Three Books with Stickers on Them (Books Acquired, Sometime Last Month)

My daughter, six, brought home some books from the library a few weeks ago. “These are good,” she reported, showing them to me. “They have medals on them.”

In the last weeks of last month, I got behind three bemedaled or bestickered books (okay, these aren’t really stickers anymore, but I don’t know what to call the stickers—blazons? Emblems? Medals?)—here they are:

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Jim Crace’s Harvest, beblazoned with a Man Booker Finalist blazon. From The New York Times’s review earlier this year:

In its poetry of the precarious hereafter, “Harvest” calls to mind J. M. Coetzee’s finest and most allegorical novel, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Like Coetzee, Crace asks large questions: How will ordinary people behave when ripped from their mundane routines, cut adrift from comforting old verities? What suppressed capacity for cruelty may surface? What untested gift for improvised survival?

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Next: Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, bemedaled with an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 medal. I don’t know what 2.0 means here, but the sticker I’ll admit is immediately off-putting. I also originally read the title as The Twelve Tribes of Hottie, also off-putting. The actual premise of the book seems really good though. From The New York Times again:

When the country was too distracted to notice, caught up as it was with two world wars and the Depression, a great movement of people, of some six million African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, was upending the social geography of the country itself. The Great Migration would figure into much of the literature and music of 20th-century urban life — Wright, Ellison, Baldwin and Coltrane — and, decades after it ended, it still lives in myth and shadow, casting a spell upon race relations to this day and captivating the lives and imaginations of its descendants.

Still, there has been no novel like “The Grapes of Wrath” that looks squarely at this migration, which might have been the promise and yet not the purpose of so raw and intimate a book as “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” the debut novel of ­Ayana Mathis. The story it tells works at the rough edges of history, residing not so much within the migration itself as within a brutal and poetic allegory of a family beset by tribulations. The narrative opens in 1925, as Hattie Shepherd, a 17-year-old wife and mother newly ­arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia, ­administers mustard poultices and droplets of ipecac to save her infant twins from the pneumonia that has crept into their limp bodies. Because of her desperate circumstances in the cold of the North, she loses her twins “in the order in which they were born.”

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Finally, Olen Steinhauer’s An American Spy, bestickered with A New York Times Notable Book sticker. You know what? Im just gonna go ahead and borrow from The New York Times review again:

Not since John le Carré has a writer so vividly evoked the multilayered, multifaceted, deeply paranoid world of espionage, in which identities and allegiances are malleable and ever shifting, the mirrors of loyalty and betrayal reflecting one another to infinity. In this intensely clever, sometimes baffling book, it’s never quite clear who is manipulating whom, and which side is up.

So three books, all from major houses, all garnering accolades (in the form of stickers!), and all prominently and favorably reviewed by The New York Times. I’m sure there’s nothing troubling in this at all.

 

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The Garden of Eden, Ernest Hemingway’s Tale of Doomed Polyamory

In general, I dislike reviews that frontload context—get to the book, right? So here’s a short review of Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden: it is stranger than most of what Hemingway wrote, by turns pleasant, uncomfortable, bewildering, and beautiful. And readable. It’s very, very readable. Young people (or older folks; let’s not be prejudiced) working their way through Hemingway shouldn’t put The Garden of Eden on the back-burner in favor of his more famous works, and anyone who might have written off Hemingway as unreflective macho bravado should take a look at some of the strange gender games this novel has to offer. So, that’s a recommendation, okay?

Now on to that context, which I think is important here. See, The Garden of Eden is one of those unfinished novels that get published posthumously, put together by editors and publishers and other book folk, who play a larger role than we like to admit in the finished books we get from living authors anyway. For various reasons, cultural, historical, etc., we seem to favor the idea of the Singular Artistic Genius who sculpts beauty and truth out of raw Platonic forms that only he or she can access (poor tortured soul). The reality of how our books get to us is a much messier affair, and editors and publishers and even literary studies departments in universities have a large hand in this process, one we tend to ignore in favor of the charms of a Singular Artistic Genius. There’s a fascinating process there, but also a troubling one. Editing issues complicate our ideals of (quite literally) stable authority—is this what the author intended?, we ask (New Critics be damned!). David Foster Wallace and Michael Pietsch, Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Franz Kafka and Max Brod, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley . . . not to mention Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, The Bible, Homer, etc. etc. etc. But you’re here to read about The Garden of Eden, right gentle reader? Mea culpa. I’ve been blathering away. Let me turn the reins over to the estimable talents of E.L. Doctorow, who offers the following context in his 1986 review of the book in The New York Times

Since Hemingway’s death in 1961, his estate and his publishers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, have been catching up to him, issuing the work which, for one reason or another, he did not publish during his lifetime. He held back ”A Moveable Feast” out of concern for the feelings of the people in it who might still be alive. But for the novel ”Islands in the Stream” he seems to have had editorial misgivings. Even more deeply in this category is ”The Garden of Eden,” which he began in 1946 and worked on intermittently in the last 15 years of his life and left unfinished. It is a highly readable story, if not possibly the book he envisioned. As published it is composed of 30 short chapters running to about 70,000 words. A publisher’s note advises that ”some cuts” have been made in the manuscript, but according to Mr. Baker’s biography, at one point a revised manuscript of the work ran to 48 chapters and 200,000 words, so the publisher’s note is disingenuous. In an interview with The New York Times last December, a Scribners editor admitted to taking out a subplot in rough draft that he felt had not been integrated into the ”main body” of the text, but this cut reduced the book’s length by two-thirds.

So, yeah. The version we have of The Garden of Eden is heavily cut, and also likely heavily arranged. But that’s what editors do, and this is the book we have (for now, anyway—it seems like on the year of its 25th anniversary of publication, and the 50th anniversary of Hemingway’s death that Scribner should work toward putting out an unedited scholarly edition) — so I’ll talk about that book a bit.

The Garden of Eden tells the story of a few months in the lives of a young newlywed couple, David Bourne, an emerging novelist, and his wife Catherine, a trust fund baby flitting about Europe. The novel is set primarily on the French Riviera, in the thin sliver of high years between the two big wars. David and Catherine spend most of their days in this Edenic setting eating fine food and making love and swimming and riding bikes and fishing. And drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. Lots of drinking. It all sounds quite beautiful—h0w about a taste?

On this morning there was brioche and red raspberry preserve and the eggs were boiled and there was a pat of butter that melted as they stirred them and salted them lightly and ground pepper over them in the cups. They were big eggs and fresh and the girl’s were not cooked quite as long as the young man’s. He remembered that easily and he he was happy with his which he diced up with the spoon and ate with only the flow of the butter to moisten them and the fresh early morning texture and the bite of the coarsely ground pepper grains and the hot coffee and the chickory-fragrant bowl of café au lait.

