Posts Tagged ‘literature’
On his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.
Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.
Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.
Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”
To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.
He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.
It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.
May is here and there are lots of new paperbacks on the shelves. Here are just a few that have my attention.
The Last Interview: and Other Conversations Jorge Luis Borges
Days before his death, Borges gave an intimate interview to his friend, the Argentine journalist Gloria Lopez Lecube. That interview is translated for the first time here, giving English-language readers a new insight into his life, loves, and thoughts about his work and country at the end of his life.
Accompanying that interview are a selection of the fascinating interviews he gave throughout his career. Highlights include his celebrated conversations with Richard Burgin during Borges’s time as a lecturer at Harvard University, in which he gives rich new insights into his own works and the literature of others, as well as discussing his now oft-overlooked political views. The pieces combine to give a new and revealing window on one of the most celebrated cultural figures of the past century.
A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims
Mazoch discovers an unreturned movie envelope, smashed windows, and a pool of blood in his father’s house: the man has gone missing. So he creates a list of his father’s haunts and asks Vermaelen to help track him down.
However, hurricane season looms over Baton Rouge, threatening to wipe out any undead not already contained and eliminate all hope of ever finding Mazoch’s father.
Bennett Sims turns typical zombie fare on its head to deliver a wise and philosophical rumination on the nature of memory and loss.
Love Is Power, or Something Like That: Stories by A. Igoni Barrett
When it comes to love, things are not always what they seem. In contemporary Lagos, a young boy may pose as a woman online, and a maid may be suspected of sleeping with her employer and yet still become a young wife’s confidante. Men and women can be objects of fantasy, the subject of beery soliloquies. They can be trophies or status symbols. Or they can be overwhelming in their need.
In these wide-ranging stories, A. Igoni Barrett roams the streets with people from all stations of life. A man with acute halitosis navigates the chaos of the Lagos bus system. A minor policeman, full of the authority and corruption of his uniform, beats his wife. A family’s fortunes fall from love and wealth to infidelity and poverty as poor choices unfurl over three generations. With humor and tenderness, Barrett introduces us to an utterly modern Nigeria, where desire is a means to an end, and love is a power as real as money.
Dark Back of Time by Javiar Marias
Called by its author a “false novel,” Dark Back of Time begins with the tale of the odd effects of publishing All Souls, his witty and sardonic 1989 Oxford novel. All Souls is a book Marías swears to be fiction, but which its “characters”–the real-life dons and professors and bookshop owners who have “recognized themselves”–fiercely maintain to be a roman à clef. With the sleepy world of Oxford set into fretful motion by a world that never “existed,” Dark Back of Time begins an odyssey into the nature of identity and of time. Marías weaves together autobiography, a legendary kingdom, strange ghostly literary figures, halls of mirrors, a one-eyed pilot, a curse in Havana, and a bullet lost in Mexico.
The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, introduction by William Gibson
In Kingsley Amis’s virtuoso foray into virtual history it is 1976 but the modern world is a medieval relic, frozen in intellectual and spiritual time ever since Martin Luther was promoted to pope back in the sixteenth century. Stephen the Third, the king of England, has just died, and Mass (Mozart’s second requiem) is about to be sung to lay him to rest. In the choir is our hero, Hubert Anvil, an extremely ordinary ten-year-old boy with a faultless voice. In the audience is a select group of experts whose job is to determine whether that faultless voice should be preserved by performing a certain operation. Art, after all, is worth any sacrifice.
Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust; translated by Kim Thompson
Back in 1984, a rebellious,17-year-old, punked-out Ulli Lust set out for a wild hitchhiking trip across Italy, from Naples through Verona and Rome and ending up in Sicily. Twenty-five years later, this talented Austrian cartoonist has looked back at that tumultuous summer and delivered a long, dense, sensitive, and minutely observed autobiographical masterpiece.
A Day in the Life by Senji Kuroi
A Day in the Life features twelve portraits of the vivid and curious realities experienced by a man in his sixties. These stories focus on the tiny paradoxes and ridiculousness we each witness and of which we often take no note. Ranging from a visit to an exhibition of blurry photographs, each taken with an exposure time of exactly one second, to the story of a man stalked through the streets by a stranger for no greater a crime than making eye contact, A Day in the Life demonstrates why Senji Kuroi is considered one of the leading figures of contemporary Japanese literature
Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue
Shocking, erudite, and affecting, these twenty-odd short stories, “micro-novels,” and vignettes span a vast territory, from Mexico City to Washington, D.C. to the late nineteenth-century Adriatic to the blood-soaked foothills of California’s Gold Rush country, introducing an array of bewildering characters: a professor of Latin American literature who survives a tornado and, possibly, an orgy; an electrician confronting the hardest wiring job of his career; a hapless garbage man who dreams of life as a pirate; and a prodigiously talented Polish baritone waging musical war against his church. Hypothermia explores the perilous limits of love, language, and personality, the brutal gravity of cultural misunderstandings, and the coldly smirking will to self-destruction hiding within our irredeemably carnal lives.
Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.
What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.
The best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.
One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.
If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.
St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.
Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)
Now you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?
For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.
Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.
As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.
Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types – please give a brief description of each.
That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.
Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC – festivals, events, tours etc. – anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.
My first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.
There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.
Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.
While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.
And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.
Here are just a few awesome things I came across in the past few days.
KCRW’s music director, Jason Bentley, has brought back Metropolis, his radio talk show featuring electronic music pioneers. Before going on hiatus in 2008, he spoke with such legends as Daft Punk, Paul Oakenfold, James Lavelle, The Crystal Method, and Thievery Corporation.
In a recent interview with Cool Hunting, Bentley talks about what made him start his show in the late 90s.
I was just attracted to underground dance music and culture, European dance culture, house music and trip hop. All of this stuff that was percolating was really exciting to me. At that point it was just really fresh and had not been categorized. Growing up through the club scene and rave scene was really exciting. It was always sort of renegade. I still have close friends from those days. It was such a transformative time to grow up in this really creative space of the club. The cool thing about the club scene and the underground is everybody is looking for something—who they are, their identity, their purpose, their creative side. Everyone is trying to figure out who we are and why are we here. For me finding the community in this very creative world of club scene and dance music was incredibly important.
