Category Archives: books

Creeping and boiling

Then the cannon-ball smashed through the window-sill, the opened glass panes shattering into fragments with a crash.  The ball itself rolled on until the stone wall stopped it with a heavy thud, then it burst into pieces, and a creeping gray smoke came boiling out.

I have a lot of issues with this passage.

First of all, it seems like the cannonball smashed through the window, not the windowsill.  As for the panes — if the cannonball smashed through them, doesn’t that mean they were closed, not open?  How would they shatter if not into fragments?  I object, too, to the “with a [sound effect]” construction being used in two consecutive sentences, especially given that the chosen sound effect (“crash,” “thud”) is the most obvious choice in both cases.  The second sentence has too many different actions carried out by too many different objects (the ball, the wall, then the ball again, then the smoke.)  The smoke — is it creeping or boiling?  By my lights it can’t be both.

The lines are from Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy novel which despite this paragraph has a lot of good things about it. and which won this year’s Nebula Award.

Two idiosyncratic reactions:

  • Agnieszka’s magic is set up as being the inheritance of Baba Jaga, a kind of intuitive, sing-songy, kitcheny kind of magic, explicitly opposed to the formal, rule-governed spell-casting of Sarkan, the broody sorcery dude who kidnaps, then mentors, then eventually falls in love with her.  This works well in the story, but I’m not on board with the suggestion that formal, rule-governed manipulation is a masculine activity that needs a feminine complement in order to achieve its full power.  Math has an improvisational, intuitive aspect, to be sure; but that aspect, like the formal aspect, belongs to men and women equally.
  • Weird feature of this book:  its setting is a magical version of Poland, and Agnieszka is explicitly presented as being “rooted” in the village, the hearth, the homeland; this is, in part the source of her power.  Sarkan, by contrast, is explicitly “rootless” — without a connection of his own to the land, he has to feed on the young women of the village, one after another, cutting their connection to the village and leaving them sort of ruined, suited only for big-city life.  So my mind naturally wanders to the question of “what group of people were thought of in rural Eastern Europe as rootless cosmopolitans who hide out behind walls looking at books all day and who corrupt our women and we just have to accept it because they have access to mysterious secret powers?”  Now maybe I’m overthinking this, but I do have to point out that after I noticed this I looked up Novik on Wikipedia, and her mother is Polish and her father is Jewish.  Make of it what you will.

 

 

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Ferrante and juxtaposition

Most of the way through the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay.  A central figure is the juxtaposition.  The special power that an artist has, in Ferrante, is to put things beside each other which are not ordinarily beside each other; or, to put it another way, to place distant entities into contact.  But it’s inevitable that the ability to do so also makes natural boundaries more permeable.  It becomes more difficult to keep what’s inside separate from what’s outside.  This creates problems.

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Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl is an oral history of the atomic disaster and its aftermath, by Svetlana Alexievich,the first journalist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  (Steinbeck maybe?  But he didn’t win on his journalism.)

Nina Konstantinovnva, a literature teacher:

I teach Russian literature to kids who are not like the kids I taught ten years ago.  They are constantly seeing someone or something get buried, get placed underground.  Houses and trees, everything gets buried.  If they stand in line for fifteen, twenty minutes, some of them start fainting, their noses bleed.  You can’t surprise them with anything and you can’t make them happy.  They’re always tired and sleepy.  Their faces are pale and gray.  They don’t play and they don’t fool around.  If they fight or accidentally break a window, the teachers are pleased.  We don’t yell at them, because they’re not like kids.  And they’re growing so slowly.  You ask them to repeat something during a lesson, and the child can’t, it gets to the point where you simply ask him to repeat a sentence, and he can’t.  You want to ask him, “Where are you?  Where?”

Major Oleg Pavlov, a helicopter pilot:

Every April 26 we get together, the guys who were there.  We remember how it was.  You were a soldier, at war, you were necessary.  We forget the bad parts and remember that.  We remember that they couldn’t have made it without us.  Our system, it’s a military system, essentially, and it works great in emergencies.  You’re finally free there, and necessary.  Freedom!  And in those times the Russian shows how great he is.  How unique.  We’ll never be Dutch or German.  And we’ll never have proper asphalt or manicured lawns.  But there’ll always be plenty of heroes.

Translated by Keith Gessen.

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The Story of a New Name

2016 reading project is to have more than half my reading be books in translation.  So far this has translated into reading Ferrante after Ferrante.  Not really feeling equal to the task of writing about these books, which color everything else around them while you read.  The struggle to be the protagonist of your own story.  Gatsby is a snapshot of it, Ferrante is a movie of it.

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Marilyn Sachs, Amy and Laura, how to date a Communist

While I was in Seattle for the Joint Meeting, I stopped in to see my cousin Marilyn Sachs, the children’s author, who’s now 88.  She signed a copy of CJ’s favorite book of hers, Amy and Laura.  I re-read it on the plane and it made me cry just like it did when I was a kid.

