NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted January 7, 2013

Thunderbird :: Po-boy Contraband :: Clangings :: The Fifth Lash & Other Stories :: The Creek at the End of the Lawns :: Conning Harvard :: Circle Straight Back :: This is Not the End of the Book

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Thunderbird coverThunderbird

Poetry by Dorothea Lasky

Wave Books, October 2012

ISBN-13: 9781933517636

Paperback: 128pp; $16.00

Review by Pia Aliperti

The “other” world is a refrain throughout Dorothea Lasky’s startling new collection Thunderbird, which seeks the origins of creativity in the dark corners of anger, frustration, and even boredom. “I don’t live in this world,” Lasky writes (in “Death and Sylvia Plath”). “I already live in the other one.” These second worlds are easy to “breeze” into (“When you breeze upon the other world / O you are already there / O you are already there”); alternately, they seem impossibly insular (“Sweet animal, they locked us in this life / But I think we still have time before we have to get out of it”). In a book of flights—“Thunderbird” references a Native American spirit, but Lasky also conjures birds, planes, wind, and the mind’s movements—travel means to relinquish control. To disembody:

To not breathe anymore, to be the thing
To be the thing being breathed
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To not contain color, to be color
To not make sound, to be sound
To not have language, to echo, to plan language
To be the stream of words

Through brash, direct statements, Lasky creates a transparency of thought. A few of her meditations: “What is murder / This is a very interesting poem to write”; “Why is it a black life?”; “Why are people so cruel? / I mean this as a serious question.” Or: “What if I lost all those things / Humor, wit, beauty // And there was nothing left of me.” The paths of these interrogations propel us onward (because, because, because, Lasky writes). If the mind is “the red bird endlessly flying,” then Lasky’s speaker is unafraid to open her wingspan. Or to leave her logic exposed:

I am coming from the devil
Living in the devil’s house
Eating of the devil’s food
Am I devil?

Whether devilish, monstrous, “gendered,” or reptilian, Lasky’s speaker describes her separation from life (“What is it that when I am feverish / The rest of the world is not hot”) in terms of her nature. In “this world,” she is often misunderstood. “Because even when I mean well / I am still a criminal,” she explains in “Why It Is A Black Life.” “Because I am not human / And they are” she posits in “Everyone Keeps Me From My Destiny.” “Maybe he could feel the wild cool blood in me,” she writes of her catcaller (“I Had a Man”), “And it frightened him.” To travel from line to line as Lasky does, you must be a wanderer with no single world, ideology, or book to “nest in.” Yes, Lasky writes, “The wildest thing about me is my arrogance / which turns to anger / Over language.” Elsewhere her wildness is linked to survival: “I want to be so wild they can’t lock me up.”

As Publishers Weekly points out, Lasky has ideas about what poetry can do (“Poets should get back to writing some crazy shit // Let’s say whatever it is we please”), but there is a special aside here for female artists and their voices: “Why do young women like Sylvia Plath? / Why doesn’t everyone?” And in “Gender” Lasky writes:

It took me a long time to realize that my anger was a gendered one
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I write poems about boobs and dicks
But my anger comes not from this
but from being silenced.

If creativity comes from passing between borders, a sort of dying, then “Writing is death” and “Artists make hell.” “What could be more dramatic than a last breath,” Lasky wonders. One possibility is the silence that Lasky fears: “the worst thing of all.”

No, not to not have a voice anymore
But to have a voice in its entirety
Never going away
Or this way or that way
Again

Death is everywhere in Thunderbird, but “nothing is permanent.”

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Po-Boy Contraband coverPo-boy Contraband

From Diagnosis Back to Life

Nonfiction by Patrice Melnick

Catalyst Book Press, June 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0980208146

Paperback: 150pp; $16.00

Review by Courtney McDermott

Patrice Melnick’s memoir is a dance with language. Po-boy Contraband is a series of mini essays that outlines Melnick’s diagnosis with HIV and her journey to reclaim her life through music, writing, and relationships. The literary dance she creates is quick and jarring in the opening section “Finding Out,” sweeping us through the wilderness of Africa, where Melnick served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late ’80s and where she contracted the virus. Characters pop up and out of the essays like soap bubbles, never reoccurring in later scenes—a nod to the flimsiness of relationships but also, at times, unsatisfying to the reader. Her relationship to music has the strongest hold in this book, so I more easily remember the album she listens to in DC when she discovers she’s HIV-positive than the friends she has in Africa.

