Excerpt: Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall

Live most of the people who ever read anything of Michael Cunningham's, the Excerpt Reader's read his Pulitzer-winning 4th novel, The Hours, back in 1999 and went to see the movie, directed by Stephen Daldry, when it made its appearance in 2002.

The 2003 film won the Oscar for Nicole Kidman of all actresses (ER thought Julianne Moore did a better job at her role than Nicole, but there you go..) On a side note, Daldry later on directed The Reader (2008), which was also an impressing film, especially due to Ralph Feinnes' acting, and he is intended to direct Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in the very near future, if the film ever escapes 'development hell') 

The Hours was a very good read, even if not revolutionary in any way. The inspiration for the novel, as well as one of the strongest motifs therein, is Virgiania Wolfe's Mrs. Dalloway.  

I'm not sure whether Cunningham had anything 'new' to say in it (as all 'great' novels should do) but the writing and tempo (a very important parameter in a novel that's presuming to talk about any aspect in Time) were quite good, and almost all 3 interwoven & intertwined stories (Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Brown, Mrs. Wolf) were exceptionally moving in their ways. 

The Hours basically established Cunningham as a "major American writer." He waited a good 7 years before releasing Specimen Days in 2005 yet another novel featuring three stories: one that takes place in the past, one in the present and one in the future (well, in  The Hours, two stories took place in the past, one in the present..) As in Hours, so in Specimen Days, a famous literary persona and its work catalyze the different narratives and intersect between them. This time it's Walt Whitman (the book's title is borrowed from Whitman..) 

So much for similarities.. Other than the above-mentioned traits, the books are quite different: Hours basically follows the events transpiring in during a single day in 3 women's lives. Days tracks 3 stories quite different from each other, all transpiring in New York: the first takes place in during the Industrial Revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age; the second is set in early twenty-first century as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city; the third is a futuristic Science Fiction story, set 150 years into the future, wherein New York City is overwhelmed with refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

The book was met with good critique but I'm not sure how it was liked by readers.. I know I felt like Cunningham thought was ‘on to’ something here and was taking us for a ride along with him..

But back to the present.

This week Cunningham's releasing By Nightfall, "a bittersweet paean to human creativity," a crepuscular tale of Marriage & Boredom which relates the lives of Peter Rebecca, SoHo art dealer & mid-level art magazine editor. In comes Rebecca's younger brother, Ethan, 20 something recovering drug addict and ruins everything, so to speak.. Or does he??

'Hailed' as "emotionally static and drearily conventional" by Amazon editors (aren't these people supposed to promote every book and pray to sell as many copies of it as they possibly can?? And on it goes: "Cunningham's sentences are, individually, something to behold, but they're unfortunately pressed into the service of a dud story about a well-off New Yorker's existential crisis.") the Excerpt Reader should automatically be inclined to warn his readers lest they befall such a dreary read as well..

But I will do no such thing. For, having read an excerpt of the aforementioned novel, I am inclined to decree that I deem this cery readable, page-turner-of-a-novel a worthy read.

VERDICT: BUY IT (But only because, deep inside, you're not too amorous with your own condition and are constantly looking for the way out.. Hence you are reading!)


Excerpt: Brin Friesen's Sic. and The Domino Diaries

The Excerpt Reader met Brin Friesen par hasard, as the French say.. 

A chance encounter in Facebook set me mail-to-mail with this young and audacious writer.

Friesen (self proclaimed 'a lumbering soul but trying to fly..' & 'The greatest looking author since Byron,') is the first ever and, to date, perhaps the only writer able to boast the seemingly-dubious title 'Author/Boxing Coach'( Self employed, that is).

But on a more 'serious' note..

Friesen (b.1979) grew up in Vancouver and later lived in Madrid and Havana. He debuted in 2006 with a novel named Sic. (from the Latin. Meaning "thus," "so," "as such," or "in such a manner..." The book was published by and/or Press, an anonymous publishing house which has published, to date, Friesen's novel and the novel of one D.R. Haney, Banned for Life, relating the story of Jim Cassady, the quasi-legendary punk-rock frontman who disappeared without a trace shortly after his girlfriend’s apparent suicide. 

