Writer Spotlight: Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami was born in Japan in 1949.   He grew up an only child in the coastal city of Kobe to parents who both taught Japanese literature.  Despite this, Murakami was greatly interested in western literature and counts Raymond Chandler, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Franz Kafka as some of his literature influences.Haruki Murakami by Mark Mussari

Murakami didn’t plan on being a writer.  He owned a jazz club in Tokyo called Peter Cat but at age 29 he sat at his kitchen table and began writing his first novel which would be a great success and the beginning of a prolific literary career.

“I started writing at the kitchen table after midnight. It took ten months to finish that first book; I sent it to a publisher and I got some kind of prize, so it was like a dream—I was surprised to find it happening. But after a moment, I thought, Yes, it’s happened and I’m a writer; why not? It’s that simple.”

Murakami’s style is different from most writers.  He says in his The Art of Fiction No. 182 interview that when he sat down to write that first novel he didn’t know how to go about it.  Since he hadn’t read much Japanese literature he borrowed “the style, structure, everything” from the books he had read, western books, which resulted in his unique style.  This is great advice for all writers who feel they don’t know what they’re doing.  Borrow from the masters.  Murakami describes his style to be most closely the style of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World which is one of my favourite books.

All writers have different ways of getting the work done and the novel on the page.  Some plan every step of the way but Murakami is an example to the contrary.

“When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. I just wait.”

With the exception of Norwegian Wood, which Murakami says was written as a strategic move to appeal to readers preferring a more realistic novel, all his novels are unplanned.  This is pretty amazing once you’ve read one of his novels but he does go on to say that his writing process involves many drafts in which he rewrites sections once the story has revealed itself to him so he can better it.

“In the first draft I didn’t know it was Gotanda. Closer to the end—two-thirds in or so—I knew. When I wrote the second draft I rewrote the Gotanda scenes, knowing it was him.”

This, he says, is the main purpose of revision: “The first draft is messy; I have to revise and revise”.  And he goes through four or five revisions spending about six months writing the first draft and then seven or eight months rewriting.  It is comforting to know that even with his tremendous talent he also has to work hard to produce that wonderful final product.  And work hard he does.  He described the very strict routine he maintains when writing a novel:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

Interestingly, Murakami talked about how your location or writing in a foreign country can have a profound effect on the type of book you write:

“During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That “strangeness” was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel. Come to think of it, if I wrote it in Japan, it might have become a very different book.”

If only Murakami would write a book about writing because he has an incredible perspective that I think is very helpful.  His way of describing how he goes about creating his protagonists is a beautiful example of this and what I found to be an insightful lesson in how we can approach perspective in our writing.

“Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us—the other one—was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven’t seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven’t seen each other for a long time. It’s a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA, we are the same, but our environment has been different. So our way of thinking would be different. Every time I write a book I put my feet in different shoes. Because sometimes I am tired of being myself. This way I can escape. It’s a fantasy. If you can’t have a fantasy, what’s the point of writing a book?”

I highly recommend reading his Art of Fiction interview as he is overflowing with gems like this one.  Murakami, like most writers, is an avid reader.  And like most readers he loves it for the same reason we all do: “That’s the power of the novel—you can go anywhere”.

His novels are a huge hit in Japan and with his work being translated into 50 languages he is a massive international success.  What I find equally admirable is that Murakami’s love for literature extends to the translation of some of the West’s greatest novels into Japanese often for the first time.

If you are interested in reading Murakami, I really enjoyed Book Oblivion’s post on the best way to read Murakami and am following this sequence myself.

Writer Spotlight: Herta Müller

Herta Müller was born in 1953 in Romania.  More specifically, she was born in a German speaking village to Banat Swabian parents placing her within the German minority of Romania which would influence a great deal of her experience of life.

herta muller photo by ulla montan
photo by Ulla Montan

Müller is a novelist, poet, and essayist whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages since the 90s.  To date, she has received more than 20 awards and in 2009 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Upon naming Müller the 2009 laureate she was described by the Swedish Academy as someone “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” The 2009 Nobel Prize coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism and Müller’s publishing house’s head, Michael Krüger, said: “By giving the award to Herta Müller, who grew up in a German-speaking minority in Romania, the committee has recognized an author who refuses to let the inhumane side of life under communism be forgotten”.

Müller lived during the communist regime in Romania which not only impacted her and her family’s lives but her work.

“Müller is noted for her works depicting the effects of violence, cruelty and terror, usually in the setting of Communist Romania under the repressive Nicolae Ceaușescu regime which she has experienced herself. Many of her works are told from the viewpoint of the German minority in Romania and are also a depiction of the modern history of the Germans in the Banat, and Transylvania. Her much acclaimed 2009 novel The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel) portrays the deportation of Romania’s German minority to Stalinist Soviet Gulags during the Soviet occupation of Romania for use as German forced labor.” (Wikipedia)

With regard to personal influences, Müller has described herself as being heavily influenced by her German and Romanian Language and Literature studies which she completed at the West University of Timișoara.  Müller’s relationship with language and words goes deeper than being a writer.  She is multilingual and worked as a translator in the 70s and she has talked about the difference in cultural psychology that can be revealed through language and words.  Reading Müller’s interview for the Paris review, The Art of Fiction No. 225, you begin to get a sense of what it might have been like to live under such an intense dictatorship and suffer a lack of freedom of speech as a lover of language and words.

One particular paragraph struck me because it shows so simply how living under these conditions can change the way you see the world around you.

I still can’t stand the sight of them. Or gladioli. Whenever there was a funeral or a burial of some high-ranking socialist functionary, they always had the same flowers, because those were the flowers that lasted the longest. But I’ve always liked the flowers that wilt quickly, like pansies or lily of the valley or dahlias or phlox, and that don’t let themselves be put to ill use. It’s the same with people—the people who get put to ill use are the ones whose character lends itself to that. People who don’t have those traits to begin with can’t be misused that way. Just like if the carnations and gladioli wilted more quickly, then they wouldn’t wind up inside the wreaths for the party bosses who had just died. But the flowers in the little gardens, the ones that bloom for just a short time—those were the plants of the powerless.
You know you start to get a little kooky when you live so long in a dictatorship.

Everything begins to have connotations.

And you start dividing everything up into what’s on my side and what’s on the side of the state. Even the beach. I used to think to myself, How can the sun be such a traitor? Because Ceauşescu had these villas on the Black Sea, whole stretches of the coastline would be cordoned off when he was there. Or even when he wasn’t, nobody could go there, and I always thought, Why is the sun doing that for him, why is it offering him these beautiful sunsets, doesn’t it see who it’s dealing with, couldn’t it simply refuse and say, I’m not going to do this for him anymore?
But I think this is a common theme in books about oppression. In Jorge Semprún, for example. People in the worst situations wonder how their surroundings can simply look on like that, so indifferent to all the human suffering. And if the oppression is taking place outside under open skies—like a concentration camp—then the whole landscape can seem to be an accomplice.”