Melnick’s diagnosis of HIV was accidental; upon getting ill in the Central African Republic, she was swept away to a DC hospital to be treated for an ovarian cyst that was removed like a “wet piece of pink tissue paper.” What at first is a philosophical questioning of womanness and what it means to be female (does the ability to have children, to be called mother, equate with “woman,” Melnick asks, reminding herself that she had never really wanted children anyway) leads into a shocking diagnosis of HIV when one of her blood tests comes back positive. Melnick is suddenly faced not with the question of being able to give life, but the larger question of being able to live her own. The unfolding of these early events in her life is crafted in bursts and snippets of moments, written in short, staccato sentences drummed out on the page like a tap dance.

The anchor throughout Melnick’s story is her relationship to music, her love for rhythm and dance. She listens to the beats of Paul Simon on her Walkman as she contemplates her recent diagnosis in the streets of DC. She is inspired to move to New Orleans for its music, getting caught up in the blues and jazz and learning how to Zydeco dance. She writes about the comfort music provides as she rushes through a flurry of feeling: numbness over the initial news of her diagnosis, guilt over having unprotected sex, the fear of stigma that disables her from being forthright about her diagnosis with friends and family and dates. Music, though, she says, “insulated me, soaked me down like rain.”

In section two, “Health, Body and Mentality,” Melnick carries us through her day-to-day life as a creative writing teacher in New Orleans. One of the most poignant relationships exposed in this section is her tenuous and difficult work relationship with Oscar, a fellow English professor. His subtle racism and harsh attitude in departmental meetings make Melnick uncomfortable, and yet there is that delicate moment when she sees him in a café, having learned that he is also HIV-positive, and Melnick regrets not having earlier visited him in the hospital. One of the successes of the stories with Oscar is that Melnick takes her time with the action, takes her time delving into his character. Here we see the hint of a poet: “This was not a brave time for me. . . . I regretted not trying to befriend Oscar. It seemed as if blue poison rivers of anger ran throughout Oscar’s body until he tired. And then streams ran clear and calm as the anger dissipated and died.” But Melnick’s simple, lyrical language is often overshadowed by the sprint through actions, where she hurls words quickly, and then ducks out of scenes.

Her biting humor begins to emerge in “Health, Body and Mentality” with the inclusion of an HIV survey as one of her essays, poking fun at the various myths about contracting HIV. She uses a similar style in a later essay called “Dating Exam,” but I would have liked to see this humor earlier on in the collection. At this point in the collection, it feels forced, as though Melnick is trying to make herself laugh as much as the reader.

Melnick twirls and spins the reader through events that are in no chronological order, returning to moments and places, like Alaska and graduate school, or New Orleans and her teaching gig, introducing lovers and ditching them just as quickly. If one can let go of any order of time in these events and just let the events speak for themselves, then it is easier to get caught up in the momentum Melnick creates with her words and feelings. She is a writer full of feeling:

Instead of taking the bus home from the hospital, I walked 40 minutes home, inhaling crisp spring air, and my watery eyes were like kaleidoscopes that broke the brilliant sunlit snow into glittering prisms of blue sky and blurry clusters of suns.

Melnick’s tangled feelings are further explored in her graduate school relationship with a fellow student, Shawn. She exposes the honesty and hurt of her relationship with him, his racism, his unwillingness to sleep with her, to even touch her when she contracts shingles and sores appear on her face. The dance of her language slows during these moments with Shawn—a slow dance that would have been ideal in earlier parts of the book. In the end, Melnick focuses on finding touch and affection with men through her love of dancing and her discovery of Zydeco. Melnick’s passion for music, for movement, is only heightened with HIV. As she writes so profoundly: “It seems to me that HIV doesn’t change a person; it makes one a more intense version of [her]self.” This more intense version of the author is eventually able to find love and triumph in living longer than the doctors once expected. Melnick’s memoir is, simply put, a story of living.

