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The Digested Read by John Crace

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Any day now I will be crushed by the teetering stack of books beside my computer that I’ve read but not yet reviewed here. Hopefully that will happen before I get around to Julian by Gore Vidal.

Anyhow, unwilling to break with tradition and downright frightened at the thought of approaching the Stack, I feel compelled to mention The Digested Read by John Crace. A regular column in The Guardian books section, The Digested Read is the anti-hype answer to the publishing world’s gushing. It creates a bit of balance. In the columnist’s words:

The idea of rewriting a book in the style of the author in just 500 or so words is a gift to any satirist, and it remains the only outlet in the print media where publishers’ hype always gets treated with the irreverence it deserves.

The basic premise for the Digested Read is that it should be the book that has created the most media noise that week.

I’ve always had a great deal of admiration for parody and satire as it takes a great deal of writerly skill and wit to pull off. Besides which, when done well nothing is more hilarious. John Crace is not always brilliant, but is nevertheless an enjoyable and necessary voice in today’s media-mad world.

This from the re-write of Life Class by Pat Barker:

They lay on the dingy bed as the trains rattled past the window. “My husband will kill us,” Teresa said nonchalantly. “Look, he’s even written me a note to that effect.”

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Flaubert, Du Camp, early photography in Egypt, Nubia, Palestine and Syria

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

old photograph Maxime Du CampIf you’ve read Flaubert in Egypt or Geoffrey Wall’s magnificent biography Flaubert, you’ll remember Gustave’s travel companion, Maxime Du Camp.

Before they headed to Egypt, Du Camp studied for six months with a professional photographer. No disposable or point-and-shoot digital in those days! You practically had to be a chemist. And the amount of luggage it generated was incredible: bottles and bottles of delicate chemicals, crates of glass plates plus all the peripheral equipment and finally, the camera itself. It was a major undertaking.

geoffrey wall flaubertAnd Du Camp, if memory serves, was the first to take photos in Egypt. The first to capture the pyramids, the desert, the ancient monuments. I remember reading somewhere (where?) that Flaubert was horrified — no one would ever see these things for themselves first, through their own eyes. From then on, everyone would see these wonders through layers of previously seen photographs.

Well, it’s far too late to us, drenched as we are in images. So enjoy flipping through some lovely early photos of Egypt and North Africa and here’s a complete NYPL scan of the book of photos that Du Camp published when he returned.

And just for fun, here’s an excerpt from Wall’s bio.

Flaubert made conscientious efforts to imitate the bizarre cry of the camel. “I hope to perfect it before we leave, but it is quite difficult because of the particular gurgling sound that quivers somewhere beneath the screech…” […and a little later…] Suppressing the urge to put a bullet through his friend’s head, Du camp sent Flaubert away to ride ahead at a safe distance.

the sphinx still buried in sand
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Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Sunday, August 20th, 2006

Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun

Beware the distractions of the internet! I sat down two hours ago to write this review and promptly discovered Pandora which is an impressive tool from the Music Genome Project. It’s downright eerie how well it guesses what I’ll like. Sadly, they don’t have any classical or “world” music and I was just about to give up when started finding some great old jazz. Hurray! Adding Leonard Cohen and Josh Ritter has produced some interesting results and I’ve actually discovered some great new music. This thing really works!

Then, I happened upon this entertaining article in the Globe called “No books? The terrorists have won” ( Need a password ? )

Then, I started rooting around in one of my favorite sources for fabulous articles: mirabilis. There went another hour spent in wonderfully interesting reads.

Okay, I’m back and I will write this.

I seem to have a bit of a thing for Norwegian writers and now I can add Hamsun to the list. I read this on vacation, which I heartily recommend. It’s not a book I could read dashing between jobs on public transit. And that, to me, is only right: the book draws you into a world so utterly different from ours. There are a lot of differences, but the biggest is how people move through time. This is a slow, thoughtful, eerily beautiful book that you can’t stop reading.

Details of Knut Hamsun’s life are variously reported. The Encyclopædia Britannica claims he began writing “at the age of 19, when he was a shoemaker’s apprentice”. Other sources (i.e.: the Nobel Prize people!) say he was “an apprentice to a ropemaker” which I admit I prefer — talk about a lost art! And of course, the internet has its share of gossip, claiming that “Following a meeting with Joseph Goebbels in 1943, he [Hamsun] sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize medal as a gift.” Britannica is ominously silent on this one and I don’t have access to a library, so I can’t tell you if there’s anything to it. But it’s the old argument of the artist vs. the man. So, on to the artist.

Here’s an excerpt from an article of his:

“Language must resound with all the harmonies of music. The writer must always, at all times, find the tremulous word which captures the thing and is able to draw a sob from my soul by its very rightness. A word can be transformed into a colour, light, a smell. It is the writer’s task to use it in such a way that it serves, never fails, can never be ignored. The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words. He must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word. There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too.”

I wish I could read him in the original, but his writing comes through as utterly unique even in translation. If you want to read more about him, here’s an excellent article from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

I’m certainly looking forward to reading more by him.

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

Before I begin, I must say that book reviews these days give me a major pain. Book review. Where’s the damn review? All they do is tell you the plot. That is not a review, it is a blurb. What’s wrong with everyone?!? Sigh…

Okay, first off, if you think I’m going to tell you what this is about, dream on. Obviously you didn’t read the intro. So, what did I think of this one? Well, it was a good read, some interesting insights, some interesting history, some good characters and ideas… overall the key word appears to be “good.” I would only qualify that by saying “a good read.” Which means that it made for many happy subway rides. Nothing life-changing or deep, but sometimes that’s a good thing.

I really did love one of the characters–Fermìn. He was fabulous. One of those characters you wish you knew.

I’d like to understand what it was that kept me at a distance, though. I can’t quite figure that out.

Here’s a couple of mini interviews: here and scroll down a bit for this one.

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