Dorothy’s recent post led me to an article by Hermione Lee reviewing recent books written about novels. I was a bit surprised by the review of John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, because I read the book a couple of months ago. It wasn’t a heavyweight, enchanting page-turner, like Hermione’s recent 900 page biography of Edith Wharton. It was rather fun, and had many interesting digressions into the whole world of the novel and the reader.

Ms. Lee’s point about the book’s title is valid- it is, admittedly misleading. Sutherland’s first sentence states “An alternative title for this book might be ‘Reading in an Age of Plenty’ or, more eye-catchingly, ‘Reading through the Avalanche’.” Her comment that the novel should have been called “How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It,” simply has nothing to do with the content of the book. Methinks she must have some ax to grind. Sutherland’s premise that there are a deluge of novels in today’s world and that the reader should spend some time choosing what to read next is valid. I think that is clearly in evidence based on the number of bloggers consistently discussing their growing TBR piles.

Lee states-

The book is full of tips, thought necessary in today’s “mind-boggling” age of fiction overload, for finding out quickly whether a novel might be to your taste: “Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.” “If a book has chapter titles, then they are worth scanning before purchase.” On no account read every word, there simply isn’t time: “surf and zap…concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.” If a book is difficult, go for the movie: “It helps get into the book version of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl…to have seen the films first.”

The page 69 trick, attributed in the book to Marshall McLuhan, was stated by Sutherland in this way-

“For the unprofessional searcher for the best novel to read, word-of-mouth, intuition, powerful browsing and McLuhan’s page 69 test remain the soundest first moves. At the very least, you will make your own mistakes.”

“On no account, read every word. There simply isn’t time.” – note the lack of quotes- in the article. These are Lee’s words, not Sutherland’s. The surf and zap statement was written in this context-

“‘I’ve read the newspaper’, we say, meaning ‘I’ve glanced at the headlines, scanned the letter page. decided not to bother with the editorials, looked up the soccer results and taken in my favorite columnist.’ You can gut novels the same way- but it is hardly ‘reading’…. Nowadays, it seems to me, something like the ‘surf and zap’ approach is required. As with satellite tv and its hundred of channels, one has to skim through, stop where it seems interesting, zap the commercials and other impertinent material, concentrate from time to time where the offering seems genuinely interesting.”

Here is Mr. Sutherland’s words regarding reading a novel-

“Two more humble assumptions are constant: 1)Novels are things to be enjoyed; 2)the better we read them, the more enjoyment we will derive from them. A clever engagement with a novel is, in my opinion, one of the more noble functions of human intelligence. Reading is not a spectator sport, but a participatory activity. Done well, a good reading is as creditable as a 10-scoring high dive. It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well.”

The movie statement is out of context as well. Please allow me to add some context:

“films…can serve as useful gateways to fiction- especially demanding fiction. It helps get into the book version of Henry Jame’s The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl -two of the more demanding novels in the canon – to have seen the 1997 and 2000 films first.
But here too, you should be careful. One of the disadvantages of viewing, or previewing, a screen version of a novel, is that you can ‘fix’ your mental imagery too rigidly – infringe your privilege as a reader of casting the parts, setting the scene and playing out the narrative yourself.
Who, for example, when embarking on their annual reading of Pride and Prejudice wants, every year, to have the nipples and wet shirt of Colin Firth intruding between them and the picture of Darcy evoked by the text?”

There is more to be said, but I won’t belabor the point. I’m disappointed in Hermione Lee. I actually had the Edith Wharton biography in my hand last weekend, but opted for something else because it seemed a little intimidating at the time. I have read good things about her Virginia Woolf biography as well. But having read this crappy spin she put on another’s efforts, I’m doubt I will give her a chance.

Sutherland’s book wasn’t great, but it delivered what it was intended to, and it didn’t deserve this attack. I found it interesting, and rather enjoyed it.

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I completed The Curtain this weekend, as well as Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert, which I will write about later. The Curtain was not only entertaining, but thought-provoking, and has sent me in search of his earlier book, The Art of the Novel.

Kundera writes about the novelist, and primarily the novel and its history, expanding at times to include the arts in general. His framework for the discussions include aspects of the context of the novel- within the history of a small nation as opposed to its place in world literature- (would the world even know of Kafka if he had written in the Czech language?).

