Title Page_The FixerI 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.”

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Photo credit: Work In Progress. Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the Bernard Malamud Centenary. Click on the image to access Jonathan Safran Foer’s introduction.

Many know the short stories of O. Henry, most notably “The Gift of the Magi” or, one of my favorites, “The Last Leaf”. If not recognized for his short stories, then likely the O. Henry name brings to mind the Random House annual anthology that catalogs the year’s best short stories culled from literary magazines. Readers, however, may not realize that the man behind the O. Henry name, who lived 1862 to 1910, was not simply a literary genius but also a convicted felon named William Sydney Porter. He spent 39 months in the Ohio Penitentiary and, upon release, assumed O. Henry as his literary nom de plume to hide from his past.

William Sydney Porter’s secret life is one of 16 profiled in Carmela Ciuraru’s fascinating Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. This is a book you’ll not easily put down because of its highly entertaining, colorful and engrossing biographies. Ciuraru delightfully pulls back the curtain on literary eccentrics whose complicated lives drove them to publish under pseudonyms and — with unusual biographical details that bring the writers to life on the page — divulges the effects that rippled through their careers and personal lives. 

These are the stories of aliases assumed for essential reasons, such as the need to avoid gender prejudice or to overcome shyness; to freely publish radical or erotic prose; or to allow one’s otherwise inhibited imagination to run free. What Ciuraru’s authorial imposters, who lived between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, all have in common, though, is their need to escape the burden of selfhood and, in some cases, take risks to publish.

Consider Lewis Carroll, a pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “a shy, eminent Oxford mathematician and lecturer” whose Alice fantasies could diminish the value of his more scholarly works; or George Eliot, a pen name for Marian Evans, whose controversial novels depicting the lives of clergymen would’ve been rejected simply because she was a woman. Also, Marian Evans was a social outcast, living openly with a married man.

What makes Nom de Plume a stand-out from mere encyclopedic rendering is Ciuraru’s enjoyment of her material, which resonates in each biography – delightful energy spiced with Ciuraru’s wit, her amusing asides and clever presentations. Each author is introduced by a page on which is scribbled a provocative, stand-alone statement. “She kept snails as pets” introduces mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, best known for her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley; and “His mother didn’t love him but he was in love with himself” introduces the prolific Georges Simenon, best known for his Inspector Maigret crime novels. 

Speaking of Simenon, who in 1928 wrote an astounding 44 novels, Ciuraru describes him as a “pulp fiction factory” with “an ego the size of a small nation.”  She also writes, in this marvelous gathering of literary lives, “[Simenon] makes Joyce Carol Oates look like Harper Lee.”

54 years, 54 books

June 21, 2009

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan DidionToday I turn 54, and in celebration of my birthday, I created a list of 54 favorite books

They are books I read compulsively or couldn’t forget; books that were memorable in either content or in reading experience; books that may have enlightened me; and books I simply enjoyed.

The list is random (no ranking) and unorganized (memoir, mystery, fiction, history are intermingled) because this is a top-of-mind list recorded as the titles came to me. 

Due to brief commentary or summaries with each entry, the length prohibited delivering the list as a blog post. Hence, the new blog page 54 Years, 54 Books

Authors include Alice McDermott, Saul Bellow, Daphne du Maurier, Joan Didion, Ellen Gilchrist, Bernard Malamud, Norman McLean, Penelope Lively, Alice Kaplan, David Denby, Joan Chase, Michael Herr, Ward Just, Graham Greene, Anne Lamott, Francisco Goldman and many more.

For me, the list was a chance to revisit several books I’ve not touched in years.  For you, I hope it provides ideas for good summer reading.

Ablutions: Notes for a NovelLiving in a drunken stupor may not seem like palatable reading matter, but Patrick deWitt’s unique style in his debut novel Ablutions: Notes for a Novel is – well – addictive.

The story, set in a sleazy Hollywood bar and told by the observations of an alcoholic barback, brings to life pathetic derelicts with energetic, colorful honesty.

Written in the rare second-person viewpoint, as if the nameless barback is taking notes for a book, Ablutions creates impact beyond a typical addiction story by the protection of the distant “you” pronoun and the  intimacy of its uninhibited judgments and descriptions.

I was, on the one hand, disgusted with how the drugged-up, liquored-up characters behave and, on the other hand, compassionately fascinated. Their lives are completely foreign to my own, or those of anyone I know.

Perhaps because of that foreignness, I read Ablutions with rapt attention.

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