Spotted today under the arm of a student at a New York college: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’ve written here about the speed of this author’s induction into the pantheon. Nonetheless, it was remarkable – to me, anyway – to learn from this student that TSD had popped up on an English class syllabus. For the record, the student reports that he likes the book so far. (Me, too, kid. Raciest required reading this side of The Kama Sutra. Comparative religion rules!) His other classmates? Not so much. I guess in our world – unlike Bolaño’s – youth is sometimes wasted on the young.
Susan is taking it all in. The stories are more than she had hoped for. She was discovering the tales that I had hidden from her, but disturbingly they were changing my own memories of those events. Uncle was changing what I remembered.
In The Cousin, the latest novella from John Calabro, our narrator is a reluctant explorer, bringing his Canadian wife Susan with him to a Sicily shifted in his memories from his childhood. He’s detached, reluctant, full of loathing for his Sicilian uncle, and haunted by past events. His wife is more enthusiastic, more engaged, connecting the reader with the setting, while our narrator goes from harboring some hang-ups to dealing with his demons. In the last act, The Cousin turns twisted and surreal, as the narrator takes the astonished reader on a mind-bending journey unlike anything I’ve read.
The Cousin is one of a series of novellas released last fall by Quattro Books, a Toronto outfit which counts Calabro himself as a founding publisher, and which mandated itself to champion the Canadian literary novella. They’ve even come out with a manifesto outlining six rules that must apply to any novella that they publish.
Some of the rules are structural: the qualifying novella must be between 15,000 and 42,000 words long and between 60 and 150 pages. Other rules deal with the time-frame covered within the story, the number of characters, locations, and as Quattro is championing Canadian literary novellas, the author must be Canadian and Canada must factor in the plot or setting or character.
The most interesting rule is that there must be either a reversal of fortune or some kind of realization or revelation. From Quattro’s manifesto:
It is a narrative that draws heavily on a geographical and cultural landscape, real or imagined, or on the concept of a journey, physical or metaphysical, to carry it. It must be of a form and content that excites and surprises while exploring the underbelly or fringe of civilization where savage instincts and/or extreme otherness lie hidden.
These rules are reflected in other novellas released by Quattro last year. In A Pleasant Vertigo, Egidio Coccimiglio tells the story of Gerard, a New York-based artist longing to make a comeback, and suddenly being wooed by rival dealers. The writing style is fast and free-floating, culminating, in the second half, in a dark and comic set-piece along the shores of the Mississippi.
Brenda Niskala’s Of All The Ways To Die is an inventive ensemble ghost story. A missing girl is the catalyst for Urma to summon (actually invite to dinner) an eccentric group of departed souls, to help shed some light on the whereabouts of the girl, and on life itself. Throughout the dinner, we learn not only their stories, but their connections to Urma. The dinner, by the way, is pot-luck, and each guest shares with the reader a special recipe.
Harbour View is Binnie Brennan’s lovely and amusing story of a Halifax nursing home. Characters – the residents and workers of the home – bounce off each other, their stories revealed as we briefly see and hear the world through each of them. There’s warmth to the wit. Here are Buddy’s thoughts on assorted nursing home staff:
Sam speaks softly, unlike Muriel and the others who are trained to speak so that the deaf may hear them. Sam’s quiet is a relief, like the silence when an aircraft cuts out: you don’t really notice the racket until it’s over.
The novella has always been a favorite literary form, and while writers have never stopped writing short forms of fiction, Quattro is to be commended for giving this literary form some formal shape and focus. And there’s plenty of room within the structure for all sorts of tales to be told, and voices to be heard.
The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani shows her extreme distaste for E. L. Doctorow’s new collection, Sweet Land Stories, as well as movies based on Doctorow’s books. (LINK) “Several of E. L. Doctorow’s novels – Ragtime, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel and Billy Bathgate – have been turned into plodding, overproduced movies. Here, in his latest collection of short fiction, “Sweet Land Stories,” he seems to be trying to turn old movie ideas into stories with equally little success at recycling,” Kakutani says. I personally enjoyed both of the stories from this collection that originally appeared in the New Yorker, “A House on the Plains” and “Jolene: A Life,” so I will probably get some more opinions on this one before I declare it a dud.A New LunchI noticed that Kevin over at LA Observed occasionally reports on publishing industry deals listed in something called “Publisher’s Lunch.” Intrigued, I used my book industry credentials to sign up for these weekly newsletters, and so now, from time to time, I will pass along to you publishing industry news that may be of interest to you. For example, Dave Eggers’ new collection of stories, entitled Visitants, will be published by McSweeney’s (of course) this fall, and J. Robert Lennon’s next book will be called Happyland and will be put out by Norton.
