Books postsTuesday October 22, 2013
First Sentence: 'Joseph Anton'
As Bonasera in “The Godfather” believed in America, I believe in first sentences. At bookstores I still pick up books that might interest and buy them based on their first sentence. I did that recently with “Joseph Anton,” Salman Rushdie's memoir of his post-fatwa existence. Here's how it begins:
Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him and the lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin.
I liked the rhythm of it, and the roundabout way of beginnning at the major moment, but through memory and annoyance rather than momentousness. On first reading I didn't even pick up on the Hitchcock reference, but two pages later, Rushdie names and expands upon the metaphor. He writes about the scene outside the schoolhouse in “The Birds”: the children chanting, Tippi Hedren smoking, and the single black bird alighting on the jungle gym. He writes about how that first bird is singular, individual. No theory is needed to explain it. The theories are necessary only when the mass of birds gather and attack.
He equates his experience with radical Islam with that first black bird alighting on the jungle gym.
Before the fatwa.
When Roth Was Good
Many readers still consider “The Ghost Writer,” the novel that introduced Nathan Zuckerman and reimagined the story of Anne Frank, to be Roth’s most perfect work.
Couldn't agree more. It's perfect in the way that “The Great Gatsby” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” are perfect. It should be read.
Caveat: Didn't “My Life as a Man” introduce us to Nathan Zuckerman?
By the Book: Erik Lundegaard
Sunday, the New York Times Book Review intereviewed Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink,” “Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” etc., about his taste in literature. It's a fun read.
Here are my answers to most of the questions they asked him.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
George W.S. Trow's “My Pilgrim's Progress: 1959-1998.” But it's hardly a new book. I'm always behind.
Which writers do you find yourself returning to again and again — reading every new book and rereading the old?
I don't know if there is anybody anymore. I keep returning to writers until I don't: Vonnegut until “Galapagos,” Roth until “Everyman,” Kundera until “Ignorance,” Irving until “A Widow for One Year.” When did I lose Doctorow? Some time in the '90s. But I keep rereading all of them. For a time, I measured how far I'd come by my latest reading of “The World According to Garp” but I haven't done that in 10 years. I've been looking over Roth recently. The Zuckerman trilogy. Salinger, too, but that was for the doc on him.
Actually, you know who I keep returning to these days? Joe Posnanski.
Did you identify with any fictional characters as a child? Who was your literary hero?
Holden Holden Holden. Before that, Peter Parker. Before that, Joe Hardy of the Hardy Boys. Before that, Danny of “Danny and the Dinosaur.”
So I guess my literary heroes were F.W. Dixon, until I found out he wasn't real; Stan Lee, whom I met in 1975; then J.D. Salinger. Then off to the races.
In general, what kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?
I don't read much genre fiction. It does nothing for me. I get two pages in and think, “Who cares?”
As I've aged, I read more nonfiction. At lunchtime I like reading about baseball as a kind of palate cleanser. At night, anything. I want things explained. I want arguments and ammunition. Sometimes I feel like I'm prepping for a battle that will probably never come.
What’s the last book to make you laugh out loud? To cry? And the last book that made you angry?
I get mad reading blogs more than books but I got pretty angry reading “Shipwrecked: A People's History of the Seattle Mariners”; through no fault of author Jon Wells.
I don't know about the last book but Bill Bryson makes me laugh out loud like nobody's business, and I don't think I ever cried harder than reading the last pages of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” I was at a noodle shop in Taipei, Taiwan, before teaching an ESL class, and, despite everyone around me, despite the bustle, tears just welled up in my eyes and wouldn't stop.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I don't know. I've got tons of literature: Baldwin, Capote, DeLillo, Doctorow, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Irving, Joyce, Kundera, Mailer, Morrison, Orwell, Roth, Salinger, Tolstoy, Updike, Vidal, Vonnegut, Wolff. I've got an entire shelf of baseball books. I've got books on movies, comic books, Superman, politics. Is anyone surprised yet?
