The holidays are upon us, and I suspect that many of the folks reading this will be cutting out early this week. I think I’ll do the same, so don’t expect much in this space until 2005. I’m glad everyone seemed to enjoy the year end extravaganza. It was great fun seeing what everyone read this year. I’ll leave you with a couple of late additions and addenda before sending you off to your holiday jollification.Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network, previously gave us his Emerging Best of 2004, but he recently wrote in with some more of his personal favorites from this year. Novel: Steve Yarbrough – Prisoners of War; George Garrett – Double VisionShort Story Collections: Aaron Gwyn – Dog on the Cross; Percival Everett – Damned If I DoPoetry Collections: Beth Ann Fennelly – Tender Hooks; David Huddle – GrayscaleNon-Fiction: Steve Almond – Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America; Owen Gingerich – The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus CopernicusAnd last week, Brian shared with us his thoughts on a couple of books he enjoyed this year, but he couldn’t let me close things out without posting this:Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan: I lived in mortal fear that the genius of Bob Dylan – lyrically, melodically, and just plain cool-as-a-motherfuckerally – wouldn’t translate to prose. Naw, nothing to worry about. His book reads like nothing else: a smashed-up collage of history, (auto)biography, anecdote, music criticism, politics, fiction, lies, truth, and more. Dylan hangs with Chinese philosophers, New York playwrights, John Wilkes Booth(!!!), Tiny Tim, John Wayne, Gorgeous George, Bono, and, in my favorite scene in the book, during an early 60’s freezing cold NYC day, within the confines of a friend’s crash-pad, a teenaged Dylan skims through a wall of books and loses himself in ancient Greece, the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, etc… a badass rootin-tootin’ tale of America(na) told through the eyes of one of its greatest (and most eccentric) poets.Now that sounds pretty good! Enjoy the holiday everyone. Coming after the break: a new installment from Millions contributor Andrew, the introduction of two brand new Millions contributors, my year in reading, and, yes, much, much more.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
So, while I was at work yesterday, I finally picked up Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book has been in stores for a while, and yet people continue to talk about it in glowing terms, so I decided I ought to take a look. Considering that this is a book about baseball, I was surprised that people have continued to talk about it even though it’s been out for two months. Usually baseball books interest only the baseball fans who read them, and that’s that. Moneyball, however, appears to transcend the ghetto of sports literature. I manged to breeze through about a hundred pages yesterday, and I have to say, I can’t wait to get back to reading it. The interesting thing about this book is that in discussing the mini revolution that has occurred in the business of baseball, it touches upon a variety of disperate topics. This book is a must read for baseball fans, but it should also be read by anyone who is interested in economics and psychology, as well as by anyone who enjoys a good character-driven, non-fiction book. It’s good stuff.
It’s the stuff of fiction. Ian McEwan’s mother had an affair with an army officer and became pregnant while her husband was away fighting in World War II. She ended up giving away the baby via a newspaper ad saying “Wanted, home for baby boy aged one month: complete surrender.” After her husband was killed in the war, however, she married the baby’s father and went on to have Ian, who didn’t know about his long lost brother until recently. According to an article in The Independent, McEwan’s brother David Sharp is turning the story into a book.
If my college had offered a class on the New Yorker, I definitely would have taken it, but it didn’t, and, until today, I wasn’t aware that any colleges did. What a great idea for a class. Last fall, Prof. Bryant Mangum of Virginia Commonwealth University taught a class called Literature in Society: The New Yorker. Each class is constructed like an issue of the magazine with the assignments divided into these parts: Goings on About Town, The Talk of the Town, Features: Fact/Fiction, The Critics, Poems. Aside from the magazine itself, required reading includes classic New Yorker fiction. Perhaps coolest of all is Mangum’s Miscellany page which includes scans of a New Yorker rejection slip, note and check.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Ismail Kadare. Honestly. The Albanian author is frequently named as a potential Nobel laureate, and his novel The Accident just appeared in English, earning him additional press and reviews. But this recent press for Kadare is only part of why I’ve been pondering his work.
Kadare represents a bit of a fantasy for me, as a reader and as a writer. When I was a child traveling to my family’s ancestral home in Northern Greece, we would always come to a point in the road where the left went north to Albania and the right went northeast into the Pindus mountains. We went right, but to the left were soldiers manning a checkpoint with military trucks and tanks. Beyond that, a few more miles of disintegrating asphalt, and then the Albania of Enver Hoxha, where few went in and no one went out.
