"A nurse held the door open for them."
- Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter
"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine
"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers
"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands
"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.)
As it turns out, yesterday was Independent Bookstore Day. Which is wonderfully fitting, since in the afternoon I happened to stop in at Book Market in Crest Hill, which is about as indie a store as you'll ever find. I was there specifically looking for a copy of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which I saw there a few years ago but passed on buying. Last night, Maddie performed in a high school stage adaptation of the book, and I thought the book would be the perfect gift to commemorate her performance. Luckily for me, the store still had it, and I bought it. I gave it to her after the show, and she loved it.
Eliot's book is also the basis for the legendary Broadway musical Cats, though the adaptation we saw was more of a dramatic recitation of the poems, without music. Maddie played the character Skimbleshanks, and she was great, as was the entire cast. I'm amazed at how talented these kids are.
This edition is illustrated by Nicolas Bentley, but from browsing Goodreads, I see that there is another edition illustrated by Edward Gorey, one of my favorite artists. I'll keep an eye out for the Gorey edition - I would love to add it to our library.
Quote"When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money." - Oscar Wilde
(I don't know what sort of boho bankers Wilde hung out with, but the next Art discussion heard at my bank will be the first.)
"We see our own efforts, dreams and imperfections in these honest or shady lawyers, these scammers and fixers struggling to keep from going under, seeking love and approval in obviously the wrong places."
Francine Prose on Better Call Saul, which is probably the best show on TV right now. It's almost as good as Breaking Bad, which I think is the best show ever.
"My Grandfather Frazee had spoken rather contemptuously of poets in my self-important infant presence. He said they were clever men, and we liked to memorize long passages from their works, and it was eminently desirable that we should do so. But almost all of them had a screw loose somewhere." - Vachel Lindsay
"...the barrier between the living and the dead is dissolved..."In Aharon Appelfeld's Laish, the titular protagonist is a fifteen-year-old orphan traveling with a ragtag group of Jewish pilgrims through eastern Europe, bound (or so they hope) for the Holy Land.
I love the evening prayers. During them, more so than during any of the other prayers, I sense the presence of my parents, who were cut off from me. For days on end I may not think of them or recall them, but sometimes during the evening prayers they rise from the dead and are pulled toward me, and the barrier between the living and the dead is dissolved. Not that this miracle occurs every evening. On the contrary; at times during the evening prayers a bitter mood descends upon me. It darkens my eyes, and I feel my orphanhood all the more keenly; it is as if my life is not rooted in the world and I want to disappear...
Quote"If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing." - Kingsley Amis
Quote"I was never capable of writing. Writing is a miracle. A meaningful sentence, a meaningful chapter is a miracle. It was so when I began, and it is so now." - Aharon Appelfeld
Quote"Hollywood is where people go to both lose and find themselves. In that respect it's like college for subliterates." - Nathan Rabin
I was pleased to recently find a used copy of the 2008 collection Field-Tested Books at a local book store. Coudal Partners actually published a field-tested book essay of my own (about reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity while on my honeymoon) online, but only after the book came out. My only regret is that they haven't published a second collection, which might have included my piece.
"...a lure to cheerfulness..."In Harry Mark Petrakis' Twilight of the Ice, recovering alcoholic Rafer Martin will soon start work as a dispatcher at a Chicago ice house. But first, he has to once again adjust to life after rehab.
He came out dry and shaken, not certain he'd been cured of his longing for a drink and afraid that he might falter once again. He'd been through these programs several times in the past and knew each lapse brought him closer to the legion of lost drunks. These men huddled in doorways or in alleys, clutching pints of wine the way a mother holds her child. What provided him a little hope was that once before, after a sobriety program, he'd remained dry for almost three months.I'm enjoying the book so far, though I'm not as enthralled as I was with A Petrakis Reader, which I read last year (and which also includes the short story that was the genesis for this novel). When Petrakis focuses on specific scenes and dialogue, he's marvelous, but many of his expository passages (not including the one above, which I really like) seem stiff in comparison.
