Posts from February 2013

February 18th, 2013

A Tired Pilgrim in the Penny Press!

magazines

Novelist Ian McEwan writes a deliberately provocative little squib for the newly-redesigned New Republic (disastrously redesigned as well – it disappears on the newsstand, especially this current issue, which for no particular reason has no cover illustration, just the boring new logo on a field of white), something called “The God That Fails” and sub-titled “When I Stop Believing in Fiction.” Ostensibly it’s about the wan nature of contemporary fiction – “I don’t believe a word: not the rusty device of pretending that the weather has something to do with Henry’s mood, not the rusty device of pretending” – and the dire aftermath once that veil is pierced:

When the god of fiction deserts you, everything must go. The book-lined church and mic-ed-up pulpit, the respectful congregation, the interviewer’s catechism, the confessions disguised as questions, the reviewer’s blessing or curse … My heart fails when I wander into the fiction section of a bookstore and see the topless towers on the recent-titles tables, the imploring taglines above the cover art (HE LOVED HER, BUT WOULD SHE LISTEN?), the dust-jacket summaries in their earnest present tense: Henry breaks free of his marriage and embarks on a series of wild …

The first half of that quote undercuts the second half and points at the Achilles heel of the squib: McEwan, it turns out, isn’t exactly writing as Everyreader here. He talks about the crisis in general terms (“Novels? I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief”), but whenever he comes down to brass tacks he’s off in another – and much more rarefied – world: “Such apostasy creeps into the wide gap that separates the finishing of one novel and the start of the next” – with ‘finishing’ and ‘starting’ here referring to writing novels, not reading them. With a brisker edit (perhaps by the art editor, since he apparently has nothing else to do?), the squib should have been entirely about that interesting subject: how does a working novelist ‘refuel’ between books?

Instead, McEwan takes intermittent jabs at broadening his topic – at weighing the different rewards of reading fiction and nonfiction:

I’m 64. If I’m lucky, I might have twenty good reading years left. Teach me about the world! Bring me the cosmologists on the creation of time, the annalists of the Holocaust, the philosopher who has married into neuroscience, the mathematician who can describe the beauties of numbers to the numbskull, the scholar of empires’ rises and falls, the adepts of the English Civil War. A few widely spaced pleasures apart, what will I have or know at the end of yet another novel beyond Henry’s remorse or triumph?

McEwan does eventually limp around to acknowledging that fiction can sometimes add a thrill to truth that no amount of well-written history or science can match, but I think the real point of his ramble is that ‘widely spaced.’ Because it’s true: the rewards of fiction tend to be rather thin on the ground. I try to read a large percentage of each year’s new novels (and I regularly commiserate with others who make the same effort), and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s mostly a slog. When I’m in the trough of going from one slushy, sloppy, derivative novel to the next, I can sympathize with McEwan’s yearning for the flat, flinty facts of the English Civil War. Sometimes ‘widely spaced’ doesn’t begin to cover it – you go six, seven, ten, fifteen novels without encountering anything that merits a second look, and it can get depressing.

But although he’s typically wishy-washy about his bigger point, he’s right: when fiction does work, it works better than anything. The dramatic payoff a reader can get from such modern masterpieces as The Age of Innocence, Doctor Zhivago, or Meg simply can’t be reaped from even the best nonfiction. Encountering something like Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader or Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies or John Wray’s Lowboy, something that thrills you and lifts you entirely out of yourself for a little bit, not only completely validates the genre but also acts like a drug: it hooks you, and it keeps you searching for your next rush. So far in 2013, I’ve read roughly 30 new novels and encountered that rush twice. Not the best ratio in the world, as McEwan would doubtless agree (he himself has only provided me with that rush once in his entire career, although that’s the eternal lure: his next book might do it), but it’ll suffice. The god of fiction hasn’t deserted me quite yet.

 

 

December 20th, 2012

Best Books of 2012: Fiction Debuts!

Another yardstick useful in measuring the strength of publishing is the health of its new genes. I have a large soft spot for debut novels (having yanked more than my fair share of them out of talented young authors who fought me tooth and nail the whole time), and 2012 was an exciting, encouraging year for them (despite the idiotic, embarrassing fact that #s 8, 6, 4, 3, & 2 all have identical covers). These were the ten best:

an uncommon education

10. An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer – This wrenching roman-a-clef about a socially maladroit young student at Wellesley College has all the quirky, dysfunctional hallmarks that should have made it insufferable, even for a debut – but Percer’s huge narrative intelligence saves the day time and again.

the watch

9. The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya – The labored “Antigone” parallels in Bhattacharya’s Afghanistan novel are actually its weakest element; by far more effective are the raw human portraits he sketches throughout, and the hot, sparse beauty of his prose, which so uncannily mirrors the desolate beauty of Afghanistan itself.

the mountains of the moon

8. The Mountains of the Moon by I. J. Kay – Lulu Adler, the central character in Kay’s hugely ambitious, hallucinatory novel, gets one lucky break (some inheritance money) in a life full of unlucky ones, and she uses it to travel to Africa in the hopes of changing her life. Again, the elements are all there for unbearable schmaltz (as we will certainly see in the inevitable Emma Stone movie), and again, it’s the sheer talent and conviction of the author that instead make it something truly amazing.

Absolution

7. Absolution by Patrick Flanery – The cool balance between conventional plot-driven narrative and richly evocative portrait of South Africa is struck perfectly in Flanery’s story of writer Clare Ward and her secrets. Ten pages of Absolution is enough to convince you this is the author’s tenth novel; the fact that it’s his first could be great news for the world of fiction.

the dead do not improve

6. The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang – Almost every aspect of Kang’s debut absolutely pops with manic creativity (starting with the inspired detail that the book’s hapless main character only learns of the book’s key plot development because it happens while he’s Googling himself); the book is a weird comic masterpiece – of a type that virtually guarantees we’ll never hear from this author again (although on that point I’d be happy to be wrong)

the starboard sea

5. The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont – The opening of Dermont’s East Coast prep school novel is almost lazily deceptive in both tone and scope, lulling the reader with slangy first-person narration into what steadily becomes a gripping, emotionally intense story about friendship and betrayal, with a surprising and very pleasing amount of heft.

seating arrangements

4. Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead – Set on a fictional stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard, Shipstead’s slyly readable novel takes place over the course of only three days and centers on a vain, flawed, status-seeker straight out of Cheever who’s overseeing the wedding of his daughter (she’ll be played by Emma Stone in the movie) – the family summer house is packed with a volatile mixture of family, friends, and extra-marital temptations, and Shipstead handles it all with enviable skill.

a working theory of love

3. A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins – Hutchins’ unpretentious book is about fathers and sons finding common ground, and it’s wonderfully complicated by the fact that the son in question is connecting with a computer algorithm of his father, who committed suicide ten years before. The result is at time almost unbearably touching – the book has been compared to Thomas Powers’ Galatea 2.0, but there’s a climactic scene that will also remind readers of the last-60-pages punch of Powers’ The Goldbug Variations.

the age of miracles

2. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – For an adolescent, parental strife and the agonies of first love can seem like the end of the world, but for Julia, the young heroine of Walker’s amazingly assured debut, these things are suddenly accompanied by the real end of the world: the planet’s rotation is slowing down, and what would have been a grating allegorical gimmick in most other hands is here turned into an enlightening backdrop to some of the finest writing of the year. Read it before the inevitable Emma Stone movie version.

the people of forever

1. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu – The three young friends at the heart of Boianjiu’s sharp, indelible book – the best debut novel of 2012 – are part of the Israeli Defense Forces, stationed on an active, dangerous border; their lives, loves, and heartbreak are mingled with mortar fire. Like so many of the novels on this list, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid sports the easy, accomplished panache of a novel by a much older author (Boainjiu was born in 1987, which was approximately 35 minutes ago), and like all such stellar debuts, it makes me optimistic for the future of fiction (although less optimistic about the prospect of watching Emma Stone try to “do Jewish” for two hours on the big screen)

 

October 15th, 2012

Lucky Jim!

Our book today is Kingsley Amis’ 1954 debut novel Lucky Jim, the recent New York Review of Books re-issue of which prompted a literary friend of mine to lament, “Do we really need this? Am I missing something, or is this thing just a boring, overpraised academia-novel that was never that good to begin with?” This literary friend has been known to spot a surprising truth now and again, so of course I hurried back to my old paperback copy (whenever the NYRB re-issues a book I like, I always have an old paperback copy somewhere – they make no money off me, but they should be consoled by the confirmation of their good taste) and tried to read the book with fresh eyes, as if I hadn’t read it half a dozen times since it first appeared, as if it weren’t well on its way in the literary landscape of my mind (and in a good many other literary landscapes, I think) to becoming a flowering perennial. I tried to read it provingly, sternly, forcing it to earn its keep again as it had the first time (amidst some pretty fierce competition, including, if memory serves, The Group, The Art of Eating, and The Fellowship of the Ring).

