Category Archives: Book Talks

Some books I read provoke hmms of wonder, some provoke yawns of lassitude, and some provoke nothing but provocation. A few provoke commentary, and when they do, I will commentarize about them.

How Many Colors Were You Thinking?

woman with colored hairAs I’m writing the book Moonapple Pie, part of the background for working on it is that I’m making a point of reading southern writers. I’ve found some who I didn’t know and have really liked (Lee Smith, Edward P. Jones, Mary Hood), as well as some who are just famous.

One writer who I decided to look at was Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina. Back during the summer I was in Asheville, which probably made me think more about Wolfe. I had known of him before, and a movie was made about his life in the past year. I had never read him, so I decided to try Look Homeward, Angel, which I finished recently, though I read it slowly (and it was more than 500 pages).

Although the book is a novel, it is also in some sense an autobiography of Wolfe and his family. Two characters in the book die, for instance, and Wolfe gives them the actual names of two of his own brothers who died when he was young. Even as he kept those names, however, Wolfe changed place names, so that Asheville was mysteriously renamed as Altamont.

Very little plot entices the reader through this novel, so that you wonder what is going to fill up those 500 pages. What plot the book has mostly concerns the character Eugene, who represents the author, but you have to read quite a ways before Eugene is born. We then watch him gradually grow old enough to graduate from college, though the book regularly focuses on someone other than Eugene.

For me, at least, what makes Look Homeward, Angel an interesting book is not the pale plot but the language, a brilliant display the flows and dances and sings on every page. Not everyone, of course, would want to read a book like that. If you don’t enjoy language for its own sake, this is probably not the book for you.

The one thing about this novel that really put me off was the occasional ugly racism. I understand Wolfe was writing the book in 1926, not a time of enlightenment in this country, but it was still unpleasant when I ran into it. There is no viciousness about the racism, but rather a striking lack of empathy, though to be sure, Wolfe is not exactly kind to a single character in the book.

As I was reading the novel, it seemed clear to me that this book was influenced by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, and I would swear on a tiger’s eyes that Wolfe read Ulysses before he began writing. Sometimes the influence seemed open and obvious, and at other times it was simply the unfettered exuberance of the language that connected the books. Occasionally Wolfe’s language was so outlandishly imaginative that it didn’t even fully make sense, but the fireworks went on. I’ll serve you a few samples of the language, pulled out fairly randomly:

  • “And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury; when he he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness.”
  • “He turned his face up to her as a prisoner who recovers light, as a man long pent in darkness who bathes himself in the great pool of dawn, as a blind man who feels upon his eyes the white core and essence of immutable brightness.”
  • “O God! O God! We have been an exile in another land and a stranger in our own. The mountains were our masters: they went home to our eye and our heart before we came to five. Whatever we can do or say must be forever hillbound.”

Just as I would for Ulysses, I would recommend Look Homeward, Angel to other writers, as a way of saying “Loosen your reins on occasion. Look what is possible.”

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How Can I Read Your Book If I Don’t See Your Photograph?

fox sitting at a typewriter

I just really don’t want to write about hen houses.

Last Saturday I bought four Irish novels. I read one of them this week, a book that is very modern in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of narrative, so after a while it becomes so strange you just read it knowing that it will be strange, or you quit reading. When I went looking for Irish novels, however, what did I mean by “Irish”? Does Irish literature have to focus on small stone cottages set on green hillsides, with people who drink Guinness and say, “How’s your Da?”

It’s fairly common to describe literature, as I did, based on the writers (who they are, where they come from), rather than based on the writing itself. This can make for some strange classifications. The short Irish novel I just read, for instance mentions Irish place names and makes a few Irish cultural references, but in fact, with very few changes, the book could take place in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Is this an “Irish” novel or just a novel by an Irish writer. Or are they exactly the same thing?

Years ago I gave myself an ambitious goal of reading a novel from every country on the earth (I never came close). I thought I had Ireland covered at the time because I’d read Gulliver’s Travels, but someone pointed out that Jonathan Swift was actually Anglo-Irish (I note that Wikipedia also refers to him as Anglo-Irish). He was born in Dublin, mostly grew up in Dublin, went to college in Dublin, died in Dublin, and is buried there. But according to this point of view, he’s not exactly Irish.

Trying to define Irish literature is an example of a broader question of defining any kind of literary group. As one example, writers are routinely identified as belonging to particular countries. Here is the U.S., we also categorize writers based on groups that have traditionally lacked power. There’s a logic to this, as people in those groups can describe a reality and life that people in the power group would not know. Thus we talk about women writers, black writers, American-Indian writers, and so on.

