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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Review: The Polysyllabic Spree

This book by Nick Hornby is basically a collection of his monthly column about books from The Believer. The column illustrates why Hornby gets paid for his writing while the rest of us have to have day jobs. Here's an excerpt from his critique of Desperate Characters:
I know I'm wrong about this book, because everyone else in the world, including writers I love, thinks it's fantastic, but it Wasn't For Me. It's brilliantly written, I can see that much, and it made me think too. But mostly I thought about why I don't know anyone like the people Fox writes about. Why are all my friends so dim and unreflective? Where did I go wrong?

Toward the end of the book, Otto and Sophie, the central couple, go to stay in their holiday home. Sophie opens the door to the house, and is immediately reminded of a friend, an artist who used to visit them there; she thinks about him for a page or so. The reason she's thinking about him is that she's staring at something he loved, a vinegar bottle shaped like a bunch of grapes. The reason she's staring at the bottle is because it's in pieces. And the reason it's in pieces is because someone has broken in and trashed the palce, a fact we only discover when Sophie has snapped out of her reverie. At this point, I realized with some regret that not only could I never write a literary novel, but I couldn't even be a character in a literary novel. I can only imagine myself, or any character I created, saying, "Shit! Some bastard has trashed the ouse!" No ruminations about artist friends---just a lot of cursing, and maybe some empty threats of violence.

Even great books of literature, such as David Copperfield receives such treatment. Hornby is irreverent, clearly enjoys reading as well as pricking holes in pretentious authors, and extremely entertaining. Not even his hosts escape his sarcastic wit:

The Spree's idea of a good time was to book tickets for a literary event---a reading given by all the nominees for the National Book Critic's Circle Awards---and sit there for two and a half hours. Actually, that's not quite true: they didn't sit there. Such is their unquenchable passion for the written word that they were too excited to sit. They stood, and they wept, and they hugged each other, and occasionally they even danced---to the poetry recitals, and some of the more up-tempo biography nominees. In England we don't often dance at dances, let along readings, so I didn't know where to look. Needless to say, drink, drugs, food, and sex played no part in the festivities. But who needs any of that when you've got literature.

One of the things I try to do when I read a book is to provide an excerpt from it in the blog entry, as an attempt to capture the atmosphere of the book in a little snippet. I regret to say that Hornby does me one better. He reproduces a good page of the book as his snippet, and the selection is quite good, usually something he referenced in his review of the book.

If there's anything with The Polysyllabic Spree, it is that at no point did I want to get off my couch and order one of the books he's read, or even place a hold on it in the library. All I want to do is to find more Hornby and read him.

Highly recommended!

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