November 28, 2009
Alice Munro’s new collection of stories sits on my “soon-to-be-read” stack. Not surprising, it’s made The New York Times 100 Notable Books for 2009 and receives a glowing response in the Sunday, November 29, NYT Book Review.
Munro rules the short story kingdom with unmatched ability to create engrossing mini-novels within a short-story structure. I’m eager to read these 10 new stories but, for the moment, I’m interested in the book’s design.
Book design is something I’ve been taking note of lately. With the potential demise of book art haunting literary production, depending on the success of e-readers, I’m curious, and sad, about what we’re letting go of. Becoming familiar with Too Much Happiness before I read it (an act of flipping through the pages, reading random paragraphs, cruising publication notes, skimming blurbs and acknowledgements), I came upon “A Note on the Type.”
The following is fascinating and gives a bit of a chuckle, considering Munro’s roots lie in British soil:
“This book [Too Much Happiness] was set in a modern adaptation of a type designed by the first William Caslon (1692 – 1766). The Caslon face, an artistic, easily read type, has enjoyed over two centuries of popularity in our own country. It is of interest to note that the first copies of the Declaration of Independence and the first paper currently distributed to the citizens of the newborn nation were printed in this typeface.”
We don’t get these notes much anymore, a “hail to the design” for the type chosen, let alone the artwork on the dust jacket and then the whole of the book’s design, pieces and parts that are as important as the content but, like much in the arts today, losing ground. Consider what’s behind the beautiful production of Munro’s collection:
- The front and back dust jacket images are pencil-on-paper creations of the artist Peggy Preheim, whose work is represented by Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea, New York City. You can see more of Preheim’s work here.
- The dust jacket design is by Carol Devine Carson. Her website features a wall of book covers she’s designed and/or directed. You can get to it here.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can certainly want to own a book for its cover. There will be more about the book as an art object on TLC.
November 25, 2009
On Thanksgiving day I’ll be feasting with friends, each bringing to the table interesting home-cooked dishes, a bottle of pinot noir and a poem.
We are to bring (in the words of a participating friend) whatever verse has meaning to us – original, old favorite, modern, ancient, whatever we may find … the fewer parameters, the better … because part of the enjoyment is to experience the reason for the choice, why each person’s verse has personal meaning.
I’ll be sharing W. S. Merwin’s “To the Happy Few.” It’s not available online without cost (unless you subscribe to The New York Review of Books ). Since copyright police would frown at posting it in full on The Longest Chapter without permission, I’ll offer here, as a replacement, another Merwin poem.
W. S. Merwin became a favorite of mine this year with The Shadow of Sirius, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Thank you to all who follow The Longest Chapter. I’m grateful for your reading presence and this blogging adventure. Happy Thanksgiving!
“Thanks” by W. S. Merwin
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions… <read more>
Noted: Updated Thanksgiving 2012, with minor edits.
November 23, 2009
Dwight Garner, New York Times book critic, became obsessed with vintage book ads while browsing through back issues of his newspaper’s Book Review. This month HarperCollins/Ecco published a collection of his findings, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, “plucked from yellowing newspapers, journals and magazines large and small.”
The image-filled book is a page-turner for the curious fascinated by publishers’ methods of marketing what were once first novels and now are classics, spinning controversy, putting author’s photos “to bold use” and generally doing whatever they could to grab attention through the years.
Garner divides the book by decades between 1900 and 2000 and provides concise introductions to each decade with insights about changing trends for the black-and-white ads. Some of my favorites are the earliest, when publishers wrote ad copy as if they were old-time street barkers.
Read Me is a fun trip down Memory Lane with Garner’s choices leaning toward — but not exclusive to – literary fiction: On the Road, Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, Fahrenheit 451 and The Fountainhead are examples. You can peek inside the book on the publisher’s website; however, I think Barnes & Noble offers a much better preview. The bookseller showcases more of the ads.
Garner notes in his introduction that this is not a comprehensive survey and some readers may be disappointed not to find their favorite authors, books or ad campaigns. No disappointment here. A word of advice, though: Keep a magnifying glass handy for the wee print.
November 20, 2009
I’ve recommended Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem as one of the funniest detective stories I’ve ever read. When I learned Lethem wrote the introduction for this year’s reissue of L. J. Davis’s Brooklyn novel A Meaningful Life (originally published in 1971), I took note and bought it. Reading Davis’s story, I laughed like I laughed with Motherless Brooklyn.
