I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
The title of Joseph Epstein’s Essays in Biography is a bit misleading. Most of these pieces are not really essays, at least not in the rarefied Montaignean or Emersonian sense, but rather book reviews, usually of biographies or collections of letters. Being an occasional reviewer of books myself, I mean not to cast aspersions upon what is frequently thankless, almost always ill-paid work. I do not begrudge anyone the chance to slap old verdicts between hard or softcovers and run a kind of Fleet Street victory lap. In my experience, collections like these make for great reading. Few books have given me more enjoyment than, say, Evelyn Waugh’s Essays, Articles and Reviews or the six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Essays. Besides, 15 minutes with Middlemarch takes the reader from the Brookes’ table to the Brookes’ library; 15 minutes with Donat Gallagher’s Waugh omnibus takes one from a Santa Claus outside the flagship New York City Macy’s to P.G. Wodehouse’s villa in Le Touquet. Not, as attention spans continue to atrophy, an unworthy consideration. Essays in Biography, Joseph Epstein’s 23rd book, is no exception to this rule. Epstein, former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and The Hudson Review, is an old reviewing hand. This king-sized volume is his fourth (and largest) collection of reviews. An abridged table of contents restricted to subjects whose last names begin with S should give an idea of the present collection’s scope: George Santayana, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Susan Sontag, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Epstein almost always manages to offer both a witty capsule biography and a judicious estimate of his subject’s merits qua novelist, historian, memoirist, or center-fielder. He tends, however, to be less insightful about the actual books he is reviewing than about their subjects en tout, which might explain (without actually justifying) the Axios Press’s decisions to call these 38 pieces “essays.” Bound to elicit peals of outrage is the dust jacket’s assertion that Epstein is “the greatest living essayist.” Whether he has earned this accolade is open to question; he certainly does not deserve it on the basis of this collection alone. But Epstein strikes me as being worthier than most. Throughout the five or so decades during which he has been a professional writer, the quality of his output has not decreased, as an hour or two spent with Middle of My Tether (1983) and In a Cardboard Belt! (2007) should make clear. Still: better, I think, to ignore these marketing fudges and just read the book. Essays in Biography is divided into four not very well thought out sections: “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.” Here we have a textbook example of faulty parallelism: two nationalities, one cultural demarcation, and one catch-all. There are other problems, too. “Americans,” at nearly 300 pages, is three times as long as any of the other sections. Surely Bohemia-born Erich Heller, who sits beside Solzhenitsyn and Xenophon in “And Others,” was at least as British as his fellow naturalized citizens T.S. Eliot and Isaiah Berlin, who appear here as “Englishmen.” An Englishman, by the way, is “A man who is English by descent, birth, or naturalization; (typically) a man born in England or of English parents;” while George Eliot, filed under “Englishmen,” was simply not a man. These pieces ought to have been arranged along more interesting (and logical) thematic lines or else simply appeared in the order in which Epstein wrote them. Any attempt to sum up a book like Essays in Biography is bound to read like a balance sheet: approvals on the right-hand column, disapprovals on the left. Of the figures considered here, I would say that Epstein “approves” of some 26. Epstein’s affinities are elective and occasionally eclectic, but rarely eyebrow-raising. He admires George Washington, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot, and Max Beerbohm; was friends with Irving Kristol, John Gross, and Erich Heller; and does not think highly of Henry Luce, Susan Sontag, or Gore Vidal. Readers who remember that Epstein was voted off the island at The American Scholar for being (in his words) “insufficiently correct politically” will not be surprised to learn that my right-left dichotomy above works politically as well. The “heavy bag” of Irving Howe’s “largely false ideas. . . marred much of his criticism and guaranteed the irrelevance of his politics;” Arthur Schlesinger “turns out to be a man on whom everything was lost;” Sontag “had no notion that not literature but self-promotion was her true métier.” The exception to this is his 34-page retrospective on Adlai Stevenson, which originally appeared in Commentary in 1968. Epstein calls the liberal Illinois senator “a fundamentally decent man in a political climate where decency was a rare commodity,” a judgment that this reactionary critic wishes more of his fellows had offered of the late, yeomanly George McGovern. If Senator Stevenson sees him at his most indulgent, then Saul Bellow, his old racquetball partner, shows Epstein at his most caustic. According to Epstein, Bellow was dishonest, gullible, manipulative, lecherous, and resentful; a betrayer of friends, a holder of grudges, and a chronic changer of his own mind. Moreover: Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots. Even to a Bellow passionné much of this will ring true. Still, when this piece appeared in the December 2010 issue of The New Criterion, I remember asking myself why Epstein had bothered. After all, in “My Brother Eli,” a short story that had appeared four years earlier in The Hudson Review, he made more or less the same charges against a thinly-disguised Bellow. (He even directed at “Eli” Sandra Hochman’s claim that the author of The Adventures of Augie March “didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.”) James Atlas’s reasonably sympathetic