Those first days after sobering were always the hardest. Every package liquor store was a lure to cheerfulness, every bar a threshold to euphoria.
"The summer came and went quickly which is the nature of summer for people who are not children, those lucky ones to whom clocks are of no consequence but who drift along on the true emotional content of time." - Jim Harrison, The Summer He Didn't Die
So much wisdom there. I remember those summers of my childhood that never seemed to end, a feeling that I'll soon experience again, albeit secondhand, as Maddie finishes her first year of high school. Previously, while she was home-schooled, summer was somewhat informal, but now it will surely be a more discreet period of time for her.
As I mentioned earlier, I intend to finally get around to reading Harrison. Fortunately for me, as I've discovered this week, he's well-represented at both the library and the book store.
“Germany is the only country that apologized.”
Melville House's Dennis Johnson writes a fine remembrance of Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away recently at age 93. Interesting that the author returned in his waning years to his native Hungary, despite the country's collaboration in the Holocaust, and also came to develop a respect for Germany and its official contrition for its past. I suspect that ethnic displacement is a theme of Kertész's work, along with, of course, the Holocaust itself. I've never read Kertész but am pleased to see that Melville has published four of his books, including two titles in its Art of the Novella series, of which I'm a big fan. I've added The Pathseeker to my list.
"...it is a harder belief to make articulate..."
Near the end of his 1961 biography of Carl Sandburg, Harry Golden gets at the essence of what made the poet so distinctive:
Sandburg has roamed America listening to people talk, watching them work, hoping they made the money they had to make or got the bushel yield per acre they had to get, or the shorter workday they agitated for. His instincts are with the people. He believes they have an infinite capacity for good.
Not only is this a hard belief for many people to hold, but if they do, it is a harder belief to make articulate. There are politicians who swear to it, ministers who preach it, orators who shout it over the gossiping audience, and television personalities who praise it. But none of them are able to say it as simply as Carl Sandburg said it: "The people, yes."
That last phrase is a reference to The People, Yes, Sandburg's book-length poetic ode to the American people. The book is tempting me, but I'm just as daunted by its 300 pages of free verse possibly becoming overly repetitive and monotonous. After all, I only got through a hundred pages of Leaves of Grass before the repetition drove me away. The one saving grace would be Sandburg talking about other people, rather than Whitman mostly talking about himself.
"The rebels wanted to storm the Bastille of the imagination since they did not have the numbers or the arms to storm the real one."As I wind down another Irish March, how fitting it is to read these reflections on the Easter Rising (which happened 100 years ago next month) by Irish writers Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle and others. Doyle's novel A Star Called Henry captures the doomed rebellion quite well, and is very much worth your time.
Quote"Sometimes God hands you a novel. You'd better write it." - Jim Harrison
And sometimes you never get around to reading a prolific, well-regarded author while he's still around.
“I am always full of apprehension and nerves.”
I was pleasantly surprised to read this profile of Edna O'Brien in the NYT this afternoon. I happen to be reading and enjoying her novel Wild Decembers right now, and for some reason I was under the impression that she passed away a few years ago. But not only is she still with us, but also still writing - her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs, has its U.S. release this week. Wild Decembers is the first book of hers that I've read, and I'm looking forward to reading many more - and with a writer I enjoy, there's always a special feeling knowing that they're out there, with unwritten books still in their imaginations, waiting to be written.
Quote“Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned...that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” - Albert Camus
Quote"Most of us are heathens in the innermost recesses of our hearts." - H.P. Lovecraft
Quote"In contemporary novels, older people are almost always props whose significance is only the degree to which their existence affects younger characters." - Kevin Guilfoile
Kevin's thoughts dovetail neatly with my thoughts about Anne Enright's The Green Road, which I just finished yesterday. I wanted far more Rosaleen Madigan, and far less of her kids.