When discussing the novelist, Kundera points to Cervantes as the example of the true novelist. In the paragraph which led to the title of the book, he writes-

“A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes send Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.”

Kundera uses much of the world’s best literature to make his points. He does not see the novel as entertainment, but as a vehicle for the author to reveal not only an aspect of the world to the reader, but to reveal the reader to himself. He makes me want to read some of those books that I’ve avoided because they appear daunting. (Musil’s The Man Without Qualities for example. Kundera makes me want to reread those masterpieces that I have already read.

I love the way the book ends (I don’t think this will ruin it for anyone- it’s not that type of book)

“In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal.”

The Curtain – Part I

April 11, 2007

This is likely to burst your collective bubbles, but I have submitted my application to the Olympic commitee for selection as the “official amateur internet-based best book picker of the 2010 winter Olympics.” You are welcome to submit an application, but choosing to read Milan Kindera’s The Curtain is likely to give me a lock on the honor.

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The Curtain, billed as “an essay in seven parts,” is the latest of Kundera’s writings on the art of the novel. I’ve only completed part one of the seven, but if the remaining six parts are as interesting as the first, I will likely have material for another six posts. Every page includes as least one quote that would serve as a “quote of the day” for a reading blog. There are also quite a few plot spoilers that I will avoid revealing, but if you haven’t read Don Quixote, The Idiot, or Anna Karenina, you may wish to avoid this book until you do. I suspect there will be other spoilers throughout the book.

Part 1 is titled “The Consciousness of Continuity,” and deals primarily with the history of art, and more specifically with the history of the novel. The history of the novel is very different than other histories. Kundera illustrated his point with the example of Doctor A inventing and ingenious method of treating an illness. Ten years later, Doctor B invents a better method, and Doctor A’s treatment is abandoned and forgotten. Thus the history of science has the nature of progress.-

“Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert’s poetics do not devalue Balzac’s, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.”

On the other hand, Kundera makes the point that we have a “consciousness of continuity.” I had to think about this one for a while to validate it- A Beethoven piece written today would be “considered ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous.” As a Beethoven fan, this was difficult to swallow, but I think it is true. Do you think War and Peace could get published today? I think it is true that we do read within the context of history.

Kundera’s final point in this section is that art does not accept repitition.

“Art isn’t there to be some great mirror registering all of History’s ups and downs, variations, endless repititions. Art is not a village band marching dutifully along at History’s heels. It is there to create its own history. What will ultimately remain of Europe is not its repetitive history, which in itself represents no value. The one thing that has some chance of enduring is the history of its arts.”

Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is the story of young immigrant trying to find her place in 1980s America, but it also the story of every young person trying to fit in at a time and place where differences were more often than not used as a weapon rather than something to be celebrated. We should be grateful that Bich eventually found her place and has recorded her story in this well-written and touching memoir.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Bich arrived in Michigan in 1975 from Saigon by way of a refugee camp Arkansas. It was her grandmother’s choice based on rumours passing through the camp about the three options- California (warm, but the most lunatics), Wyoming (cowboys), and Michigan (the blank unknown). They arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes- a humble new beginning for a family of Vietnamese Buddhists in city of tall blond conservative Christians.

Food is central tool throughout the story. A canister of Pringles potato chips or the smell of a hot pan of Tollhouse cookies, juxtaposed over the lot line with cha gio or banh chung, serves as a constant reminder throughout the memoir of the cultural differences impacting this young girl and her family making their way in a strange, sometimes hostile place.

It is not difficult to imagine the struggles, the fear, and the pain of growing up as an immigrant in a “sea of blond.” School years are difficult enough for anyone who stands out as different from the norm. Kids can be, well, downright mean. Things as simple as bringing the wrong lunch to school, or not having the right clothes can lead to sleepless nights. And for Bich, it wasn’t just the kids. As a lover of words and spelling, she won a spelling contest.

That afternoon as I started toward home I remembered that I’d forgotten my rain boots in my locker. I doubled back to school and overheard Mrs. Andersen in the classroom talking to another teacher. “Can you believe it,” she was saying. “A foreigner winning our spelling bee?”

This is not a memoir of complaints. Bich describes it best herself-

I think of this memoir as an homage to childhood, suburbia, and all the bad food, fashion, music, and hair of the deep 1980’s. It is also about an immigrant’s dilemma to blend in or remain apart.

