100 Years of Bohumil Hrabal

hrabal duo

Okay, maybe I am a few days late, but let’s blame my oversight of celebrating Bohumil Hrabal’s 100th Birthday on some recent jet lag that I’ve been experiencing. March 28 marked the 100th birthday of great 20th Century Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. He is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, Closely Watched Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky). He has numerous books and short stories, but for some reason, this one has always stuck with me. I’ve read it several times, penned a grad school paper on it, and have enjoyed the 1966 film adaptation that went on to win an Academy Award.

There is something that draws me to Czech writers. I was lovingly teased for it in my student days, but their affinity for portraying the absurd and humor in even detrimental circumstances is what attracts me. For example, in Closely Watched Trains, the main character is a young train station guard in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. As Nazis come through by way of the station and resistance fighters target the trains, young Milos is completely preoccupied with getting laid and when he can’t perform, he attempts suicide. I know, a little dark, but funny. The reader sees the threats that surround Milos and his country, but he’s too busy flirting with the ladies and worrying about his sexual dysfunction.You must read this book and when you’re done, watch the movie which is available in the Criterion Collection, for Hulu+ subscribers, and in two-parts on Dailymotion: 1 | 2.

Hrabal is so cool that a bust of him resides on the wall of U Zlatého Tygra (At the Golden Tiger), his favorite bar in Prague, where he even took President Clinton and Madeleine Albright to for some pilsnerplease pardon my crummy photo; it was dark that day

U Zlatého Tygra

He’s considered by many to be one of the greatest Czech writers of all time. Even with my limited reading selection of that country, I shall be so bold as to agree. I am terribly delighted to have recently received a galley of a new English translation of one of his books to review (unfortunately for this blog, I will be writing for another publication, but maybe I’ll put a quick write-up here next month).

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you a wee bit. Although, Hrabal needs no convincing from me. I mean, when the man had his 80th birthday, the whole city came out. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put up a handful of photos from over the years. Take a look here, which includes the photo below from the film set of Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovak Press Agency).

closely watched trains

 


**The top images are from Wikipedia.org.

Distractions : Which Beat Generation Writer Are You?

I usually loathe all things Buzzfeed, but I was totally suckered into their Which Beat Generation Writer Are You? quiz. Perfect for a Friday distraction. Which writer did you get? My result is: Charles Bukowski.

beat writer

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy

The Devil I Know

“Everyone thinks you’re dead, son, I may as well tell you now.”

No, that’s the other Tristram St. Lawrence.

Kinship to Tristram Shandy is hard to avoid in Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, a deliberate satire of the Irish housing boom from not so long ago. In both real life and the world of the novel, financial bloat and lack of responsibility lead to devastating ruin. However, the novel itself is more concerned with the lead up. It’s conceit is that it is told in the year 2016 during a mysterious deposition of Tristram St. Lawrence, a recovering alcoholic and broken noble who most assumed dead for one reason or another and the lynchpin to some airy real estate scheme in his hometown.

Much like Sterne’s eponymous character, St. Lawrence is unable to easily explain his situation and instead tells a convoluted tale about his business dealings with a childhood friend, Desmond Hickey, and the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, whose identity becomes quite obvious as the narrative goes forward and onto its final pages.

St. Lawrence begins his story with his airplane being diverted to Dublin and, much to his dismay, he is now stuck in Ireland. He hasn’t returned to his home for years, even missing his own mother’s funeral, letting his ancestral home and his elderly father fall apart. A recovering alcoholic, it’s Kismet when he meets up with an old school peer in a bar and what proceeds is an ever-growing scheme to build, build, build.

The Devil I Know does that wonderful thing where it has the ability of leaving the reader in a narrative purgatory (pardon the pun). You’re never quite sure what’s happening to Tristram St. Lawrence. Everyone in his hometown, including Desmond Hickey, keep repeating the fact that they all thought he was dead, which gave my readerly brain slight tingles thinking about Flann O’Brien. St. Lawrence keeps insisting that that was the other Tristram St. Lawrence. Also, the absent M. Deauville, whose page time is mostly conducted over a phone call with the narrator is in a word intriguing even as his identity becomes both clear and more difficult by the novel’s end.

