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.

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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Writing That Flows

Chattahoochee River

Chattahoochee River

Have you read literary magazines? Have you even sent a story, a poem, or an essay to a literary magazine? There are many of them around the country and the world, and they come and go. Some are more than 100 years old, while others spring up with high hopes to print, flash before the world, and die.

The oldest literary magazine here in Atlanta is the Chattahoochee Review, started in 1981 by Lamar York, now retired. After decades as editor, and speaking of how he felt toward the publication, he said, “I had never done anything that gave me the satisfaction that the magazine did.”

Last weekend, I went to North Carolina to spend the weekend with Lamar, who I got to know when I taught at Dekalb College and worked on the Chattahoochee Review. While at Lamar’s remarkable hobbit house, surrounded by a wonderful garden and looking out on the mountains of western North Carolina, I interviewed him about the founding of the magazine for this blog.

The Chattahoochee Review began at what was then called Dekalb College, the only college in Georgia operated by a single county. Since that time, the school has been absorbed by the state system, changed its name to Georgia Perimeter College, and joined Georgia State University.

Had Lamar ever worked on a literary magazine before starting the CR? “No,” he said, “I don’t really know where that came from. I’ve always been fascinated by the essay. I think it was that as much as anything.” Lamar was a serious reader, however, both generally, and of other literary magazines, and he saw them as models for what he wanted to do. In particular, he wanted to have a magazine of essays, reviews, and poetry.

When he began working at Dekalb College, the school had another magazine called the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. After that editor left, Lamar applied for the position as editor—and did not get it, but the idea of editing a literary magazine had been born.

His opportunity came when the college opened a campus to the north of the city. The head of the new Humanities Department, Carl Griffin, asked Lamar to transfer to the north campus, which Lamar had no interest in. Griffin suggested, however, that on the north campus Lamar could start a new magazine, a motivating enticement. Thus the idea for the Chattahoochee Review originated with Carl Griffin, and Lamar went to the new campus.

Whence the name for the magazine? “I was very conscious of the geographical names,” Lamar said. “Like the Georgia Review or Sewanee Review. I wanted a name like that.” Nevertheless, he started a contest for submissions to name the magazine, with a committee of students and faculty to judge the entries.

As it happened, in spite of the committee, Lamar was still thinking about the name, considering such possibilities as Atlanta Review or Stone Mountain Review, names derieved from the city where the magazine would be located or from the enormous strange boulder to the east of the city. Then one day while driving to Selma, Alabama, to visit his brother, he saw the Chattahoochee River and “Ah!” there it was.

Naturally a project like starting a new magazine, by a person with no experience, would take some curve and learning. Lamar said he had had no idea how to go about running the magazine, including something as basic as how to get manuscripts. In the early days, he said, the magazine “was a pale imitation of the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal”, the other magazine from the college.

As for the money to run the magazine, the Dean suggested at the time that Lamar ask the student government for money, and for five years they gave around $1,000 a year to fund the magazine, until the college took over direct funding. The small-budget magazine was also a work of love for Lamar, because as the editor, he had neither release time from teaching to run the magazine nor a magazine office.

Several years into the project, the college administration decided to close one of the two magazines at the school, the Chattahoochee Review or the Dekalb Literary Arts Journal. At the time, Lamar talked with the other editor, and they decided that they would merge the two magazines together, to be renamed as The Stone Mountain Review. In the end, however, no one ever told Lamar to stop publishing, and the CR continued to live.

I asked Lamar what the reception had been for the magazine, now so well respected. One of the things he really remembered is that he had been astonished by the number of submissions. “I was absolutely swept away by the number of people who wanted to be published,” he said. In later years he would occasionally talk with editors of other magazines who complained about the large number of submissions, but Lamar was always glad that people who could write wanted to be in the magazine. Summarizing his feelings about writers asking to be included, he said, “I loved getting the Chattahoochee’s mail.”

Lamar York has moved on to a house on a ridge looking out over the Blue Ridge mountains, but the The Chattahoochee Review continues to support contemporary literature and accept submissions.

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The Girls Are Standing

Irish girls“On Good Friday the shops were closed and every place was sad. Purple-sad. Death-sad.”
Description of Dublin, The Country Girls

In 1960 Caithleen Brady and Baba Brennan stepped onto the pages of Irish literature in The Country Girls, and in this short novel, the two girls helped set off a firestorm against the book and the author, Edna O’Brien. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that this book was banned by the Irish censorship board (in a time when they still had such a thing), and the book was burned in O’Brien’s home town by a priest.

Regarding the controversy caused by this book, O’Brien said much later that it was caused in part because “there had not been a tradition of women writers” and also because at the time she wrote, Ireland had a “narrow, claustrophobic, judgemental religion”. Nevertheless, the book inspired other Irish writers, and nearly a quarter of a century later, it was made into a movie in 1984.

The story is told in first person, so every word in the book is Caithleen’s voice, every thought is her thought. She is a somewhat naive girl, and the author shows Caithleen feeling insecure, not knowing things, and discovering new aspects of life. Throughout the novel, Caithleen is accompanied by her friend Baba, as they go together to a convent school and then room together in Dublin. Baba comes across as more sophisticated, more daring, and occasionally harsh toward Caithleen, so that their friendship can be baffling to understand sometimes.

Although The Country Girls is a fairly short book, written in just three weeks, it leads the reader through a great transition in the life of Caithleen. When we come into her story, she is a young girl living with her mother and father in a country house outside a small town. The novel then has her leave home to go to the convent high school, and by the end Caithleen is a young, but independent, woman living in Dublin.

O’Brien wrote this book in what is usually considered a realistic style, using a straightforward narrative to move the story forward. As an aspect of that style, there is a great attention to the details of each scene, as if it were the author’s purpose to meticulously record the settings and incidents she was describing. When the girls first arrive in Dublin, for instance, the man they rent from is described sitting in a dining room:

“There was a piano in one corner, and next to it was a sideboard that had framed photographs on top of it, and opposite that was a china cabinet. It was stuffed with glasses, cups, mugs, and all sorts of souvenirs. Sitting at the table was a bald, middle-aged man eating a boiled egg.”

An aspect of the novel that must have caused some heartburn is a strongly irreverent attitude toward religion, seen in the attitudes of several characters, or in the way Baba speaks (once when Caithleen doesn’t want to go somewhere, Baba says, “In Christ’s name, why not?”). In addition, there are scenes in the convent school that make the nuns look foolish, at best, such as a nun who reads an obscene note, has a mental breakdown, and has to be taken away.

What surely set the Guardians of Morality to goose-stepping when this book was first published was the sexual element. Though those references are mild by modern standards, the mere presence of sexual implications was pushing against the barbed wire of social rules in 1960. Furthermore, the novel was written by a woman about young women on their own. Not only did the Catholic Church want to control sexuality, but in particular, they wanted ironfist control over women’s sexuality, like nearly every religion and culture on the planet earth. Some things don’t change.

This book, at its heart, is about two village girls yearning to experience life, to eat some of the sweet fruit that all people reach for. Caithleen is also aching for romance, and over the course of the book, we see her pursuing a possibility that may strike most readers as not a very good idea.

In an interview a few years ago about this book, Edna O’Brien said that “a lot of literature and the literature that I admire is about longing”, and this novel very much embodies basic human longing. Desire for something more, something better, runs through the book for practically every character. In the same interview, O’Brien also said that “writing is from the unconscious”, and in The Country Girls she has reached into her own unconscious to pull out Caithleen and Baba as representations not only of Irish girls in their time, but of what it is like to be human at any time.

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