March 29, 2017
I purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)
The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.
Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”
I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.
“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”
February 14, 2017
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
When setting out to read this creepy new novel, be prepared to be initially confused over who is speaking and why. That’s because Samanta Schweblin doesn’t spell out what’s happening with dramatic set-up or a comforting prologue. Instead, she drops us directly into a nightmare where we are as clueless about what’s going on as the two main characters in conversation. It’s a brilliant technique. The initial confusion doesn’t last beyond the first two or three pages. Soon you’ll come to understand the conversationalists are Amanda, who is dying in a rural hospital, and a boy named David, who is sitting on her bed and interrogating her about the cause of her abrupt illness. He insistently urges the feverish woman to concentrate on what’s important, to not waste time, to be observant. “We have to find the exact moment,” he says in this cautionary tale. “We want to know how it starts.” I can say without a doubt the story creates a page-turning frenzy right up to the end. Highly recommended for everyone, but especially for fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.
Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Readers of The Longest Chapter may recognize this book. I wrote about it last summer, when I read in publishing periodicals that it sold more than one million copies within the first week of publication in Japan. Six Four wasn’t available in the U.S. at that time, but it is this month, and if you’re looking for a gripping wallop of a book, this is it. What’s so surprising is that much of the narrative is about the politics and bureaucracy of police work in Japan. That sounds dry, but it’s just as fascinating as the sensational, unsolved kidnapping from 14 years ago that is generating questions. Press director and former criminal investigator Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s father on the latest anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance and murder, but the father refuses to see the commissioner. Mikami can’t figure out why, and he’s finding other matters related to the case that are resulting in a maze of official closed doors. The page count is daunting, at just over 500 pages, but don’t let that intimidate you. Yokoyama’s captivating narrative, short chapters and unusual police scenarios should have you hooked before page 100.
The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Anyone who already has read this intriguing page-turner will attest to its addictive plot. This international best-seller, originally published in the U.S. in 2004, begins with a rare and used bookstore owner taking his 10-year-old son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an ancient, vast library that’s “a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves” where “…books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.” Visitors are allowed to take and become the keeper of one book, and Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. He’s completely entranced by the story and wants to read more books by Carax and discovers someone has systematically been destroying them. Indeed, Daniel may now own the one remaining copy of Carax’s literary efforts. His need to know why, and what happened to Carax, takes us into an engrossing world of mystery, murder and doomed love in 1940’s bookish Barcelona. The plot perfectly twists and turns in so many perplexing directions it’s hard to turn out the reading light and go to bed.
January 26, 2017
In 1965, Harper & Row published John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and in 1967 the movie adaptation was released. Sydney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, the book’s black police detective, and Rod Steiger played Bill Gillespie, the bigoted southern police chief who needs Tibbs’ help to solve a case. (Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role.) I never saw the film and also never read the book, until now. I picked up the 2015 Penguin Classics 50th anniversary paperback, motivated not only to read this time-honored story but also curious about its depiction of racism.
While the movie takes place in a fictionalized Sparta, Mississippi, in the book the setting is Wells, South Carolina. In the late hours of night, a murder is committed, and Virgil Tibbs becomes the prime suspect. He’s found in the segregated waiting area of the train station by Officer Sam Woods, who assumes Tibbs committed the crime and is making his getaway. In reality, Tibbs is passing through the town, changing trains on his way home to California, after visiting his mother in the South. It’s obvious the arrest happens because Tibbs is black.
When the gracious Tibbs reveals to Woods and Police Chief Gillespie that he’s employed as a homicide detective in Pasadena, California, Gillespie asks him to help them solve the murder. Gillespie knows his police force, including himself, doesn’t have enough experience to investigate the high-profile case. How the investigation unfolds puts this story in the top ranks of great mystery writing – and also in the top ranks of books about racism. Tibbs never allows Woods, Gillespie and the town councilmen to intimidate him or demean his expertise with all their offensive remarks. His overwhelming courtesy, patience and self-confidence shine a large spotlight on their egregious behavior. They come across as limited and foolish, such as when Woods sincerely wonders how a black man could receive high levels of detective training. Tibbs replies:
“…it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”
Author John Ball takes another swipe at Officer Woods’ bigotry via the daughter of the slain man, an Italian conductor who came to Wells to establish a music festival. Woods is enamored with the beautiful young woman, but she puts him in his place with a verbal slap of a comment, when he speaks of racial prejudice as a way of life in the southern states . You can just feel Woods’ reaction of being “acutely uncomfortable” after she says:
“Some people don’t like Italians; they think we’re different, you know. Oh, they’ll make an exception for a Toscanini or a Sophia Loren, but the rest of us are supposed to be vegetable peddlers or else gangsters.”
