Southern lit-fictionist Larry Brown’s The Miracle of Catfish: A Novel in Progress
, which came out a few weeks ago, is only the latest of a recent spate of unfinished manuscripts making it into print after the author’s death. Every writer leaves a paper trail at death; many name literary executors in their wills to take care of it; others, expecting the Eternal Footman at the door at any moment, merely apply fire. There is always the fear that bringing out lesser works could dilute a writer’s reputation for genius, perhaps by revealing too much of the man behind the curtain. On the other hand, these works could be cherished by fans, who lovingly collect every iota of prose emitted from a beloved author’s pen. Then there’s also the proven point that death sells as well as sex, so these unpolished nuggets must sure be tempting for publishers. So it was with perhaps morbid curiosity that I sat down with four recent releases from well-known authors who have been dead for years. As I found out, they proved to be, by turns, leaden lumps, occasionally gold, and something in between.
Summer Crossing by Truman Capote
This novella is thin on both page count and substancecall it a literary snackbut it is a perfectly presentable sort of divertissement
you would expect from early Capote: the wealthy girl and the poor boy, summer heat, lust, impulse, a fabulous gay friend, absent parents, and a simultaneously revered and reviled class system that both brings them together and brings them down. The tale is snarky and sordid, something young Truman might have overheard at a cocktail party and felt compelled to embellish for his own amusement. The handwritten manuscript was found after Capote’s 1984 death in the basement of a house in Brooklyn that he’d moved out of in 1950. A version of it was published as a magazine serial during Capote’s lifetime, but this is the first time the entire novel has seen daylight. It’s a nice beach read for an English major.
» Read an excerpt from Summer Crossing
The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien
Modern pop culture has several alternate realities with frequent, adoring visitors: Hogwart’s, Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, the forest moon of Endor, Middle-Earth. I’m familiar enough with fantasy lit to know my Orcs from my Ents, but I’m not a citizen of the Tolkien nation. The Children of Húrin
, which came out earlier this year, recounts a legend that is ancient history by the time it is referred to in the other books, and parts of it appeared in the well-loved Simarillion
, a companion/background guide to Middle-Earth published in the ‘80s, composed of various scraps Tolkien left behind after his death. Mostly, I found it rather like reading the Creation myth of a foreign culture: There are too many weird names to remember, and a lot of preciously heroic diction (And suddenly a black wrath shook him; for his eyes were opened, and the spell of Glaurung loosed its last threads, and he knew the lies with which he had been cheated.); you also need a map to keep the geography straight (conveniently supplied). The storydespite a winding plot loaded with death, curses, battles, friendship, mistaken identity, and incestseems flat and contrived, and the charactersa cursed father, a noble mother, a loyal sister and friends, and an irritable young protagonist prone to changing his name after every major event in his lifeare unappealing. I imagine hardcore fans will appreciate the way it fills in the context of other beloved stories, but if the movies had bombed, I don’t think this would ever have been released.
Under Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway wrote this reminiscence of a 1953 safari to answer the question of whether a day-to-day account of real life could be as compelling as a novel. This one, at least, is not. It’s not terrible, but you could tear out the first 130 pages without losing anything (fear not, that would still leave you with 315 more). Once it gets going, it’s mildly interestinggoing hunting with Papa in Africa is never going to be a total snorebut for the most part it fails the first test of Memoir 101: Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it remarkable. Also, some of it seems made up, so perhaps he answered his own question. Hemingway once complained that he never received enough credit for his humor, but his idea of a joke isn’t all that funny: he spends entirely too much time constructing a fake religion based on dime-store Indian mythology and trying repeatedly to convince credulous Kenyan tribesmen that he is a prophetwhich struck me as amusing the first time, tiresome the second, and mean the third, fourth, and fifth. He finished the book five years before his death, but never attempted to publish or even edit it, instead leaving the manuscript in a safe for his family to sell after his death; it was released with almost no fanfare in 2005. I think he knew that it would be worth more after he died, that there was far more value in the name on the book jacket than there in the pages it contained. He was right.
