Books of The Economist, 22 February 2014 (Can Self Be Any More Behind in Reading

First, a novel. There is usually only one fiction review in each issue of The Economist. This one is in a box — the fact that it is means it must be special.

The Undertaking, by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books) :

  • The best elements of this novel are intrusions of war into the domestic sphere.
  • A German soldier named Peter Ferber enlists the service of a marriage bureau and weds a girl he has never met in order to get home leave.

Next, a book about climate change:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt) :

  • As the climate warms, catastrophe looms. Yet it is oddly pleasurable to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, which offers a ramble through mass extinctions, present and past.  Five such episodes in the past have 450 million years have wiped out plant and animal life on huge scales.

Finally, a biography of an American poet whose name seems to be popping up everywhere these days:

E. E. Cummings:  A Life, by Susan Cheever (Pantheon)

  • It was only in New York that he felt free. Surrounded by writers such as Marianne Moore and Edmund Wilson, and photographers such as Walker Evans, he spent over 40 years in Greenwich Village, living in the same apartment.
  • He wrote nearly 3,000 poems, two novels and four plays, as well as painting portraits.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

How Could You Possibly Expect

How could you possibly expect writing like this in a spy thriller?  Alan Furst’s writing is so good it is impossible to skim:

Spring died early that year, soft rains came and went, the sky turned its fierce French blue only rarely, a mean little wind arrived at dusk and blew papers around the cobbled streets.  The end of April was generally admitted to be triste, only the surrealists liked such unhappy weather, then summer came before anybody was really ready for it.

–  Dark Star, p. 111

 

Paris in DARK STAR/ It is 9/11, Where Do the Years Go

On this day, 13 years ago, self woke ahead of everyone else in her household, and turned the TV on to CNN.  Some stupid pilot — maybe someone who was distracted or who had covered up his incompetence and managed to get a job flying planes anyway — had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings. Later, a second plane crashed, and it was at that moment that self went running to the bedrooms and woke up The Man, woke up Son, and told them, “Something’s happening.” And then all three of us stayed watching in front of the TV, until it was decided that Son would go to school.

Self was teaching a night class in USF, and only much later did she get word that the class would be canceled.

*     *     *     *     *

On pp. 109 – 110 of Alan Furst’s superlative spy novel Dark Star:

The Parisian spring flared to life — one hot morning and all the women were dressed in yellow and green, on the café terraces people laughed at nothing in particular, aromas drifted through the open doors of bistros where the owner’s briard flopped by the cash register, a paw over its nose, dreaming fitfully of stock bones and cheese rinds.

The OPAL network was run from a three-story building near the quai of the canal Saint-Martin and the canal de l’Ourcq, at the tattered edge of the nineteenth arrondissement where the streets around the Porte de Pantin turned to narrow roads leading into the villages of Pantin and Bobigny.  A pulsating, sleepless quartier, home to the city’s slaughterhouses as well as the stylish restaurants of the avenue Jean-Jaures, where partygoing swells often ventured at dawn to eat fillet of beef baked in honey and avoid the tourists and taxi drivers down at Les Halles.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

 

Alan Furst’s Dark Star

Dark Star is the first Alan Furst book she’s ever read, and it’s a mighty good one.

By 1917, when he was 20 years old and had attended three years of university in Cracow, he was a confirmed writer of stories, one of many who came from Odessa — it had something to do with seaports: strange languages, exotic travelers, night bells in the harbor, waves pounding into foam on the rocks and always distance, horizon, the line where sky met water, and just beyond your vision people were doing things you couldn’t imagine.–  p. 56, Dark Star

Is there such a thing as a lyrical spy story? This must be a first. At least in self’s reading life.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Discoveries, First Saturday of September (2014)

Yesterday, while standing at the check-out line in Whole Foods on Jefferson, self saw a CD by Ed Sheeran. She was curious, as apparently he is a great favorite of the writers on fanfiction.net  So she bought his CD and listened to it at home and, you know, it reminds her of old rock. But it’s pleasant. Something new to listen to while driving!

Today was peaceful. She mostly watered.

She’s very much enjoying Dark Star, by Alan Furst. He writes ridiculously well, for someone who writes spy thrillers.

SPOILER ALERT!!!

On p. 52, the hero of the story, Szara, lands in Berlin (after a particularly nasty encounter with some hired assassins — he escapes by the skin of hist teeth). This is what he sees of the city from his hotel room:

Szara stared out a high window, watching umbrellas moving down the street like phantoms. It seemed to him the city’s very own, private weather, for Berliners lived deep inside themselves — it could be felt — where they nourished old insults and humiliated ambitions of every sort, all of it locked up within a courtesy like forged metal and an acid wit that never seemed meant to hurt — it just, apparently by accident, left a little bruise.

Lovely writing, isn’t it?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

DARK STAR, by Alan Furst

Book Jacket, Inside Flap:

1937. Paris. Moscow. Berlin. Prague.

Oooh, self likes!

