Catch-22

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Abandonment Issues

We give up a book for many reasons: it was too long, the writing was dull, it was written by E.L. James. Goodreads has charted just when and why we abandon books. Catch-22 is the number one abandoned book. (Confession: I didn’t finish it either.) Also, see our article on the pressures of finishing novels in the age of literary social media.

James Ross and The Agony of the One-Hit Wonder

1.
James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime.  This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again.  Once is almost never enough.  The agony is just too delicious.  Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels.  When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.

Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit.  When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent.  He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much.  It didn’t sell much.”

Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes.  I count myself among them.  So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.”  Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels.  In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson.  “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot.  He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind.  They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell.  No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”

True on every count.  There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned.  But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment.  Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties.  As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting.  My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”

The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes.  Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele.  With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.

The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank.  The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming.  He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”

Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.

Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him.  She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple.  She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband.  But that was all right with me; I had seen him before.  I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”

In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity.  Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not.  Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.

Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time.  In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote.  To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”

Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up.  The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning.  In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar.  A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30.  All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system.  Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.

Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money…  They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too.  Henry Fisher is got plenty of money.  But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it.  They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.”  And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress.  They are, in the main, fearful of new things…  I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”

Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then.  And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.”  That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.

Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit.  Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river.  You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you.  When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”

And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:

“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.

“A quart of my own private Scotch.  Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that.  I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”

“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.

“He don’t drink much.  Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”

“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.

“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.

Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity.  Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli.  Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk.  A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived.  I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic.  Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves.  He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery.  It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get.  Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.

2.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years.  To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves.  Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.

Right off, she stunned me.  She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim.  She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red.  I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s.  When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.”  Then his voice had trailed off.  I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone.  Marnie set me straight.

“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said.  “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it.  I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health.  I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell.  He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell.  They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”

Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.”  (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.)  Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent.  If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.

So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder.  He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good.  There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.

Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis.  Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”

“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore.  I don’t write what they look for today.’  He was probably right.  He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”

Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year.  “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested.  I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross.  I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor).  I’m still collecting archival material.  In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul.  My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work.  I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.”  Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.

3.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine.  This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book.  The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man).  Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877.  A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis.  That is just plain wrong.  (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)

And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names.  J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind.  Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.

And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated.  Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in.  Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover.  The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.

Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”

Well, believe it.  It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.  It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison.  Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger.  It definitely happened to Harper Lee.  And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter.  “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said.  “It’s pretty unreal.”

What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal.  It’s just about impossible.

Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?

1.
With her new novel, So Much for That, Lionel Shriver strengthens her already credible claim to the title of best living American writer.  This won’t surprise her readers in the UK and much of Europe.  In many countries, she is now regarded as one of our most important novelists.  Americans, however, have been slower to find her.  That’s okay.  We were the same way with Faulkner and Poe.  Nothing’s more American than not quite recognizing some of our most accomplished artists.

Besides, Shriver’s lack of recognition in the U.S. is relative.  Her novels tend to be highly valued by the American critics who discuss them, and she has received strong reviews from that toughest of readers, Michiko Kakutani.  The Post-Birthday World, Shriver’s last novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and I’m sure we’ll all start arguing about her breakthrough book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, as soon as the movie version comes out next year.

Still, we don’t need to wait for the theater screens to bring her to our full attention, especially when most of her novels are in print and easily available.  Her work offers an appealing combination of qualities that seldom come together in a single writer.  She couples the hardheaded social observation of Edith Wharton or George Eliot with a relentless psychological and artistic boldness that belongs more to the tradition of Melville or Dostoevsky.   Exerting these different skills with immense confidence and penetration, Shriver is one of our great American originals.

2.
Shriver didn’t become well-known until she was in her late forties, and she had the talent and the will to deepen her work gradually, making the most of what must have been a trying period of obscurity.  Born in 1957, she grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Columbia, and supplemented her fiction writing with a career as a journalist.  She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.  More recently, she has become a columnist for The Guardian, and has divided her time between London and New York.  In addition, she has lived all over the place:  twelve years in Northern Ireland, a year in Kenya, and shorter stints in Israel and Thailand.