"A Different Darkness at Noon"New York Review of Books has the fascinating backstory on Arthur Koestler's great anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon. The original manuscript (written in German) was lost during World War II; presciently, Koestler saw the need for an English translation, which was undertaken by his girlfriend Daphne Hardy while Koestler was still writing the original. Years later, with the German original having been lost, Koestler translated the book back into German from Hardy's English translation, which up until now has been the source document for translations into 30-plus other languages. As the writer of the article, Michael Scammell, notes, Darkness at Noon is a rare example of a work of literature known only in translation.
And now, remarkably, the original German manuscript has been found. Scammell has read the original and claims that Hardy's English translation is a fairly poor representation of the original (Hardy was apparently less than fully fluent in German) with the original being far superior. The funny thing is that I noticed hardly any shortcomings in the standard English translation that I read and loved - which makes me marvel at how the book could have been possibly have been so much stronger, as Scammell claims. ("...it is a tribute to the quality of Darkness at Noon that it has had such a strong impact on readers despite this [translation] handicap," Scammell writes.)
The original manuscript will soon be published in German, and I'm eager to someday read a new, more accomplished English translation.
Quote"The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like." - E.L. Doctorow
"They deserved no better."I really like this passage from The Green Road, by Anne Enright:
Rosaleen was living in the wrong house, with the wrong colours on the walls, and no telling any more what the right colour might be, even though she had chosen them herself and liked them and lived with them for years. And where could you put yourself: if you could not feel at home in your own home? If the world turned into a series of lines and shapes, with nothing in the pattern to remind you what it was for.Rosaleen (Considine) Madigan is an old widow whose adult children (the "they" of that third paragraph) have scattered, leaving her alone in the family house (Ardeevin) which for her no longer feels like home. The children will undoubtedly feel betrayed by her decision, and at my current point in the book she has just begun to summon them to one final Christmas at the old homestead. My guess is that the reunion will be less than amiable.
It was time. She would doze in the chair by the range, tonight, she would not lie down. And in the morning she would walk down the town, over the bridge to the auctioneer's. She could get a price for it, apparently; the days when people were put off by the heating bills were gone. The auctioneer was a McGrath - of course - a brother of Dessie, who married her daughter. He had to wet his lips each time she passed; his mouth went dry at the sight of her. Well he could have it. Let the McGraths pick over the carcass of the Considines, they could have Ardeevin and the site at Boolavaun, she would move in with Constance, and die in her own time.
They had all left her. They deserved no better.
The gutters falling into the flowerbeds, the dripping taps, the shut-up room that she had abandoned, over the years. The pity of it - an old woman chased into a corner by her own house.
"...this precocious, grown-up boy of 74..."
Besides being a renowned poet and historian, Carl Sandburg was an avid, if not terribly refined, guitarist. Late in life, he turned to his friend, the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia, for help. Segovia later wrote:
His fingers labor heavily on the strings and he asked for my help in disciplining them. I found that this precocious, grown-up boy of 74 deserved to be taught. There has long existed a brotherly affection between us, thus I accepted him as my pupil. Just as in the case of every prodigy child, we must watch for the efficacy of my teaching to show up in the future - if he should master all the strenuous exercises I inflicted on him.
To play the guitar will devour his three-fold energy as a historian, a poet and a singer. One cause of Schopenhauer's pessimism was the fact that he failed to learn the guitar. I am certain that Carl Sandburg will not fall into the same sad philosophy. The heart of this great poet constantly bubbles forth a generous joy of life - with or without the guitar.
Schopenhauer, failed artist - quite an interesting take. This passage is borrowed from Harry Golden's biography of Sandburg, which I found at a library sale and have been thoroughly enjoying. Segovia's affection for Sandburg was undeniably shared by Golden, whose fondness for the poet bursts out of every page.
Quote"In families there are no crimes that cannot be forgiven." - Pat Conroy
As much as I love South Carolina's Lowcountry, I haven't read Conroy, who was pretty much the bard of the region. The sheer heft of his books is certainly steering me away.
Quote“Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.” - Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man has been one of my favorite books since I first read it, nearly thirty years ago. Though it's been maybe five years since my last rereading, there are just so many scenes from the book that stay with me. The book is that vivid, and vital. In a way it's sad that Ellison never finished another novel (no, Juneteenth wasn't "finished" - even in its published form it was merely a rough draft), but then again, there's something special about publishing a single, perfect novel. Even had Ellison been prolific with fiction, he probably never would have surpassed his debut.