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I guess Michael Lewis' “The Big Short,” but I hope he's already read it. Would “A Confederacy of Dunces” help with Congress? I also woundn't mind George W.S. Trow's “Within the Context of No Context.” Just for his thoughts.
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I should like Michael Chabon more than I do. I should be pulled into his world more easily. Maybe 30 years ago, I would have. I didn't finish “Kavalier and Clay,” for example. I keep meaning to return to it.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
Shakespeare, to find out how he did it. Or maybe Matthew, Mark, Luke or John: to know what they know.
If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be?
My first thought was Caddy, who smells like leaves. My second thought was Holden, to tell him it gets better. But I guess I'll go with Buddy Glass. Over beers.
What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed not to have read?
Like Leonard Zelig, I've never read “Moby Dick.” I've also never read “The Scarlett Letter.” No Chaucer and very little Plato. I'm surprised they let me graduate with a degree in English literature.
What do you plan to read next?
Maybe Salman Rushdie's “Joseph Anton.” Maybe Emily Bickerton's “A Short History of Cahiers Du Cinema.” I've got a stack waist high next to my book shelf. Literally. It admonishes me daily. It tells me, “You are a very bad reader.”
The First Sentence of Every Short Story in 'American Short Stories, 4th Ed.'
In 1982, in one of the first college English courses I took, we were given, or, OK, made to buy, a book called “American Short Stories, 4th ed.,” edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. It was eye-opening. It made an impression. I kept reading the stories even after the class was over. It made me think, “This is what I want to do.”
I didn't know that this—the centrality of literature to the culture—was already over.
I still have the book and I picked it up again recently. For some reason, maybe the editor in me, I began to check out the first sentences of each story. I noticed patterns, the way they changed with the times: now boats, now trains, now cars. Here's a description of nature setting the stage and the mood. Now we're in the South, now we're in New York, now we're a consumerist society buying Camel cigarettes. Characters used to be from Italy, then it was simply a place to visit. We're stiff New Englanders, we're wide-eyed Midwesterners, we're defeated Southerners. We're black, we're Jewish, we're the last of the great WASPs. Metafiction rears its ugly head before we return, perhaps self-consciously, to colloquialism.
I was going to divide these stories by their various categories but decided to just lay them out as I read them—chronologically. Enjoy. In some ways it's the history of America:
- “Whoever had made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill Mountains.” -- Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819)
- “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835)
- “A young man, named Giovanni Guasconti, came, very long ago, from the more southern region of Italy, to pursue his studies at the University of Padua.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini's Daughter” (1844)
- “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)
- “True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)
- “A steamboat on the Mississippi, frequently, in making her regular trips, carries beween places varying from one to two thousand miles apart; and, as these boats advertise to land passengers and freight at 'all intermediate landings,' the heterogeneous character of the passengers of one of these up-country boats can scarely be imagined by one who has never seen it with his own eyes.” -- Thomas Bangs Thorpe, “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1841)
- “I am a rather elderly man.” -- Herman Melville, “Bartleby” (1853)
- “In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me frm the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and i hereunto append the result.” -- Mark Twain, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)
- “As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in the moral atmosphere since the preceding night.” -- Bret Harte, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869)
- “The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst.” -- William Dean Howells, “Editha” (1905)
- “The fighting has been hard and continuous; that was attested by all the senses.” -- Ambrose Bierce, “The Coup de Grace” (1889)
- “'Our feeling is, you know, that Becky should go.'” -- Henry James, “Europe” (1899)
- “When the porter's wife, who used to answer the house-bell, announced, 'A gentleman and a lady, sir,' I had, as I often had in those days—the wish being father to the thought—an immediate vision of sitters.” -- Henry James, “The Real Thing” (1892)
- “The leaves were so still that even Bibi thought it was going to rain.” -- Kate Chopin, “The Storm” (1898)
- “It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning.” --Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “A New England Nun” (1891)
- “When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered.” -- Charles Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison” (1899)
- “The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of 'vets' became.” -- Hamlin Garland, “The Return of a Private” (1892)
- “The great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898)
- “None of them knew the color of the sky.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” (1897)
- “To Carson Chalmers, in his apartment near the square, Phillips brought the evening mail.” -- O. Henry, “A Madison Square Arabian Night” (1908, approx.)
