"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.)
Wolf in White Van
Yes, another John Darnielle post...Darnielle's lyrics have always been very literary, and several years ago he published his first work of fiction, a novella for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (which I have not yet read, but intend to grab the first time I see it in person). Now he's about to further solidify his writer credentials with his debut novel Wolf in White Van, which is coming out in October. Really, really looking forward to this.
"What greater cumulative toll the small irritations of life take than its major woes; if instead of the thousand perennial gnats a man could pay in one good snakebite."
- Peter De Vries
"...dressed for a walk in the country..."
I've just started to wade into William Maxwell's short story compendium, All the Days and Nights. I really admire this incisive yet almost offhand description, from "Over By the River", of the apartment building doormen of Manhattan's posh Upper West Side.
Doormen smoking a pipe and dressed for a walk in the country came to work after a long subway ride and disappeared into the service entrances. When they reappeared, by way of the front elevator, they had put on with their uniforms a false amiability and were prepared for eight solid hours to make conversation about the weather.
In just two sentences Maxwell presents two solid visual images (doormen in their informal and formal selves), the sacrifice they endure and implied economic disparity between themselves and their employer (long subway ride), and the false, empty drudgery of their jobs (chatting with tenants about the weather). Well done.
Reading in Public: Chicago, 1964
It's been a long time since I updated my "Reading in Public" series (almost a year and a half now) so when this wonderful photograph came up on Calumet 421, I just had to add it. The photo was taken by Jay King on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in 1964. Not only is this gentleman reading in public, but he's so engrossed by the book that not even walking can distract him; based on the posture of the couple behind him, it appears that he's standing on a corner, probably waiting for the walk light. I certainly hope he looked both ways before returning to his reading. And I wish I could tell which book this was.
"The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight."
- James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone"
"...a raging demon, slashing with his pen..."
In Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts how astounded he was, at seventeen years old, to first read H.L. Mencken.
I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words...Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them for a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.
Wright was able to read Mencken’s books only by stealth, as the Memphis public library of the 1920s didn’t check out books to black people. But reading Mencken’s literary criticism stokes a sudden passion in Wright to read the fiction of the previously unknown authors cited by Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in particular, and so he manages to check out more books from the library. He tears through the books and develops, if not quite empathy, then an awareness that struggle and inequality are not confined to African-Americans, and that progress and equality could be fought for with the weapon of words.
It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books - written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lewis - seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.
It’s interesting to note that the fiction writers revered by the young Wright were all Midwesterners, covering a broad swath from Minnesota to Ohio, while Wright dreams of leaving the racist repression of the South for the (relative) freedom and opportunity of the North, specifically Chicago. Although most of the characters of those novels were white, Wright seemed inspired by the lives they lived in the North, even though those lives themselves were often limited and inhibited. To Wright, even the constrained lives of Carrie Meeber and the common folk of Winesburg must have seemed preferable to what he faced in the South, and prodded him toward Chicago and its greater possibilities.
Black Boy is a lively and often gripping account of Wright's young life, which has given me a better understanding of the obvious rage that permeates the pages of his landmark novel Native Son. No author writes in a creative vacuum; everything they create is flavored by their past life experiences, and Wright is a clear example of that. The first installment of my latest Structured Reading effort is now complete, and I'm moving on to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son.
The imaginary libraries of Old London
This is wonderful: British artist Adam Dant has created a series of illustrations that fancifully imagine old London as being full of arcane libraries. The illustration above is his "The Subterranean Bovine Archive," followed by a current photograph of the same street. (Note that the building on the left is identical in both the illustration and photo. The implication is that the newer buildings on the right in the photo were built on the site of the Archive.) More pairings are on display at Spitalfields Life, from Dant's new book, Bibliopolis: Imaginary Libraries in the City of London. The spirit of these illustrations, and especially the quirky names of the libraries, remind me of Ben Katchor's not-quite-New York City; "Library on a Pole" could easily have come, in more modernized form, straight from Katchor's pen.
"This story will put your name before our readers."
Richard Wright published his first story in a black Mississippi newspaper, when he was fifteen years old. Here, in his memoir Black Boy, Wright relates the pivotal exchange between himself and the paper's editor.
"Where's my story?" I asked.
"It's in galleys," he said.
"What's that?" I asked; I did not know what galleys were.
"It's set up in type," he said. "We're publishing it."
"How much money will I get?" I asked, excited.
"We can't pay for manuscript," he said.
"But you sell your papers for money," I said with logic.
"Yes, but we're young in business," he explained.
"But you're asking me to give you my story, but you don't give your papers away," I said.
"Look, you're just starting. This story will put your name before our readers. Now, that's something," he said.
"But if the story is good enough to sell to your readers, then you ought to give me some of the money you get from it," I insisted.
He laughed again and I sensed that I was amusing him.
"I'm going to offer you something more valuable than money," he said. "I'll give you the chance to learn to write."
