Posts Tagged ‘Tobias Wolff’

Novelist Carol Edgarian comes home to Stanford for Another Look’s Feb. 26 discussion of “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game.”

Thursday, February 11th, 2021
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Carol Edgarian: “a remarkable writer of intelligence and compassion.”

Stanford’s Another Look book club will hold its long-postponed discussion honoring author William Kennedy, a Pulitzer-prizewinning, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, at 3 p.m. (PST) on Friday, February 26. The Zoom event is free and open to the public – register HERE. Read more about the event here.

The discussion will be led by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and a founding editor of Narrative Magazine, and Robert Pogue Harrisonan acclaimed author and host for the popular radio series, Entitled OpinionsWolff and Harrison are, respectively, the founding and current directors of Another Look.

Edgarian is a newcomer to Another Look, but no stranger to Stanford. She graduated from the university in 1984 – so she’ll have a Zoom homecoming with the Another Look event. Amy Tan, another celebrated local author, called her “a remarkable writer of intelligence and compassion.”

Her newest book, Vera, will be out on March 2 with Scribner. It’s a novel set against the 1906 San Francisco earthquake,

It’s already getting praise: “A novel of resilience in the face of disaster, just what we need right about now,” wrote fellow novelist T.C. Boyle. “Edgarian’s tale couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Her previous books include the New York Times bestseller Three Stages of Amazement and the international bestseller Rise The Euphrates, winner of the ANC Freedom Prize.  Her work has been described by The Washington Post as notable for its “generosity of spirit, intelligence, humanity, and finally ambition.”  

Her articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and W, among many others. But she is perhaps best known as co-founder of the Narrative (www.NarrativeMagazine.com), which publishes fiction, poetry, and art. It also sponsors Narrative in the Schools, which provides free libraries and writing resources for teachers and students around the world. Over the years, the online magazine has published  Ann BeattieT. C. BoyleJoyce Carol OatesJayne Anne Phillips and our own Tobias Wolff.

“When we started the magazine,” she told Ron Charles of The Washington Post in 2014, “the thinking about online reading was that readers would not sit still for more than 1,000 words. We set about working against that grain, and from the first, we published long-form work: stories, novellas, novel serializations. One of the great things about digital publication, in our view, is that we can go long.”

To bring you up to speed on our upcoming event: Pulitzer prizewinning novelist William Kennedy has been called the Bard of Albany, but he began his career as a reporter. After a stint in the military and in Puerto Rico, he returned to his hometown, and saw the city of his birth with new eyes: “Without a sense of place, you don’t, as a writer, have very much. Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.”

Tobias Wolff will lead the discussion

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game belongs to William Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels. According to Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, “Set during the Depression, it concerns a young gambler and bookie, the Billy of the title, who suffers a setback that compels him to embark on an odyssey – and I use that word advisedly – through the demimonde of his city, during which he encounters temptations and dangers that test his resolve to the limit. There are gangsters, there is a kidnapping, but at its core this novel is about character, and what this man will do and endure to preserve his honor.”

Like all our events, it is free and available to the public. Register HERE, and welcome Carol Edgarian back to Stanford … virtually speaking.

At last! At last! Stanford spotlights William Kennedy’s “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game” on Feb. 26!

Friday, January 29th, 2021
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The Bard of Albany, Irish-American author William Kennedy

It’s happening! It’s finally happening! At 3 p.m. (PST) on Friday, February 26, Stanford’s Another Look book club hold its long-postponed Another Look discussion honoring author William Kennedy, a Pulitzer-prizewinning, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow. Our event for the 1978 book was one of the early COVID casualties at Stanford last spring. Now it will be rescheduled as a Zoom event (isn’t everything nowadays)?

From our announcement:

Pulitzer prizewinning novelist William Kennedy has been called the Bard of Albany, but he began his career as a reporter. After a stint in the military and in Puerto Rico, he returned to his hometown, and saw the city of his birth with new eyes: “Without a sense of place, you don’t, as a writer, have very much. Place is all those forces of a given society impinging upon and determining character. Without it, a book becomes bloodless.”

