Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Brazen Bibliophiles of Timbuktu

We don’t generally link to content in other corners of the web, but I thought this story about the rescue of rare texts from the Timbuktu library was pretty interesting:
“Starting in early May, every morning before sunrise, while the militants were still asleep, Haidara and his men would walk to the city’s libraries and lock themselves inside. Until the heat cleared the streets in the afternoon, the men would find their way through the darkened buildings and wrap the fragile manuscripts in soft cloths. They would then pack them into metal lockers roughly the size of large suitcases, as many as 300 in each. At night, they’d sneak back to the libraries, traveling by foot to avoid checkpoints on the road, pick up the lockers, and carry them, swathed in blankets, to the homes of dozens of the city’s old families. The entire operation took nearly two months, but by July, they had stowed 1,700 lockers in basements and hideaways around the city. And they did it just in time, because not long after, the militants moved into the Ahmed Baba Institute, using its elegant rooms to store canned vegetables and bags of white rice. Haidara fled to Bamako, hoping the Islamists’ ignorance about the texts would keep them safe.”
If only the Ptolemaic Egyptians had been as careful with the library of Alexandria…

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

Don’t know how I’ve missed mentioning this, but I’ve plowed my way through Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men , and it absolutely blew me away. Brilliant, brilliant book.

Warren melds pitch-perfect descriptive language with deep-fried country-boy-isms to create an extremely distinctive style. Here’s a free-sample tray:
“…her own glance strayed about the room in that abstracted way a good housewife has of looking around to surprise a speck of dust in the act.”
“ ’I know you and the boss was like that.’ He held up two large, white, glistening episcopal fingers as in benediction.”
“Then the boss spied a fellow at the far end of the soda fountain, a tall, gaunt shanked, malarial, leather-faced side of jerked venison wearing jean pants and a brance of mustaches hanging off the kind of face you see in photographs of General Forrest’s cavalrymen…”
I mean, come on, how good is that! Right?

The story doesn’t disappoint either. He weaves links to the past into the story in rewarding, surprising ways. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a sure-fire way to win me over as a reader. He also makes use of something I’ll call the Literary Cosmic Boomerang. It’s not quite Karma, and not poetic justice. But one way or another, the unseen ramifications of a character’s actions come right back to kick him in the crotch and give the story new and deeper meanings. (And even though Willie Stark’s assassination by the same doctor who  just days before had operated on his son should have taken a private tale of corruption public, I can overlook that simple oversight.) I loved it.

There is, however, one chief complaint: The Cass Mastern side story. Our main character, Jack Burden, interrupts his main narrative thread tracing the rise and fall of a folksy southern political star, with a too-long, overly thorough side story of star-crossed lovers in the Civil War era. It was still well-written, and pretty compelling in and of itself, but I was antsy to get back to the main story, and saw little if any parrallels that would justify its inclusion in the book. And yeah, I’ve read the commentary that says the Cass Mastern line of research helps Jack see that every action will have implications and ripples we can’t control, but I just didn’t see the point. Warren and his editor were asleep at the switch on this one.

But it still won the Pulitzer, and it still deserved it. That’s how awesome the rest of the book is. Run, don’t walk…

Friday, April 26, 2013

Feature Film Friday

Another short one today, How about giving 7 and a half minutes to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart?”

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Short Story Club: "How the Devil Came Down Division Street" by Nelson Algren

Hey! Welcome to Short Story Club. Glad you could make it. Come on in and grab a seat. Jami was just about to tell us what she thought of this month's story— and there should be a shrimp cocktail floating around here somewhere. Jami?

“How the Devil Came Down Division Street” is a nice snapshot of Algren’s world view, a view that permeated the many novels and short stories that followed, a world view that can be summed up nicely by a quote from the story: “The devil lives in a double-shot.”

