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by Rodger Jacobs

15 Jul 2010


There are collectible books—and then there’s anything published by the Library of America, the independent non-profit organization founded in 1979 that Newsweek called “the most important book-publishing project in our nation’s history.”

The goal of the Library of America (LOA) is to preserve the literary heritage of the United States by publishing and keeping permanently in print authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing, from anthologies of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches to the acid-laced sci-fi musings of Philip K. Dick, each volume beautifully designed on high quality, acid-free paper, bound in a cloth cover and sewn to lay flat when opened. (Retail volumes come in a distinctive black dust jacket that you’ve no doubt seen on bookstore shelves; subscribers receive their books in a cream-colored slipcase edition.)

by Michael Buening

4 Jun 2010


Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad is made up of short reminiscences on travel by the book’s narrator, a Belgian writer like himself. Its emotional and comic precision makes for one of his more accessible books, deriving power from its elegant slightness.

The narrator is most often traveling for literary business – a writer’s conference in Vietnam, a speech at the French Institute in Tunisia – and Toussaint uses these trips to explore the disorientations of modern globe trotting. He delights in the absurdities that result in complicated layers of nationalities and languages. At a boules contest in Corsica, the narrator’s friend Christian and his Japanese girlfriend Noriko speak to each other in Spanish since it’s “the only language they both understood” and the comic momentum of the story is punctuated by her cries of ¡santo cielo!.

by Lara Killian

18 May 2010


In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin draws out an entire novel from a few lines of Virgil’s epic the Aeneid. Virgil had only hinted at the character of Lavinia, the hero Aeneas’ second wife, in his poem and Le Guin masterfully uses this opening to portray a beautiful and spiritual world before Rome was settled.

For the first half of Lavinia, the author describes the wild landscape of southern Italy. The gods are an everyday presence, but not in the classical forms we’ve grown to know as part of Ancient Rome. Households have their own gods, housed in trees or sacred springs or in urns on the hearth. Lavinia and her father, the local king, appreciate the importance of listening to oracles and signs and feel comfortable in sacred spaces.

by John L. Murphy

30 Apr 2010


Taking its title, The Hospital for Bad Poets, from Nietzsche, this ambitious collection of short stories comes half from the exurbs, half from the innards. J.C. Hallman’s first book of fiction emerges as prickly and testy, as unsettling voices gasp out warped fables from the phantasmagorical tract homes of our dismal America. In his unsparing prose Hallman forces his reader to gaze at darkness and illusion.

I had admired his earlier nonfiction books The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe and The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World’s Oldest Game. The first applied William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to Hallman’s travels among practitioners of new religions invented during the past century. The second took him from seedy New York City chess clubs to Central Asia’s Kalmykia to federal prisons in a quest to understand the hold of the game upon its masters. Hallman’s stories expand these intellectual interests. Where popular culture blurs into social critique, as in “Ethan: A Love Story,” he makes himself at home.

These stories will disturb more than comfort. The first’s title, “The Epiphenomenon,” shows the level at which Hallman sets his tone. Ironically, it’s about an ordinary man, but one prodded and probed by a Kafkaesque Statistician and his Maestro. The narrator notes how “the soft charge of social routine conducted with strangers is the most rewarding form of intimacy the average man knows.”

by John L. Murphy

23 Apr 2010


Family ties, as a verb, here. Fog shrouds Dublin, secrets haunt their keepers, and, under John Banville’s pen, intimacy once more curdles into revenge, hatred, and murder.

Christine Falls I much preferred for its characters and mood rather than its mundane, if convoluted, plot. I favored The Silver Swan for its more exotic touches, and its elaborate focus on Quirke’s battle with the bottle. (In this and in the evocation of portside Irish cities, it reminds me of Ken Bruen’s Galway noir Jack Taylor series, on the other side of the island in our globalizing, gentrifying decade, nearly unrecognizable as sharing territory with Quirke’s domain. Still, the decay continues.)

John Banville writing as Benjamin Black enriches this third installment with meditations on mortality, night terrors, dreams gone wrong, and always the fog creeping in, staying inside after it sneaks in a door so a wisp stays like an “ectoplasm.” The tug of families and their indiscretions, the public face hiding the private sin, as in so many Irish stories, blankets this mystery.

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