Monday, May 31, 2010

An Argument for the Novella

On Sunday, I read two novellas--Miguel de Cervantes's The Dialogue of the Dogs and Marcel Proust's The Lemoine Affair--and although neither is the most cinematic of pieces, the novella seems to offer something that neither the short story nor the novel does.

During the past few years, I've noticed an increase in the volume of novella-length works disguising themselves as novels. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach stands as one example, as does any of Philip Roth's most recent novels. Usually, this is a widely-ignored form, since it stands at an awkward middle ground between the short story and the novel. Also, there are production costs involved: It costs a lot less to produce and print a 250-page collection of stories or a 300+ page novel than it does for a single work that runs in the neighborhood of 150 pages or less.

So why should we bother with the novella? I consider pieces that can be read in a single long sitting--think the equivalent of a movie, so between an hour to three hours--to be novellas. At this length, the novella can have the immediacy of a movie while aspiring to the brevity of a short story. And it's likely that the novella is a better fit for readers on the go than the long novel: The physical thing doesn't have the bulk of a novel, and even in an electronic format, it's something that you could finish on a commute or two via public transportation.

Or if you're thinking of before-you-go-to-bed reading, a novella won't leave you at the point where you've been slogging through chapter after chapter for months, only to realize that you no longer recall what happened three hundred pages ago.

On this note, here's the economic argument: A new release DVD, I've noticed, generally costs around $25-30, more for BluRay. The price eventually whittles down to about $10 to $15. Say that's about three hours in length, so you're spending about $8 to $10 per hour of entertainment when it's new, less as it's been out on the market for a while. And the replay value is infinite, or you can take it to a used-movie shop and get store credit or a new movie if you didn't enjoy it. The same thing applies to novellas, and it's the same cost breakdown for the same amount of time (and the trade-in argument here applies to used bookstores!). A novella such as On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan retailed at around $25 in hardcover, then about $15 in paperback.
Think of the novella as the literary equivalent of the movie. It has to be short and direct, but also expansive. And the form isn't as obscure as we might think. A number of great, classic works--not just Cervantes's Dialogue or Proust's Lemoine Affair--are generally considered novellas: Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

As a little (and inexpensive) taste of what novellas have to offer, I suggest you check out two series of books produced by Melville House Publishing: The Contemporary Art of the Novella series and also their series of classic novellas, The Art of the Novella.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "The Peddler," by Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) is one of those interesting late Victorian poetesses whose life was torn between her family's attempt to keep a genteel front and the reality of financial hardship. She's an interesting figure who during her own time was seen as a pitiable, pathetic figure, but the rhythm of her lines--as well as her willingness to use long lines and break with traditional forms--adds a radical element to her poetry that has not until relatively recently been recognized.

So look her up, have a read, and enjoy the poem.

"The Peddler," by Charlotte Mew

Lend me a while the key
That locks your heavy heart, and I'll give you back--
Rarer than books and ribbons and beads bright to see
This Key of Dreams out of my pack.

The road, the road, beyond men's bolted doors,
There shall I walk and you go free of me,
For yours lies North across the moors,
And mine South. To what seas?

How if we stopped and let our solemn selves go by,
While my gay ghost caught and kissed yours, as ghosts don't do,
And by the wayside, this forgotten you and I
Sat, and were twenty-two?

Give me the key that locks your tired eyes,
And I will lend you this one from my pack,
Brighter than coloured beads and painted books that make men wise:
Take it. No, give it back!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Current Projects

Wow...have I been bad at keeping up on this. Anyway, I'm currently at work on a number of projects. A few review essays, lots of reading, some revisions, and trying to get a good system in place for working through the summer.

Today's query: I have a free Netflix offer. Do you all like Friday Film Reviews enough to warrant me looking into Netflix and starting to watch more non-Doctor Who related television programs or films? Let me know.