This quote sets the tone for a tale that, at its conclusion, is an introspective look into the mind of a man not quite thirty years old, a man who has yet to overcome what his thirteen year old self saw, what he didn’t see, and what he feared because of the space between the two perspectives.  Roman is the son of a renowned drunk, a street performer, a sad excuse of an accordion player who doesn’t live with his family so much as he has a place to sleep when he returns home in the mornings after a night of roaming the streets for pennies.

Roman’s father hears a constant knocking at the door of their home, at least that is what he tells his family but no one believes him.  Rather, Roman and his twin siblings think their father is crazy. They share a bed at night when he is philandering or at worse, begging and in the daytime while their father sleeps it off, the children go to school and pretend he is different.  Their mother doesn’t encourage nor does she dissuade her children from feeling this way and by allowing the speculation, she is implicit in the reactions her children have to their father, a mixture of  embarrassment, shame, and ultimately, misunderstanding.

One day Roman’s father returns without his accordion.  Things change.  He doesn’t wander the streets at night any longer.  He becomes a husband to their mother again, takes a job as a janitor but, he takes a bed too.  The knocking is heard by Roman.  He believes his father, doesn’t think he is crazy any longer but his mother does the unthinkable and trades the sanity of her son for the newfound respectability of her husband.  So  Roman then, at age 17 is pushed out, finds himself with nowhere to spend his nights, no place to call his own and so he takes to the bars himself.  As Algren puts it, “he came to think of the dawn, when the taverns closed and he must go home as the bitterest hour of the day.”  

The bitterest hour of the day.  That’s where Nelson Algren takes the reader and with straightforward language and crisp descriptions, Roman is any one of us or all of us, giving up our accordions for a place to sleep, a place to call our own.

 —Jami McFatter Balkom is an attorney, practicing in Panama City, Florida who writes short story reviews for her blog, www.wherewordslive.blogspot.com.  She is currently writing fiction, working on a novel of literary fiction and a series of short stories centered around her hometown in northwest Florida.

So what did the rest of you think of the story?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Short Story Club Returns

We’ve been derelict in our Short Story Club duties, but leave it to our audience to rekindle the flame. Reader and blogger Jami Balkom has offered to throw the spotlight on a short story by Nelson Algren, an author we’ve never covered on this blog. We’ll post the story today, and invite you all to throw in your own two cents tomorrow. Without further ado, here’s Jami’s introduction (Thanks, Jami!) :
Nelson Algren was one of the most popular literary fiction writers in America during the later 40’s and early 50’s,  providing a unique and loud voice for the down-and-outer, for the failures of society, for those who never made it to the inside of any circle.  This reputation was largely based on Algren's novel A Walk on theWild Side   which was made even more famous by this Lou Reed song:

But it was his short story collection, The Neon Wilderness, that started it all, published in 1947, just two years before the release of his National Book Award winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.  The loser in all of his manifestations-- drug addict, homeless scavenger, cheating husband, street performer begging for change, all of them came to life in Algren’s short stories, paving the way for a career that would define the author as much as the author shaped the world inhabited by his stories’ characters.  The short story “how the devil camedown division street” is a nice snapshot of Algren’s world view, a view that permeated the many novels and short stories that followed, a world view that can be summed up nicely by a quote from the story: “The devil lives in a double-shot.”


Here’s how Algren kicks off the story:
“Last Saturday evening there was a great argument in the Polonia Bar. All the biggest drunks on Division were there, trying to decide who the biggest drunk of them was. Symanski said he was, and Oljiec said he was, and Koncel said he was, and Czechowski said he was.
“Then Roman Orlov came in and the argument was decided.”
Read the rest here, and come back tomorrow for Jami’s take, and to add some thoughts of your own!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: Don Quixote Part I, by Cervantes

I have finished Part I of Don Quixote, so I thought it would be a good idea to stop and take stock. You’ve no doubt noticed that the book has already spawned quite a few posts, but I haven’t actually sat down to process what I think of it. 

Before picking up the book, my closest encounter with "the Knight of the Sorrowful Face" was a lanky Lladro statuette that graced my family's living room, and whose fragile porcelain sword probably earned me a spanking when it broke in some forgotten, childhood, rough-housing.  Funny that almost 400 years after he made his mark on the world, Quixote is still suffering all kinds of injustices and humiliations. 

