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The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation. I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of our handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.

—Patti Smith, from Just Kids

I came of age in New York City about the time Patti Smith was catapulted into notoriety and fame in the 1970s. A skinny young woman whose proto-grunge, anti-glam stance was the perfect compliment to her deeply personal, unvarnished music, Smith’s music and presence was a straight hit to my heart. She was a frequent downtown presence back then, but she never seemed to be tainted by the disabling toxicity of celebritism. She has been a special kind of hero for me all these years.

I finally found the time to begin reading her much lauded book (winner of the National Book Award last year) when I fell upon the perfect blog post to accompany my read. Luke Storms, one of my favorite online cohorts, writes the site Intense City. His thinking is eclectic, unexpected, honest, thoughtfully structured, well informed and yet humble (a quality I admire more than most.) So if Smith’s memoir is just one of many interests for you, stop in and spend some time. WWTR—well worth the read.


A moment of light revelry in the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the MFA, Boston

This following is an excerpt from an old (1997) Atlantic interview with Charles Baxter whose recently released collection of short stories is called Gryphon:

Atlantic: In your essay “Against Epiphanies” you argue that a “character’s experiences in a story [don’t] have to be validated by a conclusive insight or brilliant visionary stop-time moment” and go on to assert that “radiance, after a while, gets routine.” Yet the characters in your short stories often do experience moments of startling revelation — and, in fact, many critics identify your graceful use of epiphanies as one of your unique talents. How do you reconcile the thoughts expressed in your essay with instances of revelation in your fiction?

Baxter: I can’t reconcile them. Or maybe I’m like Huck Finn’s father, who has perfected his denunciation of alcohol during the day and his back-alley binges at night. I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras but I am besotted by them—can’t get enough of them in life or elsewhere…Seriously though, as a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred. At the same time I know that when these moments are arranged—particularly at the end of short stories—they acquire an absolutely formulaic quality…If you’re trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven’t found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides, as I wrote in the essay, I’ve had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I’m suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!

I am taken in by the dilemma he describes—disapproving of epiphanies but besotted by them nonetheless. And even though he is focused on fiction forms (he teaches creative writing to MFA students), there are parallels that exist in other art forms as well.

I was also engaged by his description of his proclivities: “As a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred.” That is an impulse I know well.

East First Street in South Boston on Monday morning (my studio is on the right)

Ice lace on my studio wall

The highlight of that infamous genre, The Christmas Letter (which is, let’s face it, a mixed bag) for me is the yearly book recommendations that arrive from my long time friends Mary Pat and Michael. Both are intelligent and thoughtful readers, and their recommendations provide a reliable compass for my book stack. (Michael is a professor of literature at College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

Here are their recommendations from 2010. And with a storm like the one we have had here in Boston, curling up with a great book is the most appropriate response. These all sound delicious to me.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Okay, so we’re a little late in our discovery of this novel, which was published in 1974. But it’s the most powerful book we’ve read in years. The Dispossessed is science fiction, but that’s like saying Moby-Dick is a fishing book. This novel set on an earth-like planet and its moon is as profound a meditation on democracy as the Declaration of Independence; it’s about the challenges of building a more just and equal society. Plus, it’s a terrific read, with spaceships and aliens and sex.

David Malouf, Ransom

You may remember the episode in The Iliad when Priam leaves Troy at night, steals into the Greek camp, and begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body. Out of these few lines from Homer, Malouf, an Australian poet, has spun a brief, beautiful, perfect book.

Ian McEwan, Solar

Michael Beard, the protagonist of this new novel by one of our favorite writers, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a complete scoundrel. Reading about his downfall, we kept laughing out loud. We bet that you will too.

