It is always a pleasant surprise to confirm—or reconfirm, as the case may be—that that great author that “everyone” says is so good, or that “everyone...moreIt is always a pleasant surprise to confirm—or reconfirm, as the case may be—that that great author that “everyone” says is so good, or that “everyone” is made to read in high school or college, or that Time has declared to be Important, is actually, sincerely worth the hype. So it happens that I’ve had it reconfirmed for myself this year that J.D. Salinger is, yes: really, incredibly good.
I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, but I actually read it too late (it wasn’t actually assigned to me in high school, when I really should have read it), and so it maybe hasn't been on the top of my Very Favorites list. Then I loved Franny and Zoey, which still stands as one of those books that I can read over and over, as I always remember loving it, but forget all the details, so then re-read it again and love it all over. Having just finished Nine Stories for the first time, I think it will be one of the latter kinds of books. I may not remember all of the details of each story, but I think the tone of the book will stick with me, and I will undoubtedly read and love it again in the future.
What stood out for me during this reading, stretched out over more than a month, is that I found myself constantly wanting to read little sections or snatches of dialog or wry observations out loud. Not only does Salinger just have an amazing talent for biting dialog which just sounds great to hear spoken, his turns of phrase also just tickle you (me) in a way which makes you want to share it. So it’s in this spirit that I’ve gone back through and found particularly quotable lines to share "aloud."
“A Perfect Day for a Banana Fish”
She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.
“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut”
”Well, wudga marry him for, then?” Mary Jane said.
“Oh, God, I don’t know. He told me he loved Jane Austen. He told me her books meant a great deal to him. That’s exactly what he said. I found out after we were married that he hadn’t even read one of her books. You know who his favorite author is?”
Mary Jane shook her head.
“L. Manning Vines. Ever hear of him?”
“Neither did I. Neither did anybody else. He wrote a book about four men who starved to death in Alaska. Lew doesn’t remember the name of it, but it’s the most beautifully written book he’s ever read. Christ! He isn’t even honest enough to come right out and say he liked it because it was about four guys who starved to death in an igloo or something. He has to say it was beautifully written.”
“Just Before the War with the Eskimos”
Ginnie openly considered Selena the biggest drip at Miss Basehoar’s—a school ostensibly abounding with fair-sized drips—but at the same time she had never known anyone like Selena for bringing a fresh can of tennis balls.
“What happened?” Ginnie asked, looking at him.
“Oh…it’s too long a story. I never bore people I haven’t known for at least a thousand years.”
“For Esme—with Love and Squalor”
”I thought Americans despised tea,” she said.
It wasn’t the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover.
“Yes; quite,” said my guest, in the clear, unmistakable voice of a small-talk detester.
He sighed heavily and said, “Christ, Almighty.” It meant nothing; it was Army.
Loretta was Clay’s girl. They meant to get married at their earliest convenience. She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations.
Clay stared at him for a moment, then said, rather vividly, as if he were the bearer of exceptionally good news, “I wrote Loretta you had a nervous breakdown."
“Yeah. She’s interested as hell in all that stuff. She’s majoring in psychology.” Clay stretched himself out on the bed, shoes included. “You know what she said? She said nobody gets a nervous breakdown just from the war and all. She says you probably were unstable like, your whole goddamn life.
X bridged his hands over his eyes—the light over the bed seemed to be blinding him—and said that Loretta’s insight into things was always a joy.
“You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?” he asked. “You know what in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff…I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters,” he said. He shook his head.
During the "Golden Age" of British crime fiction, Ronald Knox, a British clergyman, literary critic, and author of several crime novels himself, wrote...moreDuring the "Golden Age" of British crime fiction, Ronald Knox, a British clergyman, literary critic, and author of several crime novels himself, wrote the "ten commandments" of crime fiction (see here: http://goo.gl/v1saO). These rules vary from "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable" to "No Chinaman must figure in the story." (In his introduction, Škvorecký explains that despite the regrettable epitaph, the rule "was not a display of racism on the part of the good Father, but simply his reaction to what was one of the most hackneyed ploys of cheap detective stories.")
