Archive for May, 2007

h1

once again, I wait for the paperback

May 30, 2007

After reading this review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in the New York Review of Books, I’ve decided that I will most definitely read the book. Since it’s not very often that I purchase a newly released title, this is a big deal (I believe the last one I bought was Roth’s Everyman, almost one year ago). The review features a number of healthy snips from the text, all of which are superb. Here’s one:

All at once he feels weary of ganefs and prophets, guns and sacrifices and the infinite gangster weight of God. He’s tired of hearing about the promised land and the inevitable bloodshed required for its redemption. “I don’t care what is written. I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don’t care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag.”

Yeah, I like that. So did the reviewer:

And what are these Jewish dreamers waiting for, if not the Sermon on the Mount or the Communist Manifesto? They are waiting, we are told here, “for the time to be right, or the world to be right, or, some people say, for the time to be wrong and the world to be as wrong as it can be.” For whom are they waiting? The “despised and rejected of men”; “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”; “A bum. A scholar. A junkie. Even a shammes.” Have we met such a one? Well, yes. To the private eye as Wandering Jew, it seems to me that Chabon has added the superheroics of Kafka and Freud, the ethics of Maimonides and Spinoza, the politics of Emma Goldman and Grace Paley, the mysticisms of Martin Buber and Simone Weil, a paper rose and a magic bat. Landsman himself, abused as much as Jim Rockford and Jesus Christ, is the righteous man of his generation, the Northern Exposure Tzaddik Ha-Dor.

The only problem is the book’s design. The cover I like well enough (although I wish I could get this one) — but the spine (at right) is most troublesome. Is it really necessary to remind me that the book is “by the Pulitzer Prize Winning Author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay“? Sure,  put this information on the back cover — there’s really no way to avoid it, but I’d rather not have that peering out at me from my shelf, where the book would be stored just to the right of the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Lame.

h1

Reasons to Get Upset

May 29, 2007

As I see it, there are two good reasons to get upset about Shakespeare being turned into manga: outrage at the sheer audacity, or regret that they didn’t at least make them into good comics. Sadly, apparently they’re just not very good at all. A quick look from “Hamlet” will upset those of either persuasion (click to enlarge):

Here’s a snip from the review I linked to above:

The panels are a jumbled mess; the characters’ appearances vary considerably from page to page; the figures are posed without regard for anatomy or proportion; and the backgrounds are virtually non-existent. Vieceli’s rendering of Queen Gertrude offers a telling example of what’s wrong with these editions. Given her racy staging of the “Hamlet, thou have cleft my heart in twain” scene, it seems safe to say that Vieceli conceived of Gertrude as an attractive, middle-aged woman, not a nursing home candidate. But in some panels, Gertrude appears to be about 70 years old, with pronounced wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Grandmother or MILF? The “cleft heart” scene is a whole different kettle of fish if Hamlet is beating up an old woman instead of chiding his youthful mother for her sexual behavior.

Alas.

h1

Wilson reviews Ulysses

May 29, 2007

Here’s an internet gem: Edmund Wilson’s 1922 New Republic review of Ulysses.

[…] these voices are used to record all the eddies and stagnancies of thought; though exercising a severe selection which makes the book a technical triumph, Mr. Joyce manages to give the effect of unedited human minds, drifting aimlessly along from one triviality to another, confused and diverted by memory, by sensation and by inhibition, is, in short, perhaps the most faithful X-ray ever taken of the ordinary human consciousness.

And as a result of this enormous scale and this microscopic fidelity the chief characters in Ulysses take on heroic proportions. Each one is a room, a house, a city in which the reader can move around. The inside of each one of them is a novel in itself. You stand within a world infinitely populated with the swarming life of experience.

h1

Booklog: Pnin

May 19, 2007

Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov
Read: 5.8.07
Rating: Very Good

I’ve been having a mighty hard time writing this booklog: I finished Pnin two weeks ago, after reading it in three days, and haven’t been able to muster up any worthy thoughts. I’m a little disappointed with myself, but figured it’d be best to just slap down a few reactions and get it out of the way. Please lower your expectations, and read on.

Pnin was originally published in segments in The New Yorker, while Nabokov was searching for someone brave or foolish enough to publish Lolita. It thus occupies a space in Nabokov’s timeline between his two masterpieces, Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962). Sadly, though Pnin shares much in common, both thematically and stylistically, with these two novels, it does not read their level of excellence.

The strength of Pnin is its title character, Russian emigrate and professor, Timofey Pnin. A protagonist could hardly be more charming and lovable, and his cultural and linguistic difficulties in adapting to America afford Nabokov plenty of opportunity for jokes and puns. The novel is astoundingly amusing, and the prose a sheer delight.

