July 31, 2009
Richard Flanagan creates an odd plotline in his new book Wanting.
He jumps back and forth between two vaguely connected historical events and fails to guide the story with any kind of structural timeline.
First is the story of British explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane governing Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania . (Historically, that happened 1836-1843). While there, they try to raise a young savage girl, Mathinna, to become a civilized English woman. The experiment fails due to the inability of the Franklins to control Mathinna.
When Sir John is asked to resign his governing post, they leave Van Diemen’s. Mathinna is left behind and descends into a deranged homeless girl.
Jump to Charles Dickens’ Victorian London when he’s in between having completed Hard Times and beginning Little Dorrit. (Historically, that happened 1854 to 1855.) He learns from the widowed Lady Jane Franklin that an explorer discovered her husband’s Arctic expedition ships that disappeared years ago and all are dead.
There’s also evidence of cannibalism having taken place.
Dickens asks his friend and author Wilkie Collins to write a play based on Franklin’s tragic expedition, which Dickens produces and acts in. It’s called The Frozen Deep, and it consumes Dickens while his marriage to Catherine falls apart.
The narrative voice of Wanting is exceptional. Of the kind that sounds like the story is being read to us – lyric, thoughtful, dramatic. It is the strength that makes this novel work despite its erratic compilation.
Such a huge difference it would make if Flanagan had added the calendar year to chapter headings, more defined historical descriptions to some of the characters, a map of Tasmania, or simply an historical timeline to ground us.
Something else: Flanagan writes in an Author’s Note that his story is a meditation on desire – “the cost of its denial, the centrality and force of its power in human affairs. That, and not history, is the true subject of Wanting.”
He weaves the theme with the desires of the Franklins, Mathinna and Dickens – especially Dickens, who lusts for an actress and writes in a notebook: “You can have whatever you want, only you discover there is always a price. The question is, can you pay?”
Despite Flanagan’s statement, the history generating the novel’s story is larger than the theme of desire. It’s what kept me reading, and it’s why I would recommend Wanting, but with caution: be prepared to read without a compass.
July 29, 2009
Here are two concepts that make me want to read Mad, Bad & Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present by Lisa Appignanesi.
This, from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, that I wrote down when I read it:
“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”
And then this, from Susan Eilenberg’s review of Mad, Bad & Sad in the London Review of Books:
“The Victorian hysteric’s mimicry of her own feminine helplessness – fainting, palpitating, panting, delirious, convulsing – exempted her, Appignanesi notes, from the domestic, social and sexual requirements she would otherwise have faced, and thereby won her a parody of independence.”
Mad, Bad & Sad came out last year in hardcover. W.W. Norton is bringing it out in paperback the end of August at half the price. The book intrigues and entices me for its delving into the complexities of recognizing and diagnosing mental illness in women over the past 200 years.
Eilenberg’s review says it’s confusing but fascinating and “contains more than it can reasonably account for or attend to,” and then proceeds to provide a list of included topics/conditions from hypochondrias to Calista Flockhart (I’m not kidding).
Daphne Merkin praised the book in the New York Sun and Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times when it came out in hardcover last year.
It’s madness for me to think I have time to read this book – it weighs in at the door-stopper category of 500+ pages. No no no, I tell myself. Still…
July 26, 2009
Francis Steegmuller translated and published the letters of Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary) in two volumes, now out of print: 1830 to 1857 (Belknap Press, 1980) and 1857 – 1880 (Belknap Press, 1982).
David Waller’s recently published The Magnificent Mrs Tennant: The Adventurous Life of Gertrude Tennant, Victorian Grande Dame brings to light 24 new and, before now, unknown letters of Flaubert.
The book profiles the life of an influential Victorian lady who shared an intimate friendship with the French novelist.
While doing research for the book, Waller came upon “a haul of largely unpublished documents – including 24 letters from Flaubert to Gertrude – [that] casts the relationship in a new and poignant light.” (Maud Newton, Prospect Magazine) That haul was sitting in a farmhouse.
Reading about all this, I reached for Steegmuller’s The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830 – 1857 on my bookshelf, curious to revisit some of the correspondence. It opened itself to Flaubert’s intelligent and emotional letters to Louise Colet, and this sentence, which I had underlined:
“Do you know what you lack, or rather what you sin against? Discernment. You find hidden meanings where they don’t exist, in places where no one dreamed of concealing them.”
I don’t know anything more about Waller’s book other than what’s available in this post, but having been absorbed once in Steemuller’s first volume of letters, I have a feeling the first thing I’d do with The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant in hand is to find and read the new Flaubert letters. (Dessert first.)