According to Stanford’s Tobias Wolff, who will lead the discussion: Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game belongs to William Kennedy’s celebrated Albany sequence of novels. Set during the Depression, it concerns a young gambler and bookie, the Billy of the title, who suffers a setback that compels him to embark on an odyssey – and I use that word advisedly – through the demimonde of his city, during which he encounters temptations and dangers that test his resolve to the limit. There are gangsters, there is a kidnapping, but at its core this novel is about character, and what this man will do and endure to preserve his honor.”

The discussion will be led by National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, with panelists Carol Edgarian, novelist and founding editor of Narrative Magazine, and Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrisonan acclaimed author and host for the popular radio series, Entitled Opinions

Like all our events, it is free and available to the public. Register here.

And check out my Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Bill Kennedy, discussing his life and, in particular, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. An excerpt:

CYNTHIA HAVEN: Hemingway wrote: “Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.” It’s a thought you echo more than once in Billy Phelan, for example, when you write: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.” You’ve said, “The movement is what creates the action, and the action is what creates the story” — which in turn creates more movement. Clearly, you’ve thought about this a lot. Could you share a few more thoughts?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: I must’ve been deeply persuaded by Hemingway’s lines to have lifted them without crediting him; but I always listened to what he said about writing. In The Angels and the Sparrows, I created Francis Phelan, a wino in his 30s, a clever, obnoxious loner returning home for his mother’s funeral (she kicked him out), who stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer and is hostile to the bartender. It was a good scene. He was a sad, broken young guy, but I disliked him seriously, even as I was creating him, and didn’t want to carry him forward.

Then, maybe 15 years later I started to write Billy Phelan and I reinvented the Phelan family. I had to get rid of Francis as that antipathetic young wino. He still had to be a bum, but I aged him into a tortured figure at the bottom of the world who was Billy’s father, and his life immediately became an open-ended challenge to my imagination. It turned out that he had abandoned his family 22 years earlier after his 13-day-old son, Gerald, slipped out of a diaper while he was changing him, fell off a table, broke his neck and died. In the fall of 1938, Francis drifts back to Albany to vote in a Democratic primary election, knowing the machine will pay him $5 for this; so he votes 21 times, earning $105, and is put in jail. Billy, the gambler, hears he’s in town and bails him out. The new Francis, after living through 16 years of shame and guilt over dropping the infant and running off, became a pitiable but likable human being. I don’t know where Gerald came from. There was no such incident in my life, nor can I remember hearing of one; perhaps I forgot it. But years ago I decided it was a gift from my unconscious, a fruitful one. In Billy, Francis was so vitally real that he leaped onto my typewriter and demanded his own novel. So I wrote Ironweed for him.

Again, register for the event here.

Can chess making a gripping film? Watch Walter Tevis’s “Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix this Friday, October 23

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020
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Silence and staring, winners and losers – and it’s definitely been a man’s world. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

Last year, Stanford’s “Another Look” – a public events series that focuses on forgotten, out-of-the-way, overlooked books – sponsored an event on Walter Tevis’ Queen’s GambitThe idea came from Another Look’s founding director, the eminent American author Tobias Wolff, always a keen watcher of American fiction. It turned out to be one of our most popular selections ever. Thanks to the cooperation of Tevis’s daughter, Julia Tevis McGory, we published a number of photographs on the Another Look website, and even a mini-memoir from son Will Tevis about playing chess with his father here.  The January 29, 2019, panel featured Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, and Inga Pierson.

Author Walter Tevis played chess, too.

It’s an overlooked book no more. It will be a seven-part mini-series on Netflix beginning on Friday, October 23. Did Another Look make a difference? We hope so. Our crusade for books that haven’t received the attention we think they merit has moved the needle on several books. We hope we’ve done the same this time, though there’s a story that goes way back before last year’s Stanford event. In the early 1990s, screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the rights to the novel and wrote a script. More recently writer and director Scott Frank took an interest.

So far the reviews are glowing. (Google it.) The film stars Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess-mad heroine (she was the star of this year’s acclaimed Emma, too). Garry Kasparov, one of the best chess-players ever, was a consultant for the film. 

More from the story by The New York Times:

The novel is brief. Dialogue is spare and the action beyond the gameboard minimal. … “If you did it as a movie, it becomes a sports movie: ‘Is she going to beat the Russian guy?’” Frank said. “And that’s not what the book is about. For me, it’s about the pain and cost of being so gifted.”

