Ten New Book Recommendations That Aren’t The Lost Symbol
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Dan Brown's latest book The Lost Symbol is flying off the shelves and Oprah has picked a new book-club book. Things are looking up for the publishing industry, especially since this fall promises books from some of the leading fiction and non-fiction writers working today. We'll preview the fall season and recommend some books that you can read right now.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Everybody always talks about the joys of summer reading, but it's fall when all the really good books come out. And this fall is shaping up to be an excellent season at the bookstore. There's a little something for everyone, from Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's newest page turner to a New Literary History of America. For this whole hour we’ll be talking about some of the most interesting newly released books. They are books to read, books to tell your friends about, books to give as presents. And I want to assure you up front, that if you don't get a chance to jot down the titles and the authors, they will all be included on our Culture Lust blog at KPBS.org. Right now I’d like to welcome the guests who will guide us through these interesting books. Lucia Silva is the manager of The Book Works bookstore in Del Mar. Lucia, welcome.
LUCIA SILVA (Manager, The Book Works): Hi. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Bob Pincus is the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome, Bob.
BOB PINCUS (Books Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Thanks very much.
CAVANAUGH: And I want our listeners to know if they’d like to join the conversation, if you have a book to recommend, you can call us at 1-888-895-5727. Now, Lucia, last week was a big week in the publishing world. How have sales been?
SILVA: Well, yeah, there was one, two huge books last week and if you don’t know what they are then you probably didn’t want them anyway. So…
PINCUS: That’s probably right.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us what they were.
SILVA: Well, there’s Dan Brown’s book…
SILVA: …and Kennedy’s “True Compass,” I think, kind of dominated the sales last week. Sales would be – I think, you know, independent bookstores support a different kind of list and so we lose a lot of sales to, you know, you can buy those books for great discounts but we like to highlight the books that we’re going to talk about today, I think, so…
SILVA: …hopefully when you come flooding in for those, sales will be great.
CAVANAUGH: Just so it’s clear for our listeners, that Dan Brown book is called “The Lost Symbol,” and what is Ted Kennedy’s memoir called?
SILVA: “True Compass.”
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now this fall publishing season is shaping up to be the best in a long time. Give us a little preview of the books that are coming out.
SILVA: Well, this is like the most amazing season that I can recall in all of my bookselling memory. I think it’s – If anything’s going to pull bookstores out of their slump, it’s going to be Barbara Kingsolver has a new book, John Irving, Michael Chabon, Alice Monroe, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, John Krakauer’s book just came out, A.S. Byatt, I mean, it’s like…
SILVA: …just name your favorite writer.
PINCUS: A new – I think, I forget, Kotses’…
PINCUS: …volume is coming out, too.
SILVA: Umm-hmm. Right at the end.
PINCUS: Yeah, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: And anything else that you’re looking for to come?
PINCUS: Paul Auster has a new novel coming out. And I’d started reading a few pages of it and sort of – I got caught up in that, too.
PINCUS: So that’s another good one that independent booksellers…
SILVA: Philip Roth.
CAVANAUGH: Philip Roth as well.
PINCUS: Yeah, Philip Roth.
CAVANAUGH: So, okay, so we’ve established the fact that this is one great time to go into a bookstore and find something to read. Let’s start to talk about the books that we’re profiling, in fact, your picks, Lucia and Bob, and talk about these authors and these books that you brought, actually, physically, brought with you. The – Let’s start the discussion about the best new books with a new novel. It’s “A Gate at the Stairs, and it’s by Lorrie Moore. And the book is – has the narrator, Tassie, a 20-year-old Midwesterner. She leaves the family farm to go to college, she takes a nanny job with a sophisticated couple who have adopted an African-American child. In this setting, author Lorrie Moore manages to address themes such as post 9/11 anxiety, the war in Iraq, family, race, class and incredible loss. And, Lucia, this is your first pick. I wonder why Lorrie Moore is a favorite of yours?
SILVA: Yeah, and she’s definitely I think a favorite favorite. Like if I only have one hand to count favorites on, she’s up there. So I had high expectations and I’ve been waiting a long time for her books, and the – her writing is very character driven. She sinks really deeply into the characters and their relationships with other people with funny but not punny writing. So I think that’s two of the sort of hallmarks of her work.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and you say you’ve been waiting a long time. In fact, it’s been over 10 years waiting for this particular novel, something new from Lorrie. Tell us a little bit more about this story, about this book.
SILVA: Well, it’s kind of in the way that some – You know, her novels are not plot driven because they focus on characters, and so it’s not so much about what it’s about in the story, but what I found so interesting about this is that, I mean, there are ideas about race and class and, you know, being a young person in this modern era but for what they’re calling a post 9/11 novel, whereas a lot of them that I’ve read deal directly with that, this is about the flip side of that. This is, you know, right after the events of 9/11 and this is a young 18-year-old woman who’s kind of blasé about the whole thing. She knows she’s supposed to be affected but she’s a young person, she’s in the Midwest, and it’s not affecting her directly. So I think it’s kind of interesting to read a book about how another segment of the country deals or doesn’t deal with what our country’s going through in those ways.