It was a very comfortable homecoming, as always. The story – that of hapless fledgling university history professor Jim Dixon, the women he lusts after, the horrific colleagues he endures, the general semi-inebriated flailing that constitutes his life during the one disastrous short period in which we see it – is by now familiar even to readers who haven’t read the book, probably by dint of how many pastiches of the book they’ve read. Certainly Dixon himself is familiar, both through his self-defeating mulishness and through his unpredictable bouts of verbosity, as when he suddenly expostulates (to a romantic interest, of course, on a long car ride) on love:

“People get themselves all steamed up about whether they’re in love or not, and can’t work it out, and their decisions go all to pot. It’s happening every day. They ought to realize that they love part’s perfectly easy; the hard part is the working-out, not about love, but about what they’re going to do. The difference is that they can get their brains going on that, instead of taking the sound of the word “love” as a signal for switching them off. They can get somewhere, instead of indulging in a sort of orgy of emotional self-catechising about how you know they’re in love, and what love is anyway, and all the rest of it.”

In what would become a typical move for Kingsley Amis in his subsequent fiction, he hardly ever just leaves such perorations for his readers to sort out – instead, he’s usually the first in with some analysis:

Outside of his lectures, this was the longest speech Dixon had made for what seemed to him years, and, not excluding his lectures, by far the most fluent. How had he managed it? Drink? No: he was dangerously sober. Sexual excitement? No in italic capitals: visitations of that feeling reduced him punctually to silence and, as a rule, petrifaction. Then how? It was a mystery …

Younger readers today will instantly recognize the family knack for zingy, immediate language (in Lucky Jim they’ll also see that language married to actual patient, thoughtful craft – a phenomenon they need not fear encountering in the collected works of Amis fils). That narrative zest was one of the first victims of Kingsley Amis’ titanic drinking, but it’s on every page of this first novel. The world of that novel is rarefied, true (only a small percentage of Amis’ readers will know the frustration of wondering, as Dixon does, when a periodical editor is finally going to print the article he wrote ages ago … but those who have experienced such frustration will find it perfectly captured here), but no more so than the various worlds of P. G. Wodehouse, who’s far more of a literary antecedent to Amis than today’s academic critics are willing to credit (if Dixon’s drunken, rambling speech on “Merrie England” at the book’s climax isn’t an homage to Gussie Fink-Nottle’s equally calamitous speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, I don’t what could be). And like Bertie Wooster’s world, Jim Dixon’s is saturated with alcohol – Amis later went on to write quite a bit about drinking, and this book contains some justly celebrated evocations of both inebriation and the stinging price paid the following morning:

Dixon plunged down the lodging-house stairs at eight-fifteen the next morning, not so much so as to be sure of being there while Johns read his letter as because he wanted, or rather had got, to spend a long morning in writing up his Merrie England lecture. He didn’t like having breakfast so early. There was something about Miss Cutler’s cornflakes, her pallid fried eggs or bright red bacon, her explosive toast, her diuretic coffee which, much better than bearable at nine o’clock, his usual breakfast-time, seemed at eight-fifteen to summon from all the recesses of his frame every lingering vestige of crapulent headache, every relic of past nauseas, every echo of noises in the head. This retrospective vertigo collared him this morning as roughly as always. The three pints of bitter he’d drunk last night with Bill Atkinson and Beesley might, by means of some garbaged alley through the space-time continuum, have been preceded by a bottle of British sherry and followed by half a dozen breakfast-cups of red biddy. Holding his hands over his eyes, he circled the table like one trying to evade the smoke from a bonfire, then sat down heavily and saturated a plate of cornflakes with bluish milk. He was alone in the room.

As in all first-rate literary comedy, the last line is crucial.

No, I finished this latest re-reading of Lucky Jim with my confidence fully restored. The answer to my literary friend’s question is a resounding ‘Yes’ – we really need this. That’s OK, however – even literary oracles are entitled to miss a toss now and then. This same literary friend is equally blind to the glory that is The Legion of Super-Heroes, the poor sot.

 

July 19th, 2012

Six for a Start!

An ongoing library book sale is a glorious thing. The prices are fantastically generous (I’ve been to some such sales where paperbacks are priced by the bushel, like farmstand vegetables), and the selection can be as idiosyncratic as the institution’s patronage. Themes appear and disappear like heat mirages, and on any given day, you can walk away with genuine treasures.

Perfect case in point: just the other day, I skimmed through a library book sale and came out with a small stack of books that would make a fine cornerstone to anybody’s library of great 20th Century novels – latter 20th Century, that is, post-1950, the decades that present so many problems for contemporary canon-makers, since so many readers are curiously reluctant to express the same certainty about the ‘permanent classic’ status of a book written when their parents were alive as they are to use that same certainty about a book written 200 years ago. This reluctance has always struck me as odd – almost like it had an element of high school popularity-contest to it. Surely a truly great book announces itself just as clearly yesterday as it did in 1718? Seems to me it’s a timid critic indeed who doesn’t trust his own evaluative abilities unless he’s got the backing of ten generations of English professors.

The problem, of course, is the New York Times best-seller list. The rise of such lists to dominance in the book-buying world has made the so-called ‘common reader’ more aware than ever that a popular title might not be a good one – indeed, probably isn’t. Just last week I overheard a typical exchange between two bookstore customers trying to work up their courage to buy a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey: “Is it supposed to be good?” “No, of course not – it’s a best-seller!” The insidious unstated understanding is that anything entertaining enough to sell millions of copies must have sacrificed its claims to quality in order to get where it is – and the reverse assumption also tends to be true, which is why a credulous reading public might make a boring piece of horse-poop like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a best-seller. Had that book been entertaining (an Everest of a hypothetical, I know, but still), it would have been derided as pandering (that double standard also works against books that aren’t horse-poop – just look at the condescending sniffs that greeted Colson Whitehead’s terrific Zone One because it had the temerity to be entertaining as well as superbly written).

There have been times, though, when such dichotomies weren’t foregone conclusions. All six of these collection-starters were best-sellers in their day, and yet all six are genuine, enduring great works of fiction. This stack of six sturdy mass-market paperbacks, purchased for a song, could easily form the nucleus of a ‘contemporary fiction’ collection that now need not even bother making all the usual Kundera/Marquez/Calvino mistakes that hold such collections back for years (or, if you’re a Barnes & Noble Information Desk worker, for the entire length of your narrow, doctrinaire reading life) – from these six, an eager young (or young at heart!) reader could branch out in all kinds of wise directions … reading the teachers of these authors, the students of these authors, and, in some cases, the bodies of work of these authors (with caution, of course: two of our six never wrote a better book than the one in this stack, and three of them only wrote one book to equal their entry here, in a lifetime of trying). They’re six to start a library:

