- For Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi: “Sayonara, Gangsters is one of those rare books that actually defies description… It’s funny, sure. And beautiful. And slightly insane. And haunting. And heart-breaking. But all those words miss the point. The point is you have to read it. So read it.”
- For The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy: “A beautiful, deeply moving story of a family. The more I read, the more I felt the family was mine.”
- For It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick: “This novel is huge — in size, ambition, intelligence, and heart.”
- For The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman: “Sandra Newman has an original way of thinking. The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done is often hysterically funny, profoundly strange, and unbearably beautiful. Often all at once.”
- For My Life with Corpses by Wylene Dunbar: “My Life with Corpses is overwhelming: in its beauty, emotional force, and uniqueness. While I finished the book a few weeks ago already, I have the strange feeling that I’m still reading it — it’s that resonant.”
- For Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope: “I am in awe of Zoe Trope. This book is more than the kind of good story we’ve become satisfied with. It’s more than interesting. It’s art.”
- For The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: “The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs’s quixotic, totally endearing quest.”
- For The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian: “The Noodle Maker is hugely entertaining and deeply serious. It’s something to celebrate.”
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist’s matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor’s love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks – 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship’s power fails – hence annulling the compass and the radar – or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl’s biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: “The Visitor” and “Bitch” (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), “Madame Rosette,” “Death of an Old Man,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
Ed Rants and his Return of the Reluctant blog – a favorite of mine – is down because, in his efforts to publicize the wrongdoings of some racist local DJs, his site was bombarded by visitors looking for the attendant mp3s of the offending DJs. It appears as though some uncharitable linking by the India Times used up all his bandwidth and then some. Here’s hoping that Ed can get things up and running some time soon.
I’m back and I’m fully married now (call us Mr. and Mrs. Millions). It was great. We’re off to the honeymoon shortly, and have a pretty full traveling schedule for the remainder of the summer, so, as I mentioned in my last post, expect to hear from me only every ten days or so until we reach Chicago. (If any of you eager readers wants to write in with book news, though, I will happily post it when I can.) But while I’ve got this free moment, let me mention a couple of book related things that have crossed my desk.I finally, finally, finally finished Edith Grossman’s wonderful translation of the Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote. To any younger readers or any older readers who might one day return to school to study literature, if you ever have the opportunity to read this book in a classroom setting, jump at it. There is so much to unlock in this book, in the techniques of Cervantes, in the tribulations of his characters, and in the historical backdrop of 17th century Spain. When I wrote, months ago, of my frustration at the character of Don Quixote, his brashness, his willful refusal of reality, I still had many hundreds of pages to go. Over the course of those pages, my feelings about Quixote mellowed. The more he interacted with people, the more it became evident that their mockery of him was more foolish than his futile quests. Still, even at the end, Quixote is a character who inspires frustration. I came to realize that there are Quixotes all around us. Those who reject simple explanations for their problems in favor convoluted excuses, conspiracies, and narratives, in which their mundane lives take on a aura of excitement, today’s compulsive liars and humble neighbors with delusions of grandeur, these are modern-day Don Quixotes. And Sancho Panza is just as foolish as the rest of us who humor those who are touched with this special madness. As a work of literature the book is quite astounding, wrenching you out of the mistaken frame of mind that before James Joyce, before the “modern day,” literature was uncomplicated and linear. Especially in Part 2 when Part 1, itself, becomes a sort of character in the book, one realizes that today’s writers are not innovators so much as the great great grandchildren of Cervantes, and in fact Cervantes was the progenitor, the ur-novelist (and Don Quixote the ur-novel), from whom all novelists must necessarily borrow. The book is essential to all who wish to understand “the novel” as a literary form.PoliticsImperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, anonymously penned by a longtime CIA agent, will make waves this week, as the New York Times attests. Also in the Times, Daniel Okrent addresses what was and wasn’t appropriate about Michiko Kakutani’s front page slam of the Clinton book.
Melvyn Bragg, who hosts the terrific In Our Time program on BBC Radio, has put together a list of the twelve British books that have changed the world. The list is for a television series that he’ll be hosting. As an article in the Guardian explains, the most recent book on the list is from 1918, and there’s no fiction at all. What’s interesting about Bragg’s list is that they’re not so much books as they’re historical documents of political and scientific importance. The list:Principia Mathematica by Isaac NewtonMarried Love by Marie StopesThe Magna CartaThe Rule Book of Association FootballOn the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Abolition of the Slave Trade by William WilberforceA Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary WollstonecraftExperimental Researches in Electricity by Michael FaradayPatent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine by Richard ArkwrightThe King James Bible by William Tyndale and 54 Scholars Appointed by the KingAn Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam SmithThe First Folio by William Shakespeare
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you’ll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the “lit-blog.”) And, as I’m still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers’ review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.It’s often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson – at Rake’s Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed’s place – illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride – “B.R. Myers is Satan”; “Who’s the Wanker?” – but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies – the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson’s prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. “Prose of amazing power and stylishness,” Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis’ piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper’s, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I’m embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson’s wide margin of error. “Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil,” I wrote, “I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson’s] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson’s sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as “bric-a-brac?” Can “someone standing in […] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?” In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers’ Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel’s first – “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed.” – is bad.Critiques of Myers’ motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won’t rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn’t been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect “had,” strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else…something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers – a myopic literalist – seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence “Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed” is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn’t make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character’s point of view can also be seen in the following passage… Alan’s comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, “Yes. Yes!” Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we’ve been thrown, without comment, deep into a character’s point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven’t read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn’t read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I’ve been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I’m troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers’ remarks in print.