Lynn Powell, Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response

Powell, a prize-winning poet, lives in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. Ten years ago, her friend and neighbor Cynthia Stewart was led out of the house in handcuffs, charged with child pornography for having taking pictures of her daughter in the bathtub. This terrific legal thriller is both scary (there’s a this-could-happen-to-anybody feel to the story) and uplifting (the community’s defense of Cynthia, a much-loved schoolbus driver, is very moving). This year’s if-you-read-only-one-book pick.

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

The latest novel by this brilliant satirist is set in the dystopian near future, in a New York City filled with the callous rich and the desperate poor, a world of casual sex and shallow connections, where young people obsessively check their mobile devices instead of actually, like, talking with one another. Witty and deeply disturbing.

And as a postscript: Michael emailed me the following addition to his list which I include here as well:

Since writing them, Mary Pat and I have discovered our new Favorite Author: David Mitchell. I’ve only read Cloud Atlas, which is generally held to be his masterpiece. It’s simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I have to get Number Nine Dream, and I want to listen to his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, on CD. Mary Pat is currently reading Black Swan Green, which she says is terrific; as soon as she’s done, I’ll begin it.

Blake Morrison has published his review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, in the Guardian. Reading a Brit’s view of this very American novel is refreshing. Plus Morrison is an insightful reader.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like most writers, Franzen is a mass of contradictions. His fiction is generous and expansive, but it’s achieved through monastic discipline: no children, no holidays, several years spent working on each book (seven for The Corrections, nine for Freedom). He has a great ear and eye for contemporary speech and manners, but during spells of writing The Corrections he sat in the dark with earmuffs and a blindfold. He’s up-to-speed with technological developments and how they’re changing the world, but he doubts whether anyone with an internet connection at the workplace can write good fiction. His literary taste is sternly high-minded but he claims not to understand how anyone can enjoy reading Samuel Beckett. He thinks of fiction as a “form of social opposition”, but his prevailing tone is sociable, ironic, forgiving. He’s widely acclaimed for having written the first great novel of the 21st century, but the form of that novel – state-of-the-nation social realism – looks back to Dickens and George Eliot.

Most of these contradictions, especially the last, aren’t contradictions at all. The 19th-century novel had, at best, a moral complexity and social range that allowed readers to understand the world they lived in. And although Franzen knows that television, radio and the internet have supposedly replaced fiction as “the pre-eminent medium of social instruction”, he doubts whether they can offer what the novel does. “More than ever, to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,” he has said, books being the place “where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world”.

An earlier post about my response to Freedom here.

I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Even though yet another blog post about the literary sensation of the moment is not contributing much to the collective forward motion of our cultural understanding, I can’t NOT spend just a little time talking about the book.

The reviews have been unabashedly glowing, so much so that another storm system developed around claims of gender bias in book reviews and asking why it is that we (all of us) seem more interested in male writers than female writers. I don’t mean to dismiss these questions. They are similar to the concerns raised by the Guerrila Girls regarding the visual arts back in the 80s, and increased awareness of the (mostly) invisible bias favoring male painters and artists resulted from their efforts. But that isn’t my topic today. The book is.

I loved Freedom, and I’ll tell you why. Or at least some of the reasons why I couldn’t put it down.

1. Franzen captures the peculiar confusion and complexity of life since 9/11, most of it under the very unfortunate watch of Bush/Cheney. It is the time capsule portrait of life in the US in the aughts. Poignantly so.

2. He steps into Big Themes with bravado. And even though he doesn’t handle all of them with mastery, he’s not a fool and stays afloat. So here is a story that deals with relationships, parenthood, family, heritage, depression, politics, liberal and conservative blindspots, ecology, save the world-itis, fidelity, money, misuse of power, war, class warfare, suburbanism, honesty, loyalty and forgiveness, among many others.

3. His character development does not feel gender-skewed. His men and his women are complexly drawn and not cartooned. Sometimes they are endearing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes desperately familiar in their human frailty. But my allergic reaction to the ease with which many male writers repeatedly miss the mark on female sensibilities was not triggered once.

