August 30, 2010
To read Andrew Ervin’s new book is to know why independent small-press publishing just may hold the ticket to our future in literary fiction. Ervin skillfully converges three lives in three stories by intertwining beautiful, minor details that bring separations into an exquisite whole. His impressive debut, published by Coffee House Press, is so masterfully composed, it moves the reader not with intrigue or romance, rather with gorgeous simplicity.
In the first story, “14 Bagatelles,” world-renowned Hungarian composer Harkályi Lajos returns to Budapest for the premiere of his opera, The Golden Lotus. His visit is emotionally charged, for Harkályi emigrated to America as a teen-ager after surviving Terezín. He entered the Nazi concentration camp in 1943 as a violin prodigy, a student of the famous Zoltan Kodály. The melody in the final string quartet of The Golden Lotus is a lullaby Harkályi’s mother sang to him and his brother on the morning they left for Terezín. It’s one of those beautiful, minor details that elevate this book into elegance.
The setting is Independence Day in contemporary Budapest. Harkályi explores the city crowded with revelers in his free time before the opera gala. At one point, he comes upon skinheads attacking an African-American U.S. soldier in the dim hallway of a train station. Harkályi’s presence and words stop the attack, but then the soldier refuses any further help. Back at the hotel, the composer meets his niece Magda, who will be accompanying him to the opera. She’s a translator, working for the U.S. military at a nearby base. Over coffee, she casually references her boyfriend, who’s the protagonist of the second story. He’s also the African-American soldier Harkályi tried to help in the train station.
In the second story, “Brooking the Devil,” Private First Class “Brutus” Gibson is on a gun-running mission that’s been forced on him by his commander at the near-by U.S. military base. Gibson, however, rebels. He hides the weapons, takes a room at a hotel — the same hotel where Magda and her uncle are staying – and antagonizes the gun dealers. In another one of those details that so elegantly tie these stories together, Gibson, who knows nothing about the opera or Magda’s presence in Budapest, smells her unique perfume in the hotel and wonders if she’s involved in his commander’s effort to frame him.
The third story, “The Empty Chairs,” is from the viewpoint of an American violinist in the Budapest Orchestra performing Harkályi’s opera. She, also, passes through the aforementioned hotel, to have her hair cut in the lobby salon. She drinks the same “surprisingly good” coffee sipped the same day by Magda. But this violinist’s greater connection to the composer is the final notes of the opera, the lullaby’s string quartet. She deviates from the score to the horror of her fellow musicians.
It would be unfair to reveal more of this powerful moment that transforms both the violinist and the composer. The three stories build to it and come together in a lasting message about courage and self-truth.
August 25, 2010
J. R. Ackerley’s 1956 memoir about his relationship with a German shepherd holds a solid place in classic dog literature, but that doesn’t mean My Dog Tulip is loved by all readers. Some find the focus on Tulip’s common bodily functions disgusting. Now the story is an animated film.
If you’ve not read My Dog Tulip, be forewarned. It’s a far cry from the emotional heart-warmers Marley & Me and The Art of Racing in the Rain. More Cesar Millan territory, Ackerley’s approach is not one of pampering with treats and toys but acknowledging and respecting the canine’s God-given nature. No stories here about adorable antics and a canine’s life truths.
The first part of the memoir gives studied consideration to Tulip’s bathroom habits, as Ackerley tries to understand social urination and a dog’s needs. (“Dogs read the world through their noses and write their history in urine,” Ackerley writes.) And then the rest of the book — the majority — focuses on finding Tulip a husband and the timing and anxieties of coupling two dogs. You’ll never wonder again what happens when a bitch goes into heat.
Written by a British literary man mid-20th Century, the prose is gentle and proper, dotted with the occaisonal “hitherto” and lacking contracted words.
I was at first surprised, then unsettled and finally won over by this recollection of a lonely bachelor who unexpectedly finds himself the owner of an 18-month-old female Alsatian bitch, as he refers to Tulip, overwhelming his life with chaos and devotion. Ackerley’s story demonstrates how he loved Tulip by allowing her a dog’s life in the framework of a man’s world. He takes to heart what his vet tells him: “Dogs aren’t difficult to understand. One has to put oneself in their position.”
