Where has she been, what has she been doing? Perhaps there are people out there who wonder these things. For better or worse, their possible existence is not why I have ever really written this blog, so I am allowed to reappear without really caring whether anyone else does. But amid a fair amount of “nothing,” I have indeed been reading, and there are far too many things that have gone un-written this year. I need to catch up, lamely as will inevitably be the case with things read without a post always in the back of mind. I’ll use the holiday week for some light catch-up work before getting to “the good stuff,” and the holiday itself for the lightest of the light.
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott. This is one of those books that make me want to warn people: it’s not really a novel. It’s fiction, it tells a story, but we must not forget the idea of “romances” and other pre-novelistic fictions when we pick up a book like Ivanhoe. Of course, in a sense it is very important as a novel: an early historical one. But it’s so historical that all the chivalry and quasi-mythical or -archetypal figures make it something a little different. Read it, read it by all means. It’s extremely engrossing.
Rebecca and Rowena, by W.M. Thackeray. Read this, absolutely, but only after Ivanhoe. Well, I suppose you could read it as a standalone, and it would still be biting and funny, but it really is better paired. For the record: Thackeray is totally right about Rebecca and Rowena.
Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa. Ogawa’s “eleven dark tales” are pure Ogawa and very good. If you know her from The Housekeeper and the Professor, read me on The Diving Pool for a
Continue reading Everything and nothing
Last week, Sam Sacks wrote in The New Yorker on criticizing the classics and how the canon is selected in today’s world. Contrasting the current, primarily American, state of the canon with that of the past, when the gatekeepers of the ivory tower and the salon determined not just which books were classics but the very definition of the concept, he argues that the classics are now determined by democratic and pragmatic tastes:
What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.
I hardly consider myself a literary critic, so it’s hardly surprising I wouldn’t feel the same kind of “freedom” or “exhilarat[ion]” Sacks attributes to today’s critics, who can have at many of these classics, spitting into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates) because, as it turns out, much of the Grand Canyon isn’t all that grand.* Still, I spend, I
Continue reading Cannon fodder: food for thought
As others are haunted about not reading enough women,or enough YA, or enough world literature, I frequently torture myself over how little I read that is not prose (among many, many other things, of course). It’s bad enough the way I read fiction at the expense of nonfiction, the share of the universe of excellent essays and criticism I neglect, but the amount of space in my reading life accorded to poetry and, especially, drama, is pretty pathetic.
I’ve gotten somewhat better in the poetry side of things, and on the nonfiction side as well, though these are both things I find difficult to blog about so you often miss them here. It’s something I’d like to rectify. But to even things out in the drama department (and initially inspired, truth be told, by a Netflix marathon of Kenneth Branagh on recent weekend, along with other similar influences), I recently decided I would finally get around to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (and finally Ocford Word’s Classics has editions that are actually attractive)–in my own sweet time, of course–as well as get into some Jacobean drama.
The most notable experience of reading the play was noticing how very many lines have become common references or clichés. It’s not just “mine eyes dazzle!”; I basically felt like I knew somewhere between a third and half the play. This is not to denigrate reading it in any way–quite the opposite. It was an enlightening experience, as well as entertaining.
The funny thing is, just as with poetry, and with short stories if I’ve stayed away from them a long time, I was also quickly noticing how much I enjoy reading in the form and wondering why I don’t do more of it. I’ll get to Shakespeare separately, as King
Continue reading Bring on the drama
…of the blogging variety, that is.
If you don’t follow me on Twitter or keep up with BookRiot, you may have thought my long-dormant blog meant I wasn’t writing anything at all. Several weeks ago I began a series on the site, “Read This Then That,” pairing contemporary novels with classics. The match-ups so far:
What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. These two have been frequently compared, and when I re-read the Greene, Beha’s novel seemed even better than it already had in comparison. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. How a children’s book can lead to massive quarter-life crisis—and what that says about children’s classics and those who cling to them. Billy Lynn’s Long Haltime Walk by Ben Fountain and Israel Potter by Herman Melville. I suppose I should be impressed with myself that I didn’t head for Melville until the third edition in the series, but of course I had to go for one of his strangest and least-known works. I still think the comparison is an apt and original one. Boleto by Alyson Hagy and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Two stories of a boy and his horse—and as superficial as that sounds, they really do have a lot in common. Old Filth (and The Man with the Wooden Hat) by Jane Gardam and Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling. My current Raj orphan obsession was fertile material for this series, with the phenomenon lasting as it did over a period of generations, and now being reexamined in a postcolonial light. Still, the fit of Gardam’s Filth books with early Kipling is almost uncanny. Glaciers by Alexis Smith and
Continue reading Stocking stuffers
I’ve reached the end of the year, and I’ve been so shamefully bad about blogging for the past several months that, as a punishment to myself (not to you!), I will not be doing the usual year-end round of bibliographing charts. Perhaps they will be a birthday present to myself in a couple months.
For now, instead, I will devote the end of the year to two things: a list (as part of the same punishment), and several posts on some of the best things I’ve been reading recently: the works of Jane Gardam.
