It's abstractly depressing when you hear the statistics of independent bookstores closing in droves; it's concretely depressing to see favorite bookstores in your town get the axe. First Dutton's of Beverly Hills was forced to shut down; now the news is that the original Dutton's will be remodeled out of existence. The LA Times reports that the landlord, Charles T. Munger, wants to build luxury condos. Apparently, Munger's $1.7 billion net worth isn't enough - he also needs some extra pocket change from rent. The claim is that the condos will be built atop a sleek, modern bookstore, but I have my doubts. One, that a sleek modern bookstore can ever replace the idiosyncratic layout of Dutton's, and two, that once Munger starts remodeling, the plans will change to either eliminate Duttons completely or give it only a token space.
William T. Vollmann and the Principles of Review
I did not appreciate William T. Vollmann’s review of Anthony Swofford's Exit A in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. It's not that I believe he was wrong about the strengths of Swofford's first book, Jarhead, or even that he was wrong about the weaknesses of Swofford's first novel Exit A. It's because I found the tone of the review to be excessively harsh for a first novel. In my Manual of Book Reviewing Principles (yes, I just made that up), I think it's necessary to reserve different level of harshness for authors in various stages of their careers. For a literary great, if a no-holds-barred takedown is necessary, then so be it. The same goes for a mid-career author, perhaps with employing a pinch more carefulness. But a first time novelist (Jarhead was nonfiction) should be handled with kid gloves. Of course there are flaws in the novel, and Vollmann does the reader a service by pointing out how serious they are, but few first novelists come out of the gate at a sprint (If they do, they are often feted for it). More often, it does take a few novels, as Vollmann points out at the end of the article, to achieve a measure of literary competence, much less greatness.
Now I don't mean that a review of Swofford should be saccharine or cloyingly nice or even avoid saying harsh things. I appreciate a bad review because it tells me not to buy the book (as well as performing the pedagogical task of judging and analyzing types of literary flaws). And since Vollmann obviously didn't like Exit A, I don't mean that he should write empty praises. But his review, through and through, is ruthlessly demeaning (other than the compliments he pays to Jarhead). It's a scarring, eviscerating, decapitation. I think there is some way to express a strong dislike for a novel without a employing such a harsh tone. Ultimately, it's not the content of his complaints that bothers me as much as the dismissive tone in which it is conveyed.
I do appreciate the match-up: Well-established author reviewing beginning author. What I appreciate less is the obverse: beginning author reviewing established author. But both of these unequal match-ups can have their flaws. For the beginning author who is reviewing an established author, the danger is that the beginner critiques the wrong things, misses the point. For the well-established author reviewing the beginning author, the danger is that the review comes from such a high place (with a retrousse nose) that the review feels dismissive.
Vollmann says he "hate[s] to write reviews like this." I believe him. I believe that he was compelled by the poor execution of the prose and the flat characters to deliver a verdict that characterizes the novel as poor quality. But the way and extent to which he did it made first time novelists everywhere cringe over their computers.
Most literary journals say they're going to get back to you within 4 months. Some give themselves a little bigger of a window - 4 to 6 months, they say, with that six looming pretty ominously (half a year! What?) Now I know that literary journals are understaffed, underpaid, and near drowning in beige manila envelopes, and on the whole, in a platonic ideal sense, I pay them a great deal of respect. They are holding up the small people, the beginners, the short story world, and that deserves our admiration. Some of the journals, though, do far better in responding promptly than others. For instance, what prompted this post was receiving a rejection slip from Zoetrope - the journal started by Francis Ford Coppola - a high level journal, well respected. I received it yesterday, January 9th. Only trouble is, I sent the short story to them January 5th. That's right, 2006. So they're coming in with a reply at just a couple days over a year. I had emailed them twice during the year, both times at which they told me my story had been logged into the system on March 3rd (two months just to get logged in?) and that the editors were experiencing a backlog. A backlog might be the right term for an eight-month delay. When you take over a year to reply, that's more like an impasse.
