Book Review: Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, and The American Years
Allow me to introduce these two books with a brief autobiographical sketch. When I was in high school, more specifically my junior-year American History class, I remember the teacher calling for a show of hands to his question: "How many of you have ever hunted pheasants?" After a moment of looking around the room facetiously (because he already knew the answer), he told us to put our hands down, saying, "YOU have never hunted pheasants. I'VE hunted pheasants." Then he launched into an account of the golden days of hunting when hordes of ringnecks were loitering about the city limits, just waiting to be blasted by Mr. Ed U. Cation and his hunting buddies.
Now to the subject at hand. How many of you have ever read Nabokov? Put your hands down. Unless, that is, you have also read the latest two-volume biography of him by Brian Boyd. Such, at any rate, were my feelings after reading these excellent books. At first I turned to these books with the question: "What sort of man wrote Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada?" But later, after reading Boyd's thorough, engrossing, and subtle interpretations of Nabokov's novels, I came away with the surprising answer: a greater genius than I had ever imagined, and a kind man to boot.
If, like me, you have thought of Nabokov as a frivolous firebird, an ironic wordsmith, or a playful dissembler, Boyd's books will be a great revelation to you. He shows how amazingly intricate the structures of Lolita, Pale Fire, and The Gift are, while also accentuating something ironically surprising, Nabokov's moral intelligence.
Since I am NOT a trickster, I can confess to a further motive implicated in my recommendation of these books to you: in order to read these books on Nabokov you must read or reread Nabokov's books. By indirections we find directions out. Now, no more shady references on my part, you have a lot of reading to do.
--Nick Cody, '94
Book Review: Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
c. 1000 To avoid parting with his collection of 117,000 books while traveling, the avid reader and Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, has them carried by a caravan of four hundred camels trained to walk in alphabetical order. --A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel
If Anne Fadiman had been a Grand Vizier in the 10th century I am quite certain that she too would have ordered her library carried with her, and it would have been arranged in alphabetical order. Or rather, it would have been subdivided, alphabetical order being restricted to the final hundred camels carrying American literature, had any existed at that time; the first 300 camels would have conveyed English literature chronologically. Trailing this caravan would have been another camel for the "Odd Shelf" (devoted to a reader's peculiar interests, in her case polar exploration), and Books by Friends and Relatives (from Memoir from Antproof Case to The Baby-Sitters Club).
I am confident of this because she has revealed herself in a collection of light-but not lightweight-essays about reading: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. This is a woman who knows how William Gladstone arranged his books, who takes her Eloise-loving daughter to tea at the Plaza Hotel, who quotes Keats on eating a nectarine, who calls a slim book lost between tomes a "vanished ectomorph," whose husband gives her a birthday trip to a used bookstore, who puts 38 footnotes in a nine-page essay on plagiarism.
Among these peculiarities, anyone who loves books and reading will find much to embrace. In "Marrying Libraries," for example, Fadiman describes how she and her husband, five years and one child after their marriage, decided they were ready for the "more profound intimacy of library consolidation." Their former schemes for book arrangement-he is a "lumper" and she is a "splitter"-have somehow to be reconciled.
In another essay, she splits book lovers into "courtly lovers" and "carnal lovers," the latter being those who write in the margins, turn down page corners, and put books face down when interrupted. Oddly enough for one who describes herself as a perfectionist, she confesses to being a carnal lover of books. This may be because books have been her familiar friends from a young age: she was allowed to build castles with her father's set of 22 pocket-sized Trollope volumes when she was four. (Her father is Clifton Fadiman and her mother, Annalee Jacoby Fadiman, both authors. Anne and her brother grew up in their library of 7000 volumes.)
Fadiman illustrates her compulsion to read everything in sight, including catalogues, in the witty essay "The Catalogical Imperative." She derives two personas from a mistake in her name on a label: There's Anne Fadiman, a "middle-aged mother of two who possesses neither a microwave nor a CD player, let alone a deck on which to place an electric grill or a house to which such a deck might be attached. But Anne Sadiman-ah, she's a horse of another color, and it's almost certainly celery, blush, buff, ecru, kiwi, java, thistle, grenadine, delft, pebble, cork, or cloud, to mention a few of her favorites from the J. Crew catalogue."
