"Here things are pretty awful and little hope of improvement." - Samuel Beckett, on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature
I wonder if Bob Dylan's virtual silence indicates a similar lack of enthusiasm over winning the award.
"...these sweaty wayfarers..."
They are pioneers, these sweaty wayfarers, for all their telephones and bank–accounts and automatic pianos and co–operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs is a pioneer land.
Reflections on Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (published October 23, 1920) and Midwestern small towns, then and now. I haven't read the book in years, and it deserves another visit.
"Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage." - Winston Churchill
Churchill could have easily been describing Trump: a bigmouth who can't take criticism.
"We can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid." – Audre Lorde
"...he saw the sadness in her surroundings..."
From Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves:
(Via Sam Sattler.)
"The covers of this book are too far apart." - Ambrose Bierce
Summer of Steinbeck
Until this summer, the only John Steinbeck that I had read was The Grapes of Wrath (ten-plus years ago) and the nonfiction A Russian Journal (last winter). At the outset, my only definite plan for this year was to finally read East of Eden. To broaden the experience, I also planned to read several selections from the omnibus The Short Novels of John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men was a no-brainer choice (I was already familiar with the story, from seeing the Steppenwolf Theater stage version while I was in high school), and Cannery Row also a top candidate, though I was only vaguely familiar with it. Beyond those, we also own copies of The Winter of Our Discontent (his final novel) and his early story cycle, The Pastures of Heaven.
East of Eden was the most daunting challenge - I'm usually put off by longer books, and struggle to maintain interest after a few hundred pages - but proved to be a rewarding experience. The book is a boldly ambitious, multi-generational epic that tells the story of California pioneers, roughly within the Biblical frameworks of Adam and Eve, and especially Cain and Abel. It's slow, and sometimes maddeningly detailed, but it works. As I mentioned on Goodreads, even the ponderous passages about patriarch Cyrus Trask - not really essential, at first glance - were indeed critical to explaining how his progeny came to be the men they were. A great book, though admittedly not one that I'll ever read again.
Cannery Row (which I will indeed re-read in the future) was outright fun - a rollicking and hilarious story of social misfits in Depression-era Monterey, California. Most of their lives are spent, besides drinking or pursuing hopeless get-rich schemes, in revering Doc - the erudite-yet-everyday man who runs a business in town that collects and sells marine specimens - and trying to do something special for him. Their attempts at "something special" are expectedly disastrous, but Doc mostly remains patient with them, recognizing their good intentions, but also delivers a strong dose of tough love when they go a bit too far. You can tell Steinbeck had a lot of fun writing this book - and "fun" isn't a word that is commonly used to describe Steinbeck's work.
Next up was Tortilla Flat. Halfway through, a thought came to mind, and in pursuing the hunch I looked up, for the first time, a chronological listing of Steinbeck's works. And I wasn't surprised to see that this novel was only his fifth book, published in 1935 when Steinbeck was 33 years old. Though he wasn't exactly young and this wasn't among his very first books, I was struck by how much this felt like the work of a younger, less mature writer. The characters are thinly-drawn, and almost caricatures, their premise of their lives is implausible (a diet almost entirely consisting of red wine, with almost no food), and the narrative is episodic and disjointed. To me, it almost seemed like a sketchbook for Cannery Row. (Incidentally, I recently read that Steinbeck had reservations about Tortilla Flat after publication, having come to the conclusion that he had written about the paisano characters in an unflattering, perhaps even racist, light. Actually, I didn't find the book overly racist, but only because the characters were so cartoonish. Had they been more vivid and real, I might have thought Steinbeck had more of a sinister intent.)
My worry - that Steinbeck's early books were apprentice-like work - made me become less than enthused by the prospect of reading The Pastures of Heaven, his second book which was published in 1932. What a surprise it was, then, to find the book to be a fully-realized, richly drawn, highly realistic set of stories. The stories are about the lives of the residents of a rural, secluded valley - "The Pastures of Heaven" - located some distance from the "big city" of Monterey. The way the stories were connected - by the setting, of course, but also by recurring characters - made me think of this as sort of a California version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (with the only missing common element being Anderson's omnipresent central character, George Willard). It's more than a story collection, with recurring characters drawing the individual pieces into a coherent whole. It's certainly closer to being a novel than the episodic Tortilla Flat.