You would expect a journal like Zoetrope - one so exquisitely funded, I mean - to be more prompt. Or if they weren't being prompt, to hire more editors. But what I've been observing is that size, reputation, and financial backing have nothing to do with expediency in the journal world. I'll have a tiny journal like Apple Valley Review reject my short shorts in less than a week, while a heavy hitter like Columbia Journal still hasn't responded to a story I mailed out in January 2006 (and neither have they responded to email queries, and my last short story I sent them took a year and a half to receive a reply). On the other hand, Glimmer Train is practically a model for speed. Zyzzyva is another one that has been prompt, and as a plus, Howard Junker's rejection slip is the nicest I've ever read. Kenyon Review and One-Story have both been pretty quick. I've had multiple relative die while waiting to hear back from The Chattahoochee Review (and still have an outstanding story. . .) and Notre Dame Review clocked in at a snail pace of 8 months and 9 months for two separate submissions.
I am aware of all the variables that are at play (and that's why I'm not writing about any journals that I've only sent to once). There's the time of year, there is the quality of my submission (which may take longer if they are considering it), and there is the staffing snafus that leave a journal shorthanded. But the length of time to receive a reply makes barring simultaneous submissions quite a joke, and ultimately, anything over eight months makes me extremely reluctant to send any more submissions.
Labels: Literary Journals
Return of the Fox
I'm back from my Belizean honeymoon all fired up for 2007. Whoopee! That's what scuba diving in the carribean and cave tubing will do for you. Now I promised a report on the reading going on down there in Central America, and I always make good on my promises, so here: I reread Richard Ford's Rock Springs (Great short stories set in Montana) started John Banville's The Sea, and got most of the way through Mrs. BookFox's selection, Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. On that last title, I can't remember a time when a non-fiction book threatened my lifestyle so much. I can't eat now. In every little morsel I see Corn: corn starch, corn syrup, and chemicals-I-can't-pronounce-made-from-corn. And even with my organic food, I think (derisively) "this is only commercial organic." Although I couldn't imagine a better book to inform you of all the ways your food is killing you, I can't help but feel sorry for anyone who reads it, simply because they're in for a whole helping of lifestyle-change. And if I thought Mrs. BookFox was picky about restaurants before . . .
One of my readers asked me to report on how the bookstores were down in Belize, so I will. I didn't see any. The only collections of books I found were ones at Hostels and Internet Cafe's and Travel Agents, available on a book-swap basis, and these collections consisted of a heaping mess of irksome pop trash with the occasional tolerable title. Luckily for me, I happened upon quite a good book - a nice hardback of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, not only a relatively new title but one that won the 2006 Man Booker prize. I pilfered a loose copy of some James Patterson paperback in my hotel room and traded it for the Desai copy - now that's a great trade.
Tomorrow I will double my teampower by marrying a wonderful woman who shall be dubbed Mrs. BookFox (at least online). So please enjoy some of the other book blogs in the blogosphere as I take a honeymoon until January 8th. Best wishes from Belize, where doubtless I will have at least some time on the beach to read, and once I'm back maybe I'll even give a report on what tomes Mrs. BookFox is reading.
What is the Timing?
Francine Prose gives a very favorable review to Dave Egger's latest novel/memoir What is the What in the Dec. 24th edition of the New York Times Book Review. Unfortunately, Egger's book was released Oct. 25, two months ago. I know they were coordinating it with the podcast interview of Eggers, but isn't two months a bit large of a gap, especially when they're getting review copies? Editor Tanenhaus' taste is quite good, but the timing is kinked.
(Click on the Dave Eggers tag below to read my account of the Los Angeles talk)
Upcoming Books for 2007!
Not to get too much of a head start on things, but before the Christmas rush I wanted to make a list of books coming out next year.
Anthony Swofford: Exit A [January 9, 2007]. Swofford, author of the memoir Jarhead, turns to fiction in Exit A.
Martin Amis: House of Meeting. [January 15, 2007] For this Gulag-centric book, Publisher's Weekly gave a negative blurb, saying it was "disappointing", filled with "trite cliches" and that his "trademark riffs are all too muffled in his obvious research," while the Guardian review is much kinder.
Norman Mailer: The Castle in the Forest [January 23, 2007]. First novel in a decade.
Chris Abani: The Virgin of Flames. [January 30, 2007] If you don't know this writer, you should. Scroll a few posts down to see what I said about him after going to one of his readings.
Milan Kundera: The Curtain [January 30, 2007]. This is the third part of a non-fiction trilogy on books and reading, containing seven essays, and I've been waiting for it ever since the first of the series, The Art of the Novel. Expect Kundera's trenchant insights into the form and state of the novel - these treaties should be categorized up with Mikhail Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination for their ability to categorize and describe the genre.
