It’s Monday! What Am I Reading?*

It’s Monday and while my stack of books isn’t necessarily going down (which actually makes me very happy) – progress is being made!  Last week I finished reading and reviewed Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow.  I highly recommend it… which is a huge relief! I’ve been reading a lot International literature (mostly British and European) lately and was beginning to worry about my lack of excitement over contemporary American authors.

This week will be an ambitious one.  I’ll be finishing up The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers and am beginning Amphibian by Carla Gunn… both books I picked up at the Brooklyn Book Festival.  Moers is a German author and Gunn is from Canada (see what I mean about the International lit?).

And if you read my interview at Bookduck for Book Blogger Appreciation Week you already know how much I am looking forward to Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood – due out…. TOMORROW!? (Umm, I just looked that up on Amazon).  Another book added to the stack.

Homer &L angley by E.L. DoctorowThe Alchemaster's Apprentice by Walter Moers

the yearoftheflood.cvr*It’sMonday!  What Am I Reading? is a meme originating from J. Kaye’s Book Blog.  Please check out what other bloggers are reading here.

A 20th Century Odyssey: Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow1.

This is the incident that made Homer & Langley Collyer infamous.  After years of the brothers being hounded by reporters, bill collectors and concerned relatives (all of whom believed their mattresses stuffed with cash), an anonymous call was made to the authorities about a dead body.  When the police attempted to investigate, they couldn’t enter the house.  They couldn’t even open the doors.  They were forced to begin emptying out the building of the accumulated garbage in order to get inside.  Homer was discovered first and pronounced dead of starvation.  It took over two weeks to find Langley’s body, buried under the debris only 10 feet away from his brother.  He’d been bringing Homer food through one of the newspaper tunnels that created a labyrinth throughout the house and had triggered one of his own booby traps.  The body was partially decomposed and eaten by the rats.  He had died first, Homer slowly after.  103 tons of garbage was eventually removed from their Fifth Avenue home, most of it worthless junk.  (These details are taken from Wikipedia and a NY Press article you can find here – and don’t worry, I didn’t just give away the ending).

Two elderly men turning their Fifth Avenue mansion into a landfill, which they eventually become a part of, hardly seems the stuff of great literature.  But E.L. Doctorow manages to create in Homer & Langley a story that transcends its subjects in ways that only the best historical fiction can do.  He accomplishes this mainly by playing fast and loose with the facts.

Those facts are as follows (and I’m going to try my best to keep this brief):  Langley was the younger brother and the pianist – roles Doctorow assigns to Homer.   Neither brother seems to have served in WWI, nor did their parents die in the Influenza Pandemic.  Those incidents are most likely part of the fiction of the book, made up by the author in order to get the plot rolling.  The actual Collyer parents did not die until the boys were men in their late 40’s.  Homer did not go blind until age 52 (in the novel this happens while he is still young).  Both brothers held jobs.  Homer practiced law and Langley was a concert pianist.  The hoarding did not seem to have started in earnest until they were both well past mid-life.

I include this contrast between fact and fiction to show how integral a novelist’s choices are to the success of a novel.  The liberties Doctorow takes allow him to enlist a blind narrator, (named Homer, no less), to tell his story.  Homer’s voice relaying their day-to-day lives takes the events out of the realm of sensationalism and gives them a sense of normalcy.   There is also the double bonus of his blindness, first as a Classical reference and second as allowing the reader to feel the accumulation of objects happening around him.  We experience Homer’s world becoming a smaller and smaller place while never actually seeing it happen.  What he describes to us is only his version, necessarily limited.  When he conveys to us the  reactions of the people  he and Langley collect like so many things throughout the book, we’re left to wonder what is his basis.

Our new friends simply assumed they were to come home with us and we didn’t even make a point of acquiescing, as that would have been in bad form.  It was as if – without knowing any of them or which of them belonged to which name – we’d been inducted into a relaxed and sophisticated fellowship, an advanced society, where ordinary proprieties were square.  That was one of their words.  Also crash, meaning, as I was to learn, boarding with us.  We’d been recognized, is how I felt, as did Langley I could tell, as if with an honorific.  And when these children – there were five who peeled off from the larger group and walked up the steps into our house, two males and three females – saw of what a warehouse of precious acquisitions it was comprised, they were moved beyond measure.  I listened to their silence and it seemed to me churchlike.  They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat’s cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy – the one I was to bond with – Lissy said, Oh wow! and I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.

