Good Reading 2016
1. Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night (review)
2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (review)
3. John Steinbeck, Cannery Row (review)
4. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (review)
5. Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase (review)
6. Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers (review)
7. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven (review)
8. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (review)
9. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter (review)
10.Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (review)
Honorable Mention: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal; Harry Lewis Golden, Carl Sandburg; Steve Delahoyde (editor), Field-Tested Books; John Steinbeck, The Pastures of Heaven; Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol; Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
Two things are probably obvious about this list. First, the number of woman authors: six of the top ten. This was a conscious decision on my part. I am seriously under-read in terms of books written by women, something I really want to rectify. I made a vow to read ten books of fiction this year by woman authors, and I met my goal - besides the authors listed above, I also read Margaret Atwood, Katherine Anne Porter, Anne Enright and Marilynne Robinson. Two of the ten really stood out: Pride and Prejudice which, while densely written (or denser than I typically prefer), was a fairly easy read, very enjoyable and often (and unexpectedly) very funny. And Up the Down Staircase was one of the funniest books I've read in years. I was very surprised to see that the book is currently out of print - it would certainly be a great candidate for a New York Review Books reissue.
The second obvious thing is Steinbeck: two of the top four, plus two of the honorable mentions. I now believe he is one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, as I mentioned in my Summer of Steinbeck recap.
Our Souls at Night was simply lovely, and a fitting end to Kent Haruf's career. The book encapsulates the warmth, dignity and optimism with which Haruf treated all of his subjects. I was almost hesitant to finally read the book, knowing that once I finished I would never make another new visit to Holt, Colorado. I will certainly miss that, but I also look forward to re-reading Haruf's novels for the rest of my life.
My Christmas book-giving is usually a good snapshot of what I've read during the year. This year, of the books I read in 2016, I gave a copy of Our Souls at Night (six copies in all) to each household of my immediate family, several of whom I've already introduced to Haruf. I also gifted Cannery Row, Up the Down Staircase, Wild Decembers and The Lathe of Heaven - plus John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, which didn't make my list but I thought was perfect for my engineer brother-in-law.
My reading goals for 2017 are still somewhat vague, though I will definitely keep focusing on woman authors - I still have a lot of catching up to do there, and really want to read more from Le Guin, Welty and O'Brien, and also resume Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy. I'm still mulling over what to read for Summer of Classics. Right now I'm thinking it might be H.G. Wells. Stay tuned.
"...we ought to have meaning as human beings..."
Knut Hamsun, writing to a fellow author, around 1918:
You and I, we shouldn't live from scribbling and emptiness, we ought to have meaning as human beings, marry and have children, make a home and live close to the earth. Think about it. I am old and I know it. I've written maybe thirty books, I don't remember exactly; but I have five children, and that is my real blessing. What do people want with all those books? If it weren't for my children I wouldn't even have the right to a grave.
Like so much of Hamsun's life, this statement is full of contradictions. He said this after the publication of The Growth of the Soil, his wildly best-selling novel that also won him the Nobel Prize. His writing up to that time had made him wealthy, critically praised, and one of the most beloved public figures in Norway - but here he says writing isn't important, and that family is everything. This comes from a man who could never write in his family's home, nor even in the writing hut he built on his property - instead he would go off alone to some far-flung locale, leaving his wife and four children at home. As for living "close to the earth", while he had previously done just that, carving out a farmstead from rocky and wooded land in the far north of Norway, by this time he had sold the farm and moved to a provincial city closer to Oslo, specifically to focus on writing The Growth of the Soil. We should go back to the land, he says, even though he had just left the land behind, to return to a more urban and sophisticated life.
The quotation is from Robert Ferguson's biography, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun - a comprehensive (sometimes exhaustingly so) and insightful profile of the perplexing Hamsun's life and work.
What I'm writing
Yes, I realize it's been a very, very long time since I've been able to do a blog post with that heading. But I've reached a semi-milestone, so I thought I'd share. I'm fifty handwritten pages (no idea of the word count) into a new novel, with the working title of Good Advices. I've just started to transcribe what I've written so far into my laptop, instead of waiting until the full draft is finished before typing it all up at once. The latter is how I've always done it in the past, but the new method should make the typing less overwhelming, and also give me a chance to reflect on what I've written as I go.
For the moment, here's the opening paragraph:
He climbed the ladder slowly, intent on his task yet cautious, but after a few moments at the top he found that the screws had rusted and would not budge. Hardly surprising, he thought - the sign had hung there for nearly forty years, exposed to the weather, and now the screws that secured it to the planks of the old barn refused to give. He regretted his choice of screwdriver - its teeth worn and unable to hold - and wished he had first gone for power drill. He sighed, slipped the screwdriver into his back pocket and eased his way back down the ladder.
The writing has been slow but steady, and I like how the story is progressing. I hope I learned enough from Wheatyard to make the editing and crafting of this book much smoother.
"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere they can be quiet, alone with heavens, nature, and God." - Anne Frank
Maddie, my outspoken 16-year-old, remains incredulous that I still haven't read Frank's Diary. I will rectify this omission in the coming year. I'm prepared for tears.
"...you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do."
Kurt Vonnegut, from his 1977 The Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review (compiled in Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview and Other Conversations):
When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are...and you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say they stage no confrontations between people because people avoid confrontations in modern life. "Modern life is so lonely," they say. This is laziness. It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
Those students may be correct about people avoiding confrontations in everyday life, which is why fictional depictions of mundane everyday life (other than those by our most gifted writers) are so soul-crushingly dull.
