May 13, 2013
Author James Patterson asked this question recently with a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review that also asked, “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” The ad also appeared in Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly. Perhaps it should also appear in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post for more impact, given their audiences. Readers, critics, booksellers and book buyers, who read the aforementioned three, already preach this sermon.
Message aside, the NYT ad includes 37 book titles that create a great reading list — a wide variety ranging from Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Stephen King’s Different Seasons to John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Introducing the list, Patterson asks:
“If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature? Who will discover and mentor new writers? Who will publish our important books? What will happen if there are no more books like these?”
Click on the image to get a readable view of the books and the rest of the ad. (You should see a magnifying glass, so you can click again to zoom in.) Check off the books you’ve read and whatever remains, I’d say you’ve got a great summer reading list. Note: Publisher’s Weekly produced the ad on a wrap-around cover, which included eight additional books. Those eight appear below the image.
Lush Life by Richard Price
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
What Is the What by Dave Eggers
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
February 20, 2013
Here’s a book I bought several years ago because of its cover. Those soulful child’s eyes looking at me, how could I resist? Even the rare book cost didn’t deter me. I had to have it.
Simon & Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life in 1955. It was created by an African-American power-duo, photographer Ray DeCarava and poet/writer/playwright Langston Hughes. DeCarava (1919 – 2009) was the first African-American photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952). He used the grant money to create a portrait of Harlem via black and white photography. He drew from that collection to create this book.
Hughes (1902 – 1967) rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920′s and became one of the 20th century’s most recognized poets and interpreters of the African-American experience. He connected the book’s photos with a fictional story narrated by a grandmother named Sister Mary Bradley.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now out of print but sells on the used and rare book market. A high collectible item, it gets expensive, especially if signed by one or both of the authors. That’s unfortunate, to be so out of reach, because the photos and story capture and relate 1950′s Harlem better than a textbook version might attempt, due to the combined, sensuous textures and tones created by these time-honored artists.
On the back cover of the book, Langston Hughes is quoted: “We’ve had so many books about how bad life is [in Harlem]. Maybe it’s time to have one showing how good it is.’” In its 98 pages, the book takes us through photos of parents hugging their kids; friends and family laughing and working in their homes; people walking the streets; working mothers riding the subway and kids playing and daydreaming.
Sister Mary Bradley wonders without judgment about her grandson Rodney, who sleeps all day and goes out with the women all night, and she counsels her youngest daughter Melinda not to fret over her husband, a good family man, who some nights doesn’t come home: “Melinda got the idea she can change him. But I tells Melinda, reforming some folks is like trying to boil a pig in a coffeepot — the possibilities just ain’t there — and to leave well enough alone.”
Our narrator tells us she’s “a little sick.” There’s reference to her “going home,” but she stubbornly tells the Lord and everyone else, she’s not ready . “‘I done got my feet caught in the sweet flypaper of life — and I’ll be dogged if I want to get loose.’” Her confident, grand-mothering voice speaks with love, reverence, joy and purpose from the center of Harlem’s hard, unrelenting everyday life, thanks to her gift of seeing that life through a lens of blessings and hope.
January 21, 2013
I purchased this May 1962 Esquire magazine for my William Faulkner collection. It includes a 6-page excerpt from this Southern author’s then-forthcoming novel The Reivers. I acquired the magazine sight-unseen. What would it matter what was on the cover or elsewhere; I simply wanted the excerpt. When the magazine arrived in the mail, though, it wasn’t Faulkner that I turned to, even though smack there on the cover it says “Preview Look at William Faulkner’s New Novel.”
Who wouldn’t get distracted with “A Bachelor’s Choice of 9 Most Eligible Girls” and that cover photo of Jennifer Billingsley, who at the time was starring in the hit Broadway musical “Carnival.” I immediately flipped to the article, retitled as “A Bachelor’s Choice of Marriageable Girls” and about choked with incomprehension when I saw Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford as the grand finale of the photo spread. 1962 was the year she starred with Bette Davis in the psychological thriller What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. “Adored by a million,” her caption says, as well as “bright-star magnitude” and “unlisted phone.” Hilarious, in a way, but more so the captions for the other less recognizable eight, including a receptionist at Time magazine who “fascinates,” and the daughter of actress/singer Lena Horne who “loves parties” and a painter who “is a swinger.”
Well, you just never know what will turn up when collecting the works of authors. I’ve found unusual photos, notes and articles tucked away in books. And for my Faulkner collection, the more unusual the better. I can’t afford first editions of his famous novels, so I gather up the more affordable off-beat. Such as the Argentine edition of The Sound and the Fury in Spanish; and Album Faulkner, 318 photos concerning the author and his life, which I purchased at Square Books in his hometown, Oxford, MS. Written in French, Album Faulkner was published in 1995 by Éditions Gallimard in France, the country that recognized Faulkner as a great writer before readers in the U.S. Indeed, his popularity in France continues.
