Random Statistics from 2010.

January 3, 2011

The search term which most often landed people on this blog, if you aggregate both singular and plural:


This term from Chronic City beat out my blog’s name and (third on the list) “obstinate dust” to take top honors. I also mischievously pulled in traffic from likely spelling errors by those looking for Wolf Hall but who typed “woolf hall”.

Due to the above, it is unsurprising that my most popular post was my review of Chronic City. Much to my dismay, my second most popular review was of The Help.

This has been “Random Statistics from 2010”.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

June 28, 2010

I read this book before reading Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. I am only writing this review now because I had not been entirely what to say on finishing The Good Soldier. It is an outstanding work full of memorable quotes, intense scenes, and engaging characters. I hesitated to write anything, then ended up reading What I Loved which contains so many parallels to this work that I lost confidence that I could separate my appreciation of the two works.

The two books involve entangled families in which the story is related by a male protagonist trying to make sense of what went wrong in the families’ intertwined histories. The non-narrating male lead is a charismatic good guy who, nonetheless, remains emotionally remote from, if not everyone, at least the reader. The narrator seems more able to relate the emotions and significance of his counterpart’s wife than his own. And both involve psychological intrigue of a darkly disquieting nature.

Other than these points of contact, however, the novels are completely different. Well, nearly so.

John Dowell is the narrator of The Good Soldier and tells us early why he is telling this story:

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unkown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; of, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The tragedy is the dissolution of the small coterie made up of the two couples and the lesser satellites they trap into orbit. Almost immediately in his narratirion, John tells us that there will be no unscathed survivors. Everyone is either dead, insane, or irrevocably broken. As for John, he tells us:

I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.

And John is the one that gets off somewhat easy. Three others are dead.

The whos, hows, and whys of the trio of deaths leads the reader into a labyrinthian social circle from which there is no safe escape. Captain Edward Ashburnan, the “good soldier” of the title, provides the central gravitational pull of the group.

Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear [his regally charming appearance and abundant carrying cases] was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier….How could he arouse anything like a sentiment in anybody?

…Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists – all good soldiers are of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy…..He would say how much the society of a good woman could do towards redeeming you, and he would say that constancy was the finest of the virtues. He said it very stiffly, of course, but still as if the statement admitted of no doubt.

What John Dowell does not see, the reader can see almost immediately. Captain Edward Ashburnham has a suave bearing and an understated instensity that women adore. Once they have fallen and Edward has caught them, he is loathe to let them go. This sort of fidelity is, of course, immensely attractive to the opposite sex. And, as if to retain his mistresses’ hearts with secure permanence, Edward worships his wife.

John is a somewhat dull and impotent character who does not understand why Edward is so compelling as he, John, remains a steadfast friend even after Edward’s death and the revelation of painful truths. In circumstances which will make the average reader cringe with revulsion at Edward’s conduct, John gives him a pass. Edward is that kind of man, he has that sort of effect. And, in the end, he may have that effect on the reader too.

The alternatives to Edward are John, in his drab guilelessness, the conniving and disgusting Jimmy, or solitude. Edward is a respectable man, a man to emulate, to envy. The others are only to be pitied. Of course, John does not realize this. He gropes through life unable to decipher the quiet maneuverings of man. His naivete is the tool through which Ford promotes the central theme of the novel, which, if it is not the ephemeral quality of truth, is the duplicity inherent in civilization.

Through a narrator who is constantly having to revise his understanding of the world and the people around him, Ford demonstrates the contingency of knowledge. By the time the story is finished, as John tells us early on, other people begin to appear to John as “incalculable simulacra among smoke wreaths.” The theme is driven home with beautiful language and an intricate plot, much as in Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The strength of this work relative to What I Loved is that The Good Soldier relies on a naively trusting narrator observing more worldly wise companions to demonstrate the fragility of truth. Hustvedt’s relies on an pathologically deceptive character for similar purpose. Thus, The Good Soldier is more powerful in demonstrating that ordinary social intercourse undermines the childlike view that appearance is reality, whereas What I Loved relies on the extraordinary to do the same.

This is not to say that What I Loved does not have its strengths as well, but I believe this review has helped me determine what it is about What I Loved that did not quite work for me. Or maybe it did work, but I took less pleasure in it. In important ways, the works are not similar, but opposites.

But finally, what I have to say is this: If you have read and enjoyed The Good Soldier, you should pick up What I Loved for a delightful comparison. If you have read and enjoyed What I Loved, or if you have not, but have yet to read The Good Soldier, I highly recommend you do. This book is a classic for a reason.

TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Book of Night Women

March 30, 2010

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is flat pretending to be round.” – E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel

These two historical novels make a good match. Hilary Mantel demonstrates what can be achieved, Marlon James demonstrates the difficulty of achieving it.

The protagonist of Wolf Hall is, by Forster’s standard, round. Most readers will have some familiarity with the name and deeds of Thomas Cromwell, though, for many on the west coast of the Atlantic, details may be sketchy. Even considerable familiarity does not bleed Cromwell of convincing surprise. Cromwell is round and he is brilliantly invented.

