Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Gift Edition

Your son is an anarchist. Your uncle is an academic. Your sister is a feminist and vegetarian. Your best friend loves graphic novels. Your significant other is a military buff. Your mom only reads literary fiction. What, you may be asking yourself, do I get these people? At Changing Hands, we have books for every interest and personality type. Here, for your shopping convenience, are some of the best books in a variety of categories. We may run out of some titles, due to demand; if this is the case, we can always order you a copy for no extra charge. Select books are linked to our website, where you can view more information. The list, by category:

Culture of Make-Believe, Jensen; Rising Up and Rising Down, Vollman; On Language, Chomsky

Design of Dissent, Glaser; Cultural Resistance Reader, Duncombe; Ya Basta!: Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising, Subcomandante Marcos

African American:
Rosa Parks: a Life, Brinkley; Giovanni's Room, Baldwin; Fiction of Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Jones/Baraka

Anarchism, Graham; On Anarchy, Chomsky; Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice, Rocker

Arizona Then and Now, Dutton; Arizona Moon Handbook, Weir; 50 Hikes in Arizona, Tessmer

Artists in Time of War, Zinn; Henry Darger: Disasters of War, Darger; Maniac Eyeball, Dali; Chip Kidd Book One, Kidd

Speak, Memory, Nabokov; Mao, Chang; Che Guevara, a Revolutionary Life, Anderson

No Time to Lose, Chodron; Buddhist Inspirations, Lowenstein; Being Peace, Nhat Hanh

Children's Literature:
Eldest, Paolini; Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis; Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain

Peace in the Post-Christian Era, Merton; Blessed Among All Women, Ellsberg; The Purpose Driven Life, Warren

Community Planning:
Field Guide to Sprawl, Hayden; Native to Nowhere, Beatley; How Wal-Mart is Destroying America, Quinn

The Best Recipes in the World, Bittman; The New Best Recipe, Cook's Illustrated; Joy of Cooking, Rombauer

Freakonomics, Levitt; Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, Perkins; The Challenge to Power, Harrington

Crimes Against Nature, Kennedy, Jr.; Blue Gold: the Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, Barlow; Forcing the Spring, Gottlieb

Satisfaction: the Art of the Female Orgasm, Cattrall; Blow Him Away, Michaels; Every Day in Every Way (2006 Calendar)

Grassroots: a Field Guide for Feminist Activism, Baumgardner; Manifesta, Baumgardner; War on Choice, Feldt

Arizona Gardener's Guide, Irish; Garden Guy, Owens

Gay and Lesbian:
The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians, Pepper; How Homosexuals Saved Civilization, Crimmins; The Nature of Homosexuality, Holland

Graphic Novels:
Bone, Smith; Chris Ware, Raeburn; R. Crumb Handbook, Crumb; Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea, Delisle

Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About, Trudeau; Healthy Aging, Weil; You: the Owner's Manual, Roizen

Cradle Tales of Hinduism, Noble; Female Ascetics in Hinduism, Denton

A People's History of the United States, Zinn; The Secret Histories, Friedman; Freethinkers, Jacoby; Cities of the World: A History in Maps, Whitfield

A Right to be Hostile, McGruder; Future Dictionary of America, Foer; America, Stewart

International Politics:
The Battle of Venezuela, McCaughan; Hugo Chavez, Gott; Nuclear North Korea, Cha; Profit Over People, Chomsky; Africa Unchained, Ayittey

Understanding the Hadith, Swarup; A Brief History of Islam, Sonn; The Position of Women in Islam: A Progressive View, Ali Syed

Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky; Speaking Freely, Abrams; Censored 2006, Phillips

Be Still and Get Going, Lew; After the Apple, Rosenblatt; The Five Books of Moses, Alter

Latin American:
The Mexican Revolution, Gilly; Memories of my Melancholy Whores, Garcia Marquez; Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, Gott

Law Enforcement:
Cops, Teachers, Counselors, Musheno; Law and Your Legal Rights, Araujo; Law 101: Everything You Need to Know, Feinman

On Language, Chomsky; Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss; New Oxford American Dictionary

Literary Fiction:
The People of Paper, Plascencia; Stepmother, Coover; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce; Pale Fire, Nabokov; Confederacy of Dunces, Toole

Martial Arts:
Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Tsunetomo; Illustrated Art of War, Tzu; Art of Shaolin Kung Fu, Kiew Kit

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi; A Million Little Pieces, Frey; Year of Magical Thinking, Didion

Fall of Baghdad, Anderson; Conduct Under Fire, Glusman; To Ruhleben -- and Back, Pyke

