The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Category — Book Reviews

Link to Final Stories

March 2, 2012   Comments Off on Link to Final Stories

Link to Final Poems

March 2, 2012   Comments Off on Link to Final Poems

Link to Vesuvius and Other Stories

February 26, 2012   Comments Off on Link to Vesuvius and Other Stories

Link to Poems of Longing & Regret

February 25, 2012   Comments Off on Link to Poems of Longing & Regret

Link to Revenge of the Furies

February 24, 2012   Comments Off on Link to Revenge of the Furies

Link to Winthrup

February 24, 2012   Comments Off on Link to Winthrup

End Game

In my mind the most memorable quote from Garry Kasparov’s review of Bobby Fischer’s biography (in the The New York Review of Books) is this one: “The shades of color in real life often baffled Fischer, but he always saw very clearly in black and white.” Kasparov never played Fischer, but he knew him through his matches and from the bizarre things Bobby said and did after resigning his title in 1975. In his article Kasparov contends that when Fischer could not obtain the terms he demanded for the match against Karpov, in his perfectionism and fear of failure, he abandoned the title rather than face a strong opponent who was in his prime. The rest, of course, is history—Bobby’s ravings, his condemnation by the Bush administration, his arrest in Japan, and his seclusion in Iceland where he finally died after refusing treatment for his illness.

I have some experience of this myself.

Though extremely intelligent, my own father was not as brilliant as Bobby Fischer, but just as driven and nearly as mad. His obsessive paranoia touched every aspect of our lives in a way no one could possibly imagine unless you lived it yourself. He reduced my mother to abject slavery. I resisted. My antidote was avid nonconformity, unrestrained spontaneity, and an unquenchable desire to uncover the roots of his madness so I would not go there myself. That no one understands what I have overcome often makes me angry, but it is really of no importance. Not now. I am happy—happy with myself and what I have achieved. I am not my father.

February 19, 2011   Comments Off on End Game

The Novella and Stefan Zweig

The novella—which is really a long short story or shortened novel—has long been popular with writers in Germany and Austria. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the tradition is stronger there. I’ve always liked the novella—a story of about 100 pages—since I often feel that novels are overblown—padded with extraneous stuff to fill the requisite 300 pages—and that short stories come and go too quickly—things I’d like to know are excised in the cause of brevity.

Two of the best stories in the novella tradition were written by Stefan Zweig—“The Royal Game” and “Amok.” “The Royal Game” describes the effect of Nazi interrogation and torture of a man who becomes a chess prodigy while confined. Understatement is used rather than providing gory details. We experience the before and after effects. “The Royal Game” is an inconic story and justifiably so because it describes the Nazi horrors in a way anyone can relate to. An ordinary man has been transformed by the Nazis into a “monster.” “Amok,” which reminds me of something Joseph Conrad might have written because of its use of a tale within a tale, presents one of Zweig’s favorite themes, the tragic effect women sometimes have on susceptible men. In the case of this story, both lives are ruined beyond redemption, and we twist in our chairs as we read, desperate for the next paragraph and frightened of what it might contain.

That Zweig was a supreme stylist is evident in these stories. He could construct a story as well as anyone. I sometimes wonder if it was his stylism that did him in. One can go on inventing things only so long before it becomes horrifying boring—not to the reader, of course, but to the poor drudge, mocking his own soul, who churns out the same stuff day after day.

January 13, 2011   1 Comment

Widerstand der Wirklichkeit

Weeks passed when nothing I read satisfied. Everything I picked up failed to engage my attention. Was it ennui? Lack of attention? Resistance to reality? Or is it simply more difficult to find something interesting these days? My standards are not impossibly high. The work must be literary, well written, and engaging. That shouldn’t be difficult, should it? But less and less I find these qualities merged in works of fiction.

But then Stefan Zweig saved me.

It was a small story that did it, his novella Journey into the Past (Widerstand der Wirklichkeit), in which a younger man and older woman who have been desperately in love for nine years are reunited. Recently published in the United States by NYRB, it is a lovely work of art, made all the more interesting by the effete, cultured, and tragic life of the man who wrote it, perhaps the best German writer of his time.

To fill up space, an Introduction was added and an Afterword. Amusingly, the Introduction not only contains spoilers but includes the entire plot of the novella. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter. Zweig is so brilliant that I found myself reading the story with rapt attention even though I knew everything that would happen.

Why Zweig and his second wife committed suicide together in Brazil is a mystery (even though he left suicide note). The leading theory is that he could not stand to live in a world destroyed by the barbarism of Hitler. I understand such logic (there should have been mass suicides after Bush was appointed President by the Supreme Court), but deplore his decision.

What happened to the two lovers? you wonder. Well, hell, you’ll just have to read the novella and find out.

December 21, 2010   Comments Off on Widerstand der Wirklichkeit

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum has written a lovely second novel about the life and loves of Ms. Hempel, an seventh grade teacher in an American junior high school. The narrator is wordy and descriptive, but perfectly nuanced, using language precisely and evocatively, like a brilliant student writing her first novel for her mentor in an MFA program. The quality of the writing pulls us in and we find ourselves desperately caring about this young woman whose life has been both cut short and enriched by her experiences as a teacher. Her heroine is a modern Miss Brill, updated for the present, without the loneliness and infinite regret of the teacher of another age. In short, Bynum’s novel is utterly charming.

November 24, 2010   Comments Off on Ms. Hempel Chronicles