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Archive for September, 2009

September 30th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Wood’s Dying Satyr

"The fiction of Richard Powers sometimes resembles a dying satyr—above the waist is a mind full of serious thought, philosophical reflection, deep exploration of music and science; below, a pair of spindly legs strain to support the great weight of the ambitious brain. Powers thinks, and thinks well, and his almost nostalgic devotion to the European modernist tradition of “The Magic Mountain” and “The Man Without Qualities” makes him rare in American fiction. In his best books, “The Gold Bug Variations” (1991) and “Galatea 2.2” (1995), he displays an impressive command of the languages of music, genetics, computer science, and neurology, but more exciting is his willingness to engage in abstract thought, to argue and persevere, to carry arguments through the rooms of logic. (“The Gold Bug Variations,” in particular, contains several profound essays on Bach.) Contemporary American novelists, compared with Powers, can seem like intellectual visitors, fiddling in the foyers of the mind.*

…on the one hand, high-level ratiocination, and, on the other, the “low-level” system of rutting and coupling. His mating plots tend toward the banal, and are written in a prose that is at once showy and anxiously explanatory (“decided to pull an Aschenbach”). So his novels lead double lives, in which the sophistication of his ideas is constantly overwhelming the rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery; the reader has to learn to switch voltages, like a busy international traveller. What falls in the gap is any subtlety of insight into actual human beings."

This is vintage Wood. Immensely entertaining clarifying metaphors, coupled with insight and a consistent vision of what constitutes merit.

Some may look to novels for discussion of abstract (hysterical?)  ideas and philosophies, I don’t. I want firstly to be caught up in the lives and losses, loves, achievements of others. There is a very distinct feeling of excitement and anticipation – an urge to know more – one gets when transfixed by and in a novel. It’s this experience – a rare one – which overwhelmingly determines greatness. I can think of only one novel in which the discussion of abstract ideas is as captivating as the story of the lives of those who discuss them, and that – as Wood mentions – is The Magic Mountain. There really is something magical about, for example, the way ‘time’ as a subject is explored a top that snow covered peak.

As I recall, Mann’s Satyr ( Mountain goat?) was sturdy enough to carry its heavy load…sure footed enough to enable me not to worry about falling; shifting metaphors here: a net of sufficient strength and woven fineness to allow me, without being torn out of life with its characters – characters who embody and express ideas naturally, and who I don’t have to force myself to believe in – to allow me to fully concentrate on and appreciate the intellectual points being made. There was Balance. A balance that again is extremely rare. Tolstoy may go off raving about his theory of history in War and Peace, but it’s not – by a long shot – enough to loosen the hold the characters’ lives have over us. It’s just a potty bit of essay writing plopped in for no good reason. Not many can get away with this sort of thing without irreparably damaging the whole.

Which gets to the point: while ideas can be welcome additions to stories capable of holding attention – of creating the experience mentioned above – in the vast majority of cases they are best presented as essays. Sure, I’ve heard authors (Denise Mina here for example) argue persuasively in favour of using ‘the novel’ as a tool with which to convey concerns to audiences larger than might otherwise be reached, but if the story isn’t there, and the wind blows,  the cradle falls…

Aldous Huxley wrote brilliant essays. His novels were criticized for being essays by other means. Nothing wrong with trying to meld the two. Just takes skill-sets which often don’t reside simultaneously in the same writer.


* While I love the Satyr metaphor…not sure how clarifying "fiddling in the foyer of the mind" is….fiddling while Rome burns perhaps? Fiddling with themselves…fiddling irritatingly with their fingers…C.S. Lewis I recall talks about not being able to fully appreciate the grandeur and significance of earthly faith until one has stepped from the foyer into one of the rooms of religion.

September 30th, 2009 • Posted in On Book Collecting

How to sell an expensive book

A friend of mine  recently told me of the success he’d had selling a book through an auction house, Bloomsbury I think it was. They took something like 20%, the rest was his. Here’s a list of auction houses that might come in handy if you want to move that Gutenberg you have sitting in the basement:

For a more comprehensive list, check out this page on American Book Prices Current‘s site.

September 30th, 2009 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Another Millions Millennium List for the Independents please…

More ink, or whatever – computer screen characters? -, on The Millions’ Millennium list over at Contra James Wood, where the anti-capitalist harangue continues, (legitimately in this instance), blaming the tight scope of titles selected upon limits imposed by corporate American publishing. The Canadian Giller Prize has long been subjected to the same criticism. Basically, a marketing tool for the big houses. Perhaps it might be worthwhile to engage in another list exercise, this time excluding the big publishers, reading and embracing only the independents? In fact, this might be easily achieved  on paper with the existing statistics.
September 29th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Audio Interview with poet Galway Kinnell conducted by Nigel Beale

NB Authors

Galway Kinnell was born February 1, 1927 in Providence, Rhode Island. He has been hailed as one of the most influential American poets of the latter half of the 20th century. Educated at Princeton and Rochester Universities, he served in the United States Navy, after which he spent several years traveling, in Europe and the Middle East. His first book of poems, What a Kingdom It Was, was published in 1960, followed by Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964).

Upon his return to the United States, Kinnell joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as a field worker and spent much of the 1960s involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Social activism during this time found its way into his work – Body Rags (1968), and especially The Book of Nightmares (1971), a book-length poem concerned with the Vietnam War. Other books of poetry include Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Imperfect Thirst (1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990) and A New Selected Poems (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; He has also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, François Villon, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the 1974 Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America, and the 1975 Medal of Merit from National Institute of Arts and Letters. He has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, and as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007.

