Friday, November 27, 2009

Madras Press

We've just received the first selection of titles from Madras Press, a local Brookline publisher that puts out short works (short stories and novellas) in an attractive, 5"x5" format. The idea of the press is to find a home for short works that stand on their own but get ignored by commercial publishers, either because they're too long for magazines or too short for trade book length. In addition, the proceeds of each book will be donated to a charitable organization chosen by the author.

The first four titles are The Third Elevator by Aimee Bender, Sweet Tomb by Trinie Dalton, A Mere Pittance by Sumanth Prabhaker, and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One of My Deserted Island Books

Everyone who loves books has played the "If you could only take 5 books with you to a deserted island, what would they be?" game. One of mine is The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo. I first discovered Vallejo's poetry in an anthology called Conductors of the Pit, a collection of surrealist poetry translated and edited by Clayton Eshelman. It's one of the best poetry anthologies I've ever found and has also introduced me to Aime Cesaire and Vladimir Holan. But Vallejo stood out even among them. He stands out among everybody. His work so moved me that I bought both the hardcover and the paperback editions of The Complete Poetry (the hardcover to be safe at home on a shelf and the paperback to be thrown in bags and taken to coffee shops).


I have dreamed of a flight. And I have dreamed of
your silks strewn about the bedroom.
Along a pier, some mother;
and her fifteen years breast-feeding an hour.

I have dreamed of a flight. A 'forever and ever'
whispered on the ladder to a prow;
I have dreamed of a mother;
and some fresh sprigs of greenery,
and the aurora-constellated trousseau.

Along a pier...
And along a throat that is drowning!"

Vallejo's poetry tends to work through tangential images, by developing a comfortable flow and tone and then smashing them from the side with an image. You go from "fresh sprigs of greenery," to "the aurora-constellated trousseau." It's a unique effect--something I've never found in any other work--as my brain practically splits in half trying to follow the energy of the language.

This daring approach to poetry leads Vallejo to completely uncharted literary waters and produces groundbreaking poem after ground breaking poem.

"Of the Earth


--If I loved you...what then?
--An orgy!
--And if he loved you?
It would be
all rituary, but not as sweet.

And if you loved me?
The shadow would suffer
a deserved defeat by your little nuns.

Do whiplashes serpentize,
when the dog loves its master?
--No; but the light is ours.
You're sick...Go away...I need to sleep!

(Under the vesperal poplar grove
the blare of roses is stifled).
--Off you go, girls, quickly...
Already the forest is luxuriating in my windowpane!"

Three and two thirds ellipsis and a question mark for an opening line! And then a question of love. And then (in parentheses) an image any Romantic poet or post-Frost nature poet would kill to have written. Vallejo is a wicked jester made of bones and guts; a naked cackling human be-ing. To read his poetry is to tour dreams and nightmares with fearless bravado. He confesses to priests and demons in the same tone. He does not believe in hallucination for everything is fact when his pen and imagination wrestle.

"Naked in Clay

Like horrible batrachians in the atmosphere,
lugubrious smirks rise to the lip.
Through the blue Sahara of Substance
walks a gray verse, a dromedary.

A grimace of cruel dreams phosphoresces.
And the blind man who died full of the voices
of snow. Rise at dawn, poet, nomad,
to the rawest day of being man.

The Hours feverishly go by, and in the corners
blond centuries of happiness abort.
Who spins out so much thread; who ruthlessly
lowers our nerves, cords
already frayed, into the tomb!

Love! And you too. Black stonings
breed in your mask and smash it.
The tomb is still
woman's sex that draws man in!"

The words, the images, the ideas. The Complete Poetry of Cesar Vallejo is a bilingual edition, discreetly annotated by the translator, and includes a forward by Mario Vargas Llosa, a chronology of Vallejo's life and a translation memoir by Eshelman which is a wonderful and fascinating essay in its own right. It's now a book I cannot do without.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Phaidon Cookbooks

A few years ago, Phaidon, a publisher known for their fancy art and architecture books ventured into the world of cookbooks. They published The Silver Spoon, an Italian cookbook purported to be a kind of Italian Joy of Cooking. I made it a staff pick when it came out and it is now my most frequently used cookbook.