Subscribers to the literary magazine One Story receive, you guessed it, one story in the mail about every three weeks. The magazine isn’t as chic as it could be (the choice of title font, for instance, sometimes makes me cringe), but the issues are lightweight and easy to stuff in your purse or back pocket. The stories vary in style and content, and I’ve been impressed with quite a few. And plus, they’re fun to receive in the mail, and even more fun to give away once you’ve finished them.The magazine recently unveiled a prettier website, which still includes the features I’ve always liked. You can check out the first lines of every story published by the magazine, as well as short interviews with each writer about his or her story and the process of creating it. It’s interesting to see how different everyone’s process is: one writer wrote his story in three nights, while another worked on hers for over a year. In these interviews, One Story always asks the writer to share the best writing advice ever received. Some people quote secondhand advice, while others share nuggets of wisdom from a past instructor. On a few occasions, I’ve written this stuff down, either for myself or for my students (or both).
I did not realize that William Boyd would have the same effect that Italo Calvino had on me until I read An Ice-Cream War. When I told the old lady who runs the neighborhood bookstore that lately I had been into Calvino and Henry Miller, and that I really enjoyed Middlesex, she immediately recommended William Boyd, commenting that he is the most underrated contemporary author. Trusting her, I got a copy of An Ice Cream War and began reading. Shortly, I discovered that the novel is an amazing page turner, thanks, mostly, to the cynical British humour with which Boyd approaches the miseries and absurdity of World War I. Over the course of An Ice Cream War, which starts in the neighboring German and British east Africa colonies, the reader travels through Africa, being chased by and also chasing the barbarians (as the British ever so affectionately call the Germans), sees the unfortunate travels of an enthusiastic, newlywed soldier – from his honeymoon in France, back to England, to India, and to Africa – laughs out loud at the most absurd instances of violence, and gets dragged into a very, very cheesy, but still sympathetic love story between an unexpected couple. The reflections on the wartime life in England, the descriptions of three dysfunctional families, and the mockery of the grave consequences of a four year war that no one thought would last past three months are exquisite. Actually, dare I say and yes, here it goes, An Ice Cream War strongly parallels and at times even surpasses the ever great Catch 22 in reflecting cowardice, bravery – for all the wrong reasons, think Milo – and the amazing web of characters who are all interconnected. Read this novel and you too, as I did, will move into the Boyd sphere.Feeling the grips of addiction, I returned to my prime drug, Calvino, for the last novel I read by him in 2004. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the story of two readers as they attempt to read Calvino’s latest novel and realize that there was a problem with the print, which cut off after the first chapter of the novel. Upon returning the book to the bookstore, both readers discover that they had in fact been reading another author’s novel and decide to stick with it since they really enjoy it, but the same problem occurs. Thanks to the persisting issue, the two readers meet each other and start their quest to reach the end of this bizarre occurrence. Calvino’s prose, which I would categorize as his second phase – splitting from traditional folk tales and becoming more fantasy oriented – cleverly weaves the developing affections between the two readers and the beginnings of novels by different authors. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an ode to books and the pleasure book junkies such as myself derive from them.Previously: Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Unlike in recent years, I didn’t get a ton of books this year for Christmas nor did I give any – and, no, this had nothing to do with Joe Queenan’s recent screed in the New York Times against giving books as gifts – though I can see where he’s coming from. Nonetheless, I did get a couple of pretty cool items. The one that I’m most thrilled about is the shiny, new Complete New Yorker that my parents – who know me well – gave me. When I first heard about this back in June, I said this: “My fear is that once I got my hands on this set, I would be compelled to consume every word of it at the expense of school and work and everything else, possibly even eating and sleeping. I may have to put myself into forced hibernation starting in October in order to keep those DVDs from falling into my hands.” But now that I actually own it, I’m willing to take the risk. In fact, I can’t wait to get back to Chicago so I can start digging into this thing. I’ll let you know how it goes.My brother gave me another cool “complete” set, the National Geographic Maps collection which contains every single map supplement published in the magazine from 1889 through 1999 on CD-ROM.From my parents, I also received a collection of interviews with writers like Thomas McGuane and William Styron called Story Story Story. Mrs. Millions, meanwhile, received a weighty tome called The World’s Greatest Architecture: Past and Present from her folks.My favorite non-book gift, though, would have to be the XM Radio that Mrs. Millions gave me. I actually can’t wait for our 14 hour drive back to Chicago so I can soak in all that satellite radio goodness.