The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and also became a movie starring Steve McQueen. The excerpt published by Esquire is “The Education of Lucius Priest.” Along with Ms. Billingsley’s portrait, the cover carries the library stamp of Wellesley, Mass., Pine Manor Junior College, which Faulkner’s daughter Jill attended. William Faulkner died two months after this edition of Esquire, on July 6, 1962. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
December 28, 2012
Several years ago, after Christmas Eve church services, in the car just before driving home, I surprised each of my friends with a gift-wrapped book. These friends aren’t constant readers of literature, rather occasional readers of a variety of book types, which required careful thinking on my part, guided by gut instinct, when making the selections. The gift for me was their joy, as I saw their excitement over a new book chosen just for them.
I’ve kept the tradition since that first time, and this year the books were given at a dinner held at my house before the Christmas Eve service. Place cards indicated where each person was to sit. A gift-wrapped book, selected for that person, sat on the place mat. The challenge this year included two guests visiting from Texas, the mother and sister of one of my friends.
So here’s how I went about my selections this year for each friend and the visitors, Christmas 2012.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The first year I gave this friend Water for Elephants. Last year, I gave her The Hunger Games. She’s one of those readers who reads a book obsessively, unable to put it down. Indeed, the house could be burning, and she would move her chair to the lawn and keep reading. I’ve known a few readers like this — they have to schedule when they read because once they start, they’ll ignore responsibilities, including the need to sleep, which is why I wrote on her card, “Something to keep you up all night.” Erin Morgenstern’s magical novel about Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition between magicians who fall in love seemed the perfect story for all-night reading.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
I gave this classic collection of short stories to my friend who’s in seminary school. Several months ago, she asked me about Flannery O’Connor because she’d heard references in class to this mid-20th century southern author. O’Connor is famous for her Gothic style, Catholicism and religious themes. This collection, published in 1955, came after O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood (1952) and confirmed her place in classic literature. Caroline Gordon wrote in her 1955 New York Times review: ”In these stories the rural South is, for the first time, viewed by a writer whose orthodoxy matches her talent. The results are revolutionary.” I thought my friend would want to be “in the know” for when O’Connor is mentioned again in her presence.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard
The friend who received this book is typically a non-fiction reader. I recall her once telling me she enjoyed Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography. This friend’s interests include politics (she’s a great conversationalist on this topic) and the health industry, particularly in regard to managing one’s good health. So this best-seller seemed like something that would captivate her and, indeed, she seemed very excited about it. The book is Candace Millard’s account of James Garfield’s rise to the American presidency, the assassination attempt he survived and the botched medical attention that followed, which he didn’t survive. Destiny of the Republic won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I gave this book to my friend’s mother visiting from Texas. Not knowing mom’s interests, let alone whether or not she read novels, I thought there’d be a good chance she’d be absorbed by Jodi Picoult’s page-turning storytelling — in particular, this story about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. My friend’s mother interacts with kids, volunteering at a local school, so I thought the central character might win her interest. In this best-selling novel, that central character is Jacob Hunt, who struggles to interact socially and is suspected in the murder of his tutor.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I wrote in the card for this gift that I was giving something to remind my friend to follow her heart. She is one who does follow her heart, and in 2011 her heart was broken by an unexpected tragedy. It was gut instinct that told me to give this book to her, perhaps in hopes that she continues to follow her heart, no matter what. Coelho’s story is about a shepherd boy who, in his search for worldly treasure, along the way, finds wisdom and the most meaningful treasure found within oneself. When this gift was opened, one person at the dinner table said enthusiastically that she’d been meaning to read The Alchemist; another said she had tried it but couldn’t get into it. So, we’ll see how this turns out. I’ve bombed before with this friend, giving her Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which is now code for “bad choice” between us. (It’s the second time I’ve given Bellow’s Pulitzer award-winner to someone as a gift, and it wasn’t liked– let alone finished — that time, either. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift is one of my favorite books.)
One Day by David Nicholls
This is the novel I selected for my friend’s sister, visiting from Texas. I didn’t know if she read novels but figured, even if she didn’t, this one would win her attention. It’s a great beach read or a by-the-fire read for its absorbing story about a romantic relationship that spans 20 years, which we experience in snapshots on July 15 — the one day — every year. The story about Emma and Dexter is engaging, romantic, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s neither too light nor too complicated, hence a good choice, I thought, for someone I didn’t know.