The trouble with Pnin is its disjointedness. As I mentioned, the text was originally published in sections, and it reads more like a collection of related stories than a novel. The plot does develop, with a dash of Nabokovian intrigue, but the sum does not equal the whole of its parts. The good news, and the reason I would recommend Pnin, is that Nabokov was a master of English prose, and Pnin represents yet one more example of his accomplishment.

h1

Brief Rant

May 15, 2007

Two troubling things about this brief piece from Fox News: What’s on the 2008 Candidates’ Night Stands

First of all, there’s no excuse for this kind of editorializing:

Barack Obama recently finished “Gilead,” a novel about an old man’s words to his 7-year-old son. The man, in Gilead, Iowa, believes he’s on the verge of death and wants his son to know him later in life. Obama, a child of divorce, barely knew his own father.

Second, I object to the suggestion that reading material is kept “on the nightstand,” meaning that reading is only something one does at the end of the day, after all the important stuff — just something to occupy the few minutes before lying down and falling asleep. This has nothing to do with Faux News, but it’s such a common conception that we simply must fight it at all times.

h1

The Recognitions: Part II

May 11, 2007

Nearly two months after completing Part I of The Recognitions, I am finally finished with Part II (440 pages) and a few dozen pages into the the third and final part (I’m now on 738 of 956 pages). At that time, I was wildly excited about the novel and the possibility that it would prove to be one of the best I’ve ever read. Sadly, I no longer feel that way. I really like The Recognitions, and I think it’s a great book — but I simply don’t love it as much as I want to love it. This is most unfortunate.

I noted while reviewing the book’s first Part that Gaddis’s dialog outshines the rest of his writing (description, internal monologues, etc). Often, his prose reaches towards brilliance, and the several “set piece” scenes are simply astonishing, but on the whole I find his style difficult to hold onto, not only on account of Gaddis’s erudition, but because he nearly always writes too much and too vaguely. This is certainly an intentional style, but it’s not one that I enjoy.

As I have yet to finish the book, and still retain a hope that its final pages will redeem the story and force me to reconsider, I’ve been trying to instead determine how the book to this point has disappointed me. My current thought is that my preferred reading-style is not well-suited to The Recognitions. I am a “section seeking” reader: one who is constantly awaiting key scenes, passages, and sentences that rise above the rest of the text, hoping to glean universal meanings from them. This style has its benefits — the highs are higher — but on the whole I consider it a shortcoming, one that The Recognitions is exposing in new ways. The novel resists any such efforts: there are, of course, crucial passages and scenes, but my harvest has been thin to this point.

The meaning of The Recognitions is always epically ahead of me; not in the way that great texts are always ahead of us on account of their greatness and the new things they perennially reveal, but in the sense that anything but the most rudimentary and fragmentary understanding and insight remain elusive. Gaddis’s unparalleled erudition and constant grabs for more-more-more (details, characters, references, etc etc) make it very difficult to maintain a grasp on the text — it always slips away. The Recognitions, to this point, has been a mass without a center.

But, perhaps, The Recognitions is a book without a center because the world it depicts lacks a center. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land (lines from Eliot’s poetry, especially the Four Quartets, pepper the text), The Recognitions is a lament for an earlier time, an era where art meant something — a reach towards the transcendent even — and is now just our best hope for shoring up fragments against the ruins.

On page 660 of The Recognitions, a French art critic quotes Michelangelo’s’s unfavorable judgment of Flemish art, in which he claims that Flemish art pleases women, monks, nuns, and men “who are not capable of understanding true harmony.” This dismissal is important to several of the book’s main characters for reasons I won’t summarize here. But what is most fascinating is that Michelangelo, several sentences later (from a larger source quotation here) describes the Flemish masters in terms that — at my lowest moments with the book — I think apply rather well to The Recognitions:

In short, this art is without power and and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single one would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application.

(pictured: details from Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights — which, like The Recognitions, overwhelms)

h1

Upcoming: DeLillo’s Falling Man

May 7, 2007

An intriguing article on Don DeLillo’s upcoming novel Falling Man:

Now, in “Falling Man,” (Scribner, 246 pages, $26), Mr. DeLillo has finally given us his book about September 11. In fact, he has written about that day more directly and concretely than most other novelists have dared. Instead of approaching the attack on the World Trade Center through parable, like Mr. Roth, or analogy, like Mr. Rushdie, or phantasmagoria, like Mr. Pynchon, Mr. DeLillo confronts it head-on, with graphic realism. The novel begins with a prose transcription of the video images we all know so well: “It was not a street anymore but a world, and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.”

If these opening sentences put the reader there on the “street,” ground-level with events, they also point to Mr. DeLillo’s concern with the “world” those events created. Surprisingly, however, the world that fascinates him is not the shadowy realm of political conspiracies, where so much of his earlier work has flourished. Mr. DeLillo is surprisingly, and happily, untempted by the idea of writing a secret history of September 11. Instead, his new novel is a surprisingly earnest and straightforward inquiry into the emotional effects of the attacks on the lives of victims and survivors.