Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Review: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

image via Goodreads

title: The Fifty Year Sword
[support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
by: Mark Z. Danielewski
genre: fiction
pages: 285
published: 2005
source:  New York Public Library

The Fifty Year Sword was originally published in 2005 as a limited edition, and is usually only performed on Halloween night as a live shadow show.  This month, however, it was re-released by Pantheon Books and I jumped at the chance to get my hands on a copy.

Like Danielewski's previous work, the story being told is as important as how it's being told, which is as important as how it looks as it's being told.  As in House of Leaves, which used multiple fonts, colors and text layouts to delineate the different parts of the story, The Fifty Year Sword uses five different color quotation marks and illustrations that resemble embroidery to tell the tale.  

And what a tale it is:  the plot follows the local seamstress, Chintana, as she attends a local Halloween party where she watches a mysterious storyteller tell a tale to five rambunctious orphans.

Haunting and lyrical with strong characterization, this story written in verse is a quick read (I finished it while doing laundry), but still leaves quite an impression.  Definitely recommended.

Rubric rating: 8. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

My favorite passage from Paul Auster's "Oracle Night"

"Early in our friendship, Trause told me a story about a French writer he had known in Paris in the early fifties. I can't remember his name, but John said he had published two novels and a collection of stories and was considered to be one of the shining lights of the younger generation.  He also wrote some poetry, and not long before John returned to America in 1958 (he lived in Paris for six years), this writer acquaintance published a book-length narrative poem that revolved around the drowning death of a young child.  Two months after the book was released, the writer and his family went on a vacation to the Normandy coast, and on the last day of their trip his five-year-old daughter waded into the choppy waters of the English Channel and drowned.  The writer was a rational man, John said, a person known for his lucidity and sharpness of mind, but he blamed the poem for his daughter's death. Lost in the throes of grief, he persuaded himself that the words he'd written about an imaginary drowning had caused a real drowning, that a fictional tragedy had provoked a real tragedy in the real world.  As a consequence, this immensely gifted writer, this man who had been born to write books, vowed never to write again.  Words could kill, he discovered.  Words could alter reality, and therefore they were too dangerous to be entrusted to a man who loved them above all else.  When John told me the story, the daughter had been dead for twenty-one years, and the writer still hadn't broken his vow.  In French literary circles, that silence had turned him into a legendary figure.  He was held in the highest regard for the dignity of his suffering, pitied by all who knew him, looked upon with awe.

John and I talked about this story at some length...[John] said that the writer's decision made perfect sense to him and that he admired his friend for having kept his promise. 'Thoughts are real,' he said. 'Words are real. Everything human is real, and sometimes we know things before they happen, even if we aren't aware of it.  We live in the present, but the future is inside us at every moment.  Maybe that's what writing is all about, Sid.  Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.' "

~Paul Auster, Oracle Night (page 220)

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Literary Link List

Links to pieces, old and new, on literature:  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What I'm Reading...

title:  NW
author:  Zadie Smith
published:  September 2012
genre:  literary fiction

NW has been my subway read for a few days now, and thus far, the seven years we've had to wait since On Beauty were well worth it.  Abstract and lyrical and refreshingly honest.  I'll let you know what I think once I finish.

author: Salman Rushdie
published:  September 2012
genre:  memoir

I started reading Joseph Anton in honor of Banned Books Week, because, let's face it:  The Satanic Verses is pretty much the ultimate banned book (and also, in my opinion, one of Rushdie's finest works).   About a year ago, I saw an older documentary that focused on the controversy created by the novel's publication.  The documentary did a thorough job of explaining why some felt so strongly about the book, but I've wondered what living under a fatwa for almost ten years was like for Rushdie.  This book answers that question, and then some.  I'm about 200 pages in, and I'm finding it fascinating so far.  

author: Eduardo Halfon
published: October 2012

A few months ago, I stumbled across the Kickstarter page for this book and was intrigued, so I was really excited to see it up on LibraryThing's Early Reviewers list.  I have a feeling, knowing my book-specific ADD, I'll start reading it before I finish the other two.

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rapid Fire Reviews!!!!!!

My stack of books "to be reviewed" is out of control, so let's get right down to it:

title: Henry and June [purchase here]
author: Anais Nin
pages: 274
genre: nonfiction (diary)
published: 1986
source:  New York Public Library

Henry and June features collected entries from Nin's A Journal of Love (1931-1932) and tells of her powerful love affair with Henry Miller.  One of Nin's strengths is her ability to take complex, personal matters of the heart and lay them bare with such intelligence, insight and raw honesty.  Eloquent, brave and intensely personal, Nin's journal was nothing short of riveting.

Rubric rating: 9

title: Oracle Night [purchase here]
author: Paul Auster
pages: 243
genre: literary fiction
published: 2003
source:  New York Public Library

This was my first time reading Auster and I was impressed.  The man KNOWS how to tell a great story.  Oracle Night's plot is nothing short of brilliantly constructed.  It follows author Sidney Orr who, while recovering from an illness that almost killed him, buys a new blue notebook at a neighborhood stationary shop and starts working on a new project.  His next nine days are nothing short of bizarre. 

Auster's strength is his ability to create a story so compelling and so riveting...and the last 40 pages are nothing short of genius.  

Rubric rating: 8

title: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? [purchase here]
author: Jeanette Winterson
pages: 230
genre: memoir
published: 2011
source:  I won this book playing Name That Author on Book Riot 
(the answer that week was Vladmir Nabokov)

This book has been my subway read for the past two weeks, and having Winterson's company on my morning and evening commute as been nothing short of delightful.  In this memoir, she takes on topics such as literature, her childhood, religion, and sexuality, each with wisdom and humor. Make no mistake, Winterson's childhood was crazytown, but she handles the topic with such balance and generosity and grace...the result is moving.  

Rubric rating: 7.5

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: In America by Susan Sontag

title: In America [purchase here]
author:  Susan Sontag
genre: literary fiction
pages: 387
published: 2000
source:  New York Public Library

"Each of us carries a room within ourselves, waiting to be furnished and peopled, and if you listen closely, you may need to silence everything in your own room, you can hear the sounds of that other room inside your head." (page 27)

In America is such an expansive piece of fiction, in which Sontag takes on everything from immigration to life in the theatre (with the "re"), and from the nature of love to what it means to be American.  And she takes it on with an eloquence most can only aspire to.   The novel follows Polish actress Maryna Zalezowska, legend of the stage, as she and her close circle of friends leave Poland and immigrate to America to live the simple commune life.  Each chapter varies stylistically, which really showcases Sontag's versatility, and brings new life to many a well-explored theme.

I'm sure I have nothing super original to contribute to a discussion of Sontag's work, and given that I've only (yet) read 1 1/2 of her novels (I started The Volcano Lover years ago but for some reason never finished), I did some research post-reading.  I highly recommend listening to this podcast over from CBC Radio's Writers and Company from October of 2000.  First of all, I had no idea Sontag had such a low, resonant voice.  Second of all, she is just such a damned eloquent speaker and so fascinating to listen to.

The only part of the book that, initially, didn't really work for me was the last chapter, where Sontag has Edwin Booth go on an alcoholic tirade about life and truth and acting...it just seemed such a sad and almost oppressive way to end the book.  But then, during said podcast, Sontag spoke about what was going on in her life when she wrote the last chapter: she said she writes chronologically and was about 30-40 pages from the end of the novel when she received another cancer diagnosis.  Now, with that small glimpse into her frame of mind, I can understand where that might have come from and how wrong I was initially.  

Rubric rating:  Duh. 9.  I really want to read her nonfiction work on photography.