Jonathan Lethem: You Don't Love Me Yet. [March 07] The Random House blurb makes it sound completely over the top and hilarious. Characters working at a masturbation boutique called "No Shame"? Someone else who steals a kangaroo from the zoo to "save it from ennui?' And it all centers around two characters who fall in love over the phone, one working at a complaint line, the other who calls and complains. How could we resist?
Anne Lamott: Grace. [March 07] Who doesn't like Anne Lamott? Honestly, her how-to-write book Bird by Bird is not only practical, it's knee-slappingly funny. Every semester I teach the chapter "Shitty First Drafts" and every semester students laugh and identify. And it's also refreshing to see her new religious reflections, as this book Grace is the third book in her Thoughts on Faith series (including Traveling Mercies and Plan B)
Jim Crace: The Pesthouse. [May 07] Love, love, love Jim Crace. Quarentine was my first introduction, and all his others have not disappointed. I'll also mention The Devil's Larder, simply because it was such an uncategorizable book, a book that his publisher and editor must not have liked the sound of (what? a book all about food with each story from 500 to 1000 words? How will we market it?), and therefore a book that I think he was brave to write, as well as a book that's very entertaining. Here's the first chapter excerpt for The Pesthouse and here's a short summary in Crace's words: "It's set in America's medieval future and is an inquiry into my - and the world's - love-hate relationship with the United States . . . the first line of the book was going to be 'This used to be America'."
Chuck Palahniuk: Rant. [May 07] Okay, other than the fact that the title seems rather suitable for a Palahniuk novel, as much of his prose resembles a rant, I have to admit that the only novel I've really liked from him was Fight Club. There, I've said it. And no, sorry, even with all the inventive sexuality of Choke it wasn't entertaining apart from that sexuality, and I didn't buy the basis premise of Lullaby that an African culling song can kill people. But I'm putting Rant up here because deep down I somehow like Chuck, maybe because he's hyper-masculine, probably because anyone who writes three novels while working as a mechanic before finally getting one published has a lot of pathos going for him. Here's the gist of the book: "Rant takes the form of a (fictional) oral history of Buster "Rant" [who] becomes the leader of an urban demolition derby called Party Crashing, where on designated nights, the participants recognize each other by dressing their cars with tin-can tails, "Just Married" toothpaste graffiti, and other refuse, then look for designated markings in order to stalk and crash into each other. It's in this violent, late-night hunting game that Casey meets three friends. And after his spectacular death, these friends gather the testimony needed to build an oral history of his short life. Their collected anecdotes explore the charges that his saliva infected hundreds and caused a silent, urban plague of rabies...." Definitely working on the same level of violence as Fight Club, only instead of bodies we have cars. Oh, and plus Rabies.
Don DeLillo: Falling Man. [June 07] Other than 288 pages and the ISBN, I don't know a thing.
Annie Dillard: The Maytrees. [June 07] No, all of you who just sucked in a breath hoping for a non-fiction collection, this one is fiction. I know, I really wanted a non-fiction collection too, ever since I read a superb new essay by her in Harper's a few years ago, post "For the Time Being", which gave me hope that a new non-fiction collection was in the works, but alas, not in 07. And not that her fiction is terrible, it's just that her essays are world-class. It was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that made me want to become a writer (I have such a beautiful 1st edition - one of my most valued books), but I reckon you can only go Thoreau when you're young, without responsibilities, and as you grow older you it's easier to make fictional adventures rather than take them yourself.
- Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture.
- Conversational Reading's Epiphany on how Walker Percy's The Moviegoer critiques space (or the lack of a defined, unique space).
- Syntax of Things makes a list of Underrated Writers.
- Lastly, Pinky's Paperhaus comments on After the MFA's post about whether MFAs should take Lit Crit Class.
On that last link . . .
My opinion is that reading books and critiquing them is good (big news flash, eh?) but that Lit Crit, as performed by an English PHD, is very different than reading and critiquing as a writer. PHD programs are so inundated by critical theory nowadays that they very rarely read as writers - that is, they don't read for the things that the author intends to put inside the book, and there is less and less overlap between authorial intention and critical commentary.
