Tranquility.

My draft analyses went up over several days, so here’s a link to the key columns:

* Draft recaps for AL teams
* Draft recaps for NL teams
* Friday’s Klawchat, which came during rounds 3-4
* Day one reactions, covering just rounds 1 and 2

I’ll have one more draft-related post on Thursday and then it’s time to turn the page.

I’m not even sure where I heard about Attila Bartis’ book Tranquility, the only one of Bartis’ books available in English. Born in Transylvania but of Hungarian descent, Bartis has won several major awards for Hungarian literature, including a prize named for the writer Sándor Márai, whose book Embers appeared on the second version of my top 100 novels ranking, although it was pushed off in the most recent update.

Tranquility has nothing in common with the subtle Embers; instead, it beats the reader over the head with obscenity, taking its cue from Portnoy’s Complaint but upping the ante of demented familial relationships while shifting to the setting of post-communist Hungary. The Weers, the family at the center of Bartis’ work, are a new kind of train wreck. Narrated by the son, Andor, who lives with his reclusive mother, Tranquility jumps backward to retrace the Weers’ descent into a sort of controlled depravity while Andor attempts to sever his dysfunctional and possibly incestuous relationship with his mother so he can begin a new relationship with the troubled Eszter. Andor uncovers very uncomfortable truths about his own family history, including his father’s disappearance, followed by his sister’s, and learns that sexual misdeeds are sown deep in his lineage, along with madness, betrayal, and emotional and physical violence.

Reading Tranquility would have been a chore given its callous and graphic depictions of sex, violence, and the intersection between the two, but Bartis infuses the novel with black humor and what I believe was an angry metaphorical depiction of Hungary’s own difficult transition from communism to something like democracy. (I have no idea if this was Bartis’ intent, but the interpretation came to me pretty easily and I doubt it’s a coincidence.) That transition led to economic upheaval that hasn’t ended, along with the paradoxical desire by part of the population to return to the certain misery of authoritarian rule rather than the uncertain freedom of its post-communist government. In this interpretation, Andor’s mother represents the communist past from which the Hungarian population refuses or is unwilling to fully leave behind; Ezster, herself a victim in multiple senses who has several difficulties with conception and pregnancy, is herself a symbol of freedom, volatile and damaged, capable of evoking emotions in Andor with which he is uncomfortable or flat-out unfamiliar. Breaking with his mother involves coming to terms with awful events from the family’s past, known and unknown; forging a real relationship with Eszter, however, requires emotional depth and strength the callous Andor lacks. To make matters worse, Eszter introduces Andor, a writer by trade, to an editor, Eva Jordan, with whom Andor engages in a violent affair. Eva is his mother’s age, and Andor appears to be unable to stop himself from giving in to his hate-filled desires for her – or to revisit the relative certainty of the past. Even if the past was lousy, at least you knew what you were getting. The message seems to be that freedom is scary because it’s unpredictable; the “tranquility” of the title is ironic, clearly, as there’s nothing tranquil about this screwed-up mother-son relationship, but also refers to the safety of a life without upside.

Where Bartis diverges from the tradition of lunatic families and sexual perversion launched by Portnoy’s Complaint and more recently revived by Alessandro Piperno is in its association of sex with violence. Where Roth and Piperno use sex (especially masturbation) for laughs, Bartis’ depictions of sex are rife with violence, whether it’s outright violence as with Eva Jordan or emotionally violent as with Eszter, and Andor’s reactions after sex are shockingly clinical. It’s discomfiting, but I doubt Bartis wanted the reader to ever feel comfortable in a story about life in Hungary after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Next up: I finished Atul Gawande’s brief The Checklist Manifesto last week and have moved on to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Dispossessed.

The Locusts Have No King.

I didn’t realize Paste posted my review of the largely terrible Downton Abbey boardgame, a game for which I had low expectations that it still couldn’t meet.

“Man of integrity, Mrs. Caswell,” Strafford nodded toward Frederick with a deep sigh. “That’s what I admire – integrity. But it does make people hard to get along with.”

I’ve praised Dawn Powell a few times around here, praising her masterwork A Time to Be Born (#21 on the Klaw 100) and just generally arguing that she’s an under-read American author. I seem to have failed to take my own advice, however, having read five of her novels in a twelve-month span from December 2009 to December 2010, then nothing since. She wrote fifteen novels in total, thirteen of which are currently in print thanks to Steerforth Press, mostly satires of the in-crowd in Manhattan in the periods just before and after World War II.

