A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
With my personal sport of choice – professional basketball – surging towards the playoffs, I felt a need to read about sports. I needed to read about jocks and sweat and champions and the like.Instead, I read about gambling. And politics.Oh, and a little bit of about sports.(First, though, an aside. I read three books this month – not very many, I know, but it was a shorter month. One of them was To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.Yes, it was better than Hey Rube. But with To Kill a Mockingbird being selected as South Dakota’s “The Big Read” selection for this year, I figured it would be getting as much press as it could handle [“No, he’s not being ironic. Corey is from South Dakota” — Max]. So I’m going with number two.Back to the review.)Really, Hey Rube, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s ESPN.com columns, isn’t about sports at all. It’s about gambling, mostly, with a little counter-culture political rants thrown in to balance things out. There’s a fair bit about his friends, all of which involves gambling and politics. Still, every once in a while Thompson brings it back to sports.The primary focus of Thompson’s rants usually leans towards the NFL – widely though of as “the gamblers’ league” – and with rightful cause. Here you’ll delve into the mind of a degenerate gambler; one who understands the subtle difference between getting 10 points against the Colts compared to a measly 9. You’ll begin to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a man that loves his friends, but loves even more to take their money.Above all, though, you’ll see the fine line between politics and sports. While both seem incredibly different, you’ll find they’re not – at their cores, both subjects are nearly identical. Both deal with competing forces that, often times, exhibit nearly opposite styles. Both find themselves hotly debated at all times of the day, regardless of a person’s knowledge or competency in the subject. The only real difference is that political leaders are chosen, while in sports the leaders are determined after a long and brutal physical battle.In fact, politics would be a lot more interesting if they adopted the “physical battle” concept.Hey Rube is not for the faint of heart. It’s vitriolic. It’s spit out with a forked tongue. It’s full of anti-administration propaganda and cursing. Never before has anyone felt so pained while talking about his favorite sport. Thompson rages that “watching the Baltimore Ravens play football is like watching scum freeze on the eyeballs of a jackass,” a line that is as true a sports criticism as “steroids ruined baseball” or “the NFL Pro Bowl is no longer relevant.”The odd thing is how attractive he makes everything sound, while at the same time seemingly hating every minute of it. Thompson’s obsession with gambling, football, and his own twisted thoughts sounds unnatural. It is. Still, Hey Rube left me longing to join him. It couldn’t have been that horrible to hang out and watch football with Thompson, except for the fact that you might get shot.Or even worse – you might be convinced to run a marathon with Sean Penn.Listen, we all miss Hunter. It’s still incredibly chic to mention his name and blabber on incessantly about how he was a literary genius and how he’ll never be replaced.In all actuality, this is not Thompson’s best book. It’s fractured, and it’s not in his usual wheelhouse. But it is very good. And if you like sports more than politics, as I do, you’ll find more pleasure in Hey Rube than you might find in any of his campaign memoirs.And as far as his genius is concerned, well, it’s true. He was a genius. He filled a specific niche that not everyone respected – and that’s fine. Some like him, some revere him, and others can’t stand him. That’s all part of his shtick. Regardless of your feelings, you have to admit he made an impact.Even if it was only by pointing out the importance of never betting against Duke basketball.-Corey VilhauerBlack Marks on Wood PulpFebruary 2006 CVBoMCJanuary 2006 CVBoMC
In person and on the page, the two men are as different as Laurel and Hardy: the one orotund, a gourmand, filling his mouth with the language of his forebears, digesting ideas with gustatory (sometimes dyspeptic) relish; the other lean, a scientific mind, cerebral, attenuated, his most pronounced feature a high forehead given to wrinkling in bemusement. I’ve been a student of both William H. Gass and E.L. Doctorow, and somehow have only now thought to compare them. But when I do, I see yin and yang, Epicurius and Zeno. (DeVito and Schwarzenegger?) Truly, the contrast here, in temperament and physiognomy, is like something out of a novel.Upon reflection, however, I’m discovering affinities. Gass and Doctorow are roughly coevals, celebrated novelists and essayists. Both attended Kenyon College as undergrads and finished in the Ivy