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Posts Tagged ‘classics

For Your Ears: Podcast Roundup

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Here are just a few podcasts that caught my attention these past few months, with choice quotes from each. You can view my occasional podcast roundup series for Longreads here.

John Freeman and Robin Sloan

Failure was something that these novelists all kept talking about, which is a weird thing with the Nobel Prizes and endowed teaching positions and everything. It’s easy to look at them and think, you’re establishment; but most of them, I think, if they are any good, still see themselves as outsiders. They still feel like they’re one bad sentence away from failure; and they feel like they’re living on the edge, and I think that comes from the fact that they’re projecting the very limits of their imagination and mind out into the world. The things if I said to you now, they would probably be uncomfortable and socially awkward, but they’re doing it by themselves, in the dark. Yes, they have editors and publishers waiting for these books but they never know if they’ve completely gone off the reservation. And so, when you sit down with as a journalist with someone like that, and their book’s not yet out — you’re a month ahead of schedule, sometimes two — and you’re one of the early readers you develop intimacy quickly because you’re one of the first people outside of the inner circle when you’re a novelist of some success you wonder how much they get criticized by their friends anymore, and that’s a very exciting couple hours.

John Freeman, in conversation with Robin Sloan, at City Lights, talking about the art of the author interview

Jerry Stahl on forgiving yourself

I’ve never forgiven myself. I think eventually you realize that it’s just another form of self-indulgence to keep beating the shit out of yourself so you sort of try not to. If you fuel all of that guilt you’re going to be the guy who walks into a room who radiates self-loathing, which God knows I’ve been for years before I realized people were passing out whenever I walked into a room. I think you do it as much for other people because it just becomes a fucking bore to carry that cross around.

Author Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight, Happy Mutant Baby Pills) talks about forgiving oneself on The Nerdist podcast

Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter

I don’t know if I care necessarily about other people’s reactions toward opinions. And I’m not even really talking about jokes. I get attacked for opinions. People get attacked for their likes and their dislikes. And mostly they get attacked for their dislikes because to be negative in the Twittersphere is akin to hate speech almost. [Tells the story of him tweeting something negative about Alice Munro] … The next morning when I woke up I noticed that I had some emails and that sometime during the night while I slept a thousand news agencies had picked up that tweet and I became the villain of the narrative of Alice Munro winning the Nobel.

Now, you can say, you know that kind of sucks, should I have done it? But then you get into this weird self-censoring thing and I’m not really interested in doing that. Yea, I had to deal with a lot of shit from people for a couple of days who felt I was attacking an 80-year-old Canadian woman when in fact I was just voicing an opinion; and that’s kind of the problem with Twitter, I guess, but only if you really care what other people think.

… I care about having opinions and I care about putting them out there, I don’t care about the reaction toward them to the degree that if I cared enough about the reaction I wouldn’t put them out there but I do think that having an opinion about stuff, whether it’s negative or positive, and using your Twitter account to, you know, try to get anything from Stoner by John Williams noticed or various books I liked last year, you know, get them out there, and also having dissenting opinions about stuff, I think that’s cool and I like that about Twitter a lot. What I don’t really care about is if people get super upset with something that I tweet about. I do care about my opinion and I do care about putting it out there but in terms of not putting something out there because I’m afraid I’m going to get a lot of negative response and people want to beat me up, I’m not in that realm.

Bret Easton Ellis talks to Chuck Klosterman about Twitter and Miley Cyrus for his podcast (opens with sound)

Wendy Lesser on reader’s block

Of course now there are books on tape so people who have trouble with their eyes in any way — having the book come in through the eyes — have an alternative. I would say another alternative is to try an author who works very slowly on the sentence level. Some examples are Samuel Beckett, J.M. Coetzee, Emily Dickinson. They’re people who if you read one sentence — or in the case of Emily Dickinson, eight lines — you get a huge amount. So, the issue is not quantity there, and you don’t feel as if you’re speeding through, you can get the pleasure of reading out of a very small segment. But I think, frankly, one should honor one’s blocks. If you have reader’s block at the moment there’s probably a reason like you’ve read too much bad stuff recently and you need to give it time to flush out of your system.

Threepenny Review founding editor Wendy Lesser talks with Publishers Weekly about her new book, “Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books”

Greek Tragedy and Contemporary Political Spectacle

What’s so interesting about tragedy is even as it confirms what we sort of think is true about life, which is most of us just want to have a medium life, without attracting the ire–or the jealousy–of the Gods. It nonetheless is crucial to look at stories about people who go to the extremes, because it simultaneously satisfies our desire to see the great while confirming the rightness of our choice not to be one of them, I guess you could say.

As someone who was trained as a classicist, it’s basically how I see [contemporary political spectacle], you know. So, these things occur to me. You know, but then there are some things that happen which are so strongly reminiscent of actual Greek material–like the Tamerlan Tsarnaev burial controversy. It’s the first thing you think of as a classicist: the refusal to bury the body of the enemy is a culturally fraught situation that calls into question essential cultural values about what it means to be an enemy and whether there is a transcendent morality that applies even to one’s enemies; and this is of course is the central animating question of Sophocles’ Antigone, and so when that started to happen–the Tsarnaev thing–I just thought, I have to write about this. Because it just shows that the Greeks is not just old stuff that we curate because we think it’s good for you. Greek civilization continues to be vibrant because it’s just that they happen to write or make their art in a very elemental way about questions that are animating to all cultures, and so when these things happen today it seems worthwhile pointing out that this has been dealt with in a sort of incredibly distilled way by a great culture, which happens to be the culture to which we are heirs.

Writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn on The New Yorker Out Loud podcast, talking about Greek tragedy

Written by Gabrielle

January 21, 2014 at 6:56 am

Tove Jansson’s Weather Vane

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In the current issue of Tin House, I have an essay on Finnish author Tove Jansson. Jansson, probably best known for her children’s book characters The Moomins, also wrote books for adults. I had finally come across them early last year.

After reading Jansson’s novels, I was struck by her strong tone: a dark humor that appears to, at once, both celebrate and mock humanity. As I looked closer, I found that weather played a major role in the stories, determining where the characters lived, how they got on with their day-to-day, and even the personalities they developed.

Below is a short excerpt from the essay in the Winter Reading issue. Also in the issue is fiction from Fiona Maazel and Shirley Jackson; poetry from Meghan O’Rourke, Josh Bell, and Mark Z. Danielewski; an interview with author Robert Stone; and other reviews from Dani Shapiro and Tobias Carroll. Head out to your local bookstore today or order online at Tin House.

I came to Tove Jansson’s work late in life and in a backward fashion. Most people familiar with the Finnish author and illustrator know her as the creator of the Moomins, a family of hippopotamus-like creatures first introduced in a children’s book series in 1945 and then adapted into a comic strip. The tales of the Moomins and their fantastical journeys through Moominvalley are something of a cult classic and I’m sad to have missed them in my youth.

Lesser championed are her novels for adult readers, which do not feature fantastical creatures but, instead, follow the lives of very real humans. After spotting Jansson’s 1972 novel, The Summer Book, on display at a local bookstore–a slim book with a muted, pastel cover, and silhouette of an island in the center–I decided to give this author I’d never heard of a shot. It was only later, through a Google search, that I learned of her earlier work.

The opening chapters have a flash fiction feel–they are short, choppy, and do not appear to be linear. But as you continue to read, you realize they’re linked vignettes of life on an isolated island, the story of a cheeky grandmother and her precocious granddaughter, Sophia. (The young girl’s mother dead and the father, inexplicably, relegated to the background). The two, each the other’s primary companion, while away the hours amid the fauna and marshes of their seasonal home, moving between simple conversation and that which delves deeper:

The sun had climbed higher. The whole island, and the sea were glistening. The air seemed very
light.

