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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Friday, December 31, 2010

A haunting image of loneliness: William Trevor's stories

Though it's fair to say that every piece in William Trevor's "Selected Stories" is immediately recognizable as Trevor's work, within his well-defined world he does experiment in a few different modes (the short-story form is very useful for writers, allowing them to try different voices and techniques without the huge emotional and intellectual commitment of a novel). As noted in earlier posts, he obviously draws on the influences of Woolf (A Day) and Joyce (Of the Cloth?), and in story I read yesterday he tips his hat to Melville (bit of a surprise, that, as Trevor might put it): A Friend in the Trade, about a married couple who run a small boutique press and a strange friend of theirs, a bookdealer who seems to have no family, no other friends, no ability to communicate except in odd, disjunctive sentences about his findings at various estate sales, a thoroughly lonely character - today we'd probably diagnose him as having Asperger's or autism - who latches onto them and, as they plan to retire and move to a small house in Sussex, threatens to follow them and settle nearby, maybe in outbuildings on their new property. The obvious source is Bartleby, but Trevor brings his own voice and sensibility to this material - you feel bad for the family that is somewhat haunted by this man yet feels a responsibility for him as well, and most of all for the man, his isolation, his dependence, the faint possibility that he may be in love with the wife, his obvious and overwhelming need for a home and hearth. In just a few pages, Trevor creates a haunting image of loneliness.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The essence of a William Trevor short story

William Trevor's story in "Selected Stories" called (I think) Mourning, about a young man in Ireland, youngest in his family, works in construction and is rather unskilled, they joke that he's well-suited to run the cement mixer, leaves for England and better opportunity, and story follows him through his loneliness in London, the butt of bullying jokes on his construction crew, and he's befriended by another Irishman and slowly, subtly recruited to commit a terrorist act (leave bomb on a bus - though it's never made completely clear) - and his decision as to whether to go through with the act will be the most important decision of his life. I won't give it away. But this is another one of the best of Trevor's pieces and typical of the key elements in his fiction: the isolated and somewhat lonely or eccentric individual, the elegaic sense about the doomed nature of current society moving too fast and confusing us with its demands and changes, an undercurrent of contemporary political struggle, the key moment or decision or action that will change the course of a character's life (in this way he differs from Chekhov and other great story-writers and comes closer to the style of a dramatist, or maybe of a moralist). Trevor's characters are all trying to get by in a difficult, changing world, a world that has left them (and rural Ireland, often their homeland) alone and confused and quaint (though not picturesque), and they get by through compromise and accommodation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From Joyce to William Trevor : Elegies for Ireland

Of course the influence of Joyce is everywhere in William Trevor's "Selected Stories," probably most pervasive in Of the Cloth, a story about a Protestant minister who's visited by two Catholic priests after the funeral. Unlike most of Trevor's stories, this one does not turn on a single dramatic incident - an accident, a crime, a a fateful decision - but is more atmospheric and contemplative, developing around an event - a story of mood and reflection, and an elegy for a way of life gone or soon to go: we see in the Protestant minister that his church had faded from relevance (he took over his father's ministry but he has no children) and we see that despite the historic antagonism between the two churches that the men "of the cloth" have more in common with one another than with their parishioners - each has chosen a life that is in the public but strangely private and isolating - and we also see the shadow of scandal over the Catholic church - the unmentioned arrest of a pedophile priest that haunts this visit. Any reader will hear the echoes of The Dead, with its famous conclusion about the snow falling all across Ireland, covering the living and the dead - Trevor evokes this same mood of time passing and people reflecting on the futility of life.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Can William Trevor write anything bad? mediocre? even just ordinarily good?

Every single one of the stories in William Trevor's "Selected Stories" is a small masterpiece. Does he ever write anything bad? mediocre? just ordinarily good? He's taken a single tone of voice and a narrowly circumscribed geographical sphere - mostly rural or suburban Ireland, England sometimes - and found an astonishing abundance of material, people, conditions, and situations. Every story I find myself thinking: there's enough material here for a whole novel. Yet: the real accomplishment is that Trevor can encompass a whole novel within the scope of a short story. A novel would be superfluous. You'd think he would burn through his material at too rapid a rate: for most writers, stories are just vignettes or, increasingly, selections from a novel in progress, but for Trevor each is a unique and independent work of art, so how does he find such a wealth of material? I'm struck in particular by the somewhat long (30 pp.) story Lost Ground, about an Irish Protestant boy about 16 who has visions of an appearance of a woman who calls herself Saint Rosa, and the boy feels compelled to preach about his vision - he sees it as a call for tolerance and peace. He's also clearly mentally disturbed (though Trevor tells the story beautifully, so that we're uncertain initially whether Saint Rosa is a real person). Story is about the boy's relation with his fiercely militant father, his craven and accommodating brother-in-law (a minister), the divided community - an incredibly difficult scene when he visits the Catholic priest and is rebuffed, and a powerful showdown with his father - and the story leads inevitably toward a tragic end, told unflinchingly, hard as flint. One masterpiece among many.