The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor – like many of the books on this short list, this is a title I’ve recommended many, many times before, the hilarious and ultimately quite touching story of Frank Skeffington, an embattled and problematically ‘old school’ mayor of a unnamed city very much like Boston. Skeffington is facing his last run for office, and most of the old ward-and-watch electioneering techniques he and his lieutenants have mastered for half a century are creaking with age and showing unexpected weaknesses in the face of a dawning new era of public service. In the last year of his life, O’Connor was interviewed by a news service veteran with the fine old name of Donoghue and openly lamented the changing of the times. “I’d rather go to somebody like Skeffington and ask a favor,” the old writer wheezed, “than fill out a form and stand in line at some bureau.” And yet, despite such sentiments, this is the least bitter novel you’ll ever read on politics (it’s the precise emotional counterweight to the ferocious All the King’s Men) – and very much the funniest, with a handful of long set-pieces any self-respecting writer would give his Pulitzer to claim. The reviewer for the old Boston Herald called it “engrossing” – and so will you.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – This one too is a frequent recommendation of mine, not just the big, great novel but also the TV mini-series that bears up so well to re-viewing. Like so many of these six titles, the book’s plot has almost passed into American popular folklore: Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, best friends and former Texas Rangers, decide to strike out from their tiny Texas town and lead a herd of cattle to the promised grazing lands of 1876 Montana. Along the route of that epic journey, we get to know a vast host of characters – crewmates, old loves, also-ran heroes (and their hapless sidekicks), fearsome villains, and even a pair of enterprising pigs. Every reader finds their own favorite book in these pages, but for me, the main attraction is the very understated way McMurtry portrays friendships, especially that between Call and McCrae. The old relationships in this wonderful book feel old, and the whole treatment yields an uncanny feeling while reading, a feeling very few writers can conjure: the feeling that you’re only being reminded of some old familiar story you’ve known all your life, rather than told a new one with art and artifice. And three of the book’s many endings will positively choke you up, if you’ve got an ounce of reading feeling in your bones. The Sacramento Bee lauded this book as “engrossing” – and so will you.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon – It’s almost a delirious realization, that Bantam Books not only issued this genre-bending, mind-expanding novel as a mass market paperback in 1974 but that you could find it in the metal spinner-racks in thousands of non-bookstore venues back then: gas stations (with spotty clerks getting boxes of book-stock from the big city and stuffing the items into their slots, perhaps without a second glance – except for those one or two clerks who did look, and maybe had their lives changed as a result), drug stores, and commuter train platforms. In all these places, you could spin those cranky, squeaking displays and see Valley of the Dolls in one slot, Conan the Freebooter in another, and Gravity’s blooming Rainbow in the third – it’s very tempting to say such days are over in the modern world. Pynchon’s huge novel has almost as many characters and plot-strands as McMurtry’s, but there’s no sentimentality here and vast amounts of formalistic experimentation – this is a thinking man’s Ulysses, a fun-house mirror version of a WWII novel, studded with magnificent set pieces (at least two of which are consciously designed to revolt you into simply putting the book down, if they’re able to do it – testing set-pieces, as it were, as brilliant as anything 20th Century fiction has ever produced). The Atlantic Monthly called it “engrossing” – and so will you.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin – The fantasy elements lurking in the shadows of Gravity’s Rainbow take center stage in Helprin’s massive, bestselling book about a valorous, quick-witted young man named Peter Lake and the magnificent white horse he finds (and who finds him), and also about dozens of other characters, from boisterous arch-criminals to consumptive ice princesses to deluded priests, all working under one kind of doom or another. The setting – during the infrequent intervals in which it descends into the pragmatic, observable world, is a roughly 19th Century New York City of warring gangs and street vendors and falling snow, but the key to the book’s artistic success (and, almost certainly, the explanation for its almost talismanic power among its many, many devotees)(everybody I know who’s read this book has read it more than once) is its unabashed willingness to inhabit its own mythology. The characters achieve their memorable reality solely through their interactions with each other, and that makes the whole thing feel like a walled-off fairy kingdom (and it’s no coincidence that Manhattan itself is often portrayed that way in the book). The Book-of-the-Month Club (back when that organization commanded some genuine respect in the reading world)(as delightfully detailed in Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books) called it “engrossing” – and so will you.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Alan Gurganus – Lucy Marsden, the 99-year-old North Carolina widow of this boisterous, hilarious book’s title, married her grim and much-older husband Captain Will Marsden a long, long time ago, and as our narrative opens, she’s fixed on telling the whole vast history of her life, from the small-town urban legends to the shot and gore of the Civil War battlefield to the steamy and folksy atmosphere of the modern South. Gurganus worked forever on this huge book (like so many authors of novels longer than 260 pages, he often remarked that it almost killed him), and he’s produced virtually nothing (and certainly nothing comparable) since. Partly this is understandable, since there’s a lifetime’s worth of stories in these pages, some of them sordid (when a black character happens into one such scene, she utters the two words, “White people,” with a whole world of knowing scorn), some of them heroic, some of them pathetic, and all of them rendered in prose so sharp and knowing that the end result can take its place alongside Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it all “engrossing” – and so will you.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay – This rough, at times brutal story of a white boy nicknamed Peekay growing to manhood in WWII-era South Africa is far and away Courtenay’s masterpiece (and as is sometimes the case, it was his debut), an altogether amazing fictional representation of a dirty, divisive world and the difficulty (but not impossibility) of finding some kind of nobility even in such a setting. South Africa’s Apartheid regime inspired a number of such works, but this one is the best of a very good bunch, taking some of the classic elements of a boy’s coming-of-age story (young Peekay is rather badly in need of father figures) and mixing them with repressed folklore and the kind of sublimated warrior-ethos some people (sedentary writers foremost among them) tend to find in the ‘sport’ of boxing. The story is narrated by Peekay from the vantage point of his later life (also a familiar motif of this kind of novel, as though all these writers were already dreaming of apartheid being ‘once upon a time’), and the tale he tells builds steadily in power to its fast, violent climax. The fabled Los Angeles Times Book Review called it “totally engrossing” – and so will you.

These six titles – snapped up in less than two minutes – are just the kind of book that marries entertainment with enlightenment, the kind that both instruct and delight, all in fine condition, just waiting for somebody to come along who’s perhaps been disappointed one too many times by contemporary fiction. I’ve been vigorously recommending these books (and about twenty more just like them) for a long time now, because their qualities never fade or go out of style. And there they were, lodged among the cracked-spine murder mysteries an dust-jacketed (but untouched) copies of Freedom, ready to form a good solid foundation. One of the many wonders libraries perform, of course.

October 4th, 2011

Eight Great Books – by Women!

Once again, I got emails – of a far less welcome kind this time, but book-bloggers can’t be choosers. Many of you wrote in response to my recent “Eight Great Books” post not to share my enthusiasm or to discuss my choices but rather to point out that the eight novels I picked were all written by men. My very first internal response to this was “Yes? So what? It’s possible they were all written by right-handers or blue-eyes too.” My second internal response was “No really – so what? I was rhapsodizing about how much the books in question moved and delighted me – it never occurred to me to check who was going to which bathroom.”

It shouldn’t have occurred to me, and it shouldn’t have occurred to any of you either. It reminds me of all the worst reasons why I left academia.

I dislike almost everything about this kind of non-issue. I dislike the insinuations that can’t help but come along with pointing out that everybody on my first list is a man – the foremost such insinuation being, of course, that I intentionally planned it that way and was hoping nobody would notice, the insinuation of wrongdoing. I dislike the reductivism of it all, the sense that readers today aren’t actually reading anything anymore but rather just checking off boxes and prepping their outrages for when they find trumped-up reason to pounce. Of course personally I dislike the inattention of it all – a casual glance at Stevereads over the years reveals absolutely no gender-bias (and, on a not-unconnected point, a casual glance at the books I’ve personally given to many of you reveals no such imbalance either). In short, the implicit accusation/complaint isn’t valid.

It prompts what I think is a natural – though entirely wrong – response on my part, which is to defend myself. To point out how many female authors I’ve championed over the years, to marshal a barrage of links back to the appropriate Stevereads postings, and maybe links elsewhere as well. But not only is that impulse entirely wrong, but it’s deeply unpleasant to feel, even for a moment, even long enough to call it wrong. Just like it would be deeply unpleasant for, say, the female readers making this point to go back over their last year’s reading and count up how much of it was by black people, or gay people. The instinctive response to go  back and count up is irritating because it’s already complicit, even when no guilt can be assigned.

Still, I did say I disliked ‘almost’ everything about such a non-issue, right? There is, in fact, one part of it I like: it gives me a reason to concoct another book-list, and that’s fine by me (I also, as some of you were canny enough to point out, can’t resist a challenge). So here are eight really, really good modern novels written by women, even though that attribution is entirely irrelevant!

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant (2000)

Grant’s harsh and luminous novel about postwar British-administered Palestine stars strong-willed and intensely memorable Evelyn Sert, who opens things as forthrightly as she carries the whole book:

Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story. If you don’t like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and torturous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence? “Listen …”

Twenty-year-old Evelyn journeys to the hot, mesmerizing international city of Tel Aviv (wonderfully evoked in these pages) and there finds every aspect of her relatively pampered and privileged life challenged by the no-nonsense women (and one sensuous but deceitful man) who are working to get a nation born:

I told her my Hebrew wasn’t that good.

“Fine,” she said. “I speak six languages. Pick one.”

“English is all I know fluently.”

“Then you are a fool.”