In the Heat of the Night is a suspenseful murder mystery that offers several surprising twists and turns of events on its way toward the conclusion. All along, I kept trying to guess how it would end, but I was never even close. Published in the 1960’s, the story richly reflects race relations in the Jim Crow American south with a story as memorable as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.
December 29, 2016
Over the years, I’ve given books to friends who come to my house for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a joy for me and them, this book carefully selected and then placed on the table to function as their place card. Below are the selections I made this year and the reasons behind my decisions.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
I’ll start with a misfire. It’s not the book you see here. This actually was my first choice, but I second guessed myself and instead gave Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air. With Kalanithi’s book being front and center in the media and on bestseller lists, I knew I was risking that my friend would already have read the book, and indeed she had. That was the misfire, i.e., not listening to my gut instinct. With my first choice on hand, I was able to get it to her the next day — Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, focused on the literary life and religious faith of mid-20th century writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. I thought my friend, an entrepreneur and ordained minister, who enjoys deep, thoughtful topics, would find many pause-worthy moments in Elie’s acclaimed work that The New York Times described as “a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth.”
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I always look for an absorbing novel for this friend. She’s one of those readers who will stay up all night to find out what happens next. She tells me she must plan her reading so as to miss not just sleep, but also appointments or anything else that would get in the way of The End. And so this novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and penned by the lyric Alaskan native author, came to mind for its intrigue of an unusual child’s presence in the lives of a struggling couple. Jack and Mable are trying to make a life together in 1920’s frontier Alaska when the snow child comes into their lives, but is the child fantasy or reality? Ivey released a new novel this past summer, To the Bright Edge of the World, but I selected her first novel because my friend is a specialist in early child education. I thought the combined mystery and child focus would deeply absorb her.
Upstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
Oliver is a popular poet whose beautiful words, philosophies and insights transport readers into the natural world and its wisdom. Among forests, rivers, ponds and fields, she presents a kind of peace and acceptance that transcends the hysteria of modern life. An example is her poem “Am I Not Among the Early Risers” in which she writes: “What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly / at the top of the field, / her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine / has not already done?/” Oliver’s new collection of essays seemed like a no-brainer for this friend who loves poetry and the outdoors. These essays have been gathered together as a sort of autobiography, with Oliver reflecting on the natural world, as well as topics from childhood and her adult writing life. As much as I knew my friend would enjoy the book, though, I afterwards wondered if I should’ve reached for something more unexpected. Oliver’s essays are a best-seller, like Kalanithi’s memoir, and while my friend hadn’t read it, upon opening it, she recognized it. Is there more magic in receiving a book that’s completely unknown?
Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Speaking of bestsellers, here’s another one. I tend to avoid the bestseller list because it is the go-to source for many when they want a book selection – and the list is so limiting, given the phenomenal choices beyond it. Alas, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phenomenal book also came to mind. I selected it for a friend who read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it. I don’t believe she’s an avid, even frequent reader, and so I thought giving her this important, highly lauded book about ideas of race would capture her attention. Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it’s like to be black in America today. It’s universally described as “required reading.” Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and came in as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Here is another friend whose reading habits I believe are spotty, at best, and by that I mean it’s possible she doesn’t think to read, except maybe when someone hands her a book. Given the Kennedy family story continues to fascinate this nation of readers, I thought this new biography of a lesser-known Kennedy daughter — sibling of the famous Jack, Robert and Ted, her brothers of political fame — would capture my friend’s interest. Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled and kept as a family secret. It’s a tragic story that is the reason her Kennedy relatives established and supported government opportunities and resources for the disabled. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, author Kate Clifford Larson said of Rosemary: “She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate … but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn’t ask.”
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Finally, a classic autobiography chosen for a friend who has become an avid reader, one who keeps a list of books to be read, frequents the library and reads every day. She posed a challenge in that I know she reads this blog, and so I didn’t feel I could select from anything I’d written about here. Likely, if it was a good match, she would already have it on her list. I’ve given her literary novels she has loved and not loved so much (yet she has read every page); and then, I remembered she loved Friday Night Lights, a book I recommended a while back. I took that non-fiction cue and immediately this beloved memoir by Nabokov came to mind for its nostalgia, beautiful writing and Nabokov’s insight into his Russian childhood. It struck as a perfect combination of literary style and a true story that my friend would enjoy. From the Humanities article Why Nabokov’s Speak Memory Still Speaks to Us: “After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away.” I hope the same for my friend.
December 20, 2016
I haven’t been much in the holiday spirit this year. It’s been hard to allow it into an already full schedule. Meanwhile, sitting before me has been a new, special edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I borrowed it from the library, wanting to look at the photos of Dickens’ original manuscript pages that are included. Each page in his handwriting is positioned opposite a page of what it says in print.
