A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

If you’re a reader but not an English major, or just anyone who’d like to fill in the holes in your knowledge of the subject, you could do worse than John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature.

 Divided into 40 short chapters, Mr. Sutherland’s book covers all the greatest hits from Beowulf to Borges and most of the main topics covered in graduate schools from What is Literature to Literature and Race. This is a book aiming to introduce readers to the topics covered, so you’ll get a solid grounding in each issue along with all the cannonical authors. If you’re looking for something more advanced, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Sutherland’s style is brief and breezy.  He never wades so far into any topic that he risks becoming lost in controversy or risks going over anyone’s head in analysis.  He’s like a very knowledgeable grandpa explaining carpentry to his grand children in terms they can understand.  He’s not talking down to his audience at all, he’s just showing us how to build a basic bird house, not how to construct a full set of dresser drawers.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Sutherland since graduate school when some professor recommended we all get a copy of his The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction.  It’s a must have if you’re a fan or a student of the genre.  In the years I’ve had it, nearly two decades now, it has never failed me. No matter how obscure the reference I come across, it’s in Sutherland’s book be it obscure household magazine or novelist lost to time.  They’re all there.

So I was primed to enjoy A Little History of Literature and enjoy it I did.  I can’t say that I learned anything new, but I had good time none-the-less.  Mr. Sutherland loves his topic, reads everything, references everything from children’s literature, to Ray Bradbury, to Dan Brown, to Mrs. Gaskell, to Mrs. Dalloway.  Though it probably should be titled A Little History of Literature in English he does cover a wide swath of the non-English speaking world enough to satisfy most, though not all, readers.

The end paper biography refers to The Lives of Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives which sounds like something I simply must have.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

Human Acts by Han Kang

I suppose I’m like most Americans in that I know little of Korea’s history.  We know the war, at least the version of it we saw on television’s M*A*S*H, and the Korean miracle–the economic powerhouse South Korea has become.  But anything in between, certainly the dark chapters many South Korean’s would like to keep buried, we don’t know.

This has begun to rapidly change lately, for me in part because of Korean literature like Shin Kyung-sook’s wonderful novel Please Look After Mom and Han Kang’s equally wonderful book The Vegetarian. Add to this list Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, which sheds light on the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and the massacre that followed.

Never heard of it?  Me either. But don’t let that stand in your way.

Like The Vegetarian, the story in Human Acts is focused on a character we never get to see first hand or through a first-person narrative.  Here that character is a middle-school boy Dong-ho who is killed in the aftermath of the uprising when hundreds of protesters were massacred by South Korea’s military in the city of Gwangju.  Dong-ho should not have been there.  He was too young, the youngest among the protesters and the youngest of those killed.  Those who knew him, and a few others who simply saw his photograph afterwards, tell their stories through a series of narratives–first, second and third person by the way.

Human Acts shattered some of my illusions about South Korea.  I did not know that at least up until the 1980’s when the massacre took place that South Korea was a full-fledged military dictatorship rivaling North Korea in its oppression of free speech and free assembly and the use of torture to ensure compliance with the state.

One thing I admired about Human Acts was the portrayal of torture’s aftermath, the way it affects victims for the remainder of their lives.  There is no escaping the fact that it’s value does not lie in gathering information but in suppressing dissent.

This is the second time Han Kang has kept her readers from direct contact with the central character of her novel.  In both The Vegetarian and Human Acts the reader circles around the character we are most interested in.  We hear from those who know Dong-ho slightly and those who knew him well, but just as it was with Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian we never hear from Dong-ho directly nor do we ever witness him alone.  This frustrates many readers but its a device at least as old as Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights wherein we never once witness Catherine and Heathcliff unfiltered through the eyes of someone else.  Theirs is a great romance that the reader never gets to see first hand as neither character is ever presented except through someone else’s first person narration.

What is Han Kang up to in her books?  I think this could make for an excellent book club discussion or perhaps a paper for a graduate seminar.  Does not seeing the central character first hand make it more possible for the reader to insert whomever we want to, or need to, into that role? If we knew exactly who that character was, would we be more or less likely to identify with that character or to identify that character with someone we care about outside of the book.

While Shin Kyung-sook follows this structure for most of Please Look After Mom, she does give the title character a portion of the book–the reader does see a bit of what happened to the vanished mother.  Her book is no less memorable or moving for doing so.

I will say that I found this worked better in The Vegetarian than it does in Human Acts.  It may be that there were too many different points of view in Human Acts while there were just three in The Vegetarian.  Han Kang has a wider ranging thesis in Human Acts–the personal story of Dong-ho, the suppressed history of the uprising and the massacre that followed, the effects of torture, the collective societal denial of history.  Dong-ho becomes a tool for bringing all of this together while Yeong-hye, in The Vegetarian, always remained a person in the reader’s mind.  It was Yeong-hye who haunted me after finishing The Vegetarian. It’s history that haunts me after reading Human Acts.  One book asks how this could happen to one woman, while the other asks how this could happen to us all.

