Mountain Men

I recently finished Serena, Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel about logging, profiteering, and murder in a western North Carolina mountain town. I was interested in Rash’s notion that strong female characters are lacking in American fiction—I still haven’t heard many arguments to the contrary—and though I was a little disappointed in just how Lady MacBeth-archetypal and bloodthirsty Serena Pemberton is, Rash’s novel is still impressive, a thoughtful portrait of the entire structure of a logging town and how various classes behave within it.

I hadn’t realized that Serena’s setting was such a popular one, but the Smoky Mountain News reminds me that Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain and Wayne Caldwell‘s Cataloochee are also set in the same county as Serena. As a practical matter, Cold Mountain‘s success has given the region a bit of a tourist boom. And a companion piece by Thomas Crowe gets into more stylistic and historical details, pointing out that all three novels have classical analogues. All three also make the landscape a character in its own right—something that can’t be helped given the region’s history, as Caldwell tells Crowe:

“[Cataloochie is about] the historic prelude that led up to the government’s confiscation of land in Madison and Haywood counties — by hook, crook and eminent domain and displacing hundreds of mountain families, including some of my own people,” he said. “This story runs in my blood, I guess you could say. And it’s a part of regional and national history, like the removal of the Native peoples, that has been largely ignored, forgotten, and I felt was begging (me) to be told.

Ask the Dust Revisited

The Guardian’s books blog has a brief appreciation of John Fante‘s 1939 novel, Ask the Dust, a critical book in the Los Angeles Beat scene and a particular influence on Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne and novelist Charles Bukowski. At the time, though, the novel seemed to signal Fante’s lapse into total obscurity:

At the time of Ask the Dust’s release in 1939, Fante appeared to be a writer on the rise. His first novel, Wait Until Spring, was well received; his short stories were appearing in prominent publications such as the American Mercury, and he had a long-distance mentor in HL Mencken, at that time one of America’s most influential men of letters. With all these things going for him, Fante was poised to take his place alongside Steinbeck as one of the era’s most important Californian writers when his incendiary sophomore novel hit the stands. However, Ask the Dust received mixed reviews, sold very poorly, and quickly fell out of print. And that’s how things stayed for the next four decades.

And now? Well, Towne directed a film version of the novel a few years back, and the novel is still in print. But the world that Fante himself inhabited appears to be crumbling—in 2007 a blogger snuck into the apartment where Ask the Dust was written and found a dilapidated wreck.

Jayne Anne Phillips’ Southern Accent

Most reviews of Jayne Anne Phillips‘ beautiful, curiously structured new novel, Lark & Termite, suggest a connection to William Faulkner‘s The Sound and the Fury. It’s hard to avoid that impression—the novel is a Southern story, and Termite is a child who can’t walk and can only parrot back what others say. But it’d be a mistake to characterize Termite as a Benjy Compson-esque boy, and for her part Phillips is avoiding the comparison. She changes the subject in an interview with the Oregonian:

When Phillips is reminded of Faulkner’s inspiration for “The Sound and the Fury,” she has no direct reaction but talks about how “there was a lot of kismet around this book.” She once admired a sketch by her friend, artist Mary Sherman, who immediately tore it out of her sketchbook and gave it to Phillips. The sketch is the frontispiece to “Lark and Termite” and contains Sherman’s scribbled note with the word Termite, a gift of the character’s name and image.

And besides, though Faulkner tinkered often with structure, the arrangement of Lark & Termite, shuttling between nine years in West Virginia and Korea, is wholly her own. The central incident in the Korean sections, in fact, only came later:

Much later, after she knew that part of the book would be set in Korea, Phillips read the Associated Press story about the events at No Gun Ri, when South Korean civilians were killed by U.S. troops. Phillips can remember the day she read the story, “in 1999, Sept. 30, to be exact,” and what accompanied it.

“There was a big color photo of a tunnel, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that’s what happened to (one of her characters),” she said.

Retracing the Road

People do this a lot, right? There are certainly enough Jack Kerouac fans out there, and the whole point of On the Road was to inspire readers to take their own trips. But I can’t recall anybody doing what Rev. Angus Stuart, an Anglican priest living in Vancouver, has planned—starting next Monday he and a friend will retrace the trip that the second part of Kerouac’s novel covers (inspired by the trip that Kerouac and Neal Cassady took 40 years ago). They’ll start in Lowell, Mass. to pay tribute to the author before officially kicking off the trip in New York. He’s set up a blog to cover the journey, and he explains to the Vancouver Sun that he doesn’t see a disconnect between a man of the cloth undertaking a journey modeled after one full of cursing, carousing, and so forth:

“The immorality of the book? That was just the backdrop,” [Stuart says…. “On another level, and this has become more apparent to me as I’ve reread it, it’s a parable of life.”