It occurred to me to read the book, but why read this well-known story? I know what happens from all the TV and stage adaptations I’ve seen: The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, whose visitations transform him into a generous man. And yet, maybe the story would light up my Christmas spirit. So I began to read it.
The conversation between Scrooge and his nephew at the beginning of the story is where it grabbed me. Because the nephew, who enters Scrooge’s business on Christmas Eve to invite him to Christmas dinner, doesn’t easily give up when verbally attacked by Scrooge, who snarls:
“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
The nephew retorts: “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
Dickens sustains their opposition in a momentous argument, driving home how firmly Scrooge is encased in his bitterness and his nephew in hope.
A bit later in the story, the girlfriend of a young Ebenezer breaks up with him in a similarly memorable rejection scene shown to Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Past. She eloquently speaks about how Scrooge has changed, identifying why, and so I newly became aware of what fueled Scrooge’s life choices.
“You fear the world too much,” she says. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its reproach.”
The transformation of the man alone is not what felt strongest to me in this reading of The Christmas Carol, rather the impact of these and other moments that took my attention in meaningful directions.
Also, Dickens’ descriptions gave much to think about, such as when the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a ship on “the black and heaving sea” where he witnesses men isolated by their work –“dark, ghostly figures in their several stations” – and yet they are humming Christmas carols and speaking of “bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.”
Note to self: Those men at sea didn’t need to be participating in all the seasonal busyness and galas to have the Christmas spirit. It resides in their hearts. And so with carols playing and several trees glittering in the house, I stopped being so hard on myself. Perhaps I’m more in the spirit than I’ve thought.
Tiny Tim, the son of Bob Cratchit, who works for Scrooge, speaks the story’s hallmark last line: “God Bless Us Every One!” But it’s the previous line that lingered with me: “And it was always said of [Scrooge] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
This unique edition includes a foreword by author Colm Tóibín and introduction by Declan Kiely, chief literary curator of The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, where Dickens’ original, hand-written manuscript resides and is displayed at Christmastime.
September 20, 2016
Many readers tell me they start The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and then quickly give up because it’s too confusing. That’s not surprising. In this author’s fourth novel, which he believed to be his best, Faulkner challenges readers by shifting abruptly in time between past and present, let alone starting the book with a demanding first-person narration by the mentally challenged Benjy Compson. The novel is a 20th century classic, the one many believe they should read if they’re going to read or ‘tackle’ Faulkner. I typically recommend Absalom, Absalom! instead because it’s the novel among Faulkner’s great ones that I enjoyed most.
I have doubt, though, about that recommendation. I haven’t read all of Faulkner’s novels. Maybe I should recommend the scandalous, dark potboiler Sanctuary that Faulkner wrote to make money – and that attracted reader attention to his work for the first time. Except readers want to read an important Faulkner novel, just like they want to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. You can’t preen about having read Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as Young Man like you can preen about having read Ulysses – and like you can preen about having read The Sound and the Fury. It’s not escape or an unputdownable reading experience that’s at play here. It’s an accomplishment.
The doubt about my Faulkner recommendation also comes from being fascinated by Faulkner as a person. When I blurt out that I love Faulkner, it doesn’t mean I love his books, rather all that is of him: his life in Oxford, Mississippi, at his home Rowan Oak; his script writing days in Hollywood, working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and film director Howard Hawks; his long road to getting published, the richness of his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, how his work progressed and the effect literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley* had on his reputation; his speeches and essays that speak thoughtfully and intellectually about the human condition; and his individuality.
The last page of William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection, a photography book illustrating Faulkner’s life, tells of a typewritten note appended to the back of a framed portrait of Faulkner taken by photographer Jack Cofield. The note says:
“I once read a statement by Rudyard Kipling (made, I think, in one of his last interviews in London), which I think applies to Bill Faulkner the man as well as William Faulkner the author: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ Bill Faulkner lived up to this principle to a T.”
The Culture Trip’s The Nine Best Books by William Faulkner You Should Read describes the prose of Sanctuary as “considerably more fluid than a lot of Faulkner’s denser novels, and thus easier to grasp for readers less familiar with the author’s particular style of writing.” It describes The Sound and the Fury as “a notoriously arduous and disturbing read, whose often disorienting narration requires patience and persistence.”
In Flavorwire’s The 50 Best Southern Novels Ever Written, eight of the 50 are by Faulkner. No wonder they refer to him as “that titan of American letters.” Among the eight, The Sound and the Fury is called his best novel, while Absalom, Absalom! is called “the greatest Southern novel every written.” That’s enough for me to continue recommending it as the one to read. As for me, I have a desire to keep reading Faulkner, but it has to be the right time. To randomly pick up one of the titan’s complex novels as a next book to read feels like selecting a complex, expensive wine to drink when you’re thirsty. One needs to be ready to read Faulkner.