For Beth, abandoned first by her birth parents and then by her adoptive family, the stakes tower. Only while playing does she feel a sense of purpose and belonging. In a later episode, Beth overhears some Russian champs discussing her. “She’s like us,” a grandmaster says. “Losing is not an option for her.” (This was dialogue Kasparov suggested.)

***

It’s also exceedingly faithful to its source material, a slender 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, an author with a knack for books that Hollywood wanted: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis, a respectable club player, could delight even non-players with chess’s rhythms and language: the Sicilian Defense the Semi-Slav Variation, the Falkbeer Counter Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. The book borrows its name from an opening move in play since the 15th century.

***

A glamorous and wrenching view of chess, set in the 1950s and ’60s, it centers on the fictional character Beth Harmon (first Isla Johnston, then Anya Taylor-Joy), a child prodigy who discovers the game in a Kentucky orphanage. Despite punishing addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers, Beth, clad in Gabriele Binder’s elegant period costumes, plays and trains obsessively, rising through the rankings until she faces the world’s best. Which makes her something like the thinking woman’s Rocky.

Join me in tuning in this Friday. Until then, there’s a podcast of the Stanford discussion of the book here.

Postscript on 10/21 (hat tip David Schwartz): The review is in from the Wall Street Journal today, it’s here, and not even behind the usual paywall. An excerpt:

It took this viewer about seven consecutive hours to watch all seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and while this may constitute all the review some readers need to get on board, others might also like to know what the miniseries is about. In a word, chess—though that’s a bit like saying “Hamlet” is about Danish royal succession, or “The Wizard of Oz” is about meteorology. … “The Queen’s Gambit” is novelistic in the best sense, using chess as a kind of metaphoric Swiss army knife to open up a tale of obsession, addiction, adoption and the solitude of genius. That genius is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), an orphan, tranquilizer enthusiast and budding alcoholic. Eventually, she becomes a reluctant propaganda tool in the Cold War. From birth, it seems, she’s been a chess savant.

For all the series’ successes, especially as fictional biography and a portrait of an era (the ’50s and ’60s), what may haunt the viewer is the image of Ms. Taylor-Joy’s face, furtively doe-eyed, peering upward, moving shadowy pieces across the imaginary chessboard of her bedroom ceiling as she plots the next day’s attack, or locking eyes with a grandmaster before reducing his game to rubble. Despite the cerebral nature of the sport and its less-than-breathtaking pace, “The Queen’s Gambit”—a title that refers to one of the oldest openings in the history of the game—is a thriller. It absorbs the viewer into the rarefied realm of world-class competition and acquaints the nonplayer with enough of the mechanics to make the outcomes accessible and meaningful. The very idea of a chess epic might suggest to some the old saw about academic politics—that they’re so vicious because the stakes are so low. Can chess mean so much? To Beth Harmon—and therefore to her audience—chess is everything. And for reasons that make her both heroic and heartbreaking.

Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers”: a story for the era of doxxing, “outing,” and our right to be left alone – Zoom discussion on Monday, August 24.

Monday, August 10th, 2020
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James: “the canals assume to the eye the importance of a stage…”

It’s two weeks to our special Zoom discussion of Henry James‘s short 1888 classic, The Aspern Papers. The Another Look book club will be hosting the event, in partnership with Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute, on Monday, August 24, 3-4:30 p.m. (Register for the event here.) If you haven’t read the short novel, you should – you really should. Those of you who associate Henry James with sentences that go on relentlessly for pages will be pleasantly surprised by this tight, yet psychologically insightful work.

The Aspern Papers was inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s correspondence with Claire Clairmont, the stepsister of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. (Shelley’s novel was featured in a January 2017 Another Look event.) Clairmont cherished the letters until her death. Of course, James transposes that into fiction – but it’s a lively and insightful read, and those daunted by James’s three-page-long sentences needn’t be afraid. The plot keeps a good pace in this psychologically insightful work, while treating us to the wonder that is Venice.

