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Archive for April, 2012

  • cecil to his friends
    • Can you recognize well-known authors on style alone? I did fairly well, though I shamefully missed the first one and there’s an inclusion near the bottom that raised my eyebrows to my hairline in incredulity at that writer’s inclusion. This is similar to the blind quiz I am dreaming of to determine if there is or is not a distinct “program fiction” style.
    • Ever wonder what Bolano read? Me too!
    • A consideration of Virginia Woolf’s criticism. And a picture of her bedroom.
    • JK Rowling’s next book sounds absolutely … like something I would never want to read. I don’t think she’s a very talented plotter and have been skeptical about the viability of any future books but this sounds remarkably uninteresting. From the synopsis, it seems more like the type of book that sells predominantly to middle aged bookclubby women, something like Alexander McCall Smith, than something that would appeal to her existing fanbase, adult or otherwise. I am much less excited on behalf of my workplace than I was at its initial announcement.
    • Fortune has a short article on the ebook knockoffs that proliferate on Amazon. Alternate title:  why we should fear the demise of publishers. Speaking of that, I’m quaking. You should be too. (Note:  Dennis of Melville House is not in any way unbiased in his Amazon coverage, and I don’t agree with everything about his stance [I think amazon has done a great deal of good, really] but he’s always got the most thorough coverage.)
    • In cheerier news:  the BTBA shortlist has been revealed. I am pleased with my clairvoyance:  all of the ones I randomly chose to read are on the list; I even bought Stone Upon Stone two days before this announcement. Can’t wait to read it to see if it ousts the fantastic In Red as my hoped-for winner.
    • While examining the L.A. Review of Books’ new website, I came across an old article on Charles Portis. I disagree with author Cline’s suggestion that Mattie Ross’s unreliability is a flaw–for me, that’s exactly what makes the book particularly interesting and especially brilliant!–and the link between Mattie’s “inaccessible” character and the mystery of Portis-as-person is a little tremulous, but nevertheless I am happy to see Portis receive more attention.
    • I have two opinions on the Pulitzer’s refusal to award a prize, and they cancel each other out to create a pleasantly unanguished state of unopinion. On one hand, I am sorry and a bit angry over loss of sales. Optimists are spinning this as an opportunity for booksellers to handsell the titles we personally thought should have won, but … we do that anyway. And, frankly, not everyone is receptive to it. There are lots of people who want to be told what to read by an unshakeable authority, and who don’t trust the word of the girl behind the counter. Most of my Pulitzer devotees are just not going to make that purchase this year. It’s a damn shame, and I’m sorry on behalf of my business.  But on the other hand, and thinking from my personal rather than professional perspective, I think this is actually rather brave and it’s a choice that raises my respect for the integrity of the award. Because, frankly, the jurors did a terrible job of creating a shortlist. Two of the books were borderline in their eligibility by some standards (one incomplete, the other a novella originally published almost ten years ago) while the other was just terrible. I would have given the award to Train Dreams, probably, but it’s problem–that it’s not, in any way of considering it, reflective of 2011 in book given that it was published in 2003–irks me so much that I would not do so on principle. In conclusion:  boo to the jurors, who fail at their job; hurrah to the Pulitzer board, for the brave and unconventional n0nchoice; and tears for my workplace, which suffers.
    • In honor of the newest addition to my household, pictured above, here’s an impressive collection of notorious typewriters (via the book bench).
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Things are quiet round here because I am reading War and Peace and not much else this month. It is, of course, wondrous and absorbing in the best way; I will be lucky this year if I read another book as good as this one. April is the cruelest month, a month full of difficult anniversaries, but Tolstoy is a fine antidote. Bakhtin hated Tolstoy for being monolithic, and while the thinly-veiled Tolstoys-by-another-name that populate his books are a little obvious it’s never stopped me from loving them (Levin!). Actually, the monolithic surety of Tolstoy’s worldview is part of what I love about reading him. Everything feels concrete, fully-realized, nourishing. It seems a slight to describe anyone as a mere character–they feel like people. In just a few sentences Tolstoy can capture something essential about a person, as in this very early description of Prince Vassily and salon hostess Anna Pavlovna:

Prince Vassily always spoke lazily, the way an actor speaks a role in an old play. Anna Pavlovna Scherer, on the contrary, despite her forty years, was brimming with animation and impulses.

Being an enthusiast had become her social position, and she sometimes became enthusiastic even when she had no wish to, so as not to deceive the expectations of people who knew her. The restrained smile that constantly played on Anna Pavlovna’s face, though it did not suit her outworn features, expressed, as it does in spoiled children, a constant awareness of her dear shortcoming, which she did not wish, could not, and found no need to correct.

I’ve known people just like this! I just didn’t realize it, would never have thought to understand them in this way, until I met Anna Pavlovna.

