Umberto Eco vs. Junot Díaz

This Guest post comes from Laurie Anderson. Laurie is a publicity assistant for a large Southern university.A Performance Comparison, Not a Literary CritiqueUmberto Eco gave three free lectures at Emory University in Atlanta October 5 through 7, and also did a reading and signing. All three lectures will be released in print form sometime next year; I'm not sure through what publisher. Although I have yet to read any of his work (except for a very short children's picture book he wrote many years ago, The Bomb and the General), I attended his final lecture Tuesday afternoon, then the reading/signing that night. The lecture, titled "On the Advantages of Fiction for Life & Death", was full of wit, but also full of phrases like "otorhinological legitimacy" and "epistemological proof" and was difficult for me to follow. (I'd say "was difficult for everyone to follow," but the audience of approximately 400 people applauded loudly at the end, so maybe everyone else in the auditorium understood what he was talking about). The gist of it seemed to be that since a fictional story is complete and fixed, unlike history (from which facts and the complete picture are always missing), fiction serves the useful purpose of (a) helping humans put order in their world, and (b) confronting death with a framework of meaning (that is borrowed from stories, including the Bible, that people are most familiar with). I could be wrong; it's just a guess that that's what he was saying. For what it's worth, some of the simpler quotes from his lecture:One of the main functions of literature is to clarify our notions of the truth... It is unquestionably true that Superman is Clark Kent. That Hitler died in a particular bunker can be cast in doubt... If fictional characters are not real, why do we cry over them?... I know Leopold Bloom better than my father. History creates ghosts; fiction creates characters of flesh and blood... [A survey conducted in England awhile ago indicated that] 25 percent of Britons believe that Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby are real people... When we cry over fictional characters we cry for peculiar but real persons... These fictional characters exist as a form of cultural habit, as real as the Holy Ghost was for Christians... Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of our world is as unrealistic as that of the fictional characters. The fictional characters cannot know their fate... Stories that we cannot change -- because Superman will be Clark Kent forever -- also tell us how to die.The reading (from Foucault's Pendulum) was more enjoyable. Eco was understandable despite a thick Italian accent, and read with verve. He chose a lengthy section about a young boy who volunteers to play for a partisan funeral in a small Italian town. ("It really happened to me," he told the audience. Like the boy in the story, Eco said that as a youth he and his family escaped the bombing of their city during WWII by running to a small Italian town in the mountains, where he joined a music band organized by the local priest. Unfortunately, Eco was obliged to play "the boomba-doo" (the tuba?) when he really wanted to impress the girls by playing the trumpet. The boy in Foucault's Pendulum cares nothing for patriotism, only the romance he hopes his playing will inspire.) Eco has a slightly gravelly voice, enunciates consonants crisply ("clutched" becomes "kalucht") and knows the wise use of pauses and tonal variance. If you were a kid, you would want this guy to read you a bedtime story.Eco's lecture and reading came to mind when NPR recently broadcast (mp3) an interview with Junot Díaz. Díaz spoke about his life and writing, and read a section of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao involving the characters Oscar, Oscar's sister Lola and their mother Beli. It's a terrific book; a virtuoso mix of bilingual/bicultural puns and acid observations that use obscure Dominican Spanglish slang and geek culture references (comic books, science fiction) with whirlwind dialogue and narrative that can leave the reader breathless. You can't help but want to hear the characters speak aloud, or hear the author speak for them. Díaz's thoughts on literature were clear and interesting (not opaque and academic like Eco's), but when it came time to read an excerpt from his novel describing an emotional reunion, full of screaming and crying, Díaz conveyed it in a deadpan monotone. The novel's language and emotion are complex and visceral; hearing it read so simplistically was like hearing Beethoven's Fifth symphony performed with a kazoo. (Penguin Audio hired actors Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell to read for the unabridged cd version, thank goodness.)Perhaps it is unfair to compare the two writers this way. Eco was expected to deliver a scholarly lecture. If he had been interviewed about his life and work like Díaz, he may have seemed more accessible. Maybe Díaz would have seemed opaque, too, had he given lectures; maybe no one can make academic literary analysis easy to comprehend (Eco tried; his talk was full of references to pop literature). Reading out loud however, Eco beats Diaz all to hell.What does all this mean? Author presentations are a crapshoot. Go for interviews and Q&A sessions; be wary of lectures and readings unless you're prepared for the worst, or the writer is a humorist.

