Books that made me

(Since I highly doubt that The Guardian will ever feature me in their Books that made me series, I have borrowed their template and interviewed myself.)

The book I am currently reading
Ben Katchor’s graphic novel Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, for what I believe is the third time. During trying times like these, I find myself turning back to old favorites like Katchor and his alter ego Knipl.

The book that changed my life
Probably Division Street: America, by Studs Terkel, the first book of his that I read (with many others following later). Terkel treated his oral history subjects with such fairness and empathy, even those that he clearly didn’t agree with. In meticulously exploring the everyday lives of his subjects, he taught me to be curious about the people around me, something that doesn’t come naturally to an introvert like myself.

The book I wish I’d written
Anything from Nelson Algren at his 1942-51 peak (never mind the rest of his lamentable career), or anything that Kent Haruf ever wrote. See below.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I’m tempted to name any one of three or four books by Algren, my literary hero, but my writing has none of the dark humor or grit of his great early work. Instead I think it has to be Haruf’s Plainsong, or, really, any of his novels. The way he conjured up, over the course of those six novels, the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado and its struggling but optimistic people leaves me in envious awe. In my fiction, I find myself endlessly trying to write the story of Midwestern small towns that inevitably pale in comparison to Holt.

The book that is most underrated
I guess “underrated” can mean the same thing as “unknown”, so I’ll go with Ander Monson’s idiosyncratic and quietly devastating novel-in-stories, Other Electricities. The book got a fair amount of indie buzz when it came out in 2005, but seems somewhat invisible now, which is a shame. It’s a truly beautiful book.

The book that changed my mind
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. I’m a proud University of Illinois alumnus who once truly revered the school’s former symbol, Chief Illiniwek (which wasn’t overtly racist, but still a simplistic stereotype). Of course I knew that Native Americans had long been exploited by white settlers hungry for land and westward expansion, but until I read Brown’s book I had no idea how severe that exploitation was (enough so that “exploitation” is too mild of a term), and how much white people like me owe Native Americans. No longer supporting Chief Illiniwek  was the very least I could do. The school stopped using Illiniwek several years ago, and I don’t miss it at all.

The last book that made me cry
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. My then-high schooler daughter admonished me a few years ago for not having read the book. Of course I was indirectly familiar with Anne’s life, as I suspect most literary-minded people over the age of twenty are, but for some reason I had never read it. (My high school seemed to have bypassed most of the near-standard texts that are required reading for most other high schoolers.) Even though I knew her fate beforehand, reading the book still brought this stoic to tears.

The last book that made me laugh
I don’t read many comic novels, so this goes back a few years, but I clearly remember laughing my ass off while reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis - especially the epic morning-after, hangover-from-hell scene. Which always makes me think of the Beat Farmers’ song “Lost Weekend” (“I wish somebody’d tell me/Just who or what I did/Why’s this ring on my finger/And who’s that screaming kid?”)

The book I couldn’t finish
I usually approach new books warily, trying to get a feel for what they’re all about, and whether I'll like them or not, so once I finally start a book it’s very rare that I fail to finish. But something about Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy just didn’t connect with me at all. I stopped reading it recently after finishing the first section, in order to move on to another book that I was eagerly anticipating, and probably won’t ever return.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Nothing really comes to mind. Every year I observe my Summer of Classics, when I read nothing but classics that I somehow missed during my younger years. Sometimes the result has been earthshaking (1984, The Grapes of Wrath), but just as often the result has been “Meh.” There have been enough of the latter that I no longer worry if I haven’t read a book that everyone says is great.

The book I give as a gift
Where do I even start? I give books almost exclusively as Christmas gifts to my family. I like to think they appreciate the books I give them, but if they don't, being Midwestern Swedes, they’re too polite to say so. One year I gave everyone a copy of Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, his final, perfect novel. Other than that, the book I’ve probably given more than any other is Knut Hamsun’s brilliant Hunger, my favorite book.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
I’m tempted to evoke Frank Lloyd Wright, who when once asked what he thought was his favorite work, replied, “Oh, my dear boy. Why, the next one, of course.” But with my pitiable lack of productivity, I’m not sure there will ever be a next book. So instead I’ll say Wheatyard, my debut novel. If I never publish another book, I’ll be happy with my writing career, because I’m so thoroughly proud of that one.

My earliest reading memory
A baseball card of Ken Hubbs, former infielder for the Chicago Cubs. Hubbs died in a plane crash early in his promising career, and Topps issued a special In Memoriam card in his honor. Not reading yet, I asked my older brother and sister to read me the text from the back of the card so many times that one of them finally got fed up and said, “Why don’t you read it yourself?” I went off and tried to do just that, and eventually succeeded. I was three or four years old at the time.

