Marching with Augie a Third Time

Writing to fellow author Bernard Malamud, in an undated letter written slightly after the publication of The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow states that “two things about the book please me still: the comedy and the characters. Many people have missed what, to me, is the fun of the book. They suffer from culture-gravity.”

So now afer reading Augie a third time, I truly appreciate Bellow’s comment about the fun of reading this novel. For instance, the exaggerated physical description of the Magnus family and its embodiment of Chicago’s Eastern European immigrant nouveau riche is Rabelaisian humor at its best.

I cannot think of another American novel that has as many interesting and quirky female characters as this book. Mimi Villars, Thea Fenchel, Stella Chesney, Lucy Magnus and Sophie Geratis are all sketched out brilliantly as they play crucial supporting roles in Augie’s odyssey in quest of a purpose in life.

Many critics of both genders accuse Bellow as being a womanizer and a real schmuck in the way he treated women, and that his female fictonal characters should be dismissed as sexual sterotypes and caricatures. I cannot agree. Separate the art from the political correctness, and see the genius in Bellow’s characterization. Lighten up from the culture-gravity and have some fun as you read, or in my case, read once again, this wild, wonderful book.

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A Great Place To Be

For a literary enthusiast such as myself, London is a great place to be. The Booker shortlist selections are featured at most every bookstore in anticipation of next month’s announcement of the winner. Yesterday we visited the British Library and saw the desk that Jane Austen wrote most of her novels on. In the same room was a manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ( circa 1410) and a few Shakespeare folios. I also enjoyed glancing at Dr. Johnson’s notes on a trip to Wales. Anne and I also walked down to Hampstead to take a peek at the Keats house in the evening and we heard a nightingale singing there.

Booker Shortlist Announced Today

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced today. Here it is:

  • Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending
  • Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie
  • Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers
  • Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues 
  • Stephen Kelman Pigeon English
  • A.D. Miller Snowdrops 

I have read four of the six, not having read the shortlisted novels of Barnes and Edugyan as yet. Jamrach’s Menagerie is phantasmagorical historical fiction at its best akin to Barry Unsworth’s Booker Prize winning opus Sacred Hunger.  Admittedly I was shocked by Carol Birch’s agonizing and seemingly endless riff on cannibalism at sea. Ms. Birch doesn’t take a second fiddle to Conrad or Golding in grisly descriptive narrative. This is a tale of a poor London lad who ships out to sea at an early age and suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, yet in the end overcomes them, and makes a successful life for himself, and finally ends up with the girl of his dreams as well. This novel at its heart is truly Dickensian.

I didn’t think that I would like The Sisters Brothers at all. I hardly ever read any Westerns, so I began reading it with low expectations. But the from the first page on, Patrick deWitt’s language and characterizations captivate you. I couldn’t put the book down. I was thrust into the world of desperados during the California Gold Rush era, and I couldn’t leave it until the author eased me nicely out of it at the novel’s conclusion.

Stephan Kelman’s first novel, Pigeon English, is truly a gem. In the context of magical realism, it relates the story of a boy detective Ghanaian immigrant who lives in a tough London housing project. As he tries to figure out the pieces of a local crime puzzle, he gets himself deeper in danger, as he cannot escape the clutches of a terrorizing neighborhood hooligan. Yes there is a talking pigeon, who dispenses words of wisdom to the boy, and who, in the end, presages his unfortunate fate.

Another brilliant first novel on the Booker shortlist is A. D. Miller’s Snowdrops. The backdrop is post-Soviet Moscow, and the protagonist is a nearing forty British expatriate lawyer, who despite his inherent good sense, becomes romantically entangled with a beautiful Muscovite femme fatale. As a result, he goes on a zany Russian odyssey that inexorably leads to dire consequences. Lessons learned, he returns to the UK, poorer and more skeptical, yet much more wise to the world. Mr. Miller, a journalist for many years, has made a successful transition to fictive writing. One sees many elements of Ian McEwan’s style and tone in his writing.

All four of these shortlisted novels are worthy of the Booker.

Rodin’s Debutante is a bust

I saw that Ward Just’s new novel, Rodin’s Debutante was on President Obama’s summer reading list, and since it had a Chicago setting, I decided to read it myself. I found the book to be disappointing, so my advice to you, Mr. President, is if you haven’t got around to it, skip this book and go on to another on your list.

The early part of the book takes place in the fictional New Jesper, an industrial town located north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. It seemed to sound like Waukegan, but I was never clear if Just meant it to be Waukegan, since nothing definitive of the town’s identity ever emerged from the story’s narrative. Then the book moved to Chicago’s South Side, Hyde Park and Woodlawn, where I didn’t feel the writing encompassed the personalities of these Chicago communities.

I thought that the characters in the novel were cliched, the actions predictable and the language prosaic. The protagonist Lee is someone you don’t emphasize with, in a book that is trying to mimic, in writing and tone, the cinematic ambience of Orson Welles’ great film classic Citizen Kane.

There was nothing, in fact, great or classic about Rodin’s Debutante. With apologies to the sculptor Rodin, it is a bust in the literary sense.

A literary Pick that will go far

Just when you think that there is a saturation of Holocaust novels out there in the literary world, along comes Alison Pick’s Far to Go and you see that somehow, someway, new insights and images manage to come forth in this subgenre of Jewish fiction. I came upon Far to Go as I saw it was chosen on this year’s Booker Prize long-list. There was a copy available at my public library, and I took it out and read the 308 paperback edition (Harper Perennial) in two days.

It was a compelling story, flashing back and forth from Sudetenland and Prague in the late 30s and early 40s to contemporary Montreal. Eventually, subtly, the identity of the narrator is revealed, as the reader follows the tragic story of the Bauers, an assimilated Czech Jewish family whose comfortable life is permanently torn apart by the Holocaust.

The novelist, Ms. Pick, based the story on her grandparents real-life experience. Her family, upon arriving in Canada, hid their Jewish past. Ms. Pick went about the process of rediscovering her Jewishness, converting to the religion and joining the community, and in the meantime writing a spectacular tale that far surpasses the popular Sarah’s Key in literary merit as a Holocaust novel.