June 2009

Cross Row
Photo by hamner.jonathan used under a Creative Commons license.

Ian Frazier, On The Rez (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).
Frazier met Le War Lance while he was writing a book about the Great Plains, named — bien sur — Great Plains, in which Lance had a minor part in an ensemble cast.   In that book, Frazier roamed all over the American West; here, he settles into the Oglala Sioux reservation, Pine Ridge, in southwestern South Dakota.  Frazier’s style is rambling and digressive.  Stick around until the end of the book to read about SuAnne Marie Big Crow, a Lakota basketball star, whose story could be a book in itself.

Wikipedia’s bio of Frazier is better than nothing. Try this introduction instead. Outside has links to other Frazier writing.  Google BookSearch offers a preview. Much (most?) of the book appeared as this article in The Atlantic.  The New York Times has Chapter One.  Hardy Green (Business Week) calls it a demanding and puzzling book, with a strange and unsatisfying conclusion.  Candace B. Moonshower (Pif) says it’s the best sort of storytelling.  Jody Keisner (Studies in the Humanities) criticizes Frazier for usurping Native American writers.  Diane L. Schirf calls it rambling and spontaneous, like reservation life. Charles Taylor (Salon) says Frazier gets at the texture of life in a way that a sociological analysis into the place of the Indian in contemporary America never would.  Christine Gray (Washington Monthly) thinks Frazier’s title is misleading. Richard Meyers (A Journal of Native American Studies) says Frazier flirts with enlightenment.  Tracy Kidder (The New York Times) says it’s propelled by small surprises, a sense of impending revelation, and the pleasure of keeping company with Frazier’s voice.  Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) says the problem with it is that Frazier never comes to terms with the disparity between his romanticized dream of Indian life and the often discouraging facts of day-to-day life “on the rez.”  Sherman Alexie says Frazier marks himself as an outsider eager to portray himself as an insider.  Jason Roberts interviewed Frazier for The Believer.  Listen to this interview on NPR.  Read about SuAnne Big Crow here.  And here is an exchange of letters about the accuracy of part of Frazier’s account.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

 The Sydney Opera House
Photo by Ohm17 used under a Creative Commons license.

Peter Carey, 30 Days in Sydney (Bloomsbury, 2001).
Carey, a prodigal son who had lived in New York City for ten years, was commissioned to return to Sydney for a month.  His notion was to ask friends for stories of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and that is what he gives the reader, though the book is subtitled “A wildly distorted account,” and it is hard to say whether it is fiction or non-fiction or to know whose stories they are.  Though the result is unconventional, these stories express much of the place.     

Rebecca Vaughan of Flinders University has a useful Carey site.  Here is Carey’s site and here is his Wikipedia page.  Perry Middlemiss has the first paragraphs, and an impressive array of Carey links. The New Statesman has several paragraphs more.  According to Phillip Knightley (The Independent), Poms looking to have their prejudices about Australians confirmed will both love and hate this brilliant, eccentric book.  Peter Conrad (The Guardian) says Carey’s approach is partial, peripheral and ultimately frustrating, and that the book evokes Sydney flats which, unable to boast harbour views, are said by the anxious estate agents to possess ‘harbour glimpses’.  Bibliofemme calls it a great story and a sensory experience.  Jeff VanderMeer says it’s raucous and raw and full of wonderful details, one of the coolest little nonfiction books he’s read in recent years.  Gary Krist (The New York Times) says this frank and restless book percolates with ambivalence, evincing a complicated attitude toward everything from the language used by Australian airline employees to the oddly genial attitude of Sydney’s bike thieves.  Peter Porter (The Spectator) says Sydneysiders are inveterate nourishers of their local legends, the majority of which are self-serving, and the book perpetuates some of the most venial of them, though it gives them a high-gloss magical polish.  Kristen Conard says don’t pick this up if you are looking for dry facts and a straightforward narrative; pick it up if you want to be enchanted with Sydney, with history, with people and with story-telling.  Deacon liked it as unlike other travel writing.  And Dina wishes she was Australian but doesn’t think she’d like the book.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Photo of Budapest by Panoramas used under a Creative Commons license.

Anna Porter, The Storyteller (Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 2006).
A memoir of Porter’s childhood in Hungary, and a remembrance of her grandfather, Vili Rácz, for whom the book is named. Born Anna Szigethy in 1944, Porter grew up in Budapest until her family emigrated to New Zealand after the 1956 revolution. Rácz was something of a renaissance man, an athlete and an intellectual, and the publisher of magazines and newspapers until the Communists seized what assets survived the war. He loved Hungary’s history and culture, and he loved to walk through Budapest with Porter and tell her stories. Here too are the tales of the three Rácz daughters, of the struggle to survive under Stalinist rule, and of centuries of Hungary’s struggles with powerful neighbors – Turks, Hapsburgs and Soviets – and Rácz stands amid all these stories.

Here are a bio posted by her publisher and another brief profile. Here is a profile of Porter by Jessica de Mello. Historia liked it. Linda Richards interviewed Porter for January Magazine upon the publication of The Storyteller. Jessica de Mello interviewed her for The Danforth Review upon the publication of a more recent book.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Sydney skyline
Photo of Sydney by sachman75 used under a Creative Commons license.