American Music, Leibovitz; Wu Tang Manual, RZA; Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2002, Dylan

The Da Vinci Code, Special Illustrated Edition, Brown; Skinny Dip, Hiassen; The Erasers, Robbe-Grillet

A Short History of Myth, Armstrong; The Penelopiad, Atwood; Egyptian Book of the Dead, Budge

Native American:

Blood Struggle, Wilkinson; Animal Wise, Andrews; A Little Matter of Genocide, Churchhill

Silent Spring, Carson; Why We Run, Heinrich; Treehouses of the World, Nelson

The New Complete Dog Training Manual, Fogle; Bad Cat, Edgar; Horse Owner's Survival Guide, Henderson

I and Thou, Buber; Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein

Woman in the Mirror, Avedon; My So Called Digital Life, Pletka; Better Photo Guide to Digital Photography, Miotke

Picture Books:
Magic Beach, Johnson; Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak; The Other Side, Banyai

Migration, Merwin; Dream Songs, Berryman; Five Decades, Neruda

Political Issues:
Understanding Power, Chomsky; The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, Packer; Moral Politics, Lakoff

Popular Fiction:
Son of a Witch, Maguire; Christ the Lord, Rice; The Sea, Banville

Blink, Gladwell; Power vs. Force, Hawkins; Psychobox, Gooding

Explore Your Mind (DVD set); Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene; Galileo's Daughter, Sobel

Science Fiction:
Anansi Boys, Gaiman; Valis, Dick; Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, Wilson

Where God Was Born, Feiler; Goddesses and Angels, Virtue

Grand Old Game (baseball), Wallace; Driven From Within (basketball), Jordan; Greatest Game Ever Played (golf), Frost

Tarot Handbook, Arrien; Druid Craft Tarot Deck; Faeries Oracle Deck

Twilight, Meyer; The Chosen, Potok; Stepmother, Coover; Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky

1000 Places to See Before You Die, Schultz; Europe Through the Back Door, Steve; USA on a Budget, Let's Go Series

The Crazy Makers, Simontacchi; Dying for a Hamburger, Waldman; Chicken, Striffler

Paganism, Higginbotham; Drawing Down the Moon, Adler

2006 Writer's Market; Nonconformity, Algren; Elements of Style, Strunk

Step by Step, Yoga Journal; The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, Chopra; Yoga Deck, Miller

If you would like us to save or order one or more of these books for you, don't hesitate to call Changing Hands at (480)730-0205.

For those who want to know (I know there's at least one of you out there), I will post my book of the month sometime in the next week, as well as my short commentaries on the other books I've read in the past month. In the meantime, if you're looking for something literary to read, I suggest anything by Vladimir Nabokov, Robert Coover, Richard Powers.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

September's Book: The Dream Songs, by John Berryman


I am, outside. Incredible panic rules.
People are blowing and beating each other without mercy.
Drinks are boiling. Iced
drinks are boiling. The worse anyone feels, the worse
treated he is. Fools elect fools.
A harmless man at an intersection said, under his breath: “Christ!”

That word, so spoken, affected the vision
of, when they trod to work next day, shopkeepers
who went & were fitted for glasses.
Enjoyed they then an appearance of love & law.
Millenia whift & waft—one, one—er, er. . .
Their glasses were taken from them, & they saw.

Man has undertaken the top job of all,
son fin. Good luck.
I myself walked at the funeral of tenderness.
Followed other deaths. Among the last,
like the memory of a lovely fuck,
was: Do, ut des.

This poem is number 46 of the 385 Dream Songs written by American poet John Berryman.

You won’t find a summary of the meaning of these poems on the back of the book, nor just inside either of the covers. Likewise, you won’t find a summary of the book here. This is because The Dream Songs (made up of 77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest) does not, like most great poetry, lend itself to neat packaging. It isn’t just a work of linguistic invention, though its innovation in this regard is undeniable; it isn’t just a work that searches for the American spirit, though, like Leaves of Grass, its only American superior, it manages to find it, glorify it, expose it; it isn’t just a work of soaring ambition and the struggle with reality: it’s all these things, and much more, captured and joined together as if in a seamless and surreal dream where language is sung, spirit is captive, and truth is inhaled.

A list of some of my personal favorites (all these from 77 Dream Songs):


77 Dream Songs won the Pulitzer Prize. His Toy, His Dream, His Rest won the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize.