St. Lawrence is a classic unreliable narrator. His deposition can easily be picked apart and nothing that St. Lawrence actually says is concrete. Here, however, is where the novel feels thin. Clearly, a deal with the devil is occurring; one that the narrator can never escape. Kilroy is lampooning Ireland’s financial bust through this idea, one that I think is clever in general and also poignant for a country filled with folklore.

Yet, the Faustian plot was pulled for too long. Sometimes, as I was reading, the narrative suffered from not having any sort of tension. You would think such a pact would elicit more salacious doings and undoings. Yes, St. Lawrence is secretive and his flamboyant testimony hides the real deeds underneath, but not enough of it poked out.

Kilroy’s satire and tongue-in-cheek were an interesting route to present Ireland’s bust, but it wasn’t enough to carry the whole novel. This was a tricky one. I enjoyed much of it and the teetering concept of real and imagined was an exciting element, yet, these factors, perhaps, were not enough to keep the novel on sturdy legs.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

 

This week’s topic for the Weekly Photo Challenge is “Street Life”: a place reveals itself on its streets, from pedestrians strolling during lunch time, to performers entertaining tourists on sidewalks, to the bustle of local markets, and more….

A few years ago, I used to work up in Harlem on 125th Street. It is an area that is very busy, yet, also abandoned. There wasn’t much going on outside of my office building except the big construction pit on the north side of the street, the daytime mugging I once saw, and Bill Murray in a baseball cap standing outside the office. It is a strange intersection of bustling and abandonment, an active ruin. One summer, I decided to take my camera with me. I wanted to document the city streets and the people who pounded the pavement on 125th Street, which is also home to the Cotton Club. It is an area of greys and steel, but also one of bright colors in unexpected places.

**Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a recommended reading list at the bottom. This is a literature blog (I hope!).

Harlem, 125th Street

Cotton Club

Harlem, 125th Street

Recommended Reading List for Harlem, 125th Street
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison; Harlem in the 1920s + jazz music
  • Invisible by Paul Auster; about ten blocks south of the Cotton Club, a tragic event takes place to snowball all of the novel’s characters
  • Open City by Teju Cole; roaming the streets of Manhattan
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney; 1980s hedonistic NYC told in second-person
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolffe; racial tensions run high in 1980s NYC
  • Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger; we could argue over who the true phony is, but regardless this book captures Manhattan streets of the 194/50s



 

Throttle and Duel

Homages are an interesting thing. Often enough they are created to tickle our fancy for the original. With the short story, “Throttle,” the reader gets just that. I think we can all agree that Richard Matheson has produced some fine works (I am LegendThe Shrinking Man, episodes for The Twilight Zone to just name a few for the uninitiated). One of his great anxiety inducing stories is “Duel,” which also was adapted for television and film by Steven Spielberg.¹

If you’ve never read “Duel,” I suggest reading Matheson’s story first, not only for the references in King and Hill’s story, but for the sheer fact that it is highly enjoyable.²

It sounds simple and maybe not as horrifying as one would imagine, but “Duel” literally races down the highway taking the reader along with it, leading to intense page turning. The story is about Mann, our leading driver, who finds himself impatiently trying to pass a truck on the highway. What ensues is a death-defying cat and mouse duel between Mann and the truck driver, who Matheson focuses on as a truck and less like a man (Man vs. Machine?). Matheson strips the characters of their identifying humanity, creating battling creatures.

Then, unexpectedly, emotion came. Not dread, at first, and not regret; not the nausea that followed soon. It was a primeval  tumult in his mind: the cry of some ancestral beast above the body of its vanquished foe.