When I Lived in Modern Times confounded a number of critics when it first appeared, and even now it holds the power to confuse in almost equal measure as it pleases. An apolitical novel about politics? A coming-of-age novel that seems at times almost disinterested in its heroine? And yet, re-reading it in 2011, I found it every bit as sharp and interesting as it was when it first appeared.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008)

I haven’t been a big fan of Morrison’s writing over the years, usually finding it deceitfully arch and faux-oracular (whenever some young person tells me Beloved is their favorite novel, I always want to advise them to get out of the house more often). But this slim, almost mythic novella of a wild and disconsolate 17th century America reads like one long prose poem. At its heart is the question of ownership in the free world, and one of its main characters, Jacob Vaark, embodies all the contradictions of that question – he has slaves, servants, a mail-order bride, and is himself owned by his vanities. Morrison sets up the happy beginning of his married life to Rebekka so deftly you know it’s all going to unravel horribly:

 

They settled into the long learning of one another; preferences, habits altered, others acquired; disagreement without bile; trust and that wordless conversation that years of companionship rest on. The weak religious tendencies that riled Rebekka’s mother were of no interest to him. He was indifferent having himself withstood all pressure to join the village congregation but content to let her be persuaded if she chose. After some initial visits and Rebekka choosing not to continue, his satisfaction was plain. They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed.

Morrison’s handling of her human characters can be as arch and unconvincing as always, but there’s a guiding spirit moving powerfully through this skinny book, elevating it from her usual stuff and repaying multiple re-readings.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971)

This novel also features prominently on every ‘Top 50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels of All Time’ list I’ve made since it was first published (all the other 49 are by men, of course), and like most of the best Sci-Fi and Fantasy, it can be read and enjoyed by strangers to the genre. It’s the story of George Orr, a hapless citizen of the near future who seeks medical help for all the disturbing dreams he’s having. Unfortunately for him, he goes to Doctor Haber, a budding megalomaniac, who quickly realizes the unbelievable: George Orr’s dreams change reality itself. Haber of course wants to harness this power – first to get George to ‘fix’ everything that’s wrong with the world, and then eventually to simply transfer the power to himself, so he’s no longer limited by this well-intentioned milquetoast. And passive George is more than happy to let him shoulder the burden, although with a warning:

“Everything dreams. The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance. Rocks have their dreams, and the earth changes … But when the mind becomes conscious, when the rate of evolution speeds up, then you have to be careful. Careful of the world. You must learn the way. The must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully – as the rock is part of the whole unconsciously. Do you see? Does it mean anything to you?”

Haber doesn’t see, and in true Frankensteinian fashion, his power goes horribly awry – and reveals a layer to the book which Le Guin prepares carefully but which will still catch the reader deliciously off-guard. This author is a legend for other works – her beloved “Earthsea” series, and her two landmark science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, but this is her best book, as tense and elegant as a modern myth.

A Much Younger Man by Dianne Highbridge (1998)

This beautiful, wise novel has been a source of frequent irritation to me since the moment it was published, and the reason is the only thing it shares in common with the great World War Z: it’s virtually impossible to force people’s minds to remain open long enough to recommend it. I plugged World War Z way back at the very beginning of Stevereads, and I’m plugging Highbridge’s book now, for all the good it’ll do me – those of you who haven’t already dismissed it because of its cover will certainly read no further than knowing that the book’s plot is summarized in its title: mid-30s school teacher Aly falls in love with Tom, the teenage son of her best friend. There: the world faces a zombie plague. Sigh. Highbridge takes this very simple premise and treats it in a manner, as one critic put it at the time, “openly sexual but without a hint of lewdness or smirking.” Aly falls in love with Tom (and he very much with her) despite every caution sounding in her right from the beginning:

“Did you wonder why I didn’t play [his lute, for company] the other night?”

“No. I just assumed you didn’t feel like it.”

“I didn’t. Not like that, on show.” Then he says, with the barest pause: “I would’ve played for you.”

A small alarm bell rings somewhere in her head. She looks quickly at him, half-afraid to see the tell-tale intensity of an incipient crush in his eyes. Not really a problem if so, but better if not. He’s looking straight back at her. His eyes aren’t almost blue, as she thought, they’re grey and completely guileless. Somehow this is not reassuring. “I’d like to hear you some day, but I don’t know much about that kind of music,” she says.

“You don’t have to. You’ll see.”

And Highbridge unfolds it all with a deeply respectful intelligence. The result is one of the most honestly affecting novels of love and society that you’re likely to read in a full year – but Heaven and Earth couldn’t move you to try it, because you’re still staring at that cover. Sigh.

Told By An Idiot by Rose Macaulay (1923)

Macaulay is unknown today except for her quirky The Towers of Trebizond (those NYRB people again!), and I myself treasure her Personal Pleasures as I treasure few other books of occasional essays, but this book is her masterpiece, and it’s a mystery to me why Told by an Idiot isn’t both recognized as a masterpiece and taught as one (I can only assume it’s because made the tactical mistake of being a woman). It’s the story of the unforgettable Garden family – the clergyman father, his saintly wife, their vibrant, incredibly diverse children, whose stories unfold over decades and are chronicled by their sister Rome, the ultimate family-observer, who first goes through her own heartbreak, when the man she loves confesses that he’s already married and gets a typically Garden-family rejection:

“Rome, you can’t do it. Don’t you know, now you’re in my arms, that you can’t, that it would be to deny the best in us?”

“What’s the best, what’s the worst? I don’t know, and nor do you. I’m not an ethicist. All I know is that your wife, while she wants you, or thinks she wants you, has first claim … It’s a question of fairness and decent feeling … or bring it down, if you like, to a question of taste. Perhaps that is the only basis there really is for decisions of this sort for people like us.”

“Taste! That’s a fine cry to mess up two lives by. I’d almost rather you were religious, and talked of the will of God. One could respect that, at least.”

“I can’t do that, as I happen not to be sure whether God exists. And it would make nothing simpler, really, since one would then have to discover what one believed the will of God to be. Don’t do religious people the injustice of believing that anything is simpler or easier for them; it’s more difficult, since life is more exacting … But it comes to the same thing; all these processes of thought lead to the same result if applied by the same mind. It depends on the individual outlook. And this is mine … Oh, don’t make it so damnably difficult for us both, my dearest …”

Miss Garden, who never swore and never wept, here collapsed into tears, all her urbane breeding broken at last. He consoled her so tenderly, so pitifully, so mournfully, that she wept the more for love of him.

The Virago Press reprinted this great book in the 1980s twice – once with a hideous cover and once with a good cover. I’d take a plain brown wrapper, if I could see it reprinted today.

Brightness Falls From the Air by James Tiptree (1985)

No, I’m not losing my nerve and desperately trying to work in a hated man onto our list! James Tiptree is of course the pen-name used by the late Alice Sheldon to write some of the best science fiction of the 20th century. Her novel Up the Walls of the World is a tour de force, and her short stories (such gems as “The Women Men Don’t See” and “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” and “Painwise”) likewise superb, but this novel – the last one she wrote before she killed her husband and herself – burns with a genius all its own, a genius I was at first slow to grant. The book tells the story of the planet Damien, where years ago the beautiful native species was horrifically tortured to produce a wildly valuable substance called Star Tears. In the present, a mixed group of tourists comes to visit the planet and threatens to re-awaken the tragedies of the past, since, as we’re told, the darkness that bred those tragedies never went away:

“All over this Galaxy, for as long as you live, there will be big crooks and little crooks and lonesome weirdos, Human and otherwise, dreaming up ways to get their hands on Star Tears stuff. Too abhorrent? Don’t you believe it. On the Black Worlds there are Human beasts who salivate over the prospect of torturing children. And passing in any crowd are secret people whose hidden response to beauty is the desire to tear it into bleeding meat.”

This dark and almost hopeless note is struck throughout this novel (horrible to think of the suffering Tiptree must have been enduring herself, to tap into all this and then put it down so cleanly on the page), and yet, impossibly, hope looks to prevail. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction (and surely you don’t think that, right? Wouldn’t want to be discriminatory, would we?), you’ll like this book, one of the late classics of the genre.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)

Those of you who’ve known me personally for a while might recall that I’ve been fervently recommending this book for over a decade, despite the fact that I’m a well-known Internet misogynist; even before The Last Samurai achieved its current mind-boggling and entirely deserved status as both a cult classic (this is one of those books that makes you feel like it was written for you, personally) and a literary landmark, I was telling any open-minded reader I could find that this was a literary landmark destined to be a cult classic. It’s one of the most dazzling literary debuts since This Side of Paradise – indeed, it raised the bar for dazzling literary debuts so high most first-time novelists can’t stand to look at it. It’s the story of a harried, hopeful young single mother named Sibylla and her odd, prodigiously gifted son Ludo, a monster autodidact whose intellectual appetites quickly outstrip even his mother’s high expectations:

Early March, winter nearly over. Ludo still following scheme I do not understand: found him reading Metamorphoses the other day though he is only up to Odyssey 22. Seems to have slowed down on Odyssey, has only been reading 100 lines or so a day for the past few weeks. Too tired to think of new places to go, where is there besides National Gallery National Portrait Gallery Tate Whitechapel British Museum Wallace Collection that is free? Financially in fairly good position as have typed Advanced Angling 1969 – present, Mother and Child 1952-present, Horn & Hound 1920-1976, and am now making good progress with The Poodle Breeder, 1924-1982. Have made virtually no progress with Japanese.

