Monday, August 30, 2010

You had me at smote. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (8.2 out of 10)

We love it when a book begins well, especially when reading an author for the first time. Whether it’s the first sentence, the first scene or the first chapter, we relish in the immediate realization that the writer can turn a gorgeous phrase, develop an engaging character, or embroil a reader in an original conceit.

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River engages right from the start. It begins with the intriguing premise that the narrator, Reuben Land, wishes he had good lungs and air to fill them with, and proceeds over the course of its first chapter to tell the brief but remarkable story of Reuben’s first breath. It’s a vignette that establishes critical elements of two of the most important characters in the story – Reuben and his father, Jeremiah. It contains one of my favorite images from the novel – Jeremiah’s right-handed smiting, shortly after Reuben’s birth, of the doctor who is prepared to resign Reuben’s fate to God after his failed attempt to make Reuben breathe. It ends with Reuben’s (really Jeremiah’s) foreshadowing challenge: “We and the world, my children, will always be at war. Retreat is impossible. Arm yourselves.” And it does all this in the equivalent of three pages. Spot on.

Of course, many novels start beautifully only to fail to live up to their initial promise. That’s not the case here, as Peace Like a River delivers. Leif Enger weaves a compelling, introspective and often humorous tale. Reuben, saddled with severe asthma, and his family embark on a journey after his older brother Davy finds himself on the run after dealing with local bullies in their small Minnesota town. Accompanied by his father and his immensely likable little sister, Swede, Reuben pursues his brother and bears witness to the miraculous. It’s a novel where the stakes never seem high, the characters never quite real, but the writing is too enjoyable and the story too wondrous, not unlike that perfect first chapter, to ever want to put it down. This one’s been around for a while, but if you haven’t read it already, check it out.

Back to our strong reaction to the book’s opening episode. We wonder, do you usually pause and reflect on the quality of the first sentence, scene or chapter of a book? Does it color your reading experience for a time, perhaps even for the entirety of the work? Is that fair? Do any novels stand out in your mind that began in mediocrity only to build into magnificence? Or any that failed to live up to a promising beginning?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Humulus Lupulus (that's hops, as in beer ... mmm ... beer)

That's right, my friends, you've made it through another long summer week to Friday.  To tell you the truth, I really don't know how you do it.  Seriously, with the kids, all that work around the house, and the added responsibilities at work, it's a wonder that you find the time and the energy to get it all done.  But done it is, week after week, and you've earned the right to kick back, relax, pop a cold one (might I suggest a Steel Rail EPA?), and be catered to.  Take all the time that you need, and don't be shy, as there's plenty of EPA to be had. 

Can I turn on the game for you?  No?  What?  The Rachel Zoe Project?  And a chardonnay?  What the hell?  Come on, this is a guy's blog!  Ok ... ok ... I get it ... the entire book blog universe is female.  The Rachel Zoe Project it is.  And I might have some old pinot grigio in the fridge, I guess.  Fine.  Whatever.  Fantastic.

Anyway, one of the many here in book blogdom that work tirelessly to make your life better, cleaner, easier, and more efficient is Jennifer over at Crazy for Books.  Each week Jennifer hosts the Book Blogger Hop, which aggregates the old and the new of book review websites from around the globe.  I can honestly say that I have never taken the time to peruse her listings without finding at least one new voice taht I return to week after week.  So give it a try, leave a comment here and there to express your appreciation, and feel free to invite any you may meet on your wanderings back here to The Literate Man.  We're always open to new friends.

If you are joining us from the Book Blogger Hop, then welcome!  Please feel free to kick our tires and check under the hood.  Don't mind that cat in the wheel well--he climbs up there to get warm.  You might be interested in our abbreviated, yet (somewhat) comprehensive review of the work of Ernest Hemingway in last week's The Inevitable Ernest Hemingway Post.  Or perhaps you'd be interested in our Declaration of War on All Things Twilight from a while back.  Or maybe, just maybe you'd like to take at our review of Sometimes a Great Notion, otherwise known as the greatest novel ever written.