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Clangings coverClangings

Poetry by Steven Cramer

Sarabande Books, November 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-936747-46-7

Paperback: 65pp; $14.95

Review by Trena Machado

In psychiatric terms, “clangings” is a thought disorder experienced by those with schizophrenia and manic states in which words are connected by sound rather than concepts, and speech and thoughts can quickly veer in a new direction in a disconnected way. In Clangings by Steven Cramer, each page has a poem of five quatrains that stands alone as a self-contained piece but also furthers the book’s connected story of a narrator reflecting on his life “in his way.” There are two pages that break this pattern and provide clarity of the narrator knowing his misaligned place in the scheme of things. Close to the end of the book:

I feel well, but keep hoping to get well—
Not just better, you know. But every day
I get well, I hope on the following day
I’ll feel better, but instead I feel . . . Well

At the end of the quatrain, “Well,” as an open-ended sigh, sound-wise duplicates “well,” as health: two different meanings of the word “well” is an example of how our subjective world and the language we use to understand ourselves is “approximate” only—a technique Cramer uses frequently. The narrator, with that ending sigh, knows his plight.

His story is not unusual in itself. He is an older adult who was an outcast in his family with parents who were negligent, perhaps randomly abusive. He is an outsider in society in the common ways of processing reality. He knows he doesn’t fit, is not the norm in his functioning, in his gender. His use of language serves a function other than just telling his story even though the story of his life comes through in mundane, shattering bits. We are given the facts of his mother, father, his lover Dickey, a pedophile priest, and a grade school friend, Serena. He uses language to soothe himself, smooth over reality’s punch. On the death of Dickey, his companion, he says, “My ‘he’ is ‘O’ / who once flicked hearts, a lamplighter.” “My ‘he’ is ‘O’,” hero: the narrator’s looking burrows into the sensation of language, language turned into rocking to tamp down dislocating estrangement in his mind:

bunny. I’m itching poppies in my ears.
Dig too deep, I’ll scratch my tympanum
(been meaning anyway to anvil the villain)
Coated shark teeth, like pinking shears.

‘Anvil’ with ‘vil’ of villain and ‘villain’ with ‘tympanum’…same line and the line above. This kind of assonance with phoneme units and abba rhyming is constant throughout the quatrains . . . and even brings a soothing, smoothing, rocking sensation to the reader. It does not matter that the words are not logically connected, because the feeling of what the narrator experiences comes through. We know “he knows” that he is not dealing with the same mental organization that most people have . . . and we are assailed with a sense of compassion for him. The narrator has transmuted the world’s elusive obstinacy like any artist does, knowing and not knowing what he is doing.

Cramer has given us a thought piece on language and selfhood. Connecting words based on sound seems like nonsense, but the sound captures the feeling of chaos, loss, wonder and, then, that is the meaning, meaning produced by qualities of the words other than definition and their place in the grammatical structure alone . . . parts of words, the phonemes, become important and determine word choice to create the self’s grounding in rhythmic, sensory-oriented lines. The sound is foremost and converts the common use of words to fulfill the sense-memory, sense-reflection of a world that doesn’t quite make sense . . . but a world that is lived and known anyway. Wrenched word combinations arise out of using sound in this way: Obituary magi, greener chameleon, turquoise girls, blue-sprained boys, head’s high beams, glittering snow loaves, glister of venom, seraph cigarette . . . combinations that make our hearts beat faster, our synapses glow. The other moment of the narrator’s clarity comes on the last page, and is the poet’s question too: “The worst fate: to spend a life / thinking, until that life is not / the life you felt you lived.” Selfhood. . . . The artist. . . . A swaying, ineffable pointing at language.

