia Davis

Another I have somehow managed to overlook for some time--a review here.

Live Chat with Lydia Davis today from 3:00-4:00.  Link here.

"The Exotic Flavour of Literary Food"


I had always wondered why Turkish delight would be a temptation to any sane child; however, the article tells us, that's mere intrusion of reason into the literary world.  Although I'm very, very partial to plum pudding myself (and stick toffee pudding, and almost anything the British call a pudding on the sweet side--there are some pretty unsavory-sounding savory puddings), I love the description of it as "compacted fruit compost."

Literary Math

This is just gorgeous; I hope the excerpt shows well.  Analyzing language in metabooks.  And as they say in the math books--This is intuitively obvious to the most casual of observers; the proof is left to the student.

from "The meta book and size-dependent properties of written language"
in The New Journal of Physics
Sebastian Bernhardsson1, Luis Enrique Correa da Rocha and Petter Minnhagen
The second assumption (equation (3)), with γ > 1, gives the relation
Equation (7)
The last case in equation (7) (β < 1) can be disregarded as impossible since γ needs to be smaller than one for the integral to be positive, which means that α is also negative. This would give a book where the number of different words decreases as a function of the total number of words.
I have to admit to being very partial to the intrinsic beauty of the integral symbol--and indeed to much of the symbology of mathematics in general.  Even when I don't fully comprehend the mathematics being expressed, I can ponder pages that look like this for hours on end, stunned simply by the gorgeous nature of the typography.  Yes, I love words and I love symbols and I love language both logos and mathematica.  (That last is also a reference to one of my favorite program suites of all time.)

Found via Conversational Reading.

Serendipity--Kaye Gibbons

I've never been interested in Kaye Gibbons--not because I haven't been interested in her, but because she was one of a myriad of names my eye would speed past when looking for something to read--nothing in the packaging or titles of her books made me want to pick them up and sample.  As I explained in my "Library Gambit" post, I was looking for short books and stumbled upon one of Ms. Gibbons's.  I noted that many of them seemed short and the one I had in hand led me to her first novel--a taste of which I offer below.

from Ellen Foster
Kaye Gibbons

Oh but I do remember when I was scared. Everything was so wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild crazy spinning and wore out and sick. Now tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from here to there.

Even my mama's skin looked tired of holding in her weak self. She would prop herself up by the refrigerator and watch my daddy go round the table searing at all who did him wrong. She looked all sad in her face like it was all her fault.

"And let the wind take them from here to there."  Wow, another line I want to write.  Perhaps I will. I was/am stunned that I have so long missed out on such magical, beautiful, evocative prose.  I read this and I know the person speaking.  I know the rhythm of her speech, and even if I never see this person, I see her in a way that requires no real sight.  Such language is powerful--the poetry implicit, and the humor and sensibility bubbling just below the surface.  The latter is difficult to see in the passage above (just the phrase "the one in charge strolled off" hits exactly the right note of nonchalant in the midst of chaos--anomalous activity that suggests slapstick) , so let me quote from the very beginning of the book.

When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. I would figure out this or that way and run it down through my head until it got easy.

The way I liked best was letting go a poisonous spider in his bed. It would bite him and he'd be dead and swollen up and I would shudder to find him so. Of course I would call the rescue squad and tell them to come quick something's the matter with my daddy. When they come in the house I'm all in a state of shock and just don't know how to act what with two colored boys heaving my dead daddy onto a roller cot. I just stand in the door and look like I'm shaking all over.

But I did not kill my daddy. . . .

All I did was wish him dead real hard every now and then.

