On Beauty

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Ask a Book Question: The 42nd in a Series (Garcia Marquez and Kawabata)

Ashok writes in with this question about a pair of “magical realists:”I heard that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores can be read as a continuation of a Yasunari Kawabata novel. Can you tell me which is that novel?Kawabata was the first Japanese Nobel Laureate in literature (1968), and while not considered a “magical realist” like Garcia Marquez, Kawabata was known for the surreal quality of his writing. A brief bio is available here. For several critics, Garcia Marquez’s latest novel echoes Kawabata’s 1961 book House of the Sleeping Beauties, though nobody that I saw described Garcia Marquez’s book as a “continuation” of Kawabata’s. The pre-pub review in Library Journal describes a “situational resemblance” between the two books, while a review in the Washington Times calls Whores “something less” than Beauties. In a chat with Michael Dirda of the Washington Post (scroll way down), an anonymous reader even went so far as to suggest that Garcia Marquez plagiarized Kawabata, an idea that Dirda dismisses:Anonymous: I have read all the praise for Garca Marquez’s “Memoires of my sad whores” in the Books Section of the Post, in particular the review by Marie Arana. Nowhere I have seen the reference to Yasunari Kawabata’s “The House of the Sleeping Beauties.” Garca Marquez himself said that that would be a novel he would like to have written.Question: Being the two stories so close to each other, Kawabata’s obviously preceding Garca Marquez’s, when a homage turns into plagiarism? ThanksMichael Dirda: Writers always borrow or steal from each other. G-M acknowledges Kawabata’s work, just as Zadie Smith in On Beauty acknowledges E.M. Forster’s Howards End. But the books are still their own. I suspect that Kawabata’s book will outlast G-M’s.So, clearly there is some relationship between the two books, and hopefully some Garcia Marquez fans have been introduced to Kawabata as a result.

A Year in Reading: the Best, the Rest and the Disappointments

Among the people I asked to contribute to this year’s “Year in Reading,” are readers that I admire. Garth reads a great deal more than me and can digest the voluminous input impressively (just wish he’d start blogging again!). He’s also the guy responsible for the great Lawrence Weschler reading list I posted early this year. Some of his reading this year comes from that list:Top 3 Books I Read This Year:Tony Kushner – Angels in America: The Great American Drama? Kushner moves forward the form of the theater, but that’s only what lures you in. What keeps you is that no living writer engages more fully with his characters. The Mike Nichols directed miniseries isn’t bad, either.Joseph Mitchell: Up in the Old Hotel: An unparalleled raconteur. All of his New Yorker writings are compiled in this omnibus. His style lucid, compassionate, modest, wry, and charged with the wonder of being alive.Zadie Smith – On Beauty: As many have pointed out, flawed. But she rivals Kushner in her degree of empathy for her characters while, like him, never letting them off the hook.The Best of the Rest (of Stuff I Read This Year)Walter Benjamin – Illuminations: The most sensitive and elliptical and sad of 20th century philosophers. One of Benjamin’s ideas is worth a thousand of someone else’s arguments.Gertrude Stein – Alice B. Toklas: Who knew I’d like Gertrude Stein? Don’t believe the hype – read this book.Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song: Again, who knew? In Cold Blood on amphetamines, this is a chilling, gripping, and strangely humble work. The second half opens up to depict the media machinery of which this book is brilliant!Patrik Ourednik – Europeana: Behind a sui generis form, itself worth the price of admission, lurks a quiet anguish at the depredations of the 20th Century.E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime: All it’s said to be, and a great read to boot.Benjamin Barber – Jihad vs. McWorld: A lucid articulation of all the things you’ve ever suspected about late-capitalist globalism and factionalism but weren’t sure how to say.Jonathan Lethem – The Disappointment Artist: The most complete thing Lethem has published. Not an enduring classic, but a totally charming read.3 DisappointmentsRick Moody – The Diviners: Bummer, man. This book has so much potential – and is definitely worth reading – but needed an editor who could say, in the end, “Something more has to happen!” Concludes not with a bang but with a whimper. But has HBO optioned the TV rights to “Werewolves of Fairfield County?”Charles Chadwick – It’s All Right Now: Here, the whimper sets in after a completely fantastic first 180 pages – and continues for 400 more. You had me at hello, Chuck, and could have stopped after Part I. Again, where’s the editor?Bret Easton Ellis – Lunar Park: Underrated, my ass. This book is terrible. Everything after the introduction is embarrassing. I don’t know that an editor could have saved it, or why I read it. Avoid at all costs.