How many writers like these labels? Probably almost none. Philip Roth, who just died and who repeatedly wrote books using Jewish characters, did not want to be known as a “Jewish” writer but as a good writer, regardless of his subject matter. And does being a member of one of these groups imply a certain type of subject matter? Did the black writer Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, write “black” literature? Was she not a real black writer?

From a literary point of view, what is Irish? Before I visited Limerick, Ireland, a woman who lives there recommended that I read Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, to get a feeling of Limerick, so I read it. There is even a museum to McCourt in the city of Limerick, yet he was born in New York and spent almost his entire life in America. Is he more Irish than Jonathan Swift, who lived all his life in Ireland?

The labels we use for writers and writing can sometimes be handy, because those labels might indicate cultural differences or ways of living, history, language, and so on. But as with so much, we can also use these labels in a stupid lazy way, as if a writer is supposed to write certain things based on country of origin, or skin color, or culture, and so on.

It’s no wonder writers don’t like the labels. As dictators around the world know, there are writers willing to go to prison rather be told what they are allowed to write.

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What You Know Can’t Hurt You

FrankensteinLast weekend I was driving home from Florida and on the radio I heard some talk about the novel Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and published in 1818. The next day, I heard someone else on the radio read from Shelley’s notes on how she came to write the book. Because this year is the 200th anniversary of her thinking up the idea for the novel, perhaps it’s no great coincidence that I’d hear these radio reports.

The following day, however, I was reading a modern novel that out of the blue made a reference to Frankenstein, and still the day after that I was listening to some language exercises while studying Spanish, when a speaker used the sentence (in Spanish), “Oh, it’s the Frankenstein monster! Run!” I think using the word “run” was the actual point of the exercise.

The cultural impact of Mary Shelley’s novel is so enormous that it’s impossible to calculate. I pause for a moment to note that she was 18 years old when she thought of it and began writing it. Are there novels by any men at that age that have had such an impact?

Shelley tells us that her purpose was just to write a horror story, some entertainment during a rainy summer for her husband, herself, Lord Byron, and another friend. We can now see the book in two very different ways, however. There is the “Grrrrrr!!!” monster way, which she was after, and in the 20th century we have certainly pursued this line, with movies and pop culture that celebrated the “monstrousness” and nothing else, leading in fact to parodies like the song “Monster Mash” and Mel Brook’s utterly wonderful movie “Young Frankenstein”.

Whether Shelley intended to make a cultural statement or not, I don’t know. Maybe she did intend it. Both of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were influential thinkers and writers, concerned with the state of society (you can look them both up on Wikipedia), so Mary Shelley was probably influenced by this background. And there is obviously a second way to look at her book.

In Frankenstein, she picked up on trends happening in her time, including current scientific knowledge, such as electricity (remember, the year was 1818), and captured a growing cultural uneasiness with how that knowledge and technology were affecting people. At the same time that Shelley was close to writing Frankenstein, for instance, textile workers in England were destroying weaving machines from fear that the machines would take away their jobs (does that fear of being replaced by machines sound somewhat familiar?).

Clearly, in the early 1800s some people were beginning to feel that knowledge and technology were moving beyond human control. It was at that moment that Mary Shelley produced this novel, which embodied those fears. The book is actually about a man who creates a living creature that he is then afraid of. The creature of the novel, by the way, is not the cartoon character of our movies (in Shelley’s book the monster reads John Milton’s Paradise Lost).

Of course, after Shelley, both our knowledge and our technology have increased astronomically, and our fear of them has continued. A very good example of fearing our own creations came exactly 100 years later, with the Czech play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, where the word “robot” was first created. In that play, the artificial creatures eventually turn on their human masters and kill them.

In the late 20th century, I’d cite two movie examples of this same theme. In “Blade Runner” artificially created people come into conflict with the humans who made them, and in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the anthropomorphic ship computer turns on the humans who are supposed to control the space ship.

From our vantage point 200 years later, the time of Mary Shelley seems quaint and bucolic. Most people then lived in villages. Everyone rode horses. Not one thing on the earth ran on electricity. And yet part of the reason for the success of Shelley’s novel is that is wasn’t just a horror story. Other people have written horror stories, but we don’t hear about them.

Even 200 years ago, people were beginning to worry about whether humans were acquiring knowledge beyond our capacity to use it. And look at us now. We have nuclear weapons. We have cell phones that tell people where we are, even when we don’t realize it. We are developing the capacity to change the very DNA that makes us who we are. Writers struggle now to deal with such changes and threats to our humanity. A teen-aged girl 200 years ago captured the anxiety of her own time, something we still understand.