The fierce independence of her writing seems to come from her compulsion to push her thoughts as far as she can take them, whether she is describing demographics experts in Africa or the pressures of professional tennis.  Her two best early novels are Game Control and Double Fault.  The main character in Game Control moves to Kenya so she can work on a family-planning project.  She then falls in love with a man who believes that the solution to the world’s overpopulation problem is mass murder.  Like all of Shriver’s novels, Game Control is intellectual and political in the best sense—not as a polemic, but as an examination of ideas in action, ideas as part of people’s lives.  Here’s the main character scrutinizing some of her boyfriend’s research associates:

Eleanor had already noticed their tendency to circulate the same informational tidbits, as in small incestuous communities where neighbors copy one another’s recipe for chicken balls.  For example:  that if we had dropped a bomb the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima every day since 6 August 1945, we would still not have stabilized human population:  she had heard that three times now.  The repetition felt clubby, claustrophobic and it was boring.

Double Fault, Shriver’s tennis novel, came out in 1997.  It traces the brief marriage of two low-level professional tennis players, and presents a merciless study of their collapsing relationship.  It’s a cruel book, a Revolutionary Road for our times.  The story is determined to show us the worst of both the husband and the wife, and it goes so far in this direction that it seems to have freed Shriver for the more generous and contradictory vision of human nature in her recent novels.

3.
Starting with We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver entered her major phase as a writer.  The book won the UK’s Orange Prize for 2005, and eventually sold over a million copies.

The narrator, Eva, lives out a nightmare:  Kevin, her teenage son, goes on a killing spree at his high school and murders nine people.  Shriver creates a bracing story of a mother who has always hated her son as intensely as she has always loved her husband and her young daughter.  Eva can never be sure if her hatred helped turn Kevin into a murderer, or if she simply identified his savagery before anyone else did.

The novel follows Eva’s motherhood from Kevin’s birth to the time of the killings, and grows into a meditation on all kinds of things we don’t at first expect.  We Need to Talk About Kevin plows deeply into anti-Americanism, the sacrifices women are expected to make for their children, the complexities of family life, and the dizzying questions of where individual responsibility begins and ends.  Shriver has finally discovered a subject that makes full use of her ruthless psychological honesty.  Eva’s narration is often brutally tough on herself and her son, and she slowly wins our trust—in part because she is smart enough to see that her version of events contains its own distortions, which are worked into the story with intriguing elegance.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is an exhilarating book, alive with the author’s excitement at constantly going further than even she might have expected, and it gets better on repeated readings.

Shriver’s follow-up novel, The Post-Birthday World, is her best-known work in America, since it was released by HarperCollins with great fanfare in 2007.  It would have been easy for Shriver to continue in the sensationalistic vein of Kevin, but with typical stubbornness she chose to try something different.  The Post-Birthday World is a meta-fiction love story.  It takes us through two parallel plotlines, two possible lives for the same woman.  In one plotline, she remains in a troubled marriage.  In the other, she leaves her husband for another man.  The chapters alternate between the first plotline and the second, and much of the novel is a formal tour de force, with nearly every sentence in the first story playing off against another sentence in the second.  Shriver also brandishes an unexpected flair for writing about small pleasures—her characters’ love of snooker and home cooking, the satisfaction they take in their casual conversations.  Yet the story always opens onto broader perspectives:  the rise of terrorism in the background of our lives, the influence of our relationships on our careers, and the different possibilities that we create for ourselves and that are created for us by others.

4.
So Much for That, the new Shriver novel, offers us her ferocious take on the American healthcare system.  Shriver has always been good at the dark comedy of catastrophe.  Here she faces a monster worthy of her clear-eyed attention to absurdity:  the giant insurance-powered beast of medical costs that devastate two families in New York.

Shep Knacker is a handyman whose wife is diagnosed with cancer.  His best friend, Jackson, is a fellow employee whose daughter is slowly dying of a degenerative disorder.  With methodical Catch-22 illogic, Shep is forced to give up all the money he has saved over the years to pay for the medical care that his grotesquely inadequate (but perfectly standard) insurance fails to cover.  The treatments cause his wife nothing but agony, and provide little hope of curing her or even of extending her life for very long.

Meanwhile, Jackson and his wife carry on with their daughter, who has been ill since birth.  Her disease plays an ongoing part in Jackson’s sometimes entertaining and sometimes destructive obsessions, from his compulsive spending to his frenzied hatred of the government and of nearly everything else in the world.

