War and Peace – Book v. TV

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Last night I binged watch the first four episodes of the 8-part mini-series War & Peace put out by the BBC in 2016. This is notable, at least for me. In the past year, I’ve been having a terrible time focusing on TV. Every evening I try out several TV series and movies hoping to find something to hook me. I rarely succeed. I quit most shows after just a few minutes, even the ones I feel are high-quality and interesting. I don’t know if my mind is deteriorating, or I’ve just become jaded with TV. I wrote about it here.

Now, and then, I do find a show my mind will latch onto, and War & Peace was one. Strangely, the other two that I can remember at the moment were Sanditon and Black Sails. This makes me wonder if my mind has a thing for literary-historical stories. But don’t think my taste is all high-brow, I also got hooked by Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein not long ago, and it’s quite low-brow. I never can predict what my mind will settle on.

It’s funny, but while watching War & Peace last night I thought Tolstoy might be the Jane Austen of Russia, even though he was a contemporary of Dickens. Austen’s stories often referred to the Napoleanic Wars, and since watching War & Peace involves a lot of scenes with fancy dress balls, whispered marriage intrigue, socializing by candlelight in manor houses, servants in elaborate outfits, and riding around in elegant coaches during those war years with Napolean, watching War and Peace feels very much like watching Jane Austen.

I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I’ve read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich but have been intimidated by its size and reputation. I’ve probably read less than twenty foreign-language translated novels in my life, sticking primarily to books from the English speaking world. For the last couple of decades, I’ve tried to read one 19th literary classic each year, and every once in a while throw in a European classic. Mostly, these reads have been from England. Seeing War & Peace offered on Hulu last night tempted me. I figured it might get me interested in reading the novel, and it did, but for a strange reason.

As I watched, I kept thinking to myself, “How can a six-hour TV production do justice to a novel that runs 55-74 hours on various audiobook editions?” After finishing the second episode, I was so curious to know that got up and bought an ebook and audiobook edition of War and Peace to compare. Luckily, Amazon offered a deal I couldn’t resist, buy the 99 cent ebook edition, and they would sell me an audiobook edition for $1.99.

I didn’t immediately jump on the offer. I’m very picky about audiobook narrators and book translators. I went to Audible and tried the samples from four different versions of the novel, and the Amazons Classic edition on sale did indeed have the narrator I liked best. I then found and read “What’s the best translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy?” The translation for the Amazons Classic edition was by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and it came in number two on their list. Their number one choice was by Anthony Briggs but it didn’t seem to be available at Audible. So I bought the deal. I figure if I fall in love with the book I’ll eventually buy the Briggs translation.

Before I started episode three, I listened to the chapters of the novel that covered the first episode, especially Anna Pavlovna’s party. The show had tried to cover much of what was in the novel, at least in introducing the characters, setting, action, plot, and relationships. Sure it conveyed the essence of the story, but was it really Tolstoy’s story? It left out all the background information, and the actors sometimes didn’t match the descriptions of the characters they played. Is it important for actors to look like their literary descriptions?

Tolstoy’s omniscient point-of-view gives us so much about the characters’ motivations, but the television show just ignores that content. On the other hand, the show gave me gorgeous visuals, ones my mind’s eye would never imagine. And that brings up other things to ponder. Did all the clothing, uniforms, hairstyles, furniture, table settings, houses, etc. all actually look like their early 19th-century Russian counterparts? But then book readers, what do book readers imagine in their heads? Is it anything like Tolstoy imagined when writing his story?

Wikipedia has several helpful guides, including: “War and Peace characters order by appearance” — an invaluable cheat-sheet of who’s who as they show up in the story, with links to entries for the historical characters, often with photos or paintings. There is also an entry listing characters alphabetically. And, this Google search by image provides many valuable links. I wish this War and Peace family tree was in English.

War and Peace family tree

Watching War & Peace has convinced me to read War and Peace. It’s also making me want to look at other movie and television versions, as well as try reading different translations into English. I consider visual presentations to be another kind of literary translation. I also thought this when I read Anna Karenina and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, researching both their novel translations and their various visual presentations.

It looks like War and Peace will be my classic novel for 2020. Well, what the heck, the pandemic is giving us all plenty of time to try those big novels we’ve always meant to read.