Müller’s experience with the communist regime and Ceaușescu’s dictatorship are intimate.  Her grandfather was a wealthy farmer and merchant who had his land and property confiscated by the communist regime.  Her father was a member of the Waffen SS which faught during WWII and was later condemned as a criminal organisation in the Nuremberg trials.  Her mother at age 17 was deported to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union (today Ukraine) from 1945-1950.  And Müller herself was dismissed from her job as a translator in 1979 for refusing to be an informant for the Securitate or the secret police which then continued to harass her.  The Nobel biographical notes write that “because Müller had publicly criticized the dictatorship in Romania, she was prohibited from publishing in her own country”.  All of which must have influenced her work in some way.  The Land of Green Plums (1993) is said to have been written after the death of two friends in which she suspected the involvement of the secret police and one of the characters is based on a good friend of hers from the Aktionsgruppe Banat (read the article).  Strictly true or not, what remains obvious is that Müller’s work is a retelling of some of the horrors endured under Ceaușescu’s regime.

I highly recommend reading Müller’s Paris Review interview, The Art of Fiction No. 225.  I once began reading The Hunger Angel but decided that I was not in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it and put it aside for a later date.  I imagine Müller to be no easy read for it’s content but given the underlying influences of her work it remains important to go there lest we forget the realities that some have lived in our lifetimes.

Writer Spotlight: Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz is a well known Nobel Laureate born in Cairo, Egypt in 1911.  He has written 34 novels and over 350 short stories as well as plays and film scripts over a 70 year career.  He passed away in 2006.  It was his Cairo Trilogy; Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar street that earned him the honour of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988 but his first full length novel was Khufu’s Wisdom published in 1939.  Mahfouz is the Arab world’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner.

In his younger years he is said to have read extensively and credits Hafiz Najib as being his first literary influence.  In the Art of Fiction Echoes of an Autobiography naguib mahfouzNo. 129, Charlotte Shabrawy writes that upon reading Johnson’s Son by Hafiz Najib Mahfouz says his life was changed.  Some of his other literary influences include Taha Husayn and Salama Musa.

Mahfouz attended what is today the Cairo University to study Philosophy.  He abandoned his postgraduate studies and went on to a career in the civil service.  What I find amazing is that Mahfouz never depended on his writing for a living despite being such a prolific and celebrated writer.  He says in Art of Fiction No. 129 that he was always a government employee and, on the contrary, spent on literature.  He only began making money from his writing when his stories began to be translated into English, French, and German.

Mahfouz lived through times of great change and revolution in Egypt.  As a 7 year old boy he witnessed the 1919 revolution against British occupation which also forms the backdrop for his Cairo trilogy.  He saw the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 of which Mahfouz is quoted as saying:  “I was happy with that revolution.  But unfortunately it did not bring about democracy.”  He also experienced World War II during which two of his works; Cairo Modern (1945) and Rhadopis of Nubia (1943) were censored.

Ironically, when he worked as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Arts his novel The Children of Gabelawi (1959) was censored.  In the interview with Shabrawy (The Art of Fiction no. 129) Mahfouz says:

“Even though I was at the time in charge of all artistic censorship, the head of literary censorship advised me not to publish the book in Egypt in order to prevent conflict  with Al-Azhar – the main seat of Islam in Cairo.  It was published in Beirut but not allowed in into Egypt.  This was in 1959, in Nasser’s time.  The book still can’t be bought here.  People smuggle it in.”

Shabrawy then asks Mahfouz if he intended the book to be provocative to which he responded:  “I wanted the book to show that science has a place in society, just as a new religion does, and that science does not necessarily conflict with religious values.”

Unfortunately, with the appearance of The Satanic Verses the controversy surrounding Mahfouz’s novel was brought back up and he started to receive death threats.  He was given police protection but in 1994 an Islamic extremist succeeded in attacking the then 82 year old writer by stabbing him in the neck outside his home in Cairo.  He survived but nerves that affected his right upper arm were permanently damaged leaving him unable to write for more than a few minutes a day.

When it came to his writing habits he wrote from 4 until 7 pm everyday after work and then spent his time reading until 10pm.  Mahfouz describes how much of his work and themes came from the heart with little to no planning while other works, like the Cairo Trilogy, followed extensive research.  One thing Mahfouz is serious about is revision of his work.  Revise and rewrite.  To create art as a writer you must give of yourself, put yourself into your work.

“The writer, you see, is not simply a journalist.  He interweaves a story with his own doubts, questions, and values.  That is art.”

Ultimately, how does Mahfouz describe himself?  “Someone who loves literature…Someone who loves his work more than money or fame…Because I love writing more than anything else.” 



Further reading:

The Art of Fiction no. 129, interview with Naguib Mahfouz

Biography: Naguib Mahfouz by Marcia Lynx Qualey


FBF: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie was published in 1981 and was awarded the Booker and James Tait Memorial Black Prizes of the same year.  Later, the novel went on to win the Booker of Bookers twice.  Midnight’s Children is a highly acclaimed novel and a classic in literature.  Midnight's Children

In an interview with John Mullan for the Guardian, Rushdie talked about how he started writing the book and how he came to find his own voice upon discovering the voice of his main character Saleem:

“One day in 1976 – I’m no longer certain of the date – a young, unsuccessful writer wrestling with an enormous and still intractable story decided to start again, this time using a first-person narrator. On that day, much of what is now the beginning of Midnight’s Children was written. “I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time.” “Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came.” “Handcuffed to history.” “Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon.” I can still summon up the feeling of exhilaration that came over me as I discovered Saleem Sinai’s voice, and in doing so discovered my own. I have always thought of that day as the moment I really became a writer, after a decade of false starts. “My clock-ridden, crime-stained birth.” (read the full article)

Midnight’s Children is set in Bombay, India around the country’s independence and is said to be a ‘loose allegory’ for the events that took place in India before and after their independence.  The novel falls into the genre of magical realism as its main focus is on the the children born between midnight and 1am of 15 August 1947, the day of Indian independence.  And what makes these children special?  They are all imbued with special powers.  Those born closest to midnight have the strongest powers.  The main character is Saleem who was born at the stroke of midnight and who later discovers his powers of telepathy.  Here is the blurb from GoodReads to better illustrate Saleem’s role in Midnight’s Children:

“Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.  This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’ s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.”  (GoodReads)

Mignight’s Children is not Rushdie’s most controversial novel and certainly not the one that caused him to go into hiding (that was The Satanic Verses) however it did cause the 1984 Indian Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, to bring action against the book in British courts because of a sentence.  Apparently in chapter 28 in the penultimate paragraph the Prime Minister’s “son Sanjay Gandhi is said to have had a hold over his mother by his accusing her of contributing to his father’s Feroze Gandhi’s death through her neglect”.  The matter was resolved out of court as Rushdie agreed to remove the sentence.  This was reported by Rushdie himself in his introduction to the 2006 25th Anniversary Special Edition of the novel.

