I know this is old news, but I thought I’d give my brief thoughts on the stories from the New Yorker debut fiction issue. I wasn’t bowled over any of the stories, but I was most impressed by Umwem Alpem’s “Ex-Mas Feast,” not so much for writerly virtuosity as for the glimpse of the exotic the story provides. Perhaps because so many short stories seem to be set in the suburbs, I am always drawn to stories set in faraway places. I was somewhat less impressed by Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia,” which I thought would have been a more successful story if it had been half as long. I did, however, enjoy how Russell injected a bit of the surreal into her story. I was also dutifully shocked upon discovering that she is only 23 years old, even though I should know that the New Yorker loves to find these fiction savants. Least interesting of all to me was Justin Tussing’s “The Laser Age,” which, at first glance, I thought was going to be a story of the twisted not to distant future, but instead was just another mismatched boy-meets-girl tale.
I did terribly at my GREs the first time around (thanks Harry Potter!) and decided to dwell into some more magic to remedy the self-imposed depression that my results caused me. I turned to Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which I had been meaning to read since it was published in September 2004 – and, of course, mentioned on Max’s August 29, 2004, entry. Ayse, a good friend of mine who lives in Istanbul, was hooked on Messrs. Norell and Strange’s interesting stories last time I visited home and urged me, as a fellow Harry Potter fan, to pick it up immediately. I heeded her advice shortly. For all the speculation out there, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell has nothing to do with the Potter series, except for the main characters being magicians. The novel is set in the early 1800s against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars that are raging on the Continent. Magic has, at that point, been long dead and more of a scholarly interest for gentlemen, who have nothing to do with their endless days on the English countryside. This goes on until Mr. Norell calls upon them and proposes a bet. The agreement is that Mr. Norell will perform a bit of magic for the self proclaimed magicians in the Northern English town of Yorkshire, and if he succeeds they will disband their community and give up all studies of magic. Mr. Norell wins the bet and, as we see throughout the book, gets a step closer to accomplishing his goal of ridding England of all magicians but himself. Since his fellow magicians are mostly scholars and historians Mr. Norell succeeds fairly easily. The London Society, which hears of this eccentric magician’s feats, promptly invites him over for some entertainment. A series of events unfold, leaving the Society in awe and raise the curiosity of the struggling government, which is running out of ideas and resources to stop Napoleon. Soon, Mr. Norell is performing magical feats that win the British Navy some time, trick the French Navy and result in the British victory in the Battle of Trafalgar, making Mr. Norell an irreplaceable commodity to the government. In the meanwhile, another Northern gentleman, Jonathan Strange, arrives in London and is accepted by Mr. Norell as a pupil. Norell and Strange have an interesting relationship that is half mentor-apprentice and half rivalry. In the end Strange becomes just as capable and also enlists his services to assist in the British war efforts against Napoleon in Spain and in the Battle of Waterloo. A falling out between Norell and Strange, as well as some other historical turns suddenly diverts the story line and merges it with the longstanding prophecy of the Raven King, a magician king that once ruled Northern England. Clarke’s first novel is very gripping and greatly organized. There are a lot of footnotes that make the stories more colorful and provide entertaining details and “historical” magic facts. Clarke’s observations and portrayal of English society in the 19th century is very much like Oscar Wilde: witty, snobbish, entertaining and gravely self-conscious. The magic part of the book seems a lot more traditional and scholarly, involving legends, kings, fairies and interactions of the ordinary and magical worlds. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell was definitely one of my favorite reads this year and I would recommend it everyone who likes Oscar Wilde, fantasy, magic and (well yes) Harry Potter.Next I turned to Ahmet Umid’s Beyoglu Rapsodisi for a dose of Turkish reading, per my friend Mehmet’s recommendation. Mehmet suggested that the plot was only decent but that I would get a kick out of reading the story because it was set in Beyoglu, a lively neighborhood in Istanbul. Reading Beyoglu Rapsodisi, in that sense, was similar to reading Arthur Nersesian’s Chinese Takeout, which vividly outlines the East Village, West Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan, arouses feelings of familiarity and belonging, hence drawing you into the story (that is if you live in NYC or know it well) as a better, more careful and personally acquainted observer. As I followed the three friends that are at the center of Beyoglu Rapsodisi (a poor book dealer, a successful textiles/fashion storeowner and a wealthy eccentric) I found myself walking through streets that I love and cherish, going into bars and cafes that I have not been since my last visit, and tasting the drinks and foods they eat on my palate. The friendship of Selim, Kenan and Nihat is also a familiar one that starts in boarding school, grows through college, and always revolves around Beyoglu. Umid constructed a good mystery novel that is as much a portrayal of Beyoglu and individuals within as it is a thrilling read. It is, unfortunately, only available in Turkish. I would recommend it for light beach reading or at home lying on the couch (that’s what I did as I cannot afford to go to beaches these days).Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize – worth 15,000 pounds, the world’s richest – will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story – that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don’t graduate to a minimum of 200 pages – has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It’s like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: “I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney’s Volume I, there ‘are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,’ that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon.”Who knew we had it so good?
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin’s rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum’s research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party’s iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, “To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore.” Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I’ll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I’m in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don’t know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks… yes!Don’t ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm… Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that’s Brookyn by the way). I’ll be there!
My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]
I’m heading to Chicago this afternoon to scope the place out. This summer, after Miss Millions and I get hitched, we’re moving to Chicago where I’ll be attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. Chicago will be a big change for us… the weather alone is a little daunting, but I’m excited about getting to know a new city, and I will do my best to keep The Millions going while I’m in school. In fact, one of the things that keeps the Millions going is the great book stores in LA where I can keep track of the latest books and even meet authors from time to time. I happened upon Golden Rule Jones, which will keep me informed of readings and other literary events, but I need to find a good book store that can be my home base in Chicago, preferably somewhere on the North side of the city, since that’s where we’ll be living. So, I probably won’t be blogging for the next few days, but I will be checking back here. I’m hoping that those of you with knowledge of Chicago will leave some bookstore recommendations in the comments area so that I can check them out. Thanks guys!