“I can dive,” Sophia said. “Do you know what it feels like when you dive?”

“Of course I do,” her grandmother said. “You let go of everything and get ready to just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown, and the water’s clear, lighter toward the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.”

Written by Gabrielle

January 7, 2014 at 7:12 am

The Clockwork Man by E.V. Odle

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Clockwork ManSmall press HiLoBooks has been reviving stories from the “Radium Age,” a term coined by publisher Joshua Glenn to mean the era in science fiction encompassing 1904 to 1933. The Clockwork Man, having come out last week, is their most recent title in the series.

Written by Edwin Vincent (E.V.) Odle, a British playwright, critic, and short-story author, The Clockwork Man is considered by many to be the first cyborg novel. Unfortunately it came out in 1923, the same year as Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., which succeeded in taking all the glory.

For years The Clockwork Man languished in obscurity, ultimately becoming out-of-print. Joshua Glenn, having heard about the book, was tired of waiting for someone else to reissue it, found a first edition, and brought it back to life.

A forgotten classic, first serialized online at HiLoBrow, now published in paperback with an introduction from Annalee Newitz of io9, The Clockwork Man should be on the shelf of every science fiction fan.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was just as Doctor Allingham had congratulated himself upon the fact that the bowling was broken, and he had only to hit now and save the trouble of running, just as he was scanning the boundaries with one eye and with the other following Tanner’s short, crooked arm raised high above the white sheet at the back of the opposite wicket, that he noticed the strange figure. Its abrupt appearance, at first sight like a scarecrow dumped suddenly on the horizon, caused him to lessen his grip upon the bat in his hand. His mind wandered for just that fatal moment, and his vision of the oncoming bowler was swept away and its place taken by that arresting figure of a man coming over the path at the top of the hill, a man whose attitude, on closer examination, seemed extraordinarily like another man in the act of bowling.

That was why its effect was so distracting. It seemed to the doctor that the figure had popped up there on purpose to imitate the action of a bowler and so baulk him. During the fraction of a second in which the ball reached him, the second image had blotted out everything else. But the behavior of the figure was certainly abnormal. Its movements were violently ataxic. Its arms revolved like sails of a windmill. Its legs shot out in all directions, enveloped in dust.

The doctor’s astonishment was turned into annoyance by the spectacle of his shattered wicket. A vague clatter of applause broke out. The wicket keeper stooped down to pick up the bails. The fielders relaxed and flopped down on the grass. They seemed to have discovered suddenly that it was a hot afternoon, and that cricket was, after all, a comparatively strenuous game. One of the umpires, a sly nasty fellow, screwed up his eyes and looked hard at the doctor as the latter passed him, walking with the slow, meditative gait of the bowled out, and swinging his gloves. There was nothing to do but glare back, and make the umpire feel a worm. The doctor wore an eye-glass, and he succeeded admirably. His irritation boiled over and produced a sense of ungovernable childish rage. Somehow, he had not been able to make any runs this season, and his bowling average was all to pieces. He began to think he ought to give up cricket. He was getting past the age when a man can accept reverses in the spirit of the game, and he was sick and tired of seeing his name every week in the Great Wymering Gazette as having been dismissed for a “mere handful.”

He looked out the window, and there was that confounded figure still jiggling about. It had come nearer to the ground. It hovered, with a curious air of not being related to its surroundings that was more than puzzling. It did not seem to know what it was about, but hopped along aimlessly, as though scenting a track, stopped for a moment, blundered forward again and made a zig-zag course towards the ground. The doctor watched it advancing through the broad meadow that bounded the pitch, threading its way between the little groups of grazing cows, that raised their heads with more than their ordinary, slow persistency, as though startled by some noise. The figure seemed to be aiming for the barrier of hurdles that surrounded the pitch, but whether its desire was for cricket or merely to reach some kind of goal, whether it sought recreation or a mere pause from its restless convulsions, it was difficult to tell. Finally, it fell against the fence and hung there, two hands crooked over the hurdle and its legs drawn together at the knees. It became suddenly very still—so still that it was hard to believe it ever moved.

It was certainly odd. The doctor was so struck by something altogether wrong about the figure, something so suggestive of a pathological phenomenon, that he almost forgot his annoyance and remained watching it with an unlighted cigarette between his lips.

::[Links]::
Find The Clockwork Man at your local bookstore
Listen to Joshua Glenn on Gweek (second segment)
Read The Clockwork Man online
Check out the other books in the HiLoBooks Radium Age series

Written by Gabrielle

September 17, 2013 at 6:54 am

New in Paperback for August

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Whether they’re reissues, reprints, or originals, there are some great books coming out in August in paperback. Here are just a few.

Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (reissue)
CreativityThe classic study of the creative process from the national bestselling author of Flow.

Creativity is about capturing those moments that make life worth living. Legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reveals what leads to these moments—be it the excitement of the artist at the easel or the scientist in the lab—so that this knowledge can be used to enrich people’s lives. Drawing on nearly one hundred interviews with exceptional people, from biologists and physicists, to politicians and business leaders, to poets and artists, as well as his thirty years of research on the subject, Csikszentmihalyi uses his famous flow theory to explore the creative process. He discusses such ideas as why creative individuals are often seen as selfish and arrogant, and why the “tortured genius” is largely a myth. Most important, he explains why creativity needs to be cultivated and is necessary for the future of our country, if not the world.

My 1980s

My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum
Wayne Koestenbaum has been described as “an impossible lovechild from a late-night, drunken three-way between Joan Didion, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag” (Bidoun). In My 1980s and Other Essays, a collection of extravagant range and style, he rises to the challenge of that improbable description.

My 1980s and Other Essays opens with a series of manifestos—or, perhaps more appropriately, a series of impassioned disclosures, intellectual and personal. It then proceeds to wrestle with a series of major cultural figures, the author’s own lodestars and lodestones: literary (John Ashbery, Roberto Bolaño, James Schuyler), artistic (Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol), and simply iconic (Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant, Lana Turner). And then there is the personal—the voice, the style, the flair—that is unquestionably Koestenbaum. It amounts to a kind of intellectual autobiography that culminates in a string of passionate calls to creativity; arguments in favor of detail and nuance, and attention; a defense of pleasure, hunger, and desire in culture and experience.

 Koestenbaum is perched on the cusp of being a true public intellectual—his venues are more mainstream than academic, his style is eye-catching, his prose unfailingly witty and passionate, his interests profoundly wide-ranging and popular. My 1980s should be the book that pushes Koestenbaum off that cusp and truly into the public eye.

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain
Necessary ErrorsAn exquisite debut novel that brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague It’s October 1990. Jacob Putnam is young and full of ideas. He’s arrived a year too late to witness Czechoslovakia’s revolution, but he still hopes to find its spirit, somehow. He discovers a country at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, and a picturesque city overflowing with a vibrant, searching sense of possibility. As the men and women Jacob meets begin to fall in love with one another, no one turns out to be quite the same as the idea Jacob has of them—including Jacob himself.

Necessary Errors is the long-awaited first novel from literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain. Shimmering and expansive, Crain’s prose richly captures the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it stretches toward adulthood—the chance encounters that grow into lasting, unforgettable experiences and the surprises of our first ventures into a foreign world—and the treasure of living in Prague during an era of historic change.

The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
Haunted BookshopVolumes disappear and reappear on the shelves, but the ghosts of literature aren’t the only mysterious visitors in Roger Mifflin’s haunted bookshop.