On a show that aired in late March, Bentley talks with legendary drum and bass producer and DJ Photek. If you were at all into the jungle scene in the 90s, you’ll want to listen to it. Photek talks about the early days of the genre, when everything was groundbreaking, when sounds, styles, and technology were just developing.
Alec Baldwin, a few episode ago on his show Here’s The Thing, spoke with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke about his new album Amok with the group he put together for the project, Atoms of Peace. The two talk about how Radiohead started, how it was touring with Michael Stipe, and his kids.
the nicest bit about the creative thing – the nicest bit about recording and writing is this sort of weird limbo in between scratching away, scratching away, nothing really happening, nothing really happening, and then something wants to be built and starts to get built. You just have to let it happen.
There’s been a lot of celebration surrounding the announcement of Granta’s once-a-decade “Best of Young British Novelists” list. As always, it includes 20 British writers under the age of 40. Although it includes well-known authors such as Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Adam Foulds, there are a few writers on there who are just starting out: one author being Taiye Selasi whose first book, Ghana Must Go, is being published this month in the US by Penguin Press.
There have been a number of articles discussing the selection process. The BBC takes a look at what the list means to publishers, in The Telegraph judge Gaby Wood discusses the selection process, and Granta editor, John Freeman, speaks with the National Book Critics Circle for an interview on their blog.
This month kicked off a worldwide tour surrounding the list’s publication. Check out Granta’s website to see if anything is happening near you. Also on the site are articles by and interviews with the winners.
Also exciting for book people, particularly those who enjoy translated fiction, is the Best Translated Book Award run by Three Percent, the website of The University of Rochester’s literary publishing house, Open Letter Books. The longlist was announced in March and since that time there’s been a review of each book with the sole purpose of explaining why that book deserves to win. On the Three Percent podcast, which I highly recommend you subscribe to in iTunes, Chad Post of Open Letter and Tom Roberge of New Directions discuss the books.
E VS. INK
As the publishing world continues to march head on into the digital age, much of the talk surrounding print books vs. eReaders can get reductive. I have my own opinions, which are of the middle-of-the-road sort so I will spare you. However, if you’re interested in theses competing (and complementary) mediums, this article in Scientific American about the brain science of reading might offer a nice break from the typical discussions taking place.
Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language. We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit. In fact, the brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not really have another way of understanding them.
Over on the New York Times Opinionator blog, Drafts, author Ben Dolnick writes about the dangers of reading too many interviews with writers about craft.
Speaking of author interviews, Other People podcast spoke with essayist and critic Michelle Orange. For those interested in the two genres, they will be well-served by listening. And anyone who’s been tapped into the intersection of teen blogging and fashion will be aware by now of Tavi Gevinson, most recently the founder of the teen-focused website Rookie. She spoke with AdWeek about her rise to notoriety and how she balances work, school, and a personal life every teen should be allowed to have. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s well-adjusted for someone as busy as herself. In fact she says, “for the most part, I’ve kind of figured out a way to do everything I want without exhausting myself.”
Here are some excellent paperbacks to get your April started off on the right foot.
Frequencies: Volume 2
Featuring original work by Sara Finnerty on ghosts, Roxane Gay on issues of belonging in Black America, Alex Jung on the gay sex trade in Thailand, Aaron Shulman on a frontier town of Guatemala, Kate Zambreno on Barbara Loden, and more.
Point of Impact by Jay Faerber (writer), Koray Kuranel, (art)
A gripping, provocative murder mystery from acclaimed writer Jay Faerber and stunning artist Koray Kuranel begins with one woman’s murder and branches out to follow the investigation by three people with personal connections to her: her husband, an investigative reporter; her lover, an ex-soldier; and her friend, a homicide detective. Her death will change all of their lives.
Check out a 6-page excerpt from Point of Impact
Read an interview with Jay Faerber on Comic Book Resources
Bitter Almonds by Laurence Cossé
From the author of A Novel Bookstore comes this delightful story about friendship across racial and economic barriers set in contemporary Paris.
Édith can hardly believe it when she learns that Fadila, her sixty-year-old housemaid, is completely illiterate. How can a person living in Paris in the third millennium possibly survive without knowing how to read or write? How does she catch a bus, or pay a bill, or withdraw money from the bank? Why it’s unacceptable! She thus decides to become Fadila’s French teacher. But teaching something as complex as reading and writing to an adult is rather more challenging than she thought. Their lessons are short, difficult, and tiring. Yet, during these lessons, the oh-so-Parisian Édith and Fadila, an immigrant from Morocco, begin to understand one another as never before, and form this understanding will blossom a surprising and delightful friendship. Édith will enter into contact with a way of life utterly unfamiliar to her, one that is unforgiving at times, but also full of joy and dignity.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.
The Crisis of the European Mind by Paul Hazard
Paul Hazard’s magisterial, widely influential, and beloved intellectual history offers an unforgettable account of the birth of the modern European mind in all its dynamic, inquiring, and uncertain glory. Beginning his story in the latter half of the seventeenth century, while also looking back to the Renaissance and forward to the future, Hazard traces the process by which new developments in the sciences, arts, philosophy, and philology came to undermine the stable foundations of the classical world, with its commitment to tradition, stability, proportion, and settled usage. Hazard shows how travelers’ tales and archaeological investigation widened European awareness and acceptance of cultural difference; how the radical rationalism of Spinoza and Richard Simon’s new historical exegesis of the Bible called into question the revealed truths of religion; how the Huguenot Pierre Bayle’s critical dictionary of ideas paved the way for Voltaire and the Enlightenment, even as the empiricism of Locke encouraged a new attention to sensory experience that led to Rousseau and romanticism. Hazard’s range of knowledge is vast, and whether the subject is operas, excavations, or scientific experiments his brilliant style and powers of description bring to life the thinkers who thought up the modern world.
Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz
The Death of Lysanda collects two macabre novellas by one of Israel’s greatest writers. In the title piece, we meet Naphtali Noi, a recently divorced proofreader, critic, and “creative” taxidermist, given to hallucinations and soon perhaps to add murder to his hobbies. Ants tells the story of a married couple, Jacob and Rachel, who discover that an army of the titular insects is threatening to destroy their rooftop apartment—but Rachel seems to be on their side rather than her husband’s.
In fragmented prose halfway between the Old Testament and the playful stories of Julio Cortázar, these tales take to pieces the psyches of two men—and a nation—at war with themselves.
Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast by Maeve Gilmore
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels are widely acknowledged to be classic works of high fantasy, on par with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this series, Peake created the vividly detailed world — at once gothic and surreal — of Castle Gormenghast. When Peake died in 1968, he left behind the tantalizing pages and clues for the fourth and concluding book in the series.
Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn Peake’s widow, wrote Titus Awakes, based on those pages left behind by Peake. Fans of the Gormenghast novels will relish this continuation of the world Peake created and of the lives of unforgettable characters from the original novels, including the scheming Steerpike, Titus’s sister Fuchsia, and the long-serving Dr. Prunesquallor. Published a century after Peake’s birth, this strikingly imaginative novel provides a moving coda to Peake’s masterwork.
Absolution by Patrick Flanery
A bold and exciting literary novel set in South Africa that contemplates the elusive line between truth and self-perception.
Absolution is a big-idea novel about the pitfalls of memory, the ramifications of censorship, and the ways we are silently complicit in the problems around us. It’s also a devastating, intimate, and stunningly woven story. Told in shifting perspectives, it centers on the mysterious character of Clare Wald, a controversial South African writer of great fame, haunted by the memories of a sister she fears she betrayed to her death and a daughter she fears she abandoned. Clare comes to learn that in this conflict the dead do not stay buried, and the missing return in other forms—such as the child witness of her daughter’s last days who has reappeared twenty years later as Clare’s official biographer, prompting an unraveling of history and a search for forgiveness. Part literary thriller, part meditation on the responsibility of the individual under totalitarianism, this is a masterpiece of rich, complicated characters and narration that captures the reader and does not let go.
What does it mean not to finish a book? To lose interest, steam, momentum? When distraction leads to forgotten plots, characters, and themes who suffers, the reader or the book left unread?
My apartment is teeming with unfinished books. They cover my desk, coffee table, and nightstand. They sit two rows deep on my bookshelves. There they remain, neglected, misunderstood, unappreciated, still with the last read page firmly marked with a piece of paper, a subscription card, or a proper bookmark: a reminder of my stagnation, my failure to engage.
With some I’d read only a few pages, others a few chapters, while others I’d nearly finished but inexplicably abandoned at the last moment. Not all books I set aside are bad; life gets in the way, my mind shifts, I am no longer the same person I was on the first page.
What if I had begun a few days earlier, a few days later? Would we have ridden it out until the bitter end?
is often much hand-wringing over the question of when to put a book down, of when to give up and walk away. For some people this is an agonizing decision. For me, I’ve never given it much thought. In my younger years I’ve either slogged through a story, not knowing I had an option, or, as in the case with assigned reading for school, never cared enough to feel obligated. Now that I’m older and at any given moment surrounded by more books than I’ll ever have time to read in a lifetime (or two or three), there’s no room for second-guessing or regrets.
My first impulse when I began this post was to anthropomorphize, to wonder what happened to the characters when tossed aside. Do they remain suspended—in a kitchen, at a wedding, in the throes of heartbreak—or do they continue on alone to an autonomous finish? That might be a silly thing to think about, like a 10-year-old with a developing consciousness or one who’s seen too many Disney films. But it puts things in perspective.
Books do not need you. They repeat their stories every night.
Here are a few books that have carried on without me, none of which were bad at all.
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas
Dublinesque is something of a tragicomedy. At the age of 60, Samuel Riba is forced into retirement after his literary publishing house fails. He’d like to blame the reading public but, really, it was his poor financial management skills that brought about his demise.
Now he spends his time on Google, searching for his name and publishing house, looking to see who still mentions him and reviews his list; the answer to both is not many.
After a dream, Riba plans a trip to Dublin and brings with him three authors he’s published. They are to stage a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age” in the same cemetery that appears in Joyce’s Ulysses.
The publisher, New Directions, calls Dublinesque “A fictional journey through the modern history of literary publishing,” an apt description if any. If you’re really into books and the publishing industry, this book is an entertaining read.
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
What a strange book Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things turned out to be. When I first saw it in the Dalkey Archive Press email newsletter I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t have guessed this.
Originally published in 1971, Imaginative Qualities is a satirical look at the New York art and literary scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. Told through an omniscient narrator (although he’ll tell you his characters are doing things when he’s not looking), the interweaving cast of failed artists and poets lead adulterous, destructive lives. The women are bored, the men are hopeless, and the narrator, who is actually the book’s author, openly refuses to implement certain literary devices.
The outcome is a story with an intentionally unruly feel, which, if truth be told, is part of its charm. At one point, as if the narrator is guarding against such an accusation, he interjects, “You’ll notice how carefully the threads are pulled together in this book. I don’t want to hear one more word about formlessness.”
Other amusing asides includes talk of killing off characters.
I’ve got a few more comments to make about Lou, a few more things to say about him before I get rid of him. Prose is endless. It strikes me that I could go on and on, into a thousand pages, about this poor man. (How poor, compared to the rest of us?) For a moment, I thought of having him step off the curb in front of a truck, or drown in the bathtub, something simple and accidental. Just write him off so that the long future of academe would not be his and Sheila would be free to be unhappy with somebody else. End him with a brief paragraph E.M. Forster-style. Would that be too literary? No such thing. People who make such remarks admire the prose of Jimmy Breslin.
The beauty of this multi-layered novel is that the meaning is left to interpretation. The reader takes away from it what they wish, which, in this case, suits the essence of the story nicely.
A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector
For a while I joked that Clarice Lispector’s novels were the new “Go Ask Alice” for my age group. When New Directions first reissued four of her books it seemed like every 30-something I knew was reading one and recommending it to anyone within a 10-foot radius. There was an aura of mysticism around the whole thing. It was the way people spoke about her and her writing, as if one glimpse of her writing would change your life.
Clarice Lispector, in her posthumous work, A Breath of Life, asks readers to examine both sides of the author-character relationship. The male writer explains that his creation, Angela, is “not a ‘character.’ She’s the evolution of a feeling. She’s an idea incarnated in the being.” Shortly after he enters a conversation with her where, at one point, she asks, “Am I pure?” The author answers, vaguely, philosophically, “Purity would be as violent as the color white. Angela is the color of hazelnut.”
Throughout the book there are scores of aphorism that make you pause: “Writing is difficult because it touches the boundaries of the impossible,” “[I’m] an open parenthesis. Please close me,” “Solitude is a luxury,” and “When I write, I mix one color with another, and a new color is born.”