In 1972, John Berryman, haunted by emotional instability and heavy drinking, jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis and died.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

July's Book: The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia

The People of Paper, a perfect mesh of memoir and fiction, is the best new book I've read in the last three years. It's a once-in-a-long-while type book, a book of immediate consequence, considered right away for canonization, a book that makes other ways of writing look amateurish and dated - a book that seems to do everything right: it is experimental and beautiful; it is intellectual and easy. It marks the end of one great era (Postmodernism) and the beginning of what looks to be another (Aesthetic Mythicism?). At any rate, it is the early new standard of writing for the next generation of authors and readers. Read it, love it. It may be awhile before you read another book this inventive and magical and true.

The People of Paper: a perfect case-study of a creator's heartbroken psyche.
Salvador Plascencia: author and main character; on trial.

I cannot recall reading a psychological investigation into the effects of heartbreak on a writer's imagination that is as profound or beautiful as this one. As the story begins, we find ourselves in a tumultuous world full of magic and miracles, where a professional wrestler is discovered to be a saint in hiding, where housewives have halos, where whole towns turn to dust, where a woman made of paper - the last of her race - is making her way north, along with others fleeing the pervading decay, to America. They are running from loss, looking for happiness, seeking, finally, some kind of control.

Salvador Plascencia, who is also a character in the book (referred to early on as Mars), is also battling loss, looking for happiness, seeking some kind of control. His love for a real woman in his real life world has been betrayed; so, as a writer, he is compelled to find control in his imagination, in his writing: he turns inside of himself, to the world he can make up, to the world he can lord over as dictator. He has power there. He can monitor the flow of loss, the amount of pain and happiness. It is the kind of control he needs in his own life.

His characters are not unlike him. They feel, like Plascencia feels, the overwhelming oppression of uncontrollable loss, the helpless frustration of being subjugated to the whims of a higher force. Once settled in their new American home - a small California town of flower fields and magical happenings - they find a certain degree of comfort, but still feel themselves under the compassionless control of an omniscient being. That being, they know, is Mars. The characters, led by Federico de la Fe, do what Salvador Plascencia did: they fight to exert their own control over their destinies. They declare war on Mars, who, unbeknownst to them, is their creator. They declare war, then, on their own existence.

After Plascencia is discovered by one of the gang members to be Mars - he pulls down a corner of the sky and sees Plascencia in his bedroom - the story switches to memoir, and we get a sober (and beautifully bitter) glimpse into the circumstances that led Plascencia to become Mars and write his book. We see his side of his real life lost love. We see his pain. And though the reader clearly understood and enjoyed his fictional story to this point - the one called The People of Paper - everything suddenly is much clearer and much more enjoyable. There is no longer one story of loss, but two: we see that not only has Plascencia suffered heartbreak, he has suffered in his writing. His love is gone. His book is all but broken. Even his imaginary characters have declared war on him. There is nowhere for Plascencia to turn.

There is much, much more to this book. It is filled with delightful writing on every page. It is provocative both stylistically and contextually. It damns pain but praises hope and faith. The characters - both imaginary and real - will make you laugh and cry, shout and sigh. It is full of legend and history, satire and parody, myth and magic, and serves as a spotless testament to the power of imagination, whether the imagination is accurately rendered (like Plascencia's) or invented by an author (as is the case with everyone else in the book, whether they are real or made-up).

Most of all, it is a book of love and life and what it means to be.


For another insightful review of People of Paper, this one by Daniel Olivas, go here.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Books Read in June

A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

A WWI novel about an Irish lad fighting a fight he isn't entirely sure about fighting. He is too concerned with his height for my taste - he can't let go of the fact that he could have been a policeman like his father if not for his being too short - and the reader is never quite sure if the girl he leaves for the war really loves him or not. The book is full of beautiful prose - Sebastian Barry can craft a sentence, there is no doubt about that - but the story feels less complex and emotionally demanding than it should be, considering that the backdrop, and indeed the main character, is World War I. A good book all around, but not one I'll long remember.

The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover

My fascination with Coover continues. This book - I want to call it Coover's best, but what about the others? - is about an office worker who designs a fantasy baseball game that is played with three dice and a complex set of charts. Named one of Sports Illustrated's Top 100 sports books of all time, this is the perfect gift for any baseball fan. Coover's knowledge of the game is deep, and his passion for myth and rich history is again on vivid display. Reading this book is a bit like reading the history of the MLB, except that this history is all made up. The figures, though, from the 1st year to the 57th, are as real and interesting as any who have really lived. The book serves, finally, as both a perfect tribute to the American traditions of myth and baseball: the two pasttimes are intertwined (as they are in real life) to the point that each seems to represent the other. To the point that each seems unable to survive without the other.
(This book was going to be the feature review for this month until I read The People of Paper, which ruined everything.)

