31 July 2006

Beautiful Lines of Prose

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty is a contemporary attempt at a story in the vein of Henry James – but don’t let that description scare you off. The book is (mostly) modern, as is the story, set in the London of Margaret Thatcher and an unbeatable Tory government machine.

Henry James is actually one of the story’s recurring themes; James is the academic interest of the protagonist Nick Guest, and Hollinghurst uses him as Nick’s built-in mentor and foil, as well as taking James’ view of the world and periodically casting Nick’s own life and experiences through those lenses. Nick comes from a modest upbringing in a small town outside London, but finds himself living with – and suddenly living in – the rarefied world of wealthy Londoners. As the house guest of an up-and-striving Conservative member of Parliament, a college friend of the family’s son, Nick is pulled into and shown an implicit and explicit series of connections to levels of English wealth and aristocracy, all graded and degraded by various bits of history (and many cast in a Jamesian light): the formerly-wealthy, old-line English, the still-comfortable Jewish family from the turn of the previous century, the nouveau riche businessman (simultaneously admired and hated, of course) or the wealthy foreign (Arab, no less) interlopers buying their way in.

If this sounds like the traditional make-up of a grand English novel, well, it is. But Hollinghurst’s London sparkles, and this backdrop feels fresh and innovative, even with the archetypes, because of the overlaying of Nick’s character on top of this framework: Nick is not just young and intellectually-worldly but personally impoverished; he is also gay, which provides a wholly different point-of-view for his experiences of family, politics, and degrees of social stigma and acceptance, as well as for the England of the mid-1980s. This isn’t a coming-out novel – Nick is out, and it’s known – though the story plays with this idea for Nick and his friends, and the simultaneous levels of social acceptance and rejection, permissiveness and dismissiveness, that they must face.

Another theme is drawn from the title, and the story makes reference to a wide variety of such lines; to mention some of them here would be to give away too many of the small, sweet surprises that the book offers, but one oft-mentioned element is an ogee, a beautiful architectural curve that Nick calls “the line of beauty” for its symmetry and sweep. The ogee also seems to represent an ideal for Nick, a kind of natural beauty – and functional integration; what we might call “belonging” – that he always seeks to feel but ultimately fails to achieve. It is an effective bit of storytelling on Hollinghurst’s part that Nick’s envies in life are many and varied, and that they often shift in the light as different challenges or negative consequences are revealed, and as he works to discover what it means to be true to himself and his own desires.

To an American reader (this one, anyway), the language may sometimes feel forced in that particularly English way; Hollinghurst has a tendency to drop certain conjunctions, particularly the word “that.” I could not decide if this was for literary style – trying to match some notion of what “classic” English literature should be – or if it’s his natural way of writing. But that is a small complaint. Overall, The Line of Beauty is a wonderful read, a terrific and engaging piece of literature, intelligent and entertaining.

09 July 2006

Calling All Saschas

One thing I am not is the only "Sascha" out there.

I don't have any friends who share my name, but there are a number of other Saschas in the world. For example, there's a German singer named Sascha, an American actress named Sascha, a chef named Sascha who just opened a restaurant in downtown New York (which looks delicious, by the way, and has received good reviews; I'm hoping to visit soon), a blogger named Sascha who focuses on technology issues, a Sascha who plays football (the real kind) in Germany... There are a number of us.

So, I would like to invite the various folks named "Sascha" who would like to be linked from this page to contact me (use the comments function at the bottom of this post, please), and I will create a list of links on the side of the SASCHA DOT COM homepage to the various other Saschas' web sites. (And to save anyone from asking: this domain name is not for sale.) Anyone who does not want to be listed won't be; this is by request only.

I admit: I am also curious about those who share my name. Anyone can search out others named Sascha with Google or Snap, but why not collect some of that info right here, on SASCHA DOT COM? Sascha looks forward to hearing from you.

****Update: For those submitting comments, please 1) note the "Sascha" connection to the site you want listed -- if there's no connection, it won't be listed; and 2) spell Sascha this way: "Sascha". People named "Sasha" or "Sacha" ... well, that's a whole other name.

04 July 2006

The Book’s The Thing

Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about a new(ish) online book cataloging site called LibraryThing.com (the article was called “Social Networking for Bookworms,” by Aaron Rutkoff, 27 June 2006). As someone who happily accepts the label of bookworm, I have been testing the site myself since I saw the article, and it is a very clever creation, with much of its cleverness lying in its simplicity. LibraryThing.com’s purpose is to enable you to catalog your own books, and to connect you (somewhat loosely) with other book owners with similar – or completely different – interests.

Thus far, one component that I have found most intriguing is the rating and commenting system, which allows users to review a book, either in brief form (by selecting from a scale of five stars) or at greater length by posting a review. Other sites do this too – Amazon.com allows people to rate a book – so it may be off-base to suggest there is greater purity to the reviews posted to LibraryThing.com. However, the books that are reviewed here are not necessarily those that attract the most attention on sites like Amazon, which is what makes this network of bookworms more interesting. I would guess that most active book readers will also have little difficulty finding someone they know with whom they can discuss a book and how they felt about it; nor are professional book reviews difficult to come by. Still, another group of reviewers makes for a different range of perspectives, and that is always engaging. (I was pleased to see that someone else owns a copy of Amanda Filipacchi’s Love Creeps; I liked the book too, as mentioned here.)


The following quote in the Journal’s article also caught my attention: “Mr. Spalding’s book community has grown almost exclusively by word of mouth. Referrals from book-oriented bloggers have helped, but LibraryThing has grown mostly gradually.” The site, which was launched in August 2005, now has more than 45,000 registered members and a catalog listing of more than 3 million books, according to the Journal.

So, the site launched in August of 2005 – almost a year ago – and this article is the first I heard of it. That is intended as an expression of surprise, and yes, I am surprised: partly because I have both friends and family in the publishing business; partly because even in my own line of work, books play such an important role and are so often discussed, fiction and non-fiction alike. Indeed, at a recent meeting I attended in Portland, Oregon, I made a trip to Powell’s City of Books – and I was hardly the only person amongst the many present to do so. Along with music and writing, books are an enormous part of my life. That I am eleven months behind the curve fascinates me.

Clearly, I’m not reading the right things that I didn’t come across this earlier... Where else might I have heard about it? A search on Technorati.com for references to LibraryThing.com is only so revealing since there are thousands of mentions, and distinguishing between the early-adopters of the bunch is no easy task. Not a single friend of colleague mentioned it; if anything, I have mentioned it to a number of people I know since seeing the Journal’s article.

Maybe this isn’t much of a mystery. I did get there eventually – and in its own way that proves the point made in the Journal’s article about the LibraryThing.com’s connection to the “long tail” concept of supply and demand: that technologies like the web are making it possible for consumers to get more of what they really want, because for the systems that supply them the cost of providing such items is dropping, and more products can be reached more easily by more people. If all this means I’m more in the “long tail” than in the body itself, well, I guess I can live with that – as long as I keep reading, to make up for what I’ve missed.