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.
After my brief service was completed I spent a week in Istanbul and returned to New York. In the meanwhile I picked up a collection of Yasar Kemal’s short stories, Sari Sicak, Teneke ve Diger Hikayeler (Yellow Heat, Tin Can and Other Stories) from my parents’ library. I was in between cities and about to quit my job, hence a collection proved perfect for the time. Kemal has a very distinct style that reflects an Anatolian tone and includes long depictions of nature and rural life and lengthy character analyses. The collection included some of his most famous pieces such as “Sari Sicak” (“Yellow Heat”) and “Teneke” (“Tin Can”), which, as do most of the other stories, reflect on the difficulties of rural life in the southern towns and regions surrounding Adana, a city now known for its cotton farmers and back then for its rice plantations. The backwards methods of planting rice resulted in swamps and an increase in the number of mosquitoes, and therefore malaria. Kemal reflects on the ill approach of the government towards the rural population and the generous benefits it granted to landlords, who, without the slightest regard to the peasants, flooded villages, planted rice, created swamps and did not even wince at the death of hundreds of men, women and children due to malaria. Reading Kemal’s stories, the reader easily identifies with the daily troubles of the villagers that believe in a just government and seek help, all to their dismay. Depictions of corrupt and impossible situations reach a new zenith in Kemal’s stories, and, hold true even today – despite the changes in setting. Books by Yasar Kemal.Upon arriving in New York, I received four great books as birthday presents. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange from Sylvia and Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky and The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by The Columbia University Press from Selin and Siddhesh. I immediately started reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2005. I am currently reading stories at random and so far I read four out of the seventeen pieces in the collection: Seymour M. Hersch’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib“, Ned Zeman’s “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies”, Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man” and Samantha Power’s Dying in Darfur. I am not sure if I agree one hundred percent with Nicholas Lemann’s assertion that this specific collection comprises the best pieces of writing to come out of the U.S. in 2005, but nevertheless the stories are incredibly well written, insightful and fresh. I enjoyed the ones I read thus far and hope that the rest will be just as good.See also: Part 1, 3
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Laureate with a decent claim to the mantle of “greatest living writer,” has a new book out this week called Memories of My Melancholy Whores. It’s been out in the Spanish-speaking world for a year, so most folks have heard what this slim volume is about: according to the Times Online: “a respected journalist, breaking the rules of a lifetime to fall madly, anarchically, transgressively in love with a 14-year-old girl on the eve of his 90th birthday.” The review goes on to say, “There is not in this slender book one stale sentence, redundant word or unfinished thought.” But Tania Mejer in the Boston Herald writes, “To call Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s latest effort disturbing is an understatement,” and later, “every time I reflect on the story, I can’t help but think how unsettling it is.” In fact, the reviews across the board seem torn over this book – is it yet another transcendent example of Marquez’s writing or is it creepy? Luckily the Complete Review is keeping score and gives this one a B+. See Also: The Marquez scoop and an early look. Update: Here’s the glowing review in the Chicago Tribune that Pete mentioned in the comments. Amazing the disparate reactions to this book.23-year-old Uzodinma Iweala started his debut novel, Beasts of No Nation in high school after reading an article about child soldiers in Sierra Leone. The novel is told in the pidgin voice of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. Iweala, who is American-born but has Nigerian roots, is already receiving plaudits from some big names. In an interview with MoorishGirl, Salman Rushdie named it “book he most enjoyed reading recently,” and Ali Smith in a review at the Guardian described the book as “a novel so scorched by loss and anger that it’s hard to hold and so gripping in its sheer hopeless lifeforce that it’s hard to put down.”
Though we try to pass over blog-bait, we can’t resist directing your attention to the print ad campaign for the paperback version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone. “From the acclaimed memoir by the author of The Corrections” runs the copy, above several blurbs:”Funny, masterfully composed” – Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly“[A] total lack of humor…perverse” – Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Times Book Review“Luminous, essential reading” – Tim Adams, The Observer (London)”Odious…incredibly annoying” – Michiko Kakutani, The New York TimesThis is postmodern advertising at its best: honest, funny, provocative… and almost enough to reconsider our decision not to read the book.[Editor’s note: We wish we could find a version of this ad online, but Harper’s readers can find it on page 51 of the November issue]
I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I’ve heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we’ll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven’t been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself… wouldn’t it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It’s a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn’t it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with “Unless you’ve been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan… have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you’ve heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix… The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes… ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You’ll notice on the Amazon page that it says “in stock June 25.” That’s because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we’ve gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we’ve probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens’ section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she’s making. As for the book itself, I doubt I’ll be reading it any time soon, but here’s what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it’s because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it’s because I’ve found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose “register of frustration and deprivation” leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can’t live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can’t put this book down. He’s like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It’s a treat.
