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Classics Corner


Book of the Day: Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis

Posted By: RebeccaOppenheimer

"It is only now I can look back, judge of the hazards, and get a vague idea of the miracle that passed me through those years unscathed."

Did you know that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I? And if you don't, where have you been hiding, and may I join you there? But seriously, folks . . . 

What to choose from among the plethora of World War I books published this year? Try Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis' memoir of his time as a flying ace, just reissued by Penguin Classics. Lewis later won a screenwriting Oscar for the film Pygmalion, and his storytelling flair is equally on display here. He captures both the bravado and precariousness of a pilot's life during the war, as well as the bureaucratic frustrations, and the conflicted feelings his leave periods engender. There's also a fascinating coda that follows Lewis to China after the war to help the country develop its aviation industry (with results that, though immensely entertaining, it would be generous to call mixed).

Sagittarius Rising is an illuminating eyewitness slice of history.

Today's Book of the Day is Cecil Lewis' Sagittarius Rising.


Vintage Modern Japanese Classics - A Crash Course

Posted By: RebeccaOppenheimer

You've probably seen them by now: the Japanese novels - and one story collection - with striking covers arranged on the endcap display near our cash register. These are the first wave of Vintage Modern Japanese Classics reissues, chosen from the publisher's huge backlist and redesigned (with more to come next year). Maybe you're intrigued but don't know where to start. The short answer: they're all good; it just depends on what kind of mood you're in. But that's not terribly helpful, so here's a quick and thoroughly subjective guide by an enthusiastic amateur to the four authors and their work included in the series. Yes, I've read them all. Tough job, but someone's gotta do it.


Kobo Abe

Though some of the other authors in this group include mystical or surreal elements in their work, Abe is the only full-blown fabulist among them. His novels include everything from a giant, man-eating toilet to a mask that begins to take over its wearer's personality

In The Woman in the Dunes, an entomologist finds himself trapped in a remote town besieged by ever-shifting and encroaching sands. He is trapped not only by topography, but by the townspeople, who conscript him into their battle against the elements. And yes, as the title suggests, there's a woman involved. Think Kafka with more sex.


Yasunari Kawabata

The works of Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, take place on an intimate scale, subtly exploring love, duty and family ties.

I always recommend Snow Country to customers who want something distinctly "Japanese." It's the story of the doomed romance between a geisha and a traveling businessman in a snowy resort town. What lends the tale its poignancy are Kawabata's allusive style and his meditations on nature and the changing seasons.

The Sound of the Mountain centers on a man in his twilight years and his tense relationships with his immediate family. Shingo and his wife have grown apart. Their daughter leaves her husband and comes back to live with them, bringing her children along. Meanwhile, Shingo faces his frustration with his philandering son, and his tender feelings for his daughter-in-law, which might be more than platonic. The novel's quiet dissection of family life combined with the dramatic problems its characters face reminded me a bit of Yasujiro Ozu's film Tokyo Twilight

Like Snow Country, Thousand Cranes depicts a doomed romance. It tells of the fateful meeting between a young man, Kikuji, and his late father's mistress. In spite of himself, Kikuji develops feelings for this older woman . . . and then he meets her daughter. Kawabata uses the miai (or Japanese betrothal ceremony) and the traditional tea ceremony as a framework for this tragic but beautifully wrought tale.


Yukio Mishima

I once saw Mishima referred to disaparagingly as "an adolescent's writer" or something like that. If that's so, I guess I'm a permanent adolescent. I read my first Mishima at 17 and have been enjoying his work ever since. He is a bit grandiose, but gloriously so: even his less ambitious works are imbued with a sense of apocalyptic significance. His work is also, not infrequently, wickedly funny.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is the first Mishima I ever read. In it, 13-year-old Noboru and his gang of nihilistic friends begin idolizing Ryuji, the former sailor who has taken up with Noboru's mother.  Then Ryuji disappoints them. The results - as anyone who's ever disappointed a gang of nihilistic schoolboys will know - aren't pretty.

