Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Michael Cunningham on John Updike

In an earlier post I wrote:

I don't race through an Updike novel--because I too often stop to reread a page or paragraph, to marvel at his artistry. There never seems to be word out of place, a sentence that might be written in any other, better, way. He's a magician.
The novelist Michael Cunnigham does a much better job of explaining Updike's talent than I did.
On the level of language, I couldn't name a better living writer than Updike. To me, his prose strikes a rare and perfect balance between virtuosity and humility. I'm a sucker for big beautiful language (as Nabokov said, trust a murderer for a fancy prose style, and good novelists are murderers in a sense), and am at the same time conscious of a fine line between sentences that are fabulous in and of themselves and sentences that are fabulous in service of the story and its characters. I'm not bothered by it, but you could absolutely say that the prose of [Toni] Morrison, [Don]DeLillo, and [Cormac] McCarthy (not [Philip] Roth) runs to the show-off-y; even the mannered. Updike to me is always deploying his considerable gifts for the purposes of illumination, and not as a demonstration of his considerable gifts.

Updike's latest novel, Terrorist, will be released in the coming week. Click here to read Charles McGrath's interview with him in the New York Times.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The singular Chuck Palahniuk

By the time you read this my friend, Candice, will be dead. We've been friends, members of the same writers' workshop, since 1990, reading and editing each other's work one night each week until she was diagnosed with cancer at 44. I've seen every draft of every book Candie's written. One of her short stories, The Man with the Scars, she brought for review each Thursday night for a year, some 50 rewrites, until I could recite all 18 pages from memory.
So opens Chuck Palahniuk's essay in the Guardian, "Till Death Do Us Part."

"Cycle" horror stories, he argues, are "comforting the same way porno is comforting: you already know how they're going to end. The actor will achieve a loud orgasm or die. In a slasher film he or she will likely do both."
In all [cycle movies/stories], an individual is trapped by an established cycle of events that doom and destroy. From their story you can imagine that same cycle or process stretching into the past or future, destroying an endless chain of similar people, all of them denying the dire nature of their circumstances until their fate is inevitable.
It's an interesting enough argument.

It's almost as if a victim in a cycle movie is more than a fictional casualty, she's more like a sacrifice to keep the rest of us safe. By witnessing his or her death, the rest of us feel more safe. Like watching the strangers who suffer and die on the television news every night. In hurricanes and rebel insurrections. We've seen the cycle run its course, and this time we weren't the one who drew the wrong lot and had to perish.

If nothing else, there's comfort in recognising that no matter how much we fail and sin, death will limit our suffering. Even if it's just the death of our innocence--the petty, vain, plotting person we've always been--just seeing that ego destroyed provides a kind of relief.

I'll buy that. Yet what makes the article so Palahniukian is the invocation of the (presumably) real Candice and her imminent--well, now, her very recent--expiration from cancer, and the fact that it bookends an argument about horror movies.

Palahniuk fans--and I'm one of them--love how he hits us with what we don't expect.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 29, 2006

Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"

"THIS is the saddest story I have ever heard."

So opens Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915), subject of the latest installment of Jane Smiley's adventure in reading. She writes:
The story seems simple. Two wealthy couples, one American and one English, meet at a spa in Germany and spend several years in comfortable friendship until it is revealed that the American wife and the English husband are carrying on an affair that the English wife knows about but the American husband does not. After the deaths of the adulterers, more and more is uncovered about both the conduct and the emotional meaning of the affair. The story is narrated by the American husband and is in some sense a detective story, but he is no investigator. The facts come to him unwillingly, since he would have preferred from the beginning not to know; the suspense depends not on what has happened, as dramatic as it turns out to be, but on the narrator's unfolding interpretation of the passionate emotions manifested in very small gestures or brief remarks.
The novel's exalted reputation rests not so much on the story but with its style. Smiley:
There are those who believe that The Good Soldier is one of the few stylistically perfect novels in any language, and perhaps what Ford was alluding to in his remarks about references and cross-references is this sense that the contradictory and complementary meanings in every paradoxical sentence are entirely understandable because he has made sure a clear explication of his fictional situation--the psychologies of his characters, the interweaving of character and event, intention and chance.
I read The Good Soldier too long ago to remember much about it except that while I could see what this "style" fuss was about, it was not a style that particularly appealed to me.

Click here to read the entire Smiley article. To read earlier entries in this series, click here, here, here, here, here, and here.

"Male writers are certainly capable of the most pompous dedications," writes Susan Johnson, "and Ford Madox Ford would be hard to beat." Click here to see if you disagree.

For a free download of The Good Soldier, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Ron Howard's favorite fictional character

So Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, sometimes goes a little too heavy with the score in his films. Still, it's hard to think of a person who has had a better career in Hollywood.

And his favorite fictional character?

Hint #1: It's the guy who said, "Stand back, sissies, you're using my oxygen" (in the book) and "Get out of my way son, you're usin' my oxygen" (in the movie).

Hint #2: This character was created by the author of what may be The Great Oregon Novel.

If that doesn't tell you who it is, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 28, 2006

America's "War and Peace?"

James Webb, former secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration and author of eight books including a novel about the Vietnam War, is now a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.

Over at the Wall Street Journal he lists his favorite books on the military. Click here for the titles and supporting arguments.

First on his list is Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer (1968), which is, according to Webb, "Quite simply, America's War and Peace."


Martin Levin reviewed the novel for the New York Times: "If this is not the Great American Novel . . . at least it's a mighty big American novel. It represents some 50 years of war and peace, and a surprisingly large chunk of it throbs and pulsates like the real thing."

Myrer died in 1996. His obituary included this item:
Looking back on his own wartime service, Mr. Myrer said: "World War II was the one event which had the greatest impact on my life. I enlisted imbued with a rather flamboyant concept of this country's destiny as the leader of a free world and the necessity of the use of armed force. I emerged a corporal three years later in a state of great turmoil, at the core of which was an angry awareness of war as the most vicious and fraudulent self-deception man had ever devised."
Webb is running against the incumbent George Allen. Allen's favorite book? Reportedly, it's Winning Strategies by George H. Allen (his father).

Earlier I posted an item on Victor Davis Hanson's list of "the definitive books on the battles of the 20th century." Click here to read it.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 27, 2006


There's an interesting review essay about a sub-genre of travel writing called "loiterature" in the Financial Times by Professor Jeremy Treglown of Warwick University. Loiterature is travel writing based on exploring the routes taken by earlier, more famous, travelling writers.

