September 2008

steppa anatolica
Photo by Norte_it [Dario J Laganà] used under a Creative Commons license.

Yashar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk (NYRB, 2005).
Writing in Salon‘s Literary Guide to the World, Michelle Goldberg recommends this 1955 novel by Kemal, a Kurdish writer:

Conservative Islam is barely a factor at all in the rural world of one of Turkey’s most famous novels, . . . [a] Robin Hood story that reads like an epic folk tale [and] . . . seems to take place far from the modern world. It’s the tale of Memed, a poor, fatherless boy, who, tormented by a sadistic feudal landlord, grows up to be a legendary brigand striving for justice and revenge. Kemal’s language immerses readers in Anatolian village life; it can be alternately sublime and cheerfully ribald. I love this offhand exchange between an innkeeper and a friendly old man:

“Loudly enough for the innkeeper to hear from where he was scurrying to and fro, the old man shouted: ‘There’s that pimp who calls himself an innkeeper. Go and tell him your troubles.’

“The innkeeper heard and laughed. ‘Listen, if you’re looking for a pimp, the real chief of all pimps is that white-beard by your side. His beard has grown white from his misdeeds!’

” ‘Look,’ said the old man, ‘you pimp-in-chief, these young men want a bed.'”

I haven’t read it, but NYRB’s imprimatur is usually a good enough reason to read a book. It is the first of four novels with Memet as a protagonist.

Here is a bio of Kemal. Here is his Wikipedia page. Perhaps this is the author’s site, or a fan’s site. Google BookSearch offers a preview. Buce says it’s the best book he’s ever read about banditry. Amitabha Mukerjee read it in one night, from midnight to seven in the morning. Jeremy Orhan Simer sees in Kemal’s prose a love for the landscape and people of the Taurus Mountains. Kemal has a fan at orbis quintus. In 1961, Time‘s reviewer says readers may forget that the action happens in the twentieth century.

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Cloud theater
Photo by dsearls used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hendrie, Stygo (Scribner, 1995).
Nine interconnected stories sent in a (fictional) town in Bent County, in southeast Colorado.  This is the Colorado of the Great Plains,a small town surrounded by fields of sugar beets and corn. Everyone dreams of leaving, but few break away.

Google BookSearch gives you a preview — you can read the first two stories, “Stygo At Night” and “Armadillo.” This librarian (Judy?) in Salida, Colorado, was thoroughly impressed. Jessica Dineen (Ploughshares) says Hendrie describes a bleak town and its inhabitants with astoundingly beautiful clarity. The Colonel stakes his reputation as a reader on it. In the Boston Review, Hendrie reviewed fiction by Kent Haruf, also set in eastern Colorado. This fellow chauffeured Hendrie around Tucson.

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Disabled in love
Photo by O’mages used under a Creative Commons license.

Geoff Dyer, Paris Trance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
A tale of two couples, expats in Paris. Luke moves there from England to write a novel, a plan never acted upon, and finds work at a warehouse, where he meets another Englishman, Alex. Luke soon starts seeing Nicole, a student from Belgrade, and Alex woos Sahra, an American translator. Over the next year, the four live in the moment, a glorious but doomed interregnum between their lives before and what comes after, timeless in the moment and brief in retrospect. It would be difficult to cover this ground without acknowledging Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as Dyer does from the outset, but this is not derivative.

This page offers a bio of Dyer and some perspective on his work. The Complete Review’s page has links to reviews and other good stuff and the CR’s own review, which calls it deceptively simple and straightforward. Daniel Mendelsohn (The New York Times) says it offers compelling and beautiful moments but doesn’t ultimately work, but that even this relative failure is entrancing. Walter Kirn (New York) says imitating Fitzgerald is a loser’s game. Greg Bottoms (Salon) says if Milan Kundera rendered a “Friends” episode, it might look something like this. James Sallis (Washington Post) says it leaves an ache that can’t be located or named. Likewise, Tom Nolan (San Francisco Chronicle) calls it haunting. Gerald Houghton says it’s one of those French movies about flighty young things who drink, fight and fuck too much. Ruby Khan says the tragic love is what’s most compelling. Richard Wallace (Seattle Times) says the whole effort feels like a hardworking writer’s summer vacation. Paul calls it unfinished and pedestrian. James Lomex calls it a mediation on relationships and happiness. The formatting makes it tough to read, but here is a 1999 interview with Dyer in LA Weekly about the book. Olivia Giovetti interviewed Dyer last year. Eight years ago, the Complete Review looked for Dyer on the internet.

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Vermont state fair, 1941
Photo of a barker at the 1941 Vermont State Fair by Jack Delano used under a Creative Commons license.

Frank Howard Mosher, The Fall of the Year (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
At the heart of this novel are Father George Lecoeur, a baseball-playing outdoorsman of a Catholic priest, and his adopted son, Frank Bennett, a 21-year-old come home to Kingdom County, Vermont, for the summer before he starts at seminary.  Kingdom County is a fictional place tucked under the border with Quebec in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, a boundary that feels here like a frontier.  Lecoeur and Bennett are surrounded by wonderful characters such Foster Boy Dufresne, the town fool, and Molly Murphy, who dreams of running away with the circus.  Mosher makes his story seem deceptively simple, writing with a wry grace.

Google BookSearch has a preview. Wikipedia’s page about Mosher is brief. Here is what Mosher was reading a few summers ago. This book doesn’t have the reviews it deserves!

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Hendrick's Head
Photo by Just-Us-3 used under a Creative Commons license.