Dan Wickett is putting together the first (that I know of) blog-hosted short story contest. Dan will collect the entries and pass on the finalists to guest judge Charles D’Ambrosio. The winner will be published on Dan’s blog and in the Spring 2007 issue of Frostproof Review. What are you waiting for? Send something in.
Yesterday I mentioned John Keegan’s latest book, The Iraq War. The book is meant to be an overview of the conflict, yet in the eyes of most people the Iraq War is still brewing. Yes, large scale military operations have long been over with, but, with breaking news coming from the region daily, one suspects that the history books, looking back, will not describe this conflict as being finished. As such, it is difficult to look at Keegan’s book as a definitive overview of this war. This is Janet Maslin’s take in today’s New York Times (she also thinks that Keegan’s angle is too Western and “snobbish.”) My suspicion is that this book was rushed to completion and into book stores by the publisher in order to get in on the brisk sales of Iraq-related titles. Undoubtedly, a little temporal distance from the subject matter would have improved Keegan’s effort.Lovers of architecture and books alike are raving about Seattle’s new Central Library, a graceful steel and glass structure designed by the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. Here’s praise from the Seattle Times, and here’s the official website with pictures. One of the more interesting aspects of the new library: the stacks are laid out on continuous, unbroken shelves that spiral through the center of the building.A few months ago there was an interesting article in the New Yorker about one of the world’s lost treasures, the Amber Room, “an entire chamber paneled and ornamented in amber presented to Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 by King Frederick William of Prussia as a gift to seal the friendship between their two states.” The New Yorker article described the search for the room, thought to have been hidden in Germany by the Nazis during World War II, as well as the construction of a costly replica of the room that was being built in Russia. As with much that occurred behind the Iron Curtain, there was much doubt about the true fate of the Amber Room. Now, in a book entitled The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, new evidence is revealed that solves the mystery once and for all. Read an edited extract from the book.
A few years ago, I was standing on the platform at College subway station in downtown Toronto. It was 9 pm, well beyond the evening rush. Further along the platform and also waiting to board the next train was someone I recognized – a colleague from work – older and embittered, a grumbling and grouchy sort. I’d barely spoken two words to him in the newsroom and wasn’t in any mood to increase those numbers.The train arrived and this happened: A few people piled out and then one person in particular came out of the train and stood face to face with my grouchy colleague on the platform. They began punching each other in the face as if they were sworn enemies, all the while adjusting themselves on the platform so that Grouchy could go into the subway car, and the other guy could come all the way out. It was as if they were doing a dance. Before the doors had closed, and after at least a dozen punches had been thrown as they did their subway ballet, Grouchy was in the car and the other guy had gone up the stairs. I was within earshot – not a word had been spoken, not an insult slung. I guess some people just piss other people off.So that’s my subway story. That and the time I slipped on the top step at an outdoor entrance to Leicester Square tube station in London and tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, to the bemusement (and in many cases, indifference) of London’s commuting throngs.Every commuter or traveler seems to have his own subway story. The front page of a recent Globe and Mail Travel section takes the reader into the subways, undergrounds, tubes and metros of cities around the world. Writer Mark Kingwell, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the tour guide, expertly guiding the reader through some of the world’s buried treasures. It’s a fascinating read, and includes bits by other writers and travelers, each sharing subway anecdotes. All packaged with some fine photos.All of which leads me to a book I purchased a few years ago – Underground: Travels on the Global Metro – a coffee-table book featuring some stunning work from photographer Marco Pesaresi. The cities explored are: New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Calcutta, Milan, Mexico City, Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. Each section is prefaced by a short essay. The book even has an introduction by none other than Francis Ford Coppola.Pesaresi is a remarkable photographer. His camera sometimes conspires with the passenger – causing a pose, an attitude (Mexico city). Sometimes, it is seemingly invisible (Milan) capturing but not appearing to intrude on a pre-existing mood (Tokyo). Sometimes it seems to be lurking, capturing quiet moments that likely would have been shaken off by the subjects, had they been overwhelmed by a more intrusive photographer.