October 21, 2012
I’m delighted NYRB Classics Series has re-printed the long out-of-print Thomas Tryon novel The Other, newly available again this month. I read the chilling bestseller with complete absorption during my teens in the 1970s. It left me rattled, though, disturbed by how it so successfully lured me into its darkness and twisted my reality. I’ve never forgotten that uncomfortable feeling it gave me, which became a haunting of sorts, apt for the book and this Halloween month. All these years it’s stoked an inner voice telling me to re-read the book and face again what rattled me. Well, here’s my chance.
NYRB writes in its description, “Thomas Tryon’s best-selling novel about a home-grown monster is an eerie examination of the darkness that dwells within everyone.” That home-grown monster refers to identical 13-year-old twins, Holland and Niles Perry, the one evil, the other good. Their relationship is frighteningly close — they know each other’s thoughts in a way that appears supernatural. At their family’s New England farm one summer in the 1930s, their father comes to an accidental death, and then ”…the family–the whole town–is shaken and bewildered by the advent of a horrifying series of inexplicable deaths and disasters.” (That quoted line comes from the dust jacket of the original hardcover edition of the book.)
Writing about this horror novel is challenging because one has to be extraordinarily careful not to reveal too much. Likely that’s why the new NYRB edition has an afterword and not an introduction by Dan Chaon, whose most recent book is story collection Stay Awake. The restraint required in an introduction to The Other, so as not to give away or even suggest the plot’s deepest secret before readers have entered the story, would be too limiting for a creative introductory analysis.
The novel was first published in 1971 (the same year as William Blatty’s The Exorcist), and while it received wide praise, one New York Times critic called The Other implausible, and some readers over the years have complained they were bored in the beginning, i.e. it took a while for them to be hooked. That’s a small minority. I offer the information here, though, to prepare you in case you, too, are not hooked immediately. Stick with it, because millions of readers found this book riveting — it sold more than 3.5 million copies. The Fawcett paperback edition in 1972 alone sold 2,810,000 copies, as reported by the NYT February 11, 1973.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the novel when it first came out, “Truly extraordinary, truly — it’s one of those books over which everybody will take leave of their senses, all seven of them.”
A final note, regarding 20th-century bestsellers: I found a website related to an English course at the University of Virgina that used best-selling 20th-century American literature as a means of understanding 20th-century America. The course, offered in the fall of 2002, required students to read bestsellers and complete information about them in an online database that includes – and of likely interest to book collectors:
- a bibliographical description of the first edition
- publication history
- reception history
- an analysis of the work in its cultural and literary contexts
September 12, 2012
Every year, the University of Georgia Press awards two Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction prizes to outstanding short story collections. The Press inaugurated the award in 1983 “to encourage gifted emerging writers by bringing their work to a national readership.” The winners receive a cash prize and also publication by University of Georgia Press, which announced the 2012 winners this week. It’s a previous winner, though, that’s had my attention.
In 2008, Andrew Porter won the award for The Theory of Light and Matter. His collection was mentioned to me during a recent discussion with a book club in an aside by a member. She told me her son, Brian Strause, had recommended she read Porter’s prize-winning book. (Brian Strause is the author of the widely praised novel Maybe a Miracle.) I read Porter’s short stories, and now I’m recommending the collection to you — some six degrees of separation going on here in the world of book recommendations.
A seductive quality of Porter’s 10 stories is the engaging first person voice. Its warmth and confessional tone feels like we’re listening to a good friend who wonders out loud to us about past family situations involving, in one story, the narrator’s distant father trying and failing to live up to a “genius” label attached to him early in life; and, in another, the narrator’s mother, whom he caught in an intimate moment with another woman while her husband is away.
Each story in the collection delves into ordinary suburban life and grabs us with believable and relatable emotions of desire, hope, guilt, yearning and confusion. Porter’s characters are good people – his compassion for them brings us closer to them, as does the way they happen to misjudge and disappoint each other, many because they fail to speak up when something is wrong.
Here’s a brief summary of three of the stories:
- In “Azul,” a childless couple relates to the exchange student in their home as a friend. Their failure to discipline and set limits reflects their middle-aged regrets and leads to an accident.
- In “River Dog,” the narrator remembers a high school party during which he believes his brother assaulted a classmate and to this day wonders about what happened. He begins, “It is easy now, after everything that has happened to my brother, to say I didn’t hate him. But I can still remember how it used to humiliate me when the rumors about him spread through my high school.”
- In “Departure,” the sixteen-year-old narrator looks back to the summer “over ten years ago” when he and a friend gawked at Amish kids hanging out at a diner and casually dated the Amish girls with whom they could never get close.
My favorite is the title story for the way Porter brings a familiar theme to life and wrings out our hearts in the process. It is the only story narrated by a female voice, that of Heather, who falls in love with her college physics professor but leaves him to marry a boy she’s been dating, who graduates and becomes a doctor. Porter elegantly illustrates the situation of being in love versus making a better choice for marriage, and it brought to mind C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Che Fece … Il Gran Rifiuto” about the right ‘no’ that drags a person down all his life.
