January 26, 2012
The following new and relatively new books are sitting on my desk, only they’re not physically present on my desk. They’re represented by pieces of paper torn from pages in book review publications. I consider this growing handful of paper a reading table of sorts. Actually, it’s a control measure due to books now living on the floor in my house, something I said I would never allow. Clearly, books on the floor is a sign I need to control my literary acquisitions. Hence, this style of reading table that gathers paper as a first step versus impulsively acquiring at first love.
I share these books because readers who don’t comb book review journals, especially those from London, may not be aware of them.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon
NYRB Classics recently published this Georges Simenon novel, Act of Passion, about a successful doctor who abandons his comfortable married life to pursue and attempt to possess a love interest. Sounds like a common plotline; however, in the hands of Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, the story’s probably a well-crafted stunner. The Times Literary Supplement writes, “Simenon creates a character both compelling and repulsive, clear-eyed and deluded at the same time.” The novel was originally published in 1947 in France as Lettre à mon juge, a more fitting title to the story, considering it’s written as an apology letter from the doctor to the magistrate in his murder trial. Act of Passion is translated by the late Louise Varèse.
Julia by Otto de Kat
Perhaps it’s unfair to list this novel because it’s not published (yet?) in the U.S., although you can still purchase it online. I’ve come across it a few times in U.K. reviews, and it’s one I’ve got my eye on. Julia by Otto de Kat was originally published in Dutch in 2008 and recently translated into English by Ina Rilke. This slight, 168-page novel concerns a Dutchman’s encounter with a woman (Julia Berger) for a brief time in Germany, 1938. From The Independent: “De Kat’s ambition of theme is served by astonishing tautness of construction and spareness of language, beautifully rendered by Ina Rilke. And, most movingly, the novel offers us glimpses of uncompromising virtue, not always in expected places.”
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Canadian author Emma Donoghue may bring to mind her best-selling Room, a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a kidnapping. She also wrote The Sealed Letter. It was published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, before Room. It’s historical fiction based on a scandalous Victorian divorce in 1860′s London. Picador recently published it for the first time in the U.K. It was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, where it got my attention. On Donoghue’s website, a quote from the Daily Mail says it’s ”a page-turning drama packed with sex, passion and intrigue.” Also, according to The New York Times review in 2008: “the plot is psychologically informed, fast paced and eminently readable.”
The Manuscript of Great Expectations: From the Townshend Collection, Wisbech by Charles Dickens
This book intrigues me because of the opportunity to experience an author’s decision-making, word by word, sentence by sentence, as he brings a story to life. It’s an exact reproduction in color and size of the hand-written manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The museum that owns the 1860 manuscript collaborated with Cambridge University Press to produce the original papers in book format for the first time (according to this article in The Guardian). I love that The Guardian provides a gallery view you can click through for a taste of what’s inside the book. What a wonder to think this is how books used to be written. Pen and ink seems so much more of an intimate, demanding experience with words than typing.
The New Granta Book of Travel
edited by Liz Jobey, introduction by Jonathan Raban
This collection of travel narratives will be available in the U.S. April 2012. It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in travel memoirs. One of my long-time favorites is Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare. More recently, I wanted to read but didn’t Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. And so here, a collection of diverse travels essays calling to me. From The Independent: “What’s particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In ‘Arrival’ we have an asylum seeker’s first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello’s poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.’” Also, reading the book’s introduction via Amazon’s preview option, Jonathan Raban describes an essay about a Victorian-style imperial expedition into the heart of the Congo as well as a walk in East Ayrshire – ”Her journey lasts an hour or so, and covers perhaps a mile, but one need not travel far or for long to travel deep…”
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
I became a Penelope Lively fan with her Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, so a new book always gets my attention. How It All Began is getting positive reviews by the major U.S. papers, a story that starts with the mugging of a retired schoolteacher in London and then unfolds with the resulting consequences. The publisher’s website says, “Through a richly conceived and colorful cast of characters, Penelope Lively explores the powerful role of chance in people’s lives and deftly illustrates how our paths can be altered irrevocably by someone we will never even meet.” Sounds like another good one — How It All Began is Lively’s 20th work of fiction.
December 13, 2011
Earlier this year, I joined the New York Review Books subscription book club. For six months, I received a new classic published by the imprint. While editors and publicists frequently send me books to read for review, these books arriving in the mail felt different to me, more like a present and a surprise, no press release attached. One of the books was Brian (pronounced BREE-an) Moore’s The Mangan Inheritance, first published in 1979.
How easy to be immersed in the sterling craftsmanship of Brian Moore, who was born in Northern Ireland and lived many years of his adult life in Canada and then Malibu, California, where he died in 1999. Moore was short-listed three times for the Man Booker Prize and highly praised for many of his 19 novels, including The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Emperor of Ice Cream. “Dip him in the river who loves water,” the poet William Blake wrote in his Proverbs of Hell. And so, long a fan of this enduring author, I was dipped in The Mangan Inheritance, caught up in the richly created third-person narrative, written from the viewpoint of Jamie Mangan, whose experience we follow over several weeks during and shortly after the New Year’s holiday.