I like that "I said with logic." He may have been logical, but naively unrealistic. This happened in 1923, so apparently the "we're not paying you but doing you a huge favor" concept is nothing new. Presumably that editor wasn't working for free, yet he expected his writers to do so.
"...wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!"
This is so cool: Shetland poet Jim Mainland's translations of poems of Les Murray, John Milton and Miroslav Holub into Shetland dialect, as well as one of his own poems. This is a portion of the Murray poem:
I wis a slester o lowin pent, lowsin
gowd an siller, cloorin een anidder,
an endin wi a rissenin, rid-tongued aze:
wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!
Beautiful, even though I barely comprehend the words, even after speaking them aloud.
"...war minus the shooting."
George Orwell, on sports and nationalism.
As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don't intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and "rattling" opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
I'm guessing he wasn't a big fan.
"...the extraordinary inside the mundane..."
Library of America has an interview with Bernard Malamud's biographer, Philip Davis.
Malamud puts the big within the small, the extraordinary inside the mundane, the struggling, and the hurt. There are geniuses who tower above us: Malamud’s genius was different, more like that of an ordinary man, made extraordinary by his hard-won literary power.
...he needs attentive readers now in defense of what literature is when it does not merely make a loud noise - readers who can know how big these small things are, even whilst Malamud stays loyal to their ostensible smallness. He took the risks of being neglected for the sake of something not facile, something deep.
Though a friend recommended reading Malamud's short stories first, I think I'll start with his novel The Assistant.
"The First Seven Years"
I love this short story by Bernard Malamud, which Library of America is featuring as its Story of the Week. For some reason I've never read Malamud (not even The Natural - seeing the bombastically mythical Robert Redford movie probably drove me away from that novel), but now I'm thinking I really should. Any recommendations would be greatly welcomed.
Further thoughts on Morte D'Urban
Paging through my writing journal, I happened to come across this entry dated 10/1/13. It neatly encapsulates my feelings about J.F. Powers' great Morte D'Urban, my favorite book of last year.
At first glance I was surprised, even impressed, that a layman like J.F. Powers could write so intelligently about the inner lives of priests. But now I realize, at page 90 of Morte D’Urban, that there’s been no prayer and little preaching, almost nothing about these priests’ spiritual lives. Instead, it’s about the mundane, everyday tasks and worldly obsessions of a bunch of career men. (And quite funny, too, in a subtle and wry way.) It’s showing the universality of priests--instead of being special and a breed apart, they’re every bit the same petty, jealous, closed-minded strivers the rest of us are. And that is one of the book’s greatest strengths.I gave the book as a Christmas gift to my mom, who lived through Father Urban's era and has always been fascinated with Christianity, as both faith and institution. I thought the book would be perfect for her. I'm looking forward to hearing what she thinks of it.
"...ladling out the old craperoo..."
In the opening pages of Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall, the narrator Eddie Lewis (a boxing press agent, or kind of a freelance PR flack for dubious fighters) dreams of writing a stage play about the sport.
One solid job could justify all the lousy years I had frittered away as a press agent for champions, deserved and otherwise, contenders and bums, plenty of the latter. You see, that play would tell Beth, I haven't really fallen so low as you thought. All the time it seemed as if I were prostituting myself by making with the adjectives for Honest Jimmy Quinn and Nick (The Eye) Latka, the well-known fistic entrepreneurs, I was actually soaking up material for my masterpiece. Just as O'Neill spent all those years as a common sailor and Jack London was on the bum.
Like O'Neill and London. It always made me feel better to make those notes. My pockets were full of notes. There were notes in every drawer of my desk at the hotel. The notes were kind of an escape valve for all the time I wasted getting loaded, cutting up touches with Charles, sitting around with the boys, going up to Shirley's, and ladling out the old craperoo about how old Joe Round-heels, who couldn't lick my grandfather and who had just been put away in two over at the Trenton Arena, was primed (I would be starving to death without that word primed) to give Jack Contender the fight of his life.
I love the energy of Schulberg's language, which somehow manages to crackle and be world-weary at the same time. Even at this early stage it's easy to see that Eddie will never be more than a two-bit flack, and will remain mired in the sordid boxing world of the 1940s. Which is fine with me - that's exactly why I'm reading.
I just started reading Budd Schulberg's midcentury boxing classic The Harder They Fall, but after that I'm going to dive into my latest structured reading. The basic idea is to read three books with related subjects or themes in succession, and see how the books echo and reflect on each other. In the past I've done structured reading on the Depression (Edmund Wilson, FDR and the New Deal, Jack Conroy), early 20th Century American satire (Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner, George Ade) and old-school Jewish writers (Isaac Singer, Sholom Aleichem, Aharon Appelfeld).
My next installment will be focused on African-American writers: Richard Wright's memoir Black Boy, James Baldwin's essay collection Notes of a Native Son (which I believe is partly a response to Wright's groundbreaking novel Native Son - which I was less than pleased with when I reread it two years ago - and to Wright in general) and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Looking forward to it, as always.
Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood
Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood is a fictional portrait of a man who lives in an aged hotel near New York City's Fulton Fish Market during the 1940s; the title character is a composite of numerous individuals that Mitchell knew in the Fulton Market area. The book is endlessly quotable, but I'll restrain myself to just two passages. First, here's Mr. Flood's philosophy on mortality (he's 93 years old, and wants to live to 115):
Many aged people reconcile themselves to the certainty of death and become tranquil; Mr. Flood is unreconcilable. There are three reasons for this. First, he deeply enjoys living. Second, he comes of a long line of Baptists and has a nagging fear of the hereafter, complicated by the fact that the descriptions of heaven in the Bible are as forbidding to him as those of hell. "I really don't want to go to either of those places," he says. He broods about religion and reads a chapter of the Bible practically every day. Even so, he goes to church only on Easter. On that day he has several drinks of Scotch for breakfast and then gets in a cab and goes to a Baptist church in Chelsea. For at least a week thereafter he is gloomy and silent. "I'm a God-fearing man," he says, "and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again, but one sermon a year is all I can stand." Third, he is a diet theorist - he calls himself a seafoodetarian - and feels obliged to reach a spectacular age in order to prove his theory. He is convinced that the eating of meat and vegetables shortens life and he maintains that the only sensible food for man, particularly for a man who wants to hit a hundred and fifteen, is fish.
And here's how he maintains his surprisingly good health:
Mr. Flood doesn't think much of doctors and never goes near one. He passes many evenings in a comfortable old spindle-back chair in the barroom of the Hartford House, drinking Scotch and tap water and arguing, and sometimes late at night he unaccountably switches to brandy and wakes up next morning with an overwhelming hangover - which he calls a katzenjammer. On those occasions he goes over to S.A. Brown's, at 28 Fulton Street, a highly aromatic little drugstore which was opened during President Thomas Jefferson's second term and which specialized in outfitting medicine chests for fishing boats, and buys a bottle of Dr. Brown's Next Morning, a proprietary greatly respected in the fish market. For all other ailments, physical or mental, he eats raw oysters. Once, in the Hartford barroom, a trembly fellow in his seventies, another tenant of the hotel, turned to Mr. Flood and said, "Flood, I had a birthday last week. I'm getting on. I'm not long for this world."
Mr. Flood snorted angrily. "Well, by God, I am," he said. "I just got started."
The book is a charming, delightful and marvelous evocation of a vanished place and time. At 122 pages, it's a swift and easy read, and when I finished it this morning I launched right back into a second reading - a very rare occurrence for me. The book is currently out of print, but is collected in Up in the Old Hotel, along with three other Mitchell collections.
"...his origins make themselves plain..."
Peter Guralnick, from Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians:
At sixty-three, Ernest Tubb is something like a mirror image of these fans. Although his hair is still dark and he continues to hold himself erect in his turquoise suit, white Stetson, and gleaming brown boots, the once-lean frame has filled out, and the bags under the eyes, wattles under the chin, and slow crinkling smile all give him the look of the plain hard-working men and women who come out to see him. It is almost as if, having cheated fate once when he escaped the bleak West Texas farmland on which he was raised, he has only met it in another guise on down the line, as his origins make themselves plain in the worn weathered features, the honest creased roadmap of his face.
I'm revisiting Lost Highway for the first time in at least twenty years. I first picked up the book specifically for its profiles of blues musicians (Howlin' Wolf, etc.) back when I was really into blues, though I had (and still have) little interest in country music. But Guralnick is such a marvelous writer that I even enjoy his profiles of country musicians immensely.
Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
Joe Peterson's Beautiful Piece is a simple story made into a complicated one by repetition, which often made it difficult to read. But ultimately the repetition really made me think, and really strengthened the book. The basic story is of a young man named Robert who is wandering aimlessly through life, and drifts into an ill-fated relationship with a young woman named Lucy, who takes Robert back to her place one day despite having a long-time fiancee who may or may not be a psycopath. Robert also has three friends, the placid family man Epstein (whom he admires as an ideal), a grizzled, bitter Vietnam veteran (known only as "the Vet") who is much closer to Robert's reality, and a fatherly bartender named Addison. And that's basically the entire plot.
Robert ceaselessly repeats phrases, conversations and incidents from his middling life, which I often found exasperating when I wasn't in the right frame of mind. But after a while I realized that the repetition makes perfect sense: repetition fills up the enormous empty spaces of his life, and also perpetuates his state of entropy by obsessing over the past instead of moving forward. But it's not just Robert who is prone to repetition - Lucy, Epstein and the Vet all share that weakness, and it's telling that Robert surrounds himself with similarly directionless people, none of whom prod him very much to get on with his life. Addison also reguarly praises him for how well his life is progressing, while it's obvious to the reader that Robert isn't progressing at all. In short, Robert surrounds himself with enablers who keep him stuck in a rut. He's so prone to stasis that when he finally makes a decisive act at the very end, it's one that is poorly thought out and undoubtedly catastrophic.
