Two for the new year … woof!

greek dogTwo novels that arrived in the mail made me think, almost instantly, of the oddest pairing:

  • Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  • Carolyn Parkhurst's Dogs of Babel.

To be honest, it's not the canine connection that made me pair these two books. It's something else: the fact that both freshen the sometimes very stuffy genre of mystery by placing clues and answers into the hands of unexpected characters: a dog in Parkhurst's book; in Haddon's, a teen on the autism spectrum.

The obvious obstacles to communication created by these situations turn up the heat … and the suspense.

Such information obstacles are also at the heart of the above-mentioned new arrivals in my mailbox: Clemens Setz's Indigo (Liveright/W.W. Norton) and Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera (Penguin Press).

Setz tells his tale using a mosaic -- a collection of reports, articles, and accounts, hearsay and ambiguous events … a style used and perfected by Pynchon, who's clearly the presiding deity of this superbly complex novel by a writer acclaimed and celebrated in his native Germany.

setz coverSetz's narrative approach is what you often find in stories of a son or daughter reconstructing the hidden corners of a dead parent's life, a parent they thought they knew. Bits and pieces gradually coalesce. But here, in Setz's handling, he deploys it to tell a story of the unexplained disappearances of children with a condition referred to as "Indigo."

Gaps and small abysses abound in this novel. It takes an enormous imaginative faculty to make sure the pieces of the mosaic cohere, something Setz deftly achieves as we follow his alter ego, also named Setz (there, you see? another Pynchonesque homage), in the search to understand what has happened to these children.

galera coverThe same kinds of obstacles to our understanding abound in Galera's novel for another reason: his narrator, an unnamed young man searching for answers to his uncle's murder in a small fishing village in a South American country (probably Brazil, which is the author's home), suffers from prosopagnosia.

Keep that one for your next Scrabble tournament. It's a condition which undermines facial recognition. A person with this condition (which Oliver Sacks, unsurprisingly, knows plenty about) can't recognize the faces of other people or, when he glances in the mirror, himself. When an author gives this condition to a character on a detective's mission, you can see the enormous challenges to that mission …and how intriguing this is for a reader who doesn't have to negotiate the same identity hurdles in his or her daily life.


What I offer, my beloved friends, along with the usual recommendation to read each of these books, is that each also offers provocations and stimulations for your own writing projects.  The undermining of a conventional narrative, especially in Galera's hands, raises the concept of an unreliable narrator to the Nth degree … and all of it should make for some fresh, and refreshing, grist in your own fiction mill.

Keep on with your work, and ever upward.

P.S. Dante's salty bread

Credit: Fastily While a Kirkus Review item on Prue Shaw's Dante book praises Shaw for showing us the genius of Dante's work, there's something else I'd like to mention -- more of an aside than anything else -- that is just as worthy as her assessment of that mighty poem.

The poet's biography, embedded in the lines.

Not the major elements of his biography -- not his encounters with actual friends and family members, enough's said about that -- I'm thinking more of stray, little bits that dramatically illustrate his own circumstances.

One is especially moving to me, my friends. Maybe it will be to you, too.

In Paradiso, canto 17, Dante speaks of his exile from Florence. Following a gorgeously-stunning line that I can't help but think inspired Cavafy -- Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta/piu caramente... ("You leave behind everything that you love most dearly"), he continues:

Tu proverai si come sa di sale lo pane altrui, e come e duro calle lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

("You will know how salty is the taste of another's bread, and how demanding a road it is to climb up and down another's stairs")

There's the real cost of being exiled -- the realization that one is lost comes with every bite of food and every movement through another's house. (I'm sure that anyone who's ever  had to sleep on a friend's couch for a few weeks  can appreciate this sentiment.)

Shaw is oh-so wise to include it. Yet another way to remind us of the poet's circumstances.



Second only to Paris ... 700 years ago, that is

Florentine sunset: courtesy of Well, we wouldn't have Shakespeare's sonnets if plague hadn't closed all the London theaters; we wouldn't have Henry James' novels (a mixed blessing) if he'd struck gold as a playwright; and we definitely wouldn't have Dante's "Comedy" if the poet hadn't been driven out of Florence.