Anyway, here are some meandering reactions:

What’s all this garbage about windmills? Seriously, blink and you’ll miss them. My guess is that the windmill episode has settled so prominently into our consciousness, not because it was such a profound moment in the story, but because most readers give up on the book in the first  one-hundred pages, and the windmills just happen to be one of the early vignettes that everybody reads before giving up. If you wanted an iconic image that recurs time and time again, and has an impact on the psyche of the characters, you’d probably be better off choosing the image of Sancho Panza being tossed repeatedly in a blanket to his great shame at the Inn. The Knight and his squire suffer more mishaps and indignities than Ben Stiller in a 'Meet the Parents' movie, but none of the physical punishment they suffer has quite the effect as that simple humiliation.

For better or for worse, Part I is a storyteller’s orgy. For long periods, we leave Don Quixote and Sancho for the unrelated tales of Gristostomo and Marcela,  Cardenio and Dorotea,  Don Fernando and Luscinda,  Anselmo and Lothario, the captive and Zoraida, Don Luis and Clara and her father the Judge and on and on and on. Sometimes it’s a side character’s backstory, other times the travelers simply sit down and read an entire novella with eachother, while Don Quixote sleeps. Towards the end of Part I, when each new arrival at the Inn introduces its own 50 page tangent, it starts to get a little tiresome. If I had gone into the book expecting a Canterbury Tales  Smorgasbord of travellers’ yarns, it might not have bothered me. But since I was expecting to cover lots of fresh ground with Quixote and Panza and windmills… yeah, I lost a little steam at the end there. I was pleased to see Part II, which was published 10 years after Part I, open up with an acknowledgement of his out-of-control tangents. Apparently his countryman had the same reaction as I did.

Having said all of that, it’s a brilliant satire. It must have been to Cervantes’s contemporaries, what a hilarious spoof of Fabio-covered romances would be in our day. But Cervantes raises some important questions about what art is exactly—what the masses want out of it, and what the duties of the author are. I was also amazed at what a profoundly modern feel it has, what with Cervantes referring to himself and his rivals, to contemporary works and pop culture references that must have felt very edgy and relevant when it was first published. By the time Part II kicks off, he’s already weaving then-current reader reactions into the story itself. 

You’re also never quite sure where the narrator stands. Sometimes he complains that the fictional Moorish source documents are probably filled with lies to lessen the stature of Quixote, at other times he openly refers to Quixote as a lunatic.

For all its faults, Don Quixote must have been a groundbreaking work for its time. And there’s good reason why writers and readers still read it and emulate it today. On to Part II…

Monday, April 22, 2013

What They Were Reading: Clive James

“After Shakespeare, my favorite poet is Dante. My favorite novelists are Proust and Tolstoy, closely followed by Scott Fitzgerald, and perhaps Hemingway when he isn’t beating his chest. But in all my life I never enjoyed anything more than the first pieces I read by S. J. Perelman.”

“I don’t do much rereading anymore because I’ve been ill and feel that I’m running out of time. But recently I did reread all of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, and was pleased to find that he was almost as thoughtful as, say, Olivia Manning, although his snobbery sometimes grates. Also, I enjoyed “Lucky Jim,” by Kingsley Amis, all over again: the funniest novel I have ever read. Is there some Bulgarian equivalent, languishing untranslated? Probably not.”

“In Australia 60 years ago, when I was an adolescent, nobody was reading the American author Booth Tarkington except me. His character Penrod Schofield — awkward, disobedient, adventurous — was the beginning of my love affair with America. Today, my friend P. J. O’Rourke is a big fan of Tarkington, but I wonder if anybody else is. Still, my real plan is to make P. J. a fan of Dante.”

-From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 11th, 2013

Friday, April 19, 2013

Feature Film Friday!

