July 28, 2010
Three classic stories — two poetry, one biography — are being published as graphic books: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl; Alighieri Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise; and The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, officially sanctioned by the Anne Frank House. (See below for summaries.)
My hesitation with graphic books drawn from the classics is they become an easy stand-in for the more complex original. What’s lost in translation is the author’s connection with the words, which give life to the creative intent as character and plot come together in the narrative experience. There’s a commitment to the integrity of that experience when we read the classics and endure the literary narrative styles of long ago. And there’s learning that comes from it, of time-stamped cultural messaging. Would we experience Holden Caulfield’s coming of age the same in a graphic adaptation as we would in Salinger’s purely written form?
That said, now I’ll confess. I’ve not read Ginsberg’s Howl nor, in its entirety, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and I’m looking forward to reading their graphic versions. I should read the originals before or after, but I can’t guarantee that will happen until another time. Ginsberg and Dante would not be happy with me.
Here’s what’s coming end of summer, beginning of fall, including links to associated YouTube and movie trailer videos.
Howl, a graphic novel written by Allen Ginsberg, animated by Eric Drooker: This graphic publication is a tie-in with the movie Howl to be released September 24. According to the book’s website, the paperback book visualizes the poem — stanza by stanza — with animation designed for the film. (If you’re a reader of The New Yorker, you’ll recognize the animator Drooker’s work from the magazine’s cover illustrations.) Howl’s publishing history is dramatic. The publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Bookstore manager were arrested by San Francisco police in 1957, charged with disseminating obscene literature. The case went to trial and after testimony from distinguished literati, the book was deemed not to be obscene, rather of social significance. Check out the Howl movie trailer for a glimpse of the trial and other scenes. This page lists when the movie will be showing in your area.
The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography, written by Sid Jacobson and illustrated by Ernie Colón: The Dutch edition came first this summer. We’ll see the U.S. edition in September, published by Hill & Wang. The publisher’s website says the creators’ “account is complete, covering the lives of Anne’s parents, Edith and Otto; Anne’s first years in Frankfurt; the rise of Nazism; the Franks’ immigration to Amsterdam; war and occupation; Anne’s years in the Secret Annex; betrayal and arrest; her deportation and tragic death in Bergen-Belsen; the survival of Anne’s father; and his recovery and publication of her astounding diary.” There’s an in-depth preview of the book on YouTube, well worth the viewing.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise adapted and illustrated by Seymour Chwast
Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly give starred reviews to this condensed version of the epic poem condensed by Chwast. Publisher’s Weekly says: “Much of the book is beautiful, with page design showing naked sinners tossed in a wind of words, a two-page spread of men and snakes wrapped in writhing battle, or a large flower made of angels as they fly from God.” To the point of my comment, Kirkus states: “With all due respect to Dante, this is Chwast’s Divine Comedy, one that uses the poet’s masterwork as a launching pad for a flight to the creative heavens.” Much of what I’m reading in forecasts say Chwast’s work is stunning.
July 23, 2010
I noticed this the other day. Walking down the stairs and turning to go out the front door, there she was, as if she’d casually leaned over and looked out from the side of the bookshelf to gaze at me.
This photo of Carson McCullers is from the back of her sixth book, Clock Without Hands, published in 1961, twenty-one years after her acclaimed first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. I’ve read the latter, as well as McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Café, but not the former, even though it’s sitting on my bookshelf.
I purchased my copy of Clock Without Hands – a first edition — because the dust jacket is pristine, and it’s tough to find a first edition dust jacket in such fine condition. A circle is cut out of the center of it, framing the title and emulating a clock, and that makes the dust jacket fragile. It’s typically damaged.
Clock Without Hands got panned by The New York Times in a review on September 17, 1961. The critic regarded it as less successful than McCullers’ earlier books and said the most “disturbing” quality “is the lethargic flatness of the prose.” The story summary from the dust jacket’s inner flap of my edition says: “Here is a book which faces directly the overwhelming question of good and evil and reaffirms our faith in the dignity of life. J. T. Malone, the unwilling hero of this powerful novel, is engaged in an inner struggle that parallels his impending death. Through extreme moral suffering he discovers the greatest danger is not death but the loss of one’s own self in life, and because of a decision of conscience, he acts and finds himself.”