A word about short story collections: they don’t get near the consideration they deserve these days from publishers or readers. There used to be a time in the 20th century when this literary form was so popular and in-demand authors made a good living publishing them in magazines alone. The article “Publish or Perish: The Short Story” by Paul Vidich in the Millions states: “There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.”
Another article to consider about this short literary form, “A Brief Survey of the Short Story” in The Guardian brings to our attention masters of the short story through the ages. And a good reading list for short story collections can be found on the website of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. This year’s winner is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander. Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter made the longlist of that award in 2009.
August 12, 2012
Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in NYC’s West Village is closing next month after 18 years in business. When I shopped there during one of my trips to New York, a bookseller guided me toward selections I might enjoy, and I appreciated his knowledge and advice. I so hate to hear about these closings of independent bookstores for just that reason — we’re losing shopping access to knowledgable booksellers, let alone to stores rich with discovery of all kinds of books, not just the popular ones.
At least with Partners & Crime, we have “100 of the Best We’ve Ever Read”, a list of their recommendations the store’s partners, according to their website, have updated over the years. Last updated March 2010, as of this post, the list includes classics (books by Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle) and crime series selections (books by Charles Todd, Sue Grafton, Henning Mankell, Peter Robinson), as well as best-sellers (The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, I find interesting, has been translated to a stage production).
Turning to this list certainly can’t replace the joy of turning to the booksellers for one-on-one recommendations. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource to print for future reference. But how do you make a choice, when there’s 100 books and no one to talk to? You simply have to do your own research. I selected three and threw the proverbial dart. Then I checked them out. Here’s the result.
The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter
Published in 1993 and #10 of Dexter’s 13 Inspector Morse novels set in Oxford, England, this crime story centers on a cold case of a missing student. The case returns to the police blotter due to new clues sent in the form of poetry to The Times. The novel’s title is from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Honest detection, illicit sex, puns and anagrams galore, Morse’s trademark drinking and dour byplay with colleagues and suspects, plus a plot as agile as Dexter’s best — in short, everything you could possibly want in an English detective story. Bolt the door and enjoy.”
The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland
The detectives on this crime case are Chief Inspector David Brock and his female colleague Sergeant Kathy Kolla. This is the first book in Maitland’s Brock and Kolla series set in London. In 1994, The Marx Sisters was shortlisted for the prestigious U.K. CWA (Crimes Writers Association) John Creasey Award for the best first crime novel. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Two Scotland Yard detectives investigate the murder of Karl Marx’s great-granddaughters (via an illegitimate son) and the theft of the unpublished manuscript of a fourth volume of Das Kapital, in this engrossing mystery from an Australian writer making his American debut.” Kirkus Reviews wrote: “A clever, flavorsome debut with a particularly deft knack of pulling the rug out from under you in between chapters, just when you think you’re safe.”
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
A testament to the expertise behind the list, Josephine Tey is little-known and, according to this Guardian columnist, deserves to be rediscovered. Josephine Tey is a nom de plume for Elizabeth Mackintosh,who also wrote under the pen name Gordon Daviot. Her six Tey novels were written during the 1940s and ’50s. Here’s a plot summary from the back of the book:
“Miss Lucy Pym, a popular English psychologist, is guest lecturer at a physical training college. The year’s term is nearly over, and Miss Pym — inquisitive and observant — detects a furtiveness in the behavior of one student during a final exam. She prevents the girl from cheating by destroying her crib notes. But Miss Pym’s cover-up of one crime precipitates another — a fatal ‘accident’ that only her psychological theories can prove was really murder.”
Book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote about Elizabeth Mackintosh in The Washington Post, saying this about the Tey novels: “Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.”
According to Yardley, another Tey novel, The Daughter of Time, is “by far her best known.” It seeks truth about the crimes of England’s King Richard III. Not on the 100 list, but I’m thinking it’s one to inspect for future reading.
August 2, 2012
Fifty years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense published A Pocket Guide to Vietnam, 1962, introducing American military personnel to the country in whose jungles they would be fighting. “Do learn and respect Vietnamese customs,” it advised, as well as “…you are in a land where dignity, restraint and politeness are highly regarded.”
Reissued by the Bodleian Libraries, the guide is available for purchase as new, versus finding a manhandled used version. An advertisement in the New York Review of Books brought the guide to my attention, but as I researched it online — looking for a “peek inside” so as to virtually browse its content – along the way, I discovered another book: Fragments by Jack Fuller.