Hemingway’s technique throughout the novel is to present the phenomenological contours of a heady world. It’s lovely to ride along with David and Catherine, rich and free and beautiful.

Their new life together is hardly charmed, however. See, Catherine gets a haircut—

Her hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. It was cut with no compromises. It was brushed back, heavy as always, but the sides were cut short and the ears that grew close to her head were clear and the tawny line of her hair was cropped close to her head and smooth and sweeping back. She turned her head and lifted her breasts and said, “Kiss me please.” . . .

“You see, she said. “That’s the surprise. I’m a girl. But now I’m a boy too and I can do anything and anything and anything.”

“Sit here by me,” he said. “What do you want, brother.”

David’s playful response—calling his wife “brother”—covers up some of his shock and fear, but it also points to his underlying curiosity and gender confusion. And indeed, Catherine’s new haircut licenses her to “do anything and anything and anything” — beginning with some strange bed games that night—

He had shut his eyes and he could feel the long light weight of her on him and her breasts pressing against him and her lips on his. He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and the strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

“No.”

“You are changing,” she said. “Oh you are. You are. Yes you are and you’re my girl Catherine. Will you change and be my girl and let me take you?”

“You’re Catherine.”

“No. I’m Peter. You’re my wonderful Catherine. You’re my beautiful, lovely Catherine. You were so good to change. Oh thank you, Catherine, so much. Please understand. Please know and understand. I’m going to make love to you forever.”

David, partial stand-in for Hemingway, transforms into a girl who feels “something” during sex with Catherine (or, ahem, Peter)—note that that “something” has no clear referent. As their gender inverting games continue (much to David’s horror), Hemingway’s usually concrete language retreats to vague proforms without referents, “it”s without antecedents; his usually precise diction dissolves in these scenes, much as the Bournes’ marriage dissolves each time Catherine escalates the gender inversion. David gives her the nickname “Devil,” as if she were both Eve and Serpent in their Garden. Catherine’s transformations continue as she cuts her hair back even more, and sunbathes all the time so that she can be as dark as possible. She dyes her hair a silver blonde and makes David get his hair cut and dyed the same.

The bizarre behavior (shades of Scott and Zelda?) culminates in Catherine introducing another woman into the marriage. Marita falls in love with both David and Catherine, but her lesbian sex with Catherine only accelerates the latter’s encroaching insanity. David is initially radically ambivalent to the ménage à trois proposed by his wife; he has the good sense to see that a three-way marriage is ultimately untenable and that his wife is going crazy. He vacillates between hostility and love for the two women, but eventually finds a support system in Marita as it becomes increasingly apparent (to all three) that Catherine is depressed and mentally unstable, enraged that David has ceased to write about the pair’s honeymoon adventures on the Riviera. Catherine has been bankrolling David; jealous of good reviews from his last novel, she insists that he write only their story, but David would rather write “the hardest story” he knows—the story of his childhood in East Africa with his father, a big game hunter.

In some of the most extraordinary passages of The Garden of Eden, David writes himself into his boyhood existence, trailing a bull elephant with his father through a jungle trek. David has spotted the elephant by moonlight, prompting his father and his father’s fellow tracker and gun bearer Juma to hunt the old beast. As they trail the animal, David begins to realize how horrible the hunt is, how cruel it is to kill the animal for sport. The passages are somewhat perplexing given Hemingway’s reputation as a hunter. Indeed, this is one of the major features of The Garden of Eden: it repeatedly confounds or complicates our ideas about Hemingway the man’s man, Hemingway the writer, Hemingway the hunter. David describes the wounded, dying elephant—

They found him anchored, in such suffering and despair that he could no longer move. He had crashed through the heavy cover where he had been feeding and crossed a path of open forest and David and his father had run along the heavily splashed blood trail. Then the elephant had gone on into thick forest and David had seen him ahead standing gray and huge against the trunk of a tree. David could only see his stern and then his father moved ahead of him and he followed and they came alongside the elephant as though he was a ship and David saw the blood coming from his flanks and running down his sides and then his father raised his rifle and fired and the elephant turned his head with the great tusks moving heavy and slow and looked at them and when his father fired the second barrel the elephant seemed to sway like a felled tree and came smashing down toward them. But he was not dead. He had been anchored and now he was down with his shoulder broken. He did not move but his eye was alive and looked at David. He had very long eyelashes and his eye was the most alive thing David had ever seen.

David succeeds in writing this “hard” story, and the passages are remarkable in their authenticity—David’s story is a good story, the highlight of the book perhaps; it’s not just Hemingway telling us that David wrote a great story, we actually get to experience the story itself as well as the grueling process by which it was made. Hemingway and his surrogate David show us—make us experience—how difficult writing really is, and then share the fruit of that labor with us. These scenes raise the stakes of The Garden of Eden, revealing how serious David is when he remarks (repeatedly) that the writing is the most important thing—that it outweighs love, it surpasses his marriage. These realizations freight the climax of the novel all the more heavily, but I will avoid anymore spoilers.

The Garden of Eden has some obvious flaws. Marita is underdeveloped at best for such an important character, and her love for David and Catherine remains unexplored, and in fact barely remarked upon. The biggest problem with the book is its conclusion, which feels too pat, too obvious for such a strange, amorphous book. It is here that the presence of an editorial hand seems clearest, to the extent that I wonder if the short little chapter that concludes the novel wasn’t cobbled together from a few stray sentences throughout the manuscript. But The Garden of Eden, despite some shortcomings, is a book well worth reading. The novel complicates not just Hemingway’s reputation, but also our sense of Hemingway’s sense of himself. Recommended.

[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally published a version of this review in August of 2011]

Suttree, Cormac McCarthy’s Grand Synthesis of American Literature

In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s fourth novel, 1979’s Suttree is such a book, a masterful synthesis of the great literature — particularly American literature — that came before it. And like any masterful synthesis, Suttree points to something new, even as it borrows, lifts, and outright steals from the past. But before we plumb its allusions and tropes and patterns, perhaps we should overview the plot, no?