So, you can see why Stephen King and his son, author Joe Hill (who is a completely wonderful writer in his own right; I hope to have some reviews of his work soonish) would take on the task of creating a story influenced by “Duel.” Homages can be fun when done right (no one likes a copy cat) and this one certainly is just that. In “Throttle,”³ we have a gang of hard-living motorcyclists with more back story than Matheson’s Mann. While on the road, they must maneuver down the highway while outracing a dueling tractor trailer. The motorcyclists have a seedy story to hide and it all comes to deadly fruition during the final duel. Oh, and there are illustrations to supplement the spinning tires and Army tats.

I’ve never seen Sons of Anarchy, but I’m sure fans of the show will like this one. I know I certainly had a good time. Also, I kept thinking of the grumpy Hell’s Angels in the East Village who yell at tourists, who dare to sit on the bench outside of their clubhouse on East Third Street. For all non-New Yorkers, even though absolutely no member ever sits on that bench, they don’t want you to, either.

***

  1. You can read a little recollection by Spielberg about the story and adapting it here.
  2. “Duel” is available to read for free online at Google Books.
  3. “Throttle” is available for .99 cents as a Kindle Single or in the anthology, He Is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson.

**Many thanks to Rory at Fourth Street Review for pointing this one out. I was a bit busy this month and I know I’m a day late and buck short, but maybe this one will count as my contribution to her month-long, King’s March.

Unfinished Masterpieces

I recently watched the 2012 BBC documentary program, Unfinished Masterpieces with Alastair Sooke.* The host begins with the eternally frustrating predicament of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the Charles Dickens novel that was never finished, because Dickens famously died during the writing of it, leaving very few clues to the intended outcome of the narrative. Biographers, historians, and artists have endlessly tried to anticipate Dickens’ wishes by both speculating about the novel’s unfinished portion and even going so far as to invent possible endings in different mediums like theatre, radio, and film, as well as boldly attempting to finish the task of writing the novel.

Alastair Sooke also looked at other unfinished works and pondered the reasons behind the unfinishedness of these respective works. Like Dickens, Jane Austen also has an unfinished novel, Sanditon, which was left incomplete because of her death. A dozen “continuations” have been penned, all trying to capture Austen’s specific voice and her intended path for the remainder of the book. When Sooke separately asked a handful of complete strangers which they would rather have, all chose to stick with Austen’s original unfinished work.

The program also took a look at works that might have been purposefully suppressed by their creators. For example, the famous portrait of US President George Washington, which is the basis for the image on the $1 bill, was left unfinished by the portraitist Gilbert Stuart. What started off as a difficult portrait, the fact that it was unfinished was a financial benefit to Stuart, who sold replicas for $100 a pop. The notoriety of its incomplete presentation might have been more lucrative for him than otherwise.  This, of course, is reminiscent to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation for his unfinished poem, “Kubla Khan.” He purports of wild inspiration from an opium haze and begins writing the famous poem when he is suddenly interrupted; when he returns to the poem, all inspiration is gone and “Kubla Khan” remains unfinished. Perhaps, the story behind it is more exciting than having an actual completed work.

There are other works that Sooke investigates including newly discovered poems from English poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was known for his WWI poems that captured the horrors of the war, but whose unpublished poems have a tinge of romanticizing. This conundrum of including them in Sassoon’s canon is questioned. Perhaps, the poet didn’t feel these were up to snuff and didn’t intend them to see the light of day, beside being out of step with his known views. This idea was reminiscent of other writers (who were not featured in the doc) like Franz Kafka, who famously asked that all of his documents be burned and left The Castle incomplete with the final written line ending mid-sentence and David Foster Wallace, who upon his death left an incomplete manuscript and notes on his computer. This was all gathered together by his widow, agent, and other literary folk to become The Pale King.

The question of whether we should finish something or bring to the masses an unknown work once the creator dies is debated and Sooke presents authorities with equally good arguments. Would The Garden of Eden really be a novel Ernest Hemingway would have written himself or could it only be imagined by editors after his death? Kafka wrote that he had an idea for the ending of The Castle, but who knows if it would have still been the same by the time he got there. He leaves the novel mid-sentence and incomplete, almost a perfect final note to a book so concerned with bureaucracy and never-ending frustrations. Sassoon’s poetry could have been just for himself, an attempt at a new form that didn’t quite fit with his other poems or maybe, they were simply something he was not proud of. Thus, choosing to let them go unpublished.

