Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bah humbug!

I tend to think I love Christmas but, more for myself than for you, I’m going on record right now as a newborn Scrooge. Instead of a lovely, luxurious time to lavish thoughtful gifts on loved ones, sing carols, and eat my favorite Scandinavian treats, Christmas has become time to languish at home with a stomach bug and fight and fret over the budget.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Friday, December 14, 2007

War, Trauma, and the Real in The Farther Shore

I don’t suppose I’d pick up The Farther Shore if I didn’t have to read it as an assignment, if you will, for the LitBlog Co-op. I’m glad that it crossed my desk and that the prospect of a conversation about it kicked it to the top the pile of books. It’s a moving, lovely, spare book--both fast-paced and elegant. It should be a movie: it’s exciting and violent and dramatic with a simple, straightforward story arc. At 173 pages, it clips right along.

We begin with six American soldiers, all men, working the night lookout on a rooftop in an unnamed coastal African city. Stantz, Zeller, Santiago, Fizer, Heath, and Cooper, staunch off fear and boredom as they look down over a city they don’t understand. It’s a familiar scene. It comes as much from Hemingway and Hollywood as from experience. And even the protagonist, Joshua Stantz, is a familiar type: the sensitive young man, in over his head, smarter than his sergeant and counting the days until he can go home and apply to college through the G.I. Bill.

Things go wrong fast and suddenly a few of the characters you were just trying to keep straight, flipping back to see which one is the medic or the wiseass, are not characters but corpses. We have a situation. It’s serious. And the soldiers have to improvise a plan.

The prose is so elegant and thoughtful that this very familiar structure--of soldiers cut off from the army, working their way back--seems not formulaic but classic.

For example, early in the book Stantz thinks “there were close to a million people out there, and most of them had probably just been scared out of their sleep” (5). That’s just lovely to me: in imagining the people in the city as people, Stantz immediately complicates and humanizes his own presence as an American soldier. What is he doing there?

So sick from the heat he cannot eat for most of the book, Stantz always thinks of the Somalians as people. He’s never condescending and when he fumbles, we blush with him. He asks a man who’d studied in the States if he misses the U.S. Do I miss it? The man is dismissive. Americans always want to know if we miss America, he scoffs. Stantz is hang-dog and we can feel him making a mental note for better behavior on his next encounter. (I’d bet this is an autobiographical moment.)

As I said at the beginning of this post, I started off intending to write about The Farther Shore as a war book but, truth be told, my days of reading Hemingway, Vonnegut, and Tim O’Brien are in the past. Other greats of war literature--Crane, Remarque--are shamefully untouched. I never finished Catch-22. The war book that I know best is Mrs. Dalloway and reading Matthew Eck is like reading a prequel to the shell shock she depicts there. Again and again, Stantz consciously decides not to think about something, stuffing it down, knowing that his survival depends on his not dwelling on this or that horror or bit of grotesquerie. He must continue to run, to hide, to use his wits to move forward. This for me is what makes this beautiful little novel so moving: the pain of watching someone set himself up for a long, hard recovery.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

READ THIS: Matthew Eck The Farther Shore

It's Matthew Eck week and we're doing something a little different this time at the LBC.

Rather than asking you to keep you eyes always on that site, we're posting stuff on Eck all over the whole web. It's our hope that you won't be able to read a litblog without coming upon mention of his book...

Of course, over here at Fernham, I've yet to do much to add to the general celebration. We've been felled by a range of rather dull ailments, deadlines, and tasks--mildly ill children, leading to extra loads of laundry, etc. But fear not. I hope to post on Eck before the week is out.

In the meantime, you might check out Levi's interview or Dan's review or, if you don't want to take Dan's word for it, then check out all the other reviews here.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Holiday Gift List

My friend who teaches at Hunter clued me in to this calendar on Lulu: A cool calendar to benefit scholarships for Hunter College students with cool, strange NYC photographs. 16 professors dressed up as famous literary characters in decidedly contemporary settings. Here's the product description:
What if Gulliver traveled to New York today? Would he hang out on Wall Street? Would Macbeth's witches romp in Central Park? Beautifully photographed by Ben Kelly, this calendar imagines major literary characters come to life in New York City. The photos feature English professors from Hunter College posing as characters such as Janie from "Their Eyes Were Watching God", Juliet from "Romeo and Juliet", and T.S. Eliot's "J. Alfred Prufrock," set against the vibrant backdrop of New York City.
All for only $16. A fun & unusual Christmas gift for a reader....

I'll leave it to you to guess which model is my dear friend!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

READ THIS: Matthew Eck The Farther Shore

Well, the LitBlog Co-op took a quarter off (did you miss us? did you notice?) to regroup and sharpen our mission. But we're back, in time for the winter reading rush, if there is such a thing, with a new READ THIS selection, Matthew Eck's The Farther Shore.

It's a spare and gripping war novel, by a veteran and set in an unnamed Somalia.

I was dubious at first, but the prose is so expert. It's a compelling and moving read. I'm happy to urge you to READ THIS.

There will be posts over at the LBC site and all over the blogosphere about Eck's book all next week. In the meantime, get yourself a copy so that you can participate in the discussion.

Elizabeth Hardwick, R.I.P.

Strange and fascinating to hear that this Kentucky writer's goal was "if it doesn’t sound too ridiculous — my aim was to be a New York Jewish intellectual" because, for me, I suppose one of my strange aims, since I left Seattle, since I learned who she was at some point in graduate school, has been to grow into being her.