The Locusts Have No King finds Powell aiming her derisive lens at the literary set, both writers and the simpering publishers who see them in terms of dollar signs, during the tumultuous period right after the end of the war. Drawing its title from Proverbs 30 (“Four things on earth are small, but they are exceedingly wise … the locusts have no king, yet all of them march in rank”), Locusts is loosely centered around the affair between Frederick Olliver, a struggling writer who refuses to compromise his principles to write something more commercial, and his married lover Lyle Gaynor. Lyle’s successful career as a playwright suddenly hits the skids right as Frederick finds his didactic works picked up by a benefactor who sees commercial potential in them, a shift in fortunes that drives the two of them apart.

Ah, but the burst of energy that upsets the momentarily stable particles at the heart of the book is the perfectly-named Dodo, a sexually rapacious young woman who uses her physical charms to try to sleep her way into higher and higher circles of literary society. She latches on to Frederick, who is guileless enough to fall into her clutches, while his roommate Murray, of uncertain vocation, seems to have more lovers than he can handle and desires to handle none of them save his controlling ex-wife Gerda. Dodo becomes the willing pawn of several of these women as they too seek to entrap more powerful men, mostly for reasons of career advancement rather than sheer gold-digging (Powell had no problems satirizing women, but never puts them down as a class in that stereotyped way), while she herself tries to ingratiate herself into the circle of the Beckleys, the folks with the money to fund or prop up the writers’ various projects.

While Powell’s incisive wit may have been more precise than ever in Locusts, given her three decades (by that point) in the publishing and dramatic fields, the novel also feels more insular than her other works because the archetypes she lampoons are not easily recognized by those of us on the outside. There is certainly humor in her dialogues, including nearly every time Dodo opens her mouth but also the fatuous ramblings of the publishers who push Olliver’s work without understanding it in the least, but characters who satirize unfamiliar targets can feel flimsy rather than funny. Other than the Beckleys – and I wondered if the name’s similarity to the word “feckless,” which described them well, was a coincidence – none of the characters clicked for me as parodies of people or types I knew. Even the witless publisher Tyson Bricker seems a bit harmless as satires go; if he’s funding Olliver for the wrong reasons, at least he’s funding something worthwhile, right?

Frederick and Lyle return to center stage as the novel starts to wind toward its conclusion, after first Lyle keeps Frederick at arm’s length and then realizes by doing so she’s left him vulnerable to the likes of Dodo. Yet Powell ensures that their slow dance back toward each other’s arms is unsatisfying to the reader, capturing both the fragility of the success Frederick is suddenly enjoying and the rise in anxiety over the nuclear age. The novel ends at the time of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests, an event she incorporates into a closing scene that provides the ambiguous closing note a novel of this tenor deserves.

Next up: I’m about three books behind in reviews, but right now I’ve just started Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove.

The Last Dragonslayer.

In case you missed anything, here’s the full set of links to the top 100 prospects package. The piece on 10 prospects who just missed the 100 will now run on Wednesday, rather than today.

I’m a longtime fan of Jasper Fforde’s novels – the Thursday Next series, the two Nursery Crimes books, and the dying-for-a-sequel Shades of Grey – and just tackled his first young adult novel, The Last Dragonslayer, last week. The first in the “Chronicles of Kazam” series, the book is quite Ffordian, just without the sex and swearing we’re used to from the Thursday Next books, yet still very ffunny and still willing to address big themes like death, moral choices, and greed.

Set in an alternate version of our world where magic exists (albeit in decline) and the U.K. has splintered into the Ununited Kingdoms, The Last Dragonslayer revolves around 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, the temporary manager of the Kazam employment agency for sorcerors and, as it turns out, the next in the line of dragonslayers. Here be dragons, or at least nearby, thanks to the Dragonpact that set up boundaries between dragons and humans – but the dragon nearest Kazam is dying and every human wants to rush in and claim some of the soon-to-be-unoccupied land. Fforde loves to riff on capitalism run amok and spares no one here in his assaults on human and corporate avarice, not even the local idiot King of Hereford, who believes Jennifer should be acting in his interests as one of his subjects.

Strange herself has no magical abilities, although she’s running the shop at Kazam, which rents out the services of its various mages for things like home rewirings and pizza deliveries (all those magic carpets have to find some use). She’s the ideal Ffordian hero: uncertain, underconfident, stronger than she realizes, female yet not overtly feminine, and fiercely loyal to her friends and to her principles. One of those friends, filling the role of Pickwick the dodo, is the Quarkbeast, whose only dialogue comprises the occasional interjection, “Quark.”