Since the writing of these "commandments," most have been broken in very good examples of crime fiction. Josef Škvorecký, a Czech author who emigrated to Canada following the Prague Spring, set out to break all of Father Knox's rules in this collection of short, linked crime stories. You, the reader, are charged with two tasks when reading: determining not only whodunnit in each story, but also which sin Škvorecký has committed against the commandments. (If you need some help working out the "who," the "what," and the "how" of each story, the "Ab-solutions" in the back will clear things up for you.)
Each of the ten stories find the gorgeous, clever, and world-weary Czech night-club singer Eve Adam unexpectedly playing detective in run-down bars and seedy districts all over the world. Having been cleared of a murder she was wrongly convicted of in the first story (with the help of Škvorecký's usual leading man, Detective Boruvka) Eve joins a traveling Czech performance group. But whether she's in Sweden, Italy, San Francisco, a cruise across the Atlantic, or Prague, certain things don't change for Eve--for all her cynicism, she's a romantic who can never stay away from smooth-talking men, and wherever she goes, someone seems to unexpectedly turn up dead.
Škvorecký taps into his inner Conan Doyle, and stresses logic and deduction in each tale, but honestly, sometimes the stories are convoluted enough (much like a Sherlock Holmes story) that it would prove a difficult thing to work out the answers. But while the stories occasionally feel a bit too clever, the surrounding characterizations are really rich and entertaining. Characters reoccur throughout the book and anecdotes told in one story pop up again and are put to good use in another. (You really have to read all of the stories in order--they build on one another in small, but meaningful ways. Also, it's best to read each story in one sitting--it's easy to forget little pertinent details and clues otherwise.) Eve is a sharp narrator, and a very funny observer of human folly--including her own--which really makes this a pleasure to read. (less)
I'm reviewing this collection this month and am hopping around among the various sections/stories (there are actually a lot of big name authors included), so I'm just going to list some brief impressions of the stories as I read them so as to not totally muddle them in my head.
Part I: (Men and) Women
*Women in Copenhagen: Decent. Fairly good atmosphere, and an interesting enough back story, but little comes of it. Credibility is somewhat stretched in the very first paragraph of the story, with the lines, "You have arrived in Scandinavia. You have just entered a long, bitter winter. Here there are no free rides. Here you are left to your own fate." I'll give you that the winter's are cold, but c'mon with the abandonment bit. Me thinks the welfare state doth protest too much.
*One of the Rough Ones: Bleh. Very harsh story, very violent. Young women/sexual abuse/etc. It would be hard for me to determine honestly if this is a good story. It's just not for me. I skimmed.
*Australia: Pretty good. Yet another example of scary immigrants in Denmark (this time, Polish/Eastern European sex traffickers and drug dealers), which is irritating, and it does veer into a more visceral sort of violence at the end, which again, I'm just not a fan of. But I actually thought a lot of the characterizations were strong. There are multiple characters who all get some form of narration from their points of view--a small time 'clean-up man' and member of the prostitution syndicate who's saved up a great deal of money so that he can run away and start over; a Polish prostitute named Adina who has escaped and is hiding out in the apartment of one of her Danish patrons; a young Moldavian girl who has been sold in prostitution by her parents (but not yet actually handed over to the prostitution ring); a brutal pimp searching for Adina. And everyone looking for an escape route. The ending resolves well, although I actually suspect that there was a misprint of two characters' names. There's a change-of-heart twist at the end that doesn't really make sense given the men in question. But either way, it's got a good ending.
*All I Want Is My Baby, Whoah Whoah, Woah Woah Woah Woah: Inner monologue of a would-be psychopath. Slightly more interesting because the narrator is a woman, incensed because of an insulting pick up attempt--someone tells her that she looks like Keith Richards and she just loses it. Lots of dramatic language, but not actually much here.
*A Fine Boy: Okay? Not much here, but again, some good atmosphere. Also a fine bit of 'real Denmark' detail: a major plot point hinges on a character leaving her child outside in a stroller while she's working inside at a restaurant. This is a thing--really. Scandinavians leave their babies outside, unattended, in their prams all the time. Even when it's cold or rainy. They just tuck them under their blankets and cover them with little plastic wind guards and don't fuss about it.