Sic tells the story of a young boy, Jasper Finch, and his vicious junior high school years. The book was optioned for film the year it was published. It also won Friesen the Eric Hoffer Award 2009 for "Legacy Fiction," and was shortlisted for the Grand Award Prize. 

To get the average reader better acquainted with Friesen's world and work, the Excerpt Reader has held a brief interview with him. Here it is:


* Who is Brin Friesen?

I flunked out of high school and decided to hustle speed chess and teach people how to box while working on my first novel. I traveled around a lot. I lived in New York, Spain, and Havana off and on since 2000. In Havana I trained under Olympic boxing coaching and hatched an idea about a book on the role of boxing in Cuba and how the boxer's struggle has always been a metaphor in that society for the Cuban struggle. Still working on it.

* Why do you write?

Literature is my favorite company. I get lonely pretty easy. I like trying to get even with places and people that have my number. I always felt a little double-parked where I was born, so I had to try and shipwreck into strange places and people to see if I could do any better and feel at home.

* How would you best describe your books?

I'd describe my fiction as my best attempt to make sense of things that never made any sense to me in real life. My first book was about the best and worst day of my life happening on the *same* day: first kiss, first beating. The Cuba stuff is just an extension of the most fascinating place and people I've ever met and a lot of the work of George Orwell holding a candle in the dark about how to organize what I set it down.

* Who is your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is someone who brings all their prejudices and personal biases to my work intact as much as possible. Salinger was onto something when he dedicated one of his books to amateur readers. Individuals are the only people I've ever cared for or been interested in. The less they've been fucked around with, the better.

* Who is your ideal writer?

My ideal writers are probably the ones I dismissed at one stage only to find them waiting for me with a smirk when I came around. To me that's where the real loot is with literature: you have to come to it when you're ready. It's always waiting for you. By and large they go even further, too. Every time you return to their books they've changed along with you. If you've grown and brought more to it, it can offer a little more as well. I'm very greedy for anything in the world that the more time you spend with it the less you understand.

* How much of your fiction is autobiographic?

Plenty of my fiction is autobiographical. I think it's mainly a case of those moments that really shape you or disintegrate your reality - most of which you can't accept or really deal and maintain your identity - that necessitates exploring them in a fictional or fantasy realm. I fall victim to this all the time in fiction. Mainly I write about kids at an age where what scars them scars them for life and what compasses they find support them for life also. Both become a kind of fetish in a way, like the tune fairy tale girls hum or whistle when they find themselves alone in the darkness of a forest. I'm not convinced people walk away from much. We just look for new things to cope.


Friesen's provided the Reader's followers with an excerpt from his debut novel, Sic. 

The opening of the book reminds one of 'youth culture' movies (well, filmed from a more 'elderly' point of view) such as Gus Van Sant's Elephant and his Paranoid Park. The life therein described is a 'normal', day-to-day life. But you know there's catastrophe around the corner, lurking..

At the moment, Friesen's preoccupied with a new book, "The Domino Diaries", that's intended to be published soon, and which will also be released as a documentary film called "Hero, Traitor, Madness" (Friesen's filmed most of the interviews for the book and he intends to use them for this documentary.)

The book is an essay of sorts about Cuba, written through Friesen's highly individual and exceptional prism of Boxing, though it could well be read as a diary as well, or as a carnet de voyage, as the French like to call them.
You can get acquainted with some chapters from the book here.

VERDICT: BUY IT (because Boxing isn't only for dummies. & Brin Friesen is a living example of it.)


Special Excerpt: Great Jewish Movies for the 'High Holidays'

The High Holiday season can arouse strange feelings in an 'ever-wondering' and often soul-searching soul.

No matter the Age, Sex or Creed; No matter the orientation or Origin: Jew, Gentile, Hindu or Muslim may find themselves all of the sudden, and with no prior warning, emitting a silent 'oy' to themselves during these troubled days!

It could happen to you anywhere: on the train or on the bus on your way to work; Between the supermarket isles, whilst wondering which detergent you should buy; Or when you're all alone in the comfort of your well made bed, warmly tucked between the clean crispy sheets and your favorite down-comforter..