JWH

 

 

 

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 7, 2020

There are two meanings we can apply when we see the word mundane. One implies the boringness of everyday things and events. But there is another way to approach the word, to think of the mundane as the real world, the solid beauty of ordinary reality. Margaret Renkl writes about mundane subjects – children, parents, grandparents, animals, birds, dogs, butterflies, gardening, being born and dying – yet she elevates them into deeply felt poignant insights that impress you with her economy with words.

Renkl is a columnist for The New York Times. You can sample her writing here. If you want to quick rundown about her and her book, read this piece in the Alabama Newscenter or the one at The Rumpus.

Late Migrations is a collection of 112 of her pieces.

All of her essays are short, and it’s hard to say what’s typical. But here is one of three I found at the Oxford American that tickled me when I read it in Late Migrations. It is completely atypical, yet riffs on her favorite themes.

THE IMPERFECT-FAMILY BEATITUDES
BIRMINGHAM, 1972

Blessed is the weary mother who rises before daybreak for no project or prayer book, for no reason but the solace of a sleeping house and a tepid cup of instant coffee and a fat dog curled on her lap. Hers is the fleeting kingdom of heaven.

Blessed is the suburban father whose camping gear includes two hundred yards of orange extension cord and a box fan, a pancake griddle, a weather radio, a miniature grainy-screened TV with full-sized rabbit ears, and another box fan. He shall keep peace in the menopausal marriage.

Blessed is the farm-born mother, gripped by a longing for homegrown tomatoes, who nails old roller skates to the bottom of a wooden pallet, installs barrels of soil and seeds on top, and twice a day tows it through the grass to the bright spots, following slivers of sun across the shady yard. She shall taste God.

Blessed is the fatherless father who surrenders his Saturdays to papier-mâché models of the Saturn V rocket or sugar-cube igloos or Popsicle-stick replicas of Fort Ticonderoga, and always to scale. In comforting he shall be comforted.

Blessed is the mother whose laugh is a carillon, a choir, an intoxication filling every room in the house and every dollar-movie theater and every school-play performance, even when no one else gets the joke. She will be called a child of God.

Blessed is the winking father who each day delivers his children to Catholic school with a kiss and the same advice: “Give ’em hell!” He will be summoned to few teacher conferences.

Blessed is the braless mother who arrives at the school pickup line wearing pink plastic curlers and stained house shoes, and who won’t hesitate to get out of the car if she must. She will never be kept waiting.

Blessed are the parents whose final words on leaving—the house, the car, the least consequential phone call—are always “I love you.” They will leave behind children who are lost and still found, broken and, somehow, still whole.

You can follow Renkl on Facebook.

JWH

The Best American Short Stories 2019

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, February 23, 2019

I’ve been buying The Best American Short Stories for decades but I have never finished reading one from cover-to-cover. I’d always jump around reading whichever story grabbed my attention with its opening lines. For 2019 they finally produced an audiobook edition, and I listened to the whole book. I’m very glad I did because I was introduced to a much more diverse selection of great writing. Going by initial impressions isn’t always wise.

Here’s a listing of the stories with a short comment by me, and a link to either the story itself (rare) or to an analysis by blogger Karen Carlson. She writes the kind of essays about the short stories she reads that I wish I took the time to do. It’s a shame that all of these stories aren’t available online because they all deserve more readers. Some of the sites have limits to free reads. You might try loading the link in a different browser if you’ve reached your limit. Or better yet, just buy The Best American Short Stories 2019. Who knows, maybe you might even be inspired to subscribe to some of these magazines.

