New York Times on ‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman

‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman reviewed at the NYT:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

New York Times on ‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman

‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman reviewed at the NYT:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

Moby-Dick, Cain and Joan of Arc in the New York Times

Three iconic figures and three books I want to read covered in the New York Times:

Kathryn Harrison reviews Nathaniel Philbrick’s recently released Why Read Moby-Dick?

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

Robert Pinsky tackles Jose Saramago’s Cain

In a grieving but marveling spirit, Saramago remakes, from Cain’s viewpoint, not only the story of Cain and his parents and his brother but also — with Cain entering each narrative as a time-traveling participant — the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons. The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago’s novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories.

Lastly, Sarah Towers explores Kimberly Cutter’s The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc

But, as Twain observed, pinning down the mysterious interior of this woman — imaginatively experiencing how she came to be — has confounded many a writer, including Twain. Far too often Cutter’s Joan (or “Jehanne,” as the novel has it) is flat, overexplained, fragmented: “She wept. Horrified. Weeping, furious at herself for weeping. Amazed how much the words hurt her. ‘How dare you?’ she screamed.” Many of the scenes are fragmented as well — in a novel of 287 pages there are 150 chapters, which boils down to less than two pages per chapter — so it feels as if Cutter, unsure how to embody Joan, is in a race to get to the end of the story.

To Cutter’s credit, it takes true Joan of Arc-ian boldness to attempt this oft-told story in the first place, and the reader certainly recognizes intellectually, if not viscerally, Cutter’s passion for her heroine. The ultimate problem is that Joan of Arc’s sublimity makes it incredibly difficult, like hitting a bull’s-eye from a great distance, to do her “divine soul” justice, to allow the fictional record to reflect the real woman with as much force and ingenuity as the historical one.

So there you have it. Three fascinating characters (whether that is Ahab or the whale in Moby-Dick) and three fascinating, at least to me, books. Have any of you read these book already? Do they seem as interesting to you as they do to me?

Moby-Dick, Cain and Joan of Arc in the New York Times

Three iconic figures and three books I want to read covered in the New York Times:

Kathryn Harrison reviews Nathaniel Philbrick’s recently released Why Read Moby-Dick?

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

Robert Pinsky tackles Jose Saramago’s Cain

In a grieving but marveling spirit, Saramago remakes, from Cain’s viewpoint, not only the story of Cain and his parents and his brother but also — with Cain entering each narrative as a time-traveling participant — the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons. The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago’s novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories.

Lastly, Sarah Towers explores Kimberly Cutter’s The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc

But, as Twain observed, pinning down the mysterious interior of this woman — imaginatively experiencing how she came to be — has confounded many a writer, including Twain. Far too often Cutter’s Joan (or “Jehanne,” as the novel has it) is flat, overexplained, fragmented: “She wept. Horrified. Weeping, furious at herself for weeping. Amazed how much the words hurt her. ‘How dare you?’ she screamed.” Many of the scenes are fragmented as well — in a novel of 287 pages there are 150 chapters, which boils down to less than two pages per chapter — so it feels as if Cutter, unsure how to embody Joan, is in a race to get to the end of the story.

To Cutter’s credit, it takes true Joan of Arc-ian boldness to attempt this oft-told story in the first place, and the reader certainly recognizes intellectually, if not viscerally, Cutter’s passion for her heroine. The ultimate problem is that Joan of Arc’s sublimity makes it incredibly difficult, like hitting a bull’s-eye from a great distance, to do her “divine soul” justice, to allow the fictional record to reflect the real woman with as much force and ingenuity as the historical one.

So there you have it. Three fascinating characters (whether that is Ahab or the whale in Moby-Dick) and three fascinating, at least to me, books. Have any of you read these book already? Do they seem as interesting to you as they do to me?

New York Times on Toward You by Jim Krusoe

Following in my footsteps the NYT has a review of Toward You by Jim Krusoe.  Sam Munson doesn’t care much for the parts of the story not in the narrator’s voice buy appreciates Krusoe’s talent and the voice of Bob:

That voice is the most powerful component of “Toward You” — when Bob speaks, we listen. Krusoe’s skill both in evoking Bob’s claustrophobic loneliness (he will address any being, animate or not, as though it were capable of conversation) and in endowing him with a rich but never writerly language (he recalls Yvonne preparing to eat a bowl of pea soup “as a few croutons floated on its quiet, green surface”) ensure that he has our attention.

[…]

Krusoe’s sure and subtle imaginings of such characters — yearning, isolated and finally enigmatic — place him among the foremost creators of surreal ­Americana.

I can agree with that last sentence but the novel as a whole didn’t quite work for me:

Krusoe is clearly a talented wordsmith with a witty eye for the lives and relationships of the socially challenged. But for me it seems the combination of lead character, plot and other elements have to come together just right for it to “work.”

 

100 Notable Books of 2010

Cover of "Angelology: A Novel"

Cover of Angelology: A Novel

Wow, I have read exactly two of the 100 Notable Books of 2010 as determined by the New York Times.

Here are the two I have read:

  • ANGELOLOGY. By Danielle Trussoni. (Viking, $27.95.) With a smitten art historian at her side, the young nun at the center of this rousing first novel is drawn into an ancient struggle against the Nephilim, hybrid offspring of humans and heavenly beings. (My review here)
  • THE NEAREST EXIT. By Olen Steinhauer. (Minotaur, $25.99.) The C.I.A. spy in this thriller is sick of his trade’s duplicity, amorality and rootlessness. (My review here)

I guess I am not reading what the cool kids are these days …