May 25, 2011
Ever heard of the author David Stacton? I hadn’t, until I received in the mail my NYRB Book Club selection for May, The Judges of the Secret Court, a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth. The story begins the day of President Lincoln’s assassination, Good Friday 1865, with Edwin Booth experiencing disturbing premonitions about his brother John Wilkes. It moves swiftly through the dramatic historical events of Lincoln’s death; John Wilkes Booth’s desperate flight to the South, capture and death; and the trial of Booth’s associates that was a mockery of justice.
Stacton (1923 – 1968) was critically acclaimed for his historical novels during his writing life, more so in Europe than the United States, where his books didn’t resonate with the reading public. Even so, the editors of TIME magazine included Stacton in a list of impressive novelists during the early 1960s, alongside Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Ralph Ellison.
Stacton these many years later seems out-of-place among those laudable literary names, but he is indeed worthy of being singled out for his historical novels, if his fictional expression of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the events that followed represents all his work. The Judges of the Secret Court is surprisingly addictive with its post-Civil War atmosphere and politics deftly conveyed without textbook tedium, as well as the fast-paced drama of Booth’s evasion of justice and the intriguing psychology of the actor’s delusional self-perception.
Violating the “show don’t tell” writing principle, Stacton’s narrative style tells the story in a very certain, confident and refreshing voice. He adheres to the factual events of Lincoln’s assassination, the historical figures and what follows, instead of embellishing the story with fictional characters and scenes. (The New York Times’ review of The Judges of the Secret Court, August 13, 1961, claimed the story “tells more about the quixotic assassin, probably more accurately, than any historian’s biography could…”) Also – and herein lies the imaginative spark for this great read — Stacton employs the God-like omniscient perspective, and so he enters the interior, private thoughts of the event’s participants, including President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, let alone John Wilkes Booth and his friends.
Even those well-read on the topic of Lincoln’s assassination will find this 1961 novel a fascinating account of this moment in American history and the days that followed. Stacton leaves us not only with a renewed understanding of what happened but also a well-crafted exposition on the soul of an actor thirsting for fame.
May 19, 2011
“60 Minutes” recently televised a story about the monks of Mt. Athos, Greece, also known as the Holy Mountain, the center of Eastern Christian Orthodox monasticism. Friends who saw the news segment commented,“I want to go there,” and I heard in those words a desire for the kind of peace known to those who pursue the monastic life.
For myself, that desire is the reason I read books about the monastic life, or memoirs about spiritual journeys, such as Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk and Acedia; Nancy Maguire’s An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order; and Ari L. Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard.
So here, a few weeks back, I’m writing about Andrew Krivak’s debut novel The Sojourn and learn Krivak once pursued a calling to be a Jesuit priest and wrote a memoir about the journey called A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life. I headed to the library and borrowed it. The book sat on a chair unopened for so long I had to renew it, too busy with other books to give it time. Until this week, when I read it late into several nights, immersed in Krivak’s story and my own reflective response, similar to that experienced in the other books I mentioned – a removal from and rising above the small (Did I walk the dogs? Pay the bills? Return that phone call?) and into the larger questions of life, as Krivak struggles to know himself.
A small difference with this memoir, compared to the other books: The author’s moodiness hangs over A Long Retreat, a kind of brooding and frustration over those larger questions, especially over the lack of compact answers to erase his doubt about whether or not to become a Jesuit. But then, Jesuit formation is not an easy path to walk. It involves years of scholarly study, teaching and ministry, which Krivak thoughtfully and vividly illustrates, so we see not only the joy of the formative process, but also its emotional rigors of loneliness and anxiety.
During his eight years of study and work, Krivak lived among the very poor in the Dominican Republic; studied in Russia and Slovakia; served as a chaplain in a hospital ward of HIV/AIDS patients; and instructed university philosophy students, struggling himself with the questions of life purpose he taught in the class. He writes:
“Who are we? What ought we to do with this life? Is there something rather than nothing? And why, in the end, should it even matter? If only those students knew, then, that I was as wracked to find the answers for myself as they were to find the answers for the exam.”
We know from the book’s first page that Krivak does not take final vows, by reference to his wife Amelia, but the ending is still a surprise, as he unravels and deciphers the complex reasons that drove him toward the profession. And yet: “How simple it should have all been. The Spirit calls, the man says yes, and the life that’s lived is a fine one, austere, yet somehow heroic. It has its up and downs, the poignant tests … but anyone in any life could say as much.”
May 15, 2011
Pulpfest 2011 is taking place the last weekend in July. The event primarily features pulp magazines and related materials, but among those related materials will be vintage paperbacks. That got my attention, and I marked my calendar. While I don’t actively collect vintage paperbacks, as I expressed two years ago on TLC, I can’t resist them if they cross my book-life pathways.
As I type, I even hesitate to use the qualifier “vintage” for my predilection. Maybe what I can’t resist isn’t always vintage collectible, just old and intriguing, such as the 1968 Dell first edition paperback of John Fowles’ classic The Magus to the left, with Candice Bergen seductively wrapping her leg around Michael Caine. It was published after the movie, which starred the aforementioned couple and also Anthony Quinn. Nostalgic thoughts about those young actors captured me more than anything else.
Same can be said about this 1960 first edition Signet paperback of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, below. My grandmother, not fully understanding the storyline, took my sister and me to see the movie when we were too young for violence. She rushed us out of the theater the first time Oddjob threw his killer hat.
Another movie-related paperback in my library is this issue of Faulkner’s The Reivers, published after the film hit theaters, starring Steve McQueen. The paperback even came in its own slipcase. Inside the pages, I found a Cracker Jack surprise – a newspaper article from the Chicago Daily Tribune dated December 13, 1950: “Faulkner Just a Farmer Who Likes to Write: Nobel Prize Winner Is No Literary Man.” Faulkner won the 1949 Nobel prize for literature but received it in 1950. He gave his acceptance speech December 10, 1950. The Associated Press article reports on his life in Mississippi and thoughts about his books.