Richard Flanagan, The Unknown Terrorist (Grove Press, 2007).
The Doll is a pole dancer from Sydney’s western suburbs who makes good money and is saving it — or what she doesn’t spend on designer clothes — to buy an apartment and a better life. When she appears on surveillance videotape with a suspected terrorist, she becomes a suspect herself, the subject of a media frenzy, and unwillingly assumes a new identity. The action ranges across Sydney, from Bondi Beach to Kings Cross to the western suburbs, and while many of the post-9/11 themes will be familiar to Americans, it is very much a novel of Australia.

Wikipedia’s page on Flanagan is rather brief.  NPR has an excerpt.  Google Book Search offers a preview and links.  The book’s site has a trailer (!) and more.  Peter Conrad (The Guardian) says it’s all so vividly local that English readers might feel the need for a glossary.  Ivar Hagendoorn particularly loved Flanagan’s depiction of the seamy, gritty streets of downtown Sydney.  Jesse Kornbluth calls it one of the most exciting thrillers he’s read in the last few years, a novel you can’t put down.  James Ley (The Age) says it’s a morality tale with massive pretensions.  Magdalena Ball calls it a perfect example of why polemic and fiction do not combine well.  But Simon Butler says Ball’s criticism is misplaced, that it’s not a polemic but a clever work of fiction.  Uzodinma Iweala (The New York Times) says it mocks the thriller genre even as it fulfills its expectations.  David Marr (Sydney Morning Herald) thinks disbelief begins to undermine the narrative.  John Tague (The Independent) likes Flanagan to an Old Testament prophet shouting confrontational truths in the wilderness.  Christopher Sorrentino (Bookforum) says it rides along on the edge of hysteria, perhaps too stridently so.  James Buchan (The Guardian) calls it a terrific novel maintained at fever heat.  Kimbofo says it’s a genuinely intelligent thriller with beautifully written prose.  Gabriela Zabala-Notaras and Ismet Redzovic call it an unconvincing and poor effort that doesn’t work on any level.  John Freeman (Boston Globe) says it’s not a very good novel.  Damien Gay says the story is particularly relevant.  Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) sees a brilliant meditation upon the post-9/11 world.  C.B. James was reminded of John LeCarré.  Laurence Phelan (The Independent) has the sense that this might just be the book that best describes the grim, sad farce that is our times.  Redhead Ramble thought it too pretentious.  Richard Whittaker (The Austin Chronicle) calls it unapologetically Australian.  Jerome Weeks (SF Chronicle) says it’s a suspense thriller with a heart of bitter satire.  This Melbourne blogger calls it absolutely the best Australian novel he (she?) has read.  Jake Seliger thought it not worth reading.  DrVJ calls it a decent read.  Kerryn was disappointed.  Derek says it’s a disaster.  But timmyk at Kos is a big fan. Flanagan explains why he wrote the book in the Tasmanian Times.  You can listen to Ramona Koval’s interview with Flanagan about the book or read the transcript.  Kerry O’Brien interviewed Flanagan for the 7:30 Report.  Or listen to Flanagan’s appearance on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Central 6 coventry
Photo by davespilbrow used under a Creative Commons license.

George Eliot, Middlemarch (Everyman’s Library, 1991).
Sub-titled “A Study in Provincial Life,” the novel is set in a fictional provincial town based on Coventry, where Eliot lived when she was young.  This grand tale of life in the provinces is set in the late 1820s, though she wrote it fifty years later.  At the center of a large cast of characters are Dorothea Brooke, a idealistic and strong-minded young woman with designs to do good work, and Tertius Lydgate, a naive and ambitious young doctor.  Both enter into ill-advised marriages, frustrating their hopes, and both chafe under the constraints of Middlemarch society, which is not an abstract thing but a cast of well-drawn characters with their own stories.  (This is not a short novel.)     