The Excerpt Reader, being the Schmuck, Klutz & Putz that it is, has rounded up a selection of movie excerpts, celebrating - well, perhaps 'celebrating' is too strong a word.. -ceremonializing, or better yet sermonizing Judaism in the modern era.

Why movie excerpts? Why not book excerpts? Blame it on all the rich food and cheap wine one obliged to consume during these holiest of days (or blame God.. whatever works better for you).

These are the Excerpt's favorite Jewish directors, performing their greatest tributes to Judaism in film:

First runner-up, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). This movie is without a doubt a crucial specimen within the 20th century Culture heritage (if anyone were to make such a 'list' , as testimony for later generations.)

The selected scene is, naturally, Hinkel's speech:

Second runner-up, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, a 1942 comedy about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use their abilities at disguise and acting to fool the occupying troops. (This genius film was later on re-directed by the no-less-talented Mel Brooks).

Here's a hilarious little scene which proves that even at the height of the 'days of atrocity' Jews knew how to laugh at their tormentors and, most importantly, at themselves:

A little excursion down memory lane might also bump you right-smack with Monty Python's 'Hitler in Somerset, Minehead' (well, England) Sketch (shot sometime in the 1970's, couldn't find the exact date..).

I think the quote "Oooh! I don't like the sound of these Boncerntration Bamps!" summarizes the sketch quite fairly..

A 'little' later on, and we're in 1987, in Woody Allen's Radio Days, another great cinematic achievement which retrospects back to the 1940's and celebrates the American (well, Jewish) family life during the Golden Age of Radio.

This scene gives you the typical 1940's (well, any time perhaps) Jewish family life portrayal:

But let's get serious! It's not all Hitler & Comedy for the Jews! 

Well, perhaps there's little else for the Jews for, even when they're dead serious, Jews tend to think (again) of Hitler and the dreadful holocaust.. 

Directed in the same year as Radio Days, Louis Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants, is a touchingly humane movie, recounting events in the childhood of the French new-wave director when he attended, at the age of 11, a Roman Catholic boarding school near Nazi-occupied 1943 Fontainebleau. 

Here's the movie's trailer, harboring the 'little' secret Malle the boy had to keep in order to survive: 

But as serious as it gets (and it gets serious..), it doesn't get as serious as Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002), an adaptation of Jewish-Polish musician Władysław Szpilman's autobiography.

This overwhelming-at-times but nevertheless highly-important testimony for Humanity in its entirety, if not for Jews everywhere, performed by a great director at the height of his genius, should be a must-see on everyone's list, no matter the Age, Origin or Religion:

Here's a somewhat tacky but quite 'resuming' selection of scenes from the movie, accompanied by a recording of Władysław Szpilman's piano:

I'm sorry, but there's absolutely NO Schindler's List for you! Strict doctor's orders! Nor should thou have any Ben-Hur's Ten Commandments or Chariots of Fire! This Hollywood'ization of Jewish life has gone too far! Someone should put a stop too it.. 

I think you understand by now that a little Cabaret's out of the question as well, thank you very much..


Excerpt: Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

The Excerpt Reader isn't BIG on women writers.

Maybe because it is a he. 

This is not to imply any sexism (well, maybe some inherent sexism.. but that's not my fault, is it? Surely mankind can take the blame for a few on my faults..)

But seriously. It's not that I don't LIKE women writers. I don't know why it is, really.. I'm at a loss.

I think I can count on one hand female writers I've thoroughly read, from cover to cover, in the past 5 years. Going over the books in my library (there are more than a 1000..) I can spot out Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Sylvai Plath's The Bell Jar, Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, Nicole Krauss' The History of Love: A Novel & Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947--1963 (the last one doesn't really count as a novel, but all's fair in love and war..)Anyway, you try to find the linking thread between these women authors (or books), I sure as hell can't find any..

This is quite appalling, I know. 

But I guess I'm just a sucker for the Mainspeak, if I am to invent an pseudo-Orwellian term: The speech of Man. The Main Speech.

I like to read outside this Main Speech, sometimes. Some queer literature, some junky narratives, some psychotic thrillers.. But that's all within the norm, isn't it? Mainspeak's devoured every speech and made it its own, hasn't it? Even women's..

Is there any difference, then, between literature written by women and literature written by men? To be continued..