Monday, December 27, 2010

William Trevor's stories are throwbacks, contemporary, and timeless

Looking through William Trevor's "Selected Stories," his four most recent story collections brought into a single volume, I can see that he publishes a collection of stories ever 4 years or so, each of about a dozen stories, which means he writes and publishes 3 or 4 stories a year - a steady output that doesn't seem like that much except: he also writes novels (a bit on the side?, to use his terminology), and he's been at it steadily for decades and - each of the stories is a true work of art that only becomes more profound and impressive when you see them within the context of his whole life's work. What makes a Trevor story "Trevorian"? And what is his particular world-view? A noted in yesterday's post and by may readers and critics, there is a strong affinity with Chekhov - lonely characters who gradually and reluctantly come to terms with the limits of their lives. Reading a few more of the stories, though, it strikes me that Trevor's character may seem very old world - the older characters in particular, as they often live in a simple poverty vaguely romantic poverty of the Cotswold cottage and self-reliance, not much found in the U.S. today - but in many ways his themes are contemporary - reading them in sequences I'm struck by how important infidelity is as a theme, divorce and its effect on young children, homosexuality or more accurately homophobia (Timothy's Birthday), and petty crime. The stories are at once throwbacks, contemporary, and timeless.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Trevor and Chekhov: The fiction of circumscribed lives

As expected, as requested, received two great books yesterday for xmas: Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories and William Trevor's "Selected Stories." Started reading Trevor last night, or re-reading actually, as the selection is really his last four collections brought together, and I think I've read each of the four - in fact have probably read some of the stories multiple times, in the New Yorker, in Best American or O.Henry, and then in a collection. Trevor of course stands up to multiple readings, and his anointment as the best living English-language short-story writer (along with "Alice the Great" Munro) stands, as do the comparisons with Chekhov. Like Chekhov's, Trevor's characters are consigned to circumscribed lives - in small towns, in bad neighborhoods, in distant provinces - and the stories are about how they live and how the compromise. Trevor's stories are probably more deeply rueful than Chekhov's, and he has a bit more of an ironic bite, but they share the sense of lives in futility. First story in the Selected is The Piano Tuner's Wives, and the plural there is very sly and telling - story involves the 2nd wife who has loved him long and from afar - it's her life that's the unrequited one in this story - and she marries him late in life after his first wife dies; her role is guide him, to be his eyes (he's blind, we learn pretty quickly), and by the end we see that she lies to him about what she sees - in order to control, and to make him think that his first wife had deceived him - but in typically Trevor "roundness" of character and event, we also come to understand that he know she's lying and he has resigned himself to accept this - these are the strategies we adopt for living, for getting by.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Why were the Victorians obsessed with death? : Tennyson

A little weird to be writing about memorial verses today, xmas morning, but as it happens yesterday I was reading Tennyson's "In Memorium" (making me I guess the only non-grad-student in North America doing so) and wondering what is it with the Victorians and their absolute obsession with commemorating death? A walk through any older cemetery will confirm this - the morbid statuary, the carved angels and urns and even entire deathbed scenes (you can see one in Forest Lawn in Buffalo), and reading about the memorial verses in newspapers and the black ribbons everyone wore in the U.S. when presidents died - and mostly the great poet. Although these memorial verses go back farther - Milton's Lycidas an example, and the Romantics wrote about the death of Keats (Adonis) - though not with the same morbidity, desperation, and fixation as in Tennyson with whom it rises to the level of obsession: about 130 poems all in the same meter, linked only by the theme, various statements on the death of his friend Arthur Hallam, died young, full of promise, but uncelebrated - and that I think is part of it - in an earlier era early death was more frequent but as medicine improved it became more shocking, tragic. But mostly I think it must be what JH Miller referred to as "the disappearance of God," not the death but disappearance: Tennyson's Memorium filled with many references to Hallam's being in a better place and so on, but there's a sense that it's forced, that Tennyson desperately trying to believe what he doesn't feel. As the world was moving toward a modern, scientific sensibility, writers and other thinkers were evidently, and publicly, struggling with how to justify early death - in a world where it was increasingly difficult to have faith that we are all living in the hands of a Christian God.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Among the most bizarre opening scenes ever staged: King Lear

Re-read (millionth time, but first time in many years) the first act of "King Lear," and of course on coming back to this play it's as strange and compelling as when I first read it, probably as a teenager, and it struck me so vividly as something I had to know more about, leading me on the road to studying Shakespeare in college and beyond. How odd this play is: Lear's incredibly bizarre decision to divide up his kingdom and demand of his daughter "which of thee dost love us most?" Many critics have written about this as an act of medieval fealty: declaration of loyalty to the king, and so on, but of course it does not feel this way, it feels cruel, and out of some deep need of wound that Lear has suffered. Compare Lear with all of the great Shakespeare tragic heroes, and what's the difference? He's the only one without a wife/beloved - is she even mentioned in the play, ever? Lear is more like Prospero or some of the old men in the comedies, Duke Senior et al. - alone, embittered, old. But not that old, if you think about it - Goneril and Regan are probably pretty young (no children yet) and Cordelia just getting married, so Lear is not really at a point where he should be thinking about his own death. So why does he demand this declaration of life, and why does he flip out when Cordelia refuses to declare her love? What's the story of Lear's life, in other words: who was his queen, what happened to her, what kind of monster mother would raise two daughters like G & R? There may be a psychological explanation for his actions, there may be a political explanation, but there's no obvious explanation other than that he sets the play and his own tragic fall in motion. Other artists have adapted the Lear story, including Jane Smiley setting it on a contemporary farm, and it does still make sense as to a dividing up of an estate, however modest, and the jealousies that often provokes - but it stands all alone in Shakespeeare as among the most bizarre opening scenes ever staged - though the rage it suddenly evokes is echoed in other S plays, notably The Winter's Tale.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is The Tempest really a great play?