Booker list gets shorter

As has been noted elsewhere, the Booker shortlist was unveiled today. This year’s six book list has a lot of name recognition. Here are the shortlisters: The Sea by John Banville, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Accidental by Ali Smith and On Beauty by Zadie Smith.Of note: Salman Rushdie, J.M. Coetzee and Ian McEwan don’t make the cut. I still like Ishiguro to win it, but the bookies have Barnes as the big favorite, Ali Smith as the longshot and everyone else bunched in the middle. You can track the odds here (if you’re into that sort of thing.)Additionally: The Guardian has analysis and excerpts.

Weekend links

On Zadie Smith in the Guardian: The new novel arrived fully-formed: Zadie Smith woke up one morning, and On Beauty was all there, in her head. She wanted to write a long marriage – she’d just got married herself, was curious what 30 years of it would be like – and she had a plot. When she described it to her new husband, poet and novelist Nick Laird, however, he pointed out she was simply rewriting Howards End. But she has never been afraid of tribute, and [E.M.] Forster was a “first love”; she had a couple of serious wobbles but this did not put her off.The Guardian also gives the book a good review. On Beauty comes out September 13.Every once in a while I spot an interesting looking item in those ads at the top of the page. Today I saw one for Out of Eden: Odyssey of Ecological Invasion by Alan Burdick. It looks like the sort of book you’d like if you like Jared Diamond’s books. It describes how different invasive species have managed to relocate to new parts of the globe.Tattoos and literature are becoming ever more enmeshed, it seems. Recent novels by Jill Ciment and John Irving dwell on tattoos, and now a Brooklyn writer, Shelley Jackson, “has been having volunteers tattooed with individual words of her 2,095-word short story (“Skin”) since 2003. Only 700 words remain to be tattooed.” Read about it here.Another online book-tracking and tagging application: Reader2

The beauty of British book design

If you’ve ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you’ve probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don’t know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as “entertainment products” here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I’ve placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the “John Irving brand,” while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith’s books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you’ll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.

Booker longlist is here

As many other book bloggers have noted, the illustrious Man Booker Prize longlist was announced today:The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash AwThe Sea by John BanvilleArthur & George by Julian BarnesA Long Long Way by Sebastian BarrySlow Man by JM CoetzeeIn the Fold by Rachel CuskNever Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroAll For Love by Dan JacobsonA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina LewyckaBeyond Black by Hilary MantelSaturday by Ian McEwanThe People’s Act of Love by James MeekShalimar the Clown by Salman RushdieThe Accidental by Ali SmithOn Beauty by Zadie SmithThis Thing of Darkness by Harry ThompsonThis is the Country by William WallWith four previous winners in the running, the longlist is being hailed as one of the best ever, and it looks like the story this year will be if any of the newcomers can surpass the bigger names. My early pick is the Ishiguro, but we’ll see who the degenerate gamblers favor.As an aside, can I just say that the longlist/shortlist thing that the Brits do is the best way to run a literary prize. The longlist provides plenty of fodder for discussion as well as some insight into the judges’ thinking. The controversy that surrounded last years National Book Award finalists would have been much dampened if that short list had been preceded by a longlist.See also: For complete Booker longlist coverage, visit the Literary Saloon.

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