This self-deprecating humor is especially engaging in one whose family, calling itself "Fadiman U.," tuned in College Bowl every week and competed against the televised teams from their living room, losing only to Brandeis and Colorado College in the course of five or six years of competition.
The Fadimans love not only knowledge, but words, especially long words. They are congenitally helpless proofreaders who revel in menu items like "Peaking Duck." "I know what you may be thinking," she writes. "What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!" If this doesn't send you to the dictionary, you can learn the meaning of "grimoire," "opopanax," and twenty other rare words in "The Joy of Sesquipedalians."
Many readers will recognize Fadiman as the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a fine, compelling account of the cultural conflict between a Hmong family whose child has epilepsy and the American medical system. She alternated writing that book and these essays, working on Spirit for six weeks, then on Ex Libris for two.
"Writing Spirit," Fadiman said in an interview, "was like climbing a mountain, where you get to see strange and beautiful things from a terrific height but you also get altitude sickness and hypothermia. Writing Ex Libris was like getting back to your cozy home, shivering and with icicles dangling from your nose, and bundling up in your grandmother's afghan in a really comfortable easy chair with a cup of tea in one hand and a book in the other."
If the book contains these essays, prepare to stay ensconced. You can't read just one.
Assistant Professor of English
Book Review: James Welch, The Heartsong of Charging Elk
Doubleday, 2000, $24.95
It was the premise of James Welch's new novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk, sketched briefly on the back of its cover jacket, that seduced me into buying it. A Dakota warrior, performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show on a European tour, becomes gravely ill in Marseilles, France. Disoriented, the warrior flees the hospital to which he has been taken and a member of the medical staff mistakenly records him as dead. This bureaucratic error means that the man cannot be repatriated back to the States. Knowing no French and only a few English words, Charging Elk must negotiate his survival in an alien land.
What an idea for a story, and all the more amazing because it actually happened! James Welch, himself a Native American, takes this episode from history and teases out of it an epic as complete and compelling as a masterpiece by Thackery or George Eliot. You are immersed in the world of late 19th-century Marseilles, resonant with authentic period detail. More important, you experience this world through the eyes and emotions of a variety of characters--Charging Elk, of course, but also a young American vice counsel and all sorts of French men and women, each of them brought indelibly to life. And all of them, not just Charging Elk, are caught in the tensions of cultural and social difference. It's a story of love and its perversion, fidelity and betrayal in equal measure, even murder and the high drama of a public trial. Imagine a Native American novelist with the narrative skills, the social range and the probing intelligence of George Eliot in her maturity.
Am I exaggerating? It has been more than a month since I finished the novel, time enough for me to sober up from my initial enthrallment. My sense of Welch's achievement has not diminished. I don't ask you to read the entire book. All I ask is that you read the first ten pages.
--J. Eric Nelson
Professor of English
Book Review: David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
"When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
"The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one."
With this unsettling piece, David Foster Wallace's newest book begins. Like his other books, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men touches on the hidden despair behind America's facade while stretching words to their limits. His brutally intellectual style, complete with myriad footnotes, is at its best in this collection. In addition, this book has a current of real anger running through it--a certain harshness that gives this book an edge. This book takes short fiction to places it has never been before.
Few of the 23 pieces in this book fit in the short-story mold and even those tend to break out of the mold in unexpected ways. Rather than having a narrator, Wallace's pieces often simply drop you into a person's thoughts, into their personal mindscape. Many of these "stories" are nothing but dialogue. One story ("Adult World") is split into two portions; the second half is merely made up of what seems to be notes in outline form for the continuation of the story. Written in unrelenting psychobabble, "The Depressed Person" reveals the narcissistic nature of modern forms of therapy through the life of a single depressed woman.