Is "The Tempest" really a great play? In some ways, of course - starting with the language. It's Shakespeare at the end of his career, so the imagery is fully incorporated into the verse, not external, showy baubles as in the earliest works, not a lot of set pieces (other than "our revels now are ended") but just line by line, there's hardly a passage you couldn't isolate and enjoy, wonder at, revere - from descriptions of the landscape, the nautical scenes, many references to the tides - it's his most geographic and topological play. Also, Shakespeare recapitulates many of the themes running through all of his works, including authority, imperialism, colonialism (yes, these issues are in the other comedies, believe me), and perhaps more than any other play he reflects on the process of making art and drama - particularly poignant in that The Tempest is his last major work. Also some scenes that are challenging to all directors (the storm, the pageant/masque) and some pretty easy and always funny (the drunken louts, the ingenue lovers). All that said: in some ways it's a play more appreciated than truly loved. Don't we have to admit it: Prospero is a bore and a controlling bully. The play is completely devoid of surprise - for the audience - as we see Prospero controlling everything and everyone, through his minions, Ariel and Caliban. The conversion of the usurping duke is preposterous (though not without precedent in S's comedies and romances). Is it really a great play? Or more of a monument, an object of study and conjecture, and a curiosity?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How The Tempest summarizes all of Shakespeare's works

Inspired in part by, of all things, a TV series we've been watching (Slings & Arrows), I picked up my old Riverside Shakespeare last night and began reading S for the first time in many years - kind of amazing, considering how central S was to my life at one time. Reading "The Tempest" - a great play to come back to after many years because it contains so much of S in it, as if he knew that it would be his last play (let's ignore Henry VIII and the 2 noble kinsmen). Just to summarize a little, Prospero is the avatar of all of the meddling old men in so many S dramas, including Polonius, the various Friars (Much Ado, Measure for Measure, R&J, et al.); there is not one but 3 bloody coups (planned, at least), which echoes comedies (AYLI), tragedies (Macbeth and Hamlet, e.g.), and the histories of course; the alignment of magic and theater, as earlier in MSD; the young lovers heading toward a happy ending, the old people heading toward a restoration typical of the late romances. All this - yet it's also his most explicit take on class conflict, colonialism (his only play that takes on seriously the theme of the New World and the issues it raised - I'm sure many doctoral dissertations are out there on The Tempest and imperialism), and the typical Shakespearean use and abuse of the pastoral. All the themes I wrote about in my long-ago book on S's comedies are in The Tempest, and much more obviously so and more evident - I wonder why so many critics accept these themes in The Tempest but went nuts when I suggested that the beloved AYLI and TN also contained themes of oppression, ideology, and appropriation and exploitation of nature? So many things to think about - from the shipwreck at the outset and what it says about the various characters, the strange references to Tunis, most of all who is Prospero and what is his relation to Ariel and Caliban - it's obvious they're not so happy to be in his control - what does that say about the class structure in S's society?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A thin line separates poetry from madness : The Quickening Maze

I finished Adam Fouldes's short novel "The Quickening Maze" wanting to know more about the sad life of poet John Clare, who spent most of his life in an asylum and died obscure, and Alfred Tennyson - and wondered if their paths did actually cross in a mental asylum or if that was Fouldes's novelistic liberty. And that's a good way for a novel to end - with readers wanting to know more. It's not a great book, it's a little too elliptical at times, but it's a very intriguing novel that has a lot of elements and accomplishes its modest goals efficiently and effectively. Some readers may be more drawn to the information about treatment of insanity in the 1830s, others more to the family drama of the Allens - father runs the asylum and squanders family's fortune in a foolish investment in a furniture-making scheme, daughters yearn for marriage as the best way to leave this insular family and the life on the asylum grounds, but - particularly for middle-daughter Hannah - social relations are awkward and opportunities rare. I was most drawn to the literary aspects: Clare seen at first as a freak of nature, an uneducated poet writing about country people, but when his work falls out of fashion he's seen as delusional, insane. There has always been a link between poetry and madness, and Fouldes explores the idea that maybe which side you fall on depends on your social class as much as your condition. Tennyson, whose brother is a patient of Allen, is considered just odd and morose - would it have been a different fate had he been poor and uneducated? As it is, we see him here on the verge of writing his greatest work, In Memorium, as Clare fades off into delusions and madness.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Class prejudice and British poetry : The Quickening Maze

There are lots of elements in Adam Fouldes's brief novel "The Quickening Maze," and he handles the many plot strands efficiently and succinctly. Among the topics are the treatment of the insance in the early 19th century, a tale of unrequited love (somewhat plain daughter of the doctor who runs the asylum falls in love with the much older visitor, Alfred Tennyson, but it's obvious that he is uninterested in her - made all the more poignant by his attraction to her best friend, Annabelle), various delusional characters (including a man obsessed with the national debt, and others - this part the least interesting to me as it always seems to me an easy mark to write about the mad - they can do or say anything and it falls within the bounds of the credible - a much more difficult task is to write about the mad in such a way that they seem at times to be sane). Most intriguing aspect to me, though, is Fouldes's treatment of the British poet John Clare, held in the asylum because of his various delusions, his care paid for by his publisher. Clare was a briefly famous poet who was considered a prodigal genius, not well educated, wrote about country people and their superstitions, some great nature poems. In Maze Fouldes explores the ill-treatment of Clare: had he been a Oxbridge grad, had he settled in London and written a more classical verse, would he have been institutionalized, or just considered an eccentric artist? This viral class prejudice sharpened in the novel by the contrast with Tennyson, who is revered and doted upon, as he struggles through writer's block - and today his work though of course still well known is rarely read except for a few chestnuts (Crossing the Bar, Ulysses).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Novels about writers: cheap trick? or something of value?

