After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.
If you are like me, you are probably getting tired of politics. Politicians, political news, television ads from concerned citizens for this or that, conventions finally almost past, and debates still to come, I’m tired of all of it. Thank god someone decided that it was ok for people to make up big, long stories (or collect little, short ones) and for other people to read those stories. A diversion, if you like. So, what will divert us this month? T. C. Boyle, who has over the years become a bigger and bigger name in American fiction, has a new novel coming out called The Inner Circle. Set in 1940, the book is about a young man who works as an assistant for the sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey (a real historical figure), and quickly becomes embroiled in the sort of bizarreness one might expect from a novel by T. C. Boyle. I hope to read that one soon. If you’re the type of person who likes to know about the next big thing, have a look at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. You’ll be hearing about this book a lot for the next few months, so you might as well read it. Touted as, what else, Harry Potter for grown ups, this debut novel by Susanna Clarke is set to release simultaneously in the US, Britain, and Germany with a first run of 250,000 copies (astronomical for a debut by an unknown writer). Part of the buzz stems from the subject matter; it’s about magic, magicians, and mysticism, and with the success of Potter and Da Vinci Code these topics seem like a sure bet. But, according to many accounts, the book is not just timely, it’s a great read. Those looking to avoid the buzz may want to try another debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan. Tyne is an African immigrant who has raised his family in Canada. Circumstances and yearning for a better life lead him to relocate to Aster, a small town with a utopic history. He finds there a different set of struggles. For readers in the mood for something a little lighter and with a quicker pulse try The Little White Car a speedy little novel from Britain that sounds as energetic as Run, Lola, Run. The book was supposedly written by a new French talent, a young woman named Danuta de Rhodes, but skeptical British critics were quick to announce that de Rhodes is merely the alter ego of Dan Rhodes, known trickster and acclaimed author of Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Finally, those with a hankering for short stories might consider When The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff who previously wrote the novel The 25th Hour (which later was made into a movie by Spike Lee), and also The Secret Goldfish by David Means. Sounds a lot better than politics to me.The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle — Boyle’s blogJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke — previewThe Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Edi Edugyan — excerptThe Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes — the scoop, reviewWhen The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff — excerptThe Secret Goldfish by David Means — excerpt, review
As Banned Books Week closes, we naturally have news of more attempted book bannings. In Atlanta, a woman is leading a crusade to have the Harry Potter books removed from school libraries because they are “an ‘evil’ attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion.” And in Houston, in a particularly poorly conceived move, concerned parents are trying to ban Ray Bradbury’s anti-censorship tome Fahrenheit 451, after a student was offended by “the cussing in it and the burning of the Bible.” Although these efforts are distinguished by being ill-timed, they’re really no different from the book banning attempts that so frequently make the news. It seems like nearly every week there is a new book banning story to read as I look through the newspaper book pages.It has occurred to me, in reading all of these stories that these attempts to ban books almost never succeed, and that if any of these would be book banners read the paper they would know this. It follows then that a lack of curiosity, awareness, and probably education are all factors that breed book banners. The smaller one’s world is, the more likely he is to want to ban a book. In this way, the book banner is like the fundamentalist who desires to impose an irrational act on others in the name of blind faith. It is disconcerting to me how much noise these attempts sometimes make — the battles can rage on for weeks in local newspapers and at school board meetings. Still, it is heartening that books are so rarely banned, and that so many are often willing vocally to defend them.
New Millions contributor Noah, who recently wrote a review of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land and helped answer a question (see the comments) about where to start when reading Ford’s books, managed to get a question in at yesterday’s Washington Post online chat with Ford. The question elicited a fairly long response from Ford, one that name drops a pair of his more well-know contemporaries. I’m quite certain that Noah is from Brooklyn but for some reason, the Post indicated his question was coming from Queens:Queens, NY: At a Barnes and Noble reading in NYC, you said, almost inaudibly because someone was mad to ask another question of you, that one of your personal favorite pieces of your own was “Communist”, the last story in Rock Springs. Can you talk just a little about that story, what it means to you? Do you ever feel that Bascombe-mania overpowers your other work, like the dog that is most aggressive in pursuing the owner’s attentions?Richard Ford: I don’t feel like these Bascombe books overpower my other work, because they are so different from other work that I have done, and I actually value them all pretty much equally. I probably couldn’t write a book or a story without thinking at the time, This is the best thing I could possibly do.”Communist” I feel a lot of affection for, for several different reasons. One is its origin: that my friend Tom McGuane once asked me while we were hunting if I had ever written a hunting story. I told him I had never written a hunting story because I didn’t like to read them. And he said, If I would write a hunting story, he knew some guy that was doing an anthology that would probably publish it. And so I wrote a hunting story. And from that innocent little inception came a story that was much more than a hunting story. I sort of like the humbleness of the origin. And I liked the story because it let me describe something, which is something I never do, it let me describe something I specifically experienced rather than just made up, which is an enormous number of geese taking flight, which I found was a very stirring experience both to have and to write. Two other things: I was moved by the opportunity to write the final conversation at the end of the story between the narrator and his mother, which I thought was quite an intimate relationship but that maintains the proprieties of parent and child. Finally, when I wrote the story, which was in 1983 in Mississippi, far from Montana, where the story is set, I wrote the story to an end which didn’t feel like the right end although it felt like an end. And I showed the story to my friend Joyce Carol Oates, and she gave me the best advice any other writer has ever given me. She said, Richard, you need to write more on this story. Write more words. And I had to figure out what more words to write.
Garth has an essay on Amazon’s celebrity reviewers up at Slate.Full disclosure: It was late at night, in a fit of furtive self-Googling, that I discovered the first Amazon customer review of my debut book of fiction. “Superb,” wrote Grady Harp of Los Angeles. “Fascinating … addictive.” Not to mention “profound.” Such extravagance should have aroused suspicion, but I was too busy basking in the glow of a five-star rave to worry about the finer points of Harp’s style.Check it out.