4. His protagonists, like all of us, are cripplingly flawed. In fact I felt no sympathy or attraction to his female protagonist until the last 100 pages. But by god you want them to figure it out. Desperately. I wanted each of them to measure out the black holes in their souls, put up some police barricade tape and steer everybody else clear of the sure disaster that would ensue should someone overstep the edge. The humanness of the story touched me deeply.

5. Franzen doesn’t preach. He doesn’t offer answers but reveals how complex every decision we make actually is. This book is about the question, How should we live? I would feel manipulated if he thought he had the answer to that, but I am moved by how much thought he has given to that question and incorporated that thinking into a beautifully written novel.

Excerpt from Freedom:

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

And thes two final paragraphs from Sam Tanenhaus’ review in the New York Times:

Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front — the seething national peace that counter­poises the foreign war. Himself a confirmed and well-informed environmentalist, Franzen gives full voice to Walter’s increasingly extreme preachments on the subjects of overpopulation and endangered species. “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” he declares at one point, in a rant that goes viral on the Internet as his dream sours into a nightmare vision of a land in which “the winners,” who own the future, trample over “the dead and dying and forgotten, the endangered species of the world, the nonadaptive.”

The apocalypse, when it comes, clears the way for a postlude, set in Minnesota, that is as haunting as anything in recent American fiction. In these pages, Walter, “a fanatic gray stubble on his cheeks,” seizes hold of the novel, and Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life. Walter, groping toward deliverance, mourns “a fatal defect in his own makeup, the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.” But of course it is no defect at all. It is the highest, most humanizing grace. And it cares nothing about power. Like all great novels, “Freedom” does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.

Sarah McLachlan in 1998. Her 2010 Lilith Fair tour has had to cancel dates. Lady Gaga, whose influence is pervasive among many female pop singers. (Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage—Getty Images; Andy Paradise/Associated Press)

Sincerity. I knew it was beleaguered but who knew it was on life support? The Sunday Times‘ Arts & Leisure above-the-fold article is about the sea change in women’s pop music: Pure Gaga: Sincerity Becomes a Tough Sell, as Spectacle Rules in Women’s Pop.

OK, sure, there’s more involved here than just the sincerity quotient. But while I take an “I’m curious about everything” stance with music and find both Sarah McLachlan and Lady Gaga of interest, the stark reality is that what has shifted in women’s pop music is just one more facet of a shift in creative culture in general. As Jon Caramanica states it in his article, McLachlan’s Lilith Fair “trafficked in a very specific brand of feminism: organic, direct, unadorned, intimate…But in the recent pop mainstream these female artists are far outweighed by the eccentrics, the freaks, the adventuresome. For them performance and exteriority are central to their self-presentation, far more so than any lyrical message.”

It’s getting more difficult to get both/and in a cultural mood that seems to swing from one end of the extreme to the other.

Parallels could be drawn from other creative métiers as well. I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel that consists of two quite separate accounts that hint at a common protagonist but keeps it intentionally ambiguous. The first story takes place in Venice during a Biennale, the protagonist a disaffected journalist on assignment to report on this legendary international art event. Dyer savagely skewers an absurdist and hypocritical art world without ever having to take on a tone of bitter vitriol—the detached narration simply reports what journalist Jeff sees.

For example:

There was all this art and yet there was very little to see, or very little worth looking at anyway. Some of it was a waste of one’s eyes. Good. Because even though there was nothing to see, there was a lot of it to get round and Jeff had to at least poke his nose in everything. Quite a bit of the work on display could have been designated conceptual, in so far as the people looking at it were conceived has having the mentality of pupils at junior school. fair enough, except most of it looked like it was made by someone in primary school, albeit a primary school pupil with the ambition of a seventeen-year-old Russian whose widowed mother had saved every ruble to get him into a tennis academy in Florida. The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.

Been there, done that. Dyer’s analogy is spot on IMHO.

