Summer Reading: A Few Small Suggestions (and One 850-Page One)

Today’s Chicago Sun-Times has a lengthy list of summer reading suggestions, built on what the book section’s contributors are most looking forward to reading. My pick:

Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just (July 7): No novelist is more sensitive to the different moods of different cities than Just — his 2004 novel, An Unfinished Season, is a modern classic set in Chicago — so I’m eager to see how Vietnam War-era D.C. comes across in Exiles.

I could have gone on, and not only about Just, who deserves to be on the short list of great living American writers but has somehow failed to become a household name among the folks who care about such things. (It may be that Just is perceived as a “writer’s writer,” smart but esoteric, but that’s a limiting, unfair assessment. He’s highly readable, and even his Washington novels aren’t sunk in wonkishness.) There are plenty of books I’m either excited about reading or finishing, or which I’ve eagerly recommended to people in recent months. Among the 2009 books I’d suggest for the beach bag are Robert Goolrick‘s A Reliable Wife, an entertainingly sinister tale of a love triangle in the Wisconsin wilderness; Gary Indiana‘s The Shanghai Gesture, a riff on old-fashioned Fu Manchu stories whose satire cloaks some genuinely felt concern about current-day helplessness in the face of globalization; George PelecanosThe Way Home, another morality tale about a neglected corner of D.C. life, this time the products of juvenile correctional institutions, that’s bolstered by its precise characterizations and Pelecanos’ increasingly stripped-down style; Simon Van Booy‘s Love Begins in Winter, a collection of elegant, ghostly, yet never melodramatic love stories set in Stockholm, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and other far-flung settings; Charlie HaasThe Enthusiast, an easygoing comic novel about an editor in the curious world of niche magazines; and Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s A Drifting Life, a magnificent sprawling memoir from the manga pioneer that explores the nature of creation, the business of art, and the frustrating path to self-awareness. (At 850-plus pages, that last one probably won’t work well for the beach bag, which probably speaks to my lack of knowledge about what works well for the beach. I’ve never been much for the outdoors.)

Like a couple of my Sun-Times contributor colleagues, I’m looking forward to Thomas Pynchon‘s Inherent Vice (though there’s plenty of Pynchon I’d like to get to before that one), but I’m just as interested in Colum McCann‘s portrait of New York City in the early 70s, Let the Great World Spin, Lisa See‘s Shanghai Girls, Glen David Gold‘s Sunnyside, Kevin Canty‘s story collection Where the Money Went, the re-publication of Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 cult novel, Nog, and Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement. That last one doesn’t come out until October, but that’s the funny thing about book reviewers—one of the best things about summer is looking forward to the books that come out in fall.

Links: Elder Wisdom

That post I wrote on Susan Bell‘s essay about revising The Great Gatsby? The Elegant Variation has the full text of it.

That post I wrote on Charles Taylor‘s essay about Donald E. Westlake? Sarah Weinman has plenty of thoughtful follow-up comments on The Ax.

Marilynne Robinson has a few thoughts on reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child.

Ethan Canin figures the future of American fiction is increasingly in Madagascar.

I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo America this year. I feel a little more bummed that I wasn’t able to make it to the Calabash International Literary Festival, at which Edwidge Danticat tag-teamed with Junot Diaz and Robert Pinsky expounded on the history of the saxophone.

Guitarist Ry Cooder has just published his first book of fiction, Los Angeles Stories. You’ll have to attend one of his shows to pick up a copy.

Planning a summer road trip? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Westlake’s Labor Movement

It’s been difficult for me to squeeze in non-review reading lately, but a week ago I was able to start repairing a sizable blind spot by picking up The Jugger, a 1965 Parker novel by Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark. (The University of Chicago Press recently began publishing handsome reissues of the Parker novels, with introductions from John Banville, Luc Sante, and other smart folk.) Apparently I picked a lousy place to start with Westlake—the author, who died last New Year’s Eve, considered it one of his worst novels—but I don’t feel the worse for reading it. The plot is pretty ramshackle, yes, but the backstories of the corrupt police chief and aging safecracker are nicely set up, and there’s a beautifully grim sadism in the way Westlake draws out the cop’s abuses of the old man—good noirish fun.