The novel rambles over several years in the life of Cornelius Suttree. It is the early 1950s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Suttree ekes out a mean existence on the Tennessee River as a fisherman, living in a ramshackle houseboat on the edge of a shantytown. This indigent life is in fact a choice: Suttree is the college-educated son of an established, wealthy family. His choice is a choice for freedom and self-reliance, those virtues we like to think of, in our prejudicial manner, as wholly and intrinsically American. Suttree then is both Emersonian and Huck Finnian, a reflective and insightful man who finds his soul via a claim to agency over his own individuality, an individuality poised in quiet, defiant rebellion against the conforming forces of civilization. These forces manifest most pointedly in the Knoxville police, a brutal, racist organization, but we also see social constraint in the form of familial duty. One thinks of the final lines of Huckleberry Finn: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Like Huck, Suttree aims to resist all forces that would “sivilize” him. His time on the river and in the low haunts of Tennessee (particularly the vice-ridden borough of McAnally) brings him into close contact with plenty of other outcasts, but also his conscience, which routinely mulls over its place in the world. Suttree is punctuated by–perhaps even organized by–several scenes of hallucination. Some of these psychotrips result from drunkeness, one comes from accidentally ingesting the wrong kind of mushrooms (or, the right kind, if that’s your thing), and the final one, late in the novel, sets in as Suttree suffers from a terrible illness. In his fever dream, a small nun–surely a manifestation of the guilt that would civilize us–accuses him–

Mr. Suttree it is our understanding that at curfew rightly decreed by law in that hour wherein night draws to its proper close and the new day commences and contrary to conduct befitting a person of your station you betook yourself to various low places within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.

The passage is a marvelous example of McCarthy’s stream-of-consciousness technique in Suttree, moving through the various voices that would ventriloquize Suttree, into the edges of madness, strangeness, and the sublimity of language. The tone moves from somber and portentous into bizarre imagery that blends humor and pathos. This is the tone of Suttree, a language that gives voice to transients and miscreants, affirming the dignity of their humanity even as it details the squalor of their circumstance.

It is among these criminals and whores, transvestites and gamblers that Suttree affirms his own freedom and humanity, a process aided by his comic foil, Gene Harrogate. Suttree meets Harrogate on a work farm; the young hillbilly is sent there for screwing watermelons. After his release, Harrogate moves to a shantytown in Knoxville. He’s the country mouse determined to become the city rat, the would-be Tom Sawyer to Suttree’s older and wiser Huck Finn. Through Harrogate’s endless get-rich-quick schemes, McCarthy parodies that most-American of tales, the Horatio Alger story. Simply put, the boy is doomed, on his  “way up to the penitentiary” as Suttree constantly admonishes. In one episode, Harrogate tries to buy arsenic from “a grayhaired and avuncular apothecary” to poison bats he hopes to sell to a hospital (don’t ask)–

May I help you? said the scientist, his hands holding each other.

I need me some strychnine, said Harrogate.

You need some what?

Strychnine. You know what it is dont ye?

Yes, said the chemist.

I need me about a good cupful I reckon.

Are you going to drink it here or take it with you?

Shit fire I aint goin to drink it. It’s poisoner’n hell.

It’s for your grandmother.

No, said Harrogate, craning his neck suspectly. She’s done dead

Suttree, unwilling father-figure, eventually buys the arsenic for the boy against his better judgment. The scene plays out as a wonderful comic inversion of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” from which it is so transparently lifted. McCarthy borrows liberally from Faulkner here, of course, most notably in the language and style of the novel, but also in scenes like this one, or a later episode that plays off Faulkner’s comic-romantic story of a man and a woman navigating the aftermath of a flood, “Old Man.” Unpacking the allusions in Suttree surpasses my literary knowledge or skill, but McCarthy is generous, if oblique, with his breadcrumb trail. Take, for example, the following sentence: “Suttree with his miles to go kept his eyes to the ground, maudlin and muttersome in the bitter chill, under the lonely lamplight.” The forced phrase “miles to go” does not immediately present itself as a reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem, yet the direction of the sentence retreats into the history of American poetry; with its dense alliteration and haunted vowels, it leads us into Edgar Allan Poe territory. Only a few dozen pages later, McCarthy boldly begins a chapter with theft: “In just spring the goatman came over the bridge . . .” The reference to e.e. cummings explicitly signifies McCarthy’s intentions to play with literature. Later in the book, while tripping on mushrooms in the mountains, Suttree is haunted by “elves,” the would-be culprits in Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The callback is purposeful, but tellingly, McCarthy’s allusions are not nearly as fanciful as their surface rhetoric might suggest: the goatman does not belong in Knoxville–he’s an archaic relic, forced out of town by the police; the elves are not playful spirits but dark manifestations of a tortured psyche.

Once one spots the line-lifting in Suttree it’s hard to not see it. What’s marvelous is McCarthy’s power to convert these lines, these riffs, these stories, into his own tragicomic beast. An early brawl at a roadhouse recalls the “Golden Day” episode of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; a rape victim’s plight echoes Hubert Selby’s “Tralala”; we find the comic hobos of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row–we even get the road-crossing turtle from The Grapes of Wrath. A later roadhouse chapter replays the “Circe/Nighttown” nightmare in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses is an easy point of comparison for Suttree, which does for Knoxville what Joyce did for Dublin. Suttree echoes Ulysses’s language, both in its musicality and appropriation of varied voices, as well as its ambulatory structure, its stream-of-consciousness technique, its rude earthiness, and its size (nearly 600 pages). But, as I argued earlier, there’s something uniquely American about Suttree, and its literary appropriations tend to reflect that. Hence, we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).

Making a laundry list of writers is weak criticism though, and these sources–all guilty of their own proud plagiarisms–are mentioned only as a means to an end, to an argument that what McCarthy does in Suttree is to synthesize the American literary tradition with grace and humor, while never glossing over its inherent dangers and violence. So, while it appropriates and plays with the tropes of the past, Suttree is still pure McCarthy. Consider the following passage, which arrives at the end of a drunken, awful spree, Suttree locked up for the night–

He closed his eyes. The gray water that dripped from him was rank with caustic. By the side of a dark dream road he’d seen a hawk nailed to a barn door. But what loomed was a flayed man with his brisket tacked open like a cooling beef and his skull peeled, blue and bulbous and palely luminescent, black grots his eyeholes and bloody mouth gaped tonguless. The traveler had seized his fingers in his jaws, but it was not alone this horror that he cried. Beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, for his surgeons move about the world even as you and I.

Suttree’s dark vision points directly toward the language of McCarthy’s next novel, 1985’s Blood Meridian, roundly considered his masterpiece. Critics who disagree tend to point to Suttree as the pinnacle of McCarthy’s writing. I have no interest at this time in weighing the books against each other, nor do I think that doing so would be especially enlightening. For all of their sameness, they are very different animals: Suttree provides us intense access to its hero’s consciousness, where Blood Meridian always keeps the reader on the outside of its principals’ souls (if those grotesques could be said to have souls). And while Blood Meridian does display some humor, it is the blackest and driest humor I’ve ever read. Suttree is broader and more compassionate; it even has a fart joke. Blood Meridian, at least in my estimation (and many critics will contend this notion) has no flawed episodes; much of this results from the book’s own internal program–it resists love, compassion, and even human dignity. In contrast, Suttree is punctuated by two deaths the audience is meant to read as tragic, yet I found it impossible to do so. The first is the death of Suttree’s child, whom he has abandoned, along with its mother. As such, he is not permitted to take part in the funeral, observing the process rather from its edges. The second tragedy is the death of Suttree’s young lover in a landslide. The book begs us to empathize with Suttree, just as he often empathizes with the marginal figures in the novel, but ultimately these tragedies are a failed ploy. They underwrite a sublime encounter with death for Suttree, an encounter that deepens and enriches his character while paradoxically freeing him from the burdens of social duty and familial order. McCarthy is hardly alone in such a move; indeed, it seems like the signature trope of American masculine literature to me. It’s the move that Huck Finn wishes to make when he promises to light out for the Territory to escape the civilizing body of Aunt Sally; it’s the ending that Hemingway was compelled to give to Frederic Henry at the end of A Farewell to Arms; it’s all of Faulkner, with his mortification of fatherhood and the dramatic responsibility fatherhood entails. It is a cost analysis that neglects any potential benefits.