But unlike the objects Langley brings home, none of the people stay.

2.

Homer as narrator shapes the novel into a kind of reverse Odyssey.  Odysseus and his crew spent 20 years zigzagging the map on their journey home.  In Homer & Langley, the 20th century shuffles through the Collyer’s mansion in a surprisingly orderly fashion.  The end result is no less epic.  The fictional Collyer brothers long outlive the factual ones, and so are allowed to experience the Depression, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the moonwalk, civil rights and more.  (Events grow fuzzy towards the end of the novel as Homer becomes deaf as well as blind, but my guess is that the end comes around the mid 80’s).    Not only do they collect a century’s trash, they collect its history.  Langley saves and clips decades of newspaper in order to complete his great project – what his brother refers to as “Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper”.  Eventually, and increasingly, they find themselves the subject of Langley’s clippings.

The first reporter who rang our bell – a really stupid young man who expected to be invited in, and when we wouldn’t permit that, stood there asking offensive questions, even shouting them out after we had slammed the door – made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day, compounding the historical record that stood in our house like bales of cotton.  If you talk to these people you are at their mercy, and if you don’t talk to them you are at their mercy.  Langley said to me, We are a story, Homer.  Listen to this – and he read this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars of unpaid bills though they were worth millions.  It had our ages wrong, Langley was called Larry, and a neighbor, un-named, thought we kept women against their will.  That our house was a blight on the neighborhood was never in question.  Even the abandoned peregrine nest up under the roof ledge was held against us.

I said to my brother: How would you run this in Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper?

We are sui generis, Homer, he said.  Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence”.

In Langley’s forever up-to-date paper for something to have meaning it has to be duplicated.  One is never enough.  Like Plato, he is looking for the essence of things and events.  It is just another tie-in Doctorow makes to classical literature.  Yet, the Odyssey is not just a false construct that Doctorow uses to structure his novel.  No forced parallels are drawn – we do not meet the Minotaur or a character who represents Achilles.  Doctorow is too subtle.  He has simply and brilliantly given us the contemporary equivalent – modern man’s story told in epic themes.  Homer & Langley represent our 21st century selves (an interpretation I admit to having trouble accepting in the beginning).

But the reality is impossible to ignore.  Our homes are filled with the things that we collect but do not necessarily need.  Great feats no longer require long journeys from home.  In addition to objects we, like Langley, collect our own history.  Visiting & re-visiting it through the mediums of books, documentaries, lectures, papers, photographs, coursework, etc.   It seems less extreme than the Collyers’ hoarding behavior only because we have the luxury to digitization and storage units.

Homer & Langley is in the end a remarkably uncluttered and beautiful book.   It is one of those novels that will only grow better with re- reading. Each time providing new discoveries. Very, very BookSexy.

It’s Monday, Again! What Am I Reading?

It’s Monday! What Am I Reading? I wish I could say something more exciting than this… but I’m working my way through A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m  under halfway in… and I’m still waiting for something to happen.  Anything.  A meteor from the sky might liven things up a bit.  What is getting me through is the sheer beauty of the writing and… well, that’s about it.  I will finish this book.  My hope is that at some point it will turn around and blow me away.  It’s happened before.

While I should have been reading my Byatt I finished Homer & Langley.  It’s a refreshing, well written and  a nicely thought out book.  The review will be up by Thursday night.  I’m pleased to say that this was a wonderful intro to E.L. Doctorow and predict a long and beautiful relationship ahead of us.

Tuesday I’ll be posting an interview I did with another blogger (which is why I’m waiting until Thursday to post my review of Homer & Langley).   Definitely come back to check it out.  Stop by at Bookduck in the meantime.  She leans towards  YA and some adult fiction, mainly in the historical and fantasy genre.  She also has great taste in music.

And the best thing about my Monday?  It’s telling you about what I did on Sunday!  The 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival!