After the success of the Silver Spoon, Phaidon continued with a series of "Joy of Cookings" for other European countries; 1080 from Spain, Vefa's Kitchen from Greece, and I Know How to Cook from France. More than just cookbooks, all of these act as snapshots of their respective cultures through their recipes. You learn what animals, what cuts, and what vegetables are important to which countries, as well as what preparations dominate and what flavors are revered. They are an anthropology dissertation waiting to happen.

Along with their tour of Europe, Phaidon also released one of the most interesting cookbooks I've ever seen; A Day at elBulli. elBulli is the restaurant of world renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adria. Adria pioneered entirely new techniques for cooking, employing, among others, a chemist to help develop his recipes. His recipes challenge ideas and expectations about how we eat, what we eat, why we eat, and what it means to eat. Unless you keep agar agar handy, A Day at elBulli really isn't a cookbook you'd get recipes from. Rather it's an exploration of the process of one of the world's most creative people. It is a source of inspiration, rather than ingredients.

Phaidon's cookbook being released for this holiday season is closer in spirit to A Day at elBulli than to The Silver Spoon. In Coco, ten world renowned chefs, including Ferran Adria, Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, and Alice Waters are asked to select their ten favorite contemporary chefs. The result is a collection of profiles and recipes from 100 diverse and dynamic chefs from around the world. The organization of the cookbook is oddly intuitive. Each of the ten master chefs is assigned a color, and a colored book mark. The selected chefs are presented alphabetically by their name with a stripe of color on their pages indicating which master chef selected them. It's a brilliant way to organize the important information without preferencing any chef over another through the order in which they appear. The book closes with a recipe from each of the master chefs. Alice Waters gives us Chicories Salad with Brandade Toast, Mario Batali Two-Minute Calamari, Sicilian Lifeguard Style, and Alain Ducasse Provencale Garden Vegetables Simmered with Crushed Black Truffle.

This is the perfect book for foodies looking to stay on the absolute cutting edge of cooking, as well as travelers looking for the best meals around the world. Though it's unlikely I'll be making the sweet potato based espresso recipe or crushing much black truffle in my own kitchen, a cookbook like this provides fuel for my imagination and opens my eyes to the unexpected potential of the cabbage I have to cook before it goes bad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Siegfried Sassoon

If you haven't taken a look at the sidebar to our blog there really is a load of information there. I clicked on the Guardian Books Page under Our Links and immediately spotted the news that Siegfried Sassoon's manuscripts have gone online.

I was first introduced to Sassoon through the fiction of Pat Barker in her wonderful trilogy of World War I: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road which won the Booker Prize. Sassoon; another wartime poet, Wilfred Owen; and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers are all characters in Barker's fictionalized account of the period. It is always worthwhile to be reminded of who these individuals were fighting in the trenches, especially on Veteran's Day. It is particularly important that these men's experiences and reflections are left to us in their poetry enhancing our study of the literature of the period and our knowledge of warfare.

The following words were written by Sassoon in 1917 in his "declaration against the war" and are well worth another reading.

"I believe that this war, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest," he wrote. "I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realise."

Asterios Polyp and Logicomix

After weeks of being out of stock at the publisher we finally have copies of the two best graphic novels of the year; Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli and Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou.

You can find out more about Logicomix in this earlier post and you can read about both of these great books in this earlier post.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why I Never Read

For an event at a library for my newly released paperback of The Last Dickens, one newspaper column listed “a reading by Matthew Pearl.” I have to confess the truth, though: my readings have very little reading in them.

Let me say, I have great respect for authors who stand in front of a room and read a chapter or extended section of their work aloud. Maybe my attention span wanders too easily, because when I've tried to do a straight reading I'd start thinking about what I'd eat for dinner and whether I went to third grade with that guy in the back of the room, and whether he once stole my Social Studies notebook.

