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The Stoner sonnet

Friday, 30 September, 2016 0 Comments

The central character in Stoner, a 1965 novel by the American writer John Williams, is William Stoner, who begins life as a farm boy in Missouri. His parents send him to the University of Missouri to study agriculture, but after reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, Stoner switches to studying literature. After receiving his Ph.D. he continues at the university as an assistant professor of English, the job he holds for the rest of his career.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” — John Williams, Stoner

The novel sold poorly when it was published but that changed at the beginning of this century, when it became an international bestseller. Stoner was reissued in 2006 by New York Review Books Classics with an introduction by John McGahern, who wrote that Stoner is a “novel about work.” This includes not only traditional work, such as Stoner’s tasks on the farm and his academic duties, but also the work he puts into relationships. It’s also a book about passion, and Stoner’s passions are knowledge and love. According to the critic Morris Dickstein, “he fails at both.” It’s Shakespearian.

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare

September


The mole in the machine

Saturday, 17 September, 2016 0 Comments

Dame Stella Rimington was the Director General of MI5, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence agency, from 1992 to 1996. After retiring from the world of enigmas, she turned her hand to writing spy thrillers, a genre she loved long before she became a spy herself. In July 2004, her first novel, At Risk, about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle, was published. This was followed by Secret Asset, Illegal Action, Dead Line, Present Danger, Rip Tide, The Geneva Trap and Close Call.

Liz Carlyle is summoned to Switzerland in The Geneva Trap for a meeting with a Russian agent who has approached the British with an offer of information. But he will only speak to Liz. He tells her that there is a mole in the Ministry of Defence in London, working for an unnamed third country tasked with stealing information about a secret US-UK project involving the next generation of drones. When one of the drones ignores the instructions of its human operator and self-destructs, it becomes obvious that someone is able to gain control of them and the race is on to find the hackers. Who are they? The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans? Snippet:

“Clarity is concerned with the communication systems and commands sent to drones. We’ve developed protocols that let us send instructions to these new drones in natural language.”
“Natural?” asked Liz.
“As opposed to artificial – which is what computer languages are. Look.” And he flipped open the top of his laptop and tapped a key. The screen was filled with row after row of numbers and symbols. “That’s raw ASCII, the bits and bytes that tell this machine what to do.”
“Looks like Chinese to me,” said Peggy. Then realising what she’d said, blushed and added, “Oh, sorry. Let’s hope it’s not.”


“This is no way a dreadful book.”

Wednesday, 14 September, 2016 0 Comments

Truman Capote is supposed to have dismissed, immortally, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road by saying: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Dorothy Parker was typically acidic in spurning Lucius Beebe’s Shoot if You Must: “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.” And the old master of the put down, Mark Twain, put Henry James down thus: “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

The diss is a staple of the reviewing industry and Lionel Shriver added to the lore in the FT Weekend section with a one-sentence appraisal of Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney. She wrote: “This is no way a dreadful book.” Ouch. ‘Nuff said.

Bright, Precious Days


Behind the veil in Saudi Arabia

Saturday, 27 August, 2016 0 Comments

“On every vacant lot in time appears the jumble of brownish brick, the metal spines of scaffolding, the sheets of plate glass; then last of all the marble, the most popular facing material, held on to the plain walls behind it with some sort of adhesive. From a distance it lends a spurious air of antiquity to the scene.” Hilary Mantel’s Saudi Arabia, as depicted in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, is a place of impersonal ugliness and stifling heat, a kingdom of sexual repression, corruption and violence.

Andrew Shore, a civil engineer, accepts a lucrative package from a British firm that has been commissioned to erect an opulent office building for the Saudi government. When his contrary, independent wife, Frances — a cartographer by trade — arrives in Jeddah to join Andrew, she’s instantly disquieted by the city and soon finds herself despising this masked society peopled by expats, who are mostly alcohol-sodden mercenaries, evasive Muslim neighbours and cruel, capricious officialdom. Confined in her apartment for most of the day, she begins to hear sounds of suffering from the supposedly empty flat above. Shopping provides some relief, but not much:

In the supermarket, Francis bought mangos. She put them in a plastic bag and handed them to a Filipino. He weighed them, twisted the bag closed, gave it back to her, but he did not even glance her way. Around her, women plucked tins from shelves. Women with layers of thick black cloth were their faces should be; only their hands reached out, heavy with gold.

She caught up with Andrew, laying her hand on the handle of the trolley beside his, careful not to touch.

“I didn’t know the veil was like this,” she whispered. “I thought you would see their eyes. How do they breathe? Don’t they feel stifled? Can they see where they’re going?

Andrew said, “These are the liberated ones. They get to go shopping.”

Thirty years after its original publication, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is still as disturbing as ever. Frances Shore is not a radical feminist but Hilary Mantel’s character is a dedicated opponent of fabricated separatism: “I would like to stride up to the next veiled woman I see and tear the black cloth from her face and rip it up before her eyes. I know that would be wrong, but I would like to do it.”

