Lee Sandlin

Lee Sandlin, writer and raconteur, has passed away much too soon, at just 58.

When I got my first iPhone and was still extremely cautious of not overusing my data plan, I would download articles, turn off the 3G network, and read them offline. The one I remember best is Sandlin's "The American Scheme", which seemed rambling and endless but somehow kept me reading. That's a true testament to Sandlin's gift as a writer. I don't remember whether or not I ever finished reading the piece, but I suppose that doesn't matter. It was something I needed at the time, and I thank him for that.

Sandlin's Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild is on my to-read list. I actually gave the book as a Christmas gift to a family member a few years ago, despite not having read it yet. He sounds like he was a fascinating man.

December 16, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I can only do what I feel."

In his memoir A Daughter of the Middle Border, Hamlin Garland describes a conversation with his friend Henry Blake Fuller, the Chicago novelist.
One day as we were digging potatoes he gave me a lecture on my duty as a Wisconsin novelist. "You should do for this country what Thomas Hardy has done for Wessex," he said. "You have made a good start in Main-Traveled Roads, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, but you should do more with it. It is a noble background."

"Why not doing something with it yourself?" I retorted. "You are almost as much a part of Wisconsin as I am. My keener interests are now in the Mountain West - a larger field. There's no use saying 'Make more of this material!' I can only do what I feel. Just now I am full of Montana."

Fuller was being generous to his friend - even at his artistic peak, Garland never came close to Hardy - and time has not been kind to Garland. If he is remembered today at all, it is for his Wisconsin memoirs and the fiction that Fuller cited, and not for the Western works he thought so highly of. Maybe if he had kept writing about Wisconsin, and hadn't implicitly dismissed the Midwest as a "lesser field", he would be better-read today. I can't help wondering if the fading-away of his Western fiction is due to him writing about a subject and place that he really didn't know that well, from the standpoint of only an enthusiastic tourist and not as a native.

December 15, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year..."

In Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, teenaged heroine Ree Dolly imagines her forebears.

With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, coooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can't, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup.

Great book. One of the best I've read this year.

December 14, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Quote

"I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." - Raymond Chandler

December 12, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.” - Joseph Mitchell

I can relate; I do the same every workday with a forest preserve parking lot, a book and my brown bag lunch. Mitchell is certainly a kindred spirit. His Old Mr. Flood was one of my favorite books read in 2014, in what has been a very good year of reading for me. So good, in fact, that I might delay publishing my annual list until early January, to ensure that I don't snub any worthy book that I might finish this month.

December 5, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself..."

In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), oppressed-but-emerging wife Edna Pontellier has just learned to swim, in the Gulf of Mexico in southern Louisiana, during a midnight outing from a resort.

"How easy it is!" she thought. "It is nothing," she said aloud; "why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!" She would not join the groups in their sports and bouts, but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone.

She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.

A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.

She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, "I thought I should have perished out there alone."

"You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you," he told her.

That exchange at the end is so quietly devastating, especially the husband's relative indifference to his wife's distress. I also find it interesting that the author glosses over Edna's later struggles in the water; given the florid, verbose prose so typical of the 19th Century, I would have expected that passage to go on for several more, overwritten paragraphs. I admire Chopin's restraint.

November 30, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Quote

“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead. It requires a knowledge of self and the cosmos and of self in the cosmos. The evolutionary need is to increase our breadth of consciousness as human beings, to expand our range of choice for the wisest alternatives. The human capacity to anticipate and select will be the means whereby the future of human evolution will be determined.” - Dr. Jonas Salk

November 23, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Opening Lines

"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing

"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan

"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece

"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago

"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key

"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night

"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks

"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless

"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth

"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square

"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune

"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)

November 21, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

"...happier, or less unhappy..."

I'm reading Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, and enjoying it more than I expected. It tells the story of newlyweds Florence and Edward, both virgins, on their wedding night. Here, they are lingering over dinner in their hotel rooms, anxious (him) and dreading (her) to finally have sex. As they dawdle, they listen to the faint strains of the BBC broadcast that the hotel's other patrons are listening to in the bar room below.

"We could go downstairs and listen properly."

He hoped he was being humorous, directing his sarcasm against them both, but his words emerged with surprising ferocity, and Florence blushed. She thought he was criticizing her for preferring the wireless to him, and before he could soften or lighten his remark she said hurriedly, "Or we could go and lie on the bed," and nervously swiped an invisible hair from her forehead. To demonstrate how wrong he was, she was proposing what she knew he most wanted and she dreaded. She really would have been happier, or less unhappy, to go down to the lounge and pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on the floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned heavily into the news, into the gale of history. Anything but this.

McEwan really manages well the difficult trick of shifting the narrative perspective back and forth between Florence and Edward, often in the same paragraph, as in the passage above. I love her imagined image of the them being the bar room (I can't help picturing Fawlty Towers), her with the matrons, him with the men, anywhere but alone together.

November 16, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

What I'm reading

I just finished Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy (meh) and only at the last moment settled on my next book: Leonard Michaels' The Men's Club. I've had the book for several years and was mentally saving it for a "Bitter White Guys" segment of my periodic Structured Reading project, along with Richard Yates and John Cheever. But after reading Auslander's novel, I decided that reading Michaels next might be the logical progression. Auslander is a great admirer of Michaels, and from what I've heard about the latter I sense the two are kindred spirits. I just hope The Men's Club is better than Auslander's novel. (That Bitter White Guys segment still might come about eventually, once I find a third writer, preferably someone as Wasp-ish as Yates and Cheever. Maybe Updike?)

After Michaels, I might continue the Jewish writer theme, going back even further to Isaac Bashevis Singer's story collection The Spinoza of Market Street. Or I might change course completely. Who even knows.

November 9, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)