I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.
I have returned to the subject of the big televised book clubs a number of times since I started this blog nearly a year ago. I have reacted to them, at times, with shock, confusion, and dismay as when I was startled by the emergence of a new Oprah's Book Club, an event that necessitated placing a splashy red banner bearing Oprah's name across the cover of an American classic. Later on I would mellow out, having observed the profound (and mostly positive) effect that Oprah's new focus on classic literature was having on America's reading habits. And there was, of course, the piece that one time Oprah author Kaye Gibbons wrote emphasizing how important she found the club to be in getting more people to read. For most people who observe the book industry I think that the angst surrounding Oprah and the rest is dissipating, and most folks have come to realize that the good done by these clubs far outweighs the damage. A year ago it was possible to see the occasional angry screed directed against the proliferation of on air reading groups, but now, as Caryn James explains in this New York Times article, the ambivalence is waning. And, in fact, Oprah deserves a good deal of praise for both her selection of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic One Hundred Years of Solitude and the depth of the Book Club section of her website (which unfortunately requires you to register if you want to see it). So, the consensus seems to be that these book clubs are mostly good intellectually, but the impact of these clubs on the industry commercially cannot be overestimated. As this interesting roundup of the last ten years of bestsellers in USA Today shows, Oprah's club has become as important as blockbuster news stories and runaway cultural fads when it comes to creating mega-bestsellers. (By the way, how about the amazing five straight "book of the year" titles for the Harry Potter Series.)
I have always wrestled, pretty unsuccessfully I think, with reading and writing poetry, and am often reluctant to discuss it in too much detail, as a novice pilot might be reluctant to land his plane at night. Occasionally, though, poems have the ability to break through whatever barrier to poetry I have inside my head and deliver to me the poignant seed of beauty that supporters of the medium so often rave about. Sometime earlier this year the New Yorker started occasionally putting a poem on its back page instead of the usual "Sketchbook." One of those back page poems (in the March 3rd issue) was an intensely moving anti-war poem by one of my favorie poets (if it could be said that I have favorite poets) C. K. Williams. It is called "The Hearth." This one is definitely one of those "break through the barrier" poems for me, as is a very different sort of poem called "The Clerk's Tale" by Spencer Reece, which appeared on the back page of the New Fiction Issue (June 16 & 23). I love the way this poem makes lyrical the banalities of suburban, modern life. According to the Author Notes for that issue Reece will "publish his first collection of poems next year." I haven't been able to find any info about this upcoming book, but I will post if I do find anything out. In other poetry news, FSG recently put out the brick-sized Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. This book has already recieved a ton of press including a major review in the New Yorker and the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The book itself is beautiful and the poems within are melancholy and transcendant; whether you are a longtime fan of Lowell or unaware of his work completely, as you flip from poem to poem you will find it difficult to pull yourself away.So, What Else is NewSometimes, even though there are mountains of unread books all around me, I find myself wishing that one of my favorite writers had a new book out. So instead of continuing to slog dutifully through my teetering piles, I decided to see what will soon be out that I can breathlessly begin to read the very day that I lay my eyes upon it: -- David Foster Wallace fans will be happy to hear that an as yet untitled (and perhaps even unfinished) short story collection is slated to come out sometime in January or soon thereafter. -- Jonathan Lethem's remarkable story "View From a Headlock" in this week's New Yorker turns out to be an excerpt from his new novel The Fortress of Solitude. Look for this one in September. -- Vandela Vida, one half of the McSweeney's super couple, has a new book coming out at the end of August called And Now You Can Go. Here's an excerpt. -- Jhumpa Lahiri has a new book coming out in September called The Namesake. This one was excerpted in the new fiction issue of the New York as a story called "Gogol." -- Apparently David Sedaris' long-awaited new book will be titled Repeat After Me and will hit shelves a few months shy of a year from now. Anything else out there? let me know.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.” No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence -- but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass. First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow -- as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God. “The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories -- like Joyce’s -- that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him. “Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home. Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess. Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid -- the on the way to their home. Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See -- see -- what did I tell you -- snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow. They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45. They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen. Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.” “The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated -- and, instead of Joyce -- tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
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