Harry, Revised

Mark Sarvas’ debut novel was another book I loved, that I never had the time to post about in the whirlwind of spring.

I waited until paperback to take the plunge with Mark’s book, fearing I might not like it. I am such a big fan of The Elegant Variation, which strikes me as a wonderful model book blog: mostly bookish, but with just enough posts about personal matters to fill out the sense of voice, to make me care all the more about his John Banville obsession. And I’ve met Mark a couple times and like him a ton.

But I knew that it was a book about a young widower, about a man whose wife had died during botched plastic surgery. That seemed dubious to the feminist in me: the woman pays with her life for the man’s epiphany that looks are not all that matters.

In the end, it was true that I found it really hard to take Anna's death: I liked her and identified with "the wife" (besides, that name! oy, my narcissism slays me) so the book was upsetting at first. Still, I persisted and then really, really grew to love the book. Like Ilana Stanger-Ross’s novel, Mark’s is that wonderful kind of book: literary fiction that is a delight to read. Some of the sentences are divine; some of the comedy is hilarious; there are no missteps. For pleasure reading, isn’t it so lovely to find that balance between intelligent and unpretentious?

There is a whole scene about a lost wedding ring, the jeweler's vengeance, the wife's oblivious unraveling of the whole deception is utterly hilarious: it's hard to write great comedy that also has poignancy. I told it to my mom on the phone and she, an aficionado of post-adulterous revenge, cooed "ooh, that's good!"

(She has since read the book, and, uncharacteristically for her [who always sides with wives] concurred that Anna made many mistakes in that marriage, that Harry had a point when...)

Anyway, it’s in paperback and I think it’s totally worth it. It makes me so happy when friends—even virtual friends—write books that I can recommend.

Exasperation and Elevation

Ed Champion asked me to participate in a roundtable on Eric Kraft's new novel, Flying. (It's actually a trilogy, bound together into a very big book). I am a big fan of Ed's & I am, occasionally, nostalgic for the days of the Litblog Co-op, so I said YES.

The first installment of five is up at Ed's place.

It's a very weird book, one that I found exasperating and fascinating, as you'll see when I weigh in (at a late phase in the conversation). The conceit, however, is really interesting: a boy in the 50's builds an aerocycle, based on improbable plans from a mechanics magazine, and flies it from Long Island to New Mexico. As you might expect, the aerocycle doesn't fly, BUT many people want to believe that it does and the boy is simultaneously buoyed and ruined by keeping alive the fiction of himself as a pilot. The book we have in our hands purports to be the record of the much older man today, striving to write a memoir that sets the record straight.

There's a lot that's funny here, but the book is a spot too long for me. In any case, do pop over to Ed's blog throughout the week and listen in.

War, Trauma, and the Real in The Farther Shore

I don’t suppose I’d pick up The Farther Shore if I didn’t have to read it as an assignment, if you will, for the LitBlog Co-op. I’m glad that it crossed my desk and that the prospect of a conversation about it kicked it to the top the pile of books. It’s a moving, lovely, spare book--both fast-paced and elegant. It should be a movie: it’s exciting and violent and dramatic with a simple, straightforward story arc. At 173 pages, it clips right along.

We begin with six American soldiers, all men, working the night lookout on a rooftop in an unnamed coastal African city. Stantz, Zeller, Santiago, Fizer, Heath, and Cooper, staunch off fear and boredom as they look down over a city they don’t understand. It’s a familiar scene. It comes as much from Hemingway and Hollywood as from experience. And even the protagonist, Joshua Stantz, is a familiar type: the sensitive young man, in over his head, smarter than his sergeant and counting the days until he can go home and apply to college through the G.I. Bill.

Things go wrong fast and suddenly a few of the characters you were just trying to keep straight, flipping back to see which one is the medic or the wiseass, are not characters but corpses. We have a situation. It’s serious. And the soldiers have to improvise a plan.

The prose is so elegant and thoughtful that this very familiar structure--of soldiers cut off from the army, working their way back--seems not formulaic but classic.

For example, early in the book Stantz thinks “there were close to a million people out there, and most of them had probably just been scared out of their sleep” (5). That’s just lovely to me: in imagining the people in the city as people, Stantz immediately complicates and humanizes his own presence as an American soldier. What is he doing there?

So sick from the heat he cannot eat for most of the book, Stantz always thinks of the Somalians as people. He’s never condescending and when he fumbles, we blush with him. He asks a man who’d studied in the States if he misses the U.S. Do I miss it? The man is dismissive. Americans always want to know if we miss America, he scoffs. Stantz is hang-dog and we can feel him making a mental note for better behavior on his next encounter. (I’d bet this is an autobiographical moment.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I started off intending to write about The Farther Shore as a war book but, truth be told, my days of reading Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Tim O’Brien are in the past. Other greats of war literature--Crane, Remarque--are shamefully untouched. I never finished Catch-22. The war book that I know best is Mrs. Dalloway and reading Matthew Eck is like reading a prequel to the shell shock she depicts there. Again and again, Stantz consciously decides not to think about something, stuffing it down, knowing that his survival depends on his not dwelling on this or that horror or bit of grotesquerie. He must continue to run, to hide, to use his wits to move forward. This for me is what makes this beautiful little novel so moving: the pain of watching someone set himself up for a long, hard recovery.