Even when his more experimental attempts fail, one can still be impressed by the effort: entwined in even the most tedious strings of sentences is a brilliant idea. David Foster Wallace's brilliance shines through in every sentence. He is obviously erudite and occasionally his intelligence can overwhelm his work. His references can be too obscure and some of the words he uses can't even be found in my dictionary. Most of the time, however, his work remains accessible and only leaves the reader feeling more intelligent by association.
These are not stories that a reader can read quickly and then promptly forget. The reader is forced to think about the words, even examine his own life in the book's harsh light. These stories will make many people uncomfortable. Many of them are disturbing; some may even upset worldviews. The characters in this book are not likable; in fact, many of them are downright repellent. Readers will not be left with a renewed faith in the goodness of human nature. Despite this inherent darkness, however, this book does what all great literature does: it resonates with something inside and expresses something people have always known and not been able to put into words.
--Rachel Mykkanen, '04
Book Review: Michael Cunningham, The Hours
New York: Farrar, 1998
Students of Virginia Woolf may be curious if any contemporary authors write in her unique style. Those who have read Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse are familiar with her interior monologue or stream-of-consciousness narrative, introspection, flashbacks, minimal action, urbanity, symbolism, crafted language, and feminine protagonists. Woolf is a difficult mentor for a writer, but Michael Cunningham in his most recent novel, The Hours (1998), successfully mirrors Woolf's style. He recreates an imaginary London day in the life of Virginia Woolf when she begins writing Mrs. Dalloway, (June 1923. To this plot, Cunningham adds another layer of narrative occurring one day in a Bloomsbury-like Manhattan, June 1948, focusing on a woman named "Clarissa," nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway," who is planning a party for a dying, prize-winning poet. A third narrative concerns "Laura Brown," a book reader, wife, and mother living in Los Angeles, 1949. Laura reflects on her reading of Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf, while planning her husband's birthday party. The plots weave their way towards an overlapping closure not unlike Woolf's own conclusion in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa and Laura, like the imaginary and real Mrs. Woolf, have "serene intelligence" with "painfully susceptible sensibilities." Each is an artist in her own way; for each, life is infinite complexity; thus permitting Cunningham's insights into marriage and lesbianism, suicide and death, literature and fame, mothers and daughters, guilt and failure. Each of The Hours' 225 pages requires the reader's careful attention. Virginia Woolf, I think, would welcome Michael Cunningham into the Bloomsbury Group.
--Lowell E. Johnson
Professor Emeritus of English
Book Review: Patrick O'Brien, The Aubrey-Maturin novels
New York: Norton Paperbacks
The English novelist Patrick O'Brian died last year at age 85. He was the author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of 20 novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. From that first novel Master and Commander (1969) until his last Blue at the Mizzen (1999), O'Brian established himself as the writer nonpareil of the nautical novel; some critics would not so limit the category. The two central characters throughout the series are friends: Jack Aubrey, naval officer and ship's captain, and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon, naturalist, and secret agent. Their stories range over the seven seas and on land during the Napoleonic Wars, including our own War of 1812. Aubrey at sea is bravery, leadership, and nautical skills at their prime; on land he is foolish, awkward, and duped. Maturin's Spanish and Irish background makes him an ardent opponent of Napoleon's dictatorship as well as a suspected friend of England. O'Brian's technical knowledge of sailing ships, the nomenclature, and his careful research into Lord Nelson's navy and its battles make Aubrey-Maturin's adventures historically accurate and usually breathtaking. These were the days of "wooden ships and iron men." O'Brian's novels are not "boy's adventures," but skillful studies of men and women in war and peace, of nature's unpredictability, of unrequited love, betrayal, human failings, financial ruin, imprisonment, negotiations, victory, and triumph. When asked what he planned to do now that he was retired, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, "finish reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels." He could do worse.
--Lowell E. Johnson
Professor Emeritus of English
Book Review: Sally Morgan, My Place
Henry Holt and Company--November 1988 (1st American ed.) (Soon to be in paperback.)