This one’s only 20 minutes long. The work of a German-speaking Jewish Czech writer, told through Japanese animation. I give you Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor:”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

From the Pen of T. Coraghessan Boyle

-copyright Hanna Lippmann, Berlin

The New Yorker’s got a story by T. Coraghessan Boyle up for free. The ending isn’t much to write home about, but there are a few precious gems for the language lovers out there. (I’ve always wondered what the word was for that stuttering, staccato downshifting sound an 18-wheeler makes as it blows past you on the road- apparently it’s “blatting.”) All highlights are mine. They’re just the phrases that sunk especially deep:
A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
If it hadn’t been for the dog, we might have slept right on into the afternoon, because we’d been up late the night before, at a club called Gabe’s, where we’d danced, with the assistance of, well, rum and two little white pills Mallory’s friend Mona had given her, until we sweated through our clothes, and the muscles of our calves—my calves, anyway—felt as if they’d been surgically removed, hammered flat, and sewn back in place.
I handed her a coffee and the Life section of the newspaper. Time slowed. For the next hour there were no sounds but for a rustle of newsprint and the gentle soughing suck of hot liquid through a small plastic aperture.
It was hot. Grasshoppers flung themselves at the windshield like yellow hail. All you could smell was tar.
The sheep were right there, right in the yard, milling around and letting off a sweaty ovine stink 
It was a French film about three non-specifically unhappy couples who had serial affairs with one another and a troop of third and fourth parties, against a rainy Parisian backdrop that looked as if it had been shot through a translucent beach ball.
The heat never broke, not even after a series of thunderstorms rumbled in under a sky the color of bruised flesh.

Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What They Were Reading: Robert Frost

On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Robert Frost’s death, the Christian Science Monitor has dug up an old Top 10 list that he provided to the Massachusetts Library Association in 1934. Below are his ten all-time favorite books, and here is the article with relevant quotes and explanations:
  1. The Odyssey, by Homer
  2. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
  3. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
  4. The Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, by
  5. The Oxford Book of Verse
  6. Modern American and British Poetry
  7. Last of the Mohicans, by James Fennimore Cooper
  8. The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope
  9. The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling
  10. Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book trends

So, what are we looking at here? No, it’s not a heart-beat—or maybe it is, in a way, come to think of it. What we’re looking at is the Google search trend for the phrase “The Great Gatsby.” This doesn’t reflect the raw number of searches, but rather a relative scale where 100 represents peak search activity and everything else is relative to that peak. I’m amazed, looking at this chart, that it’s so perfectly seasonal: low-points in June, July and August, and high points in March, April, May. Summer vacation and end-of-year exams, obviously.

I imagine any book regularly taught in highschools will follow the same kind of cyclical pattern. Here’s “Catcher in the Rye:”

Here’s “Romeo and Juliet:”

And here’s “Huckleberry Finn:”

What is the take-away from all of this? Well, some books are taught earlier in the year than others, based on their peak months, and we seem to be teaching less of them than we used to. And most importantly, if you want a big spike for your book you basically have two choices:  sell the rights to Hollywood (Gatsby), or die (Salinger).

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Rambling Riff on Remembrance in Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust

It’s been a year since I read my first bit of Proust and started putting down a few random thoughts that came out of the experience, so it’s hard to remember exactly what I expected as I prepared for my first real excursion into his work. I suppose I expected to be daunted and discouraged- maybe even defeated before finishing. But I was hardly prepared to be so totally swept away as I was by Swann’s Way , the first novel in his 7-volume masterwork, In Search of Lost Time .

After all, what could a modern reader possibly have in common with Proust, his narrator, or Charles Swann, that monocled dandy of the Belle Epoque whose story takes up the bulk of the novel? As it turns out, a helluva lot more than I thought.

It wasn’t the plot that knocked my socks off, or even the wonderful prose, but Proust’s thoughtful plunge into memory. I found that some of my own memories flickered to life again as Proust worked the billows on the embers of his own forgotten past. He writes with such precise detail, that the reader is almost forced to participate in his narrative and his memories, rather than play the role of mere spectator.