Next time around, I’ll likely go with Westlake’s 1997 novel The Ax, which Charles Taylor enthusiastically recommends in the Nation. The story follows an out-of-work paper-mill laborer who decides to kill any potential competition for a job he’s perfect for. Taylor’s reading of the novel is political, arguing that Westlake was capturing the abuses of Reaganomics on working-class America:

This is the special hell of The Ax. We have entered an ordinary, middle-class world where empathy is as useless as on the battlefield. In the opening lines of the book Burke mentions that he would have liked to ask his father, a World War II veteran, what it was like to kill someone. It’s a telling comparison. Just having the ordinary, unglamorous, comfortable middle-class life that was supposed to be the reward for playing by the rules–that’s the war for Burke’s generation….

The unspoken subject of The Ax is that Burke’s murderous project is a smaller-scale version of the corporate behavior around him. Companies that are not eradicating each other in mergers and acquisitions are eradicating the people who stand in the way of their making higher profits, even if they are the people who allowed them to make any profit in the first place.

The anti-Reaganomics argument seems sensible enough, even if the novel came out in the Clinton era. But part of me wonders if Westlake’s motivation in writing The Ax was more self-serving—perhaps he was simply sublimating concerns about losing his lofty perch in the crime-fiction pantheon?

Samarra at 75

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a lengthy piece on the current affection that PottstownPottsville, Penn., has for native son John O’Hara, who skewered the town’s polite sensibilities in his 1934 novel, Appointment in Samarra. Back then the book was only grudgingly held at the town library, behind the front desk. But 75 years will cool the anger folks feel toward a book—it’s certainly enough time for the people most directly affronted to likely pass on—and the story argues that since the novel made the Modern Library’s list of 100 greatest novels in 1998, O’Hara has enjoyed the respect usually bestowed on a town father, with a statue, themed street signs, symposia, and more. (The Pottsville Republican-Herald, digging deep, uncovers how often O’Hara’s most popular books have been checked out of the Pottsville library since 1998. Samarra has been checked out 67 times.)

One of the main sources in the Inquirer story is Erica Ramus, a real-estate agent who’s assembled an O’Hara-themed walking tour of Pottsville. “O’Hara didn’t sugarcoat things,” she tells the paper. “He told it like he saw it. He wrote his stories like he was writing a news story, not some fancy piece of fiction with a lot of metaphors.” That is, setting aside the biggest fancy piece of symbolism in the book—the title, taken from Somerset Maugham‘s short story, in which the appointment is with death.

Mr. Fix-It

Because I don’t write fiction, I tend not to read much about craft. Francine Prose‘s fine 2006 book on the subject, Reading Like a Writer, is one exception, as are the three fascinating collections of Paris Review interviews. More recently, I’ve surprised myself at how much I’ve enjoyed flipping through The Writer’s Notebook, a collection of essays based on seminars given at the annual Tin House Summer Writing Workshop from Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, and others. One of the first pieces I gravitated toward was Susan Bell‘s essay on the revisions of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby, which quickly but thoughtfully addresses the rigors involved in rethinking one’s writing—as well as the close, delicate relationship between a writer and editor while making fixes.

Fitzgerald’s editor was Maxwell Perkins, a consummate diplomat. As Bell writes, shortly after Perkins received the manuscript of the novel, “the editor diagnosed its kinks, the wrote a letter of lavish praise and unabashed criticism.” After writing that the book and Fitzgerald’s talents are “most extraordinary,” Perkins brings the bad news, which is pretty serious:

Gatsby is somewhat vague. The Reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

That Fitzgerald took this critique of one of the story’s main support beams with such appreciation speaks to his confidence in the story. As he wrote back to Perkins, the “vagueness I can repair by making more pointed—this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.” As Bell explains, Fitzgerald didn’t need much prodding and querying; Perkins, she writes, “didn’t mark up Fitzgerald’s text word for word, didn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, dig in, and reposition the prose.”

