June 28, 2010
Here’s a book written to make you laugh. Sometimes out loud. Sometimes with a big smile. How Did You Get This Number is the second collection of essays from the 30-something New Yorker Sloane Crosley proving she’s the real thing: a writer who sees life in all its hilarity, even when it’s painful.
Some essays are funnier than others, which isn’t a problem. The up and down on the humor meter is as acceptable here as it is in a comedian’s routine, where some jokes are hilarious and others amusing. Also much like comedy routines, the best humor is in the essays where Crosley writes emotionally close to home. So the essays about the smelly New York cabs or New York apartments she lived in post-college or her childhood pets fall into the amusing category compared to the story behind her terrible sense of direction, a condition beyond a quirky personality trait. Crosley is diagnosed with temporal-spatial deficit, a right-left brain discrepancy that gives her zero spatial relations skills — she can’t read maps, play cards or tell time on an analog clock. Aptly titled “Lost in Space,” the essay falls into the laugh-out-loud category as she explains what it’s like to have the village idiot camped out in half her brain.
“Off the Back of a Truck” stands out by far as the best among the nine essays, a reflection on a year of spending too much on things and people she couldn’t afford. Blinded by romantic hope, Crosley mortgages logic for a boyfriend she doesn’t trust. She simultaneously mortgages logic for expensive Fifth Avenue home furnishings way out of her league. They become in her league thanks to a burly guy named Daryl who steals from the warehouse and offers them at much reduced prices. “Some people have coke guys. I had an upholstery guy,” Crosley writes. One of the longest essays, it’s the most revealing and Crosley at her funniest.
The essays take place in New York, Lisbon, Paris and Anchorage, Alaska. They are for the most part about Crosley’s young adult struggles from socializing with Portuguese clowns in Lisbon to reconciling with her middle-school nemesis, Zooey Ellis. As much as they are funny, the essays reach out to say more. In “Lost in Space” she writes, “I grew up watching TV with my mother while she diagnosed the characters as having hyperactivity or attention-deficit disorder. I rolled my eyes and wondered why there weren’t any stupid kids anymore. Why did there have to be something to explain everyone? Were the cave people on Ritalin? I didn’t think so.”
Crosley’s first collection of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. This new collection of essays is right up there in prize-calibre territory. Sloane Crosley, or Solange, as the burly guy named Daryl called her, is too funny to miss.
June 24, 2010
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award surprises me this time every year when I bump into its announcement. Overwhelmed by beach-read lists and new summer books, I’m not watching for this literary award, let alone anticipating it. And yet it offers the largest prize money given for a single novel — a nice purse of 100,000 Euros ($123,000, according to the New York Times). Another unique factor, nominations for the IMPAC are made by libraries from around the world. This year’s shortlist of eight contenders included novels nominated by libraries in Russia, Austria, France, Hungary and Germany.
The 2010 IMPAC winner is The Twin, a debut novel by Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker. It’s the story of a young man named Helmer who long ago responsibly left his college studies to help run the family farm in the remote Dutch countryside after his twin brother was killed in a car accident. From the publisher’s website: “Ostensibly a novel about the countryside, The Twin is ultimately about the possibility or impossibility of taking life into one’s own hands. It chronicles a way of life that has resisted modernity, a world culturally apart yet laden with romantic longing.”
In a statement about The Twin, the IMPAC judging panel said: “There are intriguing ambiguities, but no false notes. Nothing and no one is predictable, and yet we believe in them all: the regular tanker driver, the next door neighbour with her two bouncing children, and Jaap, the old farm labourer from the twins’ childhood who comes back to the farm in time for the last great upheaval, as Helmer finally takes charge of what is left of his own life.”
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is organized by Dublin (Ireland) City Libraries on behalf of the Dublin City Council and sponsored by IMPAC, an international management productivity company. It’s open to novels written in any language, provided the work has been translated and published in English. The 2010 award will be shared between the author Gerbrand Bakker and David Colmer, who translated The Twin from the original Dutch into English.
June 20, 2010
Camilla Läckberg’s crime novel The Ice Princess debuted in Sweden in 2003. From then on, every year for seven years, she’s published a new story of murder in the real-life Swedish fishing town of Fjällbacka, where Läckberg grew up, with huge popularity for the series. While she’s the #1 female crime writer in Sweden, Läckberg’s debut is just this summer arriving in the U.S. via publisher Pegasus Books –translated by Steven T. Murray and fresh on the heels of the American love fest for fellow Swede Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.
The principal characters of The Ice Princess are Erica Falck, a writer of biographies, and Patrik Hedström, a local detective. Erica has returned to her hometown Fjälbacka from Stockholm to clean out her parent’s house and settle the estate after their death in a car accident. She takes a walk for a writing break and is waved down by local townsman Eilert Berg, who’s discovered the dead body of the beautiful, removed Alexandra Wijkner – she’s half-frozen in her bathtub. Erica takes an interest in what happened to her long-lost childhood best friend, and what unfolds – with intricately rendered psychological detail and connections between characters – is a town secret.