Part Two: Mammon
*When the Time Came: Pretty darn good, with some flaws. More good atmosphere, localized and relevant immigration/racial tension and themes, and a nicely contained story with decently drawn characters. The immigrant characters get perhaps a more surface-level treatment and/or motives, but there's still some sincere empathy throughout.
*Sleipner's Assignment: Very good. So far, my favorite in the collection. Love the rundown, shady PI and the fact that he scales gothic-style apartment buildings--like climbs straight up the side of a building in the name of surveillance. Good tension and allusion to possible violence without needing to actually get brutal. Bears noting that the author, Georg Ursin, published his first (crime) novel at the age of 71.
*Debt of Honor: I started this one and stalled--it was a bit muddled. But then again, it's a story by Klaus Rifbjerg and he is, firstly, kinda a big deal, and secondly, not the most straightforward of authors, so I need to go back and try it again.
*When It's Tough Out There: Oh boy. Full veto. This one is really, really bad. Woman seeks revenge on her husband, who she has discovered is a brothel owner, by becoming a prostitute in his brothel. Oh, and her mom was a prostitute and died from an overdose when she (the narrator) was a child. Also, weird racial undertones. Also, terrible dialog. No. Just no.
Part Three: Corpses
*Savage City, Cruel City: This story was actually written in Swedish, and takes place in Malmö, which is actually the third largest city in Sweden (by population), but is kind of considered a suburb of Copenhagen because of its strong ties to Denmark, both culturally (it was, back in the day, a Danish territory) and economically. Malmö and Copenhagen are also connected by one of the longest bridges in Europe, so there is a lot more cross-over between it and Copenhagen now than there even used to be. All of this is very interesting context, and there is a sort of prose poem quality to the language and the pacing. Also, one of the main characters, a drunk detective named Nils Forsberg who is going through something of a spiritual crisis, has a lot of potential. I'm not sure that it really came together as well as it might have, but not a bad effort.
*The Elephant's Tusks: Meh. Starts with a lot of potential, and more good atmosphere. But nothing comes of it, and the ending is not only strange and a little gross, but kind of irrelevant and pointless.
*The Booster Station: Very Good--my second favorite in the collection after "Sleipner's Assignment." The author's bio reveals that the story was written by a "New Dane" (the incredibly loaded Danish term for immigrants or Danes of different ethnicities)of Turkish descent, although it doesn't have any of the racial or ethnic signifiers that carry so much weight and dread in the rest of the collection. It's very much like Stand By Me: two teenagers find the body of a young woman by some train tracks and convince themselves (briefly) that they are going to be heroes by catching the culprit themselves. As one boy becomes more obsessed with this plan, the other begins to have doubts about not reporting the crime immediately. Tautly paced, good characterization, lots of dramatic developments--some of them very unpleasant, but not gratuitous.
That's all but the last two. I'll probably finish those shortly, but will also have an overall review shortly. (less)
A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.
Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.
In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal...”
Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time... [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.
The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years... I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control. (less)
Right off, let me say that the Trail We Leave is really a splendid book. Jumping between a very empathetic style of observation and a sense of humor w...moreRight off, let me say that the Trail We Leave is really a splendid book. Jumping between a very empathetic style of observation and a sense of humor which really delights in the obvious absurdity of personal relationships, this is one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time, hands down. (The last really wonderful collection being Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, for what it's worth. And Ten Little Indians had its high points, too, for that matter, but I digress...)
The author, Ruben Palma, has an interesting back story to be sure. According to his bio in the back of the book, he grew up in Santiago, Chile, graduated from high school in 1971, and, after dabbling in "esoteric and eastern philosophies" "participated actively in what he believed was a libertarian, leftist movement" which he eventually left because of its "authoritarian nature." Palma became an army deserter after the coup in 1973, and became a refugee with the United Nations' protection. The next year, at the age of 19, Palma moved to Denmark. After 25 years in his adoptive country, Palma then actually started writing in Danish, the product being the aforementioned (and very highly acclaimed) story collection.