Quote“If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.” - Thomas Hardy
Irish MarchI've gotten a one-day headstart on this year's Irish March, starting Anne Enright's The Green Road just this morning. (Technically, I started even earlier, with my most recent book being William Trevor's The Love Department - but like much of that great Irishman's early fiction, the setting is England and the characters English. So maybe that one doesn't really count as Irish fiction?) I've heard great things about Enright, and this (her latest novel) is the first I've read of hers. If the reading goes swiftly** (the book is 300 pages with an unusually large font, though there's no indication that this is a large-print edition*), I hope to have enough time in March to also read Edna O'Brien. I've had my eye on a very affordable used copy of Wild Decembers at Open Books, which is just a few blocks from my office.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my reading resolutions for this year is to read ten works of fiction by female writers. I also wanted to revive Irish March, which I let lapse last year. Reading Enright and O'Brien this March will help accomplish both goals.
(*Frugal as I am, most of the books I read are low-end paperbacks that I've picked up at used bookstores and library sales. But this edition is a hardcover from the Joliet Public Library, so maybe all good hardcovers these days have larger fonts, and this is just par for the course and not the large-print edition.)
(**No, the use of that adverb was not intended as an Irish literary pun. Though it might have turned out that way.)
"...as a favor to you..."James Baldwin followed up his successful debut, Go Tell It On the Mountain, with Giovanni's Room which, to the consternation of his publisher Knopf, had nothing but white characters. The publisher wanted another "black novel."
"So they told me, 'You cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career, because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before, and we won’t publish this book as a favor to you.'"What an astoundingly paternalistic, condescending thing for a publisher to say, especially to a young writer. Baldwin ultimately did quite for himself, writing what he wanted to write.
My Baldwin experience has been mixed. I loved Go Tell It On the Mountain, was underwhelmed by Notes of a Native Son and remember nothing about Another Country other than the sex scenes. But I do want to read Giovanni.
"...a ghostly cosiness..."In William Trevor's The Love Department, Edward Blakeston-Smith observes the urban renewal of southwest London.
All Jubilee Road was levelled, and Dunfarnham Avenue, and the corner of Crimea Road, and Fetty Crescent, and almost all of Gleethorpe Lane. Edward watched the work of destruction and building, and felt sad to see it all, although he knew, for he had read it in a newspaper, that new houses were necessary to keep pace with the increasing population. Occasionally, he saw a single wall, all that remained of some old house, with different wallpapers still adhering to the plaster, indicating the rooms that had once been lived in. High up on such a wall there was often a fire-grate with a mantelshelf still above it, seeming strange and surrealist without a floor or a ceiling. After a time, Edward used to look out for those fireplaces, and even developed a fantasy in which he came by night with a ladder and climbed up with kindling and coal. In his bed in Clapham he wandered in his fantasy all over the area of SW17, and Wandsworth and Putney, climbing up the ladders and lighting fires in the fire-grates in the sky, causing a mystery that interested the newspapers and the nation. Before he dropped off to sleep the fires were blazing heartily, throwing a light on to the wallpaper that surrounded them, creating a ghostly cosiness.With Edward having frequent, disabling flights of fancy such as this, it will come as no surprise that he's not terribly effective in his job as a private investigator - most of the time, he doesn't even know what his quarry looks like. Interesting early novel from Trevor, though admittedly not one of my favorites of his.
"A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep."At The New Yorker, Karan Mahajan writes a fine profile of Michael Orthofer and his long-running (16 years!) literary site The Complete Review. Most of the literary sites I started following in the early- to mid-2000s have gone away (with the bloggers either becoming mainstream literary journalists, or abandoning blogging in favor of Twitter), which makes me appreciate the constancy of Orthofer and The Complete Review even more. His reviews are deeply thoughtful and plainspoken, and his knowledge of world literature highly enviable. (I won't even fault him for declining my offer of Wheatyard for him to review.) I'm looking forward to his upcoming book, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction.
