The Great Fire: A Novel

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Booker Season


We are swiftly approaching the announcement of the Booker Prize. Britain’s highest award for fiction, the award is fussed over endlessly by the gossip-hungry British press, and, for the winner, the rewards are plentiful, often turning a book into a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Take Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, for example. This year’s Longlist has been out for a while and the Shortlist will be out in a week. The winner will be crowned on October 19th. For the American reader, it is worth mentioning that this is the first year that American authors are eligible for the Booker. Still, as is often the case, the Longlist includes books that are not currently available in the States, though others have been bestsellers and award winners here. Here are the ones that have excerpts available:The Island Walkers by John Bemrose — excerptHavoc, in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett — excerptA Blade of Grass by Lewis Desoto — excerptThe Honeymoon by Justin Haythe — excerptThe Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard — excerpt, my reviewCloud Atlas by David Mitchell — excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin — excerptThe Brits love to bet, and the bookmakers over there actually come up with odds and take bets on the Booker each year. According to them Cloud Atlas is the big favourite. And if you don’t believe me when I tell you that the Brits (and the whole of the Commonwealth) get really saucy over the Booker, check out The Bluffer’s Guide to the Booker or better yet, Tibor Fischer’s tell-all about being a Booker Judge.

Books Far and Wide


Ms. Millions and I embarked upon a whirlwind trip to the East Coast this weekend for equal parts partying and wedding planning, and although Jet Blue’s inflight television distracted me from my reading, I managed to get some done, as did several other folks that I spotted in airports and on the planes. Lots of folks had their noses in the usual, low impact airport reading, but I also noticed quite a few people diverting themselves with some pretty literary fare. Off the top of my head I can remember spotting Family History by Dani Shapiro and Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds by America’s super intellectual, Harold Bloom, but there were others as well. It was good to see people getting some reading in on their way to their far flung destinations, which reminded me about an award I heard about last week that celebrates books that take place in far flung destinations. The Kiriyama Prize recognizes books “that will contribute to greater understanding of and among the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asia” in two categories, fiction and non-fiction. Here’s their map of the Pacific Rim. The fiction finalists are Brick Lane by Monica Ali, My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa, and The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay: five highly regarded books from last year. It’s interesting to see an award that groups books by subject matter and setting rather than the location, nationality, or gender of the author. Here are the non-fiction finalists.

My Review of The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard


I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.

I’m Back


I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, but I think I’m starting to get better. I’m well enough to post here anyway. Which is good, because I noticed a couple of books that I thought people might be interested in. Remember a few years ago when everyone was suddenly talking about “string theory?” This was because of a book by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe, which somehow managed to solve a longstanding dilemma in the world of physics, that “general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right,” in a book readable enough to become a best seller. Greene proved to be one of those remarkable writers, of which there are very few, who have the ability to make a very boring and difficult topic interesting for everyone. And now he has a new book out: The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, in which he continues to unwind scientific complexities with a combination of analogy and wit.My friend Edan pointed out another interesting, new book to me other day. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by the remarkably named, Alma Guillermoprieto. Edan and I both read an excerpt of this book in the New Yorker a while back. I enjoyed the way Guillermoprieto’s fierce Latin personality was tempered by her lyrical love of dance. This book seems perfect for anyone enamored by ballet and/or Cuba.A NoteFrom the book I just finished: “From his windows at MacGregor Road, he watched the President Polk leave the harbour. He knew nothing of President Polk, but assumed that the shipping company would have checked the record, beforehand, for anything scandalous. Then he did miss Audrey, with whom he could have spoken of such things.”

Deep in a Book


I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene’s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.

My Review of Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King

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I have touched upon Stephen King’s much maligned reputation from time to time on this blog, and so it was a real pleasure to read a book that reinforced all of the things that I like about his writing. King’s aim is, first and foremost, to entertain his reader, to engage him, to reach out from the page and take hold of him. This seems like something that every writer would want to do, but how true is that really? It seems like most writers want to create something that is either “good” or “successful,” those being code words for “literary” and “bestseller,” respectively. Which writers, however, tell you again and again that they wish most of all to entertain? Few, if any, besides Stephen King have this aim. Read the introduction to Everything’s Eventual or any of On Writing or the various non-fiction pieces he has written over the years and you will see that this is true. King entertains by pulling his reader in, by talking to him from the page. If King is really rolling, as you are reading you will feel as though you are being addressed by him. The short story, with its tight structure and limited length, proves to be especially potent when combined with King’s desire to take you in. He leads you one way, then another. He steps over the line and gives you gore, but only because it is absolutely necessary, and when you finish a story you feel like you’ve been for a ride; it’s a giddy feeling. And in this book you get it 14 times. I’ve also always enjoyed King’s rapport with his readers. He is not aloof about his writing, and telling his readers about his writing seems as enjoyable to him as writing the books themselves. In Everything’s Eventual each story is either preceded or followed by a page explaining how the story came to be. There is no coyness about such things; just as there is no coyness in King’s fiction. These stories speak for themselves, they are about what they are about, so what’s wrong with a little background info? In fact, I think King recognizes that it is normal for readers to be curious about such things, and, not caring what a critic might think of such a move, he chooses, as he usually does, to indulge his readers. Why, does he bother doing this… any of this? I think it is because he is a born writer who happens to derive joy from a pastime that most people, including many of the most praised writers who ever walked the earth, find lonely and torturous. I love reading Stephen King because, in his typically insidious way, when I read his books it makes me wish that all of my reading were that fun.Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire is jumping to the front of the “Reading Queue” because I have to read it for the book club I run. Also, you may have noticed that the comment function has disappeared. Blogspeak, my comment host, was run out of business by its hosting company and now all of their accounts are in the process of being transferred over to Halo Scan. I hope this happens soon because I miss all of your little voices.