The irony threaded through even that brief passage (with the texts Sibylla is typing for money silently commenting on her efforts to raise Ludo on her own) is choice, and it’s on display throughout the whole of this novel, which delights and surprises and ultimately moves with its strangeness and stanzas of staggering virtuosity. If Open Letters Monthly had been around in 2000, this is exactly the kind of book I’d have hoped Sam Sacks or John Cotter would decide to review.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)

If this last title seems familiar, it should: not only did I give it rapturous praise over at Open Letters Monthly, but I was the very first person anywhere in the world to pronounce it brilliant, long before its publication, long before it won its shelf of awards: when two bits of it were excerpted in the Penny Press, I confidently predicted it might well end up being the best Tudor novel ever written – and I did all that despite the fact that its author is a woman!

Very few of the novel’s characters are – this is mostly a man’s book (with the very notable exception of the odious Anne Boleyn), featuring one of the most brutishly masculine main characters in recent fiction: Thomas Cromwell, the mysterious street lawyer Henry VIII came more and more to rely upon to do his dirty work, a character virtually all Tudor fictionizers have almost automatically chosen to portray as a plain-and-simple villain. In Wolf Hall, we don’t think of Cromwell that way, even though he’s ruthless and dangerous. We see him being underestimated by every grandee in the land (except for one devastatingly sharp moment with the king, where Cromwell learns the unpleasant lesson that having a Tudor estimate you accurately is most definitely NOT a pleasant experience), even when, as with the old Duke of Norfolk, they know they’re underestimating him while they do it:

“I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.”

“Will they be the same, my lord?”

The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a … person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”

He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.

“Smile away,” says the duke. “Wolsey’s household is a nest of vipers. Not that …” he touches a medal, flinching. “God forbid I should …”

Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal’s money, and he wants the cardinal’s place at the king’s side: but then again, he doesn’t want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. “The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal’s affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war.”

“I hope he doesn’t think still of invading France.”

“God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own.” A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, “Mind you, you’re right.”

Like many people in this splendid, bottomlessly re-readable novel, Norfolk finds himself casting around searching for a reason to validate the visceral dislike he feels for Cromwell. In this case, the duke (whose spindly body Cromwell has already taken in with a glance) pounces on Cromwell’s admission that he himself had once been a soldier:

“I was a soldier myself.”

“Were you so? Not in any English army, I’ll be bound. There, you see.” The duke grins, quite without animosity. “I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn’t like you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Where were you?”

“Garigliano.”

“With?”

“The French.”

The duke whistles. “Wrong side, lad.”

“So I noticed.”

The fast-paced bounce of this dialogue is maintained throughout the book, which is similar to The Lathe of Heaven in being a genre-buster, something you can hand to even the most adamantly anti-historical fiction reader, confident that the book will hook them. I’ve never known it to fail, which certainly hasn’t been the case with any of Mantel’s earlier books. This one is a bolt from the sky, it’s so good.

And there you have it! Eight great novels – by women! The cosmic scales of justice are re-balanced, although how they could ever have been un-balanced I don’t know. After all, the field of fiction is almost thoroughly dominated by women. Against our paltry Tolstoy, Thackeray, and Fielding, women have a dozen giants right off the tip of the bat – a preponderance so great it’s only become seriously endangered since the late 20th century, when the proliferation of make-weight MFA programs with delusions of cultural oppression began graduating legions of utterly talentless female degree holders, thus muddying the waters almost opaque for genuinely promising young women like Tea Obreht.

But that’s a worry for another day – for right now, the universe is restored to order, and with luck Stevereads is restored to the good graces of all those of you who wrote in giving me dirty looks! I whole-heartedly recommend each of these woman-authored books, and I could easily double the length of this post with additional names, many of whom I’ve also praised on Stevereads in their own right over the years. So now perhaps the issue of my raging misogyny can be tabled, and I can return my attention to higher literary matters …

September 29th, 2011

The Persian Boy!

Our book today is Mary Renault’s 1972 novel The Persian Boy, perhaps her masterpiece and certainly one of the greatest historical novels ever written. At its heart is the story of the young Persian eunuch Bagoas, who features as the briefest footnote in the actual historical accounts we have of Alexander (many of which qualify as historical fiction themselves, but never mind …). Quintus Curtius Rufus mentions that Bagoas, owing to his exceptional beauty, was first the bed-toy of the Persian King Darius and then the bed-toy of Alexander himself, but we don’t hear much more of this boy. There’s mention that Alexander’s Macedonian troops approved of their leader’s choice in teenage boys, and there’s a story indicating that preference might have made Bagoas arrogant and pettily vengeful toward Persians who had once offended him. Alexander was not besotted with the boy, despite many latter characterizations to that effect (Oliver Stone’s ill-starred recent movie, in which the director’s biggest mistake was casting Colin Farrell instead of Tom Hardy, being only the most visible) – indeed, both here and in her excellent The Nature of Alexander, Renault makes a strong case that Alexander was only besotted with two living beings in his entire life, and one of them was a horse (the story of his taming of his dangerous mount Bucephalus is lovingly retold, both in The Persian Boy and in Fire From Heaven):

The old beast threw up its head and whinnied loudly; you could see, then, it had been a good horse once. Suddenly Ptolemy, running like a boy, took its bridle from the Mardian, and loosed it. It broke into a stiff-legged canter, all its foolish fripperies jingling; made straight for the King, and nuzzled against his shoulder.

The King stroked its nose a time or two. He had been standing, it seemed, all this time grasping an apple, and with this he fed it. Then he turned round with his face pressed to its neck. I saw that he was crying.

There seemed nothing, now, with which he could still astonish me. I looked around at the soldiers, to see how they would take it. Beside me, two weathered Macedonians were blinking and wiping their noses.

Through Bagoas’ eyes, Renault tells the story of Alexander’s march ever eastward, of the hard-fought campaigns and perilous desert-crossings, and of the increasing tensions among Alexander’s own men, many of whom had signed on to plunder Persia but were less keen about trying to subdue the entire known world. The horrible culmination of those tensions was Alexander’s impulsive murder of his life-long friend and general Kleitos on a night when both of them had typically had too much to drink. It’s a dramatic moment worthy of a Jonson or a Dryden, and Renault portrays it gripplingly:

“Here’s Kleitos!” he shouted. “Here I am!”

He had come back for the last word. He had thought of it too late, and would not forgo it. It was his fate to be given his wish.

From the doors behind him, a guard came in doubtfully, like a muddy dog. He’d had no orders to keep out the Commander; but he did not like it. He stood spear in hand, looking dutiful and ready. Alexander, checking his stride, stared unbelievingly.

“Listen, Alexander. Alas, ill rule in Hellas …”

Even Macedonians knew their Euripides. I daresay everyone there but I could have completed these famous lines. The gist of them is that the soldiers do it all, the general gets it all. I don’t know if he meant to go on.

A flash of white went to the door, and turned again. There was a bellow like a slaughtered bull’s. Kleitos clutched with both hands at the spear stuck in his breast; fell and writhed grunting; jerked in the death-spasms. His mouth and eyes fixed, wide open.

It had been so quick, for a moment I thought the guard had done it. The spear was his.

It was the silence, all down the hall, that told me.

Alexander stood over the body, staring down. Presently he said, “Kleitos.” The corpse glared back at him. He took the spear by the haft. When it would not come, I saw him begin the soldier’s movement to brace his foot on the body; then flinch and pull again. It jerked out, a handspan deep in blood, splashing down his clean white robe. Slowly he turned it round, the butt on the ground, the point towards him.

Ptolemy has always maintained that it meant nothing. I only know I cried “No, my lord!” and got it away. I took him unready, as he had done the guard. Someone reached over and carried it out of sight. Alexander sank on his knees by the body, and felt over its breast; then covered his face with his bloody hands.

“Oh God,” he said slowly. “God, God, God, God.”

The sheer confidence embodied in that single word ‘presently’ is amazing to me. Not one author in a hundred would even see that dramatic opening, much less have the wisdom to so perfectly understate it.