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Book, Kitap, Libro, Книга, Buch, Książka, Kitabu

Cuneiform tablet

An early book

I saw a newspaper article a few days ago commenting on the irony of the fact that book festivals are so crowded and popular—we have the Decatur Book Festival going on here this weekend—while books themselves seem to be disappearing. I was also thinking this week that whatever you call a book (the list above includes the word “book” in Turkish, Spanish, Russian, German, Polish, and Swahili), there are two basic ways to understand what the word means.

History

Up until now, the most common way to think of the book is as an object. Throughout history, and around the world, since the invention of writing, books have had dramatically different forms. The first books, if that word can even be used, may have been composed of separate small pieces of clay, not physically connected to one another. This was cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). At any rate, what was probably the first long piece of literature (“Gilgamesh”) was found on multiple clay tablets.

Some later forms of the book, depending on when and where you were, could have been:

  • sheets of papyrus (made from flattened reeds) glued together and rolled up into scrolls (Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans)
  • pieces of bamboo tied together in sets of “pages” and stacked together like an accordion (China)
  • sheets of paper made from agave plants, folded up between wooden covers (Mayan)

Sometime in the first century, the Romans invented a new format. Instead of gluing pages together end to end as a scroll, they stacked the pages on top of one another and then sewed them along one edge, with an added cover for protection. This form is called the “codex”, and it has lasted for 2,000 years, as we still use it.

There are various reasons why the codex book has been so successful. Part of that success is due to the invention of paper—light, cheap, flexible, and light-colored to easily show the ink. With the invention of printing in the west around 1450, Europeans were stunned and gaga at this fabulous new technology (the way we’ve been with the internet), and within only 50 years, millions of books had been printed in 18 languages. Think about that. Millions of books printed by the year 1500.

The codex has also been a success as a book form because it has become cheap, it’s very portable, it allows for fast access to any part of the book, and the paper with margins allows the reader to add notes. The paper book has been such an overwhelming success that when we use the word “book” we probably mean the object itself. It is lying there on the shelf, reminding us that sooner or later we are going to pick it up and read it.

Future

I said there are two ways to understand the word “book”. I’ve been discussing one of those ways above, the book as an object. The other way to conceive of a book is as an idea.

In the last 100 years our technology based on electricity has begun to shift us in the direction of the book as an idea. Perhaps someday part of this process will be seen in the fact that some books are turned into movies. An author may like having their book made into a movie, but that’s not the book. It’s something else, using the idea of the book. More pertinently, of course, we have recently created two basic forms of the “book”—ebooks and audiobooks—that retain the original words, but the book as a physical object no longer exists. This development in particular leads us to an understanding of the word “book” as an idea.

ereader tablet

A later book

But hasn’t this always been somewhat true? To be more exact, a book is a collection of ideas, presented using symbols of language and visual images (and now, adding audio, video, and hyperlinks). No matter how strong our fondness for the physical paper object, many books are actually better in ebook format, where the ideas can be accessed more easily and far more efficiently, such as all reference books. For such books, the paper is not the point; the ideas are.

I believe paper books will always exist, for a variety of reasons, but the vast majority of books will not be physical objects. We will continue to use the word “book” but the word will come to have a very different meaning. (Eventually there will be a separate word for a book made of paper.) When the word “book” truly refers only to an idea, available in digital format, what will a “book” become? Will people in the future look back at people like me, who have mourned the supposed passing of our cumbersome bundles of paper, and say, “If only you could see what amazing things the book has turned into”?

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Conversations in the Mountains

Mountain house

The house where we talked

Last weekend, before a dragon came and ate the sun, I drove across the path of the eclipse to the mountains north of Asheville, North Carolina. I went up to the high country to spend the weekend with Lamar York, who founded the literary magazine The Chattahoochee Review. It delights me to visit Lamar, in part for the magical little house surrounded by stunning views, in part for the fabulous food we always have, but mostly for the compelling conversations.

We talked about Mexico, of course, because Lamar has been there about 25 times and has planted the seed of interest for me to go next year. We also talked about gardening a little bit and metaphysics a good bit, but mostly we talked about writing or literature. I made notes on some of that conversation to talk about here.

I was telling Lamar about my recent visit to Beaufort, South Carolina, where Pat Conroy lived. I’ve read The Prince of Tides, and I remember being impressed by his metaphors, but when I was talking to Lamar, I described Conroy’s writing as being “egregiously tragic” (and did that book really need a tiger?). Although Lamar likes Conroy’s work, he said he could see where my phrase might be a suitable description of the writing.