CAVANAUGH: And this is set in the Midwest and there’s – kind of is this a coming of age story in some way?
SILVA: It’s – Yeah, it is that kind of second coming of age, you know, that I think is sometimes more important and literally more interesting. She’s becoming an adult and, meanwhile, she’s very conscious of the fact that she’s not, that she has no responsibilities, that she’s still kind of supported by her parents. She gets a job but she’s kind of taking ‘whatever’ classes and so it’s about her reckoning with her first adult things and becoming an adult thinker, which she – you know, this is just a year of that.
CAVANAUGH: And there’s an interesting way that Lorrie Moore comments on race throughout the book. Can you tell us about that?
SILVA: Yes, so she becomes a nanny for this sort of high-strung, high-powered chef and scientist couple who are manically trying to adopt a baby and they do adopt an African-American toddler, and she becomes sort of the surrogate mom because they’re gone all the time. And the mother hosts these interracial family meetings at her house and some of the best parts of the book are these pages of dialogue which are transcripts of these upper middle class people having the most ridiculous discussions but they ring so – you just think, oh, my gosh, Lorrie Moore, she was probably like in line at Whole Foods listening to the moms’ group in the morning, you know? And so – But it is very insightful. And meanwhile, Tassie, the main character, has this sort of sharp incisive wit and so her reflections about their ridiculousness is beautiful.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Moore is described as a writer’s writer. Can you – Would you read an excerpt of “A Gate at…
CAVANAUGH: …the Stairs” for us?
SILVA: Yeah. This is a passage kind of towards the end. It doesn’t reveal anything but after, you know, a number of things have happened and she’s kind of reconciling with her shiftlessness. ‘When misfortune accumulated, I could feel it now. It strafed you to the thinness of a nightgown, sheared you to the sheerness of a slip. Light seemed to shine right through your very hands, your blood no longer red. Your skin in the breeze felt billowing, like a jellyfish. Your float through the day had the reality of a trance, triggering distant memories though not actually very many. The passing of time was the lightest of brushes. Life was ungraspable because it would not stay still. It skittered and blew, it was a mound of random trash even as he moved through the hours like a ghost invited to enjoy a sparkling day at the beach.’
CAVANAUGH: That was Lucia Silva reading an excerpt from Lorrie Moore’s new novel, “A Gate at the Stairs.” Bob, I want to know, are you a fan of Lorrie Moore?
PINCUS: Yes, I – I read her short stories. I actually had not read any of her novels. I had first read the portion of this book that was in the New Yorker. They excerpted it, almost like a short story. And what impressed me about that portion was the way—and this plays off of something you were saying, Lucia—that, you know, she’s trying to understand this woman she’s going to work for and I thought it was really interesting how she sort of looks at it like an adult but sort of like a teenager. And she goes back and forth in her opinions about her…
PINCUS: …and I thought that really does get at that idea, like you said, a second coming of age, trying to be an adult and trying to empathize with the woman’s life and, of course, it sounds like it gets more ridiculous as it goes forward. But first I think she finds her very admirable in certain ways, how she holds everything together, and I thought that she conveys that really, really beautifully, and I guess that goes to your point about character driven rather than a story driven, even in the short story version.
SILVA: Yeah, that’s very right, I think, you know, that point in your life where you think all these adults have everything all together and then the moments where that breaks down and you realize nobody knows what they’re doing.
CAVANAUGH: Nobody knows, right. Oh, there’s a wonderful moment.
SILVA: Well, they keep coming.
CAVANAUGH: We’ve been speaking about Lorrie Moore’s long awaited novel “A Gate at the Stairs.” Let’s move on. We’ve got a lot of books to talk about. The next book…
CAVANAUGH: …is “Collected Stories” by Raymond Carver. He’s a writer whose work has been labeled minimalist but with this collection presenting uncut versions of some of his short stories, the late author’s writing may have to be reevaluated. Now, Bob, this is one of your picks.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s start by reminding listeners who Raymond Carver was, his career, and his significance in literary history.
PINCUS: Well, he’s an unusual writer. When I wrote a column about this book, I talked about the idea he – the analogies may be a little strained but I was thinking of him in terms of like Frida Kahlo because Frida Kahlo’s really known for one thing, self-portraits, which is very unusual for an artist who’s considered to be important. And I thought, well, he’s kind of similar in a certain way because he’s really known just for short stories. I mean, he – if he tried to write a novel, he never finished it, and so that – I mean, even writers who are known for short stories usually at some point venture off into the novel. Now, granted, he did die fairly young. He was at – he died at fifty in 1988 but he’d really worked quite a long time toward that recognition that he got, before he died, as a short story writer.
CAVANAUGH: And he was among a group of writers who were labeled dirty realists. What does that mean?