To Stuart, the parable can be many things — that one must strive to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as Stuart said, quoting Thoreau; that the path of excess, he said, quoting William Blake, leads to wisdom; that life is a gift not to be squandered; that you may find your home by leaving it. Whatever it is, what is important is the going.

Jonathan Franzen, Helping to Write American Culture’s Death Sentence

Last night I attended Mike Daisey‘s performance of his monologue How Theater Failed America at the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in D.C. It’s a very smart and funny show, well worth seeing if you’re in town this week—a subtle plea to encourage younger performers and audience members (Daisey notes that the baseline age for “youth discount tickets” keeps ticking up, from 25 to 30 to 35), and a not-so-subtle attack on how machinelike the world of theater has become. Between corporate sponsorships and the largely interchangeable pool of actors and directors, Daisey argues, the idea of theater as community spaces has all but disappeared, with successful companies now relegated to doing all they can to preserve the audience it does have, and failing to engage those outside of it.

I know very little about the internal mechanisms of American theater management, so I can’t speak to how much of Daisey’s monologue is truth-telling and how much is rant. (There was certainly a strange moment of disconnect after the show, when Daisey encouraged the crowd to consider attending the rest of Woolly Mammoth’s season, while in the show proper he skewered the season-subscription model.) But if the theater world is anything like the world of arts journalism, or of publishing, or of filmmaking, or of music, Daisey’s nailed it; now that these disciplines find it increasingly difficult to pay for themselves, they risk falling into survival mode, appealing perhaps to a core community but increasingly incapable of expanding it.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Jonathan Franzen‘s recent statements to 5th Estate about the state of social novel (via the Millions and OUPblog). Franzen takes a few whacks at his youthful naivete in thinking that his writing would somehow generate social change, then explains how he’s now narrowed his ambitions:

I recognize that there’s a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population. This is what I’m writing for, for the people who want a literary experience. I’m no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but I’m also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience. So it’s a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: I’ve ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who don’t care about books.

As a long-term strategy for Jonathan Franzen, this is wise thinking—he has his fan base, and presumably it’s sizable enough for him to create a decent living for himself. As a long-term strategy for American literature, though, it’s slitting one’s own throat. What is it about this country’s literary culture that creates the feeling that it can only serve itself? The terrible pay that novelists and short-story writers can look forward to? MFA programs? The way that literature is taught in public schools? Is this a global or an American phenomenon? If people creating culture are only reaching the class of people most attuned to agree with it, why are they bothering?

Little Blogger Me doesn’t have an answer to any of those questions. But I suspect everybody in the culture business will be asking those questions a lot more often in 2009, as many of the perceived support beams of that business begin to splinter, if not collapse outright.

Links: High-School Reading List Edition

Nick Mamatas goes a little over-the-top in critiquing how Edgar Allan Poe is taught in schools. (“Perhaps it’s no surprise that kids shoot up a school when the tolerance quizzes don’t have the desired positive effect on interpersonal relations in the classroom.” Really?) But his defense of Poe’s moral messiness is appreciated.

The staff of the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum has been reduced from eight to a single person.

Baz Luhrmann is all set to ruin film The Great Gatsby. He’s apparently approaching the story as an “epic,” which may suggest he’s still getting around to reading it.

Oh, local-TV-news coverage of books—is there anything you can’t do to make a person squirm? “Looking for a last-minute holiday idea? How about a book?” Yes, never thought of that. Regardless, the notion of a two-minute segment on Jay Parini‘s Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America is pretty impressive. Flabbergasting, even.

Toward a Complete Guide to Haruki Murakami’s Translations of American Writers Into Japanese

Last May I blogged about Haruki Murakami‘s translations of major works by American authors, including The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and more. At the time I idly speculated about the depth of Murakami’s translation efforts. Today I received a little more clarity. The list below comes courtesy of Naoko Mayuzumi (aka Miss Brolly), based on the Japanese Wikipedia entry for Murakami and her own research.