I’m not inclined to read Clock Without Hands, being it’s not one of McCullers’ best, but I’ve been thinking lately to re-read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It’s a recurring thought that existed before I noticed McCullers leaning over and having a look beyond the bookshelf. I read the acclaimed classic long ago in a college lit class, and I don’t remember much of it beyond scenes from the movie flickering in and out of memory. Perhaps it’s time to get to it, what with those watchful eyes. Either that or I move Clock Without Hands to another bookcase.
July 21, 2010
For a little more than 20 years, Alan Furst has been spinning irresistible espionage set in Europe’s dark time leading up to and including World War II. He’s considered a master at combining history, politics, espionage and romance in a spellbinding style that drops you into the moment. But Alan Furst hasn’t always been a big hit. His first novel published in 1976, Your Day in the Barrel, is a comic murder mystery, which he followed with two more of similar theme in 1980 and 1981. You won’t find these three embarrassments listed under “books by Alan Furst,” though. In remarks about them to The New York Times, Furst said, “All I was doing was showing how smart I was.”
Next came Shadow Trade in 1983, a contemporary spy thriller that transitioned Furst to Night Soldiers (1988), the first of his historical WWII spy fiction for which he’s now known. But Night Soldiers and, next, Dark Star (1991) didn’t skyrocket his popularity and sales, either, although a cult following sprouted around them and grew. With each successive book about espionage set during what’s become Furst’s signature historical time, more and more readers came on board. Now when he publishes a new book, it hits the best-seller list, including this summer’s Spies of the Balkans.
Spies of the Balkans takes place in northern Greece close to the borders of Bulgaria and Turkey. It is 1940 and Mussolini and Hitler are eagerly looking to add Greece to their empires. The book opens with the protagonist, special police agent Costa Zannis, chasing a German spy. When captured, the German’s briefcase reveals photographs of the Greek-Bulgarian border. What follows is the usual suspenseful plotline set in the WWII dark time of uncertainty with history’s people and events expertly threaded through the scenes and a complicating romance hanging in the background. Zannis collaborates with a Jewish woman in Berlin, married to a high-ranking protestant Nazi, in setting up an escape route through Austria, Hungary and the Balkans to Greece and a safe exit to Turkey. He also gets involved with the British in moving an important RAF pilot out of Nazi-occupied Paris in a series of unforgettable, harrowing scenes. This is the good stuff fans rely on, that Furst consistently delivers.
If espionage captures you and Spies of the Balkans is your first Furst, you’ll come away wanting more, which you can satisfy with the 10 previous novels in the series. You can get a complete list with plot summaries on Alan Furst’s website, under About the Books. Regarding those beginning novels Furst would rather ignore, they’re no longer in print yet fetch a nice penny in the collectibles market, with a signed first edition of Your Day in the Barrel commanding between $500 and $1,000.
July 16, 2010
I recently contributed a guest post to the National Book Critics Circle blog, Critical Mass, on the topic “How do you decide what to read next?” In writing about my ongoing hunt for books and where that hunt takes me, it occurred to me to share on TLC some of what I encounter along the way. Books that catch my eye. Books I may acknowledge, but then move on. They could be from reviews or an auction of rare books or a reference in another book I’m reading. And so, a few from this week:
On the Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy by Peter Stothard
From the publisher’s website: “He was the Thracian gladiator who rose up from slavery in 73 B.C. to defeat every Roman army sent to destroy him—before his defeat and crucifixion. Trained at the gladiatorial school, Spartacus escaped. Joined by approximately seventy followers, his army increased to allegedly 140,000 slaves.” In a recent All Things Considered interview, host Guy Raz talks with Stothard about his battle with cancer and how it lead him to write about this slave uprising over 2,000 years ago.
Other People’s Rejection Letters: Relationship Enders, Career Killers, and 150 Other Letters You’ll Be Glad You Didn’t Receive by Bill Shapiro
Published in May this year, Shapiro’s collection of rejection letters come from all sides of life. Check out the preview on the publisher’s website (turn off your pop-up blocker) or the “see inside” from online sellers to get an idea of the book. While this may be a collection of dreaded nasty-grams, Shapiro’s outlook from what he learned is uplifting: “I saw all these people taking beautiful chances with their lives.”
