Robert’s Raves & Reviews #2 (Books & Ebooks)

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I’m really behind, so I’m just going to hit PUBLISH and move on.

I’ve been reading a tremendous amount recently: Jack Matthews‘ Picture of the Journal Back, Bill McKibben‘s Falter and Alissa Quart‘s Squeezed (author website). All great works — more on them later.

Public Domain

More capsule reviews from Book Review Digest 1910 edition.

Hough, Emerson. Purchase price; or, The cause of compromise.

A story of the anti-slavery agitation with the setting in Kentucky and Washington. A beautiful young Hungarian countess comes to this country in advance of a distinguished delegation in the interests of Kossuth. Our government, fearing her dangerous influence in those troublous times, has her conducted to the western frontier. There in a dramatic way she meets a southern Senator, a man as fearless and dauntless as herself but ranged on the other side. After a series of stirring events in which history and romance are cleverly blended she comes to realize that the results of her high ideals have not been unmixed good, she sees the failure of her scheme to deport the negroes, and hears that the confiscation of her Hungarian estates has left her penniless. At this critical moment when her self confidence is shattered she again meets the Senator. He too has lost faith in his convictions and consequently his party has deserted him as a turn coat. He has lost his slaves through the efforts of her agents, and a stroke of fate destroys all his remaining property. Then it is that they both rise superior to circumstance resolved to do great do great things for the world–together.

I came across a wonderful biographical essay by Carole M. Johnson about Emerson Hough which was published in the 1970s. She wrote, “Traveler, historian, novelist, journalist, and conservationist, he wrote more than thirty-four books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and short stories. While he wrote nothing of consummate literary merit, he made noteworthy contributions in the area of conservation before it was fashionable and in the areas of western history and literature when the West was considered a subject fit only for dime novels and pulp fiction.” (Although this sounds a little harsh, she recommended books like Mississippi Bubble, Covered Wagon, Hearts Desire, (About the last, Johnson writes, The flexibility of short fiction stimulated his real talent for comedy, burlesque, and dialogue, which is reflected in the spontaneity, charm, and genuine literary merit of these tales. )

General Essays/Litcrit

I’ve been reading Faint Praise, this terrific book on book reviewing by Gail Pool (Author website). (M.A. Orthofer raves here, saying, It’s not just — or even primarily — a question of more reviews, or fewer newspapers dropping their book-sections and substituting wire copy. Pool is particularly concerned with the state of reviews themselves: she wants to see better reviews, and an improved culture of reviewing. Her closing chapter offers some suggestions as to what can be done. Among them: she wants book editors — the major decision-makers on everything from what books are selected for review to who is assigned the review — to be less invisible, and offer more editorial commentary. She also suggests that at newspapers columnists (with their expertise in specific areas) be enlisted to help in selecting books for review. And as far as hiring reviewers goes, she’d like to see those with critical competence selected ahead of authors who happen to have published some fiction or a book in an unrelated field. (I may respond later to this book later on).

Anyway, one of the delightful parts of this book are the examples and notorious quotes by authors and reviewers. Here’s a gem of an Orwell quote:

A periodical gets its weekly wad of books and sends off a dozen of them to X, the hack reviewer, who has a wife and family and has got to earn this guinea, not to mention the half-crown per vol. which he gets by selling his review copies. There are two reasons why it is totally impossible for X to tell the truth about the books he gets. To begin with, the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in him the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every case the only truthful review he could write would be: ‘this book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.’ But will anyone pay you to write that kind of thing? Obviously not. As a start, therefore, X is in the false position of having to manufacture, say, three hundred words about a book which means nothing to him whatever. Usually he does it by giving a brief résumé of the plot (incidentally betraying to the author the fact that he hasn’t read the book) and handing out a few compliments which for all their fulsomeness are about as valuable as the smile of a prostitute.

Elisa Gabbert on Stupid Classics. In Bradbury’s view of the universe, white men write good and important books, while “the minorities” and “women’s libbers” try to censor them. Except for one manic pixie dream girl who shakes Montag out of his complacency and is swiftly killed off (I missed her when she was gone), all the women in Fahrenheit 451 are zombie harpies. Montag eventually joins a band of men who have memorized the great books, the only way to save them from burning: “We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli or Christ, it’s here.” They are the heroes protecting the Western canon from being destroyed by cultural criticism. 

(I agree that F451 probably spells trouble. You can usually tell a book is overrated when it’s taught regularly in high school English classes. IBID for To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men and Handmaid’s Tale).

Interview with Dan Green : Should literary works primarily aim for empathy?

there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.

Long listicle of environmental books on climate change. Wow, I consider myself well-versed in nonfiction titles and even cli fi fiction (in a superficial way), and yet I recognize very few of these titles. By the way, I am now reading two wonderful environmental books: Ends of the World by Peter Brannen and Falter by Bill McKibben (the latter is brand-spanking new). I’m in awe in many respects, not only as a researcher and advocate, but as a stylist. If you’re looking for obscure McKibben to read, I recommend Age of Missing Information, an early work he wrote about mass media after recording several days worth of Cable TV and watching every single channel and every single minute.

Robert S. Miola writes a Fivebooks listicle about the literary sources of Shakespeare. Great and erudite. Here’s his take on Ovid’s influence:

Then, Shakespeare comes to Romeo and Juliet and doesn’t forget Ovid. Though Ovid is not traditionally named as a source for Romeo and Juliet, it’s the same deal: a guy killing himself and then his beloved finding him. They reunite briefly, and then he dies. We don’t have any stage directions for it—Romeo has no lines at this point—but many productions and many films have Romeo do exactly what Pyramus does. In the Baz Luhrmann film, the eyes of Leonardo DiCaprio open and lock on those of Claire Danes before he dies. Both texts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, both reach back to that seminal moment in Ovid. We don’t know if it was staged that way, but there’s certainly the possibility he was thinking of it.

