Tag Archives: Philip Roth

Quote of the Day

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“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely—at least, not all the time—but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.” 

Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967

I don’t now why (though I sorta/kinda do), but I woke up (i.e. raised my torso after a sleepless night) and had Hunter S. Thompson on my mind. If you’ve read War and Peace, the above quote might remind you of one of Tolstoy’s most famous passages from his opus (the “Love hinders death” passage).

My first foray into Hunter baby’s world came with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To this day, it and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel remain  the two funniest books I’ve ever read. With Thompson, the man had an ability to live in and describe the world he was a part of like nobody else. While some may brush off gonzo journalism as hack writing or immature, drug-addled creativity, I have personally never read anyone like him before or since.

Another quote that came to mind this morning as I ambled around my apartment in the wee morning hours like a decrepit old man with failing bones was from the same book as above:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Finally, on a more positive note (I think), I’ll close off Hunter S. Thompson’s Quote of the Day with a simple line that has more value to it than you might think at first. In its quietly pessimistic yet sobering logic, there’s actually something positive to be taken from it:

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.”

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Warning: Reading in Bed Can Kill

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Writing for The Atlantic, Nika Mavrody wrote an interesting piece on reading titled “The Dangers of Reading in Bed.” Now, Ms. Mavrody is specifically referring to 18th-century Europe, but the interesting thing here is, at least for me, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Let me explain.

Back in the 1700s, people were discouraged when it came to reading at bed, especially late at night. The first reason is an obvious one: With candles and lanterns providing the necessary light to read, it was inevitable that some people died a fire-filled fiery death when some part of the bed or curtains or covers caught on fire. (To be fair, of the 29,000 fires recorded over a 30-year period in London in the 19th century, reading in bed was responsible for just as many fires as – you guessed it! – cats. Duh.

Anyway, the real problem 300 years ago was that reading was discouraged in bed because (1) you were supposed to be praying at night before drifting off to sleep; (2) it was “condemned for fear that individual autonomy would lead to a breakdown in the collective moral order”; and (3) it became analogous to masturbating, which is/was clearly a cardinal sin. Double duh.

Ironically, though the times have changed and so have the reasons for not reading in bed, that is, it can lead to disruptive sleep patterns and even insomnia (professionals caution that beds should be used for only two purposes: sleep and sex), we now have an altogether stranger problem. As Philip Roth told Le Monde in 2013:

“One must acknowledge the triumph [of] the screen. I don’t remember ever in my lifetime the situation being as sad for books—with all the steady focus and uninterrupted concentration they require—as it is today. And it will be worse tomorrow and even worse the day after.”

We’re basically so wrapped up in visual stimuli like TV, computer screens, text messaging, and social media that we lack the powers of concentration to actually sit still in a quiet room, late at night, and actually read more than a page before we get antsy, fidgety, or downright bored.

Perhaps it really is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At least when it comes to reading in bed.

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Philip Roth, the Donald & The Plot Against America

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In a piece from the January 30, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Judith Thurman wrote an intriguing article on Philip Roth and the American president entitled “Philip Roth E-mails on Trump.”

The question that Ms. Thurman poses is nothing short of staggering: Did Roth, somehow, through his book The Plot against America, inadvertently augur the rise of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States?

Since “retiring” from writing (or at least publishing) in 2010 at the age of 77, Mr. Roth has been fairly quiet in the public eye. Yet when asked if his novel “has happened here,” the Titan of Letters responded:

“It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”

When later asked by e-mail if “this warning” has befallen the United States – and by extension the rest of the world – Mr. Roth wrote:

“My novel wasn’t written as a warning. I was just trying to imagine what it would have been like for a Jewish family like mine, in a Jewish community like Newark, had something even faintly like Nazi anti-Semitism befallen us in 1940, at the end of the most pointedly anti-Semitic decade in world history. I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us. As for how Trump threatens us, I would say that, like the anxious and fear-ridden families in my book, what is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.” 

Gulp.

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Quote of the Day

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“There is a limit to the amount of misery and disarray you will put up with, for love, just as there is a limit to the amount of mess you can stand around a house. You can’t know the limit beforehand, but you will know when you’ve reached it. I believe this.”

Alice Munro, “Bardon Bus”

Canada’s first Nobel Prize in Literature Laureate, this Quote of the Day comes from the sixth story, “Bardon Bus,” in Ms. Munro’s fifth book, The Moons of Jupiter (1982). Often referred to as the “Master of the Short Story” and the “Chekov of Our Times,” Alice Munro is without doubt a titan in modern literature.

