Reading Christopher Moore’s Fool is rather like watching Hercules: the Legendary Journeys or Xena: Warrior Princess; that willing suspension of disbelief Coleridge was on about is absolutely necessary.
A veer away from the 2015 reading list for a book a friend has been after me to take in for some time. Fool is author Christopher Moore‘s mashup of Shakespeare whose primary focus is answering the never asked question: what would King Lear be like if told from the point of view of Lear’s Fool? Moore’s answer to this question would be a story filled with lots of bawdy, occasionally tasteless, joking about power, sex, treason, madness, and love – all Shakespearean topics, granted – as well as love as a higher end of human endeavor – another Shakespearean theme.
In other words, it’s pretty much as accurate a take on Shakespeare as you’re likely to find. Which is to say it’s got the Shakespeare pretty much wrong and pretty much right at the same time.
That whole “…tale told by an idiot/Signifying nothing” explanation might be apt, one might say. Continue reading →
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)
Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).
I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.
“…I must point out that a memory which is suddenly revived carries a great power of resuscitation. The past does not only draw us back to the past. There are certain memories of the past that have strong steel springs and, when we who live in the present touch them, they are suddenly stretched taut and then they propel us into the future.” Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (image courtesy Goodreads)
Sometimes one reads an author who makes one wonder what the hell the Nobel committee thinks about when it selects prize winners for literature. I had read some Yukio Mishima many years ago, during my undergraduate days, actually (Nixon was POTUS which should give you some idea of how long ago that was). Mishima’s strange death sparked my interest (I remember reading an article about him and his bizarre ending from, of all places, Life magazine at my parents’ home), so I had been on the lookout for one of his works. I ran into a used copy of his story collection Death in Midsummer and Other Stories and remember thinking, in my idiosyncratic way, that the title story reminded me of Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” In fact, the collection resonates with the same sort of angst, alienation, and anger at the world/life/what ya got that pervades Salinger’s collection Nine Stories.
That same angst, alienation, and anger pervades The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, one of the richest, finest novels a reader will find anywhere in literature. Reading such a powerful work makes one wonder how the Nobel committee ignored Mishima even as they rewarded his friend and mentor Yasunari Kawabata. The answer to that question is like the answer to another question about the non-rewarding of literature’s most well-known prize that I asked last year: likely political in nature. Continue reading →
In Ellen Foster Kaye Gibbons offers a flawed if compelling coming-of-age tale with a narrator who is by turns a believable rural North Carolina 11 year-old and – on occasion – an author remembering her 14 year-old self upon whom her character is based.
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (image courtesy Goodreads)
A book like Ellen Foster can be described in multiple ways which all mean the same thing: semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age, bildungsroman. This, Kaye Gibbons first novel, published during the wave of “women’s fiction” promulgated by the publishing industry in the 1980’s (others in this wave included Lee Smith, about whose work I’ll write later this year, and Ellen Gilchrist, about whom I won’t) is a quirky little book and has a great deal of charm. It certainly deserves much of the praise it has received. The story, told by the remarkably matter-of-fact narrator, “Ellen Foster,” (the first name is real; the last Ellen’s own construct based on her experiences), is a model of economy, covering as it does the deaths of Ellen’s mother, father, and maternal grandmother, as well as Ellen’s time living with first her parents, then one of her teachers, then her grandmother, then an aunt.
There are two matters to discuss about Ellen Foster. The first is the remarkable quality of the narration. It is really quite good: engaging, touching, occasionally laugh out loud funny. The second is the content of this story. How much is novel, how much is memoir? That question is the more intriguing, as it raises interesting questions about the wall between fiction and nonfiction. Continue reading →
“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)
Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, StrangeFruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegantA Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.
This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatment. Continue reading →
When a writer combines washed up All-American football players, sexually frustrated former majorettes, a rattlesnake roundup, a racist, rapist sheriff, and dog fighting and sets it all in the rural South, one expects pretty much what Harry Crews gives us – a darkly tragicomic tale that delights even as it gives one the willies.
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews (image courtesy Goodreads)
And perhaps that’s an important point to make about this novel. What makes A Feast of Snakes a powerful read is that for both those who like their Southern lit on the Gothic side, there’s plenty of the grotesque, eccentric, and sinister. For those who, like me, appreciate the economy of style and and cold-blooded examination of those in the lower ranks of the 99%, Harry Crews offers a novel that both delivers plenty of weirdness and plenty of honest examination of the wretched. From snake handling preachers to body building lawyers, this is a book with a little something for everyone. Continue reading →
Here’s how it feels at the end of the spring semester for a longtime-journalist-turned-college-writing instructor:
I love working with college students, and I hope the feeling is mutual, for at least some of them, anyway. There’s no workplace I’ve ever found that’s more invigorating than the classroom.