Boring? Disgusting? Only if you ignore the author’s intention. When I realized there would be no drama and no emotional tug from a dog’s unconditional love, I surrendered to the essence of Ackerley’s relationship with Tulip and experienced the book’s perfection. If “one has to put oneself in their position,” then one needs to open up to the significant role bodily functions play in dogs’ lives — functions we control so the dogs fit better into our human lives. We spay and neuter, pick up the pooh, designate appropriate pee spots and yank them along on a leash when they spend too much time sniffing. Love it or loathe it, My Dog Tulip asks us to consider whether or not it’s right to impose human standards of conduct on a dog.
The San Francisco Film Festival website says, “Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the animated film ‘My Dog Tulip’ is that people who don’t consider themselves dog people are irresistibly drawn to it.” Given the reaction to the book, I’m betting not everyone will have such positive feedback.
The official promotional movie trailer is delightful, but I also recommend watching the San Francisco Film Festival movie trailer. It’s a true reflection of the book’s subject matter, illustrating social urination. (Tulip’s interaction with horse dung is hilarious.) Click on the preceding linked words in this paragraph to access the individual trailers.
For a peek at how the film was created, check out this YouTube segment about the creators.
August 17, 2010
If I make a list of books to re-read, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time will be in the top five. That’s because, even though I read it, I missed it. I know that now, having just finished Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes. It’s a new book that reveals in wrenching detail Grimes’ rise and fall as a writer. He studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under Conroy, the influential director. More than student and teacher, Grimes and Conroy became close friends, with Conroy also a mentor and father figure to Grimes.
Mentor is a must read for any aspiring novelist to understand the persistence and strength of character needed to survive as a career novelist. Grimes writes intimately about his experiences with agents and editors, his successes and failures with his books and, most poignantly, his interactions with Conroy. It’s delightful, heartbreaking and ruthlessly honest.
Throughout the memoir Grimes mentions Stop-Time, Conroy’s classic memoir of childhood and adolescence, offering the back story of how it came to be written — such as when Grimes explains the rage behind the words, fueled by Conroy’s failed first novel. But it’s Grimes’ eulogy at Conroy’s funeral in 2005, reprinted in Mentor, that nudged me to admitting I didn’t realize I’d read a masterpiece:
“As a genre, the memoir barely existed before Frank published Stop-Time, which, he once told me, was completely out of sync with its era. Yet the book became a classic because the purity of Frank’s perfect prose not only stops time, but renders time timeless.
“Writing the book exorcised and, at the same time, celebrated his childhood; and by age thirty Frank had fulfilled what Susan Sontag deemed to be the sole responsibility of a writer — to write a masterpiece.”
Stop-Time made Conroy a literary celebrity, although it didn’t make him much money. To this day, 43 years after it was first published, it remains in print. It’s not all that long ago that I read it, but I read it too fast, and without the understanding and insight I gained in Mentor.
August 14, 2010
Every so often I’ll be overwhelmed with desire to read a certain Young Adult (Y.A.) novel. I’ll resist that desire, hovering over the “buy” button online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, thinking, thinking and, yes, over thinking. I always end up in the same place of “oh no, you can’t” and move on to purchases of adult literary novels.
Two forces fuel the resistance. I want to read far too many adult fiction and non-fiction books, both new and past, for which there are not enough hours in a lifetime. How then can I allow such an indulgent detour? Second, I wonder if I’m being childish. Will I next be buying stuffed animals and tossing them onto my bed? I feel embarrassed.
A recent essay in The New York Times Book Review releases me from my ridiculous self-consciousness. According to “The Kids’ Books Are All Right,” academics and critics, agents and editors of adult literature are reading Y.A. novels. We’re not talking Harry Potter and Twilight. They’re going backward to read childhood classics they missed, let alone reading new releases.
What struck me was not that I could sigh with the relief of permission, knowing heavy-weights in the literary community eagerly read Y.A. novels, but that I got the answer for my perplexing desire. Y.A. books allow for a kind of timelessness and wonder, the article explains. It quotes Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large at the Oxford English Dictionary, who says, “When you read these books as an adult, it tends to bring back the sense of newness and discovery that I tend not to get from adult fiction.”
