Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And Next Month's Book Is...

...Willa Cather's My Mortal Enemy, by something of a landslide.

It is a very short novella, so hopefully everyone who wants to read it will be able to fit in into their schedules. We'll reconvene, then, on March 31st for discussion and reviews.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Time To Choose Again!

I love getting to choose the selection for the next Slaves’ book meet, but I find it so hard to decide which books to offer. I ended up with two lists this time. The first was a list of classic novellas, because I thought it seemed a while since we’d had a classic, but I didn’t want to condemn us all to a chunkster. But then I wondered whether we wouldn’t be better off with a really fun and entertaining contemporary novel. So I asked Mister Litlove what I should do, and he suggested I pick out the best and combine the two lists, which is what you will find below.

Henry James – The Aspern Papers

‘In an elegant and crumbling palazzo old Miss Bourdereau lives on with her niece, closely guarding their most precious treasure, a hoard of letters written to her in her youth by the great American love poet, Jeffrey Aspern. Adopting a nom de guerre the tale’s narrator, a literary researcher, arrives at the palazzo and inveigles the two ladies into taking him in as their lodger. There he watches and waits for the moment to pounce. For he is determined to gain possession of the Aspern papers and willing to pay almost any price. James’ tale – in part a warning to over-zealous historians and biographers – grips the reader with steadily mounting suspense and is regarded by many as the most brilliant of all his stories.’

Willa Cather – My Mortal Enemy

‘Through the eyes of a young girl, Nellie, we view the life of Myra, a legend in the Southern town where both were born. Myra has romantically abandoned the luxury she was born into to elope with the impoverished Oswald Henshawe. Twenty-five years later, Nellie is dazzled when she meets them living in the elegant poverty of an apartment frequented by singers, actors, poets – in the heart of the artistic community of old New York. But this shabby gentility gives way to real poverty in a jerrybuilt West Coast hotel, and the high purpose of Myra’s life – love itself – is revealed to be the enemy within. A finely-wrought study of the great rewards and punishments love brings, My Mortal Enemy is an exquisite example of Willa Cather’s art.’

Justin Cartwright – Other People’s Money

‘The Trevelyan family is in grave trouble. Their private bank of Tubal & Co is on the verge of collapsing. It’s not the first time in its three-hundred-and-forty year history, but it may be the last. A sale is underway, and a number of important facts need to be kept hidden, not only from the public but also from Julian Trevelyan-Tubal’s deeply traditional father, Sir Harry, who is incapacitated in the family villa in Antibes. Great families, great fortunes and even greater success collide in this gripping, satirical and acutely observed story of our time.’

Daphne Kalotay – Russian Winter

‘When Nina Revskaya, once a great star of the Bolshoi Ballet, decides to auction her jewellery collection, she believes she has finally drawn a curtain on her past. Instead she is overwhelmed by memories of her life a half-century before. It was in Russia that she fell in love – and where, spurred by Stalinist aggression, a terrible discovery led to a deadly act of betrayal. Now living in Boston, Nina has kept her secrets for half a lifetime. But two people will not let the past rest: Drew Brooks, an inquisitive young associate at the auction house; and Grigori Solodin, a professor who believes the jewels may hold the key to his past. Together these unlikely partners unravel a literary mystery whose answers hold life-altering consequences for them all.’

Tom Rachman – The Imperfectionists

‘The newspaper was founded in Rome in the 1950s, a product of passion and a multi-millionaire's fancy. Over fifty years, its eccentricities earned a place in readers' hearts around the globe. But now, circulation is down, the paper lacks a website, and the future looks bleak. Still, those involved in the publication seem to barely notice. The obituary writer is too busy avoiding work. The editor-in-chief is pondering sleeping with an old flame. The obsessive reader is intent on finishing every old edition, leaving her trapped in the past. And the publisher seems less interested in his struggling newspaper than in his magnificent basset hound, Schopenhauer. The Imperfectionists interweaves the stories of eleven unusual and endearing characters who depend on the paper. Funny and moving, the novel is about endings - the end of life, the end of sexual desire, the end of the era of newspapers - and about what might rise afterward.’

I’ll tot up the votes next weekend!