As we sat around the dining table one day tossing information in the air, other writers whose names came up were N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Indian writer, and I described his novel The Ancient Child, which I had just read. That apparently reminded a lunch guest of Louise Erdrich, a writer who is part Chippewa, and the guest said her writing can be fairly dark. Dark writing, in turn, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, who I admit I haven’t read, but both Lamar and the lunch guest liked him.

Here is some of the contrast in points of view between me and Lamar: from what I’ve heard of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, I said I will probably never read him. Lamar, by contrast, said that if this were a just world—which of course it isn’t—Cormac McCarthy deserves a Nobel Prize. During the weekend other writers whose names came up were Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, and Borden Deal, who came from the same town as William Faulkner.

Back when I was working with Lamar years ago, we would have staff meetings for The Chattahoochee Review. I would sometimes hear him talk about various writers, in particular southern writers, and I would think “How in God’s name can anyone know all that?” Lamar always seemed to me to know all there was about southern literature. While I was at his house last weekend, he told me that southern literature as a literary discipline was created by Louis Rubin, who also founded the publisher Algonquin Books with Shannon Ravenel. As part of that same conversation, I learned that in Uppsala, Sweden, the university has a department of American southern literature.

Mountain view

One of the views from the yard

There were also times last weekend, usually later in the evening over bottles of wine, when Lamar and I shared stories of the extreme frustration we have both known from trying to publish, either in literary magazines or with book publishers (fiction in my case, of course, and Lamar has written and published many essays). Of course I felt the irony of the editor of a prominent literary magazine sharing my frustration at how difficult and disheartening it is to try to publish in just such a magazine. We didn’t even mention the Chattahoochee, simply shared our war stories of disappointment and struggle, and within the last few months we have both been rejected by a book publisher.

I certainly will be back on that mountaintop some time, and when I go back, we’ve agreed to drive into Asheville to go bar hopping and try some locally brewed beer. When we do, I’m sure we’ll mention a writer or two.

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War and War and Then Some Peace

man with head in a vice reading

Keep reading

I’m sure you’ve heard of the book War and Peace, by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and maybe you’ve read it, though if you’re a normal person, reading it probably never even occurred to you. People say the book is a great novel. I’ve just finished reading it this week, and I don’t agree. I do not think War and Peace is a great novel.

To be fair—as fair as I plan to be, anyway—I didn’t read the book at one go. My version is 1,200 pages, so I read 100 or 200 pages at a time, with other books in between, and I spent about a year on it. That long process may have affected my perception of the book, such as my belief that it’s far, far too long, no matter what else you say about it.

The story is a great, vast epic over twenty years, with some of the Napoleonic wars, including the invasion of Russia and occupation of Moscow by the French. There are plenty of detailed battle scenes, of course, and many of the soldiers going into battle seem exhilarated and happy. Back when I thought I might drafted and sent to Vietnam, I used to think that if someone were firing bullets at me, I’d be lying terrified on the ground. Leo Tolstoy, by contrast, did go into battles in the Caucasus region, so I guess he knew better than me. But exhilarated and happy? Did they really run forward thrilled to be there until their brains were blown out?

In general the style of writing is strong, at times simply brilliant, but the story has little focus much of the time, moving from person to person, including entire chapters from the point of view of characters who are ultimately fairly minor. In the end, several characters are followed all the way to the conclusion, so they seem like major characters by exhaustive virtue of having survived the full 1,200 pages.

I have to admit that I didn’t really like most of the characters very much, except perhaps Sonya, who is completely downtrodden and mistreated, and sometimes Pierre was OK. Many of the characters, however, seemed so negative in their portrayals, such as Nicolai at the end turning into a sullen, reactionary country landowner, that I began to wonder whether Tolstoy himself actually liked any of these people.

There were also times when it seemed to me that the author was either bored or lazy, particularly in describing female characters. One woman had “shining eyes” (лучистые глаза) so often that I thought “Leo, did you not notice you were doing this?” I also found his treatment of the female characters to be cliched and sometimes offensive. I know he lived in a very different time from us, I understand that, but Tolstoy is also famous for his ability to realistically portray his characters. With the women, I felt he was often working with stereotyped images that he carried in his head, rather than describing real women.