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. “The Era” from Guernica  – In the future, they teach kids to be completely honest about their feelings. Fun literary science fiction.
  • Kathleen Alcott. “Natural Light” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Learning about a parent from a photograph. I often speculate about old photographs.
  • Wendell Berry. “The Great Interruption” from Threepenny Review – A story within a story set in the 1930s. Berry’s entry is a stark contrast to most of the other stories because it feels old. Like it was written long ago.
  • Jamel Brinkley. “No More Than a Bubble” from LitMag – Two guys hook up with two mysterious women for one strange night. Very vivid.
  • Deborah Eisenberg. “The Third Tower” from Ploughshares – Another literary story that could have been published in a science fiction magazine. About a Kafkaesque form of therapy.
  • Julia Elliott. “Hellion” from The Georgia Review – My absolute favorite story of the collection, and luckily available to read online. A young southern Tomboy teaches her visiting cousin how not to get to beat up by her rowdy crowd of friends. Imagine Scout in the 21st century.
  • Jeffrey Eugenides. “Bronze” from The New Yorker – Set in the 1970s, a teen who’s trying to find himself by dressing glam gets picked up by an older man. Nice historical contrast to the more modern stories in the collection.
  • Ella Martinsen Gorham. “Protozoa” from New England Review – Another top favorite from this collection that’s also available to read online. Eighth-grade girl wants to appear more sophisticated but gets in over her head. The stories I liked most in this collection were those set nearest to the present by young writers. It’s not that I didn’t admire what the older writers (Berry, Le Guin, Eugenides) were giving us, but their stories often seemed like history, while the younger writers were reporting the news from various sub-cultures.
  • Nicole Krauss. “Seeing Ershadi” from The New Yorker – A dancer pushes her body to the limits to stay in a touring company while becoming more and more philosophical.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. “Pity and Shame” from Tin House – I’m totally used to Le Guin’s science fiction and fantasy, so it was disconcerting to read what essentially feels like a western. An abandoned woman takes in a mine inspector crushed by a tunnel collapse and nurses him back to health.
  • Manuel Munõz. “Anyone Can Do It” from ZYZZYVA – A compelling tale of migrant workers, where a woman must try something new to survive. Another vivid story.
  • Sigrid Nunez. “The Plan” from Lit Mag – A disturbing story about a man driven to commit murder because it’s on his bucket list.
  • Maria Reva. “Letter of Apology” from Granta – One of the strangest stories in the collection about a communist party official who must get a letter of apology from a poet who made a politically incorrect joke. You end up feeling sorry for the oppressor.
  • Karen Russell. “Black Corfu” from Zoetrope: All-Story – Now this is the strangest story of the collection – a horror story no less – about a doctor to the dead. Russell must be a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and George Romero.
  • Saïd Sayrafiezadeh “Audition” from The New Yorker – Son of the boss secretly works construction and practices his acting skills by pretending to be one of the regular dead-end guys.
  • Alexis Schaitkin “Natural Disasters” from Ecotone – Another top favorite about a young wife from New York getting a part-time job Oklahoma when her husband had to relocate. The job she finds is writing home descriptions for a real estate agent, requiring her to visit all kinds of people and their houses.
  • Jim Shepard. “Our Day of Grace” from Zoetrope: All-Story – An epistolary tale about the civil war. Good story but felt out of place in this collection. Of course, that’s not fair to writers who like to write historical fiction. See the comment below.
  • Mona Simpson. “Wrong Object” from Harper’s – A psychiatrist has a pedophile for a patient.
  • Jenn Alandy Trahan. “They Told Us Not to Say This” from Harper’s – Another favorite story because it’s about young Filipino girls who admire a white basketball player. Even though the story is set in the 1990s, it still feels contemporary to an old reader like me.
  • Weike Wang. “Omakase” from The New Yorker – Another vivid story of cross-culture dating. Read the interview with the author about this story.

I enjoy The Best American Short Stories anthologies most for those stories feel contemporary. I want literary fiction to be realistic portraits of what the authors have experienced. That’s very old-fashion of me and unrealistic. Roman à clef writing is not very fashionable anymore. To me, genre writing is all about creatively making things up, while literary writing is about reporting on thoughts and emotions of real people. Writers can’t always write what they have actually experienced, but they can infuse their stories with observations of themselves and others.

The stories by Berry, Shepard, and Le Guin felt totally made up. They were very creative, but still, they lacked what I’m talking about. What these writers are good at is faking what I’m talking about. The Eugenides story felt in between like he might have remembered something from the 1970s, but he’s such a good writer he could have made it up entirely.

Obviously, the stories with fantastic elements have to be made up. These stories, even though extremely well-written feel like genre stories to me. In recent years we’ve been seeing more genre included in the annual BASS collection. That’s not bad, but just not what I enjoy most in a BASS volume. Even my favorite story “Hellion” by Julia Elliott is probably all made up, but it rings true as if she lived it or saw it. It has such a wonderful collection of colorful details that I want them to have existed. Elliot knows the caliber of a BB gun – what a wonderful realistic detail.

