Tag Archives: literature

Blemished but Brilliant

Anna Karenina“There was a lot wrong with it and it was flawed in many ways…almost nobody liked the ending.”

Not the words you would expect to hear from the chair of the judges awarding a prestigious literary prize. But that is exactly what Times columnist Matthew Parris said, after he had handed over the £25,000 cheque for the Costa Book of the Year earlier this week.

In the end, Matthew Parris explained, many great books are also flawed in their own way, saying that even Shakespeare’s play The Tempest has a bad ending.

The Today programme asked two distinguished writers, to nominate some great, but flawed, works of literature.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Magnificent, but it does go on… many, many whale-related digressions. Only its terrific drive and characterization carry you along.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. That famous opening, but no one seems to remember the way Dickens goes on to hammer away at every possible subsequent variation on a theme of – it was the tallest, it was the shortest, it was the driest, it was the soggiest, it was the creamiest, it was the grittiest…

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Wonderful book, but possibly marred by all those digressions into agricultural theory and the incident when Vronsky accidentally snaps his horse – a slightly unlikely passage that no one ever seems to remember.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller Great concepts and characters, but the humour does tend to fall into a repeating pattern.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow by Peter Høeg. Again, a fine book – the giant sea worms at the end appearing like a dead weasel on the face of a much-loved friend.

More at BBC News

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China Remembers Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. BuckIt is the highest house in all of Zhenjiang, tucked behind bamboo above the Yangtze mist shrouding Cloud Scaling Hill. The former occupants lie buried on two continents: the parents nearby, their famous daughter beneath Pennsylvania farm soil in a grave marked with her Chinese name. She arrived in China as a child of missionaries. Now, steles resembling tombstones front her gray brick childhood home. In English, the epitaph reads, “Here lived Pearl S. Buck, American author, born 1892, died 1973.” The more effusive carving in Chinese cites a Nobel Prize and the praise of a president: “Nixon called her a bridge between the civilizations of East and West.”

Zhenjiang is where author Pearl S. Buck grew up, where she experienced the sweat and toil of everyday Chinese life that dominated so many of her books and came to define China for a generation of Americans.

In Buck, the Chinese chose an unlikely heroine. For decades, her books were banned in China, and Buck was criticized as someone who vilified the Chinese because she depicted poor, illiterate peasants. Near the end of her life, as she longed to see the land of her childhood, the communist government harshly rejected her application for a visa.

The Good EarthIn the United States, interest in Buck dwindled after her death in 1973. Her best-known book, the 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” continues to resonate; Oprah Winfrey picked it as a must-read. But her other titles struggle to find a modern audience. About 14,500 people a year visit her home in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.

In Zhenjiang, where she arrived as the 3-month-old daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck’s reputation is growing. The movement to recognize her started in the late 1980s, during the Reform and Opening period, when a few researchers began to explore the writings of this outspoken Western woman. Today she’s celebrated in Chinese TV specials and serials. A documentary co-produced by the Zhenjiang People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries describes her as “an American writer who told the Chinese stories in a Chinese way in English” — no small compliment in a culture obsessed with its own longevity and accomplishment.

There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods…Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth.

She grew up as a blue-eyed, blond-haired minority, taunted by other children as a “foreign devil,” a discrimination that fueled her later work for racial tolerance. Perhaps most of all, she devoted herself to children, and specifically to the adoption of Asian and Amerasian children, who were believed to be unadoptable in the 1940s.

Buck’s life spanned the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. She criticized Mao and U.S. policy toward China. Even now, there are people in the United States who consider her a communist. She spoke out early for civil rights and women’s rights — and did lasting damage to her reputation toward the end of her life by taking up with a dancing instructor half her age.

Full story at Detroit Free Press and at New York Times.

The 50 Best Cult Books

Yes, we love lists.

What is a cult book?

We tried and failed to arrive at a definition: books often found in the pockets of murderers; books that you take very seriously when you are 17; books whose readers can be identified to all with the formula ” whacko”; books our children just won’t get…

Cult books include some of the most cringemaking collections of bilge ever collected between hard covers. But they also include many of the key texts of modern feminism; some of the best journalism and memoirs; some of the most entrancing and original novels in the canon.

Cult books are somehow, intangibly, different from simple bestsellers – though many of them are that. The Carpetbaggers was a bestseller; Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a cult.