It starts with "exploration [which] involves emulating a predecessor: not only acknowledging the fact that the journey isn’t new, but measuring current experiences against those of a different person and time."

It also usually entails retailing what the author has learned about herself on these more recent travels.

Among other books, Treglown reviews "the comedian and Hollywood psycho-therapist" Pamela Stephenson's luxury yachting on the path of the South Pacific voyage that Robert Louis Stevenson made from San Francisco to Western Samoa with his wife and family; Christopher Ondaatje's tracking through Sri Lanka where Leonard Woolf lived (and wrote about) as a colonial servant; and Bernard-Henry Levy's not-very-successful attempt to replicate Tocqueville's journey through America.

Click here to read Treglown's essay--and the sooner the better, since the FT doesn't allow much free access.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 26, 2006

Still more on the best American novel

In line with earlier posts (here, here, here) on the New York Times Book Review's project to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years," I alert you to a week-long forum by some of the poll's participants.

To discuss the survey and the state of American fiction, the Book Review invited the novelists Jane Smiley and Michael Cunningham, as well as Stephen Metcalf, a critic, and Morris Dickstein, an author and critic who teaches English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Gregory Cowles, an editor at the Book Review, moderated the discussion.

The result is more interesting than the original poll.

--Marshal Zeringue

Ralph Ellison's "Paris Review" interview

Michael S. Collins and Kim Pearson both suggested Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as a novel that might help us better understand structural racism through fiction.

If you need more encouragement to pick up Ellison's novel, check out this interview he did with The Paris Review back in 1954.

It's been many years since I read Invisible Man, yet I still remember certain aspects of it that confused me: this interview cleared up quite a few elements of Ellison's approach. It also helped me understand how well it fits the structural racism series.

I wish I had read the interview before reading the novel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Judging a book by its cover

From Slate:
In the 1950s, some publishing houses opted to release literary fiction with pulp covers. A striking edition of The Sheltering Sky, for example, promised "a strange tale in the exotic desert"—a tagline that is, when you think about it, both pulpy and apt. Taking such efforts as our inspiration, we asked a handful of designers to create lurid new book jackets for classics from The Iliad to Animal Farm.
The designers came up with some interesting ideas. Click here to see the covers.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Mildred Pierce"

With the plan to run it as a series here on the blog, I've been making a list of the coolest women in crime fiction written by men. The first entry was never in question: James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce.

As it happens, my procrastination in writing that Mildred Pierce post has paid off: Laura Lippman has written an appreciation of the book that's far better than anything I could produce. Click here to read it.

It is nearly impossible to explain why Mildred Pierce is a great noir novel. Unlike Cain's first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, it has an uncool title. And even the publisher's comments will make the skeptic wonder what we enthusiasts are all excited about:

Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Out of these elements, Cain creates a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.

As Lippman puts it, "Mildred Pierce is the unicorn of crime fiction, a noir novel with no murder and very little crime."

Lippman, like many others, takes issue with how Hollywood distorted the story in bringing it to the big screen. This criticism is certainly justified, yet the film is well worth viewing.

Michael Curtiz, the director better known for Casablanca, pulls the camera back whenever possible, and we see much of the action unfold in a setting--as opposed to the contemporary practice by all too many movies where a close-up of the actors' heads follow one after another. Watch the movie and you'll see what I mean. Clint Eastwood, a fan of the movie Mildred Pierce, is perhaps the most famous (and accomplished) director who likes to shoot scenes this way.

Laura Lippman is a fine writer in her own right. Her latest novel, No Good Deeds, comes out in June. Her last novel, To the Power of Three, was her best to date: it surprised me that a writer whose work I already enjoyed so much could get even better.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"The New Yorker" in Australia

Last week was "Australia week" here on the blog. See posts here, here, and here. And there's more to come.

The New Yorker is only one week behind us with an Updike review of Peter Carey's Theft and a number of works from the archives by Australian authors and New Yorker-affiliated writers who are participating in the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The New Yorker doesn't make all of its content available on the web, so click away while the access is free:

Sherman Alexie, “The Toughest Indian in the World” (6/21/99)

Jon Lee Anderson, “American Viceroy” (12/19/05)

Andy Borowitz, “Real-Estate Note” (1/24/05), “Try These Fun Hoaxes” (5/16/05), and “Nazis Say the Darnedest Things” (5/22/06)

Mark Danner, an excerpt from “The Truth of El Mozote” (12/6/1993)

Aleksandar Hemon, “Love and Obstacles” (11/28/05)

Hendrik Hertzberg, “Landmarks” (2/14 & 221/05), “Mired” (8/22/05), and “Bah
” (12/26/05 & 1/2/06)

Susan Orlean, “Little Wing” (2/13/2006)

Murray Sayle, “Nerve Gas and the Four Noble Truths” (4/1/96)

Selected pieces by Australian writers:

Murray Bail, “Healing” (4/16/79)

Geraldine Brooks, “The Painted Desert” (7/28/03), “Unfinished Business” (10/17/05)

Joan Colebrook, “A Veranda on a Corner of a Continent” (1/21/85)

Shirley Hazzard, “The Place To Be” (6/29/87)

Les Murray, “The House Left in English” (8/18/03), “Airscapes” (12/8/03), and “The Mare Out on the Road” (6/13/05)

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Philip Roth's "Everyman"

Philip Roth's Everyman should delight Roth fans: it's an excellent novel. For readers who have not yet read Roth, it's a great place to start.

The novel has been amply reviewed at the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and Slate, among other publications, so I'll not write up my own opinion.

Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer's review is a minor work of art itself. Her bottom line: "Philip Roth is a magnificent victor in attempting to disprove Georg Lukacs's dictum of the impossible aim of the writer to encompass all of life."

--Marshal Zeringue

"Savoring the ripeness of their own solemnity"

It seems everyone (at least everyone with a books blog) has an opinion about the New York Times Book Review poll of critics and authors to name the "single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

Laura Miller, Salon's book critic, shares her view--dismissive--in a way that makes me more sympathetic to the Times' project than I was before reading her. I generally like Miller's writing and, even here, she's worth reading.

"People who talk about this sort of thing are always less interested in actually understanding and appreciating works of art than they are in savoring the ripeness of their own solemnity," she writes.