Health is the novel’s constant concern—not just physical and economic health but health in friendships, marriage, work, parenthood, and society at large.  Shep is in some ways a modern Prince Myshkin, determined to do the right thing even if some people think this makes him foolish.  One of the novel’s many thorny questions is whether Shep’s foolishness is truly admirable or a mistake in judgment, a personal flaw that condemns him to pointless pain.  Shriver’s effects are hard to summarize because she builds them up so densely, thickening the texture of her world with each page.  She makes our vision of Shep and the others depend not on glib generalities but on the total force of the novel’s accumulated impressions, with their many crosscurrents and subtleties.

We learn, for instance, that Shep associates his wife Glynis with the metalwork she makes, and the role of this metalwork becomes a continually deepening part of Glynis’s illness.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the metalwork is at the core of Glynis’s shifting views of Shep, Shep’s shifting views of her, and both of their ideas about personal and public responsibility.  Throughout the novel, Shriver is fascinated by our possible choices in the face of death and overwhelming injustice, by how we can and can’t control our lives in situations where all action seems quixotic.

5.
Shriver’s characters are always capable of surprising each other, and this is central to her rich sense of human relationships.  She expertly captures the give-and-take between friends, and the ways our friends both annoy and beguile us.  Shep changes Jackson and Jackson changes Shep, but the changes are intricate and unpredictable, and they fill the novel with an invigorating energy.  You come away feeling that you’ve learned to see your own friendships more clearly and appreciatively.

A similar complexity is at work among all the characters, particularly Shep and Glynis.  Early on, Glynis is a monument to rage, refusing the role of loveable victim.  When Shep ponders Glynis’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, we can see the efficiency of Shriver’s writing style, which is flexible enough to accommodate many different voices and situations yet still retains a distinctive sharp bounce, like a good topspin serve:

She loved watching destruction—the big bountiful houses of the sort she and her husband had never bought for themselves filled with acrid, oily water to the second floor.  The stranded black matriarchs waving fruitlessly on rooftops for rescue that would never come, who now knew they were alone in the world and no one cared.  Well, he could sense Glynis responding coolly, welcome to the club.  Other people’s suffering did not disquiet her.  Glynis did nothing but suffer, and if others suffered too that was only fair.  She seemed gratified by the prospect that one whole city would not survive her… In a fell swoop of self-liberation, Glynis had relinquished her empathy for other people, defiantly reflecting back the very apathy about her own fate that she increasingly perceived in would-be well-wishers.

Shriver’s bold approach to the novel’s structure delays a series of revelations for us about Glynis, and about what the disease has done to her mentally and emotionally.  For the first 300 pages of this 450 page book, we go back-and-forth solely between Shep’s perspective and Jackson’s.  When we finally enter Glynis’s mind, the experience is heartbreaking and chilling, and clears the way for the book’s simultaneously tragic and jubilant climax.  In all of her novels, Shriver works towards honest feeling the hard way—by pushing into places we’re afraid to go and making them not ugly but essential, an enrichment to our lives.  She might just be the best we’ve got.

Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college.  The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives.  To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift.  I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.)  My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one.  Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives.  While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience.  Here are our answers:

Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.

Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut –  may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it’s highly readable.  It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film).  Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time.  I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too.  And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous.  If you love his books, there are others to discover.  Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.

Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really –  are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.

Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again.  I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe.  When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe.  In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe.  I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.  On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh.  I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.  Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.

Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.

Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever.  Their lives were in my hands.  I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it.  Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them.  Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring.  Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them.  Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on.  Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels.  Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).

Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!)   It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel.  I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical.  With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years.  Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote.  But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?  Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.

Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth.  Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.

The Best Books… Squared

You may have heard of Google Squared. It’s a new service in development from Google that, as Wikipedia puts it, “extracts structured data from across the web and presents its results in spreadsheet-like format.” Basically, it returns your results in a list-like format with some additional descriptive columns.Trying it out, we naturally entered some book-related queries. And, if you assume that Google has compiled a database of the world’s knowledge and uses that to generate its results, then these must be – definitively – the “best books” and “best novels” ever.Best Books:The Catcher in the RyeCatch-22Animal FarmThe Very Hungry CaterpillarGoodnight MoonCurious GeorgeGravity’s RainbowBest Novels:Gravity’s RainbowTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Sound and the FuryOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Lord of the RingsTo The LighthouseA Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManNot bad for something computer-generated.(Google has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your lists may vary.)