We talked about writing and the past.  She and her husband, Morris, started dating in 1946, in Brooklyn.  Morris had recently returned from the war in the Pacific and was a Communist.  He thought movies were too expensive, so on their dates they went block to block ringing doorbells, trying to get signatures on a petition demanding that the Dodgers bring up Jackie Robinson from their minor-league affiliate in Montreal.  Now that is how you date, young people.

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Obscure novels that are great

I was thinking about the amazing and barely read here TRIOMF, by Marlene van Niekerk, and asked on Twitter:  what are novels you think are truly great and which nobody knows about?  Like, say, less than 10 Amazon reviews, to use an imperfect measure?

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Anthony Trollope’s preternatural power

Simon Winchester in today’s New York Times Book Review:

Traveling in China back in the early 1990s, I was waiting for my westbound train to take on water at a lonely halt in the Taklamakan Desert when a young Chinese woman tapped me on the shoulder, asked if I spoke English and, further, if I knew anything of Anthony Trollope. I was quite taken aback. Trollope here? A million miles from anywhere? I mumbled an incredulous, “Yes, I know a bit” — whereupon, in a brisk and businesslike manner, she declared that the train would remain at the oasis for the next, let me see, 27 minutes, and in that time would I kindly answer as many of her questions as possible about plot and character development in “The Eustace Diamonds”?

Ever since that encounter, I’ve been fully convinced of China’s perpetual and preternatural power to astonish, amaze and delight.

It doesn’t actually seem that preternatural to me that a young, presumably educated woman read a novel and liked it.  What he should have been convinced of is Anthony Trollope’s perpetual and preternatural power to astonish, amaze and delight people separated from him by vast spans of culture and time.  “The Eustace Diamonds” is ace.  Probably “He Knew He Was Right” or “Can You Forgive Her?” (my own first Trollope) are better places to start.  Free Gutenbergs of both here.  Was any other Victorian novelist great enough to have the Pet Shop Boys name a song after one of their books?  No.  None other was so great.

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“Losers often grow up to be writers”

My first cousin once removed Marilyn Sachs, on writing:

One final word of encouragement to those of you who are cowardly, cry babies, and liars, as I was. These are extremely promising qualities for future writers. If you are a coward, you will probably spend more time at the library than you would ordinarily, and if you tell lies, it just shows that you have an imagination even if others don’t always appreciate it. Cry babies tend to be sensitive, which is also a plus for writers. When I grew up, I found that I had become a great expert on bullies, and my books are full of them.

So, don’t feel you have to be smart, beautiful, brave and popular to become a writer. Or even to be a good speller. Losers often grow up to be writers, which means we have the final word.

Her books are mostly for kids.  Have you read them, parents?  Some of the classics:  Laura’s Luck (1965), my favorite alienated-kids-at-summer-camp book.  The Fat Girl (1984), a truly creepy YA novel about brutal psychosexual guerilla war in high school.  The Bear’s House (1972).  I remember almost nothing about this but just hearing the title makes me choke up so I know it was really sad.

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Rachel Kushner (w/ comma poll)

From Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers:

I realized I’d been wrong.  She was not the pedigreed rich.  He was and she was not.  Sometimes all the information is there in the first five minutes, laid out for inspection. Then it goes away, gets suppressed as a matter of pragmatism. It’s too much to know a lot about strangers. But some don’t end up strangers. They end up closer, and you had your five minutes to see what they were really like and you missed it.

This is great!  My one question is about the commas in the last sentence.  If it had been me I probably would have omitted the comma after “closer,” but I sort of think Kushner’s version is better.  Then I wonder:  what about leaving the one after “closer” and adding another after “like”?

Hey, this is a good opportunity for a poll!  I’ve never put one in here before, let’s give this new WordPress functionality a swing.  (Non-standard comma used there on purpose, pedants.)

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A very How Not To Be Wrong Christmas

My bookselling friends tell me that December is the big book-selling month of the year.  (These Census figures show even bigger spikes in January and September, but these are from textbooks, which make up a really big chunk of the total book market.)

And indeed, sales of How Not To Be Wrong shot up in a very satisfactory way during the holiday season; according to Nielsen BookScan, the book sold more copies in the Dec 15-21 week than it had any week since the first month of release in June.  The book also rose up the Amazon rankings; having settled in in the #1500-2000 range for a couple of months, it popped up to around #700, about the same level as August, and stayed there for two weeks.  Two days after Christmas, pop — immedately back down to four digits.  The increase in ranking suggests that How Not To Be Wrong was unusually popular around Christmas, even relative to other books.

One thing I don’t quite get, though; the Kindle edition also got a notable rankings boost in the second half of December, though a bit smaller.  Where is that coming from?  Do people buy books for other people’s Kindles as Christmas presents?

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