Reading and pleasure
The two go together naturally, and always in the mood for more of both, I find myself constantly returning to books that once won me over, however long ago. But the past is just that, and living authors are what I want.
That said, my first pick revolves around James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that satisfies in every sense, so I was intrigued when I came across Kevin Birmingham’s debut The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Joyce’s Ulysses(Penguin Pr., Jun.), an exquisite account of the 15-year struggle over the book’s publication. Told in an informed and readable narrative style, this biography of a novel wends its way through historical events, beginning with June 16, 1904, the first night Joyce spent with Nora Barnacle, which serves as the genesis of Ulysses and, to use Birmingham’s words, “hovers over everything” that happened thereafter. By 1922, when Shakespeare & Co.’s Sylvia Beach finally published the first edition, Joyce had turned the literary and art world on its head, infuriated governments across continents, and penetrated readers’ consciousness in a way unprecedented.
Birmingham shows how unprepared the world was and how grueling the book’s journey to emancipation. “We take our freedoms to read and write books for granted, and I want readers to see how difficult—and how recent—the fight for literary freedom has been,” Birmingham explained in an email, continuing, “Ulysses is canonical partly because it was contraband. Its legalization made so many things possible for the writers who followed.” “The story is important,” Birmingham said, “because of the way it changed modernism and literary freedom, but the long research process is thrilling because of a thousand illuminating details—Ezra Pound’s childhood letter to Santa Claus, a radiograph of Joyce’s bad teeth, the books, maps, and upholstery in the library where Judge Woolsey read Ulysses.” For the professor of history and literature at Harvard University, what made Joyce’s epic so maddening, even to tireless supporters such as Ezra Pound, was the sense that Joyce had lost control—a development that the world would ultimately come to appreciate. It’s not necessary to have read Ulysses to enjoy Birmingham’s battle on behalf of a genius, but those who are familiar with the work will sense the pulse of Joyce, the political exploits that impacted 20th-century censorship laws, and the revolution of art that redefined the cultural and moral fabric of a time. (See an author Q&A at ow.ly/sFi6A.)
If focusing on the events surrounding one novel isn’t enough, or is too much, Michael Schmidt (poetry, Glasgow Univ., writer-in-residence, St. John’s Coll., founder and director, Carcanet Press; Lives of the Poets) offers an eclectic variety in The Novel: A Biography (Harvard Univ., May). At 1,160 pages, this hefty volume features 350 novelists from Canada, Australia, Africa, Britain, Ireland, the United States, and the Caribbean and covers 700 years of storytelling. But Schmidt does something different: while the book is arranged chronologically, the chapters are theme-based (e.g., “The Human Comedy,” “Teller and Tale,” “Sex and Sensibility”) and follow no specific outline, blending author biographies, interviews, reviews, and criticism into fluid narratives. Schmidt’s discussion of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre not only offers an understanding of the Gothic Romance genre but also reveals lesser-known facts about Brontë’s life. In this way, Schmidt fulfills Brontë’s wish to be judged “as an author not as a woman.” This is a compelling edition for writers and other readers alike; a portrayal that is aligned with Edwin Muir’s belief that the “only thing which can tell us about the novel is the novel.”—Annalisa Pesek
From A World of New Titles: Editor’s Picks | BEA 2013, Annalisa Pesek’s picks from this year’s Book Expo America.
One book at a time
The book review editor’s work is a balancing act: keep up with the imagination and stay up on the facts. So in a way, BEA is a chance for editors to rest—at least the imagination has less to consider—and the aisles aren’t so different from those in the LJ bookroom. We meet humans instead of emails and see publishers show off in their branded booths. Mostly, BEA is about introductions to books and people.
It’s impossible to say when I was first introduced to W.H. Auden (1907–73), but the influence of his poetry reached me again when I took home the galley of the new Princeton critical edition of Auden’s paramount poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (Jun.), edited by Alan Jacobs. These verses (later set to music by friend and composer Benjamin Britten) document Auden’s return to the Christian faith of his childhood, revealing his understanding of and relationship to the divine.
I was enticed by a related forthcoming title from Princeton: What Auden Can Do for You (Oct.) by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith (“No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series). In this poignant and very personal book, McCall Smith accounts for his deep admiration of Auden and the life-changing impacts of his poetry, offering the reminder, “Where we are when we read something can make all the difference.” Meanwhile, in his The Augustinian Theology of W.H. Auden (Univ. of South Carolina, Aug.), Stephen Schuler delves into Auden’s theological insights and the influence Augustine had on Auden’s spiritual revelations and the development of his literary methods. Schuler’s examination of the poetry of these years is in stride with that of Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, the series editor of the Princeton “W.H. Auden: Critical Editions.” You’ll find out more about that in my conversation with Mendelson about Auden, scheduled for LJ’s August issue.
When the first day of BEA was over I returned to the office to find three galleys of the anticipated Volume 2 of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1923—1925 (Cambridge Univ., Oct.) highlighting a portion of the author’s Paris years, revealing his off-and-on or otherwise kept-at-a-distance friendship with fellow expat F. Scott Fitzgerald and other companionships like those with John Dos Passos, Morley Callaghan, Sylvia Beach, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway was a prolific letter writer, and his correspondence fills almost 700 pages. There’s also mention of an unpublished short story. I suspect a Volume 3 to follow. For fiction readers and those bedazzled by the era and lives of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald there is further reward. The latest novel from Lee Smith, Guests on Earth (Shannon Ravenel: Algonquin, Oct.), tells the story of an orphaned child, her admittance to Highland Hospital in Asheville, NC, in 1936, meeting Zelda Fitzgerald there, and what else? I know there’s more, now back to the book.—Annalisa Pesek
For librarians headed to ALA Midwinter in Seattle, may I strongly suggest NO STARBUCKS. As a general rule, this is expected of the resident. For the visitor, abstaining for one day is good enough.
Instead, as a Seattle native, I recommend a ten-minute walk (probably in the rain) to indulge a few of Seattle’s many superlative and nearby–the–Convention Center cafés, located along the E. Pine/E. Pike St. corridor in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Take a couple of hours respite from ALA panels and meetings. Wake up your mind and rejuvenate your ideas with a new colleague on a neighborhood café crawl. Seattle won’t disappoint you with its special brew, and the people have a way of sitting still and looking charmed in their local café that you won’t see again after you leave.