The plot summary: The novel’s protagonist Lowell Lake wakes one morning not long after his 30th birthday to a panic attack. He realizes his New York life isn’t going to get any better, or worse. The managing editor of a second-rate plumbing trade weekly, he sits in a cubicle slightly larger than a toilet stall. His marriage is equally small in affection. Everything is all wrong about his life, including, Lowell realizes, how little of it he’s spent thinking. To break free, he buys a fixer-upper on a crime-ridden Brooklyn street. All of this is fodder upon which Davis hangs his smartly dark and breezy comedy. Here and there it’s un-PC in an Archie Bunker sort of way, probably more so now than it was 38 years ago.
Davis’s humor deeply darkens when Lowell gets over his head with the Brooklyn project and commits a murder. That crime feels forced and over-imagined, and the book ends lacking much of its original punch. Davis delivers one of the most depressing last lines ever to be written. But we must keep in mind that Lowell’s fate is to live a life in which success eludes him. In that light, the final verdict about this hapless New Yorker settles into its context of dark comedy, and A Meaningful Life remains a funny book. Right up there with Motherless Brooklyn.
November 18, 2009
Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award for fiction. I’m just past the midway point and so absorbed when reading this novel I hate to put it down.
Winners in the four categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature announced late this Wednesday night are:
- Fiction: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
- Nonfiction: T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
- Poetry: Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy
- Young People’s Literature: Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
November 18, 2009
Bonnie Jo Campbell burst onto the literary scene with the nomination of American Salvage for a 2009 National Book Award in Fiction. I read this collection of stories because of that nomination and also because American Salvage seemed to come out of nowhere. And so I discovered the work of a talented writer who can take readers into jobless, drug-addicted fictional lives with narrative intimacy and beauty without ignoring or simplifying the ugliness.
Campbell’s atmospheric palate is similar to that of Donald Ray Pollock and Carolyn Chute by claiming thematic residency in a regional poor, working class setting of Michigan foundry workers, deer hunters and junkyard workers. These are hard-pressed people who struggle to love one another, especially when methamphetamine is involved. Several of the 14 stories take us into powerful places of emotional wreckage caused by addiction.
In the story “The Solutions of Brian’s Problems,” a husband on the brink of losing his job, house and baby to Social Services thinks through actions he can take to change life married to a meth-hooked wife. His solutions range from walking out on her to cutting her meth with Drano so she dies when she shoots up. Each of the seven solutions is shocking and yet frighteningly tenable because Campbell writes from inside Brian’s harsh, ruined reality.
Her stories beat a steady rhythm of money problems. Characters have lost their jobs or struggle to make ends meet on reduced hours. In two stories they worry about Y2K and the loss of fuel supplies. Many times what they do is not for themselves, rather an act of love for someone else.
In the title story, “King Cole’s American Salvage,” a man attacks a salvage yard owner for the wads of cash he carries in his pockets. He needs the money to pay his meth-addicted girlfriend’s mortgage. In a brilliantly written moment of subtle gestures and words, Campbell ends the story with the victim’s flash of realization that his trusted nephew, who is a friend of the attacker, was involved in the crime.
Even though crime or wrong-doing predominate in this engaging collection, Campbell intends for us to see her characters sympathetically. She succeeds because she writes with knowledge of how desperate people hope and love, telling stories in a style of unsettling grace.
November 16, 2009
The New York Review of Books Classics is celebrating 10 years of publishing. During that decade, one of its best sellers has been The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Every time I read or hear about this 17th century tome, there’s exceptional praise. But I can’t imagine heading in for the read. Not only is this compendium of melancholia’s many dispositions composed of dense prose, it’s written in 17th Century style, using the likes of “doth” and “hath.”
Last year, I urged my friend BE, a voracious reader, to read it for my vicarious enjoyment. He has yet to reach the last page. I’m not sure he’s even passed page 200. What is it about The Anatomy of Melancholy that sets it apart? viaLibri prices earlier copies ranging from $40 to $272 (as of this date). Echo Library, a print-on-demand publisher, offers it in two volumes. (The NYRB Classics version comes in one volume.) Michael Dirda writes in Classics for Pleasure, “…surrender to its seemingly wayward rhythms and you will understand why Samuel Johnson used to say that it was ‘the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.’” Dirda also writes, “The Anatomy of Melancholy is not, in fact, a volume to read through so much as to live with.” I might add for a long time, considering it’s 1,392 pages.
November 13, 2009
This year’s Prix Goncourt went to Marie NDiaye for Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women). There’s great excitement over NDiaye being the first black woman ever to win this prestigious prize, France’s top literary award for French literature. What caught my eye, though, was the financial gift attached to the Goncourt: €10 or approximately $15. Seriously? Indeed. The Goncourt website says the financial bonus comes with the increased book sales that inevitably result from winning the award. At least, that’s how my French reads it.