Jennifer's question this week is whether we use a rating system in our blogs. We do, of course, use a ten-point system measured to the nearest integer. But we also have our doubts. Book-loving is an inherently subjective endeavor, and our rating system is likewise a reflection of our own likes and dislikes, which certainly differ from yours. On the other hand, guys like shorthand, and the ratings do serve that useful purpose. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Inevitable Ernest Hemingway Post

The Sun Also RisesThis was inevitable. No weblog that represents itself to address classic English-language literature of interest to men would be complete without an extended discussion of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s carefully-crafted public image was the consummate man’s man. He was (or at least presented himself to be) the ultimate sport-fishing, big game-hunting, womanizing, hard-drinking, expatriate war correspondent of his generation. And perhaps he was all these things, though there seems to be little doubt that his tremendous talent for crafting prose was equally matched by his talents for self-promotion and social climbing.

A Farewell To ArmsPutting the image of Hemingway-as-self-publicist to one side for a moment, no one is considered to have exerted more of an influence on American literature during the twentieth century than Ernest Hemingway. His terse prose and penchant for writing straightforward, convincing dialogue often reveals as much by silence or omission as by the words on the page. One of my favorite Hemingway shorts, “Hills Like White Elephants,” is comprised almost entirely of dialogue between a man and a girl at a cafĂ© outside a train station in Spain. Though the subject is never stated, it is clear that the two are discussing a prospective abortion. While the man favors the procedure, the girl has serious reservations, recognizing the tremendous loss that she (and they) will feel if she decides to go forward. What makes the story powerful is the careful dance between the two around a difficult subject and the hidden (but universally understood) meaning behind the literal words that are exchanged between them. Whatever one might think of Hemingway as a person, writing like this leave no doubt of his tremendous talent.

We have not read the entire bibliography of Ernest Hemingway, but we have read most of his novels and a smattering of collections and non-fiction, as well as several books about the author himself. The following is a list of the works that we have read and a note of reaction to each.

The Sun Also Rises(1926): A masterful depiction of sexual tension between male friends set against the Festival of San Fermin (and the Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona. The novel was based on actual events wherein, not surprisingly, Hemingway sought the attentions of a woman other than his wife. Incredibly, the manuscript took Hemingway only six weeks to write.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (Scribner Classics)A Farewell to Arms (1926): Based upon Hemingway’s own experience as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in World War I, this novel treats a soldier’s love for a woman against the backdrop of the political treachery that was experienced by men in uniform as power see-sawed between the Italians and the Austro-German troops.

To Have and Have Not (1929): Hemingway’s only novel set on American soil, this book treats the depression-era difficulties of a charter boat captain, who plies the waters between Cuba and Key West. Not generally considered Hemingway’s best work, it is interesting for the Steinbeck-like social commentary that it contains. The Literate Man reviewed this book several months ago, which review you can find here.

The Old Man and The SeaFor Whom the Bell Tolls (1940): The story of an American demolitions expert fighting with the Republicans against the fascist forces of Franco during the Spanish Civil War, this is our favorite of all the Hemingway novels. The desperation and hard resilience of the Republican forces, who are certain of defeat and see the death of a great socialist cause, leaps off the page, as does the more general topic of the individual horrors and atrocities of civil war.

Islands in the Stream : A NovelThe Old Man and the Sea (1952): More of a novella than a novel, this book won Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 (though it was officially awarded for his body of work). The work treats the story of Santiago, a Cuban fisherman who engages in an epic multi-day battle with a giant marlin far out in the Caribbean Sea. Many consider the story to symbolize Hemingway’s own battle against his critics, though Hemingway himself never admitted to the connection.

Death in the AfternoonIslands in the Stream (1970): The first posthumous work published from among Hemingway’s numerous manuscripts, the book looks at three stages in the life of Thomas Hudson, American painter. The first is with his sons on the island of Bimini, the second as a reconnaissance official tracking German submarines through the islands of the Caribbean during World War II, and the last is the ambiguous end of the protagonist as he comes to grips with the death of his son by war.