Ghost Town, by Robert Coover

No, I can't get enough. And you expect more by Coover in the months ahead. He's written many books and I plan on reading them all.

This short gem is about a nameless drifter in the Old West who can't keep himself away from a ghost town in the middle of the desert. It's typical Coover - full of myth and parody - but this one, even more than his others, seems to be about the beauty of language. There is a pervading philosophy of the re-living of loss (all the characters, including the nameless drifter and his "hoss" turn out to be ghosts), and there is a little fun poked at the expense of the Western, but ultimately, Ghost Town is yet another Coover experiment with style and syntax. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Poppy's Place, by Sylvia Renfro

A romance novel. Surprised? So am I. I don't know much about the romance genre - my experience is limited to a childhood of avoiding the thousands of them that lined my mother's bookshelves (and a bit of Jane Austen, if you consider that romance) - so I admit that I feel a little out of place commenting on this book. It's a bit like commenting on a culture you're experiencing for the first time: there are things you know you like and things you know you don't like, but you don't know what's normal, you don't know what expectations and ambitions are held, and you don't know in what tones you should talk, or even which words you should use.
But the book at times feels very much like what I know. As someone deeply concerned with environmental issues, I was immediately empathetic with Poppy, who cares for the Mojave National Preserve, and her frustration with environmental apathy. This, to me, was the most compelling thread in the book - a thread put under duress when Poppy meets Josh, a filmmaker who wants to shoot in the preserve. Poppy, who has had bad experiences with men and moviemakers before, is understandably pessimistic. How could she ever reconcile her passion for nature with her curiosity for this man, who is likely no more than a danger to her and the land she loves?

This is a conflict familiar to all of literature, and Renfro handles it well, if a little formulaicly. Her characters are individual and unique, her words well-chosen and effective. This is Renfro's first novel. I think if she continues to write, she could find a great style that manages to combine literary aspirations with her love for the romance genre.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Just a Thought

Coming Soon

Monday, May 30, 2005

June's Book: The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

There are two parts to this review. The first part is a brief overview of the place Alain Robbe-Grillet, the author of The Erasers, occupied in 20th Century literature. The second part is the review itself. I recommend reading both sections, of course, but if you are pressed for time or only interested in reading about the book, skip the first section.


Sometime in the 19th Century - at least as early as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland - fiction began to see itself as more than the art of storytelling: it began to see itself as art, period. Fading were the old ideas that literature had to contain a social or moral message, that it had to appeal to the masses with a robust bout of straightforward and entertaining taletry. Replacing these old ideas among literary afficionados was a burgeoning enthusiasm for evermore complex designs made up of brand new narrative devices, riddles that were subtly hidden and often very difficult to solve (if they were solvable at all), and prose that could more and more pass for poetry. In short, the concern of the serious novelist switched from how best to convey a message or an entertainment to how best to create a beautiful work of art, reader be damned if they didn’t understand. James Joyce, writing some 40 years after Wonderland was published, has become the poster boy for such writing.

Starting in the 1950s however (coinciding with the birth of formal literary criticism), writers began to see that style wasn’t everything. Most knew and admired Joyce, but the problems inherent in such writing began to make themselves evident - namely, that no one read "works of art" if they weren’t at least somewhat readable. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, who considered Joyce’s Ulysses the great work of the century, thought Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which attempted yet higher artistic achievement, was gibberish. Though not many critics would dare agree with him (such thoughts were, and are, considered blasphemy by academics), the sentiment that things needed to change was beginning to catch hold. No one, Nabokov included, wanted to diminish the role that style had played in asserting literature as a distinguished form capable of high artistic beauty, but more and more authors were noticing that their books also needed to be read. (Television had asserted itself and readers could no longer be taken for granted.) Nabokov would soon became famous for balancing high style and accessible substance. Such writers as Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon would follow, and a new literary tradition was born.

But hidden in the shadows, at least in America (where esteemed stylists Hemingway and Faulkner were still the beginning and end of every literary conversation), was a man named Alain Robbe-Grillet. In 1953, two years before Nabokov’s Lolita would shake everything up and one year before Hemingway was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for the originality of his prose, Robbe-Grillet released his first novel, The Erasers. Although its impact has not been as public as Lolita’s, or as any of Faulkner’s or Hemingway’s works, it was essential in bridging modernism with postmodernism, and can thus be considered a founder of the latter. Here, all of a sudden, was high art to be enjoyed by all, critics and regular bookbuyers alike. Accordingly, Robbe-Grillet was hailed all around. There was nary a word of discontent, even from the staunchest critics. By the end of the 50s he was proclaimed the spokesman of the nouveau roman, or the new novel. His second, third, and fourth novels, all written before the decade was over, are to be given much credit for this pronouncement. But it was his first novel, The Erasers, that established him in the establishment, and to which he owes his marvelous literary achievements. Robbe-Grillet’s writing, for those who are curious, influenced many of the best novelists of the second half of the century. Some of these - all considered practitioners of the nouveau roman - include: Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, and Claude Simon.