In other words, misfortune's often been the handmaiden to great art.

That last example is taken from Prue Shaw, whose recent book "Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity" (Liveright/W.W. Norton) achieves what seemed impossible -- to provide a fresh assessment of the poet and his poem for modern readers.

Why impossible?

It's not hard to understand, my friends. Go to the "D" shelf in your local university library. Or do a quick Google search. You'll find that Dante's poem is encased -- entombed (like Farinata in circle 6 of Hell) -- within layers of critical commentary (both scholarly and mainstream) . It seems that everything that could be said about the poem has been said about it.

And besides that, most of us cling to some snobby presumption about Dante that sounds like this:

"Devils and circles, a big terraced mountain and a damsel, and heaven at the end of it ... what else is there to know?"

What would Dante think of such a response? There's a Dore engraving that, I think, says it all:


He definitely didn't suffer fools. A pretty intimidating image.

And for those intimidated by the poem itself, the great mediator lately has been thriller-king Dan Brown, whose latest psychopath in the Robert Langdon series is a lover of "Inferno" (ok, so what does that say about the rest of his fans?).

ReadingDante_978-0-87140-742-9-1Shaw's the one, though, who really deserves the honor of being mediatrix, not Brown -- her book makes a compelling, poignant  case for why we should really care about this epic  composed some 700 years ago.

Why? Because it is easy to forget the ingenious, intricate structuring of the tripartite poem, the scathing political commentary, and the risks that Dante took -- which is why Shaw spends the first half of  her book on vivid descriptions of 13th century Florence's socio-political landscape. Today, she's a picturesque tour stop; in Dante's day, Florence was far more, "a huge metropolis in medieval terms. Only Venice and Milan equalled Florence in size; only Paris was larger."

When it comes to Dante, historical context is easily lost. But Shaw deftly sets his struggles against a tumultuous world and a corrupt pope (Boniface VIII) in terms that we can all easily understand:

Dante is as "engaged" a political writer as there has ever been, and as brave a one. A modern parallel would be Russian writers exiled under Stalin for speaking out: Osip Mandelstam comes to mind.

Dante as political dissident -- this is the sort of revelation that cracks away at all of the scholarship that's hardened over the poem through time.

There are plenty of other examples, like the "literary shoptalk" between Virgil and Statius which causes Dante to say of himself, "I listened to their talk, which gave me insight into writing poetry."

Or this bit about why, from a practical standpoint, Dante may have chosen to write in terza rima:

Medieval scribes often took liberties with the texts they copied. They cut bits they didn't like, added lines of their own, rather as a musician might treat a score as a basis for skilled improvisation. There is a whole scholarly industry devoted to scribal rewordings of the Roman de la Rose. Given the controversial nature of some of Dante's material, scribes might well have been tempted to censor the text by cutting awkward passages. But this is virtually impossible with the terza rims. Any cut will leave a text which is obviously botched. Any attempt to add material is likewise doomed to failure.

What Shaw accomplishes with passages like these is to inject blood back into the poet: He was human. He struggled as a writer, and he anticipated the meddling of editors by making his poem a bit harder to edit.

Scholar extraordinaire: Prue Shaw (photo by Cordelia Beresford)

(In this she is very much like "The Swerve's" Stephen Greenblatt, who is also published by W.W. Norton and who yours truly heard speak not long ago.)

My friends, I could easily go on, but then I'd have a 5,000-word blog post, which sort of defeats the purpose of a blog. If you've perused Call of the Siren before, I'm sure you know how much I adore Dante. But instead, I'll humbly point the way ahead to paradise, like Virgil did for the poet, and ask you to explore the riches of Shaw's book for yourself. Ciao, amici.





Return of a Roth ... necessary reading ... rest, Peter

Of the Roth triumvirate (Philip, Joseph, and Henry), Henry usually gets overshadowed by the other two. After all, how can a maker of bildungsroman tales compete with portraits of a failing empire or the romantic uses of a piece of liver?

henry rothWell, the work of Henry Roth -- lyric chronicler of childhood in Call It Sleep -- will have yet another chance to snag more readers nearly twenty years after his death in 1995.

