The Epicurean Life

April 5, 2021

Something I was reading recently reminded me of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.  I think it bears repeating.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.

Epicurus

The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.


On Crime Writing

March 21, 2021

Regular readers will know that I am a voracious reader of crime fiction.  I have written before of my binge reading of Vancouver’s own Laurence Gough, Norway’s Jo Nesbo, P.D. James, Michael Dibdin, Ian Rankin, and many others, including a recent trot through Peter Temple’s excellent four-book Jack Irish series set in Melbourne, Australia.

Back in April 2019 I reported on some discussions on the genre at the 2019 Edgar Awards. Now, at Boucheron, we have a long and often informative debate on the current state of the crime novel as discussed by crime writers themselves.

The second question asked (after the now-obligatory nod to diversity) asked whether crime novels had a responsibility to grapple with real world issues. It received a mixed response. On one side, Alex Segura noted:

“The best crime novels, for my money, also serve as cutting social commentary—they put a mirror up to our world, and show us how we live and are, warts and all. I don’t think crime novels should—or can, really—come up with solutions to all of society’s ills, but they should damn well try to show us a world that is like our own, so readers can at least take their vitamins with their dessert.”

While James Ziskin disagreed:

“Not at all. Sometimes we want to be entertained and other times we want to change the world. There’s room enough under our tent for pure escapist fare, farces, capers, and comedies of manners as well as fiction with social themes or conscience.”

I probably agree with Ziskin although my own reading tends to match Segura’s take.  For example, the Jack Irish books I am currently reading are teaching me a great deal about modern life in suburban Australia, and Jo Nesbo’s pieces did the same for me about Scandinavia.

There is a lot to take in here, not least a long list of writers I have yet to read. One thing to notice, though, throughout this long piece, not one of my favourite crime authors (see first paragraph above) is mentioned.  Hmmm.


Publishing Lolita

March 9, 2021
Photograph by Carl Mydans / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

I have expressed before my deep admiration for Vladimir Nabokov, one of the truly great writers and one of the truly great subjects for literary discussion. I tend to read anything about him that I come across, and so it was no surprise that I was attracted to read Stacy Schiff’s piece in the New Yorker entitled Vera Nabokov was the first and greatest champion of Lolita.

For anyone interested in the literature of the 20th century, this is an essential trip down memory lane, capturing the difficulties of publishing a book such as Lolita in Eisenhower’s America, and the reaction to it once published.

The heroine of Schiff’s article is Nabokov’s wife Vera, who at least once saved the manuscript from the flames and who it was who suggested, finally, publishing the book in Paris.

“It was Véra who thought, days after the fifth rejection, to pursue publication abroad. Might her husband’s longtime French agent, she wondered, be interested in a novel that could not be published in America, for reasons of “straitlaced morality”? The manuscript was of an “extreme originality,” a category that in the Nabokov household tended to overlap with outlandish perversity. Véra begged for a speedy reply.”

After Graham Greene had proclaimed Lolita to be one of the best three books of the year, American publishers crawled over each other to publish in the States. At the event to celebrate its publication by Putnam (and after), it was Vera who stood “as the fire wall between Vladimir Nabokov and Humbert Humbert.”

“The New York Post took pains to observe that the author was accompanied to cocktails by “his wife, Véra, a slender, fair-skinned, white-haired woman in no way reminiscent of Lolita.” At that reception, as elsewhere, admirers told Véra that they had not expected Nabokov to show up with his wife of thirty-three years. “Yes,” she replied, smiling, unflappable. “It’s the main reason why I’m here … Véra’s presence kept the fiction in place, and Humbert’s monstrosity at bay. For the next few years, the words “who looks nothing like Lolita” obligatorily attached themselves to her name. She served as her husband’s badge of honor, his moral camouflage. She provided a comforting bit of misdirection. An accessory to the crime, Véra looked every inch the snowy-haired alibi.”

