Sunday Rant and Ramble: Lionel Shriver Makes me Mad; A New Cat Arrives; Tournament of Books Results

What makes a book a classic?

Lionel Shriver was a guest on my favorite BBC program A Good Read.  You can listen to the program here.  It was the dullest episode of my favorite program ever. Knowing something of what Ms. Shriver is like in person, I almost didn’t listen, but I thought I’d be open-minded, give it a try.

The conceit of A Good Read is that the host along with each of two guests suggests a book which they all read and then discuss.  I love it in part because it often brings books to my attention that I otherwise would never have read.  Oddly, maybe not all that oddly, the best episodes feature guests who are neither authors nor involved with publishing.  Ms. Shriver brought John Knowles A Separate Peace as her good read.

She began the discussion with a dig at teachers when the host mentioned that most American high schools use the book in their classes.  Fortunately, Ms. Shriver quipped, I didn’t suffer that fate. Or something like that.

I no longer have any patience with people denigrate the teaching profession in any way.  We didn’t ruin any book for you, we don’t have that power.  If we did, we’d use it against Twilight.  Own your nonsense.  You don’t get to blame your teachers for anything anymore. Be a grown up. Or face my wrath, ’cause I bite back. Hence this post.  Okay, not much in the way of wrath but it’s what I’ve got.

Apparently, people in the U.K. do not read A Separate Peace; Shriver was the only one on the program who had heard of it.  So the host brought up the question of what makes a book a classic.  I don’t recall what Shriver said, but my instant answer was high school teachers.

If you think John Knowles book A Separate Peace, published in 1959 would still be in print if it weren’t for generations of high school teachers bringing it to their freshman English classes, you are slightly delusional.  The reason a book remains in print generations after it is published, honestly even 10 years after it is published, is that some group of teachers somewhere in the world loves that particular book enough to carry it into a classroom or to encourage their students to read it on their own.  Teachers.  Even  popular classics like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings owe their success to teachers.  We were the ones getting our friends to bring book two back from trips to England so we could read Chamber of Secrets to our sixth grade students.  My seventh grade English teacher brought The Hobbit to class.

Teachers, Ms. Shriver, are the ones who make a book a classic.

Later in the episode, the host mentioned the homoerotic element of A Separate Peace which Ms. Shriver pooh-poohed immediately as wrong-headed and isn’t is a shame we can’t appreciate non-sexual friendships between men anymore.  Yes, I suppose, but wasn’t it worse that any hint of same-sex attraction had to be immediately denied so forcefully that it often led to acts of violence between those who felt it?  And just what makes you so uncomfortable with this idea, anyway, Ms. Shriver?  Is A Separate Peace not quite so wonderful if Gene really is in love with Phinny?

End of rant.  Now a cat video.

Last week, C.J. and I got a cat. Floyd, who came with that name, is not our first cat, as long time readers of this blog may recall.  We had one that ran away, and several rounds of foster kittens, but I think this one will stay.  Here’s a  video of him on the day we brought him home.

This year, for the first time, I am reading  along with The Tournament of Books.  It’s been a lot reading, almost all of it good, some if it great. I didn’t set up a full field of brackets, since I was not able to read all of the books in advance, maybe next year, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had.

The tip in round in which three books compete before the tournament officially begins went to Alvaro Enrigue’s terrific historical fiction Sudden Death.  My review is here.  While this book was not quite my pick, I was pleased with the result.  I did not get a chance to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, but my favorite, maybe my favorite of all the tournament contenders so far, was Chris Bacheldar’s The Throwback Special.  My review is here.  While it garnered high praise from the round’s judge, as did all three books, it did not win.  It won’t be the zombie round winner either.  I knew there was no way a book about a group of straight white men facing middle age would win, and I’m okay with that, but it’s a wonderful book.

While I came to admire Michelle Tea’s book Black Wave and was genuinely moved by the ending, I knew it would lose to Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  Underground Railroad is a contender to take the contest or at least come in second to Homegoing.  My review of Black Wave is here; my review of Underground Railroad is here.  While I feel a little bad about Black Wave, this was the right choice as far as I’m concerned.