The Erasers, Robbe-Grillet’s most accessible novel, is, first and foremost, a detective story: a man dies, becoming the eighth politically motivated murder in as many days; the local law enforcement, having made no progress in their investigations, is deemed incapable; a detective from the Bureau of Investigation is sent in to solve the case. This is the simple plot - quite stock on its face - around which the novel revolves. But the mystery, which is as much literary as legal, is anything but simple: the latest dead man, Albert or Daniel Dupont (his identity is at first unclear), may not really be dead, and the detective sent to solve his murder, Monsieur Wallas, may in fact be the killer. But the central figure in this mystery - the prime suspect if you will - is not either of these men: it is the narrative.

I have less to say about the story itself in this case than I usually do, because of the importance of the structure and style of this narrative. In most mysteries, the reader’s ability to comprehend and solve the case hinges on the clues provided, and revolves around alibis and circumstances. The presentation of these clues, alibis and circumstances is generally straightforward, with just an important detail or two shaded or withheld in just the right way so as to trick the reader/detective. In The Erasers, however, the details central to solving the case are not withheld in the usual way (through the lies of a character, or the ignorance of a detective, or the one missing piece of crucial evidence), but in a new way: the narrative itself reflects the necessary travails of a mind attempting to construct a reality: the prose is a maze, made up of various perspectives and retellings of the same events: the mystery is solved only through the proper dissection of the small differences in each perspective’s details, which then leads to the knowledge of what exactly is fact in this story and what is fiction.

In addition to this device of narrative repetition, which is central to the book, the descriptive details Robbe-Grillet chooses to employ often provoke repetitive imagery. The streets - up and down which Wallas walks, lost - are indistinguishable from one another, and can be seen as a reflection of the labyrinth the author has created with his new style of storytelling. The reader can get easily lost when traveling the avenues of this book, just as Wallas gets lost traveling the avenues of Paris. As for Wallas, it is important to pay attention to the signs that are provided, and to put them to memory.

(For the interested reader, this narrative philosophy of repetition, in keeping with form, repeats itself in Robbe-Grillet’s work: he later wrote a book titled Repetitions; he also wrote a book called In The Labyrinth.)

There is not much else I can say about this beautifully artistic book. It does not lend itself readily to book review-type analysis. It can only really be praised or pissed on. It is not at all hard to read - I try to focus in these reviews on literary novels that everyone can enjoy - but it does demand the reader’s attention, as the mysteries presented are not plainly solved in the book. You may find yourself flipping back to previous sections for purposes of clarification, but in this case this is not a frustrating thing - it is a bit like taking on a riddle you know you can solve if you put in the little bit of effort required. The work, then, becomes very enjoyable, and pays its own rewards. You’ll see, when you get to those famous words at the end of The Erasers: "I’m the manager. I’m the manager. The manager. I’m the manager...the manager...the manager..."

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Books Read in May

Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coelho

This is the only book of his I have read, and now, having read it, I have no desire to read his others. It is agonizingly simple, and the moral message it communicates - life is what we make of it! - makes the reader, in addition to the hero Veronika, decide it is time to die. The spare simplicity of the prose is efffective in that it makes the book a quick read, and prevents prolongued suffering, but there is little positive to say beyond this. At one time in my life, I was sure I was going to read The Alchemist, which has been praised and bought the world over. Now, having seen his way of thinking and writing, I am not so sure.

Alice's Adventure in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

In my opinion, the absolute greatest children's book ever written. As I suggest in my review of The Erasers for this month, this book was perhaps a precursor to modernism, with its inventive wordplays, its authorial self-insertions, and its linguistic inquiries into sense and reality. Read the Penguin Classics edition to get the notes with the text - the complexity of Carroll's thought is amazing, though the downside of such scholarship is that it ruins some of the magical mystery of the book. If you haven't read Wonderland since you were a kid, or have never read it at all, get to it. Without a doubt, one of my favorites in any genre.

