Tag Archives: fiction

book fair blues

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This week was the first time I ever went to the book fair and came away without buying a single book. There are some annual experiences that engender a sense of permanence. But going to the book fair these days is a bit like Grandpa’s birthday. There is always the thought that it may be the last. Here in Jerusalem we have a strong attachment to books, so it took me a while to realize that something was amiss. The signs were there. The crowds seemed thinner lately. And this year there seemed to be less young adults. Children and old folks are still interested.

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With the average book costing around 70 shekels normally, there were some fantastic deals offered; 4 books for a hundred shekels. 3 books for a 100. There was one published who offered 1 + 1; you buy a book, and you get another as a present. Now this should be a very tempting opportunity. But it means that if you want to take advantage of the 4 book deal, you have to find 4 books produced by the same publisher that you would like to read.

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This was no small challenge for me. I’ve been reading book reviews of new books for the last three weeks so I’d be prepared for the fair, and even so, I didn’t have a list of books I wanted to find. In the old days, I didn’t have to make a list. Yes, I had a better memory then, but what was more important, if I saw a book I hadn’t read, on a subject that interested me, I would buy without hesitation and read with glee. But there’ve been some changes since then.

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Sometimes the name of the book has been changed without thought for the innocent. For instance, that old classic, ‘I Went To China’ is now called, ‘A Drop in the Bucket’ and bears the subtitle, ‘how a Jewish Intellectual tried to tickle the armpit of a sleeping giant’, with a beautiful cover showing an abstract photoshopped collage of far eastern headwear. The cookbooks that were once so popular are no longer in the central display. It turns out that any food you want to prepare can be found instantly on the internet with alternate recipes for gluten free diets or kosher as you wish.

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But that isn’t the only problem. I’ve always enjoyed a good novel, but nowadays novels start with the hero lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak or to move his arms and legs, with a series of pipes and electric cables attached to some life-saving device, and though no one can guess that he has more presence of mind than a turnip, he can hear what his visitors are saying. And so he listens to them discussing the challenge of finding available parking as near as possible to the hospital. And then, just when you’re hoping that some mischievous grandchild will pull the plug, the narrative begins pulling you back and forth along a zigzag route of flashbacks and forwards that leave you dizzy by the time you want to go to the kitchen and get a snack. It is hopeless trying to figure out how the plot will be resolved or who the villain or the hero is, because there are no heroes nor are there villains. It turns out that they all suffered from unhappy childhoods and have since vacillated between ADHD and the acdc gender disposition.

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If you, like me, have a fondness for history, there are a number of new volumes on the display table each year. These fall into two major categories:
1) the historiographic, which critically examines flotsam after the deluge in order to synthesize the particulars into a narrative that will uphold the agenda of the day; or
2) demythification, in which the author will tell the story exactly as it would have happened if we were living in an alternative reality in which the Nazis won in Europe, and the Indians in America, after which Marxist literature became viral, coming out of Rio de Janeiro. The two Americas unite, and live happily ever after in an ideal egalitarian state that provides people who have low self-esteem with life-long compensation because love is what matters.

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And I have to mention that the very nicest people in our town are managing the book stalls, and you’re acquainted with about 30% of those over 40. Not to speak of the real live authors scattered among the book sellers to personally sign their works for the reading public. Think about it, what a terribly anti-social disgrace it would be, to come to the book fair and not buy a book… or four.

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To make the experience all the more enticing, this exhibition takes place right at the edge of the old train station, which has become an entertainment compound featuring bars and eateries, a small railroad museum, a series of stalls selling handicrafts, and stands selling popcorn and cotton candy for the children and the nostalgic. So I visited a few book stalls, talked to a few people, tried to find four books, three books even two books that I really wanted to read and didn’t have in my own library. There was one book that I thought might be interesting, but it seemed such a provocation to buy a book at full price when they were offering all these deals that I preferred to wait till my next visit at the local bookstore.

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Noga and I did our best to retreat unobserved from the book fair to Restaurant Row. where we managed to get outdoor seating at the Asian Eatery. That’s right, the old Chinese restaurant I loved has gone out of business, and I don’t eat sushi because I worry that the raw fish might come back to life and swim away from my plate. The Asian Eatery offers selected highlights from any country east of Israel, and actually, we had a tasty dinner to conclude our adventure.