After spending five months in Perth, Western Australia, I returned to America and St. Olaf with a hunger for anything and everything Australian. Thus, when I found Sally Morgan's autobiography, My Place, I quickly snapped it up and was immediately delighted by Morgan's honest story, laced with humor and poignancy.
My Place focuses on Australian Sally Morgan's discovery of and search for her Aboriginal roots. Growing up in Perth, Western Australia, during the 1950s and 60s, Morgan's family never discussed their indigenous heritage; however, Sally always felt that she was "different to the other kids at school" and subsequently set out in a courageous and "stubborn quest" to discover her and her family's "truth, heritage, and origins." My Place is the result of her search and eloquently documents the lives of three generations of Australian Aborigines.
I found Sally Morgan's My Place to be an inspirational and moving account of one woman's search to find her self and her "place" in both Australian indigenous and mainstream society. Blending her own written autobiography with oral transcriptions of her grandmother and mother's personal narratives, Morgan's talent for storytelling is apparent; the story virtually flows off the page, as if Morgan is sitting just across the table from you and sharing her experiences herself. If you're interested in autobiography, Australian culture, or just an enjoyable and inspirational book, I highly recommend Sally Morgan's My Place. Morgan's book not only satisfied my craving for a bit of Aussie culture but also whet my appetite for more!
--Emily Rollie, Class of '01
Book Review: Ha Jin, Waiting
Hardcover (October 1999) Pantheon Books
Paperback (September 19, 2000) Vintage Books
More than ten years after our English 99 class left Manitou Heights, seven of us (including Professor J. Eric Nelson) met at the Ole Store for breakfast at the Ole Store on September 30, 2000 to discuss Ha Jin's Waiting.
It took at least an hour catching up before we got to business.
When we did, we spent at least two hours in intensive no-holds-barred discussion. While we were admittedly more mature in our world view and approach of the text (i.e., we were "older" and time had obviously passed), strangely, I felt as though no time had passed. As they were over ten years ago, our conversations at the Ole Store were lively, engaging, and provocative.
As usual, Todd was fixated on Christ imagery in the book; Marin had not finished reading the assignment (but to her credit didn't try to b.s. her way through, as she was known to do in our college days), Liz talked about the tragic character flaws of the primary characters, Melissa pressed on cultural nuances of the book, I fixated on train-wreck metaphors (which had nothing to do with the book at all), and Tony ripped astute one-liners for comic relief-- all the while Eric tried valiantly to retain some semblance of control.
We agreed we all "read" the text differently than if we had read the text when we were in college. In fact, we wondered how current students might understand Waiting.
Ha Jin's National Book Award-winning novel offers an ostensibly simple plot told with sparse, almost poetic prose. At the beginning of the novel, we meet Lin Kong, a Chinese doctor who seeks to divorce his illiterate wife (by arranged marriage) so he can marry his lover, the more urbane Manna. The plot revolves around this premise; and the characters "wait" over 18 years for resolution.
I think it is fair to say that our group felt that Jin explored a sense of loss, or lost opportunity among the characters in the book. Along with the primary characters, we readers "waited" for romance to blossom (for good or bad), for characters to make decisions (right or wrong), and resolution to occur. We were caught a little off guard by reading a book that took place in another cultural context, but again, agreed that the human condition is universal, and that a similar tale could be told in our own country. The warning is simple: While we are waiting for various events in our lives to occur, life may simply move by us with no regard.
The simple feel of the plot and narrative expose the complexities of seemingly simple lives and loves. With a few exceptions, nothing extraordinary happens to Shuyu, Lin, or Manna, or because of them. Every year, Lin returns to his home in the country to attempt to divorce Shuyu. He and Manna continue their courtship and worry about their careers, while Shuyu remains faithful and hopeful in her old-fashioned approach to life. That said, as the plot chugs along, Shuyu becomes a more intriguing character in her steadfast optimism; Lin's apathy and tentativeness become more apparent; and Manna's desperation grows.