PINCUS: It – I – Well, you know, I never really found the term all that useful but it was used in – along with minimalist. It’s…
PINCUS: …trying to get at the idea that they’re writing about sort of a kind of slice of American life that maybe had been ignored to some degree. I think that’s a little inaccurate. If you go back to like, you know, Theodore Dreiser and all that, you still get some of that same realism but it’d been sort of like lying dormant to some degree and the idea of the minimalism is sort of stripping it down to a certain kind of basic style which seems simple but there’s a lot below the surface. Obviously, an influence there would be Hemingway, who’s often cited in terms of Carver, although I think it’s unfair to sort of say, you know, he was really trying to be another Hemingway because his sensibility, to me, he brings in such absurd, wonderful things in his stories, it’s more like Kafka then. You know, it’s sort of like he’s writing like in that simple style but getting at Kafkaesque absurdities.
CAVANAUGH: Lucia, what’s your take on Raymond Carver?
SILVA: Well, he’s in that top five.
PINCUS: Well, good.
SILVA: Yeah, and I think he just did brand new things with – and I think part of what Bob said, because of his focus on the short story and his willingness to just say I write short stories, I do short form. He was also a great poet, I think, and quite a prolific one. But he was very good at that.
SILVA: And Chekov was his favorite writer and…
PINCUS: That’s a good – yeah.
SILVA: …so that, I think, he worked really closely studying his work and different translations. I think that you can see that in it, too.
CAVANAUGH: And what is included in this collection, Bob?
PINCUS: It’s really pretty much everything he published. I mean, it is -- which, you know, was sort of all the books, all the collections, plus it was the stories in their – some of the stories which were published in one form, in their original form. And this was something his second wife, Tess Gallagher, had worked for or sort of, you know, championed for years, that these original versions should come out in some way, shape or form. And I think this is the ideal way anyway because you can compare them. You can go back and forth on the stories. You can see the published version and then you can go read the version in the back. So they’re all collected in one place in the book.
CAVANAUGH: This has started – There’s been a controversy…
CAVANAUGH: …about how much Carver was influenced by his former editor Gordon Lisch. In fact, some people say that Lisch just cut the heck out of a lot of his stories.
PINCUS: He did. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: And so what is this controversy all about?
PINCUS: Well, the controversy is – I think it really boils down to how much should an editor do. You know, my philosophy of editing is really that, in editing someone else’s stories, that, you know, you try to bring out the essence but you don’t tamper with that. I think Lisch had a more activist idea than that. I mean, he cut – for example, in the story “The Beginners,” which was Carver’s title, which became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” he cut 50% of the story.
PINCUS: So – And in that case, although that does sound radical, he did improve – I felt that he improved the story, in reading both versions. The narrator – what Carver’s problem was in the story, he didn’t quite know where to end it. You know, there are two couples talking about what it means to be, you know, to – to be in love and, of course, there’s a lot of tension in the room, talking about this, but he – it ends sort of with the room sort of going dark and they’re – they’re trying to get to dinner but they never quite get there.
PINCUS: But in Carver’s version, the narrator gets a little longwinded and goes on and on about his thoughts at the end, and I thought to – and other people I’m sure have a different opinion about this but I thought there the concision worked. Now, in other stories, I think he – it didn’t work as well.
CAVANAUGH: Lucia, what’s your opinion on this? Did Lisch’s editing make Carver’s stories better?
SILVA: I think for a lot of people they made them what we understand Carver’s stories to be. I mean, it’s a, you know, Carveresque is a description that we use often now.
SILVA: And that trademark, I think, was largely created by that heavy hand. But when you read the original versions, I still think they’re quite wonderful and they’re different. And I think in those early – in working early with Lisch, he may have shaped Carver’s eventual direction but he filled out again on his own. You know, I think we also don’t know what the writing and editing process is like for a lot of writers so we don’t – we don’t really have a lot to compare to. You know, maybe he crossed out two pages but did he do that with his student – you know, he taught DeLillo and Amy Hempel and Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, a lot of people…
SILVA: …that have some ranging styles but a similarity among them. So…
PINCUS: You know, it’s interesting because like, you know, it’s clear that Carver thought, you know, and – well, he got to the point where he almost wanted the book to be cancelled before it…
PINCUS: …came out, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” because he felt there was too much – too much intervention. But Lisch persuaded him and it did come out. But later, the story called “The Bath,” he published it in the original version in a later collection of his stories, called “Cathedral,” so he obviously felt that the longer version was a lot better. In that case, he was completely right.
SILVA: Oh, yeah.
PINCUS: Yeah, it’s a so much better story. It’s a really heartrending story about a boy who’s been injured by a car and is in the hospital and how his parents deal with this. And the way it’s cut off in “The Bath” is just way too abrupt. So it would be considered minimalist but maybe Lisch was more the minimalist than Carver was because he wanted to finish the story.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. And it’s interesting, I read that, you know, even people who don’t like what Lisch did to Carver’s stories say that he did have a positive influence on how he developed as a writer.
CAVANAUGH: Would you agree?
SILVA: Well, at this time, I think when you read the interviews with him, Carver was a terrible alcoholic. I think he was even hospitalized several times.