Mantel manages to fill the novel with other convincing characters as well. Thomas More, King Henry, Queen Anne, Thomas Cranmer, and Cardinal Wolsey, to name a handful, are characters who “are ready for an extended life”, as Forster puts it in describing Jane Austen’s characters. Partly, this is because of the original method Mantel has of narrating the novel. “He” refers to Cromwell unless context suggests otherwise. By this fairly unique method, Mantel is able to make the third-person peculiarly intimate. We know the other characters as Cromwell knows them. They are alive.

Marlon James is freed somewhat by having chosen entirely fictional characters, but manages, oddly, to be less inventive. His narrator is, one assumes, supposed to be surprising, but feels less original, less insightful than Mantel’s narrator. The main character, Lilith, comes closest to full roundness, but, ultimately, I did not find her convincing. She felt like she was being directed to make a point, rather than acting and feeling naturally. I am all for characters being subject to authorial control, but they must be controlled convincingly. Homer and the other supporting characters have the same problem Lilith has. To the extent their actions are convincing, they tend not to surprise. To the extent surprising, they tend not to convince. Homer’s personality, her revealed motivations, her intelligence, and her actions do not combine in a convincing fashion. The legs are not all the same length; her character wobbles.

This probably sounds like a slam of The Book of Night Women, but it is not meant to be. I did find the book entertaining and worth reading. However, a comparison to Wolf Hall demonstrates precisely how short of perfection it comes. Wolf Hall is not perfection, but it is sufficiently close to act as a measuring stick for The Book of Night Women. One of these is a lasting monument of literature, the other is a very good book.

Wolf Hall must win.

My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: February 18, 2010

February 18, 2010

Fiction’s Job is discussed over at A Commonplace Blog

Sasha reviews Zoe Heller’s The Believers

VQR Online discusses Amazon v. MacMillan: The Commoditization of Art

Notes on Bartleby and Zero

The Best Translated Book Award Shortlist is out, The Mookse and The Gripes has the scoop.

The secret behind hot sales of The Road to Serfdom.

Slow week here, busy in the outside world.

January 28, 2010

I have been very busy with work this week, so posts are light to non-existent. I will have new posts, including My Favorite Lit-Blog Things, possibly starting tomorrow, but definitely by Saturday.

In the meantime, enjoy perusing the blogroll and the archives.


Great Years for Books

December 15, 2009

D.G. Meyers at A Commonplace Blog is realistically pessimistic about 2010 being a great year in books. The reality is that most years do not produce even one “book for the ages”, even if most years produce plenty of very good books. A “great year” would, it seems, require more than one “great book”, like 1925 with the following stunners: The Great Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway, The Trial. 1925 had other outstanding works, but what year since 1990 has seen such brilliance?

Just to kick off a discussion, I submit the year 2001, using The Millions “Best Books of the Millenium (So Far)“. From that list, we have: The Corrections, Austerlitz, Atonement, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, and Marriage, and Stranger Things Happen. If you add the Millions’ reader’s picks, throw in Empire Falls. Whether you count all of these as great books, surely almost everyone can pick out at least two that they think will stand the test of time.

Has a more recent year been better? Are we due a great year? Maybe 2011? Was it 2009? Will it actually be 2010?

[Update: D.G. Meyers provides a very thorough and well-informed reply to my query. The short is that he thinks 2001 was good, but 2004 was better.]

Amazon Kindle

December 7, 2009

I own a Kindle. It was given to me as a gift and I am happy.

I cannot say whether I would be more or less pleased with a Sony Reader or a Nook, but I am delighted with the Kindle. I love a beautiful hardcover book printed on high-quality paper as well as anyone and I intend to keep reading such books. Trade paperbacks can be nice too. The farther you go down the quality line, the smarter it is to trade in paper for electrons.

How many traditional, paper newspapers do you read? If you are like me, you read articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers online. With an ereader (the Kindle at least), you can read take those newspapers with you on the bus, to the park, on the train, or anywhere else. Plus you can take your favorite blog with you, quickly download an Edgar Allen Poe short story it references and the Jonathan Lethem masterpiece it reviews, and still make it to work on time. Or maybe you have a brief you need to review one more time on the way in to work. Send the brief to your device and read that on the train instead.

The reason ereaders will replace most books is because ereaders are convenient. They are also easy to use and read as easily as paper. The E-ink displays are not like your computer monitor. They do not cause eye strain, there is little glare, and it is simple to adjust the text-size. You can take thousands of pages of text with you, from the web, magazines, newspapers, new books, old books, and blogs, as easily as carrying a very slim novella.

Now, I am gushing. It is true, but I am not done yet. You can highlight text (invaluable for a blogger), download mp3s, or access the dictionary to immediately look up an unfamiliar word. I absolutely enjoy the Kindle.