There's been a rush of novels recently that treat as fiction the life (and times) of a real novelist - some of these are good, e.g., Colm Toiban's "The Master," about Henry James, others not so good. Overall, I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction/fictive biography - feels to me like kind of a cheap trick for a novelist. I mean, isn't our mission to create characters and events, not to appropriate lives already lived and invent dialog and incident at will? The technique only works and validates itself if there is what in ed-jargon we call "value-add." What is the novelist bringing to this material to help us understand the consciousness of the writer and the life of his or her times? After all, the writer himself/herself has already opened his/her consciousness to us, through his/her works, right? Toiban added something to James's life (who would read through the Edel bio's anyway?) because James himself was so reticent and personally withholding in his fiction - a whole area of sexuality hinted at but never revealed, much less explored. Then there are pieces like Cunningham's The Hours, which opened up Woolf's life by contrasting her story with two powerful contemporary narrative lines. Last night I started Adam Fouldes's "The Quickening Maze," ostensibly about the life of British poet John Clare - a truly intriguing character because of his madness and because he was one of the very few uneducated, working-class writers of the Romantic era. There have been 2 (I think) recent biographies, both well received. Plenty of material here for a novelist, too, as a biography can't really probe the inner state of the poet's madness, and as it happens this novel is, so far, more about the asylum where Clare was treated/imprisoned and about the director of the asylum, Matthew Allen - a really interesting look at how mental illness was thought of and treated in the 1830s.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A rare literary-thriller hybrid: The Same River Twice

Ted Mooney's "The Same River Twice" is a rare hybrid (literary thriller that's both literary and a thriller) that satisfied on many levels - lots of action, intriguing plot, smart characters who are flawed and complex, an excellent sense of place, solid writing throughout. It may not be for every reader - maybe not literary enough for some tastes and not fast-paced enough for the thriller addicts - but I hope it might cross-pollinate those different reading audiences. I particularly like that it involves a high-stakes criminal enterprise but that the main characters are just people going about their lives - not CIA or Interpol heroes already embedded in a world of danger. Though I know nothing about him other than this novel and its jacket copy (though of course if you've read someone's novel you do know a lot about him), I think Mooney must be a good guy and a smart conversationalist and would like to meet him someday. In fact, we have worked similar territory, and I would love him to read Exiles and share his comments. I'm not a thriller reader or fan, in particular, but I do believe in credible characters and strong, well-designed plots - it's what I like to read (though my taste runs more toward the classic literary) and try to write - and I'm sure Exiles was subject to some of the same criticism Same River Twice must have or might have faced. I was beaten up in a few reviews for too much incident, for difficult characters (Mooney's are difficult, too, and not entirely sympathetic), and I think Exiles was misunderstood by readers who expected one genre or the other and could not comprehend a hybrid. Of course there are differences, as I worked in a time period set 40 years back and wrote about much younger people and against a leftist political background - while Mooney is contemporary, and not especially political, at least overtly.

Friday, December 17, 2010

One of the strangest bodies of work of any American writer: George Saunders

George Saunders has over the past 20 years or so built up one of the strangest bodies of work among American short-story writers. I remember when his first (I think) book came out, Civilwarland in bad Disgrace (I may have the last word of the title wrong) and thinking how peculiar it was and how hard it would be to follow up - but Saunders had in fact followed up with about 5 books of stories, each of them odd, each of them similar in theme and scope (from what I've read - most but not all of his stories). He is the descendant of Barthelme via Beckett via Kafka, to give you an idea of his provenance. He has made an entire literary career by writing about losers and outsiders (typical inhabitants of American short fiction) who are denizens of amusement parks, theme parks, or, more recently, subjects of some kind of psychological experiments - typically, his characters are under the control of some unseen and barely known outside force. His best-known story (don't remember the title) is a novella-length piece about people living as a caveman/stone-age exhibit in a theme park - they receive instructions and reports daily by fax, but are supposed to have no contact with the outside world. Current story in The New Yorker, "Escape from Spiderhead," a little more lurid than other Saunders stories, is about a guy being observed in a pharmacology study, drugs pumped into his veins that alter his sexual/emotional feelings toward several women. What to make of Saunders's work? On some level, it seems comical and whimsical, but there are surprising depths to his work as well, as he lives just on the near edge of what's possible - his work imbued with suspicion and even paranoia about loss of control and submission to authority, of the state, the corporation, or both - not much difference anymore.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The inherent contradictions of the literary thriller : The Same River Twice

Reading Ted Mooney's intelligent "The Same River Twice" and also thinking about Laura Miller's essay in Salon, which I just saw, on Why We Like Bad Fiction ("we" don't, actually) gets me thinking further about the problems and inherent contradictions of the "literary thriller" genre that Mooney is working in (I've been linked to it, too, qv Exiles). Mooney's novel has so much going on in it: it's initially about a young woman (Odile) who smuggles some Soviet artifacts out of Russia, and then about the art dealer who will sell these artifacts (handmade flags glorifying various Soviet heroes - could these really be sold to museums and collectors as valuable art objects? I think this is just Mooney's big joke on the art industry). Novel is also about art dealers worldwide but esp in Paris, indie filmmakers (Odile's husband, Max, is a Jim Jarmusch-like character), artists and designers working in Paris (Odile poses for a portrait), contraband DVDs (Max's is pirated), assorted marital-family relationships and affairs, and then the Russian underworld and French police that variously intersect as they come after Odile and others for reasons not yet totally clear. And those are only the main plot elements! Add to this that Mooney is a really good writer, very observant and very adept at setting a scene - but I find myself torn. How do you read this book? Emphasis on literary - savor the prose, really get a sense of each scene, read each detail? Emphasis on thriller? Focus on the dialogue, speed it up, follow the plot wherever it leads? This isn't about labeling - I don't care for the term literary thriller particularly - but I do find myself torn as a reader and wish I could appreciate the book on both levels, and I do in a way, but I also feel a bit at sea - it's a real challenge for a writer committed to both great writing and great story-telling, how to unite these two sometimes opposing forces.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What makes a thriller a "literary thriller"? : The Same River Twice