The successful completion of Jennifer’s mission involves more cunning than fighting, and she outwits several opponents to her half-formed plans to try to do the Right Thing, even though she’s far from clear on what that is. The story moves quickly, unfettered by much in the way of subplots – the missing owner of Kazam will likely wait for another day to resurface, and I imagine we’ll hear more of the origins of both Jennifer and her fellow foundling “Tiger” Prawns in a future book – with plenty of the dry wit that makes Fforde’s books such a pleasure to read. I think it’s appropriate for ages 8 or 9 and up, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any adult.

Persecution.

I posted a new projected first round for next week’s MLB Rule 4 draft yesterday, with a new name up top, and did a brief Klawchat as well. I’ve already heard some fresh things since that mock went up, including that the Astros aren’t entirely off Bryant after all.

I enjoyed Alessandro Piperno’s debut novel, The Worst Intentions, even though it often turned crude, because it was funny and featured so many cleverly crafted characters. His second novel, Persecution, shows far more polish and greater empathy with its flawed protagonist, with Piperno’s dry wit now applied to a tragic story, the fall from grace of a pediatric oncologist whose aloofness leads to his undoing.

Dr. Leo Pontecorvo had what he thought was a perfect life – a loving wife, two sons, a lucrative job with meaning as well as social importance, a freelance gig writing about health issues for a major Italian newspaper – until it is shattered by two accusations of wrongdoing, presented to us in reverse order. The novel opens with the Pontecorvos sitting down to a family dinner with the TV news on in the background, only to have the broadcaster announce that Leo stands accused of a sexual relationship with his 13-year-old son’s girlfriend, Camilla. Through flashbacks, Piperno’s unnamed yet omnipresent narrator leads the reader through Leo’s rise and fall, including allegations of financial impropriety and the disastrous consequences of his mishandling of Camilla’s crush on him, as well as the less-than-perfect truth below the surface of his marriage and family life, so that he is by turns sympathetic and deserving of his fate.

Pontecorvo’s emotional immaturity mirrors that of the lead character in The Worst Intentions, but without the earlier book’s emphasis on sexual immaturity (although Leo has his moments). He’s never quite cut the cord with his domineering Jewish mother, and has floated through so many difficult situations through either the force of his intellect or the power of his personality that he’s unable to cope with actual crises, often leaving the management to his doting wife. He’s hopeless when faced with people who have competing agendas because he assumes others will be rational and thoughtful, and can’t imagine them pursuing actions that might do him harm. That gullibility leads him to lend money to a wayward student who tricks him into appearing to commit usury, which also points to the scientific, rational-minded Leo’s inability to responsibly handle anything to do with money. It also means that when Camilla’s crush on him first takes form, he has no concept of how others might perceive his responses, and walks right into what might have been a trap – although the reliability of the narration is an open question even as the book ends.

At heart, Leo believes himself to be a good man, but his actions speak to a superficial and pretentious inner character. He loves to take photographs, but refuses to take family pictures, even on vacations, because they’re not artistic:

Her husband only photographed dead things. And, even worse, he lavished all the care in the world on doing it. But ask him to take a “normal” photograph, who knows, the boys learning to ride a bicycyle, his wife in evening dress or posing in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or wherever the hell he wanted? Certainly not, not a chance. When you asked him, the artist felt outraged.

He’s not an artist in any sense of the word, of course, but the aspirational nature of his behavior in every one of his endeavors, even in parenting (which leads to acts of emotional cruelty toward his sons), reveals his own insecurity – which becomes fully apparent when his reaction to the public nature of the scandal is to hide, literally and figuratively, in the basement, abandoning his wife and children while believing they’ve actually abandoned him. He’s an overgrown child, incapable of handling true adversity in an adult fashion, of proclaiming his innocence to his wife, or working to regain the trust of either of his sons, or doing much of anything to fight the charges against him. He goes underground – ironic for a man whose surname begins with the Italian word for “bridge” – and never emerges.

Piperno’s strongest resemblance to Philip Roth and other Jewish-American writers – Piperno’s father is Jewish, and both of Piperno’s protagonists are Italian Jews – lies in that strong sense of irony evident in Leo’s name. (His actions don’t reflect the courage of the astrological lion of his first name, either.) The pediatric oncologist undone by the accusations of a child, the

The main weakness of Persecution is the depiction of Leo’s wife, Rachel, although she may get a fuller treatment in the sequel, The Inseparables, still unpublished in English but intended from the start as the second half of this diptych. Rachel Pontecorvo has much in common with her Biblical namesake – married to a doofus who is so naïve that he’s tricked by his brother and then father-in-law, she bears him two sons, and ends up suffering for her choices – but she’s a shadow in the book, nearly always the voice of reason when Leo is acting like a child. She’s never given the chance to reject him outright after the allegations, and we don’t see any curiosity about whether they’re true. Giving her character a third dimension would have improved the book beyond the study of Leo’s character, although I’ll reserve judgment until I read part two, which won the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize last year.

