I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Book bannings at elementary school libraries are so commonplace as to barely be newsworthy it seems, but I did find the furor over gay penguins in North Carolina to be amusing. The fuss is over a book called And Tango Makes Three about a pair of male penguins at a zoo in (where else) New York City, who adopt a baby penguin.”My Two Dads” this is not, however, as some felt it promoted homosexuality. So much so, according to the AP story, that school officials jumped the gun and removed the book from shelves without putting it through the formal review process, which must be triggered by parents actually requesting that the book be removed. I can just imagine school officials checking their watches glumly, wondering when the parents will finally arrive with their pitchforks and torches. My favorite part of the story, though, is that the AP calls the tale of this penguin family a “controversial but true story,” as if it’s so outrageous (gay penguins!?) that some nefarious person must have made it up.
“The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane (from Open Boat and Other Stories)This 1898 story, about the last survivors of a shipwreck as they fight for the safety of land on a soaked and cold dinghy, contains one of my favorite sentences in all of short fiction: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.” That repetition of “probably” gets me every time.“Merry-Go-Sorry” by Carry Holladay (from Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Award)It’s a shame that Holladay hasn’t yet published a collection, for This tale of a town affected by the killing of three young boys, told in a fluid omniscient narration, is strange, ambitious, and beautiful. We venture into the minds of the accused killer, of the girl who writes him letters, of the cops investigating the murders, and so on and on, until a complicated world has emerged on the page.“Do Not Disturb” by A.M. Homes (from Things You Should Know)This story concerns a wimp of a husband and a bitch of a wife. She gets cancer, and she gets meaner. What now?“Stone Animals” by Kelly Link (from Magic for Beginners)In this wild story, a family moves from a cramped Manhattan apartment to a big haunted house outside the city. Objects start to feel “wrong” and must be discarded; there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of rabbits on the front lawn; the wife cannot stop painting the rooms; the daughter sleepwalks; the husband won’t return home from work. Just as the story begins to create a coherent universe, the narrative embraces something new and strange, and the reader must remake meaning once again. It’s a big, messy, playful collision of a story.Stay tuned for more recommended stories from The Millions later this week.
I’m guessing that Oprah’s latest choice for her book club was timed to coincide with BEA (the big book expo) going on in New York right now. Despite recent pleas for a return to contemporary fiction, Oprah has decided to stick with the classics. The latest pick is notable in that it’s not just one book, it’s three. Vintage Books has combined three novels by William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August – into one Oprah-branded set called The Summer of Faulkner which retails for close to 30 bucks. To my mind, the selection is also notable in that these novels are probably the most challenging books that Oprah has ever recommended. I’ve said before that I don’t think that Oprah’s focus on classic books is a bad thing, but I have to wonder if this latest pick won’t provoke a backlash. Among the literary types there is already much consternation over Oprah co-opting classic novels for use on her TV show, and this latest pick, which repackages three of the greatest American novels into a “summer of” set, might be enough to stir critics into a frenzy. From the standpoint of the regular Oprah Book Club readers, Oprah may lose some fans who find Faulkner tough going and resent the 30 dollar price tag that got slapped on this pick. On the other hand, if this really does turn out to be the “Summer of Faulkner” and hundreds of thousands of Americans read his novels, I’ll be hard-pressed to say that this was a bad choice.See also: All of Oprah’s classic picks.
Not to make excuses, but when you’re helping plan a wedding, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things like blogging. I’ll keep posting as often as I can, though. So without further ado, here are three interesting news items that caught my eye today. The first, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the suggestion that Harry Potter may not survive the series of books that bears his name. (LINK). At csmonitor.com, Amazon’s list of bestselling books among US Military Personnel (LINK). And, from the Guardian UK, John Updike tells the Brits that they don’t have to be jealous of American novelists any more because those Brits are pretty good after all (LINK).
I know this is the sort of thing that threatens to erode our moral fabric and turn us all into communists, but I thought you might like to know that much of J.D. Salinger’s published work, including many hard-to-find uncollected stories, is available for free here. So hurry and take a look before this website is shut down by a blizzard of threatening letters from angry intellectual property lawyers. Also of note: I posted this link at Metafilter a few days back and it generated a rather lively discussion.