Read it aloud to get the sense of it, the swinging of the words, the rhythm of the lines--the joy just below the surface darkness.  Here is a person who has good reason to hate but who has gotten over that and not let it stopped her from becoming a real person--nor does she allow herself to gloss over the evil she and her mother experienced.  If the remainder of this book lives up to the promise of these short passages, I'm in for a real ride and a real pleasure.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Unique Libary Gambit

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is taking some time to get through--it is worth the time, but I'm also itching to move on to other things, so I need to fill in the interstices in my reading--time enough for something short, but not for the sustained attention that Wolf Hall is requiring. So I wandered through the library looking for the thinnest books on the shelves, plucking off promising books of 100-200 pages.  With this I found Kaye Gibbons Ellen Foster, Helen Garner's The Spare Room (recommended in several personal lists), Rebecca Lee's The City Is a Rising Tide, and a book of short stories by Lauren Groff with an absolutely irresistable title: Delicate Edible Birds.

I dipped into Ellen Foster, and more about that tomorrow.  Lee, Garner, Gibbons, all are most promising.  I'll get through them rapidly.

What the Common Reader Thinks the Best Books Were


I have had to let it simmer and stew for a while, but I've come down on Yiyun Li as my favorite reads of the year.  A Thousand Years of Good Prayers plus The Vagrants made for two of the most memorable and most promising reads of the year.  The next time I see Ms. Li's name, I will be certain to pick up the book.  She is for me this year what Jhumpa Lahiri was the year of The Interpreter of Maladies.

Joseph Pearce on J. R. R. Tolkien

A nice review at The Silver Key.

Another Writer Heard From

This book sounds lovely.

The excerpt below features a translation provided by the writer at Incurable Logophilia, but the French, to my relatively unexperienced eye, reads very fluidly, very smoothly.  I may have to look into getting this.

from Incurable Logophilia
citing Le Canapé Rouge
Michèle Lesbre

Voir un homme se rouler une cigarette, le perdre de vue très vite, me souvenir de lui toujours. Aujourd’hui encore, il m’arrive de penser à la brève apparition de cet inconnu surprise dans son intimité, à d’autres aussi qui de façon mystérieuse se sont installés dans ma mémoire, comme des témoins silencieux de mes errances.

[To see a man roll himself a cigarette, lose sight of him quickly, remember him forever. Still today I find myself thinking of the brief appearance of this unknown person caught in his private moment, and of others who have mysteriously taken up residence in my memory, like so many silent witnesses to my wanderings.]

Innumeracy and the False Positive

I did not read this article in the same way as some of those who have cited it, possibly because I'm infinitely fascinated by mathematics and mathematical reading (I'd refer that to aleph null inifintiely).

from "Mammogram Math"
John Allen Paulos

A little vignette with made-up numbers may shed some light. Assume there is a screening test for a certain cancer that is 95 percent accurate; that is, if someone has the cancer, the test will be positive 95 percent of the time. Let’s also assume that if someone doesn’t have the cancer, the test will be positive just 1 percent of the time. Assume further that 0.5 percent — one out of 200 people — actually have this type of cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor somberly intones that you’ve tested positive. Does this mean you’re likely to have the cancer? Surprisingly, the answer is no.

To see why, let’s suppose 100,000 screenings for this cancer are conducted. Of these, how many are positive? On average, 500 of these 100,000 people (0.5 percent of 100,000) will have cancer, and so, since 95 percent of these 500 people will test positive, we will have, on average, 475 positive tests (.95 x 500). Of the 99,500 people without cancer, 1 percent will test positive for a total of 995 false-positive tests (.01 x 99,500 = 995). Thus of the total of 1,470 positive tests (995 + 475 = 1,470), most of them (995) will be false positives, and so the probability of having this cancer given that you tested positive for it is only 475/1,470, or about 32 percent! This is to be contrasted with the probability that you will test positive given that you have the cancer, which by assumption is 95 percent.

I love to learn how wrong my thinking can be on any matter--such a chain of thought had never occurred to me.

Important: Reflections on Grinchness

Just in time for Christmas: here.