Of course, the novel’s also noteworthy for its anxiety-free portrayal of homosexual sex and love, something it shares in common with all the rest of Renault’s historical fiction set in the ancient world (or even in the present: her novel The Friendly Young Ladies is a remarkably clear-headed portrait of a contemporary lesbian couple – only The Charioteer dabbles heavily in self-loathing and persecution). In this case we’re presented with a muted version of that kind of love – since Bagoas is telling the story, we’re never directly privy to Alexander’s love, physical or otherwise, for his best friend Hephaistion, although we get plenty of deft and even funny sex-interludes between conqueror and war-trophy:

Alexander took a fancy for me that night. The wound [A. had recently received] opened and I was covered in blood; he just laughed, and made me wash in case the guard thought I’d murdered him. The wound felt easier, he said; no physician like love. It is true that when dry they often fester.

Every single page of The Persian Boy shines with accomplishment and crackles with near-perfect storytelling, and I can attest to the fact that it’s just as thrilling on the fiftieth reading as it is on the first. Virtually everything this author wrote is fantastic (for the explicit ‘theme’ of male love, I think The Last of the Wine is more tender and more true than this present book, but it also lacks the epic resonance), they each deserve their own entry here at Stevereads, but this one stands out even in such distinguished company. I can’t urge you strongly enough to take it down from your shelf and finally give it that long-intended read. You’ll be glad you did.

September 27th, 2011

Eight Good Reads!

According to the calendar, at least, autumn  approaches (in Boston in the last week of September, it’s 85 degrees with the humidity hovering somewhere around 95 % – in other words, very uncomfortably hot, with absolutely no sign of a more merciful season coming), and autumn traditionally means a crush of prestigious new titles crowding bookstore shelves and tables in anticipation of the major literary awards – and the holiday book-buying season.

The autumn is also often characterized as the time when readers come back from their ramshackle beach-houses and buckle back down to work and ‘serious’ reading – and this characterization has persisted even though there hasn’t been a shred of truth to it in thirty years. It goes hand-in-hand with the very idea of ‘serious’ versus ‘light’ reads – a distinction I’ve never really understood in any but personal terms. The labels certainly can’t be referring to the work necessary to generate them – it takes far more work to whittle a Jeeves & Wooster novel into perfect shape than it does to maunder around for 200 pages about suburban angst. I think the distinction itself is so much bunk and does a great deal of harm to the republic of letters, but if there’s any truth to it (even artificial truth), surely it comes from the handling of plot more than anything else? Surely we’ve come to think of ‘light’ reads are more formally observant of plot – Thing X builds, Thing X happens, Thing X happened – whereas ‘serious’ reads can let even major story-lines just sort of drift off into clouds of precious prose.

I’m recommending eight contemporary novels today, and all eight of them quietly defy the whole concept of ‘serious’ and ‘light’ fiction. None of them is long, none of them boasts the tangled, verbose prose style currently considered ‘genius,’ and almost all of them are written by authors who once upon a time would have fallen comfortably into that disturbing old catch-all, midlist. I recommend them mainly because they’re all really enjoyable – the perfect things to cleanse your mental palate before the autumn publisher lists force you to read whoever’s Jonathan Franzen this year. So consider this post the two of us walking through a bookstore’s fiction section and me pointing out some things that are worth your time.

Diamond Dogs by Alan Watt (2000) – the story of handsome young star quarterback Neil Garvin, whose brutish father is the town’s autocratic sheriff. The book is an insistent (almost tiresomely so) Oedipal conflict between the two – a conflict that scorches everybody else who comes in contact with it, including Neil’s best friend and teammate (the book’s homoerotic elements are handled so delicately the reader almost doesn’t notice them at all):

“He’s been pushing me my whole life and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of doing whatever he tells me to do. I just don’t want to play anymore. I just want to be left alone.” I couldn’t understand why it sounded empty. All of it was true but when I heard the words come out of my mouth they just sounded silly. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that he didn’t believe me.

When a crime-plot enmeshes Neil, it brings every single issue of power and complicity between him and his father to the forefront, and you can’t resist getting caught up in it all.

Mr Darwin’s Shooter by Roger McDonald (1998) – Speaking of brutish – McDonald’s main character Syms Covington leads a brutish, almost sub-human life from his earliest childhood, and yet he stubbornly developes – or refuses to yield – a tender sensibility and a sharp eye for the natural world. These things do him no good landing a berth on the Beagle at the commencement of its legendary voyage, but they come in very handy once he meets that vessel’s oddly curate-like special guest of the captain:

That was when their gent grunted up the side and for the first time in all creation met Covington’s eye – the boy registering a round coppery face and lubberly sea legs – one, two, and a clumsy haul, and Covington had his man to observe, all the height of him uncoiling shy. All he knew of him at present was that he liked to go out with his gun and his dog in the rain. He was, some said, a young squire of the sort who passed time with philosophers discoursing on whether Greeks ate melon seeds, or if they had privies in their gardens. He came from dockside in a cutter near sinking under the weight of extra goods that he wanted this late, everything awkward-shaped and dripping in the December mist as it was hoisted: a bundle of guns, a crate of jars, a sack of books, a rectangular basket lined with paper that was meant for dead birds. As he wondered, ‘Might he trouble them with his extras?’ Covington held his gaze and heard the words, but the gent’s brown eyes still looked through him. ‘I am ashamed,’ thought Covington, ‘to be who I am.’

An oddly touching relationship develops, and a really good historical novel is born.

Lit Life by Kurt Wenzel (2002) – In this hilarious satirical romp through the literary world of Manhattan and the Hamptons, Wenzel is able to let a whole brace of personal demons off their leashes, and he centers most of them on the formerly hot not deeply blocked youngish writer Kyel Clayton, who’s such a lazy waster he actually floats to his cutthroat agent the possibility that he just won’t write his next book. The response is not particularly passive:

“If you say no?” Trevor answered, his tone now quietly ferocious. “If you say no, I bury any book you submit after six months; it does me no good after that, and by contract I’ve got your next one by the balls. If you say no, I tell all future houses what an unproductive pain in the ass you’ve been – a real chop job, so that by the time I’m done, Kinko’s will view you as a publishing risk. If you say no, I’ll have my lawyers pull a gang bang on your ass that’ll have you howling like a banshee, not to mention in paralyzing debt until the third millennium. If you say no, Kyle, you drunken bastard, I will personally dedicate my life to tracking you down – even if I have to visit every bar in the city – and sink my shoe into your rotted cantaloupe of a head and laugh as you shit bicuspids and sip single-village mescal through a straw for the next fifty years. If you say no.”

This is by far the funniest book on our little list today (although there’s one moment in Mr Darwin’s Shooter that will make you laugh mighty damn loud despite your finer instincts), and it hits a number of fairly sensitive home-spots for any reader involved in ‘the scene.’

Raymond + Hannah by Stephen Marche (2005) – This is the love story of Hannah, who’s leaving to study the Torah for nine months in Jerusalem, and Raymond, who’s doing his doctoral dissertation on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. The two of them meet and say some cute/clever things and then end up having sex, and the whole encounter – the whole book – is accompanied by printed marginalia glossing the action of the narrative. It’s a gimmick that should get old in about fifteen seconds, but through the heartfelt poetry of Marche’s prose, it doesn’t. Instead, we get passage after passage like the one the marginalia terms “Toronto aubade”:

Transport trucks, go slowly. Pull yourself over on the side of the road. Bring the night with you into your bunks. Let Raymond and Hannah anticipate endlessly on the stairs up to attics. Nights in August in Toronto are too short besides. And go slowly, street-washing men. Just let the dirt by dirty for now. Let the streets seize with filth. Let your engines stall, and stop the morning from coming. And more slowly, smokestacks; in fact, completely shut yourselves down. Nights in August in Toronto are too full of light besides. For once let all the power in you not flow, and leave Raymond and Hannah asleep in bed alone.

Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (2007) – These two authors shot to super mega-stardom with their nondescript little book The Nanny Diaries, but readers shouldn’t hold that against them. This book is entirely more genuine and eventually heartwarming, and it centers on the character of Kate Hollis, who’s spent every year since high school listening to the world sing the songs of her life: because her former almost-boyfriend Jake Sharpe went on to become a Justin Timberlake-type international sensation who’s based all of his hit songs on their time together. When they finally confront each other, the encounters will remind readers of the witty, fizzy big screen romantic comedy this book has somehow managed not to become:

Flailing the blankets off, I pull back and stare at his sheepish expression, determined. “If you don’t do right by my friends, there is no ‘you’ I want to know. Are we clear?”

He sits up, flirtatious boy energy suddenly dissipated. He looks me in the eye. “Clear.”

“Really? You’ll tell Jocelyn and your lawyers? You’ll sign the papers?”

“Yes.” An unfettered lightness floods through me as he takes my face in his hands. “I need you – Kate,” he emphasizes my adult name. “I think I keep writing songs about you just to keep your voice in my head.”