Cult Books

In compiling our list, we were looking for the sort of book that people wear like a leather jacket or carry around like a totem. The book that rewires your head: that turns you on to psychedelics; makes you want to move to Greece or conjures into being a character who becomes a permanent inhabitant of your mental flophouse.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Sideways fantasy from the Diogenes of American letters, a comic sage who survived the firebombing of Dresden and various familial tragedies to work out his own unique brand of science-fictional satire. Like much of Vonnegut’s stuff, this is savage anger barely masked by urbane anthropological sarcasm. Very much the place to start.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1957-60)
The great modern Baroque novel. Made it possible for the middle classes to embrace the Mediterranean. No such Alexandria ever existed, nor did the potboiler thriller plot of space/time exploration, Kaballa, sex, good food and drink (it came out during rationing) or philosophical enquiry. Some beautiful sentences, sure; but lots of them don’t make sense.

A Rebours by JK Huysmans (1884)
Plotless, morality-free salute to decadence. An individual based on its French author lounges about his luxurious home indulging in pursuits such as embedding gemstones in the shell of a tortoise until, loaded down, it expires. Dripping with Baudelairean ennui (and not a little dull itself), A Rebours was a bible for the Symbolists, Oscar Wilde and alienated creative types everywhere.

Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock (1946)
Childcare experts go in and out of fashion, but Dr Benjamin Spock remains the daddy of them all. From his reassuring first sentence – “You know more than you think you do” – he revolutionised the way parents thought about their children, asserting the right to cuddle, comfort and follow your instincts. He also tells you how to deal with croup.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1991)
The woman who made feminism sexy by being gorgeous and shaving her legs also taught her readers to eat a hearty meal. This book argues that a cult of thinness has desexualised and disempowered women just when, after the acceptance of free love and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the opposite should have happened. The most important feminist text of the past 20 years.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
In one of the original misery memoirs, Sylvia Plath delivered an intense, semiautobiographical story of growing up at a time when electroshock therapy was used to treat troubled young women. The narrator is a talented writer who arrives in New York with every opportunity before her, but buckles. The Bell Jar became a rallying call for a better understanding of mental illness, creativity and the impact on women of stifling social conventions. Plath killed herself a month after its publication.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Bitterly bouncy military farce, responsible for inventing the dilemma to which it gave its name: you’re only excused war if you’re mad, but wanting an exemption argues that you must be sane. Literary history would be entirely different if Heller had followed his original intention and called it Catch-18: it was changed to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
Ur-text of adolescent alienation, beloved of assassins, emos and everyone in between, Gordon Brown included. Complicated teen Holden Caulfield at large in the big city, working out his family and getting drunk. You’ve probably read it, be honest.

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1993)
Deep in the South American jungle an intrepid explorer is about to stumble on a sequence of ancient prophecies that could change our way of living, even save the world. If only we didn’t have to buy the other novels in that the series to find out what they were! For a similar effect on the cheap, rent an Indiana-Jonesalike film – Tomb Raider, say – and ask a hippy to whisper nonsense in your ear while you’re watching it.

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (1971)
Blame a burgeoning mistrust of conventional psychiatry for the immediate impact of The Dice Man – a novel whose hero, a disillusioned psychiatrist, vows to make every decision of his life according to the roll of a die. As one might have expected from the times, chance sends him into violence and anarchy, which also explains the book’s enduring appeal.

Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken (1968)
Those Easter Island things, they’re blokes wearing space suits, aren’t they? Er, no. Hugely influential work of mad-eyed fabricated Arch & Anth, responsible for decades of pub pseudoscience as well as for splendid stuff such as The X-Files. Increasingly common at jumble sales these days, though Von Däniken happily got another 25 books out of the idea.

See the next 39 selections and full story at The Telegraph UK

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Wolf of GubbioFioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.

“Brother Wolf, thou doest much harm in these parts and thou hast done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would make peace between you and the people.”

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

In agreement the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.

Meanwhile the townsfolk, having heard of the miracle, gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?”

Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.

Image: Saint Francis instructs the Wolf, Carl Weidemeyer-Worpswede, 1911

A Beautiful Sentence

Beauty, in a sentence, is as difficult to describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. If you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.

Consider the sentence that begins Samuel Johnson’s brief biography, The Life of Savage.

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

The quality that this sentence shares with all good sentences is clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.