When I read The Book Thief and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, two best-selling Y.A. novels, those were the feelings I felt: timelessness, wonder, newness and discovery. Why deprive myself of them? No longer will I hover with indecision over the Y.A. books that catch my attention. I’ll read them, and I’m going to start with Suzanne Collins’ popular The Hunger Games and Rebecca’s Stead’s When You Reach Me, the 2010 Newbery Medal winner I’ve resisted for a year. After that, perhaps I’ll read The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, a biography for ages 12 and up, braving my own escape into books that just might keep me young and hopeful.
August 10, 2010
Ann Weisgarber’s debut tells an engaging fictional story about an African-American woman homesteading in the South Dakota Badlands during the early 20th Century. Her presence in the unsettled American West is due to the handsome Buffalo Soldier Isaac DuPree, whom she meets in 1903 while working as the cook for his mother’s Chicago boarding house. Rachel overhears Isaac’s intent to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and makes a bargain with him: Isaac can have her 160 acres of public land allotted to her – as it is allotted to every man and unmarried woman – but he must marry her and take her with him.
When the book opens, it is 14 years later and the summer of a severe drought. Their cattle are dying, food supplies are low, and the hot wind marks their bodies and those of their five children with the land’s grit. Isaac is dropping their six-year-old daughter Liz into the well to scrape water from the bottom, while Rachel, hugely pregnant, looks on, frightened but trusting. She and Isaac have built their 2,500 acre Circle D ranch together, winning respect and equality from neighboring white settlers.
Weisgarber portrays their hardship on the prairie with narrative allure reminiscent of the iconic Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. She delivers the message that land ownership and strength of character determined a pioneering man’s status, not his color; however, Weisgarber tells the message of color more than she shows it. For much of the book, you wouldn’t know her characters are African-American by picking it up and reading a random page. Neither their speaking voices nor their actions illustrate their ethnicity.
The flaw didn’t distract me from my compulsive reading. Rachel’s narrating voice is strong, vivid in its depictions of a harsh pioneering life and emotionally enveloping. She understands and lives the courage it takes to survive in the Badlands’ unforgiving prairie, but she also recognizes when that courage turns in on itself and ignores reason. Eventually Rachel realizes Isaac puts his family second to their ranch. When she gives birth without Isaac present, she reaches a point of despair and goes against the wishes of Isaac to protect herself and her children.
The Personal History of Rachel DuPree urgently moves forward with clear, absorbing prose, making it hard to put down. It was long-listed for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the Orange Award for New Writers. This captivating novel will dig deep into the hearts of its readers.
August 5, 2010
The Guardian published a list of top 10 graphic design books, and one is Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art. I don’t know much about graphic design or books on the subject, but the Paul Rand book has a special place in my heart. It was given to me as a good-bye gift when I left Chicago in 1987. I remember the moment clearly when I stopped by the lobby of the corporate workplace – I believe it was on Michigan Avenue – to say farewell to a friend, who was in his beginning years as a graphic designer. He surprised me with the book, wrapped as a gift. Now, these many years later, he owns a design company based in Chicago with worldwide clients.
For my untrained eye, the Paul Rand book is something beautiful and inviting to page through, with its design examples of book covers, corporate advertisements and magazine ads. But it is so much more than that, recognized in 1997 by Critique Magazine as “a sermon from the mount, with every essay a commandment—not about what to design, but about how to think about design.” (via the Paul Rand website)
And then this, from the graphic designer who created the list for the Guardian: “Paul Rand is one of only a handful of names that is guaranteed to appear on any list of the greatest graphic designers. The almost magical invention in his work, and the prominence he maintained over five decades, mark him out as the Picasso of graphic design. In this collection of his writing he shows as much clarity and verve in articulating his approach to design as in the wealth of examples that illustrate the text. Both make the book enormously compelling.”
Paul Rand: A Designer’s Art was published in 1985 by Yale University Press. It’s no longer in print but can be purchased from used booksellers. Looking through it again this evening, I found an advertisement created for a place where I once worked. The book still delights me with new things to see.