As someone whose childhood home has recently been gutted by new owners, and whose elementary, junior high, and high schools were all razed and rebuilt before it even occurred to me to go back in search of memories, I found myself deeply moved by the narrator who wanders the Champs-Elysee in search of old haunts, and who closes his book with the following agonizing lines:

“…how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. …The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”

It’s been exactly one hundred years since he first published those lines, and they are as true today as they must have been in his time. Almost from the outset, Proust introduces us to the concept of Involuntary Memory, the possibility of an unbidden reminiscence triggered by unexpected sensations that carry some magic of our former years. The most famous of these experiences is the episode of the Madaleine:

“And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory- this new sensation having had me on the effect which love has of filling me with a  precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?...
“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of Madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.”

This first involuntary memory, conjured by a few drops of tea, soon gushes into a torrent of childhood memories that come flooding back to the narrator. He spends entire sections of the book detailing the most minute episodes of his boyhood. In doing so, he reminds us that for the child who experiences them, they are anything but minute and insignificant.

In one early example he recounts the angst of being sent to bed without his routine kiss goodnight and the anguish that follows as he waits for his mother to leave the party downstairs and come up to correct the injustice. (Spoiler alert: she never comes!) This small vignette stretches for pages and pages, but never becomes boring. Before the reader knows it, he is no longer a spectator, but a participant. He feels the same angst as the kiss-deprived narrator, because he can no doubt remember certain similar childhood agonies that seemed, at the time, to stretch out forever.

For me, there’s a memory of being inadvertently locked out in the snow by a housesitter/babysitter who didn’t realize that ‘kindergarten me’ couldn’t reach our doorbell or produce a decent knocking on our massive oak front door. How long was I left out in the cold? It’s impossible for me to say. But it can’t have been a short time, since my repentant baby-sitter made reparations by way of a paint-dot coloring book that you transformed with a wet paintbrush- a childhood wonder I don’t think I’ve seen since that trauma. What I do  know, is how long it felt . And that is what Proust makes you feel again.

There’s a mathematical explanation for all of this, of course. A five-year-old has only lived 1,825 days, so each day he experiences makes up .055% of his young life, whereas a thirty-five-year-old has lived 12,775 days, and each of his days only comprises .0078% of his ever-lengthening existence. But whether you put stock in that theory or not hardly matters. Proust doesn’t concoct explanations or posit theories, he simply plumbs the depths of his memories and invites you to do the same, reminding you what it was really like to think with a five-year-old brain.

When he seizes on a memory he wrings from it every last drop of life for the reader. And just when you think he’s ready to move on, he picks up the carcass and helps you suck the marrow right out of the bones. It’s fascinating, fascinating stuff.

Yet some of the memories are fleeting, and still pack all the punch of his lengthier diversions. He describes a memory of watching the play of sunlight on distant bell-towers that seemed to slide from one side of the road to the other as his carriage wound its way along a crooked country path. I couldn’t help recalling my own sense of wonder, gazing through the windows of my family’s station wagon and watching the world zip by on an endless reel. For Proust the magic lived in the ever-shifting church steeples; for me it lived in the telephone wires that dipped and jumped between the poles like the live current they carried.

Later on in the book he writes beautifully about Swann’s coming across a brief musical phrase that gave him no end of pleasure— as if it had been written specifically for him. He explains Swann’s almost frantic search for the name of the piece and the composer, and his aggravating inability to dig up the source and have it played again for him:

“Swann could learn nothing further. He had, of course, a number of musical friends, but, vividly as he could recall the exquisite and inexpressible pleasure with which the little phrase had given him, and could see, still, before his eyes the forms that it had traced in outline, he was quite incapable of humming over to them the air. And so, at last, he ceased to think of it.”