I admit that this book touched my on several levels- I grew up in the same area and many of the settings throughout the book are familiar. I went through school in the 1970’s and still clearly remember some of the struggles and pain caused by the slightest difference from the norm. I believe today we are a more aware and accepting of diversity. This is a first book, but is very well written, and does an excellent job of capturing the challenge for a large group immigrants at a difficult period in our history.

This weekend I was on a quest to spend a $50 Amazon certificate that I earned as a reward on my credit card. (Great way to assuage the guilt of excessive buying- I now pay for all my groceries, gas, utilities- virtually everything that I can with a credit card to get the rewards. It consolidates a lot of payments as well.) Anyway, I went to the canongate site to see if any new books were out in the awesome myth series (there were two).

——— if you are easily offended, please don’t read on —-

Well, I got to the site and they are advertising The Book of Lists. The advertisement changes to a random list each time that one visits. When I arrived at the site of course the lead is “6 Positions for Sexual Intercourse – in Order of Popularity.” Not what I was looking for, but curiosity got the better of me and I clicked the link. Pretty boring list, but what what was interesting was the lead statement- “Gershon Legman, an American who wrote about sex, calculated that there are more than 4 million possible ways for men and women to have sexual intercourse with each other.” I started thinking and counting, thinking some more and counting some more. I worked on my list for hours, and quit in frustration at 2,423. I’m sorry Mr. Legman, but I think you are mistaken.

I regret the wasted time but moved on to the literature lists, a couple of which are enjoyable. “6 curious poetry anthologies” included this book of poetry, which I found after a bit of a search on a ping pong museum auction site. The book sold for a little over $200.
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The next list was “11 incredible lipograms.” Not having a clue what a lipogram was, I had to check it out. Now I know:

A form of verbal gymnastics, lipograms are written works that deliberately omit a certain letter of the alphabet by avoiding all words that include that letter. `Lipo’ actually means `lacking’ – in this case lacking a letter. An example of a contemporary lipogram is the nursery rhyme, `Mary Had a Little Lamb’, rewritten without the letter s:

Mary had a little lamb
With fleece a pale white hue,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb kept her in view;
To academe he went with her,
Illegal, and quite rare;
It made the children laugh and play
To view a lamb in there.

– A. Ross Eckler

Turns out there are 11 books out there that were intentionally written with one or more letters of the alphabet missing. I have read one of them, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea“. In this book, more and more letters are eliminated as the novel progresses. It was fun, although increasing difficult to read.

The last list I checked out was “8 unlikely how-to books.” Hard to believe, but How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art is a legitimate manual- Nice gift idea for those that take long hikes in the wilderness. And for the less skillful boaters out there, how about “How to Avoid Huge Ships“. Again, a serious book written by Captain John W Trimmer, a captain likely tired of dealing with silliness on the seas.

I did end up buying the latest books in the myth series, and managed it before my April 1 deadline. Now I start actually keeping track on my blog of my purchases and borrowing in relation to my actual reading. I’m hoping with the count continually in front of me, I can stop the tide of books waiting to be read.

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Like the majority of those that are likely to be reading this, I continually struggle with a growing pile of books, purchased and borrowed, waiting to be read. I know there have even been times when I have left a bookstore with a book that wasn’t something I was looking for, but I couldn’t leave without buying something. Arg. I have to find a way to stop.

My latest purchase is a book I look forward to reading. It is not likely to become a bestseller, but it looks interesting. I stumbled on this memoir as I was browsing for something a little lighter to read.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir written by Bich Minh Nguyen. At an early age Bich left Vietnam in 1975 with her family and migrated to the U.S. I’ve just started the book, but I am confident that I am going to enjoy it.

I wrote that I stumbled on the book, but I actually was drawn to it. Which leads me to a few comments about another book that I recently completed, How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. I picked up Sutherland’s book and was pleasantly surprised by the content- it is very different than most other “how to read” books. Sutherland, the chairman of the 2005 Man Booker Prize committee, writes about the entire reading experience, beginning with the reader’s process of selection.

Everything about the reader’s book selection process is discussed, and for those of us with little experience or knowledge of the book world, Sutherland provides interesting insights into the book industry. I was surprised to learn that as much as a quarter of the production costs on a hardback novel can be sunk into the dust cover. Thinking back to my purchase of the Bich memoir, that was what obviously first caught my attention- a picture of many of my favorite treats from my “coming of age” years, led me to check out the title, “Sharing Buddha’s Dinner” – (what could that possibly refer to?)