What’s striking about A Breath of Life is that it leaves you wondering if you’re in the presence of brilliance or insanity—although one could argue the fine line between the two. As with much of Lispector’s writing, I imagine, A Breath of Life cannot be understood in one reading. Her books strike me as those that are meant to be read, wrestled with, digested, and then read again in order to find hidden layers and new meaning.
The Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.
Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.
At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:
As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.
At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.
As part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.
In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.
With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.
By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:
Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions
Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.
They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.
There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.
The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.
Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”
In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.
*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.
Derek Raymond’s Factory Series is a special blend of noir. As James Sallis in his introduction to the first book, He Died with His Eyes Open, says, the five novels are “In between books—not quite what you’d call literary perhaps, but then, not quite crime novels either.” Or, as author A.L. Kennedy puts in a recent review for NPR, “Raymond’s narratives press against somewhere unusual in your brain; they penetrate and interfere, putting you in touch with levels of intensity and disintegration that seem to combine literary achievement with medical intervention.”
He Died with His Eyes Open is noir for today’s reader: void of over-the-top female sensuality and duplicity and the brassy language that begs mockery. Instead, Raymond’s prose is dark, elegant, and suited to the sensibilities of the times in which he wrote, the 1980s. If he had followed his predecessors and adopted the 1950s model it would have felt like a caricature of a genre already prone to exaggeration. Instead, Raymond creates something subtle, unique—something that still feels fresh in 2013.
He Died with His Eyes Open begins—as do most noir novels—with a gruesome murder. A man is found dead in a shrub outside of the Word of God House. When it becomes clear that the victim is just one of the many dregs of society currently polluting the city, the detective from the Serious Crime Unit is quick to call it an open-and-shut case. Who cares about the downtrodden, especially in Thatcherite England? However, our protagonist, Detective Sergeant from the Department of Unexplained Deaths, “by far the most unpopular and shunned branch of the service,” is not as quick to dismiss the crime.
This is what makes the unnamed detective of Raymond’s books different from other noir detectives. While a familiar characteristic of his sleuthing counterparts is cool detachment, this detective cares about those whom others would throw into a 6-foot hole without a second thought. He’s a champion of the poor, of Democracy, of a better society. He takes on “obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did” and comes out more sympathetic for it.
To find out who might have murdered the man, Charles Staniland, a fifty-one year-old alcoholic, the detective spends hours listening to tapes the victim left behind and investigates the grimiest of dive bars 80s London has to offer—always a cut above the patrons but never out of place. It’s not long before he learns of an ex-wife, a junkie son, and a tough girlfriend named Babsie—all whom need to be handled with care. Soon one starts to wonder if the detective has gotten too close to the case; lines and judgment blur—but what noir novel would be complete without moral ambiguity?
To get to the end of this review without mentioning the brilliant designs for all five of Derek Raymond’s novels would be a gross oversight. The bright orange covers with a single image—an everyday object made suggestively gruesome—make the US editions from Melville House dare you to ignore them. Even if the novels weren’t so damn good, you’d want them around as art pieces. Luckily, they’re quality from cover to cover. If you’ve never read a crime novel in your life, The Factory Series is the place to start.
He was found in the shrubbery in front of of the Word of God House in Albatross Road, West Five. It was the thirtieth of March, during the evening rush-hour. It was bloody cold; and an office worker had tripped over the body when he was caught short going home. I don’t know if you know Albatross Road where it runs into Hanger Lane, but if you do you’ll appreciate what a ghastly lonely area it is, with the surface-level tube-station on one side of the street, and dank, blind buildings, weeping with damp, on the other. That evening there was yet another go-slow on, and when I arrived at seven there were people still massing to get down the tube stairs to the trains, which were running very rare.
It was pelting with rain on an east wind when I got there. I found Bowman from Serious Crimes standing over the corpse with a torch, talking to the two coppers off the beat who had been called by the man who had stumbled on him. Water ran off the brim of Bowman’s trilby and dribbled down the helmets of the wooden-tops to end up in their collars.
Bowman handed me the torch without a word and I bent over the dead man. His eyes were open—one only just—the surfaces peppered with the grit that an east wind hurls at you off London streets. He was wearing a cheap grey suit with cigarette burns down the front and a tatty raincoat. He was medium height, with thin hair turning grey and a boozer’s nose, aged between fifty and sixty. Both his arms were broken, and one leg; the bone poked out blue through the trouser cloth. His head had been battered in below the hairline and brains had slopped down his left cheek into the mud. I got the impression, though, despite his injuries he hadn’t died at once. In the dull eyes there was still a flicker of some memory that he meant to take with him wherever he was going.
Here are just some of the paperbacks coming out in March that I can’t wait to read.
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan
A colorful and elegiac coming-of-age story that announces Scott McClanahan as a resounding, lasting talent.
We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays, 1939–1975 by Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven
Philosopher, novelist, playwright, biographer, journalist, and activist, Jean-Paul Sartre was also—and perhaps above all—a great essayist. The essay was uniquely suited to Sartre because of its intrinsically provisional and open-ended character. It is the perfect form in which to dramatize the existential character of our deepest intellectual, artistic, and political commitments. This new selection of Sartre’s essays, the first in English to draw on the entire ten volumes of his collected essays as well as previously unpublished work, includes extraordinarily searching appreciations of such writers and artists as Faulkner, Bataille, and Giacometti; Sartre’s great address to the French people at the end of the occupation, “The Republic of Silence”; sketches of the United States from his visit in the 1940s; reflections on politics that are both incisive and incendiary; portraits of Camus and Merleau-Ponty; and a candid reckoning with his own career from one of the interviews that ill-health made his prime mode of communication late in life.
The Bone Man by Wolf Haas
At a wildly popular chicken shack in the Austrian countryside, where snooty Viennese gourmands go to indulge their secret passion for fried chicken, a gruesome discovery is made in the pile of chicken bones waiting to be fed into the basement grinder: human bones.
But when private eye Simon Brenner shows up to investigate, the manager of the restaurant, who hired him, has disappeared … while the owner of the place urges him to stay on and eat chicken.