Many commenters I've seen online have objected to the book being characterized as noir, with all of the preconceptions that come with the genre. But despite the constant presence of a gun - a Glock - I don't think this is noir at all. Instead, it's a psychological character study of an obsessive individual. I think the story goes down a lot easier if it's read within that context, instead of as noir. Overall, Beautiful Piece was a thoughtful and rewarding read.
High praise from Karl Wolff
Yes, it's been an unusually busy day of blogging, but I've saved the best for last. Karl Wolff, staff reviewer at Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, has named Wheatyard as his Best First Novel of 2013, as well as Best Overall Book Design of the year. He calls my narrative voice "by turns, tender and vicious," which is flattering - tender, maybe, but I never thought of my writing as vicious. Maybe a new side to explore? (Karl reviewed the book for CCLaP back in June.)
I had nothing to do with the book design, the credit for which goes Pablo D'Stair, the publisher of Kuboa Press, for overall design and Carlos M. Gonzalez-Fernandez for the cover art. Interestingly, Karl is the second person I've known who commented favorably on the mass-market paperback format. Though I was wary of the format at first (which I had previously associated with Harlequin romances), I soon fell in love with the compact dimensions. It's a beautiful little edition, and Pablo and Carlos did a great job. Kudos to them.
"...talking to Epstein on the phone, his happy wife and children making happy sounds in the background..."
In Joseph G. Peterson's Beautiful Piece, the narrator contrasts his two closest friends, Epstein (his ideal) and the Vet (his reality).
When I hung up the phone with Epstein - after calling me in the morning to see if I was still alive - I called the Vet to find out if he was still alive. I'd go from talking to Epstein on the phone, his happy wife and children making happy sounds in the background as they went about getting ready for the day, to talking to the Vet who lived above me in a dump very much like my own one-bedroom apartment, which was also a dump. I go from talking to my Mystic, whom I admired more than any person in the world, to the Vet, whom I was probably more alike than any other person in the world, though it gives me no pleasure to say so.
I just finished the book this morning. It was a very good but challenging read. I'm still collecting my thoughts and hope to have further commentary up on Goodreads soon.
"These are the times that try men's souls."
- Thomas Paine
As Goodreads notes, Paine's (literally) revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense was published on this date in 1776. The manifesto ultimately provide some of the most influential moral and philosophical underpinnings for the American Revolution. No less an authority than John Adams once said, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain." Sadly, his later years were marked by obscurity, and only six mourners attended his funeral. He was one of the greatest of our country's founders, but history has largely ignored him, at least compared to the deified Washington, Jefferson and Adams.
I've certainly been no help to Paine's legacy, having never read any of his writings. I hope to finally read Common Sense this year, probably sometime around Independence Day.
Virginia Lee Burton
I just came across this three-year-old birthday tribute to Virginia Lee Burton, which provides some interesting biographical detail on the author. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was my favorite book as a child, but for some reason I never read any of her other books until about ten years ago, when Maddie received a four-book Burton omnibus as a gift. Mike Mulligan was included in that edition, of course, but I was utterly charmed by The Little House, from which the illustration above is taken. It's a quietly beautiful and poignant story about social change, and ultimately about returning to slower, simpler times, and in which Burton manages the neat trick of generating empathy with an inanimate object: the little house, the unlikely protagonist.
"He creates - and at the same time affirms - the dark we’ve all got inside us."
A month ago, reading a William Trevor story, I became overcome by an unnerving feeling, a sensation that morphed, two or three pages in, to one of absolute recognition. I must have read the story in 2007 when the book first came out, or maybe even earlier in a magazine. I didn’t finish "The Dressmaker’s Child" for a second time. Nor will I finish it. Why the need to read it again when, in my own way, I’ve been living it, re-reading it, for years now?
Trevor and Orner are two of my favorite writers, and I'm very pleased to see that Orner and I share admiration for the great Irishman. Besides his fiction, Orner's Lonely Voice columns at The Rumpus are consistently rewarding.
"...ragged and smelling of liquor, wearing his two suits one over the other..."
In this passage from "Chopin in Winter" by Stuart Dybek, the narrator remembers his wayward grandfather:
Dzia-Dzia hadn't been at Grandma's funeral. He had disappeared again, and no one had known where to find him. For years Dzia-Dzia would simply vanish without telling anyone, then suddenly show up out of nowhere to hang around for a while, ragged and smelling of liquor, wearing his two suits one over the other, only to disappear yet again.
"Want to find him? Go ask the bums on skid row," Uncle Roman would say.
My uncles said he lived in boxcars, basements and abandoned buildings. And when, from the window of a bus, I'd see old men standing around trash fires behind billboards, I'd wonder if he was among them.
Now that he was very old and failing he sat in our kitchen, his feet aching and numb as if he had been out walking down Eighteenth Street barefoot in the snow.
