Monthly Archives: April 2010


by Evelyn Waugh

Although I loved Brideshead Revisited (both the novel and the 1981 BBC television series), I’d never read any other novels by Evelyn Waugh. Then, while I was doing all the reading for Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I picked up a copy of Waugh’s fifth novel, Scoop, and found myself totally entranced and entertained.  And, not least, I found myself both shocked and uncomfortable.  I want to recommend Scoop highly, because it’s a brilliant and biting satire that exposes the baseness of the news reporting business and, more specifically, tabloid journalism.  I am, in fact, recommending it highly; it’s definitely well worth reading.  Believe me, after you finish this, you’ll never read (or hear) a news story in quite the same way again. Scoop was written in the 1930s and is clearly based on Waugh’s experiences as a reporter covering the war between Italy and Ethiopia. 

But the more I thought about it (and I thought about it a lot because this issue really interests me), the more I questioned how I could praise a novel so highly that is both racist and anti-Semitic?  How can I have so thoroughly enjoyed such a book?  And—just to warn you—the racism and anti-Semitism are not presented at all subtly.  Scoop is filled with epithets and descriptions that made me wince in psychic pain.

It’s true that you can find these same sentiments toward non-Christians and non-whites reflected in the mystery novels of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, for example, although they’re not quite as barbed as they are in the hands of Waugh, who is probably the best writer of the three.  Do we excuse the novels because these were the attitudes of the time, and the authors were merely sailing along with the prevailing wind?  Is it right to read the future into these books and see the Holocaust foretold in the anti-Semitism and the messiness of the Middle East in the treatment of the natives in Waugh’s fictional country?  I don’t know the answer to these questions. What do you think?


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Last Night in Montreal

by Emily St. John Mandel

I just finished a really wonderful first novel.  I first checked it out of the library, but since I was so entranced by the writing and the characters, I am heading out to the bookstore today to buy a copy.  I want it to be on my bookshelves, along with all those other books that just looking at (whether or not I reread them) make me glad to be a reader.

It’s called Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel and I am at a loss as to how to describe this novel concretely in order to give you a sense of the story. When Lilia—who has a history of never staying in any one place for more than a few months—abruptly leaves Eli without any explanation, he determines that he’s going to find her.  Gradually, through the author’s adroit use of flashbacks, the reader comes to understand Lilia’s compulsion to flee, to always be going somewhere other than where she is. 

The story is important (and the ending is breathtaking), but it’s not—to me—the most important aspect of Mandel’s novel. That would be the characters and the writing.  I found the characters to be wholly alive, in all their complexity, bad choices, general quirkiness, and faulty decisions.  I loved how Mandel wove in the subject of Eli’s long unfinished doctoral dissertation (on dead and dying languages) into conversations or musings that illuminated the various characters.  The novel is about loss, obsession, how we never quite escape from our childhood experiences, and love.

And the writing simply blew me away.  Here’s a rather long quotation from the beginning of chapter three, when Eli is falling into despair about Lilia’s absence from his life:

The problem, Eli used to think before he met her, was that he’d never suffered except insofar as everyone does: the stalled trains, the alarm clocks that don’t ring when they’re supposed to, the agony of being surrounded by other people who all give the impression of being way more prolific and considerably more talented than you are, wet socks in the winter, being alone in any season, the chronic condition of being misunderstood, zippers that break at awkward moments, being unheard and then having to repeat yourself embarrassingly in front of girls you’re trying to impress, trying to impress girls and failing, girls who can be seduced but remain unimpressible, girls who can’t be seduced and/or turn out to have boyfriends in the morning, girls, being alone, paper grocery bags with falling-out bottoms, waiting in line at the post office for a half hour and then being snapped at because you don’t have the right customs declaration forms to send the birthday gift to your perpetually traveling brother, waiting in line anywhere, phone calls from a disapproving mother who doesn’t understand, the crowd of overeducated friends who understand too much and can’t resist bringing up long-dead philosophers and/or quantum physics over an otherwise perfectly civilized morning coffee, girls, an overall lack of direction and meaning as evidenced in your inability to either finish the thesis, abandon the current thesis and write a different thesis altogether, finish the different thesis, or heroically give up the whole thing completely and go to work at a gas station somewhere upstate, stepping in things on the sidewalk, lost buttons, most kinds of rain, standing in line at the grocery store behind the lady who just knows there’s a coupon in here somewhere, girls, and the sense that all of this adds up to a life that’s ultimately pretty shallow and doesn’t really mean that much, particularly in comparison to his older brother saving children in Africa.

Goodness, what a great sentence.  I can just see Mandel sitting at a desk or coffee shop table writing out this list and the picture made me smile.

Try this novel out and let me know what you think.


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Gregory Orr

My good friend Chris Higashi is on the board of Copper Canyon Press, a poetry-only publisher located in Port Townsend, Washington.  In honor of National Poetry Month, I asked her to contribute to the Book Lust Forever blog.  Here’s what she said:

Our holiday tradition for Copper Canyon Press board and staff is to have a brief business meeting, then to adjourn and enjoy good food and wine, and read aloud favorite poems to one another. To watch people’s faces as they talk about and read poems they love is so moving. I always leave with a list of titles to pull from my bookshelves at home.

 Two years ago, three of us showed up with the same book, Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (Copper Canyon, 2005). Now, out of all the books the Press has published in its three-decades-plus history, the likelihood of this—a book not particularly well known or widely reviewed—is slim. We each chose different poems for different reasons.