But these are small criticisms of a large, beautiful, benevolent novel, a book that begs to be reread, a rambling picaresque of comic and tragic proportions. “I learned that there is one Suttree and one Suttree only,” our hero realizes, but this epiphany is set against a larger claim. Near the end of the novel, Suttree goes to check on an old ragman who he keeps a watchful eye on. He finds the man dead, his shack robbed, his body looted. Despairing over the spectacle’s abject lack of humanity, Suttree cries, “You have no right to represent people this way,” for “A man is all men. You have no right to your wretchedness.” Here, Suttree’s painful epiphany is real and true, an Emersonian insight coded in the darkest of Whitman’s language. If there is one Suttree and one Suttree only, he is still beholden to all men; to be anti-social or an outcast is not to be anti-human. Self-hood is ultimately conditional on others and otherness. To experience the other’s wretchedness is harrowing; to understand the other’s wretchedness and thus convert it to dignity is life-affirming and glorious. Suttree is a brilliant, bold, marvelous book. Very highly recommended.

[Ed. note—Biblioklept originally published a version of this review on November 27, 2010].

 

What Dies in Summer (Book Acquired, 5.02.2013)

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Tom Wright’s What Dies in Summer is new in trade paperback. Pub’s blurb:

A riveting Southern Gothic coming-of-age debut by major new talent.

“I did what I did, and that’s on me.” From that tantalizing first sentence, Tom Wright sweeps us up in a tale of lost innocence. Jim has a touch of the Sight. It’s nothing too spooky and generally useless, at least until the summer his cousin L.A. moves in with him and their grandmother. When Jim and L.A. discover the body of a girl, brutally raped and murdered in a field, an investigation begins that will put both their lives in danger. In the spirit of The Lovely Bones and The Little FriendWhat Dies in Summer is a novel that casts its spell on the very first page and leaves an indelible mark.

And the lede from Julie Myerson’s review last year in the NYT:

Why do teenagers make such ideal protagonists? Maybe it’s because they’re doing just what novels do: struggling to make sense of a troubling and imperfect world. And at first, Jim, called Biscuit, and L. A. (Lee Ann), the teenage cousins at the heart of Tom Wright’s feisty first novel, are ­exactly what you hope they’ll be: funny, frank, mouthy and more than a touch off kilter. Both are forced to live with their grandmother because their mothers aren’t up to the task of child rearing. Their homes are haunted by alcoholism and violence, but Gram takes a simple, affectionate, responsibility for them — though it’s almost inevitable that certain questions, if not the answers, will push their ugly way to the surface sooner or later.

William Gaddis on the Pulitzer Prize: “The Ultimate Seal of Mediocrity”

In William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape (2002), our embittered narrator excoriates the Pulitzer Prize:

. . . write what they want you’ll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you right to the grave. Maybe won the Medal of honor the George Cross even the Nobel but once you’ve been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies at whatever because they’re not advertising the winner no. No, like this whole plague of prizes wherever you look, it’s the prize givers promoting themselves, trying to rescue their thoroughly discredited profession of journalism. “The press is a school that serves to turn men into brutes,” Flaubert writes to George Sand “because it relieves them from thinking.” The prize winners? They’re just props, cartoonists, sports writers, political pundits, front page photos the bloodier the better for that instant of fame wrap the fish in tomorrow, good God how many Pulitzer Prizes are there? Over fifteen hundred entries, fourteen categories for journalists because if you started your bondage there you’re halfway home with that whole gang of sponsors, trustees, juries, God knows what who’ve survived that Slough of Despond and floated to the top. Just look at the next day’s New York Times, page after page bulging with self-congratulation with seven more categories to leech on, music, what they call drama and of course books where the Grey Lady finally got it both ways with their journalist who reviews books, like the misty-eyed ingenue but also destroys women writers and just for fairness crosses the gender line for an occasional assassination, give that lady a Pulitzer with oak leaf clusters! The books that are candidates are read by a jury whose decisions are passed up to the Olympian trustees with an eye to the multitude. We are thousands and they are millions, write the fiction they want or don’t write at all, ruling out Pound’s cry for the new, the challenging or what’s labeled difficult, so when Gravity’s Rainbow is being devoured by college youth everywhere and wins the National Book Award, its unanimous recommendation is overturned by the trustees for a double-talk spoof of academic vagaries by a bogus “Professor,” to everyone’s relief, and the author at peril escapes unblemished by the, no, no, no you can’t depend on it.

Benjamin Black’s Vengeance (Book Acquired, 3.06.2013)

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Vengeance, the latest in Benjamin Black’s Quirke series. From Janet Maslin’s New York Times review last year:

Vengeance” once again leads Quirke into his favorite kind of trouble: “yet another morass of human cupidity and deceit,” involving the deaths of powerful men and the foxy insolence of their glamorous widows. It breaks no new ground.

But why should Benjamin Black tamper with a winning formula? The crimes aren’t graphic or even terribly central. And the detecting questions don’t count for much. The books are far more notable for malaise, atmospherics, sexual chemistry and vast amounts of swirling tobacco smoke and mind-muddling alcohol, without which justice could apparently never prevail.

Vengeance is new in trade paperback from Picador.

 

Memories of the Future (Book Acquired, 8.11.2012)

 

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I saw Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s at the bookstore last week, read the first few pages of the first story, and had to have it. (Although the NYRB logo is always enticement enough). From Liesl Schillinger’s review in the NYT:

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are more like dream diaries than fiction. Quite intentionally, he blurs the line between sleep and waking, real and unreal, life and death. While his translators admirably convey the whirligigging quality of his narratives, Krzhizhanovsky’s peregrinations demand unstinting focus and frequent compass checks. His characters often seem half, or wholly, asleep. Sometimes, as in “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” they are dead — which doesn’t stop them from boarding city trams and chatting with commuters. “Alive or dead, they didn’t care.” Their only concern is whether such conduct is “decrimiligaturitized” — that is, legal. “In “Quadraturin,” the man with the proliferspansion ointment never exits a state of benumbed grogginess. Lying on his bed, “unable to part eyelids stitched together with exhaustion,” he tries to sleep through the night, “mechanically, meekly, lifelessly.” When inspectors from the Remeasuring Commission drop by to make sure he hasn’t exceeded his allotted 86 square feet of space, he hovers, terror-stricken, at the door, hoping they won’t spot his infraction. It’s an archetypal nightmare, reminiscent of Kafka.