League. More substantively, both go about their work – choleric or platonic – with a heroic seriousness that marks them as the product of the bygone moment of modernism. Both, that is, are unreconstructed believers in the religion of art. Notwithstanding reviewers’ declarations that they are in the “twilight” of their careers, each has continued to produce vital work in his seventies.This year, each offers us a nonfictional map of his personal (and idiosyncratic) canon. If Gass’ A Temple of Texts and Doctorow’s Creationists diverge in temperament and taste, together they comprise a rich walking tour of world literature – and more importantly, an object lesson in committed reading.A Temple of Texts is by far the chunkier of the two books. Over 418 pages of dense, erudite, poetic prose, Gass covers American classics (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, Gertrude Stein) and nominees for classic status (Stanley Elkin and Ernesto Sabato) and returns, again and again, to his beloved Europeans.The foundation of the book is the title essay, which accompanied an exhibition of Gass’ “Fifty Literary Pillars” at Washington University’s Olin Library. Here, we are treated to a highly personal take on the writer’s favorite books; the net result has the compulsive fascination of one of those “Best 37 Novels of the Last 37 Months” lists, but is deeper, more varied, and in weird way more democratic. Gass makes no claim that Collette or Cortazar should be among everybody’s literary pillars, but summarizes his relationship to their books with such gusto that we may be persuaded, at least, to add them to our reading lists, and to think about our own literary pillars. Along with “To A Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics” – Gass’ Solomonic solution to the academy’s “canon wars” – “A Temple of Texts” is the strongest thing here.The title essay also lends the book its canny structure: most of the other pieces here are pegged to a specific author. To sit and read the collection straight through is to subject oneself to a lot of Gass, which is to say a lot of philosophy, a lot of alliteration, a lot of wordplay. Characteristic Gass productions like the peevish “Influence” or “The Sentence Seeks Its Form” (the distillation of at least a dozen other essays from other books) may slow the reader down (as Gass no doubt means to do) or even trip her up (which can seem bellicose.) But those new to Gass can just as easily treat A Temple of Texts as a reference work, can dip into disquisitions on Rilke and Rabelais at will, and be rewarded. The accessibility of form, and the richness of thought, make A Temple of Texts a wonderful and unusually gentle introduction to Gass’ extraordinary mind and, as importantly, to the works that formed it.Comparatively, Creationists is slender – 176 pages for $25, or 14 cents per page – and makes few claims for itself. Doctorow intends, he tells us, to stay close to the works he’s writing about, rather than rising above them to make sweeping assertions. The word “modest” appears in the book’s first sentence. But in its keen, almost surgical intelligence, in the sly insights smuggled into its readings, Creationists is a fraternal twin to A Temple of Texts. Where Gass’ sensibility is European, Doctorow’s is distinctly American – he is most convincing when discussing Twain, Melville, Fitzgerald, and Arthur Miller. Especially in the Melville essay, we see the way a life of reading has informed Doctorow’s own fiction.”It is indisputable in my mind that excess in literature is its own justification,” Doctorow writes of Moby-Dick. Perhaps it is this dictum that leads him to the book’s many feats of restoration; Doctorow’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of Poe (a “genius hack”) and Stowe make Creationists more than a simple top-ten list. As do his literary analyses of Harpo Marx, Albert Einstein, and the Atomic Bomb. As does the peculiar tension between analytic coolness and immoderate passion; in this way, Creationists is of a piece with Doctorow’s best novels.In the past, both Gass and Doctorow have invoked Elkin, quoting someone else: there are two kinds of writers, putter-inners and taker-outers. If Gass is the former, Doctorow’s the latter, and many of his ideas – about the creative temperament, the value of writing, the fruitful democracy of contemporary culture – emerge only through implication. The subtlety and brevity of Creationists don’t make it any less valuable, though. It may be far from novel for novelists to reflect on the works that influenced them. But the complementary traits of these American masters – their uncommon intelligence and reverence for literature – make A Temple of Texts and Creationists gifts for the reading public.Sidebar: Books these books made me want to check out: Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katharine Anne Porter, On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato