Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic (Book Acquired, 5.01.2014)

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Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic is new in trade paperback from Picador.

This (longish) blurb is from the author’s website, where you can also download an excerpt of the book and/or listen to audio of McCann reading from TransAtlantic:

In the National Book Award–winning Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann thrilled readers with a marvelous high-wire act of fiction that The New York Times Book Review called “an emotional tour de force.” Now McCann demonstrates once again why he is one of the most acclaimed and essential authors of his generation with a soaring novel that spans continents, leaps centuries, and unites a cast of deftly rendered characters, both real and imagined.

Newfoundland, 1919. Two aviators—Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown—set course for Ireland as they attempt the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, placing their trust in a modified bomber to heal the wounds of the Great War.

Dublin, 1845 and ’46. On an international lecture tour in support of his subversive autobiography, Frederick Douglass finds the Irish people sympathetic to the abolitionist cause—despite the fact that, as famine ravages the countryside, the poor suffer from hardships that are astonishing even to an American slave.

New York, 1998. Leaving behind a young wife and newborn child, Senator George Mitchell departs for Belfast, where it has fallen to him, the son of an Irish-American father and a Lebanese mother, to shepherd Northern Ireland’s notoriously bitter and volatile peace talks to an uncertain conclusion.

These three iconic crossings are connected by a series of remarkable women whose personal stories are caught up in the swells of history. Beginning with Irish housemaid Lily Duggan, who crosses paths with Frederick Douglass, the novel follows her daughter and granddaughter, Emily and Lottie, and culminates in the present-day story of Hannah Carson, in whom all the hopes and failures of previous generations live on. From the loughs of Ireland to the flatlands of Missouri and the windswept coast of Newfoundland, their journeys mirror the progress and shape of history. They each learn that even the most unassuming moments of grace have a way of rippling through time, space, and memory.

The most mature work yet from an incomparable storyteller, TransAtlantic is a profound meditation on identity and history in a wide world that grows somehow smaller and more wondrous with each passing year.

The Book of Men (Book Acquired, 10.25.2013)

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The Book of Men  is curated (and not, curiously, edited, which is the word I thought we used, but hey, whatever) by Colum McCann. Publisher’s blurb:

To help launch the literary nonprofit Narrative 4, Esquire asked eighty of the world’s greatest writers to chip in with a story, all with the title, “How to Be a Man.”

The result is The Book of Men, an unflinching investigation into the essence of masculinity.

The Book of Men probes, with the poignant honesty and imagination that only these writers could deliver, the slippery condition of manhood. You will find men striving and searching, learning and failing to learn, triumphing and aspiring; men who are lost and men navigating their way toward redemption. These stories don’t just explore what it is to be a man or how to achieve manliness, but ultimately what it is to be a human—with all of its uncertainty, complexity, clumsiness, and beauty.

With contributions from literary luminaries as diverse as the subjects they capture, and curated by the editors of Esquire, National Book Award winner Colum McCann, and Narrative 4, a global nonprofit devoted to using storytelling as a means to empathy, The Book of Men might not teach you how to negotiate a deal or mix a Manhattan, but it does scratch at that most eternal of questions: What is a man?

Lots of shorties here. Here’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s entry:

Our Sundays always tasted like peppers that flared hot in the rice and soups and stews. We sat in the kitchen, knees fresh from pews, and watched our houseboy pounding them in pairs. He held the phallic pestle—thump thump thump—while we coughed and spluttered with watery eyes. Nobody tastes them raw, it wasn’t wise. But we did, and then we’d shout and jump to the fridge for ice.
My mom sang an Igbo song about strong women. It wasn’t too trite, but it told of places she didn’t know, streams, goddesses, women who couldn’t read. Women like that would squeeze peppers, I heard, and force them between their daughters’ legs—“so they’ll stop following boys.” But Eros was good for sons. No peppers to curb sons’ paths to manhood.

 

The Novelist’s Lexicon

The Novelist’s Lexicon, new in hardback from Columbia University Press, is an auspicious and at times bewildering project originating from an international literary conference hosted by Le Monde a few years ago. Over seventy authors from more than a dozen countries were asked to write about a “key word that opens the door to his work.” A list of just a few of the authors here is probably more than enough to pique interest: Rick Moody, Helene Cixous, Colum McCann, Jonathan Lethem, Adam Thirlwell, A.S. Byatt, David Peace, Dennis Cooper, and Annie Proulx all contribute pieces, mostly short, somewhere between 100 and 500 words. By nature, The Novelist’s Lexicon is a fragmentary affair, discontinuous, open to multiplicity, and unified only by its authors’ sense of craft, as well as an abiding intelligence.

Some authors take the project in earnest, like Lethem, whose piece “Furniture,” (which we excerpted late last year) pinpoints a fundamental yet largely unremarked upon element of novel-writing. French author Nicholas Fargues taps into etymology, offering a bit of advice in his piece “Novice”–

Don’t ‘make’ literature. Don’t write because that’s what people expect of you now that you’re a ‘writer.’ Don’t write for the beauty of the gesture or the love of art. Beware of fine phrases and well-turned maxims; that’s not your thing. Watch out for words that strike a pose. But do let your memory and your instincts flow; let the aptest words, the words that resemble you most closely, come of their own accord.

Anne Weber’s piece “Waiting/Attention” suggests that a key word — or any key, really — is an impossible dream–

It would be a word that encapsulated my aspirations and expectations, my sadness and my joy, my amazement at the quince’s hairy skin, the wash of the sky, and the delicate pattern of the cyclamen’s leaves. And since everything would be contained in this single, essential word, since it would express everything, I wouldn’t need to write anymore. And good riddance, too!

Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who goes with “Un-” also points to language’s simultaneous limitations and possibilities–

Un- as in never being satisfied with the language we have. Un- as in the realization of how difficult it is to communicate with people in a language you have invented yourself. Un- as in doubting whether you will ever succeed. Un- as in continuing to try even so. Un- as in suddenly launching yourself over a coffee table and transforming a dictionary into confetti.

Khemiri’s frustration with language (and paradoxical love) is thematic throughout Lexicon; we see it, for instance in David Peace’s “Plague.” Peace comes off like the crotchety old man in the group–

To be honest or stupid or both, but not churlish or contrary (I hope), I am uncertain I understand the premise of this lexicon. However, I am against the presumption of all premises and, equally, I am against all definitions and dictionaries, lexicons and lists, which, in their commodification and exclusivity, are the preserve and the territory of fascists and shoppers.

After this radical caveat, including the claim that he is under “duress” (did the folks at Le Monde put guns to these authors’ heads?), Peace goes on to discuss the word “plague,” tracing it through Western lit and showing how it evinces in his novel Occupied City (which we reviewed here, by the way).

Perhaps Peace should’ve just ignored the assignment, like Dennis Cooper, whose piece is “Signed D.C.” is simply a work of microfiction, imagining what would happen if Olive Oyl and Popeye who “peel like decals from the TV and live in the world.” The story is a clever, short five paragraphs, and ends with at least a trace of insight into Cooper’s writing process: “I am heavier than my constructions understand.” Maybe he didn’t ignore the assignment.

Cooper is not the only writer to let fiction reign — there are poems and meditations and strange riffs here, largely divorced of discussion from technique or craft. In any case, those interested in getting into the heads of some of the 21st century’s most prominent (and skillful) writers will wish to take notice of The Novelist’s Lexicon, a fun and repeatedly rewarding book. Recommended.