 

Books Acquired, 6.25.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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A nice stack from the good folks at Picador this month, including two new entries in their ongoing Nadine Gordimer reissues. I like the design on the series:

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There’s also a reissue of Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which I haven’t read, but will read soon, because Johnson is just one of those writers I’ll end up reading everything by eventually. From a 1991 NYT review of the novel:

There has never been any doubt about Denis Johnson’s ability to write a gorgeous sentence. The author of “Angels,” “Fiskadoro” and “The Stars at Noon” has become increasingly musical in his prose, and his latest novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” depends on such sentences as the primary unit of narrative motion. The novel seems, like a poem, to be written line to line. It is very much a book about one man, one sensibility.

At the outset of the novel, Leonard English, driving to the tip of Cape Cod in the off season, stops for a drink, then spins out of control, running his car onto a traffic island. He ends up taking a taxi to his destination, which is Provincetown. He has attempted suicide before the book’s beginning; now he is moving to the Cape to work for Ray Sands, a private investigator who also owns a small radio station. When we can see him most clearly, English seems very similar to the narrator of the short story — drifting, guilty, in a world of strangers, striving to connect with another person and with his God.

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Last year’s With Liberty and Justice for Some is out now in trade paperback. If you are even slightly familiar Glenn Greenwald’s columns at Salon, you’ll likely know what to expect. For those of us predisposed to agree with his analyses, With Liberty and Justice for Some is likely to inspire outrage and a certain kind of fatigue.

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview between Harper’s Scott Horton and Greenwald:

American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.

There’s an obvious element of hypocrisy in this fact; espousing a principle that one simultaneously breaches in action is hypocrisy’s defining attribute. But there’s also a more positive side: the country’s vigorous embrace of the principle of equality before law enshrined it as aspiration. It became the guiding precept for how “progress” was understood, for how the union would be perfected.

And the most significant episodes of progress over the next two centuries—the emancipation of slaves, the ending of Jim Crow, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, vastly improved treatment for Native Americans and gay Americans—were animated by this ideal. That happened because “blind justice”—equality before law—was orthodoxy in American political culture. The principle was sacrosanct even when it was imperfectly applied.

The Ford pardon of Nixon changed that, radically and permanently. When President Ford went on national television to explain to an angry, skeptical citizenry why the most powerful political actor would be fully immunized for the felonies he got caught committing, Ford expressly rejected the rule of law. He paid lip service to its core principle—the “law is no respecter of persons”—but then tacked on a newly concocted amendment designed to gut that principle: “but the law is a respecter of reality.”

In other words, if—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it willalways be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so Ford’s rationale, predictably, created a template for elite immunity.

The rationale for Ford’s pardon of Nixon was subsequently legitimized, and it created a precedent for shielding the most powerful elites from the consequences of their lawbreaking. The arguments Ford offered are the same ones now hauled out over and over whenever it is time to argue why the most powerful among us should not be held accountable: It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward. This direct assault on the rule of law was pioneered by the pardon of Richard Nixon.

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Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies is a Swedish novel in English Translation by Sarah Death. Look, I’m generally dismissive of Holocaust fiction because 1) the sheer number of books that come in to Biblioklept World Headquarters that use the Holocaust as a milieu and 2) the tacky and generally lazy way that such books often attempt to manipulate their audiences. Still, The Emperor of Lies seems like it’s probably a sight better than most such books, and it’s gotten generally good reviews, including this one from The Independent (UK), which apparently thinks that a book review of five sentences is fine:

Any writer – let alone one from neutral Sweden – who sets out to place another brick in the vast wall of Holocaust fiction must be deluded or inspired. Astonishing to report: Sem-Sandberg belongs in the tiny second band.

Utterly involving, morally scrupulous, written with a verve and pace that belie its dreadful setting, The Emperor of Lies – in Sarah Death’s masterly translation – really does renew the genre.

Its portrait of resistance and survival in the ghetto of Lodz between 1940 and 1944 focuses on the monstrous enigma of Chaim Rumkowski, despotic overlord of his fellow-Jews. Sem-Sandberg catches his capricious charisma. Other characters, who record their fate or fight it, also shine, while their tragic destiny moves on at mesmerising speed.

Occupy Gaddis (A William Gaddis Resource Page)

Why Occupy Gaddis?

 The Gaddis Annotations is, like, the source

Biblioklept reviews J R (part 1)

Biblioklept reviews J R (part 2)

“Trickle-Up Economics: JR Goes to Washington” (1987 sequel to J R)

“Fire the Bastards!”: Jack Green’s wonderful rant against the critics who panned The Recognitions

Biblioklept reviews The Recognitions

William Gaddis fiction-to-music entelechy transducer

Gaddis’s interview with The Paris Review

Julian Schnabel’s Gaddis portrait:

Gaddis interview at The Dalkey Archive

Why did Gaddis write J R?

Biblioklept reviews Agapē Agape

“A well-meaning, sincere hypocrite” : Gaddis on his title character, JR (and capitalism)

“Authenticity’s wiped out” — A passage from Agapē Agape

“Recognizing Gaddis” (1987 NYT article)

William Gaddis’s self-portrait:

William Gaddis on the Pulitzer Prize: “The Ultimate Seal of Mediocrity”

Gaddis on hipsters

“Mr. Difficult” (Jonathan Franzen whines about Gaddis)

William Gaddis on James Joyce

The State of Gaddis

The Guardian review of Agapē Agape

Cynthia Ozick’s review of Carpenter’s Gothic

Gaddis annotates Thomas Bernhard

The failure of Gaddis

LRB review of Agapē Agape/The Rush for Second Place

Tom McCarthy on William Burroughs’s Verbal Remix Software

A passage from Tom McCarthy’s essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix:”

It might be inferred, from what I’ve said, that any old remix will do. Not so: there are good and bad ones. Tristan Tzara cutting Shakespeare sonnets up and pulling their words from hats is an exercise in randomizing. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin mixing poems in with sliced-up pages of The New York Times is quite another matter: it is assiduous composition—composition understood in all its secondary nature: as reading, tracing, reconfiguring. Using the same technique, Gysin comes up with a few clumsy permutations along the lines of “Rub the Word Right Out . . . Word Right Rub the Out” and so on—whereas Burroughs generates such gorgeous sequences as:

Visit of memories. Only your dance and your voice house. On the suburban air improbable desertions . . . all harmonic pine for strife.

or

The great skies are open. Supreme bugle burning flesh children to mist.