- “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glores of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” -- Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever” (1934)
- “It was Paul's afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanours.” -- Willa Cather, “Paul's Case” (1906)
- “She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived.” -- Sherwood Anderson, “Death in the Woods (1926)
- ”'I'll tell you what I'm going to do with you, Mr. Bartlett,' said the great man.“ -- Ring Lardner, ”The Love Nest.“
- ”The grandfather, dead more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.“ -- Katherine Anne Porter, ”The Grave.“
- ”Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway.“ -- James Thurber, ”The Catbird Seat“ (1942)
- ”'And where's Mr. Campbell?' Charlies asked.“ -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, ”Babylon Revisited (1930)
- “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.” -- William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” (1930)
- “Isaac McCaslin, 'Uncle Ike,” past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one“ -- William Faulkner, ”was“
- “It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” -- Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933)
- “About fiften miles below Monterery, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean.” -- John Steinbeck, “Flight“ (1938)
- “She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails.” — Langston Hughes, “Thank You, Ma’am.”
- “Solomon carried Livvie twenty-one miles away from her home when he married her.” -- Eudora Welty, “Livvie.”
- “Verna bent over the old-fashioned bath tub—the kind with legs, and the white enamel worn thin in places—to turn the faucet and start the hot water running.” -- Cyrus Colter, “A Man in the House.”
- “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’” -- John Cheever, “The Swimmer.”
- “Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort.” -- Irwin Shaw, “The Girls in the Their Summer Dresses.”
- “Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University.” -- Bernard Malamud, “The Magic Barrel.”
- “Whenever someone misunderstood Aunt Munsie’s question, she didn’t bother to clarify it.” -- Peter Taylor, “What You Hear from ‘em?”
- “Some boys are very tough.” -- Grace Paley, “Samuel.”
- “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.” -- Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People” (1955)
- “Without discarding what he’d already written he began his story afresh in a somewhat different manner.” — John Barth, “Life-Story” (1968)
- “Edward was explaining to Carl about margins.” – Donald Barthelme, “Margins” (1964)
- “right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says ‘how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?’ but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he hegs het on some new lunatic notion and he says ...” etc. – Robert Coover, “The Brother“ (1969)
- “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” – John Updike, “A&P” (1961)
- “Go’n be coming in a few minutes.” – Ernest J. Gaines, “The Sky is Gray“ (1963)
- “‘You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,’ Itzie said.” – Philip Roth, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959)
- “Her name was Connie.” – Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966)
- “She was afraid to look at herself just yet.” – Toni Cade Bambara, “A Girl’s Story” (1977)
Any favorites? To me, as first sentences go, you don't get much better than Bret Harte's from 1869.
Book Review: '11/22/63' by Stephen King
Stephen King’s “11/22/63” is really four Stephen King stories in one. It’s:
- a horror story about a crazy ex-husband who murders his family in a horrible small town in Maine.
- a love story about a 1960s teacher and librarian who deal with small-town mores and another crazy ex-husband.
- a story of a lucky gambler who invokes the wrath of the mob.
- It’s also the main story: A teacher from 2011 goes back in time to Sept. 1958 to stop 1), above, unexpectedly gets involved in 2) and 3), and, most importantly, tries to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy five years later. He’s going to try to right a great American wrong.
That’s why this thing is 800-plus pages. It’s heading toward a day we know too well but takes its time getting there. It gives us other stories, other books, first.
King is a great storyteller, and he can do the creepy vibe better than almost anybody, but even he can’t make Lee Harvey Oswald interesting. That’s where I got bogged down: When our hero, Jake, who takes the name George Amberson in the past, spies on Lee and Marina in their ramshackle Texas apartment. That’s when I began to lose interest. I began to flip pages.
Similarly after 3), when gangsters beat up George and leave him for dead. By then it’s September 1963, just two and a half months to go, but he barely survives the attack. He loses much of his memory. Will he get it back? Will he remember what he’s supposed to do? Of course he will. But not for a while yet. So more page flipping.