And now we're up to the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, which includes Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel. Though it has some stiff competition, the tetralogy is my favorite among this batch of reissues. The series begins in 1912, as a student named Honda helplessly observes his best friend, Kiyoaki, self-destruct. Over the succeeding decades, Honda encounters three people he believes are reincarnations of his lost friend and tries to prevent them from meeting the same cruel fate. At last he succeeds, but only sort of, and with devastating results. The Sea of Fertility reminds me of the big German modernist novels I love: Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Broch's The Sleepwalkers, Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (the last of these shamefully out of print). It combines a complicated but fascinating plot with big ideas about philosophy, politics, religion and society. I won't lie: it's hard going occasionally, but it is well worth it. The last pages left me sitting silently in awe. And yes: The Decay of the Angel has the most beautiful cover, but you really do have to read the volumes in order.


Junichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki's books are the lightest of the bunch. That doesn't mean they're happy stories, but he views the human condition with a more satirical and less melancholic eye than the other authors on this list. A prevalent theme in his work is the encroachment of Western culture on traditional Japanese culture, and the heartbreak and confusion that can result.

The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki's most famous work, is a family saga set before and during World War II. Sachiko, the second-oldest of the titular siblings, and her husband allow the two youngest, unmarried sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, to live with them, though by tradition they should be living with elder sister Tsuruko in the main family home. Taeko has been engaged for a long time to a young man the Makiokas don't entirely approve of, but she is not allowed to marry before Yukiko, who is so painfully shy it seems impossible she will ever find a husband. The complications - both funny and sad - of Yukiko's and Taeko's love lives form the backbone of the plot, but the novel also offers a panoramic view of Japanese society in the 1930s and '40s.

Joji, the narrator of Naomi, meets the title character when she is working as a waitress in a cafe. Entranced by her Western looks and demeanor, and convinced she is too good to be working in such a place, Joji convinces Naomi to marry him. But it turns out Naomi is not the pure and flawless creature Joji imagined. So it's up to him to reform her . . . if he can.

Seven Japanese Tales collects several eerie, kinky narratives. In "A Portrait of Shunkin," an alluring, blind musician seduces and abuses her protege. A young man's stepmother has been groomed a little too perfectly to take the place of his mother in "The Bridge of Dreams." And the title character in "The Tattooer" exposes his customer's inner nature with terrifying results.

In Some Prefer Nettles, husband and wife Kaname and Misako, bound by tradition to their loveless union, decide to attempt an open marriage. She takes lovers, and he visits geishas. But Kaname, finding he wants something more, grows fascinated by traditional puppet theater . . . and by the old-fashioned behavior of his father-in-law's mistress. 

Rebecca delivers a crash course on the Vintage Modern Japanese Classics reissues.


A Country Doctor's Notebook, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Posted By: RebeccaOppenheimer

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is one of my three all-time favorite Russian novels. (The other two are Shchedrin's The Golovlyov Family and Goncharov's Oblomov, which may tell you everything you need to know about me.) That novel is a dizzying masterpiece of fabulist satire, featuring a frustrated writer, a vodka-swilling tomcat and Pontius Pilate, among others.

A Country Doctor's Notebook, just reissued by Melville House as part of The Neversink Library (which takes its name from White Jacket, one of my all-time favorite Herman Melville novels), shows a different side of Bulgakov. It's a collection of autobiographical sketches - some fictionalized, some not - based on his experiences running a rural medical practice at the time of the Russian Revolution. Twenty-five-year-old Bulgakov was fresh out of medical school when the government posted him to Nikolskoye, a backwater town in the province of Smolensk. Miles from modern conveniences, where even a week-old newspaper was a luxury, Bulgakov's practice was the area's only medical resource, and he was the only doctor on duty.  Never mind that he had no experience whatsoever outside the classroom.

Bulgakov's sketches are tense, evocative, frequently moving and not infrequently funny. How can you not love a book that begins:

"If you have never driven over country roads it is useless for me to tell you about it; you wouldn't understand anyway. But if you have, I would rather not remind you of it."