He’s wonderful at the more sprawling character introductions, too. I am enamoured with Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky (with all of the Bolkonskys, really), who, the footnotes inform me, is modeled on Tolstoy’s own grandfather:

He used to say that there were only two sources of human vice:  idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues:  activity and intelligence. He occupied himself personally with his daughter’s upbringing, and to develop the two chief virtues in her, gave her lessons in algebra and geometry and portioned out her whole life among constant studies. He himself was constantly occupied, now with writing his memoirs, now with higher mathematical calculations, now with turning snuff boxes on a lathe, now with working in the garden and supervising the construction work that never ceased on his estate. As the main condition for activity was order, so the order in his way of life was brought to the utmost degree of precision. His coming to the table was performed under the same invariable conditions, and not only at the same hour, but at the same minute. With the people around him, from his daughter to the servants, the prince was brusque and invariably demanding and thus, without being cruel, inspired a fear and respect for himself such as the cruelest of men would not find it easy to obtain. Though he was retired and now had no importance in state affairs, every governor of the province in which the prince’s estate lay considered it his duty to call on him and, like the architect, the gardener, or Princess Marya, to wait at the appointed hour for the prince to come out to the high-ceilinged waiting room. And each person in the waiting room experienced the same feeling of respect and even fear at the moment when the immensely high door to the study opened and revealed the small figure of the old man, in a powdered wig, with small dry hands and gray beetling brows, which sometimes, when he frowned, hid the brightness of his intelligent and youthfully bright eyes.

Perhaps–beyond just plain delightful cadence–what makes these descriptions seem so good to me is the constant presence of social context. Prince Bolkonsky is eccentric but not unbelievable; he is the opposite of so many modern characters who are little more than a bundle of quirks vibrating neurotically in a void, disconnected from everyone. How a person interacts with and exists within their environment–physical and social–is bound up in a first description off them. Look, the book says, here is the world. And here is a person within that world. And here is the web that connects this person to all other people. Sometimes, as with poor Anna Pavlovna, the interpersonal world enacts distortions upon a personality; sometimes, as with Prince Nikolai, it’s the opposite. But it is always there, intertwined throughout everything.

I would not say that every author should make Society as much a theme as Tolstoy does, but I do wish that a more acute awareness of its centrality to human existence were found in modern fiction. I wonder why it is so unusual–something about technology and the narcissism of postmodernism, perhaps? (It is only going to get worse.) I digress. Tonight, while trying half-seriously to convince a friend that she should pick up the book as medicine for her own April, I said that I need someone to gossip with about the characters. This is part a joke but also quite true in that my primary impulse at any plot point is to call someone up to tut-tut over a disastrous marriage or form pacts of vendetta against certain people. I get like this with long books sometimes, sure. But Tolstoy particularly invites this response; the careful social positioning of everyone invites it because it ensnares the reader as well. It’s easy to feel complicit in the dynamics of those St. Petersburg soirees. This is interesting, but perhaps a bit too easy–is this why Tolstoy can be a comfort read whereas Dostoevsky would never serve that purpose? It really is all so easy. One never forgets where the characters stand in relation to one another, where Tolstoy stands in relation to them, and where you, the reader, are meant to be positioned by the author’s firm hands.

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I am travelling tomorrow, which means bookstore trawling, which means new possibilities in my neverending search for NYBR Classics. I do not as yet have problems remembering what I own (good visual memory as much as anything) but I live in morbid terror of buying a duplicate. And because I cannot bear typing on my intelligent telephone but can easily access a website through it, this is the best way to have, in pocket, a list that will be easy to update alphabetically.

  • Wish Her Safe at Home, Baxter
  • The Horse’s Mouth, Carey
  • Herself Surprised, Carey
  • To Be a Pilgrim, Carey
  • The Invention of Morel, Casares
  • Love in a Fallen City, Chang
  • The Pure and Impure, Colette
  • The Vet’s Daughter, Comyns
  • The Family Mashber, Der Nister
  • The Dud Avocado, Dundy
  • The Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, Gadda
  • Pages from the Goncourt Journals, de Goncourt
  • Life and Fate, Grossman
  • Seduction and Betrayal, Hardwick
  • The Go-Between, Hartley
  • A High Wind in Jamaica, Hughes
  • The Wooden Shepherdess, Hughes
  • A Journey Round My Skull, Karinthy
  • An African in Greenland, Kpomassie
  • The Adventures of Sinbad, Krudy
  • The Letter Killer’s Club, Krzizhanovsky
  • The Balkan Trilogy,  Manning
  • Walkabout, Marshall
  • Amsterdam Stories, Nescio
  • Unforgiving Years, Serge
  • Alfred and Guinevere, Schuyler
  • The Ice Trilogy, Sorokin
  • Angel, Taylor
  • The Slynx, Tolstaya
  • An Ermine in Czernopol, von Rezzori
  • Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Warner
  • The Thirty Years War, Wedgewood
  • To the Finland Station, Wilson
  • Chess Story, Zweig

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