Vonnegut and Celine

Jerome Weeks has an interesting post up at his blog about the impact of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s novels Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan on the work of Kurt Vonnegut.Both novels were written 30 years before Slaughterhouse: Celine was seriously wounded in battle during World War I, while Vonnegut, of course, survived the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. But Celine’s fractured narrative style, in particular, had an enormous influence on Slaughterhouse (and Catch-22, as well).And in the Philly Inquirer, Carlin Romano tries to explain just why Vonnegut has been such an enduring novelist, “why Vonnegut’s leaps of inventiveness satisfied so many, why his political stilettos estranged so few.”

A Year in Reading: Conversational Reading

Scott Esposito’s excellent literature and culture blog Conversational Reading likely needs no introduction here (don’t forget his Quarterly Conversation either). Lucky for us, Scott has kindly pitched in with his best reads of 2006 for our year end extravaganza at The Millions:Looking over the books I read in 2006, it seems like a banner year. I see a lot of novels that amazed me, and many that have expanded my view of what literature is and what it can be in the future.Still, one novel towers above all the rest: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar. This is a book that is experimental is the very best ways while also providing more traditional literary pleasures like well-defined characters and beautiful prose. Anyone who hasn’t read it should make an effort to tackle this masterpiece.A very close second (and it’s very difficult to choose which of these two I enjoyed more) is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.Other books:Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David MarksonBouvard And Pecuchet by Gustave FlaubertAtomik Aztex by Sesshu FosterSuite Francaise by Irene NemirovskyThe Rings of Saturn by WG SebaldThe Blue Guide to Indiana by Michael MartoneMulligan Stew by Gilbert SorrentinoThe Moviegoer by Walker PercyThe Gold Bug Variations by Richard PowersCatch-22 by Joseph HellerPale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne PorterThanks Scott!

Barracks Reading Part 3

In the meantime, I also started re-reading Catch-22, probably one of my all time favorites. I made plenty of references to Catch-22 in connection with William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and probably some other novels I read over the course of the last two years. Nevertheless, re-reading Catch-22 was a feast precisely because of all the literary horizons this modest novel created. Never a bestseller, Catch-22 became a cult classic and sold millions despite staying under the radar. Its influence on other writers is, I believe, huge. Aside from Yossarian being my obvious favorite for fearing that everyone, from his own commanders to the German anti-aircraft gunners, are conspiring to kill him, I mostly enjoy Milo Minderbinder’s stories. Milo is a good-hearted capitalist who contracts the Germans for the Syndicate he has formed, and no one can oppose him in that – or in bombing his own squadron for a hefty sum paid by the Germans – because everyone has a share in the Syndicate, and “what is good for M & M Enterprises [i.e. the Syndicate] is good for you.” Simply brilliant. The tragic story of Major Major Major Major, who became a Major in the squadron strictly due to an IBM deficiency and whose name – Major Major Major – ruined his life at every turn, is a major influence in my father’s efforts to name me savci (prosecutor) in Turkish. As some of you might remember, my father hoped that with such a name I could avoid any and all run-ins with the law by declaring my name, which in that case would go “I am Prosecutor Peker!” Luckily, my mother rejected the idea, but in essence that is Major Major Major Major’s story. Aarfy with his calm pipe smoking in the plane while flak explodes all around them, Orr with his mastery in crashing planes, Appleby with the flies in his eyes, Nately with his psychotic lover whore, General Peckem with his hate for General Dreedle, Dreedle’s hate towards his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s affection towards Dreedle’s nurse, Colonel Cathcart with his insecurities, Colonel Korn with his tendency to manipulate Colonel Cathcart, Sheisskopf with his love of marches, and many more. There are too many insider jokes and brilliant moments in Catch-22 to write a decent review of the novel. I just believe, like I only do with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that everyone should absolutely read this novel and cherish its wonderful moments of hilarity and sad reflections on humanity.By the time I finished Catch-22 I was already back in Turkey for the summer. I am now done with my paralegal job and await the beginning of school in the fall. Nevertheless, next I picked up Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey edited by Anastasia A. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen. I have been meaning to read this collection of essays by expatriate women in Turkey for a long time now. I remember coming to Turkey over a year ago and reading reviews of The Expat Harem in local papers and thinking that it could be very interesting. Right before coming back to Istanbul a month and a half ago I saw my Turkish roommate Uzay’s Minnesotan girlfriend Annastacia reading the book and assumed that she picked it out of my library. Wrong! She’d actually bought it and told me that she enjoyed it a lot. I’ve always viewed Annastacia as a potential candidate for the expat society of Turkey, so her reading the book egged me on and I picked it up. The collection is organized in nine parts, which are unique to Turkey and include various customs that foreign women find especially strange, unique, pleasant or repelling. I started reading the stories at random, there are twenty-nine of them, and realized that each one identifies a unique quality of life in Turkey. Seen through the eyes of an expat who chose to live in Turkey adds a different color to the customs and qualities that I already knew. To a Turkish person the stories are very revealing, flattering and intriguing. It is, after all, very refreshing to see commonalities in society through a different pair of eyes. I imagine that any foreign person reading The Expat Harem would find the stories equally revealing, informative and interesting. Each author employs a fresh style and tone, the stories are fluid and the collection is organized very neatly by Ashman and Gokmen, which creates an excellent journey through the quirky experiences of expats, all women in this case, in Turkey. If you are planning a visit to Turkey I urge you to pick up The Expat Harem to get a solid idea about the country’s culture. If not, I believe you would still enjoy the collection for its down to earth tone, accessibility and humane moments.See also: Part 1, 2

