Samarkand – 4/5 Stars
This book immediately wonder how many novels have Omar Khayyam as a major or main characters. So in this way, being shown in careful detail and with loving care how and why Omar Khayyam is such an important person, cultural touchstone, and inspiration to such a huge part of the world is itself a gift that this novel offers. In addition to this, the sense of adventure in this novel that is created in the opening sections, and then carried over later speaks to the wonder of art, and especially the legacy of art for future patrons. That the character Omar Khayyam is such a wonderful character and then becomes an inspiration later on, turns this novel into something like a multi-generational family epic but instead of geographical or filial ties, we get the ties of art and poetry carrying us through.
It’s hard not to compare it in some ways to Salman Rushdie’s novel about an Omar Khayyam, Shame, but the legacy of guilt and sin in that novel is replaced with lightness and beauty in this one.
“God, she was beautiful – my first image of the Orient – a woman such as only the desert poet knew how to praise: her face was the sun, her hair the protecting shadow, her eyes fountains of cool water, her body the most slender of palm-trees and her smile a mirage.”
The Lecturer’s Tale – 2/5 Stars
A campus novel that is too silly for words in some moments and wonderfully hilarious in others. I think about campus novels from time to time and this one sits more in line with Lucky Jim or Pictures from an Institution or Belle Lettres than Straight Man, Stoner, or other academic novels who want the situation to persist.
We meet Nelson Humboldt, an expert on James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and little else. He’s been spinning this little novels into whatever article he can, analyzing it through every single lens he can think of — Marxism, feminism, Queer Theory, New Historicism — and he’s worried that the jig is up. He’s only got the job as a favor from his mentor Mort Weissman, who is getting slowly getting drummed out. When Nelson learns he is fired, he stumbled out of the office, gets hit by a bicycle, loses a finger, and when it gets re-attached, he finds that he has attained some minor magical influence over others.
The book is silly. It’s also long (not hugely, but too) and we trot through vignette after vignette where some element of English department hijinks is savaged in some way. It’s a worthy target, and might have saved me some stress if I read it at 25, but it’s also a little too clever for its own good.
Shiloh – 4/5 Stars
A book that was much more interesting and better the second time around. For one, the book makes a lot more sense when you actually know the history of the Battle of Shiloh (or have been recently reminded of it). I spent some time reading different books about the Civil War, and knowing the basics of the battle and the context within which the battle exists in the larger war, makes this novel a lot more meaningful. It’s not really a “soldier’s experience of battle” novel, although there’s plenty of that. And it’s not a breakdown of all the different tactics novel either. It’s all these things, and mostly, it’s an attempt to show the fractured nature of understanding a war, any war, from a host of different voices and sources. It’s amazing record of resisting representation in this way. It doesn’t hurt of course that Shelby Foote is more than up to the task as a writer.
The Great Train Robbery – 2/5 Stars
The biggest sin hear is treating his audience like idiots. Apparently Americans had never heard of “Victorian England” in 1975, if Michael Crichton’s pedantic narration is to be taken seriously. He details all kinds of curious ideas and behaviors with as much telling as possible, to the point where half of my reactions to some revelation is, yeah, no shit, Sherlock. A reference, mind you, and you probably don’t know this, being an idiot American, is to a famous Victorian fictional detective!
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – 3/5 Stars
This is the first story collection by Murakami I’ve read. He’s got a handful more, mostly shorter than this one. This one also has a large number of stories (24) and many of the stories feel interconnected, even though he mostly swears they are not in his introduction. Like with his novels, I don’t always love his writing, and all his old tricks are here, but he begins with a longish introduction, and he’s so straightforward in his writing about writing, that it’s hard for me not to root for him.
Many of the stories about young people sort of falling in love or sort of dating. Things happens, or don’t happen, and they learn something. There’s a lot less describing of breasts in this collections as happens in the novels, but so many of the women are described as “no great beauty” as also happens a lot.
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline – 4/5 Stars
Reading this book today, as opposed to when it first came out, is to be ushered into the presence of a now master, at least according to all the extra material printed with this. Joshua Ferris writes an effusive introduction to the collection, where he points that John Updike probably never won a World Fantasy Award (although he might’ve — awards loving giving themselves to literary authors who write crappy genre fiction, so who knows). But then when George Saunders starts talking you remember you’re dealing with a relatively humble writer who seems to mostly feel like he’s beaten the system. He tells of mischievously using company time and resources to write most of these stories, being confronted by bosses, and then the relief of his wife finally finding a story of his that she liked, and thus reassuring her that it wasn’t all a waste of time.
This collection is a clearly good introduction to George Saunders. If you can’t find something you like about Saunders’s writing here, you probably won’t find it elsewhere. That’s not to say that I am in love with this collection. I like it; and it’s imminently hilarious and readable. But sometimes it feels like it wastes some moments or play around a little too much. As I do with Kafka, my advice is to start by taking every story at its word, and then thinking about what else it might contain.
Save Me the Plums – 4/5 Stars
Not really a cooking book, but a booking book. A book book, perhaps. This memoir specifically tells the story of Reichl moving from the LA Times and the New York Times to Gourmet Magazine, ie becoming a corporate shill. I joke, but it does mean putting her directly in the same parent company (Conde Nast) as Vogue, GQ, Architecture Digest, The New Yorker etc etc. But with Gourmet, it’s supposed to be a more or less staid and bland cooking magazine. She spices it up of course. There’s moment in the memoir where she mentions that for a lot of readers of Gourmet and similar magazines the recipes would be there for one’s cook, not one self. And she helped to usher in the shift many of us felt and saw over the last 30 years where cooking is blended with a kind of middle-brow/class anxiety in addition to being a domestic task. This also saw the rise in more of the all-star chef, which my argument is that this simply means more of them being on television.
The memoir is interesting I think more from a publishing angle than a cooking one. For instance, I am absolutely the right audience for Ruth Reichl explaining the difficulties in working with David Foster Wallace when he was sent to the Maine Lobster Fest and wrote and anti-killing animal polemic instead of a review. It’s an essay I love and teach occasionally, so having it being a behind the scenes element here was rewarding.