 The 174 untitled short poems in Orr’s book are really one long poem. I think of them as primarily about death and grief. I shared three poems I had read at my dad’s funeral two months prior. Here’s one:

Not the first lessons of grief —
They are all about sorrow.
But stay to the end of the teaching,
Where grief reads from the Book,
Reads a poem you never heard before,
A poem about the beloved.

It talks about how he thinks
Constantly of us, and
How we miss her so.

And how we meet in the poem.

Others say these are love poems, and I don’t disagree. This is a book I keep at bedside. I can open it anywhere and read poems that move, soothe, and comfort.

Mary Oliver has written, “Greg Orr is here a Walt Whitman without an inch of Whitman’s bunting or oratory. Greg Orr is a gorgeous poet and this is a gorgeous book.” (n.b. Onstage in Seattle, two years ago, asked to name her three favorite poets, Oliver answered, “Whitman. Whitman. And Whitman!”)

 Orr’s How Beautiful the Beloved (2009) similarly comprises 80 short poems. Much is said in few words. For example:

Squander it all!

Hold nothing back.

The heart’s a deep well.

And when it’s empty,
It will fill again.

At friends’ recent lovely Quaker wedding, I wished I had How Beautiful the Beloved with me to read them this poem:

We could say No to love,
But love itself
Doesn’t say No.

We could say Yes
To Love,
But it might not
Arrive any sooner.

Whole years going by
In which we never
Catch sight of the beloved,

And then suddenly …

For whoever thinks she doesn’t like or understand poetry, who thinks poetry isn’t for him, but equally for the poetry aficionado, see Gregory Orr’s two books.


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by Nicolas Dickner

Andrea Gough, a soon-to-be graduate of the University of Washington’s ISchool (aka, Library School) sent along this recommendation:

 I’ve always had a touch of wanderlust, a need to periodically shake up my surroundings and immerse myself in the new, the different, the next state over.  As such, it’s no surprise that I felt a strong connection to the three main characters in Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski, all wanderers in their own ways.  Noah grew up nomadically traversing the great plains of inland Canada, arriving in Montreal to study archaeology.  Joyce is the descendant of a long line of pirates, and forsakes the pull of the sea for Montreal and the new field of internet piracy.  And an unnamed third observer, a gatekeeper of a labyrinthine bookstore, mentally goes wherever the books take him.  They each navigate and set down roots in Montreal in different ways.  I love the scene where Noah is swept off his feet by the intrusion of memories of moving into his newly stable world:

Noah goes into the post office, carefree, jiggling in the palm of his hand the small change he will use to buy a stamp.  In the other hand he holds the envelope of miracles, adorned with his mother’s name, the General Delivery address in Ninga and a return address, a reassuring fixed point in the universe.

 He stops suddenly in the middle of the room, completely stunned.

The air is suffused with the aroma of the thousands of post offices scattered over the plains from Winnipeg to Calgary.  Crushed paper, elastic bands, rubber stamps.

 Noah falters.  Right at that moment he is catapulted three thousand kilometers away, thirteen years earlier.  He blinks and looks around.  What if Montreal was just one more General Delivery?  He thought he was stepping onto solid ground when he left his mother’s trailer, but now that ground is slipping out from under him.  At this point he feels nothing but rolling waves, choppy seas and dizziness.

Dickner also creates a Montreal which throbs with real life, and which would understandably draw and hold people there.  These characters move through and interact with the bustle of an expat Caribbean community, the calm quiet of a university library, even the dumpsters in the industrial district as Joyce scavenges computer parts.  Dickner’s previous work has primarily been short stories; and the three storylines here read almost like three intertwining novellas, overlapping locations and characters but rarely dwelling on intersections.  Dickner truly seems to capture the modern city, the way we connect with and move past people we may have more connection to than we realize, without ever forcing an unlikely climax.  Instead, the individual narratives ebb and flow like the sea, the prairie, the tide of trash; it is the reader who has the fun of recognizing the connections.


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Visions in Poetry

April happens to be National Poetry Month, which is a good excuse, if you need one, to treat yourself to the pleasures of reading poetry.  If you’re looking for a way to get someone, child or adult, interested in reading some poems, you can’t do better than introducing him or her (and yourself) to Visions in Poetry, a new series of books from Kids Can Press.  So far, there are seven books, including Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat, Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman, Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, and My Letter to the World and Other Poems by Emily Dickinson.  Each poem (or, in Dickinson’s case, several poems) has been paired with illustrations from a contemporary artist.  They range from the whimsical (Stéphane Jorisch’s interpretation of Lear’s poem), to Genevieve Côté’s colorfully delicate pictures accompanying Tennyson’s poem, to Joe Morse’s thought-provoking rendition of Casey at the Bat, which is set against the background of an inner-city sandlot baseball game. 

Morse’s illustrations are certainly not how I had ever pictured Casey and the Mudville 9, and to be honest, was initially a bit put off by them.  Yet the more I studied them and reread the poem, I concluded that Morse had taken what is essentially a great example of light verse and given it a depth and resonance I could never have imagined. 

And, since I’m being so honest here, I was delighted to acquaint myself with Tennyson’s well-known poem, The Lady of Shalott.  Despite the fact that I was an English major (and was deep into the whole Camelot and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur shtick), and although I was familiar with several of the quotable lines of the poem (Agatha Christie used the first three words of the line “The mirror crack’d from side to side” as the title of one of her mysteries, for example), I had never actually read the poem itself.

Each of the books has a useful section of notes on the poet and poem as well as a brief discussion of the artist’s interpretation of the work.  All in all, it’s a well-conceived, finely executed series, aimed at readers 10 and up.  Bravo to Kids Can Press.


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