Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Beginning: Matt Cohen's The Bookseller

October light. The long thin knife of memory. October light gets right inside and gives you the little twist. Take an afternoon in late October, an afternoon when the last light of summer is slanting over the fallen leaves, the cold damp green of October grass. Today, for example. the beginning of Matt Cohen's The Bookseller.

Matt Cohen was a Canadian writer--he died young in 1999--and he lived at the end of his life in my neighborhood. There's a series of outdoors signs to his memory only a few blocks from my home. I haven't read any Cohen, but I bought this a couple of years ago when my local indy bookstore was going out of business. (I tried! I did my best!) This one looked the most interesting. Paul Stevens, the narrator, sells used books and gets into a complicated love affair.

As someone who's spent almost all of his life on one Great Lake or another, I quite agree about the quality of light in fall, in late October. I'm a bit more positive than the narrator seems to be, but it got my attention.

This will serve as my 'read local' book for the Monthly Motif challenge. I think at this point it doesn't get much more local for me than Matt Cohen.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Poem of the Cid

In my current quest to both read up about Spain and clear off my TBR pile, this volume did double duty. And if the question arises what book did I read this year that was longest on my TBR pile, this one will definitely be a strong candidate.

The Poem of the Cid (according to the back cover) was "written by an unknown Castilian around 1140, nearly a century after the birth of its hero." As the introduction points out, there could very well have been people alive who had known the Cid; still it feels like the world of legends.

Rodrigo Ruy Diaz de Bivar is the Cid, the successful military leader of a band of knights that fight the Islamic states at that time in the south of Spain; also he has to deal with enemies at court that poison his relationship with King Alfonso, and the beginning of the story finds him exiled.

I'm no expert and I'm a little reluctant to say much. I thought it was a good read as translated by the American poet W. S. Merwin. Only three points:

One, I was a bit surprised by the class elements in this. Rodrigo the Cid is aristocracy, but is looked down upon by the more high-born; when the king pushes his high-born enemies to marry the Cid's daughters, they're resentful and deliberately insult the Cid's daughters. I suppose it's a bit like Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well but his aristocratic enemies are much worse than Bertram is.

Two, it ends well for the Cid. Somehow that strikes me as unusual for a medieval epic. The Song of Roland, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf all have a melancholic ending. The Cid is triumphant over his enemies. Be honorable, stick with your king, and things turn out well. That's the message.

And three, I read Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of al-Rassan about a year ago and quite liked it. I suppose it's not a surprise, but he really had the Poem of the Cid on his mind.  His Rodrigo Belmonte owes quite a lot to Rodrigo Ruy Diaz.

A well (?) - read book
Alas, what was it about books printed in the seventies? They finally get the acid out of the paper so the pages don't yellow, but they were still being cheap about bindings. I've had this for years (though not since its publication date of 1975) but it did not survive even one reading. Pity, because I liked it and I would otherwise keep it.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station

Leaving The Atocha Station is the debut novel of Ben Lerner, author at that point of three volumes of poetry. It came out in 2011, though the events take place in 2003, 2004.

The Atocha station is the main train station in Madrid, Spain. "Leaving The Atocha Station" is a poem in John Ashbery's book The Tennis Court Oath.

The novel is told by Adam Gordon who's living in Spain on a fellowship; the goal of his fellowship is to study the Spanish Civil War and produce an epic poem about the subject. Instead he seems to smoke a lot of hash and take some sort of unspecified pills. He tells us his Spanish isn't very good and maybe it's not; in the beginning he seems uncomfortable talking to actual Spaniards, though he remains interested in the girls; gradually that changes. He gets involved in the poetry scene. Towards the end of the novel the Madrid train bombings and the subsequent protests occur. Gordon's friends are involved, though he's not otherwise directly affected.

The novel is funny; it has that sort of confessional humor where you reveal embarrassing things about yourself. Adam tells us of his lies and his lusts, his drug use, his doubts. Think There's Something About Mary.

This confessional humor is compounded by the clear connection between Adam Gordon and Ben Lerner: both are young poets, both won fellowships to study in Spain, both have a pair of psychologist parents living in Kansas. You squirm and say, did he really do that?! Or is this just a novel?

This seems to be a thing these days, this flirtation with the confessional. Is it memoir? Is it a novel? An obvious comparison is Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? On a more monumental scale, there's the Knausgaard series, which I haven't read any of. The modern root of the phenomenon at least in English is maybe Chris Kraus' I Love Dick. David Shields' Reality Hunger tries to provide an intellectual defense. It does add a feeling of trueness that the character is so close to the author; the confessional adds to that sense this must be real. I think I Love Dick is the best of the ones I've read. But I also have a real suspicion of this trend.

At its worst it becomes just solipsistic, and that seems to me just a way of abandoning what the novel is best at, what it's most unique strength is: the ability to present the interior world of multiple people in conjunction.

I felt the solipsism strongly in the first half of Lerner's novel. It was probably intended; the book is funny about the limitations of an imperfectly understood language. Then later the injection of important political events alleviates it and reminds us that the Adam Gordon character is a bit jejune, that he is (possibly) coming out of a shell by the end of the novel. But it's a risk and one I don't think the novel entirely overcomes.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Beginning: Olga Tokarczuk's Flights

I'm a few years old. I'm sitting on the window sill, surrounded by strewn toys and toppled-over block towers and dolls with bulging eyes. the beginning of Olga Tokarczuk's Flights.

This came out in English last year from Fitzcarraldo Editions (they're not spending any money on cover design, are they?) but originally in Polish in 2009, where it apparently won some awards. It's translated by Jennifer Croft.

The description on the back begins, "Flights, a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy (!) is Olga Tokarczuk's most ambitious to date. It interweaves travel narratives and reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body."

The first section, a little more than a page long, is a rather dreamy recollection of the narrator's childhood. I'm not much past that at the moment. It's going to cover Poland for my Europe challenge at Rose City Reader.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Classics Club Spin #17

Classics Club spin #17, but it's the first one for me. Pick twenty unread books from your Classics Club list; the spin with tell you which one you're supposed to read by the end of April. Here's my list:

Five books I'm eager to read.

Right now I'm in the mood for funny so:

1.) Shaw/Pygmalion
2.) Shaw/Major Barbara
3.) J. F. Powers/Morte D'Urban
4.) Twain/A Tramp Abroad
5.) Stevenson/The Black Arrow (well, not funny, but adventure!)

Five books I'm dreading reading.

I'm currently in the middle (well, first quarter) of Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe, at 1500 pages one of the longest books on my list. I don't really dread anything on the list (that's the idea, right?) but since what I do dread are the long ones, I'm not picking any others of those at the moment...

Late Henry James will do for dread should that get picked.

6.) Stoker/Dracula
7.) James/The American
8.) James/Wings of the Dove
9.) Woolf/The Waves
10.) Broch/The Death of Vergil

Five books I'm neutral about.

All things I want to read, but I'm currently neutral about:

11.) Zamyatin/We
12.) Douglass/Narrative
13.) Balzac/Cousin Bette
14.) Goldsmith/The Vicar of Wakefield
15.) Eliot/Silas Marner

Five 'free choice' books.

And since I'm in the middle of a long one, some short ones:

16.) Plath/The Bell Jar
17.) Kawabata/Snow Country
18.) Baldwin/Giovanni's Room
19.) Baldwin/Notes of a Native Son
20.) Wollstonecraft/The Vindication of the Rights of Women

Be kind to me, O gods of the random number!

And the winner is...#3. J. F. Powers' Morte D'Urban

Martin Amis' Money

Ouch. That was a slog.

I don't usually give up on novels--I probably should do it a little more--but this one was so very close. They say it's funny, but I can't say it worked for me.

The story is this: John Self has been a successful director of commercials for a London advertising firm; he's about to make his first commercial feature-length film with mostly American actors. Those actors, the producer, various film financiers appear. There's also the complications of his love life. Self is a large man of large appetites, booze, food, sex. He's got a mistress, but still spends a lot of time with prostitutes, has to audition actresses (we all know what that means, post-Weinstein) and lusts after friends' wives. Does the film get made? Does he marry his mistress? Such are the questions of the novel, though I can't say I particularly cared.

Which is kind of too bad. When I was halfway through the novel, the reason I picked it off my TBR pile in the first place, Martin Amis gave a talk at the library here and I went. He's a funny guy in person with amusing riffs about James Joyce (Amis doesn't like him) and insightful ones about Vladimir Nabokov (whom Amis does like.)

And the fact that Amis was funny in person got me to finish the novel but as I said, it was a slog.

So I was wondering why Amis was so highly regarded?--since it couldn't be my taste was at fault. It's possible that he's a funny guy in person distracted. Amis started off famous--he was notorious in England both for his lifestyle and for the fact that his father was a famous novelist. (Kingsley Amis for Lucky Jim among others.) And maybe that meant people paid more attention to him, knew his droll persona, reading his novels as if they were Martin Amis talking in person.

But Amis is a very literary writer, I'd say. More so than his father, who just lashes out, one of the original Angry Young Men. Martin wears his forebears on his sleeve: Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow. Criticism of his literary forebears is the topic of his latest book, The Rub Of Time, which I haven't read, but what he mostly talked about. Money reminded me a little of Nabokov; Martin Amis the character shows up in the novel to watch a fellow national destroy himself in America, much as Vladimir Nabokov does in Pnin. Pnin is a much more human book, though, the most human I find of Nabokov's; Money is simply savage satire, of mostly too obvious targets.

But Money is much more homage to Saul Bellow than Vladimir Nabokov. It's a long first person novel, and it's Bellow's spiky narrative style that informs the way John Self speaks to the reader, but it's just not Bellow. I have a troubled relationship, let's say, with Bellow; his handling of female characters is problematic. But as an "American, Chicago born," The Adventures of Augie March meant a lot to me at one point. But whatever one might think of Bellow, Amis' prose is not there. The opening of Money only points up Amis' relative weakness.

Then there's the book cover. I led with the one above that I found on the Internet. That looks like a book one might want to read. I can't really say why I bought my copy, which has the cover shown below, and which I couldn't find anywhere so the photo is my own. The Internet couldn't be bothered to preserve that. Penguin, what were you thinking?

Anyway, one less book on the TBR pile. I can't say much more.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Book Beginning: Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station

The first phase of my research involved waking up weekday mornings in a barely furnished attic apartment, the first apartment I'd looked at after arriving in Madrid, or letting myself be woken by the noise from La Plaza Santa Ana, failing to assimilate that noise fully into my dream, then putting on the rusty stovetop espresso machine and rolling a spliff while I waited for the coffee. the beginning of Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station.

I heard some buzz about this when it came out a few years ago (2011) and mentally put it on my it might be interesting list. But I recently realized the Atocha station is the main Madrid train station (Vacation in Spain coming up. Yay!) I thought I'd try it.

Ben Lerner wrote a couple of books of poetry but this is his first novel. (There's now a second.) I haven't read anything of his before this. I'm not much beyond that sentence at the moment, but I suppose it sets the picture: impoverished student-y ex-pat life. It's a short novel, and it even has pictures, so I suppose I'll finish it soon. Anybody know this one?

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Hola! Me llamo Reese.