Who can’t relate to the nagging itch of a half-remembered tune? If you can call up some lyrics, sure- even a couple measly words can lead you to paydirt in the age of search engines and YouTube videos. There are a handful of songs, overheard in European grocery stores 15 years ago, that I’ve been able to track down in this way; artists like Scooter or DarioG, that I never would have heard replayed on American radio stations in a lifetime of listening. But what if there are no lyrics? What if all you can do is hum incoherent pieces stupidly to the few people who might miraculously know the answer, and do this for years at a time with no success?

Here again, Swann’s experience called to memory one of my own. My mystery phrase was hidden in the middle of the the Intermezzo Sinfonico from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. For me, the section from 1:28 to 2:30 is about the most sublime and moving piece of music ever written. And I say that knowing full well how ridiculous it is for a thirty-five-year old of my generation to use the word sublime. Have a listen:

Years of fruitlessly checking “best of” classical music compilations and trying to whistle people into some vague recognition of my mystery tune had prepared me to never hear it again. And then one day I did  hear it again. And my relief at finding it again, at putting a name to it, and being able to play it at will was mirrored exactly by the character of Swann:

“But tonight, at Mme. Verdurin’s, scarcely had the little pianist begun to play when, suddenly, after a high note held on through two whole bars, Swann saw it approaching, stealing forth from underneath that resonance, which was prolonged and stretched out over it, like a curtain of sound, to veil the mystery of its birth—and recognized, secret, whispering, articulate, the airy and fragrant phrase that he had loved.”

I could go on, but this is already the longest “review” I’ve ever posted. I haven’t even touched on the story, or the pinpoint perfection of some of the prose. But those aren’t the reasons I would recommend this book in the first place. Swann’s Way  may have a certified “yawner” of a plot, but it’s an absolute thrill-ride for the memory. I’d recommend it to anyone with a past. It’s no wonder Proust is mentioned again and again as an influence by writers from Virginia Woolf to Jennifer Egan.

Take it for a whirl:

Friday, April 12, 2013

Another month in the Can

Right about the time I was lamenting the latest “100 Best” list yesterday, this little website quietly stacked its 16th month in the Shelf Actualization archives. With the average lifespan of a blog sitting right around two years, we promise to give it our best over the next 8 months or so before we shut it down.

Just kidding. (I hope.) Anyhoo, above are the authors we've covered lately. Now on to the 5 most popular posts from this past month:

And the many-splendored search terms that led some of you here:

  • Image of big merchant ship  >>  We’ve covered the merchant marine here
  • Sperm whale habitat map  >>  So big it should’ve made Ahab’s quest harder
  • Nanhsuchou  >>  The Good Earth, found!
  • Boat that inspired old man and the sea  >>  Well, at least the harbor
  • Huxley Smolarski  >>  A question of plagiarism, or just bad luck?
  • Taller than Robert Wadlow  >>  Our ode to the short story
  • Call me Ishmael Fourth Wall  >>  One way to open your own book
  • The Punishment of X4  >>  Appropriate now that Mad Men is back
  • Broken meats  >>  Shakespeare, the great hurler of insults
  • Animal House where are they now  >>  An early post on Turgenev and Belushi

Thanks for stopping by. Keep coming back!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Another 100, Another Controversy

The Guardian has come out with another Top 100 list. But they aren’t just limiting themselves to the last hundred years or the last century. No, their claiming to have the list of the 100 Greatest Novels of all time. Yikes.

There are some predictable old-school entries, like Don Quixote and Pilgrim’s Progress, but I’ve actually only read twenty-one of their hundred (giving myself credit for In Search of Lost Time , even though I’ve only read the first installment of that seven-volume monster.) There are also, as you can imagine, some head-scratchers. That’s right, Roald Dahl’s The BFG  is one of the Guardian’s Top 100 novels of all time. As is Wuthering Heights —excuse me…   sorry…  had to go puke.

E.B White makes the list, but John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy don’t. Hemingway’s only entry is a short story collection, Men Without Women . I dunno, we’ve looked at these lists before, and there are always flaws. The whole point seems to be not so much the cataloguing of worthy titles, but the generation of reader responses.  