Schiff writes well about the book’s reception and its place in the canon of modern literature and Vera Nabokov’s role. She concludes:

“The long-suffering wife who stands at her husband’s side, lending moral cover, reliably serves to blot out another woman’s agony. Véra did just the opposite. She alone emphasized Lolita’s plight from the start. In interviews, among her husband’s colleagues, with family members, she stressed Lolita’s “complete loneliness in the whole world.” She had not a single surviving relative! Reviewers searched for morals, justifications, explanations. What they inevitably failed to notice, Véra complained, was “the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous Humbert Humbert, and her heartrending courage all along.” They forgot that “ ‘the horrid little brat’ Lolita was essentially very good indeed.” 

Well worth the read (and so is Lolita if you haven’t done so already).


Lit. Crit. To The Max

November 21, 2020
Harold Bloom

I am schooled enough in the discourse of literature to recognize that Harold Bloom has for several decades been the critic emeritus. Teaching at Yale for more than fifty years and publishing four dozen books has allowed him to become a celebrity in the field before his death last year at age 89.

I am not schooled enough to be able to fully understand let alone criticize The Critic. However, Philip Hensher, an Oxbridge author and critic, clearly is, and his devastating critique of Bloom’s final book, Take Arms Against A Sea of Troubles, is pitiless. More, Hensher expands his vigorous attack onto the entire Bloom oeuvre, declaring Bloom to be “lazy, solipsistic, vague and plain wrong.”

Bloom is particularly well-known for his ardent defence of the now-orthodox Canon of English Literature — a Great Books and Great Authors list. Hensher describes how limiting that viewpoint can be:

“The truth is that Bloom was really only interested in what literature means, and ultimately what it meant to him, rather than what it is. This leaves rather a lot out. He couldn’t do anything with comedy. The idea that a gossamer master of pure verbal fantasy such as Wodehouse or Elmore Leonard might be a better novelist than 1,000 forgotten prize-winning doomsters is alien to him.”

I know that Bloom’s texts are regularly studied by students of literature, and they may well be concerned reading Hensher’s conclusion:

“Bloom spent his life talking about literature to a captive audience, and at the end it looks to me as if he missed the point.”


Is The Book More Important Than The Text?

October 2, 2020

The major Canadian literary prize, the Giller, was won in 2010 by Johanna Skibsrud’s “The Sentimentalists”. The book was published by a small boutique outfit called Gaspereau Press and was available only in a small edition typical of small presses (they specialize in runs of between 400 and 4,000 copies). The Giller would generally add tens of thousands to sales and a number of larger publishers have offered to print a large run. Gaspereau however has so far refused all offers, dismissing Random House et al. as people he wouldn’t want to do business with, and strongly defending tiny quality print runs.

That is one part of an interesting story. The other came in an interview that the publisher at Gaspereau had on CBC Radio one morning where it was noted that Gaspereau has made an e-Book version of “The Sentimentalists” available to anyone online. The publisher dismissed that as merely “the text,” comparing it slightingly with the “book” and being condescending to those who would be content merely “to consume the text” rather than hold the book in their hands.

I understand where he is coming from but I am sure he simply does not see how that diminishes the author, who in this scheme of things merely wrote “the text”, and puts the publisher/binder in the position of artistic genius above them. The book is mightier than the text. Hmmm, I don’t think so.

I’m not interested in reading rubbish no matter how beautifully the physical object is crafted; and I would be happy to read DeLillo and Dos Passos and Richard Brautigan on scrap pieces of paper rather than not read them at all.

 


Remembering John Dos Passos

September 28, 2020

I have a number of favourite writers whose works I re-read as the decades pass.  Joseph Conrad, Nabokov, Dylan Thomas, Brautigan, and John Irving, are among that pantheon.  As is John Dos Passos who died fifty years ago today.

Hemingway and Dos Passos

Every time I read Manhattan Transfer and the U.S.A. Trilogy, I get the exact same thrill of excitement that grabbed me in the 1960s when I first came across them.

Dos Passos moved dramatically from the left to the conservatives in his later years, but his work of transcendental value came well before that.


The Death of Idols

May 9, 2020

I was born in 1949 and so I came of age in the 1960s, but it was the 1950s that informed and coloured so much of my early life and tastes.  This week, we lost two of the most influential figures of that time: the Beat poet Michael McClure, and Little Richard, one of the true originators of rock and roll.