Most of the stories deal with the experience of (mostly Chilean)immigrants in Denmark in some measure--although some diverge slightly from this formula. We meet a Chilean man whose relationship with his Danish girlfriend is completely and absurdly upended when his language instructor sends an amorous postcard to his home. There's another man who flees to Finland over New Year's after some particularly complicated relationship issues, where he meets a man from Bangladesh who is trying, futilely, to win the affections of a Finnish foreign aid worker he met while she was working in his hometown. A little girl practicing her Danish lines in a school play while remembering her home town of Playa Verde.
The thread that runs through each of the stories is one of disjuncture and alienation, the turbulent negotiation of learning to integrate in a society so entirely different from one's own, of wanting to become something (and someone) new, while still desperately hanging on to what one once was. And while the experiences of the characters are all exquisitely unique and completely specific to them, Palma not only captures the "borderland," or the "strange places between a country forever lost and a new one," (as the translator writes in his notes) but also the very sticky process of identity creation and revision that everyone goes through.
The complications of identity creation are best articulated in "The Return of Roy Jackson," one of the best stories in the book. In it, Artemio Sandoval, a Columbian expat in Denmark, recalls a moment in his boyhood when he decided that he would be a writer one day:
The child Artemio had just written another story about Roy Jackson: his own fictitious cowboy who rode through wild landscapes while he shot at Indians and bandits. In 'The Return of Roy Jackson,' as the story was called, the hero, after many years' absence, had returned to his home town and freed it from the iron grip of a tyrannical villain.
The child used to end all his stories with a drawing, and full of excitement, he concentrated on making the very first stroke: a light, horizontal line drew Roy Jackson's jawbone, and from there he assumed his full shape gradually...
Suddenly, the child's mother came in, and her usual flurry seemed to fill the whole room in a flash...She stopped and smiled; her youngest child was far off in his own world when he bent over a piece of paper with pencil in hand. She went over to him, hugged him, closed her eyes and stared into the future...'Some day you will be a famous author, my Temito'...'
And so, even through all of the dramatic events that eventually bring Artemio to Denmark, he still retains this idea of himself as an author. But things aren't so simple. At first, he must transition to his new country. Then, he must decide what project deserves the majority of his attention. His writing goes nowhere. Time passes. Artemio takes on the persona of an author without ever really writing anything--"His clothes, movements, voice--his whole being took on a kind of literary appearance. Little by little people in his circle of acquaintances referred to him with a certain respect as "the author" or "the one who writes." But he's stopped writing all together.
There are a lot of developments and turns in the story which I won't give away because you should really go out and read it yourself, but suffice to say that eventually, decades later, Artemio realizes that it was never writing that he really loved--it was drawing. And so his whole life, he's been working towards becoming this person--and towards making people know him as this person--who he never really wanted to be. It's devastating and liberating all at the same time.
The topic of immigration is a really fraught one in Denmark--a country which has been accustomed to having a coherent national identity, comprised of common traditions, and language, and culture. To become a citizen in Denmark, one has to renounce her former citizenship. It's not a country that has much experience with the so-called 'hypenated' identities that the US does. There are no 'Chilean-Danes'--a whole national debate has raged for years over what to call immigrants (I've believe they are still settled on "New Danes," as the term, though who knows how long you have to live there before you can just be considered an 'Old Dane.')But again, although The Trail We Leave speaks to this very unique transitional experience, it will surely resonate with a much wider audience. I hope that we get more of his work in English in the future. (less)
Although a number of these stories were at least reminiscent of ones I am already familiar with--including variations on "Show White," "Cinderella," a...moreAlthough a number of these stories were at least reminiscent of ones I am already familiar with--including variations on "Show White," "Cinderella," and "Hansel and Gretel"--I really enjoyed this collection. I'm not terribly well versed in folk traditions and hadn't actually realized what an overlap there is between different countries and their oral fables and stories.