“I’m your Jiminy Cricket?”

He laughs. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Can your lawyers draw up something to that effect as well?” I laugh with him, finally able to let myself feel the elation of being right where I am.

Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi (2003, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson) – music also threads its way throughout Niemi’s grotesquely grim and buffoonish story of the coming-of-age of young Matti in the isolated wastes of Northern Sweden. Whether it’s Niemi or his translator, there’s quite a bit of rather ham-handed satire in this utterly absorbing novel, and several bits of that satire are aimed squarely at the book’s audience, as when the boy gets some sage warnings from his father:

The most dangerous thing of all, and something he wanted to warn me about above all else, the one thing that had consigned whole regiments of unfortunate young people to the twilight world of insanity, was reading books. This objectionable practice had increased among the younger generation, and Dad was more pleased than he could say to note that I had not yet displayed any such tendencies. Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who’d been reading too much. Once upon a time they’d been just like you and me, physically strong, straightforward, cheerful, and well balanced. Then they’d started reading. Most often by chance. A bout of flu, perhaps, with a few days in bed. An attractive book cover that had aroused some curiosity. And suddenly the bad habit had taken hold. The first book had let to another. Then another, and another, all links in a chain that led straight down into the eternal night of mental illness. It was impossible to stop. It was worse than drugs.

 

Away by Amy Bloom (2008) – It’s difficult for me to tell with any accuracy (I’m not really aware of the careers – before or since – of most of our authors today), but it get the distinct impression Bloom isn’t usually ‘my kind of author.’ Something in the tint of her sentimentality, perhaps, or maybe it’s just this book’s fairly gender-specific cover. But however that may be, this book – the story of plain-spoken heroine Lillian Leyb, whose search for her daughter takes her across the breadth of mid-20th century America and brings her into contact with all variety of people and their prejudices:

He had thought she might be a Jew, not that he’s known many – one good boxer and his pretty, wild sister had said they were Jews, but they had also said they were the illegitimate children of Harry Houdini and he had not pursued it with them.

“Jewish. You’re far from home.”

Lillian opens her mouth to say that, on the contrary, Jews are found from China to everywhere else, but really, she is far from home.

“You people sure do land in the skillet.”

This is either the kind of not-unfriendly remark Lillian has gotten used to in the West (in its darker versions, You people sure do have all the money; You people sure do stick together) or just a statement of fact and so observably true in this world that no Jew anywhere would dream of arguing the point.

“Yes, we do,” Lillian says and she does not say, And just what do you make of those skillets, mister?

The Night Villa by Carol Goodman (2008) – Unlike with most of our authors today, I was already familiar with at least something Goodman wrote, the fantastic novel The Lake of Dead Languages. Our current book is equally classically oriented: classics professor Sophie Chase is recovering from a violent episode that happens at the beginning of the novel, and like all good classicists, she chooses to do her recovering on the island of Capri, uncovering the secrets of the long-buried Villa della Notte – which not only allows for a parallel narrative set in AD 79 on the eve of the eruption of Vesuvius but also facilitates her meetings with mysterious businessman Paul Lyros:

We walk slowly and Lyros stops often at water fountains to drink and at benches to retie his sneakers, or at tempting vistas to point out the Marina Grande below us and Monte Solaro towering behind us, or to point past a gate at some villa that lies drowsing in a lemon grove behind mounds of fuschia and azalea, geraniums and jasmine. He always picks a spot well shaded by an umbrella pine or cypress to regale me with a piece of Caprese history and give me a chance to catch my breath. “And this,” he says at one gate, “is the Villa Lysis, once home to Count Jacques d’Adelsward Fersen, who so scandalized the Caprese that he had to leave the island. He did return eventually and lived here until he died of an opium overdoes at forty-five.”

“What was the scandal about?”

“Oh, just another one of those old Caprese stories of degenerate foreigners made up of gossip and lies,” he says, turning back up the path.

“You sound like you don’t approve of the locals.”

“I guess I’m afraid of what they say about me – that I’m just anther in a long line of eccentric foreigners come to live out his fantasies – or to escape the demands of Empire like our friend Tiberius.” He points upward and I see the ruins of Tiberius’s villa have come into view – a mass of sun-struck brick and limestone crowning a high peak above us.

No particular dominant theme governing these eight choices, mind you – just eight very good reads for your consideration on a very hot, very humid fall day.

September 20th, 2011

The Ogre!

Our book today is Michel Tournier’s great, grim 1970 masterpiece, Le roi des Aulnes, translated into English in 1972 by Barbara Bray with the title The Ogre. It was Tournier’s second novel, and it won him the Prix Goncourt and sold with fervor throughout France (even the paperback of the English translation sold well in America). The whole generation of Western writers born around the ’20s (Tournier was born in 1924 and is still alive, composed almost entirely of tobacco and merlot) visited the Second World War when they reached middle age, and the works they produced are generally first rate, rich with mythic overtones. The Ogre is a magnificent example of this sub-set, a deceptively simple tale of a gigantic man-boy named Abel Tiffaugues who’s portrayed as something insightful and quasi-human – with an innocence ripe for warping by the Nazis. Tiffauges has a fascination with children and a reflexive (ironically invoked) desire to protect them, even from such rarefied dangers as literary condescension, as when he finds a co-worker reading Pinnochio:

 I picked it up and looked through it, shrinking in advance from the atrocities children’s stories are full of. As if children were dull brutes, dim and insensitive, who can be moved only be fearsome tales, real literary rotgut! Perrault, Lewis Carroll, Busch – sadists with nothing to learn from the divine Marquis.

Tournier’s sharp commentary is buried at varying depths everywhere in the novel, often cloaked in folkloric colors, as when the populace is warned by posters that would have looked natural nailed to trees in the Middle Ages:

 BEWARE THE OGRE OF KALTENBORN!

He is after your children. He roves through our country stealing children. If you have any, never forget the Ogre – he never forgets them! Don’t let them go out alone. Teach them to run away and hide if they see a giant on a blue horse with a pack of black hounds. If he comes to see you, don’t yield to his threats, don’t be taken in by his promises. All mothers should be guided by one certainty: if the Ogre takes your child, you will NEVER see him again!

Tiffauges for a long time is suborned into helping the Nazis (the scenes where he realizes his mistake are absolutely shattering, even in English), and he himself can be oddly, unconsciously brutal. But readers are never in any doubt who the real monster in these pages is:

“But why April 19?” asked Tiffauges.

The man looked at him incredulously.

“Don’t you know April 20 is our Fuehrer’s birthday? And every year the German people give him a whole generation of children as a birthday present!” He pointed proudly at the big colored photograph of Hitler scowling down from the wall behind him.

When Tiffauges took the road back again to Rominten the Master of the Hunt, with his shoots and trophies, his feasts of venison and his coprological and phallological science, had dwindled to the rank of a little, imaginary, picturesque ogre out of an old wives’ tale. He was eclipsed now by the other, the ogre of Rastenburg, who demanded of his subjects the exhaustive birthday present of five hundred thousand little girls and five hundred thousand little boys, ten years old, dressed for sacrifice, or in other words naked, out of whose flesh he kneaded his cannon fodder.

Despite its initial burst of popularity and acclaim, The Ogre hasn’t become quite the modern-day classic I’ve always thought it should be considered. Reprints of the Bray translation have been few and far between (there was a recent one I vaguely recall, but nothing in bookstores now), and the book is neither read nor taught today. That’s a shame; as a portrait of monsterhood in all its contradictions, it’s more honest and ultimately far more effective than something like The Kindly Ones from a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s time for a new translation and a bit of hoopla.

September 11th, 2011

Pope Patrick!

Our book today is Pope Patrick, a thoroughly delightful 1995 novel by ebullient former Catholic priest Peter de Rosa, and it tells the story of kindly Irish cardinal Father Brian O’Flynn, who, at the Papal conclave assembled to elect a new pontiff, is serenely convinced, as he puts it, that popes, like pineapples, don’t grow in Ireland. But he’s reckoned without the twisted politics of the Curia – some of his fellow cardinals like the fact that he’s a nonentity in their behind-the-scenes power struggles, and others imagine the ease with which he could be manipulated once he’s installed. When they finally do elect him pope, all parties expect the smooth continuation of business as usual. But when Patrick awakens after a heavy bit of pillar falls on his head, he’s not the same back-bencher he was before. Suddenly, the new Pope (without hesitation, he chooses the name Pope Patrick) is interested in change, in accountability – in bringing a simple sense of Christianity to a conclave that’s forgotten the very concept.