READ THIS: Matthew Eck The Farther Shore

It's Matthew Eck week and we're doing something a little different this time at the LBC.

Rather than asking you to keep you eyes always on that site, we're posting stuff on Eck all over the whole web. It's our hope that you won't be able to read a litblog without coming upon mention of his book...

Of course, over here at Fernham, I've yet to do much to add to the general celebration. We've been felled by a range of rather dull ailments, deadlines, and tasks--mildly ill children, leading to extra loads of laundry, etc. But fear not. I hope to post on Eck before the week is out.

In the meantime, you might check out Levi's interview or Dan's review or, if you don't want to take Dan's word for it, then check out all the other reviews here.

READ THIS: Matthew Eck The Farther Shore

Well, the LitBlog Co-op took a quarter off (did you miss us? did you notice?) to regroup and sharpen our mission. But we're back, in time for the winter reading rush, if there is such a thing, with a new READ THIS selection, Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore.

It's a spare and gripping war novel, by a veteran and set in an unnamed Somalia.

I was dubious at first, but the prose is so expert. It's a compelling and moving read. I'm happy to urge you to READ THIS.

There will be posts over at the LBC site and all over the blogosphere about Eck's book all next week. In the meantime, get yourself a copy so that you can participate in the discussion.

Gwenda Bond, Rainmaker

Well, I missed Always week--and that’s a sign of just how busy and scattered life is here at Fernham. For, how else could I miss a week focusing on a feminist writer whose latest book is set in Seattle? (That makes 3 recent LBC books in the PNW, by the way: Seven Loves, The Cottagers, and Always!)

In any case, you might check out some of the great discussion of and by Nicola Griffith at the LBC website and around the blogosphere. Gwenda Bond nominated the book and she really made it happen this week. You can read
  1. the Roundtable at the LBC
  2. Nicola at 5X5
  3. A guest essay at Booksquare
  4. Bookslut blog interview
  5. Metroblogging Seattle post
  6. and The Pivot Questionnaire.

And, I’d say, if you ever want someone to be your rainmaker, get on Gwenda’s good side fast. She really made it happen!!

Read This: Jamestown

This quarter’s Litblog Co-op Read This pick--thanks to Megan Sullivan--is Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown. The book was in the window at Three Lives in the Village a few months back and the clerk there was excited about it, too, so don’t just take it from us…

The discussion of it and the other nominees is going to be heating up across the web as we enter the dog days of August. So, to whet you appetite, you might want to read Leora Skolkin-Smith’s review or hear Sharpe himself read from the book on NPR or read a short and cheeky interview at New York Magazine (where they don’t do long and thoughtful) or a longer and more detailed interview from Small Spiral Notebook (by Scott Esposito, no less).

Then, of course, hop over to Soft Skull and get your own copy…

Our Byzantium

It's Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead week over at the LBC (say that three times fast) and this is cross-posted from there. Alan DeNiro's collection is amazing and fun--full of powerful, clever fantasy and emotion. There is a lot of activity there--many of us are posting on one of the stories from the collection--so hop on over and check it out...

I’ve always loved--loved--the Ron Carlson story “What We Were Trying To Do. You may have heard it on NPR, too. It’s about the first people under siege who tried to pour oil on the invading forces: they don’t heat the oil, everyone gets slippery and messy but the invasion continues. The lesson: next time, we’ll use boiling oil…

Alan DeNiro’s “Our Byzantium” is not purely silly the way Carlson’s story is, but it has that perfect pitch deadpan. I was hooked from the first line: “In your absence, the Byzantines infiltrate our city.”

The story goes on with a double plot-line: one plot trying to figure out how it came to be that the Byzantines are invading at all (did they escape the fall of Constantinople [in 1453, DeNiro helpfully “reminds” us] and lie dormant in the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania for centuries?) and one plot about how “you” left Eastern Pennsylvania, driving all the way out west to Pittsburgh to visit “Todd.”

Alone, either plot might be fine. The Byzantium plot could be a good, funny story, akin to Carlson’s. The story about how the narrator tries to figure out why he is more attracted to the elusive and unavailable “you” than to the present, kind, and pretty Jerilynn (who has her own unavailable object of desire) might have been a sweet tale about our fickle hearts.

Together, they are magical, poignant, and, because of the constant threat of violence from marauding Byzantines, not too sentimental.