If you have not read Han Kang yet, you really should.  She’s very good; so is Shin Kyung-sook.  But, in the end I’d recommend The Vegetarian over Human Acts.  

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

This marks the end of my Tournament of Books 2017 reading.

It’s been fun. Really. I read a good-sized handful of books from the short list, enjoyed most of them, admired a few, didn’t finish one. I’ve even come away with a few titles sure to make my personal short list of favorite reads for this year.

But I’m moving on to other titles now.  There’s a big, too big to discuss, pile on my nightstand that I’d like to get around to.

I did not read The Mothers by Brit Bennet so I cannot comment on whether or not the best book won this round, but it does seem like I tend to pick slightly more winners than losers. Though even the “losers” I read were darn good. Actually, the losers include my favorite of the bunch The Vegetarian.

So, I should say something about Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive. 

While the book works more or less as a thriller, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense myself, what works best about the book is the relationship between middle-aged hotelier and former high dive champion Moose and his daughter Freya an acerbic teenager on the cusp of adulthood.  In what I found to be a much less interesting subplot an IRA fighter, does one still call them terrorists, is planning on bombing the hotel when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the rest of her party gather there for a conference.

Just past the halfway mark there is a brief scene between Moose and his sometimes love interest wherein the author explains just what he is up to in High Dive. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that I didn’t think I was supposed to spot, except in retrospect.  There should have been a “I should have seen it coming” moment but my moment was “Oh, I see what’s gong to happen” which is problematic with a thriller.

With no suspense for my reading, High Dive was an interesting and enjoyable character study of Moose and Freya. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, came to like them both, wanted them to find what they were looking for in life. And I was very sorry to see it all end the way it did.

Which is probably the point the author wanted to make when he gave away the ending anyway.

Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest

While Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest was not exactly the biography I was looking for, it is an entertaining, educational read that has much to offer both fans of the artist and general readers.

Several years ago I picked up a copy of Becoming Judy Chicago more or less on a whim to discover one of my favorite reads of 2007.  Turns out I enjoy reading critical biographies of artists.  (Finding a new sub-genre you enjoy is one benefit of reading outside your box.)

Ms. Secrest’s book on Modigliani is not really a critical biography.  My loose definition of a critical biography is a book that looks at an artist’s work in an attempt to illuminate how it came to be, to examine how it works, and to evaluate its overall quality.  Of course, much of the artists personal life will be covered but it is not the focus of a critical biography.  Ms. Secrest covers all of Modigiliani’s life which is her main focus.  She does spend plenty of time discussing how he came to be an artist and explaining both how is art works as well as why it is significant, but the life of the man takes precedence.  Hence the title, I suppose.
It’s an interesting life.  If you were one of the many people participating in the recent Paris in July by day-dreaming about being an artist in Paris during the heyday of Monet or Picasso, you will find plenty to enjoy in Modigliani: A Life.   Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris from Italy, in the early days of the 20th century.  He lived among the major artists of his day, became friends with Pablo Picasso, was the center of attention in avant-garde social sets, and lived la vie Boheme on nothing a year.   He struggled as a sculptor for years until he found his signature style as a painter.  While he never became rich or famous during his lifetime, he did live to enjoy some success before dying  at the age of 36 from tubercular meningitis.   In Modigliani: A Life you’ll find a rich story of struggles with art, family, women, and day to day existence in Paris of the early 20th century, when the art scene left Montmarte for cheaper quarters in Montparnasse.

Ms. Secrest attempts to correct several aspects of Modigliani’s reputation, namely that he helped bring about his own early death through excessive drink and the use of narcotics.  She builds a strong case.  What struck me most is the idea that he drank as a means to control the symptoms of tuberculosis which he kept secret until just before his death.  His fear that he would have been ostracized by just about everyone if his condition became known was probably correct.

If, like me, you’re looking for information about his paintings, you’ll find it towards the end of Ms. Secrest’s book.  Modigliani was at the height of his skill during the final year of his life.  He had been painting portraits of friends for several years, he worked with anyone who would sit for him without pay because he had no money to hire models, but these did not sell.  In Modigliani’s day, if the sitter didn’t buy the portrait, no one did.  Once he moved on to painting nudes, his work began to sell, and he painted what many argue are his best works.
Like Picasso and many other artists living in Paris at the time, Modigliani was heavily and clearly influenced by the African masks which were beginning to appear on the art market in Europe.  Ms. Secrest writes about the mask like faces in Modigliani’s work:
“The more he (Modigliani) paints individuals the more their particular features fade into the background, and the more faces seem encased in a smooth shell as hard as a carapace.  As Pierre Daix observed, the comparison between Picasso’s revised portrait of Gertude Stein and Modigliani’s mature style is apt.  Modigliani, however, never took his experiments with features further than that. Unlike Picasso, who has already turned his women’s faces into beak-like appendages by the time he is working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Modigliani’s noses stay where they were put, the mouths fall beneath them, there are no double profiles or eyes placed in the middle of foreheads. Picasso’s interest is schematic, to see how far he can rearrange facial features and still have them be recognizable.  Modigliani’s interest is otherwise. He is trying to simplify and reduce to the irreducible minimum the essence of a personality without actually losing it altogether.  The masks of the commedia dell’arte wore, as Pierre Louis wrote in The Italian Comedy, “an indefinable expression as full of possibilities as of impossibilities, like the Mona Lisa, which every generation interprets differently.” Modigliani’s self-imposed challenge, to see how far he could venture into abstraction without ending in either anonymity or caricature, must be one of the most difficult any artist since the Renaissance has attempted.”

