June 2008

St. Rita's Earth
Photo by jeroen020 used under a Creative Commons license.

Rex Pickett, Sideways (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004).
Two friends, Miles and Jack, head up to the wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley, in Santa Barbara County, California, for one last singles weekend before Jack gets married. Miles, not really rebounding from a divorce and unsuccessful as a novelist, is an oenophile; Jack, a moderately successful actor, is looking to party before he settles down. This book was made into the Paul Giamatti movie that depressed sales of merlot, but there’s more here that was left on the cutting-room floor when the film was made, and there are some differences as well. This novel doesn’t need to be aged to be enjoyed, but it’s not plonk either.

Here is Google Book Search. Sheridan Sawyer didn’t like it. Nor did LaShawn. Media Kitten liked it. Liane Schmidt liked it, and more than the movie. WhiplashGirlchild disagrees. So does Liz Miller (Bookslut), who is really impressed by the adaptation. Mo Pie takes a mixed view. I think Colophon liked it. Daphne Charette interviewed Pickett. So did W. Blake Gray (San Francisco Chronicle). Or listen to this piece about him on NPR’s Fresh Air. Patrick S. Pemberton profiled Pickett after the movie’s success. The movie spawned a wine club, which offers this map (.pdf) of the route Miles and Jack took in the movie and travel recommendations.
Beth Adele Long finds Pickett going after Stephen King.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Storms, Osage County, Oklahoma
Photo of Osage County, Okla., by Wade From Oklahoma used under a Creative Commons license.

Richard Rhodes, The Inland Ground (University Press of Kansas, 1991).
A collection of essays generally grounded in Missouri and Kansas. There are pieces here, among others, about: Jesse Howard, the signpainter of Fulton, Mo.; riding a diesel freight train to Gridley, Kan.; Independence, Mo.; the Unity School of Practical Christianity in Lee’s Summit, Mo.; coyote hunting in Portis, Kan.; Kansas City (“Cupcake Land”); a 6,000-acre wheat farm in Beloit, Kan.; Dwight Eisenhower; the I-D Packing Company of Des Moines; the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; the annual dances of the Osage Indians in Pawhuska, Grayhorse, and Hominy, Okla., with a detour to the Phillips collection in Woolaroc; and the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City. Rhodes substantially revised this book for the 1991 edition, which is the one that I read, and probably the one that you’ll find.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Rhodes. Here is Rhodes’ website. And here is more about Jesse Howard.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Photo by Irina Souiki used under a Creative Commons license.

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (Anchor Books, 1997).
In 1843, a sixteen-year-old maid named Grace Marks was convicted in Toronto of killing her employer and his mistress. Atwood has made these events into a novel, Marks’ story. Her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, Marks is committed to an asylum, where a young doctor visits her, with his own designs on her story. Marks will not surrender her memories easily, though, and the killings and her guilt in them remain enigmatic.

There are all sorts of links and good stuff here — clearly the place to start. Val Ross profiled Atwood for Quill & Quire. Here are reviews and posts by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (The New York Times), Francine Prose (The New York Times), Tom De Haven (Entertainment Weekly), Elga (or Bill?), Dancing Badger, Julie Bowerman, kimbofo, Blue Gal, Stephanie Ayadassen, Lesley, Nicola, Gillian Bouras, Magda Healey, Sam Smith, Susan, Jacalyn Duffin, and annehawk. Laura Miller interviewed Atwood for Salon when Alias Grace was published. Marilyn Snell interviewed her for Mother Jones.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Early Tai-Chi on the Bund
Photo of Shanghai by le niners used under a Creative Commons license.

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (W.W. Norton & Co., 1999).
In Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, Nell Freudenberger recommends this

concise account of China’s transformation from dynastic empire to modern nation-state, beginning with the apogee of Ming power in the late 16th century and ending with the democracy movements of the 1980s. In what ways did the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989 echo the May Fourth movement of intellectuals in the 1920s, or for that matter, the 17th century Ming loyalists? What does the Boxer Rebellion have to do with the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor, in 1911? (What was the Boxer Rebellion again?) Spence answers all the obvious questions in such engaging prose that you feel you’ve lucked into a seminar with the best professor you ever had. He is particularly skilled at illuminating the cultural misunderstandings that have plagued China’s relationship with the West for the last 400 years. . . .