Also, the third book in Swedish-sensation (who'd ever expect to hear that without it being related to the Muppets?) Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy comes out on 25 May. I have a copy pre-ordered (along with more Second Doctor-era Doctor Who, guilty pleasure), so expect a comment on the series soon. I've read the first two--they're fun, at the very least--and I'm looking forward to enjoying the third and final installment.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "To Sleep," by Henri Cole

Recently, I had poet Henri Cole's sixth book, Blackbird and Wolf, recommended to me, so I've been giving that a read over the past few days. Cole's poetry uses an interesting mix of imagery, sensation, and autobiography, and his poems tend to investigate the human experience while trying to understand the lives of other people and animals.

"To Sleep"
Then out of the darkness leapt a bare hand
that stroked my brow, "Come a long, child:
stretch out your feet under the blanket.
Darkness will give you back, unremembering.
Do not be afraid." So I put down my book
and pushed like a finger through sheer silk,
the autobiographical part of me, the am,
snatched up to a different place, where I was
no longer my body but something more--
the compulsive, disorderly parts of me
in a state of equalization, everything sliding off:
war, suicide, love, poverty--as the rebellious,
mortal I, I, I lay, like a beetle irrigating a rose,
my red thoughts in a red shade all I was.

Blackbird and Wolf available from Barnes & Noble in hardcover and paperback.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Public Anonymity

I've just read Steven Millhauser's novella Enchanted Night, in which a handful of characters, all of whom are awake during the course of a single evening, cross paths and narratives, without knowing much about the others. It's a bit like Midsummer Night's Dream, in that there are appearances from goddesses and satyrs in highly poeticized moments, and there are instances when dolls come to life, when a mannequin comes to life, and humans and inanimate objects interact.

Enchanted Night--which I read on the Amazon Kindle--strikes me as putting in words the dilemma of city living. Millhauser writes in Enchanted Night, "Because when you are known, then you lose yourself, but when you are hidden, then you are free."

Living in a crowded, public setting--one in which you brush elbows with people on a daily basis yet continue to know nothing about them--seems the answer to the question of how to maintain your own personality while still fulfilling the minimum requirements of the human need for socialization.

Or does it? The notion of the individual in the city isn't unique to Millhauser's novella, and it's certainly not new to contemporary fiction. The city figures this way in the fiction of James Joyce, where characters cross paths and lives for a moment, although they remain distanced from each other psychologically and emotionally.

And this sort of living actually turns out to be incredibly lonely, incredibly suffocating. In Millhauser's book, one character--a woman who lives alone--ends the long night by entertaining a group of young girls who rob houses by night. She serves the girls lemonade, coaxes them to stay, and does not ask them to remove their black masks that conceal their identities. And this woman who lives alone thinks that she's clever, with how she plays hostess to these girls and learns their nighttime names, and she believes that she has kept herself safe from any interpretation because she doesn't allow the girls to pry into her life.

If this is freedom, though, it's an incredibly restricting kind, and it's not the woman living alone who has any sort of livelihood. She traps herself within her house, closes herself away from that sort of public anonymity, while this gang of girls gets itself in newspapers and lives out a sort of vigilante existence. Aside from their discount superhero names (such as "Summer Storm"), the girls have other lives--as daughters, students, friends--and so there remains something unknown about them.

It's this private-concealed-in-public that I find interesting about characters in Joyce's works, and for Millhauser--though the novella has its moments of inconsistency--night in a city works much the same way, as the narrative winds through these characters lives and, through glances and shadows, covers and reveals.

And watch those girl gangs. They can be dangerous.

Friday, May 14, 2010

We'll be back after these brief messages

Been a busy few days--driving around, meeting plenty of folks, and getting a bit over-excited when the bound copies of my MA thesis arrived in the mail. So things have been a bit hectic, but we'll be back Monday with a proper post! Enjoy Wednesday's Walt Whitman poem!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: I Hear America Singing, by Walt Whitman

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon
intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or
washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Have a Mac? Catalogue Everything You Own

And I mean quite literally everything.

On Saturday, I was introduced to a marvelous program that's only for Macs. (So everybody who tries to bring Macs down by saying that programs only exist for the PC...well, you chaps are just dead wrong.) This program, the Delicious Library, allows you to hold the UPC code of any item you own up to your iSight camera built into your Mac. The program scans the barcode and then searches the Internet. (Read as: to use the search and look-up function, thou requireth a connection to the Interwebs.) Voila! A database of books, movies, CDs, video games, etc. made with nary a word typed.

