October 30, 2010
I had the pleasure of exploring Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory with a book club this past week. Over a lunch of wine, chicken salad and a yummy berry cheesecake, we discussed this classic memoir about lost childhood, set in early 20th-century Russia prior to the revolution. The story that is so elegantly expressed — neither too sentimental nor overly melodramatic – moved members of the book club frequently to read passages out loud to hear Nabokov’s poetic style and be astonished by the detail. This passage is one of my favorites:
“I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.”
It’s widely known Nabokov first published his memoir in book format in 1951 as Conclusive Evidence and then heavily revised and republished it in 1966 under its current title. I pulled Stacy Schiff’s Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) from my bookshelf and learned more about the book’s title, specifically that Vera offered her own list of possibilities. As Schiff writes, “we can only be grateful that she did not prevail” or Nabokov’s classic might have been named “Fluorescent Tears” or “Roots” or “The Winding Way.”
This was my first reading of the classic, which I’ve been wanting to read since Vintage Books, a division of Random House, published a paperback edition in 1989. I bought the paperback at Cleveland Park Book Shop on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Washington D.C. around the time of its publication, excited to find it after a long, fruitless search. (These were the days prior to online bookselling.) If I’d read the memoir back then, during my 30s, I doubt I would have appreciated it as much as I did in these days of middle age. The nostalgia for the eternity perceived of childhood in hindsight, which Nabokov clarifies with ease, is more intense now as that time recedes deeper into my past. It has become, as Nabokov writes, a “hypertrophied sense.”
Knopf published an edition of Speak, Memory in the Everyman’s Library series in 1999 with a never-before published last chapter. Nabokov wrote that “Chapter 16″ as a review of the book. According to Schiff, he had mixed feelings about it. Harper, the book’s original publisher, rejected it for the 1951 edition.
October 25, 2010
Of course, one must showcase a ghost story Halloween week and what better book than one by Susan Hill, whose first ghost story — The Woman in Black published in 1983 – ranks among the best. Her newest ghost story, The Small Hand, published in the U.K., is getting great reviews. From the Times Literary Supplement: “Ghost stories often disappoint because although they unravel like whodunits, the premiss, no matter how cruel or ingenious the twists, seems arbitrary. Hill both creates and avoids these standard disappointments.”
The protagonist of The Small Hand, Adam Snow, is a dealer in rare and antiquarian books who takes a wrong turn on country roads and finds himself before a decayed Edwardian mansion and its neglected garden. He leaves his car to explore the overgrown grounds and, while doing so, feels the touch of a small hand within his own. From The Guardian: “And thus a haunting begins, but unusually it’s not tied to its initial location. The small hand creeps more and more often into Snow’s, and what starts as a relatively benign phenomenon becomes increasingly alarming and dreadful.”
I look forward to reading The Small Hand, which I’ve order from the Book Depository via Amazon. Hill, by the way, is the author of Howard’s End Is on the Landing, featured last month in TLC.
Another book that’s got my interest is Stanley Fish’s The Fugitive in Flight: Faith, Liberalism, and Law in a Classic TV Show. Remember Dr. Richard Kimble fleeing from Lieutenant Philip Gerard on ABC TV from 1963 to 1967? Fish believes “The Fugitive” may well be the greatest show ever aired on American network television. From the publisher’s website: “Analyzing key episodes, The Fugitive in Flight goes beyond plot summaries and behind-the-scenes stories. For Fish, the real action of ‘The Fugitive’ takes place in confined spaces where the men and women Richard Kimble encounters are forced to choose what kind of person they will be for the rest of their lives. Kimble is the catalyst of such choices and changes, but he himself never changes.”
A quick refresher: the TV show’s protagonist Richard Kimble played by David Janssen is wrongly accused of murdering his wife. He escapes police custody and lives on the run, pursuing the real killer, a one-armed man.