Barracks Reading Part 2

After my brief service was completed I spent a week in Istanbul and returned to New York. In the meanwhile I picked up a collection of Yasar Kemal’s short stories, Sari Sicak, Teneke ve Diger Hikayeler (Yellow Heat, Tin Can and Other Stories) from my parents’’ library. I was in between cities and about to quit my job, hence a collection proved perfect for the time. Kemal has a very distinct style that reflects an Anatolian tone and includes long depictions of nature and rural life and lengthy character analyses. The collection included some of his most famous pieces such as “Sari Sicak” (“Yellow Heat”) and “Teneke” (“Tin Can”), which, as do most of the other stories, reflect on the difficulties of rural life in the southern towns and regions surrounding Adana, a city now known for its cotton farmers and back then for its rice plantations. The backwards methods of planting rice resulted in swamps and an increase in the number of mosquitoes, and therefore malaria. Kemal reflects on the ill approach of the government towards the rural population and the generous benefits it granted to landlords, who, without the slightest regard to the peasants, flooded villages, planted rice, created swamps and did not even wince at the death of hundreds of men, women and children due to malaria. Reading Kemal’s stories, the reader easily identifies with the daily troubles of the villagers that believe in a just government and seek help, all to their dismay. Depictions of corrupt and impossible situations reach a new zenith in Kemal’s stories, and, hold true even today – despite the changes in setting. Books by Yasar Kemal.Upon arriving in New York, I received four great books as birthday presents. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange from Sylvia and Noam Chomsky’s Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky and The Best American Magazine Writing 2005 compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors and published by The Columbia University Press from Selin and Siddhesh. I immediately started reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2005. I am currently reading stories at random and so far I read four out of the seventeen pieces in the collection: Seymour M. Hersch’s “Torture at Abu Ghraib“, Ned Zeman’s “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies”, Andrew Corsello’s “The Wronged Man” and Samantha Power’s Dying in Darfur. I am not sure if I agree one hundred percent with Nicholas Lemann’s assertion that this specific collection comprises the best pieces of writing to come out of the U.S. in 2005, but nevertheless the stories are incredibly well written, insightful and fresh. I enjoyed the ones I read thus far and hope that the rest will be just as good.See also: Part 1, 3

