I’ve written before about Matthew Jockers‘s claim, as reported and presented by the Paris Review, that there are only about 6 plots in fiction. Now Dan Piepenbring returns to the Review to respond to critics who and attempt to answer the questions “is it really possible to assign every word a reliable emotional valence? And even if the answer is yes, can we really claim that all the plots in the history of literature take so few basic forms?”
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we thought it a good idea to offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly. We hope you discover something you like.+ Inside by Kenneth J. Harvey recommended by AndrewA tough, spare, bruising novel from Newfoundland author Kenneth J. Harvey, Inside depicts the experience of a man released from years in prison, cleared on DNA evidence. Not guilty but far from innocent, our man attempts to reconnect with his family and reclaim his life. The novel’s edgy, fragmented prose is sometimes tough reading, but I read it a year-and-a-half ago when it first came out here in Canada, and its images and tone still haunt me.+ Sarajevo Marlboro by Milijenko Jergovic recommended by GarthAmong the splendors of the short-story is that it needn’t teach us anything. Also among its splendors: that it often does, anyway. With this collection, journalist Jergovic uses a deceptively casual style to tally the cost of war. Stories like “Beetle” and “The Excursion” bring to life the human beings caught in Sarajevo during the war, moving us without ever hectoring. They are exemplars of the William Carlos Williams dictum: “No ideas but in things.”+ Silence by Shusaku Endo recommended by BenIt’s strange to me that Shusaku Endo’s fine novel Silence has yet to be canonized as a masterpiece of world literature. Although I’m not generally a booster of Japanese writers, this story of faith and suffering is one of the best novels I’ve read.Endo was a Japanese Catholic, and many of his works explore the conflicts between his faith and his culture. Silence takes place in the 17th century and follows two Portuguese priests as they try to introduce Christianity to Japan. The Japanese government resists their efforts, and the two are forced to go underground, running from a public official who tracks them relentlessly. As their flock is captured one by one, the priests are forced to a final showdown, where their faith is put to the test. Equal parts heart-wrenching and thought provoking, this beautifully written and moving book grapples with the meaning of faith in a world where prayers are met only with silence.+ Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin recommended by EmreForget about global warming for a second and pick up Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale – a perfect companion to the season that will immerse you in a world steeped in fantasy. Peter Lake’s journey from the end of the Gilded Age to a futuristic 1990s world doesn’t cover much ground; most of it is in New York. But, the creation of the City as a central character, the use of Winter to tickle warmth, and the struggle between the ideal-imagined and real-lived will take you on a ride that illuminates beauty in the ordinary via the fantastic.+ The Compleat Angler: or, The Contemplative Man’s Recreation by Izaak Walton recommended by EmilyAlthough I am not “a brother of the angle,” I count Izaak Walton’s 1653 Compleat Angler among my favorite books. And it would seem that I am not alone: Walton’s book has been in print continuously for the past 355 years and by some counts it is the most reprinted work in English after the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. To describe this delightful book, however, is no easy task. “The waters are nature’s storehouse in which she locks up her wonders,” Walton writes, and his book sets out to be the meandering catalogue of these and much else. Like so many other books of its age, Walton’s Angler is hard to classify. It is part fishing manual, part meditation on the joys of rural life, contemplation, and patience, part compendium of whimsical fishing and river lore (an account of the Sargus, a fish who crawls onto land to impregnate sheep, stories of mythical rivers that dance to music, light torches, or cease to flow on the Sabbath), part miscellany of pastoral verse, and part cookbook, all united by the deeply humane and amiable voice of the narrator, Piscator. Recommended for: All restive souls, especially city folk afflicted with pangs of bucolic longing.+ The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene recommended by MaxThis Graham Greene classic takes on crises of faith as a “whiskey priest” in Mexico is pursued by a stern lieutenant and the specter of a firing squad and must contemplate his own shortcomings, his worthiness, and his ordained duty to his flock. Heavy stuff, but as winter takes hold in northern climes, readers will appreciate Greene’s backdrop of the humid closeness of the Mexican jungle – you may feel some perspiration on your brow – not to mention a cast of characters who serve only to heighten the priest’s moral ambiguity. Whether read as a layered allegory of faith or a tense romp through the tropics, The Power and the Glory deserves its place among Greene’s best works.
A few days ago, our own Kaulie Lewis pointed readers to a LARB essay about Geoff Dyer, which nicely complemented a piece about the author our own Mark O’Connell wrote for Slate back in June. Now, at Full-Stop, David Burr Gerard suggests that Dyer’s strengths, which worked so well in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, may have hampered him in Another Great Day at Sea. FYI, our own Janet Potter reviewed the latter book for The Millions.
Elmore Leonard was a very cinematic writer, yet why are most adaptations of his work so bad? Christopher Orr explores what he calls the “Elmore Leonard paradox” in The Atlantic. “Most of the early adaptations of Leonard’s crime work missed his light authorial touch, opting instead for somber noir.” Pair with: Our own Bill Morris’s essay on why Leonard was such a good writer.
Is Alejandro Zambra the new great Latin American writer? James Wood thinks he is. In the latest New Yorker, he describes how Zambra’s new story collection alerted him to the writer’s oeuvre, going on to analyze all three of the writer’s novels in English. You could also read our 2011 interview with Zambra.
Book Cover Roundup, Item #1: Each year The Millions publishes a high stakes face-off between the UK and US covers of books featured in The Morning News’ Tournament of Books (2014, 2013, 2012). Now, for Sarah Hemfrey’s research on book covers in the publishing industry, it’s your turn to be the judge. Item #2: if Harry Potter is more your style, that whole series is getting new cover designs, too.