I wonder how much detail, if any, we need to know about the show’s episodes to enjoy the book. You may recognize Stanley Fish from his work as the New York Times Opinionator blogger.
Correction: Susan Hill’s book The Small Hand was referred to as A Small Hand twice in this post. The error was corrected 10.25.10.
October 20, 2010
Here’s a fun, new book. The Girl in the Song: The True Stories Behind 50 Rock Classics is an entertaining short compendium of the stories about girls who inspired some of classic rock’s most memorable songs.
Organized alphabetically by song, each of the 50 entries entices with a quick-hit glimpse into the creative power of rock ‘n’ roll relationships and a go-back predominately to the 1960s and 1970s. The “lite” narratives avoid heavy analysis (just the facts, thank you) and include a perfect balance of quotes and photos as they reveal the girls who crossed paths with or loved or married or rejected such rock musicians as Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Sting, Bono, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger and James Taylor.
Most of the relationships are short-lived. A famous exception is Bono’s marriage to teenage sweetheart Alison Stewart. (They’re still married.) Bono wrote U2′s “Sweetest Thing” as a present for Alison when he forgot her birthday while working on The Joshua Tree album.
Traffic Warden (i.e. Meter Maid) Meta Davies inspired The Beatles “Lovely Rita” after she ticketed Paul McCartney’s parked car. It’s interesting to read about how the song morphed into a lighthearted lampoon that replaced McCartney’s original idea to go negative. Another song founded in anger is “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, often mistaken for a song of devotion. According to the book, Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. Sting, lead singer for The Police at the time, told BBC Radio 2, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have misinterpreted it as being a gentle, little love song.” His ex-wife is the girl behind that song.
I jumped around, reading out of sequence, sometimes browsing the 144 pages like a catalog. I kept thinking, oh just one more, addictively fascinated by the easy prose and uncomplicated explanations about songs such as “Layla,” “Maggie May,” “Fire and Rain,” “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Uptown Girl,” to name a few. Also in the bunch, Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” inspired by author Rikki Ducornet. And here serendipity played a hand. The night after reading about the Steely Dan song, I went to an event at The Ohio State University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library showcasing recent acquisitions. There on a table was a spread of Rikki Ducornet’s newly acquired books. See below.
October 14, 2010
Two major literary awards –the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award – announced some unexpected results this week.
On Tuesday, Man Booker judges gave the coveted British award to 68-year-old Howard Jacobson for The Finkler Question. It’s the first comic novel to win the Man Booker since the inception of the prize 42 years ago. While many believe the award for Jacobson has been long in coming, The Finkler Question didn’t get as much “predicted winner” buzz as did Emma Donoghue’s Room and Tom McCarthy’s C.
On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation listed its 20 finalists for the 2010 National Book Awards (NBA), and guess who’s missing among the fiction finalists? “National Book Awards Snub Jonathan Franzen,” reports the Guardian.
Author Pat Conroy announced the Freedom-less 20 finalists in Flannery O’Connor’s Savannah, Georgia, childhood home. They include so many books I haven’t read, which is my big sigh every year when the finalists are announced. But that’s the beauty of the National Book Award selections: They’re unpredictable, bringing to the forefront impressive books deserving a wider audience. Last year, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection American Salvage published by Wayne State University Press rose into the literary limelight as an NBA fiction candidate. This year, Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel about Asian-Americans published by Coffee House Press, I Hotel, similarly rises.
Here is the full list of 2010 National Book Award finalists in the four categories. Two of the books aren’t available yet: James Richardson’s By the Numbers is set for publication November 1, and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule is to be published November 15. Unless the publishing houses release them earlier, the reading public doesn’t have access to them until a few days before the winner is announced, which will be November 17.
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
Nicole Krauss, Great House
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War
Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead
James Richardson, By the Numbers
CD Wright, One With Others
Monica Youn, Ignatz
Young people’s literature
Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird
Laura McNeal, Dark Water
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
October 12, 2010
This month, Alma Guillermoprieto receives the International Women’s Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, affiliated with the organization’s Courage in Journalism awards, a shout-out to women who “risk it all to report stories that must be told.”
