The New Yorker pays tribute to Leonard Michaels this week by printing a story of his… a terriffic story called “Cryptology.” The weird timing of all this Michaels stuff has got me thinking that I really ought to read some more of his work. I will have to look around for some of his books. Scroll down a few entries to see more on Michaels. Also in the New Yorker James Wood reviews God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. This is a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is not the sort of subject matter that I am necessarily drawn to, but it has been incredibly well reviewed by some rather prestegious publications and reviewers: Jonathan Yardley and Christopher Hitchens to name a couple. If any of that looks interesting check out the first chapter.
After bringing us rankings and tags and reviews and recommendations and lists and blogs and discussions, Amazon, which never met a feature it didn't want to add to its product pages, has now added wikis. They live way down close to the bottom of the page. There aren't many of them yet, and it's hard to see a reason why they would really take off at this point, but who knows. To give an example here's the text that currently resides in the wiki for James Frey's infamous A Million Little Pieces: Author James Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969. He was educated at Denison University and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2000, he spent a year writing A Million Little Pieces, which was published in 2003 by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, Inc. He is married and has one child. In early 2006 he admitted that much of the content in A Million Little Pieces, which is presented as a memoir, had been fabricated.That's it. Not very exciting, is it. But perhaps there are more exciting wikis floating around in Amazon-space. If you're inclined to explore, the list of most-edited wikis might be a good place to start.
Check out an excerpt of the Art of Fiction with Haruki Murakami from The Paris Review. If you are a Murakami fan like me, you should buy the issue and read the complete interview. If you do, you will find a discussion of Murakami's upcoming novel Kafka on the Shore, which is due out in January. And from the British Library: "On this site you will find the British Library's 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642." (LINK)
My appetite for fiction comes and goes and recently it's been hard to find. It's no coincidence that during this period in which my bookmark has not moved from page 87 of Emma I've been feeling a little like Ishmael at the beginning of Moby-Dick, possessed of the urge to step into the street and begin knocking people's top hats off. I have a hard time enjoying fictional characters when I'm feeling dreary towards the people who inhabit my real life. When I think about these recent months, and other times in my life when fiction has held less appeal, it occurs to me that a yen for fiction is something like my canary in the coal mine, an early indication, when it's ebbs, that something else is wrong. Over dinner the other night I asked my wife Caroline to describe what moods, for her, correlate with a desire to read fiction. After a moment she said, "When I'm feeling stimulated, I like to read fiction, and when my life feels sterile, I don’t." This rang true to me and I think it captures one of the essential paradoxes of fiction and art more generally: that to engage it requires a withdrawal from life, but to appreciate it requires a deep immersion in that very same thing. I was feeling sterile last week on a night when I spent hours working at the very tedious task of formatting a long outline on the computer. It was the type of mind-numbing process we're all familiar with, and by the end of it I felt like a very thin man with a very narrow outlook on the world. As I tried to fall asleep that night, I found that my whole life felt like one large unimaginative outline: Bullet points for the errands I needed to do the next day, bold 14-point headings for the things I hoped to accomplish over the next five years. In this limited state of mind, the idea of reading fiction was not just unappealing—it was completely incomprehensible—in the same way that aspiration must make very little sense to a cat. All forms of desire have their natural enemies and I find that nothing saps my desire to read fiction like the Internet does. This is partly physiological—too much time at the computer withers my brain—but it's partly dispositional, too. After the last round of primaries a couple Tuesdays ago, I spent an hour reading articles about the Tea Party. When I came up for air I was in an explicitly present-tense state of mind where anything written more than an hour ago seemed to be based on a world that had already been subsumed. Novels, which require a willingness to attend to more enduring themes, don’t hold up very well by this perspective. Politics as a whole has a fairly degrading effect on my fiction drive. It's not just that it's depressing to watch the way Congress operates—it's that it's depressing in such an unredeemable way. Fiction can be depressing too, of course, but there's something intrinsically optimistic about the process by which tragedy and frailty are turned into art. There's no similar silver lining when reform legislation gets gutted by special interests, (even writing the term "special interests" I can feel a requisite vigor drain from my body), or the country slides deeper into another foreign quagmire. One friend I talked to about this said that he had the opposite impulse, that he inclines towards fiction when he can't bear to look at the world anymore. I get this, but I also think that the impulse to create fiction, and to read it, derives from a fundamentally hopeful place—in which life is interesting enough to write about and meaningful encounters remain possible. If it is ever known that the world is sliding irretrievably into ruin, I don’t think I'll be reading a novel on the way down. The more I'm engaged with life—and particularly with other people—the more I want to read fiction. At the peak of a wedding reception or in the throes of a night out when the crowd has given itself over to celebration, I often want to sneak off and read a novel. It's a contradictory impulse, to want to retreat into a book at the precise moment I am most enthralled with life, but such are the circumstances we live by. What I'm after, I think, is a kind of synergy that can only happen when I approach a novel while my body is still charged with the feeling of being present and alive. At the same time, several of my most memorable encounters with fiction have taken place when I've been my most alone. In January 2008 I spent a month in Florence, South Carolina volunteering on a presidential campaign. The days were long and tiring, but it was exhilarating to feel like I was midstream in history. Late at night I'd return to the attic bedroom where I was staying in the home of a local resident and I'd read Anna Karenina until I couldn't stay awake any longer. I've rarely had so clear a view of the outline of my own skin as I did then, reading about Anna's fall and Lenin's angst in a house where everyone else was asleep, in a town where I didn't know anyone's last name.