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The Fifth Lash coverThe Fifth Lash & Other Stories

Fiction by Anis Shivani

C & R Press, November 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-936196-04-3

Paperback: 296pp; $14.95

Review by Lydia Pyne

In his preface, Anis Shivani claims that The Fifth Lash & Other Stories is a collection of fiction that is fundamentally the work of a young man. He quickly points the reader to the collection’s immaturities—the anger of the narrators, the stylistic experimentation from story to story, transient identities of characters, and even the youthful rawness of emotions crammed into the assemblage as a whole. Indeed, The Fifth Lash was Shivani’s first collection (later publications include Anatolia and Other Stories as well as his poetry in My Tranquil War and Other Poems), but the poignancy of these sketches deserves more than to simply stand in the shadow of his earlier published—yet later written—work.

In short, The Fifth Last & Other Stories offers simple, profound themes of Muslim identity that resonate and permeate through complex stories. To this end, Shivani’s characters constantly scramble for a cultural identity, but also for a sense of purpose. The relatively weak depiction of these characters allows the cultural complexity of daily life, laughable bureaucracy, and unexpected conflicts to carry the stories’ narrative arcs. While some of the stories venture into the nearly bizarre through byzantine twists and turns (with enough plot elements that the reader is almost reeling from the complexities), the sketches are literary reflections of the mad, hectic search for individual purpose. We see this search lead, more often than not, to a futile, nihilistic, or simply anti-climactic ending—though not quite absurdist in the existential sense, these are certainly stories without comfortable, neat resolutions.

Throughout The Fifth Lash & Other Stories, the author plays out a series of tropes. We see Shivani develop the theme of justice in “The Fifth Lash” and “The Rug Seller’s Daughter.” We see the theme of women’s agency in “The Fifth Lash” and “Dowry.” We see the theme of democracy and choice—as political spaces are negotiated—in “The Abscess of the World” and “Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy.” Indeed, one of the most interesting and unique themes that Shivani advances is the nature of the Muslim diaspora and the relationship that Islam has with the West. “In the Shade of the Wavering Palms” shows us characters like Firdaus and Tawfiq and their multi-generational Persian family in southern California. As Tawfiq is a subcontractor for the Department of Defense, both characters begin to grapple with questions of what it means to be “in America” but to retain or purposefully choose cultural identity against not just political backlash, but also the ignorance their children have of their own history and cultural heritage.

However, these themes all collapse brilliantly together as illustrated in this quote from Shivani’s story “The Fifth Lash.” Here we see that justice, democracy, the politique, and women’s agency are all rays of identity refracted through the prism of culture—through being “there” and “not there” and how one best makes sense of that:

Twenty years ago on these same boulevards, it was thrilling to watch the transformation of Pakistan, the women switching from saris to skirts and dresses, the lush hair sheared into Western perms. Ten years ago they went from copying Western outfits and hairstyles to introducing originality: you could see it in the way they were simultaneously modest and aggressive, innocent and knowing. Today, you don’t see women anymore. If they’re middle-class, they’re afraid to go out in public. . . . If they’re working-class they’re covered in burqa. Except for the truly rich and the truly poor, both beyond the constraints of veiled modesty, half this country has disappeared overnight. How did we get here, when ten short years ago women stood shoulder to shoulder with men at Bhutto’s rallies, shouting that we needed roti, kapra, aur makan—bread, clothing, and shelter?
I don’t know how the people of Pakistan let off steam anymore, or if they even have any need to. How can a hundred million people be bottled up so quickly and easily?

Author Ali Eteraz offers his observations about Shivani’s stories: “They ask the reader to consider the possibility that when it comes to contemporary portraits of Muslims, fiction might actually be a much better medium than memoir, than non-fiction, than journalism, and even film.” (In fact, I was so caught up reading “The Dowry” that I missed my train stop coming home one evening.) The Fifth Lash & Other Stories is, perhaps, what Shivani alludes to in his introduction—the first work of fiction of an author wrestling his own voice. But these stories are more than just that. They are compelling, interesting, and useful in unpacking complex strata of cultural identity.