Inexplicably, Charlie Jane Anders science fiction/fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky defeated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  Things like this do happen, but when they do, they make you wonder. Ms. Ander’s novel is good. Though I did not read it all, I can see its appeal and I admit it is well done.  But it’s been done before.  Two young people, a boy genius capable of inventing a time machine with spare parts he finds around the house and a girl gifted with powers of witchcraft beyond her control, become friends before they are each sent to different schools where they will learn to control their abilities until things come to a climatic head in a battle of some sort. I didn’t make it to the end so you’re own your own.  If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it is familiar.  Very familiar.

Han Kang’s book is not like anything I’ve read before.  That alone gets my attention and my praise.  You can read my review of it here.  A window on another society, a study of one woman, a study of a family, a metaphor for modern Korea.  There’s a lot going on in what looks at first like a fairly simple story.  I wonder if Han Kang has a chance to take the zombie round. I think she’s a long shot.

Of course, there’s no way one could ever agree with every decision the judges make, little chance of it anyway, and that probably wouldn’t be any fun.  Disagreeing is part of the entertainment.  The commentary and the comments make for very interesting reading.  I’m struck by how insightful and how interesting the commenters are.  Book people are the best people.

Could that be because so many of us are teachers?

Just asking.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Before she was executed, Anne Boleyn’s head was shaved.  Afterwards, her hair was given to the executioner as part of the payment for his work.  He then sold it, at a considerable sum for the time, to a maker of tennis balls, which were often filled with human hair in that century.  Anne Boleyn’s hair was valued material for tennis balls because it was female, reddish in color and from someone believed to be a witch.  Four tennis balls were made from her hair.  One was used in a famed match between Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Another, through the usual suspicious provenance, ended up at  the New York Public Library.

Since C.J. and I are cat-sitting in Brooklyn this summer, I, of course, thought we should go see this tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.   So I contacted the New York Public Library to ask if the tennis ball was on display.  The librarian I spoke with, Nick, said he had never heard of this he would have heard of if they had a tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, but he gave me the number of a department that would probably know more about it.

So I did some on-line research only to discover, in a few minutes, that Alvaro Enrigue made the whole thing up.  There are no tennis balls made from Anne Boleyns hair.  Caravaggio and de Quevedo never played tennis against each other.  The entire book is fiction, historical fiction.

But that I believed it all, or was so ready to believe it all, says something, maybe something about Mr. Enrigue’s book or maybe something about me.

Though I can say what happens in Sudden Death, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, it’s hard to say what the book is about.  Even the narrator admits, just about two-thirds of the way through the novel, that he doesn’t know.  There is the tennis match which is interspersed throughout the novel. Is it a metaphor for something larger? There is a plot involving Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and the story of how this will bring a piece of feather work to the attention of Italian artists, changing forever they way they use paint.  And some treacherous popes, some surviving Aztec craftsmen, Cortez’s native wife who ends up living a life of luxury in Spain.

It’s a wonderful ride, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I recommend.  One that I’m keeping around to read again someday.

It was also the first winner in the Tournament of Books.  Sudden Death beat out both The Throwback Special which I loved and The Sport of Kings which I have not read yet, though I do own a copy.  I didn’t think Sudden Death would win because it’s such a difficult book to pin down.  What’s really going on is not what’s really going on in Sudden Death.  The plot, as much fun as it was, may just be a cover for a discussion of writing or art or the nature of narrative or the unreliability of story or something someone more clever than I will figure out.  It’s also very experimental in nature they  Roberto Bolano’s work so often is.  After finishing the book, I looked at the back cover to find that Mr. Enrigue is Mexican, not Spanish as I had assumed and that his work has been compared to Roberto Bolano.  Should have known, I thought.

So while I was surprised to see it win the pre-tournament play-in round, I was still pleased.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s see how it does against Francine Prose’s Master Monkey.