This novel is on my TBR as I believe it to be one of a few special books that just need to be read.  Besides The Satanic Verses which also sits on my TBR, I think anyone interested in the life of Salman Rushdie while he was forced into hiding should read his memoir, Joseph Anton.

FBF: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960 and despite Lee’s expectations it was an immediate success winning the Pulitzer Prize and fans the world over.  It has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold more than 30 million copies.  Mockingbird has been prescribed reading for high schools around the world for generations despite campaigns to have it removed from the classroom and attempts to ban the book.To Kill a Mockingbird

The blurb on the book cover describes it as:

“The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it. […] Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.”

Although Lee has said Mockingbird is not autobiographical (but rather an example of how an author “should write about what he knows and write truthfully” wiki) it has many parallels with her life.  Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was an attorney not unlike Atticus Finch who in 1919 defended two black men accused of murder.  The men were apparently convicted, hanged, and mutilated and Lee’s father never tried a criminal case again.  Mr. Lee also worked as the editor and publisher of the Monroeville newspaper.  Like fictional Jem, Lee had a four year older brother named Edwin.  Scout’s childhood friend Dill was based on Lee’s famous childhood friend Truman Capote who also lived next door to her in the Summers when his mother visited New York.  The inspiration for the Radleys came from a family whose house down the street from the Lee’s was always boarded up and whose son got into some legal trouble and was subsequently kept at home for 24 years out of shame.  The inspiration for Tom Robinson and his accusal of raping a young white woman is less clear but there was an incident which took place close to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama where a black man, Walter Lett, was accused of raping a white woman.  The story and trial were covered by Lee’s father’s newspaper and Lett was said to have been convicted and sentenced to death.  However, there were later letters that claimed Lett had been falsely accused and his sentence was changed to life in prison.

Recently we heard that Harper Lee would have a second novel published.  Great news since readers have wondered why Lee never published anything more after Mockingbird.  Interestingly Lee has responded to this by saying:

 “She found the publicity surrounding “To Kill a Mockingbird” overwhelming and that she had said all she had to say in that single work.”

The new novel, Go Set A Watchmen, was actually written before Mockingbird but the manuscript was thought lost.  Alexandra Alter wrote a bit about the new novel in her NYT article:

“On Tuesday, Ms. Lee’s publisher announced its plans to release that novel, recently rediscovered, which Ms. Lee completed in the mid-1950s, before she wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The 304-page book, “Go Set a Watchman,” takes place 20 years later in the same fictional town, Maycomb, Ala., and unfolds as Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, the feisty child heroine of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” returns to visit her father. The novel, which is scheduled for release this July, tackles the racial tensions brewing in the South in the 1950s and delves into the complex relationship between father and daughter.”

Readers and literary folk are thrilled to soon have another novel by Harper Lee to sink their teeth into and I too am interested to see how this new novel will compare.  I read To Kill A Mockingbird as my setwork novel at school in Gr. 9 and remember it being one of the novels I most enjoyed at school.  The details of what I enjoyed exactly are a bit fuzzy but whenever I think of Mockingbird a particular scene, that I obviously found quite vivid, of a rabid dog coming down the street always comes to mind.

There aren’t all that many reviews of Mockingbird compared with other classics and I have read on my travels through the internet that there has been little analysis of it as well.  I’m not sure why that is but I think when you read the novel it becomes very clear why it is considered a classic and little needs to said about the depth and scope of the novel’s themes for you to appreciate them.  I completely agree that the novel deals largely with the important theme of what’s right and wrong when the Guardian’s review noted:

“To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, and distinguishes it from just following the law. Even the titular quote: “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” is in itself an allegory for this message.”

I definitely recommend this book to those who haven’t yet read it.

Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read

FBF: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein

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The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein

Last week’s Friday Book Feature was #26 of the All TIME 100 Novels list and since we are one quarter of the way through that list I’m going to take a break from it and feature books from another great list; the Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the best selling novels ever written.  It is a hugely popular high fantasy trilogy published in 1954.  After the success of The Hobbit in 1937 Tolkein was persuaded by his publishers to write “a new hobbit” book which he began writing in December 1937.  At the time Tolkein had a full time academic position at the Pembroke College, Oxford and writing of Lord of the Rings was slow going.  It took him from 1937 to 1949 to write the books on and off.  Originally Tolkein planned for The Lord of the Rings to be the first volume of a two volume set with the second being The Silmarillion but his publishers rejected that idea.  Instead, they marketed his book as a three volume set.  Tolkein’s novel was made up of six books so each of the three volumes contained two books.  The original manuscripts, totalling 9250 pages, are now in the JRR Tolkien Collection at the Marquette University. (wikipedia)

LOTRThe three books that make up the The Lord of the Rings are; The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.  They are filled with wonderful characters, beautiful landscapes, and incredible adventures.  The trilogy has been widely translated (about 38 languages) and is beloved by readers all over the globe.  Fans have been so taken by the world Tolkein created that it has heavily impacted popular culture.  Tolkein’s huge success with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings has led him to be called the ‘father’ of modern fantasy literature.

Another element that has fascinated readers is the elvish language in Tolkein’s books.  Tolkein was a philologist who was influenced by the Welsh language.  In his essay, English and Welsh, he said:

“If I may once more refer to my work. The Lord of the Rings, in evidence: the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modelled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical). This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.”

Tolkein’s books were not only imbued with the magic of his interest in language but also by his interest in the great Norse Sagas and Old English literature.  In fact it may be of interest to Tolkein lovers that back between 1920 and 1926 Tolkein completed a translation of the epic Beowulf from the Old English to Modern English which remained unpublished until 2014.  It is entitled Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.  The translation is followed by a 200 page commentary which formed the basis of his acclaimed 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.  I have yet to read Beowulf for myself, long since on my TBR, and I’m going to try and get this translation for myself.

Despite the success of The Lord of the Rings there were those that criticised the work.  Tolkein was a member of a literary group called the Inklings and even within this group there were critics.  Inkling member Hugo Dyson apparently ‘complained loudly at its reading’.  However, long time friend and fellow Inkling, C S Lewis said: “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”

Speaking of hearts, I found this detail so lovely: Tolkein’s wife Edith was apparently the inspiration for the characters  Lúthien Tinúviel and Arwen Evenstar.  Tolkein is said to often have referred to Edith as “my Lúthien”.  The Tale of Beren and Lúthien is the story of the love and adventures of the mortal man Beren and the immortal Elf-maiden Lúthien.  In The Lord of the Rings her story is told to Frodo by Aragorn.  Wikipedia makes mention of a moment between Tolkein and Edith which inspired him to write the meeting of these fictional characters and their love:

While Tolkien was stationed at Kingston upon Hull, he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock: “We walked in a wood where hemlock was growing, a sea of white flowers.”  This incident inspired the account of the meeting of Beren and Lúthien.