But Ovid is everywhere—even less obviously in The Tempest. In that strange scene, you have these spirits becoming dogs and barking, chasing Stefano, Trinculo, and Caliban. As in all the last plays, Shakespeare is interested in internal transformation—on changes within and motions of forgiveness. Here, the classical mixes with the romantic and the Christian. You have this beautiful internalised drama of metamorphosis. In this case, you have Prospero becoming Prospero—abjuring “this rough magic”. Each character comes to a new self—a new understanding of the self. Ovid is there, inescapably.

Here’s another listicle by Natasha Lennard on “Non-fascist living.” In addition to her own book, she mentions Wittgenstein and Maggie Nelson‘s Argonauts. (Very interesting! That certainly raises Nelson on my To-read list. I had checked it out of the library a few months ago without ever reading it!). Here’s a book excerpt from Lennard about how to live an anti-fascist life. After noticing that the criticisms of the Antifa protests against Trump were almost louder than the condemnations of pro-Trump white nationalism, she comments:

Meanwhile, magazines and news outlets—only a year ago lousy with warnings against the “normalization” of hate—have published a string of profiles platforming white supremacists and neo-Nazis as if they were now an accepted part of the social fabric (thus interpolating them as such). The “polite” Midwestern Hitler fan with a Twin Peaks tattoo whose manners “would please anyone’s mother.” The “dapper” white nationalist. The description of right extremist rallies drenched in dog whistle and foghorn neo-Nazi symbolism as mere “pro-Trump” gatherings—or worse, as “free speech” rallies.

What changed? In truth, nothing. We are observing a phenomenon that Martin Luther King Jr. noted well in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We are dealing with “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” There is no shortage of irony in the invocation of MLK by today’s white moderates in order to decry Antifa tactics as violent; in fact, I believe (if one can so speculate) that these same commentators would have been critical of his radical nonviolence, predicated as it was on the provocation of violent spectacle. It is a great liberal tradition to stand on the wrong side of history until that history is comfortably in the past.

Darn, I can’t find my blogpost containing the hilarious review of the book, but I was elated to learn that David Todd Roy finished his 5 volume translation of the Chinese classic Plum in the Golden Vase. (Here’s his obituary )– it took 20 years for him to finish it. It’s available in ebook, but I would be hard pressed to recommend reading anything but the print edition — because of the copious footnotes. (I’ve read volume 1 only though). Here’s a NYT feature story and a LARB review by Stephen Marchee:

Chin Ping Mei is a mean-spirited page-turner, built for cruel speed. The plot concerns Hsi-men Ch’ing, a corrupt merchant in a rural district who, through a series of sexual and political intrigues, develops and indulges stranger and stranger tastes until he dies of “sexual excess” at the age of 33. The book is most famous for being pornographic, and the word most often attached to it is notorious. But the sex, while it is what makes the book original, is by no means the most interesting part of the novel, at least to a contemporary reader. The Chin Ping Mei’s true subject is everything. It inhabits the local whorehouse as intimately as dinners with Imperial officials and is wonderfully fleshly in many ways, not just the erotic. The author is just as good writing about a man warming his hands at a brazier as he is at extreme sexual acts.


House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma (reviewed by Michelle Newby Lancaster). Tshuma presents us with a history lesson in the form of these individual lives, demonstrating the folly of denying that the personal is political. Following personal revolutions into political corruptions, Tshuma juxtaposes war narratives with the real thing, warning of the vile, dangerous mixture of religion and nationalism, as well as the risks of nostalgia, that siren song of a glorious, illusory past (“Make Rhodesia Great Again!”) which claims the powers of myth when a people cannot imagine any future they could want for themselves.(Tschuma is a Zimbabwean author in the UH Creative Writing program). Her website is here. See also her memoir about getting her mother to speak about a genocidal event in 1980.

Tschuma described the writing process: I went through seventeen drafts because the act of writing the novel was a very exploratory process for me; what shape or structure could best capture the House of Stone, Zimbabwe? How could I bend such a shape or structure to suit the kind of book I was trying to write? The novel even had footnotes at one point in time. So, I was very free, and messy, and willing and happy to wallow in this messiness. And this is a process I garnered from some books I love because of their peculiarity —  works like Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana and Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, among others. The first two are translations from German and Italian. I loved how peculiar they felt to me and how playful they were.

Interview with TX poet Naomi Shihab Nye on LoneStar: You don’t have to travel far to hear others. Experiment with writing in other voices. It’s okay to do this. We need to do this to extend our imaginations and perspective. I remember being very small and trying to imagine what the old lady who never came out of her house would say if she wrote down her thoughts. Then I realized, Hey, I need to go knock on her door and visit with her! She gave me the best piece of pie I ever ate in my whole childhood. And she was lonely, of course, and talked a lot, freely, any time I visited her. We need to take a little more time. Nye is a Palestinian poet based in San Antonio who attended my alma mater Trinity University. (author website) Here’s a book review by Natalia Trevino about Nye’s latest book: Reminding the reader that all Palestinians are “also Semites” and that being “pro-justice for Palestinians is never an anti-Semitic position,” this poet delivers news-worthy journalistic headlines of her own about those who have lived through the occupation, recounting that “we had to become heroes to survive at all.” If only we knew all of those stories.






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