Why does Burroughs conjure so much more richness from the same source material? Because (unlike the painter Gysin, whose skill lies primarily in the domain of images), he has uploaded the right verbal remix software. He has read and memorized his Dante, his Shakespeare, his Eliot—to such an extent that his activity as a composer consists of giving himself over to their cadences and echoes, their pulses, codas, loops, the better that these may work their way, through him, The New York Times and any other body thrown into the mix, into an audibility that, booming and echoing in the here-and-now, transforms all the mix’s elements, and time itself.

This is what all good writers are doing, and always have been.

Despair/Food (Books Acquired 6.08.2012)

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 Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0’s blurb:

Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead'; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.

Full review on deck.

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Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:

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Publisher Random House’s blurb:

Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.

Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of  “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.

Ben Marcus on David Markson’s Reader’s Block

 . . . when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully tells instead of shows, is dismissed in The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novelReader’s Block, no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)

Markson should have presumably, under the fiction-must-have-a-story criteria, zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a time-based art.

Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).

From Ben Marcus’s essay “The Genre Artist,” published in a 2003 issue of The Believer.

Books Acquired, 4.23.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

20120502-162855.jpgNice little stack from the good people at Picador—novels, reissues, first-time-in-trade-paperbacks, nonfiction . . . a nice little spread.

First up is Chris Adrian’s latest novel The Great Night, which, improbably, I’ve yet to read—I’m a huge fan of Chris Adrian’s other books, especially The Children’s Hospital (although I’ve reviewed his other books here too, for those inclined to hit the archives), and I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I know The Great Night basically riffs on. Anyway, my wife snapped this one up right away (I had to go through her nightstand to fetch it up for yon photograph), so my reading will be delayed (although I will likely con her into reviewing it here).

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From Patrick Ness’s review at The Guardian

The Great Night is set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. Titania and Oberon – the very ones from Shakespeare’s play – live under the park’s main hill with their full court. Puck is there too, a malevolent but chained force, chafing for revenge against his masters. He may get his chance, for Titania is collapsing under grief. Boy, a changeling brought in by Oberon to amuse her and for whom she felt the first maternal feelings of her immortal life, has died of a very human disease, leukaemia.

Consumed by the pain of her loss, Titania makes a terrible mistake and tells Oberon she never loved him. Furious, he abandons her and shows no signs of returning. But perhaps if Titania releases Puck, who the other faeries refer to as the Beast, then Oberon will have to return to enslave him again. Won’t he? She breaks Puck’s bonds on the Great Night – Midsummer’s Eve, naturally – for which he says, “Milady, I am in your debt, and so I shall eat you last.” . . .

. . . Adrian does nearly everything right here. The Shakespearean references are worn lightly, and the plotting is so skilful you barely notice it falling into place. The characterisations are rich, too. There’s a spellbinding chapter on Molly’s childhood in a performing Christian family band that is both deeply weird and blisteringly sad. Plus there’s an eye-wateringly matter-of-fact approach to sex (and lots of it), which here is essentially indistinguishable from magic, and from love as well, in all its “intimations from the world that there was more to be had, something different and something better”.

I like the cover of the Adrian, which I only mention here to transition into The Eye of the Storm, the novel that won Patrick White the Nobel in 1973. The book has been adapted into a film, so of course there’s a reissue with a film tie-in cover. (Buzzfeed’s addressed this phenomena recently; I did it a few years ago myself).

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Speaking of covers: Love love love this one for The Sly Company of People Who Care by  Rahul Bhattacharya:

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Here’s novelist Dinaw Mengestu, from his review in The New York Times:

In the opening paragraph of Rahul Bhattacharya’s first novel, “The Sly Company of People Who Care,” the unnamed narrator, a former cricket journalist from India, declares his intentions for his life, and thus his story — to be a wanderer, or in his words, “a slow ramblin’ stranger.” That rambling, through the forests of Guyana; the ruined streets of its capital, Georgetown; and out to the borders of Brazil and Venezuela, constitutes the novel’s central action. But its heart lies in the exuberant and often arresting observations of a man plunging himself into a world full of beauty, violence and cultural strife.

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The Kirkus review of Mike Magner’s Poisoned Legacy:

This angry investigative report begins well before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

In the first chapter, National Journal editor Magner describes a possible cancer epidemic in a Kansas town where refinery wastes have poisoned a wide area and where a courageous retired schoolteacher is fighting an uphill battle to force BP to clean up. Apparently, he had been researching this problem when the Gulf blowout forced him to change the book’s focus, but both stories alternate throughout the narrative. Readers with a taste for heated fist-shaking will have plenty of opportunities as Magner delivers detailed accounts of BP’s mishaps, emphasizing the massive 2005 Texas refinery explosion, leaks and malfunctions along the Alaska pipeline and the Deepwater disaster. Each follows an identical pattern: BP officials cut costs, safety budgets drop, employees grumble and warn of disaster, disaster occurs, individuals who suffered terribly tell their stories and government regulators and the media suddenly show interest, resulting in an outpouring of outrage, investigations, damning reports, fines and apologies from BP executives and the inevitable avalanche of lawsuits. Magner makes a strong case for BP’s negligence and the American government’s feeble oversight, but his case that BP operates less competently than other oil companies is not as convincing. Perhaps wisely, the author makes no argument that Americans are willing to make the painful sacrifices necessary to ensure that these catastrophes never recur. We want oil, and we don’t want it to cost too much.

A relentlessly critical denunciation of the latest environmental disaster that leaves the impression that more will follow.

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Groove Interrupted immediately piqued my interest and quickly found its way into my stack. Excerpt from Jazz Time’s review:

New Orleans native Spera, a longstanding music writer for The Times-Picayune who was also part of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team, focuses on tales of musicians confronting the challenges of trying to continue to make music in a post-Katrina environment. He covers those displaced New Orleanians forced to seek refuge in Houston, Austin, Nashville and other points around the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (known around New Orleans as “the Federal flood”). His profile of the cantankerous, Slidell-based blues guitarist-singer-fiddler Gatemouth Brown, who succumbed to lung cancer shortly after Katrina hit, is particularly moving, as is his eloquent recounting of Aaron Neville’s escape from his beloved hometown in the face of Katrina, his subsequent mourning over the loss of his wife to lung cancer in 2006 and triumphant return to New Orleans in 2008.