I hope the 2020 edition of BASS is produced on audio again. Another reason I read literary fiction is to get insight into people and cultures that aren’t like me and mine. Hearing the stories read by professional readers makes those stories feel like I’m actually hearing the person talk to me in person. And that makes their stories feel even more authentic.

JWH

Best Novels of the Decade Lists Collected

I recently noticed sites making lists of the best novels of the decade, so I decided to see if combining the lists would show which novels were standouts and try to read them. The pictured novels above are the books I have read and loved most from the lists below. I don’t read many mainstream literary novels, just six from these five lists. Maybe I should try to expand my reading mind and try more different books. I imagine a steady diet of science fiction is warping my sense of reality.

These are the five lists:

I only used Paste’s top 20 books to keep the focus tight. It’s worth following these links to read about the various titles.

This first group, are novels on more than one list. A Visit from the Goon Squad made it to 3 of the 5 lists. I guess I really need to read that one. Life After Life was also on three lists, and I have read it. It’s quite impressive. All of these books are ones I’ve seen on many lists over the years, so the consensus of fans makes me think I should give them a try.

These books are in no order. * = read and – = bought but not read

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan (EW, LitHub, Time)
  • Life After Life (2012) by Kate Atkinson (EW, Paste, Time) *
  • The Flamethrowers (2012) by Rachel Kushner (EW, LitHub)
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward (EW, Time, Paste)
  • My Brilliant Friend (2011) by Elena Ferrante (Esquire, Time) –
  • The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Esquire, LitHub)
  • The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead (LitHub, Paste)
  • Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff (EW, Paste)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders (Esquire, Paste) *
  • Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell (Esquire, Paste)
  • The Fifth Season (2015) by N. K. Jemisin (LitHub, Paste) –
  • Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (EW, Paste) *
  • Little Fires Everywhere (2017) Celeste Ng (Time, Paste)

These books only made it to one of the five lists. They are probably great books to some people, but I feel less of an urge to try them over the above group. However, I thought The Overstory was fantastic and wondered why it didn’t make it to more lists.

  • Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid (EW)
  • Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett (EW)
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James (EW)
  • Normal People (2019) by Sally Rooney (EW)
  • Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn (Time)
  • Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Time) –
  • Tenth of December (2013) by George Saunders (Time) –
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty (Time)
  • The Nickel Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead (Time)
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange (Esquire)
  • Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer (Esquire)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell (LitHub)
  • Train Dreams (2011) by Denis Johnson (LitHub)
  • The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka (LitHub)
  • The Tiger’s Wife (2011) by Téa Obreht (LitHub)
  • Salvage the Bones (2011) by Jesmyn Ward (LitHub)
  • All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews (LitHub)
  • Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill (LitHub)
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty (LitHub)
  • A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara (LitHub)
  • Outline (2015) by Rachel Cusk (LitHub)
  • Imagine Me Gone (2016) by Adam Haslett (LitHub)
  • The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers (LitHub) *
  • In the Distance (2018) by Hernan Diaz (LitHub)
  • Trust Exercise (2019) by Susan Choi (LitHub)
  • Milkman (2019) by Anna Burns (LitHub)
  • Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller (Paste)
  • Homecoming (2016) by Yaa Gyasi (Paste)
  • The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko (Paste)
  • The Way of Kings (2010) by Brandon Sanders (Paste)
  • Wolf in White Van (2014) by John Darnielle (Paste)
  • The Water Dancer (2019) by Ta-Nehisis Coates (Paste)
  • The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt (Paste) *
  • The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenster (Paste)
  • Family Life (2014) by Akhil Sharma (Paste)
  • Swing Time (2016) by Zadie Smith (Paste) *
  • The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) by Patrick Rothfuss (Paste)

If you’ve read any of these books and can recommend them, leave a comment.

JWH

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 3, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know is Malcolm Gladwell’s sixth book. I’m a big fan ever since his first book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell is an explainer, but he’s not straight forward in how he explains things. He enlightens by having the reader go step-by-step through the data he’s gathered to reach the same conclusion he has carefully discovered himself. He doesn’t just try to tell us the answer. Gladwell sees the world multidimensionally, so simple explanations won’t do.

In Talking to Strangers Gladwell wants us to understand what happened to Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over for not using her turn signal when changing lanes, ended up being arrested, and committing suicide while in jail. The story was in all the news in the summer of 2015, and there was even an HBO documentary about the incidence. Gladwell became quite angry by the event and feels the media has failed to explain what happened and why.

