Month: April 2012

About a Mountain by John D’Agata

Regardless of one’s personal opinion about John D’Agata, his book–About a Mountain–is truly gripping. I couldn’t put it down; in my first reading session, (which lasted about an hour) I read approximately 100 pages.

John D’Agata terms himself as a “lyric essayist” opposed to a “non-fiction writer.” He sees a difference and it’s up the reader to either put their qualms aside and enjoy or have a conniption and dismiss his book. To dismiss and disregard would be a shame.

The book is focused on environment and suicide in Las Vegas. As D’Agata is helping his east-coast mother move to this strange city, he finds himself enthralled with the horrific topic of nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain. He writes about his own experiences and the opinions of local residents; D’Agata delves into facts and politics surrounding the proposed storage facility.

At the same time, he is also interested in the extremely high suicide rate in Las Vegas (perhaps, the highest in the country). He focuses on a sixteen-year-old named, Levi Presley, who committed suicide by jumping from the Stratosphere Tower. Recently, I attended a talk which featured D’Agata. What first made him interested in all of this was when he was staying with his mother in Las Vegas and had volunteered with a suicide prevention hotline. One night, he had a hang up and the next morning, Levi’s death was all over the news. He convinced himself that it must have been Levi who phoned him. Although, it had not really been Levi, this was the impetus for penning About a Mountain.

After reading this book, I can see how D’Agata refers to himself as a “lyric essayist.” He seamlessly moved between much different topics–environmental issues and suicide–and somehow has made them connect. The prose is clear and crisp and the book is long-lasting.

Young Lovecraft by José Oliver and Bartolo Torres

As my local branch of the NYPL was just about to close and I was getting that anticipatory look from the tired staff, I found a display of new books including an interesting looking graphic novel called Young Lovecraft by José Oliver and Bartolo Torres. I’m not well-versed in the world of graphic novels but I have read a few and I’ve enjoyed the ones that I’ve picked up.

Young Lovecraft is an alternative biography of the classic horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite parts were the panels where the young Lovecraft is rewriting some of his favorite tales–The Raven, Moby-Dick, etc.–but usually the endings differ with a giant creature destroying everyone. Also, he has a fun romp at a graveyard party with the ghosts of Poe, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire.

For a lover of literature it was a real pleasure. I’ve only read one of Lovecraft’s stories but it made me want to investigate some more.

Hester Among the Ruins by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Hester Among the Ruins is one of those fantastic books that sat atop my mantle for about a year. I’ve wanted to read but it always got pushed aside by other less-fantastic books I’ve been obligated to read.

This book was both “literary” and a “fast read” (I find this division between what is literary and what is not, very peculiar) . The marketing person behind the book cover design should be given a swift kick to the pants for leaning towards “chick lit.” Unfortunately, the author gets stuck with these fuzzy lens photos–often of women’s legs–quite often and much to her chagrin.

Hester is a fortyish academic from New York City who travels to Munich after the reunification but still during the era of the Deutsche Mark. She begins an affair with the German professor whom she is researching and writing a book about. But she is determined to find out the real story about his background, mostly surrounding events during WWII & Nazi occupied Germany. Interspersed with Hester’s narration, she puts snippets of academic texts, memoirs, and strange love letters that the German professor writers to her (awkward English and all).

Hester is attractive, smart and no nonsense. She has a quick wit and black sense of humor. If someone like Jonathan Franzen wrote Hester, I’m sure the publisher would put the title in big bold capital letters (à la Freedom).

But enough of my complaining. The book was fabulous and I very much enjoyed all of the little observations about the very specific quirks of Germans (example, not crossing the street until the pedestrian light comes on even if ABSOLUTELY NO cars are coming).

“And the Winner Isn’t…”

I suppose by now all of us readers & writers out there have heard the news from yesterday that no winner for Fiction was chosen by the Pulitzer committee this year. I don’t put much merit into fancy awards and whatnot as a measure of a writer’s worth, but it’s a head-scratcher to me. Really? A group of people couldn’t pick a winner? All three authors who were nominated are fantastic writers and well worth a prize (finalists: Karen Russell, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace [posthumously]).

Ann Patchett wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times today,

What I am sure of is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction… The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

Patchett’s final words ring true. When I saw the headlines yesterday, I felt scammed (This can’t be true!). I immediately thought that committee reckoned that there was no fiction worthy this year but then I saw the nominees. Alas, nothing much can be done except read more books and talk about them enthusiastically to everyone whether they want to hear or not.

Victorian corpse language

Pardon my lack of engagement with my blog lately (I’ve been really busy this week with the release of a book I was involved with AND also feeling slightly unwell) but I can’t help but share these few paragraphs about translation from the beginning of one of the two essays found in Deformation Zone. I just started reading it and it’s proving to be quite interesting.

As contemporary American critic Daniel Tiffany notes in his recent study of Pound, discussions surrounding translations seem to rack up corpses. Dryden for example compares a poet in “dull translation” to a “carcass.” Tiffany argues that the accumulation of these corpses comes out of the “impossibility” of translation; we can only imagine such impossibility as death.

According to Tiffany, Pound was obsessed with the attempt to rid poetry of “Victorian corpse language.” But he also saw translation as a kind of reanimation of the corpse of the original. About translating Guido Cavalcanti, Pound wrote: “My job was to bring a dead man to life” (189).

Pound sought to reanimate this “corpse” by abusing the “meaning” of the original through extreme literalism. Pound used radically materialistic forms of translation such as homophonic translations or the use of deliberately exotic or archaic words. The “meaning” may have been “lost” but the materiality of the text is brought to life.

Big Book Book Club

After a week of finishing up a few leftover airplane reads (which proved to be plotty page-turners), I made the decision to return to literature. Recently, a close friend finished tackling the monster that is Anna Karenina. She enjoyed it and I thought to myself that it would be great to read but really, when would I have the time? Then yesterday, over coffee with another writerly friend, she told me about the “Big Book Book Club.” Apparently, a group of her friends would get together more as a support group to finish these albeit, long and sometimes difficult classics. They set goals (example, read 10 chapters by X date).

I have always criticized myself for being ill-versed in 19th century Russian literature (my battered and unread copy of Crime and Punishment sits atop my mantle tormenting me every hour of every day). Although, I do not have my own “Big Book Book Club” to help with tackling this Tolstoy masterpiece, I have set the challenge for myself. There are no excuses, ladies and gents. My original complaint was the book is too big; I’m not carrying that on the subway. But wait! NYPL has the ebook available and it is the translation that was very much recommended to me (Penguin Classics * Deluxe Edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky).

If you, too, are up for the challenge I welcome the company, but I wholeheartedly understand the desire to read some pre-summer reads instead of a grim centuries’ old Russian tome. But for me, the game is set!