Writing While Irish: Universality and Parochialism

I'm fairly certain it isn't a criminal offense, at least in most countries. . .

from Excursions in the Real World
William Trevor

Being Irish is complicated, in my case, by the fact that I am a writer of fiction. One circumstance influences the other; nationality seems irrelevant in the loose, uncharted world of art, then suddenly raises its voice; fiction insists on universality, then equally insists that a degree of parochialism can often best achieve this. A muddle of contradiction prevails, but since the practice of any art has to do with establishing order, muddles should be grist to the artistic mill. Or so at least you can pretend.

Writing is a professional activity, yet when fiction is the end product it must necessarily also be a personal one. As you engage in it you cannot escape the person you are.

I think the critical point here is how universality is achieved.  It seems to me that it is almost always achieved in the particular.  Hamlet is not the prince of anywhere at anytime--he is not Everyman.  He is Hamlet--that he shares in the human condition makes some of what he says and does particular and some of it universal.  So, too with any work that attains universality.  It is universal because it speaks in particulars that are meaningful.  Thus Shakespeare is universal in a way that John Bunyan, writing allegorically and vaguely, cannot be.

But these are hasty thoughts on the matter--not deepthink.  And so they are subject to equally hasty revisions as conversation is engaged--or not.

Favorites from Conversational Reading


Includes Gertrude Stein and Thomas Mann, so another eclectic, wonderful list.

More Authors Pick Their Favorites

At Salon.

Found at Bookdwarf

"And Now for Something Completely Different"

The Christianity Today List of Favorite books.  The only book I saw on the list that I've seen mentioned in any other list or presentation is Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice--a rather surprising choice from the above-mentioned source.

Colm Tóibin on Sign and Symbol


via Wooden Spoon

an interesting excerpt:

The pigment that made them – there were thirteen of these paintings done altogether – is not pure; it is made from the ashes of a copy of Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting. When they had finished burning and painting, the artists wrote to Derrida and offered him one of the paintings.

I can't imagine anything better than a work made from an unread copy of Derrida (read the post to find out more.)

Tournament of Books Long List--Where is Tolstoy?


Which leads me to some thoughts.  Of the making of lists there is seemingly no end.  And I would not wish for an end.  It is in the reticulation, the warp and the weft of multiple lists that I often dredge up the finest things to read.  But even reading some of these very fine things, I'm left with a kind of questioning longing--where is our new Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce, Conrad, James.  No--I'm not looking for a replica, I'm not looking for anyone whose style is similar or who rights on similar themes.  I'm looking really for the best of the best--the works that in our present foreshortened judgment constitute lasting work.

I enjoy reading.  I don't always have to read the very best of the very best.  I like to read some bad books--things no self-respecting admirer of literature would be caught dead with.  I'm a reader, not a classicist (in a very bowdlerized sense of that word--substitue the snootier sounding "literateur").  But I do long for that electric shock of realizing that you're in the hands of a real artist, that what you're holding in your hands resounds beyond the present day--in the parlance of some--that it has legs.

In my year of reading, I haven't found that.  In truth, I haven't found it in many years of reading.  I've read some very capable writers--some marvelous writers--but sustainability--longevity, concerns that transcend the here and now even while dealing with the here and now--that quality in a writer is rare--not easily found.  But I'm willing to listen if you all have found the next Shakespeare--heck, at this point I'd take the next Richard Crashaw or Samuel Richardson.

Best Short Story Collections of the Decade


I haven't read them all, and I disagree on the Jhumpa Lahiri, who while talented seems to have fallen into something of a rut in the story-telling realm; however, worth looking into.  (from BooksINQ)

A Great Appreciation of Ikiru


A film that should be in everyone's repetoire--and not the kind of thing Kurasawa is best known for, which is odd, considering how many very different kinds of things Kurasawa did.

Another Best of the Year List

Unique, idiosyncratic, a breath of fresh air.  But then, I find all such lists interesting, and I look for some of my reading in the convergence of  titles from various sources.  Looks like Powers's Generosity may be joining the list.