And then, there is this lovely moment near the end. “Yeats had it wrong,” DeNiro writes. “This is a country for old men.” I love a nice allusion and when a buried one emerges and enriches, well, then I’m doubly pleased.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees--
Those dying generations -- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

The Cottagers, Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die

So, last week was all about Mark Binelli's romp of an historical novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die--life intervened and so only belatedly am I urging you to hop over there and check out the discussion.

This week is for The Cottagers a chilling suspense and murder tale about unhappy young academics on vacation on Vancouver Island. It's a brutal, gorgeously written and stressful book. I found myself savoring the first half and then gorging on the second--partly the pleasure of suspense and partly, I'll confess, the need to leave the company of these yucky people--nightmare versions of myself and other academics I've known...

Our fearless nominator, C. Max Magee, is emceeing the festivities. He posted--and inspired a second post--on suspense yesterday and he kicks off today's posts with an elegant description of bad vacations--how soon things go awry, how fun they are to read about. I contributed a post of my own--all true--too.

(And, as I'm posting from away from home today--but this is a research trip, not a vacation--I'm hoping this isn't a jinx....)

READ THIS: Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead

Well, spring quarter festivities have begun over at the LitBlog Co-op. This quarter's pick is the dreamy and moving Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro. It's a jolly, rich Borgesian ride.

Take this tidbit, for instance, the opening lines to the story "A Keeper": "Tonight the woman who always calls, calls. This time she asks me how to divid a beggar and an arctangent. What could I have possibly said to her? I think she is a keeper. 'Stop trying to mix the humanities and the sciences. And go to be.'"

Read this: new Ngugi

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new novel The Wizard of the Crow is this quarter’s READ THIS selection from the LBC. I was a little sorry that my nominee, the wonderful Seven Loves by Valerie Trueblood didn’t win. Still, there’s no shame in losing to a masterpiece written by a master.

Ngugi is the author of many novels and plays--Petals of Blood and A Grain of Wheat are the best known; he spent years in prison in his native Kenya for the ideas expressed in his books; he has taught all over the U.S. (And why, oh why, when he & I overlapped, did I not take his class?) After writing his first couple novels in English, he did what many, many postcolonial writers cannot do or dare not do: he switched to writing in Gikuyu. He then translates his books into English. Ngugi is a powerful advocate against colonialism and the continued colonialist financial exploitation of Africa and the developing world more generally. His “Decolonizing the Mind” is a widely anthologized polemic, an essay about the power of walking away from English, the colonial language.

All of this is pretty serious stuff and I admit that, although I am glad to have read A Grain of Wheat, I don’t look back on the experience of reading it with joy. So, why should you read The Wizard of the Crow?

Well, as interesting as it is to know all this stuff about Ngugi, put it aside and pop over to the LBC and read some of the other enthusiastic accounts about this new novel there. The Wizard of the Crow is a great, serious, hilarious satire. At its heart is a love story and, to my delight, the woman and man are evenly matched and she is lovely, strong, complex and interesting. At the heart of their story--the tension in their friendship and wary courting--is the conflict between what George Orwell called the desire to live inside the whale with the need to step out of his belly and prophesy. That is, in the face of overwhelming violence and corruption, don’t you just want to retreat to the forests and live the life of a mystic? But how can you leave behind the sufferings of your neighbors, your people? There are layers and layers of storytelling, which make the book, for all its heft, just sing along. And, though every character is weak and flawed--some much more than others--Ngugi shows such affection for and understanding of them all that you finish feeling the joy and variety of life as much as the corruption of society. Someone said Catch-22 and, if I’d been able to finish that book, I think I’d agree with the comparison to be apt. Maybe John Irving at his best. Or Rushdie at his. And yes, absolutely Garcia Marquez. But really, what I think of is Dickens: that broad, teeming canvas, full of eccentricities and joy.

So, do yourself a favor and READ THIS!!! Man, it’s good!

Trueblood, Jones

Carolyn (Pinky's Paperhaus) & Ed (Return of the Reluctant) collaborated on the podcast with Valerie Trueblood. It’s preceded by a mini-interview with me: very strange to hear one’s own voice--and laugh.

This week is Demon Theory week at the LBC. It’s another of the nominees this quarter. This book--a literary film treatment of a horror trilogy--is not my kind of book and I didn’t much like it. However, there is a lot interesting in it--enough that I participated in a roundtable discussion of it with four other LBC’ers. I think that roundtables like this one mark one of the strengths of the LBC: lots of bloggers getting together to “talk” about a title. (We emailed back and forth for a week or so, refining and adjusting our responses as the thing grew and grew.) So, hop back over to the LBC and check out the roundtable!