"Chopin in Winter" is a lovely family story that revolves around how the narrator Michael and his grandfather are improbably (but only momentarily) drawn together by the piano music that wafts downward from the apartment upstairs. Dybek is one of my favorite writers, and "Chopin in Winter" (collected in The Coast of Chicago) is one of my favorite stories of his. I wish he published more often, but I guess his focus has been more on teaching young writers.
Quote"I have always thought of poems as stepping stones in one's own sense of oneself. Every now and again you write a poem that gives you self-respect and steadies your going a little bit farther out in the stream. At the same time, you have to conjure the next stepping stone because the stream, we hope, keeps flowing. The challenge for the writer, book by book, is to conjure a stepping stone that carries you forward."
- Seamus Heaney
Good Reading 2013
2013 was another interesting year of reading. (As always, this list is based on books read, not strictly published, in 2013.) Taking the top spot was J.F. Powers' Morte D'Urban, a marvelously dry satire of 1950s Midwestern priesthood that reminded me of my hero Sinclair Lewis, though warmer and less caustic. Summer of Classics was much improved, as I went ancient with the Scandinavian epics Egil's Saga and The Poetic Edda, plus The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno. I still read barely any fiction by women writers (continuing shame on me for that), though Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is pretty damned wonderful and will definitely result in my reading the last two books of the MaddAddam trilogy. Also of note: two solid debuts, from Patrick Michael Finn and Edward J. Rathke; my prolific buddy Ben Tanzer's highest ranking yet; and the surprising appearance of five non-Americans (Atwood, Seamus Heaney, Hans Keilson and Knut Hamsun, plus the anonymous bard behind Egil's Saga) in the top ten. Plus there's this Anderson guy, with his first novel and two anthology appearances, whose writing some people seem to moderately enjoy.
1. J.F. Powers: Morte D'Urban (Review)
2. Kent Haruf: The Tie That Binds (Review)
3. Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake
4. Egil's Saga (Review)
5. Ben Tanzer: Orphans (Review)
6. Seamus Heaney: North (Review)
7. Hans Keilson: Comedy in a Minor Key (Review)
8. Knut Hamsun: Tales of Love & Loss (Review)
9. Patrick Michael Finn: From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet (Review)
10. Edward J. Rathke: Ash Cinema (Review)
Honorable Mention: Jeff Sypeck: Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles; William Trevor: Cheating at Canasta; The Poetic Edda; Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect; James Claffey: Blood a Cold Blue; Kingsley Amis: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
Special Mention, But Much Too Biased and Humble to Objectively Assess: Peter Anderson, Wheatyard; Various Writers: Daddy Cool; Various Writers: On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work
Re-Readings: Studs Terkel: Chicago; Peter Schickele: The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach; Jack London: The Call of the Wild; Mike Royko: Like I Was Sayin'...; Edgar Allan Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination
"I have the blues pretty badly as you can see, from this graph in back of meeee."
I'm greatly enjoying a revisit to Great Pop Things, the comics alternate-reality history of rock and roll written and illustrated by Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death (a/k/a Jon Langford of the Mekons), which appeared in alternative weeklies during the 1980s and 1990s. That panel above is from Morton and Death's reinterpretation of the early days of the Rolling Stones, and is a pretty solid example of the full collection. Of course the narrative veers wildly from actual history, but the satire still cuts deep as the authors gleefully puncture the pomposity and self-mythology of rockers again and again.
Would You Rather...
At The Next Best Book Club blog, I have subjected myself to a slew of Would You Rather questions. Here's a taste.
Would you rather have schools teach your book or ban your book?
Having your book taught in schools gives you a guaranteed audience but, if you're someone like Nathaniel Hawthorne or John Milton, it also eventually gives you multitudes of bitter adults who curse and grit their teeth at the mere mention of your name. By contrast, getting your book banned usually turns you into an iconic hero. So ban me.
My sincere thanks to TNBBC's Lori Hettler for running this. It was great, narcissistic fun.
"Out, out, brief candle."
More from Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Snowman has just climbed down from his nighttime refuge (a tree) to fetch some whiskey he previously scavenged from an abandoned house.
...he locates his cement hidey-hole by stubbing his toe on it. He refrains from swearing: no way of telling what else might be prowling around in the night. He slides open the cache, fumbles blindly within it, retrieves the third of Scotch.
He's been saving it up, resisting the urge to binge, keeping it as a sort of charm - as long as he's known it was still there it's been easier to get through time. This might be the last of it. He's certain he has explored every likely site within a day's out-and-back radius of his tree. But he's feeling reckless. Why hoard the stuff? Why wait? What's his life worth anyway, and who cares? Out, out, brief candle. He's served his evolutionary purpose, as Crake knew he would. He's saved the children.
"Fucking Crake!" he can't help yelling.
That "easier to get through time" is just devastating, so quietly devastating. The idea that Snowman feels he has nothing left to live for, and the only thing that has kept him from ending it all is the mere thought that some numbing Scotch still remains.
