I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)
A Salon.com piece from last week is creating a buzz among publishing industry watchers. In it, an anonymous “midlist” author bemoans the consolidation of publishing companies and the ever shallower tastes of the reading public for contributing to the demise of authors who don’t write blockbusters. Almost taunting the reader, she drops clues throughout the article, tempting diligent gossips to discover her true identity. (Were she outed, I suspect she wouldn’t mind the publicity.) First, here is the article. (Use the day pass to view the article… you just have to watch an ad first). As soon as the article was published, the gossip erupted at, where else, gawker.com. Here the speculation begins, readers begin jumping into the fray, and, finally, Gawker, wanting to put the subject to rest, guesses: Amy Bloom. As they freely admit, though, Bloom is not a perfect fit, and I’m not convinced either. I’m on the case, though. Maybe I can figure it out. As far as whether or not I agree with her: I agree that publishing industry consolidation makes for a dull literary marketplace, but I refuse to believe that quality writing, no matter how uncommercial, is unsellable. The American people are not as dumb as some like to think, but I’ll tell you one thing, they don’t like whiners. Possibly more on this later.A PunditI always enjoy hearing from people who have been willing to publicly change their opinions on things. Somehow I find them more believable than the one note folks who populate the right and the left. This is why I like reading Christopher Hitchens. He is incredibly prolific, putting out what seems like a book a year and appearing almost daily in newspapers articulately presenting his singular points of view. As an example, check out his review in Canada’s Globe and Mail of the new book by Ian Baruma (another frequently-published commentator whose writing I enjoy).
Picture this: A thin little girl—freckled, pigtails askew, barefoot—wearing a nightgown, holding a pistol in one hand and brandishing a sword with the other. No, it’s not Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz‘s character in Kick Ass), nor an infant Lisbeth Salander. It’s how you first meet Pippi Longstocking, on the title page of Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking novel, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman. Pippi is where Grrrl Power got its start, and if you’re interested in the ancestral line of “grrls” like Lisbeth Salander, Hit Girl, The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, or the slew of other gritty girls from the past year in film and fiction, Pippi Longstocking is grandmother of them all.
In Lindgren’s children’s novels, first published in her native Sweden from 1945-48 and the US from 1950-57, and their Swedish film adaptations, starring the superb Inger Nilsson (1969-70), Pippi is a nine-year-old girl with superhuman strength, ingenuity, and self confidence, an endless supply of gold (from her pirate Papa), and a beautiful, shambly house named Villa Villekulla, where she lives by herself with her horse and Mr. Nilsson, a spider monkey (her mother is dead and her pirate father’s at sea). Like her most notable descendent, Lisbeth Salander, of Steig Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, Pippi is most easily recognized by her distinctive personal style: Pippi’s hair is the color of a carrot, and usually done in two braids that stick out on either side of her head; she wears patch-worked dresses of her own devising, mismatched stockings, a giant hat, and men’s boots twice the length of her feet. And her motto, which promises and delivers a happy ending in all of her adventures, is “I’ll always come out on top.” In both attitude and fashion sense, Pippi’s nearest American relation is the spunky 1980’s television character Punky Brewster (same wild pigtails, freckles, animal friends, outlandish clothes; a plucky can-do motto: “Punky Power!”).
Lindgren’s Pippi lives a child’s wonderland life: no school, no rules, no bedtime, animals in the house, as many sweets as she can eat, victorious encounters with bullies, burglars, police, and pirates, homemade aeroplanes and air-balloon beds that actually fly. Pippi is invincible, irrepressible, fearless: What she sets out to do, she achieves. She’s generous even in triumphing over the numerous bad men who think they can best her (her preferred method of dealing with the inevitably farcical villains who take her on is hanging them on walls or in trees). And she always wins: even when she—a puny-looking girl—is faced with a man-sized job, rescuing her father from a slew of pirates or wrestling the world’s strongest man.
If any of this triggers a twinge of familiarity, it may be because Stieg Larsson modeled Lisbeth Salander on Pippi Longstocking. According to Larsson’s Swedish publisher, Eva Gedin, Larsson imagined Lisbeth as a grown-up, darker version of Pippi. Of course, there are tonal differences: Though Lindgren’s Pippi never quite breaks the laws of physics, she’s an impossible creature, a fantasy of empowerment: rich, self-confident, unnaturally strong, perpetually delighted, never compromising, never defeated. Larsson’s plots may have their fantastic and implausible qualities–Salander is a fantasy of empowerment too, if a grittier one than Pippi–but Larsson’s books do aspire to a certain realism and are particularly interested in the reality that the best and the strongest, the most strong-willed, don’t win every battle (even if they win in the end). While Salander is locked in mental hospitals and children’s homes against her will, turned over to a monstrous guardian whose abuses she cannot thwart, Pippi informs the police officers who’ve come to take her as a ward, “You’ll have to get kids for your children’s home somewhere else. I certainly don’t intend to move there,” and uses a lively game of tag to strand them on her roof. She then carries the officers out of the yard by their belts, giving them cookies as a no-hard-feelings parting gift.
Pippi’s endlessly obliging world certainly isn’t Salander’s; Pippi is a children’s book heroine, after all. But Pippi and Salander do share a fundamental character trait: a deep sense of justice and courage in the pursuit of justice—very real, if increasingly rare, human qualities. In one of Pippi’s first adventures, she stands up to five boys bullying a younger boy. She interrupts the bullies’ taunting of the little boy and brings their taunts on herself. The bullies tease Pippi about her red hair and her clown shoes, but Pippi just smiles her friendliest smile and seems not to hear their taunts. This enrages the ringleader and he shoves her. So, Pippi calmly lifts the bully up and hangs him on a high tree branch, telling him, “I don’t think you have a very nice way with the ladies.”