You Can't Speed Read Literature. . .

and why would one want to?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dr Myers Gives Us a Preview of 2010

Nice summary.

NPR's Best "Foreign" Fiction

"Foreign" to whom?


Another View of Lydia Davis


The Law of Praemunire

You better watch out, you better not pout. . .

from Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

The law of praemunire dates from another century. No one who is alive now quite knows what it means. From day to day it seems to mean what the king says it means. The matter is argued in every talking shop in Europe. Meanwhile, my lord cardinal sits, and sometimes mutters to himself, and sometimes speaks aloud, saying, "Thomas, my colleges! Whatever happens to my person, my colleges must be saved. Go to the king. Whatever vengeance, for whatever imagined injury, he would like to wreak on me, he surely cannot mean to put out the light of learning?"

Poet of the Year: W.S. Merwin


from BooksINQ

Giving Back to the Community

As Stephen King does

Yes, considering his wealth, it's small--but it's wonderful considering there is no obligation to do anything at all.

A New On-Line Story

The Two Lönnrots-Gabriel Josipovici

I just love electronic sources--if you're inclined to, Go!  Enjoy!

(Haven't read it yet myself, just found it thanks to: This Space.)

Ten Notable books of Criticism


There is a notable bias toward the more recent, which is to be understood as criticism often doesn't stay in print for long periods. But it seems like a great list for one just starting to read criticism or for the more experienced. And its interest is heightened by the fact that it is personal.  Personal recommendations are always more meaningful to me because they have greater context and so can be weighed appropriately.

A Post with Resonance for Some of Us

The commonwealth is sick of their own choice;

From Henry IV part II, but perhaps applicable in other, more modern situations?

The Beauty of the Anomalous

Groined Vaults in Public Works.

Fascinating and wonderful.  I love how we differ and how different our eyes see the same things.  It's wonderful to have someone point this out from time to time.  Enthusiasms can be contagious.

The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts J. M. G. Le Clézio

Perhaps it would be a good idea for me to contextualize how I came to finish this book to forestall any complaints or misapprehensions about the insufficiency of my review.  Yesterday, I took Sam (my son) to Disney Hollywood Studios so that he could ride Rockin' Rollercoaster a record (for him) 21 times.  The park was crowded, more so than is expected for a week this far from Christmas in December, and the waits were long (at first) and even though we ended up with six fast pass rides and two cast-member accompanied entrances, it took the whole day to finish the challenge.  And so, I had the leisure to sit and read. (On good days, because of my sinuses, I can manage that particular Roller Coaster once--on bad days it's better not to think about it.)  Because Wolf Hall is something of a tome to haul about, I opted for M. Le Clézio's slender volume.

The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts consists of 11 short stories, each superb in its own right, all bound together by a set of themes and approaches.  Like many postmodernists,  M. Le Clézio has spent a good deal of time staring into the abyss.  His characters are often isolated, and even when not isolated rarely communicate with one another in words.  All communication is gesture and very often it is aggressive gesture (as in "Ariadne" and "David"). When they do communicate with one another it is only in the briefest, most superficial way.  They are truly isolated, truly alienated, truly out of touch with the world around them, and truly trapped in an ever-expanding circle of fear.

And it is in this aspect of his work that M.  Le Clézio is most adept and most accomplished.  I've posted a number of times on the hallucinatory and gorgeous prose by which  M. Le Clézio
conjures his effects.  Even when the subject is not fear and trembling, or at least not exclusively, as in "Villa Aurora," the prose is deep, passionate, jewel-like, intense:

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

Still, it's strange too when I think about those days--it's as if we all knew she was there, that she lived in the house, that this was her realm. Without even knowing what her real name was, we were aware of her presence; we were her familiars, her neighbors. There was a part of her that dwelled in the place, up there on the hilltop back them. Something we couldn't  really see but that was present in the trees, in the palms, in the shape of the white house, in the two stone pillars of the gateway, and in the high, rusty gate chained shut.