Hmmm.... At least the critics and writers who participated in the Times' survey contributed to a conversation that inspired some of us to consider a novel or two we had not read. At least some of us who had a few nits to pick with the Times' project tried to help readers in our own little way.

And Miller? Not so much...beyond savoring the ripeness of her own solemnity.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 22, 2006

More on the best American fiction

Beth Quitmann over at the "Book of the Day" blog is unhappy with the results of the New York Times' attempt at naming the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. I'm partly sympathetic with her discontent and I certainly support the attempt at creating an alternative list.

After a little throat-clearing I'll propose my own nominee for that alternative list.

I'm on the record with provisional support for contests that encourage readers to talk about books. One problem with the Times contest, however, is that there's no prize to go with their "contest." Sure, it's great to stimulate discussion and I hope a few readers will pick up a book that they've not yet read, but if the Times is going to subject art to this kind of competition there ought to be a prize for the winner. A cash prize.

Moreover, the Times' methodology is unsatisfying. Toni Morrison's Beloved received an impressive 15 out of 125 votes. But I wonder if Beloved may have been the enthusiastic pick of, say, fifteen voters but not even in the top ten of most of the others. Perhaps the results would have been more interesting if each voter were allowed to rank her top five or ten choices and points were assigned accordingly.

Anyway.... I've read more than half of the books identified by the Times' voters and do not take serious issue with any of the titles identified. (OK, one demurral: A Confederacy of Dunces is an exceptional comic novel but it is not even the best Louisiana novel published in the last 25 years.) Beloved may or may not have been my pick for #1 but it certainly deserves to be in that conversation. Stephen Metcalf's endorsement is a must-read for any doubters.

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian also garnered multiple votes and might have been my choice. Don Graham wrote of it:
McCarthy places too many demands on readers, both in terms of style and content, for the book to seize the collective imagination of [most Texans]. But it is an absolutely great novel, in the same league, some critics believe (vide Harold Bloom), as the best of Melville and Faulkner. There is nothing quite like it in post-WWII American fiction.
Beloved poses that kind of challenge-and reward--to its readers.

There are a few titles which were not mentioned but that I might include in my top ten. Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto are just a few titles that, for me, belong in the league of those Updike and Roth books (some of my favorite novels) which were mentioned.

But those novels may be too much like the ones that the Times mentioned to satisfy an alternative list.

So, with the huge proviso that there may well be four or five titles that I can't think of now, I propose...James Ellroy's American Tabloid. It was my favorite American novel of 1995 and a book I've re-read a couple of times and look forward to reading again.

Like Beloved and Blood Meridian it is a triumph of style as well as substance and it's not easy to put down or to forget. It's a big book with a big theme. Unlike those other titles, it can be enjoyed by readers who are not interested in a challenge as well as the discerning reader. And, for those readers who do like to see a writer putting it all on the page, American Tabloid should not disappoint.

Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it (at least until I remember a great American novel that has unaccountably--and hopefully only temporarily--slipped my memory).

Janet Maslin of the New York Times didn't like the book as much as I do: read her 1995 review here.

Meghan O'Rourke, Slate's culture editor, has some interesting thoughts on the Times list.

And don't forget to check in with "Book of the Day" later this month to see how its alternative list of great American novels turns out.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Nicholas Birns on "cultural cringe"

Professor Nicholas Birns is the editor of Antipodes, the journal of the American Association for Australian Literary Studies. I checked in with him to see if the blog was on the right track with our posts on Australia's cultural cringe (see here and here).

He confirmed what the blog's Australia authority "Dutch" wrote about the benefits of "cultural cringe" for Australia and how some of that "residual insecurity" might be good for aspects of American culture:

I completely agree that American literature in a sense 'needs' the insecurity of the cultural cringe, that it is enabling in some ways--giving an awareness of marginality, dependence, vulnerability against which our cultural behemoth tends to harden itself. Of course 'trying harder' for excellence is a bit different in literature than in wine or athletics, but that point is generally very well taken and, indeed, has always been something that has drawn me to Australia--that enabling sense of marginality.
On the particular question of Peter Carey's work, he added:

Of Carey's works, the novel that deals with this issue most explicitly is The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

The phrase, though, should, of rights, be 'cultural cringe', not 'culture cringe'; it was coined by A. A. Phillips in the 1950s. At first, it largely referred to England--but as time went on, the US became the major cultural reference point for Australians, though England has certainly not entirely faded as such. (Look at the prestige Carey has garnered for winning the Booker Prize).

The opening paragraphs of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith clearly demonstrate Birns's point: read them here.

A few years ago Carey was interviewed by read that interview here.

Nicholas Birns is a professor in the literature program at Eugene Lang College at the New School University. He is the author of Understanding Anthony Powell, which New York magazine called "a perfect guide to Powell's twelve-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time," and co-editor of the forthcoming Companion to Twentieth Century Australian Literature. He is also author of many scholarly articles, book chapters, and books reviews.

Thanks to Nicholas for the input.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Italo Svevo's "Zeno's Conscience"

I like it when a trustworthy reader warns me off a book I might have considered. I like it even better when she enthusiastically recommends a title and gives me detailed reasons for its appeal. Such is the case with the current installment of Jane Smiley's adventure in reading.

She takes up and promotes Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, which first appeared in 1923.

The gist of the story, according to Smiley:
The novel purports to be the journal of a man undergoing psychoanalysis, written at the behest of the analyst, and then published by the analyst to embarrass his patient and avenge his termination of the analysis. Zeno tells five interrelated stories: the story of his last attempt to quit smoking cigarettes, the story of the death of his father, the story of his marriage, the story of his mistress, and the story of his doomed business partnership with the husband of his wife's sister. Zeno's narrative style is plain and even ingenuous. He tells each story straight-forwardly. But as the novel progresses, its themes, along with Zeno's feelings, get complicated. Zeno acts--the complications do not paralyse him--but he becomes more and more unsure of the meaning and the rightness of his actions until the last chapter, where he contemplates his psychoanalysis and decides that his doctor's very attempt to cure him is wrong-headed and that the images and memories the doctor wants to do away with are the ones Zeno cherishes the most. At one point he remarks, "I believe that he is the only one in this world who, hearing I wanted to go to bed with two beautiful women, would ask himself: Now let's see why this man wants to go to bed with them."
Smiley adds:
I think it is justly celebrated, and forms, with Kafka's The Trial and Joyce's Ulysses, a trio of orthodox modernism wherein the consciousness of the passage of time and the parsing of consciousness itself are more important than the story or plot elements.
Click here to read the entire Smiley article. To read earlier entries in this series, click here, here, here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 19, 2006

"Beloved": the best U.S. novel of the last 25 years?

