Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
Where's Arthur's Gerbil?; A Pictorial Book of Tongue Coating; The Fangs of Suet Pudding: all real books apparently. Inspired by Bizarre Books: A Compendium of Classic Oddities, a new book collecting history's odd, obscure, and weird volumes, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Book Page is soliciting strange book titles from readers. The first entry might be the best: Cooking with Pooh, and why doesn't it surprise me that this one has become an Amazon collectors' item, with the cheapest copy on offer now going for the low, low price of $92.80.(Thanks Laurie)
Here are some more books coming our wayBack when I worked at the bookstore, Elizabeth Crane's When the Messenger is Hot was one of the books my coworkers liked to evangelize about. Read "The Daves" and you'll see why. Crane has a new collection of stories coming out in a couple of weeks called All This Heavenly Glory. Here's one of the stories from the new collection, an amusing take on the personal ad which becomes much more impressive when you realize that the whole long piece is one sentence (unless you think using semi-colons is cheating). Three other reasons to like Elizabeth Crane: She lives in Chicago, the city I currently call home. She was interviewed in Tap: Chicago's Bar Journal. She has a charming, unassuming blog called - for reasons I cannot discern - standby_bert.You may recognize the name Achmat Dangor because his novel of apartheid and its aftermath, Bitter Fruit, was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 2004. Although the South African novelist missed out on any Booker boost his novel might have received here in the States, the book, which hits shelves soon, will likely garner some prominent reviews. In the meantime, here's an interesting piece by Dangor about South African literature from the Guardian, and here's a brief excerpt from Bitter Fruit.Alicia Erian's debut collection of stories from 2001, The Brutal Language of Love was described as "seductive, erotic, smart and tartly humorous" by Publishers Weekly. Now Erian is returning with her first novel, Towelhead, a contemporary coming-of-age story about a half-Lebanese girl who moves to Texas to live with her strict father. The novel's title comes from the epithet she hears from other residents of her less than enlightened suburb near Houston. A long - and very compelling - excerpt of the book is available here. And for a different taste of Erian's writing, try this story from 2000 in the Barcelona Review.In 2002's Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, Marc Estrin conjured up a second life for Kafka's transmogrified protagonist. In his new novel, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Estrin wonders: what's in a name? Saddled with an unfortunate surname, Arnold is at the mercy of preconceived notions and receives the attention of many unsavory characters. A brief excerpt is available here. Estrin also has a blog that is in its infancy.Look for more upcoming books in this space over the next few days.
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The CS Monitor gives us some tidy capsule reviews of the finalists for the National Book Award in the fiction category. These should get us all up to speed. And also check out Dan Wickett's interview with the book bloggers, and not just because I'm one of the interviewees. There's some good stuff in there. Have a good weekend.
Michael J. Arlen's 1958 humor piece "Are we losing the novel race?" (which can be found in the New Yorker's anthology of humor writing) starts out thusly: "As if things weren't bad enough already, word has just reached me that the Russians have recently published a 1,600 page novel." The amusing little piece, published at the height of Cold War hysteria, spoofs both the nation's fear of an impending nuclear war and the literary world's longtime obsession with heft. The Cold War is over now, but people are still fascinated by really big books.The latest really big book is a 1,360 page debut novel called Hunger's Brides: A Novel of the Baroque by a Canadian named Paul Anderson. An article in the NY Times - which includes this quote from Anderson's publisher: "I told him, 'You can't not go there.' And that's how it got longer." - is dutifully descriptive on the subject of the book's size: "It weighs 4 pounds, 9 ounces, equivalent to two and a half copies of The Da Vinci Code, and it is thicker than Verizon's Manhattan telephone directory (either the white or yellow pages)." Luckily, the author seems to have a sense of humor about having published such a, shall we say, weighty book: his official Web site includes a slideshow of "safe reading positions". And if you're really curious, there are several excerpts up as well.
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Next, I turned to my second William Boyd novel Stars and Bars. This modern day comedy is the story of Henderson Dores, an English specialist on Impressionism who moves from London to New York in an effort to switch from academia to the lucrative business of art auctioning and to re-establish his relationship with an ex-girlfriend, who recently divorced her husband and has a teenager daughter. In Stars and Bars, Boyd exploits the differences between the English and American cultures to relate the South through the shocked eyes of Henderson. The protagonist faces a lot of challenges and his efforts to conform his lifestyle to certain English ideas do not necessarily pay-off in the good ol' U.S. of A. Henderson defines unlucky in his exploits and his misfortunes make for a grand laugh. Need I mention that Stars and Bars is also an amazing page turner?I wanted to go on reading Boyd, but decided to take a rather unfortunate break and read Vladimir Nabokov's Look at the Harlequins!. This is the first novel I read by Nabokov, and I realized what a bad choice it was halfway into it, but finished it nevertheless. Look at the Harlequins is an autobiographical piece and has a ton of references to other works by Nabokov, none of which I understood. So, if youre not well versed in Nabokov, do not look at the harlequins.To cheer up after my terrible defeat to Nabokov, I picked up Joseph Hellers Catch As Catch Can, a collection of his pre and post Catch-22 short stories, some published in magazines, others not. I really enjoyed the collection and left the book with my dad when I was visiting Turkey over the summer (he lobbied for 6 tireless years for me to read Catch-22, the day he bought me the book and saw me start reading it must have been one of his happier days. Actually he was so inspired by Major Major Major Major, that he wanted to name me judge in Turkish, thinking that it would prevent future jeopardy when I began drunk driving. E.g. when the cop pulls me over I tell him I am "Judge Peker," and he would be intimidated into letting me go.) Regardless, Catch As Catch Can reveals an interesting and rather dark side of Heller before he wrote Catch-22. His subjects are all very interesting people. Among them are: old men, poor working class Brooklyners, junkies, and seamen, all in the wonderful city of New York. Catch As Catch Can also includes some stories that tell of Yossarian and Milo in their later days, which are written in the same manner and tone of Catch-22 and maintain the same level of hilarity. As in Milo sells non-existent fighter jet to the U.S. Air force to fight communists. Yes, it is great. My dad approved of the follow up Yossarian and Milo stories too.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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