» Read an excerpt from Under Kilimanjaro
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This masterful, beautiful scrap of a book, which came out with no small praise last year, is by far the best (and least finished) of this group. Set during the beginning of World War II, it follows several groups of characterssome comic, some heroic, some tragicthrough the evacuation of Paris and the beginning of the German occupation, including the first stirrings of the collaborators and the resistance. Nemirovsky must have been writing the novel almost simultaneously with these events: She was murdered in Auschwitz in August of 1942. It’s difficult to believe that this was a handwritten first draft, especially given the complexity of the intertwining stories. If I had to nitpick, I suspect two of the characters in the first section would have eventually been merged in the final draft, and at one point a character briefly appears in a scene when he’s supposed to be somewhere else. But honestly, it’s so good I didn’t care. I was surprised and most impressed by how sympathetically she treated her Nazi characters, imbuing them with the depth and humanity they quite fatally denied to her. Suite Francaise
was intended to be a cycle of five interconnected novellas with recurring characters traveling through each; Nemirovsky was only able to complete two. Had she been able to finish, it may have been the best book of the war in France, but even unfinished, it is very much worth reading.
» Read an excerpt from Suite Francaise
For a person who writes short stories, I have a funny way of reading them. I probably look more like a person scrutinizing a passing stranger on the street than someone settling down to read: skeptical, certainly frowning. Before the end of the first paragraph, I’ve already started flipping toward the end of the story, letting my eyes graze here and there. If something catches me, I’ll stay and read a bit, but usually not straight through to the end. I skip around, flirting with different parts, reading forward and backward. After a while, I’m either finished with the story or intrigued enough to start again in the middle. If I go back to the middle, I try hard to read straight through to the end. If I don’t succeed, I’m done.
My editor, after reading that first paragraph, asked me if I liked short stories. I really do, I insisted, because every once in a while something else happens, something wonderful. It’s as if I suddenly realize the stranger on the street is actually my beloved grandmother, back from the dead to tell me something important, and I have to sprint to catch up to her. Tired, out-of-breath, sheepish, my obnoxious little reading method in shambles, I fall into stride. She tells me to smooth my skirt, and we begin, properly, at the beginning.
The latest story to whip me into shape this way was The House of the Two Three-Legged Dogs by Elizabeth McCracken
. Here are a few of the things that sent me back to the beginning: Like Izzy, he was giving up hope. It was a physical process, the hope a sort of shrapnel working its way out of his skin. It hurt.
Is there a better description of despair?
Sid stood up and his stomach, an impressive spherical object, came into the car, crowding Tony over.
Is there a better description of a man talking next to a car?
And my candidate for best description of a home lost to worry and disorder: A bag of garbage sat on the sofa like a person.
A story is not like a road to follow
it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like
The story is set in Bazaillac, France, a small town overrun with British expats. Tony and his wife, Izzy, have been there 11 years, long enough to have once been such a novelty they were called les Anglais
. Now, however, you couldn’t go into a market without being assaulted by the terrible voices of your countrymen. Tony had heard that Slovenia and Macedonia were the new places to go. He wished Slovenia and Macedonia luck.
It is Christmastime and Tony is circling the town in an old Escort looking for his son, Malcolm. Instead he finds Sid (of the stomach) and eventually Sid comes to visit, bringing with him a female African gray parrot, a gift to Tony from Malcolm. Things will not end well for the bird, or the car, Tony’s gift to Malcolm, if he could find him. The house Tony shares with Izzy is a mess: overrun with animals, never fully renovated. Good intentions have either run amok or been abandoned. Add the damp of winter and the British predilection to drink while socializing, and you’ve got one dark, drunken little story.