biography does not leave one with the impression that Bellow was an especially decent human being. But I do not think that Bellow, in whose life Epstein admits he “was never a central figure,” really deserves the animus Epstein directs at him both here and in such far-flung places as his essays on, respectively, the life of Isaac Rosenfield and the correspondence of V.S. Naipul and Paul Theroux, both of which also appear in the present collection. Enjoyable as they are, some of Epstein’s shorter pieces do not seem like they belong with others in this collection: the scope of the pieces on John Frederick Nims, Susan Sontag, and George Gershwin is simply too restricted for them to appear alongside, say, his near pamphlet on Henry Luce. The titular conceit at the heart of Essays in Biography also prevents the inclusion of some of Epstein’s best recent work, including “Heavy Sentences,” a hilarious and incisive review-essay from the June 2011 New Criterion that helped set in motion a reissue of Style, F.L. Lucas’s long out-of-print guide to prose composition. Kingsley Amis, in one of those feats of hilarious contrarianism he was always performing, famously savaged Lolita in The Spectator. The most memorable part of his review is a catalogue of Nabokov’s stylistic tics that appears after a longish quote from the novel: “No extract...could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question. French, Latin, anent, perchance, would fain, for the nonce -- here is style and no mistake.” For Amis, all self-conscious attempts at “style” amount ultimately to nothing more than “a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction.” Amis’s point is, or should be, well-taken. A style that is not the literary expression of an appealing personality -- archness alone does not qualify -- is simply annoying. The most common criticism of Epstein I know is made more or less along these lines. He is, some would argue, a great prose stylist but not a very deep thinker, a septuagenarian poseur who has admittedly mastered euphony but whose prose leaves one feeling a bit cold. I have never found this to be the case. Like his mentor A.J. Liebling, Epstein dispenses real wisdom with what looks like insouciance but is really just old-fashioned agility. The most marked characteristic of his prose is a maddening subtlety that allows him to be breezy without sounding flippant, to appear learned without being pedantic, and, most strikingly, to be moral but never moralistic. His personality escapes the page with such force that, having read at least two horizontal feet of his books, one is almost tempted to think of him as a witty, fair-minded, loquacious uncle. Thank God for Uncle Joe.
I've written in the past about World War II fiction. I especially appreciate how the genre can illuminate elements of the conflict that history books cannot, for want of specificity and seriousness. I had a child's school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan's rich storytelling made me want to learn more.I've since read quite a bit of World War II non-fiction, but I've returned to novels set during the period as well, as they now help flesh out and humanize the history. In Liberation, novelist Joanna Scott takes us to the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, whose inhabitants are caught between the wars great powers. Ostensibly once loyal to Mussolini but then occupied by Germany, Elba is by 1944, as the novel's title suggests, in the midst of a whirlwind liberation by French forces that included an amalgam of colonial outfits, among them a battalion of Senegalese soldiers. Among the Elbans themselves, the chaotic liberation inspires mixed feelings of relief and fear, with the latter being directed toward the African liberators in particular.The story is primarily told in flashback through the eyes of a precocious ten-year-old girl Adriana, who spends the first night of the liberation tucked away in a cabinet, out of sight of any marauding soldiers. Adriana's mother Giulia sums up the turmoil and confusion of occupation and liberation:Elba had been liberated. Grosseto had been liberated. Rome had been liberated. What did any of this mean? Not what she'd said to her daughter -- mai piu, a promise much worse than an outright lie. The Germans were retreating? The occupation was over? What, exactly, had they occupied, besides beds and rooms and lavatories?Into Giulia's home, bucolic even in wartime, wanders a Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, 17, who decidedly lacks the temperament for war and fancies himself blessed, "chosen" by God and able to perform minor miracles if he puts his mind to it. Impressionable young Adriana becomes infatuated with Amdu, by his otherness mostly, and he with her for similar reasons. And though some of his countrymen are rampaging through the countryside, Amdu's intentions remain pure and he resolves to come back and marry Adriana one day. He is a gentle young gentlemen.Of course, not everyone else in Adriana's web of relations and family friends is nearly as enamored of Amdu, and the climate, with bullets and bombs still flying overhead, is one mostly of mistrust. Before long Amdu is cast out.But Liberation isn't a star-crossed love story - and perhaps this is its main shortcoming. Instead it is recalled in a dreamy reverie by a much older Adriana, now living in New York, as she rides the train into the city. These scenes go into fussy detail about Adriana's fellow commuters yank the reader from the Elban recollection in a not entirely pleasant way. Similarly, Mario, Adriana's uncle and the main "villain" of the novel, occasionally assumes the role of narrator and pulls us away from the book's most engaging characters, Adriana and Amdu. Child and childlike, Adriana and Amdu manage to elevate the book, and Scott crafts a delightful ambiguity for the reader to wade through in the pair's few scenes together. In broader strokes, she paints an atmospheric picture of one of the war's minor episodes.