Tolkein and Edith are buried together and below their names on their headstone are the names Beren and Lúthien – a testament to their love!

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, Lúthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and forsook her immortality for her love of the mortal warrior Beren. After Beren was captured by the forces of the dark lord Morgoth, Lúthien rode to his rescue upon the talking wolfhound Huan. Ultimately, when Beren was slain in battle against the demonic wolf Carcharoth, Lúthien, like Orpheus, approached the Valar gods and persuaded them to restore her beloved to life.  Shortly after his wife’s death, Tolkien wrote the following in a letter to their son Christopher.

“I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire […]”

I have loved Tolkein’s world ever since my dad’s nightly readings of The Hobbit when I was a child.  If you have not already, I highly recommend reading these books.

FBF: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

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The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust was published in 1939 and is set in Hollywood during the great depression. The Day of the Locust

The Day of the Locust is a novel about Hollywood and its corrupting touch, about the American dream turned into a sun-drenched California nightmare. Nathaniel West’s Hollywood is not the glamorous “home of the stars” but a seedy world of little people, some hopeful, some desparing, all twisted by their by their own desires — from the ironically romantic artist narrator to a macho movie cowboy, a middle-aged innocent from America’s heartland, and the hard-as-nails call girl would-be-star whom they all lust after. An unforgettable portrayal of a world that mocks the real and rewards the sham, turns its back on love to plunge into empty sex, and breeds a savage violence that is its own undoing, this novel stands as a classic indictment of all that is most extravagant and uncontrolled in American life. (GoodReads)

It seems that The Day of the Locust tackles the time shown to us in The Great Gatsby except from the perspective of those who were truly impacted by the economic crisis, the other side of the coin, because although I would think those were times of austerity the characters of The Great Gatsby seemed little affected by it financially.  The Guardian article, The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, glamorously grotesque, talks about how we can draw parallels between today’s situation and that of The Day of the Locust and this quote from it describing the novel shows that not all experienced those times as Gatsby and his hanger-oners did:

“Here is a society that has generated its own grotesqueness, through a twofold process of alienation: the pre-crash boom has made strangers of all who didn’t share in the green glow of dollar bills, while the exclusive hierarchy of Hollywood makes outsiders of the rest.”

The original title for this work was apparently The Cheated and that leads you to wonder why choose The Day of the Locust.  Probably the most famous reference to the locust comes from the bible when a plague of locusts is sent to Egypt and subsequently destroys their entire food supply.  Wikipedia quotes Susan Sanderson’s take on why she thinks the locust is used in the title of this novel:

West’s use of “locust” in his title evokes images of destruction and a land stripped bare of anything green and living. The novel is filled with images of destruction: Tod Hackett’s painting entitled “The Burning of Los Angeles,” his violent fantasies about Faye and the bloody result of the cockfight. A close examination of West’s characters and his selective use of natural images, which include representations of violence and impotence — and which are therefore contrary to popular images linking nature and fertility — reveals that the locust in the title is Tod.

This paints a pretty clear picture of what you can expect from this book.  An interesting detail is that one of the characters in this novel is called Homer Simpson, the lonely businessman exploited by leading lady Faye Greener, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening is said to have stated in a number of interviews that he named his most famous character, Homer Simpson, after West’s character.  I found that interesting.

Robert, from 101 Books who’s reading his way through the list, wrote about his views on the novel  here which I think is well worth reading.  He said:

At least in regards to the other books on the list, The Day of the Locust is unique in its setting—1930s Hollywood. The loose story follows the sad lives of an artist named Tod Hackett, a part-time bit actress, part-time prostitute, an angry dwarf, a Mexican cockfighting ringleader, a sad pathetic sack named Homer Simpson, and several other Hollywood outcasts.

You read that correctly. The story does indeed feature an angry dwarf, a cockfighting ring, and a depressing old pervert named Homer Simpson—yes, Homer Simpson.

Nathanael West drops you into the middle of this mess of characters without much context. You stay with them for a little while, and then the story ends and you’re pulled right out again. The novel moves linearly for the most part, but there’s no tightly wound plot here. The Day of the Locust is more of a character study than anything else.

If you’ve read this book let me know what you thought.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Day of the Locust

FBF: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

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A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Unlike some of the books on the All TIME 100 list, I had never heard of either A Dance to the Music of Time or Anthony Powell.  After spending a bit of time on the internet I’ve come to realise that although a lot of 1280px-The_dance_to_the_music_of_time_c._1640people have not read this work, it is considered a highly important one for the English language. 

A Dance to the Music of Time takes its name from a painting by Nicolas Poussin of the same name which he painted between 1634 and 1636 as a commission for Giulio Rospigliosi who later became Pope Clement IX.  This painting detail certainly attracted my attention and the wikipedia article on it is worth reading.

“Today it is widely accepted that Dance to the Music of Time was meant to represent the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the rapidly revolving wheel of fortune: poverty, labour, wealth, and pleasure.”

The four figures in the painting are said to represent the four seasons and I wonder if this holds any significance for the literary work A Dance to the Music of Time because although this work is made up of 12 volumes, those 12 volumes are published in 4 books.  The four books are entitled A Dance to the Music of Time 1st Movement, 2nd Movement, 3rd Movement, and 4th MovementDance (as it seems to be called) was published between 1951 and 1975 and is set in England over a period of 60 years beginning just after WW1 and ending in the 60s.

A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: 2nd MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: 3rd MovementA Dance to the Music of Time: 4th Movement

GoodReads describes the entire series:

“Anthony Powell’s universally acclaimed epic encompasses a four-volume panorama of twentieth century London. Hailed by Time as “brilliant literary comedy as well as a brilliant sketch of the times,” A Dance to the Music of Time opens just after World War I. Amid the fever of the 1920s and the first chill of the 1930s, Nick Jenkins and his friends confront sex, society, business, and art. In the second volume they move to London in a whirl of marriage and adulteries, fashions and frivolities, personal triumphs and failures. These books “provide an unsurpassed picture, at once gay and melancholy, of social and artistic life in Britain between the wars” (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.). The third volume follows Nick into army life and evokes London during the blitz. In the climactic final volume, England has won the war and must now count the losses.”

Wikipedia describes the series as “[…] an often comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid 20th century.” And the few that I have read who have written about this series have highlighted that it is indeed very funny.  If you are worried, as I was, that this will read like a load of fodder for the literary intelligentsia we are assured by Tariq Ali in his article, Come Dancing, that it is not.  Mr Ali goes on to say that:

“What is on offer in the 12 novels that constitute the Dance […] is not the nuances of class snobbery, but a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s. There is nothing quite like it in English letters.”