Despite both books being well-regarded, I backed away from The Winter of Our Discontent and The Moon Is Down, since their settings (amongst East Coast academics and in wartime Norway, respectively) seemed so distant from Steinbeck's familiar Northern California haunts. Of course, Steinbeck was such a good writer that he probably could have had success with any setting, but either book would have seemed like too much of a departure from everything else I read during the summer. (I'll certainly read both books eventually, but they just didn't fit this summer.)
So instead, I turned to his 1947 novella, The Pearl. From summaries I had read, I assumed this was another California book, but after only a few paragraphs I realized that The Pearl is actually set in Mexico, on the Gulf. So while the setting isn't California, I decided to keep reading once I saw that the characters (the poor, living off the land) and theme (the divide and tension between social classes) in the first chapter were consistent with my other Steinbeck reading. As it turns out, The Pearl was the perfect book to finish my summer - sort of like a light, refreshing dessert after a rich meal. Not that the story was light in tone - a definite sadness pervades - but that it is so plainly and simply written. No huge cast of characters, no detailed histories, no deep philosophy. Just a sad, sometimes heartbreaking parable of the false promise of material wealth, which is very consistent with Steinbeck's worldview.
Overall, the six books show Steinbeck's admirable range, from weighty, multi-generational epics to comic romps to plainspoken parables. Yet he wrote in these various styles while remaining faithful to his central obsession: the plight of poor Americans and their struggle to survive in a harsh, unrelenting society that treats them, at best, with indifference. Reading these books this summer, and The Grapes of Wrath earlier, has made me realize that Steinbeck is one of the very best writers that America has ever produced.
"I can't follow your banner any more than you can follow mine."
Fascinating: H.G. Wells' 1928 letter to James Joyce. In short, Wells wasn't a fan.
Your work is an extraordinary experiment and I would go out of my way to save it from destructive or restrictive interruption. It has its believers and its following. Let them rejoice in it. To me it is a dead end.
I laughed out loud at the line "You began Catholic, that is to say you began with a system of values in stark opposition to reality." Quite good, Wells. (Via The Paris Review.)
"His face was pressed against a glass that sometimes wasn’t there."
On the short stories of John O'Hara.
Instead, he got a more practical and—for his kind of writer—more useful education knocking around, spending marathon hours in speakeasies and working at a series of small-town newspapers. He became, among other things, one of the great listeners of American fiction, able to write dialogue that sounded the way people really talk, and he also learned the eavesdropper’s secret—how often people leave unsaid what is really on their minds.
I like that idea of a "knocking-around education." I've never read O'Hara, but I think I might enjoy his work. Unfortunately, there aren't any of his stories in the handful of anthologies that I own, so I'll need to put some extra effort into this.
"I have a huge set of memories..."
Edward Hirsch writes movingly of his friend William Maxwell, in the Summer 2004 issue of Tin House:
I didn't take long to discover that when he talked about the past, it was vividly, even painfully, present to him. It was if at any moment he could close his eyes and slip through a thin membrane in time. He didn't need a petite madeleine to send him there. I once asked him if he missed the past. He looked at me with some surprise and replied that he didn't miss the past because he was never separated from it. He said, "I have a huge set of memories, which I carry around like a packed suitcase."
I've enjoyed everything I've ever read of Maxwell, who seems to have been an even greater human being than he was a writer. I think Time Will Darken It will be the next of his that I'll read.
Quote"To be up to the eyebrows in a great work of literature is such happiness." - William Maxwell
"...a cap pistol as a Valentine's Day present for his wife..."A fond remembrance of John Steinbeck, by his friend Nathaniel Benchley:
There was, oddly, a lot of little boy left in him, if by little boy you can mean a searching interest in anything new, a desire to do or to find or to invent some sort of diversion, a fascination with any gadget of any sort whatsoever, and the ability to be entertained by comparative trivia. He was the only adult I have ever seen who would regularly laugh at the Sunday comics; he raised absolute hell in our kitchen with an idea for making papier-mache in the Waring blender with a combination of newspaper and water and flour; and he would conduct frequent trips to the neighborhood toy store, sometimes just to browse through the stock and sometimes to buy an item like a cap pistol as a Valentine's Day present for his wife. To be with him was to be on a constant parranda, either actual or intellectual, and the only person bewildered by it was his children's nurse, who once said, "I don't see why Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Benchley go out to those bars, when there's all that free liquor at home."Yes, I had to look up "parranda." It's Spanish, and roughly translates as a party or spree. I finished my Summer of Steinbeck yesterday, and am writing up my thoughts on this great writer.