In gritty, gory detail, Bulgakov invokes the terror and panic of a young man forced to take others' lives into his hands, and the exhilaration and fulfillment that come when he pulls them through to the other side. But he also documents that young man's frustration as he dispenses modern medical advice to patients who can't or won't understand or act on it. The exhilaration of saving a croup-stricken baby's life contrasts with the inability to convince a syphilitic man to seek treatment and avoid passing the disease to his wife and children. And then there's the seemingly hideous and inexplicable eye ailment that turns out to be nothing but an unusually large abscess . . .

Michael Glenny, who translated this edition, comments in his introduction that "it is hard to credit 'Dr. Bulgakov' as being also the author of such fierce, surrealistic satire as The Heart of a Dog and the diablerie of The Master and Margarita." I have to disagree. Though A Country Doctor's Notebook has no trace of the fantastical, it shows the same bracing and, yes, fierce spirit as Bulgakov's later works.


Rebecca reviews Mikhail Bulgakov's A Country Doctor's Notebook, just reissued by Melville House.


Classics Corner: Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess

Posted By: RebeccaOppenheimer

I have a hard time thinking of a novel published in 1980 as a "classic." That's only five years older than I am, for goodness' sake!  But 32 years is a fairly long time, Anthony Burgess (author most famously of A Clockwork Orange) seems likely to be around for posterity, and Europa Editions has just seen fit to reissue the book. So why not?

Earthly Powers opens as English writer Kenneth Toomey, age 81 and living on Malta in domestic disharmony with his lover, Geoffrey, receives a visit from the local archbishop. His Grace has come about the just-deceased pope, Carlo Campanati, Kenneth's unlikely best friend and brother-in-law. Carlo is a candidate for sainthood, and the archbishop needs Kenneth's testimony about a possible miracle he witnessed decades ago. This visit prompts Kenneth to recall his peripatetic journey through the 20th century's various horrors and farces. Family, religion, sexuality, war, travel, politics and culture (and lack thereof) come in turn to the fore in this motley mosaic of a novel, tied by Kenneth's irresistible narrative voice, which Burgess somehow renders both caustic and elegiac.

Earthly Powers is perfect for anyone who likes . . . well, just about any 20th-century British author. It has the narrative sweep of Anthony Powell, Ford Madox Ford and William Boyd, the geopolitical angst of Richard Hughes, Graham Greene, Ian McEwan and Paul Scott and the biting commentary of Aldous Huxley. Kenneth's melancholy yet clear-eyed attitude toward his sexual orientation and its repercussions also recalls the (American) Violet Quill writers - Andrew Holleran, Robert Ferro, Edmund White, et al. - who had recently begun their careers when Earthly Powers was published.

If you're looking for a satisfying novel to curl up with this winter, Earthly Powers deserves a place on your list. Take it from your soon-to-be-classic blogger.

You'll like Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers if you like . . . well, just about any British writer of the 20th century.


Classics Corner: Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe

Posted By: RebeccaOppenheimer

I'm excited to introduce a new voice to the Ivy Book Blog, as my co-worker Jessica Baldwin shares her thoughts on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe:

Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" is not for the faint of heart. This book's
tests of courage are not limited to cannibals, shipwrecks, savage violence, or
race issues (as a contemporary reader might view them, at least). The novel is
masterfully crafted as a reflection of the title character's twenty-eight years
shipwrecked on an island. Robinson Crusoe comes from a comfortable English
estate where his father offers him a cushioned and steady future, but Crusoe
refuses it in favor of becoming a seafaring adventurer. When he finds himself
alone on an island, his ship compromised and all his fellow crew dead, Crusoe
must fight to live while mulling over his decision to leave a life of ease and
cultivating his relationship with God. As a reader, there are many pages in
which you will experience life the same way Robinson Crusoe does - without a
greater purpose than the painstaking, slow process of survival. There are
chapters where the only subjects Crusoe talks about are the mundane details of
making wicker baskets, growing corn, or hacking trees down in search of lumber
for the perfect canoe. In the reading of "Robinson Crusoe," just as in
Crusoe's life, there are times when the going will get rough and the process
will get boring.