A Moveable Feast: The Restored EditionDeath in the Afternoon (1932): Hemingway’s first work of non-fiction, Death in the Afternoon treats the Spanish sport of bullfighting, including extensive technical analysis of the proper style of the matador. Hemingway’s admiration for the “sport” shines through on every page. For myself, well-written though it is, this book convinced me that there is no reasonable justification for the continued sport-slaughter of bulls in Spain or anywhere else for that matter.

A Moveable Feast (1964): This is probably Hemingway’s best known work of non-fiction. A memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920’s, the book features mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein. An homage to Paris before the war years, it is also a nostalgic look at those years when Hemingway was poor and happy with his first wife, Hadley, and their son.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia EditionThe Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (1987): The Nick Adams stories aside, Hemingway’s shorts are some of the leanest, meanest, most poignant, and most memorable works in all of American fiction. This is a great book to pick up periodically as a filler between novels.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing (1999): A series of snippets about the craft of writing picked up from various and sundry sources. The quotes are interesting, but often vague and sometimes contradictory. As Hemingway once famously quipped, talking about writing “takes off whatever butterflies have on their wings.” And yet, they managed to make a book out of his numerous observations.

Ernest Hemingway on WritingSo, let’s get to the heart of the matter. Hemingway: literary genius or degenerate or both? My personal opinion is that Hemingway deserves all the accolades, and I will continue to read him until my dying day for the genius that he was, though my opinion of Hemingway the man will always taint my enjoyment. What is your opinion of Hemingway? What are your favorite works and why? Can you respect his body of work while recognizing him as an unrepentant braggart, drunk, and philanderer?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) (6.5/10.0)

The Book ThiefIf you sat down to create the personification of death, what characteristics would you attribute to it? It’s an interesting question, and not always an easy one to answer. I think that it’s difficult to attribute any range of emotion to death simply because the event itself is so charged with certain base emotions that we all share. And because of our shared experience, death personified would appear to be somewhat two-dimensional. Characteristics including heavy, brooding, powerful, stoic, contemplative, frightening, and even cruel, predominate in popular culture, from the Grim Reaper to Joe Black. And we’re so consistently exposed to these darker anthropomorphisms that it is difficult to imagine any variation from them. What would the world make of a personified death that grew profoundly sad at the birth of a human being and overjoyed at taking him back at death?

The personification of death is the conceit of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a 2006 work which has received numerous awards in both young adult and general fiction categories and has been the recipient of positive reviews all around. It is death that tells the story of little Liesel Meminger s she struggles to make sense of the harsh words and actions of Nazi Germany under the Fuhrer and their effects on the people that she loves. In Zusak’s conception, death is one part stoic, one part curious, and one part sympathetic. He seems to have taken a unusual interest in Liesel, which he admits happens very rarely, and he follows her—collecting bodies along the way—through the long years of the war and beyond.

I admit that I liked the book as opposed to disliking it, but I found Zusak’s death as two-dimensional as any other representation, meaning that the novelty of the conceit wore off after the first hundred pages or so. And the human characters of the book were not very much more rounded, though it was impossible not to sympathize with orphaned Liesel and her adoptive parents, among others. The most interesting portions of the book for me were those that dealt with the hidden divide in German society during the war years and the mechanisms set up to root out and punish those that would undermine the Fuhrer and the war effort. At more than five hundred pages, I wish the book had included more of this. As it was, it dragged and I really had to struggle to finish it.

To tell you the truth, I really feel guilty about not liking this book more (especially given all the hype surrounding it). Perhaps it is simply a young adult novel from which I expected too much. Perhaps I am simply a bad reader. Or perhaps the book is simply overrated. I assume that most of you must have liked it. What was it that compelled you?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Fierce Radiance (Lauren Belfer) (9.2/10.0)

A Fierce Radiance: A NovelI read Lauren Belfer's debut novel, City of Light, because it was recommended to me by nearly every relative and acquaintance from my days up north.  Like Belfer, my family hails from Western New York, where the winters are long, the wings are hot, and the beer is Canadian.  I myself inhabited the hills and forests south of the Queen City (that's Buffalo for the uninitiated) until I reached the age of maturity, at which point I promptly pointed my '78 Chrysler Newport south and didn't stop until I reached the warm sands of South Beach.  But don't get me wrong, I still love Western New York--especially its people, whom Belfer captured perfectly--and I will always consider it home.  City of Light, then,  is the fictionalized account of the social life of a young schoolteacher set against the backdrop of the development of electric power at the turn of the century and the political power struggles that surrounded it.  I consider it to be the best work of modern fiction that has been written about the region or its history.   