But I work with freshmen only, and anymore, they communicate by liking, by following, by tweeting, by texting, and by slinging words and/or photographs and/or video on communications platforms I’ve never heard of. Most of the students I work with don’t understand—or, at best, dimly grasp—the value of what I encourage them to learn. Subject-verb disagreement? Fused sentences? Comma splices? Sentence fragments? The parts of speech? I’ve always (perhaps naively) believed these and related topics are the bedrock of good writing. Continue reading →
Catherine Morland is like most adolescents: too certain about what (she thinks) she knows, too uncertain about what she knows (she thinks) she doesn’t. Her negotiation of coming of age is about learning to manage both what she knows and what she doesn’t know – as well as learning how to recognize when she knows and when she doesn’t….
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)
My life as a famous and beloved book essayist has its twists and turns. This week’s particular turn took me north to Maryland where I served in the graduation festivities at the university where I teach. As a result (and because I’m currently working my way through Daniel Forbes’ dystopian satire Derail this Train Wreck), I’m doing what I warned you I might a week or so ago: writing about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey is probably my least favorite of all great Jane’s works. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you may as well know them. First, it was published posthumously (as was my favorite of Austen’s works, the marvelous and prescient Persuasionabout which I will write near the end of this year) although it was the first novel she ever completed. The story behind that is well documented: Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication, but the publisher later decided not to issue the book. Over a decade later – near the too early end of Austen’s life – her brother Henry bought the book back from that same publisher for the same price for which it had originally been purchased. Evidently, that publisher, Crosby and Co., was not known for either editorial or business acumen: in the time between their purchase of the manuscript in 1803 and Henry Austen’s repurchase of the manuscript in 1816 (a mere year before Jane’s death), Miss Austen had published four other novels of which a good publisher ought to have heard: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Though published initially by “A Lady,” anyone with an interest in literature or reading knew who the author was – except the fine folks at Crosby and Co. it seems. To get to the point, reason #1 why Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work is that it’s a first novel with a first novel’s foibles: too much self-satisfied obvious authorial voice, too little attention to smoothing out the rough patches, which are numerous. Continue reading →
Even the most avid reader, and the most dedicated writer, and I think I qualify as both, occasionally hits the doldrums – whether from a slow book, personal distractions, or the impositions of silly stuff like work…
The author, much younger, engrossed in a favorite pastime.
I am still making my way through Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, a book I began about a week ago and which I’m only two-thirds through. Saramago is a Nobelist and a brilliant writer,but reading him is a slow business. Whether that is due to his leisurely pacing or to the density of his writing (Baltasar and Blimunda is a novel of ideas as well as a historical work), I’ve found myself slogging through a very fine and engrossing novel.
So maybe it’s not my fault that I’m not writing a book essay yet again. Maybe I’ve just run into one of those writers whose work one simply can’t race through.
Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite.
Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory (image courtesy Wikimedia)
That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone. Continue reading →
Wherein I “prove” logic can be fun, for me at least.
Welcome to Day 1 of Logic 101. Don’t worry. It’s a one-day class. Actually, the “class” is only as long as it takes you to read this post. Homework may take anywhere from 0 seconds to a lifetime, depending on one’s tolerance for such exercises. Continue reading →
“For a long time, I took my pen for a sword; I now know we’re powerless. No matter. I write and will keep writing books; they’re needed; all the same, they do serve some purpose. Culture doesn’t save anything or anyone, it doesn’t justify. But it’s a product of man: he projects himself into it, he recognizes himself in it; that critical mirror alone offers him his image. ” – Jean-Paul Sartre
The Words by Jean Paul Sartre (Image courtesy Goodreads)
Back to the 2015 reading list for a book I did not expect to like and have found myself liking a great deal. Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words (Les Mots) purports to be an autobiography, albeit a most limited one: written when the great Existentialistwas in his late 50’s, TheWords covers only the first ten years of Sartre’s life. But, as we shall learn, the first ten years of the life of one like Sartre, sifted through the the mind of one like Sartre over 40 years later, is no ordinary autobiography. As one can and should expect from Sartre, it’s part memoir, part philosophical inquiry, and part pretentious bullshit disguised as profound insight.Continue reading →
“…it’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.” – Sigrid Undset
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset (image courtesy Goodreads)
I first came across Sigrid Undset during my first year of teaching. The school where I taught had a set of world literature texts that they were discarding (the books were in great shape and to this day I puzzle over why books full of world literature classics were being discarded) and I snagged one of them and over the course of a few weeks of casual reading made my way through a variety of selections by writers I knew like Hugo and Goethe and de Maupassant and Cervantes – and writers I sort of knew like Strindberg (“Half a Sheet of Paper” shows how flash fiction should be done) and writers I didn’t know – like Sigrid Undset.
The world lit collection contained a selection from Kristin Lavransdatter I. (For those familiar with the work,it’s the chapter where Kristin and Ingeborg become lost in the forest and are rescued from the German boys by Erland.) I found it rich, engrossing writing, though the pace was not such that it appealed to me in my youth. Still, I remembered the careful accrual of detail and the power of the writing and made a mental note to read more Undset.