*Malcolm Cowley and the Nobel Prize: By 1944, William Faulkner was off the literary radar screen. “His seventeen books were effectively out of print and seemed likely to remain in that condition, since there was no public demand for them,” Malcolm Cowley writes in The Faulkner-Cowley File. Cowley, recognizing Faulkner’s neglected genius, brought his literature back into public focus with The Portable Faulkner, published by The Viking Press in 1946, which Cowley edited and introduced. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Speaking of that prize, I recommend reading Faulkner’s short, moving acceptance speech in which he says, “the basest of all things is to be afraid.” His words resonate today, including this famous quote:
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
May 23, 2016
A little over a week ago, during a post-presentation Q&A, a woman from the back row said she loved the current Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and then she asked if I could recommend another good book for her. The request silenced me. It always does, that ask by a stranger for the title of a good book. And yet, I expect myself to be able to casually toss out answers.
When independent bookstores flourished, the bookseller, over time, got to know a patron’s reading tastes and could provide personalized recommendations for good books. Today, Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s automatic “matches” of what you might like to read, based on past online book searches and purchases, is the impersonal opposite — their technology lacks the ability to capture nuance in reading desire and taste.
For me, making recommendations for strangers is a shot in the dark. Without knowing the person’s reading patterns and history, I don’t have a feel for what works for them in a novel. Is it the drama and romance? The captivating, complex characters whose fictional stories are unforgettable? The tension of the World War II European setting? Is it violence and intrigue or moving relationships? I’ve had many successes but also many failures in trying to take that shot in the dark.
I came out of my temporary stupor with an answer for the woman in the back row, sharing with her two novels that came to mind and are personal favorites. I qualified the answer, explaining Stoner by John Williams could lack the level of drama she might want (although it’s an international best-seller) and Mapuche by Carl Férey might be too violent (its plot draws from Argentina’s violent time of the “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983). Ever since that brief exchange, however, I’ve felt as if I didn’t provide a thoughtful enough response — because she mentioned Doerr’s novel, and I could’ve used it as my starting point. I could’ve tried for an “automatic match” à la online book-selling. And so…
Dear Woman in the Back Row,
I’ve pondered your request, considering what I could have otherwise suggested for you to read. Here are three novels I’m thinking you might enjoy. They have a World War II connection, which might appeal to you, since you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See. They’re not new books, but ones from the past known to have captivated many readers. Maybe you haven’t read them.
Winds of War by Herman Wouk is the first volume of Wouk’s popular World War II epic. It mentally kidnapped me during a long-ago summer, and I think back to that time fondly, reading Wouk’s novel on a commuter train, during lunch hours and by the pool, lost in the story. From the book’s description: “Wouk’s spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events — and all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II — as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war’s maelstrom.” The second novel in the epic drama is War and Remembrance.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize, focuses on protagonist Claudia Hampton as she lies dying in a London hospital bed,remembering kaleidoscopic fragments from her past that recall her life as a newspaper correspondent, historical novelist and mother. At the center is her memory of a brief love affair in Cairo, Egypt, during World War II, with a British tank officer on leave. While not on the level of “spellbinding,” as is Wouk’s epic, it’s nevertheless a moving, memorable story that also captivated me.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is based on the true story of a working class couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power. When their only son was killed on the German front lines during the war, they became resisters. From the book’s description: “With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.” Acclaimed WWII espionage novelist Alan Furst blurbs the dust jacket on my copy of the book: “One of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever….Please, do not miss this.”
March 23, 2016
The bookshelf here beside me contains many of the paperback classics I read in college. I’ve kept them all these years of my life, packing them up and moving them wherever I’ve gone. You’d recognize them — Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Dickens’ Hard Times, Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of MidLothian, and on I could go. But what’s missing on these shelves are the science fiction classics I read: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and others I can’t recall. I think I gave them away or left them behind somewhere.
I never leave books behind. My double-stacked shelves and books on top of books on top of books on top of tables are a testament to that, but science fiction isn’t what I like to read. So why did I recently pick up Charlie Jane Anders’ new book, a sci-fi fantasy, All the Birds in the Sky?
What I’ve learned from reading Anders’ science fiction fantasy novel (which I enjoyed) and other science fiction I’ve tried and enjoyed (Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear) is that I’m okay with science fiction as long as there’s not a new world I need to understand with a tongue-twisting vocabulary of geographic labels, human class hierarchies and referential touch points that don’t stick with me. The previously mentioned books didn’t have that. The Southern Reach Trilogy, in fact, captivated me.