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It’s not news drawing attention to the fact that books released in different markets almost always have different covers. But what do we make of three different editions of an illustrated fiction, two of which have been translated to English from Japanese, with covers and interiors that could not be any more different from one another? Such is the case with the latest Haruki Murakami book, The Strange Library. What’s that? You thought Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was the most recently translated Murakami novel? You are correct, and incorrect. Without getting involved with trying to delineate the differences between a novel, a novella, and a short story, it just doesn’t seem right calling The Strange Library a novel. The U.S. edition is a 96-page paperback with elaborate flaps that open vertically and the 88-page U.K. edition is small hardcover embracing the library conceit with a check-out card holder on the cover -- both versions are heavily illustrated and use the same Ted Goossen translation, with American English spelling and punctuation, and the text probably only takes up about half of the pages in both editions. The Japanese edition is also illustrated and was released in 2008 in the compact dust-jacketed paperback format known as bunko-bon. Murakami’s most enduring talent is his ability to rein in his expansive imagination with sentences strung together with elegant simplicity. As is the case in most, if not all, Murakami, The Strange Library features a male protagonist unexpectedly caught out of sorts, unsure how to extricate himself from the predicament, and reliant on eccentric characters, one of whom is, of course, a beautiful young woman. In many ways, The Strange Library is familiar territory, but even by Murakami’s standards this prose is sparse, and, it turns out, secondary to the storytelling. The unnamed narrator goes to the library to return books and find more about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. After being directed to a room in the basement, the narrator is confronted by a cranky old librarian who procures three tomes. The appreciative narrator tries to check out the books only to learn that they cannot be removed from the library. Not wanting to worry his mother by being late for dinner the narrator apologizes for any inconvenience he might have caused the crusty librarian, but the old man guilts the narrator into staying after hours, at which point he forces the narrator down a dark staircase and imprisons him, with the assistance of a sheep man. The narrator is ordered to read the three books the librarian pulled for him so that the old man can eat the narrator’s brain. When the narrator asks why, the sheep man explains, “Brains packed with knowledge are yummy, that’s why. They’re nice and creamy. And sort of grainy at the same time.” Without spoiling the ending, that’s The Strange Library. The story’s pacing is dreamlike with very little consideration of events as they happen and how they are all accepted no matter how absurd. When the narrator is told his brain will be eaten, he isn’t happy about it, but he resigns himself to the idea and gets reading about the Ottoman Empire. As captors go, the sheep man is quite likeable, especially since he fries up a mean doughnut. The enchanting woman is mute, but the narrator is able to communicate with her effortlessly. From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is not a reach to posit that we are reading the narrator’s dream. The old man could easily symbolize an estranged father figure and the repeated appearance of a green-eyed dog represents trauma. Plus, a library, like a brain, is a place full of knowledge we think we want to access and knowledge we have no idea that we want to access, or should access. Everything that comes to pass in The Strange Library, like in so much of Murakami’s fiction, questions the differences between what is real and what is not, and whether such a distinction even matters. In 1Q84, the intersection of two different temporal realms drives the plot, and in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, certain occurrences take place in “reality, but a reality imbued with all the qualities of a dream.” But in both of these books the characters devote themselves to fleshing out the mysterious intricacies of these unreal realities, whereas in The Strange Library the narrator simply accepts everything that comes his way. The illustrations, more than the words on the page, are what ignite the reader’s thoughts about what the narrator is up against. In the Japanese edition the kooky Saturday morning cartoon images are quite literal -- there is the narrator crying on his bed, a ball and chain shackled around his ankle; and here is the sheep man carrying in a tray of doughnuts. There is nothing dark and foreboding about the images and they come off more like an afterthought and not integral to the text (which I cannot read). What is immediately clear upon seeing both English-language editions