Nazi literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolano, translated by Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is an encyclopedic look at a fictional literary movement.  Novelists, poets, short story writers, magazine editors and publishers are all given detailed entries covering their lives and work.  Minor figures and publications are listed in the appendices at the back.  Even the least significant fictional fascist author is included, lovingly, even reverently described.

Is Mr. Bolano playing a dangerous game with his readers?  For the most part, the people included seem harmless.  Their work is literature; the book about them non-political.  Most of the biographical entries don’t appear fascist at all, let alone Nazi.  There is no talk of Anti-Semitism, or racial superiority, or eugenics.  The final solution is not mentioned nor is there any discussion of World War II.  The writers described in Mr. Bolano’s book are concerned not with politics but with poetics.  If the cover didn’t say Nazi, you’d never guess.

Mr. Bolano’s characters are a self-important, delusional bunch.  Relegated to obscurity by history, they still consider themselves a vital literary movement.  Mr. Bolano’s “narrator” does nothing to subvert this notion.  His tone recognizes the importance of the writers and publications described.  He could easily be a university professor documenting a lifetime’s worth of research.  But while the writers included in Nazi Literature in the Americas interact with some of the canonical authors of their day–Borges, Ginsberg to name a few–they do not make an impact on either them or the literary world of their time.  In the end, to this reader’s relief,  Mr. Bolano’s Nazis are a pathetic bunch.

But just how hard is Mr. Bolano pulling our leg?  Had history taken a different course, would a Nazi poetics have emerged?  Would the authors described in Nazi Literature in the Americas be the ones occupying center stage while Borges and Ginsberg struggled in obscurity?   These are not easy questions for those of us who value literature.  We hope there is something about literature that places it above politics.  We don’t like to think about how literature is also determined by politics.  They say the winners write the history books, but don’t they also write the poetry?

Reading Nazi Literature in the Americas is much like reading an encyclopedia.  That is both a compliment and a complaint.   Mr. Bolano maintains the objective voice commonly found in good encyclopedias throughout most of his novel.  This objectivity serves to present his fictional characters in a non-judgemental manner that underscores how feeble their efforts are while it makes the reader uneasy by invoking our sympathy.  We chuckle at their absurdity, feel guilty about it, then feel guilty for feeling guilty.

But reading an encyclopedia, even a very well written one, becomes a tedious experience at some point.  Encyclopedias are not meant to be read cover to cover. Novels are.  Mr. Bolano’s narrator himself falls victim to the same tedium his readers begin to experience.  Towards the end of Nazi Literature in the Americas he loses his objective, encyclopedia writer voice, and becomes a story teller.  The last few entries in the book are really short stories, not biographical essays.  Perhaps that makes Mr. Bolano’s experiment a failure, since he couldn’t keep it up all the way to the finish.  Perhaps it simply recognizes the needs of his reader and the needs of his narrator who just can’t help himself anymore.  He’s a fan, he wants to tell the story with all its inherent drama. Objectivity be damned.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in December of 2010.  I have slowly been migrating my old reviews over to this new site since I started James Reads Books a few years ago. I’ve still got over 100 reviews left.  It’s amazing just how much content we all develop over the years.  

 

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

third reichI always get the sense that Roberto Bolano is up to no good.  He’s doing something very sneaky in his novels, but I can’t quite pin down what it is.

The Third Reich is my third Roberto Bolano novel, after The Savage Detectives  and Nazi Literature in the Americas.  This is what I’ve noticed.

In all three of these novels Mr. Bolano deals with a set of characters who are big fish in a little pond.  The Savage Detectives is about a group of radical poets,  Nazi Literature is a survey of National Socialist authors living in exile and The Third Reich is about the best player of a complicated board game.  The characters in each book are engaged in what they think is a serious struggle to gain dominance in their worlds.  In all of their situations they have no real power, no one outside their circle of competitors cares about them, or even knows they exist at all.

(It’s been many years since I read The Savage Detectives, so I’m going off of feint memories of it, but I think I’ve got this aspect of it correct.)