Later in the same story, we get M. Le Clézio's trademark--expanding alienation from those who have been sidelined by society to all of us.

source: as above

A year later, I was able to return to the hilltop. I'd thought about it constantly, and despite all the activity and futility of student life, deep down, there was still that feeling of uneasiness in me. Why?  I think that ultimately I'd never quite been able to get used to not being what I had been, the child who went through the breach in the wall and who'd found all those hiding places and passageways there in the great wild garden among the cats and insect calls. It has remained within me, alive deep down inside me, despite all the wide world that had drawn me away.

Yes, we can't go home again, and so all of us suffer a fundamental alienation from ourselves, especially if we don't learn early on that we carry home with us.  And few of us ever come to that realization.  M. Le Clézio is an artist of alienation.

In "Anne's Game" we encounter another of his alienated characters trapped in the alien world he has constructed for himself--alien and beautiful:

from "Anne's Game"
in The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts
J. M. G. Le Clézio

That is what he is thinking about as  the powerful automobile rounds the large curve in the road with buildings on either side. The sun flashes for a fraction of a second on each bay window, firing a blinding spark. Below, the sea has grown steely; the waves have stilled, etching a net of fine wrinkles over the resplendent light.

That last sentence was, for me, one of those "I wish I had written that" moments. But it would be impossible for me to have written it, not because I lack the skill with language, but because I lack the temperament and the vision that results in moments like this. M. Le Clézio writes with the melancholy and despair of one who recognizes the problem, but has no clue about the solution.  So, too, with all of his characters--they know they are trapped and they cannot fine their way out.  To his credit, most of M. Le Clézio's characters are trapped by circumstance, not by their own stupidity, as is so common in much of modern fiction (see for example Ishiguro's beautiful but frustrating Nocturnes).

In stories such as "Ariadne," "Moloch," and "The Great Life," we encounter characters who are so profound alienated and disoriented that they cannot even get in touch with their own emotions.  Their reactions to events and circumstances are truly outside the scope of what "normal" people might do.  I think this is particularly true of "Ariadne," a profoundly violent meditation on fear and alienation amidst the concrete canyons we have constructed for ourselves.

In eleven stories of isolation, alienation, melancholy, and despair, M. Le Clézio chronicles a hostile world, a hostile society, a universe charged with fear and terror.  Every character walks through some sort of living nightmare.  I've read elsewhere that M. Le Clézio has a heart for the poor, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden; that he understands and empathizes with their plight.  This seems true; however, there is more than this.  M. Le Clézio shows us that every one of us, under the right conditions shares that alienation, that sense of fear and not belonging--that loneliness.

I cannot say how M. Le Clézio would regard what I must say next; however, he is, in his concerns, a very Catholic writer in the modern sense, and without any real hope of salvation.  His every word reeks of the preferential option for the poor.  His heart goes out to the lonely, the frightened, the disenfranchised even as he shows that these people, living closer to the edge, are also living closer to the surface.  The closet of humankind is actually very limited in its styles and each of us draws from it what we wear everyday.  Individuals wear some clothes to a shiny thinness, but we've really all the same basic outfits.  M. Le Clézio trots out all the winter fashions as he presents his stories.