Wikipedia’s entry about the novel is quite detailed, and its entry on Eliot is also worthwhile.  Here is another Eliot bio.  Google Book Search lets you read some of it.  LibriVox has links to text and acoustic recordings of the novel.  AS Byatt calls it arguably the greatest English novel.  The Complete Review calls it a muddled but grand panoramic novel.  Kevin Hartnett calls it a monument to the fraught lives of women and men.  Edward Tanguay says it teaches you how to see detail again.  Gareth Jenkins (Socialist Review) lauds the novel’s enduring conviction that struggle is needed to bring about a new world.  Trish liked Eliot’s flawed characters.  Magistra muses about male reputation.  Sheila O’Malley says it’s about an entire society and a culture.  Lyza Danger Gardner sees a world in the book.  Linera Lucas has become atuned to Eliot’s fine, wry sense of proportion.  Marta was left wistful and melancholy.  Jandy thinks it needs an editor.  Arukiyomi agrees that it’s too long.  Jessica promises it is worth the work.  Ubaid Dogar finds it odd.  It fell flat for Julie.  Susan loved it.  It’s one of the best books Mrs Walker has read.  Writing about Eliot for The Atlantic in 1873 (via Powell’s), Arthur George Sedgwick was more tempted to admire silently than to criticise at all.  Another 1873 reviewer (Galaxy) called it a treasure-house of details, but an indifferent whole.  An 1871 reviewer (The Guardian) called it an intellectual gift.  Pamela Moore takes a medical perspective.  Artes Perditae collects many wonderful lines. Here is an on-line guide at the University of Virginia meant as an introduction to Middlemarch commentary and criticism.  Ken Thompson writes about Middlemarch‘s marriages.  And Azra Raza has Eliot’s darker side.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Photo by m4r00n3d used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn (Little, Brown, 2006).
Private detective Jackson Brodie makes a return appearance (we met him first in Case Histories), this time in Edinburgh, where his girlfriend Julia is appearing in a Fringe Festival production.  Brodie is witness to a routine fender-bender which turns ugly, and the chain of events it touches off are hardly mundane.  As trouble ensues, Atkinson switches the point of view repeatedly between strangers whom events have thrust together, including Edinburgh police inspector Louise Monroe.  The result is perhaps more literary than most mysteries, with an emphasis on character development and dialogue.  A genre-bender, and my favorite of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books.

Google Book Search gives you a preview.  Janet Maslin (The New York Times) says Atkinson’s characters are all interestingly off-balance.  Liesl Schillinger (The New York Times) calls Atkinson’s writing bleakly funny.  Laura Miller (Salon) savored the tart, quirky character portraits.  It’s the most complicated plot Becky has encountered in a long time.  Justine Jordan (The Guardian) says Atkinson interweaves stories with panache.  Nancy Fontaine compares it to a rich, chocolate dessert.  Cate Ross was reminded of the ourobouros (careful: spoilers).  Mary Whipple smiled at the plotting and twists of fate.  Amanda Craig (The Independent) says Atkinson is splendid at the stuff of people’s lives.  Dana Kletter (The San Francisco Chronicle) says a melancholic atmosphere pervades the novel.  Claudia FitzHerbert (The Telegraph) calls it an action-packed cartoon of a book in a flimsy throwaway frame.  Norah Piehl says crime-novel purists would not call it a mystery.  B. Morrison found it confusing but still a good read.  C. Max Magee calls it antic and madcap.  Veronique De Turenne (NPR) calls it a Rubik’s Cube of a book.  W.R. Greer calls it one fine novel.  It knocked off Thomas Pynchon in the 2007 Tournament of Books. David Thayer says great swathes of it are fun to read, others are frustrating.  Ellen liked unexpected twists and turns.  Mel says Atkinson’s stories begin like shattered vases, but then they fit together.  Sam Sattler says the story is bigger than the sum of its parts.  Ladyslott calls it a very enjoyable and literary mystery.  The Nag is one of several to liken the plot to matryoshka nesting dolls.  Sam Smith calls it a book about coincidences.  Jenny says it revolves around coincidences.  Chris Marshall calls it a load of rubbish.  Jo calls it brilliant.  Shelly says it’s not a traditional mystery.  Margaret likes Atkinson’s gently amusing detachment.  Atkinson is asked about her portrayal of Edinburgh in this interview on NPR.  Listen to Atkinson read from the book on KQED.  Or listen to Atkinson discuss the book on the Bat Segundo Show.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Reconfiguration of Landscapes, no. 2
Etching by jessica ann mills used under a Creative Commons license.

Ladette Randolph, This Is Not The Tropics (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
Writing about Nebraska in Salon’s Literary Guide to the World, Meghan Daum says:

In many ways, Lincoln is a small town that has grown too large for itself, its railroading and agricultural roots having given way to McMansions and superstores that now stretch its borders for miles in every direction. But its original neighborhoods, many of which are clustered around the state capitol and the University of Nebraska campus, have a historic feel that manages to be stately and earthy at the same time. It is here that many of Ladette Randolph’s stories take place. In the tense, subtly suspenseful “The Girls,” a college student entrusted with her professor’s dogs discovers a quietly disturbing world inside his house. Another story, “Miss Kielbasa,” plumbs the strange rituals of a small rural town that holds an annual drag queen pageant, all the while examining a young woman’s anxiety over her impending interracial marriage.

Here is a brief bio of Randolph at the Nebraska Center for Writers.  Her website is here, with links and other content.  Randolph was profiled by the Boston Phoenix when she became the editor of Ploughshares.  Google Book Search offers a preview.  Here is the publisher’s description.  This Is Not The Tropics won the 2006 Nebraska Book Award for fiction (.pdf).  Felicia Sullivan says it’s the finest collection she has seen in years, stories that aren’t flashy or over-indulgent, but quiet and subtle and completely heartbreaking.  Randolph was interviewed by Andrew at Emerson College.  Randolph’s essay, “Our Infamous Failure,” is drawn from a memoir-in-progress.  Here is a useful resource for finding other Nebraska authors, courtesy of Meredith M. of the Lincoln City Libraries.  And if you’re in Lincoln and need to find a good book store, this might be the place.

Buy it at Amazon.com.