Been reading Ted Mooney's "The Same River Twice," accurately described as a highly literary thriller, a sparse genre. Enjoying the novel, it's a good read, and as with most thrillers you have to suspend a lot of disbelief and just go along with the flow of the story. The literate aspect: well, that means that you'll get a lot more depth of character, that the characters will actually be intelligent people and will have some kind of family history and web of personal relations, and that the setting will be developed with some attention to detail of geography, topography, architecture, design, mood, and light. All that's here: the characters are variously filmmakers, high-end boutique dressmaker, houseboat habitues; the setting primarily Paris, though the novel begins in Moscow and has some detours to NYC and rural provincial France. So in addition to the fast-moving and somewhat complex (at times perplexingly so) plot, we get a lot of the ancillary pleasure we want and expect from all good fiction - knowing something about the consciousness of another, getting a view of someone else's world. As with other of the literary thrillers (not that I've read that many), the plot mechanism involves a character who takes on a task, challenge, adventure, mission and gets in way over her (in this case) head - here it's the 20-something Odile who agrees to go to Moscow and pick up some (supposedly) valuable art objects and courier them back to Paris for a dealer. Kind of hard to believe she'd do this, but when we accept that premise the consequences follow - including being stalked by some Russian thugs and strangely entwined in the life of the dealer who sent her on this mission. A good read so far (I'm about half-way through).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why I think highly of Joyce Carol Oates

If you missed Joyce Carol Oates's moving and brave piece in the New Yorker about the death of her husband, Ray (?) Smith, you should go back and read it. As you'd expect, Oates writes unflinchingly about every aspect of the horrific week in which her husband took ill and unexpectedly died of complications - she tells us in a short space about their loving relationship, about illness, age, hospitals, grieving, excellent piercing observations and strange moments, the moments that take on a ghostly presence of their own in times of stress and tragedy: her car parked inexpertly and a note on the dash, learn to park, bitch; the call at midnight, just as she's thinking all would be OK, and her drive to the hospital, trying to get in, doors locked, arriving - too late! - and her guilt for, this time, driving so cautiously, and her husband's dying among strangers, and then her ability to turn away, to move forward through life - in part of course through writing, through writing this piece. Oates comes in for more than her share of envious mockery for her astounding output, and of course nobody can read all of her work (we learn here that even her husband didn't!) and you can't help but think that maybe she would be better or at least more appreciated if she wrote (or published) less - which is to say there are some gems among her novels and stories. I've never met Oates (and her husband rejected a # of my stories over time), but I think highly of her: many years ago, friend Seth Feldman published a story in a tiny Canadian lit mag, and out of nowhere Oates read the story and sent him an appreciative note. What a kind, thoughtful thing to do for a young writer!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The 5 Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2010

It would be impossible and absurd for any reader to list the worst books of 2010 - reading is totally different from movies, TV, music in this way: we often see a horrible movie for a variety of reasons, but we are really unlikely to start reading a horrible book and less likely to finish it. But I think each of us can come up with a list of the most disappointing books of the year: something about them made you want to start, and something about the book caught you early on and made you want to continue reading, maybe even finish the book. Here's my list of:

The 5 Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2010
(listed alphabetically)

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt. I was impressed by Possession and by some of her short stories of recent years, and started reading The Children's Book with high hopes, as the first chapter set up a very promising rivalry among three very different boys who meet in a museum. By the end, this book was a total mess, a hodgepodge of hundreds of plot strands left loose, ideas undeveloped, scenes crushed by over-description. Editor, anyone?

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Everyone recommended it, in part because I've written about Sweden (Exiles). Once you get past the high-mindedness of its stance against corporate greed and violence against women, you have to wonder: doesn't this book wallow a bit too much in the most extreme and ghastly forms of violence against women? Has there ever been a book in which the police were more obtuse and the amateur sleuth/journalist solved the mystery through a more preposterous set of clues? I don't get it.

The Humbling, by Philip Roth. One of his worst books ever - and then Roth redeems himself later in the year with the terrific novel, Nemesis.

The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead. I'd had this classic sitting around for many years, and finally got to it this year - but couldn't finish. The creepiness of the overbearing father and the horrible behavior of all the adults made my flesh crawl, and I couldn't wait to put it down.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. All these awards, and for what? Started off as what looked like it would be a powerful and honest historical novel, but by the end I was just slogging through event after event in Cromwell's (and More's) life/s, all told in the same flat, dry narrative voice. I'd much rather have read a biography.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Elliot's Reading : Top Ten Books of 2010

The Times today publishes its selections as the top 10 books of the year. Me, too. A few notes, first: Only a professional book critic or a team of readers (i.e., on a magazine staff) can possibly read enough new books during the year to come up with a plausible top ten, so my list will be of the ten best books I've read during 2010, some new, some classics or at least rediscovered. Also, I'm not considering for inclusion any books by friends or acquaintances, but I would like to give a shoutout to a few books by friends that I read this year, notably Jean McGarry's "Ocean State," Bruce DeSilva's "Rogue Island," Thomas Cobb's "Crazy Heart," and even, though it wasn't really my kind of book, Robert Goolrick's "A Reliable Wife," which my sister (and others) said they could just not put down.

Also, a special note to two works that the Times included and unquestionably belong on any ten-best list: though I haven't (yet) read Ann Beattie's "New Yorker Stories" or William Trevor's "Selected Stories," I've definitely read many, probably most, of the stories in magazines or earlier collections, so they get a mention, too: Clearly they are two of the best living English-language short-story writers, along with another whose book I have read and is included on my list of:

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2010
(listed alphabetically by title)

New Books

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Yes, it's been hyped to death. Yes, he's already been on Oprah and in the society pages of the NYT. Yes, we're maybe a little sick of him. Yes, his world view is very dour. But to all the envious sideline players waiting for Franzen to fall on his face, isn't it clear that Freedom is a really smart, compelling novel about credible people in contemporary America? His ambitions are high, he dares to model his work on Tolstoy no less, but this is a novel that perfectly accomplishes its aims and creates characters who are, as Forster puts it, "round." Worth anyone's reading.