The naqab


James Joyce and Italo Svevo, Trieste and Zurich

Thursday, 11 August, 2016 0 Comments

In The Spectator, Philip Hensher offers a poignant review of Stanley Price’s James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship. Trieste played a key role in this happy episode of literary history and, recalling his time in the Italian seaport, Joyce said, “I met more kindness in Trieste than I ever met anywhere else.”

Joyce and his family had to leave Trieste shortly after the outbreak of World War I and they settled in Zurich, where most of Ulysses was written. The story goes that he went for a walk one evening by the shore of Lake Zurich and bumped into the English painter and Ministry of Information employee, Frank Budgen. After exchanging pleasantries, Budgen inquired as to how the novel was progressing and Joyce said that he had managed to produce two sentences during the day.

“You have been seeking the right words?” asked Budgen.
“No,” replied Joyce, “I have the right words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.”

When the anti-hero of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, is walking along Sandymount Strand, he observes a dog belonging to a pair of cockle pickers discovering the body of another dog washed up by the sea. Here’s how Joyce used his vocabulary and syntax to convey the animal’s reactions:

“Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolfstongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies dogsbody’s body.”

The perfect order of words.


Girls gone, gone, gone, gone, gone

Monday, 8 August, 2016 0 Comments

The huge commercial success of both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has not passed unnoticed by the modern version of Grub Street, the London thoroughfare once famed for “its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers.” Young women have been pressed into service by this cruel trade in the hope that another lady-vanishes winner can be typed while the genre is hot. Five hopefuls for the crock of gold:

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry. “When 13-year-old Julie Whitaker is kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, her family shatters. As the years go by and the search for Julie turns up nothing, even her mother Anna begins to lose hope. Then one night, the doorbell rings.”

All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace.”

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. “As soon as Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw sees the photograph of missing Edith Hind — a beautiful Cambridge post-grad from a well-connected family — she knows the case will be big.”

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry. “A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel will learn of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. “This would be the piece that mattered most later, months later when Ryan was gone. She would think of their arrival and wonder why she hadn’t seen it all coming. But who could have seen anything at all that night but their bright-spangled beauty?”

According to the Paris Review, George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) “is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’ — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece.” Ouch!

“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.” — George Gissing, New Grub Street


Light in August

Sunday, 7 August, 2016 0 Comments

“In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and — from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone.” — Light in August, William Faulkner

Light in August


#Brexit: Michel Houellebecq makes his move

Tuesday, 21 June, 2016 0 Comments

10 September, 2001: The publishers of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform, Groupe Flammarion, who had been charged with hate speech in France, publicly apologized for any offense its anti-Islamic themes might have caused. The book ends with an Islamist terror attack on a resort in Thailand. On the following day, an Islamist terror attack did take place, not in Asia, but in the USA. However, the 2002 Islamist atrocity in Bali was remarkably similar to the one described in Platform.

7 January 2015: Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission is published. It depicts a not-too-distant Europe losing the cultural civil wars and France drifting towards an Islamic takeover. As fate would have it, the publication date coincided with the Islamist massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

23 June 2016: The day Britain votes on whether to leave the European Union, Michel Houellebecq’s exhibition of his own photography opens in Paris at the Palais de Tokyo. Houellebecq is cheering for Brexit: “I’d love it. I’d love it if the English gave the starting signal for the dismantling. I hope they won’t disappoint me. I’ve been against the [European] idea from the start. It’s not democratic, it’s not good,” he says in a Financial Times profile published at the weekend.

“I really like England, I really like the fact of it having been the only country, for quite a while, to have resisted Hitler. I’d really like it to leave, to signal the independence movement.” Michel Houellebecq

The first picture in his Rester vivant exhibition shows a angry reddish dusk seen from his apartment. A line from of his one of his poems: “Il est temps de faire vos jeux” (“It’s time to place your bets”) is superimposed onto the gory sky. Another image, France #014 (1994), shows the word “Europe” carved in concrete. With Houellebecq, the timing is always significant. Place your bets.

Irlande


Bloomsday 16.6.16

Thursday, 16 June, 2016 0 Comments

On 16 June 1904, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle walked out together through Dublin’s Ringsend district. The writer went on to immortalize the day in Ulysses and in Dublin today wandering Joyceans will roam the city, visiting many of the places where the book is set in an attempt to reconstruct the events of the novel through readings, performances, food, drink, costumes and general celebrations of the genius that is Joyce. Apart from a fistful of euros, nothing else is needed for Bloomsday.

With the Euro 2016 tournament taking place in France, the country where Joyce eventually settled, it’s worth having a peek at the role football played in Ulysses. The best place to start for this kind of research is Finnegans Web, which offers an HTML version of Ulysses. There’s a link to Concordance Text Search (Omnicordia V-1.5), which will look up words in Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero. And football? The word occurs three times in Ulysses:

“Cissy Caffrey whistled, imitating the boys in the football field to show”
“If you bungle, Handy Andy, I’ll kick your football for you.”
“(Halcyon Days, High School boys in blue and white football”

Joyce had what kid’s would call an awesome vocabulary. A cursory glance at Ulysses reveals: abscission, boustrophedon, comestible, excrescence, frangible, gavelkind, messuage, ormolu, pruritic, thaumaturgic, unguiculate and football. Happy Bloomsday!

