A few months back there was some fuss about Penguin selling, for close to $8,000, the Complete Collection: More than 1000 of the Greatest Classics. Recently, used bookstore owner Jeff Sharman went through his inventory and found “a handful of forgotten Penguin Classics” – ones that didn’t make the cut. He raises an interesting point that not all classics stand the test of time.
The next novel I picked up was Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. I was, as some of you might recall, very impressed by Middlesex and wondered about The Virgin Suicides. Most of my friends who have only seen the movie despised it, and those who read it suggested that the book was a success and that I should never bother with the movie, which is precisely what I did. The Virgin Suicides has a very complex storyline, narrated in contrasting simplicity by a man years after a quiet suburb of Detroit was shaken up by the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Eugenides is very successful in capturing the mental state of teenagers, as well as their struggles in growing up and establishing an identity. The lack of a male influence among the Lisbons - a family of seven with five daughters - the dominant, repressive and over-protective nature of Mrs. Lisbon, and the disengaged, mostly submissive stance of Mr. Lisbon form the nexus of complexities that eventually infect the Lisbon family and drive the daughters to suicide. The sexual escapades of Lux - the youngest of four sisters following thirteen year old Cecilia's suicide - and the enigmatic Trip Fontaine's obsession with her expand the plot and provide a window into the social environment of 1970s suburbia. The Virgin Suicides presents a good glimpse of Eugenides' immaculate prose by the delightful narrative of a grown up from the stand point of a '70s teenager obsessed with inward girls and the mysteries that surrounded them. I would strongly suggest The Virgin Suicides as an intro to Euginedes.Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale is my fourth book of 2005. The time-bridging adventures of Peter Lake, a fantastic protagonist raised by the Baymen out on the Jersey shore and thrown into the life of New York at age twelve in the late 1800s, Pearly Soames, a gold-obsessed thief and the nightmare of all gangs in New York (think Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York), Beverly Penn, daughter of media magnate Isaac Penn who suffers from consumption, and the bridge builder Jackson Meade, who aims to build the rainbow bridge that will bring the Golden Age all reflect on the essence of the human spirit, which is warmest in the bitter colds of Winter. The narrative moves from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in a chronological fashion until a crucial showdown between Peter and Pearly, whom the former had wronged by ambushing the gang - the notorious Short Tails - during an attack on the Baymen. Next, you find yourself in the 1990s (and keep in mind that this novel was written in 1983), in a futuristic world not so different than the one we live in today, but one that has lost all sense of romanticism and sincerity. Still, there are those affiliated with the Lake of the Coheeries (a mystical upstate town, unbeknownst to common eyes - a pseudo Neverland more along the lines of The Shire) who have assimilated into modern culture yet maintain a hidden greatness inherent in their heritage of understanding and love. As characters cross paths in search of the Golden Age, and few know what to look for, back comes Peter Lake, Pearly, and Jackson Meade. When these characters of a century ago find themselves in New York, in the 1990s, they are befuddled to say the least. But shortly, everyone comes to realize that the unsettled accounts of the past were but the beginning of a reckoning scheduled for a hundred years later. As events unfold, New York suffers from a terrible fire and one gets the feeling that things are headed for the worst. Helprin's fantastic story is touching and surreal, the beauties he draws upon are essential elements that most of us are prone to forget or overlook. Winter's Tale is also a great ode to New York, one of the central and most beautiful characters - yes a character indeed - in the novel. The early image and infinite ideal of New York is best described in another character, Hardesty Marratta's proclamation: "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone." If you are not a staunch realist and love a long build up, you will be delighted at the interplay of history, characters, New York, and romantic idealism that leads to a fantastic resolution.
Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, both incisive, witty journalists, staff writers at the New Yorker, and expat Canadians, return to Toronto this weekend for a live debate Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall.The topic: Canada: Nation or Notion? (And as a proud and sometimes confused Canadian myself, I'm eager to learn the answer)If you happen to be in the Toronto area, tickets can be purchased here. And I believe there are plans to air the debate, down the road, on CBC Radio.
A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled "Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses." I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches - if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone's favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert's A Simple HeartKate Chopin's The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe's Poll in the first stave)Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf's The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children's book)Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (Cap'n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, "Go Away. No boys allowed here.")Gertrude Stein's "The Good Anna" in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki's story "The Remoulding of Groby Lington"Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather's beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven's African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather's Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)
I usually listen to the BBC World Service when I listen to radio online, but Millions contributor Andrew recently told me about an excellent programme (as they say) on BBC4. "In Our Time" is hosted by Melvyn Bragg who, each week, is joined by three guests as he explores "the history of ideas." To give an idea of the varied topics the program touches upon, the most recent show was about Samuel Johnson, 18th century author of Lives of the Poets among many other books (here's his greatest hits), and "England 's most famous and well connected man of letters," while next week's show is on asteroids. All the old shows are archived and organized by subject.
So, I just landed about three hours ago, and it's good to be back. Travelling is great fun, but it wears you out too. I am looking forward to my own bed and getting rid of my suitcase for a while, plus, I was running out of books. I read a bunch while I was in Ireland, but I didn't get a chance to post here. (Sorry). Surprisingly, the internet cafes in Ireland all had fast connections and good computers, but I was never able to sit at one for than fifteen minutes. There was too much to see and do. So.... where was I? Before I left Barcelona I read The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez, which took only about a day. First and formost, the book suffers from a poor translation by a gentleman named Ed Emery. The text is littered with annoying British drivel like "he wondered what colour knickers she wore" and "I'm also very fond of this girl with a squint." To be more precise, it wasn't just a regular BBC British but more of an in your face Guy Ritchie movie British. I had to make an effort to keep the British accent from creeping into my head while I was reading, which was annoying because I was trying to relish the experience of reading this little novel set in the sweaty apartments of Barcelona while I was sitting in a sweaty apartment in Barcelona. The whiny British voice in my head just didn't fit the scene. To be fair, Serpent's Tail, the publisher, is a British press so I guess they're just serving their audience. The book itself is very brief and somewhat derivative in a John Fante or Charles Bukowski sort of way in both style and theme. There are especially parallels to Fante's Ask the Dust. Nunez's hero, Antonio aka Frankie, shares with Fante's Arturo Bandini a rooming house lifestyle, girl troubles, and a drinking problem. Bandini, though, is a noble character. He is struggling to be a writer, and he wants to find love. Frankie is just down on his luck, and this little book merely recounts a bizarre episode in his life. With spare prose, Fante manages to go deep into the psyche of his character. Nunez substitutes shock value for depth of character with predictable results. For a book that can be read in an afternoon, though, I'd say it's worth a look, if only because it is entertaining in an enjoyable voyueristic sort of way. More later....