Readers of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post and The Guardian will recognize her name, which frequently is a byline in those and other publications. Guillermoprieto is highly respected for the insight she brings to Latin American political and cultural life, including the region’s struggles with drug and civil wars, as well as government violence visited upon ordinary citizens. She’s acclaimed not only for her journalism but also her four books.
Her first book, published in 1990, documents the year Guillermoprieto immersed herself in the traditions and rituals of the samba. Nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award, Samba takes place in a shanty town outside Rio de Janeiro where Guillermoprieto lived for a year amidst the powerful energy of samba dancers preparing for competition in the annual carnival parade.
After Samba, this award-winning journalist published two collections of her reportage. The Heart that Bleeds: Latin America Now published in 1994 gathers her New Yorker reports filed between 1989 and 1993 about the turmoil in Latin-American nations approaching modernity. Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America collects more of her articles and followed in 2001: “Only Alma Guillermoprieto, the most highly regarded writer on the region, could unravel the complex threads of Colombia’s cocaine wars or assess the combination of despotism, charm, and political jiu-jitsu that has kept Fidel Castro in power for more than 40 years.” (via Random House)
Her fourth book, Dancing with Cuba, A Memoir of the Revolution, was published in 2004, detailing Guillermoprieto’s six months in 1970 employed as a dance instructor in Havanna’s state-run art school. Katha Pollit wrote in The New York Times, “[Guillermoprieto] uses dance as a lens through which to explore the aspirations and injustices and contradictions of a whole society. It’s a fresh and lively perspective.”
One could say that of Guillermoprieto’s work overall. Readers who don’t know it have the chance to discover a writer who “has set the standard for elegant writing in English” about Latin American politics, society and culture – a writer who “gets at the truth the way a psychological novelist might,” as described by Sarah Kerr in a 2001 NYT review.
October 9, 2010
Tuesday, October 12, we’ll find out who will take home this year’s prestigious U.K. Man Booker literary prize, won last year by Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. Emma Donoghue’s Room is a favorite at Ladbrokes, the British-based gambling company, with Tom McCarthy’s C the front-runner. But this past Wednesday morning, something suspicious happened at the betting agency. Ladbrokes received a burst of bets for C, totalling £15,000 (approximately $24,000 via NYT), and that caused the betting establishment to suspend further Man Booker wagers. From the U.K. Telegraph:
“David Williams, a Ladbrokes spokesman, said: ‘We have ten years experience of taking bets on the Booker Prize and this is something we have never seen. To have an odds on favourite the week before the announcement is just unprecedented. When you see a rush of bets for one person and only one person, there is something going on.’”
The novel C is the story of Serge Carrefax, his childhood in early 20th century England and then his travels into the world. Favorable reviews of the novel abound, with many citing its complexity. I love this comment by Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books about her reading experience of C:
“As will, I think, be obvious, I had a whale of a time with this book, propped on my laptop, Wikipedia open in one window and in another, the OED [Oxford English Dictionary]. It was like being a guest at the dream-party of an extremely well-read host: things read a long time ago and more or less forgotten, things never read that I always meant to, things I certainly will read now, having seen how McCarthy can make them work.”
In addition to McCarthy’s C and Donoghue’s Room, the 2010 Man Booker shortlist of six candidates includes Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. Judges will meet on Tuesday to deliberate and name a winner, putting to rest all speculation and possibly surprising us.
October 6, 2010
Every once in a while, a novel surpasses conventional description. While it may be moving, intriguing and profound, it’s also much more than that, existing on a creative level that so richly evokes a fictional world the story blows into a reader’s life with the force and presence of a powerful windstorm. Bruce Machart’s The Wake of Forgiveness is one of those books.