Brenner likes chicken, so he stays, but as he waits for the manager, he discovers that the bucolic countryside is full of suspicious types: prostitutes, war profiteers, unsavory art dealers, Slavic soccer champs with dubious pasts — and at least one rather grisly murderer. And the more Brenner looks into things, the more it dawns on him that there’s a cleaver somewhere with his name on it.
Donnybrook by Frank Bill*
The Donnybrook is a three-day bare-knuckle tournament held on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks of southern Indiana. Twenty fighters. One wire-fence ring. Fight until only one man is left standing while a rowdy festival of onlookers—drunk and high on whatever’s on offer—bet on the fighters.
As we travel through the backwoods to get to the Donnybrook, we meet a cast of nasty, ruined characters driven to all sorts of evil, all in the name of getting their fix—drugs, violence, sex, money, honor. Donnybrook is exactly the fearless, explosive, amphetamine-fueled journey you’d expect from Frank Bill’s first novel . . . and then some.
Speedboat by Renata Adler, afterword by Guy Trebay
When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind. Above all, there was its voice, ambivalent, curious, wry, the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Party guests, taxi drivers, brownstone dwellers, professors, journalists, presidents, and debutantes fill these dispatches from the world as Jen finds it.
A touchstone over the years for writers as different as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Hardwick, Speedboat returns to enthrall a new generation of readers.
The Comics Journal #302 edited by Gary Groth
In his longest published interview, Sendak looks back over a career spanning over 60 years and talks to Gary Groth about art, life, and death (especially death), how his childhood, his parents, and his siblings affected his art and outlook, his search for meaning — and also, on the lighter side, about his love (and hate) of movies. Kim Thompson conducts a career-spanning interview with French graphic novel pioneer Jacques Tardi. Art Spiegelman conducts a wide-ranging aesthetic colloquy on classic kids’ comics with a group of comics critics and historians. Michael Dooley moderates a roundtable discussion with Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, Marc Bell, and Esther Pearl Watson about the relationship between fine art and comics. Bob Levin provides a revelatory investigation of the twisted history of the Keep on Truckin’ litigation and a fascinating biographical portrait of R. Crumb’s lawyer, Albert Morse. The Comics Journal has been for 37 years the world’s foremost critical magazine about comics.
Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo
A dark yet often funny novel narrated by a man who, for the past two months, has been a patient at a New York City mental ward. Having suffered a breakdown—due to his shattered marriage and an irrational fear of fading away as a human—he now finds himself caught between two worlds, neither of which is a place of comfort or fulfillment: the world of the ward, where abnormality and an odd sort of freedom reign, and the outside world, where convention and restrictive behavior rule. Finally on his way to becoming reasonably “normal” again, he requests and is granted a “solo pass,” which allows him to leave the (locked) ward for several hours and visit the city, with the promise that he will return to the hospital by evening.
As he prepares for his excursion, we get a picture of the ward he will temporarily leave behind—the staff and the patients, notably Mandy Reid, a schizophrenic and nymphomaniac who has become his closest friend there. Solo Pass is an unsettling satire that depicts, with inverted logic, the difficulties of madness and normalcy.
Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. (Bernard) Krigstein; Greg Sadowski (Editor); Marie Severin (IK)
Bernard Krigstein began his career as an unremarkable journeyman cartoonist during the 1940s and finished it as a respected fine artist and illustrator Krigstein’s legend rests mostly on the 30 or so stories he created for the EC Comics, but dozens of stories drawn for other, lesser publishers such as Rae Herman, Hillman, and Atlas (which would become Marvel) showcase his skills and radical reinterpretation of the comics page, in particular his groundbreaking slicing and dicing of time lapses through a series of narrow, nearly animated panels. This edition reprints the out-of-print 2004 hardcover B. Krigstein Comics, with a number of stories re-tooled and improved in terms of reproduction, and several new stories added.
*Disclaimer: Donnybrook is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan. I’m a publicist with Picador, also an imprint of Macmillan. I included Donnybrook for no other reason other than it looks awesome.
As a New Yorker, every day I pass homeless people on the street, sometimes a group of them before I leave my neighborhood. One man sits on the corner store steps, babbling to himself, wasting away, dirty, feral; another, a young man, a little too friendly for comfort, asks what time it is and how I’m doing. A lifetime of training keeps me from making eye contact. Then there’s a woman who travels with these men, mumbling as she picks through garbage, wearing a thick wool hat, even in summer. Many times I’ve seen her with bruises on her face–from beatings, from a hard life, who knows. In the East Village, crust punks line the brick wall outside of McDonald’s–alternating between nodding off and begging for change. On the west side of town, a homeless poet hawks his work, boasting having once been published in The New York Times.
I’ve never pay them much mind, other than when they’ve gone too long without a bath, their meds, or a stretch of sobriety. With the poet on the street, I’ve walked by him so many times I can repeat his pitch, but never once have I considered that his writing might actually be good. Luckily, there are people like George Bernard Shaw in the world and every so often the talents of these unlikely characters are discovered.
In 1905, Shaw received an unsolicited manuscript delivered from a place called The Farm House, located in London. It was not unusual for him to receive aspiring writers’ work and, although undoubtedly busy with his own writing, “knowing how much these little books mean to their authors,” he felt bad if any of them went unread. This is how W.H. Davies, a poet and a tramp, was given a chance.
Based on the letters that often came with the manuscripts, Shaw would assess the nature of the sending author or publisher. However, when he held Davies’ book, he “could not place him. There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments … The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed him a manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots.” Furthermore, in his letter, Davies asked for the price of half a crown or the return of the book.
After discerning that the author was “a real poet,” finding his work free from “literary vulgarity,” and considering it “like a draught of clear water in a desert,” Shaw sent money, along with professional advice–that one cannot make a living on poetry alone. But he didn’t stop there, he sent additional money along with a list of critics with instructions for Davies to send his collection to them as well. Shaw wondered if they would “recognize a poet when they met one.”
The Farm House was one of many public houses where Davies stayed during his time traveling up and down the East Coast of America, visiting the South and Midwest, and occasionally returning to England. These years, 1893 to 1899, are recorded in his memoir, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, first published in 1908 and reissued by Melville House in their Neversink Library series.
Although born and raised in Wales, it was The United States that Davies set his sights on and, despite receiving a weekly sum from his grandmother’s inheritance, he chose to travel as a hobo: hopping trains, sleeping in the elements, begging for food, and cohorting with unstable characters.