What I have picked up on is that in addition to its epic proportions and scale, and its comedic value, it is brimming with wonderful characters that have left many a reader wondering about the inspiration for them.  Another quote from Ali’s great article:

“The sequence is also remarkable for its astonishing characterisations. To Charlus in the Proust epic, and Diotima and Ulrich in The Man Without Qualities, must be added Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton from the Dance. The late Lord Longford often claimed that Widmerpool was based on him. And there’s an entry in one of the journals where Powell is at a college reunion at Oxford and runs into Denis Healey. The former Labour deputy leader greets him like a long-lost friend, and inquires: “I’ve always wanted to ask you this: Did you base Widmerpool on Edward Heath?””

My interest has been sufficiently piqued!  I would absolutely love to hear from anyone out there who has read any part of A Dance to the Music of Time!  

All TIME 100 Novels – A Dance to the Music of Time

FBF: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 is a novella by Thomas Pynchon first published in 1966.  Some describe this novella as being an ‘exemplary postmodern text’ while others describe it as an ‘outright parody of postmodernism’.  I personally don’t have a cooking clue as to which of those two labels best fits this book but it does seem to have stirred people which is surely a good thing.  It nevertheless seems reviews of The Crying of Lot 49 were polarised and Pynchon in 19862411374 agreed with those who spoke negatively of his book when he was quoted as saying:

“As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I’d keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then.”

The blurb on GoodReads describes the novella as:

“Suffused with rich satire, chaotic brilliance, verbal turbulence and wild humor, The Crying of Lot 49 opens as Oedipa Maas discovers that she has been made executrix of a former lover’s estate. The performance of her duties sets her on a strange trail of detection, in which bizarre characters crowd in to help or confuse her. But gradually, death, drugs, madness and marriage combine to leave Oedipa in isolation on the threshold of revelation, awaiting the Crying of Lot 49.”

While reading the Wikipedia article it was mentioned that Pynchon attended Cornell University where he may have at least audited Vladimir Nabokov’s Literature 312 class which I found interesting.  Apparently Nabokov himself didn’t remember Pynchon but Nabokov’s wife, Véra, “recalls grading Pynchon’s examination papers, thanks only to his handwriting, “half printing, half script”. The year before Pynchon graduated Nabokov published his novel Lolita in the U.S.

I find myself quite intrigued by this book and it has been added to my TBR.  I want to read this weird and wonderful book for myself.  What really convinced me were the words of Edward Mendelson in his article Pynchon’s Mrs Dalloway:

“When that book appeared in 1966, most of the reviews dismissed it as trivial and annoying, a judgment that its author seems to share. Pynchon’s first novel, V. (1963), moved and awed me when I read it as a teenager, but the reviews discouraged me from reading his second one. Then, one day, I needed a book to get me through a two-hour train trip, so I gave The Crying of Lot 49 a try. Having bought a copy in Penn Station, I read it on the train without stopping, occasionally reminding myself to breathe. That night, on the return trip, I read it again.”

I get the feeling that whether we end up loving it or hating it, it will still leave a mark which I find most interesting.  Have any of you read this novel and want to share your thoughts?  I’d love to hear what more people think of this novella.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Crying of Lot 49

FBF: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Continuing where I left off, this week’s FBF is #23 on the All TIME 100 Best Novels list – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  The Corrections was published in 2001 and was awarded the National Book Award that same year.  It was alsoThe Corrections awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002.  The novel is highly acclaimed and the vast majority of reviews of this work were very enthusiastic.

The Corrections does seem to be a departure from Franzen’s earlier books which seem to have had large scale exterior drama moving his plots whereas The Corrections seems to be more about internal drama.  I read an very interesting interview with Franzen in Bomb Magazine just before this work was published where he discusses the difference between the drama in his novels.  Here is a particularly interesting excerpt of Franzen’s words:

“We may freak out globally, but we suffer locally. Not that I take any particular credit for this shift of emphasis. Jane Smiley has this theory of an alternation of literary generations. Smiley thinks there are two fundamental possible preoccupations for the novelist. One is a kind of venturing forth to discover the wonders of the world, à la Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. That school of outward-looking fiction reaches its culmination in Candide, in which the world turns out to be full of horrors. Voltaire’s lesson is: Go home, cultivate your garden. And so the adventurous world-seeking novel is succeeded by the great 19th-century domestic novel. Which itself then culminates in Kafka: you can stay home, but home is a horror, too. Within American literature you find the venturing-forthness in Twain and Hemingway, the at-homeness in Wharton and O’Connor. The dichotomy is gender-specified to some extent. But I feel like I’m essentially participating in one of those swings, a swing away from the boys-will-be-boys Huck Finn thing, which is how you can view Pynchon, as adventures for boys out in the world. At a certain point, you get tired of all that. You come home.” (read the Bomb Magazine Interview with Franzen)

So what is Franzen’s The Corrections about?  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:

“After almost fifty years as a wife and mother, Enid Lambert is ready to have some fun. Unfortunately, her husband, Alfred, is losing his sanity to Parkinson’s disease, and their children have long since flown the family nest to the catastrophes of their own lives. The oldest, Gary, a once-stable portfolio manager and family man, is trying to convince his wife and himself, despite clear signs to the contrary, that he is not clinically depressed. The middle child, Chip, has lost his seemingly secure academic job and is failing spectacularly at his new line of work. And Denise, the youngest, has escaped a disastrous marriage only to pour her youth and beauty down the drain of an affair with a married man—or so her mother fears. Desperate for some pleasure to look forward to, Enid has set her heart on an elusive goal: bringing her family together for one last Christmas at home.”

Various reviewers have written about Franzen’s magnificent ability to take very serious issues and write about them authentically and still interlace them with some humourous stories in this book.  And despite its length at nearly 600 pages it is all compelling and true of family life.  I will admit that when I was a younger reader a tended toward books with big external drama driving the plots but now prefer to delve into these issues we face at home in our lives with others – the more internal issues we face in life.  Not unlike Franzen’s change in focus for this novel.  I am intrigued by The Corrections and have added it to my long TBR list.

“Despite a complex and involved plot, the driving force of the book is that simplest, most intricate of engines, the unhappy family. (…) The Corrections is a wide-open performance showcasing the full range of his skills and his eclectic intelligence.” – Stewart O’Nan, The Atlantic Monthly

You can read more excerpts from the various reviews of The Corrections on the Complete Review.

The Paris Review always has wonderful interviews with authors and they are always a joy to read.  Franzen’s interview is The Art of Fiction no 207 if you’d like to read more about the author and his works.

Has anyone read this novel? what did you think of it?

All TIME 100 Novels – The Corrections

FBF: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

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The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The novel is viewed as having cemented Styron’s reputation as a highly acclaimed writer.  Confessions is loosely based on the confession document of real historical figure, Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 which resulted in The Confessions of Nat Turner55 white deaths.  Whites responded to the rebellion with 200 Black deaths.  This novel is written with Turner as the first person narrator who makes his ‘confessions’ while in jail awaiting execution to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray.  Just how accurate the novel is in terms of Turner’s character and the contents of the document is debated.