Geoffrey Wolff, The Edge of Maine (National Geographic, 2005).
A light stew of travelogue, memoir and history of the coast of Maine, focused mostly on the mid-coast north and south of Bath, where Wolff recently moved after years of visiting the state. Topics include: sailing in fog in the Gulf of Maine; the ill-fated Popham Colony of 1607; tensions between year-round residents, wealthy visitors and absentee landowners; ship-building; Seguin lighthouse; the secrets of lobsters; and the nineteenth-century trade in Kennebec River ice. Wolff doesn’t develop any of these topics enough to make you an expert, but he doesn’t bore, either.

Here is a bio of Wolff. The New York Times ran this brief note about Wolff earlier this year, and this article by Francine Prose about Wolff and his brother, Tobias Wolff, in 1989. Ann Geracimos (The Washington Times) calls the book a more conventional but no less enticing homage to the coast of Maine. Ann Patchett found it riveting. Jennifer found a copy in Blue Hill, Maine, and says it precisely described where she was standing. Here is The Friends of Seguin Island Lighthouse Website. And Snopes debunks a funny story about a nautical encounter that appears in the book.

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Tokyo night
Photo by kamoda used under a Creative Commons license.

David Mitchell, Number9Dream (Random House, 2003).
This is the story of Eiji Miyake, a naif from a small, rural island who heads to Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never met and whose name he does not even know. But Tokyo is a big city, and his father apparently does not want to be found. Eiji’s quest, a coming of age tale, involves navigating the mundane challenges of the big city, like finding a room and a job, and less typical obstacles, like a yakuza power struggle. Mitchell, who lived in Hiroshima for eight years, works in stories within stories, from Eiji’s daydreams to a diary of a WWII submariner. Like Tokyo, this book is chaotic, crowded and overflowing, a mix of styles, sometimes over-the-top and sometimes affecting.

Here is a relatively thorough bio of Mitchell. Here is the Complete Review’s page for the book, with links to several published reviews and more, and a review of its own. Robert MacFarlane (Observer) writes that the most engaging character in it is the city of Tokyo itself. Joy Press (The Village Voice) says it’s show-offy fiction on a bad hair day. Troy Patterson (Entertainment Weekly) calls it a grand blur of overwhelming sensation. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) calls it a messy hodgepodge. Simon McLeish says it reminded him of early Iain Banks, John Barth and James Joyce. Nicholas Pang thinks Mitchell out-Murakamis Murakami. Sam North very much disagrees, as does Khadka. Ashok K. Banker (BlogCritics) says it’s an American novel, set in Japan with Japanese characters. (But Mitchell is English….) Japanese bookstore staffer haginotani says Mitchell’s experiences in Japan resonate in it. Sten Tamkivi found a cliché-ridden way of describing the book’s stylistic mix. Scott Esposito says it reminds him most of Mitchell’s next novel, Cloud Atlas. Francisco Manzo was hooked until he finished it. DreamQueen is head-over-heels for Mitchell’s work. Patrick was underwhelmed. RedHeadRambles says too many digressions saps its momentum; simplegirl agrees. Perpetual Shotgun likes those digressions. Joanna thought, what the hell is going on? Andrew Woodrow Butcher believes it’ll all fall together on his second reading. Ken-Ichi posted some favorite passages. Karen Templer loves the book’s design. Thomas has more to say about the design of different editions. Toh Hsien Min interviewed Mitchell (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore) in early 2002, soon after Number9Dream was released. Here is another interview, with Ron Hogan, from around that time in Beatrice. Nihongo interviewed Mitchell about his time in Hiroshima.

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Anne Brontë's grave
Photo by lant_70 used under a Creative Commons license.

Daniel Hahn and Nicholas Robins, eds., The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain & Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2008).
In his review in the Financial Times, Mark Ford writes:

This wonderfully informative volume, published in 1977 and now fully updated to include references to recent books such as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane , has entries on every town or district that has ever enjoyed even 15 minutes of literary fame, or played any part in the biography of a celebrated writer. Its photographs are fascinating too: Mrs Conrad serving Joseph tea in his study at Orlestone, Brendan Behan in his cups at the Fitzroy Tavern, PG Wodehouse proudly behind the wheel of his motor outside Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk.

The book is arranged in alphabetical order within geographical sections. It opens with Adlestrop. Edward Thomas’s 16-line poem named after the tiny town where his train stopped one late June afternoon captures much about our fascination with the connections between names and places. Steam hisses, there is not a soul on the bare platform: “What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name.” But as he recalls the moment, he remembers also that during the minute his train stopped there

A blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The mixture of the banal and the mythical evoked in Adlestrop is in many ways akin to that experienced by today’s literary pilgrim: here we are in Max Gate, in Haworth Parsonage, in Dove Cottage, in search of some ineffable spirit of the writer, of the nation itself. And yet we’re surrounded by other tourists, listening to a guide who tells us Dorothy Wordsworth had wooden teeth, and half- wondering what postcards to buy.

You can read all of Ford’s review here. (One minor mistake in it: The co-author’s name is Nicholas Robins, not Rolin.) This is the third edition; the first edition was published three decades ago.

Here is Hahn’s bio. Here is the publisher’s description. Toby Barnard (Times (UK>) writes that conjurors of place through words are the business of this Guide. Patricia Craig (The Irish Times) is generally positive but notes that parts of Ireland come in for cursory treatment. Sam Jordison (The Guardian) says it’s a treasure trove of anecdotes, quotes obscure and reassuringly familiar, odd poetry and literary pub trivia. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) says it delivers an addictive tour of the topography of the word. According to Roy Johnson, it’s packed with little gems.

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