Saturday, December 17, 2005

James Hynes reviews the NYRB reissue of 'D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths'

(originally published as 'Norse Gods and Giants') in this Sunday's NYTBR. I loved this book when I was little, I had it sort of permanently checked out from the school library (probably when I was in third grade or so?) & brought it in every week for ritual renewal (not, you know, the kind that they do in these stories, which involve blood sacrifice and people hanging from trees and stuff; just the kind involving a date-stamp and an inkpad).

I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of this new edition; and the Times even has Michael Chabon's amazing introduction available as a PDF file.

Oh, and the NYTBR has also FINALLY caught on and provided names of authors and titles along with the title of the piece in the Sunday book review online; the lack of these has been frustrating me for many months now, I do usually read online and there is nothing more annoying than clicking on (oh, I'm too lazy to go and find an example, I'll just make one up) an exciting-sounding review title like "The Naked Ape" and then finding out that instead of it being about either (a) an interesting reconsideration of the legacy of Desmond Morris or (b) a thrilling science-fiction novel about super-intelligent apes or (c) a really good literary novel that treats a human community in the style of Franz de Waal's amazing Chimpanzee Politics (now that's a book to read if you haven't already, especially if you're an academic--taken together with Trollope's Barsetshire novels it gives you everything you need to know about how to thrive in the academy) but instead (oh, I am irredeemably frivolous, but I make no apologies) (z) a mordant reflection by a member of the Bush administration about the failure of the Oslo accords that somehow, loosely, metaphorically, in its reflections on politics and human nature made some Times editor free-associate with the phrase "naked ape." In other words, a book I have no interest in whatsoever.

This Norse myth thing is going to have to console me for the delay in publication of Chabon's novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", which was my most anticipated novel of 2006 but is now coming out in winter 2007. (This has been widely blogged about elsewhere.) Here's what Chabon says on his (excellent) website:

HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn't even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn't had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.

Unfortunately, their Fall list is already set, which means that the book won't come out until Winter 2007. I had hoped never to repeat the seven-year gap between The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys, but now--if you don't count Summerland (for younger readers) or The Final Solution (a novella)--I will have done it again. Oh, well.

The good news, from my point of view, is that I will now be able to take the step that I had been obliged by the accelerated schedule to sacrifice: giving the book to some trusted readers, some of them with special knowledge of the subjects involved. Based on their responses, I will have a last precious opportunity to take one more run through the manuscript.

Of course I am SO disappointed, I already had it in my head that I was going to have this novel to read in a matter of months (it sounds like my perfect ideal novel, in fact the novel I'm finishing now has certain similarities to it); and yet it is of course the most sensible thing to wait. (Congratulations to Chabon for being so smart about this, and to the publishers for accommodating him; it is CRAZY to skip that last stage of having trusted readers check it out and the author take one more run through.)

In fact, I am CONSTANTLY railing against books that seem to have been written by authors bulldozed by the "book-a-year" constraint & not writing up to the level they should; I see how someone can write a great book every year if the books are all fairly similar to each other (Dick Francis!), or fairly short and straightforward in structure (say, first-person crime novels, so that what you learned in making the voice of one of the books can be directly applied to the next one, or a series like Terry Pratchett's Discworld where you do the worldbuilding-and-narrative-voice-type work in a big lump over the first few books, then get to add and amplify and enlarge in a more leisurely way year by year in the following books), but I do not think it's a coincidence that many of my favorite novels are written by novelists who only publish a "big" book every four or five years. A bit of time to sit and digest is the most important part, no? For most writers, at least; some are geniuses & it comes out beautifully the first time, but that is just not true for the rest of us.

(I am really saying this to console myself for how long it's taking to revise MY novel! More thoughts on revision to come; I don't want to write about it until I've finished the latest round of revisions and sent it off, but I've got various thoughts I want to get down, probably in mid-January. One of which is that blogging has turned out to be more immediately relevant to fiction-writing than I had previously thought. What do I mean by that? Well, basically that elements of the first-person voice I write in here--which has a lot in common, needless to say, with the way I would be talking to you if we were speaking face-to-face--turned out to be rather what was needed to get the third-person-limited voice of the novel more powerfully evoking the thoughts and feelings of my main character. But more on this to come, I must finish the work first before I spoil it all by writing about it.)

Oh, and while I guess I do think that The Final Solution is more of a novella than a novel and doesn't EXACTLY count (if we even care about counting, that is), Chabon is being unduly modest in suggesting that you shouldn't count Summerland as one of his major books. It is an AMAZING novel, really perfect in every way, and is actually the first book of his that I read--I loved it and immediately got all the others, which of course I adored as well. It's very much written in the Norse-myth spirit, and I highly recommend it; that and Neil Gaiman's American Gods make the perfect sequels to reading the myths themselves.

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