The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

I have never liked Hemingway. Being a fan of such authors as Joyce and Nabokov and Coover, I have always admired rich and playful prose. Hemingway's writing style, which did win him the Nobel, is quite the opposite: sparse and tense, short and declarative, owing much to his days as a journalist. In addition, his stories have centered too much on man's battle with masculinity. I have little patience for a character or a writer whose thinking is defined by his sex. It is very antiquarian to me, and indicative of a destitute philosophy. But this book, which I only read because I could finish it in two hours and at the same time add to my collection of evidence against Hemingway, somehow won me over. Though the conversations between the old man and the boy are stiflingly stiff and unnatural, the story is astute, perceptive, and ultimately profound. (Not to mention utterly heartshattering.) I was even impressed with the prose - that is, I never noticed, as I usually do with Hemingway, that I wasn't enjoying it. I can see why this book, written just before he won the Nobel, is considered to be the reason for his winning it.

Utopia, Sir Thomas More

Everyone knows the word, but few know the work. More's Utopia, which, as a book, is only a shell for an idea and not at all compelling as a story, is the description of a fictional ideal nation, as told by a gentleman who visited it. Though More's vision of perfection has proved a lasting one - his ideas are still the basis for much of utopian literature - it begs, in our day and age, for improvements. More's Utopia, though no man goes wanting and all religions are tolerated (national qualities foreign even to Americans), has plenty of flaws: man still has to be governed by laws, the breaking of which result either in slavery or death; the legal order is patriarchal, and just as the children are subject to their parents, so is the wife subject to her husband; and war, though used only as a last resort, and conducted when it must be resorted to in the friendliest and most thoughtful manner, is still prepared for and carried out. For the most part, however, the ideas are thought-provoking and still relevant. More's attention to detail is careful and considered, and all areas of life seem accounted for. Not as much a fun read as a necessary one - if only for the sake of knowing what we could be capable of as a society.

My two favorite lines from the book: "...the most wicked are always the most obstinate..." (p. 73); and "...both priests and people...acknowledge God to be the author and governor of the world, and the fountain of all the good they receive, and therefore offer up to him their thanksgiving; and in particular bless Him for His goodness in ordering it so, that they are born under the happiest government in the world, and are of a religion which they hope is the truest of all others: but if they are mistaken, and if there is either a better government or a religion more acceptable to God, they implore His goodness to let them know it, vowing that they resolve to follow him withersoever He leads them." (p. 81) Both page citations are from the 1997 Dover edition.

The Tale of the Unknown Island, Jose Saramago

A great tale of imagination by the Nobel winner. It would take me as long to write a review for it as it would take you to read it, so I'll just leave it at that, and let you enjoy if you decide to this nice story of making the impossible possible.

Public Enemy, Aaron McGruder

The latest collection from my favorite comic strip creator. Tearing apart pop culture and American policy with equal deft, these strips are the sharpest critiques available of modern American life. Warning: Not compatible with conservatism.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Literary Word of the Month


According to dictionary.com: the appearance in consciousness of memory images which are not recognized as such but which appear as original creations.

The word cryptomnesia has lately resurfaced in literary circles due to allegations that Vladimir Nabokov plagiarized Lolita. In Berlin, around the time Nabokov was living there (some 30 years before he wrote his most famous book), a short story was written in which a young girl, named Lolita, becomes an older man's object of desire. Though there are a few similarities between Heinz von Lichberg's Lolita and Nabokov's, the differences are too great to accuse Nabokov of plagiarism. (The first Lolita, after all, is only a few pages in length - Nabokov's is a novel over 300.) To explain the coincidences between the two works, and the fact that Nabokov very well might have read this story, having lived in the same Berlin community in which this story was produced, and around the same time, the word cryptomnesia has been employed. In short, it has been suggested that Nabokov did read the early Lolita and simply forgot about it - which is possible, considering it is very short and in addition poorly written - and that the later appearance of Lolita in his mind seemed to him wholly original.

It's a very interesting debate, and a very interesting word. For more, click here.

For the Carolyn Kunin translation of von Lichberg's Lolita, click here.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

May's Book: Stepmother, by Robert Coover

I first came across this nerveless novella -- 90 pages long, no more than 30,000 words - while shelving fiction at Changing Hands. It's a physically very pretty book -- you can't help but adore the jacketless forest green hardcover, decorated as it is with two identical silver trees, in the shared leaves of which the title is boldly printed (also in silver), and between the trunks of which a diamond-shaped full-color picture floats, as if by magic. In the picture: a crowned and veiled queen with an emotionless look and a pointing finger; the orange hair, right ear, and naked right shoulder of some girl who the queen seems to be pointing at and whispering to; three dull green doves flying above them, one of them upside down; and the sharp smoking flames in the background with which all the action is concerned. (Is the mystery girl burning?) The book cover's two trees each hold a branch to the picture, as if presenting it in tandem to the prospective reader. Above the branches, also floating, the author's name. It feels like the introduction to a grand production; and looking at the picture on this eye-catching cover, one feels as though one is getting an early glimpse of what's on the other side of the curtain: danger, beauty, loss, mystery, magic. A place where trees are alive, where identities are concealed, where queens wear skull necklaces. It is an alluring sneak peak, and aroused enough curiosity in this naughty bookstore shelvist to entice me to find a lesser-traveled tract of the store - I won't tell you where - where I could safely explore this strange McSweeney's offering.