It’s such a complicated story that Gladwell doesn’t even get to Bland’s story until page 313, but when he does, it all comes together perfectly.

Many people feel society is coming apart. That politics is disintegrating our culture. That everyone is on a short fuse, overly sensitive, and too easy to take offense. That there is little honesty in the world, and too many people want to carry guns. Our society is being overrun by mistrust and resentment. I am reminded of an experiment I heard about in school back in the 1960s. It involved cramming rats into a cage to simulate overpopulation. The stress of being forced to interact made them go mad and attack each other. Gladwell doesn’t mention this, but I was reminded of it constantly as I read his book.

Gladwell says we don’t know how to talk to strangers. He then goes on using various famous historical and news events to explain how miscommunication created extreme problems, often resulting in lethal consequences. His examples are quite fascinating. The first goes all the way back to Hernán Cortés meeting the Aztec ruler Montezuma, an extreme case of strangers meeting. Then he deals with Cuban spies and the CIA. This chapter is a mind-blower because Gladwell presents several historical cases where the CIA were completely fooled by double-agents. This is impressive because we assume CIA agents are highly trained at observing and understanding people.

After covering the CIA’s failure to detect traitors, Gladwell goes into detail about how Neville Chamberlain totally misread Adolph Hitler. These are fascinating cases of how we misread strangers, but they are so varied that you have to wonder what they mean to Sandra Bland’s case. Gladwell reminds us occasionally that Bland is his real goal, but he also tells us we’re not ready yet. He was right. You really want to stick close to Gladwell’s examples and explanations, because they do pay off big.

The problem is most people default to the truth, which is Gladwell’s way of saying we tend to believe other people are telling the truth. After reading his studies you feel like you should distrust everyone. Gladwell then gives cases of people who are always wary, and this is actually a worse way to live. To complicate matters, he gives several cases, such as Amanda Knox’s and Bernie Madoff’s where people act contrary to how they should act, which makes them even harder to read. I’ve seen a lot of news stories and documentaries about both of these cases and they don’t get to the details and insights that Gladwell does. I get the feeling that Gladwell wrote Talking to Strangers to show us how we’re all thinking too simplistically.

I’m not going to reiterate all of Gladwell’s arguments and cases. Besides not being able to tell when people are lying, and for many reasons, Gladwell gets to two other important insights. Coupling and location. He uses Sylvia Plath’s suicide and various studies on crime reduction methods to explain them. This is where Gladwell’s insights get more subtle. We want problems explained with one answer. Gladwell teaches us that sometimes a problem requires multiple datasets to understand what’s really going on. All too often we jump to what we think is the obvious conclusion when were missing whole areas of evidence. Evidence that sometimes appears to have no connection to the case.

Talking to Strangers is not a book you want to read casually, although it is very easy and entertaining to read. In essence, Gladwell is being a Zen master trying to explain the sound of one hand clapping. His examples bring us to the point where we have to have our own “I see!” moment. He can’t tell us. When Gladwell finally gets down to explaining what happened with Sandra Bland you should come to the conclusion that our present-day problems can’t be explained with the kind of logic we ordinary use with our friends or the kind of thinking we hear from pundits on TV. We’re too quick to lap up easy answers.

The trouble is most people will never understand what Gladwell is teaching. Most of us will continue to act on instinct using very limited instinctive thinking. Humans can’t handle the truth. This is my conclusion, not Gladwell’s. We think we know when we don’t. In fact, too many people are absolutely certain of their conclusions because their own explanations feel so right. We all live in the film Rashomon, each thinking we see the truth, but can’t understand the multiplex view we’d get from watching our lives from an outside vantage point.

Talking to Strangers, like other Gladwell books, are ones we should reread periodically. It’s so easy to fall back into simplex thinking. One of my favorite novels is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a science fiction novel about a farm boy from a backward planet traveling to other worlds and cultures. Before he leaves a wise person tells him that there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex, and multiplex. What this kid learns is most people are stuck in simplex and maybe complex thinking, and very few achieve multiplex thought. The story is about the kid evolving through the three stages of thinking.

Talking to Strangers is Gladwell’s attempt to get us to think in multiplexity.

JWH