The second half of the book takes place in Varanasi, India’s most holy city, and it has a very different texture and pace. The protagonist, once again a journalist on assignment, does not possess the parasitic hanger on, self-indulgent, freeloading proclivities of Jeff in Venice. The second half of the novel is a slow unwinding of story, character and tautness as the journalist renounces layer after layer of his life and his sense of himself. It is done in a manner that feels prescribed and ritualistic in its protracted measuredness.

Here’s a sampling:

Some people stop believing that happiness is going to come their way. On the brink of becoming one of them, I began to accept that it was my destiny to be unhappy. In the normal course of things I wold have made some accommodation with this, would have set up camp as a permanently unhappy person. But what had happened in Varanasi was that something was taken out of the equation so that there was nothing for unhappiness to fasten itself upon. That something was me. I had cheated destiny. Actually, the passive construction is more accurate: destiny had been cheated.

Dyer’s book maps a nonmoralistic devolution from the thrill of fame, drugs, sex and celebritism to that state where a postmodern, detached world has nothing to “fasten itself upon.” The contrast between the two narratives in this book—both taking place in water-centric cities (with names that both start with a V) that are self-contained, mythic laden and each overflowing with a singular mystique around death and loss—works as a metaphor for a range of either/ors that populate our contemporary consciousness.

While my particular version of an art world counter vision has more muscle than the slow fade of Dyer’s Varanasi, I’m firmly planted in a landscape that is increasingly becoming an artistic outsider counter vision. While my art making locale isn’t the crunchy granola of “organic, direct, unadorned, intimate” that is the Lilith Fair, it does feature art that has “residential” power (work you want to live with and look at every day) rather than the terminally clever, a quiet groundedness rather than showy theatricity, highly personal rather than detached. It’s a place where there is something to fasten upon, repeatedly, and where Roberta Smith’s memorable line (which I first wrote about here) is in full swing: An “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

Nox, by Anne Carson (Photo: Tony Cenicola)

I’ve followed Anne Carson’s work for many years. She’s a complex persona—part professor of classics, poet, novelist, essayist, critic and all around category buster—exploring a wide range of topics, approaches and methodologies. Meghan O’Rourke’s description is apt: “Anne Carson has somehow become a culture hero—the ‘anti-bourgeois’ variety of icon that, as Susan Sontag once noted, appeals by being ‘repetitive, obsessive, and impolite.'” But this is repetition, obsessiveness and impoliteness I can’t get enough of.

One of the most memorable Carson pieces for me is a short essay she wrote about one of my favorite all time plays, The Invention of Love*, Tom Stoppard’s extraordinarily erudite play that deals with the life of poet A. E. Houseman. (Carson’s piece was included in a handout and audience “aid” written by classicists and dramaturges when Stoppard’s play was performed in New York City a few years back. It is in my bookshelves, somewhere…) One of her earliest books, Eros the Bittersweet, is a fascinating treatise on the role of eros in Ancient Greek culture and has developed a kind of cult following. Her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red, permanently reframed my relationship with the Heraklean myth cycle.

So of course I would be interested in her latest conception. This is how Ben Ratliff begins his New York Times review of her most recent book, Nox:

Anne Carson’s new book comes in a box the color of a rainy day, with a sliver of a family snapshot on the front. Inside is a Xerox-quality reproduction of a notebook, made after the death of her brother, including text and photographs and letters, pasted-in inkjet printouts, handwriting, paintings and collage. “Nox” has no page numbers, and it’s accordion-folded. It carries a whiff of visual art multiple or gift shop souvenir or “Griffin & Sabine.” But trust me: it’s an Anne Carson book. Maybe her best.

Carson, a university classics professor by trade, is usually described as a poet, though that’s not her problem. None of her books contain all verse in any traditional sense — not counting her translations — and some contain none. There’s not much poetry in this one, yet the whole thing is poetry of a kind you’re not used to. Her words are often not very melodious. Even on the hot subjects of desire and impermanence (sex and death and all their implications), she’s analytical, pedagogical, privately plain-spoken, stonily amused. In “Nox,” the linkage of ideas approaches a kind of music; the language works only in their service, without much extra show.

