Critical Notes

The Last Roundup of 2008

By Jane Ciabattari

To begin this last roundup of the old year, I note with sadness that as of this week, Marie Arana will no longer be at the helm of the Washington Post Book World, where her insights, intuitions, and sheer good matchmaking put reviewers and books together with consistent wizardry. As an assigning editor Marie challenged me with a Stephen King story collection, which made me understand why Hollywood can’t afford to miss a single word that man writes, and sent me an Oscar Hijuelos novel, A Simple Habana Melody, without knowing I had spent time in Havana. She kept a remarkable section going, adjusting as needed to the requirement of expanding into an online presence, launching a Podcast and a blog. (Her final Short Stack post is here.)

Her contributions to book criticism and book culture, including her years on the National Book Critics Circle board, have been remarkable. (See one of her Critical Mass posts here.) Now I look forward to her continuing incarnation as an author of remarkable books (her new novel, Lima Nights, sits on the stack I will attack after finishing the year-end stint of reading for the NBCC awards, and I gather she’s working on a book about Simon Bolivar and will also continue to write for the Post).

Adam Kirsch on Burton Raffel’s new translation of The Canterbury Tales: “A confirmed sadist could find many things to enjoy in the pages of The Canterbury Tales. As Chaucer’s pilgrims take turns telling stories to while away the hours on their long walk to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket, they shy away from no variety of physical violation or psychological torture. In “The Miller’s Tale,” a man is rectally impaled with a red-hot poker. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” a husband tests his wife’s obedience by pretending to murder their two children. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” a pair of students rapes a man’s wife and daughter in order to humiliate him. Why is it, then, that the actual experience of reading The Canterbury Tales is not at all painful?”

Celia McGee reports on a Tennessee Williams revival (and check out her raves about Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite in the January 2009 issue of Town and Country).

Carolyn Kellogg wraps up a year-end blogfest on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Brad Pitt vehicle based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story at Jacket Copy, the LA Times blog.

Scott McLemee, blogging the MLA iin San Francisco, discovers Twitter is all the rage.

Recession reading from former NBCC finalist Geoff Dyer, from the Granta archives.

Lizzie Skurnick recalls discovering Richard Yates at Yaddo.

DeWitt Henry recommends Richard Todd’s “The Thing Itself: In Search of Authenticity,” in the Winter issue of Ploughshares.

David Ulin on a new translation of Kafka’s first novel, Amerika.

Mary Ann Gwinn on Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book.

Jacob Silverman on Basque novelists on the Virginia Quarterly Review blog