Originally published in 1984, this novel is about a seasoned sergeant (Neumann) and an inexperienced soldier in his unit (Morgan, the narrator) who become friends as they live the tragedy and confusion of war. Fragments received wide acclaim from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Boston Sunday Globe. The kind that makes me sit up and pay attention. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (2/13/1984) wrote:
“Jack Fuller…has written an ambitious, tightly controlled novel that makes the usual semi-autobiographical account, filled with lots of closely observed details and colorful characters, seem flimsy and discursive in comparison.”
That’s quite a statement, when you consider the excellent Vietnam novels that came before this one, specifically, Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters (1977) and Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and Going After Cacciato (1978), a National Book Award winner. All are still in print and considered definitive novels of the war written by veterans.
The preview of Fragments on Google Books allows access to the entire introduction, which further convinced me to read the novel. The introduction is written by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler, who served in Vietnam 1969 – 1971. Here’s an excerpt:
“I found myself teaching the contemporary novel to my Master of Fine Arts fiction students. This was the fall of 1985, and that summer I’d spent a remarkable long August day sitting on my new screened porch, with the haze and the lush greenness of the subtropics all around, reading Jack Fuller’s novel. I hardly noticed the bombast of a thunderstorm come and go and then the sunlight return and blaze on and finally fade. I was enthralled with this book, and though the real setting all around me was much like the South Vietnam that he and I separately shared, the world of Fragments was even more intensely realized.”
Jack Fuller was drafted into the United States Army and served in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970 as a correspondent for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a veteran newspaperman who spent the majority of his career at the Chicago Tribune in the roles of reporter, editor and publisher. In 1997, he became president of the Tribune Publishing Company, retiring in 2004. His personal papers are now kept at The Newberry Library Special Collections, where you can read his full biography.
July 3, 2012
December 1990, I spent 14 days in Paris. It was a solo adventure with the goal to experience the real Paris, that is, the Paris of the Parisians, what French-American author Julian Green calls “a secret city.” In his book about the City of Light, where he was born in 1900 of American parents and spent most of his literary career, Green writes: “Anyone can get hold of a guide and tick off all the monuments, but within the very confines of Paris there is another city as difficult of access as Timbuktu once was.”
That was the Paris I wanted to see, what Green says “defies analysis but enables you to say without any hesitation: ‘That is Paris’…” Had I read Green’s collection of essays before I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, I would’ve known I would not succeed because this secret city within Paris is available only to those who stroll without purpose, waste time and even suffer a bit in the places that contain its soul, according to Green. Such is not the venue for an American spending a limited number of days in the city for the first time. I had a list of what I wanted to see. Granted, it consisted of places and things not usually visited or encountered by tourists, but I was trying too hard.
I ventured into Le salon d’honneur of La Bibliothèque nationale de France, where I stood before a statue of Voltaire that contains the philosopher’s heart in its pedestal. I toured the Counterfeit Museum and the Cemetery of Père-Lachaise, where I discovered this wonderful epitaph (translated from the French): They were astonished at the marvelous journey that lead them to the end of life.
In my organized days, with my list of the unusual, I missed those ordinary things that tell the intimate, real story of Paris, the hidden stairways, winding streets, ancient pillars and old windows with lace curtains framing a bunch of flowers. Green writes invitingly, with a nostalgic, seductive tone, about these ordinary places and things, as well as about the gusts of rainstorms, thick fog and sparkling night lights spanning the Seine. He creates memorable images of Paris’s medieval days, such as in the church of Saint Julian the Poor on the Left Bank “when a priory adjoined it and fifty monks filled its vaults with the sound of their chanting.”
Paris is a small book of 19 essays, some only two pages long, yet no matter the length, each is equally powerful due to Green’s ability to create a captivating atmosphere with his words. Even though it is not today’s Paris (the essays were written over four decades, starting in the 1940s), Green takes us into the Paris that does not seem to age, or disappear. Or so it would seem. Green worries over modernizations of the city (“fortress-like blocks of flats”), especially the destruction of trees to make room for buildings and concrete, as well as the renovation of the Café de la Paix near the Opera House. “I tremble at what that implies,” he writes.
Julian Green’s book gave me the gift of escaping to Paris in the footsteps of someone who knows it intimately yet from the rocking chair on my front porch these hot summer nights. This bilingual edition, with French and English translations on opposing pages, is illustrated with Green’s personal black and white photographs that include a view from his apartment window in 1929 and another from 1974.
According to The New York Times, all but two of Julian Green’s 18 novels, 5 plays, 14 volumes of diaries, 4 books of autobiography, 6 collections of essays and 2 history books were written in French. Several, along with Paris, are available in English, including the novel The Distant Lands, the autobiography The Green Paradise and the essay collection, The Apprentice Writer. Julian Green died in 1998.