The novel opens with Jamie struggling under the recent shock that his wife, Beatrice Abbott, an Oscar-nominated celebrity, is leaving him for another man. He’s lived in her shadow for their six-year marriage, a journalist whose earnings are a pittance compared to hers, whose everything is because of her. Without Beatrice, Jamie thinks, “It’s as if I don’t exist anymore.”
Jamie escapes to his hometown, Montreal, to find solace with his father and stepmother. He tells his father, “At 36 I am nothing.” But Jamie’s father reminds his son of his long-ago calling to be a poet. At the age of 19, Jamie published one of his poems in The New Yorker.
Poetry is in the Mangan bloodline. Jamie’s grandfather, who emigrated to Montreal from Ireland, claimed to be descended from the Irish poet James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849). During his Montreal visit, the despondent Jamie finds a daguerreotype with “(J.M. 1847 ?)” written “in a sloping looped script” on the back of it. He believes the photographed person to be his ancestral poète maudit. The face is a mirror image of his own.
Jamie’s resemblance to the man in the daguerreotype inspires him to confirm if it is indeed the Irish poet and resolve whether or not they’re related. He travels to Ireland, where he meets Mangan relatives in the town of Drishane, several hours outside of Shannon. They include Conor and Kathleen Mangan, brother and sister who live in a yellow caravan trailer in the fields behind a former Mangan farmhouse, and Eileen and her son Dinny, who live similarly in a cottage behind another abandoned Mangan home.
Jamie succumbs to his lust for the beautiful, 18-year-old Kathleen, who’s convinced he’s a “fillim star.” Their erotic, dependent relationship snares Jamie in his vulnerability. He becomes pathetic and inappropriate in his desire for the young girl, “again a woman’s prisoner.” Meanwhile, his face is locally recognized as the double not for the 19th-century poet, but Kathleen’s Uncle Mike, Eileen’s husband. The resemblance causes heads to turn but more significantly triggers Kathleen to experience moments of madness, an indicator of a hidden family secret. Eileen responds to Jamie’s questions about his Mangan heritage, “If you keep looking over your shoulder, sir, you’ll find things you don’t want to find.”
Moore describes the Irish rainy weather and barren landscape so powerfully you see the narrow, rocky roads lined with hedgerows, feel the cold buffeting winds and hear the ocean’s foamy roar with palpable intensity. He closely binds our sympathies to Jamie while skillfully increasing the tension around the Mangan family secret, building to a stunning conclusion. The story is involving not only because of Moore’s faultless characterizations and well-conceived plot, but also for the story’s consequential theme of identity, demonstrating what happens when – as Jamie realizes about himself – we become indifferent caretakers of our calling.
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.
April 12, 2011
I recently signed up for the NYRB subscription book club. I couldn’t resist a monthly literary surprise arriving in the mail from among the newest titles in the New York Review of Books Classics Series. NYRB Classics are described on their website as, “to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.” I can confirm that, having previously read such unforgettables from their series as A Month in the Country, Stoner and A Meaningful Life.
This month, the first book club selection arrived: Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Published in 1977, this slim, dark novel portrays a female assassin, an attractive manipulator who trains and operates by herself, motivated by the ease with which she can kill for money. She employs strict methodology of fake identity and illusion while she ferrets out human vengeance, greed and anger and then uses it to prosperous advantage.
We witness her at work in an imaginary port town in France where, as Aimée Joubert, she socializes with the moneyed industry owners who become her puppets. Everything falls into place, only Aimée is unable to carry through with her nefarious plans due to a not completely believable emotional moment – I had to re-read it to make sure it was real and not a trick Aimée was playing on her victim. The unexpected about-face leads to her downfall and final scenes of horrendous violence and death. This is not unbearable violence, however. The book is written in an engaging, stark style that spares us from graphic, bloody visuals.
“Aimée delivered a toe kick to his chest; he went quiet and lost consciousness; she bent over him and killed him briskly; then she moved off noiselessly towards the western end of the market area.”
Noir is a genre defined by its cynical, dark, gritty crime where there are no heroes and no redemption, plenty of deceit, and the violence and sex are without emotion. Fatale slides perfectly into that definitive glove. And while noir is not a literary genre I frequent, being gloom-averse, this compact story turned out to be the perfect size as an introduction to its noted French noir author – 91 pages with an informative afterword. I enjoyably polished it off.
November 16, 2009
The New York Review of Books Classics is celebrating 10 years of publishing. During that decade, one of its best sellers has been The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Every time I read or hear about this 17th century tome, there’s exceptional praise. But I can’t imagine heading in for the read. Not only is this compendium of melancholia’s many dispositions composed of dense prose, it’s written in 17th Century style, using the likes of “doth” and “hath.”
Last year, I urged my friend BE, a voracious reader, to read it for my vicarious enjoyment. He has yet to reach the last page. I’m not sure he’s even passed page 200. What is it about The Anatomy of Melancholy that sets it apart? viaLibri prices earlier copies ranging from $40 to $272 (as of this date). Echo Library, a print-on-demand publisher, offers it in two volumes. (The NYRB Classics version comes in one volume.) Michael Dirda writes in Classics for Pleasure, “…surrender to its seemingly wayward rhythms and you will understand why Samuel Johnson used to say that it was ‘the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.’” Dirda also writes, “The Anatomy of Melancholy is not, in fact, a volume to read through so much as to live with.” I might add for a long time, considering it’s 1,392 pages.