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If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.” No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence -- but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass. First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow -- as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God. “The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories -- like Joyce’s -- that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him. “Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home. Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess. Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid -- the on the way to their home. Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See -- see -- what did I tell you -- snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow. They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45. They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen. Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” “The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated -- and, instead of Joyce -- tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
Two years ago, The Quarterly Conversation canvassed translators and publishers for great untranslated works and compiled their results in a volume called Translate This Book! In the same spirit, I offer to you Murathan Mungan, the much-loved, best-selling Turkish literary figure whose work, with the exception of some poems and an anthologized play and story, does not appear in English. Mungan is very prolific, and I am very slow; I'm sure he has many works worth translating. But I love the premise and the plots of Kadından Kentler (Cities of Women), a collection of 16 stories, each featuring a different woman in a different city in Turkey. Mungan is a major figure in Turkey -- his books become best-sellers when they appear, and just two weeks ago he received the Erdal Öz award for excellent writing (past Millions contributor Kaya Genç was a member of the selection committee). Mungan writes plays and poems and novels and music. He is openly gay and openly critical on matters political and social. He is an established member of the literary lights. (One columnist called him, somewhat pejoratively, Turkey's answer to Truman Capote; see Nimet Seker's biographical piece, in English, for a more substantial look at his accomplishments.) Being a foreigner, my literary valuations are naturally suspect; sometimes I read things in Turkish and like them simply because I didn't need a dictionary. This is not a good metric of excellence. But even while the process of reading Mungan is painful for me -- my brows knit as I reach for the dictionary and try to find the verb in an artistic sentence -- the strong spark of the work's quality and interest transmits itself even to my lumbering brain. The stories are about women's inner lives, and their outer lives in their various cities, from Sinop to Ankara and Diyarbakir. Sometimes the happenings are small in the grand scheme of things -- a newly-engaged girl strolls the Izmir pier for the first time alone. Other times, they are scandalous or macabre -- a weakness for young men, a suicide by pesticide. We see the inside of people's houses, the things in their handbags and their suitcases, their diseased family trees. The effect is voyeuristic and thrilling and sometimes grim, a literary gift to people who are prone to staring on buses and straining their ears in restaurants, trying to plumb the depths of their neighbors. I know, thanks to Emily Williams, that there are myriad barriers to translating and publishing non-English language works in America. Still, other languages have a much better track record of translating Mungan -- German, French, Italian, Greek, to name a few. If it's a matter of money, the Turkish Ministry of Culture is here to help: TEDA, the Translation Subvention Program of Turkey, provides grants to publishing houses and universities for the translation or publication of works in Turkish. With assistance from this program, Cities of Women appeared in German in 2010, two years after its Turkish publication, and Chador was translated into German, Italian, and Greek. The deadline to be considered for this application period is, er, tomorrow, but applications are accepted throughout the year. Furthermore, we Anglophones have a rare opportunity here for a bit of friendly cultural one-upmanship with the French: In a talk last summer, Mungan told the assembled that his French publishers rejected Cities of Women because they wanted to advertise him strictly as a novelist. The introduction of his stories and plays and poems to the market, they told him, would "confuse" the French people. Certainly there's an argument to be made against translating only the most famous people from a given place, but when the rates of translation into English are abysmal, we should be pragmatic. You need strong stuff to liberate the global Turkish literary market from the Pamuk monopoly, and Mungan has the credibility of critical and popular success, the seal of approval implicit in a long and august career. And most importantly, these stories are really great.
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The holidays are nearly upon us, and longtime Millions reader Laurie wrote in to share a number of ways to give back with books this year.Room to Read works in developing countries with low literacy rates to create kids books in local languages using local writers and artists.A Peace Corps rep asks for books in Honduras.Laurie also adds: "Our local B&N is conducting a book drive to put new books into the hands of local kids who would otherwise not have any to call their own. B&N will only accept books bought in the store, though (or, one clerk told me, 'possibly books that look new if you can show a receipt for them'). I understand the need to provide a poor kid something new, not a 'hand-me-down,' but this approach is so self-serving it detracts from the charitable aspect. Then again, it puts more new books in the hands of kids who have none in their homes, so maybe turning charity into a for-profit business tactic isn't totally evil? Or maybe donating to a nonprofit like First Book is a better choice."Here are more links to nonprofit book charities:Directory of Book Donation ProgramsBring Me a BookEthiopia Reads
In the Province of Saints, a first novel by the Irish writer - and Iowa Writers' Workshop grad - Thomas O'Malley is being compared to Angela's Ashes. The subject here is a down-on-its-luck family in an Ireland of the late 70s and early 80s that was still ravaged by sectarian violence. PW says "his sentences have a judicious clarity even as they twist into gnarled shapes; they carry O'Malley's characters though their incomprehension with poise and assurance." Here's one excerpt and another. The book comes out in late August.Xue Xinran was a radio show host in China before she moved to England. Her first book, The Good Women of China collected the stories she heard from women who called in to her radio show. Xinran's first novel, Sky Burial, is fictionalized from a story she heard in her more recent journalistic endeavors. It's about a couple split up by the conflict in Tibet in the 1950s. Scott recently pointed to this review in the SF Chronicle, and PW says, "Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran's story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation." The book is out this week. Here's an excerpt.