The House of the Two Three-Legged Dogs is about the worst kind of family disaster, a slow disintegration ending in betrayal. But no one in the story wants to see it that way, just as they don’t want to see the overrun house and town. So here we have a situation in which two three-legged dogs, who have mated and have a litter of new pups, are the symbol of hope. How great is that? All the able-bodied animalsTony, Izzy, Malcolm, Sid, even the two four-legged sheep dogs who herd only kittens and kitchen countershave failed to thrive. The broken dogs are the ones beginning a new family, and, like Tony to his compatriots in Slovenia, we wish them luck.
I hate the word heartbreaking. I think it’s very overused. This story, however, is nothing else.
A few years ago I found this in Alice Munro’s introduction to her Selected Stories
: I don’t always, or even usually, read stories from beginning to end. I start anywhere and proceed in either direction. So it appears that I’m not readingat least in an efficient wayto find out what happens
. A story is not like a road to follow
it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like
You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.
I was so relieved. Maybe I’m not crazy. In this spirit, I’ve been living in McCracken’s house for a few days, and I tell you, it’s getting better and better. Here, let me move that bag of garbage. Sit down. Have a glass of wine.
—Jessica Francis Kane
Who doesn’t want to be an observer? Who wouldn’t like to notice something others overlook? For a few days I’ve been trying to come up with a single bad trait associated with being an observer, but like dolphins and rainbows, observers just seem wholly good. Which is why I am so fond of a quirky little set of books I found in a London bookshop several years ago.
Exactly the size and shape of a Moleskine notebook, the Observer’s series was started in 1937, with dozens and dozens of them appearing from Frederick Warne Publishers through the 1940s and ‘50s on nearly every topic imaginable: birds, dogs, horses, moths, heraldry and pond life, steam locomotives and soccer, lichens and firearms. The subjects are so varied it’s almost ridiculous, until you pick one up and realize how well the information is presented. They are so very British: compact, concise, courteous. From the chapter on sound in the Observer’s Book of Music
: The final question, why we should feel a sense of enjoyment in certain combinations of sounds, is a philosophical one, and cannot concern us here.
Perfect. Never more than you want to know. Flipping through an Observer’s guide is like having a brief but fulfilling conversation with an expert in the field who wants to tell you only the best and most pertinent facts, with a few opinions scattered in for fun. From the entry on the Mexican orange blossom in my Flowering Trees and Shrubs
: It has proved to have a certain degree of hardiness for our gardens, remarkable in a plant of so warm a land. Lovely. You know what he’s really saying? We’re fucking lucky to have cultivated this beauty on our damp little island and you’d be a bleeding idiot not to plant it by your kitchen door tomorrowor just as soon as you can propagate a cutting from a half-ripe shoot, usually June.
Reading carelessly at first, perhaps even ready to mock (I mean, big bands? Coarse fishing?), you slowly begin to pay more attention until, lo and behold, you suddenly realize there are some very interesting things to know about castles and pottery, churches and house plants, even grasses and awards & medals. Each one has an introduction, rarely more than a few pages. All have an index and illustrations. The Observer’s Book of Trees
has pretty endpapers with pale green drawings of seedlings. Of the ones I have, it is also the only one with a dedication: For Camilla. As for the illustrations, the ones in the books on natural history have excellent color drawings and black-and-white reproductions of photographs, but the composer portraits in the back of the guide to music are so rudimentary as to be embarrassing. Poor Henry Purcell looks as if he has a pair of mating badgers on his head; Gioacchino Rossini as if he hasn’t slept in years. Still, a review in the Birmingham Post
quoted on the flyleaf of several editions says, Information that is readily available at the time when it is wanted, in just the right quantity and of the right quality, and this to me is their greatest attribute. What could be better, particularly in our messy, ballooning, endlessly linking, information age?
