A few weeks back the Rake posted a first look at Cormac McCarthy’s forthcoming No Country for Old Men that he spotted on the forums of the “Official Website of the Cormac McCarthy Society.” Now from those same forums comes news that an excerpt of No Country will run in the Summer 2005 Virginia Quarterly Review.
I did not realize that William Boyd would have the same effect that Italo Calvino had on me until I read An Ice-Cream War. When I told the old lady who runs the neighborhood bookstore that lately I had been into Calvino and Henry Miller, and that I really enjoyed Middlesex, she immediately recommended William Boyd, commenting that he is the most underrated contemporary author. Trusting her, I got a copy of An Ice Cream War and began reading. Shortly, I discovered that the novel is an amazing page turner, thanks, mostly, to the cynical British humour with which Boyd approaches the miseries and absurdity of World War I. Over the course of An Ice Cream War, which starts in the neighboring German and British east Africa colonies, the reader travels through Africa, being chased by and also chasing the barbarians (as the British ever so affectionately call the Germans), sees the unfortunate travels of an enthusiastic, newlywed soldier – from his honeymoon in France, back to England, to India, and to Africa – laughs out loud at the most absurd instances of violence, and gets dragged into a very, very cheesy, but still sympathetic love story between an unexpected couple. The reflections on the wartime life in England, the descriptions of three dysfunctional families, and the mockery of the grave consequences of a four year war that no one thought would last past three months are exquisite. Actually, dare I say and yes, here it goes, An Ice Cream War strongly parallels and at times even surpasses the ever great Catch 22 in reflecting cowardice, bravery – for all the wrong reasons, think Milo – and the amazing web of characters who are all interconnected. Read this novel and you too, as I did, will move into the Boyd sphere.Feeling the grips of addiction, I returned to my prime drug, Calvino, for the last novel I read by him in 2004. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the story of two readers as they attempt to read Calvino’s latest novel and realize that there was a problem with the print, which cut off after the first chapter of the novel. Upon returning the book to the bookstore, both readers discover that they had in fact been reading another author’s novel and decide to stick with it since they really enjoy it, but the same problem occurs. Thanks to the persisting issue, the two readers meet each other and start their quest to reach the end of this bizarre occurrence. Calvino’s prose, which I would categorize as his second phase – splitting from traditional folk tales and becoming more fantasy oriented – cleverly weaves the developing affections between the two readers and the beginnings of novels by different authors. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an ode to books and the pleasure book junkies such as myself derive from them.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
[Recent studies] suggest that children learn best when they are allowed to select their own books… [According to one researcher,] “I don’t think the majority of these kids ever read during the summer, but [being] given the opportunity to select their own books and discuss what they knew… was, in itself, motivating to them.” –The New York Times
My Summer Book Report
By Zach McCormick
Mrs. Bianco’s class, Grade 4
The book I picked to read during my summer vacation was Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth. I picked Portnoy’s Complaint because it was right on my dad’s bookshelf and also because the cover was very yellow and the writing on the cover was very swirly. And I was also pretty curious about Portnoy and his complaint. What is he complaining about, I wondered? I like to complain sometimes, like when my mom forgets to put Fruit By the Foot in my lunchbox, or if she puts a plum in there instead of Fruit By the Foot. So I thought it would be neat to see what he’s complaining about.
The first thing he complains about is his mom. I don’t think he likes her very much, because she does really bad things to him. She won’t even let him eat French fries or hamburgers! She says, “Don’t eat French fries with Melvin Weiner after school.” My mom doesn’t want me to eat French fries that much either, but Portnoy can’t EVER have them or he’ll get in trouble.
Portnoy also complains about his dad, because he doesn’t know how to hold a baseball bat! Portnoy also talks a lot about his dad’s rectum, which is WEIRD. I never read a book that had the word “rectum” in it before, except maybe the dictionary. I know it’s in there because I looked it up when I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It means “tush.”
