Is It Time to Revisit Montaigne?

In the frenzy of caustic political diatribe in the weeks before the vote for President in the United States, Tim Parks offers the voice of reason in his articleShould Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? in the Book Review section of the New York Times.  

“Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas.  He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that ‘we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.’ To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back.”

The rhetoric of emotional intensity has spilled over from reality show television and action packed books and movies into the political arena, a place where the calm assessment of affairs has been replaced by dyspeptic rants, brutal verbal attacks on adversaries, and “horror for the future.”  Montaigne notes: “No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

9781590514832_p0_v1_s192x300   Rereading Sarah Bakewell’s A Life of Montaigne has immersed me into introspection – and a new appreciation for nonfiction.

 It will not stop me, however, from escaping reality and losing myself in the next book of fiction – life seems better when it’s not real all the time.  Alan Bradley has my attention now in the return of Flavia de Luce. 9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300 

 

 

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The Red Car

Addendum

In reviewing The Red Car for the New York Times – Fast and Furious –  Daniel Handler noted “There is, now, a literary term for a book you can’t stop reading that makes you stop to think.  It is “The Red Car.”  And that’s just what happened to me when I read it.

AN ASIDE

After finishing The Red Car, I felt like Leah, the main character, riding in a car with its own mind – taking me on its own journey – for my own good.  My first thoughts were not to review but to remember.  You might want to skip this “aside” and go straight to the review below – but like Leah riding in the red car, I just had to write it.

I remember waking up one day and noticing I was not wearing earrings.  When had I stopped?   Then I remembered; it was when my baby took to pulling them off my ears and I worried about her swallowing them.  Now she was grown and had pierced ears, but I still forgot to look at my own ears.

It was a wake-up call, as though I had been someone else all those years, dreaming through life, pretending to have it all together and rushing around trying to keep everyone happy – my daughter, my husband, my dissertation committee, my students, my mother.  It never occurred to me to keep myself happy.

Much later, it happened again.  This time I was older and about to enter another decade – without the responsibilities of parenthood and career.  I decided to get my ears pierced – a tribute to five decades of meeting expectations.  For a while, I was happy, until once again I fell into the mode of responsibility.  It still seems difficult to make decisions only for myself.  I could blame my Catholic schooling or my strict Italian father.  I could wonder what if, as we all do periodically, especially when life seems unbearable.  I should just be grateful – so many have a much poorer life.

Maybe someday someone will leave me a red car to jolt me.

MY REVIEW

9781631492334_p0_v8_s192x300   Marcy Dermansky’s short novel – The Red Car – will lead you on a wild ride, but possibly leave you with an urging to reexamine your life.  When her former boss dies and leaves her red sports car and some money to Leah, a budding novelist, Leah revisits her old life, discovers strands of unfinished business and the courage to find her own happiness.  A quick read, The Red Car offers a philosophic look to sleepwalking through life,  with the same quirky, humorous, yet disarming grounding as Where’d You Go Bernadette?  It’s no wonder Maria Semple highly recommended this new book.  Read it in a sitting, but be prepared to think about it longer.

The Man Booker Shortlist

Not surprisingly, my favorite among the thirteen books long listed for the Man Booker Prize did not make the cut.  The six shortlisted this year:

 

9781250083258_p0_v5_s192x300 9781620406694_p0_v3_s118x184 9781510719217_p0_v1_s118x184 9781594206627_large_eileen_draft-211x320 9781555977535_p0_v2_s118x184  9780393609882_p0_v1_s192x300

  • The Sellout – a satire of race relations, reintroducing slavery in Los Angeles
  • Hot Milk – a daughter copes with a hypochondriac mother
  • His Bloody Project –  the story of a seventeen year old boy who committed a brutal triple murder in the Scottish Highlands 
  • Eileen  A lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston 
  • All That Man Is – collection of nine stories about men in different stages of life
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing – a young woman who has fled China and the Tiananmen Square protests

My record is low.  I read and reviewed only one on the list – Eileen;  I left The Sellout unfinished, and am slowly making my way through Hot Milk.    