Is Toni Morrison's Beloved "the single best work of American fiction published in the last twenty-five years?"

Yes, it is.

Yes, that is, if you accept the verdict of a (very small) plurality of "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages" whose views were solicited by the New York Times.

You may disagree with their assessment or you may not know much about the novel. In either case it should be worth your time and effort to read Stephen Metcalf's Slate article on the novel and its merits.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Pedigree" by Nick Laird

Click here to read Nick Laird's poem, "Pedigree."

A few of my favorite lines:
A scuffle over rustling sheep
became a stabbing in a bar outside Armagh,
and a murderer swings
from a branch high up in our family tree.

Which isn't a willow.

Then, further down:

I may be out on a limb.


--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 18, 2006

"Books That Triggered Writers' Wanderlust"

LITERATURE has long shaped desire, including the lust for travel. Curl up in a chair, in St. Paul or Encinitas or New Rochelle, open a volume of Robert Louis Stevenson, Gabriel García Márquez or Isak Dinesen and discover new worlds, full of treasure seekers, smoky Paris cafes and vast sand-swept spaces dotted with scrubby brush under which zebra sleep.
So opens Susan Lehman's article, "Books That Triggered Writers' Wanderlust" in the New York Times.

E. L. Doctorow, Walter Mosley, Tom Wolfe, and Lorrie Morre are among the writers who share "what books most made them want to light out for the territory."

Have you got a book that makes you want to travel to its setting? Let me know at bolling DOT binx AT gmail DOT com.

--Marshal Zeringue

The 100 best characters in fiction

A few years ago Book, a magazine which discontinued publication at the end of 2003, asked a panel of allegedly competent people to "rank the top one hundred characters in literature since 1900."

Wikipedia has that list here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

On Australia's so-called "culture cringe"

With the U.S. release of Peter Carey's Theft I posted an item on Australia's "culture cringe," defined by an Australian journalist as "the mostly unarticulated fear that because we're such a provincial backwater, 'Australian' means 'inferior.' Salvation lies in aspiring to foreign ways of thinking and talking." That journalist and others--and I, perhaps, in that post--may have characterized "culture cringe" too negatively.

I checked in with "Dutch," this blog's America-born Australia expert, for more insight on the matter. Here's his reply:

I have a bit of a different take on their interpretation of the effects of the cultural cringe. They're certainly correct on the definition, though, as I've experienced it.

It certainly was in the beginning part of the century the way they describe it. It may have had a negative influence in the past. But on the whole in the last 25 years it's been a healthy and productive cultural reference point that has made Australia by most indicators one of the top two or three places in the world to live. It's made them the "Avis" of nations--we try harder.

Australians are always talking now about things there being "world class" whereas you rarely hear that in the U.S. Everything is focused on national competition. Mostly we wonder how we stack up against ourselves. In Australia they are always making reference to how they stack up against the world. You hear far more references to "global best practices" and "benchmarking against world standards" whether it's in business, the arts, winemaking, restaurants, literature, or sports. As a result they've gotten a hybrid of all the best practices and knowledge from all over the world, and they've become an exceedingly outward looking nation.

Because they're afraid of being thought of as "bush drongos with their daks around their knees" (essentially hillbillies tangled up in their underwear while trying to exit the outhouse) they try really hard at everything and their tiny population has been the winner with "world class" everything.

You see the embers of that cultural insecurity reflected in their willingness to use public money to support and nurture the arts and culture, so you have the Australian Film Television and Radio School and their famous drama school in Sydney that's produced almost all the Hollywood contingent Aussies. You see them pouring money into the science of winemaking, sending forth a veritable army of winemakers who are really transforming the wine world. I was just reading an article in the Wine Spectator about how Australian winemakers are transforming second-rate Italian wineries, especially in Sicily, and making them "world class" once again.

You see Australia funding their athletes to an unprecedented degree.

I think the U.S. would be a lot better off if we had that sort of residual insecurity.

I think also that Peter Carey's phrase about "craving and resenting" at the same time captures the Australian national feeling perfectly. At least that as I've experienced it.

Interesting too that Peter Carey is an Australian living (it would seem) permanently in New York, especially when he talks about the periphery-cosmo center dynamic. I'm sure he's referring to himself though. I wonder how that will change in the future with technology.

It's really clear from many, many authors who said that in the 1950 and 1960s they did in fact have to leave Australia if they wanted to practice their craft and become masters. Anthony LaPaglia says very much the same thing. He said he was very bitter toward Australia when he left in the 1970s because he felt discriminated against since he was of Italian descent. Clive James also said that it was impossible to be a serious writer in Australia and that's why he had to leave for London. I believe Jill Ker Conway says very much the same thing in her memoirs.

Many thanks to "Dutch" for the insights.

For more information and discussion of Australian literature, see Matilda and A Fugitive Phenomenon.

--Marshal Zeringue

Martyn Goff's bad Booker beat

Martyn Goff, the administrator of the Booker Prize since 1969, has finally retired. He went gladly but not quietly, happily (it seems) sharing his experiences on the job with a few journalists. See here and here, for example.

Although I'm very interested in others' views of when the Booker was wrongly decided--see here, here, and here--I dared not hope to learn of Goff's view of the worst Booker beat.

But Mark Sanderson of the Daily Telegraph asked Goff which winner didn't deserve the prize and, surprisingly, Goff answered:
'William Golding's Rites of Passage in 1980,' came Mr Goff's prompt reply. 'Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers is an infinitely superior work.'
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Nalo Hopkinson's "Brown Girl in the Ring"

Professor Kim Pearson suggested several works for the series on fiction that can help us understand structural racism:
My suggestion would be Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring. This dystopic novel is set in a future Toronto, Canada that has seen so much disinvestment and violence that the entire city government and most of the population has evacuated. The only people left are the poor, the sick and the predatory. We soon learn, however, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the power elite that has abandoned the city and the gangsters who remain behind to plunder at will. The heroine of the novel has to draw upon the wisdom of both her ancestral Afro-Caribbean culture and her modern scientific knowledge to lead the fight to save herself and her community.