Pretty soon after starting my public speaking career, I began reading less and less. Instead, I'd talk about how I started writing, about the bizarre experience of book tours, about the argument I'd had with my publisher about the book cover design--the kind of thing I'd do at dinner with friends. I felt more comfortable this way and I felt my audience perk up, too. I'm sure some authors have reading voices that would make James Earl Jones proud, but I'm not Darth Vader and I'm pretty sure my writing voice is more interesting than my reading voice. That's probably why they never ask me to narrate my audio books. Besides, the nice folks who go to the trouble of coming out to an event and hopefully buying a book can read without any help from me. If I can give an interesting behind-the-scenes peek at the creative or publishing process that enriches their reading, I feel like I've done my part.

Any author will tell you how hard it is to predict turnout for an author event. There's so much to compete with, especially in big cities. Many other things, like movies and TiVo, also conform more flexibly to most people's schedules, whereas a 6:30pm or 7:00pm weeknight author event is just about the most inconvenient time for many people getting home from work to rest or be with their family. The most inconvenient time, except for any other time. I try to do my part by keeping my events moving at a brisk pace. The times I've done events in Europe, I'm always struck by how long they go and also how little I actually speak! Usually, you're given a very long introduction, maybe as long as a half hour, and people ask extremely long, academic-ish questions.

During his reading tours in the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens would read, but not in a way we're used to. Dickens had extensive experience as a stage actor, and used his skills to actually perform his scenes and characters. In The Last Dickens, one scene depicts one of Dickens's readings in Boston, at the Tremont Temple, when a stalker is somewhere in the dark auditorium ready to strike, and the hero, Dickens's Irish porter, must find and stop the threat. I guess on some level it's my fantasy about the author-event-as-adventure.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

free e-books

The University of Chicago Press has just announced a new marketing program for their e-book editions in Adobe Digital Editions format. They're offering a new free e-book every month. This month's offering is The Birthday Book by Censorinus.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two Mexican Writers for Fans of Roberto Bolano

With The Savage Detectives and 2666, Roberto Bolano exploded onto the literary scene in America. Both works were critically acclaimed with 2666 winning the National Book Critics Circle Award. Almost overnight Bolano went from an obscure Mexican author to a literary superstar.

I think there are two other Mexican writers, right now little known in America, who fans of Bolano would enjoy.

The first is Juan Villoro. There is almost nothing of Villoro's work translated into English, except an excellent short story in the Fall 2009 issue of the lit mag n+1. "Among Friends" is a brilliant story narrated by a Mexican journalist who acts as a contact for a successful and award winning American journalist, named Samuel Kramer. Kramer is back in Mexico to do an article about violence in the country when he is kidnapped. Much like The Savage Detectives, "Among Friends" is a kind of mystery but one that reveals different objects than those ostensibly sought. This is a story about representing the truth, about the predation of culture, and about the artifice of national identity. Here is an excerpt from Among Friends.

The second author is Mario Bellatin who I first read about in this New York Times article. He has two books available in English, a novella called Beauty Salon, and Chinese Checkers: Three Fictions. Beauty Salon is one of the weirdest books I've ever read. It would probably take more time for me to describe it than for you to just read it. The basic plot is that, in the presence of a mysterious plague, the proprietor of a beauty salon turns his salon into a hospice home of sorts; and he keeps an aquarium of fish. In some ways he is like the wonderful and maddening Russian surrealist Daniil Kharms, in others, he embodies Bolano's simmering mystery, and in others he is a completely unique writer.

Hopefully, the momentum Bolano generated will bring more works by these great writers into America.

November's Features SciFi/Fantasy Author

An English writer with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford, Susanna Clarke won worldwide renown with her debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, winner of the World Fantasy Award.

Both her novel and her short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, are set in an alternate 19th century England rediscovering its forgotten history of magic. Written in a Dickensian style, these books feature historical figures, undefinable magic both subtle and vulgar, deeply human characters and relationships, tragic twists, surprising turns, beautiful illustrations, and diverting footnotes.

J.S. & Mr. N. focuses on the sometimes stormy relationship of England's two greatest magicians: their scholarly debates, their petty disagreements, and their uniting love of magic. The Ladies of Grace Adieu focuses more on female protagonists and is a collection of stories combining English history, fairy tales, danger, and comedy. Not as daunting as Jonathan Strange, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is the perfect way to visit Clarke's England.

Clarke is reportedly at work on sequel of sorts which she says will focus on characters "a bit lower down the social scale".

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