Pippi is, here and elsewhere, Lisbeth Light (or perhaps the other way round: Lisbeth is Pippi R or X). Both heroines are good at putting dangerous men in their places and both feel a deep sympathy for underdogs and innocents. Pippi’s bully-hanging is the child’s version of Lisbeth’s often much more gruesome acts of justice: Lighting her father on fire in an attempt to protect her mother from him; Taking on the Harriet Vanger case, not for personal gain, but out of a deep hatred of violence against women, a desire to see justice served—and, like Pippi, Lisbeth serves her justice by herself. But with Lindgren’s books—if you’ve got children to read to or if you can still muster a child’s delighted sense of limitless possibility—there’s a purer, simpler pleasure to be had in Pippi than in Lisbeth. This goes without saying, maybe: There are no atrocities in Pippi Longstocking, no dead and mutilated women, no chance of feeling like a sadistic voyeur or that the book’s nominal feminism is actually a slick form of misogyny. But it’s more than that: Pippi is a breathtaking vision of boundless, uninhibited possibility, and pretty funny while she’s at it (so is the dubbing in the movies: Pippi’s friend Annika has a NY/NJ accent that’s to die for). Pippi’s impossible, yes, a fantasy, but she might help you remember what it was like to believe in possibility, in unlikely powers and triumphs. She might also help you imagine a world yet to come of little girls who aren’t Ophelias in need of reviving.
“I can,” says Pippi, when a circus ringleader asks for a volunteer who thinks he can beat a towering, hulking strongman in a wrestling contest. “Oh, no, you couldn’t,” Pippi’s practical, goody-two-shoes friend Annika tells her, “he’s the strongest man in the world.” And Pippi cooly replies: “Man, yes, but I am the strongest girl in the world, remember that,” and climbs into the ring.
Guess who wins.
There’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the under-the-radar boost in book sales due to the increasing popularity of home-schooling. According to the article, home-schoolers come in a few different flavors. “The majority of families who home-school are conservative Christians, to be sure. But another sizable portion are secular counterculturalists, and then there are the diplomats, foreign-aid workers or those living in the desert or Alaskan wilderness–anyone far from a school.” But what’s more interesting is what these students have in common as readers: a preference for long books, often parts of a series, consumed with a leisure that public-school curricula don’t allow; an emphasis on narratives, which children like, divorced from contemporary politics, which surely can wait; and a powerful sense that children are major players in the world, the kind of people, perhaps, who deserve better than large classrooms and who may grow up more likely to write books than to be told which ones to read.The most popular series, across the political spectrum, are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books and the books of G.A. Henty.
Looking for some new fiction? Here are the new books that people are talking about:The Maze by Panos Karnezis; a profile from The IndependentThe Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen; a review from the Barcelona ReviewThe Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer; the San Francisco Chronicle reviews this tale of a backward aging protagonist.Bandbox by Thomas Mallon; the Fort Worth Star Telegram likens this one to Wodehouse.Waterborne by Bruce Murkoff; the San Francisco Chronicle also reviews this one.The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson; it’s a Today Show book club pick and USA Today likes it. Could be the first breakout hit of 2004.The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe; the Christian Science Monitor wonders if this outstanding Canadian novel will be ignored by Americans.Coming Soon…May will see the release of Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s follow up to big seller Bel Canto as well as a new collection by E. L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories. In June look for new Thomas Keneally, The Tyrant’s Novel and a new collection of short stories by David Foster Wallace called Oblivion.
As reported at The Complete Review, FSG has announced a publication date for Roberto Bolaño’s massive final work, 2666. In both hardcover (912 pages!) and softcover (a three-paperback boxed set!), the book will hit shelves on November 11, just in time for the birthday of a certain Bolañophile I know. I’m picturing a more adult version of the Harry Potter release parties: customers queueing up outside their neighborhood bookstores at 11 p.m. the night before, wearing small round spectacles, smoking cigarettes and scribbling poetry on toilet paper. I suppose it’s time we started figuring out how to get blogger to accept tildes. [Ed note: We’ve got them this time, but it takes no small amount of HTML wrangling.]But seriously, folks: 2666 offers a bright spot at the end of what some observers believe will be a wrist-slittingly bad year for hardcover fiction sales. Not incidentally, it belies a number of pieties: that there’s no market for work in translation, that literary fiction is a tough sell… The New Directions and FSG publicity departments have been canny custodians of the Bolaño franchise, and the result has been an unmixed good: the introduction of an important Spanish-language writer to an American readership hungry for good books. I’ve had mixed reactions to some of Bolaño’s shorter works, translated by Chris Andrews (I’m currently working my way through Nazi Literature in the Americas), but Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives was easily the best new novel I read last year.2666, which I’m surmising relates to The Savage Detectives somewhat in the way The Silmarillion relates to The Hobbit, was mentioned on our “Most Anticipated Books” list for 2008. There had recently been some speculation that it would appear again as a most anticipated book for 2009. It’s impressive that, amid what appears to have been lots of pressure to produce, Ms. Wimmer managed to deliver a manuscript in time for this year’s winter holidays. There’s something a little unnerving about the idea of translating under the gun, but in this case, Ms. Wimmer’s process may have mirrored Bolaño’s own; the author had to race to finish his magnum opus before liver failure took his life when he was fifty.Bonus links:Natasha Wimmer interviewed at The Quarterly ConversationFrancisco Goldman surveys the Bolaño canon
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it’s good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn’t get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So…. where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like “he wondered what colour knickers she wore” and “I’m also very fond of this girl with a squint.” To be more precise, it wasn’t just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn’t fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent’s Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they’re just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante’s Ask the Dust. Nunez’s hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante’s Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I’d say it’s worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later….