If you appreciate Roth, or Joseph Heller, or the more mundane elements of Kurt Vonnegut’s works (as opposed to the sci-fi trappings around them), you must give Persecution a shot. Even during the moments when you’d like to give Leo a hard slap across the face, this portrait of a man whose superficially perfect life has lost its veneer to reveal an empty interior is searing, bitter, and funny.

Next up: As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m reading, but not enjoying, A Game of Thrones.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.

My last spring training dispatch, on Cubs prospect Pierce Johnson and Giants prospects Adalberto Mejia and Mac Williamson, went up this morning for Insiders.

B.S. Johnson was an avant-garde writer who wrote poetry, plays, and novels that earned minimal recognition during his brief lifetime – he killed himself in 1973 at age 40 – but have since acquired a substantial following among academics and fans of absurdist and post-modern fiction. I hadn’t heard of Johnson at all until finding a passage that discussed his works, specifically the use of metafictional techniques in Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, in James Wood’s How Fiction Works about a year ago. Christie Malry is bizarre, a portrait of the sociopath as a young figment of the author’s imagination, an heir to James Joyce and Flann O’Brien and a forerunner of Jasper Fforde.

Christie Malry is an 18-year-old narcissist and malcontent who believes that the world is out to do him harm, even in such clearly impersonal acts as putting up a building where he might want to walk if the sidewalk were a little wider. His first job at a bank, which he takes to be closer to the money, bores him, but he eventually discovers accounting and the system of double-entry bookkeeping developed in the late 1400s by the Franciscan frier Luca Pacioli, whose book on the subject is quoted several times in Johnson’s work. Malry decides to create a general ledger of his life, counting assaults against him as debits and undertaking acts of terrorism against society, starting with hoax bomb threats and escalating from there, as a way of balancing the books.

Johnson’s approach to the book has the air of calculated carelessness, such as when he says that the death toll from Malry’s biggest attack was just over twenty thousand, because “this was the first figure that came to hand as it is roughly the number of words of which the novel consists so far.” Johnson engages in dialogues with Malry, and has other characters lament their own use as pawns in the novel to further the plot without any significant development – especially Malry’s mother, who tells her back story to explain some of Malry’s behavior and then dies because she has exhausted her purpose. The arbitrary values Malry assigns to various slights are much higher than the value he places on the death of another person, which is just over a pound a head. Malry’s girlfriend is only named the Shrike, the name of a family of birds often called “butcher birds” because they impale insects on plant spikes or thorns as a form of food storage.

Johnson’s suicide shortly after the book’s publication means we won’t get a full explanation of some of the thematic questions in the book, one of which, for me, revolves around the recurring element of food. Most of the scenes revolving around Malry and other characters eating depict it as merely an act of sustenance, but Malry’s accounting job for a firm that handles catering and mass-production of processed sweets, leading him to the idea of using poison as a weapon to balance the ledger, which, reflecting my own philosophy on the subject, struck me as an unsubtle jab at the unhealthfulness of processed foods.

The novel does have a serious theme beneath its absurdist surface. Malry’s actions reflect a general refusal to live in society – a repudiation of the social contract from someone who was given no choice about participating in it in the first place. In a world of limited choice, Malry makes one of the only choices he feels like he can make, and one of the only ways he can reject the existing order. He did not opt in, and he believes this is the only way he can opt out. Because he feels no empathy, and places no value on any life but his own, he has no compunction about the growing tolls of his “credits,” but even so discovers that he can never quite balance the ledger and even these acts of terror don’t remove him from the system. Is life meaningless? A zero-sum game? Or do we all end our days with a pile of bad debt that we must write off without ever balancing our books? Johnson avoids answers but shines while asking the questions.

Next up: Tom Rachman’s 2011 novel The Imperfectionists, recommended by a reader right after its publication, which so far has been nearly perfect.

Catching up on recent reads.

For a variety of reasons, I fell behind on book reviews in December, so I’m cheating a little with an omnibus post on everything I read between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that I haven’t written up yet, aside from the usual Wodehouse/Christie/Stout stuff I generally don’t cover here. I had pretty mixed feelings on all of these works except the one non-fiction title, which is probably part of why I procrastinated on the reviews – it’s easier to write something quickly when you know which way you’re leaning from the start, but these books had enough positives and negatives to keep me from coming down on either side.