Himself

The story: an elderly invalid who once was the beloved of a renowned American poet, Jeffrey Aspern, lives in seclusion with her spinster niece in a Venetian palazzo. The unnamed narrator goes through elaborate machinations to gain access to her private papers and literary relics from the long-ago romance.

The story has new relevance for us today. “What James delivered, in 1888, was not some dusty antiquarian fable but a warning call against the cult of celebrity that was already on the rise, and against the modern insistence that artists and writers can – or should – be prized out of their work like cockles from a shell, for public consumption,” critic Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker. In the era of doxxing and “outing,” the story explores our right to be left alone, and our right to have secrets. At the heart of the book is the rapacious desire of one man to reach through time to possess another.

Tobias Wolff and Robert Pogue Harrison will lead the discussion. Acclaimed author Robert Harrison, professor of French and Italian, writes regularly for The New York Review of Books and hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions. Wolff, a Stanford professor emeritus of English, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library & Archives, will offer a few remarks as the author of The Ethical Archivist. And yours truly will have a few words to say on the occasion, too, as the author of the biography, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

Again, register here. We’d love to see you!

The end of Another Look books? “Are quarterly gatherings of quiet readers really too expensive? Or simply priceless?”

Thursday, May 21st, 2020
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Harrison at the Another Look podium.

Needless to say, Tobias Wolff, Cynthia Haven, and I are disappointed. We believe in the vision of founder Tobias Wolff, who eight years ago had the idea to start a book club that would present vibrant, high-caliber discussions of books that deserve “another look,” either because they were published some time ago, or because they didn’t get the attention they deserved.  Tobias intended the program to be Stanford’s “gift to the community,” and so it has been.  We regularly get letters and emails praising and thanking us for our discussions, which we’ve made available in a popular podcast series. We’ve also gotten attention, from The Guardian, Die Welt, Le Monde, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more.  Our meetings typically drew around 180 people per session, but far more people around the world read the books along with us and tuned into the discussions via the podcasts.

Four years ago Continuing Studies, the under the leadership of Charlie Junkerman, generously offered to take over the sponsorship of Another Look from Stanford’s English Department.  Neither Tobias nor I received any financial compensation.  The budget covered the rental of the Bechtel Conference Center, a modest stipend for Cynthia Haven, and the cost of printing the posters and bookmarks.  We cannot thank Charlie Junkerman enough for his wonderful leadership and support. The same goes to Christina Fajardo, Public Programs & Special Events Manager for Continuing Studies.  All three of us are really grateful for their help and support, and I’m sure many of you are as well.

I’m sure that many of you will also ask if there’s anything you can do to keep Another Look going.  I’m not sure that there is, but if you feel strongly enough about it, I recommend that you send an email expressing your views to Jennifer Deitz, Director and Associate Dean for Continuing Studies; and to Dan Colman, Dean, Continuing Studies and Summer Session.  Please also copy Christina Fajardo.  You never know what a strong show of support might do to get Continuing Studies to reconsider their decision to put Another Look in limbo, possibly for good.  Their email addresses are:

Founding director Wolff

1. Jennifer Deitz, Director and Associate Dean, Continuing Studies <jdeitz@stanford.edu>,
2. Dan Colman, Dean, Continuing Studies and Summer Session <dhcolman@stanford.edu>,
3. Christina Fajardo, Public Programs & Special Events Manager, Continuing Studies <fajardoc@stanford.edu>

I for one can’t think of a better way to restore sanity and spirit to our society than by fostering a community of books.  Another Look has shown us just how many people are hungry for it.  It’s been a great run.  Thank you all for having been a part of our reading community

Wishing you safety and good reading,

Robert Pogue Harrison, Director, Another Look

Last night, Clay Lambert, editorial director of The Half Moon Bay Review, posted a tweet with a photo of “unforgettable” books he discovered through the program, and asking a poignant question: “Are quarterly gatherings of quiet readers really too expensive? Or simply priceless?”

It was followed a few hours later by a retweet from Marc Ventresca, a Stanford alum, now at Oxford as an economic sociologist in the Strategy, Innovation and Marketing Faculty at Saïd Business School and a Governing Body Fellow of Wolfson College.

Postscript: Another tweeter, Ksenia Lakovic, has taken up Clay Lambert’s challenge. I hope a few other Another Look aficionados photograph their favorite books from the series. You can read more about them here.