Personally, what’s always struck me about her prose is how clean, simple and poignant it is. Whereas authors like Michael Ondaatje and Irvine Welsh seem to effortlessly turn the English language on its head – and still succeed as novelists that make each unique in their own way – Alice Munro is like a carpenter, electrician and contractor all rolled into one; she can take what at first glance appears to be basic building blocks, and with practiced grace takes a literary hole in the ground only to transform it into a remarkable house, a home that is at once new and glorious, yet vaguely familiar and comfortable.

Sadly, Alice Munro, like her contemporary Philip Roth, announced her “retirement” from writing four years ago. But, just as with Mr. Roth, the rumour mill abounds with speculation that she will pick up her quill and quire once again and we will all be blessed with more literary genius from a literary genius.

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Quote of the Day

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Not only is The Great American Novel my favourite Philip Roth novel, but it’s without doubt one of the funniest and most satirically biting stories I’ve ever read. You don’t even have to like baseball (the backdrop to the story) to appreciate the plot; you’ll be too busy wiping away your tears of nitrous oxide-induced laughter to care about “Who’s on First?”

The year is 1943. America is deep into the Second World War, but the country’s pastime must go on! Thus is borne the Patriot League (a fictional baseball league in the U.S.) as a nationwide communist conspiracy attempts to erase its history because it’s become a fully open communist organization.

Roth, who like Alice Munro has “retired” from writing, may have published this book in 1973, and it may be set over 70 years ago, but its message still rings true today. Furthermore and therefore moreover, it’s still a great read all these decades on.

As proof positive of said claim, savour this passage:

“America?” said Gamesh, smiling. “Roland, what’s American to you? Or me, or those tens of thousands up in the stands? It’s just a word they use to keep your nose to the grindstone and your toes to the line. America is the opiate of the people.”

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The Hockey of Literature

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David Davis wrote an awesome piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) called “The Puck Stops Here: A Hockey Lit Survey.” If you thought man’s greatest pastime (reading) couldn’t join forces with our greatest sport (hockey, no, not the field variety), then think again.

The strange (fascinating?) thing about this is has to do with the principal character in this LARB piece, William Faulkner, the good old Southern boy who was more interested in war and riding horses than anything to do with a rubber puck and a bunch of Canadians skating around an ice surface in between beating each other up.

But all that changed, apparently, when a little-known magazine at the time, Sports Illustrated, sent Faulkner to a Rangers-Canadiens game at MSG in the winter of 1955. As Faulkner would later write:

“[The game] seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child’s toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers — a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.”

From Faulkner’s impressions of players who “would not emerge like the sweating barehanded behemoths from the troglodyte mass of football, but instead as fluid and fast and effortless as rapier thrusts or lightning ” to the children’s classic, The Hockey Sweater, to the sport’s Golden Age, Summit Series, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo – this article has it all!

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Quote of the Day

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While not his most famous literary achievement, Michael Ondaatje is money in the bank when it comes to beautiful prose regardless of the work you’re reading. The selection below is from Coming Through Slaughter, Ondaatje’s debut work of fiction about legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden, and the same book that would go on to win Amazon.ca’s First Novel Award for 1976.

In a week marred (yes, marred) by Nobelgate, it still confounds me that Mr. Ondaatje has (a) not won a Nobel Prize in Literature to date, and (b) wasn’t  even in the running this year. (According  to an article by Russell Smith in last week’s Globe and Mail, “The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was the leader at 4/1, followed by people such as Syrian poet Adonis, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Albanian Ismail Kadare. The only American writers who were considered even a possibility were the cerebral and serious Philip Roth and Don de Lillo.”)

But without further ado, here’s just one example (among thousands) of how Michel Ondaatje bends the English language to his will, effortlessly, it seems, in ways mere mortals like myself could never hope to accomplish.

“Accidental lust on the bus carrying her new into his dead brain so even months later, years later, pieces of her body and character returned. What he wanted was cruel, pure relationship.”

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Six Degrees of Maria Semple

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Kevin Bacon, pack up your grits. You ain’t got nuttin’ on Maria Semple. Per an article on slate.com, Dan Kois and Andrew Khan were struck with an idea upon publication of Semple’s latest book: Why not ask the Seattle-based writer what she thinks is the funniest book by a living writer.

The “daisy chain of hilarity” led them to ask those authors named by Semple what their list of funniest books by living authors was – and the results are very cool, including renowned writers like David Sedaris and Junot Díaz.

Personally, the two books which have actually made me cry out loud I laughed so hard were Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (though Thompson is no longer alive) and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (and I have no idea how Sabbath’s Theater made the slate.com list!).

As a side note, click here to see some of the funniest book titles known to humankind. Just make sure you’re wearing diapers or reading this in a bathtub, as you may unwittingly urinate on yourself.

If you have a suggestion for funniest book by a living/dead writer, feel free to drop me a note in the Leave a Reply box.

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