The only classic author whom I would add to [the titles already named in the series] is Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) . I also like Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Brown Girl in the Ring was published and promoted with glowing testimonials from science fiction writers like C. J. Cherryh, Tim Powers and Octavia E. Butler, praise that was well deserved according to Gerald Jonas writing in the New York Times.

Click here for an interview with Nalo Hopkinson and click here for her blog.

Kim Pearson is Associate Professor in the English Department at The College of New Jersey. She received a B.A. from Princeton and an M.A. in Journalism from New York University. Named the New Jersey CASE Professor of the Year in 2000, she teaches writing for journalism and interactive multimedia majors, as well as a course on W.E.B. DuBois. Her writing about race, religion, and sexuality has appeared in many freelance outlets and in her blog, Professor Kim's News Notes.

Thanks to Kim for the recommendations.

--Marshal Zeringue

"Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou

Click here to read Maya Angelou's poem, "Phenomenal Woman."

The opening lines:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 15, 2006

"The Talking Dog" and habeas corpus

I checked in with Seth over at for input on our series on works of fiction that help illustrate what is at stake in the debate over habeas corpus. He didn't sugarcoat his response:

There's, of course, no "debate" over habeas corpus: Congress CANNOT suspend it (Constitution, Art. I, Section 9, Clause 2) absent "invasion or rebellion," neither of which are now applicable. We are in legal never never land not because the Constitution doesn't clearly spell out what is at stake and what the limits of governmental power are, but because, in the end, the checks and balances so carefully provided by Madison, Hamilton, etc. couldn't overcome ultimate venality on a large enough scale (when partisan courts and Congress place party over country or principle, and a soft and stupid electorate willing to flush their freedoms down the toilet as long as "Idol" and "Desperate Housewives" start on time...)

Here are Seth's fiction suggestions:
I happily and heartily recommend Darkness at Noon; Jonathan Hafetz's recommendation is spot on, seeing as Ivan Denisovich is very close to being the same book as Darkness at Noon... but as I've read Koestler's book more recently, that's the one I'm going with! Other very close analogs which some may not "get" as they are not precisely on theme are, of course, Orwell's Animal Farm, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and William Golding's Lord of the Flies and of course, Bolt's stage-play, A Man for All Seasons... his general theme is that when authority is exercised arbitrarily and at whim, rather than in accordance with impartially exercised law, the results are as painful, unjust and ugly whether "the decider" is a petulant child in reality, or a petulant child in a tyrant's body....
Thanks to Seth for the recommendations and the insights.

Click here to read Seth's interview with Jonathan Hafetz, and here to read his interview with Neal Katyal.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"The House of Seven Gables"

Here's Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables:
A large and generous production, pervaded with that vague hum, that indefinable echo, of the whole multitudinous life of man, which is the real sign of a great work of fiction.
Jane Smiley is not so generous in her take on the novel:
Hawthorne doesn't deliver on the promise of the tale--that the story will be entertaining. The novel turns out to be sober but not realistic, mysterious but not entertaining, and so doesn't succeed as either a romance or a realistic novel.
Smiley does however offer an interesting conjecture about what Hawthorne may have been up to with this story.
The novel was written in 1850, when Americans were broadly conscious of both the moral compromises of slavery and of the eradication of Native Americans but had not decided how to act upon their misgivings. It is possible, I think, to read the static and heavily moralistic qualities of Hawthorne's novel as a resistance to considering larger questions of injustice and guilt in favour of contemplating minor ones. The novel is attempting to interpret history as entirely personal, through the lens of a family curse, but the characters cannot as yet imagine how to solve even their minor dilemmas--they are stuck in a state of unhappiness and moral unease until something happens that is outside their control, and miraculously, that thing brings prosperity.
If Smiley nixes any desire I ever had of reading this novel, she also suggests an intriguing alternative:
[The House of the Seven Gables] bears comparison with Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor because it makes use of similar materials--old curses, fated outcomes and family histories. But whereas Scott is careful to make the psychology of the characters and their interactions mesh with the omens and predictions, so that by acting within character the characters seem to work out their destinies as predicted, Hawthorne is less of a psychologist and more of a moralist. His few characters are not so much agents of the plot as objects of the narrator's observations and victims of circumstances.
The Bride of Lammermoor...does face up to history and acknowledge its moral complexities; characters act and react to the consequences of their actions, but Scott also makes canny use of folkloric elements, so the novel gives the pleasures of both realism and romance. Scott has a political philosophy that encompasses injustice, hatred, revenge, and the passage of time that leads to reconciliation.

Click here to download a free copy of The House of the Seven Gables. Click here to download a free copy of The Bride of Lammermoor.

For other essays in the Smiley series in the Guardian, click here, here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Peter Carey and "culture cringe"

Peter Carey's new novel, Theft: A Love Story, is officially released this week and it moves to the top of my "to read" list.

Ron Charles calls Theft "a story that shifts before our eyes--maddeningly complex, hypnotically brilliant, entirely original." Theft, says Laura Miller in Salon, "is a hard-boiled detective story of sorts, complete with an ingenious conspiracy and a ravishingly deceitful femme fatale."

There is apparently a good deal of what Australians call "culture cringe" underlying the novel. "Dutch," this blog's Australia expert, has often told me that "culture cringe" is one of the defining sociological characteristics of Australians. As one writer defined it in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Culture cringe is the mostly unarticulated fear that because we're such a provincial backwater, "Australian" means "inferior". Salvation lies in aspiring to foreign ways of thinking and talking. Dialectically, in the first half of the 20th century, "foreign" meant British. This prestige dialect of its time was reflected in newsreaders, conservative politicians, academics and senior members of the public service and clergy.

Come the second half of the century, it was America's turn. As England divested herself of Empire, loosening the ties that joined us, snuggling ever closer to the then European Common Market, we adjusted our sense of the prestige model. American influences were coming our way through TV, advertising, the film industry and popular music.
That formulation may be outdated, casting "culture cringe" more negatively than is the case in contemporary Australia.

In Theft, Carey says he's somewhat influenced by--or is it playing off?--this idea of "culture cringe":
"One thing about the Australian condition historically is we've continually set ourselves up, and been set up, to be judged by outside experts: What do they think in London? What do they think in New York? How do you like it here? All that stuff we crave and resent. One of the pleasures of Ern Malley [a major poetry hoax, more famous in Australia than in America] is to show the great metropolitan centres are fools and that modernism was crap. I felt this was the periphery giving the metropolitan centres a bit of a belt around to show that 'We're tired of you bastards telling us what's good and what's not good'.