Quote"Time itself is a tragedy, and most of us are fighting a war against it. Our victories are only delays..." - Rebecca Solnit
"What we've been told need not be momentous..."
"All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life. To read them now is to be present when some discovery of truth - or perhaps untruth, some flash of light - is just occurring. It is clamorous with the moment's happiness or pain. To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, now gone forever, it in some way to admit him to our friendship. What we've been told need not be momentous, but it can be good as receiving the darting glance from some very bright eye, still mischievous and mischief-making, arriving from fifty or a hundred years ago."
This quotation is by Eudora Welty, from her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship (which she co-edited), and which was re-quoted in the introduction to What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. I've admired Maxwell for several years now, and just read my first Welty (The Optimist's Daughter) earlier this year, and after enjoying some excerpts from What There Is to Say, I've been hunting for the book ever since. I finally found a nice used copy of it at Open Books this week, and am eager to start it soon. There is such great humanity and warmth in both writers' fiction, and two were genuinely good friends, that I'm sure the book is a real treasure.
Wishful thinking, Holmes...
Basil Rathbone, in the 1943 film Sherlock Holmes Faces Death :
"There’s a new spirit abroad in the land. The old days of grab and greed are on their way out...The time is coming, Watson, when we cannot fill our bellies in comfort while the other fellow goes hungry, or sleep in warm beds while others shiver in the cold...And God willing, we’ll live to see that day, Watson."
The days of grab and greed are still very much with us. The Republican Party has even nominated the very embodiment of that ethos as its presidential candidate.
Despite loving the Holmes stories from a young age, and being a fan of the TV adaptations starring Jeremy Brett and (to a lesser extent) Benedict Cumberbatch, I've actually never seen any of the Rathbone films. I should try to catch a few of those one of these days.
 Based on the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual", which I think is a much better title than that of the film version.
(Via The Ploughshares Blog.)
Quote"If one bolts the doors and windows against the world, one can from time to time create the semblance and almost the beginning of the reality of a beautiful life." - Franz Kafka
"Today I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at 10.30, enjoy long conversations with my wife, welcome the world outside my head, and cheerfully go whole days without visiting my desk at all. There are fewer imperatives. I have either proved whatever it was I wanted to prove, or I accept that now I never will. I used to fear that if I didn’t get to work immediately I would forfeit the urgency that had built up the day before. Now I know it will all still be waiting for me, and what it loses by inattention it might gain by insouciance. I return to it, when the mood is on me, as a painter will return to his canvas, adding a dab of colour here or over-painting there before popping out again for absinthe." - Howard Jacobson
I first assumed that "Burlington Bertie" was a Bertie Wooster/rich-layabout reference, but instead it's an old English music hall song:
I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty
And saunter along like a toff
I walk down the strand with my gloves on my hand
Then I walk down again with them off
I'm all airs and graces, correct easy paces
So long without food I forgot where my face is...
Magazine clipping, which shows what appears (based on the captions on the reverse side) to be the winning entry in a hairstyle contest. Found inside The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (Bantam, 1951).
"...maybe my curse and the farm's curse got to fighting..."In Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, Bert Munroe, after a series of business failures in Monterey, has moved to the titular valley and bought an abandoned farm, which the locals believe to be cursed.
Bert had been frowning soberly as a new thought began to work in his mind. "I've had a lot of bad luck," he said. "I've been in a lot of businesses and every one turned out bad. When I came down here, I had a kind of idea that I was under a curse." Suddenly he laughed delightedly at the thought that had come to him. "And what do I do? First thing out of the box, I buy a place that's supposed to be under a curse. Well, I just happened to think, maybe my curse and the farm's curse got to fighting and killed each other off. I'm dead certain they've gone, anyway."For the sake of the narrative, I hope Allen is right. Even by just the third chapter, I can already see one possibility for the two curses to wreak havoc on the Munroes.