McClure was one of the organizers of the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that introduced us to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Kenneth Rexroth, gave us Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and began what is called the San Francisco Renaissance.  In his semi-fictional account of that night published as Scratching the Surface of the Beats in 1982, McClure recalled:

“The world that we tremblingly stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one. But San Francisco was a special place. Rexroth said it was to the arts what Barcelona was to Spanish Anarchism. Still, there was no way, even in San Francisco to escape the pressure of the war culture. we were locked in the pressure of the Cold War and the first Asian debacle — the Korean War.  My self image in those years was of finding myself — young, high, a little crazed, needing a haircut, in an elevator with burly crew-cutted, square jawed eminences, staring at me like I was misplaced cannon fodder. … We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead — killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”

““It was the critical moment for the Beat Generation, the grouping together of five young proto-anarchists and Buddhists,” said McClure of the Six Gallery Reading. “As we spoke, we realized from the results that we were speaking for the people. We were saying what they needed and wanted to hear, and that encouraged us. We drew a line in the sand and decided not to back off that line.”

I only learned of that event many years later when McClure became a key part of the late 60s revolution, reading at events such as the Human Be-In, the Band’s Last Waltz concert, writing Mercedes Benz for Janis Joplin, and his later close association with Ray Manzarek of the Doors.  I wolfed down huge amounts of McClure and it has stayed with me.

He published more than 30 books of poetry and plays. He died at age 87.

And then there was Little Richard.  In just three years, 1956 to 1958, Little Richard created both a sound and a bravura that would mark rock and roll for ever.  His squealing, his heavy gospel-inspired piano pounding, his quasi-erotic lyrics, his pompadour and flashy clothes, and his androgynous sexuality  set the style from which almost all pop and rock has followed to this day.  “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else.”

He had already retired and become a preacher by then time I was really listening to music, but his songs — Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly — were covered by the Beatles and just about everyone else I followed in the early 60s. He and Jerry Lee Lewis gave us excitement.

Little Richard was also 87 when he died.


Poem: Do Not Go Gently

April 27, 2020

By Dylan Thomas. For my Dad.


The Petticoat Lane Spieler & The Modern Novelist

April 21, 2020

When I was a lad in East London in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of my favourite experiences was to visit Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday. It was — maybe still is — a great open air market specializing in shmutter; thousands of cheap clothes on racks. But there were also stalls selling everything from jellied eels and junk, to carpets and suitcases. It was always packed.

The modern TV infomercial salesmen have nothing on the spielers down the Lane. My favourite was always the china seller; I could listen to his spiel for hours. He would be selling dinner services and tea sets, and he did it by adding each item one by one to a precarious pile on his stall or, most famously, on his arm. “You also get six side plates,” he’d yell, and somehow add them to the pile. “And wait, we’ll also thrown in ‘alf a dozen tea cups, and the saucers wot goes wiv ’em.”  Eventually, he would have dozens of dishes and cups and plates and soup tureens and sauce jugs in a miraculously balanced heap. And he would sell them all for a bargain price.

It was a great show and one of them is featured at the very beginning and very end of this nostalgic short about the Market:

The whole point of the spiel was to sell the dishes of course, but he did it by showing how clever he was piece by piece. Oddly, I was reminded of this as I read Alvaro Enrigue’s 2013 novel “Sudden Death“, which ranges in time between the conquest of Mexico and the Counter-Reformation period of Europe straddling the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I enjoy erudition and learning new stuff but, in this case, at least through the first half of the book, I kept thinking that the author was trying too hard to show how clever and learned he was by piling one exotic fact on top of another, over and over again. The book is certainly more full of facts than it is of plot.

The link through the book is a pallacorda match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball stuffed with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.  Much of the artist’s early career is covered in episodes, as is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Papal politics leading to and from the Council of Trent.  The book swings back and forth in time and location, and the author occasionally breaks through the fourth wall by directly engaging the reader with twenty-first century concerns.

It took me a while to get into this book. The style, while choppy in narrative, is lively and vulgar and delivered in short bursts. Many of the passages are lyrical and, it cannot be denied, an enormous erudition is brought to bear on questions of art especially. What stays with me most is the view of the Conquest from several Mexican points of view.