"In Theft: A Love Story, Butcher's from the periphery and he can't bear to be judged by the centre but reputations are made in the great metropolitan centres. This is a similar but different revenge on the centre by the periphery. I think we like those tricks."
And Theft isn't the first or only awareness of the "cringe" that Carey exhibits. In this interview, Carey recalls his reply to a student who said that Patrick White's characters are often "losers":

And I said, "In our culture, we don't call them losers. We call them battlers." A battler is someone who struggles forever and will never, ever, really get anywhere. And in Australia that's a really honorable position.
Carey, it should be noted, has lived in New York City for several years.

Read an excerpt from Theft here.

For a brief literary biography of Carey by the author of one of my favorite items here on the blog, click here.

Not interested in Australian fiction or sociology but find gossip irresistible? Then check out this article which reports that Carey's ex-wife thinks she's the too-obvious model for a character known as "The Plaintiff" in Theft. "My greatest debt [is] to my wife, Alison Summers" for her "clear literary intelligence and flawless dramatic instinct," Carey wrote in the acknowledgements to True History of the Kelly Gang, which earned him his second Booker prize, in 2000. Clearly, things have changed.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 12, 2006

"If He Hollers Let Him Go" and other titles

Professor Toni Irving recommended several works for the series on fiction that can help us understand structural racism: Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go; Ann Petry's The Street; Gayl Jones, Eva's Man; and "most work by Ernest Gaines."

From the publisher of Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go:

This story of a man living every day in fear of his life for simply being black is as powerful today as it was when it was first published in 1947. The novel takes place in the space of four days in the life of Bob Jones, a black man who is constantly plagued by the effects of racism. Living in a society that is drenched in race consciousness has no doubt taken a toll on the way Jones behaves, thinks, and feels, especially when, at the end of his story, he is accused of a brutal crime he did not commit.
Walter Mosley called Himes “one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century ... [a] quirky American genius....” Indeed, one writer points out that "the nearest fictional counterpart to [Mosley's] portrayal of working-class travails compounded by racist pathology is the wartime black LA of Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go--as opposed to the gritty cartoon Harlem Himes imagined for black cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones."

Ann Petry's The Street (1946) was the first novel by an African American to sell more than a million copies. From the publisher:
The Street tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry's first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.
Coretta Scott King called The Street "a powerful, uncompromising work of social criticism. To this day, few works of fiction have so clearly illuminated the devastating impact of racial injustice."

Gayl Jones' work has been praised by John Updike, Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou. Her biography is very unusual and her writing mirrors some of the more dramatic episodes in her life.

Eva's Man, Jones's second novel, opens with these lines: "The police came and found arsenic in the glass, but I was gone by then. The landlady in the hotel found him."

Ernest Gaines is the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and other books. His A Lesson Before Dying won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Click here to read an interview with Gaines by Bill Ferris.

Thanks to Toni Irving for the recommendations.

Professor Irving is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Notre Dame. Her research and teaching interests include African American Literature, Black Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality, and 20th Century American Literature. Her research extends from a reading of black female sexuality as central to understanding the nation's access to and understanding of citizenship. Irving's book project in progress is titled Going Public: Sexuality, Citizenship, and the Black Female Subject and is an interdisciplinary study of race, sexuality and citizenship and maps connections between black female sexuality and the public constitution of entitlement.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The best American fiction of the last 25 years?

Earlier this year the New York Times Book Review's editor sent out a request to "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages," asking them to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

Click here to see what they came up with.

Click here for the list of judges.

None of the books identified by the Times' judges made the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels published in the last century.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Jonathan Hafetz on habeas corpus

Jonathan Hafetz of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law wrote in with a recommendation for the series on fiction about jails without judges:
I propose Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This book, Solzhenitsyn's first, recounts one day in the life of a man unjustlfy imprisoned for treason during World War II. A simple peasant, Denisovich's "crime" was escaping from the Germans who had captured him and returning to his own side. Denisovich was sent to a Siberian labor camp as a spy. The book describes the camp's operation, including the cruelty, suffering, and deceit the prisoners must endure to survive. It also tells how other prisoners came to the camp, many for reasons similar to Denisovich. This book illustrates why habeas corpus, by safeguarding independent judicial review and due process, protects against the establishment of prisons beyond the law like those in Solzhenitsyn's book. The issue is not whether Guantanamo or other post-September 11 prisons are the same as a Soviet concentration camp. (Indeed, since when did "better than a Soviet gulag" become the test of this nation's commitment to human rights?). Rather, the point is that habeas corpus provides the greatest safeguard against unchecked exeuctive power and that the writ's core purpose is to prevent the establishment precisely the type of prisons to which Ivan Denisovich was unjustlfy confined.
Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970. Click here to read the prize presentation speech, and here to read his Nobel lecture.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in 1962. Pravda (!) hailed it: "Solzhenitsyn's narrative is reminiscent at times of Tolstoy's artistic force. An unusually talented author has been added to our literature!.... Why is it that our heart contracts with pain as we read this remarkable story at the same time as we feel our spirits soar? The explanation lies in its profound humanity, in the quality of mankind even in the hour of degradation."
Jonathan Hafetz is Associate Counsel in the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Before joining the Brennan Center, Mr. Hafetz was a Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest and Constitutional Law at Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, P.C. where he litigated numerous cases challenging the unlawful detention of “enemy combatants” and restrictions on immigrants’ rights. He also previously worked as an attorney at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and at the Partnership for the Homeless. Mr. Hafetz clerked for Judge Sandra L. Lynch of the U.S Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School and B.A. from Amherst College. Mr. Hafetz also holds a masters degree in history from Oxford University and served as a Fulbright scholar in Mexico. He is the author of numerous articles in academic journals and popular publications.

Click here to read his op-ed, "What the Detainee Treatment Act Really Means for Guantanamo Detainees" and here for his op-ed, "America also stands trial at Gitmo."

Thanks to Jonathan for the recommendation and the especially clear analysis of how the novel illustrates what is at stake in the debate over habeas corpus.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

More fiction for the structural racism series

Professor Lovalerie King wrote in with a rich list of fiction that might be helpful for understanding structural racism:
I'm interested in matters of property and race, so I tend to be predisposed to read texts (past and present) that way.