The men laughed with him. T.B. Allen whacked his hand down on the counter. "That's a good one," he cried. "But here's a better one. Maybe your curse and the farm's curse have mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes. Maybe there'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know."
The gathered men roared with laughter at that, and T.B. Allen memorized the whole scene so he could repeat it. It was almost like the talk in a play, he thought.
"...but only as media of exchange..."From John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat (1935):
Clocks and watches were not used by the paisanos of Tortilla Flat. Now and then one of the friends acquired a watch in some extraordinary manner, but he kept it only long enough to trade it for something he really wanted. Watches were in good repute at Danny's house, but only as media of exchange. For practical purposes, there was the great golden watch of the sun. It was better than a watch, and safer, for there was no way of diverting it to Torelli.Torelli is a local grocer who regularly accepts barter for his wares, and Danny's friends' "extraordinary manner" is a polite euphemism for theft - they steal anything that isn't nailed down, and usually barter it to Torelli for gallon jugs of cheap wine. (And they then often steal the barter back from Torelli.) As for the sun, they'd probably even steal that if they could.
Quote"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce
Quote"Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference — with words." - Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick must have said this a long time ago - today, making a point in writing is a lot easier than making a living in writing.
"...a blended whiskey guaranteed four months old..."As a bourbon drinker, I can't help but appreciate this passage from Steinbeck's Cannery Row:
Lee Chong's station in the grocery was behind the cigar counter. The cash register was then on his left and the abacus on his right. Inside the glass case were the brown cigars, the cigarettes, the Bull Durham, the Duke's mixture, the Five Brothers, while behind him in racks on the wall were the pints, half pints and quarters of Old Green River, Old Town House, Old Colonel, and the favorite - Old Tennessee, a blended whiskey guaranteed four months old, very cheap and known in the neighborhood as Old Tennis Shoes. Lee Chong did not stand between the whiskey and the customer without reason. Some very practical minds had on occasion tried to divert his attention to another part of the store. Cousins, nephews, sons and daughters-in-law waited on the rest of the store, but Lee never left the cigar counter.The list of whiskies reminds me of my dad who, while avoiding the sort of rotgut that Steinbeck describes, still favored older brands like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Jack Daniels, V.O. and Old Overholt. I wonder what he would have thought of the recent bourbon revival. I think he might have appreciated an occasional taste of some small-batch variety, but ultimately he would have gravitated back to his old, familiar, and cheaper standbys.
"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.)
Quote"I always knew I was not going to measure up as a literary giant, so from the start I put my hopes on making myself a name as a literary pygmy, that is, one writing one great but undoubtedly odd, sui generis, irreplaceable, one of a kind, modestly immortal book." Jaimy Gordon, in her introduction to Keith Waldrop's Light While There Is Light
Quote"The rhythm of a café lends itself to the writing and correcting of verses that roll onward as the cigar smoke once did. You can’t write a novel in a café." - Juan Villoro
Quote"I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp." - William Faulkner, in his resignation letter to the U.S. Postal Service
I would guess that his customer service skills were appalling. His resignation was undeniably a win-win for both literature and the USPS.
Quote"All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis." - Kurt Vonnegut
"Go through the motions, Adam."I really like the following exchange in East of Eden between Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask. Adam, once so boldly ambitious in his dream of developing his land in the Salinas Valley, is morosely despondent after his wife Cathy shot him, and then abandoned him and their twin baby boys.
Samuel leaned over the basket and put his finger against the palm of one of the twins and the fingers closed and held on. "I guess the last bad habit a man will give up is advising."So plainly stated, yet so deep with meaning. It's lately become obvious that the twins will ultimately become the book's Cain and Abel analogs - previously I thought those analogs would be Adam and his brother Charles. And though the story's ending is still far off, and thus there's still plenty of time for change, it seems like I won't be getting as much of the Hamilton family - and especially the wonderful Samuel - that I had hoped for. Instead, right now the focus is fully on Adam and Cathy and their suddenly separate lives. Which is great, too - both are fascinating characters in their own right.
