The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
On Monday I saw Marjane Satrapi speak at a local bookstore. Her graphic novel Persepolis has been a great success, and now she's out promoting the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. As a speaker she was surprisingly frank and funny. When someone asked her about her self-imposed exile in France, she described Iran as her mother, but France as her wife. "You can cheat on your wife," she said as the audience chuckled. She also wryly called out an audience member who implied that she was an Arab in asking whether Satrapi's ethnicity posed any problems for her in her adopted country. "No," Satrapi said, "in France they know that there is a difference between an Iranian and an Arab" (emphasis hers). Satrapi also said that she wrote fourteen children's books and received hundreds of rejection letters before she shifted her focus slightly and morphed her project into a graphic novel. She proved to be a delightful and entertaining speaker, and I found myself thinking that she would probably be as successful doing speaking engagements as she is at penning graphic novels.After pushing the literary world's buttons last year by awarding Stephen King an honorary National Book Award for contributions to American letters, the National Book Foundation has decided to continue in that same vein by giving this year's award to the iconic writer of children's books, Judy Blume. The New York Times reports.In book review news, Michiko Kakutani doesn't like T.C. Boyle's new novel, The Inner Circle, likening it to a couple of his lesser works, Riven Rock and The Road to Wellville. Meanwhile, in the New Yorker, Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America gets a good review, but I've received some emails from readers who managed to get their hands on advance copies saying the book isn't Roth's best.
From the WSJ, a story of how the Cuban government has licensed franchises of La Bodeguita del Medio, a watering hole where Ernest Hemingway supposedly once hung out. "The concept clicked, and La Bodeguita outlets spread across Latin America and European cities including Paris and Berlin. Even in former communist capitals like Prague -- where some locals call the restaurants 'McCastro's' -- the Hemingway link attracts business." It sounds like a Cuban Hard Rock Cafe that's Hemingway-themed rather than aging rocker-themed. My favorite part of the story is the lead paragraph:A life-size likeness of Ernest Hemingway greets diners entering La Bodeguita del Medio bistro near Stanford University here. Patrons at La Bodeguita del Medio in Prague order The Old Man and the Seafood plate. And in London's new version of the same restaurant, which opened last month, the owner says Hemingway novels will be available for perusal in the men's room.Separately, and more seriously, an article about how The Nature Conservancy came to own Hemingway's last house, in Ketchum, Idaho.
As many of our readers know, long-time Millions staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg's debut novel City on Fire is coming this fall. It landed on our annual preview last month and has been the subject of much media interest. Right now, Hallberg and the book are being featured at the ABA's annual Winter Institute, a sort of Davos for independent booksellers. We were able to secure a copy of City on Fire and can share the novel's opening lines. The book's Prologue begins: IN NEW YORK, you can get anything delivered. Such, anyway, is the principle I’m operating on. It’s the middle of summer, the middle of life. I’m in an otherwise deserted apartment on West 16th Street, listening to the placid hum of the fridge in the next room, and though it contains only a mesozoic half-stick of butter my hosts left behind when they took off for the shore, in 40 minutes I can be eating more or less whatever I can imagine wanting. When I was a young man—younger, I should say—you could even order in drugs. Business cards stamped with a 212 number and that lonesome word, delivery, or, more usually, some bullshit about therapeutic massage. I can’t believe I ever forgot this.
My winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter. I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.” Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now. But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer. First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book: I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child. The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness. It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard: After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre's request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?...His hopes for the future?...Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang. I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t: “Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.
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News that Stuart Dybek, a great and overlooked short-story writer, had been awarded a MacArthur grant sent me back to the archives of the now-defunct Fabulous World of Hot Face for this review of 2003's I Sailed With Magellan. As you can see below, I recommend that Dybek neophytes may want to skip around in this collection, or start with The Coast of Chicago.I Sailed With MagellanLike the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical "short shorts"), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the "Novel-in-Verse" its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac's Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here - "Song," "Undertow," "Blue Boy," and "Je Reviens." All four offer glimpses of Perry's childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories - "Lunch at the Loyola Arms," "Orchids," "We Didn't," and "Que Quieres" - show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished... well, so does adulthood; I'll call it "evocative disarray" and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry's uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of "Breasts," a novella largely unrelated to Dybek's attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses - stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.Even sans "Breasts," I Sailed With Magellan doesn't succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry's journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother's madness - alluded to in several stories - can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn't remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry's (and perhaps Dybek's) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed With Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel's possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek's intentions better than the "Novel in Stories" seems to.
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I got a real kick out of this story about Edward P. Jones doing a reading at a Volvo dealership near Washington, DC.The reading at the car dealership may have been one of the stranger marriages of highbrow art and the mass market. Even Jones said afterward that when he got the invitation, he figured that he'd be appearing at a school or in a conference room. "I've never been in a car dealership before, not having a car," he mused. "But I used to pass by here on the bus." Classic. And, by the way, is this the sort of thing we all talk about when we wish that literary fiction got more exposure? I think maybe it is.
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it's good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn't get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So.... where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like "he wondered what colour knickers she wore" and "I'm also very fond of this girl with a squint." To be more precise, it wasn't just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn't fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent's Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they're just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante's Ask the Dust. Nunez's hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante's Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I'd say it's worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later....