When I was in my teens, I always finished up my visits to the Lane with a drink at Dirty Dicks pub. It gave me the time to recover from the excitement of the crowds in the Lane and to contemplate what I did and didn’t buy. Similarly, I think it will take me some time to fully appreciate the quality of Enrigue’s work.


Nobels For DeLillo and Irving

April 4, 2020

I am of the opinion that the next two American Nobel Literature prizewinners should be John Irving and Don DeLillo.  I’ve thought that for a while, and so I was delighted to find an essay by Gerald Howard at Bookforum.com urging on the selection of DeLillo.

The failure of the Academy to select Philip Roth before he died was a constant complaint in literary circles.  It was described as equal to their failure to recognize Nabokov, Joyce, or Borges.  However, writes Howard:

“[E]ven while Roth was alive I regarded DeLillo as the greatest living American writer, and now the matter is not remotely debatable. Roth, of course, was a highly visible public figure and a shrewd manager of his own career and reputation, while DeLillo, though by no means the Pynchonian recluse he was once mistaken for, shuns the spotlight and has no interest in the wages of fame. To the extent the matter of a DeLillo Nobel is discussed, the consensus seems to be that yeah, he probably should get it, but he won’t because, well . . . he’s too cerebral, he stays under the radar.”

But,

“By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile.”

Howard writes well of the various reasons DeLillo deserves the Prize.  He concludes by noting

“the dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. He may be the last totally free man in American literature. He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career. His public appearances at readings and panels are sparse … [But] he has in fact given enough interviews over the decades to fill an entire book of them, and in those interviews he speaks of his personal history, his intentions and obsessions as a novelist, his working habits, and, especially, the larger place of the writer in our culture with epigrammatic wit and unshowy eloquence. While his oft-repeated mantra is Joyce’s motto “Silence, exile, and cunning,” Don DeLillo has taken care to be perfectly understood.”

I agree entirely with Howard on DeLillo’s literary importance, on the power of his prose, and on his insights into post-war America.  Given DeLillo’s age, I agree too that he should be the next Nobel winner.  But once that happens, I’ll be leading the charge for John Irving.


Another Date For The Calendar

March 7, 2020

The People’s Co-op Bookstore — Canada’s oldest continuing bookstore — will host a book launch on Wednesday 11th March.  The launch is for Lisa Robertson‘s The Beaudelaire Fractal.

“Robertson, who now lives in France, was a big part of Vancouver’s poetry scene in the 1990s, when she was part of the Kootenay School of Writing collective, and for a time operated Proprioception Books. She is the author of numerous fantastic books of poetry, including The Weather, Debbie: An Epic, 3 Summers, and Cinema of the Present.”

The bookstore is at 1391 Commercial, opening time is 7:30pm, and admission is free!


Salvage The Bones

February 28, 2020

Still working through the best books of the 2010s, I just finished Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward.

Set at the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Salvage The Bones is an intense novel about a dirt-poor black family in a dirt-poor black hamlet on the Mississippi Gulf. Motherless, four kids and their abusive alcoholic father live in a shack in a wooded wasteland of endless poverty. One son hopes and prays for a basketball scholarship as his way out, the youngest just likes to play and eat, and the third son lives for his fighting dog and her puppies. The story is told in the unpretentious and honest but confused voice of the pregnant 14-year old daughter, Esch, who likes to read Greek mythology.

The father, irascible drunk or sober, is convinced that a storm brewing in the Gulf will be the big one, and he tries to cajole his family into helping him prepare; but they are busy with their own lives: Randall has important games to win that will help him get selected, Skeetah needs to look after his dog’s puppies while getting her ready for the big revenge fight with the other kids’ dogs, Esch, who has been having sex since she was twelve because it was easier than saying no, has to confront the fact that the father of her unborn child won’t acknowledge it, and Junior is too young to know any better.

The hurricane hits in the final fifty pages of the novel, slamming into the hamlet with greater fury than even the father had ever imagined; and Ward does a masterful job of describing both the lashing of the storm at his height, and the immense devastation that was left in its wake.  But the strength of this fine work is in the first 200 pages where we learn what it is like to live poor and black in southern Mississippi, where the only real safety (still tenuous) is in the closeness of the sibling bond.

