April 28, 2009
What’s up with Geoff Dyer’s new novel?
There’s little narrative tension let alone follow-through on actions. And Dyer lacks emotional commitment to the narrator Jeff Atman in Venice and the unamed Varanasi narrator (who obviously is Jeff Atman from Venice), exuding neither sympathy nor disdain or anything in between.
What he does give us is witty commentary that attempts to impart good-life bad-life enlightenment. Jeff’s self-effacing “I’m not a player in the art world” attitude and self-confessed lack of ambition or purpose in life, which “meant that you clutched at whatever straws came your way,” are rich fodder.
Upon arriving at Venice’s Biennale, the city’s major international contemporary art exhibition, British middle-aged Jeff meets gorgeous young American Laura, who becomes his focus for the rest of the week, not the art. Sex (erotic), cocaine (occasional) and alcohol (constant) define his days with the beautiful Laura wearing beautiful dresses, much to the neglect of his Biennale assignment from Kulchur magazine.
This London writer is suppose to interview the 50ish former sex symbol, reclusive Julia Berman, who once had an affair with globally successful artist Steven Morison.
Laura and Jeff part ways at the end of the Biennale, and we turn the page, never to hear of Laura again or of what happened with Jeff’s flubbed assignment. We next enter Death in Varanasi.
Here the narrator is unnamed but, being he’s a free-lancer with the same characteristics as Jeff in Venice, it’s an easy assumption that Jeff-of-the-loose-Biennale-life is now on assignment in India’s sacred city Varanasi. Difference is that he’s now being influenced by the city’s spiritual roots, living in poverty, wandering the streets, gazing with holy men and bathing in the River Ganges, obviously a man still clutching at straws coming his way.
All in all, his time in Varanasi is a cleansing of the soul that unfolds as we turn each undramatic page
And that’s about it for this book. It borders on being a bore, but here’s the catch: Dyer’s cleverness teases us along, much like a clever friend that drops the occasional hilarious line or gem of wit. You want to be around that friend just for the cleverness, and that’s the appeal of this odd book that’s mildly entertaining in Venice and surprisingly tolerable in Varanasi.
Dyer’s previous work includes 10 books, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I hear they’ve won him many fans, which makes me think Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is not the best book to be the introduction to Geoff Dyer, as it was for me. Despite the cleverness, it’s not a fan-maker.
April 24, 2009
A few years ago, at some random point in my reading journey, an author or critic said he or she preferred Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, published in 1911, to the more famously known and assigned Dreiser classic Sister Carrie.
Not just preferred, though – the book was described as a favorite.
I went online to purchase a copy, only to discover an expensive academic paperback as the sole available new choice. Then to the libraries, but no luck there, either. For two years, I looked for this book, searching for the title whenever I entered a book environment. I don’t know why I didn’t shop more extensively online for a used copy – I’m thinking there wasn’t a desirable one available.
Persistence paid off, and one day there it was on a shelf in a used bookstore. A first hardbound edition, no less, for $10.
Now it’s available from Dodo Press, which released a new paperback this year (January 2009) for approximately $14 .
Here’s what I found about Dodo Press: “Where books are no longer in print or poorly available, we are seeking to make them available again by republishing, we do this through 2 Imprints called Dodo Press and Asio Press.”
The story is about a lower class girl caught up with wealthy men, submitting to them sexually to help her family financially. Similar to my source recommendation, I enjoyed Jennie Gerhardt much more than Sister Carrie. Jennie is so very vulnerable and sympathetically yet authentically (i.e., without tugging at heartstrings) given to us that she’s hard to forget, hard not to love and hope for. Her story is set in Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Chicago. Columbus residents who remember The Neil House, across from the State Capitol, will recognize it in the first pages.
H. L. Mencken, a longtime friend of Dreiser, said of Jennie Gerhardt: “I am firmly convinced that Jennie Gerhardt is the best American novel I have ever read, with the lonesome but Himalayan exception of Huckleberry Finn.”
Thank you Dodo Press for making this engaging story readily available in an affordable paperback.
April 23, 2009
On October 8, 1946, legendary singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote an eight-page letter to Charlotte Strauss. The two had been corresponding since 1945, after Strauss read Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory and wrote him a fan letter.
That eight-page letter went up for auction on January 15, 2009 at Freeman’s, as part of the Manuscript Archive of Woody Guthrie Letters & Short Stories circa 1945. I learned this from an advertisement for the auction in a magazine last November/December. It included a page of poetry from the letter, and I was so taken by Guthrie’s words and drawings that I riped the ad out of the magazine and taped it to my office wall.
“And dont[sic] say to wait/wait is worse than to/say no/wait hurts/and a no feels good/wait makes you sick/a no cures you all over/the word wait/works okay/in lots of conversations/but/not/in/our/conversation…”
The trail of this auctioned letter fascinates me. A few weeks ago I saw in either The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books another ad saying Freeman’s had sold the Guthrie lot for $41,800. To whom? A few weeks after that, I received Bauman Rare Books April 2009 Catalogue and saw that photo of the page from the Guthrie letter taped to my wall — Baumann is selling the letter for$16,000. Page 63 of the catalogue: “Extraordinary 1946 Autograph Letter Signed by Woody Guthrie, Featuring a Lengthy Lyric Poem and Eight Original Sketches.”
I can’t imagine what it would be like to receive such a letter. Yet maybe I can, which is why I taped it to my wall above my computer, where daily I write and respond to today’s version of the letter … emails. Not quite the same, though, is it, lacking all that life and personality.
This post was updated 1.7.11.
April 22, 2009
The Other Press is publishing The Unit in June, the first novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, translated byMarlaine Delargy. From what I read in the press release, it’s sci-fi along the lines of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.
Sci-fi is not a genre that calls to me, although I’ve read the aforementioned classics, and I’m currently reaching the end of an Ursula LeGuin sci-fi classic (urged upon me by a friend who says it’s one of his all-time favorites). What strikes me about The Unit is the unsettling premise of living a necessary life determined by society, let alone the concept that one could be dispensable.
From the press release:
“In the world of The Unit, women over fifty and men over sixty who are childless, and do not contribute in ways deemed productive for society, are designated as ‘dispensable,’ and are expected to contribute in other ways. They are taken to a special reserve bank for physical and psychological experiments, where they participate in various tests – some benign, such as exercise regiments; others more dangerous, such as experimental drug therapy. …each ‘dispensable’ is expected, slowly but inevitably, to donate their vital organs to the ‘necessary’ ones, those outside the Unit.”
The Unit press release also says Holmqvist refrains from giving us simple answers, which is exactly why I’m drawn to read this soon-to-be-released novel.
April 20, 2009
Pulitzer Prize winners for Letters, Drama and Music 2009 announced today are listed here in the New York Times. Among them is W. S. Merwin for his extraordinary collection of poetry The Shadow of Sirius.
One of my favorites in the collection, etching unforgettable images/sounds, “An Empty Lot” about the “long dusty patch/ of high ragweed” owned by a coal company that:
would do nothing with it but keep it
in case they ever should need to sink
an emergency shaft to miners
in trouble below there nobody could say
how far down…
I’ve been reading this collection slowly over the past month, savoring each poem. This is an extraordinarily rich gathering of thought about memory, the past, nostalgia, what has been, what could be.
This page was updated 2.25.12 to correct broken links.