July 23, 2009
Two books have moved off The Reading Table and onto the Currently Reading list.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, a family saga based in the fictional Thomaston, New York.
I’m picking this up again after its several months on the table, starting at page 212, where I left off. I’m hoping I merge swiftly back into the narrative flow with Joe Queenan capability.
Joe Queenan wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review (August 6, 2006), “Why I Can’t Stop Starting Books,” in which he writes, “I have an excellent memory that allows me to suspend reading, pick up a book six months later, and not miss a beat.”
It’s a hilarious explanation about the adventure of starting more books than one finishes:
“Starting books always makes me feel that a long-awaited voyage has already begun; that while it may take five years to finish Boswell’s Life of Johnson or Remembrance of Things Past, these are no longer dimly envisioned projects like learning to play the accordion or fly a helicopter, but in some way a real part of my life. Other people say, ‘One of these days, I’m finally going to get to Ulysses.’ Well, I’ve already gotten to Ulysses. I’ve been getting to Ulysses for the past 25 years.”
The Novice’s Tale by Margaret Frazer, the first in a series of historical murder mysteries that take place in a monastery in Medieval times. (Yet more monastery subject matter. Not surprising, given I’m soon to be staying at a Benedictine monastery for a few days.)
Finally, added to The Reading Table is Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, his first novel about a Japanese woman living alone in England and dwelling on the recent suicide of her eldest daughter and the aftermath of the WWII bombing of Nagasaki.
Also added, as they’ve just arrived, the two books I ordered from the London bookshop: Ulysses and Us by Declan Kiberd and The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt.
July 21, 2009
Here’s a great reading by Garrison Keillor of George Orwell’s essay “A Hanging.” It’s an audio produced for Lapham’s Quarterly, a magazine of history and ideas. Keillor’s voice, his inflections, riveted me to the 10 to 15 minute reading , stopping me mid-multi-tasking to devote my attention to it. A must listen.
For dog lovers, there’s an all-at-once delightful yet shocking scene where a large wooly dog gallops playfully toward the prisoner.
The essay begins …
“It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.”
This post was changed 5.30.11 and 10.3.11 to update the URL to the audio.
July 20, 2009
I’m closing in on the final pages of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede (1969) and asking myself, why read more Rumer Godden?
According to the Rumer Godden Literary Trust website, she wrote “some 60 works during her life,” including novels, poetry and books for children.
Her New York Times obituary (11/10/1998) says she published “some 70 novels, children’s books, memoirs, biographies and collections of poetry and stories.” (Did her publisher lose count?)
I have The River (1946), one of her acclaimed novels based on her childhood in India, under my reading belt, thanks to a school assignment way back when. (I trudged through the book, bored stiff.) And now, also, this fictional rendering of life in a Benedictine convent.
In This House of Brede caught my attention because contemplative Benedictine life interests me. Godden lived for three years near England’s Stanbrook Abbey to research the novel.
The story concerns a successful corporate woman who enters the convent in her 40s. Aside from a few bursts of drama, Godden’s pretty heavy handed in filling the narrative with infinite details about the convent’s rituals and rules of worship, daily work and prayer. Hence, it’s not a novel I would widely recommend, except to those interested, like me, in the topic.
Perhaps to next read Godden’s novel Black Narcissus? Published in 1939, it concerns nuns setting up a convent in northern India. The New York Times review described it as “without flaw” and “not a book to miss.” (7/9/1939)
But a later reference to Black Narcissus in The New York Times (9/21/1969) describes it as an “airy and humorous thing” with a “forgiveable silliness.” Hmmm.
It’s curious that The Oxford Companion to English Literature on my shelf, edited by Margaret Drabble, 1998, doesn’t include Godden as an entry, while the trust website claims her as “one of the foremost English language authors of the 20th century.” Hmmm.
I doubt I’m going to become a devoted Rumer Godden reader, at least, this year.
The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University keeps the Rumer Godden collection.
July 17, 2009
In Jean Thompson’s new collection of 12 short stories, girlfriends, husbands, wives, professors, corporate managers and other everyday people struggle with distressing circumstances, ranging from the mundane (corporate apathy) to the tragic (spousal abuse).
Of course, what sets story collections apart from each other is an author’s style and interpretation of such life circumstances.
In Do Not Deny Me, I found simplicity in rendering characters’ actions and interactions to be the definitive element. It keeps the narratives real and lovely, even when the topics aren’t lovely.
