British paper The Times hired artist Matthew Cook to do illustrations of the action in Iraq. The resulting drawings and paintings provide a different look at what’s going on over there. An online gallery shows him at work along with a bunch of the illustrations, and an article tells his story. He’s also got a gallery show coming up in London apparently.
It started with Nick Adams.
I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.
The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.
Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.
One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.
Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”
There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.
The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.
Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.
Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.
The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
Here in Iowa City, the only town in America whose economy is fueled entirely by football, alcohol and literature, we get more than our share of readings to attend. While I don’t make it to all of them, I did manage to hear Marilynne Robinson read a few weeks ago. Ms. Robinson is an enchanting reader, and her new book Gilead was atop many “best of” lists for 2004. As anyone who has read a review of Gilead knows, it is Robinson’s first novel since Housekeeping was published 24 years ago, and the way many in the media talk about it, it might as well have been 224 years ago. While Robinson has written two non-fiction books about such varied topics as John Calvin and Great Britain’s nuclear policy, Gilead is indeed her first new work of fiction in many years. But so what? I for one would like to see more authors take their time between novels. One of my favorite writers, J.F. Powers, wrote only two novels and wrote them nearly 30 years apart. They’re both nearly perfect, and I don’t find myself wishing he wrote more. In fact, the scarcity makes it that much more likely that I’ll actually read one of his books a second or third time, something I rarely do. I don’t think I’ll find myself diving into Kingsley Amis’ very fine Old Devils as I’ve been poisoned by the vast sea of mediocrity that separates that book from his masterpiece Lucky Jim. So hats off to the Marilynne Robinsons, the J.F. Powers, and the Donna Tarts of the world. I sometimes wish we had a few more of them and a few less mediocre novels.
Opening Day is almost upon us, and that means that this year’s baseball books are already upon us. My friend Derek was once a Baltimore Orioles fan like myself, but then the Nationals swept into Washington, DC, and stole his heart away. I consider him a traitor, of course, but in his defense, I’m told that watching the Nats play at RFK has become one of the joys of summertime in the Nation’s capitol. Being a big Nationals fan, Derek has been bugging me about one baseball book in particular. National Pastime is an account of the Nationals debut season by Washington Post baseball writer Bruce Svrluga (an excerpt is available). The season was exciting and worthy of a book not only because the Nationals were unexpectedly contenders last summer, but also because the team became a phenomenon in a city that had gone without baseball for decades. It’s the sort of baseball story that baseball fans love (Even so, I’m still an O’s fan.)Every once in a while, though, there’s a baseball book that draws interest beyond diehard fans. A couple of years ago it was Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball that turned baseball on its head. This year it’s the book Game of Shadows by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, which presents, it seems to me, incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds’ monster performance of the last few years was, in fact, steroid-fueled as so many had suspected. Ever since Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt of the book a few weeks back, this has been the number one story in baseball. It seems likely to stay the number one story for a while, too. ESPN The Magazine recently ran an excerpt of another Bonds book, Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Pearlman. That book will be out in May.Perhaps as important as baseball (and Bonds’ steroid troubles), though, is fantasy baseball. I’ll be tearing it up this year in a league put together by fellow blogger, Jeff. My team is the Ravenswood Ravens, a reference to both my neighborhood and Edgar Allan Poe. The team’s success will rely equally on my managerial prowess and on a breakout season by Wily Mo Pena. Fantasy baseball has clearly become a huge business in recent years and a summer long obsession for many sports fans. In Fantasyland, Wall Street Journal writer Sam Walker does what many of us fantasy baseball fans seem apt to do all summer, and that is chronicle the ups and downs of our fantasy team to anyone stuck listening to us. What sets Walker apart, though, is that he’s a sportswriter, a job which affords him real life contact with the players on his fantasy team. I don’t have access like that, so when I need fantasy tips I turn to the baseball geeks at Baseball Prospectus. Their annual Prospectus is indispensable, and this year also I managed to get my hands another new book of theirs, Baseball Between the Numbers, in which the BP folks use their formidable mastery of numbers to shatter more myths about the game.Update: Sam Walker is blogging this week at Powells.com.