June 12, 2012
Barry Unsworth and Ray Bradbury died last week, the one a highly praised, award-winning writer of historical novels and the other a renowned sci-fi writer. I keep scanning the bookshelf holding my college English lit paperbacks, searching for a science fiction anthology I’m sure contains Bradbury’s work, but I don’t see the memorable psychedelic book cover. It’s possible I gave the book away because I concluded, after reading it those many years ago, that science fiction and I aren’t compatible. The genre doesn’t generate impulse buys, late-night reading and that breathless desire to stack the reading table, much as I’ve tried. This is a familiar refrain I sing here. But what about Barry Unsworth?
News of his death in Perugia, Italy on June 5 drove me to find out about his work, 17 novels, which are less familiar to me than Bradbury’s oeuvre. Of the 17, the novel that rose to the top in my search, with consistent praise from critics and readers alike, was Sacred Hunger, a novel frequently described as “the book that shared the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.” Most know Michael Ondaatje’s best-seller that was made into an Oscar award-winning movie, but not Unsworth’s novel, a 630-page thematic focus on greed and man’s cruelty to man, as it tells the story of the 18th century British slave trade.
If that kind of plotline sounds too heavy for summer reading, I’m thinking the engrossing “masterpiece” aspect of the book puts it in the running for a seasonal choice. Because isn’t that what some of us want? Not the lightness of a beach read, or the titillation of a gray-shaded sex boiler, rather an epic escape into another time and place that soar us into the wee hours of these long summer nights, a literate kidnapping of our imagination and intellect. The Guardian’s obituary says of Unsworth’s work, “All his stories start with the pressure of a secret that needs to be told. All leave the reader haunted.” Well, that got me. Sacred Hunger is now on the summer reading table.
Here’s a summary of its plot, given by the Man Booker Prize in their online archive:
“A blasphemous outcast, Matthew Paris boards the ‘Liverpool Merchant’ as ship’s doctor as it embarks on a mercantile voyage in the slave trade. An illness breaks out among the slaves and crew between Guinea and the West Indies, and slaves are ordered to be tossed overboard in order to claim the insurance. Illness gives rise to mutiny, the captain is killed, and, with Paris as one of the leaders, the ship sails for Florida to establish an egalitarian, interracial society. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the loss of the ship has financially ruined its owner, Kemp, who hangs himself. Twelve years later, upon hearing rumours of a utopian community of blacks and whites in Florida, Kemp’s son sets out for revenge.”
Author Ethan Canin selected Sacred Hunger in his 2008 NPR “You Must Read This” selection and said, “I’ve rarely heard anyone who has read it call it anything less than magnificent.” And that’s what I, too, kept finding — countless statements describing the novel as a masterpiece, not only for its plot and character development, but also for its overarching message about profit, greed and inhumanity. Herbert Mitgang wrote about Sacred Hunger in the New York Times, December 1992: “In this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.”
Barry Unsworth’s novels Pascali’s Island (published in the United States as The Idol Hunter) and Morality Play were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and 1995. His most recent novel, published earlier this year, is Quality of Mercy. It continues the story of Sacred Hunger. In 2011, Unsworth told the BBC, “The fascination for writing historical novels is that things were different but they were the same. You say something that is true of the 18th Century, but at the same time you are saying something that is true of our time as well.”
May 18, 2012
A few years ago, in a local used/rare bookshop, I came upon the original Signet paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye, published in March 1953. I couldn’t resist owning it for the memorable illustration of Holden Caulfield entering a squalid New York City neighborhood, carrying a suitcase and wearing his red hunting hat and scarf. The paperback was the version of the classic I read in high school, and I paid $50 at the shop for what once sold for 50 cents — a worthy investment in book nostalgia.
In Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger, I learned the legendary recluse hated that Signet paperback design. He fought it but couldn’t get it changed, having acquiesced to it in 1951, the year Little Brown first published The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger blamed Little Brown, which controlled the paperback rights, for allowing such a tawdry cover to be used by Signet, “caring nothing for the presentation of art.”
Before reading this engaging biography, my frame of reference regarding Salinger conformed to popular stories about the legend’s seclusion. Like most everyone else, Salinger to me was simply an eccentric hermit who once wrote a lasting classic novel. I was aware he fiercely fought any invasion of his privacy at his home in New Hampshire, fought (and won) in court Ian Hamilton’s unauthorized biography and suppressed the sale of another author’s sequel to The Catcher in the Rye. And then there was that embarrassing tell-all by Joyce Maynard. But in J. D. Salinger: A Life, I came to understand a person who grew into his extremes from accumulating personal experiences.
That includes his soldiering in the 12th Infantry Regiment during World War II. I was surprised to learn Salinger stormed Normandy beaches on D-Day and took part in the horrific events in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. He also was among the American troops discovering Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say, the psychological and emotional impact of his war experiences were profound and enduring. Slawenski writes, “Salinger the man and the events of war are as inseparable as the author and the works that he penned.”