Our group discussed the notion of "victim" in the book. Readers from our culture might originally sympathize with Lin since he has been pressured into an arranged marriage with Shuyu. Being an uneducated orphan, Shuyu is perhaps the most dependent character in the book (strangely, she becomes somewhat triumphant in the end!). Her rival, the educated ambitious Manna, is ultimately held back by, well, waiting, and is victimized in a horrendous manner by trusting in the wrong person.
My classmates have had more life experiences relevant to this book since our college days--marriages, heartbreaks, children, and careers. We've also had more time to "wait". While this privileged perspective of time makes us perhaps more sympathetic to the plight of Manna, Lin, and Shuyu, it also makes us more critical of Manna and Lin because of the inactivity, and accceptance of it.
One is reminded of the Rolling Stone's classic "You Can't Always Get What You Want" after reading Waiting. I find myself wishing that Lin and Manna had followed Mick Jagger's sage advice--"but if you try sometimes, you just might find . . . you get what you need." The poor couple doesn't know the difference.
--Cal Husmann, Class of '90
Book Review: Bonnie Burnard, A Good House
Henry Holt and Company--1999--$25.00
"Most of the adults believed that as long as no one got any big ideas, and if everyone kept a general eye out, the worst that could happen would be a dog bite or a bee sting or a superficial slash from some broken glass left lying around in an alley somewhere. They did not want to load the kids up with the burden of possible but highly unlikely danger because most of them disapproved of exaggeration generally. Nothing good came from blowing things out of proportion."
In this way, author Bonnie Burnard tips her hand early on in her first novel, A Good House. She gives readers this gentle warning of where her story of life in a small town in rural Ontario is going.
In 1949, Bill and Sylvia Chambers and their three children feel optimistic about their future after the gloom of WWII. In the fifty years that follow, though, their lives are marked by fate and circumstance--beginning with Sylvia's death. The best and the worst will continue to happen to them: a beautiful child will be forever changed by an accident, one great love match will be cut short by death, another will blossom from simple need, siblings will fall out, words will fail, and then unexpectedly succeed.
The storyline is low-keyed, but insightful into the desires and motives of each character. The narrative is deceptively simple, but it gives readers a full look into the hearts and souls of the characters.
What is most compelling about Burnard's novel, though, is the way in which it speaks to all of us: we who have known family love and survived its failure. This book speaks to the quiet and tender place in our heart where we hold the story--both the good, and the bad--of our family.
--Rachel Tholen, Class of '03
Book Review: Susan Davies Price, Growing Home
(University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
Near us on Greenvale Avenue is an open grassy space. Some years ago a group of local residents began to cultivate a section of it. They planted a rich and unusual abundance of vegetables, arranged into neat squares and rectangles--amaranth, mustard greens, bitter melon, polygonum, okra, kale, lamb's quarters, cucumbers, eggplants. The rows are meticulously tended, the beds carefully weeded, the plants and groupings individually watered.
During the growing season, we see them at work on their garden, bent over the rows in quiet and focused application. In hot sun, they wear the familiar headdress of Asia--low, cone-shaped, shadow-filled hats. For our neighbors are Vietnamese, and they are doing what generation upon generation of immigrants have done on settling in this land: they have started to garden as they used to in the homeland they have left behind.
Our Vietnamese neighbors might well have been included in Susan Davies Price's new book, Growing Home: Stories of Ethnic Gardening (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). A well-known writer on gardening and horticulture, Price has chosen some thirty-one ethnic gardens in Minnesota which, along with their owners, she describes in observant and sympathetic detail.
Her text is illustrated with pictures by John Gregor (of Coldsnap Photography), a photographer specializing in nature, landscape, and gardening subjects. Gregor's camera makes vegetables gleam like gems and gives us a bee's-eye-view of flowers: they swell and bloom on the page. He also captures the stillness of the gardeners, many of whom retain a cautious and intimate privacy before the camera.
Price's gardeners have much in common. They garden because it is an unavoidable and compelling part of their upbringing and culture. Though it is not word they use of themselves, they are mostly organic gardeners: they do wonderful things with compost. They know what a freshly picked vegetable tastes like, and they find it hard to settle for anything less. They give gifts of food to others. If they grow vegetables to eat, they grow flowers for beauty. They know much about the medicinal properties of plants and herbs. Most at one time or another have smuggled back into this country seeds or cuttings from the old country. They are mystified when asked how much time it takes to keep their gardens, as if someone should ask how much time it takes to raise a family, or go to church.
