Yesterday, the mayor, who doesn’t bear much resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy, announced that the latest “One Book, One Chicago” selection is Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. Now, I have no problem with Jane Austen, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book in high school or whenever it was, but this strikes me as just about the blandest, safest pick you can make for one of these “one book, one city” programs. It’s hard to see the point of these citywide reading initiatives if all they do is push their way through a high school reading list. Much more valuable would be a book that would get the city buzzing. The program could also be a platform to introduce Chicagoans to a less well-known writer, or, failing that, the “one Book” selection might hinge upon issues more pressing to present day Chicago. That they got it right with the last selection, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s dark Western novel The Oxbow Incident, a book that is both far more underappreciated and which asks much tougher questions than Pride and Prejudice, makes the latest selection even more disappointing. Link: One Book, One Chicago.
Michael J. Arlen’s 1958 humor piece “Are we losing the novel race?” (which can be found in the New Yorker’s anthology of humor writing) starts out thusly: “As if things weren’t bad enough already, word has just reached me that the Russians have recently published a 1,600 page novel.” The amusing little piece, published at the height of Cold War hysteria, spoofs both the nation’s fear of an impending nuclear war and the literary world’s longtime obsession with heft. The Cold War is over now, but people are still fascinated by really big books.The latest really big book is a 1,360 page debut novel called Hunger’s Brides: A Novel of the Baroque by a Canadian named Paul Anderson. An article in the NY Times – which includes this quote from Anderson’s publisher: “I told him, ‘You can’t not go there.’ And that’s how it got longer.” – is dutifully descriptive on the subject of the book’s size: “It weighs 4 pounds, 9 ounces, equivalent to two and a half copies of The Da Vinci Code, and it is thicker than Verizon’s Manhattan telephone directory (either the white or yellow pages).” Luckily, the author seems to have a sense of humor about having published such a, shall we say, weighty book: his official Web site includes a slideshow of “safe reading positions”. And if you’re really curious, there are several excerpts up as well.
I’m in the early stages of War and Peace and last night read a battle scene in which the Russian troops are retreating from the advancing French army. The chapter follows Nicholas Rostov, as he and his company try to cross the Danube in time to destroy the bridge behind them. The scene is written with a sort of detached, tableau quality that reminded me a lot of the evacuation of Dunkirk section in Atonement. I went back to McEwan’s book to look for passages that compared directly with Tolstoy’s writing and found a couple:The crush of men.From War and PeaceThe soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvitski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying around the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.From AtonementThe crowds were bunching up again. In front of the canal bridge was a junction and from the Dunkirk direction, on the road that ran along the canal, came a convoy of three-ton lorries which the military police were trying to direct into a field beyond where the horses were. But troops swarming across the road forced the convoy to a halt. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted insults. The crowd pressed on. Men tired of waiting scrambled off the backs of the lorries. There was a shout of ‘Take cover!’Observing nature in the thick of the retreat.From AtonementAs they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of gray and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun.From War and PeaceNicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in mists to their summits.
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the “Washington read.” A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one’s own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history’s first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities’ chief industries. I don’t know if I coined this analogy, but I’ve always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a “Hollywood read.” It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, “I used to work with this guy,” and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller’s posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff’s Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today’s Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
A literary mystery reached its conclusion about two years ago when a lost Alexandre Dumas novel was published in French. The Last Cavalier had been discovered by a scholar in the Bibliotheque nationale de France as researched Dumas’ life. The book has now made it here in translation. The New Yorker covers the book in its “Briefly Noted” section, calling it “a breathless seven hundred and fifty pages,” which is certainly an apt description of the one Dumas book I’ve ever read, The Count of Monte Cristo.The CS Monitor raves as well and offers some specifics on how the novel was found in serialized form and how it was turned into a novel, “in much the same fashion Dumas himself did when transforming other epic serials into bound novels.”