The book starts with a brief survey of Davies’ childhood. His father died when he was young, his mother remarried, and his brother was, as Davies called him in those pre-PC days, an “imbecile.” Davies’ family had a “great interest in pugilism” and encouraged his fighting. However, possibly altering the course of his life, his friend Dave introduced him to the joys of reading.
Through him I became a reader, in the first place with an idea of emulating his cleverness, which led to a love of literature for its own self. Of course I began with the common penny novel of the worst type, but acquired a taste for better work in a shorter time than boys usually do.
It’s this familiarity with physical abuse mixed with a sharp mind that helps Davies’ navigate the inhumane conditions and life-threatening situations he encounters.
Throughout The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, Davies writes his fellow travelers–and experiences–so large, the book often reads like a novel. The first person we meet is Brum, a quirky tramp with a keen business sense, a “notorious beggar.” Together, he and Davies “beat” from New York City to Chicago, the former playing the tutor to the latter as they look for suitable winter lodging and migrant work.
Through these companions, Davies learns to manipulate the Midwestern prison system for a warm place to stay; he witnesses firsthand the dangers of picking fruit in fields shared with snakes; and what comes to those who keep their money visible. His travels through the South bring him face to face with lynchings; meanwhile in Canada he finds “a kind-hearted race of people.”
Davies’ keen observations make The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp a work of cultural commentary, capturing a moment in history as seen from the ground. It’s How the Other Half Lives meets On the Road, one of those books that opens your eyes, changes your perspective, and makes you reconsider the world as you know it.
Here are just a few paperbacks coming out in February that have my attention. Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments section.
Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do edited by Meredith Maran
Twenty of America’s bestselling authors share tricks, tips, and secrets of the successful writing life.
Anyone who’s ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heartbreaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write, twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation. Read Jennifer Egan’s essay.
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
Distraught over the sudden disappearance of his wife, Zack tries to drown his grief in Tijuana, then returns to the U.S. with a stolen stash of marijuana. Using this as an impetus to change his life, Zack sets off for New York with the weed and a vintage Nikon. Through the lens of the old camera, he starts rediscovering himself by photographing an America we rarely see. His journey unleashes a series of erratic, hilarious, and life-threatening events interspersed with flashbacks to his relationship with Stella and life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
A suspenseful, darkly funny love story, 18% Gray won both the Bulgarian Novel of the Year Award and the Flower of the Readers Award when it was first published in 2008, and received the praise of critics everywhere.
Finding Merlin: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Great Arthurian Mage by Adam Ardrey
Merlin: the very name summons up images of the wizard of Camelot — magician, prophet, and counselor to Arthur. The legend is famous but the truth is less well known: Merlin was a real historical figure, a champion of the old way of the Druids, a British man who hailed not from England or Wales, as traditional wisdom would have it, but from Scotland.
Adam Ardrey, who stumbled upon some of the hidden sources of Merlin’s life while researching the history of a Scottish clan, offers compelling evidence that links a very real Merlin figure into the histories of other real and prominent sixth century figures. “Finding Merlin” uncovers new evidence and reexamines the old. The places where Merlin was born, lived, died, and was buried are identified, as are the people surrounding him — his nemesis, the fanatic Mungo, and his friend, the hero Arthur. In this impressively researched and accessibly written book, Merlin leaps from the pages of legend into history.
Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau; Barbara Wright
Contributors: Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Jesse Ball, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Enrique Vila-Matas, Frederic Tuten.
Exercises in Style — Queneau’s experimental masterpiece and a hallmark book of the Oulipo literary group — retells this unexceptional tale ninety-nine times, employing the sonnet and the alexandrine, onomatopoeia and Cockney. An “Abusive” chapter heartily deplores the events; “Opera English” lends them grandeur. Queneau once said that of all his books, this was the one he most wished to see translated. He offered Barbara Wright his “heartiest congratulations,” adding: “I have always thought that nothing is untranslatable.Here is new proof.”
A new edition of the famous modernist story told ninety-nine different ways — with newly translated exercises by Queneau and contributions by some of today’s most acclaimed stylists.
Hat tip to Sarah Gerard, writer and bookslinger, for bringing this one to my attention.
How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them by Ben Yagoda
How to Not Write Bad uses this basic tenet — what Ben Yagoda calls “not-writing-badly” — to illustrate how we can all write better, clearer, and for a wider readership. Yagoda offers advice on crafting sentences that are correct in terms of spelling, diction, punctuation, and grammar and that display clarity, precision, and grace. He then moves on to the art of constructing whole paragraphs—focusing on cadence, consistency of tone, word repetition, sentence transitions, and length.
In a fun, comprehensive guide, Yagoda lays out the simple steps that we all can take to make our writing more effective, more interesting—and just plain better. As “lolspeak” and texts take over our linguistic consciousness, Yagoda emphasizes the lost art of grammar and the well-constructed sentence. He provides clear grammatical rules to help students and writers everywhere write better; this is a book for anyone who wants to improve his or her writing.
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Love stories, with a twist: the eagerly awaited follow-up to the great Russian writer’s New York Times bestselling scary fairy tales
By turns sly and sweet, burlesque and heartbreaking, these realist fables of women looking for love are the stories that Ludmilla Petrushevskaya—who has been compared to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Beckett, Poe, Angela Carter, and even Stephen King—is best known for in Russia.Here are attempts at human connection, both depraved and sublime, by people across the life span: one-night stands in communal apartments, poignantly awkward couplings, office trysts, schoolgirl crushes, elopements, tentative courtships, and rampant infidelity, shot through with lurid violence, romantic illusion, and surprising tenderness. With the satirical eye of Cindy Sherman, Petrushevskaya blends macabre spectacle with transformative moments of grace and shows just why she is Russia’s preeminent contemporary fiction writer.
Exodus by Lars Iyer
A wickedly funny and satisfyingly highbrow black comedy about the collapse of Western academic institutions under the weight of neoliberal economics and crushing, widespread idiocy.
Lars and W., the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes of Spurious and Dogma—called “Uproarious” by the New York Times Book Review—return and face a political, intellectual, and economic landscape in a state of total ruination.
With philosophy professors being moved to badminton departments and gin in short supply—although not short enough—the two hapless intellectuals embark on a relentless mission. Well, several relentless missions. For one, they must help gear a guerilla philosophy movement—conducted outside the academy, perhaps under bridges—that will save the study of philosophy after the long, miserable decades of intellectual desert known as the early 21st-century.