160616joyce


Gates and Gatz

Tuesday, 31 May, 2016 1 Comment

Don’t want to let the month of May end without mentioning the Top 10 Books chosen by Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, billionaire, philanthropist and avid reader. Aaron Hicklin, proprietor of the bookshop and website One Grand Books, has been asking people to name the 10 books they’d take with them if they were stuck on a desert island and Gates responded with a mix that ranges from sci-fi to business to biology. Included is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The novel that I reread the most. Melinda and I love one line so much that we had it painted on a wall in our house: ‘His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.'”

Think about that sentence for a moment:

“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

How many good people and how many awful people have shared the same dream of success only to see it slip from their reach? Some accepted defeat with grace; others were driven mad by failure. Jimmy Gatz failed vulnerably, unflinchingly, memorably.


Seven questions with Parag Khanna

Friday, 13 May, 2016 1 Comment

After five days of posting about CONNECTOGRAPHY: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, it’s time to talk to the author, Parag Khanna, about his book. Here goes!

1. Eamonn Fitzgerald: What inspired you to write Connectography?

Parag Khanna: My love of geography and travel, and my obsession with geopolitics going back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and my introductory class in Geopolitics taken 20 years ago at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. All of the many ideas that had not yet found expression in The Second World and How to Run the World needed to be contained and also wrapped in a meta-theory that also encompassed these previous books. I also wanted to update these with new insights as these countries evolve, and include more recent travels.

2. Eamonn Fitzgerald: For writers, geography remains a very popular science for interpreting our world. Four years ago, Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate described how countries’ histories have been shaped by their relationships with water and with land. Last year, Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography explained how a nation’s geography affects its internal fortunes and international strategies. Is that kind of terrain-based approach outdated? Are you saying in Connectography that geography is no longer destiny?

Parag Khanna: Not at all. Robert Kaplan is a dear friend and mentor and inspiration for me. Connectivity doesn’t invalidate geography but builds on it. Connectivity is how we make the most of our geography. Some places turn their geography into an advantage — for example Singapore and Dubai — while others don’t. China is surrounded by 14 countries but now it is using connectivity across terrain to extend its geopolitical influence in non-military ways. Connectivity is now a deep part of our relationship with geography, and that is what this book explores.

3. Eamonn Fitzgerald: One of the hottest new words coined during the last decade was “crowdsourcing,” which means getting people to contribute to a project via a website where they can make contributions. Why should “connectography” be part of our vocabulary a decade from now?

Parag Khanna: Connectography should be part of our vocabulary because geography alone assumes that geography is an unchangeable force. However, we now use topographical engineering to modify our geography, and that tells us a great deal about the fate of human civilization than geography alone.

Parag Khanna

4. Eamonn Fitzgerald: Responding to a journalist who asked what is most likely to blow a government off course, the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reputedly said, “Events, dear boy, events.” Did you encounter any unexpected events when writing Connectography that forced you to rethink a chapter or change a section?

Parag Khanna: Great question. In fact, I only found events that reinforce my conclusions. During the time of writing, Russia invaded Ukraine, but the gas pipelines are the really important long-term contest, and it is building a bridge to Crimea. In other words: Infrastructure is a key tool and battlefield. China began dredging sand to build up South China Sea islands — yet more topographical engineering. Every day I see more examples of the thesis coming to life.

5. Eamonn Fitzgerald: What’s the most surprising response (positive or negative) you’ve had so far about the book?

Parag Khanna: I’m so pleased with people’s appreciation of the maps. It has been a global outpouring of excitement and admiration for the maps made by two truly amazing teams of digital cartographers whom I worked with at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m so gratified that their intense work has received such widespread recognition.

6. Eamonn Fitzgerald: Can you sum up the three key points you’d like the reader to take away from reading Connectography?

Parag Khanna: Rather then enumerate takeaways, I simply want readers to gain an appreciation for the categories of connectivity (transportation, energy and communications) that we have ourselves built and have such a profound impact on our lives. This premise plays out in so many ways in the book (economics, climate change, geopolitics, urbanization) that I hope readers will learn about many issues they are not personally familiar with.

7. Eamonn Fitzgerald: Connectography has been published and you’re busy right now promoting it, but what’s next for Parag Khanna?

Parag Khanna: That’s a great question. This was a trilogy, and I don’t know the word for a series of 4, so I will not write another one. I intend for this to have a long shelf life, so we shall see!

Our thanks to Parag Khanna for taking the time to answer these questions. CONNECTOGRAPHY: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization is a useful guide to globalization and its impact on trade, communication and culture. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” says Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, but where we’re going, we do need maps and Parag Khanna is pointing us in the right direction.