But I recommend you read this book for two reasons. The first
is in respect to its historical place as the first English novel. In many ways,
this is the book that spurred the subsequent direction of literature. Defoe is
simultaneously a product of his time and a beacon of light for future writers
and future daydreamers. The second is because it's good. In some places it's very, very good. Defoe writes Crusoe's words in such a way that one line can illuminate the rest of a page or a chapter, or twist the entire novel in a new way. The book's thematic content is deep because of the gravity of Crusoe's situation. The story functions as a commentary on the balance between life and death, with Crusoe's metaphysical quandaries ranging from questioning the existence of God to the nature of temptation and man's inherent selfishness. Questions of religion and faith are plentiful, but the book remains at its core an observation about being careless with the gift of life. Defoe seems to ask his audience, "how do we deal with what we are given when we know it is not what we want?"

I'm excited to introduce a new voice to the Ivy Book Blog, as my colleague Jessica Baldwin shares her thoughts on Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.


Classics Corner: Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson

Posted By: RebeccaOppenheimer

Welcome to the first installment of Classics Corner, where my colleagues and I will spotlight great books that may have slipped under your radar.

I couldn’t imagine featuring a book other than Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa for my first Classics Corner contribution. It’s one of a handful of books that have not only moved me, but changed my life.

Clarissa Harlowe is young, intelligent, good and, as the novel begins, happy. Then, her parents announce their intention to marry her to the odious Mr. Soames. Clarissa begs her parents to reconsider, but they and her brother subject her to emotional torment, planning to keep her prisoner unless she consents. When it becomes clear she will not give in, they make arrangements for her to marry Soames against her will. Out of options, Clarissa falls upon the mercies of Mr. Lovelace, a young man of her acquaintance who has impressed her with his kindness. Lovelace was once an unabashed rake, but he’s changed...hasn’t he? Well, no, he hasn’t, and the consequences of Clarissa’s decision are horrific.

What makes the novel so powerful and devastating is Richardson’s tacit acknowledgement that the trouble his heroine falls into can’t be helped. Does she make a mistake eloping with Lovelace? Yes, but consider the alternative: marital rape by Soames. I’ve heard Clarissa referred to as a “tragedy,” but it isn’t really. The protagonist of a tragedy must have a fatal flaw, and Clarissa Harlowe’s only “flaw” is being a young woman of a certain class at a time when such women’s rights and opportunities were heavily circumscribed.

So why read a 1500-page novel with an unhappy ending? Read it for its masterly portrayal of a spirited young woman doing all she can to stay true to her principles. Read it as a snapshot of a fascinating time, as the dark side of Fielding’s rambunctious silliness or Austen’s coolheaded optimism (though Austen wrote decades later).

Or read it the way I did. I was 17 and had gone blithely off to an Ivy League school – the one in New Jersey – where I’d promptly realized I’d made the wrong decision, was in the wrong place. Reading about this valiant young woman and her attempts to control her own destiny against impossible odds, odds far greater than any I’d ever face, made my next move easy – or easier. I left and didn’t look back, and my life began. I owe a large part of that life to, among others, a man who died in 1761.

If you liked Clarissa, you might also enjoy:

Pamela, by Samuel Richardson

Though not as capital-G Great as Clarissa, Pamela is remarkable in its own right. Its eponymous heroine, though irritating at times (but she’s only 15!), is more complex than the novel’s detractors – or perhaps even Richardson himself – give her credit for.

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe

Defoe’s heroine, unlike Richardson’s, is not bound by conventional notions of virtue. They concern her, even torment her, but she is not about to let them get in the way of her need to survive in a vicious world. Moll is another brilliant literary creation, again far more nuanced than common opinion of the novel acknowledges.

The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox

Another 18th-century novel with a female protagonist, but Lennox uses a much lighter touch. Arabella has led a sheltered life with her just-deceased father, taking all her notions of the world from the historical romances she devours. When the time comes for her to enter society, Arabella tries to apply the lessons of her literary heroines, with decidedly mixed results.

Welcome to the first installment of Classics Corner, where my colleagues and I will spotlight great books that may have slipped under your radar.

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by Dr. Radut