Granta 122: Betrayal
Without love there can be no betrayal – love of a country, a brother, a wife, a platoon mate, a family. In this issue of Granta, Janine di Giovanni witnesses a nation, Syria, betraying its people; Karen Russell imagines a soldier inscribing the memory of a fellow soldier on his back; and Colin Robinson writes about ancient brotherly friction resurfacing in a game of paddleball. From the playgrounds of New York City to the alleyways of Damascus, here is the theatre of betrayal.
Noir, also known as hardboiled, is the gritty, world-weary subcategory of crime fiction, recognizable by its unsentimental protagonist, the rogue private detective; an early and gruesome murder; and a pretty girl who is most likely not telling the truth. The dialogue is often hyperbolic and the characters cartoonish, but that’s what makes the genre so good–and why so many of its forebears are still celebrated and imitated today.
Dashiell Hammett is one such writer. Even those who don’t read detective fiction know his name and still more know of his influential work, The Maltese Falcon.
The Maltese Falcon, to summarize, is the multi-layered detective story that begins with a woman, Miss Wonderly from New York, visiting Private Detective Samuel Spade’s office in San Francisco. She’s come to find her sister who has allegedly run away with a man she assumes to be dangerous and hires Spade to find him.
Spade assigns the case to his naive partner, Miles Archer, only to receive a phone call about his murder a few hours later: “Hello. … Yes, speaking. … Dead? … Yes … Fifteen minutes. Thanks” is all we hear.
Although set in California readers see very little sun. The mood is dark, gloomy, almost claustrophobic.
Cold steamy air blew in through two open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock, insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America–face down on the table–held its hands at five minutes past two.
It’s this vivid imagery that stands out while reading Hammett. In fact, the more I read noir, the more I realize there is a manner in which people and events are described that is unique to the genre.
Hammett’s Sam Spade is an archetype, the ideal noir detective: he’s not swayed by emotion or a woman’s looks; he operates outside of the law, but only to bring about truth and justice; and most important, possibly the crux of his appeal, is that if he’s not already one step ahead of his enemies, he eventually gets there.
Hammett opens with this image of Spade:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
Another core character, as alluded to above, is the femme fatale, French for “deadly woman.” In contemporary noir, I’ve found the descriptions of these women tailored to fit today’s more enlightened view of the sexes but in Hammett’s time there were no such conventions. Here is the description of Miss Wonderly, the first glimpse of what she looks like:
She was tall and pliantly slender, without angularity anywhere. Her body was erect and high-breasted, her legs long, her hands and feet narrow. She wore two shades of blue that had been selected because of her eyes. The hair curling from under her blue hat was darkly red, her full lips more brightly red. White teeth glistened in the crescent her timid smile made.
It’s not just the lengthy paragraphs of description that grab you, there are many one-liners as well: “Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn” and “His eyes burned yellowly” for example. Then there are the snappy retorts begging to be committed to memory: “I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.” Or, the less useful but equally compelling, “I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Hammett wrote detective fiction with an advantage. He had real life experience. Before picking up the pen he’d spent years as a detective for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private organization that also employed security guards and military contractors. Hammett knew how investigations worked, what stakeouts were like, and how the different players might react. This realism adds to the story’s brutishness.
Fellow classic noir author Raymond Chandler once credited Hammett with making “the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.” The same can be said for the reading experience he inspires. However, The Maltese Falcon is more than a fast-paced, gritty crime novel, it’s also a lesson in seeing.
Buy The Maltese Falcon at your local bookstore
Welcome to 2013. To kick off the new year, here are a few paperbacks coming out in January that have caught my eye. As always, feel free to add your picks in the comments.
The Heroin Chronicles edited by Jerry Stahl
The latest entry in the Akashic Drug Chronicles Series, featuring brand-new stories by: Eric Bogosian, Lydia Lunch, Jerry Stahl, Nathan Larson, Ava Stander, Antonia Crane, Gary Phillips, Jervey Tervalon, John Albert, Michael Albo, Sophia Langdon, Tony O’Neill, and L.Z. Hansen.
Me and Mr. Booker by Cory Taylor
Looking back, Martha could’ve said no when Mr. Booker first tried to kiss her. That would’ve been the sensible thing to do. But Martha is sixteen, she lives in a small dull town — a cemetery with lights — her father is mad, her home is stifling, and she’s waiting for the rest of her life to begin. Of course Martha would kiss the charming Englishman who brightened her world with style, adventure, whiskey, cigarettes and sex. But Martha didn’t count on the consequences. Me and Mr. Booker is a story about feeling old when you’re young and acting young when you’re not.
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed
The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron- fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings.
Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and saving lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto
Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.
My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin
Chaplin’s heartfelt and hilarious autobiography tells the story of his childhood, the challenge of identifying and perfecting his talent, his subsequent film career and worldwide celebrity.
In this, one of the very first celebrity memoirs, Chaplin displays all the charms, peculiarities and deeply-held beliefs that made him such an endearing and lasting character.
Re-issued as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, My Autobiography offers dedicated Chaplin fans and casual admirers alike an astonishing glimpse into the the heart and the mind of Hollywood’s original genius maverick.
Castle Waiting, a graphic fable by Linda Medley
Castle Waiting is the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life. A fable for modern times, it is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil — but about being a hero in your own home. The opening chapter tells the origin of the castle itself, which is abandoned by its princess in a comic twist on “Sleeping Beauty” when she rides off into the sunset with her Prince Charming. The castle becomes a refuge for misfits, outcasts, and others seeking sanctuary, playing host to a lively and colorful cast of characters that inhabits the subsequent stories, including a talking anthropomorphic horse, a mysteriously pregnant Lady on the run, and a bearded nun.
Testing the Current by William Mcpherson
Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on the Island, and sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. But curious as he is and impatient to grow up, Tommy will soon come to glimpse the darkness that lies beneath so much genteel complacency: hidden histories and embarrassing poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the “help”; the mockery of President Roosevelt; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for in the bookstores this month.
Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension by Michael Heald
Across eleven essays, Michael Heald compulsively measures himself against men like Eli Manning, Ryan Gosling, and Stephen Malkmus, and always comes up short. After a decade of failed relationships, estranged siblings, and abandoned hopes, he may or may not have learned his lesson. Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension is not nearly as depressing as any of this sounds.