The downside of being an editor with a strong eye for structure, apparently, was a certain ineptitude at catching factual errors. As the late Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli explains, Perkins could exasperate his colleagues. Charles Scribner Jr., for his part, seemed barely tolerant: “Perkins was totally useless when it came to copy editing or correcting a text,” he wrote. “Such details meant very little to him. Consequently, the early editions of books such as Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were textually corrupt to a nauseating degree.”

For instance, numerous small corrections, neglected by Perkins, were requested for the text by others: Fitzgerald’s friend Ring Lardner noticed a handful of errors that were flagged too late to be integrated into the first edition. At issue was stuff like what train left from what station. But it was a time when reviews sold books and reviewers could be fussy. As Lardner wrote, “these things are trivial, but some of the critics pick on trivial errors for lack of anything else to pick on.”

Links: Collectors

Naoko Mayuzumi, who’s generously compiled a bibliography of Haruki Murakami‘s Japanese translations of American writers, recently wrote in with news of a new translation, based on Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. The page has been updated accordingly.

This blog isn’t available on the Kindle. The main reason I’m not signing up is that I think that free is a perfectly fine price to put on what I what I’m slinging here. But it’s not the only reason.

Telegraph classical music critic Michael White considers the recent death of composer Nicholas Maw by pulling out a 2002 feature on Maw’s opera based on William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice, with some comments by Styron.

Jeffrey Eugenides thinks that Saul Bellow‘s Herzog is a great cure for writer’s block, but given that it’s going to be a while before he finishes a follow-up to Middlesex, it’s probably best to take his advice with a grain of salt.

Critical Distance, an new effort to create a repository of thoughful reconsiderations of recent American fiction, launched yesterday with founder Dan Green‘s essay on Russell BanksAffliction. I’ll have more to say on this project soon-ish.

The summer issue of Bookforum is available online, including an interview with Aleksandar Hemon.

If you’re looking for a group summer reading project, your ship has just come in.

Knockemstiff author Donald Ray Pollock gave thanks for the $35,000 prize he received at the PEN Literary Awards earlier this week. “It was good timing,” he said. “I’m getting ready to get out of grad school and there are no jobs right now.”

“Pornography is pornography.”

I haven’t been fixated the the foofaraw over Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon in Shelby, Michigan, because what’s going on is surprising—school leaders make dumb decisions all the time in an effort to insulate smart kids from smart thought. What frustrated me was the inbalance in the reporting; nearly all the stories on the matter used the school district superintendent, Dana McGraw, as the chief or sole source, with nary a peep from any of the people registering complaints about the novel. That problem, at least, has been repaired: A story by John Cavanagh of the Oceana Herald-Journal describes the proceedings of last Sunday’s school board meeting, offering a window into the thinking of those who wanted the book eradicated from the curriculum. Steve Vinke, one of the three board members who wanted the book pulled (Dave Beckman and Craig Sawyer are the other two), told the paper that “It really has nothing to do with maturity…. Pornography is pornography.” Porn was the big theme among the protesters, particularly for Andrew Near, who feared that once something is read, it cannot be unread: “This is unacceptable,” he said. “You get graphic images in your mind that’s not going to leave you. Where do we stop here? Where do we draw the line?” (Before the Herald-Journal story ran, I invited board members Beckman and Sawyer to comment on the matter. Neither has responded.)