"I don't want advice."
"Nobody does. It's a giver's present. Go through the motions, Adam."
"Act out being alive, like a play. And after a while, a long while, it will be true."
"Why should I?" Adam asked.
Samuel was looking at the twins. "You're going to pass something down no matter what you do or if you do nothing. Even if you let yourself go fallow, the weeds will grow and the brambles. Something will grow."
Adam did not answer, and Samuel stood up. "I'll be back," he said. "I'll be back again and again. Go through the motions, Adam."
Yesterday was our first return to the annual Will County Book Recycling in several years. Last time, we were disappointed by the diminished number of books available (they explained that they get most of their books donated by libraries but, due to budget cutbacks, libraries were hanging on to their surplus books to sell at their own library sales) and later found other things to do that weekend. But yesterday afternoon it was rainy and thus a perfect time to browse for books, so we gave the recycling another chance.
And we were pleasantly surprised! It was crowded (a good sign, since more people being there meant more books being dropped off) and the tables were completely full. The photo above is my haul: John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven (perfect for my Summer of Steinbeck), Kingsley Amis' Girl, 20, Richard Wright's story collection Eight Men, George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, the second volume of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, a collection of anecdotes ("hilarious and mostly true") by old-time ballplayer Rabbit Maranville, and an old history of Stoughton, Wisconsin (for a cousin of mine, who grew up there).
We mostly broke even - we donated a bunch of used textbooks from Maddie's homeschooling days and a few fiction books of hers that she didn't expect to ever re-read, and brought home about fifteen books, three of which I took specifically to give to other people. And the great thing is that any duds we picked up can be donated back next year.
The Steinbeck, Amis and Wright books are old mass market paperbacks with bold cover designs (which I'm always a sucker for). The Steinbeck and the Amis covers are typical of that era - each has a suggestive illustration and a teaser phrase to draw in the reluctant buyer. The former reads "MEN AND WOMEN...in a warm and seductive valley." The insinuation of that valley is blatantly (and comically) obvious, especially with the depicted man and woman (both earthily attractive) gazing coyly at each other. Though I'm sure the novel has sexual elements to it, since it's Steinbeck it's probably mostly about the brutal oppression of good working-class people, and not at all the trashy romance novel that the cover suggests.
The Amis cover illustration is more subtle, but is still somewhat suggestive - a partly obscured (but still obviously naked) and beautiful young woman. Again, from what I know of Amis, it's probably not a trashy romance novel but instead a comic skewering of social class differences, so the cover is likely deceiving. That cover seemed mildly outrageous until I went on Goodreads and found this priceless version:
Wow, just wow. There's no way I would ever dare to read that edition on the train.
"...a license to talk..."Gregarious Irishman Sam Hamilton, from East of Eden:
"They say it's a dangerous thing to question an Irishman because he'll tell you. I hope you know what you're doing when you issue me a license to talk. I've heard two ways of looking at it. One says the silent man is the wise man and the other that a man without words is a man without thought. Naturally I favor the second..."I really like Sam, and hope there's much more of him to come. So far (200 pages in) Steinbeck has focused almost entirely on the Trask family (where I'm assuming the Cain and Abel theme will stem from, and ending most likely with the demise of one of the Trask brothers), but now he seems to be bringing in the Hamiltons more.
The book is slow-paced and deliberate, but I'm being patient and giving it the time it needs. It's getting better and better as it plods along, and I've begun to think it's a top contender for the title of Great American Novel.
"Let me work."Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
- Carl Sandburg, "Grass"
"...amazing how many people and of what a rich variety belong to that indeterminate dawn time..."
The Neglected Books Page has an interesting profile of Australian writer Charmian Clift (1923-69), including this lovely example of her writing:
"I am becoming addicted to sunrises...I suspect I always was, only these days I get up for them instead of staying up for them. Staying up needs stamina I don’t have any more, although I remember with pleasure those more romantic and reckless days when it was usual for revelries to end at dawn in early morning markets, all-night cafes or railway refreshment rooms, with breakfasts of meat pies and hot dogs and big thick mugs of tea, or — in other countries — croissants and cafes au lait, bowls of tripe-and-onion soup, skewered bits of lamb wrapped in a pancake with herbs and yoghourt, in the company of truckers and gipsies and sailors and street-sweepers and wharf-labourers and crumpled ladies with smeary mascara: it is amazing how many people and of what a rich variety belong to that indeterminate dawn time. Real enjoyment of this sort of thing depends, probably, on a sense of drama, the resilience of youth, and whether you can get in a decent kip after."