“Titles” is the title of another chapter in the Sutherland book. Again a surprise. “There is, oddly, no copyright in titles…. such duplication is infrequent – librarians, booksellers, authors, and readers themselves dislike it too much. It creates confusion.” Knowing about the lack of title copyrights cleared up a bit of confusion since I believe I have run across duplicates on occasion, and I always assumed I was mistaken.

Sutherland goes on to discuss things as mundane as the impact of the typeface, to the branding value of a well-known author’s name and the value of the blurbs written by other authors that appear on the back of the book. Hardback or Paperback. Famous first lines. The value of reviews. Illustrations. Bestsellers. Prize winners. Sutherland has an opinion on all and expresses it with humor without getting tedious. This is an very different and interesting discussion of reading and books, and it is thoroughly enjoyable.

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Now, back to what really sold me on the Bich memoir. I picked it up and the read the overleaf. It turns out that the author, after leaving Saigon in 1975, landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan- about 25 miles from me. That brought it close to home. (along with the very vivid memory of watching the news and seeing that last helicopter leaving the roof of the US embassy in Saigon with a few people grasping the landing gear, trying to hold on.) The chapter titles are awesome- A memoir of an immigrant who describes her experiences of starting life in a new world shouldn’t have chapter titles like “Pringles,” “Toll House Cookies,” “Moon Cakes,” and “Dairy Cones.” Turn the page and there is a photo of 2 very cute young girls, standing on a sidewalk in front of a couple of feet of snow, wearing what looks to be pajama bottoms, winter coats, and fuzzy slippers. A reading of the first sentence made it a no brainer for me-
“We arrived in Grand Rapids with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes.” How could I put it back on the shelf? I already care about them.

Back to my personal problem. I need to alter the trend and stop the book accumulation. I keep making promises to myself- things like reading 3 books for every one that I purchase, or reading one book off the shelf before I can by another. I even had a New Year’s resolution one year not to buy a single book for a year. That lasted about a month. Plan #14 is to provide some accountability. I’m simply going to read more than I borrow or buy. But I’m going to actually track that progress here, in the sidebar, for all the world to see. Just a simple count of books purchased, books borrowed, and books read. Maybe if I keep it in front of me, I can succeed. I’ll start in April- that gives me a few days to pick up a hold at the library and make sure there isn’t a “must-have” on the new release shelf at Barnes & Noble.

A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel is a fascinating blog in print. Alberto rereads a dozen of his favorite books over the period of a year, and relates them to his daily life and memories. The diary is filled with delightful digressions of his own as well as other authors- authors that are well know and authors that are rarely read. His plan in his own words-

“A couple of years ago, after my 53rd birthday, I decided to reread a few of my favorite old books, and I was struck, once again, by how their many-layered and complex worlds of the past seemed to reflect the dismal chaos of the world I was living in. A passage in a novel would suddenly illuminate an article in the daily paper; a half forgotten episode would be recalled by a certain scene; a single word would prompt a long reflection. I decided to keep a record of those moments.

It occurred to me then that, rereading a book a month, I might complete, in a year, something of a personal diary and a commonplace book; a volume of notes, reflections, impressions of travel, sketches of friends, of events public and private, all elicited by my reading. I made a list of what the chosen books would be. It seemed important, for balance, that there be a little of everything.”

This is one of those books that you can pick up at any time and read a chapter, or a page. The chapters are simply titled by month, and sectioned off by days of the week, or points during the day- each documenting a thought or a moment or a meaningful quote. I love this type of book. The books chosen are eclectic, as intended. But it is not the books themselves that seem important- but the impact on the thoughts and life of the author and those in his life.

One of the books- The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, described as “the perfect book to read when it is raining,” prompting this observation-

“I imagine a volume of memoirs in the style of one of those bookbags that travelers used to carry with them centuries ago. An account of my life through the books I have read in the places I have visited. A task for my afterlife.”

The same volume prompted this quote from Sterne in Tristram Shandy.

“Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”

This quote alone increased my anticipation to read Tristram Shandy- I picked up an old Heritage Press copy on eBay this week.

This book is a joy to read and could easily serve as something of a manual for book-bloggers. If you like this type of book, I highly recommend this one.

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