August 3, 2010
Below are 13 novels that made the longlist for the United Kingdom’s 2010 Man Booker Prize. The shortlist will be announced on September 7. The award winner will be announced on October 12. Last year, Hilary Mantel won for Wolf Hall.
According to the Man Booker website, the prize, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008, aims to reward the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.
One book on this year’s long list — The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas – is causing controversy. According to The Guardian: “…while some readers including, evidently, the Booker judges speak excitedly of the Australian author’s bravery in tackling uncomfortable truths, others criticise the word-of-mouth hit as ‘offensive’ and say it is full of ‘unbelievable misogyny’. The Slap is turning out to be the most divisive Booker novel in years.”
You can read an interview with Tsiolkas from the book’s linked title below. Also below is the rest of the 2010 Booker longlist. The books are linked to websites offering more information. Or, you can go to the Man Booker web page that gathers the books with summaries in one place. Being this is a British prize, not all the books are published yet in the U.S.
Peter Carey: Parrot and Olivier in America
Published in the U.S. in April 2010 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Emma Donoghue: Room
Scheduled to be published in the U.S. in September 2010 by Little, Brown & Company
Helen Dunmore: The Betrayal
Not scheduled for U.S. publication at this time
Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room
Scheduled to be published in the U.S. this month by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (paperback)
Correction: In a Strange Room is not yet scheduled for publicaton in the U.S. McCelland & Stewart is a Canadian publisher.
Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question
Not scheduled for U.S. publication at this time
Andrea Levy: The Long Song
Published in the U.S. in April 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Tom McCarthy: C
Scheduled to be published in the U.S. in September 2010 by Knopf
David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Published in the U.S. in June 2010 by Random House
Lisa Moore: February
Published in the U.S. in February 2010 by Grove Press/Black Cat (paperback)
Paul Murray: Skippy Dies
Scheduled to be published in the U.S. end of this month by Faber & Faber
Rose Tremain: Trespass
Scheduled to be published in the U.S. October 2010 by W. W. Norton & Co.
Christos Tsiolkas: The Slap
Published in the U.S. in April 2010 by Penguin (paperback)
Alan Warner: The Stars in the Bright Sky
Not available at this time in the U.S.
August 1, 2010
This is one of those books I purchased on impulse. It felt old and enticing, with history captured not only within its pages but in the look and feel of the cover. This first edition paperback published in 1969, Telling It Like It Was: The Chicago Riots, is an anthology of prose about that last week in August 1968 when violence exploded on the Chicago streets during the Democratic Convention. Delegates were deciding between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern for their presidential candidate. The book’s cover lists the evocative social names Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden and literary giants William Styron, Arthur Miller and Elizabeth Hardwick as some of the book’s contributors. How could I resist?
Most of what’s written in the book happened between Saturday, August 24, when the majority of demonstrators began arriving, and the following early Friday morning, August 30, when Chicago police invaded the McCarthy headquarters. In the preface, editor Walter Schneir describes the “period in which we are living” (the late 1960s) as “a period of signs and portents: assassinations, burning cities, a cruel obscene war, a barbed-wire convention. Massive rock strata shift beneath our feet. In such a bewildering time, writers are challenged to fulfill their most difficult function – to give name, shape, and meaning to the apparent social chaos.”
I was 13 that August in 1968, watching the convention on TV at night with my sister, grandmother and grandmother’s best friend. We were vacationing in a house on Chaska Beach in Northern Ohio. I have a vivid memory of my sister doing imitations of Humphrey, Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson while sitting on top of a staircase ledge near the TV set. This book preserves that highly charged August week in Chicago on my bookshelf, as well as the week we depended on the wind off the lake to cool us in the house without air-conditioning, and there was nothing to watch on TV except the convention and the riots.
A note on the book’s editor Walter Schneir: He’s known for his research and writing about the Rosenberg espionage case, principally for his 1965 book, Invitation to an Inquest, arguing that the Rosenbergs had been framed. He later came to believe – after gaining access to Soviet documents — that Julius Rosenberg indeed was a Soviet spy, although not his wife, Ethel. Schneir continued to dig into what happened to the Rosenbergs, and Melville House is publishing next month his last book, Final Verdict: What Really Happened in the Rosenberg Case, with additional revelations. Schneir completed Final Verdict before he died in April 2009.