Oh, and despite that quote above, I doubt he ever loses much sleep - with nearly 3,700 books under review (nearly 250 per year), there can't be very many days that he goes without reading.
Quote"There is a kind of corn whiskey bred in Florida which the natives declare is potent in the proportion of seven fights to a drink." - Stephen Crane
"It's a goddamn pączki!"Mike Czyzniejewski (a Chicago native who now teaches in Missouri) prefaces his review of the Stuart Dybek story "Tosca" with this anecdote about yesterday's holiday:
One Walmart in town — of the nine (not a typo) — carries them, but I have to get there a day or two before, because they sell out early (something I found out in the dark, dark February of 2014). Then, if a colleague says, “Thanks for the donuts, Mike!” I go completely apeshit, throwing whatever I have in my hands against the wall, exclaiming, “It’s not a fucking donut! It’s a goddamn pączki!” So far, I think I’m winning the battle, getting the word out, but every year, I spend the day after Pączki Day with my Human Resources rep, discussing better ways to channel the rage I feel in the workplace.Mike is doing great work with his new blog, Story366, in which he's reviewing a different story each day of this year. Writing that many reviews would already be enough of a challenge, but he takes it a step further - he only reviews a story that he's just read for the first time. The reviews have been great, and the personal asides even better.
"You never knew what books would come in the door..."Robert Archambeau shares his fond memories of Ron Ellingsen, co-owner of Chicago's old Aspidistra Bookshop, who recently passed away.
The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill. You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing. You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off. For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole.I passed the store many times - they always had sale shelves outside on the sidewalk - but never stopped in. And every time Robert reminisces about it on his blog, I really wish I had. Sounds like it was a unique place.
Quote"Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion." - Edward Abbey
"My loins trembled as the scent of toupee adhesive and spray tan swept through my nasal cavity."I think I just found the next book to read. Dubious literary merit aside, it will certainly be more entertaining than Marilynne Robinson.
Quote"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith
Preach it, sister.
Good Friday and Easter SundayAt Belt Magazine, Mark Athitakis interviews author and Joliet native Patrick Michael Finn.
They definitely have a side of Good Friday. I think at that time I was writing them, I just had such a young, angry doomsday view of the world. What I’m trying to write now, I certainly want a lot more Easter Sunday in it. I want to have more of the joy in it.I enjoyed Finn's story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet and still need to hunt down his novella, A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovitch - both books are set in Joliet, a genuine rarity. From the interview, however, it seems like his next book will instead be set in the Southwest, where he has lived since high school. Though that change will be Joliet's loss, it will better reflect the happier person he is now, and his fiction will undoubtedly be stronger for it.
"There were hundreds of these scruffy dusty old shops with proprietors who were commonly more interested in the book they were reading behind the counter than in any customer."
At Spitalfields Life, "The Gentle Author" shares his charming story of collecting the first one hundred Penguin paperbacks.
I can't help but be reminded of my own job-hunting story, twenty-plus years ago, when I rode the train from my parents' house into Chicago for job interviews. But even at that relatively late date, the days of downtown Chicago bookstores were already long gone, and so instead of the pleasant discovery of good used books, after the interviews I had to settle for a solitary beer at a bar near the train station, while waiting for the next departure home.
A few reading resolutions......for 2016:
+ Ten novels or story collections written by women. My record of reading women writers is sorely lacking. The next book on my list is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead; also high on my list are Carson McCullers, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Margaret Atwood, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty.
+ One Kurt Vonnegut novel per quarter. He's Julie's favorite writer and was very prolific, but I haven't read nearly as much of his as I should - and we own pretty much every book he ever wrote, so I really have no excuse for my record so far. I'm currently reading Breakfast of Champions.
+ Following on last year's Summer of Melville, this year I'm leaning toward a Summer of Steinbeck. Again, another great writer I haven't read much of. I loved The Grapes of Wrath when I read it ten-plus years ago, and am currently dabbling in his non-fiction A Russian Journal, but that's it so far.