Mifflin, who hawked books out of the back of his van in Christopher Morley’s beloved Parnassus on Wheels, has finally settled down with his own secondhand bookstore in Brooklyn. There, he and his wife, Helen, are content to live and work together, prescribing literature to those who hardly know how much they need it. When Aubrey Gilbert, a young advertising man, visits the shop, he quickly falls under the spell of Mifflin’s young assistant, Titania. But something is amiss in the bookshop, something Mifflin is too distracted to notice, and Gilbert has no choice but to take the young woman’s safety into his own hands. Her life—and the Mifflins’—may depend on it.

Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett
Man Who Sold the WorldIn The Man Who Sold the World, acclaimed journalist Peter Doggett explores the rich heritage of David Bowie’s most productive and inspired decade. Viewing the artist through the lens of his music and his many guises, Doggett offers a detailed analysis—musical, lyrical, conceptual, social—of every song Bowie wrote and recorded during that period, as well as a brilliant exploration of the development of a performer who profoundly affected popular music and the idea of stardom itself.

Twin Cities Noir edited by Julie Schaper and Steven Horwitz
Twin Cities NoirLaunched in the summer ’04, Akashic Books continues its groundbreaking series of original noir anthologies. Each book is comprised of all-new stories, each one set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the city of the book.

Brand-new stories by John Jodzio, Tom Kaczynski, Peter Schilling Jr., David Housewright, Steve Thayer, Judith Guest, Mary Logue, Bruce Rubenstein, K.J. Erickson, William Kent Krueger, Ellen Hart, Brad Zellar, Mary Sharratt, Pete Hautman, Larry Millett, Quinton Skinner, Gary Bush, and Chris Everheart.

The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman
Rise of Ransom CityIn The Half-Made World, Felix Gilman took readers deep into a world on the cusp of forging an identity. The Line, a cult of Industry, and the Gun, a mission of Chaos, were engaged in a war for dominance. The Line was winning city by city, enslaving the populations it conquered. A doctor of psychology, Liv Alverhuysen, was caught in the middle, unknowingly guarding a secret that both sides would do anything to have.

Now Liv is lost on the edge of the world with Creedmor, an agent of the Gun, and the powerful Line will stop at nothing to find them. But Harry Ransom, half con man, half mad inventor, is setting the edge of the world aglow. Town by town he is building up a bankroll and leaving hope in his wake because one of his inventions is actually working. But his genius is not going unnoticed, and when he crosses paths with the two most wanted outlaws in the “unmade world,” his stage becomes even larger and presents an opportunity more lucrative than any of his scams or inventions combined.

*Descriptions for these books have been provided by the publishers. 

Written by Gabrielle

July 30, 2013 at 6:48 am

New York State of Mind: A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis

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A Meaningful LifePublished in 1971, A Meaningful Life by Brooklyn writer L.J. Davis is a dark comedy and cautionary tale.

Lowell Lake, thirty years old, wakes up one morning to find himself in personal crisis, disinterested in his job and living in Manhattan, a city where he never intended to be. Suddenly, he’s aware of his surroundings and questions the direction his life has taken, retracing his steps to figure out how he came to be where he is.

Sophomore year at Stanford, while earning a degree in English (“It had always been his best subject and it didn’t commit him to do anything specific later in life”), he met Betty, a Jewish girl from Flatbush, Brooklyn. They liked each other well enough and although he began to have doubts as the day got closer they were married two days after graduation. The plan was to move to Berkeley where Lowell was to attend a university on scholarship but after he plays a joke on his wife everything goes terribly wrong.

”I thought we were going to Berkeley,” his wife had said nine years ago, her voice coming to him down the corridor of years as clearly as if she had spoken to him only a moment before. It was the instant his life had suddenly poised itself on an idle remark, and the hinge of fate had opened—a small moment, an utterly insignificant fragment of time that could have passed as swiftly as turning a page in a book, but instead it had changed his life forever. “Didn’t you say we were going to Berkeley?” she asked anxiously. …

He could still hear the voice, he could still see the room, he could still smell the old green overstuffed chair he’d been sitting in. “Maybe not,” he said. He was only teasing. Berkeley was definitely the place they were going, and the idea of going to New York instead had just sort of wandered into his mind a moment ago like a stray insect. No doubt it would have perished there at once if he hadn’t spoken it aloud. Now it was out in the open, and God help them all.

And so, they sealed their future plans on his poor judgment and her spite. “You’re going to hate it there,” his wife warned. After goodbyes to their classmates the two drove cross-country to begin their new life, settling into a small apartment on the Upper West Side. Lowell, after a failed attempt at writing a novel, decided to take a position as Managing Eaditor at a “second-rate plumbing-trade weekly.”

Now thirty, feeling as if his life were meaningless, Lowell recalls reading about young creative types buying and fixing up houses in Brooklyn slums, areas that were once home to wealthy government officials but are now in the midst of decay.

With urban renewal in mind and their entire savings on the table, Lowell sets out to buy a house in the outer borough. What he finds, and ultimately winds up with, is a comically dilapidated townhouse. The current residents are questionable, no doubt a few squatters in the bunch. As Lowell tours the building, the descriptions are so vivid that any reader with the slightest knowledge of city life will be able to conjure the smells.

A door was thrown open at the foot of the stairs, a dim rectangle of light in the impenetrable tissue of the darkness, and although Lowell was still unable to see where to put his feet, he could now see where he was going. The knowledge made him feel better, but not for long. A great warm wave of new horrible odors, both different in degree and intensity from the old horrible odors that he’d almost gotten used to, rolled up over him and nearly knocked him flat. It was like the first whiff of the atmosphere of some alien planet: heavy, warm, barely breathable, seemingly compounded of urine and stale oatmeal in equal measure.

After throwing himself into renovating the newly purchased and swiftly vacated house, deciding to do a bulk of the work himself, Lowell experiences a sense of renewal as well.

He was suddenly famous. In a building where he had labored five days a week for nine years without a single person asking him what he did, he suddenly found himself cloaked in a highly conspicuous new identity: he became known as the Guy Who Moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant.

He hadn’t moved yet and it wasn’t Bedford-Stuyvesant but that didn’t matter. He was finally doing something with his life, he was industrious.

While A Meaningful Life raises interesting and important questions about city life—gentrification, poverty, and the rise of Brooklyn’s prominence and formidability over the years—Lowell’s story offers a reminder to live deliberately and make good decisions, a powerful message that often bears repeating.

::[Links]::
Buy A Meaningful Life from your local bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

July 9, 2013 at 6:56 am

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

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Expendable ManOn his way to his niece’s wedding in Arizona, Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, picked up a young female hitchhiker, took her as far as the California side of the border, and continued on his way. The next day she’s found dead in a canal near his family’s home in Phoenix. She’d had an illegal abortion, which was botched, but the cause of death was a blow to the head.

Not until a few dozen pages into the story do we learn that Densmore is black. The girl, being white, and it being that time and place, he becomes the prime suspect. At first he tries to prove his innocence on his own but, after getting nowhere, a friend convinces him to accept the help of Skye Houston, one of the country’s top lawyers—and a white man.

Published in 1963, The Expendable Man, a crime novel written from the point of view of the accused, echos the race relations of its day.

Any rational reader will get chills not from the description of the murder, or the menacing, suspense-filled cloud that hangs over Densmore’s head, but from the state of the justice system in which this case operates. Christine Smallwood, writing in The New Yorker, says of the book’s author, Dorothy B. Hughes, “It is not whodunit, but who-ness itself, that she’s after.”

To Hughes it’s not the criminal procedure that’s interesting, it’s the relationships that guide the procedure. The Expendable Man is not so much hardboiled fiction as it is an exploration of social issues.

::[Links]::
Buy The Expendable Man from your local bookstore
Sarah Weinman reviews Dorothy B. Hughes
Christine Smallwood reviews The Expendable Man
The Expendable Man reviewed in Bookforum

::[Excerpt]::

He had wound through the small canyon outside of town, and was moving on to the long desert plain, when he noted ahead an extra shadow in the tree shadow marking a culvert. It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.