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. Another one who doesn't need my help - winner of the 2009 NBA, and now available in pb. Very ambitious, the kind of novel that often falls apart - multiple plot strands that intersect at various key points. But McCannn ties it all together beautifully. The model here is Mrs. Dalloway/Woolf. Again, I found the characters completely credible and the intricate plot very compelling. Note (small spoiler) that both Freedom and Great World involve fatal car accidents - a device that writers ought to retire.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth. A surprise pick, after the disaster earlier in the year of The Humbling, Roth comes back with this short novel that is clearly one of his best - returning to the native soil of Newark in the 1940s, which has provided him with so much great material. This novel is deep with meaning and allusions on many levels, not the least of which is the analogy between the polio epidemic and the barely-mentioned but ever-present Holocaust.

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro. The other great living short-story writer. Maybe not her best collection ever, but every Munro story has some greatness and every Munro collection has some great stories.


Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Hadn't read it since high school and still have that cool old pb edition. It still stands up (the edition, too): funny, touching, an amazing narrative voice that has been the model and inspiration for a thousand mfa's. None can match it.

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. Postwar German novel, largely ignored, recently republished, very dark, scary, strange - as much for the life story of the troubled Fallada as for the novel itself. About German resistance, based on true events of a rather crazy man who opposed Hitler for nonheroic reasons. Great book, darkly provocative.

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville. Unique. Both incredibly influential - literature can include anything and everything - and a case unto itself. Why would anyone ever read an abridged version? What they took out is what you'd want to read.

Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. It's 50th anniversary, best known today through the movie version, which I haven't seen but it cannot do justice to the novel, with its startling narrative style of very short chapters, about 100 vignettes in the woman's life, which taken together make up an extraordinary life story of an ordinary woman and her travails.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. Hardy was scorned and overlooked when I was in grad school, and of course he's not as great and perfect and thoughtful as some of his near-contemporaries, but on re-reading Tess I found it to be a very moving story with some amazing passages. Few novels ever will make you feel as deeply for the main character - you want to just jump into the book and rescue her.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Our world would not be the same without this novel. It's a monument, an avatar of greatness, showing all that the novel could do at its highest level - a book containing and conveying an entire world, specific, real, intelligent, thoughtful, beautiful. As has been said: reading Tolstoy is like reading life.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Definitely one of the best stories of this year - of any year

Daniyal Menueddin's (sp?) story "A Spoiled Man" in the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010" collection is prototypical of editor Laura Thurman's taste - an exotic setting, a somewhat long story, a story that covers a large span of time and includes back-story material so as to cover an entire life, in other words, a compacted novel, and I have to say that I can see why an editor would choose these stories - they are grander and more ambitious than most published short fiction - and my taste is similar to hers (though oddly the stories I've written or published do not necessarily match her taste - I'd written one story, not published, that writers' group friends said should be expanded into a novel, to which my reaction was, good, let's leave it as a short story then). Menueddin's story is without doubt one of the best of the year, of any year - a true classic - touching on class relations, international relations, cruelty, love, sorrow, and the insensitivity and ignorance of the wealthy who think they're doing good and essentially destroy a man in the process. I suppose it would make a great film, but I hope nobody tries, because it's about perfect as it stands. Has to remind readers of the best of Forster, and not just because of the Asian setting. I've been really impressed by Menueddin's writing, and I hope he keeps at it, though he seems to have so many talents that who knows where he's going? Oddly, the selection from Alice the Great (Munro) in this collection, Some Women, is a bit atypical: here's a writer who often does tell complete life stories in her short fiction, but this piece is about an older woman looking back at an episode from her youth that was epochal in her life - at the very end she references that she's now much older, but we have no idea what she's become other than the author of this piece. A fine story, of course.

Friday, December 10, 2010

If you were an editor - how you might choose the PEN/O.Henry winners

If you're an editor of a magazine or even more so if you're an editor of an anthology of the best stories from all the (American & Canadian) magazines, i.e., if your Laura Furman editing the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010," you will inevitably be overwhelmed and stupefied by the similarity and familiarity of so many stories on the same themes, about the same people, and in the same styles: poignant and ironic glimpses of a moment in the life of an anguished teen, a distraught mom, a distressed writer, from Brooklyn, LA, Iowa City - you name it - and as a result when you make your selections you will be drawn toward something, anything!, that's a little different and unconventional, which (in part) explains why the Prize Stories include so many longer pieces broad in scope unlike what we read in most magazines and, in particular, why there are so many stories that take place outside the U.S./Canada, in fact not even about American ex-pats (a fairly familiar theme, and I plead guilty) but foreign cultures altogether. I'm no jingoist and anyone looking over my list of readings will see that I, too, turn to literature to get news of other cultures (and other times), but I would expect the O.Henry-PENs to have more news about what's going on in American life - isn't there something? The stories in the collection set abroad do include great ones, like William Trevor's "The Woman of the House," of course anything by Trevor could be in any anthology, but a few of the others seem much weaker and I wonder if they'd have made the cut were it not for the pseudo-exotic vocabulary and unconventional phrasings.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Attracting an editor's attention : PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010

First I've seen of a story from Jess Row - Sheep May Safely Graze (nice title, several references to serious music in this story) in the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010" collection edited by Laura Furman, and so why did she select this story? Aside from its startling opening (death of a young girl in boating accident), always important in attracting the attention of an editor overwhelmed by thousands of dull, mediocre submissions, many with long atmospheric openings or desert-like stretches of flat dialogue - and its thoughtful account of life among the upper-bureaucracy of D.C. (not often captured in fiction), it is, like the first four selections in this edition, it covers a long span of time rather than a single moment/day/episode - though Row's story is a little more focused on a single episode and its aftermath, how the death affects the girl's father, the narrator, and pushes him nearly to the brink of a heinous and ill-conceived revenge attack. Row's narrator is a much older man looking back on the events of his youth (the 'nanny' narrator of an earlier story in the collection by K.Allio is also older looking back), which I think is a great way for a writer to modulate some of the emotions of the events of a short story, to offer both episode and reflection but still from a single POV which may or may not offer the most clear-sighted perspective on the events of the story. Looking ahead, I notice that the next story in the edition is very long - all of the stories so far tip toward the lengthy, though not quite novella-length. Is that a requisite for Prize Story selection? Sometimes less is more.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pushing the edges of the short story form: PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010