There are at least two positives to come out of the meeting: Morrison’s novel wasn’t pulled from the curriculum (though the course in which it was used won’t be taught next year), and nobody was calling for a book burning. That’s not the case in West Bend, Wisconsin, where four library board members were removed, allegedly for refusing to remove a handful of young adult novels, including Francesca Lia Block‘s Baby Be-Bop, Brent Hartinger‘s The Geography Club, and Stephan Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Publishers Weekly covered the ouster of the board members late last month, but the National Coalition Against Censorship brings news of the latest wrinkle: Earlier this month the Milwaukee branch of the Christian Civil Liberties Union filed a legal claim against West Bend, its mayor, and the library, demanding that Baby Be-Bop be pulled from the shelves. And not just pulled. “We don’t want it put in a section for adults,” Robert C. Braun, president of the CCLU branch, told the West Bend Daily News. “We’re saying its inappropriate to have it in the library, and we want it out or destroyed.” The paper reports that the claim demands that the book “be removed and publicly burned or destroyed as a deterrent to repeating the offensive conduct.”

Roth and the Grandmother Cell

A story in Discover magazine points out an interesting wrinkle in the world of neurophysiology that involves Philip Roth‘s Portnoy’s Complaint. For decades, researchers have been investigating whether there are such things as “grandmother cells”—cells that respond only to particular people. The first person to propose the idea that such cells might exist was Jerry Lettvin, an MIT neuroscientist who explained the concept by inventing a fable in which Alexander Portnoy is done the extreme kindness of having all the cells in his body that allow him to recognize his mother removed. As Lettvin tells the story [PDF], the neurosurgeon quizzes Portnoy after the deed is done:

“You remember a red dress that walked around the house with slippers under it?”
“O certainly.”
“So who wore it?”

The thrust of the Discover story is that the “grandmother cell” theory, long dismissed, is enjoying a revival. Researchers have noticed certain neurons that respond only to certain particular chosen stimuli, such as images of Halle Berry and Jennifer Aniston, which suggests that the researchers may have some of the same fixations as poor old Portnoy.


Updating yesterday’s post about Song of Solomon being pulled from the curriculum of an AP English class at Shelby High School in western Michigan: WZZM reports that the school board voted 4 to 3 to reinstate the book in the class, though apparently it’s a moot point. According to a Ludington Daily News story, the class won’t be taught next year, due to lack of interest. Which makes this tale all the weirder: If the class isn’t going to happen next year, and the school year is almost over—graduation day is May 29th. Go Tigers!—why did the superintendent so forcefully lay down the law just two days ago? Regardless, nobody who has a problem with Toni Morrison‘s novel has volunteered his or her opinion to a reporter, nor appeared by name in any of the news stories about the kerfuffle. The WZZM story notes only that at the school board meeting, “parents said the book’s content is unacceptable and compared it to pornography.”

Morrison Off the Reading List

The superintendent of Shelby High School in Shelby, Michigan, has pulled Toni Morrison‘s Song of Solomon from a list of required books for an AP English class. A May 13 story in the Oceana Herald-Journal, written as the novel’s place in the curriculum was still under discussion, quotes superintendent Dana McGrew as saying, “there’s a bunch of different things that some people object to it.” A story yesterday in the Muskegon Chronicle reports that McGrew ultimately decided to yank the book from the required-reading list. From the story: “[McGrew] said a group of citizens around the end of March began handing out information at community and school activities protesting the use of the book at the high school.”

Somebody’s falling down on the job here: Here are two newspaper stories about an effort to pull a novel from a high-school reading list, and neither reflects an attempt to find a single person who has a problem with the book. The Chronicle did at least get hold of the class’ teacher, Jane Glerum, who declined to comment. On the evidence of the class’ syllabus, there’s nothing especially provocative about Glerum’s class—it looks like standard-issue AP English fare to me. The quote at the top takes on a new resonance, now, though: “To paraphrase Toni Morrison, I hope this class will help ‘give you the strength life demands of you and the humor with which to live it.'”

A petition protesting the school’s move is making the rounds.

(via January Magazine)

Last Proofs

John Updike was well-known for being fussy when it came to revising his work. As he wrote in the introduction to a 1995 collection of his Rabbit novels: “Rabbit, Run, in keeping with its jittery, indecisive protagonist, exists in more forms than any other novel of mine.” If you want to see just how obsessive he could be, the Penn State library has a online exhibit that shows the various tweaks performed on the pages of his 1974 play, Buchanan Dying, from early drafts through final proofs.