It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. But he reduced speed when he approached the shadow, the automatic anxiety reaction that a person might step in front of the oncoming car. He passed the hitchhiker before he was actually aware of the shape and form; only after he had passed did he realize that this was a young girl. From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed his car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand. He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this. It chilled him to think what might happen if one of them were abandoned on the lonesome highway, the type of man with whom, in desperation, she might accept a lift. The car was stopped. He shifted to reverse and began backing up.

Written by Gabrielle

May 15, 2013 at 6:50 am

In the Land of Oz

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Wizard of OzThe Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.

Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.

At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:

As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.

At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.

Wizard of Oz illustrationAs part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.

In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.

With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.

By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:

Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions

Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.

They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.

There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.

The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.

Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”

In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.

::[Links]::
Buy The Wizard of Oz from your local bookstore
Listen to Studio 360’s American Icons show on The Wizard of Oz

*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.

Written by Gabrielle

March 19, 2013 at 6:53 am

New in Paperback for March

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Here are just some of the paperbacks coming out in March that I can’t wait to read.
Crapalachia

Crapalachia: A Biography of Place by Scott McClanahan
A colorful and elegiac coming-of-age story that announces Scott McClanahan as a resounding, lasting talent.

We Only Have This Life to Live

We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays, 1939–1975 by Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven
Philosopher, novelist, playwright, biographer, journalist, and activist, Jean-Paul Sartre was also—and perhaps above all—a great essayist. The essay was uniquely suited to Sartre because of its intrinsically provisional and open-ended character. It is the perfect form in which to dramatize the existential character of our deepest intellectual, artistic, and political commitments. This new selection of Sartre’s essays, the first in English to draw on the entire ten volumes of his collected essays as well as previously unpublished work, includes extraordinarily searching appreciations of such writers and artists as Faulkner, Bataille, and Giacometti; Sartre’s great address to the French people at the end of the occupation, “The Republic of Silence”; sketches of the United States from his visit in the 1940s; reflections on politics that are both incisive and incendiary; portraits of Camus and Merleau-Ponty; and a candid reckoning with his own career from one of the interviews that ill-health made his prime mode of communication late in life.

The Bone Man

The Bone Man by Wolf Haas
At a wildly popular chicken shack in the Austrian countryside, where snooty Viennese gourmands go to indulge their secret passion for fried chicken, a gruesome discovery is made in the pile of chicken bones waiting to be fed into the basement grinder: human bones.
But when private eye Simon Brenner shows up to investigate, the manager of the restaurant, who hired him, has disappeared … while the owner of the place urges him to stay on and eat chicken.

Brenner likes chicken, so he stays, but as he waits for the manager, he discovers that the bucolic countryside is full of suspicious types: prostitutes, war profiteers, unsavory art dealers, Slavic soccer champs with dubious pasts — and at least one rather grisly murderer. And the more Brenner looks into things, the more it dawns on him that there’s a cleaver somewhere with his name on it.

Donnybrook

Donnybrook by Frank Bill*
The Donnybrook is a three-day bare-knuckle tournament held on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks of southern Indiana. Twenty fighters. One wire-fence ring. Fight until only one man is left standing while a rowdy festival of onlookers—drunk and high on whatever’s on offer—bet on the fighters.

As we travel through the backwoods to get to the Donnybrook, we meet a cast of nasty, ruined characters driven to all sorts of evil, all in the name of getting their fix—drugs, violence, sex, money, honor. Donnybrook is exactly the fearless, explosive, amphetamine-fueled journey you’d expect from Frank Bill’s first novel . . . and then some.

Speedboat

Speedboat by Renata Adler, afterword by Guy Trebay
When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind. Above all, there was its voice, ambivalent, curious, wry, the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Party guests, taxi drivers, brownstone dwellers, professors, journalists, presidents, and debutantes fill these dispatches from the world as Jen finds it.
A touchstone over the years for writers as different as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Hardwick, Speedboat returns to enthrall a new generation of readers.

The Comics Journal

The Comics Journal #302 edited by Gary Groth
In his longest published interview, Sendak looks back over a career spanning over 60 years and talks to Gary Groth about art, life, and death (especially death), how his childhood, his parents, and his siblings affected his art and outlook, his search for meaning — and also, on the lighter side, about his love (and hate) of movies. Kim Thompson conducts a career-spanning interview with French graphic novel pioneer Jacques Tardi. Art Spiegelman conducts a wide-ranging aesthetic colloquy on classic kids’ comics with a group of comics critics and historians. Michael Dooley moderates a roundtable discussion with Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, Marc Bell, and Esther Pearl Watson about the relationship between fine art and comics. Bob Levin provides a revelatory investigation of the twisted history of the Keep on Truckin’ litigation and a fascinating biographical portrait of R. Crumb’s lawyer, Albert Morse. The Comics Journal has been for 37 years the world’s foremost critical magazine about comics.

Solo Pass

Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo
A dark yet often funny novel narrated by a man who, for the past two months, has been a patient at a New York City mental ward. Having suffered a breakdown—due to his shattered marriage and an irrational fear of fading away as a human—he now finds himself caught between two worlds, neither of which is a place of comfort or fulfillment: the world of the ward, where abnormality and an odd sort of freedom reign, and the outside world, where convention and restrictive behavior rule. Finally on his way to becoming reasonably “normal” again, he requests and is granted a “solo pass,” which allows him to leave the (locked) ward for several hours and visit the city, with the promise that he will return to the hospital by evening.

As he prepares for his excursion, we get a picture of the ward he will temporarily leave behind—the staff and the patients, notably Mandy Reid, a schizophrenic and nymphomaniac who has become his closest friend there. Solo Pass is an unsettling satire that depicts, with inverted logic, the difficulties of madness and normalcy.

Messages in a Bottle

Messages in a Bottle: Comic Book Stories by B. (Bernard) Krigstein; Greg Sadowski (Editor); Marie Severin (IK)
Bernard Krigstein began his career as an unremarkable journeyman cartoonist during the 1940s and finished it as a respected fine artist and illustrator Krigstein’s legend rests mostly on the 30 or so stories he created for the EC Comics, but dozens of stories drawn for other, lesser publishers such as Rae Herman, Hillman, and Atlas (which would become Marvel) showcase his skills and radical reinterpretation of the comics page, in particular his groundbreaking slicing and dicing of time lapses through a series of narrow, nearly animated panels. This edition reprints the out-of-print 2004 hardcover B. Krigstein Comics, with a number of stories re-tooled and improved in terms of reproduction, and several new stories added.

*Disclaimer: Donnybrook is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan. I’m a publicist with Picador, also an imprint of Macmillan. I included Donnybrook for no other reason other than it looks awesome.

Written by Gabrielle

March 5, 2013 at 6:55 am

The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies

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Autobiography of a Super-TrampAs a New Yorker, every day I pass homeless people on the street, sometimes a group of them before I leave my neighborhood. One man sits on the corner store steps, babbling to himself, wasting away, dirty, feral; another, a young man, a little too friendly for comfort, asks what time it is and how I’m doing. A lifetime of training keeps me from making eye contact. Then there’s a woman who travels with these men, mumbling as she picks through garbage, wearing a thick wool hat, even in summer. Many times I’ve seen her with bruises on her face–from beatings, from a hard life, who knows. In the East Village, crust punks line the brick wall outside of McDonald’s–alternating between nodding off and begging for change. On the west side of town, a homeless poet hawks his work, boasting having once been published in The New York Times.

I’ve never pay them much mind, other than when they’ve gone too long without a bath, their meds, or a stretch of sobriety. With the poet on the street, I’ve walked by him so many times I can repeat his pitch, but never once have I considered that his writing might actually be good. Luckily, there are people like George Bernard Shaw in the world and every so often the talents of these unlikely characters are discovered.

