Joanna Scott: Fading, My Parmacheene Belle


The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, the author’s first novel. Joanna Scott is one of those authors who writes very intelligent novels but somehow seems to get lost in the shuffle. This book, for example, is out of print. It is part fable, part extended fishing metaphor, part old age novel, part picaresque story. The unnamed narrator, an angler/backwoodsman, has been married for fifty-three years to a woman he calls My Parmacheene Belle (a type of fishing fly). They have one child, a mentally disabled son in a home. When she dies of cancer (he blames her for abandoning him), he is visited after the funeral by Gibble, his erstwhile companion and cousin of his late wife, who introduced the pair to one another but who has now become his nemesis. In his anger with Gibble, he throws a chair, hitting the boy. He thinks he has killed him, so he runs off. On his journey, he will be joined by a young woman he calls a mermaiden, who he later learns is running away from her father, and they go off together, looking for the narrator’s wife home town. The two pass through the city before arriving at the sea on their picaresque journey. It is an excellent novel for a first novel though not necessarily an easy one, presumably why it has not had the success it deserves.

American Men of Letters

American Men of Letters?
American Men of Letters?

Alfred A Knopf have posted a Facebook page, laughingly entitled American Men of Letters. I say laughingly as if their five American Men of Letters (they presumably mean United States) are the best they can do, God help US letters. They have done it in, to use a US expression, a half-assed way with a feeble Facebook page. They have also done it to celebrate the release of James Salter’s new book. I must confess that I have never read James Salter. Nor have many other people, if Slate is to be believed . In addition to Salter, they offer us the massively overrated penis-obsessed Philip Roth, Richard Ford (another overrated writer for men with small penises), Richard Russo, highly enjoyable, a pretty good writer but certainly not one of the great men of letters and John Cheever, another overrated writer. We may perhaps ignore the fact that these men are all very old and long since past the best, if they ever had a best. We might also ignore the fact that Knopf seems fit to honour men but ignores the many fine women writers in the United States. But these five as their greats? Norman Mailer will be turning in his grave.

Brits not emotional

Bridget not emotional?
Bridget not emotional?

A recent study has concluded that US writers are more emotional than British ones, at least since around 1960 (they were about the same before). This is not a major surprise, except, perhaps, to Bridget Jones. However, what the study does not mention is what books they used, apart from the fact that they were fiction. Were they thrillers? Literary fiction? Children’s? Romance? Stephen King? J K Rowling? Stephenie Meyer? Hilary Mantel? Inevitably a US publication used the term stiff upper lip in its article on the topic. What is also not surprising is that US authors used a lot more words like independent, individual, unique, self, solitary and personal and far fewer using words like communal, team, collective, village, group and union. While this may be a terrible trait in a nation, as it means that the nation is essentially selfish (cf issues around gun control, health insurance, etc.), it does tend to produce better art, as the weird individual is generally going to be a better artist than the community-minded one. In passing, I would just mention that there is no doubt in my mind that, as a whole, the US has produced the best novels of the twentieth century.

Hilary Mantel - more cerebral?
Hilary Mantel – more cerebral?

British writing or, at least, English writing (did the study pay much attention to Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish writing?) has been certainly more devoid of passion and individualism. We did not need a study to tell us that. Writers like Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift are noted more for producing cerebral writing and less for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Even if they do describe emotions, as Mantel clearly does, they themselves do not show it, the way many US writers do. However, without knowing what books were used and the criteria for selecting those books, I think that we can say that the general conclusions of the study may well be valid and interesting, but we cannot deduce too much from it.

Joseph McElroy: Actress in the House


The latest addition to my website is Joseph McElroy‘s Actress in the House. This is another somewhat odd novel from McElroy, his first in fifteen years (and the next one won’t be till June 2013, ten years after this one). It starts with an actor slapping an actress, playing his sister, very hard in the face and carries on with McElroy’s trademark themes of people trying to make sense out of random information and link things together, a lawyer wondering whether he should sue the state of Connecticut for causing an earthquake, a couple sleeping together in the nude but not having sex, an atrocity during the Vietnam War and various odd events seemingly somehow connected. It makes for interesting if somewhat puzzling reading.

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle


The latest addition to my website is Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle. This is one of those books (too many, I am afraid) that I should have read long ago but somehow never got around to doing so. While it is not a great novel, it is interesting, as, unlike most novels, it influenced government policy and resulted in changes in US food legislation. It paints a very grim picture of the meat packing industry in Chicago and the horrible situation of the workers in that field, both as regard their working conditions but also the other abuses they are subject to, in housing, health and safety, food and the generalised corruption found in Chicago at that time (and still going on, to a certain degree). Muckraking, powerful and horrifying are some of the adjectives used to describe it. Apart from this novel, I suspect Sinclair is no longer much read, even in the USA.

Shalom Auslander: Hope: A Tragedy


The latest addition to my website is Shalom Auslander‘s Hope: A Tragedy, one of the funniest books I have read in a long while. It is very politically incorrect, featuring a still alive but smelly and cantankerous Anne Frank, struggling to write a novel, a Jewish man whose fatal flaw is hope, his mother who spends her life bemoaning her fate as a Holocaust victim, despite the fact that she was born in Brooklyn in 1945 and, like all her close relatives, never went anywhere near Europe, and an arsonist. Solomon Kugel joins the list of literary Jewish heroes who struggle with life and with mothers.