This will probably be all the formal reading resolutions I have for this year - depending on the length of the Steinbeck novels I choose (I have a big collection of his short novels that I'll surely draw on heavily), these resolutions will account for around twenty books, out of my goal of forty-five total for the year. And I like to freestyle my reading choices too much to tie myself down with any more resolutions. That said, I do intend to pursue the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but a lot of these "resolution books" will also meet the Book Riot qualifications, so I'll only have to choose a few books specifically for the challenge.
"It’s a book for anyone who feels they’ve ever held themselves back when something that truly mattered was within their grasp."At The Guardian, Peter Beech shares his deep appreciation for Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, one of the finest books I've read during the past several years. In fact, though I almost exclusively give books as Christmas gifts, Ishiguro's great novel is one of the few that I've given more than once.
"...fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness..."The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions has just finished describing the American flag and "The Star Spangled Banner", and moves on to the national motto:
The motto of Dwayne Hoover's and Kilgore Trout's nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: "E pluribus unum."Familiar sentiment, especially from Vonnegut. My only surprise is that he didn't discuss the country's secondary motto: "In God We Trust." He could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.
The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren't for this: a lot of the citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
Structured Reading: Willa Cather's Great Plains TrilogyAbout a month ago, I finished my latest Structured Reading, with the three books of Willa Cather's "Great Plains Trilogy" (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia). The reason I haven't commented until now is that I was, quite frankly, unimpressed with the books. Which puzzles me - given Cather's stellar reputation and subject matter, I thought I would love these. Which certainly isn't the case.
First off, it's strange that the books are presented under the "Great Plains Trilogy" moniker, since they really aren't a trilogy. There's no real connection between the books, with no overlapping characters or even much common geography (the second is even set in the big cities of Chicago and New York as much as in small-town Colorado); I suspect that writing a trilogy wasn't Cather's intent, with the trilogy concept instead being the creation of a publisher in search of a marketing angle.
Though many of the details of the three books are already slipping away, one thing that still strikes me about the books (and maybe Cather in general - I haven't read anything else by her) is how distant the narrative is from the stories and characters. In O Pioneers!, the most compelling portions of the Bergson family story (the patriarch's first breaking of the desolate, arid land, and daughter Alexandra's later assemblage of various land parcels into a veritable empire) aren't presented at all, but only referenced in summary after the fact. Instead, the story shows the Bergsons after they've become established, which is mildly interesting but not as much so as reading about their struggles would have been.
Similarly, The Song of the Lark has little conflict or tension, as Thea Kronborg makes a steady ascent from small-town preacher's daughter to big-city opera star; unfortunately, her character is such a self-centered diva that it's hard to cheer for her (unlike the appealing Alexandra Bergson, who is easy to empathize with). Cather also mostly avoids directly illustrating most of Thea's daily life, with the reader's impressions of her largely coming only second-hand, through the windy observations of the series of men who endlessly fawn over her.
My Antonia was a major disappointment, and probably my least favorite of the three books. This is partly due to expectations - I assumed that the story would revolve tightly around Antonia Shimerda's headstrong, free-spirited personality. But to me Antonia didn't even feel like a major character - she was absent for long stretches of the narrative, and the narrator seemed just as eager to describe his own life and numerous other characters as much as Antonia. And at a more basic level, my subdued response to the book is because the basic story (that of Antonia, the narrator and the others) just never seemed to amount to much.
In all three books, Cather writes beautifully, and especially about the natural world - when her characters interact with nature, the results are often quite moving. But her characters and stories just didn't do much for me. I doubt that I'll read any of her other books, and O Pioneers! is the only one I would consider re-reading.