There are downsides. At present, you can only read books for the Kindle on the Kindle and who knows which ereader will eventually corner the market, whether an open source ebook will become the standard, and, importantly, whether the ebooks you buy for your Kindle today will be transferrable to the leading ereader of tomorrow. I like it, but I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on books that might become all but obsolete within a few years. Of course, you might say that I am doing that with most of my paper-based books. Sort of, but I am pretty confident I will still be able to locate a device to access the information in those paperbacks ten years down the road.

My interim solution is to primarily download free books. There are hundreds of classics to choose from that are absolutely free. Thank you Project Gutenberg and other volunteers who convert classics to ebooks. Bartleby, the Scrivener? Free. Alexander’s Bridge? Free. Intentions? Free. You get the idea. Copies still under copyright cost and, horror, I cannot find Coetzee books in eform. Of course, for books that I know I want to have in my own library, I still like the idea of a nice hardcover on quality paper.

What does the future hold? Well, here are some predictions for ebooks. You can find an alternative, or maybe complemenatry, view of the future here.

If you are interested in the author side of the equation, I found this article very interesting. Authors, ebooks could liberate you from publishing houses. Or you could get buried in a tsunami of etrash. Maybe bloggers are part of the solution for identifying those ebooks worth reading and those that aren’t?

There are many interesting questions regarding the future of publishing and ebooks, but the future of publishing is largely in ebooks. I think prices for ebooks will come down because the marginal cost of distributing one more ebook are virtually nil. This is particularly so for name authors. Why would Richard Russo ever need to share royalties again? Okay, Amazon takes a huge cut right now, but that cannot be the future. At least, I don’t think it is.

Regardless, I love having the Kindle, being able to carry a multitude of books with me wherever I go, and being able to download yet another, almost instantly, if the ones I have don’t suit my mood. Basically, if you are still thinking about Christmas presents for yourself or another book lover, an ereader is a something to think about, whether Kindle, Nook, or Sony.

My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: September 30, 2009

September 30, 2009

Best of the Millenium, Pro versus Readers. The Millions polled 48 of their “favorite writers, editors, and critics” to come up with a list of best books published on or since Jan. 1, 2000. They then polled their readers. The “Pros” chose The Corrections as best of the millenium. I cannot agree.

While I am on the Millions, if you (like me) had not noticed before now Lydia Kiesling’s absolutely excellent “Modern Library Revue”, run over and check it out. As an example, her treatment of To the Lighthouse is exceptional.

Via BrownGirl BookSpeak, the National Book Foundation is running a “People’s Choice” poll of the best National Book Award ever. The field has been narrowed to five finalists: The Stories of John Cheever, Invisible Man, The Collected Stories of William Faulkner, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, Gravity’s Rainbow, and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Click over and vote for Ralph Ellison.

An interesting educational theory is posited here.

The Guardian explains why we should still read Dickens.

Via kimbofo at Reading Matters, a photography exhibit featuring readers.

And perhaps best for last, Trevor at Mookse and the Gripes submits his “most negative review yet” as part of the Giller Shadow Jury. Margaret Atwood is in his crosshairs. It is a must read.

Used Book Stores

August 22, 2009

As do most book lovers, I love used book stores. The narrower the walkways, the more precarious the stacks, the better.

This afternoon, I went into the city (Washington, D.C.) with my love, Marky. One of the things we enjoy is strolling through Eastern Market, a historic farmers’ market/flea market not far from Capitol Hill. At one end of Eastern Market, there is a bookshop: Capitol Hill Books. We wandered through the stacks for some time, looking for treasures, trying to keep a reasonable limit on our purchases. Marky could not escape with fewer then five books. I managed to limit my take to three:

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Bend Sinister by Vladamir Nabokov
Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino.

I have not read this particular novel by Greene, though I have quite enjoyed others. Bend Sinister is a great name for a novel and an early Nabokov. Hard for me to go wrong with that.

However, I am most excited about the Calvino. I have not read him, though I have heard great things about him. The back of the hardcover I bought has gushing blurbs from two authors: Updike and Rushdie. Marky wanted to go in a clothing shop, so I sat on the curb and started reading the Calvino stories. My god.

When I finish the book, I will post a full review. But, judging by his first few stories, Calvino is sprinting toward my favorites list. I ordinarily would not say such things about an author, particularly after reading only a few very short stories. Sitting on that curb, though, I was both awed and struck giddy. I am in the middle of something else and this is a collection of short stories, so I will not drop everything to devour it. But the mere thought of reading another of his stories makes me smile.

Interviews: Jesse Ball and Chinua Achebe

August 8, 2009

I think this interview conducted by Bookslut may be the most revealing interview of Jesse Ball that I have read.

Shane Jones at Hobart has an interesting interview with Jesse Ball.

Chinua Achebe was interviewed by Paris Review in 1994. As with all their interviews, I highly recommend it. There are some fascinating tidbits on the publishing of Things Fall Apart.

The Atlantic also has an excellent interview in which Mr. Achebe discusses Things Fall Apart.