At the top of page 1, you get the first of 13 illustrations, all drawn by Michael Kupperman. Kupperman's famous style, as seen in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Barron's, and more, is again on vibrant display. He has an uncanny knack for creating vivid two- or three-color scenes -- he is primarily known as a comic book creator -- and, indeed, the full-color cover aside, all the illustrations in Stepmother are composed in shades and combinations of black and red: black trees, red sky; black castles, red lips; black nail-studded barrels with white maidens inside gushing rivers of bright red blood into a bright red pool. This last unsettling image is the first, the one that greets the reader at the top of page 1. And the book doesn't relent; it is violent throughout: another picture shows an index finger and thumb delicately holding a tiny pale pink baby -- as one might hold a gummy bear -- and an open, expectant mouth, into which the baby is going to be tossed; another shows a man curled up in a hole in a tree, a stain of blood about his pelvis, a trail of red drops marking his passage to the tree, and an approaching witch stirring something in a pot; and these illustrations are faithful to the words on the pages. It is provocative art; it is provocative writing. It is even perverse. There are rapes, there are mutilations, there are executions. There is torture, nudity, masochism. But in all this, like in Lolita, beginning on the very first page, there is interwoven an incredible beauty, an undeniable compassion, a heartdeep understanding of the philosophy of this dark fairy tale land that is perhaps not so far, far away.

Lolita. For those who have read Nabokov's soul-shaking novel of obsession and beauty, the idea of pretty perversity is nothing new. In that book, the narrator, Humbert Humbert, explains his pedophilia with such tenderness, such grace, such gentle passion and honest pain, that one finds it nearly impossible to hate him, despite his horrific deeds (which culminate in a murder the reader wants him to commit). Vanity Fair called Lolita "The only convincing love story of our century" -- never mind that Humbert's love was focused on a preteen, founded on pure lust, and ultimately unreciprocated. The testament of Lolita (it contains no descriptions of sexual acts, no cusswords, no directly expressed vulgarities) lies precisely in its ability to make us sing such high praises as those sung by Vanity Fair. We are reading about illegalities, immoralities, and condemning them, but all the same we are thoroughly enchanted. We can't put the damn book down. We feel as though some spell has been cast. And indeed, one has. Because, despite everything, it is a convincing love story -- a love story more beautiful, more painful (for us as well as Humbert), and more honest, than any we can remember reading -- and only magic seems able to explain for it.

Such is the case with Stepmother. It is a tale of passion and pain, poetically rendered. "Look at it this way, love, I tell her: no more slops to empty." This is the heartwrenching opening sentence, spoken by the title character (and primary narrator) to her daughter, who has been captured and awaits execution. "Of course," begins the second paragraph, "the child, naked and spread-eagled and shackled to the floor below me, expects me to get her out of this somehow. I'm a witch, I should be able to do something." After exhausting such options as magic rings and slippers (which have been misplaced or stolen), unbreakable wands (which have been broken), spells (which have been forgotten), and an invisible cloak (which is full of holes), the witch/stepmother finally does do something, and the two of them manage to escape into Reaper's Woods. And so, by simple turns of magic, certain suffering and death is (for now) avoided -- let the fairy tale begin.

Coover has reworked fairy tales before. One example is Briar Rose, a Sleeping Beauty spin published in 1997, which is so beautiful and compelling that upon finishing it, the reader, rather than close the covers and set the book down, flips back to the first page to read the whole thing over again. The reader will do the same with Stepmother. This book, quietly published last year by McSweeney's (a publishing company founded by Dave Eggers, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize finalist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), follows the path of Briar Rose (even through the figurative thorn bushes: namely, the risks inherent in any literary reworking) and fills the footprints quite nicely - even exceeds them.