SentenceDespite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete, as Johnson takes an observation so common as to have become a cliché (money and fame don’t by themselves make us happy) and turns it, then turns it again, considering the possible explanations, the reasons why this perception may be true or merely appear to be true. The sentence combines a sort of magisterial authority with an almost offhand wit, in part because of the casual ease with which it tosses off sweeping philosophical generalizations (“great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages”, “the general lot of mankind is misery”) compressed into subordinate clauses, as if the truth of these statements is so obvious to both the writer and the reader that there is no need to pause over these pronouncements, let alone give them sentences of their own.

Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process – the successive qualifications and considerations – of thought itself, of a lively mind at work. Finally, the cadence and rhythm of the sentence are as measured and pleasing as those of poetry or music.

Excerpted from Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, HarperCollins, 2006

It’s Not You, It’s Your Books

It’s Your BooksSome years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”

We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility.

Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused.” (Members of theatlasphere.com, a dating and fan site for devotees of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” might disagree.)

Judy Heiblum, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, shudders at the memory of some attempted date-talk about Robert Pirsig’s 1974 cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” beloved of searching young men. “When a guy tells me it changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,”

Let’s face it — this may be a gender issue. Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.)
Still, to some reading men, literary taste does matter. “I’ve broken up with girls saying, ‘She doesn’t read, we had nothing to talk about,’” said Christian Lorentzen, an editor at Harper’s.

James Collins, whose new novel, “Beginner’s Greek,” is about a man who falls for a woman he sees reading “The Magic Mountain” on a plane, recalled that after college, he was “infatuated” with a woman who had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” on her bedside table. “I basically knew nothing about Kundera, but I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh; trendy, bogus metaphysics, sex involving a bowler hat,’ and I never did think about the person the same way (and nothing ever happened),” he wrote in an e-mail message.

Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony.

But how much of all this agonizing is really about the books? Often, divergent literary taste is a shorthand for other problems or defenses. “I had a boyfriend I was crazy about, and it didn’t work out,” Nora Ephron said. “Twenty-five years later he accused me of not having laughed while reading ‘Candy’ by Terry Southern.

Some people just prefer to compartmentalize. Ariel Levy says that when she wants to talk about books, she goes to her book group. Compatibility in reading taste is a “luxury” and kind of irrelevant.

Marco Roth, an editor at the magazine n+1, said: “I think sometimes it’s better if books are just books. It’s part of the romantic tragedy of our age that our partners must be seen as compatible on every level.” Besides, he added, “sometimes people can end up liking the same things for vastly different reasons, and they build up these whole private fantasy lives around the meaning of these supposedly shared books, only to discover, too late, that the other person had a different fantasy completely.”

Excerpted from The New York Time Sunday Book Review article by Rachel Donadio, March 30, 2008.

Canada’s Melancholy Bard

Poet, musician, novelist, ladies’ man, monk, actor… Leonard Norman Cohen, one of Canada’s most influential cultural icons was born on Sept. 21, 1934 in Montreal. Whether from a mountaintop at a Buddhist retreat in California, on the Greek island of Hydra or strolling along the streets of his beloved ville d’amour, the melancholy bard of popular music has delighted fans worldwide with his poetry, novels and music.

Leonard CohenLeonard Cohen’s towering songbook fits no category save its own, but they finally found a house big enough to hold him. Cohen’s overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came during Monday night’s ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

Between the inductions of Madonna, John Mellencamp, the Ventures, Gamble & Huff and Little Walter, Lou Reed took the podium to offer a generous tribute to his fellow rock poet.

Reed mentioned William S. Burroughs and Cohen as contemporaries, citing Naked Lunch and Beautiful Losers, and saying “one of them got more attention. I was always surprised by that.” Reed then quoted lavishly from the Cohen oeuvre from typewritten remarks, from First We Take Manhattan, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Anthem and Cohen’s latest work Book of Longing. It was, appropriately, a most writerly induction for Montreal’s greatest living artist.

Cohen pronounced the induction “such and unlikely event” and “not a distinction I coveted,” while joking that music critic Jon Landau once said “I have seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and he is not Leonard Cohen.” Then came the perfect recital of Tower of Song before Damien Rice serenaded the hall with Hallelujah.

The evening was doubly celebratory for Montrealers as it was accompanied by the announcement of Cohen’s first live dates in Montreal in 15 years, with three shows at Place des Arts – June 23, 24 and 25 – as part of this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival. There is also talk of an album.

Details at Montreal Gazette

CBC Digital Archives

Leonard Cohen website