We met recently at his home in Vermont to talk about his work. Please listen here:



September 29th, 2009 • Posted in Literary Criticism

Top Twenty books of fiction since 2000…

Over at The Millions, regular contributors and 48 favoured writers, editors and critics were  asked “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” Here are the results:

#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I’m not averse to this kind of exercise, not to the extent Steve Crowe is at least. Lists are great, so long as they are rooted in decent argument. Criticism involves just this; great works are those which are able to stand up over time to attacks and scrutiny, I see The Millions’ effort as simply an early start on the canonization process. What’s predictable, and a bit depressing from the standpoint of the authors, is that, if we grant that ‘greatness’ appears perhaps once a decade or so, then in 50 or 100 years only one or two of these twenty titles will be remembered let alone read or revered.


September 29th, 2009 • Posted in On Book Collecting

How to Build and Organize a Personal Library

A selection of articles on the personal library from here.

September 28th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Thomas Bernhard and NPRs Three Minute Fiction

My former classmate who emigrated to Australia eleven years ago and returned to his Styrian homeland two years ago emigrated to Australia again six months ago, although he knows he will return to Styria again and will continue to emigrate to Australia and return to Styria as often as it takes him to find peace either in Australia or Styria. His father before him, a journeyman baker from the Molltal who went to school with my father,emigrated from Carinthia to Styria at least twenty times and each time returned to Carinthia from Styria until he finally found peace in Carinthia, in Arndorf near St. Veit-on-the-Glan, where in the old smithy – his final lodgings- he hanged himelf on an iron hook because he was homesick for Styria, without, and he was reproached for this at the time and long after his death, thinking of his wife and children.

I choose this story for how it illustrates, how it humourously exaggerates, Bernhard’s tendencies toward repetition, precision, morbidity, parenthetical comment, and sonnet-like endings.

September 27th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Larkin reads Larkin


A Sky News piece about the rediscovery of some recordings of Larkin reading poems from his first collection, The North Ship.(via Rake’s Progress)

September 26th, 2009 • Posted in On Book Collecting

A Site Where you can Trade Rare Books and First Editions?

I’ve seen a few textbook trading sites on the Web, and then there are sites for swapping reading copies (Bookmooch, etc.), but nothing for book collectors. What I’d love to see is a site where people with modern firsts, and other rare books, can post what they have to trade, and list what they want. Is anyone aware of such a site? I’ll try contacting  a few bibliophilic societies to see if they are aware of any. Stay tuned.


September 26th, 2009 • Posted in Authors and Books

Duck Tale wins first round of NPRz Three Minute Fiction

NPR is running a short story contest. Listeners send in original short stories that can be read in three minutes or less. Here’s the winner of round one:

NB Fauna.

Not That I Care

by Molly Reid

There goes our neighbor, Jim, running into the street again. He grabs one of the ducks crossing. Doesn’t even look to see if anyone is looking, just scampers out — hunched over, elbows bent and reaching behind him like he’s trying to grow wings or is throwing himself to the asphalt — then scoops a duck and holds it with both hands close to his chest and runs back into his house.

This has been going on for two weeks; started around the time Marcus left, or at least that’s when I first noticed it. The ducks always squawk like someone has just thrown a hundred bread crumbs into the lake, moving in frantic, dizzy eights around the stolen duck’s absence. I don’t think anyone sees him but me. The houses on our street keep the curtains closed. There’s nothing ever to see on our street.

I sit at the window drinking pot after pot of weak black coffee, drumming my fingers on the windowsill and chewing off the extra tiny bits of skin inside my cheeks, pondering whether it’s always a different group of ducks that cross our street, migrating from the man-made lake across town, or if Jim lets the snatched duck go some time later, and maybe the same group of ducks make the same trek every day, an afternoon waddle, forgetting about the dangers of this street. Or maybe the ducks and Jim have reached an understanding, a mutually-agreed-upon ritual.

When Marcus left, he left behind a pair of dirty socks, one hiding under the bed and one right in plain sight, curled into itself and getting smaller every day, like a sad little salted slug. I can’t bring myself to touch them. I wonder if he left them on purpose, if they’re supposed to communicate something, something about cheating and the things we discard, the state of our souls, the process by which galaxies implode.
Once Jim has gone inside with the duck, the other ducks remain in the middle of the street, going around and around each other accusingly, angry toddlers pacing in waddles. I think about moving them to safety. Not that any cars drive down our street. Not, anyway, like Marcus used to, speeding, snarled music, brakes wheezing, spitting rocks. I should at least run out and comfort the remaining ducks, tell them it’s going to be ok, that sooner or later the sting of absence will lessen. One day those blue and green feathers, you won’t remember them so soft.

Not that I know that for sure. Or that I know anything about feathers. Not that they could understand me, being ducks.

Or I could go next door, take that duck back, let him go, let them all go free. If it wasn’t for the look on Jim’s face, lips pressed together like he has a mouth full of jellybeans, like he’s getting away with something — which I let him believe, which I understand the importance of. I keep watching. And every time he takes another duck, I get closer to thinking about moving away from the window.

James Wood, will, at some point, choose the champion, and read it out over the air. Stay tuned.