After going through a MA program with a heavy dose of literary theory at New York University (but what program doesn't rely heavily on literary theory for literary criticism?) and then transferring to an MFA at USC, I realized that the two ways of speaking were completely different. In essence, I had to re-learn how to use language (I nearly said utilize instead of use - that would be Theory-speak). I also had to re-tool how I read, and start to read as a writer looking to glean technique rather than a critic looking to trampoline off the original text and create a new one that deconstructs the original.
So it's really impossible to talk about Lit Crit nowadays without referencing and dealing with Literary Theory. And since literary theory is so much a part of Lit Crit, a writer is much better off sticking to an MFA rather than a PHD. A writer is also better off not doing Lit Crit classes in an MFA, unless the workshop is run by a writer rather than an academic (English PHD).
More bad news: in recognizing the "blogosphere", Tanenhaus disparages us (yet again, yet again) as sloppy writers. I insist to the New York Times Book Review staff that the best bloggers out here (and I volunteer to be on the team) can at least hold our own, and could possibly kick the Book Review's ass in a grammar/style face-off. I hereby offer a challenge.SMACKDOWN!!!
Bloggers VS Tanenhaus and the NYTBR.
In a pay-per-view match, a tag-team from the blogosphere will take on the fearsome establishment of the New York Times Book Review. See Ed, Max and Mark perform syntactical judo moves with arm twists of grammatical rules on Sam and Rachel.
This asskicking will be dirty.
Chris Abani Reads at the Good Luck Bar in L.A.
Went to see Chris Abani read at the Rhapsodamancy Reading Series last night. I had seen him twice at the UCLA/LA Times book fair last year, and was impressed by the way he spoke - with gravity, authority, and insight into the way that literature works.
What I knew about him before the Rhapsodamancy reading was that he wrote a prodigious amount of words on a daily basis, that he was hired as an associate professor at University of California Riverside before he even graduated from USC with his PHD in creative writing, that he came from Nigeria and wrote poetry as well as fiction, and that his work often contained Catholic elements.
What I quickly learned during the reading was that he played the saxophone, that the saxophone's name was Janice, and that he could make a song called "Iraqi boy" sound soulful.
Aside from his musical talents, we all got to hear several of his poems, as well as a selection from The Virgin of Flames, his novel which comes out in January 2007 from Penguin. The Virgin of Flames displays Abani's encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles, especially downtown, as the main character "Black" is taken on a quest around the city by the angel Gabriel, who appears as a pigeon. It's a search for identity for Black, who is a muralist living in East L.A., and somehow this identity will be found through a transvestite stripper and the Virgin Mary who keeps on appearing. Strange sounding, I know, but Abani's got the prose to pull it off.
Mix Tape #6: The Death of 2006
While everyone else is busy making lists of Best Books of 2006, I thought I'd respond a little differently and make a literary mix tape of selections from a few of my favorites, all united around the theme of death. Why death? Because I'm morbid.
When I was five years old I tried to kill my sister. All day long I tried to kill her. In the morning I put mothballs in her cereal, but our mother woke up and threw them away, not because she smelled the naphthalene, but because she thought cereal was for trailer park kids, and on the days when she couldn't get out of bed in time - a century's weight of ghosts kept her sleeping or staring at the ceiling in her darkened room until noon many days - she would make us fancy omelets.
I took my sister for a walk and tried to sacrifice her on a stone picnic table in the Severna Forest Coliseum. I knew the story of Isaac. I knew the whole of the Old Testament by then. I raised a smooth stone as big as my fist and prepared to knock a hole in her skull. I waited too long, imagining the blood on the stone and the clump of her hair matted to it. A troop of Brownies came rustling through the tall grass - the coliseum was built by a wealthy Baptist with a passion for Greek tragedy and outdoor theater, but once he moved away it was let to fall into disrepair - and Jemma leaped off the table and ran to dance with them around one of the decaying plaster statues.
I tried to drown her in the tub. Our mother was throwing a party for the elites of our neighborhood, which is to say for everybody, since everyone who lived there was odiously rich, the cat-food magnate having established a tradition of exclusivity in this heavily wooded peninsula on the Severn. She sent us together to the tub, and I washed my sister's hair, just as I had been taught to do, and then when she ducked under the water to rinse I held her there. I had never been taught to drown a person, but I knew just what to do. My hands felt old and wise as she struggled under them. I am sending you to Jesus, I told her. But I remember the moment perfectly, and I knew I was not trying to kill her because I thought it would make her happy.