In 1905, Shaw received an unsolicited manuscript delivered from a place called The Farm House, located in London. It was not unusual for him to receive aspiring writers’ work and, although undoubtedly busy with his own writing, “knowing how much these little books mean to their authors,” he felt bad if any of them went unread. This is how W.H. Davies, a poet and a tramp, was given a chance.

Based on the letters that often came with the manuscripts, Shaw would assess the nature of the sending author or publisher. However, when he held Davies’ book, he “could not place him. There were no author’s compliments, no publisher’s compliments … The author, as far as I could guess, had walked into a printer’s or stationer’s shop; handed him a manuscript; and ordered his book as he might have ordered a pair of boots.” Furthermore, in his letter, Davies asked for the price of half a crown or the return of the book.

After discerning that the author was “a real poet,” finding his work free from “literary vulgarity,” and considering it “like a draught of clear water in a desert,” Shaw sent money, along with professional advice–that one cannot make a living on poetry alone. But he didn’t stop there, he sent additional money along with a list of critics with instructions for Davies to send his collection to them as well. Shaw wondered if they would “recognize a poet when they met one.”

The Farm House was one of many public houses where Davies stayed during his time traveling up and down the East Coast of America, visiting the South and Midwest, and occasionally returning to England. These years, 1893 to 1899, are recorded in his memoir, The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, first published in 1908 and reissued by Melville House in their Neversink Library series.

WH DaviesAlthough born and raised in Wales, it was The United States that Davies set his sights on and, despite receiving a weekly sum from his grandmother’s inheritance, he chose to travel as a hobo: hopping trains, sleeping in the elements, begging for food, and cohorting with unstable characters.

The book starts with a brief survey of Davies’ childhood. His father died when he was young, his mother remarried, and his brother was, as Davies called him in those pre-PC days, an “imbecile.” Davies’ family had a “great interest in pugilism” and encouraged his fighting. However, possibly altering the course of his life, his friend Dave introduced him to the joys of reading.

Through him I became a reader, in the first place with an idea of emulating his cleverness, which led to a love of literature for its own self. Of course I began with the common penny novel of the worst type, but acquired a taste for better work in a shorter time than boys usually do.

It’s this familiarity with physical abuse mixed with a sharp mind that helps Davies’ navigate the inhumane conditions and life-threatening situations he encounters.

Throughout The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, Davies writes his fellow travelers–and experiences–so large, the book often reads like a novel. The first person we meet is Brum, a quirky tramp with a keen business sense, a “notorious beggar.” Together, he and Davies “beat” from New York City to Chicago, the former playing the tutor to the latter as they look for suitable winter lodging and migrant work.

Through these companions, Davies learns to manipulate the Midwestern prison system for a warm place to stay; he witnesses firsthand the dangers of picking fruit in fields shared with snakes; and what comes to those who keep their money visible. His travels through the South bring him face to face with lynchings; meanwhile in Canada he finds “a kind-hearted race of people.”

Davies’ keen observations make The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp a work of cultural commentary, capturing a moment in history as seen from the ground. It’s How the Other Half Lives meets On the Road, one of those books that opens your eyes, changes your perspective, and makes you reconsider the world as you know it.

Links
Find The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp at our local bookstore
Read a chapter
Check out the other titles in Melville House’s Neversink Library 

Written by Gabrielle

February 5, 2013 at 6:48 am

New in Paperback for December

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Here’s what I’ll be looking for in the bookstores this month.

Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension by Michael Heald
Goodbye to the Nervous ApprehensionAcross eleven essays, Michael Heald compulsively measures himself against men like Eli Manning, Ryan Gosling, and Stephen Malkmus, and always comes up short. After a decade of failed relationships, estranged siblings, and abandoned hopes, he may or may not have learned his lesson. Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension is not nearly as depressing as any of this sounds.
Listen to Michael talk about publishing with Late Night Library

Tin House Winter 2013
Tin HouseIn this issue, we found it in young writer Helen Phillips’s story “Flesh & Blood,” about a woman who can see through people’s skin. We saw it in veteran Stuart Dybek’s fractured take on the operatic life in his story “Tosca.” And in Benjamin Percy, too, no stranger to fictional and personal risks, who writes here of his monthlong liver detox (spoiler: no meat and no alcohol do not tame Percy’s inner beast). Two books after being a New Voice in Tin House, Monica Ferrell returns to our pages with the poem “Oh You Absolute Darling.” Always searching for fresh writing, in this issue we are happy to introduce three New Voices: David Feinstein, Sam Ross, and Eric Burg. The venerable writer William Gass, interviewed here, says, “So you try, but you probably will fail. It’s a business. Failure is what happens.” To risk, to dare– that is his, and our, challenge.

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
Earthly PowersIn Earthly Powers Anthony Burgess, best known for A Clockwork Orange, explores the very essence of power through the lives of two modern men—Kenneth Toomey, eminent novelist, a man who has outlived his contemporaries to survive into honored, bitter, luxurious old age as a celebrity of dubious notoriety, and Don Carlo Campanati, a man of God, eventually beloved Pope, who rises through the Vatican as a shrewd manipulator to become the architect of church revolution and a candidate for sainthood.

As each pursues his career their relationship becomes the heart of a narrative that incorporates almost everyone of fame and distinction in the social, literary, and political life of America and Europe. This astonishing company is joined together by the art of a great novelist into an explosive and entertaining tour de force that will captivate fans of sweeping historical fiction. At the time of this posting, Open Letters Monthly is devoting their December issue to Burgess.

A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzao
A Thousand MoronsA Thousand Morons, Quim Monzó’s latest collection of short stories, is rife with very unfortunate characters. There’s the young boy in “A Cut” who is upbraided by his teacher when he rudely shows up for class with a huge gash in his neck. And the prince in “One Night” who tries everything to awaken a sleeping princess—yet fails completely.

An excellent combination of longer, elegiac stories of “morons,” aging, and the passage of time—with short, flashier pieces that display Monzó’s wit and playfulness—make this one of the strongest collections in the oeuvre of Catalan’s short fiction master.

The Penguin State of the World Atlas
Penguin State of the WorldNow in its ninth edition, the widely praised Penguin State of the World Atlas remains an accessible, unique visual survey of current events and global trends. Completely revised and updated, this distinctive atlas presents the latest statistics on communications and information technology, international trade, globalization of work, aging and new health risks, food and water, energy resources and consumption, global warming and biodiversity, literacy, gender equality, wars and peacekeeping, and more. Fascinating, troubling, and surprising, this is one atlas no student of the world should be without.

Written by Gabrielle

December 4, 2012 at 6:57 am

An Education with Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio

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It was by chance that I picked up a copy of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. A recent edition published by New York Review of Books was shelved in the adult section of the bookstore, a place I didn’t expect it to be. At first the haunting cover image, a close-up of a tree with wide-open, wet eyes, caught my attention, but it was the introduction from Umberto Eco and afterword by Rebecca West that made me linger. These two celebrated writers promised the mature analysis I would need after finishing a book known to me as story for children.

Luckily, I wasn’t familiar with Disney’s film adaptation, nor had I read its numerous variations. I was coming to it with the barest of information: wooden puppet wants to be a real boy; talking cricket named Jiminy; old man named Geppetto; nose grows when Pinocchio lies. As it turns out, Pinocchio’s longing to be human is not as prominent in the original, his nose is barely mentioned, and Jiminy Cricket is a near fabrication.

In fact, the truth about Jiminy Cricket is a perfect example of why reading, or revisiting, children’s books when you’re older can be so much fun.