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The Creek at the End of the Lawns coverThe Creek at the End of the Lawns

Poetry by Ira Joe Fisher

NYQ Books, September 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1935520658

Paperback: 132pp; $16.95

Review by Alyse Bensel

In capturing the people and place of a small town, Ira Joe Fisher’s fourth poetry collection forges a strong relationship to form, meter, and rhyme. A keen sense of reminiscing for past ghosts filters through poems that range from brief lyrics to grander narratives. The Creek at the End of the Lawns resurrects the need for the performative aspect of poetry in terms of storytelling and mythmaking, prompting the reader to speak these poems aloud rather than remain silent.

Grounding the framing poems of the collection, the title poem, in swift iambic pentameter, delves into questions of place and who has (or does not have) the right to tell its stories and secrets. Beginning with a preface, the poem, with the assistance of a narrator figure, guides the reader through Annville’s landscape to a young man named Finch, who

writes these Annville lessons down.
And the very ink of those words vibrates
Into streams from the brittled, yellowing
Paper.

These words manifest into a ghost, Alfred, who questions Finch’s “leave to tell town tales.” An ensuing section depicts a conversation between Finch and Alfred, including a witty exchange of dialogue around the reliance of memory. Commentary from the narrator supports this fast-paced dialogue, claiming

No person can remember everything.
Oh, people remember only little;
The poet notices and remembers
Most, nearly all, and he lives to remind
Mortal forgetters . . .

“The Creek at the End of the Lawns” is framed by two sections of shorter, more lyric poems. Some poems remain unrhymed with short, quick lines and breaks, while others subtly employ regular meter and rhyme schemes. These brief glimpses into landscape reflect the power of observation. In “Ars Poetica,” varying line lengths in a single stanza provide a set of instructions directing the reader to pay attention to each sensory detail, to

See the leaves
seldom stilled,
see the leaves joyed and jostled
by wind in cool, blued afternoon
which must be kept
and held often and forever.

Each small detail builds upon the previous one as the poem progresses, guiding the reader to mentally record each small moment. The poem culminates in the lines asking for time to be recorded as

Each next minute
must be noted
like a host at church,
like a glowing song from a far place.

Readers who enjoy seeing how rhyme and meter—more commonly associated with older, more “traditional” poetry—can still be used in contemporary poetry will want to follow these varied and skillfully wrought poems closely. Constantly questioning the permeability of time and the static yet changing nature of place, Fisher’s poems lend credence to the power of memory to “gather, visit, and listen” the specifics of each minute moment that matters.

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Conning Harvard coverConning Harvard

Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked
His Way into the Ivy League

Nonfiction by Julie Zauzmer with Xi Yu

Lyons Press, September 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0762780020

Hardcover: 240pp; $21.95

Review by Karen Seehaus Papson

Adam Wheeler was by all accounts a very successful 21-year-old. He entered his senior year at Harvard University with everything going for him: top marks in his courses, a large circle of friends, and a steady girlfriend, not to mention scads of prestigious academic honors and awards. Indeed, it seemed that there was nothing this affable wonder boy couldn’t do. There was just one problem. All of his success—from the impressive academic grants he received to his very admission to Harvard University—was predicated on fraudulent transcripts, fake SAT scores, phony letters of recommendation, and enough plagiarized prose to fill a library. In short, everything people thought they knew about Adam Wheeler was a lie.

While Wheeler’s story might sound like it was ripped from an episode of Gossip Girl, it is in fact a true story. Julie Zauzmer’s book Conning Harvard chronicles Wheeler’s story from his obscure high school days to his very public and very rapid fall from academic grace. Essentially, this is a confidence caper for the academic set. Given the scope and depth of Wheeler’s snow job, it’s not immediately clear which party has more right to be embarrassed. As the book notes: “‘Harvard hoax’—the catchphrase that caught on to describe the case in the blogosphere—briefly became common parlance on the Internet.” It was as if the general public was quite delighted by Mr. Wheeler’s ability to perpetrate a swindle of such magnitude.