I enjoyed spending time with Thompson’s characters, not only because they are likable but also because Thompson doesn’t throw dramatic curve balls for shock value or to be ultra unique. Often that happens in short stories, as if to create an artistic ‘punch’ instead of telling a good story.
These are good stories.
One of her most heart-moving characters is the disillusioned husband/father/businessman who builds a tree house for himself in his backyard. It’s a place where he can be quiet, looking up into the sky through a leafy canopy.
A regular guy with a wife and two kids, one in college, he says, “You wake up one day and you realize, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, like you’re going someplace. But you’re not.”
His wife takes this strange new project personally, “as if he were withholding some part of himself from her.” His college-aged daughter, home briefly from summer adventures, thinks he’s gone off the deep end. But – like many everyday people in fiction and real life – he’s just in the confusing beginnings of finding a new way to go forward.
I didn’t over think these characters, as I can do, rather let them stand as they are, imagined creations that reflect people we know, or know of, let alone our very selves – gifts to ponder and remember, during and after the stories, not to deny.
July 14, 2009
Two books with September publication dates in the United States, featured in the post Headlights on September, are already available for purchase at the London Review Bookshop online – or at 14 Bury Place, in London’s Bloomsbury district, should you be heading that way: Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro and Ulysses and Us by Declan Kiberd
I recently subscribed to the London Review of Books and discovered the availability in an advertisement for the shop. The discovery comes with a bit of a ‘duh!’ factor, considering the books are by U.K. authors.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved to England in 1960. He became a household literary name with the novel The Remains of the Day (1989) about an aging British butler. It won Ishiguro the Booker Prize and became a movie staring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It’s also his first novel with a British protagonist set in England – his two previous novels (1982, 1986) feature Japanese protagonists.
Kiberd is an Irish writer born in Dublin 1951. He’s a professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama at University College Dublin. The Irish Times describes him as, “an individual given to responding with his heart, as well as his intellect.”
Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us has been published in the U.K. with a slightly different subtitle from what we’ll see in the U.S.: “The Art of Everyday Living” versus “The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece.”
Also of note: A. S. Byatt’s new novel The Children’s Book, with a U.S. publication date in October, is also already published across the pond.
Here’s what the London Review Bookshop writes about it:
“A.S. Byatt’s latest novel, ‘easily the best thing [she] has written since her Booker-winning masterpiece, Possession (1990)’ according to Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times, is a panoramic four-family saga set between 1895 and the end of the First World War.” (Read more.)
All this in case you can’t wait for publication of the U.S. editions. (I couldn’t.) Keep in mind eagerness costs more money. Delivery takes 7 working days, so they tell me. Not bad.
July 9, 2009
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) once confided to a priest that she was unable to go to church, let alone pray.
After the priest read her work, he replied that her poems were her prayers, her typewriter was her altar. “As he left me he said…‘Come on back to the typewriter.’”
This anecdote appears in Kathleen Norris’s most recent book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life (2008), about a depression-like condition that afflicts monks, causing them to become detached from daily praying and haunted by a sense of futility.
The subject matter is difficult but not intimidating, as Norris wrestles with many of acedia’s complexities. From all the ideas and philosophies I took away from the book, that one thought especially remains with me of the priest encouraging this famously depressed, confessional poet that her poems were her prayers.
Today, I bought the following – three first editions of Sexton’s poetry. As I drove home with my treasures, I remembered the anecdote, and it occurred to me that what was sitting in the sack on the passenger seat beside me was neither a mere stack of books nor a mere collection of poetry.
Love Poems (1969) paperback first/Houghton Mifflin
From the back of the book: “There are twenty-five love poems. They can be read as the story of a single lover, or a single romance which [sic] begins with a joyous rebirth described in the opening poem, ‘The Touch.’ But there is in each poem a confrontation with humanity by a woman who cannot train her eye off the real face of that humanity…”
The Death Notebooks (1974) hardbound first/Houghton Mifflin
From the dust jacket: “She speaks here with great power as a woman who has looked at despair and death up close, and has come to terms with them…”
The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975) paperback first/Houghton Mifflin
From inside the front cover: “In this powerful new collection, one of our most dazzlingly inventive and prolific poets tackles a universal theme: the agonizing search for God that is part and parcel of the lives of all of us.”
July 5, 2009
German novelist Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) published All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929. He went on to publish several other novels, but the first remains his hallmark. It’s not just a classic war novel, but frequently categorized and hailed as the greatest war novel of all time.
