This morning I read this bittersweet story in the New York Times about the auctioning of Vladimir Nabokov’s personal effects by his son Dmitri. As Dmitri has no heirs, it was agreed before the elder Nabokov’s death that it would be best to sell the collection before the death of the younger Nabokov. Reading the story, with its descriptions of invented butterfly drawings for Nabokov’s wife Vera — “They have variegated colors, delicate artistry and fanciful names. Only on these pages appear the blue ‘Colias verae’ or the dark ‘Maculinea aurora Nab.'” — reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov’s lyrical memoir, Speak, Memory, when I was in college. I read it for a class called Transatlantic Identities, taught by the dandyish Professor Tucker (who was most of all devoted to John Ruskin). We read a dozen or so memoirs penned over the last 150 years on either side of the Atlantic. Among these, Speak, Memory, was transcendent, inspiring an interest both in lepidoptery and Nabokov’s expressive prose. As I read the book, Nabokov, in my mind, was transformed from the scurrilous author of the scandalous Lolita to the quiet emigre with a fascination for butterflies, and whose expertise with these brightly- winged insects landed him the curatorship of the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Now that these butterflies have been scattered throughout the world, one can only hope that the hands that now hold them will cherish the butterflies as much as the hands that created them.
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.”
News that Stuart Dybek, a great and overlooked short-story writer, had been awarded a MacArthur grant sent me back to the archives of the now-defunct Fabulous World of Hot Face for this review of 2003’s I Sailed With Magellan. As you can see below, I recommend that Dybek neophytes may want to skip around in this collection, or start with The Coast of Chicago.I Sailed With MagellanLike the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical “short shorts”), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the “Novel-in-Verse” its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here – “Song,” “Undertow,” “Blue Boy,” and “Je Reviens.” All four offer glimpses of Perry’s childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories – “Lunch at the Loyola Arms,” “Orchids,” “We Didn’t,” and “Que Quieres” – show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished… well, so does adulthood; I’ll call it “evocative disarray” and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry’s uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of “Breasts,” a novella largely unrelated to Dybek’s attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses – stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.Even sans “Breasts,” I Sailed With Magellan doesn’t succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry’s journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother’s madness – alluded to in several stories – can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn’t remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry’s (and perhaps Dybek’s) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed With Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel’s possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek’s intentions better than the “Novel in Stories” seems to.
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…
The recent debate between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik has come and gone, and by all accounts, it was an engaging afternoon. In attendance were such Canadian luminaries as Douglas Coupland, former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, her husband – the writer John Ralston Saul, and my friend Morry.Held at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, the two New Yorker staff writers (and expat Canadians) wittily deconstructed “Canada”, reducing it to its fundamentals as they debated the question: Canada: Nation or Notion?CBC Radio recorded the hour-long debate for its Ideas program. Listen here (mp3).Macleans magazine, which organized the event, also has video footage of the debate.
I switched gears with Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author’s travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino’s earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family’s strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon’s troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
In a recent issue of The New York Times, Tina Brown explained the rationale behind her nascent Book Beast project thusly:
There is a real window of interest when people want to know something. . . . And that window slams shut pretty quickly in the media cycle.
As a diagnosis, this is accurate – there is a real window (or at least a figurative one) – but it begs a number of relevant questions. For instance: Isn’t the erstwhile “Queen of Buzz” part of the problem of dwindling attention spans, rather than part of the solution? (I suppose you can’t unslam a window any more than you can unring a bell, but still…)
Ms. Brown’s remedy is, characteristically, to get books out there even faster, publishing topical e-books and paperbacks “on a much shorter schedule than traditional books.” However, the imminent arrival of Going Rogue – whose gestation period was shorter than a goat’s – would seem to suggest that Beast Books will differ from today’s “traditional books” more in degree than in kind. (On the other hand, from a marketing standpoint, I suppose Ms. Brown was right: six months was long enough for me to realize I’m tired of reading about Sarah Palin. If it had been available in March, I might have bought the sucker.)
Now, at The New Republic, Damon Linker has blogged a pretty succinct summation of Beast Books’ weird commingling of the redundant, the oxymoronic, and the inevitable:
Opining is fun, and so is ideological combat. But a book is, or should be, something different: A chance to slow down. An opportunity to raise one’s sights a little higher. . . . To reflect instead of react. What Beast Books is proposing . . . is (in Truman Capote’s words) the reduction of writing to typing.
Presumably, this is just the sort of “something” that might merit book-length treatment…were the whole subject not so last week.
Bonus link: The Art of Fashionable Lateness