A couple months ago, I asked Mark, a manager at Half Price Books who often joins the WOSU book show, to recommend a science fiction book for me. Mark reads a lot of science fiction, and he handed me Neil Stephenson’s popular novel Snow Crash, which The New York Times said is “brilliantly realized.” By page two, I’m reading about the arachnofiber weave of the Deliverator’s uniform, the Giga Highlands and a Burbclave, which cause my reading mind to stumble and freeze. (Darn it!) For perspective, I tell myself, I suppose this is similar to someone wanting to read one of those classic novels I listed above but choking on Victorian prose or falling asleep over it. To make the point, I’ll just type in here the first line of The Heart of Midlothian: “The times have changed in nothing more (we follow as we were wont the manuscript of Peter Pattieson) than in the rapid conveyance of intelligence and communication betwixt one part of Scotland and another.”)
All the Birds in the Sky smoothly rides on uber technology, which includes an intelligent super computer, emotional robots and an antigravity machine. It also engages the mystical, with a parliamentary tree populated by talking birds sitting in council. The story begins with an overwhelmed, young witch named Patricia Delfine, who understands what they’re saying and also struggles to understand her powers. She befriends the super-smart Lawrence Armstead at school, a geeky, bullied boy who’s invented a time machine that jumps ahead two seconds, so he can escape the bullies’ torments. This middle school section of the story lacks provocative intrigue and falls short in texture and energy compared to the rest of the book, when 10 years later, the two friends come together again in San Francisco. Patricia consorts with other witches, and Lawrence creates a wormhole generator that opens a pathway to infinity. His boss wants to assure the preservation of the human race in case of a doomsday scenario. Patricia’s full powers come into play when that day arrives, going to war to destroy Lawrence’s gravity-defying machine because it will tear a hole in the earth and destroy the natural world — those creatures whose languages Patricia understands. Meanwhile, these two protagonists who are at odds with one another are also in difficult love.
Even though Anders wrestles with global catastrophe and ethical issues, she doesn’t take herself or the robots and super machines too seriously. There’s plenty of humor, and the story sparkles with inventiveness. In the end, everything wraps up believably, and not too neatly, either, which makes the story even more credible. And so, I’ll add All the Birds in the Sky to the list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed, but you won’t find it on my bookshelves. I borrowed it from the library. And Snow Crash? That’s right here, tempting me to try it again before I next see Mark, and return it.
January 27, 2016
My favorite way to read a classic novel is in a used, hardbound, battered edition that’s been read and handled by many readers, its pages soft from wear, yellowed, dog-eared and smudged; its dust jacket nicked and bruised; and its edges bumped and dented. And of course, there’s that sweet, musty old book smell transporting me into library stacks and used bookstores. You can buy the scent now in soy candles, but I don’t think that works without the experience of the old book you can flip through and touch. It’s just not the same.
I recently finished John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I picked up an old, handled library copy at a used book fair. Library-cancelled stamps abound on the end papers, and the checkout card pocket is ripped off. Someone’s name is written in sloppy script at the top of the first page. The interior pages smell musty and feel soft to the touch, worn from longtime turning. The textures gave me the feeling I had in my hand a book that was read by many, starting in 1964 when it was first published in the United States. Richard Burton starred in the 1965 movie that followed. He played the protagonist Alec Leamas, a long-standing, experienced British spy who’s recalled from his post in Berlin after he loses one more agent, killed by the East Germans, at the Berlin Wall.
Leamas believes this is the end of his career with British Intelligence, that it’s time to come in from the cold; however, he’s given one more assignment to dupe the East Germans into thinking he’s a defector, in order to drive them toward thinking the mastermind and head of their own spy agency is a double agent.
I’m of the same opinion as author Graham Greene whose back-of-the-book blurb on my copy says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” The New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in 1964 agreed, adding: “Whether The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is better than Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden or Mr. Greene’s own The Confidential Agent is inconsequential. What matters is that it belongs on the same shelf.”
How much more fun it is to have read this 1960’s best-seller in its original form than in a new paperback. I also intend to read an old copy of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came: no dust jacket on this book, the binding cracked, the pages yellowed and bookishly fragrant. Tucked inside is a map of Malabar Farm State Park, Bromfield’s famous Ohio home, and someone’s typed list of books written by Bromfield. This classic novel became a movie with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in 1939. A remake came out in 1955 with Richard Burton and Lana Turner.
And then there’s a copy I have of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, a 1935 copy inscribed by my grandmother Margaret to her husband, my grandfather William H. Rose, on August 5, 1935: no dust jacket, frayed and faded binding cloth, and pages that feel smooth as silk. Isn’t this what old books are all about? They remind us they once sat in other libraries and in other hands, providing a literary sense of eternal time. PBS aired Galsworthy’s story on Masterpiece Theater.