A whole other dilemma–the one of continuing a series–I shall leave to the documentary, but I’ll give you this small bit. Think of the long-dead novelists, Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose characters–James Bond and Sherlock Holmes–are still appearing in new releases, albeit, by different authors. What an entirely different conundrum. For some reason, we are ill-at-ease when it comes to the unfinished. We like wholes, a feeling of sturdy completeness. Although, I do not count myself among them, this might be why so many people had a hard time connecting to Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending. People generally dislike ambiguity and residing in the liminal.

Have you seen this documentary? Are there other famous incomplete works out there? It seems like a strange debate that I find myself on both sides of. I’m curious if anyone has additional thoughts.

 ***

*The 50 minute program can be watched in its entirety on the BBC’s website here; I don’t know how long it will be available, so step on it.

The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie by Thomas Disch

robotic alien

Down and out sci-fi/fantasy writer Rudy Steiner is approached by his agent Mal Blitzberg, who offers him the chance to write a UFO abduction book. The fact that it is April 1st isn’t lost on Rudy, but he soon believes that Mal isn’t playing a joke on him. Apparently, previous books presented as true life alien abductions have gone over well and sold many copies. An editor at Knopf, Janet Cruse, is eager to have Rudy write the next big thing. What does he have to lose? He’s overweight, perpetually in AA, three months into a wicked writer’s block, and a frivolous lawsuit is all that Rudy has going on.

With the help of editor Janet Cruse, Rudy writes about the completely “true” alien abduction of his imaginary daughter, Bunny. The fact that Rudy has no children to speak of is not a problem; Janet will take care of everything.

“Oh, I think you’d always have written it, Rudy. The only difference now is that you’ll sign your name to it.”
“You think I’m shameless.”
She nodded.
She was right.

And who can pass over a Knopf payday? Everything seems so perfect–an easy gig for a writer fallen on tough times–but while he’s halfway through writing the manuscript, the real truth begins to unravel. Janet Cruse isn’t representing who she first says she is, the mysterious and imagined Bunny Steiner, blonde curls and all, is starting to pop up on television interviews, and there is a vengeful cult called The People who have their hands deeper in these events that one should feel comfortable with.

When he starts to become aware that not everything is okay, Rudy awakens in the middle of the night and has “an obscure sense that something terrible had just happened to him but he didn’t know what.”  For a short story, so many unsettling things are happening in “The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie.” There is the obvious lie snowballing into something completely out of the control of the protagonist and the even more uncomfortable UFO cult that is more prominent than Rudy is first led to believe (aside: The People are an interesting example of strange UFO cults that were featured on the 5 o’clock news in the 1990s and the ones that still persevere today like Raëlism and Scientology).

Although, Thomas Disch’s story first appeared in April 1992 (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine), there is an element that rings so relevant to some of today’s publishing schemes and the desires of the book reading public. When Rudy is first presented with the idea by Janet Cruse of writing the true tale alien abduction, she tells him,  “Strieber’s book shows that the audience is there, and Hopkins’s book shows that anyone can tell essentially the same story.” She is referencing recent releases that had captivated readers and made a killing for the publishers (whether they are truthful or not isn’t relevant). Why not jump on the bandwagon is her initial pitch to Rudy. This feels entirely in line with the recent smorgasbord of dystopian youth novels that are invading bookshelves. You can’t go on the internet without reading about some new post-apocalyptic trilogy’s breakdown of a not-so-distant future society (and just a few years ago, you couldn’t go two feet without bumping into some teenager vampire romance). Even in Disch’s story, when a publisher sees a lucrative venue, they’ll milk it till it’s bone dry.