There's the option of purchasing a little scanner gun for upwards of $200, but I don't think it's all that difficult to just hold a book in front of my Mac. The program costs $40 on its own, and that's a fantastic deal by itself. The scanner gun looks cool, but the pragmatist in me is wary of purchasing a little gizmo that's only going to be useful for Delicious Library--especially at such a pinch to the wallet.

Also, the Delicious Library has a feature that allows you to "publish" your library listing to the web or to upload the library database to an ftp sight--an ideal way of allowing friends and family know that you already Deep Impact and that--by the 1-star rating you gave it--you have neither the need nor the inclination to own another copy. Except as a very expensive coaster to protect the woodwork of your coffee table. That's a good use for Deep Impact.

Right, going on. For items without barcodes, you can still search or enter by hand. I have a lot of old books, and was able to even find those. But on the barcodes--I must offer a warning. Be careful with mass market paperbacks. Not a single one that I entered came up with the item it should have. I got smutty romances, books on toilet training babies, and occasionally some educational software. These three things do not compete.

The solution? Just search manually by ISBN. No way to fool that, unless you mistype the number.

In the end, for Mac owners, the Delicious Library is a fast and easy way to archive your stuff. And for those of you who aren't running out and buying Delicious Library, stop off at the Mac store on your way home from work, buy a Mac. It'll correct 74.253% of the world's problems. Because it's a Mac.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: Sonnet #63, by William Shakespeare

The Bard needs no introduction.

Sonnet #63
Against my love shall be, as I am now,
With Time's injurious hand crush'd and o'er-worn;
When hours have drain'd his blood and fill'd his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travell'd on to age's steepy night,
And all those beauties whereof now he's king
Are vanishing or vanish'd out of sight,
Stealing away the treasure of his spring;
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age's cruel knife,
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love's beauty, though my lover's life:
His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
And they shall live, and he in them still green.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Don't Shy Away When the Bookbug Bites

So why read. It's a question that I've seen flung around time and again, and particularly--especially in the stodgy academic circles--this has become a question meant to test the resolve, the necessity, of the book.

There are simple answers to "Why read?," which include that the Internet--even with its bevy of webcomics (to which I'm admittedly addicted), YouTube (see comment the previous), and other visual media (Google image search!)--is nonetheless based on words, code, language, and all that stuff. We haven't got to what the Beat novelist William Burroughs had expected: a visual society. You can't think of an image of Big Ben and then have that appear in your image search or as a YouTube video. You have to type "Big Ben" in a search bar and strike enter. (Or click on the "Search" button, but who actually takes the time to drag the mouse point and click--with the notable exception of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail. But it was the '90s. They can be forgiven.)

Words, then, are everywhere, and we're flooded with them. And it's easy to get desensitized in this ocean of language, where things are minimized to quick factoids and reports. So the book...who wants to read after a long day of spending time with words, words, and more words? Why aren't we all singing in time with Eliza Doolittle: "Words, words, I'm sick of words!"?

There's something about books that remind us of what it is to be human. To share something. To connect. And all this talk of the book as just a repository for about as a medium for communicating? I recently came across this NYTimes interview with Charlaine Harris, the author of the book series ported into HBO's True Blood. And some of her answers to the interviewer's questions reminded me of precisely why we read books.

Books make issues personal and connect us to other people. Read the interview, and consider Harris's comments about the sexuality of her characters. Or think about the cult sensation that shows such as True Blood have become. And how these things create conversations. Friends watch the shows and then buy the books and read the books and all the while...they're talking.

So I can't understand why people try to defend the book as some repository of knowledge, some dusty tome that's dry and tedious and dreadfully, dreadfully dull and droll. Let's talk about something that Charlaine Harris apparently knows, that books--regardless of genre, regardless of how intricate or beautifully written--should first and foremost bring people together.

In the words of Stan Lee, "'Nuff said."