“The novel is based on an extant document, the “confession” of Turner to the white lawyer Thomas Gray. In the historical confessions, Turner claims to have been divinely inspired, charged with a mission from God to lead a slave uprising and destroy the white race.  Styron’s ambitious novel attempts to imagine the character of Nat Turner; it does not purport to describe accurately or authoritatively the events as they occurred. Some historians consider Gray’s account of Turner’s “confessions” to be told with prejudice, and recently one writer has alleged that Gray’s account is itself a fabrication.[3Styron takes liberties with the historical Nat Turner, whose life is otherwise undocumented. The “Confessions” is largely sympathetic to Turner, if not to his thoughts.” (wikipedia)

Despite initial acclaim and acceptance, having won the Pulitzer, receiving great reviews, and appearing on the best sellers list, the novel was condemned by some of the African American audience though not by all.  This also in spite of Styron’s good friend James Baldwin’s praise of the novel.

“But in the broader African-American intellectual world, the novel was widely condemned. “Ten Black Writers Respond” has to be read in light of this history: as a polemic and corrective that introduced a spectrum of opinion mostly ignored in the mainstream press. “For all its prose power and somber earnestness,” Loyle Hairston wrote, “Styron’s novel utterly fails the simple test of honesty.” “This is meditation mired in misinterpretation,” Charles V. Hamilton wrote, “and this is history many . . . black people reject.” John Oliver Killens: “In terms of getting into the slave’s psyche and his idiom, it is a monumental failure.”(Styron’s Choice by Jess Row)

Some found the book to be worthy of the acclaim it received while others didn’t.  Bill Clinton is said to have cited this as one of his favourite books.  It does seem an interesting book and I think it was quite a task to take on to reinterpret those particular historical events.  Without having read this novel I will say that the books that deal with important issues like race and slavery are almost always met with a huge range of feelings.  Good or bad, I’m all for anything that provokes dialogue.  If you’ve read this novel I’d love to hear what you thought about it.

Here is the link to the 1968 NYT review of the novel; The Nat Turner Case by Eugene D Genovese

All TIME 100 Novels – The Confessions of Nat Turner  

FBF: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

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A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was published in 1962 and is one of the most famous dystopian novels.  It is about a future society in which juvenile delinquency has taken over.  This book is high up on my TBR list and I’m sure many of you have read this book.  Richard Lacayo from TIME describes the novel:A Clockwork Orange

Like 1984, this is a book in which an entire social order is implied through language. And what language! To hint at the vile universe of the 15-year-old delinquent Alex and his murderous buddies, Burgess created “nadsat,” a rich futuristic patois. “Sinny” for “cinema.” “Viddy” for “see,” “horrorshow” for “good” — from the Russian, khorosho, which gives you some idea of which political system has prevailed. The words locate him in a world of corrupted values, violence and boundless infantile indulgence. (His drug is “milk plus.”) When Alex is apprehended by the authorities and subjected to psychological conditioning to make him nauseated at any impulse towards violence, Burgess’s book becomes a meditation on whether a world in which evil can be freely chosen might still be preferable to one in which goodness is compelled. Stanley Kubrick’s coldly magnificent “sinny” adaptation has sometimes threatened to overshadow this great novel. Don’t let it happen.

There’s a lot of discussion about the title of the novel and where it comes from.  All I can say for sure is that apparently Burgess overheard the phrase “as queer as a clockwork orange” in a pub in London in 1945.  According to the author’s article A Clockwork Condition in the New Yorker: “It’s an old Cockney slang phrase, implying a queerness or madness so extreme as to subvert nature.” Some, like Kingsley Amis, disagree.

Another interesting detail of this novel is the way it is divided.  The book is split into 3 parts each with 7 chapters which brings the total number of chapters to 21.  This detail was Burgess’ intentional nod to the age of 21 being recognised as a milestone in human maturation. (wikipedia)  Strangely, the final 21st chapter was omitted in American editions of the book as it was deemed unrealistic for the American audience.  I find this a tad strange as the final chapter 21 is the redeeming chapter wherein Alex realises the error of his ways and turns away from violence.

A book fit to sit along side other great dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s A Brave New World.  I’ll leave you with a paragraph I particularly like from the above mentioned article A Clockwork Condition:

“The maintenance of a complex society depends increasingly on routine work, work with no zest or creativity. One of the slogans of George Orwell’s superstate in “1984” is “Freedom is slavery.” This can be taken to mean that the burden of making one’s own choices is, for many people, intolerable. Perhaps there is something to be said for conformity in social life when our working lives have so little room for rugged individualism. But when patterns of conformity are imposed by the state, then one has a right to be frightened. It is significant that the nightmare books of our age have not been about new Draculas and Frankensteins but about what may be termed dystopias—inverted utopias, in which an imagined megalithic government brings human life to an exquisite pitch of misery.”

Share your thoughts with us about this book.

All TIME 100 Novels – A Clockwork Orange

FBF: The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger

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The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and is a well known classic in American literature.  The novel’s opening lines are known even to those that have not read it.The Catcher in the Rye

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik considers it one of the “three perfect books” in American literature, along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, and believes that “no book has ever captured a city better than Catcher in the Rye captured New York in the fifties”

The book has been banned and then taught as set work in English classes.  The main character and narrator, Holden Caulfield, is second in literature only to Huck Finn.  Charles McGrath of The New York Times wrote in his article, J. D. Salinger, Literary Recluse, Dies at 91, that:

“The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell more than 250,000 copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon in 1980, even said the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.”

But more interesting than this is the man himself.  Famous for not wanting to be famous.  J D Salinger continually turned down offers for the movie rights to his novel and spent the last 50 years of his life living in seclusion.  McGrath also wrote a bit about Salinger’s aversion for fame after Catcher became a success:

“But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail. In 1953 Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

I’m sure many of you have read it…I have not.  So share your thoughts with me; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

All TIME 100 Novels – The Catcher in the Rye

FBF: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 was published in 1961 and is regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.  The novel has the most 5 star ratings from readers that I have seen on GoodReads to date which is pretty impressive given that generally readers are at least to some degree divided on all novels – naturally as we all have different tastes.  This novel, though, has commanded the approval of a great deal of readers and upon reading the description by Grossman on TIME it’s not hard to see why the book may have interested so many:Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)

“Captain John Yossarian is a bomber pilot who’s just trying to make it through WWII alive. But the only excuse the Army will accept for refusing to fly a mission is insanity, and if Yossarian refuses to fly he is, by definition, sane. This is the self-devouring logical worm that lies at the heart of Catch-22, the story of Yossarian, his colleagues—who respond to the horrors of war with a range of seriocomic neuroses and psychoses—and his superiors, who respond to the horrors of war by sending Yossarian on ever more pointless and dangerous missions for the purpose of enhancing their own reputations. Catch-22 is a bitter, anguished joke of a novel that embraces the existential absurdity of war without ever quite succumbing to it.”