So why is Modigliani not held in the high esteem less able painters like Picasso are or recognized alongside the great painters of his generation like Matisse?  Ms. Secrest blames three major culprits.  The first is the author’s own personal reputation.  Modigliani’s private life was one of near complete chaos which gave him a lasting bad reputation deserved or not.  Second, because his work is so easy to fake and because he did not keep accurate records of the work he did, he became one of the  most frequently counterfeited artists of the 20th century.  For a long time, there was really no way to be sure you were buying a Modigliani.  Finally, his artwork itself worked against a lasting reputation.  Because Modigliani worked to create his own signature style, he was not included in the early narrative of 20th century art.  He is neither a cubist nor an abstract painter nor does he fit within any other school of art.  His work stands outside the rest and was often left out of the early histories of 20th century art as a result.

Fans of Modigliani, like myself, can hope that as more and more people begin to see how inferior Picasso’s work is to that of Matisse, that other excellent painters like Modigliani will be given their due.  Ms. Secrest’s book is a step in the right direction.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I remain a fan of Modigliani, but I’ve become a devote of Henri Matisse.  Fortunately, we don’t have to pick one or the other, we can enjoy them all.

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.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

When I was in college, I was friends with a group of women who shared a flat on Divisidero Street in San Francisco, decades before it became a trendy neighborhood.  In the 1980’s, four college students living on four or five hundred dollars a month  each could come up with enough money to rent a flat.  As longs as no one spends all the rent money on cocaine.

One month, that happened.  The leaseholder, who collected all the cash, spend the rent money on cocaine.  When the land-lord came to call, they almost all ended up on the street.  One of them managed to convince the landlord to give them an extra month to come up with the money and to move the lease over to a different room-mate.

The former leaseholder, the one with the fondness for cocaine, was evicted by consensus.

So, yes, I do understand that addiction is a disease, but the rent is the rent.

Which is why I have less patience for stories of addiction than I might have.

Which is why I had a tough time with Michelle Tea’s novel, Black Tea.  I should have liked it more.  The first half of the story is set in San Francisco, much later, some 30 years or so, than my college days, but familiar territory that I am fond of. The main character is a lesbian woman who shares the flat with a series of roommates and girlfriends.  She even works in a book store.  But, boy does she use a lot of drugs. I kept thinking as I read her story that her roommate should throw her out.

So I found it all very tough reading in the same way I found Charles Bukowski’s Ham and Eggs tough reading.  I just don’t have much interest in stories of how far addicts go to serve their addiction be it alcohol or hard drugs.

Still, since Black Wave is in the Tournament of Books this year, I kept reading.  I think I’m glad I did.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!

Just short of halfway through the novel, the story shifts to Los Angeles.  The main character then turns to the reader to admit that not all of what she has told us so far is true.  The girl she introduced briefly as a sort of one-night-stand was really a long-term girlfriend.  She just didn’t want to be included in this “memoir.” Other details had been changed as well. So what’s really going on.

In Los Angeles we discover that the world is about to end.  Things are decaying around the main character who manages to get a job in a bookstore like the one she had in San Francisco.  Things get worse, gradually then dramatically.  It’s an unclear end of the world scenario that features the main character in a bookstore strewn with unshelved books, reminding me of Paul Auster’s wonderful novel In the Country of Last Things.  But Mr. Auster and Ms. Tea are up to very different things.  Ms. Tea is doing something much more in line with Samuel R. Delany’s Dahlgren in which a city, probably New York, decays in chaos while the hippie-like main characters build a temporary utopia amid the soon to be ruins of civilization.  I loved Dhalgren and came to enjoy the second part of Black Wave.

But what really surprised me about Black Wave is how moved I was at the ending. Even though I was enjoying the book by the end, I did not expect to care about the main character, this drug addled hipster with an attitude she is in no position to hold.  But I was.  The final scene, her last moments of life, struck me, profoundly struck me.

I did not expect that, not at all.

So I think I’m recommending Black Wave. 100 pages into the book I was ready to lay it aside for good, but by the final words on the last page I was thinking I might read more by Michelle Tea.  I think that’s a recommendation.