Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Short and Sharp from Melville House; Wallace Stevens’ Deep Freeze; and Obama’s Muse

It’s never too late to come up with a literary stocking stuffer, at least as long as your neighborhood bookstore is open on Christmas Eve. What you’re looking for, of course, is something not too big that packs a punch. Isn’t that precisely the definition of a novella?

Melville House, the small press based in Brooklyn with a bookstore at 145 Plymouth St. (closed for the holidays, alas, from Dec. 23), has a first-rate series of 25 classic novellas, astutely selected and attractively packaged, each one $10 or less. You can play it safe with indisputably great works (Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Joyce’s The Dead, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno); or spring a surprise with a neglected gem (George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, Chekhov’s My Life, Gogol’s How the Two Ivans Quarrelled); or risk a curiosity such as Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles (odd for Conrad because it features a tragic heroine) or Cervantes’ The Dialogue of the Dogs, which features, yes, a pair of chatty canines.

Perhaps the oddest and most relevant title is Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, which is the story of a real-life financial scandal in which Proust himself was stung (Henri Lemoine claimed he could make diamonds out of coal—Bernie Madoff with a product). The sorry tale is served up in a series of pastiches in which Proust mimics Balzac, Flaubert and other 19th-century French authors. This is the first English translation of The Lemoine Affair—Michael M. Thomas, who wrote The Midas Watch in The Observer for many years, calls it “absolutely amazing.”

Two suggestions for additions to the Melville House list: Stephen Crane’s The Monster, and another Tolstoy novella, Hadji Murad. Maybe next Christmas….


THE LEAST EXPENSIVE, most portable and most improving present you can give is to memorize a poem and recite it for the lucky poetry lover on your list. How about “The Snow Man,” a wintry one-sentence masterpiece from Wallace Stevens, which is free on the web (www.poets.org) and still cheap in book form (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, $12.50)?

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


OR HOW ABOUT a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, the poet and Yale professor who’s scheduled to read at Barack Obama’s inauguration? This one, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” is from American Sublime (Graywolf Press, $14):

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Short and Sharp from Melville House; Wallace Stevens’ Deep Freeze; and Obama’s Muse