The title of the novel is in itself interesting because we are all well aware of catch-22 situations and what could possibly make for better reading.  I have noticed this particular excerpt concerning the title across the web and I have to say it’s got me very interested in reading this novel:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)” (wikipedia article)

Definitely on my TBR! I’m sure many of you have read this novel, what did you think?  Is there anyone out there that didn’t enjoy this novel?

All TIME 100 Novels – Catch-22

FBF: Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

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Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Call It Sleep was published in 1934 and was met with critical acclaim.  That it was a great literary work was accepted and he has often been compared to James Joyce.  The problem seemed to be that the public didn’t take to it.  The poor sales of Roth’s only book are largely attributed to the fact that it was published in the lowest of times of the great depression.   In Richard Severo’s article he says: Call it Sleep

“When “Call It Sleep” was first published, Lewis Gannett, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, predicted that because of the stark way the book described life on the Lower East Side, it would not be very popular. But he thought that anyone who read it would “remember it and talk about it and watch excitedly” for the author’s next book.  In fact, the book was much discussed and readers did indeed wonder what Mr. Roth would do next. But for 60 years, he wrote nothing major.”

It wasn’t until 30 years later when Call It Sleep was republished that it sold over a million copies and finally gained the attention it had always deserved.  Severo continues:

“Over the years, the critical acclaim for the book grew. Irving Howe, who reviewed the 1964 edition for The New York Times Book Review, said, “At the end of a novel like ‘Call It Sleep,’ one has lived through a completeness of rendered life, and all one need do is silently acknowledge its truth.”

There seems to be consensus that Roth’s novel was a great one.  And while he gained his glory much later it seems that people have over time really wondered about what Roth got up to in life post Call It Sleep.  Here is a description of the novel by Grossman from TIME:

New York City, 1911. A young, painfully sensitive boy named David is growing up in the grimy Jewish slums of the Lower East Side, with his unemployable, rageoholic father and his angelic, nurturing mother. Call It Sleep has the setting of a gritty, naturalistic political novel—and it works perfectly well as such—but it is at heart a profoundly interior book. Roth tirelessly and unflinchingly records the daily damage that the harshness of slum life inflicts on David’s quiveringly receptive, emotionally defenseless consciousness; as a precise chronicler of minute impressions, and of the growth of an intellectually precocious mind, Roth’s only equal is James Joyce.

Has anyone read this book that would like to share their thoughts?

All TIME 100 Novels – Call It Sleep

FBF: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

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The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

The Bridge of San Luis Rey was published in 1927 and Wilder’s 2nd novel.  It won him the 1928 Pulitzer Prize and is highly acclaimed the world over.  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:T100_novels_Bridge of San Luis Rey_copy

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.  By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition.”

According to Wikipedia on writing this novel Thornton Wilder said that he was posing a question: “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?”  In the same article there’s an impressive list of novels that themselves were influenced by or make reference to this novel:

  • This book was cited by John Hersey as a direct inspiration for his nonfiction work Hiroshima (1946).
  • Qui non riposano, a 1945 novel by Indro Montanelli takes inspiration from the novel.
  • David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas, echoes the story in many ways, most explicitly through the character Luisa Rey.
  • Ayn Rand references the theme in Atlas Shrugged, her epic of a fictional USA’s decline into an impoverished kleptocracy. In the aftermath of a disastrous collision in a railroad tunnel, she highlights train passengers who, in one way or another, promoted the moral climate that made the accident likely.
  • The book is mentioned in passing by a character in The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, the third book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

Interesting, right?  I’m very intrigued by this book!  The bridge itself  is based on the great Inca road suspension bridge across the Apurímac River, erected around 1350, still in use in 1864, and dilapidated but still hanging in 1890.

Anyone read this book?  Thoughts?

All Time 100 Novels – The Bridge of San Luis Rey

FBF: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945 and is described as Waugh’s great literary masterpiece who has himself referred to the novel in the past as his magnum opus.  Here is the blurb from GoodReads:Brideshead Revisited

“The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.”

According to Wikipedia, Waugh wrote that the novel “deals with what is theologically termed ‘the operation of Grace’, that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself.” (Memo dated 18 February 1947 from Evelyn Waugh to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)This is achieved by an examination of the Roman Catholic, aristocratic Marchmain family, as seen by the narrator, Charles Ryder.  However, in 1950 Waugh wrote to Graham Greene saying that he’d reread the novel and was appalled.  In a 1959 preface to the novel the author explained the circumstances of the novel.  He wrote it following a parachute accident stating that: “It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”

Despite Waugh’s own later feelings there are many that don’t agree with his criticism as evidenced by these words from John K Hutchens review in the NY Times entitled Evelyn Waugh’s Finest Novel:

“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues.”

Pretty mixed feelings but it seems everyone besides the author agrees it is an all time great novel.  I’ll end with the description of the novel by Lev Grossman (co-compiler of the All Time 100 list) which is sure to twist your arm:

“Though it’s saddled with a faded doily of a title, Brideshead Revisited is actually a wildly entertaining, swooningly funny-sad story about an impressionable young man, Charles Ryder, who goes to Oxford in the 1930′s and falls in love with a family: the wealthy, eccentric, aristocratic Flytes, owners of a grand old country house called Brideshead.”

All TIME 100 Novels – Brideshead Revisited

Writer Spotlight: Dalene Matthee

Dalene Matthee is a beloved Afrikaans South African author of a number of hugely successful books that have been translated into 14 languages, including English.  When I was in high school we read the first of her forest books in Afrikaans class and I fell in love with it.  It was called Kringe in n Bos (Circles in a Forest) and was an absolutely magical book about the elephants of Knysna forest, particularly one elephant named Oupoot.  I have not read her books in English but I’m sure they are equally as beautiful as her original Afrikaans ones for those interested in giving her books a try.header_bosboeke

Matthee was born in Riversdale, South Africa in 1938.  Her first novel was inspired by the Outeniqua hiking trip she took in Knysna.  After much research into these indigenous forests she gathered enough material for four books; Circles in a Forest (Kringe in n Bos), Fiela’s Child (Fiela se Kind), The Mulberry Forest (Moerbeibos), and Dream Forest (Toorbos).  She is the only South African author to have sold over one million Afrikaans books.

Circles in a Forest

“Saul Barnard is a woodcutter with a restless soul – he wants to keep strangers away from the Forest and stop the destruction of the Forest. There is also the legendary elephant bull – Old Foot – which broke free from his herd. Old Foot and Saul share a strange bond … In the green duskiness of the Outeniqua they walk on circular paths. Saul Barnard, rejected by his people and humiliated by unscrupulous timber merchants; Old Foot, relentlessly followed by hunters. A man and his animal brother – together in an untouched ancient forest that is being destroyed by gold diggers, woodcutters and other eradicators. Saul follows Old Foot’s tracks, closer and closer to the truth that will change his life forever.”