I've always been an early-to-bedder, even in my younger days, so I've experienced only a few of the seeing-the-sunrise-after-being-out-all-night experiences she describes. Unfortunately for her, she had those experiences from being a heavy drinker for her entire adult life, which undoubtedly contributed to her suicide at age 45. I might have missed most of those "romantic and reckless days" that she remembers so fondly but, then again, I'm still alive.
Quote"Doing nothing, contrary to what people rather simplistically imagine, is a thing that requires method and discipline, concentration, an open mind." - Jean-Philippe Toussaint
"...a smiling helplessness was his best protection from work..."From John Steinbeck's East of Eden:
Joseph was the fourth son - a kind of mooning boy, greatly beloved and protected by the whole family. He early discovered that a smiling helplessness was his best protection from work. His brothers were tough workers, all of them. It was easier to do Joe's work than to make him do it. His mother and father thought him a poet because he wasn't good at anything else. And they so impressed him with this that he wrote glib verses to prove it. Joe was physically lazy, and probably mentally lazy too. He daydreamed out his life, and his mother loved him more than the others because she thought he was helpless. Actually he was least helpless, because he got exactly what he wanted with a minimum effort.Though I love character sketches like this, there are a few too many of them. I'm seventy pages into the book, and Steinbeck is still meandering his way through the introductions. He really needs to finally move the story forward. I sense that the Hamilton and Trask families will eventually converge into a major confrontation, but for now they're still on opposite coasts and Steinbeck seems in no hurry to bring them together.
Happy birthday, Mr. Trevor!
"People like me write because otherwise we are pretty inarticulate. Our articulation is our writing." - William Trevor
A happy 88th birthday to one of my favorite writers. I haven't seen any new writing from him for a while now. I hope he's still in good health.
Summer of SteinbeckThough it's still only late May, I've already started my annual Summer of Classics, which this year I'm calling Summer of Steinbeck - I'm reading nothing but John Steinbeck's fiction. (This is the second time in two years that I've devoted my summer reading to a single author. Though last year's Summer of Melville was underwhelming, it did give me a broad and rewarding overview of Melville's work - and also the realization that I'll probably never read Melville again, other than Bartleby the Scrivener.) The reason I started early is that the first book on my list is the epic, 778-page paperback doorstop East of Eden, and since I'm a fairly slow reader and don't want to spend most of the summer reading just one book, I figured that I can't afford to waste any precious time. I also had the perfect setting for diving into the book - on an airplane, flying home from a family wedding in Washington state, with a big block of downtime and the steady hum of the jet engines blocking out most of the ambient noise. I read forty pages throughout the flight, which is one of the longer page counts I've ever managed in one sitting.
Those 778 pages might go faster than I had anticipated - the writing flows easily, and isn't heavy at all - but the book will still take me well into July. After that, I'll move on to Steinbeck's short novels - Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, etc. - which might feel like a reprieve after East of Eden. And I'll be skipping The Grapes of Wrath - I read (and loved) that ten-plus years ago, but given my woefully limited reading of Steinbeck, I really can't see re-reading that this summer instead of something new.
Quote"Until the age of twenty-four, I was in all departments of writing abnormally unpromising." - Kingsley Amis
"I love thee, infamous city!"I've long been vaguely familiar with Charles Baudelaire's "Epilogue" (Nelson Algren used part of it as an epigraph for Chicago: City on the Make) but didn't finally read it until just now. And I really like it.
Epilogue"Epilogue" appears to have been included in several Baudelaire translations. The version on Project Gutenberg is from Poems in Prose (1913), a twelve-piece volume translated by Arthur Symons, but it's originally from Le Spleen de Paris (1869), which has fifty-one prose poems, so it's not the same as the Symons volume. My interest in Baudelaire was piqued over the weekend at B&N where I saw the New Directions edition of his landmark work, The Flowers of Evil, which includes fantastic cover art by Alvin Lustig. Baudelaire is now definitely on my radar.
