I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.
A few months back there was some fuss about Penguin selling, for close to $8,000, the Complete Collection: More than 1000 of the Greatest Classics. Recently, used bookstore owner Jeff Sharman went through his inventory and found "a handful of forgotten Penguin Classics" - ones that didn't make the cut. He raises an interesting point that not all classics stand the test of time.
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Adam Langer has an entertaining essay at The Book Standard which is full of discarded titles for classic books and films. But the fact is that Thomas Wolfe's original title O, Lost doesn't have quite the same ring as Look Homeward, Angel, nor does Margaret Mitchell's Fontenoy Hall, which became Gone with the Wind. If F. Scott Fitzgerald had gone with Trimalchio in West Egg, one of his working titles for The Great Gatsby, God knows what we'd have studied in high school.In the essay, Langer also reveals that his next book is tentatively titled The Washington Story.
Today in my mailbox, I found a hardcover edition of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I've become something of a Bolaño-phile in the last year... in fact, I already read the English translation of 2666, the late Chilean author's magnum opus, this summer, in galley form. And so the arrival of the finished book was a pleasant surprise.Superficially, I can report that the dustjacket is a little disappointing; its reproduction of Gustave Moreau's "Jupiter and Semele" appears mildly washed-out to me, and the author's name gets a bit lost. In all other particulars, though - the wonderful, sea-sponge endpapers, the sturdy cloth binding, the great typefaces - 2666 has the look of a masterpiece. (The three-paperback edition is handsome, too.)That said, looking like a masterpiece is pretty meaningless. How the book reads is what matters. While I plan to write at greater length in the next month about the contents of 2666, I noted with some interest an early review from Kirkus, excerpted in the press materials: "Unquestionably the finest novel of the present century - and we may be saying the same thing 92 years from now." This is heady stuff, but once you've read the novel, it doesn't seem hyperbolic; rather, it's an indicator of the high stakes for which Bolaño was playing in this, his last book.Back in May, I wondered if critics were going to recognize the seriousness of the attempt, or whether, Kakutani-like, they would draw an invidious comparison with the more accessible The Savage Detectives. I guess we'll soon find out.
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In 1886, Anton Chekhov wrote a letter to his brother enumerating the following requirements for his own writing:Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic natureTotal objectivityTruth descriptions of persons and objectsExtreme brevityAudacity and originality; flee stereotypesCompassionI like to present this list at the start of any fiction writing class because it's wonderful conversation fodder. Everyone has one they cherish (for me, it's compassion), and one they revile (as my students recently pointed out to me: Can anyone every be totally objective? Isn't the fleeing of stereotypes stereotypical?). After a discussion of this list, I have my students replace one or two of Chekhov's rules with their own. Popular answers include: passion; avoidance of adverbs; write what you know; write what you don't know; and humor. I always add "Bold use of metaphor" - whatever that means. If I were to revise Chekhov's list, I'd take the "extreme" out of "extreme brevity." Too wordy.Perhaps Chekhov hadn't read Edgar Allan Poe's famous 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, in which he advised, "Extreme brevity will degenerate into epigrammatism." I have a feeling that Ernest Hemingway did catch this warning, though, for when he was challenged to write a story in six words, he took old Poe to task with this:"For sale: baby shoes, never used."I love Hemingway's story - how it attests to the power of implication! For a long time, I thought it very sad, until author Antoine Wilson schooled me otherwise. Now I appreciate it even more.As pointed out on this blog a few days ago, Smith, the online magazine devoted to storytelling and personal narratives, is publishing a compendium of 6-word memoirs by various authors (some of them were previously compiled in the 2007 edition of The Best American Non-Required Reading.) My favorites include Drew Peck's "Ex-wife and contractor now have house" (which follows in Hemingway's footsteps of implication), and Bob Redman's "Being a monk stunk. Better gay" (for its musical qualities). All entries are fun, and they make you want to try writing one.I myself am terrible at the six-word story, autobiographical or not. Perhaps that's the real reason why I don't want the "extreme" in my "brevity." I use as few words as a story requires - but sometimes a story requires a lot of words. Isn't that what writers of the long short story - such as Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg - might tell you? But Poe warns against this, too, for "the sin of extreme length is even more unpardonable."Uh oh.
A couple of weeks passed and I had the urge to read another novel, so using a trip to Chicago as the good chance it was, I picked up J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. Again, I was amazed at the ease with which Salinger grasps the reader's attention and pulls him into the dialogues of Franny and Zooey. The Glass family is extraordinary in many ways and Zooey's rants reminds me of an older version of Vince Vaughn. I could not finish the novel on my flights to and from Chicago, which is just as well, because on Monday, after I got home from work I filled the tub a la Zooey, lay in it for half an hour, and finished the book. A friend of mine once mentioned that it was his favorite piece growing up and he'd read it once every week, I understand and respect his mania now. I think I shall turn to The Catcher in the Rye next and keep reading the genius that Salinger is.I traveled to Charlottesville and back via train in the same week. During the thirteen hours I spent on the Amtrak couch, I luxuriously started and finished Orhan Pamuk's Sessiz Ev (silent house, La Maison du silence). I really like Pamuk, he is a pretentious, rich, aristocratic bastard in life but his novels are for the most part very successful in grasping certain periods of Turkey's modern history. I am afraid that Sessiz Ev has not been translated into English but you can read it in French if you so desire. In this second novel of his, Pamuk describes the visit of three siblings to their grandmother's residence an hour east of Istanbul. It is the summer of 1980, three months before the military coup, the youngest brother, now a senior in high school, wants to continue his education in the U.S. and has high capitalistic ambitions, the sister, a junior in college, is an ardent communist and would like nothing better than to see the fascists beat, and the older brother, a thirty-four-year-old drunken history professor, is aloof to everything and resembles his father and grandfather in his disconnect to the world. Sessiz Ev is a very interesting study of an important period in Turkey through common, unhappy and disgruntled characters.My last pick of the year is a serious undertaking, Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. I am almost halfway through and enjoy the story, language, and the other novellas inserted in the middle. Clearly there is much to be said about Don Quixote but I will keep my reserve until I am done reading the whole novel.And last but not least, I also picked up Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry Wotton's opinions have forced me to put Don Quixote on hold and indulge in the vanity that Lord Henry propagates. Of course, more on The Picture of Dorian Gray once I am done, but let it suffice to say that I am currently thrilled by its brilliance.[Thanks for sharing your year in reading, Emre]Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9