It’s taken me about 40 years to get back to her. Perhaps I needed those years to develop a palate able to appreciate what rich gift patient, thorough storytelling is. If so, I am grateful; Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is the embodiment of what we should mean when we talk about great storytelling. Continue reading →
“And men will not understand us…and the war will be forgotten – and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves…the years will pass by and we shall fall into ruin.” – Erich Maria Remarque
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (image courtesy Goodreads)
It is often called the greatest war novel of all time.
Erich Maria Remarque’s depiction of the horror of an ordinary soldier’s life in World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a work of great power that haunts one long after one has completed it. Like other great examiners of war from Grimmelshausen to Stephen Crane to Norman Mailer to Kevin Powers, Remarque has the skill to give us the psychological horror of being lost on the battlefield – and lost at home.
What sets Remarque’s novel apart, of course, is that it is told from the point of view of an “enemy” soldier, Paul Baumer, a private in the German Imperial Army. (Simplicius, the hero of Grimmelshausen’s novel, is German, too. But since the Thirty Years’ War is only vague European history to Americans, one can safely assume that his nationality is not a matter of controversy.) One of the revelations, in fact, of All Quiet on the Western Front is the discovery that the ordinary German soldier felt much the same as the ordinary British soldier, the ordinary French soldier, the ordinary Russian soldier, the ordinary American soldier: like a pawn being moved – and sacrificed – without regard for his humanity. Ordinary people’s lives don’t count to the rich and powerful who believe themselves masters of history.
• It’s okay to write 9,000 words and base the principal thrust of the story on only one source.
• It’s okay to take instructions from your one source to not speak to those who might undermine the source’s claims.
• It’s okay to shop for the best circumstances to write a story based on your own biased, preconceived narrative.
• It’s okay, because when the story blows up as dead wrong and leads to national and international condemnation, don’t worry: You won’t get fired, and your publication will feel no need to address the gaping holes in its “editorial apparatus.” Continue reading →
“I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?” Hermann Hesse
Demian by Hermann Hesse (image courtesy Goodreads)
We turn in this next essay from the subtle, Zen inflected musings of Kawabata to another Nobelist, this one a lifelong yearning seeker of self understanding. In the original 2015 reading list I had chosen Hesse’s novel describing an artist’s search for spiritual fulfillment, Rosshalde, as my selection from the novelist whose lasting reputation owes as much to his adoption as spokesperson by the Boomer generation (a mistaken adoption) as to his literary merit (which is real). Instead, when it came time to pull Rosshalde from the shelf, I took it down and thought about how many times I’ve read Siddhartha which is a better treatment of the same themes as the earlier novel. Instead, I pulled out the Hesse novel next to Rosshalde, the lesser known and equally fascinating bildungsroman, Demian.
It turned out to be an interesting choice. I had not read Demian for many years, at least since the mid-seventies. Like most of my generation, I’d read Steppenwolf and Siddhartha as an undergraduate, taken in by the mystique attached to both books: in the case of the former, the “magic theater” section that suggests psychedelia (though there is no proof anywhere that Hesse ever used drugs) and in the latter its fable like retelling of the life of the Buddha. Both were, of course, very groovy, read in those heady times. But by the time I came to Demian I was a young teacher and part-time graduate student and had learned a bit more about the author Hesse besides that he wrote groovy books. I approached this tale of a youth’s search for self understanding, self confidence, and self acceptance in a more critical fashion. My assessment from that reading was that the novel was simply a quest narrative wrapped up in a bildungsroman.
“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for something you are not.” – André Gide
Corydon by Andre Gide (image courtesy Goodreads)
The complex and provocative André Gide is known for his unconventional examinations of morality in which he usually pits the conventions of accepted public morals against the individual moral (sometimes amoral) views of his characters. In novels such a The Immoralist, Strait is the Gate, and The Vatican Cellars Gide explores alternate lifestyles, failed relationships, and Nietzschean acts of ubermensch-iness for both tragic and comic effect. These works won Gide the Nobel Prize in 1947.
I’ve read all of the above mentioned works by Gide. My favorite is The Vatican Cellars (Les Caves du Vatican), a comic adventure that crosses elements of The DaVinci Code sort of conspiracy theory nonsense with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In the hands of an arch satirist like Gide, a plot about saving the Pope from the machinations of the Masons goes sideways because of the actions of a Raskolnikovean sort of ne’er-do-well named Lafcadio who decides that what he really needs to do with his life is kill someone at random so that there is no motive at all to connect him to the murder. Unfortunately, the man he decides to kill turns out to be a vital cog in the aforementioned Pope v. Masons business. Hilarity of the darkest shades ensues. Really. It’s a very funny book – in dark, dark ways.
Unfortunately, this sort of funny stuff was an anomaly in Gide’s oeuvre. He mainly focuses on the unhappy effects of rebelling against (L’immoraliste) or falling prey to (La porte étroite) accepted social and cultural institutions and behaviors. Corydon, his attempt to justify homosexuality as a natural human behavior, is firmly on the serious side of the Gide ledger. Continue reading →