Carson’s book is wrapped around the story of her real life brother Michael, a man who struggled with drugs and with staying out of jail, a drifter with whom Carson was never close. It doesn’t sound like a strong foundational start for a project of this scope. And yet based on Ratcliff’s review, it succeeds.

More from Ratliff’s review:

Every thought runs together in “Nox.” Elegy and history are cousins, she explains, because they’re both forms of autopsy. She describes translating as being in “a room . . . where one gropes for the light switch”; it’s her own nox. But Michael, whom she still does not understand, is her night as well, her dark room whose light will never go on. (“A brother never ends,” she writes.) Of course, her subject’s life was full of night, too: he traveled on a false passport. Even the dictionary entries are rolled into the big theme: the discussion about the metaphorical dark room leads her to talk of “entries” as endless ways into “a room I can never leave.” The book is totally recherché and weirdly clear, lingered over and neatly boxed, precious in the word’s best sense.

Her risk taking, her unpredictability, her exploratory mashing up of forms and functions, all part of what makes Carson’s work so compelling and inspiring. I love Ratliff’s phrase to describe this book—“weirdly clear”. It seems a fitting description of her work in general.

* If I could find my copy of that handout I’d quote from Anne Carson herself. But since I can’t, here’s a memorable description of Stoppard’s play by the old lion of the American Repertory Theater himself, Robert Brustein: “The Invention of Love (…) may well be the showiest of all of Stoppard’s intellectual exercises. (…) There is not enough plot here for twenty minutes of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight.” Oh yeah. Bring it on.

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players (Photo: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin)

Thank you Sue Halpern for a great article on the New York Review of Books blog. Book markers, unite!!

When I saw David Foster Wallace’s annotations at the top of the blog page, it was like seeing a meal of comfort food waiting on the table, warm and familiar. I passionately love to mark up books. I have been doing it for most of my life and am now at the point where I can’t really sink deep into a book unless I have a writing device in my hand at the same time. It’s like the mind, eye and hand have to all be engaged for the magic to begin.

I’ve asked myself why this behavior appeals to me so deeply. I think of my markings as a form of map making, applying my own personal navigational sense to a text the way a previously uncharted landscape could be notated. These annotations are a kind of personal guidance system, a breadcrumb trail laid down for my future self when she needs to make her way through that part of the forest again. Going back into a book I’ve marked up years later feels like the front door was left open with instructions to just walk in.

Book marking is also a sly way of creating parity with an author, of softening the advantage he or she has of having already laid down their arguments so carefully in advance. My markings feel conversational, interactive and contributory.

Halpern’s article, What the iPad Can’t Do, actually deals with the difficulty of marking up a text when using e-books. Halpern has included a very detailed description of what one would have to do if one were to attempt to create markings on a Kindle or an iPad. Reading her ingenious but convoluted instructions of mismatched apps and gerrymandered platforms is actually kind of hilarious. And as much as I love that iPad I bought my partner Dave, I love marking up books just as much.


Because I hold books in such high regard, finding one quite by chance feels serendipitously ordained. I always wonder, is the book lost or intentionally left behind just so I could find it? Sometimes it feels like a mystical encounter with a non-sentient being.

Beach houses, small hotels and B&Bs are all good places for this to happen. Everywhere I go I notice what books are left on the bedstand or jammed into a bookshelf where they look longingly at you, waiting patiently for someone to give them a (new) home.

One hotel I stayed at in India took this idea of the Lost Book quite seriously and had an entire room devoted to the volumes that guests had left behind over the years. On the inside front cover of every book, someone had carefully written the room number and date of the find. Such careful documentation! I was touched that they approached these abandoned books with the same regard one would attend to a lost child or pet. With a hospitality so common in India, hotel guests were invited to peruse the shelves. I found two great books in that room that accompanied me for the rest of my trip—Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda and The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, both of them perfect for my peregrinating adventure in the subcontintent.