Listen to Michael talk about publishing with Late Night Library
Tin House Winter 2013
In this issue, we found it in young writer Helen Phillips’s story “Flesh & Blood,” about a woman who can see through people’s skin. We saw it in veteran Stuart Dybek’s fractured take on the operatic life in his story “Tosca.” And in Benjamin Percy, too, no stranger to fictional and personal risks, who writes here of his monthlong liver detox (spoiler: no meat and no alcohol do not tame Percy’s inner beast). Two books after being a New Voice in Tin House, Monica Ferrell returns to our pages with the poem “Oh You Absolute Darling.” Always searching for fresh writing, in this issue we are happy to introduce three New Voices: David Feinstein, Sam Ross, and Eric Burg. The venerable writer William Gass, interviewed here, says, “So you try, but you probably will fail. It’s a business. Failure is what happens.” To risk, to dare– that is his, and our, challenge.
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
In Earthly Powers Anthony Burgess, best known for A Clockwork Orange, explores the very essence of power through the lives of two modern men—Kenneth Toomey, eminent novelist, a man who has outlived his contemporaries to survive into honored, bitter, luxurious old age as a celebrity of dubious notoriety, and Don Carlo Campanati, a man of God, eventually beloved Pope, who rises through the Vatican as a shrewd manipulator to become the architect of church revolution and a candidate for sainthood.
As each pursues his career their relationship becomes the heart of a narrative that incorporates almost everyone of fame and distinction in the social, literary, and political life of America and Europe. This astonishing company is joined together by the art of a great novelist into an explosive and entertaining tour de force that will captivate fans of sweeping historical fiction. At the time of this posting, Open Letters Monthly is devoting their December issue to Burgess.
A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzao
A Thousand Morons, Quim Monzó’s latest collection of short stories, is rife with very unfortunate characters. There’s the young boy in “A Cut” who is upbraided by his teacher when he rudely shows up for class with a huge gash in his neck. And the prince in “One Night” who tries everything to awaken a sleeping princess—yet fails completely.
An excellent combination of longer, elegiac stories of “morons,” aging, and the passage of time—with short, flashier pieces that display Monzó’s wit and playfulness—make this one of the strongest collections in the oeuvre of Catalan’s short fiction master.
The Penguin State of the World Atlas
Now in its ninth edition, the widely praised Penguin State of the World Atlas remains an accessible, unique visual survey of current events and global trends. Completely revised and updated, this distinctive atlas presents the latest statistics on communications and information technology, international trade, globalization of work, aging and new health risks, food and water, energy resources and consumption, global warming and biodiversity, literacy, gender equality, wars and peacekeeping, and more. Fascinating, troubling, and surprising, this is one atlas no student of the world should be without.
Here are a few things I came across this week that were exceptional.
Perfect Day Publishing on Late Night Conversation
I’ve mentioned The Late Night Library’s podcast, Late Night Conversation, before but their interviews continue to be amazing, so, here we are again. This Portland-based organization is devoted to spreading the awareness of independent publishing. The show, hosted by co-founder Paul Martone, features debut authors and publishing professionals from small presses. Martone has the conversational style that makes podcasts so great. He’s thoughtful, informed, and curious.
The latest episode features Perfect Day Publishing founder Michael Heald and author Lisa Wells, whose book Yeah. No. Totally was published by the press this year. I first came to hear of Perfect Day Publishing through a previously self-published book they’d reprinted after it gained some attention. Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life is one of the best books I read in 2012.
In other podcast news, Alec Baldwin talked to Billy Joel in July and I just got around to listening to it. It was pretty great.You’ll probably enjoy it more if you’re from Long Island. A personal favorite, Teju Cole was on CBC’s Writers & Company, one of the best author interview shows out there today.
This weekend I came across an article by Blake Butler on HTMLGIANT called ‘22 Things I Learned from Submitting Writing.” At first glance I expected it to be snarky. While the site is typically earnest, there’s a level of sarcasm lurking underneath. This piece from Blake, however, was truly generous. Here are a few of my favorite points:
4. Often editors who reject you are doing you a favor. Either the piece isn’t great and needs work (thus saving you face of looking back later like whyyyyy did I publish this) or taking a strong piece and making it stronger because of force of will.
5. Some pieces are you learning. Some never get it right. Don’t publish your homework.”
13. Don’t lose sight of someone you love in the midst of this.
19. Be a person, not an email address with a social profile and an onslaught.
Also of note is writer Brad Leithauser’s essay about the different ways we read fiction–mainly two ways, like a critic and like a child. He recalls the time he and his then 15-year-old daughter had a conversation about Rachel from Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel.”
I’m eyeballs deep in noir at the moment and came across this great essay by Raymond Chandler called “The Simple Art of Murder.” I’m sure many crime fiction fans have already stumbled on this, a few possibly owning a highlighted copy in their drawer somewhere, but for the rest of us…
Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.
The Los Angeles Review of Books has quickly become the place to go for in-depth, thoughtful coverage of the arts. Their front page has a triptych that changes at least twice a week. Recently, I came across their LARBart Tumblr where the work is displayed and explained.
While the name suggests heavy coverage of books, LARB has able people writing about other topics as well. Recently, they ran an interview with Ellen Lupton, one of the curators of “Graphic Design: Now In Production,” now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Ellen runs the MFA design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is the author of Thinking with Type.
Today, every designer is a production artist — setting type, retouching photos, and making endless updates for clients. The convergence of design and production gives us more direct control over the outcome of a project, while also loading us with an ever-growing list of skills and tasks to master. … Many designers today are using their knowledge of production techniques to become publishers, authors, editors, and instigators.
The term “graphic” has long been a point of contention in our field. … I like the word “graphic” because it connects us to the world of text, as well as to the “graphic arts” — the processes of printing and production. Typography is always about writing, and writing is a graphic phenomenon.
I usually roll my eyes at algorithms, those computer generated recommendations, but the other night while I was clicking through Netflix I noticed a British program from the 80s that was highlighted for me, The Comic Strip Presents, a sketch comedy show featuring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson of The Young Ones and Jennifer Saunders, who later went on to create and star in Absolutely Fabulous. If you’re a fan of any of the above, you should stop reading now and add it to your queue. For those more familiar with Portlandia, this is their long lost British forebear.