The most dramatic example of his condescension for me was a description of Natasha at the end of the book, now married and a mother, as being quintessentially a плодовитая самка (“prolific female” or “fertile female [animal]”). Tolstoy literally says at that point in the book that Natasha’s former sparkling personality is gone, but she is a good breeder. You can translate that how you like. A quick Google search showed me that I was not alone in stopping, astonished, when I read that phrase.

As a work of literature, War and Peace can be discussed and criticized, or praised, on many points, but I think as a work of fiction its greatest fault is that Tolstoy was exceedingly self indulgent, deciding that any damn thing that came into his head belonged in his book. OK, it was the nineteenth century, and they did that then. So did Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. But War and Peace has long—long—stretches where the story stops altogether and the author goes into philosophical discussions of history, including various theories as to how history can be written. I’m not kidding.

This flaw particularly mars the end, where it appears the author completely loses interest in his characters. The last thirty pages of the book are a very dense historical discussion that turns into philosophizing about free will. Of course when you read the book for the first time (this was my second time, so I knew what to expect) you keep thinking the discussion will stop and you’ll get back to the characters and the story. Surprise.

I do have admiration for this book, and there were times when I got a great deal of pleasure while reading it, but for me it has too many flaws, some of them too egregious, to regard it as a great novel. But then, what is a great novel anyway?

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Darkness Wrapped in Sugar

Cork, Ireland

Cork, Ireland

“I’m not into any of it. I’m just pulling you up on assuming your right to religion if you’re going to deny it to whores.”

Let’s pause in the exciting rollercoaster of this blog to quietly read a book. I recommend a novel called The Glorious Heresies, by a contemporary Irish writer named Lisa McInerney. As far as I can tell, this is McInerney’s first novel, a book that has won literary prizes.

I know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t we hate someone who writes one book and wins prizes for it? It’s a valid question, but I have to say that this is a very good book. The novel is set almost entirely in Cork, Ireland, what they sometimes call Cork City as distinguished from the surrounding County Cork. Nearly every character in the book lives in a state of highly developed dysfunction, and they are using whatever fate gives them to make sure it stays it that way.

If any one character could be considered the main focus of the book, it is Ryan Cusack, who goes from 15 to around 20 years old in the book, though in terms of what he experiences of life, Ryan might be said to go from 15 to 45 in those five years. The author, McInerney, allows us to see that Ryan has a softness and empathy for other people, but he has certainly chosen the wrong life to use those personality traits.

Other characters include Ryan’s father, who seems fated to criminal ineptitude, Jimmy Phelan, a vicious gangster burdened by looking after his difficult mother, Georgie, a prostitute who tries for a while to find religion, and Maureen, Jimmy’s mother, who initiates much of the plot by accidentally killing an intruder who shouldn’t have been there anyway.

Ironically, Maureen is also the conscience of the book, the only person who seems to be honestly trying to steer the other characters in the right direction. Maureen is also in some ways the conscience of the book for Ireland itself. In amongst the gangster goings-on, Maureen recalls a part of Irish history when the Catholic church ran slave labor camps for girls and young women. Technically, the slave camps were called Magdalen “laundries” (the last one closed, amazingly, as late as 1996). Maureen expresses a justified anger at a church that behaves worse than gangsters, and she even tries to take an ineffectual revenge.

In style, McInerney reminds me of other Irish writers who show such a great facility with language. The tone of the book is necessarily harsh, given the subject matter, yet that darkness is often alleviated by a smart, snarky voice, with a very imaginative use of language, as we see in the following examples:

  • An effervescent liar from the phone company had sold Tony a broadband subscription, which had had the effect of lobotomising his three teenagers and giving him the cold comfort of meditative silence.
  • Jesus, he thought. I’m like those gobshites who clap when the plane lands.
  • That he was driven to drink by a taciturn child was as good a reason as being defective in spirit and in genetics…

McInerney also uses Irish slang throughout the story (craic, fecker, bollocks, slash, to cite a few), but in addition to sprinkling the text with particular local words, she has an ear for the sound of Irish speech. This book is a river of rich dialogue, and streams of Irish phrases and syntax flow into that river, currents that grow heavier or lighter depending on the situation (“Era go on outta that,” or “Ah for feck’s sake altogether.”)

In one way, this book reminds me of novels by the British writer Kate Atkinson. When I finish a book by Atkinson, I often think “What a grim, dark story” and yet while I’m reading it, the the pleasure is so great that I don’t notice.

The pleasure of art can sometimes overcome the darkness of the subject, which is what McInerney has accomplished in The Glorious Heresies, wrapping her hollow-eyed leery Corkonians in a rich linguistic tapestry.

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