What follows from such a corny premise could have been a syrupy disaster, but in De Rosa’s hands, it’s a witty and ultimately winning meditation on virtually every aspect of being a Catholic in the modern era (the book’s era is slightly more modern than the mid-90s we all remember: in a prescient move, De Rosa invents a vast and quite militant Federation of Islamic Republics that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan). Pope Patrick is a kind and humble man, but he has very clear opinions on a whole range of subjects most popes treat with diplomatic silence, as in the extended and fantastic scene in which the new Pope draws the hard-line British Prime Minister Denise Weaver a hypothetical she finds quite startling:

“Would you indulge an old man in a bit of make-believe?”

She positively gushed. “Of course, Holiness.”

“Well, just suppose that from the sixteenth century, Ireland was the imperial power and Ireland had colonized England.”

Weave swallowed a grin. “It’s hard to imagine.”

“Try. Imagine Irish invaders closing all English churches  and hunting down clergy and laity like dogs. These brutal Irish refused to tolerate Protestants in Britain, even though they made up ninety-nine percent of the population. From Dublin, they sent over an Irish Cromwell, if anything so appalling can be imagined. This Paddy O’Cromwell put the English to the sword, forbade them to worship according to their consciences. The natives who survived were forced west to the mountains. It was Hell or Wales for them.”

“But -”

“Worse, my dear, imagine towns like Durham, ports like Southampton and Liverpool, being handed over to Irish traders. Whereas Protestants – Britons, that is – had once own all of England, by 1759, they owned but five percent of it, the least productive parts. Ah,” Patrick sighed, taking her hand as if in sympathy, “then came the Penal laws. Protestants excluded from government, the professions, the army and navy. No rights of inheritance. The British even had to pay ten percent of their incomes to the Catholic priest who might not even have a single parishioner.”

It was only her misplaced pledge of loyalty that kept Denise Weaver in the room.

“In the 1840s, a dreadful famine followed in Britain. Well, not exactly a famine. There was enough produce to feed twice the population, but the British could only grow potatoes on their little patches of land. Alas, the spuds were ruined by blight. Yet still the Irish invaders exported British grain and livestock to Ireland. Irish priests started promising starving Protestants bread and soup if only they become Catholics. British tenants were evicted by Irish landlords as soon as they failed to pay rent on what was really, you’ll recall, their own land. The Irish wanted to replace the British with cattle, which fitted the landscape better.”

By time time he’s reached the present day in his hypothetical, Weaver has stormed out of the room, calling him insane.

Naturally, it isn’t too long before Pope Patrick begins to feel “the long pain for which there is but one remedy: home” – and so he makes a tour of Ireland, and De Rosa’s prose becomes appropriately lyrical as Patrick remembers with freshened clarity his long-ago childhood:

In a moment of mountain magic, time’s broken tablets were mended. Long-closed doors sprang open; the cuckoo clocks of memory burst forth into song.

He who had never fathered a child was his own son. In the intricate corals of his brain this ghost-son saw peat fires red as cherries, the particular peculiar shapes of potatoes picked from the ridge. He heard again the roar of the old, white, almost human ass, counted the safety pins, her “medals,” on his mother’s apron, knew even the precise angles of them. Oh, Mother, Mother, you who put out saucers of milk for the hedgehogs and cracked nuts for squirrels and were so neat you peeled and eyed the seed potatoes before you let Father sow them.

The years, Lord, where have they all gone?

In this drowning recollective moment he saw forgotten faces, heard lost conversations, watched little, probably long-dead children, their pet names and surnames linked indivisibly like summer-and-winter, day-and-night, their features, even in hand-me-down clothes, as clear and detailed as when he saw them, sixty years before, laughing, riding bicycles or sneezing as they jumped on hay carts piled higher than a house. Suddenly, everything mortal seemed deathless and deserving.

Through most of his pontificate, Patrick enjoys the company of his dog Charley, and this not only leads to some of the book’s funniest moments but also to a quick exchange that is, quite predictably, my own personal favorite, when a bishop makes a theological point:

“I thought dogs had no souls, Holiness.”

“Maybe not like ours.” Under his breath: Maybe better.

De Rosa is an old showman, so Pope Patrick brims with plot-twists and humor, and there are scenes that will make all but the coldest atheist heart tremble with sympathy. This is grand, assured, and very sentimental writing, but precisely controlled. Readers familiar with the Papacy might detect some echoes of Pope Adrian VI in the story of Patrick’s outsider appeal (readers not so familiar are urged to read De Rosa’s book on the subject, Vicars of Christ, or watch this wonderful video review of it), but there are twists and turns aplenty here for readers of all convictions. My Catholic readers are urged to find a copy right away – not only will you laugh like you haven’t since the last time you read J. F. Powers, but you’ll also think a great deal about things you might have previously taken for granted. My non-Catholic readers will dawdle along behind as is their wont, but they should read it too. This is joyous stuff.

 

August 17th, 2011

The Pigeon!

Our book today is the 1987 novella The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind, better known to the reading world as the author of Perfume. Unlike Perfume, Pigeon is only a novella in length, and it has no riveting villain, no action, and no real plot to speak of. Instead, it’s a deft little scenario, and the English translation by John E. Woods will work its way into your mind and stay there for a while.

The scenario is simple. Jonathan Noel is a timid, mindless middle-aged bank guard who’s been living in the same eleven-by-seven-foot room in a lodging house for years. The room has no bath, no stove, only one window, but he loves it, loves the rote security of it, has almost managed to save up enough money to buy it outright from his landlady. His days are completely circumscribed – he goes to work, he comes back to his room, where he can mutedly revel in his ability to shut out the rest of the world. He has no friends, no social life, no hobbies or activities – but he has the security of his little room, and as anybody who’s ever been briefly homeless can tell you, that sometimes means a great deal, as Jonathan reflects while watching a homeless man defecate in public:

What could be more demeaning than those pulled-down trousers, that crouch, that coerced ugly nakedness? What could be more wretched and humbling than being forced to do your embarrassing business before the eyes of the world? Nature’s necessity! The very term betrayed its tormented victim. And like anything that you had to do out of duress, it demanded, for it to be at all bearable, the radical absence of other people … or at least the appearance of absence: a wood if you found yourself in the country; a bush if you were overcome in an open field, or at least a farmer’s furrow, or twilight or, if there was nothing else, a good steep bank that commanded a view of several miles in all directions, with no one in sight. And in the city? With its teeming masses? Where it was never really dark? Where even the ruins of an abandoned lot offered no adequate  safeguard against obtrusive stares? In the city, nothing but a good lock and bolt helped you distance yourself from other people. And the man who did not have this one, this sure refuge for the necessity of nature, was the most miserable and pitiable of men, and freedom just silly talk.

The monotony of this routine is disrupted one morning when Jonathan opens his door, steps out into the hallway, and encounters a pigeon that has somehow managed to make its way into the building. The perfectly controlled way Suskind brings us inside Jonathan’s visceral horror at such a thing is the showpiece of this novella:

It had laid its head to one side and was glaring at Jonathan with its left eye. This eye, a small, circular disc, brown with a black centre, was dreadful to behold. It was like a button sewn on to the feathers of the head, lashless, browless, quite naked, turned quite shamelessly to the world and monstrously open; at the same time, however, there was something guarded and devious in that eye; and yet likewise it seemed to be neither open nor guarded, but rather quite simply lifeless, like the lens of a camera that swallows all external light and allows nothing to shine back out of its interior. No lustre, no shimmer lay in that eye, not a sparkle of anything alive. It was an eye without sigh. And it glared at Jonathan.

Jonathan retreats into his room and covers himself with a blanket, quivering in terror. Even when he eventually summons the courage to open the door again and finds the pigeon gone, he can’t stand the thought of living in the building one more minute. He packs a bag and takes a room in a hotel across town, and only through the most strenuous and convoluted internal twistings can he force himself to return one day to his building and mount the stairs to his hallway, dreading the whole time that when he reaches the landing he’ll see that dreadful little bird again.

He reaches his hallway. The pigeon is gone. The carpet has been cleaned, the window through which the bird entered has been locked shut. Jonathan re-enters his beloved room, having survived the crisis.

That’s the whole book, but modern-day fables don’t require much in the way of either elaboration or page-length. Suskind has crafted a canny look at the silliness of panic and the anatomy of inconsequence, and he’s presented it stripped of almost all artifice. The reader is given no lectures, no arias of digression, and no answers. The language is as precise as the lines of Jonathan’s life, and the carefully modulated histrionics are merrily out of proportion to the triviality on every page. The combination is oddly mesmerizing.