Strolling around the bookstore the other day, a book with a startling cover and a wacky title caught my eye. At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig is a humorous travelogue about one of South America’s more obscure countries, Paraguay. Pig is the first book by John Gimlett who has written articles for a number of travel magazines over the years. This excerpt is definitely worth a peek.
It’s as though the New York Times was using this blog to decide what to write articles about: check out this review of Joseph Roth’s newly released collection of essays, Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939.
It started with Nick Adams.
I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.
The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.
Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.
One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.
Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”
There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.
The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.
Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.
Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.
The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
On Friday in a flurry of commerce, exchanging currency for goods, frenzied gift wrapping, and the filling out of shipping forms, I finished (almost) all of my Christmas shopping. I’m dying to tell you what I got everyone, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise for my family, members of which like to lurk here from time to time. So instead, I’ll tell you what I got myself for Christmas. Like most years, I couldn’t resist picking up a few things for myself. I don’t really shop very often, and I like to do it all at once. Plus, there are so many books out right now that I would really like to own, all but a couple of which I was unable to purchase due to lack of funds Still, I did get a few, and I can’t wait to read them. Here’s the rundown: I picked up a copy of the new Edith Grossman-translated edition of the Cervantes classic Don Quixote. I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, and I have enjoyed Grossman’s translations of some of my favorite Latin Americans. Also, (along with the new John Updike story collection) it is one of the most good-looking books out right now. Grossman’s been busy this year because the other book that I have been looking forward to reading all year was also translated by her. It’s the first volume of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. Expect to hear more about those two books sooner rather than later. I also got a copy of The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapusciski, which I’ve already begun to read. Kapuscinski, whose bio notes that he has witnessed 27 coups and revolutions worldwide and has been sentenced to death four times, is a wonderful curiosity of a writer. He has spent many decades as the foreign correspondent for a Polish news agency, and his travels have brought him to every corner of the earth. Peppered throughout each of his books are his accounts of the terrifying situations one can get themselves into while covering a revolution in the Congo, for example. There are quite a few writers out there who make a career out of this sort of sport, but Kapuscinski alone writes with a compassion for his subjects and a gift for illuminating both the similarities and the differences that define humanity. His observations always feel fresh, and I think this because Kapuscinski spent his career with one foot behind the iron curtain and the other firmly planted in the so-called Third World. This peculiar combination must account for his singular voice. Finally, in anticipation of a possible trip to Ecuador next summer that is still just a twinkle in the collective eye of myself and Ms. Millions, I picked up the Lonely Planet guide to help out with some preliminary factfindingDo you want to give someone a book as a gift, but you don’t know which book to get? Ask a Book Question and maybe me and my colleagues can lend a hand…
Davy Rothbart has taken the Powell’s blog by storm. He’s putting together the next FOUND magazine book (a sequel to the first one), and he’s taken to posting late at night, occasionally whilst drunk. He’s discussed “found” stuff, Scrabble and writing to inmates as well as a number of other topics.
I’ve acquired some books over the last month in various ways, and now I have added them to the reading queue, which at its current swollen proportions will take me over a year to get through. Here’s what I’ve added. As mentioned in this post, I snagged a copy of The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the early years of baseball by Lawrence Ritter. I can’t believe that spring training is only a couple of weeks away. I also got some books from my mom, who is great about sending books my way. She passed along two books by Virginia Woolf (whose work I have never read), To the Lighthouse as well as a collection of her shorter fiction. She also got me the first play to be added to my young reading queue, Jumpers by Tom Stoppard. I rarely read any drama though I should probably read more. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a play since college… another Stoppard play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Going in a completely different direction, I’ve added a graphic novel that my friend Chris, insisting that I would enjoy it, kindly lent to me: I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. I also secured a copy of Absolutely American, a book that David Lipsky wrote after spending four years following one cadet class through West Point. And finally I acquired a couple of advance copies of some books that’ll be out this spring. The first is You Remind Me of Me, a new novel by up and comer Dan Chaon. The other is Rick Atkinson’s book about being embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. Check out the post where I broke the news on this book back in October. Atkinson won the Pulitzer last year for the first book in his “Liberation Trilogy,” An Army at Dawn (also on the reading queue!)Insider ReviewsEver since Amazon instituted the customer review feature there have been a fair amount of complaints from authors and publishers that one vengeful reader’s review can kill their sales. Other improprieties have also been alleged, like authors anonymously reviewing their own books glowingly while disparaging the books of rivals and enemies. A recent glitch at Amazon’s Canadian site lifted the veil of anonymity from the process. This New York Times article describes the fallout. The highlights: John Rechy giving glowing reviews to his own novel, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens and Dave Eggers writing a positive review of his friend Heidi Julavits’ novel, The Effect of Living Backwards.