Read two more stories in the "PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010" collection, and from the first 4 stories that Laura Furman selected a pattern of taste emerges. Both the Adichie story, The Diligent (?) Historian, the the Wendell Berry story - like the first two in the collection - cover a large span of time, generations actually. It's unusual to find today stories of this scope, especially successful stories, and the selections here seem very much a reaction to the minimalism and the moment-in-time or day-in-the-life epiphanies that for the structure or organizing principle of almost every published story today. Magazines don't often go for the broader story - for one thing, they tend to be longer as these first four in the collection are - and for another they often read like sketches for a novel or screenplay. To their credit, each of these stories stands on its own. I suspect the editors was drawn to Adichie, who's had success with two novels and several appearances in The New Yorker, writing about her Nigerian childhood and background (obvious comparison here with Achebe), and Berry is an old pro who's too often consigned as a regionalist - and in this collection that may have helped him, as these editors seem to be moving away from the million stories about angst in Manhattan and at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I myself have written about 20 stories, most of which not published, and as I try to think back I believe nearly every one takes place in a single day and at the few longer ones takes place in a relatively short time span, a few weeks maybe - it seems really a challenge to push the edges of a short story farther than that, and we'll see whether others in this collection try the same unusual strategy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why the editor chose the PEN/O.Henry winning stories

A scan of the table of contents (or back cover) of the "Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010," edited by Laura Furman, shows that really only 3 of the authors are well-known short story writers: Annie Proulx, William Trevor, and Alice Munro. Trevor and Munro are included no doubt because their stories are great and certainly because they're the two greatest living short-story writers in the English language (and yet: weren't the O.Henry awards at one time limited to U.S. authors? Or at most to North American? Aren't there about 60 million UK and Canadian literary prizes? What's wrong with having a U.S. short-story award?). Proulx included on strength of her story (Old Cowboy Songs) for sure and also on her literary prowess. The others? Great to see that the editors were not driven by name-value, high recognition. At worst, maybe there was some logrolling (what? in a literary award? shocking!) but I have no evidence of that - so let's assume all of the other stories were selected on the merits. (One year the Best American Short Stories were selected blind - great idea!) Would be fun to ponder, reading through the collection, why the editors selected each one. Read Kristen Allio's "Clothed, Female Figure," which I think drew attention because of its unusual and sustained narrative technique - story told by an older Russian "nanny" regarding letters she is receiving from one of her former charges now a "nanny" herself - the interior letters are much more in an author's voice (Bennington girl, artist) than the main narrator (unschooled, nonnative speaker/writer), so the story seems to be in a reverse frame - we know more about the letter writer and very little, just hints, about the life of the narrator. By the way: why do the PEN/O.Henry Awards list only a few (this year, only one!) runners-up? It's like saying somebody liked your story but we just could not even bring ourselves to publishing it with these other 20 - a long list of runners-up at least shows that there was a two-stage selection process.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The amazing coldness of Annie Proulx

Reading Annie Proulx's Those Old Cowboy Songs in the O'Henry/PEN Prize Stories 2010 collection, and am struck by a number of things, first off her style, diamond hard, words chosen with care, few adjectives, few metaphors (except in dialogue), and not much dialogue, these 19th-century cowboys being of a laconic type. Also, well researched stories of the West - she's known for that, a former journalist who's gotten lots of mileage out of her love for proper nouns, as well as for the technical verbs of a craft - an impressive description in this story of process of building a remote mountain cabin. Proulx a bit of a wanderer, we would have thought she was a true New England/Atlantic Provinces writer when she struck gold with Shipping News, but then she moved to Wyoming and you'd think she's a lifelong westerner - again, the research that she does so well and that inhabits her stories rather than embellishes them (cf AS Byatt). That said: there's an amazing coldness and even misanthropy to her work. This story, about a young marriage that comes to disastrous end with husband freezing to death and wife dying in childbirth, told for a godlike omniscient POV - no survivors exist to provide the details of this story, told as a legend - but her godlike narrator does not seem to like the humans below. The people in her stories are generally hard and cruel, and the good ones come to back ends almost invariably, the world a tough place. Proulx's compelling writing seduces you into accepting her world view for a moment, but on reflection it's good to wonder: Is this really the place that we inhabit?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A lot going on beneath the opaque surface of The Housekeeper and the Professor

As is always the case with book group, we uncovered a great deal in Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor," and I appreciate the book now far more than I did when first encountered - still don't think it's a great book, a little too (intentionally?) quiet and static and Ogawa fails to integrate or resolve some key plot elements (e.g., what exactly is the relation between the Professor and his sister-in-law?, how exactly does the 80-minute memory span affect the Professor's life and cognition?), but it is a sweet story about how a young boy (and his mother) learn from an older man and how help one another on the difficult course of life through simple friendship. Our biggest discussion topics were the Professor's loss of memory - I'm pretty sure the way it functions is that he is unable to retain new info for more than 80 minutes, but he has good recall of anything that happened before his accident and he can get through his life quite adequately until new info (arrival of the housekeeper at the door) resents itself; and the Euler equation, which obviously has great meaning for the Professor but was difficult for us to understand and integrate. As Toby explained, it's about integrating various mathematical concepts that one would think are entirely separate, much as e=mc2 did/does. As the threesome in the book does. It also express +1 + -1 = 0. Which could mean to the sister in law, you're a minus one leave us alone; or that if you add someone (+1) to the lonely man (-1) you have solved the equation - as well as the mysterious concept of zero, which is not intuitively obvious and had to be invented, and the concept of the square root of minus-one, as the equation seems to say that a square root of minus one can exist by combining two imaginary #s - two unlikely people together can do the impossible? Anyway, a lot in this quiet book just below the surface, though the surface in my view is too opaque to make this book great.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading consciousness and fetishes - how do we know what we know?