PINCUS: Umm-hmm. Yeah.
SILVA: And he was recovering and becoming sober while he was working with Lisch, and reading – they reproduced some of his back and forth correspondence with Lisch while they were editing this collection and it’s terribly painful to see how little confidence he had in his writing and at some points would just take anything and – for this man’s advice and help and reassurance, and at other moments just be in this deep pit of despair, so I think at least the process helped him move to the other side of that.
PINCUS: I might be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s a biography of Carver coming out…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see.
PINCUS: …by Carol Sklenicka, if I’m pronouncing that correctly, in November? So obviously there continues to be great – incredible interest in his work, and I just think this collection really lets people see a rounded portrait so you can really appreciate the stories, you know, in every form.
SILVA: Yeah, and she will be – his biographer will be at The Book Works in January…
PINCUS: Oh, good. I didn’t know that.
SILVA: …so we’ll have a Carver party.
PINCUS: Oh, good.
CAVANAUGH: Coming events. I’m speaking with Lucia Silva and Bob Pincus. We are talking about the newly released books, the best of the newly released books this fall. Let’s move on now to a novel called “The Big Machine.” It’s a novel by Victor LaValle. It tells the story of Ricky, a middle-aged janitor who’s called to become a member of a secret organization. The novel unfolds as an explanation of the secretive group, an examination of destiny and faith, and expands into a quest to stop a terrorist plot by a renegade member of the group. There’s a lot going on in this book.
SILVA: Oh, yeah, and there’s, you know, specters and ghostly things and aliens, pregnancies, you know, it’s quite…
CAVANAUGH: Why did you choose this novel, Lucia?
SILVA: Well, if I’d heard all of the things you just said, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But I read about this author, I found him fascinating, and I’m so glad because I will tell everybody from the outset, even though it sounds crazy and it is, the writing is so funny, it’s so character driven where – as – oh, you know, a lot of novels that are – have this crazy plot tend to just sort of focus on this. These are real characters that develop, and you just – you want to go wherever they’re going.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us a little bit more about the book.
SILVA: So Ricky Rice is the main character and he’s an errander. He’s a sort of ex-junkie, a janitor in Utica. He’s moved around a lot, and grew up in a strange Christian offshoot cult in Queens when he was young. And he’s called mysteriously by this note that betrays some knowledge of an event that nobody else knew about except him, and invites him to this place called the Washburn Library in the Vermont woods, and he becomes what are called the unlikely scholars, which is a group of – comprised solely of like middle-aged African-American ex-petty con – you know, con men and prostitutes and junkies who investigate paranormal activity at the behest of the dean of this library.
CAVANAUGH: This is like the longest sentence in the world.
SILVA: Yeah. Are you following?
PINCUS: I guess it has to be.
CAVANAUGH: Well, so what is this book? Is it a thriller, a fantasy? How would you characterize it?
SILVA: There are definitely fantastic elements. And it does – There is a measure of suspense. The story moves forward very quickly, especially in the first two-thirds and then resolves a little at the end, so there is mystery, there is some fantastic things that you kind of have to accept and wrap your brain about but the characters, at the same time, are wrestling with these things. They don’t really believe what’s going on, what people are asking them to do as they investigate this business but they, you know, they have a roof over their heads, they – and they all dress in this like 19th century tailored garb. They use tons of tailors to outfit them with, you know, jodhpurs and they can pick out – It’s – it’s – I don’t know where he came up with this and why it works is beyond me.
CAVANAUGH: That’s so funny. Now, what does the title “The Big Machine” refer to?
SILVA: That refers to a quote from the washerwomen, were the four women who ran the cult that Ricky Rice grew up in and it’s sort of a revisionist Christian society that – in this little sort of tenement house. Anyway, they refer to doubt as the big machine that chews up the delusions of women and men. And so they value this idea of doubt in faith.
CAVANAUGH: So this novel has been characterized as a novel about faith. Would you agree?
SILVA: I – Yes, if you put in there that it’s also about that sort of flip side of doubt. I mean, think if you were a religiously inclined person, you might see this as an affirmation of your beliefs or the importance of faith but it’s also much more, for someone like me, about your faith and reconciling with the possibility of human nature and humanity in general. So it could be about your faith in people as well, because these people are wrestling with these ideas, what – what do they believe in and what does that get them.
CAVANAUGH: Now it sounds like it takes not only an ingenious but a confident author to come out with a book like this. Tell us a little bit about Victor LaValle. I know that he’s being compared with some very popular younger writers.
SILVA: Yeah, and he definitely has like the energy that we’d identify with like a Gino Diaz but – and this weird other alternate universe plot like Muricome (sp) but still very urban. But at the same time, I think he kind of is a little like Tom Robbins and Vonnegut-y, like this little bit of ridiculousness. He’s funny.
CAVANAUGH: Vonnegut-y, I love that.
PINCUS: Yeah, that’s good.