Brooklyn Book FestA free yearly event, the Brooklyn Festival features new and emerging figures in literature – as well as some not so new favorites like Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Ames, Pete Hamill and Steven Millhauser (to name just a few).  The authors participate by giving readings, taking part in panel discussions and signing their books.  And next year I intend to do all that – attend the panels, listen to the readings and have my books signed.  This year I was weak… I couldn’t tear myself away from the tables!

Everywhere you turned there was something to see.  Several small presses are represented – the ones that put out the great books that don’t always make it to the shelves of your local B&N, let alone get put on the feature table.  There were the literary reviews and magazines (Bookforum, The Paris Review & The New York Review of Books), and tons of new writer anthologies.   They even had a children’s section with readings and authors who took questions – exactly like they do for the adults.  I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when I heard an author announce very seriously to the crowd, “The question is:  Why was the cow silly?”.

The Brooklyn Book Festival (and other festivals of its kind) is a great opportunity to see what’s going on outside of the bestseller list.  It’s also a chance to connect with authors and publishers.  So, here’s a sample of what I got to take home.  (Remember: this is just the stuff I found interesting and put in my tote.  I’ll be posting reviews in the upcoming weeks with my final thoughts).

  • The Coral Press is an independent press dedicated to a fiction genre they call musical fiction.   They gave out a nice sampler of six of their novels.  You can check them out at www.coralpress.com.  The website features musical accompaniments to their novels.
  • This Republic of Suffering: Death & the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin was a freebie courtesy of the  people from The National Book Award.  I’ve always had an interest in the American Civil War, so while it doesn’t sound all that upbeat I’m looking forward to giving it a try.   But here’s a question thats been troubling me:  Why doesn’t the National Book Award get the attention of, say, the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer?  There are some great books that have won over the years… and this year is their 6oth Anniversary.  To celebrate they’re opening voting for the best of the best to the public (voting begins September 21st).   On September 30th they post their 5 Under 35 (which I’m assuming is their shortlist?) for 2009.  Click here to see their website.  Sheesh, people, it’s time we got serious about our own awards!  The British bookies make ODDS on the Booker!
  • Museum Legs: Fatigue & Hope in the Face of Art by Amy Whitaker (who was kind enough to sign my copy) is a new book by a new author published by a new press.  Hol Art Books specializes in books by authors writing about the visual arts.  They also have a nice selection historical writings, including pamphlets put out for the International Exhibit of Modern Art in 1913.  Definitely a niche market, but an interesting one I’d like to learn more about.
  • Amphibian is a novel by Carla Gunn published by Coach House Books.  This is one of those books I can’t wait to start.  The nine-year-old hero’s name is Phineas William Walsh and he’s an environmentalist.  And I quote from the description on the back cover: “So, when a White’s tree frog ends up in an aquarium in his fourth grade classroom, it’s the last straw, and he and  his best friend, Bird, are spurred to action.”  Tell me, what’s not to like???

And my #1 score of the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival (drumroll)…

  • The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers and published by The Overlook Press.  Moers is a German author and this is his fifth book published in the U.S.  It’s the fourth that takes place in Zamonia (and yes I’ve read the other three).  It’s about a Crat.  It’s fully illustrated.  It makes me want to learn German just because I know there are books of his that haven’t made it into English yet.  If you like J.K. Rowling, you’ll like Moers.  Not because this is anything remotely like Harry Potter…it’s probably the farthest thing from Hogwarts.  You’ll have to take my word for it:   Moers is just fun… and in terms of his books there’s no one out there writing anything like them.  Click here to see.

So there’s just a taste of what followed me home.  For the rest of the month I’ll be posting bits and pieces of the rest of it.

Happy Monday!

Something to look forward to…

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow

Here’s a book I’m looking forward to reading.  Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow. A novel, it is a fictional account of the lives of the Collyer brothers – two NYC legends that Mark Helprin couldn’t have made up on his best day. Definately start clearing off the bedside table for this one!  Release date:   September 1st.

Note:  This will be my first Doctorow novel, who for no good reason I’ve always confused with Caleb Carr.  I think the same person must design both their book jackets.