"The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favors, it always wants more tomorrow." - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn was born 95 years ago today. I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich but had to abandon August 1914 - after 200 pages, the author was still doing character introductions, each one of which involved telling the person's life story. I didn't sense that ending any time soon, and so with the daunting prospect of 700 pages still ahead, I gave up. I was surprised at how slow and ponderous the book was, especially after enjoying the tight and spare prose of Ivan Denisovich. I still might tackle The Gulag Archipelago someday, if I ever get particularly ambitious.
"...a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions..."
Willa Cather, from her short story "A Gold Slipper":
In the moment her bright, curious eyes rested upon him, McKann seemed to see himself as if she was holding a mirror up before him. He beheld himself a heavy, solid figure, unsuitably clad for the time and place, with a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions - an inexpressive countenance. Not a rock face, exactly, but a kind of pressed-brick-and-cement face, a "business" face upon which years and feelings had made no mark - in which cocktails might eventually blast out a few hollows. He had never seen himself so distinctly in his shaving-glass as he did that instant when Kitty Ayshire's liquid eye held him, when her bright, inquiring glance roamed over his person.
McKann is a coal merchant, and Kitty is an opera singer that McKann sees perform. Much of the story involves their stark differences, which are told through a long conversation they later have on a train bound for New York. Fine story, one that reminds me a lot of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. That paragraph above is excellent throughout, and I particularly like the "pressed-brick-and-cement-face": McKann is an industrialist, a capitalist, and the face he has isn't natural like "a rock face" would be, but instead manufactured from years of business dealings.
Several times during the past few years I've done "structured reading" - reading three related books in succession, which I've found interesting in how the books contrast with and even comment on each other. My next structured reading will be sometime next year, consisting of three novels of early 20th Century Midwest realism: Cather's My Antonia, Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I already own the first two, but need to pick up a copy of Tarkington. Looking forward to that.
"Strange to think of the endless labour..."
Margaret Atwood, from Oryx and Crake:
Then he makes his way to a jagged concrete overhang that was once part of a bridge. Beneath it there's a triangular orange sign with the black silhouette of a man shovelling. Men at Work, that used to mean. Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.
Fifty pages in, and very good so far. To this point Atwood has offered only tantalizing glimpses of the degraded, almost post-apocalyptic world Snowman lives in, and how it got that way, which keeps me eager to read more.
"Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same..."
Kenneth Fearing was a noir novelist and poet, and probably best known for the novel The Big Clock. The Neglected Books blog posted his poem "Cracked Record Blues" (from Afternoon Of A Pawnbroker And Other Poems, 1944), which I like quite a bit:
Cracked Record Blues
If you watch it long enough you can see the clock move.
If you try hard enough you can hold a little water in the palm of your hand,
If you listen once or twice you know it’s not the needle, or the tune, but a crack in the record when sometimes a phonograph falters and repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats
And if you think about it long enough, long enough, long enough, long enough then everything is simple and you can understand the times,
You can see for yourself that the Hudson still flows, that the seasons change as ever, that love is always love,
Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same;
You can count upon your fingers that two plus two still equals, still equals, still equals, still equals -
There is nothing in this world that should bother the mind.
Because the mind is a common sense affair filled with common sense answers to common sense facts,
It can add up, can add up, can add up, can add up earthquakes and subtract them from fires,
It can bisect an atom or analyze the planets -
All it has to do is to, do is to, do is to, do is to start at the beginning and continue to the end.
Fearing was a Chicago-area native who attended Oak Park-River Forest High School (alma mater of my father-in-law) and the University of Illinois (alma mater of both Julie and myself), and later co-founded The Partisan Review. After being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in 1950 and asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, he simply replied, "Not yet." Gotta admire that.
Poe and Verne
At The Guardian, Robert McCrum writes an intriguing overview of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As McCrum notes, despite its many eccentricities the novel was highly influential, and even inspired a sequel by Jules Verne. That novel, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm, was published in its first complete English translation last year by SUNY Press, whose Verne edition even includes the full text of Pym. My college friend James Peltz is co-director at SUNY Press, and was kind enough to send me a copy a few months ago. My appetite for Poe has really been whetted by my recent re-reading of his stories (I just started "The Pit and the Pendulum" last night), and I'm now eager to read Pym and then Verne's sequel, probably early next year.
"...enough Mormons and mesquite between him and that old stump-armed man..."
Another great paragraph from Kent Haruf's The Tie That Binds:
Lyman was forty-two when he left on that west-bound train, and as I recall his plan involved joining the U.S. Army. The train stopped in Denver, but he didn't get off there and he didn't get off in Cheyenne either, nor in Salt Lake, nor in any other place, until the train had finally stopped for good in Los Angeles to turn around and come back east. I suppose he wanted to be sure there were enough mountain ranges and enough Mormons and mesquite between him and that old stump-armed man to prevent himself from being dragged back and put to work again. Because once he had actually managed to escape he sure as hell wasn't going to take any chances; he wasn't ever going to sweat his overalls plowing sand again, not if he could help it, not if it was just a matter of putting enough miles between himself and that sand. And in the confusion of December 1941, he had that ready excuse: he was going to join the army to fight the Nips and the Huns - never mind that he had never fought a thing before in his life.