Meh, I don’t have the time for that crap. I’d rather go read something.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not quite fictional geography

It’s rare that I’m pulled into a book simply because of it’s cover (don’t judge a book and all that crap…). But I’ve been intrigued by Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins  ever since I first laid eyes on it. That’s a gorgeous book. One of these days I’m going to have to pick it up and give it a whirl.

According to the first few pages on the Amazon preview, the action opens in the “brutto  fishing village of Porto Vergogna,” a fictional sixth, cliff-side town along the famous Cinque Terre section of the Italian Riviera. The book’s own, hand-drawn map puts the imaginary village just south of Riomaggiore, where you'll find nothing but boring, scruffy-looking hillsides sloping into the water. 

But before you give up on visiting this little piece of book-cover-paradise, I thought I’d point out that that mesmerizing cover image is actually a shot of Manarola- the 4th of 5 real-life villages running north to south along the coast.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thomas Jefferson's "canine appetite" for reading

Sharing a phone-pic from the DeMarest family museum visit this past weekend. What you see here is Thomas Jefferson’s first stab at pioneering the “tabbed browsing” experience we’re all familiar with on modern internet browsers. This rotating book stand contraption, of his own invention, allowed him to quickly switch between 5 different open books and to satisfy his self-described "canine appetite" for reading.

As someone who generally reads a two or three, if not more, books at any one time, I am in awe of the man’s ingenuity.

Oh, and that little ceramic piece to the left? That’s Jefferson’s inkwell, in the shape of Voltaire’s head, naturally. Pretty cool, huh?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Review: Babylon Revisited and Other Stories, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

One of my goals for this year was to knock off one of the handful of books that I’ve started but never finished.

Now, I love me some F. Scott Fitzgerald. I zipped through The Great Gatsby , This Side of Paradise , and Tender is the Night – all three. But the only short story collection of his that I’ve tried, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories , had me snoozing before I finished the first story. Maybe because the tales are so long (they have 6 or 7 chapters apiece.) But when I happened upon the audiobook at my local library, I thought it must be a sign to give it another go. Here's my second appraisal.

The sentence-level writing is, of course, first-rate. But I think I identified the problem I’d been saddled with earlier: the collection is simply pretty boring. I found that I couldn’t really identify with the bulk of his characters- most of whom seem to be uppercrust, Mid-western, young men on the margins of high-society, who are in love with unattainable, snobbish girls. That kind of story is perfectly fine, and he’s done it well elsewhere, but I get bored with the repetitive nature of it.

Fitzgerald is said to have been conflicted over a lot of his stories. He felt like he was whoring himself out for a magazine paycheck rather than concentrating on producing his best work all the time. But I’m not going to dwell on the bad (The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a highly-sensationalized, pulp-fiction tale that was hard for me to swallow) or the boring (see previous paragraph,) I’d rather talk about a couple I really liked.

“The Ice Palace” is all about cultural differences and assimilation between North and South in America. A southern girl dissatisfied with her sleepy, southern town, decides to marry a northerner. Her first foray into northern society as his fiancĂ©e raises some red flags for her and the tension builds slowly, but when she gets left behind and trapped in the labyrinth of a Winter Carnival ice palace, everything becomes clear, and she retreats to the South. Unlike some stories in the collection, things actually happen in this story— it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it packs enough emotional action to keep you thinking long after you’ve read it.

There were a couple others I enjoyed, but the title story is the coup de grace. “Babylon Revisited” is a brilliant, heart-wrenching tale that lays bare the wasteful decadence of the Jazz Age. In the aftermath of the market crash and too much out-of-control drinking and debauchery in Paris, Fitzgerald shows you the slow transformation and rehabilitation of the main character, who is ready at long last to take back custody of his daughter and to start a new life in Prague. That is, until some of his old friends come crashing in at the last minute to prove that there are some demons you can never quite get away from. It’s sad and brutal and wonderful. And the internet tells me it became the movie “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”

Most of this collection was just okay. I probably wouldn’t have crossed the finish line if some audiobook voice talent hadn’t read it to me. But those two stories really redeemed the collection for me. You may as well check’em out.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Feature Film Friday

Got a spare hour and 11 minutes this weekend? Then you might want to give this animated adaptation of Orwell’s  Animal Farm  a whirl. Enjoy:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What makes a reader?