Chris Adrian, The Children's Hospital
They began to come upon from time to time small cairns of rock by the roadside. They were signs in gypsy language, lost patterans. The first he'd seen in some while, common in the north, leading out of the looted and exhausted cities, hopeless messages to loved ones lost and dead. By then all stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell. The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes. Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Because last week when I'd called my old friend Juliette and said I was coming to the city to see Nana, she said sure I could stay at her place and naturally I assumed I'd be hanging out there a bit when I got in from the airport and we'd catch up and so on. But when I arrived, some guy, Juliette's newish boyfriend, evidently - Wendell, I think his name might be - whom she'd sort of mentioned on the phone, turned out to be there, too. Sure, let's just kill them, why not just kill them all, he was shouting. Juliette was peeling an orange. I'm not saying kill extra people, she said. I'm just frightened; there are a lot of crazy angry maniacs out there who want to kill us, and I'm frightened. You're frightened, he yelled. No one else in the world is frightened? Juliette raised her eyebrows at me and shrugged. The orange smelled fantastic. I was completely dehydrated from the flight because they hardly even bring you water anymore, thought when I was little it was all so fun and special, with the pretty stewardesses and trays of little wrapped things, and I was just dying to tear open Juliette's fridge and see if there was another orange in there, but Wendell, if that's what his name is, was standing right in front of it shouting, What are you saying? Are you saying we should kill everyone in the world to make sure there are no angry people left who want to hurt anyone? So I waited a few minutes for him to finish up with what he wanted to get across and he didn't (and no one had ever gotten anything across to Juliette) and I just dropped that idea about the orange and said see you later and tossed my stuff under the kitchen table and plunged into the subway. When Juliette and I were at art school together, all her boyfriends had been a lot of fun, but that was five or six years ago.
Deborah Eisenberg, Revenge of the Dinosaurs, Twilight of the Superheroes
Told You So
As I suspected back in October from the vitriolic reviews by Marilynne Robinson and Terry Eagleton, Richard Dawkin's God Delusion is the most overrated book of the year. Here's the list of the other overrated and underrated books (hat tip to Ed)
Addendum: Rake's Progress on Murakami's political involvement
I-keep-finding-great-stuff Addendum: Foer (as in Jonathan Safran fame) World Domination coming soon.
Labels: Richard Dawkins
Dave Eggers reading "What is the What"
Dave Eggers has a strong streak of social consciousness, as can be seen through his 826 Valencia writing program for kids, the content of You Shall Know Our Velocity, where the character travels the globe looking to give people money, and in the 2005 book Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, a book of interviews with people saved from the death penalty. The topic of his new book, What is the What, doesn't swerve from this socially conscious path. It's a novelized biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the Darfur genocide, who is part of a group of children known as the Lost Boys because they walked for months trying to escape to Ethiopia. In another example of Egger's social activism, all the proceeds from the sale of What is the What are going to Deng, who has a set up a foundation to use the money to educate the Sudanese.
When I went to the Hammer Museum reading with Eggers in LA last night, I expected an interview with Eggers, but it turned out Eggers was interviewing Deng. The talk was modeled after the three years Eggers had spent interviewing Deng, amassing all the information needed for the book, and seemed to have two purposes: First, to promote What is the What, of course, but secondly, and more importantly, to raise awareness for the genocide continuing in Darfur. Eggers perpetual hand-wringing did not interfere with either of those purposes, although it did make me wonder whether his fingers and palms would start bleeding by the end of the hour long talk.
The novel/memoir follows Deng as he flees Sudan, joins with other boys, escapes lions, heat, starvation, and persecutors, finally escapes the country, spends ten years at a refugee camp in Kenya, and then is resettled in the US just after 9/11, where he endured beatings for being Sudanese (Osama Bin Laden spent a number of years based in Sudan). As Eggers was reading passages, I found his prose was much more minimalist than his other books, very straight-forward and spare, probably trying to match Deng's natural voice.
In the discussion with Eggers, Deng's religious bent also came through as he thanked God for his transfer to the U.S., talked about forgiving those who had tied him up with a phone cord and robbed him, and said that all things work together for a reason. His specific faith orientation was never mentioned, but when I read the book I'm curious to see how much of his spirituality made it in.