I've just finished reading Zora Neale Hurston's final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), which on the surface is the story of a white woman's struggle to develop a strong sense of self. The woman moves from poor Florida "cracker" status to affluence after she marries a man who is the descendant of former plantation owners. His whiteness, particularly around the turn of the 20th century, afforded him the upward mobility that Blacks and other people of color did not have. Indeed, he amasses a fortune by exploiting the labor and knowledges that nonwhites provide.

Two contemporary short story collections: (Native American Indian) Sherman Alexie's The Toughest Indian in the World, and (East Indian American) Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. In particular, each features stories about how whiteness is constructed and desired, particularly as it relates to assimilation.

Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, which is, among other things, a parody of Gone With the Wind. What Randall does is rework the plot so that the black Americans at Tata/Tara actually inherit the property that their labor was exploited to build. She also makes Scarlett/Other technically black with a black half sister, Cynara, who serves as the novel's protagonist to illustrate the absurdity of racial formulations. Cynara, the offspring of the plantation Mammy and Planter/Gerald O'Hara, is disinherited at puberty, while her "white" half-sister, Scarlett/Other, is considered a treasured heiress.

Of course, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970). If you are not familiar with the story, Morrison uses passages from the Fun With Dick and Jane primer to frame the story of a little black girl who desires blue eyes, the blue eyes that she believes would make her valued and lovable. Morrison shows how the child's parents, and particularly her mother, internalize the dominant society's standards of beauty and self-worth, which internalization undermines their capacity to provide a nurturing environment for their offspring. There are other factors, particularly economic ones, that contribute to the family's deterioration and the little girl's insanity.

I think that ultra contemporary authors like Mat Johnson (Hunting in Harlem, Drop) or Paul Beatty (White Boy Shuffle, Tuff) may offer something useful. Alice Walker's By the Light of My Father's Smile seems to be examining prejudicial behavior on several levels. Black husband and wife anthropologists pretend to be missionaries so that they can acquire funding to study a group of natural Indians in Central America. Their interactions with the Indians reflect their own pre-conceived ideas about "primitive" peoples and their natural ways of being.

These are old, but James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man would seem relevant, as would Charles Chesnutt's work in The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, etc. Johnson's ex-colored man is light enough to pass. He decides not to declare a racial identity and, thus, effectively passes for white and is able to achieve the social mobility and economic means of any white man with the same talent and drive.

Andrea Lee's Sarah Phillips. Black woman from affluent family travels to Europe and DOES NOT "transcend" racial structures.

Lovalerie King is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Penn State. Her research interests include African American literature and American law; Black Feminist Thought; African American literary history; and Black women writers.

Professor King's publications include James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays (Palgrave/MacMillan, forthcoming in 2006); Expropriations and Reparations: A Study of Property, Race, and Ethics in African American Literature (LSU Press, forthcoming); Zora Neale Hurston: An Introduction (Cambridge, forthcoming); A Students' Guide to African American Literature (Lang, 2003).

She has also contributed numerous articles, essays, chapters, and reviews on African American literature to such publications as, Melus, Callaloo, African American Review, Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's Beloved, Black Women Playwrights, The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel, The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, The Companion to Southern Literature, and other edited volumes.

Many thanks to Lovalerie for such a fine list of books and explanations for how they might help us understand structural racism.

For other posts in this series, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 08, 2006

Update on the series on books about theocracies

A week ago the Wall Street Journal ran a personal tribute to Bernard Lewis by Fouad Ajami which made me think about some of the books suggested to me about what life is like in theocracies.

Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and author of, most recently, The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. Bernard Lewis is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton University.

Lewis is also considered to a sort of "yoda" to policymakers in the present administration; he's a world-renown scholar whose work is often seen to provide the historical and intellectual justification for a muscular Western response to events emanating from the Middle East. As the Journal's Paul Gigot put it:
In his seminal essay, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," Lewis predicted the coming of a great struggle between Christendom and Islam, warning the world, of what he termed "the clash of civilizations" more than 10 years before it was brought home to the United States with devastating clarity on Sept. 11.
Two blog-relevant issues occurred to me when reading Ajami's appreciation.

The first is superficially trivial, though it did make me pause. Ajami writes it was
vintage Lewis--reading the sources, in this case a marginal Arabic newspaper published out of London, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in February of 1998--to come across a declaration of war on the United States by a self-designated holy warrior he had "never heard of," Osama bin Laden.
I was surprised that this eminent scholar had not heard of bin Laden before early 1998. In this post, I note that bin Laden first came to the attention of New York Times readers in 1994, Washington Post readers in 1996, and readers of John Ridley's 1999 novel, Everybody Smokes in Hell.

The second issue relevant to the blog you are now reading is that Lewis and Ajami refer to the confrontation between the West and the Middle East as between Christendom and Islam.

And yet when I've asked a number of scholars and well-informed writers to name fiction about theocracies in Islamic lands, there don't seem to be many titles. See here and here about some very interesting suggestions that came out of that inquiry, and see here, here, here, and here, for stories about theocracies in non-Islamic settings. At this post, K. Anthony Appiah mentions two western novels and the only suggestion I've received for a book about life under the Taliban.

That there are not more novels about Islamic regimes does not prove that Islam is not engaged in some world-historical struggle with Christendom. Still, the recommended books about theocracies in both regions--and across history--suggest that (1) the actual influence of religion on political power and change is sporadic--so sporadic that "Christendom" may be a misnomer--and (2) that one might fairly suspect that religion--either Christianity or Islam--is being used in an instrumental way to suit the political purposes of agents whose actual religiosity may well be inauthentic, or at least subordinate to their primary motives.

And that makes me suspect that the "Christendom vs. Islam" may not be as apt (or productive) a way to frame the clash as alternatives that lack the same marquee value.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Jay Parini on Billy Collins and Rita Dove

For months I've promised to publish a post on poet-novelist Jay Parini. This is not that post.

Parini has a review in last week's Guardian about Billy Collins' first book of poetry (published in the U.S. in 1988 and now coming out in Britain) and Rita Dove's latest collection. Check it out.

The Collins collection is titled The Apple that Astonished Paris. The Guardian reprints this nice poem, "Walking Across the Atlantic," and I imagine the publisher would appreciate my doing the same.
I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.
Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.