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contemporary literature part 2

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To continue our discussion on books, I was looking for contemporary fiction which would speak of the existential issues of mankind, of the aspirations of the young generation today, of the influence of technology on the life style and the mentality of contemporary society, and of the eternal questions as they are reflected in this generation. I have to add that in recent years, I have become aware of the ‘post modern’ influence on the arts, and usually I have not been comfortable with that style. I don’t wish to explore the depths of that philosophical point of view in this post. It deserves a post of its own. But I will mention two prominent characteristics of the post modern viewpoint. The narrative often embraces paradox and irony, and there is a general belief that two or more contrary ‘truths’ can exist together.

Saturday

About a year ago, I discovered Ian McEwan, and read ‘Saturday’ and ‘Amsterdam’ by him. My impression was that he has a beautiful language, and is a writer of classic gifts. Then I began to read his ‘Black Dogs’, and was unable to continue to the end. It was the first time I began to wonder whether the post modern point of view had begun to find it’s way into contemporary literature. This year I discovered Margaret Atwood, and continued to read her after purchasing a Kindle. The Kindle was bought primarily to make it easier for me to purchase recent books in English, without waiting a long time for the books to be sent to me. After getting the Kindle, I discovered T.C. Boyle and Richard Ford. I feel that I’m beginning to learn the nature of the fine writing of this generation.

Robber Bride

Sometimes it takes a while to acclimate to a different culture. I didn’t expect the new literature in the west to express my viewpoint, or to be concerned with the issues that most concerned me. I’m an Israeli, steeped in the Jewish culture, and also an old man. I am aware that society has moved forward, and that I haven’t kept up in many ways. But as I have mentioned on occasion, I’ve always believed that a sign of great art is that when we enjoy it, even when coming from very different circumstances than those of the artist, we feel that the artist is touching on some meaningful points of our own lives.

Cat's Eye

In reading Atwood, I enjoyed her lively imagination, and her beautiful poetic prose. It seemed that she was a vehement critic of certain failures of society, especially in relation to woman’s place in society. But I was also dismayed by a prevalent sense of alienation in her writing, the pessimism, and the almost constant sadness. I read three of her dystopian volumes. I believe that she has some very important things to say. But at the same time, there is a sadness and a helpless attitude in her writing that is very discouraging. ‘Cat’s Eye’ was a masterpiece. But it was fatalistic, unhappy. And it’s major character was alienated throughout her life, and unable to enjoy love or a healthy union with a partner. Worst of all, I had the impression that her characters found it hard to make life changing decisions. ‘The Robber Bride’ was another fine book of hers that I read. And here too, I felt that choice had been overcome by fatalism.

The Women

I discovered T.C. Boyle a couple of months ago. I have read two of his books, and have already bought a third. The first I read was ‘The Women’. It tells the story of the women in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. I was familiar with Wright’s work, and had even read some of his writing. I felt that I knew a little bit about this great American architect. I didn’t know much about his personal life. When reading the book, it seemed a bit like reading about the life of a celebrity. I believe the story was built on a skeleton of relevant facts. And it was very interesting to get a lot of information on his private life, and be able to see him from a different perspective. But I felt that someone who was unfamiliar with the work of the man, would have gotten a very mistaken impression of what his life was all about. For each of us has good characteristics and bad. And by ignoring all his good points, the man seemed like a megalomanic donkey. In reading some of the reviews after having read the book, I encountered such opinions. But I believe that the portrait was twisted and warped.

Independence Day

The fourth contemporary writer that I encountered was Richard Ford. His name turned up in a review of another book which I decided not to read. But from what I did read about Ford, I thought that he might be a good example of a prime author of this 21st century. I chose to read his book, ‘Independence Day’ first, because it had received two prestigious awards. It was very well written. There was both subtlety and depth in the drawing of the characters, and a psychological understanding of the forces at play, between the lines of the narrative. But the hero of the story was in fact an anti-hero. This was a man who avoided commitment at all cost. He was unable to love, and had great difficulty parenting his children. Like other characters I had met in recent reading, he seemed a sort of helpless loser who was pushed and dragged through life by fate. He spoke of ‘existence’ as being enough for him. There seemed no drive to achieve something that was greater than himself. It wasn’t only that he was devoid of any great aspirations. He seemed unaware of anything greater or more important than banal human affairs.

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And so my friends, I would like to ask you who are more involved in the English language culture than I am… is this all there is? Are there other new authors out there who give us a spark of hope? Is there a more balanced approach to the affairs of man? Or is this the spirit of the times today. I know that sadness is as much a part of life as happiness. But are books today offering just the sorrow of life? I have received some recommendation for new reading in response to the first part of this article. I haven’t really checked them out yet, because we are in the middle of the holiday season. But I would be very happy to receive still more recommendations, and reading material I might try. It is not that I have nothing to read. I have never run out of things to learn, and I can continue to read the wisdom of the past and to enjoy it. But I would like very much to understand the direction of today’s generation, and I was hoping to find something a little more positive. I do appreciate your comments.

contemporary fine literature

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Let me share with you, my friends, a quandary that has been occupying my thoughts in the last two months, since the purchase of my Kindle. Though I was once very fond of European and western literature, I’ve not kept up with what was happening in that area of artistic endeavor… for many years. And so, with the newly acquired ability to order books in English and have them delivered in a matter of minutes, I started my search for contemporary literature in the west.