Most of the guides were updated and reprinted in the 1970s, and many of these editions carry a preface by the writer expressing the hope that his or her work will be found worthy of the Observer’s series, indicating the reverence with which these little gems must have once been held. Now they are out of print, found only by the lucky in used bookshops, or, if you become addicted (it’s a slippery slope), you can bid for them on eBay (in England and Ireland). I’m aiming for a complete set.
—Jessica Francis Kane
Last month I was in New York for a week and among the many small humiliations I enduredmy husband and I were auditioning our family for preschoolwas this one: I had to ask a clerk in a very famous children’s bookstore if they carried any of the My Little Pony
books. I did this because my daughter, who is three, likes them, and as the week was hard on her, too, I thought she needed a treat. My daughter knows I’m not particularly good at locating things in stores and so she expects me to ask for help. In fact, she orders me to if the item we are looking for happens to be for her. I found a friendly-looking clerk, the most Meg-Ryany of the ones on the floor that day (we were in the bookstore used as a model for Ryan’s shop in You’ve Got Mail
). But still, her answer, We
do not, implied everything she meant it to. Then the clerk with the cute short haircut looked at my daughter as if she had a fresh young mind I was trying to fill with garbage, and so I did what any parent would have done. I said it was my daughter’s idea.
Later I told the story to a friend and he took the admirable position that the clerk had been an elitist snob. A book is a book, he declared indignantly, and how I wish I could have agreed! The problem is, the My Little Pony
books really aren’t books. They’re marketing confections, perfectly designed and executed to appeal to the three-year-old girl who likesand these things appear to be largely universalpink, horses, and cats, in that order. Put bright pink and baby horses together and you have something irresistible, the book equivalent of Banilla yogurt. As if to prove the point, they’re frequently displayed in spinners, metal racks more suitable for the sale of spices or stickers than literature.
But here’s the real crime, here’s what makes me mad: For all their slick promotion the My Little Pony
books rely on a familiar formulathe codification of friends. Children love stories with multiple characters whose names and personality traits can be sorted and memorized. (I guess we never grow out of it. How else to explain the longevity of Ross, Rachel, and Chandler? ) The Little Ponies have names, all right (Pinkie Pie, Cotton Candy, Bumblesweet), but personality has been replaced by color (it’s not confusing: pink, pink and blue, honey yellow).
Put bright pink and baby horses together and you have something irresistible, the book equivalent of Banilla yogurt.
I do not exaggerate. Pinkie Pie is pink, she knows she’s pink, she likes that she’s pink. That’s it. All her friends are the same. My Little Pony
doesn’t just rely on the formula, it is
the formula and nothing else.
Now compare this multi-hued disaster to the characters in a set of books originally published in the 1940s, now beautifully reissued by The New York Review of Books
imprint: Jenny and the Cat Club
by Esther Averill. The eponymous heroine, a black cat named Jenny Linsky, and her feline friends have parties and adventures, learn to cooperate and be brave, just like all good children’s book characters, but they live in a real place, Greenwich Village, and the cast is quirky. You’ve got Jenny, who always wears a red scarf made for her by her owner, an ex-sea captain who knits; Florio, who lives in a nice apartment building and often wears a feather (I swear he’s meant to be gay); Pickles, who works for a hook and ladder; Madame Butterfly, who plays a nose flute; and Concertina, who scratches the minutes of the club’s meetings into a tree branch in the garden where they meet. There are two fighters, Sinbad and the Duke, who know their way around the docks; the twins, Romulus and Remus; the sweethearts, Arabella and Antonio; and Solomon, a wise cat who always sits on a stack of books.
Now I ask you, is it fair that a collection of eight My Little Pony
stories has an Amazon ranking around 9,000, while Jenny Linsky and the Cat Club
hovers around 26,000?
I am glad to say that my daughter loves Jenny Linsky. I wouldn’t necessarily want to ask her if she’d choose her over Pinkie Pie if she could take only one book to a desert island (the question would scare her anyway; she’d worry about sharks), but it does seem a good sign that for Halloween she wanted her favorite stuffed animal to dress up as Jenny. A neighbor made a red scarf out of felt and we tied it around the animal’s neck. When people asked her why she was carrying a be-scarfed leopard under her arm, she held her up and cried, Jenny Linsky!
