Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jose Saramago is, if anything, an innovative story teller. Page after page, his novels unfold in surrealist scenes and schemes. His characters do things that many of us wish we did, wish we could do. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, a gifted proofreader decides to place a Not in a history book, where a Yes was supposed to go. In the 12th Century the Portuguese king asked the Catholic Crusaders to help Portugal fight the Moors in an effort to regain Portugal. The Crusaders said Yes. Raimundo changed this Yes to Not. In essence, the proofreader was rewriting history. Something I have wished I could do. While Raimundo Silva waits for the editors to find the mistake, if they find the mistake, he's anxious, but not nervous; he's cautious, but not ashamed. He goes to the office more than usual, as like he says, a criminal revisiting the scene of the crime (I'm paraphrasing.) But it's not the scene of the crime, because Raimundo works from home, like writers do. He stays up late pouring over manuscripts, like writers do. And that's how the book turns. Raimundo's intentional infraction is found, but he isn't fired. The publisher values his proofreading skills too much. However, they have hired a head proofreader who will have final say on manuscripts. It's a woman and she changes Raimundo's life. She gives him the only copy of the history text that wasn't revised. Or more accurately the only copy that didn't have a "erratum." So, in fact, he has rewritten history, even if he, the author and the editors, especially Dr. Maria Sara are the only ones that know. Dr. Maria Sara then asks Raimundo to actually write his own book on the Siege of Lisbon as if the Crusaders actually didn't help the Portuguese. After saying no to her initial suggestion, Raimundo has reconsidered and has begun his book. He has yet to tell Dr. Maria Sara.

Reading Saramago is an experience for the narrative in itself. No quotation marks. No traditional paragraphs. No traditional conversations/dialogue. It's amazing that your mind is able to catch on so quickly the this change in form.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Have I ever told you how much I love reading E.B. White? There's great humanity in his writing. Through his writing, he has become the grandfather I wished I had. He is the type of man of letters that I dare to become. He writes adoringly and critically of the overwhelming city where anything is possible. He writes of the country and his animals, our animals, us. This man who wrote Charlotte's Web, who for years I thought was only a children's author, was a poet, an editor, a grammarian, a farmer, a husband, a father, a letter writer and part of the most significant literary partnership with his wife and noted editor of the New Yorker, Katherine. E.B. White, Andy as he was known to his friends is widely overlooked in academics and to a large degree in general literary discussions. Let this not be the case any longer.

Books I've purchased:
David Liss A Conspiracy of PaperBalzac A Harlot High and Low
The complete novels of Dashiell Hammett
E.B. White The Second Tree from the Corner
Jose Saramago The History of the Siege of Lisbon
(all bought used for a total of $7.72)

Books I've read:
E.B. White The Second Tree from the Corner

What I'm reading:
Saramago The History of the Siege of Lison
Ocshner People I've Wanted to Be

On deck:
Liss A Conspiracy of Paper
Julia Glass Three Junes

What I'm listening to:
Art Tatum On the Sunny Side of the Street

Friday, February 17, 2006

I literally couldn't put Sarah Hall's second novel, The Electric Michelangelo down. It's cliche, I know, but it's true. In two quick days, I read fascinating novel of Cyril (Cy) Parks, a gifted tattoo artist from Northern England that learns his art from one of England's most enigmatic characters, Eliot Riley. Cy, begins his apprenticeship with Riley during the inter-war period of the 1920s. Riley, a drunk, but brilliant tattoo artist, teaches the fairly naive Cy, about art, tattoos, life and love. Well, actually not so much love as much as sex. When Riley dies, Cy packs up and moves to New York and is taken in by former carnival workers and ushered into the world of Coney Island where anything goes. It's here that Cy meets a mysterious woman who keeps a horse in her small apartment and has Cy cover her body in a single tattoo, over and over again. But more than the larger than life characters, it's Hall's language that moves the story on, making the reader never want it to stop, like a ride on a Coney Island merry-go-round.

"The tide was a long way out, further than he could see, so far as
anyone knew it was just gone for good and had left the town permanently
inland. It took a lot of trust to believe the water would ever come
back each day, all that distance, it seemed like an awful amount of
labour for no good reason."

The only thing I can compare this novel to is Moby Dick. Maybe it is a modern take on Moby Dick. Both novels focus on characters that explore themselves and observe the underbelly of human nature. And by no small feat, Hall is able to create an astounding work of fiction that may one day be able to be seriously considered an equal to Moby Dick.