This is not a small book, so you might want to do some weight training before you read it.

Here is Spence’s bio at Yale, and here is a more narrative version at the American Historical Association. Vera Schwarcz reviewed it in The New York Times. So did Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. Here is Richard Seltzer. Reviewing it in the National Review, George Jochnowitz praised the book but picks some bones as well. The book appears on many lists of recommended reading on China, like this one. Here is something like an interview with Hanchao Lu (.pdf). Spence is giving the 2008 Reith lectures; this BBC article discusses him and his work and links to audio recordings of the lectures.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

A Sunburnt Country
Photo of Mutawintji National Park by Beppie K used under a Creative Commons license.

Jack Hodgins, Over 40 in Broken Hill (McClelland & Stewart, 1992).
A travelogue by Hodgins, a Canadian novelist, who took a road trip with Australian writer Roger McDonald. The two planned to drive in McDonald’s one-ton truck through the outback of New South Wales and Queensland, initially to do some research on sheep shearers for a book McDonald was writing (which turned out to be Shearers’ Motel), and then to visit McDonald’s brother on a cattle ranch and lastly to do some camping. In the event, record rains and floods interfered. I picked up this book because I love Shearers’ Motel, and hoped Hodgins would shed more light on that book, but he skipped most of McDonald’s interviews with shearers. Instead, he gives the sort of perspective on the small towns between the long stretches of bitumen in the interior of these two provinces that it takes a foreigner to provide.

Here is biographical information on Hodgins. Wayne Grady wrote this review. Here is more about others of Hodgins’ books. And here is his website.

Buy it through Amazon.com.

kek, zold, taj es templomtorony
Photo of Sopron, Hungary, by molamoni used under a Creative Commons license.

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower (NYRB, 2007).
A lyrical novel of town and country in fin-de-siecle Hungary. Krudy was a prolific writer, and one of the most popular in Hungary in the early twentieth century. (The introduction in the NYRB edition is an article that John Lukacs wrote about Krudy and Sunflower in the New Yorker twenty years ago, quite helpful in giving some sense of Krudy’s place.) Spooked when someone breaks into her Budapest residence, Eveline returns home to her estate in Bujdos, an apparently fictional (as far as I can tell) town in the Nyírség region by the River Tisza in the lowlands of northeast Hungary, where much of the novel takes place. The plot thickens when she is joined by her friend, Malvina Maszkerádi, but this is a book you read not for the plot, but for Krudy’s prose, and also for his sense of a timeless but now vanished nineteenth-century Hungary.

Zoltán András Bán profiled Krudy. This site has more about him. This one, too. John Bátki, the translator of this edition, wrote this piece in Hungarian Literature Online. Here is much more from vackor, Thomas McGonigle, Ray Keenoy, and Carolyn Bánfalvi. And Mark Sarvas interviews Arthur Phillips about Krudy and Sandor Márai.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Iowa Barn
Photo by Astrotech5000 used under a Creative Commons license.

Wallace Stegner, Remembering Laughter (Penguin, 1996).
Stegner’s first novel – or novella, really – is the story of a love triangle: Margaret Stuart, the wife of a successful Iowa farmer, Elspeth, her sister, younger by seven years, who comes from Scotland to live with her, and Alec, her husband, who is fond of the bottle. Stegner wrote this in 1936 and submitted to a prize contest held by Little, Brown, which he won; they published it the next year. Stegner was born in Iowa but his family decamped to Sasketchawan when he was still a child, so one can argue whether he can be deemed an Iowa writer.

Here is Stegner’s obituary in The New York Times. Time took notice when the novella was published. Here is blogarific stuff from Themis-Athena, Elaine, and Polaris.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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