Domestic gardening is the most intimate act of communion with the earth. Almost all of Price's gardeners are driven by something spiritual in their love of gardening. When they pause in their work or reflect upon it, they speak of "renewal," "solution," "peace," or "wonder."
This spirituality is given a particular poignancy by an emotion that intermittently breaks the surface of Price's narrative: the yearning of the immigrant for a lost home, a distant climate, a landscape or sky, a way of life never now to be recaptured save as an imitation in an alien land. The nostalgia persists however terrible the circumstances they left when they emigrated: Price's gardeners come, from among other countries, Laos, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Russia in a state of economic crisis, and, as with our neighbors, Vietnam.
The witty title of Price's book contributes its own ironic and mournful comment on the immigrant's yearning: you cannot grow home. But who would deny the immigrant, or any of us, the solace of the attempt? For the immigrant's longing is but a variation of more universal human yearnings within western culture for the irrecoverable--for childhood, for the past, for paradise lost, for the original garden. At this level, as Price's book quietly reminds us, gardening is both elegy and consolation.
--Jonathan E. Hill
Professor of English
Book Review: Liza Dalby, The Tale of Murasaki
I highly recommend Liza Dalby's new novel The Tale of Murasaki, a fictional autobiography of the 11th-century Japanese court poet Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Lady Murasaki is a household name in Japan, because she wrote what many consider to be the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji--a set of stories about the love affairs of a dashing prince. It turns out Murasaki lived a pretty exciting life herself; she spent her adulthood in a world of "high aesthetics, sexual politics, and literary brilliance," in which poems were exchanged like e-mail and fresh use of figurative language could win you a promotion (or a lover).
Dalby transports us to this world using richly descriptive prose interwoven with Murasaki's own poetry. The mix is entrancing, and convincing--no wonder, for Dalby, a renowned anthropologist, spent 10 years performing this "literary archaeology." I spent a glorious week last summer perusing The Tale of Murasaki. If you are a fan of poetry and historical fiction, I guarantee you'll enjoy it, too.
--Avery Fischer, Class of '01
Book Review: Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Right now I'm re-reading The Brothers Karamazov, this time in the recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990). This is my third reading of Dostoevsky's masterpiece--none too many for someone who has considered herself a serious reader for more than forty years--but it feels almost like a first reading.
That is partly because a lot has happened in my life since reading number two about fifteen years ago. Some of the flawed and disorderly characters who once seemed merely interesting to me have suddenly turned into people I know or into people I am related to or worse yet, into myself. They are not strangers to me, these liars, drunkards, haters, buffoons, despoilers, cheaters, misers, and skeptics. They are full of self-pity and self-delusion, those who are wallowing in ignorance as well as those who are smitten with the pride of learning. I am reading this novel with a gripping sense of self-discovery not fully available to me earlier.
But there is another reason why this book feels like a brand new novel to me. The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation makes it seem as if it were written last year instead of 120 years ago. The translators, a husband and wife team, have attempted to depict the full register of the many voices Dostoevsky created in this novel, which is full of passionate characters who talk compulsively and at great length. This translation allows them to reveal themselves in all their tragicomic splendor and variety.
In the introduction Pevear takes note of the fact that the narrator calls Aloysha Karamazov the "hero" of his story, even as he acknowledges that many readers will ask what is heroic about Aloysha. Pevear speaks to this question when he also notes that Aloysha "is a hearer of words, . . . almost the only one in the novel who can hear. This is his great gift: the word can come to life in him." As it does in the face of the "greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and . . . terrifying darkness" so much in evidence in the story. Aloysha hears; he listens. Because he does, Pevear is enabled to call The Brothers Karamazov "a joyful book."
--Pamela Schwandt, Class of '61
Professor Emerita of English