Sometimes we’d stop at the checkpoint and just look for a minute or two. My great-uncle might talk how he helped push Mussolini’s army back into Albania, or he might point out that Hoxha’s communism was proof that the nationalists he’d fought for had been on the right side in Greece’s civil war. Then we’d get back in the car and head up the switchbacks to our house.
Because we couldn’t get in, because there was a fence, I wanted desperately to go to Albania. Years later, reading Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, I was perhaps most struck by his chapter on Albania. I remember few specifics now, though it remains one of my most admired books, but I remember quite clearly Kaplan’s description of the crowds outside a soccer match in Tirana. Men with identical flimsy plastic sandals on their feet, restive and straining against the dissatisfactions of the match and of their lives.
When I came across Kadare, I was excited to be reading prose that had come from within that world, even if Kadare had left Albania for France in 1990. (Kadare originates from a town not far at all from that checkpoint: Gyrokaster in Albanian; Argyrokastro in Greek.) I appreciated The Concert, but The Three-Arched Bridge unsettled and chilled me. The novel addresses the intersection of West and East during the final years of the Byzantine Empire as a local ruler organizes the building of a stone bridge. The bridge will open up a trade route for merchants on horseback, opening up as well the village to the oncoming Ottoman forces. Once outside influences are allowed in, it’s the beginning of the end for the crumbling Byzantine rule in the novel’s world.
The chilling part of Kadare’s book, however, has to do with the actual building of the bridge. The master builder gets a certain amount of work done each day, but overnight, the foundations of the bridge are swept away. Every day, the masons rebuild the bridge, and every night, the river destroys it. The solution is clear. The master builder must immure a volunteer in the foundation of the bridge, or else the building will never succeed. Immure: as in build into the wall.
The story of the immured volunteer (it is usually a woman) is not Kadare’s invention. Nor was it even the first time I’d encountered it. Those childhood treks to our family home began with an eight-hour drive from Athens to Ioannina, a city in Epirus which like Kadare’s fictional village was a crossroads between Islamic and Western cultures during the Ottoman Empire. Minarets still rise above the glassy lake at the city’s edge, by the castle of Ali Pasha, the 19th-century ruler. To get there (which was most of the way to our home in the mountains), we had to cross the Arachthos River at Arta. The road ran beside the medieval bridge—where legend has it that the master builder immured his young daughter into the foundations in order to defeat the water’s destructive force.
Hearing this legend when I was young, I was struck by the story’s cruelty, and by the inevitability of that cruelty. No one ever dwelled, in their retelling, on how tortured the masterbuilder must have been, how aghast at his own eventual acceptance of the will of society. To me, the gruesomeness lay in what seemed the ease of the master builder’s choice. And there was the bridge, intact still, a monument to cruelty and, at the same time, to the social good of selflessness.
When I came across the same story in Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge, the experience oddly proved the truth of the legend I’d grown up with. It cemented the story as part of a wider Balkan reality. Which in fact it is. The story is known, in folklore studies, as “The Bridge of Arta”—the name for a grouping of tales that originate in Central-Eastern Europe involving the immuration of a virtuous person in order for a society to achieve a common good. There is a Bulgarian version, a Romanian version, and a few modern interpretations besides that of Kadare, including Nikos Kazantzakis’ libretto for an opera called Protomastoras (master builder).
The Three-Arched Bridge isn’t considered one of Kadare’s major works. The folkloric dimension of the narrative nudges it away from standard literary fiction. But for me, it’s a powerful text. Not only because it reworks the traditional tale in a contemporary political and cultural context, but also because it’s a fiction that creates a kind of truth.
If you hear kids throwing the word “book” around a lot more than you’re used to, don’t assume that a new literary craze is sweeping the land. According to some cultural observers, “book” is becoming a substitute for “cool” thanks to the pervasive influence of text messaging.As some of you are no doubt aware, when the “T9” predictive text function is activated your cell phone will try to guess the word you’re typing as you key it in on those frustrating number keypads. As it turns out, when you try to type in “cool” – that is, 2-6-6-5 – phones will, by default, suggest “book,” and, according to some, the kids are running with it, and “book” has become another word for “cool.” So, all you teachers out there, your work is officially done. Books are now cool, literally. (via Zorn)