Immediately, we are plunged into dramatic storytelling set in Lavaca County, Texas, in 1895. Karel Skala is born, the fourth son of Klara and Vaclav Skala, with his mother dying in childbirth. Next, it is 15 years later, March 1910. Vaclav is a major landowner, having gained acreage by winning horse races with Karel in the saddle. He’s become a bitter, hardened man, silently blaming his youngest boy for taking away the love of his life. Karel yearns for the touch of the mother he’ll never know. Vaclav saves his two good horses for racing and makes his four sons pull the field plow.
One fateful day, these working Skalas are approached from the road by Guillermo Villaseñor, a wealthy Mexican, new to the area, who proposes Vaclav’s three oldest sons marry his three daughters. Vaclav snubs the offer, until Guillermo suggests a horse race. If Guillermo wins, the Skala boys marry his daughters. If Vaclav wins, he gets more land and keeps his sons to work it.
The drama vividly unfolds in chapters that alternate between March 1910, when the race occurs, and December 1924, when the brothers are married to Guillermo’s daughters and Karel to his wife Sophie. In the back and forth, author Bruce Machart keeps us locked into the intensity of the life-changing events of the failed race, which is written in the present tense, a subtle indication that it hovers over Karel as an eternal “now.” This pivotal, divisive time continues to define Karel in December 1924, estranged from his brothers and resentful of them. It takes the birth of his first son and a tragedy at the home of one of his brothers to open the door of forgiveness and free Karel of his private pain.
Machart uses a profusion of words with relentless artistry, creating clauses thick with colorful detail. One must surrender to the beautiful words and allow them to immerse the senses in the Texas landscape and the impulses of the Skala men. Because there, in the wake of forgiveness for Karel Skala, horse racing and brotherhood collide in dynamic, complex and unforgettable life.
October 2, 2010
Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars is published as history for young readers, but it’s also perfect for adults. Filled with battlefield photos from news agencies, national libraries and museum archives, it tells a concise history of World War I– from the political murder in Sarajevo, through the Battles of Verdun and the Somme and the entrance of the Americans, to the collapse of the German army. It’s easy and interesting to read. There’s no slogging through what feels like a history book or a 500-page non-fiction doorstopper.
To get a preview of Freedman’s book, check out Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.
I read the 176 pages slowly over several days, thinking about it in perspective of then and now. There’s not much change, other than present day diplomacy and weapons technology being more sophisticated. In 1914, European nations went to war with human folly as a partner. It’s the same way we go to war now.
I knew the Great War started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, but I didn’t realize how rival European powers, already in an arms race, fueled the spark. They were nations at peace that had established an elaborate network of military alliances, in which one nation pledged to support another in the event of war. A chain reaction occurred so fast after the assassination that diplomacy didn’t have a chance. Six million soldiers marched across Europe the first weeks of August 1914. They thought they were entering into what European leaders were declaring would be a short-lived war.
Freedman thoughtfully explains and illustrates the tragic four-year reality that ended up mobilizing 65 million men. More than half became casualties. That is, killed or wounded or missing in action or taken prisoner. What makes Freedman’s history-telling alive and intimate beyond the dates, strategies and statistics are the letters and personal anecdotes from those who were there.
Early in the book, we are reminded that armies at the time still relied on signal lamps and carrier pigeons to deliver messages. Later, there’s a story about a U.S. battalion trapped by Germans in the Argonne Forest. Thinking they were attacking Germans, Americans rained a barrage of artillery on their isolated comrades. The trapped soldiers sent off a carrier pigeon with a note that informed the attacking Americans of the battalion’s location. It also said, “For heaven’s sake, stop it!”
Philip Caputo published a similar history book for all ages about the Vietnam War, 10,000 Days of Thunder, in 2005. It also explains war history in easy-to-read text and lots of photos, reminding us — as does Freedman’s book – that we never seem to carry forward what we’ve learned from past loss and destruction. Time moves on. Knowledge gets fuzzy. We go to war again.