The Blurb of Death: The collected blurbs of James Frey and JT Leroy

The New York Times has a little piece about books that have been blurbed by recently discredited authors. Taking the cake is Nic Kelman’s Girls which was blurbed by both JT Leroy and James Frey.Just for fun, here are some more blurbs from each.Frey:”[This] should join Catch-22 and The Things They Carried as this generation’s defining literary expression of men at war.” for The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell by John Crawford (Note how he cites two works of fiction in blurbing a memoir.)”Charlie Huston is a bad-ass writer, Six Bad Things is a bad-ass book. I loved it, absolutely loved it, as I did his first book. Can’t wait for whatever else comes from him.” for Six Bad Things by Charlie Huston”Blue Blood is real, authentic, true. Beautiful and inspiring, terrifying and heartbreaking. It is a great book.” for Blue Blood by Edward Conlon”Perverse and somewhat depraved, Rod Liddle’s fiction is a sexy but not too beautiful montage of what happens when people succumb to their urges and fantasies without considering the consequences.” for Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle”I have read many translations of this ancient text but Mitchell’s is by far the best.” for Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen MitchellAnd finally there’s an “Amazon.com exclusive” where Frey reviews Jay McInerney’s new novel, The Good Life (review available here until Amazon realizes it and gets rid of it): “It’s also a deeply personal book, McInerney’s most personal since Bright Lights, and it feels to me like I’m reading about variations of McInerney’s own life. He, like Fitzgerald, is at his best when he’s putting his own experiences into the lives of his characters, and I’ve never felt more of McInerney, or felt more vulnerability, which to me is a sign of strength in a writer, Unfortunately, Fitzgerald’s life was unsustainable. He died drunk, penniless, alone, forgotten. McInernery could have followed his path, and it sometimes seemed like he would. Thankfully he didn’t. People wondered what kind of writer Fitzgerald might have been had he lived. McInerney, his closest succesor, is starting to show us.”And two more from Leroy:”Corgan steps to the plate at the first scent of menace, prepared, as one who is born into the language of battle. His hands might be balled tight, but his soul absorbs what his fists cannot truly deflect. Never just the spectator, Corgan transforms his world into the palpable, lyrical beauty of the heartbreak of one who cannot turn away, allowing us to get as close as we dare without blinking.” for Blinking with Fists: Poems by Billy Corgan”Really, really great…close-to-the-nerve honesty, severe suffering, intertwined with that leavening cynical humor.” for Important Things That Don’t Matter by David Amsden

Staying Sane: A Year in Reading (Part 6)

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

Reading: A Palliative

My great friend Emre recently experienced some misfortunes, but he has been doing a lot of reading which is keeping his spirits high. Here is what he wrote me:Another thing aside form your wedding that helped lift my spirits after the debacle was William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his writing, but that was the first I read by him and it blew me away. So, I was back at Barnes and Noble this week to pick up his Stars and Bars which sounds very promising as well. Nevertheless, back to An Ice-Cream War. It is the story of various characters in England, the British East Africa and German East Africa, starting in the summer of 1914 when talk of an Anglo-German war seemed ridiculous and ending with the surrender of the squareheads as the Britons in the novel call them kind of peoples. The satirical approach is akin to Catch 22, a terrible comparison, I am aware, as it is hard to beat Catch-22, but nevertheless unique in its tone and weaving of characters. Yossarian’s cowardly rationalization of the stupidity of war might be unparalleled, but Boyd’s snotty British approach makes you laugh out loud at the most obscene death. It’s not because of the circumstances, but because of the silliness that surrounds all the characters and the world involved in a war about which few had an idea why it started and dragged on for so long and did not realize for a while that it had ended. Man, I can’t rant about Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War enough. In the opinion of a sweet lady that runs Biography Books, two blocks down from us, Boyd is one of the most under-rated contemporary authors. I don’t know much about the ratings, but he sure is a phenomenal story-teller, and certainly is interested in historic events and contexts, which I dig. I’m currently recommending the book to everyone as a terrific summer read that you’ll blast through in under a week.Thanks Emre! Sounds pretty good. I’ll have to check it out.

This and That

Attention prospective authors: not to discourage, but the number of books coming out each year is getting out of hand. According to Bowker, a company that compiles and distributes bibliographic information, approximately 175,000 different books came out in 2003, a rise 19% from the previous year. Many believe this “book glut” is at least partly to blame for the financial woes of many publishers. Here’s the full press release with all the facts and figures. Following up on the comment that Edan left under yesterday’s post. Missing novelist, Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai, has been found in Niagara Falls. Here’s the article. Look for Dan Chaon’s first novel, You Remind Me of Me to be a hot read this summer. Janet Maslin gets the ball rolling with her warm review in the New York Times.BookspottingWhen: Evening 05/26/04Where: The gym at George Washington UniversityWho: A girl on one of the stationary bikesWhat: Catch 22 by Joseph HellerDescription: “Catch-22 is like no other novel we have ever read. It has its own style, its own rationale, its own extraordinary character. It moves back and forth from hilarity to horror. It is outrageously funny and strangely affecting.”When: Late 05/26/04Where: At the bar at Cantina Marina on the waterfront in downtown Washington, DCWho: A man in a suit, puffing a cigar, sipping his drinkWhat: The Prince of Providence by Mike StantonDescription: “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanton tells the incredible story of Buddy Cianci, America’s most colorful mayor, in this classic story of wiseguys, feds, and politicians riding a carousel of crime and redemption.”

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