Reading this interview today should prove to be a timely bit of advice for me. In the book I'm working on right now, at the point where I last left off the protagonist is just about to drop in on an old friend, who is now the principal at the high school in the small town where the book is set. The protagonist has had little confrontation in the story thus far (I'm still largely setting the stage) and Vonnegut has now nudged me toward having this meeting between old friends to quickly become, shall we say, quite less than cordial.
"Marley was dead, to begin with."
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
"The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear."
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
"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.)
"Do not complain beneath the stars about the lack of bright spots in your life." - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
How fitting to read this quote at the moment, while I'm partway through Robert Ferguson's biography of Knut Hamsun. As a young man Hamsun revered Bjørnson, who was one of the titans of 19th Century Norwegian literature. But Hamsun, being the prickly egotist that he was, soon publicly and scathingly tore down his hero (and others, including Henrik Ibsen) for being of the old guard, and an enemy to the modernism he would soon pioneer.
“We were very lucky to have lived down there to bring up the family."
Spitalfields Life shares some charming remembrances of Joan Naylor, the last resident of the Bellevue Cottages in Stepney, London, from the era when the cottages housed the workers of the adjacent Charrington Brewery. Naylor's husband was a clerk at the brewery, and her stories of the boisterous social life there are warm and inviting.
When all the children were safely tucked up asleep (“We had children, we couldn’t go out“), the residents of Bellevue Place enjoyed lively fancy dress parties, in and out of the gardens, and each other’s houses too. “The word would go around from Stan and we would go round the charity shops to see what we could find, but no-one would tell anyone what their outfit was going to be. It was lovely. Everybody had fun and nobody carried on with each other’s wives.” Joan assured me.
I'm obsessive about this sort of thing, so I couldn't help hunting down the locale on Google Maps. You can see the roofs of the cottages in the image below, between two bands of greenery, just behind the commercial buildings at the corner of Mile End Road and Cleveland Way. (The cottages are on an unmarked street, so Google Street View didn't go there to provide a ground-level view.)
The brewery (which was located to the east of the cottages) must have been a huge complex. The building that housed the company offices still stands, at the northwest corner of Mile End and Cephas Avenue, but the rest of the brewery has been demolished, with a shopping center and its parking lot now taking up most of the space. Lost London, sigh.
Madison and Halsted, 1959
This 1959 photo looks east, toward the corner of Madison and Halsted. The buildings in the left foreground are where my office building now stands. (I guarantee you that the goings-on at the Elite Hotel and Little Max's Clothing - the only two signs I can read in full - were a lot more interesting than what happens there now.) The only building in the photo that's still standing is the long one on the right, between the theater and the corner - the old Mid City National Bank, now vacant.
Hoping for a selfish oligarch
Felix Salmon absolutely nails it:
Trump is, however, motivated by self-interest. And in a world where the choice is between appalling and disastrous, this weirdly counts as good news. His voters voted for a chaos monkey who would deport millions of immigrants, start a war with Iran, decimate global trade, and make America unspeakably racist again. A vote for Trump, in other words, was a vote against freedom and prosperity and equality.
Trump is capable of implementing all of those policies, should he want to. But he is also an extremely rich man who is in the process of putting together a cabinet of unprecedented wealth, from Betsy DeVos to Steven Mnuchin to Wilbur Ross and Todd Ricketts. For these people–and for Trump himself–a global descent into protectionist chaos would be, let’s say, suboptimal: They would lose not only vast amounts of money, but also much of the status they so expensively enjoy.
In this sense, Trump’s multitudinous global conflicts are the main thing keeping him from going completely off the rails.
You know, maybe Trump's refusal to divest his business holdings, or put them into a blind trust, is the only thing preventing him from obliterating the world. If he approaches every presidential decision with consideration for how it could damage his financial net worth, we might actually be saved. I just wish he had hotels in Syria and Iran.
"...living a reduced version of their former lives."
George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier:
A working man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being. So that in one way things in the distressed areas are not so bad as they might be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up. The people are in effect living a reduced version of their former lives. Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things tolerable by lowering their standards.
I'm enjoying the book. It's a bit textbook-y at times, but still very good.
Small manila envelope, with information for two Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer books, including what appears to be a library call number, and possibly the librarian's initials. Found inside The Road to Wigan Pier, by George Orwell (Harcourt Brace, 1958).
At The Millions, Jason Diamond surveys the books of Chicago's North Shore suburbs, from Waukegan (which, Diamond notes, generally isn't considered "North Shore", which is generally a enclave of the ultra-wealthy) to Evanston.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life...
Diamond omitted my favorite North Shore novel, Ward Just's An Unfinished Season, which is set in fictionalized versions of Lake Forest and, I think, Half Day (the original name of Lincolnshire). Just's coming-of-age story about a Half Day kid uncomfortably moving through Lake Forest high society is one of those books that has stuck in my mind, years after the fact.
Diamond has just published a memoir, Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned From Watching 80s Movies, which I might check out eventually. I'm a bit too old for Hughes' movies to have much of an impact on my young life (I graduated high school in 1983, the year before Sixteen Candles, his directorial debut, came out) but Hughes was a very big deal to Diamond (the writer grew up around the North Shore, where most of Hughes' classics were set), so the book might still be worth a look.