“The Abduction of Bunny Steiner, or a Shameless Lie” is not a science fiction story onto itself. True, the protagonist is a sci-fi writer and he’s penning an alien abduction book, but the story is completely set in reality with the horror and anxiety coming from very real, albeit, bizarre sources. As Disch stacks one more bit of the strange on top of another, the reader will be hooked until the final page.

Further Information…
  • Thomas Disch (1940-2008) was extremely prolific. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, and poetry.
  • On TheMillions.com, David Auerbach writes of Disch: “He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares.” You can read the complete article here.
  • Update: This story pops up in a few anthologies. I read it in Decades of Science Fiction (ISBN13: 9780844259956).

World Poetry Day – “Blurbs” by Julianna Baggott

Today is World Poetry Day according to UNESCO,

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings…UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

There are so many great poems out there, both published and spoken, lost and remembered, but today I choose “Blurbs” by Julianna Baggott because it hits on the desire that many of us have: we want to be embraced by our audience, even if it is just one person; we don’t want to be labelled with broad, pedestrian strokes. “Blurbs” appears in Baggott’s poetry collection, This Country of Mothers. According to her website, this “collection of poems…arose from the betrayal of motherhood.” Also, I very highly recommend her collection, Lizzie Borden in Love, a collection that “often focus on a particular moment in life: Katherine Hepburn discovers the dead body of her brother in an attic, or painter Mary Cassatt mourns the failure of her eyesight.”

Blurbs

I don’t want to be a national treasure,
too old-codgery, something wheeled out
of a closet to cut ribbon. I prefer
resident genius, or for the genius
to be at least undeniable.
I’d like to steer away from the declaration
by far the best. Too easily I read,
the predecessors were weary immigrant stock.
The same goes for working at the height
of her powers, as if it’s obvious
I’m teetering on the edge of senility.
I don’t want to have to look things up:
lapidary style? I’d prefer not to be a talent;
as if my mother has dressed me
in a spangled leotard, tap shoes,
my hair in Bo-Peep pin curls.
But I like sexy, even if unearned.
I like elegance, bite. I want someone
to confess they’ve fallen in love with me
and another to say, No, she’s mine.
And a third to just come out with it:
she will go directly to heaven.

**The photo and book covers are from Goodreads.

The Giver – Official Trailer

The official trailer for the film adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel, The Giver, has been released. I read the book soon after it came out and then again a couple of years ago (that experience can be read about here). I’m intrigued by the adaptation and was very stoked to hear that the dude would be portraying the giver.

With that said, I am a little skeptical now of the film after watching the trailer. It seems to be taking a page from more recent adaptations of dystopian futures (The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Divergent) and looks particularly slick and futuristic. These were not feelings I had when I read the book both times. I’m still curious about the film, but I hope the filmmakers haven’t lost the elements of The Giver that made it so great.

Have you read the book? Any thoughts on the film adaptation and the new trailer?

Liebster Award

It’s been a little while since I’ve seen these awards poke their heads out in the blogosphere, but twice in one week, I’ve been nominated by two lovely ladies at Turning Pages and Tea and Bookwormchatterbox. The Emmas both curate excellent blogs and I highly advise you to take a peek over there (because finding new sites is really what the Liebster is about). So without further ado…

The Rules:

  1. Thank the blogger that nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Display the award somewhere on your blog.
  3. List 11 facts about yourself.
  4. Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger that nominated you.
  5. Come up with 11 new questions to ask your nominees.
  6. Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less fewer than 1,000 followers. (You may nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you cannot renominate the blog that nominated you.)
  7. Go to their blog and inform them that they’ve been nominated.