William Gaddis on the Pulitzer Prize: “The Ultimate Seal of Mediocrity”

In William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape (2002), our embittered narrator excoriates the Pulitzer Prize:

. . . write what they want you’ll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you right to the grave. Maybe won the Medal of honor the George Cross even the Nobel but once you’ve been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies at whatever because they’re not advertising the winner no. No, like this whole plague of prizes wherever you look, it’s the prize givers promoting themselves, trying to rescue their thoroughly discredited profession of journalism. “The press is a school that serves to turn men into brutes,” Flaubert writes to George Sand “because it relieves them from thinking.” The prize winners? They’re just props, cartoonists, sports writers, political pundits, front page photos the bloodier the better for that instant of fame wrap the fish in tomorrow, good God how many Pulitzer Prizes are there? Over fifteen hundred entries, fourteen categories for journalists because if you started your bondage there you’re halfway home with that whole gang of sponsors, trustees, juries, God knows what who’ve survived that Slough of Despond and floated to the top. Just look at the next day’s New York Times, page after page bulging with self-congratulation with seven more categories to leech on, music, what they call drama and of course books where the Grey Lady finally got it both ways with their journalist who reviews books, like the misty-eyed ingenue but also destroys women writers and just for fairness crosses the gender line for an occasional assassination, give that lady a Pulitzer with oak leaf clusters! The books that are candidates are read by a jury whose decisions are passed up to the Olympian trustees with an eye to the multitude. We are thousands and they are millions, write the fiction they want or don’t write at all, ruling out Pound’s cry for the new, the challenging or what’s labeled difficult, so when Gravity’s Rainbow is being devoured by college youth everywhere and wins the National Book Award, its unanimous recommendation is overturned by the trustees for a double-talk spoof of academic vagaries by a bogus “Professor,” to everyone’s relief, and the author at peril escapes unblemished by the, no, no, no you can’t depend on it.

Books Acquired, 3.19.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New From Picador

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New and newish titles from the good people at Picador. A few highlights:

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I read Peter Hoeg’s bestseller Smilla’s Sense of Snow over a decade ago; I recall reading it in a day or two, maybe as part of a long bus ride somewhere, and enjoying caustic Smilla’s murder investigation. It’s 20 years old now and getting the rerelease treatment. From Robert Nathan’s original 1993 review at The New York Times:

TRY this for an offer you could easily refuse. How would you like to be locked in a room for a couple of days with an irritable, depressed malcontent who also happens to be imperiously smart, bored and more than a little spoiled? Say no, and you will miss not only a splendid entertainment but also an odd and seductive meditation on the human condition. With “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” his American debut following two previous books, the Danish novelist Peter Hoeg finds his own uncommon vein in narrative territory worked by writers as varied as Martin Cruz Smith and Graham Greene — the suspense novel as exploration of the heart. Mr. Hoeg’s heroine, Smilla Jaspersen, is the daughter of an Eskimo mother who was a nomadic native of Greenland and a wealthy Danish anesthesiologist father, parentage that endows her with the resilience of the frozen north and urban civilization’s existential malaise. One day just before Christmas, Smilla arrives at her Copenhagen apartment building to find a neighbor boy, 6-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, sprawled face down in the snow, dead after a fall from the roof of a nearby warehouse.

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Love love love the covers for these pair by Nadine Gordimer—nice design work. I haven’t read Gordimer’s stuff — she’s a South African writer who won the Nobel in 1991 — so Jump and Other Stories seems like a good starting place. Here’s James Wood on Gordimer:

Gordimer’s talent is poetic and intellectual…Her best writing, sensuous, but aerated with deep intelligence, moving shrewdly between the serene claims of the poetic and the frantic compulsions of the political, makes her the lyrical analyst of an entire country

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Amy Waldman’s The Submission is a 9/11 novel. Here’s Michiko Kakutani gushing in The New York Times:

A decade after 9/11, Amy Waldman’s nervy and absorbing new novel, “The Submission,” tackles the aftermath of such a terrorist attack head-on. The result reads as if the author had embraced Tom Wolfe’s famous call for a new social realism — for fiction writers to use their reporting skills to depict “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping baroque country of ours” — and in doing so, has come up with a story that has more verisimilitude, more political resonance and way more heart than Mr. Wolfe’s own 1987 best seller, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

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A Death in the Summer is new in trade paperback. It’s another in the Quirke crime series from Benjamin Black — pen name of writer John Banville. Jacket copy:

On a sweltering summer afternoon, newspaper tycoon Richard Jewell—known to his many enemies as Diamond Dick—is discovered with his head blown off by a shotgun blast. But is it suicide or murder? For help with the investigation, Detective Inspector Hackett calls in his old friend Quirke, who has unusual access to Dublin’s elite.

Jewell’s coolly elegant French wife, Françoise, seems less than shocked by her husband’s death. But Dannie, Jewell’s high-strung sister, is devastated, and Quirke is surprised to learn that in her grief she has turned to an unexpected friend: David Sinclair, Quirke’s ambitious assistant in the pathology lab at the Hospital of the Holy Family. Further, Sinclair has been seeing Quirke’s fractious daughter Phoebe, and an unlikely romance is blossoming between the two. As a record heat wave envelops the city and the secret deals underpinning Diamond Dick’s empire begin to be revealed, Quirke and Hackett find themselves caught up in a dark web of intrigue and violence that threatens to end in disaster.

Tightly plotted and gorgeously written, A Death in Summer proves to the brilliant but sometimes reckless Quirke that in a city where old money and the right bloodlines rule, he is by no means safe from mortal danger.

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Del Quentin Wilber’s Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan demanded more of my attention than I thought it would. It’s tightly paced book, telegraphed in sharp language—but most of all, the story of John Hinckley is just too bizarre. Here’s a sample of the would

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And if that’s not weird enough for you, check out Hinckley’s fantasy life:

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Satantango (Book Acquired, 3.15.2012)

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Was happy to get a finished copy of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango (new in English translation for the first time from the good people at New Directions). From Jacob Silverman’s review at The New York Times:

As in much of Krasznahorkai’s work, a sense of hallucinatory conspiracy is in the air. People speak ominously, if vaguely, about what lies ahead. They see visions and hear bells they can’t place. “If they read the papers properly,” one character says, “they would know that there is a real crisis out there.”

But there is also a shared belief that things aren’t as they appear. Some mistake must have been made; things can’t be as bad as they seem. And so the residents “are waiting. They’re waiting patiently, like the long-suffering lot they are, in the firm conviction that someone has conned them. They are waiting, belly to the ground, like cats at pig-killing time, hoping for scraps.” (This repetition, with its gradual slathering of metaphoric detail, characterizes Krasznahorkai’s style.)

I started the ARC I got of Satantango (mistitled on the spine; see below), but got sidetracked with epic books by William Gaddis and William Vollmann. (Blame the Bills). I will give the book my full attention in the nearish future.

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Books Acquired, 1.17.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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The kind people at Picador sent me a box of books, including a memoir (Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger), a few novels (The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan; Ralph Sassone’s The Intimates; Alan Glynn’s noir thriller Bloodland; Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz, which purports to be a “documentary novel”; and Zoë Heller’s first novel, Everything You Know), and a work of political science (Ari Berman’s Herding Donkeys).