Today, the list. These are, subjectively and somewhat arbitrarily, the 10 best things I read this year, in no particular order.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. Several years late reading this one, but it was well worth it (and thanks to Richard for another excellent readalong experience). Roberto Bolaño, where have you been all my life? Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Before reading Fellow-Townsmen, a pleasant little novella, earlier this year, my only previous experience with Hardy had been Tess of the d’Urbervilles, mere mention of which is still enough to raise my blood pressure over a decade after reading it. But Far from the Madding Crowd gave me the heart to give Hardy another go, which he seems to mostly deserve. Adam Bede by George Eliot. Middlemarch may be the “better” book, but again, Adam Bede was a heart-opener of sorts. In this case I had had fond memories of Eliot’s masterwork, but beginning with her first novel helped pave the way for a deeper understanding of Middlemarch when I re-read it a few weeks later. And it’s an excellent story in its own right. What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. Someone said not long ago on Twitter
Continue reading Two lists, before 2012 can go unjudged
Earlier this week, BookRiot posted my first official contribution to their site, an examination of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and its relation to Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Please check it out if you haven’t and let me know what you think! There will be more to come every couple weeks—and on my quest to pair classics with contemporary literature, I’ll surely need some really excellent contemporary literature recommendations.
Don’t worry, bibliographing will not suffer. At least not more than it already has! I’ve got some good stuff coming your way now that I’ve broken out of Pastors and Masters a bit, and I’m still looking to do an Ivy Compton-Burnett group read at some point in the next few months.
I’ve been struggling all day with “Zapatos.” I find it very difficult to write about short stories—which frustrates me even more because I really like the form. But I will not capitulate; I will do my work. (I swear, I will give up on the work jokes soon.)
T.C. Boyle opens the story with the enigmatic sentence, “There is, essentially, one city in our country.” The country is never specified explicitly, but it’s pretty clearly Chile.
The point about this country, regardless, is that the people there really like to wear Italian leather shoes. “Oh, you can get by with a pair of domestically made pumps or cordovans of the supplest sheepskin, or even, in the languid days of summer, with huaraches or Chinese slippers made of silk or even nylon,” the narrator admits. “But the truth is, what everyone wants—for the status, the cachet, the charm and refinement—are the Italian loafers and ankle boots, hand-stitched and wtih a grain as soft and rich as, well—is this the place to talk of the private parts of girls still in school?” Let me just take a moment to say, I want these shoes.
Anyway, the narrator’s uncle sells them, or tries to. The margins are not good—imported shoes are heavily taxed, along with most other imported consumer goods. People are always walking by the uncle’s shoe store in their fine Italian footwear that he knows fell off the back of a truck, or whatever happens in China (we do find out). And he is determined to compete.
So we learn that the country has two free ports, where you can buy things duty-free—but to get them back into the city, you have to pay duty, “the same stultifying duty merchants like Uncle Dagoberto were obliged to pay.”
And why then
Continue reading “Zapatos” by T.C. Boyle
I just wanted to give a quick thank you to anyone who voted for me in BookRiot‘s START HERE write-in contest. Thanks to you, Melville will be assured an entry in the book they’re developing!
If, that is, they manage to raise the rest of the funding to produce it. There are only five days left to reach the Kickstarter target and fully fund the project. If you like the the project, do consider helping to make it happen—because if you don’t, it might not. The prizes are pretty cool, too.
Thanks again to all who voted. If my post impressed that many people, I’m hoping it might also help someone get started loving Melville!
This is a post I’ve put off writing for weeks, because I haven’t been able to organize my thoughts or do the research I would like to do. On top of that, I’ve been thwarted by lost files twice just tonight! But I will persevere with my “bleg,” because it’s the only way I think I can get this thing off the ground—with help from my very wise and well-read readers.
Oldtimers may recall that the second-ever bibliographing project was on maritime literature, which is still a great interest to me. And a lot of maritime literature concerns work—as Tom discusses in his post on Kipling’s Captains Courageous (which I must now read), “Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.” It makes sense, after all: a novel set on shipboard, with most of the characters as crewmembers, is bound to involve work, since that is, in fact, what they’re doing all the time—salting fish, furling sails, “the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.”
Meanwhile, I have found work to be one of the more profoundly unsatisfying aspects of most contemporary fiction I read. Here is where I am frustrated with myself and hesitant to go forward: I don’t want to be trying to prove out a hypothesis, but exploring the fiction of work. But I do have a hypothesis, and I’ll come clean. I suspect, on very little evidence of course (since the project has not really started!), that the professionalization of writing (especially of novel-writing) has diluted the presence of work in fiction, and what’s more, has denuded it of its variety. To some extent, this is a variant on the
Continue reading A call: help me with the beginnings of a new project!
On Friday, when I first read Jacob Silverman’s column in Slate decrying niceness in the online literary community, I was excited to see the reaction on Twitter seemed mostly in favor of his point. When I found out the column was based on an earlier blog post that was written partially as a reaction to Molly Fischer’s second n+1 piece on ladyblogs—I piece I loved almost more than her original story on ladyblogs, by the way.
Early Saturday I was further encouraged to see Ron Charles’s response in the Washington Post (sorry, I too missed his earlier lament about dullness in online reviewing). But then I started to see the counterreaction.
First, I read Emma Straub’s response, which wasn’t objectionable at all, but struck me as curious. I could see writing a response because she was mentioned by name in Silverman’s original column, but nothing he wrote was any kind of attack on her; she was simply a good example of an author with a sizeable Twitter following whose first book isn’t even out yet—something very relevant, because part of his point is about positive comments around books that the commenters can’t possibly have read. That is to say, Silverman’s point doesn’t really have anything to do with what Straub has done or will do—she’s promoting her new book, after all, and social media marketing is a perfectly legitimate part of that—but about how other people in the online literary community react to that promotion.
Meanwhile, Helen DeWitt writes in a comment at The Millions that she doesn’t “feel good about” reviewing a book she thinks is “terrible” by “slash[ing] and burn[ing].” First-time authors may be bullied by editors and agents into making changes they disagree with artistically, and if DeWitt just
Continue reading Sunday Salon: On killing with kindness