The top editor at W.W. Norton tells me that a single-volume version of Roth's epic, Mercy of a Rude Stream -- published as four books, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, From Bondage, and Requiem for Harlem -- is coming soon under one cover.

I can't say if this will be an edited, reimagined work in the same way that Peter Mathiessen retold his Watson trilogy as one book, Shadow Country, or Nicholas Delbanco revised and amplified his New England trilogy into Sherbrookes .... but let's just say that any opportunity to read Roth with fresh eyes and see his name (hopefully) prominently displayed in your local bookstore is welcome news.


Lijia Zhang offers some terrific commentary and posts from her blog perch in China on her eponymous blog, which sports the nice subtitle: "Socialism is still great." If you're contemplating writing a book of history and you want an unusual angle, you might check out Nicholas Griffin's Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History BEhind the Game that Changed the World, which Lijia has recently reviewed.

How about political and cultural life in France? My friend and scrivener par excellence Kai Maristed sends dispatches from Paris in her Pointe DeVue: Paris that are worth a follow, an RSS feed, google get the idea. Though her most recent items offer the perfect overview of political scandals and the municipal elections that rebuffed a lazy, presumptuous Socialist Party in that country, my eye was drawn to "The President, the First Lady, and the #2 Mistress with the Mona Lisa Smile." How could it not? I'm sure yours will be too. (Just terrific, Kai!)


Rest in peace, Peter Mathiessen. There's so much and so little to say. Leave that to the newspapers. Thank you, simply, for your own work and for championing the work of others. I hope this day finds you, like the title of your last novel...



... "In Paradise."


On Writing Strong Female Characters (at Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks)

On the great, bad poetry of William McGonagall (at A University Blog)

Maester Class: HBO's Game of Thrones is Back (at Grantland)

You didn't get rid of that book, did you?

Happy feet: These nymphs are almost as joyful as I am about "The Dancing Goddesses" (photo: detail from book cover) Yes, I nearly did.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber's The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance (W.W. Norton) almost escaped my home. It wasn't any fault on the book's part--on mine.

Have you done this before? I hadn't picked it up since it was published early last year, and as I went about some early spring cleaning last week, I decided to give it to the library. Since I couldn't give it the attention it deserved, I thought, maybe a library could. 

What a mistake that would have been.

A drawing peeked out from its pages — an ancient tureen inscribed with figures from Ukraine — as I was moving it to my giveaway bag, and I stopped. Before I knew it, I was deep in its pages, finding some new inspiration for my novel at just the right time.

Can't imagine what I might've lost if I hadn't noticed that image.

I'm sure that has happened to many of you, my friends.

Wayland Barber's book is a revelation. It is a survey of folk mythologies (mostly

Slavic) that's very idiosyncratic — in the way that James Frazer's Golden Bough is idiosyncratic, or Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. There's an exuberance and a tone here that's undeniably personal, even at its most authoritative moments, such as this one where she refers to the effect of certain spirits or "willies" (from vily; as in "that horror movie gives me a case of the willies"):

With a final push to the crops at Midsummer, the willies have now finished their work: the grain and hay have grown and ripened and await harvesting. All that remains is to reap what the Dancing Goddesses have created. Cohorts of young people go out all day to mow the hay, all the while chanting slow, rhythmic, antiphonal songs to time the long swings of the sharp scythes, until the movement becomes almost a dance and the sound dulls the senses of time and fatigue....

Isn't that lovely?

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 4.42.34 PMIn considering the connections between dance traditions and fertility beliefs and customs, this professor emerita from Occidental College ranges across fields in search of flowers with supernatural meanings. She looks down into the surfaces of rivers and streams to see what water sprites might be gazing back. Sometimes she sees something.

It's a marvelous book with a style that is easy and accessible, but hardly easy to imitate. And I might've lost it, and lost the inspiration. A new declaration: no more spring cleanings!

W.W. Norton has produced yet another exemplary volume that sheds light on our common, mythic heritage. Coming soon to this blog:  more offerings from Norton that are worth your while. They're definitely worth mine, too.

P.S. Wayland Barber's book also made me unexpectedly heartsick over Ukraine. The old folk tales and practices that she records reminded this reader of the region's vibrant, deep customs — enduring, one hopes, in spite of all the current troubles.