SILVA: Vonnegutesque. But…
SILVA: …it has a real – really laugh-out-loud humor so I – you know, his story is interesting. He went to Cornell. He was getting an MFA and he had sort of a breakdown and he was, I think – I read a review that he was like 350 pounds or something. He kind of went crazy and he kind of went off the deep end. And now he’s this svelt, smart guy. I don’t know. He started writing books, I guess.
CAVANAUGH: Wow, interesting author, interesting book. That’s “The Big Machine,” a novel by Victor LaValle. We continue our fall book show in just a few minutes. I’m speaking with Lucia Silva and Bob Pincus. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’ll be back after a very short break.
# # #
CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we’re talking about the joys of fall reading. We’re discussing some of the most interesting newly released books, and my guests are Lucia Silva. She is manager of The Book Works bookstore in Del Mar. And Bob Pincus is books editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Let’s move right along to our next book, “Homer and Langley.” The new novel by E.L. Doctorow is once again a blend of fact and fiction. That, of course, Doctorow employs to find the deeper truth behind history. He uses the real life story of the Collier brothers, two men of privilege in New York City who descended into squalor. It’s the launching point for a novel about reclusivity and isolation. Bob, tell us more about – What is “Homer and Langley” about?
PINCUS: I thought your – actually your summary was quite good.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, thank you.
PINCUS: You made it easier for me. But, yeah, they were – You know, they were quite notorious and well known in their time once the people had discovered they had tons of stuff in their 5th Avenue mansion and they died in a kind of a horrible way, which he doesn’t really – that’s not really Doctorow’s concern. You know, the – the one brother died because he had – basically, had booby-trapped all this junk in their place and the stuff fell on him and killed him and then his other brother, who was blind and immobile, basically starved to death.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, obviously a really tragic story. Very…
CAVANAUGH: …interesting story for E.L. Doctorow to use as a launching point.
PINCUS: Right, and none of that’s in the book.
PINCUS: I mean, it’s really about – and he does play a little fast and loose with their history. For example, they died in 1947 but he takes the book into the sixties because he’s interested in sort of them commenting on the idea of flower children. You know, they meet these kids in the park and they – and they see the Collier brothers as their sort of kindred spirits. They have long hair, they’re sort of slovenly, you know, and that becomes their crash pad. You know, there’s this giant house and there’s all this stuff. They think it’s kind of fascinating. It’s – That’s a little bit of an aside, but really the story is of Homer telling the story of both of them. And I think that like a lot of other books by Doctorow, he’s interested in the psychology of these odd characters. And although, you know, Doctorow’s really known for blending history and – fact and fiction, as you say, you know, going back to “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate,” and all those wonderful books, he’s really – never concentrates on major characters in history, the one exception being the march where he spends a lot of time on General Sherman but actually I don’t think that’s one of his best books. It’s usually kind of oddball sort of minor characters or characters that he makes up that intersect with history, so in this case you do have real oddballs, and he’s interested in the way their psychology plays out in terms of, you know, why are they separate from the world? Why do they not – why – and, you know, and Homer yearns to have, you know, a love in his life and he sort of pines for this young woman who is a piano student of his when she was – when he was younger. But he never can seem to connect with anybody and neither can Langley except that they connect with each other in this kind of love relationship that develops through the book.
CAVANAUGH: Now, how did – where does this book fall in terms of Doctorow’s body of work do you think?
PINCUS: I don’t think it’s one of his best books. But saying that with Doctorow is sort of like saying, well, it’s still a really good book…
PINCUS: …you know, because he’s – he is a really – I think he’s a really elegant prose stylist. I think he has a deep understanding of the idea that, you know, people who lived can have this kind of mythic dimension to them, and that’s what he’s trying to sort of create through the book, is they’re kind of these strange recluses who live in New York at this time and they have a – they have an unusual kind of ethereal identity to them.
CAVANAUGH: And I’m wondering, Lucia, are you a fan of E.L. Doctorow?
SILVA: I am. I’m – I read, I think, “The Book of Daniel” in high school and I – there was just sort of this whole…
PINCUS: That’s nice.
SILVA: …new way of writing that – I mean, those were similarly mythical fringe characters even though they’re a little more prominent. But the way he incorporates humor into something that is usually very psychologically serious. It’s not ha-ha funny but his like – there’s great descriptions in “Homer and Langley” and because one of them writes – is it Homer who writes the newspapers that he’s going to be – or these articles about…
PINCUS: Oh, well.
SILVA: …the world and like culture.
PINCUS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SILVA: But do you – do you never go anywhere?
SILVA: So it’s their – how they distill the happenings through their – right?
PINCUS: Well, you know, Langley collects all these and he goes out every day and collects newspapers, like 15, 20 of them and he has a theory that he’s going to create one newspaper that will – he’ll never need another newspaper again because he believes that human history just keeps repeating itself so you don’t really need to read news, you just get a basic disaster and that’s all you need. So – But Homer, in his kind of, you know, lovable way says, well, I knew the project was always going to be a failure but it’s what kept Langley going.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, there’s so much in that. We’ve been talking about E.L. Doctorow’s new novel called “Homer and Langley.” Now, there’s a strange memoir that we have to talk about, too, “The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws,” by Margaret Drabble. It is just about – it’s more about personal history than it is really about jigsaws, though. This is a memoir and this is about the author, Margaret Drabble, and she has a very interesting history, Lucia. Tell us about her.