* The longest book I read in that span, and the one most deserving of a longer writeup, is Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, part of the TIME 100 and #81 on the Modern Library 100. Tabbed “the great American novel” by Martin Amis, praised by authors from Amis to his father Kingsley to Salman Rushdie to Christopher Hitchens, Augie March is an ambitious, expansive story of its title character’s growth from an impoverished Chicago childhood through one money-chasing scheme after another, including various brushes with the law and materialistic women. It starts slowly, hits a promising note for several hundred pages, and then ends with a gigantic whimper that ruined an otherwise enjoyable serious yet comical read for me.

Augie’s odyssey of self-discovery while he’s trying to make a buck – or a pile of bucks – draws him into various webs of fascinating side characters, a panoply identified by Hitchens as Dickensian, but one I think comes from the broader tradition of picaresque novels (to which Dickens contributed in The Pickwick Papers) and that continues through postmodern works like Ulysses and The Recognitions and later writers like Dawn Powell, Haruki Murakami, and Richard Russo. Augie March even has the peripatetic thread that defines the picaresque novel, even though Augie’s adventures, like his brief but disastrous time in the Navy, rarely encompass the high ambitions of classic picaresque characters.

Augie himself straddles the line between hero and antihero – he’s the protagonist and quite likeable despite his highly fungible morality, in part because he’s got the rags-to-riches vibe about him and in part because he entertains us through one peculiar situation after another – creating a curious ambiguity about Bellow’s point. If this is to be the great American novel, what exactly is Bellow telling us about the American experience? Is the key to the American Dream a refusal to commit oneself to anything – an education, a career, a marriage? Or is he saying the American Dream is an illusion that we can pursue but never catch? I think Bellow was posing the questions without attempting to provide any answers, which works from a thematic perspective but left the conclusion of the plot so open that I felt like I was reading an unfinished work, like The Good Soldier Svejk or Dead Souls.

* I wanted to like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, since I think Lolita is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and while I didn’t enjoy Pale Fire I do recognize how clever it is and that I might not fully appreciate its humor. But Pnin, the story of a fish-out-of-water Russian professor at a fictional university in upstate New York, suffers from Pale Fire‘s problem even more deeply: The target of its parodic efforts is too obscure for the average reader to appreciate. Where Pale Fire satirized technical and literary analysis of poetry, Pnin takes aim at the ivory towers of academic life at private universities, which is probably hilarious if you’re a professor or a grad student but largely went right by me as someone who sleepwalked through college by doing the minimum amount of work required for most of my classes.

* Abbe Provost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut seemed to be stalking me over the last two months, so I had to read it – it appears on Daniel Burt’s revised version of the The Novel 100, then was the subject of allusions in at least two other books I read that time, including Augie March and I think Nicole Krauss’ History of Love as well. Manon Lescaut follows the Chevalier des Grieux as he ruins himself over his obsession with the title character, a young, beautiful, and entirely materialistic woman who throws the Chevalier overboard every time he runs out of money. The two engage in multiple schemes to defraud wealthier men who fall in love (or lust, really) with Manon at first sight, and eventually end up sent to the French colony at New Orleans, where the pattern repeats itself with a less fortunate conclusion. Its controversial status at the time would be lost on any reader today over the age of 12, but its depiction of sexual obsession mixed with several early examples of suspense writing (before either genre really existed in its own right) made it a quick and intense read. Plus now I get the references.

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is another short novel of obsession, also appearing on the Novel 100, this one telling the tale of a man who is so in love with a woman who is betrothed to someone else that he eventually takes his own life. Told through the letters Werther writes to his friend, I found the deterioration of Werther’s mind as his depression deepens to be far more interesting than the pseudo-romantic aspect of a man so in love with another woman that he’d rather die than live without her. He just needed a good therapist. It was by far the shortest novel I had left on the Novel 100 and brought my total read on that list to 80, so it was worth the two hours or less I spent on it.

* Zadie Smith’s On Beauty reimagines E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (which I read and didn’t care for that much) in a serious comic novel around a conflict of race rather than class, set in a New England college town in the early 2000s. Smith also sends up the conflict between conservative and liberal academic ideologies (or theologies, more accurately) in one of the subplots that, much like that of Pnin, ended up missing the mark for me, although I could at least recognize glimpses of my alma mater in some of the satire. The novel’s greatest strength is the way Smith defines so many individual characters, especially those of the Belsey family, headed by a white father and an African-American mother and whose children are searching for racial, religious, and cultural identities while their parents try to recover from their father’s inability to keep it in his pants. I couldn’t help but compare On Beauty, which has some brilliant dialogue along with the deep characterizations and is often quite funny, to Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, which produced very mixed feelings in me when I first read it and didn’t fully appreciate (as I think I do now) how Smith was trying to stretch the boundaries of realistic fiction to tell a broad and expansive story. On Beauty, paying homage to a classic work of British literature, feels restrained by the confines of its inspiration when Smith’s imagination is a huge part of why her writing is so appealing, leaving it a good novel, a funny yet smart one that reads quickly, but a slightly unsatisfying one because I know she can do more than this.

* Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World tells the history of that somewhat mundane, unrespected fish, which had a substantial impact on the growth of civilization in Europe and in North America, and which was one of humanity’s first warnings (duly ignored) that we could exhaust a seemingly endless natural resource. Kurlansky’s book Salt turned a similar trick, taking a topic that seemed inherently uninteresting and finding interesting facts and anecdotes to allow him to make the story readable. Cod actually has a stronger narrative thread because Kurlansky can trace the fish’s rise in popularity and commercial value as well as its role in international relations, climaxing in the sudden collapse of cod stocks and the uncertain ending around the fish’s future as a species and a food source. We’re really good at overfishing, because technology has allowed us to catch more fish (as well as species we didn’t intend to catch) which has in turn made fish too cheap to consume. Kurlansky didn’t focus enough on this issue for my tastes, although Cod was published in 1997 when overfishing was seen as more of a fringe environmentalist concern, before celebrity chefs embraced sustainability and began preaching it to the masses.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

I rarely recommend any product I haven’t used or read, but I’m making an exception in the case of the new e-book The Hall of Nearly Great because it includes so many great writers, telling the stories of good big leaguers who were never good enough to earn legitimate Hall of Fame consideration. (I do have a copy of the book, but haven’t started it yet.) It’s available now for just $12 through that link.

I wrote yesterday about improved and declining farm systems for Insiders.

Anita Loos’ 1925 comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is best remembered now for Howard Hawks’ movie adaptation, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, but at the time of its release it was an enormous best-seller, second only to John Erskine’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy among novels published in the U.S. that year. Loos’ book, a scant 120 pages, is now typically sold with its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, a weaker sibling that doesn’t have the same high or low comedy of the first book.

The blonde in question is the shameless gold-digger Lorelei, who narrates the novel in diary form, detailing her exploits in convincing various witless suitors into buying her expensive meals, clothes, and jewelry, while also taking her from California to New York to London and across Europe. What Lorelei lacks in brains she makes up for in cunning, manipulating multiple men simultaneously without any remorse for the way she leads them on and leaves them once she finds a better offer. She’s accompanied by her sarcastic friend Dorothy, whose lack of decorum and interest in men without money confuse and aggravate Lorelei, whose only end seems to be having a good time through someone else’s wallet. For the time, Lorelei’s casual attitudes towards love, sex, and money, as well as a disinterest in then-traditional female roles of doting wife and mother – even when she settles on one man at the end of the novel, it’s more about what he can do for her budding career than about love or family.

The book is extremely funny between Lorelei’s own observations and the occasional cutting line from Dorothy; Lorelei is always talking about “educating” herself by reading, yet confesses that she and Dorothy “do not seem to be mathematical enough to tell how much francs is in money.” She says her friends told her she had talent for music, but “I mean I simply could not sit for hours and hours at a time practising just for the sake of a career.” (Spelling errors are rampant throughout her diaries, accelerating once she and Dorothy reach Paris.) And because she’s beautiful and, presumably, because she’s blond, men fall all over themselves to buy her affections – in a rare turn of events, it’s a book where the thinly-drawn characters are males, a sort of anti-Sorkinism that had to be even more unusual in the ’20s.

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes doesn’t live up to its predecessor’s humor, as Lorelei only appears as the narrator of Dorothy’s life story, from a very rough upbringing to her eventual pursuit of a wealthy New York scion whose mother rather thoroughly disapproves of the match, setting various schemes in motion to save her son from a disastrous marrage. The narrative is more traditional, but aside from the slapstick nature of Dorothy and her beau chasing each other while her would-be mother-in-law interferes, it lacks the farcical nature of the first book, in part because Dorothy is no longer the wise-cracking observer but is enmeshed in the plot. It’s as short as the Blondes, though, and with the original illustrations by Ralph Barton taking up a number of pages, you could probably knock off the pair of novels in three hours or so.

Next up: I’ve finished Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio (about the irrational number φ) and moved on to Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America.

The Tin Drum.

In case you missed it, I did a redraft of the first round of the 2002 Rule 4 draft for ESPN.com yesterday.

Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum stands for critics as one of the greatest novels in German literature, ranking 39th on The Novel 100, 70th on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, and ranking fifth on this list of the best German novels of last century. Reading it for leisure doesn’t quite measure up to reading it as literature, and I believe a good number of allusions flew over my head due to my unfamiliarity with German (and Polish) history, but I hope I can recognize a novel’s greatness even if I wouldn’t say I loved reading it.

The drum of the title refers to a toy drum received by the narrator and main character, Oskar, for his third birthday. Oskar, precocious, cynical, and perhaps delusional, claims his personality was fully developed at birth, and at the age of three he stages an accident to prevent himself from growing physically, giving him an unusual vantage point for seeing and fooling the world, as he can play the innocent child to escape from mortal danger (even as he sends others, including both of the men he suspects of being his biological father, to their deaths), and uses that ruse to survive the German invasion of his hometown of Danzig/Gdansk, the assault on the Polish Post Office, Kristallnacht, World War II, and its immediate aftermath.

Oskar is mischievous, often devious, and has a strong instinct for self-preservation that he executes with one of his two great skills, using his voice to shatter glass, often to get what he wants but sometimes merely for the pleasure of destroying (although he might actually view it as creating, as a form of art). His other skill is to communicate via his drum: By playing the instrument, he can tell extensive stories and communicate his desires even before he’s able to speak – and he can pretend that he’s unable to speak for years beyond the point when he’s learned to do so.

Aside from the rampant symbolism – the drum, art, glass, aromas (Oskar has a hypersensitive sense of smell), Oskar’s obsession with his heritage despite its lack of clarity, and more – the brilliance of The Tin Drum is its use of humor and picaresque elements to lampoon Naziism, the church (and its complicity with the regime), and the willingness of so many Germans to go along with the regime. The book is sometimes crude and bawdy, but it’s in the service of dark, biting humor that tears apart Grass’s targets, such as the Nazi soldiers rotely building a wall and entombing small animals in it. You may often wish to avert your eyes (the horse’s head scene comes to mind), but these passages tend to be the book’s most powerful both on initial reading and after the book is done.

That said, it’s a tough read for two major reasons. One is simply that German syntax, even in this new, improved translation, doesn’t read that well to my English-reared mind. The other is that Oskar rambles, leading me to question whether he’s all there mentally or might even be unreliable as a narrator, producing long passages where nothing happens and I felt like I was reading in circles. The lengthy gaps between passages of action, or humor, or even dialogue, made it a tough slog, especially the final 100-150 pages – ordinarily a time of acceleration as the plot nears its conclusion. With The Tin Drum more of a history of a fictional character than a traditional linear narrative, there are no major plot points to resolve, and Oskar only undergoes one significant (albeit very significant) transformation in the book. It’s a cerebral novel where Oskar has some realizations but generally refuses to grow up, drawing not just from the picaresque tradition but from coming-of-age novels as well.

Next up: Alan Bradley’s second Flavia de Luce novel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I’ve been busy over at ESPN.com, including pieces on Chris Carpenter going to Boston and the A.J. Burnett trade, plus draft blog posts on Mark Appel, Kenny Diekroger, and Stephen Piscotty; and Luc Giolito and Max Fried.

I’d never read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas before last week primarily because I was always under the mistaken impression that it was a work of non-fiction, a magazine article or series of them expanded to book length. I’m sure most of you know that that impression was wrong, as it’s a novel, inspired by actual events and probably by actual drugs, but largely the product of Thompson’s expansive imagination and, in his own words, a “fantasy.”

The novel is often categorized as one of the earliest examples of “Gonzo journalism,” where the writer involves himself in the event or feature he’s covering. (In a related story, I’ll be throwing the sixth inning for the Rangers on Friday.) Thompson (as “Raoul Duke”) and his lawyer (“Dr. Gonzo”) scam their way through two dubious assignments in Las Vegas, one covering the Mint 400 off-road race, the other covering a conference of district attorneys to discuss the scourge of recreational drugs. They never even see the race beyond the starting pistol, spending more time running around Vegas getting into trouble, while their involvement in the Drug Conference is largely limited to scaring the crap out of a rural DA whose district hasn’t yet seen much action. Most of the novel is about these guys ingesting various substances and acting under their influence with often hilarious results.