Damn, that man can write. Hard to believe this was his very first novel.
"Think of how many monumental things in our lives are decided in the silence of a kitchen table."Nice interview with Peter Orner at Fiction Writers Review. The thoughts he encapsulates in the above quote come at a timely moment for me, because right now I'm struggling with my novel in progress, trying to figure out how to get the narrative out of the protagonist's head and really have something happen. Orner might say that's really not necessary, and that a story can just take place at "the kitchen table." More for me to ponder.
It's very nice to see that in his new book Orner has revived the character Walt Kaplan from his early novella Fall River Marriage, which I really enjoyed reading last year.
This is pretty wonderful. A Swedish urban explorer went through Stockholm's old Public Records Building, and took a bunch of great photographs. The photo above is of a "bokstörten", or book slide:
The Book Slide or "bokstörten" as it is called in Swedish. This invention was added to the stair case in the days of the second world war. The idea being that should Sweden become attacked by an aggressor in the war, then the archives and books here could be loaded onto ships fast using this book slide to slide them down to the water front and then they could be sailed off to some secure location.Books have all the fun. The rest of us have to take the stairs. That building looks marvelous - I strongly encourage you to check out all of the photos.
"...persistence, a congruence of lives..."Seamus Heaney's poems in North are very much about the permanence of the past. In "Belderg", the narrator talks to a farmer who has unearthed neolithic remnants in his fields. An excerpt:
A landscape fossilized,The book is lovely throughout, and especially during the first section.
Its stone-wall patternings
Repeated before our eyes
In the stone walls of Mayo.
Before I turned to go
He talked about persistence,
A congruence of lives,
How, stubbed and cleared of stones
His home accrued growth rings
Of iron, flint and bronze.
QuoteI cannot be weaned
Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.
- Seamus Heaney, "Antaeus"
Nothing says "creepy Halloween art" quite like Arthur Rackham's fantastic wraparound cover illustration for Poe's Tales of Mystery & Imagination, which I'm enjoying this week. Boo!
Poe in OctoberThis Halloween week, I'm tempting fate and reading an Edgar Allan Poe story every night, right before bed. (Tempting fate, because when I first read "The Premature Burial" back in college, also right before bed, it freaked me out so much I was awake half the night.) Last night, it was "The Tell-Tale Heart".
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.A warped motive indeed, and yet just a few sentences later the narrator denies he's a madman. This story is so tightly wound, so visceral in its mania, that it's probably my favorite Poe story ever. It's relatively short for a Poe story, with only a minimum of the florid Victorian wordiness that Poe often succumbed to. The conciseness of the prose illustrates the narrator's madness so vividly - more words would have dampened the impact.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was also the first Poe story I ever encountered. My wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Murphy, read it aloud to our enraptured class. I don't know many other teachers who would do likewise for a bunch of overstimulated fourth-graders, but he never underestimated us. He even read Shakespeare to us, at length, and Beowulf. He was one of the very best teachers I ever had.
Quote"But we can’t cut ourselves off from writing about—which is another name for being intensely curious about—other people because it’s hard. And we can’t let gender or race or anything else get in the way of the work we have to do—as human beings—imagining the lives of other human beings. How could we? Sure, we’ll fail. That’s the whole point. But worse not to try. It would mean more disconnection than actually exists" - Peter Orner
Quote"Crimes can be redeemed, but nothing saves you from mediocrity."
- Juan Villoro
Ben Tanzer, OrphansAs always, I'm never objective about any of my great friend Ben Tanzer's books, so please take this review with as many grains of salt as you wish.
What struck me most about Orphans is that while so much here is familar - the narrative voice that is totally Ben's, along with most of his usual preoccuptions, including marriage, fatherhood, belonging, loss, work, love, sex, rock and roll, physical release and, yes, chemical stimulants - he has translated that voice and those preoccupations into a futuristic dystopia. That familiar voice is somehow comforting even as it describes a dying world of societal and economic collapse, environmental degradation and brutal class divisions. In this dystopia, Ben's usual preoccupations are dramatically amped up, transformed from a state of simple existential angst to the very survival of his protagonist. The stakes here are so much higher than his realist fiction, and the outcome much more emphatic.
The Orphans dystopia is vivid and menacing. Society is run by a single omnipotent Corporation, which exploits workers until they are no longer useful, after which they are cast aside. An elite social class lives in luxury while the vast multitudes hustle and scrape to survive. Black helicopters patrol the skies, dispersing and even killing anyone who dares to congregate on the streets. Hordes of the unemployed, still wearing their business suits, wander about, desperately imploring the fortunate employed for work. The inner city, while still maintaining a veneer of normalcy, is increasingly threatened by an ever-encroaching wilderness. And the dwindling middle class, represented by the protagonist Norrin Radd, is tolerated by the Corporation while their skills are still needed; in Norrin's case, his powers of persuasion are vital in selling real estate on the rapidly colonizing Mars to the elites who are increasingly desperate to escape Earth before society completely collapses.