This is tragedy. There is no happy ending, just real life carrying on.


A George Bowering Event

February 18, 2020

One of Canada’s foremost novelists, poet, playwright, critic, and historian, the prolific George Bowering will be in Vancouver for the launch of his newest book.

“Writing and Reading gathers essays and criticism issuing from one of the most productive word processors in the country over the past decade or so.  All over the map in terms of content, style, and even length, a remarkably consistent perspective emerges from these thirty-one pieces, one that places reading at the centre of any writer’s practice.”

And not just in Vancouver but at our own People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial.   The launch begins at 7:30pm on Friday 21st February and admission is free.  A good one to mark in the calendar!


A George Bowering Event

February 8, 2020

One of Canada’s foremost novelists, poet, playwright, critic, and historian, the prolific George Bowering will be in Vancouver for the launch of his newest book.

“Writing and Reading gathers essays and criticism issuing from one of the most productive word processors in the country over the past decade or so.  All over the map in terms of content, style, and even length, a remarkably consistent perspective emerges from these thirty-one pieces, one that places reading at the centre of any writer’s practice.”

And not just in Vancouver but at our own People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial.   The launch begins at 7:30pm on Friday 21st February and admission is free.  A good one to mark in the calendar!


Richard Brautigan

January 30, 2020

Brautigan_Richard_cropped-compressed_media_cycle

 

Today would have been the 85th birthday of Richard Brautigan.

There were entire decades during which I read and re-read the complete Brautigan canon every single year. After Dylan Thomas, Richard Brautigan was my most important influence.  He was especially valuable to me in giving inspiration and value to my flash fictions and poems.

I read and re-read the koans that are the stories in “Trout Fishing In America“, the utter tripiness of “In Watermelon Sugar,” the essential genre pastiches such as “The Hawkline Monster,” “Sombrero Fallout,” and “Dreaming of Babylon“, the straightforward vulnerability of “The Abortion.”  And the poetry.  Every year I read them, for decades.

He is sorely missed.


Milkman

January 28, 2020

Continuing through my reading of the Best Novels of the 2010s, I have managed to get through Milkman, by Anna Burns.  This is an extraordinarily intense work, shot through with wry black humour.

It is narrated by an 18 year old woman who lives in a nationalist “no go” area somewhere in Northern Ireland deep in the violent troubles of the late 1970s.  She is considered “beyond the pale” by some locals — and some family members — because of her habit of reading while walking, and her disdain for the 20th century, preferring instead the world of 19th century literature.  One of her brothers has been killed by the state forces and another is on the run. The narrative thrust of the piece comes from the fact that she is stalked by a much older man — the Milkman of the title — who is considered a heavyweight member of the paramilitary renouncers who control the district.

The novel is written in a style that I can only describe as being like the constant dialogues one has with one’s own thoughts.  It is like a stream of consciousness though with more clarity.  It does, however, mean that it is composed of long complex sentences, often in a shorthand, embedded within very long (sometimes pages long) paragraphs. Once you get used to it, it is a perfect form for this novel though it did  mean it took a while to digest.  It is replete with a raft of beautifully crafted minor players.

One of the shorthand forms is that there are no names in the book; characters are called what they are — “second sister”, “maybe-boyfriend”, “first-brother-in-law”, “longest friend”, “tablet girl’s sister” etc.  The warring factions are also discussed by description rather than names — “renouncers-of-the-state”, “foreign soldiers”, “from over the water”, and the troubles are known as “the border issue” or the “political problem”.

The novel tells of many things. It is the story of a slow and unwanted seduction, of an unrecognised withdrawal from the rest of the community, of family dynamics in a dangerous era, of a failing relationship,  More, it is a devastating portrait of a highly toxic masculinity and the ways in which women, both traditional and modern, deal with that.  It is also helps explain some of the deep-seated tensions that living within a Troubled environment can bring with it.  For example, residents of the neighbourhood would not call an ambulance or got to hospital if they were sick or wounded:

“Of course, she didn’t go to hospital because as with calling the police here – meaning you didn’t call them — involving yourself with medical authorities could be considered imprudent as well.  One set of authorities, pronounced the community, always brought on another set of authorities, and should it be that you were shot, or poisoned, or knifed, or damaged in any way you didn’t feel like talking about, the police … would show up from their barracks right away” and try to turn you into an informer.