A box of books is a bit overwhelming, but I make it a point to spend some time with every book that comes into Biblioklept World Headquarters. Here’s some thoughts on these.

I actually ended up reading almost all of The Lover’s Dictionary, despite it having the word “lover” in the title, which, jeez. When my wife picked it up, she said something like, “How can they call this a novel?” — fair question, because the book is structured like a dictionary. In point of illustration:

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I’ve got a bigger post on Levithan’s book coming up, one that tries to situate it in the context of other non-novelly novels—but in short it is a novel, a very contemporary one that tells the oldest story in the proverbial book (boy meets girl) in an elliptical way that suits our post-information age. Like I said more to come, but for now: The Lover’s Dictionary is funny, occasionally cruel, too-often saccharine, awfully real, sometimes deeply flawed, but consistently engaging (sorry for all the adverbs).

I imagine Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger will capture the fascination of a large audience, but half an hour of the book was almost more than I could bear. Not because Fragoso can’t write—far from it, in fact—but her subject matter, which is to say her stolen childhood, is rendered too raw,   too real for me; there’s nothing pulpy or lurid about Fragoso’s work, nor is there the aesthetic sheen of Lolita to gloss any of the ugly, sordid details.  Kathryn Harrison ponders the question of Tiger, Tiger’s audience in her favorable review at The New York Times:

So who — other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a pedophile in action — will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterized by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion — minding our own business. Maybe a book like “Tiger, Tiger” can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

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Ralph Sassone’s The Intimates: sex scenes (straight and gay); lots of notations about parents; lots of characters.

Dieter Schlesak’s The Druggist of Auschwitz: This “documentary novel” blends actual testimony from the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, interviews with camp guards and prisoners, and fictional narrative to tell the true story of Dr. Victor Capesius, an SS officer who worked with Mengele. The book is less gimmicky than it sounds in this description, and if its documentary elements are blunter and less ambiguous than W.G. Sebald’s historical fragments, I suppose that’s what the subject matter merits.

Alan Glynn’s new novel Bloodland (a Picador paperback original) is a noirish thriller set against the backdrop of political and corporate intrigue. Glynn writes with terse immediacy, telegraphing the plot in short punchy sentences that recall James Ellroy (without the finnicky slang). The book reads almost like a movie script, vivid and concrete. It’s a fast-paced page turner with a smart plot, just the sort of thing one wants from a thriller.

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Herding Donkeys by Ari Berman: Honestly not my thing, but if you want to read about the DNC from the time of Howard Dean to the rise of Barrack Obama, this is probably a book for you.

Zoë Heller’s Everything You Know: This is new in paperback again after over a decade. The story focuses on a cantankerous, unlikable son-of-a-bitch named Willy Muller. Things aren’t going well for him: he’s just suffered a heart attack, his daughter’s committed suicide, and the public still believes he murdered his wife. No wonder he hates humanity. Heller is probably most famous for her novel Notes on a Scandal, which was adapted into an excellent film in 2006.

Biblioklept’s picks: The Lover’s Dictionary; Tiger, Tiger; Bloodland.

Kakutani, Limn Addict

There’s a piece today in Salon about Michiko Kakutani taking up her favorite verb “limn” again. Thrilling stuff, I know, but it recalled to me this list compiled in Harper’s eight years ago by Christian Lorentzen of Kakutanis’ use of “limn” (the Harper’s bit is not mentioned in the Salon article) —

Limn an entire life in a couple of pages

Limn the trajectory of an entire life in a handful of pages

Limn the suffocating atmosphere of small-town life and the alienation experienced by those who defy its provincial mores

Limn the last days of an alcoholic frontierswoman living in a small western town

Limn a man’s sudden apprehension of vulnerability and loss–all brought on by his discovery of a dead rat on his kitchen floor

Limn his inner life or probe the sources of his equipoise

Limn the inner life of people, surprised by the deceptions of time

Limn, with tenderness, wisdom, and humor, a vast array of human relationships, both straight and gay

Limn the rituals of hunting, trapping, planting, and canning with a wry mixture of amusement and respect

Limn the daily minutiae of life

Limn the human condition

Limn the complicated emotional geometry

Limn the delicate geometry of emotions

Limn a marriage of enduring passion and shared ideals

Limn Willy’s fears of losing Biff’s love and his own longings for immortality

Limn the brutal, perilous, and harrowing art of killing a forty-ton creature with a hand-thrown weapon

Limn some of its burgeoning manifestations

Limn the social and geopolitical fallout

Limn the surrealness of contemporary life

Limn the rhythms of the universe and an artist’s inner state of mind

Limn a future in which Pop Art gives way to Poll Art

Limn the nervous, almost flirtatious banter

Limn a hero’s efforts to achieve self-understanding

Limn girls’ secret struggle for womanhood in the post-sexual-revolution world

Limn the dangers posed by emerging diseases

Limn the spiritual yearnings and dislocations of an entire nation as it lurched from the certainties of the World War II years toward the confusions of the 1970s

Limn the irrationalities of history

Limn the impermanence–and emotional chaos–that threatens to overwhelm ordinary people

Limn the fabulous

Limn the ordinary with seeming nonchalance

Limn this deeply felt, if somewhat limited, theme with clarity and moral vigor

“I Have a Very Vivid Child’s View” — A 1967 Interview with J.R.R. Tolkien

Read this marvelous 1967 profile of J.R.R. Tolkien by Philip Norman, in The New York Times. The piece focuses on Tolkien’s impact in America, particularly in the universities and the counterculture. From the piece—

Tolkien wasn’t a hearty child. At the age of 3 he was brought home from Bloemfontein, South Africa, his birthplace, and brought up at Sarehole, near Birmingham. Until he won a scholarship to grammar school his mother taught him. He is particularly attached to the powder horn; it reminds him of being “borrowed” by an African named Isaac, who wanted to show a white baby off in his kraal. “It was typical native psychology but it upset everyone very much, of course. I know he called his son Isaac after himself, Mister Tolkien after my father and Victor-ha! ha!-after Queen Victoria.

“I was nearly bitten by a snake and I was stung by a tarantula, I believe. In my garden. All I can remember is a very hot day, long, dead grass and running. I don’t even remember screaming. I remember being rather horrified at seeing the Archdeacon eat mealies [Indian corn] in the proper fashion.” …Tolkien stuck his fingers in his mouth.

“Quite by accident, I have a very vivid child’s view, which was the result of being taken away from one country and put in another hemisphere-the place where I belonged but which was totally novel and strange. After the barren, arid heat a Christmas tree. But no, it was not an unhappy childhood. It was full of tragedies but it didn’t tot up to an unhappy childhood.”