Another day of elliot's not reading - what if we didn't read? how would life be different? Well of course I read all day - emails, messages, news items, ads - by read I mean serious reading and in my case I mean reading fiction. Most of what we read - passive reading, stuff that opens before your eyes and you take it in like you'd take in a tree in front of your face of a cat darting out into the road while you're driving - is informational. And reading fiction is informational, too, but in my view it's informational of a much higher order. If we didn't read or couldn't read our experience of life would be limited to our own immediate perception and cognition. It's been well said that reading is access to the consciousness of the consciousness of another - but few realize how profound that is. We all have the experience of reading books and then forgetting them or so we think - because we think to remember a book is to remember its plot and characters, the factual data, in the way we can recount a story we read in the morning paper, but that's not it at all. Reading fiction is how we know or think we know what it was like to live in a different culture, time, era - and also how we have any idea what it's like to actually be another. Don't we all have a sense of Victorian England, as one example? And isn't this sense entirely fabricated by reading Dickens? When I say Victorian England what comes to your mind and why? Is it even fetishized - maybe you see the orange spine of a Penguin pb?

Friday, December 3, 2010

What's the strangest line in the world's most famous soliloquy?

The most famous soliloquy in the history of the world? Has to be to be or not to be. Though I I haven't taught Shakespeare in many years and when I did I focused on the comedies, and though I am not up on Shakespeare criticism in the least, I'm going to venture an observation that I don't think anyone's made about Hamlet's To Be (I may be wrong, and if I am please let me know): the most striking and revealing aspect of the soliloquy is that it shows us Hamlet's incredible loneliness and isolation. He's considering suicide, and he decides he cannot kill himself because he might suffer in an afterlife - thus conscience dost make cowards of us all. Interesting thought, intellectually - but it's not the way someone considering suicide would think - especially someone who's not really serious about suicide, but just grandstanding or posturing or as they say calling for help. There's not a word in the soliloquy (is there?) about how his death would sadden anyone living - his mother, his beloved, any one of his friends. Isn't that one of the main reasons depressed people turn from suicide - their connection to others? Their sense of the havoc their death would cause? Not in a grandiose manner, but just try to imagine life after your violent death. Would it make a difference, would anyone care? Hamlet doesn't even say that - nobody will care if I die. He's just indifferent to others - no other person seems to matter to him. In that way, the most strange and powerful line of the soliloquy is the last: But soft, the fair Ophelia. He sees her - but he doesn't even make the connection between her life and his death.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I will not add to the sorrow in this world

There's a story in this week's New Yorker by Jim Gavin. I've never heard of him. I will probably read the story, but I will not post on it. Why not? I'll tell you, I'm starting to feel sick every time I write a post for this blog about a book or a story that I don't really like that much. Why do I do this? Why bother? If these notes are to have any meaning or integrity for me or for any of the dozen of so of you who might be reading this, I have to honestly try to think about my reading and convey my thoughts about what I'm reading. I've devoted a great deal of my life to reading, and to writing, and I would say that reading and writing have literally saved me soul from oblivion. All that may be so, but why then would I criticize the work of a fellow writer, someone struggling just like me to gain some peace and salvation and to make sense of the world? I just won't do it anymore. There is enough sorrow in the world already without my adding to it. I'll still read a lot of new writers, I'm sure, and I still want to try to maintain this blog for my own pleasure and for the very few who have stumbled on it and might learn something or share something. However: I won't write about living writers except for the few who can take it, not that they're likely ever to know about this blog or to care about it if they did. As to the others, people like me, maybe more fortunate or successful (how else would I have come upon their work?), god bless you all - keep writing, I will offer you no hindrance, I will cause you no pain.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why did the New Yorker publish Yellow?

Are you serious? The New Yorker must get a thousand story submissions a week. With the prestige and resources of the magazine, the editors can publish the best short fiction in the world. And you're telling me the best they can come up with is this peculiar little story, Yellow, by Samantha Hunt? Huh? I don't know anything about Hunt, and I hope she's a young writer with promise and that this story sets her off on a brilliant career. It does show some promise - I'd probably really praise it if I came across it in a grad seminar. But come on, what is there to this story that makes it exceptional? It seems wobbly and uncertain of itself, which may be intended to give it a postmodern edginess but instead makes it feel random and arbitrary. On a literal level, the story is ridiculous: a very nebbishy 42-year-old living with his parents, out of work, afraid of night noises in the house, seemingly stepping right out of a George Saunders story, heads off in his car, strikes (and kills) a dog, carries the dog to the nearest house, taken in by a woman whose husband and kids are out at the movies, they kiss, they screw, the dog comes back to life, woman tells him he has to kill the dog with a shovel, he takes the dog out behind the house, husband and kids come home from the movies and he looks at them through the window. Given that nothing here makes sense, what is the point of it? Are we in the first episode of a movie or (more likely) first chapter of a novel, in which the characters (or one of them) has some kind of magic power - a linkage of sex and death as in say Gravity's Rainbow? Maybe there's more for Hunt to say, but taken on its own, though, Yellow is little more than a curiosity. I'm curious as to why the NYer published it - anyone else?