Currently reading:
Gina Ochsner People I Wanted To Be

On deck:

Listening to:
Clifford Brown and Max Roach

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I'll give Lethem credit for attempting to play with narrative form in The Fortress of Solitude. However, with such a large novel concerning the same protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, his switch from third person narrator to first person was abrupt. The tone of the novel changed considering the different way the narrator viewed the story. However, the language of the novel also changed, but not significantly. And maybe that's my problem with the narrative arc. Why didn't Dylan tell the story the entire time? Did Lethem think Dylan was too young to carry the story from his viewpoint? Did Lethem write two books at once? One about the younger Dylan and one about the older Dylan? One of the reasons I love literature is that it's the reader's interpretation. No one else's. I know other readers will have a different take on the split novel. I enjoyed it. I highly recommend it. Lethem hasn't disappointed me yet. Though he's older than me, I feel some kinship to him, to his characters and too his New York. That's what makes him a gifted writer. That's why I'll read his next novel. And his next. And his next. Literature is supposed to make us think. It's supposed to sound like the beats of life. It's supposed to move us. At least that's what it does for me and none seem to do it as well as Jonathan Lethem.

Just finished:
Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go

Now reading:
Sarah Hall Electric Michelangelo

On deck:
Gina Ochsner People I Wanted To Be
Books to buy:
Elizabeth Crane's "When the Messenger is Hot"

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I haven't bought a new, full priced hardcover book in awhile, but I think I may make the move. The excerpts I've read of Sara Gran's noir novel Dope, were great. Yes, they seem to have been written by Raymond Chandler himself, but the language is all her own. I haven't read enough to make a realistic opinion, but I've read enough to know I want to read it immediately.

I'm almost finished with Lethem's Fortress of Solitude and will write more on it once I'm done. Though it's a great book, indicative of a time, a place and a culture, it doesn't have the same weight as Motherless Brooklyn. The prose reads the same way and the reader can still feel and smell the city streets Lethem describes, but the purpose of the book shifts. Through the first half I thought it was going one place and ended up going another. This may have been Lethem's purpose, I don't know. And at times the narrator doesn't let the reader in to certain aspects of the main character's life that I thought were significant. i.e. How he felt about his mother abandoning him, how he felt toward his artist father, etc.

But more on this in a few days when I've gathered my thoughts.

Now reading:
Jonathan Lethem Fortress of Solitude

On deck:
Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go
Gina Ochsner People I Wanted to Be

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Late last year I read the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee." It was one of the most visceral reading experiences I've had. My body ached as I read it. The prose was perfectly sparse. In fact, it was gorgeously written. I had wanted to read the book for years, but never did. Now I just finished Elizabeth Costello. For two days I was mesmerized by his ability to play with narrative forms. In the first chapter, titled Realism, he, the narrator, skips to parts of the story that only carry the novel forward. Of course that's what a good narrator does, but Coetzee has the narrator actually tell the reader, "I'm skipping ahead because nothing really happens here." I paraphrase, but it was surreal. The book itself follows the title charcter, Elizabeth Costello, as she accepts an award in Atlanta, gives speeches aboard cruises and takes part in a series of lectures. There are definitely writers, women especially, but possibly even men, that write in a woman's voice better than Coetzee. But no man that I've read has written such a strong female character. Forceful, unforgiving, brilliant, sexual. To me, she was everything women like Isabel Archer are not. Elizabeth Costello was everything I look for in full-bodied literary figures. She won't leave the reader's head for awhile if ever.

Coetzee reportedly once went to a party and didn't say a singe word all night. I'm glad he saves his best words for his novels.

Now reading:
Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude
Shelby Foote's Civil War

On deck:
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
Gina Ochsner's People I Wanted to Be

Listening to:
Rilo Kiley's We'll Never Sleep (God Knows We'll Try)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sometimes I pick up a book or start reading a book solely because it has won an award. I know that the saturation of awards has made most awards worthless, but I still find myself looking to them. Once again I've been let down. Lily Tuck's The News From Paraguay won the National Book Award, but shouldn't have. It's a choppy book, full of jutting paragraphs, short chapters, underdeveloped characters and a so-called protagonist that Tuck failed to give structure to. How this novel won the NBA is beyond me. My friend and I were recently talking about the poor writing of our peers in grad school. How the writing was embarrassing to read. Sort of like this blog. Well, Tuck's novel was like that. It was as if a grad student's manuscript somehow got through the editors at Perennial and was published by gross neglect.
When reading a book I have to 'like' the main character. I don't know how else to describe it. I don't want to sympathize, empathize, or love the character; just like. Tuck's Ella Lynch is such an underdeveloped character that it makes the novel seem like whole parts were edited out and the structure was never reshaped. Why would I care to keep reading about an Irish woman that falls for an arrogant man while living in Paris, becomes pregnant, moves to Paraguay with him, he becomes dictator, have more of his children, never marry him, allow him to keep lovers, cheers him on as he starts war with three countries and devastates his home country? Maybe it's just me.

Now reading:
J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello
volume I of Shelby Foote's Civil War

Listening to:

Oh yeah, I should mention, my sister graduated college last Friday!! She's "growns up, is growns up"