Also this month, the long list for Ireland’s 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Award has been announced, and it is a very long list: 156 novels submitted by libraries in 43 countries.
Selecting books to read from this list is a great way to be introduced to international novels. The IMPAC award is open to novels written in any language, provided the work has been translated and published in English. (Get the list here.)
The Dublin (Ireland) City Council will announce the IMPAC shortlist on April 14, 2010. The winning novel will be announced on June 17, 2010. The award amount? A sweet €100,000 (around $140,000). This year’s winner was Michael Thomas for Man Gone Down, as written about on TLC.
November 10, 2009
It seems like every magazine and newspaper I pick up these days has an article delivering what I find to be depressing news on the fate of books. Here’s the recent lot:
- “The Future of Reading”
Library Journal November 1, 2009
- “The Future of the Book”
The Wilson Quarterly Autumn 2009
(The article is not yet available online.)
- “Books in Hard Times”
Fine Books & Collections
(The article is not yet available online.)
- “Where Have All the Students Gone? The Demise of the English Department”
The American Scholar Autumn 2009
- “Lament on the Culture of the Printed Word”
The New York Times, November 3, 2009
For a book lover, it’s a bit like watching crime & murder TV news day after day. Eventually you punch the remote to a sitcom or the nature channel for relief.
In this scenario, I reached for The Time of Their Lives by Al Silverman on My Reading Table. It revisits the golden age of book publishing from1946 to the early 1980s, “when books were most beloved by a reading public” and before “the great old-line book people began to be replaced by bottom-line businessmen.”
Stories about authors are the book’s behind-the-scenes, entertaining gems, such as the one about “Jerry” Salinger approaching Harcourt with The Catcher in the Rye. Harcourt had a textbook division, and the “crazy” prep school protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was inappropriate for their publishing house. And so it was rejected.
And then there’s the story about James Herriot’s books first published in England: If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. St. Martin’s Press combined the American version into one memoir about the Yorkshire veterinarian. It became the best-selling All Creatures Great and Small. That title is thanks to a British man in St. Martin’s marketing department. Americans in editorial wanted to call the book Cow in the Waiting Room.
November 8, 2009
I attended the keynote address by Louise Erdrich at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival in Gambier, Ohio, last night. I went to get her signature on my copies of Love Medicine (1984), The Beet Queen (1986), The Bingo Palace (1994) and Tales of Burning Love (1996).
When it came time for the book signing, the festival committee had everyone in line write their names on pieces of paper for Ms. Erdrich to copy for inscriptions. When I gave her my books, though, she only signed her name. “These are first editions,” she said.
I knew what Ms. Erdrich meant. Signed first editions are more valuable with just the author’s signature. But I saw her drawing pictures on another person’s book title page, and I was curious what it was and what it might be for my books. Also, I’d heard inscriptions help verify the signature is real because there’s more of the handwriting to evaluate, should there ever be any question. I decided to keep quiet. She was looking to the future for the books and me.
Her signature on the title page of The Bingo Palace, though, includes the star and northern lights symbol, typical to this book.
November 7, 2009
The feature story in the Autumn 2009 issue of The American Scholar brings to the forefront another growing concern affecting books and literary life: the decline in the number of English literature students at colleges and universities. This once popular and esteemed major is heading toward rarefied air.
Writer William M. Chace cites facts and explains the sad but intriguing evolutions. There was a time when college students didn’t regard their education as a means to secure a financial future, rather a means to better understand life. Those were the days English degrees and the humanities thrived. Business majors now carry the popularity torch. Chace writes, “Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefitted; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers.”
Chace also points out that institutions of higher learning operate on ever tighter budgets, and the study of literature doesn’t attract sponsors, donors or federal funding, like business and the sciences: “…English departments are regarded by those who manage the university treasury as more liability than asset.” (ouch)
As I type this post, the bookshelf to my left holds the English literature paperbacks I studied in college. They’re not the kind of books you’re going to see enthusiastically marketed on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, nor frequently recommended for book clubs. They are the stuff of academic programs Chace writes about.
Here’s a random 10 novels pulled from that shelf. The years indicate first year published. Will the study of these books go the way of Latin and Greek majors? Chace suggests they will, unless English department faculties change their ways.
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1886)
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848 in book form)
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith (1859)
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence (1913)
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (1951)
The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (1947)
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874, book form)
Howards End by E. M. Forster (1910)
Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742)
The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott (1818)
Regarding The Heart of Midlothian, check out the following. It’s about the author Sir Walter Scott’s thematic focus, clearly germane to issues of today’s world.
From the introduction to my college paperback: “[Sir Walter Scott's] subject is really a nation or culture moving through time, jettisoning the irrelevancies of the past, clinging to the permanencies, uncertainly exploring the future; it is a world of slow but profound evolution: old ways, instincts, habits are always dying out; the new slowly comes into being.”