Also, besides “rectum,” there are a LOT of bad words in Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth! Portnoy says the “f” word a LOT. I felt kind of bad when I was reading it, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to see those words, and my dad might catch me and then I wouldn’t be able to watch “Phineas and Ferb” for a whole week. That’s what happened when I used his drill, even though I was wearing goggles and I didn’t go ALL the way through the car door. He never caught me reading Portnoy’s Complaint, though.
Portnoy also says “bullshit” and “nipple” and “bitches” and “whore” and “ass.” Also, he says “prick” and “tits” and “sex.” And also, “suck” and “crap” and “diarrhea.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!)
There are a lot of words in Portnoy’s Complaint that I didn’t really get, like shtupp and schlong and shmutzig and punim. I don’t know what they mean, but they’re really fun to say! Shtupp shtupp shtupp shtupp schlong schlong schlong schlong!
There’s a whole part in Portnoy’s Complaint called “WHACKING OFF” that I didn’t really get. Philip Roth, who wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, keeps talking about penis, so maybe it’s about peeing? Which I like, especially after asparagus, so it smells like asparagus pee. But Portnoy doesn’t talk about asparagus pee at all. Maybe Portnoy isn’t talking about peeing?
What’s a “vaselined upright”?
I guess the main part of Portnoy’s Complaint is how he has all of these girlfriends, but he doesn’t really like them, and that’s sort of WEIRD. I don’t have a girlfriend really, but I think if I did, I would like her. DON’T TELL HER, Mrs. B, but I had a SUPER HUGE CRUSH on Danielle S. last year. She wasn’t my girlfriend because I never talked to her, but I really sort of liked her and never threw at her in dodgeball, except the one time when I hit her in the ear and she had to go home. But Portnoy even calls one of his girlfriends a monkey! Monkeys are cool, especially ones that wear clothes, but I don’t think I’d want a monkey for my girlfriend. She’d probably smell bad and have bugs on her, and also she’d try to eat my Fruit By the Foot.
I wonder if you had a monkey girlfriend though, if you could play baseball with her. I saw a movie one time where a monkey was a pitcher on a baseball team. That was the best movie. If my monkey girlfriend could play baseball than maybe it would be okay if she was a monkey. Portnoy never did that with his monkey. They were always doing something else, I think.
But Portnoy doesn’t like his monkey girlfriend, especially when he calls her a “crazy bitch.” (Sorry, Mrs. B!) He doesn’t like ANYTHING, to tell you the truth. He doesn’t like his parents, or his girlfriends, or even himself, really! He says he’s a barbarian, and a pig, and also “psychoneurotic,” which I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t really sound very great. We had an assembly last year where they did this play, and it was all about how you should like yourself. They sang “I’m unique and unrepeatable” a bunch of times, and it got stuck in my head for about a month! I don’t think Portnoy saw this play, which had puppets in it.
I didn’t really like Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, even if it had a yellow cover and swirly letters. It was pretty hard to read, because I didn’t understand a lot of the words, and it made me feel kind of gross, like the time I ate all those Rice Krispies treats at the beach. There were a lot of curses, and Portnoy was angry all the time. He complained about EVERYTHING. I probably should’ve picked Diary of A Wimpy Kid for my summer reading book.
P.S., Mrs. B—what does “Jewish guilt” mean?
Amazon is teaming with Penguin Classics to do a book club that will be hosted on a new blog at the site. The club will read books from the vast Penguin Classics catalog. Two cool things about this: 1. Penguin found the host of the book club, Kathryn Gursky, from a review she wrote of The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection — yes, she actually owns it — and 2. she picked a fairly obscure book, Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, rather than an obvious Oprah-style pick. (via)
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.
Who knew there was such a market for rejected New Yorker cartoons? The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker (which we noted upon its release) apparently did well enough to spawn a sequel: The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap.Those who really go in for cartoons that never saw the light of day may also appreciate Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression, a collection of editorial cartoons that got spiked from various newspapers for various reasons.Finally, if we may leap to cartoons that were no doubt jettisoned from generations of classrooms, a massive two volume set collecting the complete cartoons of Mad Magazine legend Don Martin. Hard to go wrong with that.