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To understand what I was looking for, you should have an idea of my taste in reading material. I won’t speak of the subjects that I have been following in my own language, sometimes in translation. For I have an interest in history, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as the physical sciences. But what I haven’t been reading for years, is contemporary fiction and poetry. And that is what I wished to explore and update. In fact, even describing this subject was a bit hard for me, because I kept thinking of ‘modern literature’, forgetting that ‘modern’ is a designation for a cultural period that has already been swept into the past.

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In my younger days, I devoured the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and quite a few of the modern European writers and Thinkers. I was especially enthusiastic about the American and English writers. I will mention just a few of my very favorite volumes and writers. Albert Camus was an all time favorite. But I especially appreciated the Stranger and The Plague. I read many of the works of Saul Bellow, but the book that stood out more than all the rest, was ‘Henderson the Rain King’, and I recommended that book to many of my friends. I would recommend it to all of my readers, if you haven’t read it. It is a truly exceptional literary adventure. I read all of John Steinbeck, and loved ‘East of Eden’ the most. Admired Earnest Hemmingway very much, and though many have read his ‘Old Man and the Sea’, and that is truly one of the great peaks of modern literature, there are some others, like ‘Moveable Feast’ that are well worth reading. One of the books I came upon almost by accident, was ‘Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes written as a short story in 1958, and later expanded into a novel. It left me with a life long impression, and is one of the reasons that even now I continuously look for new works of Science Fiction. But I regret to say, that I haven’t found much recently that has captured my attention in that field.

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Another modern science fiction book that really made an impression on me was ‘Cat’s Cradle’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. But the more I read of him, the more treasures I found, and I believe that ‘Breakfast of Champions’ is one of the great works of 20th century fiction. I especially loved the conversation between man and god. William Faulkner was a great inspiration for me. Reading his prose was like reading poetry, and it was while I read him in the original English, that I first ventured to think that I might like writing in that language. I would suggest ‘The Sound and the Fury’ to those who have not read him. And of course, the mention of this inspiration brings to mind Joseph Conrad, who wrote in English though his own language was Polish, and is surely an inspiration for all those who have learned to love English as a second language.

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Discovering Jack Kerouac lead me to the Beat Generation and a treasure trove of fine writing after WWII. I could write at length about what I found there, but this post has a different purpose. Yet, in that connection (and again, I can’t tell the whole story here), I would like to mention still another great book, which came out late for me, but which I managed to read, and I treasure it to this day; ‘Straight Life’, the autobiography by Art Pepper, that great saxophone player and composer, whose music I love and listen to, often. And I can’t forget the important contribution of Norman Mailer to the public discussion of values and the meaning of life, even if he was not always at his best, and embarrassed himself by his actions on more than one occasion. Still I consider ‘Advertisements for Myself’ a beautiful example of the aspirations of some of the finest intellectuals in the west after WWII.

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Though I have a special love for thinkers, and writers who are influenced by philosophy, I do like adventure and amusement, and spent many enjoyable hours reading Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. Their writing offered a penetrating view of the society around them, even while entertaining the reader and offering an escape from some of the more dismal realities of their times. Such writers were a balance to such as Aldous Huxley and Arthur Koestler, two of my favorites… who continuously grappled with the possibilities of further expanding the awareness of man, and coming to terms with meaning in life. And here I might mention that Koestler too adopted English as a second language.

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So this gives you an idea of what I look for and what I have found valuable in reading western authors. It is just a partial list, but it represents my taste. And I was sure that if I went looking for contemporary authors, I would discover like minds among the present generation. In the last few months, I have found three very interesting authors, and I am presently reading their works. I have read four volumes by Margaret Atwood, two books by T.C. Boyle, and am presently reading ‘Independence Day’ by Richard Ford. I realize that this post is getting long as it is, without a discussion of these writers as compared to my expectations. Perhaps I will have to write a ‘part 2’ to this post, for further discussion. But let me just say, that I hope to find inspiration in my reading. I believe in human choices, and believe that even when criticizing the wrongs of society, and our own failures as human beings, it’s equally important to be constantly on the look out for what can nurture our own potential, and that of our fellow man.