In brief, the story is about German soldier Paul Baumer, the narrator, who responsibly joins the German army with high-school classmates, only to discover it’s a grotesque and senseless horror show. His innocence doesn’t simply vanish in the trench warfare, hand-to-hand fighting and poison gas. It’s ripped away, and he’s fully aware of the loss.
Paul’s piercing recognitions and reflections moved me. I read them and reread them. I read them out loud. One time it was the scene where Paul, standing sentry, dangerously allows himself to think about the good times of his youth, times now unreachable for all that he and his friends have been through in the war. He despairs the harsh change: “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost.”
Another passage I kept returning to was when Paul guards Russian prisoners of war. He recognizes they are enemies, but only in so far as those who declared the war in the first place deemed them enemies: “But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us.”
All Quiet on the Western Front typically appears on bookstore tables set up to cater to students’ summer reading assignments. I was in the store, shopping for Pat Barker’s award-winning First World War Regeneration trilogy. I changed my mind, though, and picked up Remarque’s classic, thinking, “Ah, this one first!”
Eventually I will get to Barker’s trilogy, and when I do, Paul’s fictional journey will inform it – or any other WWI story – by virtue of Remarque’s bruising emotional realism. By the way, on a whim, I Googled “the greatest war novel of all time” and got an Amazon list of 25 novels ranging from Keneally’s WWII Schindler’s List to Orwell’s Russian Revolution Animal Farm. I wouldn’t rely on an online bookseller to be an authority for such a list, but it’s a curious combination to ponder.
Update: Image changed 1.10.12.
July 2, 2009
Around the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I walked into my neighborhood public library on a summer afternoon and had a panic attack. It occurred to me that I might get all the books I saw on the shelves read, and then what?
By the end of that summer, when I’d barely made a dent in the available volumes, I realized new books were published all the time. (Someone likely pointed out the “new books” shelf, and I discovered Santa, indeed, does exist.)
Publisher’s Weekly issued “The Road to Fall Books” this week, reminding me there’s no need for panic attacks once summer reading is completed. Come Labor Day, from the looks of the lists within this PW issue, we’ll be bombarded with a slew of new choices, from the intriguing to the inane.
For the inane category, I’ll offer First Love: Celebrities’ Tales of Virginity Lost, edited by Dana Cook (Firefly Books). According to the PW blurb, Cook “collects more than 100 personal accounts of boldfaced names.” Oh boy. Mark your calendar. It’s out in September.
Of the intriguing category, here are a few coming in September that I’m looking forward to:
Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow
Homer is blind. Langley is mad from being gassed fighting the Great War. These brothers live together in a crumbling Manhattan mansion, reclusives struggling to survive. A novel that’s based on a true story. Right up Doctorow’s alley. (Random House)
The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage, illustrated by Michael Mikolowski
Savage’s novel Firmin published by Coffee House Press first quietly entered American bookstores in 2006 and then had huge success in Europe. That prompted Bantam to republish it December 2008 – a quirky book about a reading rat living in a bookstore. Savage’s new novel focuses on an editor of a struggling literary journal. If it’s anything like Firmin, it will be wonderfully entertaining. (Coffee House Press)
Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece
by Declan Kiberd
Thirty-five years ago I read major sections of Ulysses in a lit class and ever since have wanted to tackle it again but in full. Now’s my chance with Kiberd opening this enduring, complicated classic to ordinary readers with chapter discussions and explanations. Yes, the opportunity is here to embrace Molly Bloom’s final “…yes I said yes I will Yes.” (W. W. Norton)
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
A promising choice for a short story collection. According to the publisher’s website, Ishiguro has put together a cycle of stories that explore themes of music, love and the passage of time. (Alfred A. Knopf)
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Here’s a true account of a man whose passion for books drove him to steal rare, valuable books from libraries, book fairs and stores. From the publisher’s catalogue: “In the tradition of The Orchid Thief, a compelling narrative set within the strange and genteel world of rare-book collecting: the true story of an infamous book thief, his victims, and the man determined to catch him.” (Riverhead Books)
Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
David Small is a Caldecott Award-winning book illustrator now telling his shocking 1950s childhood story in a graphic memoir. Small’s website describes the book as “a silent movie masquerading as a book.” The son of a Detroit radiologist, Small suffered under his father’s experiments with radiation. This memoir likely will get huge attention. It’s Small’s first book for adults. (W. W. Norton)
Finally, getting back to that subject of summer panic attacks, Minotaur is publishing Jason Starr’s novel Panic Attack in August. It’s billed as a page-turner and from what I’m reading, it could be just the thing for those dog day afternoons.