But no one knew what she was talking about.
—Jessica Francis Kane
By Christmas Eve, I never feel like I’ve bought enough. The arms race catches up with me, it tugs at my anxiety and my wallet. At some point on the 24th I end up at a stripmall bookstore in Connecticut or North Carolina wondering what I can walk out with to suit my relatives.
That’s the first problem. The second problem is, by that point I’ve already wrapped several books as gifts. Each year there seems to be one novel I can’t imagine my life without, and I insist on everyone reading it as well. (I’m a lot of fun.) The Last Samurai
and The Known World
both won high marks across the family trees in past years, but will everyone enjoy must-read as much as I did?
Relatives of mine, please don’t click that link.
The trick is to combine Turgenev in the stocking with sticky pudding under the tree. Everyone likes mystery novels, including almost all of my relativesat least, certain relatives like certain types of mystery novels. My father enjoys procedurals and thrillers and Alan Furst-ish historical espionage books. My mother-in-law prefers a more literary story or a cats-and-crosswords cozy. My wife’s cousin has discovered a latent Sherlock Holmes interest, my brother-in-law wants a thoughtful page-turner, and my own sister, like me, is omnivorous, as long as the writing snaps.
This is not a catch-all, just a basket of my recent favorites, (almost) all road-tested and found to be extremely good. One note: If you live in New York City, won’t you consider picking up your book gifts at Three Lives & Co.
or Partners & Crime
? Or if you don’t live in hell, won’t you support your own independent bookstore? And if you don’t trust me on picks, will you consider The Mysterious Bookshop
Mysteries for the Literary Reader
Nicolas Freeling’s Love in Amsterdam
is probably the most exciting new detective book I’ve read in yearsvery stylish and experimental, and slightly demented. I’ve given away and re-bought and given away again several editions of Michael Malone’s Justin & Cuddy series, a very well-written and spellbinding trilogy set in North Carolina, starring a southern Felix-and-Oscar pair of detectives; start with Uncivil Seasons
. John le Carré is a superb novelist, and apparently he also writes mysteries. The new globetrotter, The Mission Song
, is exciting and twisty, and packing heavy diction. One last one I haven’t read yet but hope to get to soon: Kate Atkinson’s detective follow-up, One Good Turn
is being raved about by mystery booksellers with taste buds I trust. It’s in the mail on the way to my headboard.
Mysteries for Those Who Desire Entertainment
I pre-order Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books; I’m more happy reading them than much else. We’ve loaned them out so much, my wife and I have probably bought three editions of each book. Start with The Shape of Water
and culminate with the most recent, Rounding the Mark
. Then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Perhaps you’ve watched the Today
show recently? If you haven’t heard of them or read them all in a single night, they are African meringues. If we’re talking blood, cuts, and serial killers, the new Harry Bosch book by Michael Connelly, Echo Park
, pays out big dividends. And I wouldn’t be a good friend, or an honest reader, if I didn’t recommend Kevin Guilfoile’s recent thriller, Cast of Shadows
Mysteries for the History Reader
Let’s assume our imagined customer has already gone through her Alan Furst phase, shaken off her sepia goggles, and gotten hungry for something new. Recent favorites of mine include Rebecca Pawel’s
Sergeant Tejada Alonzo y León investigations (from Soho Crime
, a generally excellent line). Death of a Nationalist
comes first, though this year we also got the fourth installment, The Summer Snow
. Also, post-Furst-thirst, Ron Rosenbaum in the Observer
pointed me to the wonderful Philip Kerr. Rosenbaum recommends kicking it off with A German Requiem
Mysteries for The Budding Sherlock Fan
There are wonderful, small-run analyses of Sherlock’s world or books of Holmes-inspired fiction published all the time, but rarely does the scholarship go global. Leslie Klinger’s annotated stories and novels do an enormous job extremely well. Another way to knock at 221B is to subscribe to the Baker Street Journal
, a quarterly for Doyle-heads. But what if your niece or nephew has never been spooked by The Speckled Band? For a $20 check mailed to Stanford’s Discovering Sherlock Holmes project
, you can receive 12 re-issues of The Strand Magazine