Is this one a collectible vintage paperback, or just a collectible paperback because it’s a 1969 first edition of a Faulkner novel?
Here’s another old paperback I couldn’t resist buying. This 1950 Bantam edition of Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye would fit nicely into the line-up of many dramatic cover illustrations I’ve seen featured on vintage paperback websites, along with its subtitle: “Strange loves in an emotional underworld.” The guy on the cover looks like a gorilla ready to pounce on that vulnerable, sexy woman in her luxurious slumber.
One more: this 1965 Fawcett Crest edition of John Updike’s Of The Farm. No racy cover illustration, but the irresistible element is on the back, a line drawing of Updike. Love the design of it and hey, the book has doubled in price over the years from its original 75 cents — I paid $1.50 for it. Another 50 years, it may go for an astounding $3.
May 10, 2011
This is the second appearance of Michael Crummey’s novel Galore on TLS, which I spotlighted several months ago as a forthcoming book to keep an eye on. After being absorbed in it this past week, I can tell you it’s one of those novels that engulfs readers in atmospheric writing and unique characters that provide delightful escape into another world. That world is from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, although in the first half of the book the timeframe is vague. It takes place on the unmerciful shores of Newfoundland in a fictional fishing outport called Paradise Deep. The story opens biblically with an albino man pulled from the belly of a beached whale, and he survives. Inhabitants of Paradise Deep refer to this mute stranger afflicted with a permanent stink as the Great White or Judah.
Judah is ever-present in the 300+ pages of Galore, but no one character in this extraordinary novel gets predominant focus, rather it’s a story about the handful of people in this place descended from rivals Devine’s Widow and King-Me Sellers. Their unlikely marriages and love affairs, their adventures on the water, and their varying religious faiths cleverly stir the plot. This is no typical generational saga, however, because of the folkloric sorcery Crummey deftly weaves into their fishing lives. It lends a magical, seductive quality to the story, and I responded to it as if unaware that it was anything unusual – such as the ghost of a dead man living with his wife, or the thick foliage of an apple tree providing baptismal protection from disease to the children, or a teacup curing a rash of warts. One difficulty: Keeping the characters straight in the second half of the book is a challenge, but Crummey provides a family tree, which I frequently referred to.
The short and long of IMPAC
Galore has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest and most international prize of its kind. Nominees come from public libraries in countries around the world. According to the award’s website, 10 novels have been shortlisted for the award, from a total of 162 novels nominated by 166 public library systems in 126 cities worldwide. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is worth €100,000.
Along with Galore, books on the shortlist for the IMPAC prize include the following. The winner will be announced June 15.
- The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
- The Vagrants by Yiyun Li
- Ransom by David Malouf
- Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
- Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates
- Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
- Brooklyn by Colm Toibín
- Love and Summer by William Trevor
- After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie Wyl
May 4, 2011
Midway through reading Jay Neugeboren’s new collection of stories, I became curious about his previous books and went looking online for information. I’m not talking about 1940, a fictional story about Adolf Hitler’s childhood physician, published in 2008 — I’m talking about Neugeboren’s roots, Big Man, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1966, his debut novel about basketball that’s still in print (a testament to its quality). Time magazine said, it “illuminates one of the great and terrible questions of life: What happens when you can’t do the thing you love?”
Neugeboren has written 17 books during his literary career, and his newest book proves he’s still in the game. In You Are My Heart and Other Stories, this ingenious writer takes readers into an engaging space that challenges our self-satisfied certainties, calling upon us to consider what really matters in this brief flicker of time that is our life. You cannot read these 11 intelligent stories, taut with political and relational issues, without being moved to think in new ways.
AIDS physicians, Jewish men and Irish women populate this collection, with settings in France, Africa, New York City and Brooklyn. Some of the stories explore the intricacies of love affairs (“The Debt” and “The Turetzky Trio”). Some illustrate complicated family relationships (“Overseas” and “A Missing Year: A Letter to My Son”). But the most unusual stories, powerful in their concise plots and reality punches, are politically blunt, such as “Comfort,” a story about a burned-out AIDS physician who presses home the reality of our nonchalance toward a deadly disease. Or “The State of Israel,” in which a Middle Eastern physician from an Arab nation treats an American Jewish doctor, and the patient is subjected to questions about his allegiance to Israel.
Other stories are equally remarkable for their simple plotlines and thought-provoking results, such as “Summer Afternoon.” When a woman out-of-the-blue speaks those two title words in December to her husband and their friend, the three are observing a funeral in southern France. She explains that Henry James once said “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language. She goes on to say there are no funerals or wars in the novels or stories of James — and also Jane Austen — and yet everything that matters is present in their work. The juxtaposition of her comments with the funeral and, later, a right-wing gathering that turns violent brilliantly exposes our misguided and narrow ways of thinking and living.
Two very moving stories — the longest ones — bookend this great collection. I’d say they are my favorite but then it’s hard to qualify any one from the other, being the collection itself is my favorite. But these two are so very memorable, rich in nostalgia, atmosphere and a time of what once existed for a Booklyn kid growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. In the title story, the book’s first story, there’s a moment when a Jewish boy defends his best friend Olen, a black teammate on the high school basketball team. It is 1953, pre-civil rights days, and Olen has been let down by the coach, who fails to get this hard-working athlete into a good college. The narrator confronts the coach – in a furious rant – and at one point says, “He played his heart out for you for three years and you let him down.” The scene captures an extraordinary moment of courage and devoted friendship, written by an author who, without a doubt, knows the human heart.