I've stumbled upon Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter in my local bookshop. I can't say I heard much of Carson McCullers before.. I have heard 
of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, though.. Well, at least I think I have..

This book has one of these catchy 1960's novel titles, like Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Some 1960's films have them as well: 
Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), etc.. So much so that you'll rightly feel that you've already read them, or seen them, before you've actually laid a hand on them..
So, what drew me to this book of all books, you ask? 

Well, the cover, for starters (have you ever bought a book solely for its cover?). It features a fragment from a very beautiful picture by the American photographer, Jack Delano, entitled 'At the Vermont state fair'.

And then the vague notion that I knew this title from somewhere (that must have happened to you more than once..)

This specific edition is a Penguin Classics (you know, those silver covers; they used to come in horrid-green, but they don't do anymore.. thank God!)

The back cover is also appealing. It features the image of a young woman, very liberated but somewhat troubled. It could have been taken anywhere since the 1930's, perhaps, but it seems highly-contemporaneous.

So much for the cover, what about the book??

Carson McCullers wrote The Heart when she was only 23. The 
book, her first novel, is set in the 'deep south', in a 1930smill town in the U.S. state of Georgia, and it relates the 
tales of a deaf man named John Singer and the people he 
encounters: Mick Kelly, a young girl who loves music and dreams of buying a piano; Jake Blount, an alcoholic labor agitator; Biff Brannon, the observant owner of a diner; and Dr. Benedict Copeland, an idealistic African-American doctor.

A small-town novel. Is is it??

Well, having read an excerpt from it, I think I can write a few words about it.. But first of all I would like to share a few insights about the time it was written and published in with the Excerpt's readers..

The 1960's mark a dramatic climate change in American culture. This change is also apparent in the literature written before, during and after this cultural revolution. Grossly speaking, one can mark American literature written before (and in some cases during) the 1960's as highly idealistic and naive, often too-pragmatic and much less subversive than the literature written afterwards

Naturally, there are a few distinguishable exceptions to this rule: Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Thomas Pynchon's V (1963), were all written and published the 1960's and remain, to this day, pillars of (post-)modernity, innovativeness & revolutionariness..

And what about The Heart? Here's a little piece of it. You be the judge:

"In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed. 

Every morning the two friends walked silently together until they reached the main street of the town. Then when they came to a certain fruit and candy store they paused for a moment on the sidewalk outside. The Greek, Spiros Antonapoulos, worked for his cousin, who owned this fruit store. His job was to make candies and sweets, uncrate the fruits, and to keep the place clean. The thin mute, John Singer, nearly always put his hand on his friends arm and looked for a second into his face before leaving him. Then after this good-bye Singer crossed the street and walked on alone to the jewelry store where he worked as a silverware engraver.

In the late afternoon the friends would meet again. Singer came back to the fruit store and waited until Antonapoulos was ready to go home. The Greek would be lazily unpacking a case of peaches or melons, or perhaps looking at the funny paper in the kitchen behind the store where he cooked. Before their departure Antonapoulos always opened a paper sack he kept hidden during the day on one of the kitchen shelves. Inside were stored various bits of food he had collected—a piece of fruit, samples of candy, or the butt-end of a liverwurst. Usually before leaving Antonapoulos waddled gently to the glassed case in the front of the store where some meats and cheeses were kept. He glided open the back of the case and his fat hand groped lovingly for some particular dainty inside which he had wanted. Sometimes his cousin who owned the place did not see him. But if he noticed he stared at his cousin with a warning in his tight, pale face. Sadly Antonapoulos would shuffle the morsel from one corner of the case to the other. During these times Singer stood very straight with his hands in his pockets and looked in another direction. He did not like to watch this little scene between the two Greeks. For, excepting drinking and a certain solitary secret pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than anything else in the world."
Now this is just fine if you like your novels small-town, small-people, idealistic and moralistic..

In the Excerpt Reader's view, McCullers' novel belongs to the post-1960's stream 
of thought and writing..

But not to worry.. This does not make it a 'lesser reading' in any way, for alongside this novel one can find wonderful novels such as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), Saul Bellow's Herzog

Why the title, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter? I have no freakin' clue! And I'm not going to Google it either! You read the book and you let me know, how's that for abargain??