Year of the Wolf Totem

Laurie Anderson is a science publicity assistant for a large Southern university.The San Francisco Chronicle appears to be the first major U.S. newspaper to review the English translation of Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, and gives it a "thumbs up."This was one of my "most anticipated books of 2008" (see comments). It won the first Man Asia Literary Prize last year and was a huge seller in China after its publication in 2004, despite appearing to openly criticize Chinese policies of Mao's era. Jiang Rong is the pen name for dissident writer Lu Jiamin, but he only revealed his real name late last year, I think.The book won't be released in the States until later this month (March 27th). Expect a flurry of reviews soon. Will Wolf Totem live up to the hype? A Guardian article described Rong's style as "full of elaborate description which slows the pace," and Publishers Weekly commented that the hero is "passive" and the secondary characters "make little impression." A London Times reviewer notes that though it contains "lush passages" the language "can be jarringly unfamiliar" and sometimes "has the hollow ring of a manifesto" ("The reader is constantly reminded that this is a work of translation.")Wolf Totem's translator, Howard Goldblatt, has discussed the challenges of translating Wolf Totem and translating Chinese literature in general - apparently the passive voice "just runs through the Chinese language" though Goldblatt doesn't feel obligated to retain that. He did consult extensively with Riong.According to descriptions, Wolf Totem is about replacing a thousand-year-old nomadic lifestyle with a sedentary agricultural society. A few friends of mine who have China connections insist that most Chinese see the environment in a 19th century European way - i.e. tame it and make it produce food. I'll never forget one friend's description of her China-born father's reaction to a documentary about eagles: "I wonder how that would taste," he commented - to her horror - as a magnificent raptor soared across the television screen. Another friend who has been to China is appalled at the lack of wildlife in settled areas ("No birds. No squirrels. Nothing untamed," she says).Riong's account of wolf life in Mongolia is reportedly riveting, but appreciation for nature may not be what appeals to Chinese readers. According to Eric Abrahamsen, a translator living in Beijing, many Chinese read Wolf Totem to "study the lessons of competition and independence Jiang draws from his lupine subjects."Why do so many Han Chinese love Wolf Totem, despite also appearing to be the villains of the story? For them is it mainly about improving business? Does the beauty of an endangered species matter less than the next meal? What does a book about freedom say to people who value order?Update: Translator Howard Goldblatt wrote in. He won't hazard a guess as to why the Chinese like Wolf Totem, but recommends reading this article at News Guangdong, which he says "you might find... interesting and illuminating."