Though Wheeler faked nearly every detail about himself, apart from his name, on virtually every document that mattered to Harvard, it is perhaps the fact that he managed to lie so completely and so successfully time and time again that proved the most embarrassing for the ivy institution. Based on his real SAT scores and GPA, he shouldn’t have been able to outwit the admissions officers, his professors, and his friends at Harvard. And yet he did. Therefore, it seems only fitting that one of Harvard’s own should faithfully investigate and record exactly how Adam Wheeler managed to dupe some of the smartest people in the country for so long without detection.

Zauzmer’s account of Wheeler’s dishonesty is unfailingly thorough. A Harvard undergraduate herself and editor for the University’s paper The Harvard Crimson, she began covering the story of Wheeler’s academic disgrace as soon as the sordid news broke. Though her writing does at times read like a senior thesis on how to cheat, Zauzmer nonetheless delivers a no-nonsense account of Wheeler’s every move, dishonest or otherwise. However, her journalistic zeal to find and relay all of the facts is tempered by a dose of empathy as she acknowledges the immense pressure placed on college students these days. Conning Harvard affords readers the opportunity to see what a scam of this magnitude looks like from both without and within.

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Circle Straight Back coverCircle Straight Back

Poetry by Noel Sloboda

Cervena Barva Press, March 2012

Chapbook: 34pp; $7.00

Review by Theresé Samson Wenham

Noel Sloboda released two chapbooks from different presses in 2012. His screen-printed, stanza-form chapbook, So Below (sunnyoutside, March 2012) contains four short poems and a deftly made two-color fold-out. Unlike So Below, the other chapbook of prose poems, Circle Straight Back, is sparse and unadorned. The effect is matter-of-fact, archival, and unsentimental. This seems an appropriate device for poetry of subtle misery and overt tragedy. It is certainly a theme running through the text. From the first poem, “Birth of Tragedy,” to the end of a species in “Of Species,” the threads of death, destruction, tragedy, and disappointment prevail.

Sloboda’s twenty-four short prose poems/flash fiction pieces turn their attention to the tragic through a series of comical, absurd, observational, sardonic, and illustrational lenses. It is a full spectrum approach to examining the emotions of disaster’s edge. “Circles” hints at the dark side of human behavior while taking a more light-hearted approach to its discussion. “Out of Line” is an examination of our hopeless position in life through the thoughts and actions of a fence. This absurd point of view is not exactly effective, yet the message of pointlessly trying to assert one’s self is an excellent visual metaphor, if a depressing one. “The Artist” examines disappointment while creating an iconic visual image of the mundane. The character fights off chaos as he walks half a dozen dogs around the neighborhood. I see the dogs fanned out before him, pulling hard on the leashes while he braces against each step of the walk, “driving against destiny.”

“I heard a faint song of hope and loss in those jangling keys,” Sloboda says in “Eastern Romance.” The “faint song of hope” comes through in poems like “From the Garden,” where the author exalts what violence cannot destroy. The song is faint, but can be found in even the most unrealistic situations. Take “Ecstasy,” for example. From the title we might imagine a beautiful image or experience awaiting us. Instead, we are greeted with a hearty hangover, a permanently sealed bottle of what we desire most, vodka, and a break-up note from ourselves:

“Dear Fritz,” it began, “I am writing to you for the last time, for your own good. After some deliberation, I have decided I can’t allow us to be associated any longer. You’re simply too much of a milquetoast when sober. A few slugs and you become tolerable. Yet no matter how much you drink, you always return, sooner or later, to being sober. I can’t bear it any longer, waking up, in my own bed, knowing who I am. Being you. Therefore—as you will have probably discovered—I am severing ties. I have arranged for alcohol to be inaccessible to you. Please, do not try to follow me; I won’t be crawling inside you ever again; I am moving on to better things. Yours, less or more, Fritz.”

Like Sartre’s hell, Fritz’s hell is a mundane inferno we cannot undo. So, why name it “Ecstasy”? Ironically, the poor, sad character, Fritz, has also been freed from pursuing the addiction that torments him; it is a classic moment when the alcoholic is freed from the complex control alcohol has over his life.