SILVA: So she’s a writer and has been – She’s a Dame of the British Empire now, and she’s written a number of very prominent biographies of English writers and also a number of novels. She’s the sister of A.S. Byatt. When she – And so especially in England and also here, she’s considered one of the foremost writers of this age. But as a young person, I read that she was in the Royal Shakespeare Company and she was an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave. She was married to an actor as well for a long time and is now married to a biographer.
CAVANAUGH: Am I pronouncing her name correctly? Is it Drabble?
SILVA: Yes, I believe so.
CAVANAUGH: And now what does this book have to do with jigsaws?
SILVA: Well, luckily, it’s not all about jigsaws but I just – I love obsessive, weird stuff like that and for her it’s very much a window into her life as a, you know, past middle age person to reflect both on a relationship that she had with a very – with a maiden aunt who never married and was one of those sort of classic schoolteachers who took care of children and, in her old age, as she becomes a much older woman, the aunt comes to visit Margaret very – fairly regularly and they develop this relationship somewhat over jigsaw puzzles because she becomes somewhat unpleasant and difficult to talk with and so for them it’s this sort of bridge and, for Margaret Drabble, jigsaws become a way to temper her depressions and anxieties and then the book begins to explore ideas about the history of jigsaws and, through that history, a pastime and games and through the invention of childhood, an education, and she goes off on every tangent imaginable but deeply. She’s obviously pretty obsessive.
CAVANAUGH: Well let me ask, what do we find out about her that we didn’t know, in this book?
SILVA: I hadn’t read a lot else about her so everything was very new for me, but I think in “The Peppered Moth,” which was one of her most well known novels here, a very thinly veiled autobiography, I believe, of her family, she does not – famously does not get along well with her sister, A.S. Byatt. And her parents, she does not cast in a favorable light. They both suffered from severe depression and she subsequently does as well. And so you learn about that sort of shadow side of her personality but also for me it was watching the wide ranging motion of a mind that is deeply curious and analytical.
CAVANAUGH: This sounds to me like a book that’s all over the place. But does it work that way?
SILVA: For me, it really does. I mean, you can’t be expecting sort of, you know, a neat tidy memoir that plods along on its little English road. On a other hand, it’s a great travelogue of small towns in England. But if she comes up with a place to go, she goes there. You know, she can be talking about the history of jigsaws and the next moment she’s talking about this man who collected periodicals that she had this mad affair with in, you know, dusty library basements. And then she just moves on. I think that’s great because you just get these little tidbits…
SILVA: …of history and it’s just fascinating to see how her mind works. It’s very strange. She’s a strange lady.
CAVANAUGH: We are talking about “The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws” by Margaret Drabble. This is our fall book show, and I want everyone to know that if you don’t have a pencil in hand, you can jot down these book names. You can find a complete list on our Culture Lust blog on KPBS.org. Moving on now to “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” (sic) by Kazuo Ishiguro, and it’s a collection of short stories from the author of “Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.” Tell us about this writer, Bob, if you would.
PINCUS: My interest in him, actually I sort of read him backwards because I had read – I read “Never Let Me Go” before I read “Remains of the Day.” And I was – Maybe people – You know, “Remains of the Day,” obviously, is his best known book because it became…
CAVANAUGH: A movie.
PINCUS: …a film and everybody…
PINCUS: …thinks of Anthony Hopkins playing the, you know, the kind of the butler who can’t express his emotions, right? And that’s not that far from a lot of his characters. They have trouble sort of figuring out how to connect with their interests and their ambitions and their dreams. And he’s very good at sort of creating these kinds of people and – But back to your point, you know, I think his style is deceptively simple. When I first read actually the first couple of stories, I didn’t even like them. And then I went back and read them again, I said, I think these are really interesting. They kept sticking with me. And he has that quality of he creates situations where you – it’s kind of – it kind of haunts your psyche afterwards. And “Nocturnes,” obviously is, you know, is a great title for a writer who has that kind of effect on you and you can’t help but think of Chopin and those beautiful sort of romantic kind of, you know, piano pieces that were – are so wonderful. But I think that he’s not really a romantic writer, he’s a writer who sort of comments on people who are – have that romantic perspective. For example, I thought, you know, all six stories are really interesting but “The Cellist” is particularly haunting because it’s about this – really this young musician, and like all of his stories is very layered. There’s somebody who’s telling the story about this young musician named Tibor, who he’s obviously fascinated with and he sees him seven years later in the same place. They don’t identify the city but it seems to be somewhere in Italy and, interestingly, the first story is in Venice, the last story is in an Italian city and could be Venice. But at any rate, Tibor’s a cellist and he’s struggling. He’s trying to make a living and he meets a woman in the piazza who says she heard him at a recital and that he’s very good but he’s not quite there.