I’m of two minds about the book. As a comic novel, a satire, or merely a piece of entertainment, it’s brilliant. The book reads like an unending con job, an Ocean’s 11 for people who are OK with having their fictional con men look like actual crooks. These two knuckleheads trash rental cars and hotel rooms, charge everything to their hotel accounts, and consume absurd quantities of drugs, taking one drug to ease the effect of coming down off another, and drinking heavily all the while. (Which makes me wonder how anyone could think this was all true. If Thompson survived ingesting all of these chemicals, would he actually remember anything that what happened afterwards?) A maid sees something she probably shouldn’t, so Thompson/Duke cooks up a scam on the spot threatening her with arrest, then turning her into an informant, which the gullible woman buys wholesale because she’s as greedy as the next American.

Where it lost me slightly was in its social commentary aspect, which probably just went past me as someone who was born two years after the book was published. The novel’s subtitle, “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” sets out up front that said journey isn’t going to be pretty, and it seems like Thompson’s intent was to put the lie to the common notion of the American Dream. In probably the funniest passage in the book, these two drug-addled idiots seek out “the American Dream” and are directing to a bar by that name, only to find that it burned down a few years earlier, the sort of symbolism that threatens to jump off the page and slap you in the face. (Your symbolism meter might break with all of the novel’s references to sharks and, eventually, to a car the characters nickname the “great white whale.”) They infiltrate the Drug Conference, already high, while privately mocking how far behind the times the attorneys and cops are, yet also realizing that the halcyon days of recreational drug use are over, losing its proponents to Vietnam, capitalism, and the effects of excessive consumption. But since the book’s publication, we’ve seen two economic booms (and busts), a growing wealth gap, massive changes in societal attitudes towards drugs, and a pretty big image overhaul for Vegas itself. The book’s humor remains, but I think the immediacy of its message has faded with time. Or perhaps I’m just sufficiently jaded that the book couldn’t have the same impact on me that it might have fifteen or twenty years ago.

Next up: I’m about two-thirds of the way through Wilkie Collins’ 1868 novel The Moonstone, regarded as the first detective novel, praised by writers from T.S. Eliot to G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Sayers.

The Baron in the Trees.

I want to thank all of you who’ve reached out via one medium or another to offer your prayers, positive thoughts, or best wishes on my upcoming thyroid surgery (one week from today). It’s supposed to be routine, but I admit I’m having a hard time thinking of it as such.

Yesterday’s chat was abbreviated, but I tried to plow through as many questions as I could in that short time.

I was introduced to the Italian novelist/fabulist Italo Calvino in college, in that “Comedy and the Novel” course (taught by the now-retired Prof. Donald Fanger) that also brought me to The Master & Margarita and The Charterhouse of Parma, among other titles. I’ve read other Calvino works, including Inscrutable Invisible Cities, but it wasn’t until I tackled The Baron In The Trees that I found something that lived up to the standard of the first novel of his that I’d read.

The Baron in the Trees is a fable, built on a plausible-but-not-really premise about a young man named Cosimo who, after a squabble with his sister that leaves him on the wrong side of the ledger with his parents, decides to climb one of the many trees on his family’s estate … and never comes down. He adapts to life in the trees, learning to navigate them all over their Ligurian village, ignoring property lines while, Omar Little-style, developing his own code of behavior and straddling the lines between outlaw and vigilante, and between folk hero and village idiot. He falls in love, develops da Vinci-like contraptions, crafts a philosophy (and sends it to Diderot), fights battles, meets Napoleon, and becomes a topic of discussion in the great salons of Europe.

While it’s not quite as imaginative as If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, one of the best and funniest novels I’ve ever read, The Baron in the Trees contains a more straightforward narrative and doesn’t lack for humor. Cosimo (who becomes a baron after his father dies) sees the world differently, figuratively and literally, from his new vantage point, and necessities like food and hygiene force him to conceive new and unusual solutions to keep himself in the trees. He can also better understand the consequences of his actions, such as his response to the discovery of a traitor amongst his father’s retinue, and the development of his philosophy, while obviously satirizing some of the political philosophers of the late 18th and early 19th century, is built on solid foundations, such as his understanding that “association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts,” while living a solitary, hermit-like existence in the trees was more likely to lead to bitter disagreements borne of a lack of trust between Cosimo and everyone else in the village. (I thought I also detected some elements here satirizing utopian movements of the 19th and even 20th centuries.)

The last third or so of the narrative starts to slow down as Calvino plunges Cosimo into more situations grounded in European history, thus reducing his interactions with members of the village and his own family, but the fact that he maintained a strong plot through a fable without having it fall apart at the end (or having to tie it up with an absurd plot twist) is a testament to his skill as a fabulist. I’d still recommend If on a winter’s night a traveler… (#20 on the Klaw 100) to a reader who has yet to read any Calvino works, but The Baron in the Trees would be an excellent second choice.

Next up: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.