That would be “Novel of The Elegant Variation” for the uninitiated. Book blogger Mark Sarvas can now be known as novelist Mark Sarvas because he announced today that his book was bought by Bloomsbury and will be out in a year. Mark’s been talking about this book since he started his blog, so it’s thrilling to see that he’s getting it published. Well done.
Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote has been on my reading list for a long time. Upon Max Magee’s suggestion I picked up the recent translation by Edith Grossman sometime in January 2004. It took me a good 11 months to work up the appetite, desire and guts to indulge in this phenomenal piece of writing. Described by many as the beginning of modern novel, Don Quixote relates a crazed Alonso Quixano’s sallies from his native La Mancha to various provinces of Spain. Beyond the usual adventures of the windmills, freeing of the slaves, and fair Dulcinea – all of which are a part of every child’s introduction to fairy tales and literature – lies the second part of the novel. Cervantes published two Don Quixote novels, and whereas the first one colors our imaginations as children, the Part II – published ten years after Part I, in 1615 – brings forth Cervantes as a witty author who employs Don Quixote’s insanity to illustrate the genius of his loyal servant Sanco Panza; the trivial entertainments of the Duke and the Duchess, whose cunning knowledge of the first novel, which is referred to numerous times in Part II, provide for the creative and chivalric plots that the nobles employ to ridicule Don Quixote; and a grand finale of sobriety that settles for once and all the history of Don Quixote. Cervantes ends the illustrious misadventures of Don Quixote to prevent new issues of fake Don Quixote novels from appearing. Cervantes’ answer to authors who attempted to profit on the first Don Quixote’s success, one Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda in particular, is derisive and rash – bordering on self flattery through his diatribe on other authors. Don Quixote opened a new window in my mind with its accessible language – thanks mostly to Grossman’s spectacular translation – and cunning use of word plays, romantic approach to the bygone days of knight errantry, mockery of social dogmas, integration of tangent plots – oh yes, you read at least 3 unrelated short stories in the novel – and eternally modern style. The novel’s mix of fantasy and reflections on society definitely place it in the pile of books the are must re-reads, albeit not in the short term – it will certainly take me a while to put aside another chunk of time for the second serving.I was distracted at times from reading Don Quixote by Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings. Matt Clare, a close friend and literary fiend, was kind enough to present me with this magnificent work that captures a unique time period in British society. Clare’s inscription on the cover reads “no Baron [on the Trees, by Italo Calvino, which I had presented to him earlier] to be sure, [but] the Lord may still have something to teach us.” Indeed, Lord Henry Wotton quickly became a new idol of mine, decadent and lost, with no particular interest in anything that the London high society of the 1880s held dear, nor any high aspirations that provided for the chatter at tea parties. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of The Picture of Dorian Gray presents vain struggles and trivial issues in an intentionally serious tone, which mocks the core of British culture at the time. There is much to be said about the twists and turns of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which keep the reader on his toes and makes the story an amazing, insightful and philosophical page turner. What follows in the 4 plays and final ballad also collected under the same volume (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Salome, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Ernest, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol) is not as intense as the opener, but nevertheless very entertaining and universal. Oscar Wilde’s only drawback is the limited nature of his subjects, but he does a phenomenal job in conveying the stuck up nature of the crowd that he once was a part of.Related: Max’s thoughts on Don Quixote
My dad’s family is from New Jersey, and they are proud of it. I lived there for a couple of years when I was younger. Folks from Jersey tend to have chips on their shoulders because New Jersey is the butt of a lot of jokes. They will strenuously claim that the state consists of more than just the Turnpike. They will describe the beaches and the countryside. Now they don’t have to bother with the arguments, they can just leave the Encyclopedia of New Jersey sitting out on the coffee table. With nearly 3,000 entries and lots of entertaining factual tidbits like “did you know that New Jersey was once divided into two parts — East Jersey and West Jersey?” perhaps this book will help Jersey join its rightful place among the states. Fittingly, the project was inspired by a classic case of New York envy. As this FOX News article recounts, Marc Mappen, head of the New Jersey Historical Commission, was perusing a popular encyclopedia of New York City and decided that New Jersey ought to have its own reference book. He worked with co-editor Maxine N. Lurie for ten years, and now the book has arrived. You can check out some sample entries hereMy sources are telling me that The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is turning out to be something of a surprise hit. Two largely positive reviews from the New York Times, one in the daily and one in the Sunday Book Review, are helping. This sort of meta-fiction has proven quite successful in recent years; The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair are two examples. And believe it or not, a book that centers on a book club is seen as perfect for book clubs.
