29 June 2011
At The Millions today, my Q&A with Ayelet Waldman, author of the NY Times Best-Seller Bad Mother and the novels Red Hook Road and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. Waldman and her husband Michael Chabon are co-writing a pilot for HBO called “Hobgoblin.” Darren Aronofsky to direct.
Also, from last week, my take on Richard Yates‘s The Easter Parade.
A couple of other interesting posts recently at The Millions: Lydia Kiesling reviews Carmela Ciararu‘s Nom de Plume (and the author responds strongly in the comments), and Timothy Aubry reviews The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.
Finally, we are reminded of Deborah Eisenberg saying, in a 2010 profile, “I’m sort of desperately throwing myself against pieces of paper and only coming up with what look like bug smears.” A new short story by Eisenberg is up at NYRB.
15 June 2011
Long for This World is a featured title in Salem Press’s Magill’s Literary Annual 2011, just released. This means that an in-depth essay-review has been commissioned and published in the Annual. From Salem Press’s description:
Each year, Magill’s Literary Annual critically evaluates 200 major examples of serious literature, both fiction and nonfiction, published during the previous calendar year.
The philosophy behind our selection process is to cover works that are likely to be of interest to general readers, that represent the major literary genres, that reflect publishing trends, that are written by authors being taught in literature programs, and that will stand the test of time.
These reviews are about four pages long – much more detailed and thorough than most magazine and journal reviews. Here are some highlights from the essay-review, written by C. L. Chua:
Sonya Chung’s Long for This World is a most promising debut novel of ambitious spatial scope and intriguing psychological depth. For Chung’s “world” is nothing less than the whole contemporary, jet-spanned globe as well as the exquisitely wrought, infinite spaces of her protagonists’ interior psyches. Indeed, the novel’s characters, locales, and events form a transnational, extended-family saga, involving a host of personages leading varied lives in different cultures on several continents, all of which is narrated through a polyphony of narrative viewpoints.
The length of such a complex book could have easily rivaled that of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), to which Chung nods at one point in her novel, but Chung seems to be applying a principle of imagism in order to keep her narrative compact. She hints at this principle in the coda of her novel when her first-person narrator, Jane, an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, mounts an exhibit of her work significantly entitled “Accidental Family.”
Chung’s structures her narrative through the presentation of verbal snapshots of time, place, and persons, allowing the snapshots to relate a story through imagistic juxtaposition or contrast, by zooming in to elaborate with details or zooming out for a holistic perception. Chung’s narrative, then, is not linear; its events are not linked causally but casually, almost accidentally, and the reader is drawn into constructing the links between Chung’s images of moments in a contingent existence. Chung’s verbal images are themselves gems of brilliant clarity and sharp focus—whether they be of the delicate minutiae of the preparation of a Korean meal, the visceral fear of a woman confronting a snarling dog, or the skin-scouring details of a Korean bath house [...]
Sonya Chung’s Long for This World is a strikingly accomplished novel of a new talent. Rich with brilliant verbal images, complex family relationships spanning multiple generations on two continents, and sharply realized characters both flawed and admirable, Chung’s novel is a disturbing photo album that interrogates its viewer about a highly contingent contemporary existence in which it is just as easy to feel that things happen for no reason as to feel that they do happen for a reason.
Nice cover image, eh?
Authors included this year are Martin Amis, Louise Erdrich, Chang-rae Lee, Steig Larsson, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Miller, Kenzaburo Oe, Scott Turow, Michael Lewis, Sam Lipsyte, David Remnick, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Robert Stone, Ian McEwan, Patti Smith, Anne Carson, Rebecca Skloot, among others.
4 June 2011
I had just been thinking about re-reading – its value – when I came across this article at Open (via Bookforum’s Paper Trail). The article claims that most of us re-read as a “guilty pleasure” – for “the comfort of the same old story and the same old characters and the same old ending…” Hmm. The writer continues:
To pick up a yellowed, tattered copy of a Turgenev or a Tagore is almost a guilty pleasure today, one that has to be explained away by the need to rediscover old texts from new perspectives. But why pretend? I reread, not in search of new meanings in familiar words and sentences, but precisely to taste the old meaning all over again. In exactly the same way, every single time.
Well. I’d been thinking about this because I was running along the Hudson River path and (distracting myself from knee pain by) listening to “Selected Shorts”. The story was Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which most of us have read at least twice by the time we graduate college. I was just about to fast forward through it (the next story was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”), but then I thought, Well, why not listen. The reader was the eminent Terrence Mann.
I was very glad that I decided to listen. The story really did strike me in new ways – as not only a traditional narrative of human psychology and guilt, but also a compelling consideration of the fluidity of wisdom, madness, and “nervousness” – a perspective that always intrigues me, as it subverts all conventional notions of morality and normality. It’s not exactly that I saw something new, but that I apprehended the layers somehow more clearly, and the implications of the ideas sunk in more deeply. What’s “crazy,” and who decides? (Regarding the timelessness of these ideas, there is a new book by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, that has been getting a lot of attention.)
Perhaps this is also an argument for “reading” literature in different formats – print, audio, etc. But the other thing I considered (as I hauled myself up an endless set of steps in Riverside Park) was how well Mann – whose reading was superb – had simply followed the rhythms inherent in the text itself. Consider the frenetic short sentence pacing in this passage:
… for many minutes the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.
And the smoother, longer, compound sentences in this passage, which serves as a kind of stabilizing fermata, following the above:
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.
The acceleration and choppiness in this passage, which concludes this section:
I took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly so cunningly, that no human eye — not even his — could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out — no stain of any kind — no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that.
I love the sounds, rhythms and absence of comma in “so cleverly so cunningly,” which feels like slipping over a waterfall.
The story in fact grabbed me anew from its first line – True! Nervous — very, very nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? I actually laughed out loud listening to it – my very own mad nervousness escaping me.
So I think that this claim that we’re all “pretending” to see or experience something new when we re-read is rather thin. You’d have to be completely static in mind and soul for “exactly the same way, every single time,” which strikes me as virtually impossible.