Circle Straight Back does not convince us of its extensive knowledge of tragedy through elegant language, merely through repetition and variety. It is clear Sloboda thinks about suffering, even as he occasionally can make light of it. As a reader, I found this approach compelling, but insufficient for a book of poetry. I can imagine a different reader glad to be immersed in clever stories of tragedy, but for me, a great line will suffice.

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This is Not the End of the Book coverThis Is Not the End of the Book

Nonfiction by Jean-Claude Carrière and Umberto Eco

Translated from the French by Polly McLean

Northwestern University Press, September 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-8101-2747-0

Paperback: 352pp; $24.95

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

As our age at an ever increasing rate gives birth to what is rightfully referred to as The Rise of the Digital, are printed books going to disappear? This is the largely opaque question at the heart of the lengthy conversation between two accomplished artistic European intellects that forms This Is Not the End of the Book. Umberto Eco is surely the more easily recognizable interlocutor here—his books In the Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum enjoy a broad readership, especially since the former was made into a film starring a young Christian Slater alongside Sean Connery. Yet Jean-Claude Carrière is a no less distinguished literary figure. A French writer with numerous books to his name, though perhaps not an author widely recognized by English readers, he has also authored several screenplays for films which are likely quite familiar, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Both writers also collect rare books for their private libraries, sometimes spending lavish sums for what are known as “incunabula,” which Carrière succinctly describes as “all the books published between the invention of printing and the night of 31st December 1500. The Latin word incunabula refers to the ‘cradle’ of the history of the printed book—in other words, all the books printed in the fifteenth century.” Carrière’s own taste in collecting, however, is more or less all over the place as he says: “I am not a proper collector. I have just always bought books because I like them.” And “I have a particular taste for what you might call popular, or even burlesque and grotesque, French literature from the early seventeenth century, which has generally been underappreciated.” Meanwhile Eco is very much attracted to collecting in a particular area: “My collection is very focused. It is a Bibliotheca Semiologica Curiosa Lunatica Magica et Pneumatica, or ‘a collection dedicated to the occult and mistaken sciences’. For example, I have Ptolemy, who was wrong about the movement of the Earth, but not Galileo, who was right.” Eco is “fascinated by error, by bad faith and idiocy,” the irrefutable ultimate con: “Fakes put all attempts to create a theory of truth into question. If you have access to the authentic work, the source of inspiration, then it’s possible to ascertain whether or not something is a fake. It is much harder to prove that an authentic work is authentic.”

Carrière and Eco realize an easy, mutually satisfying rhythm in conversation, matching each other’s considerable heft of knowledge and solidly lending support to shared-in-common hypotheses. One of them will assert a judgment and the other draws upon his storehouse of knowledge for a complementary example. For instance, Eco: “When the state is too powerful, poetry stagnates. When the state is in crisis, as has been the case in Italy since just after the war, then art is free to say what it has to say . . . as power fades, some art forms are given a boost, and some not.” And thus Carrière: “Not a single book published in France between 1800 and 1814—the zenith of Napoleon’s power—is still read today. The painting was pompous, not to say pretentious . . . neither was there any music. Or theatre.” Not at all surprisingly, a European historical perspective is richly represented within this dialogue and this alone adds significant value to the exchange. These men know intimately well the matters of which they speak.

Unfortunately, for a book which addresses the past, current, and future status of The Book, this object itself sadly lacks any luster or attractive quality. The font alone is rather atrocious and far too huge in size. It looks as though the edition has been magnified to ease readability for the elderly or children. Indeed, in direct contrast to its contents, this book looks and feels as if it were meant for the young. This is of course an extremely odd thing. I assume it’s a reflection of the poor financial state of affairs all university presses are facing these days, but that just isn’t acceptable as an excuse. I trust that none of this is the case with the original French edition Ne pensez vous débarrasser des livres (Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2009). It’s a shame to see something that could have made for a lovely small hardcover volume of around 100 or so pages be grotesquely spread across 336 pages in paperback. If this was done in hopes of mass market appeal, then it was a rather ridiculous dream of severely handicapped logic and is clearly anti-literary while of course (and unsurprisingly) truly American.

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