Seven Loves Week at the LBC

This week we’re talking about Valerie Trueblood’s great debut novel Seven Loves over at the LitBlog Co-op. There’s a contest--you could win a free copy of the book if you haven’t read it--and more! I interviewed here and will post that tomorrow: it’s a great, rich, and interesting interview with lots to chew on. Please do go read it tomorrow and then go back to the LBC on Thursday: Valerie will be guestblogging and so, if you have a question for you, you can pose it.

And if you’re still hungry for more, you can find an excerpt to a wonderful essay on reading here.

Finally, just so you know that I’m not alone in my admiration. There is a wonderful review here.

READ THIS! Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow

The LBC has spoken: this quarter’s selection is Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s sprawling masterpiece, Wizard of the Crow. It’s an amazing romp through an African dictatorship: at once pointedly satirical about political corruption at all levels, hilarious, and moving. It’s also the first African novel I’ve read by a man with really strong, wonderful, brave women characters. We’ll be talking about Wizard over at the LBC in two weeks—with interviews with Ngugi and all the other bells and whistles you’ve come to expect.

I was a little bummed that the novel I nominated didn’t win, but it is a great wonderful book: you should read it, too. I nominated Valerie Trueblood’s Seven Loves. I’ve already written about the process of finding it. If you pop over to the LBC site today, you can see my testimonial about it.

We’ll be talking about Seven Loves all next week: there’s a podcast, a written interview, and the author will be guest-blogging to boot! Grab a copy of the book, read it over the weekend and stop by….

Upcoming at the LBC

Next quarter is my first one up with a nominee at the Litblog Co-op. I nominated Valerie Trueblood’s first novel, Seven Loves. It’s the story of a woman’s life through seven people whom she’s loved: a moving conceit and a novel that more than lives up to it. It’s a terrific book.

It’s going to be a really interesting January over at the LBC. Seven Loves is up against a really weird novel by Stephen Graham Jones, Demon Theory. The book is written as a really fleshed-out screenplay for a horror movie. It’s exactly not the book for me: a little gimmicky, a little sexist, a little silly and, I must say, I’m enjoying it. The third book is the new novel by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (The Wizard of the Crow, the Kenyan novelist whose A Grain of Wheat is a postcolonial classic: a tough, intense book that I’ve taught a couple times.

I was so intimidated in my quest for a book to nominate. I got really focused on finding a book that the other bloggers would like, forgetting that I needed to find one that I liked. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how many, many new books other bloggers must see all the time. I don’t work in a great bookstore; I don’t have an MFA and lots of friends from grad school days; I don’t get all that many free books. How could I possibly find a book that would really deserve touting?

I thought about what I wanted and missed from the past couple quarters since I started participating. I decided that I wanted to find either an African book or a book by a woman. I couldn’t find the African novel I wanted: some great-sounding books were just a little bit too old; lots and lots of first novels by African women sounded formulaic; Chimamanda Adichie’s book came out to so much acclaim that nominating it would harldy fulfill the mission of the LBC; Tsitsi Dangarembga’s second book came out so quietly, I didn’t notice it.

I turned to women writers. I wanted the woman’s book to have an unobtrusively feminist perspective and a female protagonist. Maybe that sounds heretical to the aesthetes among you. I insist on great writing and I felt that I’d read a lot of great writing from nominees. But I wanted to read great writing from a woman that sounded womanly to me. Edie Meidav and Sheila Heti (I almost called her Sheila Ticknor) ventriloquize a male voice and write about men; Gina Frangello’s S&M book was too sexual for me. So, I worried and struggled and, when the babies slept, I went back onto amazon.com and typed in book after book that I liked to see if the recommendations would yield a surprise.

Then, out of the blue, I got a sweet email from someone who, from reading my blog, thought, that, perhaps, I would like her novel. Might she send me a copy?

Well, as you know, I love free books. I said yes.

And the rest is history. I read Seven Loves. I loved it. I nominated it. And, on January 15, the discussion will begin. What a round it should be: the firework-y men’s book I’ve come to expect, the African novel I sought and did not find, and Trueblood’s beautiful, moving, strong story. Stay tuned….

Firmin week at the LBC

This quarter’s Read This! pick from the LitBlog Co-op is Firmin by Sam Savage. I really can recommend that you read it: if you’re reading this, if you like reading enough that you read lit-blogs, you’ll likely be charmed, as I was, by this fable about a rat whose born into a Boston bookstore and learns to read.

Really.

The book is beautiful and full of charming little pen-and-ink illustrations. Hungry, Firmin gnaws on paper and then surprises himself by learning to read. As he works himself through the books by the great ones, the gap between his life and the glamour of the lives he reads about grows ever more painful and poignant.

There is some discussion at the site about whether or not Firmin is really a rat—eavesdrop or chime in as you wish. (I think he’s a rat…).

I was inspired to contribute my own reminiscence of Boston area bookstores.