The next book on self’s reading list after she finishes this one (Hopefully, she will finish this one. Her brain is a little limp right now. She had to return Richard Price’s Lush Life to the Redwood City Library after trying and failing to get past p. 75, for three months) is Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which she hopes isn’t as depressing as Norwegian Wood. Then she’ll tackle a Donna Leon Inspector Brunetti mystery (which are all set in Venice, and why she didn’t manage to read one last year before she was actually in Venice is yet another mystery), then Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (Mr. Fallada doesn’t have to rub it in: Self knows she will die alone. She’s still alive, but it feels as if she’s alone. Alone in her head, that is. Then self starts wondering where her final resting place will be. Not Manila, as it’s simply too polluted. Not Bacolod Memorial Park, because she doesn’t have a plot there. The plots must be expensive. Not Redwood City, her current abode, because no one will visit. She’ll be in a vase, The Man will mis-lay the vase, and then someone will buy their house from son and in cleaning out the garage, will discover the vase, and her ashes will be tossed out, so the vase can be used for something else. Niiiiice!)

Mr. Furst — HALLELUJAH — is a very good writer. Even though Dark Star is labeled a thriller, there is tons of atmosphere. There are urine-soaked allies, and ships moving through storms, and indifferent captains, and all that Bourne-type stuff.

In one scene, our hero (a man named Szara, who so far hasn’t shown any tendencies towards criminality, but whose backstory at this point in time — p. 12 — is still opaque) encounters a mysterious woman. It is always nice to have the option to hang out with mysterious (and also good-looking) women while waiting in some European city to receive one’s next assignment. This is what Tom Cruise does all the time in those Mission Impossible movies:

Szara liked women and they knew it.  All he wanted to do, as the tension left him, was chatter, maybe make her laugh. They were just people, a man and a woman, but she wasn’t buying.  Whatever this was, he thought, it was not an arrest. Very well, then a continuation of the business he did with the NKVD from time to time.  Every journalist, every citizen outside the Soviet Union, had to do that.

The NKVD must be something like the Soviet KGB. Perhaps a precursor?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Sebastian Barry’s THE SECRET SCRIPTURE, p. 75

There’s been a fire in the girls’ wing of an orphanage in Sligo.  The narrator’s father is both a Presbyterian and a rat-catcher, could there be anything else so unholy in Catholic Sligo? One-hundred and twenty-three girls die in the fire.

At the inquest which my father attended, a girl who survived offered an extraordinary explanation for the fire.  She said she had been lying in her bed trying to sleep, facing the old fireplace where a little heap of coals lay smoldering, when she heard a scuffling and a squealing and a little miniature instance of mayhem.  She went up on her elbows the better to see, and it was an animal she said, something thin and galloping like a rat, on fire, his fur burning with unusual venom, running about the room, and setting alight as he went the poor web-thin sheets that graced the girls’ beds, falling in drapes to the bare floor.  And before anyone else knew what was happening, there were little fires burning in a hundred places, and the girl leaped up and called to her sister orphans and fled from the growing inferno.

Turns out the narrator’s father had just been burning rats, earlier that night.

Oh can anyone write like Sebastian Barry?  Self thinks not.

Stay tuned.

Sebastian Barry’s THE SECRET SCRIPTURE, pp. 28 – 30

Must. Get. Through. This. Novel. At. All. Costs.

Because the next novel on her list is Richard Price’s Lush Life.  But she can’t get to it until she finishes this one.  That’s been her vow.  So, this morning, she manfully addresses “the book in question.”

The main protagonist, Roseanne McNulty, is an inmate in a mental hospital.  As she approaches her 100th (!) birthday, her doctor tells her that she may have one chance left for freedom: the old hospital is being torn down, and old records are being examined, hers included.  The doctor has suspected for quite some time that Mrs. McNulty was wrongly institutionalized; she’s not, in other words, mentally defective and neither is she suffering from some psychological disorder.

In the passage self is reading, the doctor decides to confide his thoughts about her incarceration to Mrs. McNulty:

Dread, like a sickness, a memory of a sickness, the first time in many years I had felt it.

“Are you all right, Roseanne?  Please don’t be agitated.”

“Of course I want freedom, Dr. Grene.  But it frightens me.”

“The gaining of freedom,” said Dr. Grene pleasantly, “is always accomplished in an atmosphere of uncertainty.  In this country at least.  Perhaps in all countries.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

“Words With Writers” Interview with Sebastian Barry

Self has decided that her reading list is too bloated.

From now on, or just for the next year anyway, she will read only books by LIVING writers.

Well, that helped.  Self got rid of perhaps 1/3 of the books on her list.

She’s still reading Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.

She decides to look up interviews he’s given, and comes up with a gem on a site called “Words With Writers.”

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

All of us inevitably become experienced in the world, by the mere process of living in it; but my ideal reader perhaps can put aside the cargo of experience somewhat, and access also their original innocence, so that sense is also brought to the book in their lap.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

I very much like the anonymous but astute definition that “a novel is a long piece of prose with something wrong with it.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

2014 Mendocino Writers Conference, July 31 – Aug. 2

The Mendocino Writers Conference starts Thursday, July 31 and runs to Saturday, Aug. 2 at College of the Redwoods in Mendocino.

The conference is now in its 25th year, which is pretty amazing.

Kudos to the Mendocino Art Center folks, who work so tirelessly to Read the rest of this entry »

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