A note on Egger's genre straddling: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a memoir, yes, but with fictional elements. And What is the What is a biography, but it has been novelized, which means Deng and Eggers recreated all the conversations that Deng couldn't possibly remember. Publisher's weekly calls it a "fictionalized memoir" while Booklist says it's "mostly true." In bookstores it's being categorized as a novel, but its marketing strategy is highlighting the real-life basis. In fact, Wikipedia has a colon after What is the What with the addition, "An autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng." What's ironic is that a common technique in creative non-fiction is to re-create plausible dialogue, and those books still are categorized as non-fiction. In fact, what memoir doesn't have re-created dialogue? Unless entire scenes or characters are created, I would think it would still fall in the non-fiction camp. In fact, I would guess that especially in pre-James Frey days, many creative non-fiction books took more license that Eggers takes. But in the aftermath of Frey, we now categorize the book as fiction while selling it to readers by assuring them it's all true.
The Loudest Voice with Glen David Gold
My good friend Bryan Hurt organized the second Loudest Voice reading at the Mountain Bar in Los Angeles last night. We packed out the second story, despite the sweltering conditions (management refused to turn down the heater) and a bouncer who continued to harass everyone even after they'd been carded. Cody Todd read a number of excellent poems, one of them Pushcart nominated; Katherine Karlin, a Pushcart winner, read a short story inspired by one of the poems read at the last Loudest Voice; and Andrew Allport crooned some tunes.
The highlight of the Evening was Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil, who read from his new, as-yet-unnamed novel. He said it had been "kicking his ass for the last six years", and read us the first chapter, which included a lighthouse-manning mother who wished for a disaster to relieve the monotony, her son as a rebellious idealist, and the sighting of a man in a sinking craft at sea who appears to resemble Charlie Chaplin. Afterwards, Gold said that because of the editing process and the period before printing, the novel won't be out for another two years, give or take six months, which is too bad because we all can't wait.
Wendell Berry's New Book
The irony of writing about Wendell Berry on a computer, especially for a blog, doesn't escape me. Since Berry refuses to own a computer, and has widely (and trenchantly) written about the negative repercussions of technology, there is almost a note of friction simply by covering him in such a technological medium. Nonetheless, it's time to talk about him because he just released a new title, Andy Catlett: Early Travels, his sixth novel set in Port Williams.
I've read little of Berry's fiction, but a lot of his essays, and I have to say I enjoyed his essays more. Since I was introduced to him by way of his essays, it was interesting to read his fiction later and see his ideas of the world embodied in concrete stories. As far as his essays, I've spent a few years teaching various essays of his, especially Feminism, the Body, and the Machine, and students either see him as visionary or moronic, both reactions that mean he's imprinted himself on them.
Berry has been claimed, to some degree, by the Christian community as a writer of their own, because of his familiarity with Christian culture and knowledge of the Bible, but I think he stands a bit outside the Christian camp. What I mean is that he utters a rather prophetic message, or at least the best we can get in these days. As a prophet, he doesn't fit into neat societal grooves. A prophet is always a loner. Despite his religious convictions, or rather because of them, he's had no problem vilifying the Christian community for their complacence in permitting and even condoning environmental degradation. On that note, the richness and complexity of his view of the world is refreshing, albeit uncomfortably challenging. We all need to be challenged though, as iron sharpens iron. Berry's done that for me.
If you're new to Wendell Berry, I would suggest starting with this collection of his essays: The Art of the Commonplace
There aren't many reviews online that I've found of Andy Catlett (readers - any suggestions?) but here's a link to a brief synopsis.
Labels: Wendell Berry
Ask and You Shall Receive
So since I had scored on a copy of Hear the Wind Sing (unavailable in the States) I thought why not go for broke and ask my loyal readers for a copy of Pinball 1973? It was mostly tongue in cheek, but lo and behold, Viktor JaniÅ¡ emails me the Pinball text. Mucho thanks, my friend, mucho. Also, a grateful nod to The Literary Saloon who directed him to my site. Now to start reading . . .