And Stepmother, like Briar Rose, claims no title for itself; it fits no one genre. It contains allegorical elements, but is much more than allegory. It is bitingly satirical, but its target, even if we think it specifically marked, remains broad and general - it is directed, upon reflection, at all of humankind. There are aspects of the tall tale, expressed mainly through descriptions of the Old Soldier, who has a list of amazing accomplishments to his penniless name. It is a fairy tale, as squeezed and twisted as it may be. But above all, it is simply a story: it comes with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and is complete with the compelling characters to guide you through it. It is a story that is at once literary and massively appealing (though the masses know nothing of it). A story that shuns modern stylistic trends (see Jonathan Safran Foer) in favor of sparklingly pure tale-telling. A story whose every word is simultaneously dark and delightful.

A story, finally, that deserves to be called supreme literature, and that may very well stand alone at the top of my favorite books list at the end of this year.

Books Read in April

Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The classic novella from one of the greatest writers ever. A two-hour read, and well worth it, if only because of its status. The dinner scene in which the nameless narrator gets drunk and embarrasses himself is one of my favorites in all of literature. I recommend the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Not as good as his wife's book (The History of Love, listed below), but original and worth reading. The first serious fiction to center itself around the tragedy and aftermath of 9/11. The primary narrator, Oskar Schell, doesn't deserve the Huck Finn comparisons some have given him, but he is an original and entertaining American kid nonetheless. I suggest reading this and The History of Love back-to-back. Krauss and Safran Foer are clearly literature's new first couple.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

A wonderful story about Leo Gursky, an aging and morbid man who knows nothing of the impact he's left on the world, and Alma, a fourteen-year-old girl who is testament to that impact and who is also every bit as original and compelling - and not quite as annoying - as Safran Foer's Oskar (see above). At times tender and tragic, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, this book, with its tones that seem soft and loud at the same time, reminds me of a yelled whisper, or a muted cymbal clap. Indeed, both the story in the book and the book itself contain this characteristic of being quietly loud: in the former case, when dealing in the narrative with the expanse and effects of love and literature; in the latter case, when arguing for its place on the modern literary bookshelf. In both instances, the passionately subdued style pays off. A fresh voice is added to the eternal conversation on love and loss and the power of writing, and we have another fine book for our bookshelf. (I find Krauss fits very snugly between Barbara Kingsolver and Maxine Kumin.)

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

The first book in seven years by the author of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. Will be reviewed for July. Due in stores July 19th.

Mary, Vladimir Nabokov

The first novel by my favorite author, written some 80 years ago. A very straightforward story about a soldier living in a pension in Germany with a handful of comical Russian emigres. A rather simple book, given Nabokov's reputation for trickery and wordplay - gives no indication of the literary genius that would later produce Lolita and Pale Fire (both of which are regularly included among the best books of the 20th Century), and is even at times a slow read. Worth it, however, if you like the author's later work. It is interesting to see how some of the themes common in his writing, such as displacement and love, were first expressed.

Spanking the Maid, Robert Coover

The only book of Coover's to make Harold Bloom's western canon. I think other Coover books are at least as good as this one, if not better, but I won't fuss. Bloom is one man with one opinion, and we could debate his selections forever. This very fine literary novella revolves around the daily routines of a master and his maid. Each morning, the maid enters the master's bedroom with the intention of finally achieving perfection in her work. The master, haunted every night by nightmares, is forced to discipline her when she fails. I won't say any more for fear of taking the enjoyment out of this sinister tale, except to tell you that things get worse and worse...and the master and his maid might even enjoy it.

Lady into Fox, David Garnett

The second straight McSweeney's publication I've read that's been great (see this month's review of Stepmother for the other one) - I was getting scared they were moving in the wrong direction, but perhaps I was wrong. At any rate, this publication - a resurrection of a 1922 novel by David Garnett, who slept his way into the famous Bloomsbury Group (and then married that lover's daughter, who was also a member) - is a great read whether you seek literary satisfaction or quick entertainment. The story is that of a man whose wife turns into a fox, and the struggles - social, sexual, religious, etc. - that he endures as he copes with his wife's new form. As his wife gets closer and closer to the true nature of a fox - that is, wilder and wilder, by a human's estimation - his struggles intensify. The book reads something like a fable, but feel no need to derive a moral from this story. It is simply fun storytelling, and quick, too. It's another novella - I've read a few in this form this month - and would be perfect for a short plane ride or a long lunch.

Literary Word of the Month


Changing the class of a word - such as from a noun to a verb - usually for figurative purposes. The word teeth, for example, is a noun. But, when prefixed with de-, it becomes a verb:

"I'll deteeth thy mouth."
(Jason to Shakespeare, in a bar late last Friday, after the Bard gave him the figo.)

Post-lesson quiz:
Can you spot the unitalicized (and perhaps poor) use of anthimeria in this post? Enduring wisdom will be rewarded to all who answer correctly.