In Parenthesis by David Jones
Originally published in 1937, this prose/poetry work is currently in print thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics editions. From the NYRB website: “… a work that is among the most powerful imaginative efforts to grapple with the carnage of the First World War, a book celebrated by W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot as one of the masterpieces of modern literature. Fusing poetry and prose, gutter talk and high music, wartime terror and ancient myth, Jones, who served as an infantryman on the Western Front, presents a picture at once panoramic and intimate of a world of interminable waiting and unforeseen death.”
Edward II by J.R.S. Phillips
Published this year by Yale University Press, a biography of this King of England who “was the object of ignominy during his lifetime and calumny since it.” The book’s website also says the biography ”tackles the contentious issue of whether Edward II did not die in 1327, murdered under barbaric circumstances, but lived on as a captive in England and then a wanderer on the Continent.” Part of Yale’s English Monarchs Series.
Mud: Stories of Sex and Love by Michèle Roberts
A paperback published this year by Virago in the U.K. From the June 25, 2010 print Times Literary Supplement: “The power of these short stories lies in the moments where they describe distress. Michele Roberts draws emotional pain with precision, describing confusion with a limpid finesse. As stories about women in love, they have a refreshingly broad sense of what that can mean.”
From The Guardian June 26,2010: “The short story is an intimate, subtle and enigmatic form: Michèle Roberts reminds us in this virtuoso collection that she is one of our foremost practitioners of the art.”
July 12, 2010
The six finalists for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award have been announced. This is the sixth year for the award that’s part of a literary festival in Cork, Ireland, home of the renowned Irish short story writer for which it’s named. The cash prize of 35,000 euros is the richest to be given for a short story collection. According to the Munster Literature Centre, the award sponsor, “[The prize] is awarded to what is judged to be the best, original collection of stories published in English in the 12 months preceding its award in September.” Five of the six books for the 2010 prize are by U.S. authors.
Frank O’Connor (1903 – 1966), a pseudonym for Michael O’Donovan, achieved instant fame in 1931 for his story collection Guests of the Nation. He went on to write several more story collections, as well as plays, criticism and autobiographies.
It’s nice to see the short story so handsomely celebrated with this award. While publishers support this fiction form, it’s no secret that a short story collection brings in small, if any, profit. Like poetry, it’s an important and necessary contribution to literature, but it stays afloat at the big publishing houses on the profitable tail winds of novels.
Not even the many short story writers churned out by the creative writing workshops and MFA programs support their literary art in print, given their interactions with literary journals. These journals are the forums where short stories flourish, indeed, the very forums that give many short story writers their first publications. Yet, according to an article in the Spring 2010 Wilson Quarterly, literary journals receive thousands of submissions by short story writers looking to get published but few subscribe. According to the article, “The average literary journal prints fewer than 1,500 copies. Yet the volume of submissions to these publications has exploded.”
Here are the six finalists for the Frank O’Connor award that the judges believe are among the best this year. They’re great suggestions for the reading table in this celebration and support of the short story.
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
NPR book critic Alan Cheuse’s review of Black’s book for the Chicago Tribune included this: “I want to shout about how just when you thought no one could write a story with any tinge of freshness let alone originality about childhood Black has done it, in the story called ‘Harriett Eliot’. And how just when you thought no one could write a story with any tinge of freshness let alone originality about marriage Black has done it, in the story called ‘Gaining Ground’.”
Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs
From a review in The Rumpus: “Boggs’s stories are connected subtly and organically, filled with damaged creatures who live out their tough, wise-cracking existences in Virginia’s semi-rural Mattaponi River region—in its reservation and nearby towns—where four hundred years ago stood the Mattaponi chief Powhattan, his daughter Pocahontas, her eventual husband John Smith, and English colonists who launched an era of violence still felt by Boggs’s people, Indian, white, and black alike.”
Wild Child by T.C. Boyle
From the Los Angeles Times review: “Here are stories of personal apocalypses and the outrageous tragicomedy in seemingly ordinary lives, all delivered with the author’s trademark explosive style.”
The Shieling by David Constantine
The Guardian’s review includes this: “It’s possible to resist Constantine for a page, half a page, of each story. Perhaps it’s the obliquity of the narrative; more likely it’s something in the characters you don’t want to know, something about their lives or their thoughts that reminds you too intimately of your own. Then suddenly you can’t stop reading. You’ve embraced the story in the exact moment it captivated you.”
Burning Bright by Ron Rash
From The Seattle Times review: “He ensures his stature as a truly national treasure with ‘Burning Bright,’ a collection of short stories that combine the lush but rough-edged atmosphere of Appalachia with ice-pick-sharp dialogue, the kind that plunges right to the heart of a character in one vicious, glorious stroke.”