I’ve been thinking about that process as I finish reading Updike’s forthcoming story collection My Father’s Tears, which would be among the last works Updike revised before his death last January. (The Maples Stories, a collection that includes the contents of 1979’s Too Far to Go plus some newer material, comes out in August.) My Father’s Tears includes some of the last stories that Updike published in the New Yorker before his death; because those stories are readily available online, it’s fairly easy to compare the magazine version of the story to the book version. There are plenty of small differences, for instance, between the version of “Outage” published in January 2008 edition of the New Yorker, and the one in the book. Some are minor: The main character’s name changes from Brad to Evan. Some are head-scratchers: A description of a poster showing a woman draped in a “tiger skin” on a Lamborghini becomes a woman draped in a “python.” (Perhaps he caught Britney Spears on YouTube sometime between proofs?)

But many of his adjustments seem designed to better sell the main plot of the story, which involves Brad/Evan hooking up with a neighbor, Lynne, during a power outage. It’s not one of Updike’s better stories, and his fussing seems to reflect a concern that the strange, mutual seduction going on isn’t very convincing. There aren’t many adjustments, but the ones there are attempt to more strongly integrate sex into the story. Living room furnishings that were all “all mixed with Orientals and family antiques” are now “promiscuously mixed with Orientals and family antiques.” Soon after, in the magazine version, he wonders if Lynne pulls off her sneakers “to avoid bending over beneath his eyes”; in the book, he wonders if she’s doing it “to avoid bending over, ass up, beneath his eyes.”

There are more sizable, and more effective, changes in the “The Road Home,” which first appeared as “The Roads of Home” in the New Yorker in February 2005. The story, like the majority of the stories in the collection, deals with old age, following a man named David Kern as he navigates the streets of his childhood home. For the book, Updike inserts the word Olinger into the story, making it a part of the body of stories he set in the mythical Pennsylvania town early in his career. And a new passage reveals an urge to better embed the story in the past:

[Kern’s mother] had maintained, with the earnestness with which she advanced her most fanciful theories, that this had always been a woman’s house. She cited as proof the fact that its first owner was recorded, in 1816, as being a woman, named Mercy Landis. Nothing was known of her but her name on the old deed; she existed where history shaded into myth . . .

Kern felt the tracks of his ancestors all around him—generation after generation laboring, eating, walking, driving within this Pennsylvania county’s bounds, laying down an invisible network of worn paths. Only he had escaped. Only he, of his boyhood household, now lived to witness how the region was changing, gradually consuming its older self, its landmarks disappearing one by one in the slow-motion tumult of decay and substitution as the newer generations made their own demands on the land.

His cuts mattered as much as his additions. The last story that Updike published in the New Yorker while he was living, “The Full Glass,” appeared in the magazine in May 2008. It’s among his thinnest stories in terms of plot, a light description of the infirmities of aging framed around a memory of an old affair. The protagonist wants to remain optimistic yet knows the end is coming—what’s critical isn’t the storytelling but the tone. A Updike seems to have found the following sentence, beautiful as it is, perhaps too glum to appear in the final book:

I wake each morning with hurting eyeballs and with dread gnawing at my stomach—that blank drop-off at the end of the chute, that scientifically verified emptiness of the atom and the spaces between the stars.

Of course, I’m working off a couple of assumptions here. The stories in My Father’s Tears, as written, could have predated the New Yorker versions, and editors at the magazine could have made their own adjustments. But, as Roger Angell points out in his essay about editing Updike, he took no change lightly, and he routinely made additions and subtractions right up until the magazine went to press. Also, it’s my duty as a book reviewer to note that I am working with an uncorrected proof of My Father’s Tears, and that its text may differ from the final hardcover version that Knopf will publish next month. But who would dare change a word?