Month: August 2015

Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories and the Limitations of Norton Critical Editions

 

Ah, that special weight and tactile feedback of a Norton Critical Edition. It takes me back -although not to any readings of Chekhov in particular. This book was my first introduction to any of his writing, with the exception of a short passage in Francine Prose’s wonderful book “Reading like a Writer”. I think Cal State dropped the ball on that one, right? Regardless, my goal to read 100 books in 2015 has put a lot of the missed classics and neglected canon back in my sights.

I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised by my assessment here. Chekhov is widely understood to be one of the greatest exemplars of short story writing in the history of the medium, and I’m completely on board with that. If anything, I’m surprised at how much at home his prose would be in a recent edition of The New Yorker or The Missouri Review. While Chekhov’s subjects seem alien in our post-Bolshevik world, his literary expressions of them remain full of relevant perception.

My only complaint? Well, I’m afraid I have to throw my beloved Norton Edition under the bus here. The mix of translations and lack of continuity (stories are organized by their date of publication) make for a rather poor read-it-all-the-way-through experience. I’m sure it’s more than adequate for a selective academic study, but if you really want to sit down and read Chekhov, skip the Norton. Francine Prose recommends the Constance Garnett translations, and I have no reason to disagree.
Recommendation: Read Chekhov, but pass on the Norton. I’ve included a link to a superior copy below.

Stories
by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Powells.com

 

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Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” and keeping/catching up

 

This novella got a lot of acclaim and critical attention when it came out, but I was just starting my undergrad work at that point and wasn’t really doing much to keep up with contemporary literature. Part of my motivation for reading 100 books this year is to get caught up on the heavy hitter of the last 10-20 years, and although I was already a familiar fan of Johnson’s work, I had been eagerly anticipating this particular reading. While it was sometimes unexpected, it met and exceeded my high expectations.

It’s a short read, but it’s the kind of engaging and quick-reading book that pins you to the couch for an afternoon (although I had the pleasure of reading it in its entirety in the beautiful Oregon forest of Silver Falls State Park, which, by the way, I would heartily recommend if it is even remotely convenient). The prose is everything I’ve come to expect from Denis Johnson,  and the plot drives the reader forward with relentless intent. I do believe that a different set of skills are called on to write a powerful novella.

It’s also the kind of book that will require a second read to fully appreciate. While I can offer my unreserved recommendation of the thing, I feel like I would be doing it a disservice by offering any more specific analysis until I have availed myself of a quality and much more deliberately paced re-read.

Recommendation: Read it. I give it all the stars available to me.

Train Dreams: A Novella
by Denis Johnson
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Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”: Noir and Homophobia and Slapping Hysterical Women, Oh My…

Ah, the other major detective noir. After reading “The Maltese Falcon,” I rather quickly set my sights on reading Chandler’s pulpy-not-pulp Magnum Opus. I had fun. It’s not my normal read, but it’s a wonderful bit of fun. And unlike much of the “fun” reading out there, it’s not distractingly bad on a sentence-by-sentence level examination of the prose itself (although it’s certainly a bit dated).

The elephant in the room here, as with Hammett, is the caveman-level portrayals of women. I have no doubt that the likes of Chandler and Hammett depict women in a far better light than their pulp magazine contemporaries, but it still stands out rather badly -specifically the passing justifications of casual violence against “hysterical” women. Male homosexuals don’t fare particularly well here, either, both in the general sense of their depiction and in the specific violence directed against them.

It’s a damn shame, because the rest of the work holds up surprisingly well. Whenever one reads literature of the past, one has to come to terms with the realities of the systemic oppression and abuse of that era, whether it be based in gender, race, or sexuality. Of course, there is a difference between authors who wrote within the greater cultural context of their time and authors who advocated for or glorified that oppression and abuse (one of the reasons I cannot stand Kipling). My problem with “The Big Sleep” is that I can’t seem to make up my mind on where exactly Chandler falls on this spectrum.

Recommendation: This one is gonna come down to your personal preference, but if you have even a passing interest in noir, you can’t really pass it up.

 

Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler
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Powell’s City of Books

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As part of my recent wanderings, I made the pilgrimage that every book nerd seems to do at least once: I went to the Deschutes taproom and drank a bunch of Saisons and Belgians. Oh, and I also went to Powell’s City of Books and spent way too much money there, since it was just up the street.

Powell’s is everything it’s cracked up to be. A more knowledgeable staff I’ve rarely encountered in any industry, and they’ve got everything in there. I could easily spend a few days in the place before I felt I had sufficiently explored it. This would also have the unfortunate effect of me spending many thousands of dollars, in all likelihood.

I’ve always been a big fan of Powell’s and an advocate for them as an alternative to a certain only book seller that has had less than ideal relations with authors and publishers (and, some might argue, readers). This blog is also an affiliate partner, so I would certainly appreciate you clicking through one of my links to do your shopping. It doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support your humble narrator, as well as encouraging Powell’s to continue it’s support of the literary community in the wider world.

And yes, you should absolutely visit in person if you get the chance.

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Hesse’s “Siddharta”


This one wasn’t for me. Hesse’s popularity as a countercultural icon in America seemed to have led to this book becoming the subject of Zeitgeist-fixation, but in spite of very moderate expectations, I was completely underwhelmed. The narrative of the searcher is fine, but nothing of any particular interest, and the titular character’s linear progression toward The Meaning of Life left no room for any interesting subtlety. Hesse’s prose was equally unremarkable.

I can see how this kind of book might be a powerful experience for an intelligent and emotionally sensitive young teen. More power to them. It’d be a hell of a lot better than reading Divergent or John Green books. At them same time, unless some rather compelling reasons make themselves known, I’ll wander past Hesse’s other offerings.

Siddharta
by Hermann Hesse
Powells.com

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”

 

I’m becoming a big Vonnegut fan, although I came to him a bit later in life than most. This is the fourth one of his novels I’ve read -it’s been my experience (which has been corroborated by the opinions of others) that his short stories aren’t really worth the time. It will not be my last. I’ve been thinking about how few authors I have read the entire body of works of, and which authors I’d like to put on that list. Kundera is one, as are Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson. The novels of Kurt Vonnegut are under consideration.

“Breakfast of Champions” is one of his best. It’s witty and often upsetting, with the kind of genuinely comic darkness that tends to bleed out of Vonnegut on his best days. Like another personal hero, George Carlin, Vonnegut seems to be looking at the world at a 90 degree angle while we’re all stuck looking at it head-on. His “guidebook-for-alien-observers” narration in this book only brings this out more.

It’s not a remotely challenging read, and “Breakfast of Champions” isn’t breaking through any new ice in 2015, but the challenges and problems of Midland City as it emerges from the 60s haven’t gotten anywhere close to being solved. Vonnegut’s book is still valuable – and not merely as a historical artifact, but as a very relevant and relatable piece of work. Which doesn’t say a lot of good about our progress over the last few years.

Recommendation: Read it! And maybe get his illustration of an asshole tattooed somewhere on your body.

Breakfast of Champions
by Kurt Vonnegut
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