With heart at rest I climbed the citadel's
Steep height, and saw the city as from a tower,
Hospital, brothel, prison, and such hells,
Where evil comes up softly like a flower.
Thou knowest, O Satan, patron of my pain,
Not for vain tears I went up at that hour;
But, like an old sad faithful lecher, fain
To drink delight of that enormous trull
Whose hellish beauty makes me young again.
Whether thou sleep, with heavy vapours full,
Sodden with day, or, new apparelled, stand
In gold-laced veils of evening beautiful,
I love thee, infamous city! Harlots and
Hunted have pleasures of their own to give,
The vulgar herd can never understand.
"Why don't you write?"
Yesterday, at a garage sale, we bought a pile of issues of The Workbasket ("Home and Needlecraft for Pleasure and Profit") from the fifties and sixties. Alongside the usual ads for self-improvement (learning shorthand or the accordion) and get-rich-quick schemes (selling greeting cards - really?), there were a handful of shady appeals to aspiring writers.
The ad above, from the Newspaper Institute of America, offers something called the New York Copy Desk Method to teach housewives (note the specific reference to "newspaper women") how to write. Of course it involves a mailed-in aptitude test - which I'm sure resulted far more in applicants getting on marketers' mailing lists than actual writing gigs.
This ad, from the Palmer Institute of Authorship, is much more blunt about all the money the writer will supposedly make - the bold headline, the $240 that Ms. Wenderoth made for her first published story, the claim that writers can "cash in" on all of the lucrative opportunities out there. (The fact that "cash in" appears in quotes suggests the phrase was not yet common in 1956.) Incidentally, Googling "Harriet F. Wenderoth" brings up only five results, all of which are ancestry or death records, and none that reference a writing career.
This publisher promises to do all of the publishing dirty work (with italicized emphasis on "sell"), and even offers good royalties. Interestingly, the ad doesn't mention what all these wonderful services will cost the author. And not surprisingly, the fourth Google result for "Comet Press Books" involves a 1960 lawsuit in which a Sol Kantor was suing the publisher for fraud. On the other hand, it looks like Comet Press did publish quite a few books in its day, so maybe it didn't screw over every writer that signed on.
This ad is my favorite of the bunch, and not just because it's a Chicago guy. Benson Barrett will tell you what to write and where to sell your work, apparently without offering any writing instruction. (It's just as well he isn't teaching, given the fragmentary second sentence, the incorrect semicolon in the third sentence, and the redundancy of "in a hurry" and "adds up quickly" in the fourth sentence.) And all of that money will start rolling in from nothing more than short paragraphs! Because everyone loves to read short paragraphs, right?
Quote"Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it." - Madeleine L’Engle
On this Mother's Day, you might consider hoisting a dark-colored libation with your mom - Tennessee Williams certainly did. He also shamelessly appropriated her life when creating the matriarch of The Glass Menagerie, but I'm sure he was good to her otherwise.
"...sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words..."In Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter, Laurel McKelva has returned to her childhood home in small-town Mississippi, after the sudden death of her father. Here, she rememembers laying in bed as a child and listening to her parents - now both deceased - as they read aloud to each other.
When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nightime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake, for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.Despite the sadness, Laurel seems to savor the night stillness of the house. As she should, since her father's funeral will be the next day and the house will teem with well-wishers. Listening to far-off voices in the night, straining to hear the wound-down mantel clock that her father is no longer around to tend - I can feel all of that, as if I'm right there. Simply lovely writing.
Fay slept farther away tonight than in the Hibiscus - they could not hear each other in this house - but nearer in a different way. She was sleeping in the bed where Laurel was born; and where her mother had died. What Laurel listened for tonight was the striking of the mantel clock downstairs in the parlor. It never came.
Quote"It may be because of our unhinged and fractured times, but some modern fiction seems to lose its way because of a glut of language, a whole smorgasbord of it, as if words were not enough to convey the prevailing frenzy." - Edna O'Brien
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...