Perhaps the aforementioned overlap is most notable (and unexpected)in the story of "The Enchanted Farmhand." It's the tale of a farmhand who finds out that the rich woman he works for has a magic salve that transforms her into an eagle. He tries it out on himself only to turn into a donkey. Unable to get one of the magic apples that will turn him back into a human, the poor farmhand is stolen by bandits, sold to a farmer, and whipped and worked mercilessly until he's able to come up with a clever trick to appease his master. Then, through a random and convenient twist of fate, he's found by the woman with the salve and transformed back into a human. This story is a derivation of a Greek story which was used as the basis for a story in The Metamorphosis and also Apuleius' The Golden Ass.
The narrative conventions in these stories was also really interesting. Magical plot elements are created and utilized as the story calls for them, and there's never any effort expended to justify them. Nuns suddenly have the power to grant wishes, old beggar women wander around dispensing magical advice and giving wonderful gifts to hapless princesses. People fall into ponds and can breathe underwater. Having preceeded the-suspension-of-your-disbelief, these stories are purely and without question the product of the teller--whatever the storyteller says goes, and the reader (or listener) just has to accept it without question.
The morality of these tales also varies--most likely because they were collected from various parts of the country and some are from oral traditions, while some were gathered from pre-existing written texts. Sometimes curiosity is rewarded, sometimes it results in the death of all your future children. Sometimes strangers will give you wonderful gifts, and sometimes they are your stepmother in disguise and trying to kill you. Not exactly words to live by.
But there is one absolute that could be taken away from these stories: never, ever, ever go wandering off into the forest...(less)
I obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through an inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California's Southern Library Facility, you really mad...moreI obtained a copy of The Polar Bear through an inter-library loan. So, thank you, University of California's Southern Library Facility, you really made my day. Or maybe even my year.
This was such a lovely short story, filled with the type of elegant, visual prose that writing instructors the world over are pointing to when they admonish their students to "Show!" and "Not Tell!" But even so, the dialog and the fluidity of the story are never bogged down in lengthly, over-flowered passages. Observe our first introduction to the novel's protagonist:
"Imagine for yourself, dear Reader, a large, flaming red face, with a snow-white, tousled beard hanging down from it; and hiding, here and there is the rough chinhairs, more old remnants of green cabbage slop, breadcrumbs or tan-colored snuff tobacco than one might find completely appetizing...It should also be pointed out that Pastor Muller was exactly six feet one and a half inches tall, that he had lost a finger on his left hand, and that he presented himself to the world, summer and winter, in the same marvelous costume, consisting of a moth-eaten dogskin cap with a visor, a pair of gray checkered trousers stuck into a pair of massive boots that stank sourly of whale oil, and a short, shiny old hunting jacket, a so-called "rump-cooler," that was buttoned tightly over his huge, giant-like body..."
The Polar Bear is a novella about Thorkild Muller, a reclusive, undereducated, and outcast Danish pastor who is reassigned to a parish in Greenland. Muller quickly finds a sense of belonging and fulfillment living with the Inuit, and becomes integrated into their nomadic society. In his old age, however, Muller returns to Denmark and finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in a confrontation with the Danish church.
It's wonderful, which is actually extremely tragic, in that most of you won't have access to a copy to read and those of you who do out there in Southern California don't seem to take advantage of it. (The borrower slip in the back of the book shows that this was only rented from the library once in April 2005. So, shout out to my library buddy in California--you have excellent taste.)
As translator James Massengale notes in his Afterword,
"There has been a real need, in our modern Scandinavian literature classes, for an exuberant story with no battle of the sexes, no lengthy account of awful diseases, no "depressing realism." The Polar Bear was chosen partially as an answer to the common student reaction of the type: "do the Scandinavians always get depressed or divorce, or commit suicide in their stories?" The answer, as far as this novella goes, is certainly no; but that does not mean our story is simplistic, or that it lacks depth or "debate." The choice also has the advantage of bring to students' attention the name of an outstanding but less-known Danish author, Henrik Pontoppidan, who, despite winning a shared Nobel Prize for literature in 1917, has not remained within our American-Scandinavian teaching "cannon." He needs to be reinstated, along with a number of other Scandinavian writers of both sexes who have been brushed aside by the great Ibsen/Strindberg steamroller and the restrictive policies of some of the larger publishing houses."