So the back page of today’s New York Times Book Review was just my kind of piece. Leanne Shapton, author and illustrator, introduces her topic, Summer Shares, with words that resonated deeply with me:

There is fate in the moldy, dog-eared paperbacks found on the shelves and bedside tables of summer guest rooms. When the masterpiece we’ve dutifully brought along stalls five pages in, the accidental bounty of other people’s discarded reading beckons. Like conversations with strangers on a train, these random literary encounters can be unsettling, distracting or life changing. Eight writers tell us what they have read on their summer vacations.

The selections by 8 writers are all interesting. Maile Meloy chose to write about a classic:

“The Italians,” by Luigi Barzini, was in our room near Baratti, Italy, just across from the island of Elba, where Napoleon was exiled. There was no window in the bathroom because the local government wouldn’t give permission for it, but there was talk of adding a small one secretly at night. That made no sense until I started reading “The Italians” and Barzini explained Italy to me.

And this by Arthur Bradford:

One hot summer we rented this house near Austin, Tex., that was on a river with natural springs where you could swim. I found a paperback copy of Charles Portis’s “Dog of the South” in the house, which I’m ashamed to say I stole because it was so funny. I had to have it! Since then I’ve bought other copies of that book and left them at people’s houses in an attempt to reverse the karma.

A note about Leanne Shapton: She is a perfect author to take on this topic. Her most recent publication is Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. What a great title and what an ingenious idea. Shapton has created a fake auction catalog featuring the physical objects the remained afer the dissolution of a four year relationship. From Liesl Schillinger’s review of the book in the New York Times:

Taken together, the item descriptions provide a running, cumulative portrait of one couple’s glorious rise and deflating fall. . . For people who have ever thought that the little gestures, tokens and inside jokes of their relationships were unique to them, Ms. Shapton’s book comes as a poignant, jarring reminder of the sameness of the steps that so many couples retrace. . . Despite the mist of melancholy that floats amid this photographic record, there is also humor, caprice, knowingness and the implicit suggestion that changing feelings and fading possessions can’t rob a true romance of the value it had at its height. As Lenore and Hal’s remembrances show, a love affair is worth more than its trappings could fetch at a jumble sale.

My friend Thalassa recently lent me her copy of Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated from the German. Our tastes are highly confluent, so I was ready and primed for something delicious. And indeed it is.

This book cast a spell on me. I don’t know what other language I could use to describe my reaction. To use the term “cast a spell” epitomizes occultiness (akin to Colbert’s truthiness) and a problematic term to use to describe an overwhelming attraction to a work of art, music or literature. But there is something about this kind of reaction that is different from the usual: the quality of the energetics is of another order. It is a response that is more than being “deeply touched”, “awed by the skill”, “overwhelmed by the beauty”, “fabulously rendered”, “masterfully constructed”—all terms that fall short. So I’m going with spell cast.

Night Train is a book that quickly divides the world into two groups—those that hate it and those that love it. A quick run through the 30+ reviews on Amazon gives graphic demonstration of an essentially bifurcated response to this very European novel (Pascal Mercier is actually Peter Bieri in real life, a Swiss writer, philosopher and professor.) For plot-loving readers this read is truly a wash out. But Mercier has mastered another way to engage the mind that is unlike any other book I know.

There are so many things about they way the story is told (and yes there is a story) that I find astounding. Characters dead and alive all come to cohabit the space of the novel. The narrative voice is often in the form of written treatises about moral philosophy, personal identity, meaning, cognition. That does sound awfully dry when I write those words, doesn’t it? Perhaps I should stop here and just say, give it a try. You will know by page 50 if this is going to put you in a space capsule and shoot you to another galaxy far, far away.