The narrator of The Third Reich, a German tourist named Udo who is spending his summer vacation on the coast of Spain, is  perfect character for Bolano’s little game.  He is the grand master of a particular board game, a complex battle strategy game based on Europe during the Second World War.  The Third Reich is such a complicated game, involving battle strategy, logistics, diplomacy even weather conditions, that it takes several weeks to play.

While on vacation, Udo meets a strange man called El Quemado who runs a pedal-boat rental business.  El Quemado sleeps underneath his boats at night, but he turns out to be a master at The Third Reich.  El Quemado is able to out strategize all of Udo’s plans and after weeks of play defeat the grand master.

The Third Reich is the story of this particular game and of the events in the lives of it’s main player.  While Udo’s attempt to lead Germany to victory progresses and then fails, his own personal life does the same.   His friend and travelling companion disappears and then is discovered drowned.  His girlfriend goes back home to Stuttgart.  He begins an affair with the hotel manager. All this while the summer guests begin to leave as the season comes to a close until just Udo and El Quemado remain, determined to see their game to its finish.

Has Bolano placed his slightly crazy main character in a more luxurious bunker to satirize what happened to the leaders of the real Third Reich?  Udo knows all about military history, but he cannot understand why his board game version of Germany fails to defeat the novice moves of his opponent who has never played the game before.  He is surprised and frustrated when the game begins to play out just like it did in real life.

It makes for entertaining, if a little unsettling, reading.  Unsettling in a good way.  The whole thing reminded me of A Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, with its atmospheric decay as all the tourist leave town.

However, I can’t help but ask what about the Jews?  Here, and in Nazi Literature in America, Bolano makes the Nazi’s central to his book’s structure without dealing with the Holocaust.  While it basically made sense in Nazi Literature in the Americas, this absence is much more disquieting in The Third Reich.  Any historian with even a minor understanding of the period will tell you that Germany spent considerable effort on the Final Solution at serious cost to its own war effort.  While war games avoid moral issues in favor of military strategy, which I can understand,  a novel, even a novel about war games, can’t avoid these issues without raising suspicion.

This is one book I really wish I was reading for a book club or a college class.  I still have a lot of questions.

 

This book counts as book number 15 in The 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.

No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez takes place in the author’s familiar milieu–an isolated Latin American town, the sort that no one seems to enter or leave for decades, dusty, inactive, dying from entropy. The unnamed colonel has been waiting for his pension to arrive, waiting for fifteen years. His money and his options have run out, he has nothing left to sell, nothing except the fighting rooster his son left in his care before he was killed by government soldiers. If he can keep the chicken in fighting form for a few months, until it has a chance to win the big fight, he can sell it for 900 pesos, enough to support his wife while they wait for his long promised pension to arrive.

This probably does not sound all that promising to most readers, but there is much to enjoy in this novella. Garcia Marquez understands human nature enough to create complicated, layered characters, even when their actions are quite simple. The Colonel goes to town to try to sell a clock, to visit his lawyer, to see if his letter has arrived. Very little happens but all of the characters, major and minor, come to life in Garcia Marquez’ hands. We see only a few days of the Colonel’s life, but we can tell that the people he meets have known him for years, decades, shared much of his life and too much of his fate.

Waiting for the pension that never arrives while his situation continues to worsen, like waiting for a Godot who never appears, becomes a heart wrenching read. When we learn the lengths the Colonel’s wife has gone to just to keep her husband and herself clothed and fed they touch us as they touch the Colonel. Garcia Marquez is one of the best writers I know at depicting how love deepens in unspoken ways when it has lasted a long long time. He does this very well in No One Writes to the Colonel.

 

I first posted this review as part of The Novella Challenge back in 2008.  I don’t read Garcia Marquez all that often.  For some reason the weight of him, maybe the weight of the Noble Prize, puts me off.   Though they are too few, every time I have read him I have been profoundly moved.  If you’ve never read him, this is a good place to get a small taste of what makes him great.  Then go and read Love in the Time of Cholera.  You won’t be sorry.