Labels: Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami: Hear the Wind Sing
One of my Loyal Readers, knowing of my penchant for all things Murakami, was able to procure an English copy of Hear the Wind Sing from a drugstore in Tokyo. The novella is perfectly pocket-sized, at four by six inches, and extremely slim, with 127 pages - a format I would like to see more in the States as a way to encourage portable reading. Hear the Wind Sing, along with Pinball 1973, are two early Murakami novels that aren't available in English, so I consider myself lucky to have a copy of one of them (and if anyone wants to send me Pinball 1973, I will reciprocate with all the publicity love I can muster).
When given the novella, I was looking forward to seeing what Murakami themes were present at a nascent stage of his writing career. Since so many of his other novels have shared themes (classical music, cats, coincidence that is actually fate), I wondered if many of these were already formed when he was just beginning to publish, or whether he had progressively developed them as he'd grown as a writer.
One aspect of Murakami that has certainly not changed over the years - although he certainly has refined it - is his tendency to use animals in his stories. The animal that appears most frequently is a cat - in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a search for a missing cat launches the protagonist on a neighborhood odyssey, while in Kafka on the Shore, a character is cat-telepathic. That's not to say that other animals don't drop into the story, just that a single animal often plays a pivotal role in the narrative and it's often a cat. Even his book titles reflect the preoccupation with animals, with mentions of birds, sheep, and elephants.
When Murakami wrote Hear the Wind Sing, it seemed he had latched onto the notion that animals were key for his fiction, because he gave us a virtual menagerie, but hadn't quite decided that for narrative reasons it might be better to give a single animal a key and recurrent role. So this story moves through someone writing about elephants, a car crashing near a monkey cage, lyrics about giraffes, a story of a man-eating leopard, a psychologist's parable about a rabbit and a billy goat, a cow painted on a car hood, a character named The Rat, and the biologist protagonist who dissects cats. Those are just the main references, and all in 127 very small pages.
There are also a number of similarities with Murakami's later work that don't need excessive explanation: The protagonist is identical to most of Murakami's later protagonists - male, rather isolated, laconic, operating on cruise control, and jobless. The girl that becomes the protagonist's girlfriend has a twin - a familiar motif to the doppelganger-happy Murakami. There is even a couple-page bit on Martian wells on that transport you through time, which will be familiar to readers of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.
One of the things absent from Hear the Wind Sing, though not the most remarkable thing, is plot. If you're wondering why I didn't give the plot up far sooner - such as in the third paragraph - it was because there wasn't much of a summary to give. The book is about eighteen days in a boy's life before he returns to college, and although events occur, they don't seem very significant (although they are interesting). Each passage in the book is broken by trios of asterisks or a numbered heading, and each passage seems like an anecdote that follows the last chronologically but not in terms of escalating conflict. There are mysteries that are never solved, such as a high school girlfriend that he borrowed an Elvis record from and never returned, and relationships that don't do anything. His relationships with The Rat, his friend, and the love affair with the nine-fingered girl, are not so much resolved as they are abruptly broken off as he resumes his schooling.
The lack of plot felt odd because Murakami novels and short stories usually have a fairly strong plot, even if in some of his longer books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle he will venture off to a side-story for a while. Kafka on the Shore is plotted precisely and tightly. Even Dance, Dance, Dance and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World give the protagonist a single problem, a quest to solve that problem, and a solution at the end. Which tells me that at an early stage of his career Murakami had an excellent grasp on characterization, prose, and relationships, but his talents for structuring a storyline came later.
The most striking absence in the story is the magical realism for which Murakami is so well known. He remains, without much genre-blurring, in the concrete real of bars and bedrooms, cars and restaurants, and doesn't step outside to mess with character's shadow selves or discover parallel universes. In fact, the only hint of something outside "realism" is when the protagonist feels his "body overflowing with some strange energy" after sleeping on the beach with the Rat. Yet this energy is never brought up again. The lack of magical realism, interlaced with a number of familiar themes, makes the novella seem simultaneously Murakami-esque and Un-Murakami.
It is worth a read, especially you're a die-hard Murakami fan, but your only chance to land it might be inter-library loans in the US (and that's a long shot). As far as details to help you on your quest, it was translated by Alfred Birnbaum and published by the Kodansha English Library (originally designed to teach the Japanese how to read in English - which is why the last forty pages have an English/Japanese translation key). It was originally published 1979, but translated in 1987. Good Luck finding it, although Murakami doesn't believe in luck, only fate - so here's hoping you're destined.