After the cricket–known in Collodi’s version only as the Talking Cricket–reprimands Pinocchio for his obstinacy, the puppet throws a tantrum. On page 15 we read:

At these last words, Pinocchio jumped up in a rage, grabbed a wooden mallet from the workbench, and flung it at the Talking Cricket.

Perhaps he didn’t mean to hit him at all, but unfortunately he hit him square on the head. With his last breath the poor Cricket cried cree-cree-cree and then died on the spot, stuck to the wall.

At the time of Collodi’s writing–Pinocchio was serialized from 1881 to 1883–children’s books were a new genre. In her afterword, Rebecca West says, “Children’s literature was an innovation in nineteenth-century Italy (and elsewhere).” This alone would explain why Pinocchio feels more like a story with a child at its center rather than a children’s story.

While children’s authors today have a lineage to look to for guidance, Collodi was without a bookshelf to reference. Instead, as West points out, among his influences were Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. We owe the slimness of the book to the Tuscan novella and Boccaccio’s Decameron, with which Collodi would have been familiar. Also an influence, according to West, was Celtic and Nordic mythology, playing a hand in Pinocchio’s “magical vegetation,” which gave Collodi the idea for a boy carved from a tree.

“It must be said first,” says Umberto Eco in his introduction, “that, though written in the nineteenth century, the original Pinocchio remains as readable as if it had been written in the twenty-first, so limpid and simple in its prose–and so musical in its simplicity.” Although the story breezes along, thanks to quick sentences, urgent dialogue, and short chapters, the story itself gives readers much to think about, as Eco acknowledges: “though it’s written in simple language, Pinocchio is not a simple book. … [it] doesn’t limit itself to one simple, basic moral, but rather deals with many.” A bildungsroman, he calls it: a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.

Pinocchio, although wooden, is very much a boy and now that he’s been let loose in the world, he must learn to behave. But, like most 6 and 7-year olds, Pinocchio is unruly. In addition to murdering the cricket who, from thereon in, appears as a ghost, Pinocchio has no sense of right and wrong; he has a profound lack of empathy and about as much willpower as his fleshy counterpart.

One of Pinocchio’s major failings is his aversion to school. Although Geppetto demands he go, even sacrificing his last coins for a text book, Pinocchio is easily distracted and lured into harmful situations. Two characters who pull Pinocchio away time and again are a pair of greedy creatures hoping to steal what few cents the boy has. In turn, it’s Pinocchio’s own greed and ignorance that gets in the way of his making good decisions.

“Pinocchio hesitated a little before answering, as he thought of the good Fairy, of old Geppetto, and of the Talking Cricket’s warnings. But in the end he did what all children with thick skulls and hard hearts do: in the end, that is, he said to the Fox and the Cat, ‘Let’s go then–I’m coming with you.’”

When Collodi was writing, Italy was in the midst of political upheaval. He had allied himself with the Republicans–those fighting against the Monarchy for a unified country. After unification, and before Collodi wrote Pinocchio, the school system was restructured. The process was not without many heated debates. During this time Collodi made a name for himself writing pedagogical tracts.

Although “attracted by order, discipline, and structured educational practices,” as West says in her afterword, Collodi was not a great fan of the programs initiated after the unification. She continues, “in spite of his interest in pedagogical writing, Collodi was highly suspicious of them [the programs] because he saw them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom.”

This tension between obedience and freedom–structured education vs. individualism–is at the center of Pinocchio, allowing it to be read as “a tale of both transgression and the necessity for conformity.”

Ultimately, Pinocchio learns to control his impulses and, as is suiting to a bildungsroman, shows moral and intellectual growth. But while the story comes to a close, in the mind of a careful reader it doesn’t end on the last page. The great triumph of Pinocchio is that it doesn’t give you answers, only questions. In this way, Collodi is still teaching. Although touted as a children’s book, Pinocchio leaves you with big, enduring issues rumbling around in your head: freedom vs. authoritarianism, what does youth owe society’s elders, what system of education is most effective, and how should we approach adolescent development. Anyone interested in the role of education and a child’s place in society will be well-served to read or reread this timeless classic.

::[Links]::
Buy Pinocchio at your local independent bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am

New in Paperback for October

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I’d like to apologize now for increasing your To Be Read (TBR) pile but October’s paperback releases are astounding. I know I’ll have my eye out for these as they hit the stores. Some are already on display tables and shelves near you. Go out and find them. They are just asking to be devoured. Oh, and guys, don’t forget to drink water, eat, and talk to people. Happy October and happy reading!

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis intro by Keith Gessen (reissue)
Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Kingsley Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics with whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.

More than just a merciless satire of cloistered college life and stuffy postwar manners, Lucky Jim is an attack on the forces of boredom, whatever form they may take, and a work of art that at once distills and extends an entire tradition of English comic writing, from Fielding and Dickens through Wodehouse and Waugh.

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein
Loosely based on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public, The Canvas has a singular construction—its two inter-related narratives begin at either end of the book and meet in the middle.

Amnon Zichroni, a psychoanalyst in Zurich, encourages Minsky to write a book about his traumatic childhood experience in a Nazi death camp, a memoir which the journalist Jan Wechsler claims is a fiction. Ten years later, a suitcase arrives on Wechsler’s doorstep. Allegedly, he lost the suitcase an a trip to Israel, but Wechsler has no memory of the suitcase, nor the trip, and he travels to Israel to investigate the mystery. But it turns out he has been to Israel before, and his host on the trip, Amnon Zichroni, has been missing ever since.

Not My Bag by Sina Grace
From the artist of The Li’l Depressed Boy and Amber Benson’s Among The Ghosts, comes a retail hell story like you’ve never encountered before! A young artist takes a job at a department store in order to make ends meet… little does he know that he may meet his end! In this gothic story for fans of Persepolis, Blankets, and The Devil Wears Prada, can the artist withstand competitive pressure, treachery, and high fashion while still keeping his soul?

2017 by Olga Slavnikova
In the year 2017 in Russia– exactly 100 years after the revolution– poets and writers are obsolete, class distinctions are stingingly clear, and mischievous spirits intervene in the lives of humans from their home high in the mythical Riphean Mountains. Professor Anfilogov, a wealthy and emotionless man, sets out on an expedition to unearth priceless rubies that no one else has been able to locate. His expedition reveals ugly truths about man’s disregard for nature and the disasters created by insatiable greed.

The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem
In The Ecstasy of Influence, the incomparable Jonathan Lethem has compiled a career-spanning collection of occasional pieces—essays, memoir, liner notes, fiction, and criticism—which also doubles as a novelist’s manifesto, self-portrait, and confession. The result is an insightful, charming, and entertaining grab bag that covers everything from great novels to old films to graffiti to cyberculture.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood (reissue)
First published in 1934, Goodbye to Berlin has been popularized on stage and screen by Julie Harris in I Am a Camera and Liza Minelli in Cabaret. Isherwood magnificently captures 1931 Berlin: charming, with its avenues and caf s; marvelously grotesque, with its nightlife and dreamers; dangerous, with its vice and intrigue; powerful and seedy, with its mobs and millionaires — this was the period when Hitler was beginning his move to power. Goodbye to Berlin is inhabited by a wealth of characters: the unforgettable and “divinely decadent”Sally Bowles; plump Frau lein Schroeder, who considers reducing her Bu steto relieve her heart palpitations; Peter and Otto, a gay couple struggling to come to terms with their relationship; and the distinguished and doomed Jewish family, the Landauers.

That’s Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson
Benjamin arrives with his parents for a tour of Roaring Orchards, a therapeutic boarding school tucked away in upstate New York. Suddenly, his parents are gone and Benjamin learns that he is there to stay. Sixteen years old, a two-time failed suicide, Benjamin must navigate his way through a new world of morning meds, popped privileges, candor meetings and cartoon brunches–all run by adults who themselves have yet to really come of age.