But it was the perceived betrayals by editors and publishers in the 1950s and 1960s that significantly contributed to Salinger’s eccentricities. Shortly after he returned to New York, after the war, he learned Lippincott Press would not publish his collection of short stories (Salinger had been told it was a “done deal”). By this time, he’d already experienced magazine editors changing his story titles and The New Yorker accepting a story and then not publishing it. Yet to happen was Harcourt Brace’s decision not to honor the verbal contract to publish The Catcher in the Rye in 1950. (That’s a famous moment in literary history – Little, Brown and Company became the publisher.) Salinger reached a point where he couldn’t trust the publishing community to value and respect his work. He became extremely difficult, refusing to let editors and publishers control the presentation and publicity of his stories and novels. He would demand, resist and fight, guarding his characters and their fictional worlds as he guarded his own privacy. “Striving as he was for perfection, the thought of allowing his work to be mangled by editors in the pursuit of profits incensed him.”
In reviewing J. D. Salinger: A Life last year, critics consistently made the point it’s impossible to write a successful biography about a writer who lived a secluded life, destroyed his letters and demanded friends say nothing about him to journalists. I agree that’s probably true; however, with what is known, and what is able to be pieced together from research, a story can still be told with significant value for readers. I believe here Slawenski triumphs, as he covers not only the WW II years but also Salinger’s privileged young years on Park Avenue with his parents, his trouble in school, his family life, his interactions with the staff at The New Yorker and his struggle between his ego and his spiritual beliefs.
Salinger’s publishing life ended in 1965 with the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker. Slawenski writes about this time and Salinger’s remaining 45 years with the same engaging detail and warmth as the more notable early years. He describes Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, as “a kind of terrible extinction.” That description fell hard on me with its heavy truth. I especially loved this line: “J. D. Salinger was unique, and many found his noble opposition comforting.” Amen.
Random House published the hard cover edition of J. D. Salinger: A Life in 2011. I read the trade paperback edition, released this year. Kenneth Slawenski is the founder of deadcaulfields.com. In January, in Salon, he wrote this interesting article: “What was J. D. Salinger working on?”
April 19, 2012
I attended the New York Antiquarian Book Fair last week and fell in love with a signed paperback, first edition, of Steal This Book, Abbie Hoffman’s anti-establishment survival guide self-published in 1971. Nostalgia gripped me – to own the book would be to own a tangible reminder of the years I was growing up when Hoffman appeared on the evening news protesting the Vietnam war or the capitalist pigs he despised, or causing trouble at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention with the Chicago Seven. Those were the years when music, politics, war, feminism, psychedelic drugs, Ed Sullivan, the moon landing, mini skirts and tie-dyed shirts and civil rights marches filled the nation’s psyche. I can see as clearly as I see this computer screen my sister one hot August night in 1968 imitating President Lyndon B. Johnson and putting me in hysterical laughter while the Democratic Convention broadcast on our television. More than a paperback, a signed edition of Steal This Book sitting on my bookshelf at home would provide a sensory journey into that decade of social change, the opportunity to glance at its spine and experience that flick of an emotional go-back in memory.
Abbie Hoffman wrote the introduction to his book from Chicago’s Cook County Jail. He was charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and intent to incite riot. He was acquitted of the conspiracy charge but sentenced to five years for the other charge, which eventually was overturned (1972). He self-published Steal This Book because the content made publishers and booksellers nervous. It instructs readers how to live a life of protest without depending on the social order. In other words, how to steal and make bombs. The chapter titled “Free Food” in the “Survive!” section begins:
“In a country such as Amerika, there is bound to be a hell-of-a-lot of food lying around just waiting to be ripped off. If you want to live high off the hog without having to do the dishes, restaurants are easy pickings. In general, many of these targets are easier marks if you are wearing the correct uniform. You should always have one suit or fashionable dress outfit hanging in the closet for the proper heists.”
The book sold well. According to a 1990 New York Times article about books stolen from libraries, “Is There a Klepto in the Stacks?”, Steal This Book came out in April 1971 and by July sales reached 100,000 copies. The article listed Hoffman’s counter-culture classic as number 5 on its most-stolen list. Alas, the rare, signed copy of Steal This Book was beyond my budget at the Antiquarian Book Fair, and I walked away from it. Considering its title and interior messaging, I should mention the desired book was behind a locked, glass cabinet door.
Two days later I found myself in Bluestockings, a self-described radical bookstore in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a far cry both in location and subject matter from the bookstores I visited in the Upper East Side. Shelving categories included, to name a few, Activist Strategies, Civil Liberties and the State, Class and Labor, Global Justice and Anarchism. I didn’t linger very long, as I did in the Upper East Side stores, Kitchen Arts & Letters, Crawford Doyle Booksellers and The Corner Bookstore. As I left, I noticed Terry Bisson’s new novel Any Day Now on the display table. I had finished it a few days before I left for NYC, so understood its presence in Bluestockings.