In my parents’ home, tucked into the bottom drawer of the dresser in the spare room, there’s a small stack of papers bound together with a rubber band.
I stumbled upon this last week. The rubber band virtually disintegrated as I began to flip through the pages. There, in my hand, were long, hand-written excerpts from all sorts of books. Plays, poetry, philosophy, science, history. Fully attributed, with annotations on the side. I was holding a bit of family history, notes that my grandfather had made to himself as he devoured plays by George Bernard Shaw and writings by Bertrand Russell, meticulously written half-page excerpts, with his own comments here and there. There were also bits of history and science – all transcribed when my grandfather was about 80 years old, during the final couple years of his life.
My grandfather, a pharmacist in his younger days, lived with us in his final years until he died at age 81. I was six years old when he died. House-bound in those final years, these must’ve been library books that my mother brought home for him, which he read and then made these detailed notes on the back of whatever scraps of paper he had handy.
I knew that in those last few years of his life he’d written a half-dozen short stories – children’s stories, each centered on the fantastical exploits of a five-year old named Andy. Lots of secret gardens and magical lands. Those I knew about. I remember them at the time, and I’ve stumbled upon them since. But I had no idea that at the same time he was intently reading, transcribing, and making detailed notes on Shaw’s Androcles And The Lion. I had no idea that he was so immersed in Bertrand Russell’s humanism. There were also bits of verse, quite a bit of science, even a few unattributed jokes and riddles.
I was moved by not only the breadth of his interests but the many similarities to my own. Also his thought process, his attention to detail, his humanism, even his appreciation of the cryptic, the clever, the silly.
And I was suddenly in a role I hadn’t assumed in decades – a grandson. By the time I was nine, all my grandparents had passed away. I haven’t thought of myself in that way in a lifetime.
I was flooded with memories of him. Though I was a small child when he died, I remember his presence. I remember the kindly, gentle man who lived with us. But one thing I don’t have is any memory of his voice. Long-since drowned out by decades of noise, I don’t remember what my grandfather sounded like. And unless a mystery tape-recording suddenly surfaces, I guess that detail is lost forever.
But in these hand-written excerpts and notes, tracking his reading habits in those last few years – perhaps marking his attention to detail, perhaps an attempt, near the end, to make sense of it all, to put things in perspective, perhaps all these things – I’ve been given a sudden and surprising connection to my past. To a part of my past that I thought was fixed and limited. A part of my life which has suddenly expanded, and now reaches into the present and into the person I’ve become.
Next, non-fiction. People seem to be very excited about a new book by the French philosopher (and best-selling author in Europe) Bernard Henri Levy. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is both a journalistic account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter and a deeper look at the rift between extremist Islam and the rest of the world. Imagine the musings of a philosopher detective retracing the final steps of a man he has never met. In other news, I proudly voted in an election that is sure to be a footnote in the history books. I did not vote for Arnold for personal reasons: I happen to be a rabid celebrity-ist, as in I discriminate against celebrities and, by law, I don’t think they should be allowed to hold public office. Just because someone appears regularly on television and movie screens, in magazines and on billboards does not mean they are qualified to do anything other than look pretty and pretend to be another person. But, of course, this is California and it is important to have leaders who are sufficiently glamorous representing the extremely glamorous populace. Needless to say, California is a peculiar and maddening place, progenitor and betrayer of national hopes and dreams, which, in so many words, is what Joan Didion is saying in her book, Where I Was from. My hope is that the reason this book continues to sell so well is that it is people’s way of taking this election with a grain of salt. Now I’m going to do something a bit hypocritical, watch as I go from celebrity-bashing to the Rolling Stones. But what can I say? The Rolling Stones, as The Beatles did a few years ago, have put together a beautiful and comprehensive coffee table book called According to the Rolling Stones, and people are buying it like crazy.Finally, a couple of paperbacks to mention: Dan Brown, like John Grisham before him, is using his huge breakthrough hit, The Da Vinci Code to sell his previous books which had, up until now, been ignored. Since everyone in the world seems to have read the Da Vinci Code by now, folks looking to keep the good times rolling have been buying an earlier book of his, Angels & Demons in droves. Also big in paperback is the recently released collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called How to Be Alone. I seem to be one of the few who hold this opinion, but Franzen’s non-fiction bugs the heck out of me. The Corrections, however, is a must read.