And two posts turn into three.

Jonathan Franzen once penned a famous essay in Harper’s titled “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels.” There is a helluva lot to chew on in that article, but among them, there is also this smidgeon of empirical research on readers that I really found interesting.

“Shirley Brice Heath is a former MacArthur Fellow, a linguistic anthropologist, and a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford; she’s a stylish, twiggy, white-haired lady with no discernible tolerance for small talk. Throughout the Eighties, Heath haunted what she calls “enforced transition zones”—places where people are held captive without recourse to television or other comforting pursuits. She road public transportation in twenty-seven different cities. She lurked in airports (at least before the arrival of CNN). She took her notebook into bookstores and seaside resorts. Whenever she saw people reading or buying “substantive works of fiction” (meaning, roughly, trade-paperback fiction), she asked for a few minutes of their time.

“…her research effectively demolishes the myth of the general audience. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she told me, two things have to be in place. First, the habit of reading works of substance must have been “heavily modeled” when he or she was very young.

“…According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest.

“…I told her I didn’t remember either of my parents ever reading a book when I was a child, except aloud to me.

“Without missing a beat Heath replied: “Yes, but there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate—the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don’t like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you—because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read.

“…According to Heath, readers of the social-isolate variety are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety.”

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What They Were Reading: Jonathan Franzen

A continuation of yesterday’s theme, from The Paris Review’s Art of Fiction #207:


What books were you reading in those years?


Everything. I read fiction four or five hours a night every night for five years. Worked through Dickens, the Russians, the French, the moderns, the postmoderns. It was like a return to the long reading summers of my youth, but now I was reading literature, getting a sense of all the ways a story could be made.

But the primal books for me remained the ones I’d encountered in the fall of 1980: Malte, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Magic Mountain, and, above all, The Trial. In each of these books the fundamental story is the same. There are these superficial arrangements; there is the life we think we have, this very much socially constructed life that is comfortable or uncomfortable but nonetheless what we think of as “our life.” And there’s something else ­underneath it, which was represented by all of those German-language writers as Death. There’s this awful truth, this maskless self, underlying ­everything. And what was striking about all four of those great books was that each of them found the drama in blowing the cover off a life. You start with an individual who is in some way defended, and you strip away or just explode the surface and force that character into confrontation with what’s underneath. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Poet's Corner: "Fast Break" by Edward Hirsch

The Sweet Sixteen have come and gone, and the Elite Eight have been narrowed to a Final Four. We may have to wait a few more days to determine a champion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the roundball through a little poetry today, right? I had a hard time deciding whether to post the one below, which most of us can relate to as fans, or this one, which many of us relate to as sadly broken-down, hobbyist ballers. They're both great.

Fast Break
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984

A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,

and for once our gangly starting center  
boxes out his man and times his jump

perfectly, gathering the orange leather  
from the air like a cherished possession

and spinning around to throw a strike  
to the outlet who is already shoveling

an underhand pass toward the other guard  
scissoring past a flat-footed defender

who looks stunned and nailed to the floor  
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight

of a high, gliding dribble and a man  
letting the play develop in front of him

in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach’s drawing on the blackboard,

both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out

and filling the lanes in tandem, moving  
together as brothers passing the ball

between them without a dribble, without  
a single bounce hitting the hardwood

until the guard finally lunges out  
and commits to the wrong man

while the power-forward explodes past them  
in a fury, taking the ball into the air

by himself now and laying it gently  
against the glass for a lay-up,

but losing his balance in the process,  
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor

with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country

and swiveling back to see an orange blur  
floating perfectly through the net.