January 18, 2016
The first woman in England to play the leading stage role of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles acted in an amateur theater near Hardy’s home in Dorset County on the coast of the English Channel. Hardy directed the 1924 production and insisted the young woman be cast for the part because of her resemblance to her mother, whose unforgettable beauty inspired Hardy to create Tess more than 30 years earlier, in 1891. The radiant actress, Gertrude Bugler, was the very incarnation of Tess, and Hardy became infatuated with her, although he didn’t act on his desires — Hardy was 84 years old, and Gertrude was in her 20’s, a wife and mother to a new baby. Nevertheless, Hardy wrote poems about Gertrude, including one imagining their elopement. His affection made his second wife, Florence, distraught with jealousy.
Christopher Nicholson has written an absorbing novel about this historic emotional tryst, using alternating perspectives of Hardy (who at the time was the wealthiest author in England), Gertrude and Florence. He seduces us with a lyric narrative about desires of the heart that never age. Also, he atmospherically evokes the place and time with elegant images and rich writing that’s not fussy, such as when he writes: “The broth steamed, and the silver of the spoons shone in the candlelight.”
The story takes place the winter Gertrude plays Tess in the local theater. It opens with Hardy, over tea at his house with Gertrude, wanting to recommend the beauty for the same leading role in a London theater, giving Gertrude the break of a lifetime. Needless to say, she’s thrilled by the opportunity. The novel’s dramatic arc rises and falls under the consequences that result from this simple offer — and with surprising intensity, primarily due to Florence’s anxious personality that’s captured with realistic pitch and verve.
Preoccupied with her poor health and distraught by the darkness of their country home, the 45-year-old Florence desperately and repeatedly implores her husband to trim the surrounding, overgrown pine trees. Hardy refuses, convinced these trees he planted when he built the cottage have human qualities. She feels shunned by his lack of sensitivity and love for his literary work. When Florence notices his attraction to Gertrude, she begins another, self-pitying rant that belittles the actress, attempting to convince Hardy the girl is neither beautiful nor talented enough to hold a London stage. “All you think of is her. I am no one, no one, no one,” she says.
Gertrude is an unaware innocent caught in the middle of the Hardys’ marital drama. She knows Thomas Hardy cares for her but believes it’s nothing more than admiration for her stage talent. Unfortunately, she pays a life-changing price without ever having done anything wrong other than exist as a beautiful and talented actress. Hardy dies three years later, and Gertrude brings us the conclusion in a calm voice that expresses a perspective of understanding and forgiveness.
The talented Christopher Nicholson successfully evokes a time in Thomas Hardy’s life that may be little known to readers in a story that is deeply affecting — including the real, famous moment when Hardy said to Gertrude at their last meeting, “If anyone asks you if you knew Thomas Hardy, say, ‘Yes, he was my friend.’ ”
December 2, 2015
Parisians are reading Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir, A Moveable Feast, in droves. According to The Atlantic: “The Paris memoir, published posthumously in 1964, holds the top spot on Amazon’s French site, has sold out of stock at a number of bookstores and, as Le Figaro reports, has become a fixture among the flowers in memorials across the city.”
The memoir recounts Hemingway’s Parisian life between 1921 and 1926 when he was a poor, unknown writer married to his first wife, Hadley Richardson. They lived above a sawmill on Rue Notre Dame des Champs. Hemingway wrote in the city’s cafés and shared encounters with fellow budding scribes F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. The 1920’s are the famous years when young American expatriate artists experienced the City of Light with passion, friendship and hope. Hemingway writes about his time there with affection and vivid evocations of Paris’s streets, shops, people and monuments, capturing a resonant joie de vivre that’s come to symbolize the city. The New York Times wrote: “No one has ever written about Paris in the nineteen twenties as well as Hemingway.”
No wonder the Parisians are reading A Moveable Feast right now.
Penguin Classics is publishing this month a new translation of another classic featuring life in Paris. The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue, translated by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg, is not a memoir, rather a fictional story that was serialized in 150 episodes in the daily newspaper Journal des Débats in 1842. “It was certainly the runaway best seller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest best seller of all time,” writes Peter Books in an article in The New York Review of Books, which appears in different form as the foreword to the book. The Mysteries of Paris is about rich and poor Parisians engaging in life together and the signature character Rodolphe, described by Penguin Classics as “a magnetic hero of noble heart and shadowy origins”. The book is said to have inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables that was published two decades later in 1862.