Labels: Haruki Murakami
Books I'm Thankful For
In the spirit of thanksgiving, I'll make a quick list of books I'm thankful for. First of all, the red book of poetry my grandfather wrote - it was a book that let me know writing was in my blood; an inspiration, so to speak. Also, Vito Aiuto's collection of poems Self-Portrait as Jerry Quarry, because he was the first friend of mine who published a book, and the poems were funny, irreverent and just plain good. Also, for the book that originally got me writing: Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It gave me the measure of how much beauty could be created by arranging words on a page.
Remember the beauty in your life this thanksgiving, and give thanks.
Pynchon: Against the Day
If you haven't yet been seduced by Pynchon mania (or even if you have been unaware of the blogosphere intensity), you should go to the The Elegant Variation and check out all the links and commentary on old Pynchon, New Pynchon and all of the infinite conections.
There. I've thrown you into the pit. Enjoy or die.
Labels: Thomas Pynchon
Richard Ford's enduring voice
Richard Ford has been well covered in the blogosphere recently, with the third installment of Frank Bascombe in The Lay of the Land, and that's not territory I can one-up, so I'll cover slightly different ground.
Reading Ford alongside Raymond Carver, as I've been doing the last few months, has been a lesson in the power of minimalism. How the sparse word is potent. But what has stuck in my head from Ford (among many things of course, but some things really stick, you know what I mean), has been the pronouncement he made when announcing the winner of the Story Quarterly contest (I know, rather odd). This was back in 2003, issue 39, and the contest was the Robie Macauley award for fiction. Sylvia Sellers-Garcia won for A Correspondence. This was what he wrote:
A Correspondence' is excellent and is my selection. This story is sustained and serious, and the complex fictive world it reveals is entirely persuasive and pleasingly under the writer's authority. Importantly too, it is a very interesting story to read.
I must have read it twice, perhaps by accident, and it kept with me through the next few days. Those passive verbs! Five in three sentences. By using so many he inverted their usual weakness into a strength. And the trio of adverbs - what a mistake . . . that works.
It has to be a testament to the power of his voice that even a paragraph announcing a contest winner remained with me, haunted me, and echoed about in my head until I gave in to its cadences.
Labels: Richard Ford
Literary Mix Tape #5: Words
The devotchka sort of hesitated and then said: “Wait.” Then she went off, and my three droogs had got out of the auto quiet and crept up horrorshow stealthy, putting their maskies on now, then I put mine on, then it was only a matter of me putting in the old rooker and undoing the chain, me having softened up this devotchka with my gent’s goloss, so that she hadn’t shut the door like she should have done, us being strangers of the night. The four of us then went roaring in, old Dim playing the shoot as usual with his jumping up and down and singing out dirty slovos, and it was a nice malenky cottage, I’ll say that. We all went smecking into the room with a light on, and there was this devotchka sort of cowering, a young pretty bit of sharp with real horrorshow groodies on her, and with her was this chelloveck who was her moodge, youngish too with horn-rimmed otchkies on him, and on a table was a typewriter and all papers scattered everywhere, but there was one little pile of paper like that must have been what he’d already typed, so here was another intelligent type bookman type like that we’d fillied with some hours back, but this one was a writer not a reader.
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month. He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. It sounded boyish to me, and I have always thought of myself as very potent and generative.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
Right ‘bove my head some’un whisped, Name y’self, boy, is it Zachry the Brave or Zachry the Cowardy? Up I looked an’ sure ‘nuff there was Old Georgie crossleggin’ on a rottin’ ironwood tree, a slywise grinnin’ in his hungry eyes. ¶ ‘I ain’t ‘fraid o’ you!’ I telled him, tho’ tell-it-true my voice was jus’ a duck-fart in a hurrycane. Quakin’ inside I was when Old Georgie jumped off his branch an’ then what happened? He dis’peared in a blurry flurryin’, yay, b’hind me. Nothin’ there . . . ‘cept for a plump lardbird snufflyin’ for grubs, jus’ askin’ for a plunkin’n’a spit! Well, I reck’ned Zachry the Brave’d faced down Old Georgie, yay, he’d gone off huntin’ cowardier vic’tries’n me. I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ‘bout my eery adventurin’ but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah . . . an’ I dived.
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Labels: Mix Tape