Today, while I was driving, I caught a review of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle on Fresh Air. It was a very favorable review (in fact the book has been getting great reviews in most places). I would love to read the book and comment on it here, but I can’t forsee myself getting to it any time soon. And therefore, I won’t get to talk about it here. The stack of books is just too high. Yet I happen to have an advance copy of Triangle, and I hate to see it gather dust. So here is my idea: whoever among you would like to read this book and put together a little review or comment or whatever on it for this site, email me and I will send you the book. Then I was thinking, I am lucky enough to have access to advance copies of books from time to time, and wouldn’t it be great if I could pass them along to people so they can write a little something which I can then post on The Millions. It sounds like good fun to me. So… if you would like to review Triangle for The Millions email me and I will send you the book. (By the way Triangle is about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, an unconscionable tragedy that proved to be a watershed event in improving working conditions [and especially working conditions for women] in America.) As I get other new books, I will offer them up for review as well. Also, if you happen to have access to review copies of books, and would like to help stock my guest review program, well, that would be really sweet.
Here are some more books coming our wayBack when I worked at the bookstore, Elizabeth Crane’s When the Messenger is Hot was one of the books my coworkers liked to evangelize about. Read “The Daves” and you’ll see why. Crane has a new collection of stories coming out in a couple of weeks called All This Heavenly Glory. Here’s one of the stories from the new collection, an amusing take on the personal ad which becomes much more impressive when you realize that the whole long piece is one sentence (unless you think using semi-colons is cheating). Three other reasons to like Elizabeth Crane: She lives in Chicago, the city I currently call home. She was interviewed in Tap: Chicago’s Bar Journal. She has a charming, unassuming blog called – for reasons I cannot discern – standby_bert.You may recognize the name Achmat Dangor because his novel of apartheid and its aftermath, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2004. Although the South African novelist missed out on any Booker boost his novel might have received here in the States, the book, which hits shelves soon, will likely garner some prominent reviews. In the meantime, here’s an interesting piece by Dangor about South African literature from the Guardian, and here’s a brief excerpt from Bitter Fruit.Alicia Erian’s debut collection of stories from 2001, The Brutal Language of Love was described as “seductive, erotic, smart and tartly humorous” by Publishers Weekly. Now Erian is returning with her first novel, Towelhead, a contemporary coming-of-age story about a half-Lebanese girl who moves to Texas to live with her strict father. The novel’s title comes from the epithet she hears from other residents of her less than enlightened suburb near Houston. A long – and very compelling – excerpt of the book is available here. And for a different taste of Erian’s writing, try this story from 2000 in the Barcelona Review.In 2002’s Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, Marc Estrin conjured up a second life for Kafka’s transmogrified protagonist. In his new novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Estrin wonders: what’s in a name? Saddled with an unfortunate surname, Arnold is at the mercy of preconceived notions and receives the attention of many unsavory characters. A brief excerpt is available here. Estrin also has a blog that is in its infancy.Look for more upcoming books in this space over the next few days.
Ten Little Indians, a new collection of short stories by Sherman Alexie, came in today. I have read a few Alexie stories here and there as he appears often in anthologies and literary magazines, but until recently I had not been an avid fan. A month or so ago, however, a story of his “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” appeared in the New Yorker. It is a tremendous story, and the price of the book is worth that story alone. It has been exciting to hear that the rest of the stories meet that standard. I see this as, possibly, a breakthrough collection for him.Baseball: A Summer DiversionI was very pleased and a bit surprised to see that this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review is devoted to baseball, leading off with a review of Game Time, collection of baseball writing by one of my favorites, Roger Angell. Game Time is sitting on my shelf right now, and a fully intend to read and savor it before the season is out. Also, reviewed is the baseball book of the moment, if not THE book of the moment: Moneyball. There are some other less well know books covered, as well as books by a couple of the country’s favorite chroniclers of our pastime: Roger Kahn and David Halberstam. I will probably talk about them more once the Times puts the new Book Review up on the website, and I can read the reviews at my leisure.
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
If you haven’t been there already, it’s not too late to check out the LBC’s discussion of Firmin by Sam Savage, our Autumn Read This! selection. Also, don’t miss the post from author Savage. By the way, I highly recommend this tale of a literary rat. Firmin is among the few animal protagonists who is neither moralistic nor an allegory, he’s just a sentient rat living in a bookstore near Boston’s decrepit Scollay Square.Update: If you hurry, you can still get in on the Firmin giveaway going on at the LBC right now.
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.
In Elmira, NY, six high school students banded together to break the Guinness Book of Records marathon reading record. Says the AP:They whizzed through more than 20 beloved children’s books, including the six-volume Harry Potter series, seven Goosebumps thrillers and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. They wrapped up their epic, 128-hour performance on the school auditorium stage with Oh, the Places You’ll Go, a Dr. Seuss classic.Meanwhile, in Albany, other long-distance readers, among them William Kennedy and Andy Rooney, joined forces for a 24-hour reading of Moby Dick, as part of “Why Melville Matters Now” weekend at the Albany Academies school.
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History