November 5, 2009
Yesterday morning, skimming the newest issue of The New York Review of Books (NYRB) while the morning coffee brewed , there it was — Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte – in the advertisement “Great Novels of World War II from NYRB Classics.”
I couldn’t believe it. Long ago, before I was skilled in the search for books and before viaLibri, Bilio.com, AbeBooks and other online resources, I searched in vain for this memoir in libraries and used bookstores. My hand-written note about the title in a forgotten list of desired old books, out-of-print books, curious books says, “Memoir written behind Nazi lines – essential reading – out of print.”
Kaputt was published by Dutton in 1946 and sold for $3.75 (407 pages). It is based on Malaparte’s experiences during WWII as an Italian war correspondent covering Axis Europe. Given the author was one of the original Italian Fascists interacting with Mussolini and Hitler’s officials, American critics questioned how much his story could be trusted.
The New York Times critic, Orville Prescott, wrote on November 5, 1946: “Mr. Malaparte’s own record is such that one cannot be certain of his sincerity and one cannot know how much of Kaputt to believe.” But he also wrote that Kaputt was “one of the most remarkable books yet to come out of the second World War.” He called it “engrossing” and “amazing.” Time magazine on November 11, 1946, described Kaputt as a “readable and often brilliant distillation of Malaparte’s war experience.”
That word “readable” needs to be taken with some caution: From what I’ve read in the online articles, Malaparte witnessed horrific German atrocities while at the same time he socialized with German officials. What he recorded in Kaputt is grotesque inhumanity and moral depravity, or, as Prescott wrote, a “moral abyss.”
Regarding The New York Review of Books Classics series, from their website: “NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.”
Update: This post was updated on 10.26.10 with a better image of the NYRB Classics book cover. An image of the first edition published by Dutton in 1946 was removed.
November 2, 2009
I started reading Philip Roth with The Plot Against America (2004). After that, there was a new novel in 2006 – Everyman, and then 2007 – Exit Ghost, and then 2008 – Indignation, and now, 2009 – The Humbling. This new novel — small, less than 150 pages – is concerned with themes similar to Everyman and Exit Ghost, of aging, dying, sex and identity. One would think a repeated writing about Jewish male protagonists (also a Roth hallmark) mourning lost youth and virility would get stale. Instead, under the pen of this literary legend, the stories keep getting better.
The Humbling is the best yet. It’s tightly written with perfectly timed character exits and entrances, exquisitely scored monologues and discussions, and an emotional palette that’s not too sentimental yet passionately real. There is no line out of place.
The protagonist Simon Axler is a classic American stage actor in his sixties. His fame derives from his ability to rivet audiences with a powerful presence of characters’ eccentricities and mannerisms. When the story opens, he’s lost his magic, having failed on stage as Prospero and Macbeth at the Kennedy Center. Axler suffers a breakdown and, fearing he’ll take his life, enters a psychiatric hospital for 26 days. Within months of leaving the hospital, his wife divorces him, unable to cope with her husband’s failure. Alone in his New York farmhouse, Axler gets a visit from his agent.
Here Roth writes an unforgettable 14 page conversation between the two, a business dialogue that’s a psychological tug of war. The agent spins a web of persuasions to get Axler to return to the stage, and Axler delivers smart, self-aware rebuttals illustrating he knows he’s not simply hit a temporary impediment. This is it. He’s done.
Axler’s relief from despair arrives in the daughter of long-ago friends, a lesbian in her 40s, sad about a recent break-up. She jumps the sexual preference divide into Axler’s bed. Axler takes her to New York for expensive new clothes and haircut, enhancing her transformation with feminine accoutrements. They are an unusual couple in a relationship based on need. A tenuousness hovers over their interactions, except when they’re in bed together. The sex scenes are powerful, erotic and seamless with the rest of the action, neither gratuitous nor improbable.
Roth casts a dim view of greatness in the last chapter called The Final Act. Axler has played the mightiest characters in his career on stage from Shakespeare’s kings to Eugene O’Neil’s dysfunctional men, but his fame and history of past greatness do not sustain him. Axler believes he is finished, and he acts the part brilliantly.
I’ve wondered how much of Philip Roth, now in his 70s, appears in his aging protagonists. In this instance, does he believe his own greatness will not sustain him? In an interview with Tina Brown on The Daily Beast Video, he says he fears for the loss of ideas: “When I finish a book, I think What will I do? Where will I get an idea? … A kind of low-level panic sets in.” He also talks on The Daily Beast about writing the sex scenes in The Humbling and comments on the future of the book.