A Year in Reading: Laurie

Longtime Millions reader Laurie has a late entry to our Year in Reading series that includes her nifty system for rating books. We're only five days into 2007 so I'm sure you'll indulge us this brief look back at Laurie's Year in Reading for 2006.To the list I composed last year of ten things that make a book a good read for me you can add #11: Memorable use of language. If you want to know what the numbers below refer to, go to that list. One book stood out from the 80 titles I read this year; it is the only one so far to score positively on all criteria - To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. ("She read eighty titles?!," you say. Twenty of those were poetry or kids books of less than 100 pages each. Another 25 titles had less than 200 pages. So over half the books I read were pretty short.)To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11I avoided reading this book for years thinking it would be depressing, but it's actually full of low-key observational humor, and is simply a beautifully told story about human nature and Southern life. Absolutely the best book I read all year, head and shoulders above everything else.Marley & Me by John Grogan (2005) 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10As of this writing, this nonfiction remembrance of a very stupid but loving dog is still on the NYT bestseller list, over a year after its debut (wish I had a copy from the earliest initial print run). There's a reason: it's laugh-out-loud funny and poignant.Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006) 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 10This may be fourth or fifth in the Walter picture-book series, but is still pretty amusing, partly due to the bug-eyed dog illustrations. If you've ever been trapped on a cruise ship or victimized by a loving but flatulent pet, check this out (and if you haven't, count yourself lucky).Possum Come A-Knockin' by N. Van Laan (1990) 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 11Ages 4-7. Another great kids book - rhythmic, romping and humorous picture book adults can also enjoy about a family's activities as a possum pesters them. Perfect read-aloud material.District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006) 2, 4, 6, 10, 11Heaney's poetry is so rich in sound, imagery and careful attention to multiple meanings, observations of the human-made world, and of what that world's tools and constructions say about the toolmakers and builders, that it's hard not to enjoy, even when the references are obscure to a non-Irish reader. "A Shiver" concisely describes the action of a moment everyone has experienced; "Moyulla" likens a stream to a woman in lively, sensuous language. Like other poems in this short collection, these are told, as Anthony Cuda in his April 16, 2006 Washington Post review says, with "high-pressure linguistic torque."Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (U.K. 1899; U.S. edition 1991 illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger) 1, 3, 5, 6, 7For ages 10-adult. Dragons start plaguing turn-of-the-century England and two children find out why in this dry-witted, short story-turned-picture-book. The 1991 edited version of the story contains beautiful illustrations by award-winning European artist Lisbeth Zwerger.Tales of Hulan River by Xiao (Hsiao) Hong (China 1942, U.S. 1988) 4, 6, 9, 10Observant, quietly funny and poignant look at small-town Chinese life in the first half of the 20th century, told with great sympathy for women. Hong died in early 1941, I think; this collection of her biographical short stories wasn't published in English until 1988. Had she lived, she might have produced the great Chinese women's novel; a story herein of a child bride was like a long warm-up for a novel. Hong is an underrated writer who should join the shelves with Eileen Chang (Love in a Fallen City).The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006) 1, 3, 4, 8For ages 10-adult. I have problems with the crucified toy rabbit scene that occurs about midway through the story. other than that, it was a riveting read. Do not give this to just any ten-year-old though; give it to a kid who won't be upset by a tearjerker of a tale. Some readers, like Elizabeth Ward of the Washington Post who saw no redemption in the ending and called it "bleak and manipulative," will dislike the dark tone, so caveat lector.Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David O. Relin (2006) 4, 7, 9, 10Mortenson established (and continues to establish) basic schools in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, built and supported by local communities. His story of time-consuming negotiations and hard work against tremendous obstacles is told by Relin in fine descriptive language. The memoir's sometimes heavy-handed message, that "the enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people" (as said by one Pakistani general) is so broadly ignored by the governments involved in these troubled regions that you don't wonder that the authors felt compelled to occasionally spell it out.Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006) 1, 3, 7, 11Two cowboy brothers in the 1890s West try to solve a murder using Sherlock Holmes' techniques. Not high literature, just fun. One of my husband's favorites this year, too.Other good reads of 2006:A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985) 6, 10, 11Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006) 2, 6, 9The Hummingbird's Daughter by L.A. Urrea (2005) 1, 3, 6Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998) 1, 3, 7The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006) 2, 9, 11Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami (Japan 2002, U.S. 2005) 4, 9, 10Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006) 1, 3, 7And by category:GrimmestThe Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Distant Star by Roberto Bolano (Spain 1996, U.S. 2004)The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (2006)Hardest to Put DownDeliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit (1899)Best HistoryHell's Broke Loose In Georgia by Scott Walker (2005)Great Use of LanguageA Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. T.S. Hyman (1954, 1985)District & Circle by Seamus Heaney (U.K. April 2006; U.S. May 2006)Timothy by Verlyn Klinkenborg (2006)The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright (2006)Not Deep, Mostly Just FunMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin by N. Van Laan (1990)Holmes On The Range by Steve Hockensmith (2006)Regarding the Fountain by Kate & Sarah Klise (1998)Kiki Strike by Kirsten Miller (2006)Best Illustrated BookA Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illus. by Trina Schart Hyman (1985)Deliverers of Their Country by E. Nesbit, illus. by Lisbeth Zwerger (1991 U.S. edition)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle, illus. by Audrey Coleman (2006)Possum Come A-Knockin' by Nancy Van Laan, illus. by George Booth (1990)WorstThe Coldest Winter by Paula Fox (2005) Could be called "the coldest narrative." Despite the wide range of locales (London, Paris, Warsaw, Barcelona) and people, Fox's memoir of her experiences as a news stringer in post-WWII Europe is claustrophobic and self-centered.The Man Who Could Fly & Other Stories by Rudolfo Anaya (2006) Someone needs to interpret the Chicano border experience, but not Anaya.Most DisappointingAverno by Louise Gluck (2006)Flaming London by Joe R. Lansdale (2006)One Christmas in Old Tascosa by C. Firman (2006)The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster (2006)Correcting the Landscape by M. K. Cole (2006)BoringSnow by Ellen Mattson (Sweden 2001, UK 2005)Five Children & It by E. Nesbit (1902)FunniestMarley & Me by John Grogan (2005)Walter the Farting Dog Goes On A Cruise by William Kotzwinkle (2006)Best Book Event I Attended in 20061st Annual Decatur Book FestivalFinally, Atlanta has a major, general-interest book festival. Michael Connolly, Edward P. Jones, Nicholas Basbanes, Roy Blount Jr. and many other authors, combined with an antique book fair and outdoor concerts in a cafe-strewn section of Atlanta, made for a good Labor Day weekend.Best Book BargainAn autographed copy of Chapters for the Orthodox by Don Marquis (1934), best known for his "Archy & Mehitabel" series, for $1.00. It's beat up and missing the dustjacket, but I'd treasure anything signed by the guy who gave the world a typing cockroach.Thanks Laurie!

Laurie visits the Decatur Book Festival

Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city's population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a "parade" led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though -- either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn't get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar's Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor's ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren't into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children's books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer's high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks -- I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I'm just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It's near a MARTA station, the city's bus/rail transit system. There's a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There's restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie's Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens' own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake's Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I'll go again next year.