Fiela’s Child

“God forgives many things, but God never forgives us the wrong we do to a child. On the one side of the mountain, in the Long Kloof, there’s Fiela Komoetie, devoted to her foundling – the child God entrusted to her one night when she found the three-year-old boy crying on her doorstep – a castaway lamb. On the other side of the mountain, in the Forest, there are the Van Rooyens. Many years ago, the three-year-old son of Elias van Rooyen, a woodcutter, and his wife Barta disappeared … The one child is Benjamin Komoetie, the other Lukas van Rooyen. Are they the same child? Was it possible for such a small child to walk that far – from the Forest to the Long Kloof? Nine years later, two census men, travelling through the Long Kloof and discovering the white child with the blue eyes among Coloured people, decided to take matters into their own hands. And many years later, this is the question that Benjamin/Lukas is asking himself: Who am I? He had to know, otherwise the woman that he came to love would never belong to him. The answer was there, he knew. Somewhere deep inside himself, hidden in the past, but the answer remained evasive.”

The Mulberry Forest

“Silkworm farmers from Italy were lured to Gouna in the Knysna Forest to establish a silk industry. The only problem was that mulberry trees refused to grow in sticky mud. Disgruntled immigrants had to battle severe winter rains, fever and a lack of understanding. They were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the government dumping them in the wilderness under false pretences. The man coming their rescue was a forest person with an unruly daughter and a head full of plans – the headstrong Silas Miggel. He wanted to get them back on board a ship, heading for Italy…”


“Dreamforest (Toorbos) is forest novel. It tells the story between the intimate relationship of an initiated “forest woman” and the heart of the forest, and how it becomes an obstacle in her experience of the man she loves.  Karoliena Kapp is an only child of an unsympathetic mother who has had three men. Her father has been killed by a streak of lightning while she was still young, causing her to accept the forest as her primordial mother. Karoliena is beautiful. Soon, she was spotted by a man, Johannes, child of a woodcutter, who freed himself from the stranglehold of poverty in the forest. Before she even turns twenty, Karoliena is married to Johannes. Now she has to take on the role of spouse in the village after being coached to take her place in the hierarchy.  The world of the forest and the world of the village are juxtaposed with each other – each representing a different order of existence. The forest makes a mystical experience possible – this is the kind of ecstasy Karoliena is looking for – while life in the village is dedicated to the self-directed search for money. She is in love with Johannes who is far older than she is and is almost spellbound by the prospects he offers her. However, Karoliena uses the very first opportunity to run away from Johannes – straight back to the forest. Because the very first day after their wedding ceremony she knew something was terribly wrong. She made the wrong choice: she fled from the forest. She exchanged her precious freedom for a cage. Now she’s scared. So, she returns to the forest while the Cape sisken keeps on calling: “who are you, who are you”.”

As I already mentioned Matthee was inspired to write her forest books after hiking through an area of the Knysna forest and 904383_10151530655839099_1076473753_owondering what had happened to the Knysna elephants.  Today you can visit the area in the Garden Route of South Africa and do either a 3km or a 9km hike through what has been named the Circle in a Forest route in one of South Africa’s National Reserves.  Matthee passed away in 2005 but leaves behind a treasury of South African fiction for all to enjoy that takes a look at our country from a nature perspective rather than the more common political perspective.  I highly recommend her novels.

Have you read any of her novels? What did you think?

FBF: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

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Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian (or Evening Redness in the West as it is also known) is McCarthy’s 5th novel published in 1985 and is praised as one of the 20th century’s finest novels.  This western novel is loosely based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s and is full of the time’s violence and grit.  According to wikipedia McCarthy did a great deal of researchBlood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West for this novel and even the seemingly unimportant passages rely on historical detail.

The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the later part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850. The novel’s antagonist Judge Holden appeared in Chamberlain’s account, but his true identity remains a mystery. Chamberlain does not openly appear in the novel. Some critics have suggested that “the kid” is a fictional stand-in for Chamberlain.

Lev Grossman describes McCarthy’s novel: ” In the 1840′s a young boy joins a band of cutthroats who hunt Indians on the border between Texas and Mexico, under the leadership of an amoral, albino arch-monster known as the Judge. Rarely has literature presented spectacles of violence more extreme or less gratuitous. Blood Meridian summons up shadows of Dante and Melville, and demands of every reader that they reexamine why and how they cling to morality in a fallen world.”

And if this doesn’t paint a clear enough picture of what you can expect from Blood Meridian then the opening paragraph of Caryn James’ review surely will clear things up for you:

Blood Meridian comes at the reader like a slap in the face, an affront that asks us to endure a vision of the Old West full of charred human skulls, blood-soaked scalps, a tree hung with the bodies of dead infants. But while Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel is hard to get through, it is harder to ignore. Any page of his work reveals his originality, a passionate voice given equally to ugliness and lyricism.

I have to say that although I’m not really a fan of violence in my reading I am drawn to novels that portray another time (even more so if there is some historical detail to it) and if there is a particular violence that goes along with that story I’m open to reading about it.  Overall I’m very intrigued by the storyline.  I’ve also read that the novel contains unusual and archaic words, has no dialogue quotation marks, and no apostrophes for contractions which makes me think this must be pretty interesting to read because surely McCarthy chose this style for a purpose…McCarthy has also never given interviews concerning this work so it is completely up to the reader to make their own interpretations.

Have you read Blood Meridian?  What were your thoughts?

All TIME 100 Novels – Blood Meridian

FBF: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood was published in 2000.  It is a highly acclaimed novel that won the Man Booker Prize in 2000, the Hammett Prize in 2001, and was nominated for Governor General’s Award in 2000, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Blind Assassinthe International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2002.

The novel is best described by Lev Grossman of TIME: ‘Frosty, reserved Iris and her hot-blooded sister Laura grow up wealthy and privileged in a chilly Canadian town. But when the family fortune falters in the Depression, Iris is married off to a cruel industrialist, and Laura drives her car off a bridge, leaving behind a pulpy science fiction novel (presented in parallel to the primary plot) that seems to contain a coded, masked guide to the secrets that ruled her life and brought about her early death. Told in the brittle, acerbic voice of the elderly Iris, who is left behind to decode Laura’s legacy, The Blind Assassin is a tour-de-force of nested narratives, subtle reveals and buried memories.’

The Blind Assassin is a novel to read and definitely makes my TBR list.  Its plot and characters are twisted and complex.  From what I read about this book it’s difficult to say anything specific about it without revealing something that should be revealed through reading.  The best article I read about this book was Wheels Within Wheels by Thomas Malon and this quote I think probably best encapsulates the driving force behind this novel:

‘Nearly 20 years ago, in speaking of her craft, the novelist Margaret Atwood observed that ”a character in a book who is consistently well behaved probably spells disaster for the book.”’

And this book, according to critics, is far from disastrous.  Have you read this novel?  What did you think of it?