The book’s strength is the multi-layered plot. While the murder is being solved by Patrik and Erica, a love story blossoms between them. There’s also a disturbing struggle between Erica and her sister Anna over the sale of the family house, creating tension.
Many townspeople make appearances and, because they’re treated more than bit players to move the plot, they become singularly engaging for their place in this small “everybody knows everybody” coastal setting. An example is the strong but minor role of police superintendent Mellberg, a conceited, imperfect man who’s been outcast to small town police work for his failure in the larger nearby city of Göteborg. He believes solving the murder of Alexandra Wijkner will reprieve his shunned status, even though it’s Patrik who works the case. As disgusting a person as he is, with his long hair wound into a crow’s nest on the top of his head to hide his bald spot, Mellberg is a kick.
Verdict: The first 100 pages are slow going, with much of the set-up taking place. Also, overused, common reactions spot an otherwise original narrative. They’re easy to forgive and breeze past under the spell of the mystery and the psychological interplay among characters. This is a story rich and intriguing on many levels. I’m not an avid reader of mysteries/crime novels; however, I’ll follow Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series because of the depth she brings to her stories beyond a mere whodunnit.
June 16, 2010
Oh that great American pastime. What The New Oxford American Dictionary defines as an intense and selfish desire for something. We usually associate greed with money and the things that money buys, but when I discovered Diane Wakoski’s take on this component of the seven deadly sins, I found a definition I couldn’t forget. In her series of poems The Collected Greed: Parts 1 – 13 Wakoski casts a broad net that catches all of us:
“Greed, I keep reminding you,
is the failure to choose. The unwillingness to pick one thing over
another. Wealth or simplicity; you cannot have both. Accord,
agreement, harmonious relations with others or your honesty; you
cannot have both. The
telling of the truth
is not beautiful; does not make people feel good.
I do not think any alternative is absolutely right or wrong.
I do know that it is absolutely wrong not to commit yourself
to one alternative or the other.”
Wakoski started her Greed poetry series in 1968 and then added to it through the years. Number 13 was completed in 1984. (She has since published #14 in 2000 within another collection, The Butcher’s Apron.) The poems read like diary entries, confessional, complaining, judging and, for the most part, laying out in plain, unmistakable view what we chose to ignore – that which motivates our desires. Her rants and raves are refreshingly honest and come from the poetry confessions of the 1960s and early ’70s (à la Anne Sexton), a time when poets expressed confessional anger, angst and sin way before writers began dumping them into memoirs. You can hear Wakoski’s unique strong and plaintive voice in these poems, and I relished all of her emotions about self and others because they felt alive and real.
She’s been writing for decades — her first poetry book published in 1962 — and there are many poetry books to show for it. Along with the Greed collection, I’ve read the slim volume/poem Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons (1969), a signed copy published by Perishable Press in 1969 (see below) that I purchased at an antiquarian book fair. (You can read the poem here.) It’s more of that unforgettable autobiographical voice and a beautiful poem, and it later became part of Wakoski’s well-known collection, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (1971).
That’s where I am with Wakoski — in discovery. All of her books except for three new collections, published during the last 10 years, are out of print, and I like finding them by chance in used bookshops and at antiquarian fairs. I’ve purchased Cap of Darkness (1980) and Waiting for the King of Spain (1976), two collections sitting on the bookshelf for someday reading. I must get ahold of those motorcycle betrayals.
Updated 5.16.11 with a new image of The Collected Greed Parts 1-13.
June 11, 2010
This is the season of beach reads, and the lists are pouring into my mail box and in-box and popping up on literary websites. They are the escape books we mentally dig into while our feet dig into the vacation sand, and suntan lotion smears the pages. I’m not heading to the beach this summer, rather I’ll be reading on my patio with a cold glass of beer and corgis at my feet. I’ll be reading War and Peace. (I kid not. Has anyone ever carried War and Peace with a beach ball?) I’ll be reading other books, too, and below is the beginning list, added to the Reading Table: seven interesting books for the patio. The summer has begun.
Self Portraits: Fictions by Frederic Tuten
Inter-related stories in which the author appears. From the publisher’s website: “Fantasy and reality collide as the book’s principal characters — two lovers — meet, part and reunite, time and again, at different stages in life and in landscapes both familiar and exotic.” Tuten’s book will be published in September 2010.
With Love and Rage: A Friendship with Iris Murdoch by David Morgan
Morgan met the famous British author Iris Murdoch while he was a student studying at the Royal College of Art in London in the 1960s. This memoir — a compilation of essays and notes — is considered by some to be one of the more insightful accounts into Murdoch’s life and art to appear since her death in 1999. According to the book’s introduction, it “vacillates between disrespect and homage, between hilarity and tears and between love and rage on both sides.” Published by Kingston University Press of Kingston University in Surrey, England.
Walks with Men by Ann Beattie
A paperback novella at 102 pages, the story of a smart girl fresh out of Harvard hooking up with an intoxicating writer 20 years her senior in New York City. Here she gets her real education. Considered a shadow of Beattie’s own story in the 1980s.
Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman
A small book from Yale University Press I’ve been meaning to read because it’s important we bring books of literature from around the world into English, so we read globally. Also, as I struggled to find a translation of War and Peace that worked for me, I became aware of the significant role of the translator.
Driftless by David Rhodes
Praised by the Chicago Tribune as “The best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years.” In 1976, David Rhodes’ life changed tragically in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He stopped publishing for three decades. Driftless is his return, about contemporary life in rural America. Poets & Writers magazine created a slide show of all his novels.
Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst
A new novel by this master of World War II espionage. I’m a Furst fan and anticipate this to be another smart page-turner. According to the publisher’s website: “Greece, 1940. Not sunny vacation Greece: northern Greece, Macedonian Greece, Balkan Greece—the city of Salonika. In that ancient port, with its wharves and warehouses, dark lanes and Turkish mansions, brothels and tavernas, a tense political drama is being played out.”
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
In the summer of 2008, I bought the highly praised Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of this Russian classic intending to dig in for the long haul of reading. I found the translation cumbersome, for reasons I wrote about several months back on TLC. At hand, now, is the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, written in the 1920s, still considered to be one of the best.
June 8, 2010
I love to read books that are collections of letters. The best ones share intimate emotions and stories of success and disappointment in day-to-day living. They are conversations written down, and it’s the impassioned letter writer’s voice I like to hear inside my reading mind.
I add more books of letters to my bookshelf than I read, due to the hefty page counts of letter collections. When I do read the books, I like to linger in them. It doesn’t work to inhale a bunch of letters in a long sitting. I suppose the lingering imitates how I used to read letters back when they arrived in the mailbox by the front door with a stamp, those years before e-mail.
Next month, Viking Penguin will publish Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. Publisher’s Weekly describes the Kerouac-Ginsberg correspondence between 1944 – 1963 as “intense and offbeat.” It was the time when these young American authors were ushering into our post-war conservative country a countercultural, freer way of living and thinking, opening the doors for the sexual, political and social revolutions of the 1960s. They with William Burroughs were the authors who became known as the Beat Generation with Kerouac writing On the Road (1957), Ginsberg writing Howl (1956) and William Burroughs writing Naked Lunch (1959).
In On the Road, Kerouac writes: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time.” He famously wrote the book on a continuous roll of Teletype paper. It took only three weeks to write, but seven years to get published. In the letters, according to Publisher’s Weekly, Ginsberg tells Kerouac that On the Road is unpublishable. Kerouac asks his friend to regard his magnum opus as the next Ulysses.
The book’s publisher Viking/Penguin says two-thirds of the letters have not before this book been published. Even so, I doubt Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters will hit the “beach reads” summer lists coming out this time of year, but it will be a cool luxury to have close by during hot summer nights.
June 5, 2010
I discovered Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy via Ken Lopez, an antiquarian bookseller in Massachusetts. His weekly e-newsletter included a first edition of the fourth/revised edition of this classic account of the French Indochina war between 1946 and 1954. I’d never heard of the book and, being drawn to stories — fiction and non-fiction — on the U.S. Vietnam War that filled the black-and-white TV screens of my childhood, I copied the newsletter summary of Fall’s book in Notepad and kept it on my computer.
It bears mentioning here that several weeks back I read Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, an unforgettable, gut-wrenching novel that follows a fictional U.S. battalion in Vietnam. The now best-selling novel so fully absorbed me I wish I could start it new again, to relive the days when all I wanted to do was read that book. My gravitation to Street Without Joy seems natural in this context because Bernard Fall lays bare the French army’s strategic mistakes that led to their famous defeat at Dien Bien Phu, giving the U.S. obvious warnings we’d repeat their failure if we proceeded similarly, which we did.
When Street Without Joy was first published in 1961, the Kennedy administration was escalating the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam. The book didn’t get much attention, an unfortunate response considering Fall hammers home the impossibility of Western military arms and technology triumphing over the region’s terrain and people. Colin Powell attests to the oversight in his autobiography, My American Journey when he writes:
“I recently reread Bernard Fall’s book on Vietnam, Street Without Joy. Fall makes painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into. I cannot help thinking that if President Kennedy or President Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book, they would have returned to the White House Monday morning and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate ourselves from the quicksand of Vietnam.”
The fourth edition of Street Without Joy, published in 1964, includes revisions by Fall that address the escalated U.S. military presence in the region. I see it as a non-fiction prequel that gives the novel Matterhorn deeper meaning. I’m reading a library copy of Fall’s book, but I don’t think that’s going to diminish a developing, insistent desire to own its rare cousin available from the antiquarian bookseller.
That cousin is inscribed by Fall to a Major Weber in 1964, and there’s also an ownership signature of a major in the U.S. Air Force dated 1965. Who knows how many other soldiers read this copy, as they prepared to fight the same enemy as the French. I imagine these solider-readers as those I got to know in Matterhorn and see the two books sitting side-by-side on my bookshelf in necessary recognition of what happened to them. What stops me is the price, beyond what I can justify within my book collecting budget; however, it’s likely only a matter of time before I give in. Of course, if I wait too long, the book may no longer be available. But that’s how this collecting jig is danced.