All of that is a buildup to my review of Belfer's new novel, A Fierce Radiance, which treats the development and mass production of penicillin during the opening days of America's involvement in World War II.  Belfer truly has a gift for writing period pieces.  I can only imagine the amount of detailed research that went into this account of New York City in the days after Pearl Harbor--her detailed descriptions of the architecture of the period is matched by her eye for social nuance among the medical professionals, captains of industry, politicians, and journalists that comprise the story's main characters.  And her prose has a sort of silky, gloved feel to it that lulls you into believing, if only just for a moment, that you have a clear feel of what it was to have lived in those frightening and heady days of America's ascendancy.

It's not all perfect, mind you.  There were times that I found myself shaking my head at the inconsistencies of a particular character or the contrivances that wrap up what is a complex and twisted plot line.  But at the turn of a page, I consistently found myself back among the stone skyscrapers and the soldiers preparing to head off to war, and any author that can transport me so completely can be forgiven a few faults.  Overall, I found the book very enjoyable, and I continue to find Belfer an author worth reading.  

Friday, August 13, 2010

All Hopped Up on Goofballs

It's Friday ... again ... and that means that Jennifer over at Crazy for Books is hosting her weekly all-night kegger, known as the Book Blogger Hop.  It's a great place to see and be seen (write and be read?) and to mingle with the untouchable glitterati of the book blogging world.  All kidding aside, I have found many a worthy blog through Jennifer's weekly good offices and I humbly advise you, good sir or madam, to partake of the festivities while the wekend is young.  If and when you discover new talent (and there is no doubt that you will), be sure to leave a comment.

Now, if you are joining us from the Hop, please make yourself at home.  I'll take your coat, thank you.  Have a seat in this chair next to the fire and feel free to put your feet up on my mastiff--she won't mind, I assure you.  I would offer you a cup of cocoa, but we are fresh out.  Perhaps a nip of brandy?  Or, perhaps you are interested in our take on the literary giants of yesterday and today.  Feel free to peruse our listings at your leisure, and leave a comment here and there, for we dearly appreciate the input of our readers.

Jennifer's question this week is how many books you have on your TBR bookshelf.  I will admit that my TBR listing is a fluid one.  There are generally three or four books that I mean to get to, but they may get surreptitiously bumped if I come across a good review from among my many esteemed colleagues (which seems to happen very often).  How about yours?  Do you have a long list of must reads that you must read in order?  Or do you go with the flow and pick up whatever happens to fall from the higher shelves onto your head in your local used book store?

Please let us know.  And then have a great weekend. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sound Off on eBooks and eReaders, Part II

Curse you, Steve Jobs!  You and your deep understanding of American laziness!

Some context: a while back, I posted on what I considered to be the serious shortcomings of Apple's iPad as an e-reader.  You can find the entire bit here, but the arguments essentially boil down to three points: (1) it's too heavy; (2) it's too blurry; and (3) it becomes a mirror in sunlight.  I've added another since that initial post (thanks to The Reading Ape's $100 book-buying challenge), which is that the selection of available books is seriously lacking.  All of which is true, true, true.