I’m deeply grateful for the time she took to assemble this; it’s a fascinating list. I’m not surprised that there’s so much Raymond Carver in here, nor is it shocking to see the early-’80s Sudden Fiction collection—both contain plenty of exemplars of the minimalist style that Murakami made his own. But it’s interesting to see a little John Irving thrown in there, and a whole lot of Chris Van Allsburg and Ursula K. Le Guin. I’ve tweaked some of the formatting here, but everything else, including links, comes direct from Mayuzumi.

List of American Books and Essays Translated (from English to Japanese) by Haruki Murakami

Note: The month and year in parentheses indicates the time when the Japanese translation was published in Japan.

By author:

C. D. Bryan:

The Great Dethriffe (published by Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd. in November 1987)

Truman Capote:

I Remember Grandpa (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in March 1988)

One Christmas (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in December 1989)

A Christmas Memory (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in November 1990)

Children on Their Birthdays (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in June 2002)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (published by Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd. in February 2008)

Raymond Carver:

Where I’m Calling From (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in July 1983; includes “Why Don’t You Dance?,” “Tell the Women We’re Going,” “Cathedral,” “Sacks,” “Are You a Doctor?,” “Where I’m Calling From,” “So Much Water So Close to Home,” and “Everything Stuck to Him”)

At Night the Salmon Move (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in July 1985; includes “Feathers,” “The Pheasant,” “Vitamins,” “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” “My Father’s Life,” “At Night the Salmon Move,” “For Semra, with Martial Vigor,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is”)

A Small, Good Thing (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in April 1989; includes “They Are Not Your Husband,” “Neighbors,” “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes,” “I Could See the Smallest Things,” “Popular Mechanics,” “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “A Small, Good Thing,” “The Bridle,” “Boxes,” “Whoever Was Using This Bed,” “Menudo,” and “Elephant”)

Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in October 1994)

Carver’s Dozen (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in December 1994; collected and translated by Haruki Murakami; includes 10 stories [“Fat,” “Nobody Said Anything,” “Are You a Doctor?,” “Collectors,” “So Much Water So Close to Home,” “Why Don’t You Dance?,” “Cathedral”, “Where I’m Calling From”, “A Small, Good Thing,” and “Errand”], 1 essay [“My Father’s Life”], and 2 poems [“Lemonade” and “Late Fragment”])

The Complete Works of Raymond Carver (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc./Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc.)
* Volume 1: “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (February 1991)
* Volume 2: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (August 1990)
* Volume 3: “Cathedral” (May 1990)
* Volume 4: “Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories” (September 1992)
* Volume 5: “Where Water Comes Together With Other Water / Ultramarine” (September 1997)
* Volume 6: “Elephant / A New Path to the Waterfall” (March 1994)
* Volume 7: “No Heroics, Please” (July 2002)
* Volume 8: “Call if You Need Me” (July 2004)

Raymond Chandler:

The Long Goodbye (published by Hayakawa Publishing Corporation in March 2007)

Bill Crow:

From Birdland to Broadway (published by Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd. in January 1996)

Jazz Anecdotes (published by Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd. in July 2000)

Terry Farish:

The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup (published by Kodansha Ltd. in November 2005)

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

My Lost City: Personal Essays (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in May 1981)

The Scott Fitzgerald Book (published by TBS-Britannica Co., Ltd. in March 1988; a book by Haruki Murakami about Scott Fitzgerald, but it includes his translations of Fitzgerald’s two essays, “On Your Own” and “The Rich Boy”)

Babylon Revisited (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in April 1996)

The Great Gatsby (published by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc. in November 2006)

Jim Fusilli:

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (published by Shinchosha Publishing Co., Ltd. in February 2008)

Mikal Gilmore:

Shot in the Heart (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in October 1996)

Mark Helprin:

Swan Lake (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in December 1991)

John Irving:

Setting Free the Bears (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in May 1986)

Ursula K. Le Guin:

Catwings (published by Kodansha Ltd. in March 1993)

Catwings Return (published by Kodansha Ltd. in December 1993)

Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings (published by Kodansha Ltd. in June 1997)

Jane on her Own (published by Kodansha Ltd. in September 2001)

Tim O’Brien:

The Nuclear Age (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in October 1989)

The Things They Carried (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in October 1990)

July, July (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in March 2004)

Grace Paley:

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in May 1999)

The Little Disturbances of Man (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in June 2005)