Any Day Now follows the young Clayton Bewley Bauer from Owensboro, Kentucky, through his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, from dating a car-hop and reading Howl and On the Road with a beatnik neighbor to dropping out of college and hitch-hiking to New York City, where he hangs with radicals involved with the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He leaves NYC on the run from the FBI and lives in a commune in Colorado. There’s no mention that I recall of Abbie Hoffman but certainly of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention where Bisson provides an alternate history — Senator Robert F. Kennedy appears at the convention with a bandage around his head and becomes the democratic presidential nominee. Martin Luther King also survives his assassination and is RFK’s vice presidential pick.
The story is rich with atmosphere of the radical times, and anyone who lived them will get lost in the period details mentioned throughout. It’s like flipping through an absorbing Life magazine photo essay of the era. Readers born after 1970 may find the story dry. It lacks an emotional draw that makes us care about the characters and is written in short paragraphs with a staccato narrative voice. When it comes to the 1960s, however, if you lived it, you don’t need someone to create a seductive narrative draw. It’s already built into your own emotional core. You’ll hear the music, feel the revolution and know just how Clay feels when he says, “If I had twenty bucks, I would hit the road, stick out my thumb, go where the wind takes me.”
April 5, 2012
I recently re-read John Gardner’s Grendel, the 1971 novel that re-tells the first part of the epic medieval poem Beowulf from the monster’s viewpoint. The willingness to give reading time to a book I’ve already read, when there’s not enough time to read all the books I haven’t read, got triggered by an advanced reading copy of Grendel inscribed by the publisher to the intended receiver, “Please read. You will love this.” The ARC is a rare acquisition for my library that took me back to the time one of my college English literature professors gave me his copy of Grendel, thinking, I suppose, I’d appreciate Gardner’s extraordinary imagination and lyric monster writing. It was not an assignment, rather something Mr. Parks enjoyed and wanted to share with the student (me) who was interning with him that quarter. I read the book, but the story and all its meaning sailed right over my head.
So here, decades later, I’m reading Grendel out loud and walking around the room at the same time because one cannot sit still under that sheer magic created by Gardner, a narrative of such magnificent lyric words and insights you can’t help but to dramatically read the story out loud to hear them. I relished the rhythms of the lonely, philosophical monster’s fretting and roaring as he struggles to understand the purpose of his existence. Grendel doesn’t see himself as people see him, a violent fiend from hell, and Gardner skillfully brings to life the monster’s sweet, emotional confusion.
Grendel lurks outside King Hrothgar’s magnificent mead hall, spying on the drunken feasts and listening to the poetry of the harpist, known as the Shaper, who sings of goodness and hope. One day, the Shaper tells the story of Cain and Abel, “an ancient feud between two brothers which split all the world between darkness and light.” Grendel learns he’s from the darkness, “the terrible race God cursed.” Filled with scorn and doubt, he seeks the counsel of a gold-hording dragon, who dismisses the idea there’s any meaning in life, light or dark, and claims the Shaper creates illusions. The dragon casts a spell on Grendel, making him invulnerable to any weapon. “I could walk up to the meadhall [sic] whenever I pleased, and they were powerless. My heart became darker because of that.”
Grendel rampages through the mead hall, savagely killing Hrothgar’s men night after night, seeing no worth in any life, especially because he can so easily take it. When he decides not to kill Hrothgar’s wife, he says:
“It would be meaningless, killing her. As meaningless as letting her live. It would be, for me, mere pointless pleasure, an illusion of order for this one frail, foolish flicker-flash in the long dull fall of eternity.”
He’s a horrible creature, but Gardner gives him humanity, and you can’t help but love Grendel — he’s intelligent, funny, self-loathing and monstrously witty. He knows what he’s doing isn’t right, and yet he can’t stop because he can’t reconcile the senselessness he sees in the world. He’s a beastly creature capable of love and sympathy — desiring it, actually — who transforms into evil because no one gave him a chance to be anything but evil. There’s a great life message here, and many more like it in this classic, right up to the end when Grendel finally is overcome by the hero Beowulf.
One doesn’t need to have read the original medieval poem to enjoy Gardner’s spin-off, but there’s so much more to Grendel’s story after his death, when Gardner’s novel ends, that it’s worth reading Beowulf either again or for the first time. I did (again). I picked up the wonderful translation by poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney. Published in 2000, Heaney’s version became a national best-seller, which says it all – how often do you see translated medieval poetry described as a best-seller?
As for Gardner’s Grendel, it’s poignant, spiritually and psychologically rich, and delightful to read. I understand now why Mr. Parks wanted to share it.
Update: The title to this post was slightly modified after publication.