Next I read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. Summers are great for reading all the random and must-read books that have been sitting on your shelf for too long. I remember moving to New York a year after the publication of Schlosser’s study on fast food companies and how they affect the food industry. Everyone on the subway was reading it. When asked to comment, people usually said: “I’ll never eat McDonald’s again.” I wanted to keep eating McDonald’s (even Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me did not stop me), so I made a mental note to read Fast Food Nation when I decided to stop eating McDonald’s on my own volition. Well, that happened a while ago and my friend Annastacia conveniently finished reading Fast Food Nation as I finished Marabou Stork Nightmares during a boat trip. So, we swapped. Schlosser’s study and diligence are both highly commendable. Despite the great amount of detailed facts contained in Fast Food Nation, which – at times – make it a little textbook like, the book is still an interesting and entertaining read. My favorite parts were: “The Founding Fathers,” where Schlosser provides historical information about the spread of drive-in joints and burgers in the US (as well as the suburban lifestyle that was adopted in California and spread – in my opinion like a plague – throughout the country); “Why the Fries Taste Good,” where Schlosser explains the intricacies of food engineering through his travels around the New Jersey Turnpike, smelling and tasting final products in chemical form; and “The Most Dangerous Job,” in which Schlosser describes the working conditions in meat processing plants. Fast Food Nation does have disgusting parts, especially while describing the meatpacking industry. It also has heart breaking moments such as the demise of mid-level, all-American ranchers, and the aforementioned working conditions in meatpacking.I finished the book on the plane back to New York. I had been in Turkey for two and a half months and longed for a good burger. As soon as I dropped of my luggage at my friends’ house, I went straight to the Corner Bistro and ate a medium-rare burger. It was delicious. I did, however, think twice about my order for the first time in my life. Schlosser’s dramatic presentation does leave one wondering about the quality of food we put in our bodies. I heard that Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence is worse. I am intrigued. One final note, despite enjoying Schlosser’s work I think it would be more appropriate to title it “Low Cost Meat: Straight from the Shit Trough and onto your Buns.” I think the connection between the fast food companies and the food industry is good, but not strong and substantive enough to warrant the title Fast Food Nation. In the overall context, however, the title does remain relevant as Schlosser also examines the fast food companies’ successful efforts to prevent unionization, the decline in industry wages, the creation of an easily dispensable and readily replaceable workforce, and the fast food companies’ stronger influence on the food industry than Congress’.Continuing my obsession with food I am now reading Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling. My friend Serdar, who is a big time food lover as well as a graduate of the French Culinary institute in New York, gave the book to me and told me to become a journalist like Liebling. At this point I can only try. Liebling’s prose is entertaining and smooth. He talks about food with great expertise, and it is easy to see his vast understanding of fine dining and good wines. Hopefully I can, one day, be as decadent as Liebling too. From all I can gauge so far, Henry Miller would have penned Between Meals if he had been obsessed with food instead of sex. I am unsure if the opposite would apply to Liebling, but he is a connoisseur in his own field and shows, at every turn, how he acquired his knowledge over the years, beginning as a student. Between Meals is a light, entertaining and mouth watering read. I imagine that it would be perfect if you were on a plane to Paris and wanted nothing but to eat, drink, and be merry. Bon appetite!See Also: Part 1