What I failed to grasp in those early days was that the iPad is hands down the most versatile and convenient appliance that I own, and that convenience extends to the purchase of e-books.  I believe that I also failed to understand the depth of my commitment to laziness, especially after 8 pm.  Here's a scenario: I'm in bed at night, fiddling with the iPad, and perusing my fellow bloggers' latest words of wisdom, when I happen upon a review that piques my interest.  I decide to buy The Ask by Sam Lipsyte.  Now, I have three options: (1) write it down somewhere so that I can remember it on my next trip to the local indie, Books & Books; (2) head on over to Amazon, where I can order it and wait a couple of days for it to arrive; or (3) download it to either my Sony eReader or the iPad.  I decide on number 3 simply because I have neither an excellent memory nor superior organizational skills, and I am fairly certain that the scrap of paper will be lost in any case.  As for Amazon, I like to get my hands on interesting works while they are still of interest to me, which may or may not extend beyond my Adult ADD threshold of 60 minutes.  Moreover, number 3 is cheaper then numbers 1 and 2, and lord knows I'm cheap. 

As for the choice between the Sony eReader and the iPad, the Sony requires me to lug out my laptop, go to the Sony eReader Store, find the title, download the book, connect my eReader, and download the book to the eReader, all before I can start reading.  The iPad requires exactly two steps: a search of the title in the iBook Store and a press of the buy button.  Did I mention that I'm already in bed?  I did?  Did I also mention that I'm exceedingly lazy?  Good.  Then you can see where this is going.

Even though it's too heavy to read comfortably, even though it's blurry and hard on the eyes, even though it's impossible to read at the beach, and even though the selection is miniscule, the iPad's convenience and my laziness have combined to put it over the top as my reading device of choice.  Even I can't believe it. 

In sum, then, I believe that in these lines I have definitively established that I am often wrong, I am exceedingly cheap, I am extremely lazy, and ... all of these things make me a big fan of the iPad, even for e-books.  I have to imagine that the experience is similar for all the Kindle owners out there.  I'd love to hear from some of you, if only to share the shame that this realization has brought me.          

Monday, August 9, 2010

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (8.5/10.0)

Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (Modern Library)When I first saw the movie Pulp Fiction, I remember thinking that certain lines had been moved with regard to popular acceptance of scenes of violence.  Ultimately, however, the violence contained in Pulp Fiction and most mainstream Hollywood productions is more or less directly related to the plot; it is rarely gratuitous.  Of course, the plotlines of horror and slasher movies revolve around depictions of violence, making them pillars of the plot itself.  Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, is unique in that the extreme violence depicted is not so much related to plot as it is the very nature of the characters and the scene in which the story is set.  "Man is a violent (and godless) animal by nature" appears to be the premise out of which the entire novel develops.  And it convinces. 

Most of the story follows action on and around the Mexican border in the years 1849-1850, when violent encounters between whites and Native Americans were commonplace.  McCarthy creates characters that readers of his other work might recognize, at least in broad outline.  "The kid" is the unnamed protagonist--a runaway from Tennessee with excellent gunfighting and survival skills, which lend themselves to violence only when necessary for the kid's protection.  Judge Holden is the novel's antagonist and represents the embodiment of the violent nature of man.  Large and hairless, Holden and the kid are sometimes placed together among the same group, but the reader is always conscious of the tension between them. In the end, it is the kid's capacity for pity and sympathy that places him opposite the judge both physically and philosophically.

Not surprisingly, Blood Meridian is written in a style that emulates (and sometimes parallels) the powerful scenes of Revelation.  In McCarthy's version, however, it is the weak and innocent that are found wanting and are condemned to violent death.  Indeed, the end of the novel is as ambiguous and as apocalyptic as any I have ever read, wherein [**Spoiler Alert**] the reader can only be certain that violence has triumphed and firmly established itself as the nature of the world. Precisely how that triumph is accomplished (whether by violent murder or homosexual domination) is a subject of some debate.

I think that I have never been quite as unsettled by a novel as I have by Blood Meridian (though The Road comes close).  It is considered by many to be McCarthy's greatest work and one of the most important works of our generation.  Ultimately, I think that McCarthy's genius lies in his ability to dig deep into the places that many of us are afraid to go and show us the logical outcomes of some of our most troubling feelings and capacities as human beings.  As for Blood Meridian itself, it was so very troubling to me as to practically defy description or categorization.  I can only say that it is the work of a genius; whether I can count it among my favorites (or even most respected) will take a considerable amount of further contemplation.  Blood Meridian begs for discussion, and I am very interested in what all of you have to say.  