The only person who comprehends the school’s many rules and rituals is Aubrey, the founder and headmaster. Fragile, brilliant, and prone to rage, he is as likely to use his authority to reward students as to punish them. But when Aubrey falls ill, life at the school begins to unravel. Benjamin has no one to rely on but the other students, especially Tidbit, an intriguing but untrustworthy girl with a “self-afflicting personality.” More and more, Benjamin thinks about running away from Roaring Orchards–but he feels an equal need to know just what it is he would be leaving behind.

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.

Beside the Sea is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. It’s a hypnotizing look at an unhinged mind and the cold society that produced it. With language as captivating as the story that unfolds, Véronique Olmi creates an intimate portrait of madness and despair that won’t soon be forgotten.

The Thursday Night Men by Tonino Benacquista
Every Thursday night at 7 o’clock a group of three men meet in Paris. Each man’s life, his story, his situation, is as different from the others’ as can be. What unites them is heartache. Trouble, that is, with women. The meetings are held in a spirit of openness and tolerance.

In an almost religious silence each man confesses while the others listen.

In The Thursday Night Men, Benacquista gives his readers a variety of unexpected and amusing perspectives on romance, the relationship between the sexes, and friendship between men.

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye
Shirley Jackson meets The Twilight Zone in this riveting novel of supernatural horror.
A village on the Devil‘s Moor: a place untouched by time and shrouded in superstition. There is the grand manor house whose occupants despise the villagers, the small pub whose regulars talk of revenants, the old mill no one dares to mention. This is where four young friends come of age—in an atmosphere thick with fear and suspicion. Their innocent games soon bring them face-to-face with the village‘s darkest secrets in this eerily dispassionate, astonishingly assured novel, infused with the spirit of the Brothers Grimm and evocative of Stephen King‘s classic short story “Children of the Corn” and the films The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke andVillage of the Damned by Wolf Rilla.

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks
I Want My MTV tells the story of the first decade of MTV, the golden era when MTV’s programming was all videos, all the time, and kids watched religiously to see their favorite bands, learn about new music, and have something to talk about at parties. From its start in 1981 with a small cache of videos by mostly unknown British new wave acts to the launch of the reality-television craze with The Real World in 1992, MTV grew into a tastemaker, a career maker, and a mammoth business.

Featuring interviews with nearly four hundred artists, directors, VJs, and television and music executives, I Want My MTV is a testament to the channel that changed popular culture forever.

What paperbacks are you looking forward to this month? Comments are open.

Written by Gabrielle

October 2, 2012 at 6:38 am

The Interior World of Stefan Zweig

with 10 comments

It’s been said that Stefan Zweig is either loved or unknown. Up until recently I’d never heard of the Austrian writer but after reading Confusion, Zweig’s novella published in 1927, I moved swiftly into the former. After The Post-Office Girl, his unfinished novel published posthumously in 1982, I was a committed evangelist.

Zweig was born in Austria in 1881 to Jewish parents and came of age during World War I. While patriotism and jingoism were the mode of the day, he chose pacifism. During Hitler’s rise to power, Zweig’s Jewish heritage, although he was not a religious person, became problematic and forced him and his second wife to flee Austria in 1934. They first went to London, then New York City, and ultimately Brazil. Rio was their final destination and the place where they tragically took their lives together by way of barbituate overdose.

The common theme that runs through Confusion and The Post-Office Girl is denial–pretending to be something one is not, denying one’s true nature or status in life. In the former it’s sexuality, in the latter it’s class. Zweig’s writing on these topics–questioningly, poignant, and counter-culturally–makes him feel ahead of his time. One can’t help but wonder what he would write if he were alive today.

Confusion, written from a reflective point of view 40 years later, begins with the protagonist, Roland, found in a compromising situation with a woman by his father a short time after heading to university. The incident left him “agitated and confused” and leads him to overthrow “the whole grandiose house of cards [he] had built during the last three months, a house constructed out of masculinity, student debauchery and bragging.” With his father’s approval he leaves the city of Berlin where his “sense of liberation was so powerfully intoxicating that [he] could not endure even the brief seclusion of the lecture hall” for a college in a small provincial town in central Germany.

Hoping to enroll in an English language and literature course, he walks in on a professor giving a lecture to a small gathering. Unnoticed, Roland observes this “animated discourse” and experiences “what Latin scholars call a raptus, where one is taken right out of oneself.”

“I had never before known language as ecstasy, the passion of discourse as an elemental act, and the unexpected shock drew me closer,” he continues. This initial meeting marks the beginning of an intense, and often confused (as the novella’s title alludes to), relationship between Roland and the professor.

Without a place to live, Roland accepts from his new teacher the empty apartment–a small room–just upstairs from where he and his wife reside. In addition to their physical closeness, and their daily interaction at school, the two are further entwined by a project: the writing of a second volume to the professors unfinished work, The Globe Theatre: History, Production, Poets.

However, a turbulently mannered man, it doesn’t take long before the professor’s moods affect the admiring student. Verging on emotional abuse, the teacher withholds praise, fluxuates between love and irritation, and, in the most extreme case, leaves town for days without explanation or information as to his whereabouts.

How I suffered from this man who moved from hot to cold like a bright flash of lightning, who unknowingly inflamed me, only to poor frosty water over me all of a sudden, whose exuberant mind spurred on my own, only to lash me with irony–I had a terrible feeling that the closer I tried to come to him, the more harshly, even fearfully, he repelled me.

To the modern reader, the homoerotic undertones reveal themselves early on and what would be considered commonplace in literature today, possibly even outdated–a man struggling with his sexuality in the face of a young student–is quite extraordinary when placed within the context of 1927 when it was first published.

As with Confusion, The Post-Office Girl draws us into the inner life of a tormented character. Here we’re introduced to Christine Hoeflehner, a 20-something post-office worker in a post-World War I Austria. She’s is a simple, honest young woman scraping by as she cares for her sick mother. One day the family receives a telegram from a rich aunt, currently vacationing in a resort in the Swiss Alps, inviting Christine for a visit. At the behest of her mother, Christine prepares for the short vacation.

From the moment she gets off the train and enters the car that will take her to the resort with other passengers, she’s aware of her shabby clothing, her unstylish hair, and her cheap luggage. “Once shame touches your being at any point, even the most distant nerve is implicated, whether you know it or not; any fleeting encounter or random thought will rake up the anguish and add to it,” says the narrator, offering the reader a window into Christine’s agony.

After an extensive makeover, an effort that takes nearly a full day, courtesy of her aunt, Christine embraces the affluence that surrounds her, as if she’s known no other way–or, more importantly, as if she never wants to return to her former life. Soon, she has the attention of many vacationing bachelors.

Early in her stay, an innocent mix-up regarding her name completes the transformation. From the unknown “Hoeflehner” to the respectable “von Boolen,” she is no longer a village girl but a debutante. At first this gives her a “twinge” but soon she settles into it as if it’s always been hers.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for jealousies to fester and just as quickly as Christine ascended this previously foreign world, her reputation is destroyed. Unbeknownst to her, rumors spread of intentional deceit. Her aunt, also once a poor village girl, to save her own reputation, sends her niece back from whence she came without so much as an explanation–or at least not one that makes much sense.

Christine, having gotten a taste of the riches available to this small segment of the population, can no longer return to her former life as a desk clerk. Distraught and wholly unsatisfied, she’s convinced of a scheme that promises to return her to a world of wealth.

Because the The Post Office Girl was left unfinished at the time of Zweig’s death, the reader is left guessing as to the fate of this desperate character. However, one should not fear the open-endedness–it is of no consequence to the enjoyment of the novel. As with Confusion, and as I am sure is true of all Zweig’s writing, the philosophical insights into human nature is what lends to the richness of the reading experience.