PINCUS: So she offers to give him instruction but as, you know, he – she invites him to her hotel. They spend afternoons talking together, it’s not a romantic relationship. But the – He feels that these discussions he’s having with her are really improving his playing. But you gradually realize that she doesn’t play cello or she hasn’t played it for a long time, you’re not quite sure. And then finally you get to the point at the end of the story, and I don’t want to ruin it for anybody, but she has a whole philosophy of why she doesn’t play anymore, and yet she has helped him. But in the end of the story, you feel like both of them are really – they go off in different directions and they’re both – remain unfulfilled people in a lot of ways. It’s a very sad story.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and it’s interesting. It’s different for someone to write about music. Does he do this a lot?
PINCUS: He does. He – Music enters into his stories. In fact, there’s a musical motif even in “Never Let Me Go,” which is more of a little bit of a sci-fi novel. But he – you know, he had ambitions that when he was younger to be a songwriter and was quite serious about it. And it – I don’t – I’m forgetting when it was published but there’s a long – longish Paris Review interview with him and it comments on his house. He has quite a few instruments around there and he keeps his guitars in very good shape.
CAVANAUGH: We’ve been talking about “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” by Kazuo Ishiguro. And we are on the fall book show here on These Days on KPBS. And I’m determined to get in at least two or three more books, so we’re moving along. And we’re moving to our next book. “This Is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper. It’s the story of radio producer Judd Foxman who’s going through a bad patch in his life. His marriage has come to a dismal end, he’s lost his job, and his father has just died. Now his odd family has come together to sit shiva, the Jewish tradition of mourning. Now, poor Mr. Foxman, Lucia.
SILVA: Yeah, poor guy. Yeah, so it turns out – I mean, this is not a potboiler, so his wife is having an affair with the sort of shock jock radio host of the show that he produces…
SILVA: …and that’s only the first in many, many, many dismal things that happen to this family.
CAVANAUGH: Now, his mother is really sort of interestingly described. Tell us about that.
SILVA: She’s a piece of work. So you meet her right after her husband has died and she’s very – you know, she’s all foxed out, mini-skirt and she’s had a lot of work done and you – she was – is still a very prominent child psychologist in the fiction of the book and she wrote this famous, bestselling book about – called Cradle and All, about raising children from cradle to – which is a great title. And so she’s completely messed up her children. All four of them, completely nutso. So they all…
CAVANAUGH: Now you – yeah.
SILVA: …have to be so – you know, shiva lasts seven days and you don’t technically leave the house, so they’re all there with all their families and their problems and…
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, this – the plotline of this book sounds a little familiar. You know, a large family reuniting because of a death, in this case, or a holiday. What makes this book stand out for you?
SILVA: For me, it’s hilarious but it’s also – You know, I think books like that are either funny, you know, kind of some funny fluff, or they’re a serious book about families, and this is both. It’s – every page is laugh out loud funny and every page has some meaningful, deeper, moving emotion to it. And the – I couldn’t believe the blend that he does. You know, people are always asking you for that – one of those feel good books where nothing bad happens but I don’t want something that’s just fluff. So this book that begins with someone’s wife leaving them and father dying is actually a feel good book.
CAVANAUGH: It seems like it’s ready made for a movie.
SILVA: You’re absolutely right. It – Yeah, he’s writing the screenplay right now.
SILVA: So I cannot wait to see what they do – I mean, it’s just – it leaps from the page like that.
CAVANAUGH: We’ve been speaking about “This Is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper. And our next book is, oh, my gosh, “A New…
PINCUS: We don’t have to go through the whole book.
CAVANAUGH: “A New Literary History of America,” edited by Greg – Greil Marcus…
CAVANAUGH: …and Werner Sollors and it’s from Harvard University Press. And, wow. This is not…
CAVANAUGH: …what you’d call an airport book.
PINCUS: No, this is not, and it’s – Actually, I chose it because I’ve been weightlifting with it. It’s a – You know, it’s – But as, you know, it – it’s not a reference book in the sense that it actually is fun to read. The essays are clearly written with an idea toward readability. And I think what’s fun about it is that it just takes you in all sorts of different directions where literary history can go. Having said that, I think it’s a pretty flawed book in that it tries to do too much. For example, there’s entries on the Winchester rifle and a telephone and, you know, and the invention of the blues. Now, you might be able to stretch it with invention of the blues and say that affected literature a lot but, I don’t know, when you get to the telephone and the Winchester ri – I think it really is kind of mis-named in a way. It’s really like a cultural – a new cultural history of America.
PINCUS: Sort of looking at it through sometimes through the prism of literature and sometimes other things. But it’s a lot of short essays. They’re very, you know, very accessible to read, and I think if you thumb through a book like this, it’s just a lot of fun.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I’m wondering, does this book attempt to give a new literary or cultural history of America that’s more representative of modern America?
