Show us your shelves! Plus: Coming soon and Iain Banks

SHOW US YOUR SHELVES: A picture's worth a thousand words, and a bookshelf is probably worth even more. That's why Jilanne Hoffmann's blog and mine will be featuring  pics of our bookshelves this Saturday for your viewing pleasure. Think of it as the WordPress version of a Marvel team-up: And you're invited to join us! When you see our posts this weekend, drop a comment that will direct us to your own bookshelves. We want to spend some time as virtual loiterers in your library. What's the reason for doing this? Simple. When you go to a party at someone's house, aren't you tempted to spy what books are on their shelves? It's a hard temptation to fight. Look, even the Madonna seems a little distracted by the bookshelf in this painting:

"The Annunciation," Sebastiano Mainardi, late 15th century

COMING SOON: More from translator Andrew Frisardi about the nuts and bolts of translating Dante's "Vita Nova." Part 1 of the interview ran earlier this week; Part 2 is slated to appear ... tomorrow.

IAIN BANKS: There's nothing for me to say. It's all been said already. Earlier this week, brilliant novelist Iain Banks died mere months after announcing that he had terminal gall bladder cancer. Even though we knew it was coming, it was still a shock. It always is. Ken MacLeod offered a nice tribute in the pages of The Guardian to the singular Banks. Ave atque vale.

Reviews of Dan Brown's latest ... ugh

Il Miglior Fabbro in a pensive mood (perhaps thinking about books and book reviewers): portrait by Agnolo Bronzino

Another Dan Brown novel, another pack of smug reviews.

Here’s my confession:  I’m already sick of the reviews of Brown’s "Inferno," and the book only pubbed a day ago. Reviewers say that Brown doesn’t do anything new in his latest, but here’s the thing: neither do they.

The criticisms are predictable; the angles are all the same. "How can he write such drivel?” they say, wringing their hands. At this point, after four books, attacking Brown's prose style or story line is unimaginative and tiresome -- like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

If they can do better than Brown, then they should give it a try. Please. That’s what’s changed for me, my friends. As I've worked with historical material and puzzles in a book of my own,  I’ve come to appreciate Brown even if I wouldn’t make the same narrative choices.

Every reviewer, in fact, should try to write a novel or a story before offering to review one. That doesn't mean that you'll become an instant cheerleader. But at least you'll have a broader perspective ... and maybe you'll avoid carpal tunnel syndrome from all that hand-wringing. Writing  is an extraordinarily humbling, powerful journey.


Good: New York Times (keeps perspective on the story, and the thriller genre):

Decent: The Globe and Mail (it starts off like all the rest, and then changes) New York Daily News:

Eye-rollers The Standard: Clives James in USA Today:

Praise (with an extreme back of the hand) The Telegraph:

Completely lame: The Guardian (imitating Brown’s writing)

Mea culpa: I’m no innocent bystander. I was once guilty of this sort of holier-than-thou reviewing too,0,5481048.story (blech)

Banking on Banks

Cancer's a thief. It's not a stealthy one, though. In most cases, it doesn't sneak in and out of a window while the owners of the house snore in their beds. It's more like a robber with an extreme taste for vandalism -- it robs you of loved ones and leaves wreckage behind. Still, many artists have put a brave face on this condition (I'm sure there's a more substantial post here somewhere ... for another time). I'm reminded of a beautiful beautiful beautiful poem (it's clear that I think it's beautiful, right?) by Stanley Plumly, "Cancer," that mythologizes it:

Mine, I know, started at a distance five hundred and twenty light-years away and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth, yesterday, at birth, or that time when I was ten lying on my back looking up at the cluster called the Beehive or by its other name in the constellation Cancer, the Crab...

The poem is found in "Orphan Hours: Poems," published by W.W. Norton & Company. At $25.95 it's a steal -- worth every penny.

Iain Banks in 2005 (credit: Szymon Sokol)

And, at the other end of that noble spectrum, there's Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who just announced a terminal diagnosis of gall bladder cancer on his website. The Guardian provides the full story.

Where Plumly is glorious and epic, Banks resorts to the type of black humor you find everywhere in his work, from his mysteries to his sci-fi Culture novels. What's the sentence in his unhappy announcement that knocked me over and then out? This one:

"I've withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I've asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry -- but we find ghoulish humour helps)".

I truly admire that voice. I'm sure there's fear and terror behind it, but it's still extraordinary to me that anyone receiving such serious news could muster the energy to make their readers smile a little in spite of it all. (I wish I could have carried such an attitude when my own loved ones suffered from it.)

The Guardian article does much more than announce this news, however. It also gives readers a taste of what Banks' work is all about (something else beautiful and strange? Banks' novel "The Wasp Factory") and an opportunity to read him while we still have the pleasure of including him in our company.

Val - thank you, rest in peace

Muse, benefactor, saint -- the poetry world lost Valerie Eliot this week, and it is a big loss.

A lovely piece by David Morley in the Guardian lays it all out: how "Val" proved to be the ideal spouse for T.S. Eliot, how she was enthusiastically engaged with the poetry world and an important supporter of many writers.

She was Eliot's safe haven, emotionally and psychically.  Without her, Old Possum's last eight years would have been bleak.

Without her, he'd have been stuck in a gray landscape, realm of the martyrs. He'd have been stuck, writing about broken stones and old women in vacant lots.  Or muttering to himself, as he does in "East Coker":

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,

The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed

With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness...

This moment, like so many in the "Quartets," is stunning. Powerful.  I'm just so glad that the poet didn't have to live there, in the dark, for the rest of his life. It's not worth it, even if it produces great art.

I'm glad he found a little light with his Val.