I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I must try to imagine what
this must look like to fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

Good stuff. If you like your poetry criticism a little more thorough than "good stuff," click here for Parini's take.

Dove's collection is titled American Smooth. Click here for media reactions to American Smooth (one of the New York Times' 100 notable books of the year 2004). Parini says the collection "is among [Dove's] best work in some years."

To hear Rita Dove read "Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove" from this new collection, click here, then scroll down to #57.

Click here for a link to my favorite Billy Collins poem.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Jane Smiley on Balzac

Jane Smiley's series on the novel continues in the Guardian with her analysis of Balzac's work.

Balzac's greatest work is a cycle of novels called La Comédie humaine, in which he attempts to capture the vastness and variety of life in Paris in the middle of the 19th century. Each novel and story is different, and meant to stand alone, but many characters recur in different capacities. The result is a dense fictional kaleidoscope of materialism, envy, spite, worldliness, and occasional virtue--characters of all ages and types and social positions encounter one another, act in one another's dramas, and then go on, in many cases, to something completely different. Two important novels in the larger project are Cousin Bette and Cousin Pons, which were written as a pair on the theme of "poor relations."
Click here to read the entire essay.

For other essays in the Smiley series, click here, here, and here.

In 1995, the writer Alison Lurie reviewed Smiley's Moo and spotted some similarities to Balzac's fiction.
Like a Balzac novel, Moo has a broad canvas and dozens of characters. Its central figure, however, is not a human being but a 700-pound pure white hog who is "as big as a Volkswagen Beetle but much faster." This animal's name is Earl Butz, and he is Ms. Smiley's landlocked Midwestern version of Moby Dick, an innocent embodiment of isolation, stupidity and greed. He is, as Ms. Smiley puts it, "the secret hog at the center of the university." Unknown to most of the faculty and students, Earl Butz occupies a pen in the basement of an abandoned building in the middle of the campus, where he eats voraciously all day and is tended by a work-study student named Bob.
Lurie is not exactly wrong about anything she writes here. I remember hearing about and reading about the centrality of the hog to the novel; and a hog is the dominant image on the book's cover. And, even though I was a great admirer of Smiley's A Thousand Acres, all that hog talk deterred me from picking up the novel.

I'm not a concrete-loving urbanite: I've spent time on farms and I like the idea of farm life--though anyone who romanticizes making a living that way has never actually had to make a living on a farm--but this swine story just did not sound appealing.

It turns out, the hog is not nearly as important as so many people (including the publishers?) implied. You can hate everything to do with hogs and agricultural life and still (very much) enjoy Moo. It's very funny--and melancholy--and one of the better university novels I've read.

Check it out.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 05, 2006

More Hispanic novels about structural racism

University of California-Davis law professor Kevin Johnson wrote in to recommend a few more Hispanic works that might help us understand structural racism. One is a novel:

Danny Santiago, Famous All Over Town
And the other two are autobiographies:
Mona Ruiz, Two Badges: The Lives Of Mona Ruiz
Luis Rodriguez, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.
There is an interesting background story about Famous All Over Town, published in 1983. The author Danny Santiago was a secret nom de plume of Daniel James, a writer of Hollywood screenplays and Broadway plays and musicals who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Danny Santiago's picture did not appear on the dust jacket of Famous All Over Town, and he communicated with his agent and publisher only via post office box. When the book won a literary prize, he didn't show up at the ceremony to pick up his $5,000 check. Click here to read more about James/Santiago and his reasons for the deception.

David Quammen praised the book in the New York Times:
''Famous All Over Town'' is an honest, steady novel that presents some hard cultural realities while not for a paragraph failing to entertain. I am totally ignorant of the Chicano urban experience but I have to believe this book is, on that subject, a minor classic. And Danny Santiago is good news.
From the publisher of Two Badges: The Lives Of Mona Ruiz (co-authored by crime reporter Geoff Boucher):
This engrossing memoir charts Ruiz’s journey toward self-identity, tracing the tortuous path of her life—a life in which Ruiz assumed contradictory roles: gang chola, high school drop-out, disowned daughter, battered wife, welfare mother, student, and policewoman. At each step in the journey, Ruiz faced violence, ridicule, and skepticism. She nevertheless prevailed in exchanging her badge of social defiance for one of protecting her community.
Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, praised Two Badges:
Beneath the unique story of a gang-banger turned cop was the story that really grabbed my attention: how a young Chicana went beyond all the social pressures to fail—including physical abuse, racism, and sexism—and followed her own dreams. Geoff Boucher has helped transform this experience into a good read.
Rodriguez's Always Running is an international best seller which collected a Carl Sandburg Literary Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Book Award, and was designated a New York Times Notable Book. Written as a cautionary tale for Luis’ then 15-year-old son Ramiro—who had joined a Chicago gang—the memoir is popular among youth and teachers. From the publisher:

By age twelve, Luis Rodriguez was a veteran of East L.A. gang warfare. Lured by a seemingly invincible gang culture, he witnessed countless shootings, beatings, and arrests, then watched with increasing fear as drugs, murder, suicide, and senseless acts of street crime claimed friends and family members.

Before long, Rodriguez saw a way out of the barrio through education and the power of words and successfully broke free from years of violence and desperation. Achieving success as an award-winning Chicano poet, he was sure the streets would haunt him no more--until his son joined a gang. Rodriguez fought for his child by telling his own story in Always Running, a vivid memoir that explores the motivations of gang life and cautions against the death and destruction that inevitably claim its participants. At times heartbreakingly sad and brutal, Always Running is ultimately an uplifting true story, filled with hope, insight, and a hard-learned lesson for the next generation.

Click here to read an excerpt from Always Running. Click here to reach Rodriguez's blog. And click here to read his poem, "The Concrete River."

Thanks to Kevin Johnson for the recommendations.

Kevin R. Johnson is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Mabie-Apallas Public Interest Professor of Law and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California at Davis. He has published extensively on immigration law and policy, racial identity, and civil rights in national and international journals. Professor Johnson's book How Did You Get to Be Mexican? A White/Brown Man's Search for Identity was published in 1999 and was nominated for the 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He also has published Race, Civil Rights, and American Law: A Multiracial Approach and Mixed Race America and the Law: A Reader. Professor Johnson's latest book The "Huddled Masses" Myth: Immigration and Civil Rights was published in 2004. For a complete list of his publications, click here.

--Marshal Zeringue