PINCUS: Yes. I think it tends to be – You know, the literary histories that I had when I was in grad school tended to be – I mean, they were sort of shading toward being more inclusive but this one’s really inclusive. I mean, you know, you’ve got a lot more African-American literature, a fairly good representation of Latino literature, you know, I thought not enough actually of Native American writers, strangely enough, not in the contemporary Native American writers so that was a flaw. But, I mean, you know, obviously including people like, you know, Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan and on and on and having Carol Walker do a thing about Barack Obama toward the end of the book really tries to make it much more contemporary. But I have to say it also starts way back at the beginning, you know, so we’re talking from the 1600s to the present.
PINCUS: And a lot of really good writing, for ex – Let me just give you one quick example and…
PINCUS: …we can move on. Walter Mosley, who is a popular mystery writer and a really good one, writing about hard-boiled fiction is, I think, is just wonderful.
CAVANAUGH: And, Lucia, you’ve seen this New Literary History, what do you think of it?
SILVA: Well, I’m still surprised and what I love about it is, I think Griel Marcus is a great music writer and so I was…
PINCUS: Yeah, we never touched on that.
SILVA: …interested to see – Yeah.
PINCUS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SILVA: And he includes his own pieces, which I always think is impressive. Yet they’re real writers writing about things, you know, Sarah Vowell and Jonathan Lethem and Walter Mosley…
SILVA: …like you mentioned. This is not like a dry reference that’s by academics. It’s for people, for readers. And so if people are daunted by the size, I wouldn’t be so daunted by the content.
PINCUS: Yeah, we’d be remiss to say that, you know, Griel Marcus is probably best known for his book “The Old Weird America,” which was about Bob Dylan and the basement tapes and sort of that whole period in pop music. I mean, he’s known for that. And so that’s where, I think, it’s probably a little bit music heavy for a literary history.
CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about “A New Literary History of America” from Harvard Press, edited by Griel Marcus and Werner Sollors. And we just have time to sneak in a few questions about the novel “Brodeck” by Philippe Claudel. It’s been described as an adult fairy tale. It relates the tale of the murder of a stranger in an idyllic French village and in the process, we learn the sad history of Investigator Brodeck and his neighbors. And Philippe Claudel is a French screenwriter. He’s the author of this novel. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II. Lucia, what happens in this novel?
SILVA: Well, it’s actually sort of a nameless parallel of World War II. You’re not exactly sure what country it’s in and it’s after an unnamed war that’s obviously a stand-in for World War II. By kind of removing that, he offers this sort of investigation into – Brodeck is asked to write a report for this murder of an outsider that happened and it begins – the first sentence is something like, my name is Brodeck and I didn’t do it. And he’s the only person involved who did not witness the actual murder. And the story, you don’t read his report, you read what he’s writing about writing his report, and it becomes very much an examination of ideas about complicity and guilt and complicity and ideas, you know, sort of unpoxed genocide and World War II and the Holocaust and things like – that surround those ideas of collective guilt and how much people sort of just want to move forward and be guiltless and the danger of being complicit.
CAVANAUGH: Now it’s been reluctantly described in some reviews that I’ve read as an adult fairy tale, with the proviso that most things that are called adult fairy tales are sort of very lightweight.
CAVANAUGH: This is an adult fairy tale in the Grimm fairy tale tradition.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that that is an apt description if you look at it that way?
SILVA: Kind of more like a fable? But I think his – the tone in his writing and the style very much approaches that. You know, everything is representative and nameless in a way, so you do get that feeling. And while it’s not a moralistic tale because it’s not moral – it doesn’t prescribe anything but it forces you to question those things, so I think as close as we could come to a meaningful, modern fable, it very much is. Not a light book.
CAVANAUGH: Now, it’s interesting. Philippe Claudel, as I said, is a French screenwriter. Does this read like a – some kind of screenplay? Or how – what – how would you describe him as a writer?
SILVA: I think he’s very much – I think he’s primarily a novelist. His first film came out last year and he – It did very well. But I think in France he is known as a novelist. He writes with a – it’s very poetic and very rich, and I don’t – it’s not reminiscent of screenwriting to me at all. It’s very sturdy metaphors, it’s very grounded in the physical. He doesn’t go off on philosophical tangents but sort of lets the words speak for themselves. So – But it does have the sort of holistic vision to it, so maybe that’s where that comes in.
CAVANAUGH: And the film that people may know him for is “I’ve Loved You So Long” with Kristin Scott Thomas. And so now the new book is called “Brodeck” and the novel – and its novelist is Philippe Claudel. Well, we did it. We got through just about all of these wonderful books. I want to thank you both so much for coming in and talking to us about them.
CAVANAUGH: Lucia Silva is manager of Book Works bookstore in Del Mar. And Bob Pincus is the books editor as well as the visual arts critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Thanks – thank you both so much.
SILVA: Thank you.
PINCUS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you can find a list of all these books that we’ve been recommending on KPBS Culture Lust blog. Culture Lust has been celebrating books all week long, so you can visit the site to read more and also to recommend the books you’ve been reading. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.