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg
From a review on Bookslut: “It’s a beautiful, moving, and accomplished collection — if the short story really is dead, nobody told van den Berg. Thank God.”
July 8, 2010
I’ve run across some interesting lists lately. My favorite is The Best Bad Books You’ve Never Read. This obviously isn’t a shopping list, rather a hilarious column by a reader whose bookshelves include Crabs on the Rampage and God Is for Real, Man. He’s also the author of Bad Book Club: One Man’s Quest to Uncover the Books That Taste Forgot. It’s available on Amazon’s Kindle or via U.K. sellers. Robin Ince writes:
“It’s easy to find a classic – there’s no epic journey required to get your hands on one. How much trickier it is to track down exquisite drivel, horribly misguided prose plumbing unimaginable depths, dreadful hacks who traverse the mundane to make the bland blissful. You can’t walk into a bookshop and say: ‘Where are the wrong books, please? Do you stock any books that should never have been published?’”
A more useful list is Publisher’s Weekly’s Start-ups for Fall: First Fictions. Here are 10 debut novels considered promising. You get a plot summary, a pitch from the publisher, first lines of the novel and more. One of the 10, The Wake of Forgiveness, has gotten attention from a few other sources and is on my own list for fall books to consider.
Tired of the predictable beach reads? Here’s some eclectic choices from Library Journal’s Classic Returns: Reprints, Updates, and Bargains. An odd list of four, for sure, that includes The Trade by Fred Stenson — “One critic likened it to Lonesome Dove with beavers replacing cattle. Fans of that book and sprawling adventure stories in general will go for this.”
The beavers provide a nice segue to Audubon Magazine. Its online edition published a list of Top 11 Climate Change Books. No escape reading here, but the topic fits the moment, considering we’re boiling up in this hot summer of 2010.
Finally, to settle things down a bit, In Defense of Privacy: The 20th Century’s Most Reclusive Authors. No real surprises in the list of Marcel Proust, J. D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy and Harper Lee, but the stories are interesting. (I didn’t know Pynchon studied under Nabokov at Cornell.) The source, Flavorwire, explains “…we decided to examine why a few authors of a certain age chose to shut themselves away from the media, and in some cases, from publication and society, as well.”
July 5, 2010
Ann Beattie first hit the publishing scene in the 1970s. She became a successful player in the rage of minimalist fiction that continued into the 1980s, but her cropped style regarding emotional depth put me off. I admire understatement, but this went too far for my tastes. So at the time when minimalist short-story writers were being acclaimed, I was delving into their “classic” opposites, reading the stories of John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, William Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth Bowen. In other words, I missed the Beattie boat.
November 2010, Beattie’s stories from The New Yorker will be published together in a collection. It’s a chance for me to catch up on what I missed from the ’70s and ’80s and – with most of her great writing achieved during that time – give Beattie another chance after reading the disappointing Walks With Men.
Beattie’s new, small book published this summer — a novella of 102 pages – tells a common story about a smart but uncertain girl (Jane) in her 20s getting involved with a worldly, older man (Neil) who’s a jerk. Jane is an Ivy League graduate seduced by Neil’s siren song about teaching her things she will not otherwise know. (“In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.”) The majority of Neil’s teachings, though, are ludicrous, especially considering he’s a Barnard professor and an advice columnist for a women’s magazine: “Using an exclamation point for punctuation was interchangeable with eating food and drooling,” or “Wear only rain coats made in England.” They teach, if anything, arrogance.
Nevertheless, Jane settles in with Neil on the fourth floor of a Chelsea brownstone. When she discovers he is married, she attempts but fails at leaving him, showing up at his door late one night after the break-up. In a drunken rush to go find him, she throws a raincoat over her nightgown, jumps into a pair of high heels and throws herself into his arms in a scene that’s so typical it’s cringe-worthy. Fortunately, most scenes are more creative and smart, including when Neil’s wife surprises Jane with her existence.
Neil and Jane’s relationship of eventual marriage, cautious cohabitation and weird dissolve is more confusing than enlightening. The early work of Raymond Carver aside, I’m tempted to say minimalism isn’t for me, except it’s not the style that’s nagging me: Walks With Men doesn’t pull together into a sharply focused pop of a small story, and it leaves a vague “so what” aftertaste.