Peter Brooks goes on to write about The Mysteries of Paris:
“It’s hard to estimate its audience, since each episode was read aloud, in village cafés throughout France, in workshops and offices. Diplomats were late to meetings, countesses were late to balls because they had to catch up on the latest episode. It was a truly national experience, magnetizing in the way celebrity trials have been in our time, maintained addictively from one installment to the next in a manner we now know through the television serial.”
Well, dang! That certainly incites a reader to want to hurriedly buy the book and settle in for the desired biblio-oblivion of an imagined world. But hang on – The Mysteries of Paris is more than 1,000 pages, an investment of time that in the 21st century isn’t so readily accessible. I imagine, though, if one approached the book as did its 19th century audience, in daily installments, it might yield its original grip, anticipation and excitement.
Peter Brooks writes in the NYRB article:
“[Author Eugène] Sue creates a fabulous cast of characters, from the villainous to the virtuous, and he manages their entries and exits expertly, interweaving five or six different plotlines in order to maintain suspense and keep the reading experience one of high tension. His characters act out their psychic lives in the heightened words and gestures of melodrama.”
I’m not attempting to draw comparisons between Hemingway’s memoir and Sue’s melodrama. Their juxtaposition here is only for their current, respective states of new popularity and new translation. I suppose there is not one answer for why Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast became the choice of comfort for Parisians after the November 13 terrorist attacks; however, one could surmise that it, above all other books about Paris, evokes the true heart of the city that will endure, no matter what happens. And for us, on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps The Mysteries of Paris in its new translation will be the classic to read in honor of the City of Light.
November 19, 2015
The annual Dayton, Ohio, book fair took place last weekend. It’s a bookaholic’s mecca — a huge room filled with used books in various categories going for $1 to $3. I typically look for first editions to fill holes in my collections, as well as books I’ve read on loan from a library and want to own, let alone books to read.
Some years I find an unusual book, and by that I mean it strikes me as unusual for its subject matter or, say, the book design. That happened several years ago, when I purchased a hardbound copy of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov). The book was originally published in the Soviet Union in 1966 but heavily censored to the point of destroying the sense of the book. Anatoli escaped the Soviet Union in 1969 and brought with him films taken of the original, uncensored manuscript. This is that book, which records the author’s experience under the Nazis in the Ukraine. Making my copy even more unique, I recently had it signed by William Vollman, novelist and National Book Award winner, who listed the book among what he thinks are the best works of war fiction and non-fiction in his New York Times “By the Book” interview.
At this year’s fair, I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible in a first edition and (bonus!) signed on the title page. I also picked up Maggie Shipstead’s novel Seating Arrangements, published in 2012. A library copy sat on my reading table for a few weeks, and then I returned it unread. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, a copy without its dust jacket, landed in the shopping cart because I’ve always wanted to read this novel about a Vietnam war correspondent who gets into the heroin trade. Dog Soldiers shared the 1975 National Book Award with The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams and was named among Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Robert Stone died this year. Regarding Thomas Williams, the Los Angeles Times describes him “as unknown now as if he’d never written anything” in a review of The Hair of Harold Roux reissued in paperback.
Also in the cart, Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe. I’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s World War II espionage novels that tell not only a great story but do so with historical detail. I found an advanced reading copy for Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller to accompany the hardbound copy I own, and a first edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. I haven’t read Middlesex and, in all honesty, I bought the book (with a pristine dust jacket) in case I get the opportunity to meet Mr. Eugenides and get his signature.
Finally, this year’s unusual book is Joiner by James Whitehead, the version reprinted by University of Arkansas Press in 1991. This is Whitehead’s only novel, originally published in 1971, about “a young athlete’s spiritual breakdown, his exploits as NFL tackle, father, lover, killer, intellectual, and teacher, and his ultimate redemption” (from the back of the book). Something about it just called to me, and so into the shopping cart it went for $1.50.
November 11, 2015
Pushkin Vertigo is a new crime imprint, launched this fall by publishing house Pushkin Press. Its focus is tour-de-force international crime novels written between the 1920s and 1970s. The imprint’s name is a nod to Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, starring Kim Novak, that was created from the novel written in 1954 by French authorial partners Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
I discovered this new imprint during a visit to The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in New York’s Tribeca, a large room filled with new releases, paperbacks, signed first editions, and much more by way of crime/mystery/suspense/detective reading. The colorful paperbacks caught my eye with their distinctive design and then got my attention by the recommendation of the store manager, Ian Kern. As much as I review new books, I’m always searching through those from the past where good stories — riveting stories — can be found.
I Was Jack Mortimer, one of the first books to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, initially arrived on the reading scene in 1933, published in German. It was twice adapted for the movies, the story of a cab driver who delivers a strikingly sophisticated woman to her destination and then begins stalking her. But here is not the heart of the story. Ferdinand Sponer soon picks up another fare, the American Jack Mortimer, who gets shot in the back seat of his cab. A series of screwed-up efforts by Sponer to get help paints a false picture of himself as the murderer.