Quote"Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light." - Noël Coward, Private Lives
Good Reading 2015
As always, this list covers books read during 2015, regardless of publication year. I rarely stay current with new releases, and whatever books I do acquire tend to simmer on my shelf for months and even years before I finally crack them open. The envelope, please…
1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (review)
2. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (review)
3. Harry Mark Petrakis, A Petrakis Reader (review)
4. Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains (review)
5. Ben Tanzer, After the Flood (review)
6. William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (review)
7. John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (review)
8. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Spinoza of Market Street (review)
9. Joseph G. Peterson, Gideon's Confession (review)
10. H.L. Mencken, A Religious Orgy in Tennessee (review)
Honorable mention: Pär Lagerkvist, The Sibyl; J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Willa Cather, O Pioneers!; Tom Williams, Don't Start Me Talkin'; Jack London, The People Of The Abyss; John Williams, Stoner; Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy.
Re-readings: Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener; F. Richard Ciccone, Royko: A Life In Print
As I started to compile this list, my first thought was that it hadn't been a very good year in reading, but as I looked over the titles I realized that impression was mostly due to having devoted so much time (four or five months) to Herman Melville and Willa Cather, both of whom underwhelmed me (though I did admire O Pioneers!, and give Melville a lot of credit for the sheer audacity of Moby-Dick). I finally realized that it was indeed a very good year, which is really underscored by the high quality of books that only made honorable mention - especially Lagerkvist and Synge, whose books I enjoyed enough to give as Christmas gifts.
Toni Morrison, quite frankly, blew me away - this is the first time I've ever read her, and I'm now really looking forward to digging deeper into her work. Same for Petrakis, a longtime Chicago writer who for some reason I had never gotten around to reading. And John Howard Griffin's landmark book should be required reading in every high school in America, especially during this era of racial divisiveness.
My friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson came through again, my old favorites Hrabal, Singer, Mencken and Maxwell again failed to disappoint, and John Darnielle proved himself to be every bit as great a novelist as he is a songwriter.
I read a personal record of fifty books this year (due to both diligence and favoring shorter books), and I'm aiming for forty-five this year. I don't have any specific reading projects in mind right now, other than to read many more female authors than I have in the past.
PatienceMy end-of-year reading (Toni Morrison, H.L. Mencken) has been so strong that my annual Good Reading list won't appear until this weekend. I pretty much know where Morrison will end up, but it still remains to be seen about Mencken, who is making an unexpected late rush into my top ten. So, patience is requested from the one or two of you who actually care about this annual event.
Poe and ParisThe new Paris editor of the (New York-based) Paris Review, Antonin Baudry, draws a parallel between the Paris terrorist attacks and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", in which the atrocities were, in Poe's words...
something excessively outré—something altogether irreconcilable with our common notions of human action, even when we suppose the actors the most depraved of men.Also interesting is the observation that not even Poe could imagine his horrific murders being committed by a human being. So unlike today.
"Every outward expression of sorrow was shown."The Guardian republishes its lovely eulogy to Washington Irving, which the paper first ran on this date in 1859. I might continue my public domain reading with some Irving this year. Other than "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", I don't think I've ever read him.
"...unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world..."In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Corinthians Dead - college-educated but 42 years old and still living with her well-off parents - longs for the independence of a career.
She considered going to the state teachers' school to take the required courses, even went to the administration building to register. But the sight of those torpedo breasts under fuzzy blue sweaters, the absolute nakedness of those young faces, drove her out of the building and off the campus like a leaf before a hailstorm. Which was too bad, because she had no real skills. Bryn Mawr had done what a four-year dose of liberal education was designed to do: unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world. First, by training her for leisure time, enrichments, and domestic mindlessness. Second, by a clear implication that she was too good for such work.Interesting take from an author with a B.A. in English from Howard University.
A year (okay, almost a year) of public domain reading
One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read one public domain book per month on my second-generation Kindle. (I'm not a big fan of ebooks, but they're the best way to read old, obscure works that are difficult and/or prohibitively expensive to find in physical form. Project Gutenberg is the best place to find public domain books, and Amazon also has a huge library of free public domain books - if you're using a Kindle, Amazon is also the easiest downloading option.)
In short, I fell short of my goal, reading only nine books and giving up in October. The quality of the books was very uneven, and the low points were low enough to discourage me from continuing on. Also hindering me was taking up guitar in September - most of my public domain reading was done in 15-20 minutes right before going to bed, but once I started guitar, that pre-bed time was devoted to practicing instead.