Sorry, Stephen. I know the past is obdurate—it doesn’t want to change (I love that bit, by the way)—so I know everything will get in the way of Jake/George trying to change it. But that’s why we’re here. We want to see what happens. We want to see if he stops the JFK assassination, and, if so, what happens afterwards.
Here’s a relevant quote from Gore Vidal’s review of William Manchester’s “Death of a President” way back in 1967:
The narrative is compelling even though one knows in advance everything that is going to happen. Breakfast in Fort Worth. Flight to Dallas. Governor Connally. The roses. The sun. The friendly crowds. The Governor's wife: “Well, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President.” And then one hopes that for once the story will be different—the car swerves, the bullets miss, and the splendid progress continues. But each time, like a recurrent nightmare, the handsome head is shattered.
Here, for once, the story is different and the handsome head isn’t shattered. Here, in fact, King gets to vent against the little pissant who altered our history:
The presidential limo had taken off, driving toward the Triple Underpass at breakneck speed, the two couples inside ducking and holding onto each other. But the security car had pulled up on the far side of Elm Street near Dealey Plaza. The cops on the motorcycles had stopped in the middle of the street, and at least four dozen people were acting as spotters, pointing up at the sixth-floor window, where a skinny man in a blue shirt was clearly visible.
I heard a patter of thumps, a sound like hailstones striking mud. Those were the bullets that missed the window and hit the bricks above or on either side. Many didn’t miss. I saw Lee’s shirt billow out as if a wind had started to blow inside it—a red one that tore holes in the fabric: one above the right nipple, one at the sternum, a third where his navel would be. A fourth tore his neck open. He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man in the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.
A bullet spanged one of the overhead lights, shattered the bulb, and set it to swaying. Then a bullet tore off the top of the would-be assassin’s head, just as one of Lee’s had torn off the top of Kennedy’s head in the world I’d come from ...
King has written about political assassinations before, hasn’t he? “Dead Zone” from the mid-1970s anyway. There, his main character doesn’t come from the future but he can see the future. There, he’s the assassin of a man who will end the world if he becomes president. Here, he’s the killer of an assassin ... and winds up, well, ending the world.
That’s the other disappointing part of the novel. You want to see what happens with Kennedy unharmed. You want to see how our history, meaning my entire lifetime, is changed. But King stacks the decks against that future by having the cosmos essentially object to its changed course. Nov. 22 1963: JFK is almost assassinated but saved by two schoolteachers; Yay! Nov. 24, 1963? Massive earthquake in California. Seven thousand people die. Whoops.
And it gets worse. When George returns to 2011 it’s a sci-fi dystopia: roaming noseless hoodlums and China Syndrome radiation and regular earthquakes everywhere. Scientists predict the world, the universe, will break apart by 2080 and that will be the end of everything.
I went to the site once. In late spring 2004, the year George W. Bush beat John Kerry for the presidency, I visited Dealey Plaza. It was quiet that day. Not many people walking about. No one was ever walking about much when I was in downtown Dallas. It felt like a ghost town. But I believe the schoolbook depository is still there. What is it about Texas and schoolbooks anyway? Back then they altered our history. Today they keep trying to do that.
King obviously has it in for Dallas. Without apology. From the afterword:
On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place. Confederate flags flew rightside up; American flags flew upside down. Some airport spectators held up signs reading HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Not long before that day in November, both Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson were subjected to spit-showers by Dallas voters. Those spitting on Mrs. Johnson were middle-class housewives. ...
This is an afterword, not an editorial, but I hold strong opinions on this subject, particularly given the current political climate of my country. If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film.
“11/22/63” isn’t a bad book but it doesn’t mean much. It's the wound we keep probing to no final resolution, no final effect. Plus I never really liked George, or Jake, King's main character. I kept thinking: Can someone travel into the past and not be condescending or superior? Knowing everything that’s going to happen? That’s how George comes off. The past may be obdurate but it’s also easy. The future is malleable and that’s why it’s hard.
King probing wounds to no final effect.