Friday, August 6, 2010

Dennis Hopper (that's a Hop pun, people)

Dennis Hopper?  Now, that's a stretch, you might be thinking.  But I say not remotely, my friend ... not when Leslie Hindman Auctioneers is at this very moment featuring one of 100 signed copies of Dennis Hopper Out of the Sixties by Dennis Hopper (Twelvetrees Press, 1986) to be sold at its next Fine Books and Manuscripts Auction on August 12th (find the listing here).  The book is expected to fetch between $600 and $800, which will really put a dent in the August weed and incense budget of whoever the lucky buyer is.  On the other hand, it is nice to see tribute paid to a true, and recently-departed, American icon.     

Which leads me to my next question: exactly how much money are you willing to part with?  Because DO I HAVE AN INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU!  Yes, you too can own a theoretical portion of a first edition, first printing of Faulkner's Light in August (expected to fetch between $2,000 and $4,000) (listing here), and I personally guarantee that you can visit that theoretical portion at least twice a year on my bookshelf in Miami Beach (food and lodging not included, though I do have a tent that I would be willing to lend).

Seriously, if you are a classics lover or simply a lover of antiquities, you must, must, must check out the auction site.  But be careful, it's addictive.  And if any of you bid against me for the Matisse-signed, first edition of Joyce's Ulysses, I swear that I will find you and make you pay ...

All of this was supposed to be a lead in to the Book Blogger Hop, which is being hosted all weekend long over at Crazy for Books.  Go forth and see what bounty of book reviews the Internet has spawned.  And when you find something that you like, be sure to leave a message.  But come back to The Literate Man ... and bring your cash ... because that Faulkner is seriously tempting me.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Perfect Mile (Neal Bascomb) (8.5/10.0)

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It
What do we all think about audio books? It’s a topic that receives a great deal of treatment out there in the book-review blogdom. And I’ll freely admit that I’m never quite sure about my own feelings on the matter. Is it possible to “read” a work of literature by listening? Or, more importantly, is the enjoyment that you receive from listening to an audio book equal to the enjoyment that you receive from actually reading that same book? I raise the issue because I recently listened to the The Perfect Mile on audio book (which can be found here). Moreover, I listened to it while running, and I truly believe that I got much more enjoyment from it in that medium than I would have by reading it in print. The same tends to hold true for me for my guilty pleasures, science fiction (Orson Scott Card) and action/adventure books (Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum). I'm still a classics guy at heart, but I like to mix it up every now and then. But to the point: as a rule, I believe that a true work of literature (classic or modern) should be read and that listening to such a work deprives the listener of the true force of the tale. What do you believe?

Now what was I doing before I got so philosophical? Ah yes, reviewing a book ... that’s right. The Perfect Mile is the fast-paced (pun completely intended) story of three men from three continents that all chased the impossible dream of breaking the four-minute mile in the 1950’s. Roger Bannister, an English medical student, treated running as science and a hobby (his first priority being medicine); Australian John Landy trained longer and harder than anyone before or since; and American Wes Santee was a natural athlete who rose to prominence out of a brutal childhood and first proposed that he would break the four-minute mile. Bascomb’s treatment of the three is properly measured, providing enough background for the reader (listener) to identify with each (though Landy inevitably becomes the reader’s favorite) and presenting each race during the period 1952 to 1954 as a seat-edge sitting, nail-biting competition that inevitably comes down to the wire. And so, after numerous battles on the cinder track at competitions held around the world, the four-minute mile was finally broken by ... No, I can’t do that, but if you’re really interested a simple Google search will give you the winner.

If you run or work out at the gym or do work around the house or do just about anything that will enable you to wear a pair of headphones or ear buds, I urge you to check out this inspiring story (in audio format) that, at bottom, shows that human belief and perseverance can overcome any obstacle. Not that I’m running any four-minute miles, mind you, but it did inspire me to get out and run, and that’s worth something.