If Stefan Zweig is currently unknown to you, pick up one of these two books and join the ranks of the converted.

::[Links]::
Buy Confusion from your local bookstore
Buy The Post-Office Girl from your local bookstore
Reading Group Guide for The Post-Office Girl
Profile of Stefan Zweig in More Intelligent Life
Clive James’s entry on Stefan Zweig in ‘Cultural Amnesia’
Zweig’s official website

Written by Gabrielle

September 25, 2012 at 6:52 am

Walking with Robert Walser

with 4 comments

As I move further away in time from my suburban upbringing, where little was accessible by foot—a place where if neighbors see you walking on the side of the road they assume something is wrong—to life in a major city where cars are about as useful as an inner tube in the desert, I have become sensitive to speeds faster than a brisk walk or leisurely bike ride. Ten years on I am less inclined to want to move quickly through the streets.

If, on the odd chance that I’m in a taxi or hired car, my notion of Manhattan geography becomes distorted: 6th Avenue appears foreign; corners I encounter everyday no longer look familiar; I second guess my location at every major intersection; and there’s a profound disconnect between me and the people on the street with whom I normally jostle with for sidewalk space. I feel like a tourist, wide-eyed with wonder and amazement.

I believe it was my first roommate in Brooklyn who said, after just a few months of her living in this city, that she could no longer stand riding in cars, that the speed made her nervous. Whether it was power of suggestion or a phenomenon of urban living, soon I felt the same way. It didn’t take long before those 60 miles an hour on the highway, which in my teens were never fast enough, became moments of hyper awareness and breath-holding. After just a few short months of living the city life I, too, could no longer ride in cars comfortably.

Robert Walser, in his meditative novella The Walk, captures this feeling perfectly when he has the narrator say, “… I never shall understand, how it can be called a pleasure to hurtle past all the images and objects which our beautiful earth displays, as if one had gone mad and had to accelerate for fear of despair.”

The Walk begins with a writer taking a break from his daily work. He leaves his desk and steps out onto the “open, bright, and cheerful street, in a romantically adventurous state of mind”. Rather quickly, within the same paragraph, he hints at the shifts in mood ahead: “I vividly sensed a certain seriousness still before me and behind me.”

Largely composed of internal dialogue, the novel’s tone is determined by these sudden changes in the narrator’s reactions and diversions. A reader, unaccustomed to Walser’s writing, or sly comic writing in general, would be forgiven for at first being confused. They might even think twice about continuing. However, those who do will acclimate to the wild ups and downs, eventually find them endearing, and ultimately realize that this is where the humor lies.

The narrator, out on what will become a day-long walk, switches between aimless wandering and purposeful errand running. His mood vacillates from one extreme to the next depending on the environs. At one point he says, “almost everything I saw as I proceeded filled me with a fiery love” and, at another, “as I waked and marched along on the most beautiful of roads a juvenile, foolish shout of joy burst from my throat”. But soon, he sees a man he knows whose “sorrowful, gruesome air” fills him with “terror” and whose “tragic, atrocious appearance took every bright, beautiful prospect, all joy and gaiety” away from him. Then there’s the trip to the tailor that leaves him “vexed” and puts him in “ill humor”. Left in solitude long enough, he even ventures into mystical whimsy: “In the sweet light of love I believed I was able to recognize—or required to feel—that the inward self is the only self which really exists.”

Anyone who spends a considerable amount of time alone with their thoughts has had similar experiences with a quick-shifting mood, or so I’d like to believe. For those, like me, walking through a crowded city, one is faced with a range of emotions—sometimes changing as quickly as the traffic lights. On any given day I come across many things that can easily affect how I feel: a group of friends walking in a row on a narrow sidewalk; an elderly couple holding hands; an ill-behaved kid and a mom raising her voice; a pre-teen reading a book in a coffee shop rather than texting; 16-year-olds screaming down the street as school lets out. The possibilities are endless.

Not only does Walser express beautifully the reality of being out in the world and all the feelings that come along with it, but The Walk illustrates the philosophical turns the mind takes while in motion.

… all sorts of thoughts continue to preoccupy me, since, when I’m out walking, many notions, flashes of light, and lightning flashes quite of their own accord intrude and interrupt, to be carefully pondered upon …

How it might look that he’s out for a walk instead of at home writing frequently enters the narrator’s mind, making him self-conscious and, as mentioned above, forces him to mix his leisurely activity with a trip to the tailor, post office, and tax collector. “It will be seen how much I have to do, and how this apparently idele, easygoing walk is virtually teeming with practical business affairs,” he assures himself.

He’s not entirely paranoid. When he meets with the inspector of taxes and attempts to convince him of a low rate, he must defend his walks against an accusation of an idle lifestyle.

”Walk,” was my answer, “I definitely must, to invigorate myself and to maintain contact with the living world, without perceiving which I could neither write the half of one more single word, nor produce a poem in verse or prose. Without walking, I would be dead, and would have long since been forced to abandon my profession, which I love passionately. Also, without walking and gathering reports, I would not be able to render the tiniest report, nor to produce an essay, let alone a story. Without walking, I would be able to collect neither observations nor studies. …

On a far-wandering walk a thousand usable thoughts occur to me, which shut in at home, I would lamentably wither and dry up. …

I could go on quoting this incredible passage with all its wisdom on how to, as a writer, be an effective walker but I don’t want to rob even one person of the experience of reading it on their own in context.

The Walk was my first foray into Robert Walser’s work and, like the many writers and critics who appear to unequivocally love his writing, I know that this is just the beginning of my experience with him. As was said in 2008 on KCRW’s Bookworm, there appears to be something of a “Walser Bug.” I believe I’ve caught it and I can only hope it’s communicable.

::[Links]::
Find The Walk a local independent bookstore
An Introduction to Robert Walser (Words Without Borders)
The Genius of Robert Walser by J.M. Coetzee (New York Review of Books)
Still Small Voice: The fiction of Robert Walser (The New Yorker)
A Celebration of the Work of Swiss Writer Robert Walser (KCRW’s Bookworm)
A Tribute to Robert Walser at PEN
The Walk reviewed at Three Percent

Written by Gabrielle

July 24, 2012 at 7:04 am

Short Takes: Stoner by John Williams

with 5 comments

Stoner, a novel by John Williams, is set in a small Missouri town and spans the time period of the early to mid 1900s. The story follows the life of William Stoner as he moves from life on the family farm with his quiet, yet loving, and forward-thinking parents, to a university career. His father sends him off to a nearby college to study a new form of agriculture in the hopes that he’ll return and revive the family business. Instead, encouraged by his freshman composition instructor, William finds a love for literature and sets out to become an English professor.

His life falls into place with all the early 20th century conventions: a wife, a tenured position at the university, a child, and finally a house to call his own. As idyllic as that sounds, what makes Stoner an engrossing work of literature is just how tragic William’s life really is. He’s in a loveless marriage to a woman of questionable emotional soundness–she turns both their daughter and his study into pawns in a one-sided battle–and, shortly after accepting a teaching position, his career is stifled by departmental politics.

It’s hard to convince someone to pick up a book when the best way to describe it is “devastating”. But Williams doesn’t try to trick you. Just as with books that throw the “f-word” into the first page–just so you know what you’re in for–Stoner’s tone is set within the opening lines:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 195. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. …

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

Heartbreaking, devastating, tragic, and yes, at times even depressing, Stoner is all of those things but it is also the first book I held in my hands in as long as I can remember that I didn’t want to end. Put aside any reservations you might have and make this the next book on your list.

::[Links]::
Buy Stoner at IndieBound or at your local bookstore
The New York Times Book Review essay on Stoner
WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show discusses Stoner

Written by Gabrielle

July 2, 2012 at 6:58 am

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