is just how much thought went into the design and illustrated content of these two very different books. Published by Knopf, the U.S. edition is a Chip Kidd production (top), and while Kidd’s prolific portfolio demonstrates how comfortable he is working within any and all design idioms, The Strange Library is an in-your-face zoom-in on the faded comics qualities Kidd so often employs when working on Murakami titles. Suzanne Dean, art director for the book’s U.K. publisher, Harvill Secker, takes a very different approach to The Strange Library (bottom). Open up that edition to any page and the word “vintage” will spring to mind, from the lovely marbled endpapers to the reproduced antique plates of dogs and birds. Both designs inject a sinister quality into the goofy story, but the illustrations and design interact with the text quite differently. In the U.K. edition, the illustrations and design are about much more than ornamenting the story; the illustrations actually complete sentences and respond much more literally to the words on the page, making the relationship between the two dependent on one another. In the U.S. edition, certain of the illustrations respond directly to the narrative flow, but in a more evocative, atmospheric manner. Some of the images, judging by the colors and pulpy quality, appear to have been scanned from source material that probably qualifies as vintage, but how they are used on the page gives them a more contemporary collage dynamic a la Roy Lichtenstein and FAILE. It is fascinating that Murakami would permit his words to be so freely interpreted, but perhaps that was his intention all along with this story. As an author who has devoted a great amount of thought to dreams and dreamlike realities, it might have struck him as fitting to let designers manifest the elusive qualities of dreams on the page. (And it is impossible not to think about what these three different editions say about the differences between publishers and readers in Japan, the U.S., and U.K., but that is a topic for another time.) Both English-language editions are aesthetically pleasing as objects, but the designs eclipse the text like a new moon-doughnut (an actual image that fills two pages in the U.S. edition). One traditional tenet of graphic design is that it shouldn’t be noticed, so as not to interfere with the reading process. Here, it is impossible not to notice the designs, but rather than distract from the reading experience the designs force the reader to actually read, and read into, the design, giving it more thought than the narrator gives to his circumstances. The three different designs employed for this one story provide readers with three very different psyches for the narrator, reinventing the narratives in a way, the same as when you remember a dream after waking up and then think back on it later in the day and it never seems quite the same.
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Lauren Karwoski-Magee teaches architecture at Drexel University, runs her own architecture and design firm The Drafted Line, and reads a lot.1. Cover art and a book's spine are important. The spine of this book does something that I refer to in class as "drawing the viewer in," making a person look closer and become more intimate with a work. The intriguing spine coupled with a cover that is a series of thin thresholds draws me in immediately.2. Thin thresholds: a threshold, according to dictionary.com, is "any new place or point of entering or beginning." Often thresholds are spoken of as zones or spaces, rather than simply a line or a point, beyond which starts a different condition. This suggests that the slightest of variables could evince the beginning of something new and doesn't always require a threshold as dramatic as a door or a wood saddle.2a. If a variable can be minuscule, must we recognize the variable or only the outcome to realize we've reached a turning point?2b. New: what is new, really? Is life a succession of interconnected elements, one feeding into the next, however abruptly?2c. Dramatic doors and saddles made of wood...3. I happen to enjoy thinking about the interconnectedness of things. In fact, I sometimes sit and daydream about it. It's like the Kevin Bacon game for inanimate objects and life events (with a dash of whimsy) to help see things in new ways, paired unexpectedly, like multi-dimensional puzzles.4. Puzzles can become unexpectedly intricate, especially when new variables (even if minuscule) are involved. Variables keep life interesting, making us think about what it is that we really believe (remember, want) to be true.5. Memory and truth. The storytelling in The Way Through Doors relies on train of thought in which the characters may have multiple identities and versions of experiences with the end result of helping to restore memory. The narrative takes a path wherein the pieces of story overlap but don't necessarily grow as more information becomes known. It progresses linearly as if you were to take a spring, stretch it out a bit, and then flatten it.