As fascinating as the setting is, though, all of it is backdrop to the story of Norrin, his relationship with his wife and young son, and especially the quandry he faces in balancing his family life with his career. Does he do whatever the Corporation demands of him, including months-long business trips to Mars, to provide for his family, or does he try to somehow make a living at home and spend as much time with his family as he can? While he thinks (or merely hopes) that he has that choice, over time he comes to realize that yielding to the Corporation is all he can do in order to survive.
An important aspect of this career-versus-family struggle is the Terrax, one of most interesting elements of the narrative. In his past books, Ben's male protagonists often compare themselves to an impossible ideal of what they believe a man, husband or father should be, inevitably falling far short of their expectations. When this ideal is just imagined and intangible, falling short of it is something these men can live with; they may not be satisfied with themselves, but they can still get by. But in Orphans, falling short of this masculine ideal results in something much more tangible and dramatic, because of the Terrax.
The Terrax is an essential cog in the book's society, a jack-of-all-trades robot that does most of the dirty work, with the Corporation finding them to be more reliable than human employees for mundane tasks. Some Terraxes are even programmed to be substitutes for interplanetary workers like Norrin, whose bodies and personalities are replicated in a Terrax, which serves as a surrogate husband and father in the worker's family while he's away. The Corporation has found that this makes the family happier during the worker's absence, which in turn creates a more focused and productive worker. But while this may be good for Norrin's family, it's not good for him personally, as he's already full of insecurities and doubts about how good a family man he is, again measuring himself against an impossible ideal. Norrin grimly sees his Terrax as the perfect version of himself, one he can never measure up to. In the Terrax he has a very real rival, though a rival more in his own mind than to his family, who clearly recognize the differences between Norrin and his Terrax, and prefer the real thing. The presence of his Terrax, along with his insecurities and the Corporation's increasingly unreasonable demands, ultimately drives Norrin to make a critical, fateful decision. Which, in retrospect, is probably the only choice he could have made.
Orphans is both familiar and yet unprecedented in the context of Ben's earlier work, a thought-provoking meditation on the struggle between family and career, all of it told through a brisk, often thrilling story. Very well done.
"...when the possibility of endless fear and confusion is still muted and tamped down..."From Ben Tanzer's forthcoming novel, Orphans:
"You will soon be asleep," the voice continues, making love to me and wrapping me in warmth and joy.I'm halfway through my second reading of the book, and mentally formulating a formal review. Very good read. Plenty to think about.
Sedatives are wonderful, but this is about more than sleep, it's also about nourishment and replenishment, and drugs alone can't guarantee that, hence the voice.
The voice is female, the voice of the lover, the wife, the object of desire, affection and need, and ultimately the mother, everyone's mother who ever lived. The first voice you hear upon entering the world, a time when everything is possible, when love is pure, and when the possibility of endless fear and confusion is still muted and tamped down, because at that moment, and at this moment, it doesn't have to be that way.
"Close your eyes. Think good things, happy things," the voice says.
Clearly, there's no accounting for taste.Of the 74 books that I've rated five stars on Goodreads, 35 have an average user rating of four or lower; interesting to note how widely my opinion often varies from the average reader. Below are the 35 books, with the average rating in parentheses.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (3.50)
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (3.55)
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (3.59)
Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (3.65)
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (3.67)
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (3.68)
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (3.71)
John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (3.71)
James Meek, The People's act of Love (3.72)
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (3.72)
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (3.76)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (3.79)
Ian McEwan, Atonement (3.81)
Stephen Elliott, Happy Baby (3.82)
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener (3.84)
William Trevor, A Bit on the Side (3.84)
Par Lagerkvist, Barabbas (3.84)
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (3.85)
James Joyce, Dubliners (3.86)
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (3.86)
Jack London, To Build a Fire (3.89)
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (3.91)
Kent Haruf, Plainsong (3.91)
Knut Hamsun, Pan (3.92)
O.E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (3.92)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (3.93)
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm (3.93)
W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe (3.94)
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (3.94)
Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (3.96)
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (3.97)
Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas (3.97)
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (3.98)
George Selden, The Cricket in Times Square (3.99)
J.F. Powers, Morte D'Urban (3.99)
Boy's gotta have it.
Yes. And not just because I list "Bartleby & Company" as my employer on Facebook. I'd love to bring this to staff meetings, and when the boss asks for volunteers, I'll say nothing as I raise the mug meaningfully to my lips.
Interesting find from our public library book sale: a 1960 collection of Thoreau's insights on nature and mankind. Having Thoreau distilled into a more digestible form (I liked Walden but thought it dragged and meandered too much) is nice enough, but I also really like the format. Though short in length (for which a publisher might have simply just settled for paperback), it's a compact hardcover with lovely illustrations opening each section. It's not particularly valuable (I've seen online prices starting at five bucks) but still a welcomed addition to my collection.