A Reading Queue for 2004


I recently reorganized my bookshelves. I straightened and categorized the books, and I separated out all of the books that I haven’t read and that I hope to read sooner rather than later. These are books that I’ve bought at the store, received as gifts, and unearthed on bookfinding expeditions. There are 31 of them. For a while now, I’ve had a quite large “to read” pile, and I add titles almost every week, it seems. The problem is that stacks of books are constantly getting pushed aside while I read whatever book I’m most excited about at the moment. There’s not really anything wrong with this except that there are books that I really would like to read, but never seem to get around to it. So, since I obviously am not to be trusted, I have decided to take some of the decision making out of my hands: I have set aside a special shelf to hold my new “Reading Queue.” On it are all of the books that I own and would like to read but haven’t yet. From this shelf full of books, I will randomly select the next one to read. Before I get into that though, here’s my reading queue, some of the books that will keep me occupied during the coming year:Without Feathers by Woody AllenThe Summer Game by Roger AngellOnce More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader by Roger AngellGame Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger AngellAn Army at Dawn by Rick AtkinsonThe Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe Hole in the Flag by Andrei CodrescuDon Quixote by Miguel De CervantesParis Trout by Pete DexterThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasThe Last Amateurs by John FeinsteinA Season on the Brink by John FeinsteinLiving to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezLast Train to Memphis by Peter GuralnickThe Great Fire by Shirley HazzardRound Rock by Michelle HunevenThe Known World by Edward P. JonesBalkan Ghosts by Robert D. KaplanShah of Shahs by Ryszard KapuscinskiThe Price of Admiralty by John KeeganEverything’s Eventual by Stephen KingLiar’s Poker by Michael LewisThe Coming of Rain by Richard MariusThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLooking for a Ship by John McPheeMoviegoer by Walker PercyFraud by David RakoffThe Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver SacksEast of Eden by John SteinbeckQuicksilver by Neal StephensonMr. Jefferson’s University by Garry WillsOnce I had a full shelf to pick from, the only question was how to pick randomly. I thought about writing down names and picking out of hat, but that seemed like a pain, and I would have had to go look for a hat, so instead I located a random number generator to help me make my choice. I’m going back east tomorrow for two weeks, so I picked three books to take with me: Everything’s Eventual, Paris Trout, and Don Quixote. I’m guessing most folks will be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks, and so will I, so I’ll probably only post a couple of times while I’m gone. They should be good, though. Look for “My Year in Books” and a post about the books I gave as gifts. Happy Holidays, all.

The Results Are In


Last night the winners of this year’s National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I’ve got this book lying around somewhere, and I’ve been somewhat interested in reading it… and I’m still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I’ve read to win. It’s more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here’s an anti-war poem of his called “The Hearth.”)Young People’s Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I’m no expert on kid’s books, but I’m actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath’s books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He’s got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it’s pretty remarkable that he’s driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it’s a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he’s written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn’t mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: “The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular ‘has something to do with our lack of attention span.'” Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It’s true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don’t think that it’s due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don’t have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don’t want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don’t have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is “bad” because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I’ve had this idea on my mind a lot lately).

More Awards


So, they announced the nominees for the National Book Award yesterday. Interesting choices. Here they are with some comments:Drop City by T. C. Boyle: I read this one about a year ago. The book is definitely better than some of the, in my opinion, duds he has produced of late, but it does not come close to surpassing his three best books: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, and one of my all-time favorites, Water Music.The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: I haven’t read this one, but I have a copy. If you would like to read it and write a little review for this website, I will send the book to you at my expense. Any takers?The Known World by Edward P. Jones: I have not read this one but I hear it’s quite good. It was extremely well-reviewed.A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: This one came out a while back and was also well reviewed, although I only ever seemed to hear Scott Spencer fans talking about it.Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins: this one slipped under my radar because this is the first I’ve heard of it. I know, not very helpful.My pick to win: The Known World by Edward P. JonesAnd the nominees for non-fiction are…. (drum roll):Gulag by Anne Applebaum: I read this book and was completely floored by it. Applebaum was able to get to the heart of a multi-generational tragedy that affected literally tens of millions of people yet is curiously underrepresented in history books. Bravo to her for braving the horrors and writing an unflinching book.The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt: this one was very well reviewed, and, though the subject matter is rather quaint and sentimental, it is pretty clever to follow the history of a house across many generations. Apparently, Colt does a good job of it.Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio: This one pretty much slipped under my radar as well. Rustin is the man responsible for organizing the historical Civil Rights March on Washington.Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire: This one came out a while ago to not a whole lot of fanfare. It is pretty highly regarded, and is a must read for folks who are interested in Cuba.The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson: This one was a huge seller. The book provides a healthy dose of historical true crime excitement as it traces the steps of a serial killer who terrorized the Chicago Worlds Fair at the turn of the century. Would love to read this one.My pick: I hope Applebaum wins, but I think the award will go to Colt.For all the details and author bios as well as the nominees in the childrens and poetry categories go to the National Book Award website.

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