with a new mystery in each packet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings. Partly this is because it is fall and as the child of an academic, autumn is the year’s first season for me, a much more persuasive time for starting over than bleak midwinter, no matter how much Champagne is involved. Partly, too, it is because I am just getting back to work after the birth of my second child. Odd that the arrival of a baby in one’s life creates such a full stop. It is a new beginning, certainly, but like a signal that shorts out all radios in the vicinity (see: England, WWII, air raids), it brings so many other things to a complete halt. And lastly, I suppose, because I am joining Robert Birnbaum in this book digest on an occasional schedule, at the behest of my dear TMN editors. The esteemed Birnbaum, who has perhaps talked to more living writers than anyone else on the planet, covers the newly released but not-much-talked-about. I’ll be selecting from stranger criteria.
I have a couple of reasons for being worried about starting a regular book column. First of all, the aforementioned baby, who used to sleep through the night, has for some reason stopped that. Second of all, I have a fear of assertions. I don’t mind others making them, I just can’t do it. If James Wood wanted to write about why The Bridges of Madison County
was one of the best books of the last century, that’s fine. I’d probably believe every word.
While I was thinking about beginnings, I remembered a few I have long admired. Don’t worry, there’s no summary of an epoch (It was the best of times
) or mansions lost (Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.). These three are probably not included on a course syllabus just yet, but I think they should be, particularly if the course were about how to start a great novel.
The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into the town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril? This was on the way into Cambridge, up Mill Road past the cemetery and the workhouse. On the open ground to the left the willow-trees had been blown, driven and cracked until their branches gave way and lay about the drenched grass, jerking convulsively and trailing cataracts of twigs.
The passage goes on to include one of the best descriptions of upended cows (are there others? If not, why not?), and a conversation between wry cyclists competing in the wind (again, are there more of these?). But what I love most about this opening is the way you both know and don’t know where you are. Fitzgerald gives us specificity of location (Mill Road, Cambridge) and yet a description of willow trees and cows that is disturbed, bizarre. As the paragraph concludes: A scene of disorder, tree-tops on the earth, legs in the air, in a university city devoted to logic and reason, which turns out to be exactly what the novel is about. One paragraph as compressed as poetryand funny, too. It’s enough to make you want to give up writing.
Enduring Love, Ian McEwan
The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand
this was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.
Wind again. It has to be windy here to cause the accident that is about to occura horrific event involving a hot air balloon that serves as a catalyst for the story sort of the way the Trojan War serves as a catalyst for the Aeneidbut it seems to me, too, that wind is a compelling natural element for any novelist. It’s dramatic and confusing. (As a symbol, water is overrated, I think; and that includes snow, Mr. Joyce). The next thing we know, the narrator is running toward the accident, racing into this story, he tells us. That is what I love, the event unfolding even as we are being told about it from a distance, a narrative position that I might have guessed would detract from the drama, but in McEwan’s hands, drives it forward.
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning toward her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see
a kiss, that would have been impossible.
No wind, but how beautiful is this? A kiss seen but not seen, a dark room full of people applauding. A foreboding so lightly done that despite having read the opening pages many times I cannot figure out how it is
All three beginnings share a sense of mystery, a certain feeling of events being not what they seem, and so, of course, we want to read on until we understand what’s happening. By that time, you’re hooked. At least, I was. But as previously stated, I’ll not make any assertions about what will happen to you.
—Jessica Francis Kane