What makes a book good

Following her post about her favorite books she read last year, Laurie sent me another e-mail about her criteria for what makes a book good. It's a great list and I thought I'd share it.Trying to figure out what I liked best got me thinking about what my criteria were. Just "I liked it a lot" didn't cut it, because I liked a lot of stuff and it became hard to prioritize. So here's my tentative criteria for choosing a "year's best" (other readers will likely think of other criteria). Anything that scores 4 or more from these criteria probably makes it into my "year's best":The book was:Hard to put down.Quotable.Fast, fun to read (not a slogging chore).CompellingAlso I:Kept reading bits out loud to anyone who'd listen.Will likely reread it.Can recommend it to a lot of people.And it:Elicits a strong gut reaction (laughter, tears, shivers, outrage, etc.)Makes you think.Sticks with you long after it's done (you keeprecalling parts of it months after you've read it, or you keep mentioning it to people in the course of conversation).By this set of criteria, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala scored a 4 (checks next to criteria #4, 8, 9 and 10) whereas Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford scored a whopping 5 points because I could put a check next to items #2, 3, 5, 6 and 7. But that's just me. Maybe after a year of horror and complexity in the news and literature, I was just ready for simple, happy observations about goats and weather.Thanks again, Laurie!

A Year in Reading: Laurie’s Best Books

I want to leave 2005 behind, but I keep getting great stuff to post, so I hope you don't mind. I got this great e-mail from Laurie who wanted to share her favorite books from amongst her considerable reading last year. I'll be following this up with another e-mail Laurie sent me about what makes a book really good for her:I just read your Jan. 5th entry about "year's best" choices by various people. I thought about sending you my list, but then figured you only wanted to post the lists of people you knew [Max: Not true! I welcome e-mails from anyone and everyone!]. I don't blog, but kept a reading journal this past year and totaled 60 books (some of them children's books). It was fun looking at it at year's end and figuring out what I enjoyed the most. I began reading your blog about midyear, I think, and your posts probably influenced some of those book choices.For what it's worth, the three top titles on my list were Cold Skin by Albert S. Pinol (Catalan 2002, English 2005), War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), and Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford (2005). Of those, my enjoyment of the last surprised me the most, because it's a poetry collection. It's also the only book of all 60 read this year that I'd recommend to just about anyone, kids and poetry-hating adults alike. The poems are short, unpretentious, mostly rhyme and are illustrated. Washington Post accurately called it "quietly lovely". It precisely captures the minutiae of the seasons and farm life that even a sheltered city-dweller can recognize with a smile. Also in my top ten were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (chilling), Travels With Mr. Brown by Mark Twain (Letters to the Alta California 1866-1867), and Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. The latter is a fun kids' book.29 of the 60 were first published in 2005.For some idea of what those "top choices" were chosen over, the 29 first published in 2005 are:From Sawdust to Stardust - Terry Lee Rioux (biography)The Bradbury Chronicles - Sam Weller (bio)Bradbury Speaks - Ray Bradbury (nf, essays)Pinhook - Janisse Ray (nonfiction, nature)Beware of God - Shalom Auslander (short stories)Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land - John Crowley (novel)Storyteller - Kate Wilhelm (nonfiction)Science Fiction: the best of 2004 - ed. Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan (ss)Year's Best SF 10 - ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (ss)Blue Dog, Green River - Brock Brower (novel)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling (novel)Cities in the Wilderness - Bruce Babbitt (nf, environment)Dahlonega Haunts - Amy Blackmarr (allegedly nf)Wonder's Child - Jack Williamson (updated autobiography)Cold Skin - Albert S. Pinol (novel)Beasts of No Nation - Uzodinma Iweala (novel)The March - E.L. Doctorow (novel)Diary of a Spider - Doreen Cronin (kids picture book)Don't Be Silly, Mrs. Millie - Judy Cox (kids picturebook)Whales on Stilts! - M.T. Anderson (short kids novel)Best American Science Writing 2005 - ed. Alan Lightman(nf)The Highest Tide - Jim Lynch (novel)Knee Deep in Blazing Snow - James Hayford (poetry)Travels With My Donkey - Tim Moore (memoir)Animals in Translation - Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (nonfiction)From Another World - Ana Maria Machado (short kids novel)The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion (memoir)Confessions of a Recovering Slut - Hollis Gillespie (memoir)Funniest were:Diary of a Spider by Doreen CroninTravels With My Donkey by Tim Moore (Bill Bryson meets Monty Python)Grimmest were:Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma IwealaThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionHardest to put down were:Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingCold Skin by A.S. PinolThere. More than you wanted or needed to know.Thanks, Laurie!