According to the Man Booker Prize announcement, two of the finalists hail from previous  publishing house winners.  OneWorld who published The Sellout, also published last year’s winner A Brief History of Seven Killings, and Granta, the publisher of Do Not Say We have Nothing also published the 2014 winner, The Luminaries.  Only one author has been nominated before – Deborah Levy in 2012.

The winner will be announced in October.  

My favorite?  Read my review of The Many.

 

 

Revising a Famous Life – The Noise of Time

thinking-clipart-4c9LRXncEAfter someone dies, we often tend to canonize the person, conveniently forgetting the foibles and character flaws.  In Richard Taruskin’s essay for the New York Times – Martyr or Survivor? That Depends  – he questions Julian Barnes’ portrayal of the life of famous Russian composer in his novel The Noise of Time.

In Barnes story, Shostakovich reluctantly agreed to compose for the Russian despots, and managed rebellious chords to preserve his own sound and work his way to worldwide fame.  Taruskin notes the “dubious sources” used by Barnes to create a more positive persona for the composer – a “passive pawn” of politics, and argues Shostakovich should be given credit for a better sense of politics and more intelligence in handling his Russian overseers.

When reading The Noise of Time, I was forced to find more about the life of the famous composer, to compare notes with Barnes’ story.  For the first time, I listened to his famous operas – “The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.”  Barnes had opened a new window for me.   As for the fictionalization of Shastokovich’s life, Barnes produced a testament from his own perception, possibly more positive than real.  But this is fiction, after all.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember how author’s have the ability to change and reframe history in their fiction.  Once, at a book club meeting, a member insisted on Frank Lloyd Wright’s accurate conversation with his mistress in Loving Frank, and it took some a debate to decide the author Nancy Horan had really not been under the bed, but had created a fictionalized version of her own.   The power of the novel to convince the reader is a testament to the author; its factual content can be disregarded or researched – the story still holds.

But the danger is, of course, believing everything you read.  There was a time, when the printing press was first invented, when the written word was gospel.  We have come a long way with critical debates of content, and today the political word is more often questioned than believed.  If The Noise of Time offers a simplistic view of Shostakovich – a Western rationization and a hopeful wish of his leaning away from the terrors of his time, it only confirms what readers want to believe – a view maybe Barnes was shrewd in capitalizing on.

Have you read it?

Review of the book: The Noise of Time

 

 

 

The Man Booker Baker’s Dozen

Unknown The anticipated Man Booker Longlist announced today has a few familiar titles but some books are not yet published in the United States.  Thirteen books made the prestigious list.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, a satirical assessment of racism in the United States, tops the list.  The winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, Beatty’s novel uses a Jonathan Swift premise in his character’s modest proposal to bring back segregation and slavery.

Four other American novels on the list include Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton.  The author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, Strout returns with a short but powerful novel as she tells the story of suffering and relationships.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s suspenseful tale, Eileen, also examines a lonely woman – this one works in a boys’ prison.  Virginia Reeves uses the setting of prison – this one in Alabama in Work Like Any Other, and David Means’ Hystopia imagines a third term for former President John F. Kennedy.

From the United Kingdom, another mother-daughter relationship is explored in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk,  Graeme Macrae Burnet’s psychological thriller His Bloody Project looks for motivation behind a murder, Ian McGuire’s The North Water has a suspenseful journey of a  ruined doctor volunteering on a whaling ship, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many has a strange mystery in a coastal village.

The Schooldays of Jesus from Australian Nobel prize winning author J.M. Coetzee will be published in the United States in February, 2017.  David Salzay’s All That Man, set in Prague,  will be published in October, 2016.

Canadian Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing centers on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 China. From the United Kingdom, A.L. Kennedy’s Serious Sweet offers “a day in the life of London lonely hearts.”  Both are not yet released in the United States.

Thirteen books to digest before the committee proclaims the short list in September, and the winner in October.