The story, set in 1930s Vienna, Austria, starts interestingly but slowly, and then soon ramps up into high intrigue due to the many unpredictable complications and twists in plot that create this puzzling murder mystery. The book is only 186 pages, short enough to gobble up in a weekend, as is Vertigo (189 pages). “Did You Know?” is a feature in the Pushkin Vertigo end pages, providing historical information regarding the authors, the books and/or the stories — such as the social and intellectual upheaval of 20th-century Austria for I Was Jack Mortimer and the successful writing partnership of Boileau and Narcejac that spanned four decades for Vertigo.
Of the first six books now being sold, while I can recommend I Was Jack Mortimer and Vertigo, the store manager at The Mysterious Bookshop said his customers have praised The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Below are the other three books currently available. Check out Pushkin Vertigo’s website for more information.
September 24, 2015
There’s not been much activity here on TLC this month. That’s because all I want to do is read, and when I finish a book, all I want to do is pick up the next one. But all I want to read are the books on my reading table. The ones I’ve been saying I’ll get to eventually — the ones I keep re-arranging into different pile configurations: Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winner Early Autumn, Michael Crummey’s second novel The Wreckage, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Gaudy Night, Declan Kiberd’s nonfiction book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Kathleen Jones’ biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to name a few.
I don’t seem to be interested in the new books being published this fall, aside from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I keep intending to read, but then I pick up another book. The galley sits on my dining room table like a spaniel patiently waiting for a biscuit. I’ve actually dusted it. Meanwhile, I reread Lord of the Flies. I finished the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, finally completing the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk and At Last. I read John O’Hara’s National Book Award winner 10 North Frederick and Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, written about in the previous post. I read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mystery, published in 1989, The Hanging Valley, the fourth in his detective series I began long ago.
The other night I combed through the forecasts of new books coming out in October and November, and then I proceeded to start reading Fragments by Jack Fuller. Originally published in 1984 and reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, Fragments is counted among the best Vietnam novels – Michiko Kakutani, in her review for The New York Times, February 1984, described it as an “elegantly executed” story about “the uses of memory – to transcend, not simply to recapture, the past.”
I bought Fragments three years ago and then delayed the gratification of reading it. I think that’s what’s gotten to me – the employment of delayed gratification, mixed with hope and promise, isn’t holding the pile steady anymore. I’ve come to think this may be due to a deepening feeling that constantly advancing forward to read the next new book is becoming a chase when, right under my nose, terrific, published-in-the-past books are in my house waiting to be read. Put another way, delayed gratification is beginning to feel more like neglect.
I’ll still be reading new books (I have to, I want to!), but as for the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, it looks like their day has arrived. At least, for now.
Here are three I’m moving toward, after I finish Fragments.
I don’t know how I found The Last of the Just. It was originally published by Editions du Seuil, Paris (Le Dernier des Justes), in 1959. It won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France awarded by the Académie Française. The English translation followed in 1960 by Atheneum House. The novel, a literary sensation during its time, must’ve been referenced by someone, or mentioned in something I read, which then took me down the discovery trail. The Herald Tribune is quoted on the back of the book, saying: “A drama that seizes you and will not let you go.” From Overlook Press, which issued the novel in paperback in 2000, here’s a story summary:
“On March 11, 1185, in the old Anglican city of York, the Jews of the city were brutally massacred by their townsmen. As legend has it, God blessed the only survivor of this medieval pogrom, Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, as one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. This terrifying and remarkable legacy is traced over eight centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the twentieth century that Ernie Levy emerges, The Last of the Just, in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon.”
Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master is part of the Melville House series The Art of the Novella. Others in this series include, to name just two out of many, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. From the dust jacket description about The Lesson of the Master:
“With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella captures the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. They were choices the expatriate James knew well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.”
Odd that I would want to read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain first, the third in his American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Why not start at the beginning? I own almost all of Roth’s novels, including these two. But like other books I pick up or select along my reading and book-buying paths, this one sparkled and got singled out. So I’m trusting there’s a strong reason I dropped The Human Stain onto my delayed gratification pile. On the back of my Vintage International paperback, there’s this summary:
“Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk’s secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled.”
In 2012, Philip Roth wrote an Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker about incorrect information on the site concerning his inspiration for The Human Stain. He mentions Wikipedia’s response to his attempt to fix the misstatement — they said they required secondary attribution (as if the author wouldn’t know the inspiration of his own novel). Wikipedia currently references Roth’s letter and incorporates the correction.