Teaching Tobias Wolff’s “Old School” to Hungarian teens – along with the reasons for rhyme

Thursday, April 16th, 2020
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A staircase Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary

Can Hungarian teenagers “get” an American novel set all the way back in the Kennedy Era? For a magical semester, author, educator, and translator Diana Seneschal taught her ninth-grade students at Szolnok’s Varga Katalin Gimnázium a novel by Stanford writer Tobias Wolff – in particular, 2003’s Old School. The upshot: they loved it. She had hauled copies all the way from the U.S. for her 33 students, paid for with an honorarium she had received in the U.S. At the beginning of the semester, Diana wrote me: “In addition, they have already read some Frost, we will read a Hemingway story or two, and I will tell them enough about Ayn Rand that they understand the change in the narrator’s response to her writing and attitudes.”

The reaction from her classes was enthusiastic: “One of the students asked her after the first class, ‘Is this book really for me to keep?'”

“When I told him it was, he said he was happy because he expected to reread it in the future. ‘I think this is my favorite book,’” he said.

The Book Haven met Diana via her translations of the eminent Lithuanian poet (and our mutual friend), Tomas Venclova. So it’s fitting we republish this description of one of the classes, in which Wolff’s fictional students discuss poetry:

The third chapter of Tobias Wolff’s Old School, “Frost,” has the following exchange between the narrator and Purcell (p. 44):

Frost. I don’t even know why I bothered submitting anything, given how he writes. I mean, he’s still using rhyme.

Yeah, so?

Rhyme is bullshit. Rhyme says that everything works out in the end. All harmony and order. When I see a rhyme in a poem, I know I’m being lied to. Go ahead, laugh! It’s true–rhyme’s a completely bankrupt device. It’s just wishful thinking. Nostalgia.

The situation was this: At the beginning of the third chapter, we learn that George Kellogg, the excessively benevolent editor of the Troubadour, has won the first contest and will thus get to meet with Robert Frost. Purcell dismisses the whole enterprise.

Stanford author Tobias Wolff

First I asked the students to explain what Purcell was saying. They did it, point by point. Then I asked what they thought of it. In the first section, one student burst out, “That’s what I think.” A few others seemed to concur. They gave reasons: to rhyme, you have to invent something; rhyme sounds pretty, whereas the world often isn’t; rhyme imitates other rhymes and rhymers. Then I asked whether anyone saw or heard rhyme in a different way. Hands shot up. One student said that good rhyme is hard, so you can admire it. Another said that we are drawn to harmony. Another said that rhyme makes a poem memorable. Another suggested that Purcell was speaking out of jealousy. Then we started talking about how rhyme can draw associations between things.

The other section was more subdued but just as perceptive. Most of them rejected Purcell’s complaint from the start. One student pointed out that you can rhyme with the word “chaos,” in which case you aren’t creating harmony at all. Another said that we rhyme all the time, that rhyme is part of our everyday language. Others talked about how rhyme makes you think.

Author, teacher, translator Senechal

This set us up well for the next lesson, where we discussed the rest of the chapter. When I arrived, I saw students discussing the novel in the hallway.

At the start of the lesson, I played a muffled recording of Frost reading “Mending Wall,” which they had read with me. In the first section, no one seemed to know what was going on until the very end, when one student cried out in Hungarian, “Emlékszem!” (“I remember it!”). In the other section, they recognized it right away. We then talked about the passage in Old School where the headmaster introduces Frost, and the one where the narrator’s understanding of “Mending Wall” changes as he listens to Frost reading it aloud. (This is a fictional Frost, but I can imagine Frost reading like this.)

Then the teacher Mr. Ramsey’s challenge: Aren’t those poetic forms–rhyme, stanzas, etc.–outmoded? Shouldn’t poetry reflect modern consciousness? And Frost’s response (of which this quote, from p. 53, is just a fraction):

Grief, not grievance

I am thinking of Achilles’ grief, he said. That famous, terrible, grief. Let me tell you boys something. Such grief can only be told in form. Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry—sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry.

You could read all the class lessons here. Or read her blog Take Away the Takeaway here. Or go to her TED talk here