Eleven Facts About Me

  1. I really disliked the film Million Dollar Baby and still don’t understand why it received so much hoopla.
  2. I used to play the saxophone; one of the first songs I learned was “Tequila.”
  3. After reading Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, I briefly thought I knew how to play baccarat.
  4. I own two copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, have cited it in papers before, but I have never read past the first page.
  5. Bill Murray was once standing outside of my work building on a disused street with no one else around, but he wasn’t waiting for me.
  6. Much to the horror of others, I am double-jointed in my arm and can turn it all the way around.
  7. I still vividly remember kindergarten.
  8. I am an avid reader of Wikipedia pages about religious cults. To think of all of the time I’ve spent…
  9. My second apartment in New York City was above a fish market, but it mysteriously didn’t smell like fish.
  10. I make a mean sauerkraut au gratin. Don’t turn up your nose. It’s delicious.
  11. Because of an illness, I haven’t been able to have a cup of coffee or a pint in ages. It’s driving me mad!

Eleven Answers - because I received two nominations, I picked questions from both lists, with some overlap

  • What is your favourite book?

That’s always a tough one. I’ll cheat and give three: Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal, The Notebook by Agota Kristof, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. (Also, the Kafka oeuvre).

  • What made you become a book blogger?

I started writing this blog as a way to keep track of the books I was reading and to share my love of literature. I also had just returned from a trip to Prague and felt particularly inspired.

  • How do you arrange your bookshelf? (e.g. by colour, by author, etc)

I sort of have a feng shui thing going on. It’s more about the balance of the books and how they are placed together than by color, author, etc.

  • Do you ever listen to audiobooks?

I do. I usually listen to an audiobook when I’m traveling and have a while to go. I used to also listen to audiobooks every morning while I showered before having to go to my soul-sucking government office job.

  • Is there anything else that you would blog about, other than books?

Probably movies–old ones with Lon Chaney or Vincent Price on the posters (so probably old horror) or maybe kitschy sci-fi like Barbarella and Zardoz. Of course, art. I love photography.

  • What is the longest book you have ever read?

Probably 2666 by Roberto Bolano. It’s the only one I can think of right now. While reading it in a park, a man walked by asking if I was reading Twilight.

  • Which book do you recommend most to others?

I think it depends on the person, but for the purposes of this Q&A, I’ll say Speedboat by Renata Adler.

  • Do you think more people should read the classics?

Of course! I wish I had more time to read the classics, too.

  • Where do you read?

Up here, over there, but my favorite place is in my wing chair.

  • What is the worst book you have ever read?

Hm. That’s a tough one. I was one assigned a book to review called The Abominable Gayman. That was pretty terrible.

  • If you could take 5 books with you to a desert island, which ones would you choose?

Dracula by Bram Stoker, Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Catch-22 by Joseph HellerBad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, and probably a big book by Wilkie Collins.

Bloggie Blogs - nominees are in no particular order other than alphabetical

  1. Beguiling Hollywood – Vicky Lester’s smorgasbord of old Hollywood.
  2. Bibliophilopolis – Jay writes about a variety of bibliophilia, but his biggest project is “Deal Me In,” which focuses on short stories.
  3. Doublewhirler – I love their photos and stories that accompany the posts.
  4. Fourth Street Review – Rory always has a great review up or other literary goodies.
  5. Grotesque Ground – A new blog; she writes about finding the grotesque in films and literature.
  6. Multo (Ghost) – Nina’s blog has been a favorite of my mine since my beginning blogging days. Folklore, ghosts, and all tales of the amazing.

**This is a little of a cheat, but I have to give a shout to one of my faves: Helen at Schietree but she has over 1000 followers (oh, those pesky rules!).

I hope you have fun investigating the other blogs listed above. The list could have gone on, but I’m short on time now.

Questions for Bloggers

  1. When did you start your blog?
  2. What was the motivation behind it?
  3. Have you found anything surprising about blogging?
  4. Do you have a personal favorite post on your blog?
  5. Has the point of view for your blog changed since you started it (strayed into other directions)?
  6. Any favorite internet places for wonderful procrastination in the art vein or otherwise?
  7. What has been your favorite place to visit and why?
  8. If you could meet any historical figure, dead or alive, who would it be?
  9. Time for that completely unanswerable question: What’s your favorite book?
  10. I can’t leave out the Proust questionnaire: What is your most treasured possession?
  11. Jet ski or 100 bottles wine? Which is a better prize?