By far the year's standout was J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands. Synge was an Irish playwright who also wrote several books of his immersion in regional cultures, and this book is his account of his time in the remote Arans, off the west coast of Ireland. Synge writes lyrically and touchingly of the Aran people, who were first driven to the desolate islands during the time of Cromwell, where they struggled to scratch out an existence. Even during the time of Synge's visits, more than a hundred years ago, the unique culture of the islands was already slowly yielding to modernity, and it's safe to say that virtually everything he described (other than the rocky terrain, bitter winds and icy sheets of rain) has since vanished. The book is a vibrant relic of a lost culture.
Two books by writers I've long admired were everything and every bit as good as I expected: Jack London's The People of the Abyss and H.L. Mencken's Damn! (a Book of Calumny). London is typically angry and eloquent in telling of the poor people of London's East End (and the unjust social structures that kept them that way), while Mencken is characteristically acerbic and witty as he skewers numerous deserving targets of his day.
On the flip side, as a longtime fan of the humorists Ring Lardner and George Ade, I was greatly disappointed by Lardner's The Real Dope and Ade's Fables in Slang. Lardner returns to the character Jack Keefe, the semi-literate ballplayer made famous in the excellent You Know Me Al, as Keefe reluctantly leaves the big leagues to fight in World War I. Separated from the baseball context which Lardner knew so well, Keefe's character becomes thinly-drawn, unfunny and generally unpleasant to be around. Ade's fables, though mildly amusing at first, are ethereal and ultimately forgettable. I've already forgotten pretty much all of them, after just a few months.
Also pleasantly humorous but forgettable (but not suffering from disappointment of being by a writer I admired, as with Lardner and Ade) are Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac (I consider myself a bibliomaniac, and thus enjoyed spending time with a kindred spirit), and George Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, which suffers greatly from endless repetition. Lorimer wrote these pieces as a newspaper columnist, and clearly on a deadline, to their long-term detriment. Despite its stellar reputation, Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a dud - if you're going to use that title, your book had better be the harrowing travails of an addict. Instead, it's wordy and digressive and slow to ever get to the point - assuming it ever got to the point. I wouldn't know, since I gave up halfway through. And the less said about John Richardson's racist and badly-written Hardscrabble; or, the fall of Chicago. a tale of Indian warfare, the better (I won't even bother linking to it).
De Quincey was the final straw - after reading this and several duds just before it, I gave up. I'm a sucker for old books and will undoubtedly read from the public domain regularly in the future (and probably on a Kindle), but I doubt it will ever be another rigid, year-long project like this one.
"...not even to grow old..."
Gilbert Seldes, on writers and commercial success.
Perhaps the most disastrous effect of popularity on a writer is that he is encouraged to stick to the form, or formula, which first caught the public fancy. He is rather like a star in the movies who cannot break out of an established character for fear of "losing her audience." The writer in such a case is asked not to grow; not even to grow old. But the only way to stop growth is to die; and some writers do this, while they continue to write.
Seldes writes this in the introduction to The Portable Ring Lardner, a 1946 collection which he also edited and which I've read several times, each time with genuine pleasure. Lardner was one of America's great satirists, but is mostly remembered today (if remembered at all) only for You Know Me Al. Seldes did an excellent job of curating the collection with Lardner's best work, which must have been quite a task - Seldes, while a great admirer of Lardner's work, readily admitted that the writer was over-published in book form, especially his journalistic pieces. He even draws a parallel to Twain: "The long run usually hardest on writers who work for the next issue; and both Twain and Lardner are improved by severe culling."
I had forgotten about Seldes until this morning, when I happened to read about the passing of his son, the longtime literary agent Timothy Seldes. The name Gilbert Seldes struck me, and I racked my memory to remember where I knew him from. The list of works on his Wikipedia page finally reminded me about the Lardner collection, which I plucked from the shelf and enjoyed reading Seldes' introductory essay again. Another reading of the book itself can't be too far ahead.