My comfort read
I don’t re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories nearly as much as I should, but since I first read them as a child they’ve never been far from my mind. The brilliant intellect of Holmes, the infinite patience of Watson, the foggy, grimy London streets (oh, to have been a Baker Street Irregular!), the thrilling plots, the denouement that somehow never feels over-explained. I know that Holmes will always be on my shelf waiting for me, when I need him.

May 2, 2020 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive.” - Eudora Welty

April 16, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“If you are a creative person and you’re honest, you realise how little you know. The depth of your ignorance is something you are constantly aware of – knowledge is a bottomless pit and you keep finding new things. I’m forever coming up against a question I can’t answer. And that’s what keeps me going.” - Desmond Morris

April 11, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm — yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.” - E.M. Forster, A Room With a View

March 22, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Irish March

A belated start to my Irish March - the month snuck up on me (came in like a lamb?) partly due to doing much less reading on our Caribbean cruise at the end of February than I had anticipated. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be reading Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy and John McGahern’s By the Lake. It’s been a few years since I last read McGahern (I loved Amongst Women), and am eager to read him again. 

March 10, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!”

Hans Christian Andersen: diva, houseguest from hell, and unrequited bromancer of Charles Dickens. 

March 5, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There were no bands greeting them at the stations..."

The opening paragraphs of Hamlin Garland's "The Return of a Private" (from Main-Traveled Roads):

The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of "vets" became. On the long way from New Orleans they had beguiled tedium with jokes and friendly chaff; or with planning with elaborate detail what they were going to do now, after the war. A long journey, slowly, irregularly, yet persistently pushing northward. When they entered on Wisconsin territory they gave a cheer, and another when they reached Madison, but after that they sank into a dumb expectancy. Comrades dropped off at one or two points beyond, until there were only four or five left who were bound for La Crosse County.

Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple, one limped, and they all had unnaturally large, bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gayly dressed ladies waving handkerchiefs and shouting "Bravo!" as they came in on the caboose of a freight train into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war. As they looked out or stepped upon the platform for a moment, while the train stood at the station, the loafers looked at them indifferently. Their blue coats, dusty and grimy, were too familiar now to excite notice, much less a friendly word. They were the last of the army to return, and the loafers were surfeited with such sights.

Such a contrast between the onset of war, when an excited public rallies behind the departing troops, and the aftermath, when the public has grown weary and indifferent to their return. Reading this, I couldn't help being reminded of the closing verses of Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" ("And the band played Waltzing Matilda/As they carried us down the gangway/But nobody cheered/They just stood and stared/And they turned their faces away"), which was so brilliantly covered by the Pogues.

March 5, 2020 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a surgeon operating on the fluid body of time."

In 1931, Walker Evans and his friend Lincoln Kirstein set out to document in photographs the Victorian architecture of Kirstein's native Boston. As related in James Mellow's Walker Evans, Kirstein admitted their process was complicated...

"...even aside from the actual sighting, clicking etc. of the camera itself. The sun had to be just right and more often than not we would have to come back to the same place two or even three times for the light to be hard and bright. I felt like a surgeon's assistant to Walker. Cleaning up neatly after him, and he a surgeon operating on the fluid body of time. Some satisfaction in exhausting a given locale of its definite formal atmosphere - so rich, exuberant, gracious and redolent of a distinguished past..."

That meticulous nature - returning several times to get the lighting just right - is one of the things that sets Evans' photographs apart, into the realm of greatness.

February 20, 2020 in Art, Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Now time must use him.”

In Ursula K. Le Guin's "Brothers and Sisters" (collected in The Orsinian Tales) Kostant Fabbre has been disabled by a rockslide at the quarry where he works.

Kostant Fabbre was home, and alone all day now that he was able to get across a room on crutches. How he spent these vast silent days no one considered, probably least of all himself. An active man, the strongest and most intelligent worker in the quarries, a crew foreman since he was twenty-three, he had had no practice at all at idleness, or solitude. He had always used his time to the full in work. Now time must use him. He watched it at work upon him without dismay or impatience, carefully, like an apprentice watching a master. He employed all his strength to learn his new trade, that of weakness. The silence in which he passed the days clung to him now as the limestone dust had used to cling to his skin.

Really good book. I'm enjoying it immensely.

February 11, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill waiting for a pickup.”

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Photograph by Esther Bubley, 1943, for the Office of War Information. So lonely, so forlorn. I would write a story about her, but I suspect her story has already been written many times before. (Algren’s “Is Your Name Joe?” comes to mind.)

February 5, 2020 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)