Now for one codicil, one unrelated thought, as remarks about the book conclude.  On the basis of this one book alone, I asked myself, did M. Le Clézio merit the Nobel Prize?  Is there anything here that calls for our attention?  Does he actually earn his place in literary immortality?  Can he compete with such luminaries as John Updike, Philip Roth, and the usual suspects we Americans trot out every year?  That is to say, who is this obscure nobody the Academy picked up, dusted off, and pushed onto the stage?  Well, all I can say is thank goodness that the academy does not listen to the yearly round of gripe and complaint.  M. Le Clézio's prose is superb.  His stories are deep and meaningful and touch upon deep, essential issues of the poor and of the not-so-poor.  He has a profound compassion for the foibles of humankind and he expresses that compassion in prose that helps evoke the same feelings in others.  It was interesting that in all of the stories of alienation I was never alienated from the author in the way that I am when reading Mr. Updike or  Mr. Roth.  M. Le Clézio's concerns are real and they are about foundational issues.  Too often, I cannot feel that about Roth and Updike.  Their concerns occasionally interest me, but more often than not, they are talking about people with whom I share little commonality and for whom I have little liking.  I don't know that I like any of M. Le Clézio's characters any better, but I feel for them in a way that neither Mr. Roth nor Mr. Updike command.  In short, on the basis of this slender work alone I would applaud the Nobel Committee on their good and wise choice.  M. Le Clézio deserves the honor and he deserves a much wider readership than he presently commands in North America.  (None of which should be read to say that Mr. Updike or Mr. Roth are themselves undeserving--I don't presume to make that judgment.)

I would strongly recommend that everyone take a look at these stories.  The prose alone is worth the time, but the depth of feeling and the depth of perception and concern transcend the mere surface prettiness of the writing.  M. Le Clézio is one writer after whom I would not be ashamed to model my own prose.  However, I cannot despair in quite the same way, because I do not see these problems as having no solution.  I see them as transcending the mere human fixes we can give them.  That said, prose and stories like those M. Le Clézio tells, should move us toward what fixes mere human pragmatic approaches can offer. Compassion, warmth, humanity, and reaching out to one another--these are a start when dealing with the world that M. Le Clézio describes so well.

For me, it is on to a couple of the novels--Onitsha and Wandering Star, perhaps there I will be able to see if what is accomplished in the short work is borne out in the longer.

*****--Highly recommended

Sunday, December 13, 2009

For Those For Whom There Will Never Be Enough Updike

A Conference Next Year--the first.

Referred by Mark Athitakis

Short Novels

Did I already comment on this list of short novels?  If not, it is worth your time to take a look.  Some remarkable, compact literature.

Retroactive E-Book Rights


I guess the appropriate line here is, coming from an erstwhile favorite, Lord Vader, "You have paid the price for your lack of vision."  Or if not, soon will.  All of publishing is up against the wall--Gutenberg has reentered the building, but we still think it's peachy keen to go on illuminating manuscripts while felling forests.

I love books.  I own way too many of them myself.  But I'm ready to embrace a way to carry my library with me wherever I go.  If publishers can't get that, they will perish--they are trembling on the rim of extinction as it stands--a breath either way and they are gone.  And I speak from within the industry itself--admittedly a small side-shelf, but nevertheless, one that is fully aware and feeling the press of recent developments.  Sometimes we excuse ourselves with the idea of waiting for the victor in the e-book race--but we should be setting the standards or contributing to the standards that will formulate the new e-book.  Rather than MAC and PC world, we should be looking at making E-book world with (as close as the industry will allow) one set of universal standards for delivery.  Then let the functionality weed out the unworthy.

A Top 10 0f 2009

I love lists.  Individual lists, group think, professional, or amateur--I love the fodder they provide for my own reading.

I especially love the lists produced in blogdom by people I've come to trust with regard to their opinions.  To my mind, the opinions of people like me hold greater weight and validity in helping me decide future reading than two dozen academic critics.  (Which is not to say that I don't respect academic critics--merely that having narrowly escaped from that world, I'm aware of how it is shaped and how little of it actually has to do with the quality of the book and how much of it is based on the importance of appearing high-brow.)  High-brow, middle-brow, low-brow, uni-brow, no-brow--I don't care, what I'm interested in is what people enjoyed.

And what I like about this list is that while it is dated 2009, that merely refers to the reading year; there is much here from 2009, but we also encounter My Cousin Rachel.  Chronological boundaries for best of are at best arbitrary and at worst silly, so it is good to see someone transcend the inherent chronochauvism of the review site and remark on the books most enjoyed in the course of the year--whether this year's vintage or not.