J. D. Salinger:

The Catcher in the Rye (published by Hakusuisha Publishing Co., Ltd. in April 2003)

Mark Strand:

Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (published by Chuokoron-sha, Inc. in October 1998)

Paul Theroux:

World’s End and Other Stories (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in July 1987)

Chris Van Allsburg:

The Wreck of the Zephyr (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in October 1985)

The Polar Express (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in December 1987)

The Stranger (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in August 1989)

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in November 1990)

The Widow’s Broom (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in June 1993)

The Sweetest Fig (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in September 1994)

Ben’s Dream (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in April 1996)

The Wretched Stone (published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha in November 2003)

Two Bad Ants (published by Asunaro Shobo in September 2004)

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (published by Asunaro Shobo in September 2005)


Watashitachi No Rinjin, Raymond Carver (Published by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc. in March 2009; the title translates to “Our Neighbor, Raymond Carver.” Murakami collected these essays about Carver by nine writers/editors who personally knew him from Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver [except “Ridin’ With Ray and the Old Game” by Jon A. Jackson and “Raymond Carver” by Michiko Miyamoto] and translated them [except Miyamoto’s essay which was written in Japanese originally]):

* “Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice” by Jay McInerney
* “Raymond Carver Had His Cake and Ate It Too” by Tobias Wolff
* “All-American Nightmares” by Marcus Morton
* “The Days with Ray” by James D. Houston
* “Ridin’ With Ray” by Jon A. Jackson
* “What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver” by David Carpenter
* “Raymond Carver” by Michiko Miyamoto
* “Hope This Finds You Well and All” by Gary Fisketjon
* “Bulletproof” by William Kittredge

And Other Stories―Totteoki No America Shosetsu 12 Hen (published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in September 1988; the title translates to “And Other Stories―12 Treasured American Short Stories.” Five Japanese translators brought their favorite American stories and translated them for this collection.) Murakami translated the following stories:

* “The Moccasin Telegraph” by W. P. Kinsella
* “Thirty-Four Seasons of Winter” by William Kittredge
* “What’s Your Story” by Ronald Sukenick
* “Samuel” by Grace Paley
* “Living” by Grace Paley

Getsuyobi Wa Saiakuda-to Minna Wa Iu Keredo (Published by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc. in May 2000; the title translates to “They Call It Stormy Monday.” American short stories and essays collected and translated by Murakami):

* “The Carver Chronicles” by D. T. Max
* “Good Raymond” by Richard Ford
* “The Vietnam In Me” by Tim O’Brien
* “Nogales” by Tim O’Brien
* “Loon Point” by Tim O’Brien
* “John Irving’s (Revised) World” by John Paul Newport
* “I Am A…Genius!” by Thom Jones
* “Secret Agent” by Denis Johnson

Birthday Stories: Selected and Introduced by Haruki Murakami (I think this American edition just contains the original stories in English. The Japanese edition of this book, published by Chuokoron-Shinsha, Inc. in December 2002, contains translations of these American stories by Murakami.)

Murakami Haruki HybLit (published by ALC Inc. in November 2008; a bilingual book containing three stories, selected by Murakami, in English and Japanese: “On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien [Japanese translation by Murakami], “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver [Japanese translation by Murakami], and “Lederhosen” by Haruki Murakami [English translation by Alfred Birnbaum]; “HybLit” in the title is the compound of “hybrid” and “literature”)

Sudden Fiction is translated into Japanese by two translators (Haruki Murakami and Takayoshi Ogawa) and published by Bungeishunju Ltd. in January 1994. The following stories are translated by Murakami:

* “A Sudden Story” by Robert Coover
* “Mother” by Grace Paley
* “The King of Jazz” by Donald Barthelme
* “Reunion” by John Cheever
* “Twirler” by Jane Martin
* “Five Ives” by Roy Blount Jr.
* “Song on Royal Street” by Richard Blessing
* “The Merry Chase” by Gordon Lish
* “Popular Mechanics” Raymond Carver
* “Turning” by Lynda Sexson
* “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff
* “The Hit Man” by T. Coraghessan Boyle
* “A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon” by Jack Matthews
* “I See You Never” by Ray Bradbury
* “The Bank Robbery” by Steven Schutzman
* “Tent Worms” by Tennessee Williams
* “Sitting” by H. E. Francis
* “Dog Life” by Mark Strand
* “The Hatchet Man in the Lighthouse” by William Peden
* “Happy” by Joyce Carol Oates
* “The Anatomy of Desire” by John L’Heureux
* “Class Notes” by Lucas Cooper
* “The Neighbor” by Russell Banks
* “Reading the Paper” by Ron Carlson
* “Speed of Light” by Pat Rushin
* “Gerald’s Song” by Philip F. O’Connor
* “Blind Girls” by Jayne Anne Philips
* “The Signing” by Stephen Dixon
* “The Quail” by Rolf Yngve
* “The Artichoke” by Marilyn Krysl