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Boy Genius

When publishers fall over themselves for a book by a Columbia writing school graduate, eventually paying almost $1 million for it, the result is entirely counterproductive. Any reader is going to look at the hype, look at the price tag, look at the book and say: Is this really worth it? After all, which great experimental classic would you pay a million bucks to keep in print? Proust’s In Search of Lost Time? Joyce’s Ulysses? Samuel Johnson’s dictionary? A Clockwork Orange? See, books work best as a great big literary ocean of interestingness, and if you hook one out and subject it to intense pressure to perform, it invariably comes out badly. The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen is the book with the golden price ticket, and it is a curious hybrid indeed, comprising great charm and whimsy and inventiveness and also socking great flaws.

T.S. Spivet is one of the staples of literary fiction, a misunderstood boy genius whose quirky first-person narrative offers us a delightfully precocious and distinctive perspective on the world. T. S. lives in Montana in the requisite dysfunctional family. His father is an impassive farmer fostering an obsession for cowboys and a deep-rooted nostalgia for the Old West. He’s like the Marlboro man reincarnated; strong, silent and emotionally constipated. His mother is equally loveless, only she is an entomologist on a quest for a beetle that probably doesn’t exist. His older sister, Gracie is a pessimistic and petulant teenager, and his younger brother, Layton has recently died in a shooting incident, for which T. S. feels at least partly responsible.

The tragedy has magnified the cracks in T.S.’s already odd family and thrust him back on his singular way of dealing with the world. For T.S. is an obsessive cartographer and illustrator, moderating the messy unruliness of existence by mapping it out. He is not interested solely in the contours of the land, in fact far from it; his maps are often about intangible or unexpected things, people’s facial expressions, the flight path of bats, Gracie’s method of shucking corn, the rise of MacDonald’s. He has a mentor, a Dr Yorn, who (mostly) unbeknownst to T.S has been sending his drawings and diagrams out for prizes. The novel opens with T. S. receiving a phone call from the Smithsonian Institute to say he has won the prestigious Baird Award for the advancement of popular science, and will he come to Washington to collect it?

The best thing about this book is the voice of T. S. Spivet, which, even if implausible for a twelve-year-old boy, even a very smart one, is funny, engaging and endearing. The book is oversized and its wide margins are full of his drawings, along with sometimes lengthy notes in the margin that must be followed from the main text by means of dotted lines and arrows. It’s like a Boy’s Own annual and a technical drawing textbook have mated and the result is, like T. S. himself, whimsical and lively and more than a little exhausting. Having decided to take the Smithsonian up on its offer, T. S. then has a proper map to follow, as he steals away at dawn and embarks on a cross-country journey, hitching an illegal lift on a freight train headed to Chicago.

Having put his main character in a conveniently located Winnebago for several days’ worth of travelling across central America, Larsen backs himself into a narrative corner. T. S.’s voice is charming, but a 100-hour eventless stretch of it would tax the most dedicated reader. So, hey presto, T. S. recalls he has packed one of his mother’s notebooks in his suitcase and it turns out to be a narrative fiction she seems to have written about his great-grandmother. This could have been a clever idea, and the new voice is again beautifully conjured up; but the story stops just at the point at which it could have become interesting and significant. A point T. S. himself makes, which doesn’t actually compensate for Larsen pulling his punches. But anyhow, T. S. now arrives in Chicago and it suddenly becomes clear that something has happened en route: the narrative has decided it no longer wishes to be a cutesy bildungsroman, but turns into an oddball steampunky adventure with wormholes and bloodshed and secret societies and mad schemes about the President. Having had very little happen for the first 200 pages, it’s like the plot goes beserk in an act of overcompensation. Hmmm. My guess is that Larsen sold this novel when he had only the first half of it written.

So, what to make of it all? It’s always fun to see writers pushing the boundaries and trying new things. And my greatest fear when embarking on this novel, that the narrative voice would drag, was completely unfounded. There’s a lot to enjoy here before the plot implodes, or even while it’s imploding, because Larsen can certainly write. But here’s the thing with experimental fiction: when it works, it opens up new dimensions of experience to the reader, allowing us to think about reality in more profound and sophisticated ways. T. S.’s maps and drawings are fun, but in the end the consequence of them, their importance for understanding the situation T. S. finds himself in, are minimal. The marginalia becomes just a device, or as I experienced it, a foreshadowing of hypertext links in the ebook, that will take you out of the immersive experience of reading sometimes for no good reason. But to be fair, I never even liked footnotes in academic books. I’m really glad I read this, and I think Larsen is a talented writer, but the next book he publishes will come, I hope, from a more coherent map in his imagination.