Perhaps most of all, Milkman shows the fatally destructive power of gossip within a closed society.

Well worth the read.


Densmore in Oz

January 22, 2020

On the always wonderful Public Domain Review I found a glorious essay on W.W. Densmore, the illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books at the beginning of the last century.  Moreover, it has a collection of dozens of Densmore’s images.  I chose two early examples.

 

Well worth the time!


The Tiger’s Wife

January 8, 2020

I just finished Tea Obreht’s remarkable The Tiger’s Wife, another of the best novels of the 2010s that I am working my way through. Set in an unnamed Balkan country created after the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia, Obreht creates a devastating portrayal of a society ripped apart by centuries-old ethnic and religious animosities, told in a series of overlapping stories saturated with peasant folklore and magical realism.

A young doctor from one side of a border crosses the boundary to help orphans on the other side and to find the body of her recently dead grandfather, also a doctor. In her journey, she discovers and re-discovers the life of the old man and how he was affected by the second world war, life under “the Marshall” (Tito), and in the subsequent civil and independence wars. Central to it all is a tiger, freed from its captivity in the City zoo by Nazi bombardment. The tiger wanders the countryside until it takes up residence around an isolated village where the grandfather is a boy. Its effect on the villagers drives much of the book

It is a compelling story of one family’s experience of some of Europe’s worst times. But this narrative is shot through with long, perhaps fabulous (in its original sense) episodes in her grandfather’s life that illuminate the role of Death (in its multiple guises) in a peasant world forced to deal with the madness of the twentieth century. It is filled with an array of fascinating Balkan characters and the whole is suffused with dreadful superstition and a kind of black comedy.

I thought this was a marvelous book.

 


Western Tales

December 23, 2019

In my continuing effort to read all the best novels of the 2010s, I sat down yesterday to read Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams.  I read it in one gulp — in the time it took to do the laundry, and for the Seahawks to lose to the Cardinals — and wished it would never end.

This is a masterpiece of storytelling in which we follow the life of Robert Grainger, a woodman in the first half of the twentieth-century. In simple direct prose, in paragraphs that could be poetry, we see his tough upbringing, the loss of the family he makes, the daily trauma of life as a lumberman, and the extraordinary changes that were transforming the west in those decades.  Without the slightest sentimentality, we are touched deeply by his tragedies and his ability to continue against awful odds.

This is work of genius, reminding me of Richard Brautigan but without the comic surreality.  I was certain it was the best book I had read in 2019; but then ….

I turned to The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which covers much of the same period,  I gulped this exquisite gem in just two bites, almost not breathing throughout because I was so entranced by its magic.

In a marvelous and innovative way, Otsuka recreates the lives of a group of Japanese women shipped to San Francisco as mail order brides at the beginning of the century. Each chapter describes in vivid and intimate detail a portion of their lives: the trip across the Pacific; the first night with their new husbands; learning about how to deal with white folks and the hard work they were forced to endure; having babies; raising children who often reject their history; the shock of internment, and life after.

Her method — a sequence of linked narratives, often of a sentence only, which works throughout the novel — is hard to describe. I hope this small excerpt does it justice:

“We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 115-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the years. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands … we gave birth in Rialto by the light of kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us in our trunk from Japan …”

I feel privileged to have read this.

 


Writing For Dollars

December 21, 2019

For some, writing can be a very lucrative business.  Forbes magazine has compiled a list of the top five earning authors of 2019:

  1. $92m — J.K. Rowling
  2. $70m — James Patterson
  3. $36m — Michele Obama
  4. $20m — Jeff Kinney
  5. $17m — Stephen King

Other than Michele Obama, the names will be familiar to those who saw the report in March this year that tracked the top writers’ earnings from 2008-2018.  As I wrote then, the rich get a great deal richer.

I doubt that the new anti-transgender controversy concerning Rowling will affect her income to any great extent.