The Smartest Table-Tennis Player in Brooklyn

It’s rare to see a newspaper profile of a literary critic, so I was amused to see the Brooklyn Daily Eagle‘s piece on Tom LeClair, whose work I became deeply familiar with as an undergrad researching Don DeLillo. (LeClair invented the clunky but useful term “systems novel.”) I haven’t kept up with LeClair lately, so I missed his wrongheaded savaging of Paul Auster‘s Man in the Dark in the New York Times Book Review, but the Eagle piece suggests he’s still a man with his wits about him, interviewed at his favorite table tennis haunt in Brooklyn:

A judge for the National Book Awards in 2005, LeClair doesn’t hesitate when asked which author he likes most. “One of the best living writers is Richard Powers. I think his work is really fabulous.” Among Brooklyn writers, LeClair questions Jonathan Lethem but has praise for Colson Whitehead. And, among his own works, LeClair seems most proud of Well Founded Fear — his novel released in 2000 about a Kurd living in Turkey. After the invasion of Iraq, scholars have pointed to this book as an important voice for the Kurdish people, long lacking a land of their own. “It isn’t like I discovered the Kurds,” offers LeClair, self-deprecating as always, “but they seem to be the refugee of refugees.”

Bright Lights, 25 Years Later

The Scotsman and the Telegraph have dueling features on Jay McInerney, who’s just published a new story collection, The Last Bachelor. (In the U.K., anyhow; Amazon isn’t listing a US version.) The Scotsman piece does make it clear why you ought not make a pig a part of your marriage, but the Telegraph story is more newsy and penetrating, bringing word that a new film version of Bright Lights, Big City is in the works, and shows McInerney wringing his hands over his literary reputation:

“I hadn’t thought about [Bright Lights, Big City],” says Jay McInerney. “I recently re-read it. It’s sort of like reading a book by somebody else. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty damn good. Where did I come up with that?’

“Sometimes it seems an albatross, because it remains not necessarily my best but definitely my most successful book. When I die the words Bright Lights, Big City will be in the headlines. Probably not The Good Life, probably not Brightness Falls, probably not Story of My Life.”

In the case of the last book, that’s probably a good thing. I confess that I haven’t paid much attention to McInerney’s most recent work—recommendations welcome.

Today in Papa

On Monday about 3,000 letters, notes, and other papers of Ernest Hemingway will be released online by the Finca Vincia Foundation, which operates the writer’s former home in Cuba. No lost novels or short stories are in the cache; the biggest find, according to a London Times story, are coded memos of his work tracking German U-boats during World War II.

The story doesn’t note that the news marks the end of a long struggle to get the papers salvaged from the crumbling home. Efforts by researchers to help save the work have been stymied by the Bush administration; in 2004 representatives of the Finca Vincia Foundation (then the Hemingway Preservation Foundation) were denied visas in to Cuba, because, according to a State Department spokesperson, “We are interested in helping people preserve the informational material that was produced by Ernest Hemingway, but the house is a tourist attraction, and because permitting Americans to engage in a transaction that would preserve that house would have the effect of supporting the Cuban regime’s tourist infrastructure, it is not consistent with our policy to permit that to happen.”

A 2007 St. Petersburg Times story notes that conservationists were allowed in 2005 for the next two years, which wasn’t enough time for them to finish their work. No word about what finally allowed the work to wrap up, or what’s freed the papers to come to the United States next month. In February, the collection moves to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. Perhaps at some point the papers will make a visit to the worthy, if somewhat bedraggled, Ernest Hemingway Museum in Oak Park, Ill., which is right next to his childhood home. Hemingway famously wrote off the Chicago suburb by calling it a town of “broad lawns and narrow minds,” but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, and the home is apparently still doing some literary support work. Novelist Bill Hazelgrove has been writing in the attic of the Hemingway home for the past decade. Here’s a video tour of his nook: