I is for Ishiguro

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Kazuo Ishiguro.

How many books do I have by Ishiguro?
Three: The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills and When We Were Orphans.

How many of these have I read?
Two: The Remains of the Day and a Pale View of Hills. In addition to Orphans, I also want to read Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant.

How did I start reading Ishiguro?
I think my wife read Never Let Me Go years ago, and though I still haven't read that book, it probably implanted Ishiguro's name in my mind. The Remains of the Day is his most acclaimed book, so it was inevitable that I would finally get around to reading it.

General impressions...
The Remains of the Day is absolutely wonderful, a quietly heartbreaking story of a staid English butler who is living through the end of the centuries-old era of the great manor houses, and struggling to transition from the only world he's ever known. It was also made into a highly acclaimed film (starring Anthony Hopkins as the butler) which I really want to see.

If you've never read Ishiguro, you should start with...
The Remains of the Day, absolutely.

If I had to get rid of one Ishiguro book, it would be...
Probably, Hills. The book was good, but seemed a bit slight and not very memorable, and I won't be reading it again. It also doesn't seem fair to get rid of Orphans before I've ever read it, and I'll certainly keep Remains around to read it again.

Other "I" candidates:
None. Seriously, none. Based on my Goodreads shelf (642 books read), I've only read one other "I" author, and I remember nothing about that single book. (No, I haven’t ever read John Irving.)

January 14, 2021 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books given, books received

My annual Santa list.

Given
Courtney Cerruti: Make Art Where You Are
Courtney Cerruti: One Color a Day Sketchbook
Charles Cross: Heavier Than Heaven
Stockholm Noir
Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns
Johanna Fridriksdottir: Valkyrie
Honey Meconi: Hildegard of Bingen
Donald A. Norman: The Design of Everyday Things
Laurent Pernot: Before the Ivy
Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview
Edna O’Brien: Country Girls
Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems
Carl Sandburg: Cornhuskers
David Rhodes: Driftless
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Last Interview
Jenny Odell: How to Do Nothing
Rockwell Kent: Wilderness
Daniel Woodrell: Winter’s Bone
Dmitry Samarov: Music To My Eyes
Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer

Received
Mark Costello: Middle Murphy
Joe Meno: The Boy Detective Fails

(Actually, I didn’t receive any books this year. Those two were gifts to myself. I’ve wanted both for a while, so I added them to my shopping cart while ordering gifts for family from University of Illinois Press and Akashic Books.)

January 3, 2021 in Books, Family | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment...”

Washington Irving’s “The Christmas Dinner” is set in an ancient English manor house. A young college man has just finished reciting a Christmas carol to the dinner guests.

The parson, however, whose mind was not haunted by such associations, and who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment, objected to the Oxonian’s version of the carol, which, he affirmed, was different that sung at college. He went on, with the dry perseverance of a commentator, to give the college reading, accompanied by sundry annotations; addressing himself at first to the company at large; but finding their attention gradually diverted to other talk and other objects, he lowered his tone as his number of auditors diminished, until he concluded his remarks in an under voice to a fat-headed old gentleman next him, who was silently engaged in the discussion of a huge plateful of turkey.

Such a wonderful scene. I can just picture the stuffy parson bloviating (probably with jowls flapping) to the guests, who listen politely at first but gradually drift off into more pleasant conversations until the parson, now subdued, finally shuts up.

December 25, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2020

As always, these are the best books that I read in 2020, but weren't necessarily published in 2020. (Actually, none of them were published in 2020. I'm a chronic late adopter.) A very good but strange year of reading.

1. Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun
2. Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago
3. David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas
4. Hamlin Garland: Main-Travelled Roads
5. Caryl Phillips: Crossing the River
6. David Rhodes: Driftless
7. John Edgar Wideman: Brothers and Keepers
8. Ursula K. Le Guin: Orsinian Tales
9. Eduardo Galeano: Soccer in Sun and Shadow
10. Chester Himes: If He Hollers Let Him Go

Honorable Mention: Charles W. Chesnutt: The House Behind the Cedars; Ralph Ellison: Shadow and Act; John McGahern: By the Lake; Stuart Dybek: Paper Lantern: Love Stories

Re-Readings: Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man; Richard Wright: 12 Million Black Voices; James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain; Matt Bell: The Collectors; Ben Katchor: Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer; Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace; Hjalmar Soderberg: Doctor Glas

You might think, in this year of social distancing, I would have been an even more voracious reader than usual, but that wasn't the case. I actually read fewer books than any year since at least 2013. Part of that was from reading books that were longer than my norm (including Cloud Atlas, Invisible Man and Driftless), but also working from home for most of the year and losing my two hours on the train every day. Being on the train for that long means a lot of downtime with limited activities, while being at home for those extra hours gave me more things to occupy my time.

I didn't expect this to become a Black Lives Matter year of reading, but after the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests, I decided to devote my Summer of Reading to read nothing but Black literature, and as the summer was ending I decided to keep the reading going for the rest of the year. And as a result I read a lot of great stuff that I might never have discovered otherwise, most notably A Raisin in the Sun (which is surely one of the greatest works of American theater) and the authors John Edgar Wideman and Caryl Phillips, both of whom I'm now eager to explore further.

More re-readings than usual this year, due to a combination of Black Literature, comfort reading, and the unique situation of the last two books on that list. My daughter is a student at the University of Illinois (my alma mater), and took the same Scandinavian literature course last spring that I took there in the mid-1980s. Two of the books on her syllabus were Doctor Glas (which I first read in that class) and The Ice Palace (we actually read Vesaas' The Birds, but I picked up The Ice Palace a few years later), so I re-read both books at roughly the same time she was studying them in class, which was a pretty cool father-daughter bonding experience.

December 23, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

H is for Haruf

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Kent Haruf.

How many books do I have by Haruf?
Six, all of them the novels: The Tie That Binds, Where You Once Belonged, Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction and Our Souls at Night. (Haruf wrote only one other book: the essay-and-photograph collaboration West of Last Chance, with photographer Peter T. Brown.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them, once so far. But I intend to read all of them again, in order, for a second or even third time.

How did I start reading Haruf?
I had read glowing reviews of Haruf's fiction, and thought his small-town stories would be right up my alley. Our local Starbucks used to have a lending bookshelf where you could leave a book, and take a new one in return. One day, while waiting for my espresso, I glanced at the shelf (I find it utterly impossible to resist browsing any bookshelf), I saw a copy of Plainsong, read the first few paragraphs, liked what I saw, and took the book. (I don't think I donated a book that day, but I'm sure I did so on my next visit, to square things up.) I absolutely loved Plainsong, and steadily acquired the rest of his novels over the next few years, concluding with Our Souls At Night, which was published in 2015, a year after his death at the too-soon age of 71. I was so moved by the story and message of Our Souls at Night that I gave the book to every member of my family as Christmas gifts a few years ago.

General impressions...
Haruf is one of my absolute favorite writers. All of his novels are set in the high plains of eastern Colorado (where Haruf grew up), in the fictional small town of Holt, and each marvelously evokes Holt and its simple, everyday people. The two strongest books (Plainsong and Eventide) interweave multiple storylines among characters who lead very different lives but are still interconnected and reliant on each other, as it would be in any small town; the other four books are more tightly focused on a few key characters. Also, when I read Plainsong in 2008, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the book had unconsciously influenced my debut novel, Wheatyard.

If you've never read Haruf, you should start with...
Plainsong, which I'm sure will have you hungering for the other five novels. Eventide is sort of a sequel to Plainsong, so you'll probably want to read that second.

If I had to get rid of one Haruf book, it would be...
Absolutely none of them, although Where You Once Belonged is probably the least strong of the six, though still very good reading.

Other "H" candidates:
Knut Hamsun, Nick Hornby. Aleksandar Hemon. Hamsun, Hornby and Hemon are also beloved favorites of mine, and each could have easily been featured here. My list of H writers is exceptionally strong.

December 12, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...always visible but a million miles away..."

"I wonder if the irony of a river beside the prison is intentional. The river was brown the last time I saw it, mud-brown and sluggish in its broad channel. Nothing pretty about it, a working river, a place to dump things, to empty sewers. The Ohio's thick and filthy, stinking of coal, chemicals, offal, bitter with rust from the flaking hulls of iron-ore barges inching grayly to and from the steel mills. But viewed from barred windows, from tiered cages, the river must call to the prisoners' hearts, a natural symbol of flight and freedom. The river is a path, a gateway to the West, the frontier. Somewhere it meets the sea. Is it somebody's cruel joke, an architect's way of giving the knife a final twist, hanging this sign outside the walls, this river always visible but a million miles away beyond the spiked steel fence guarding its banks?"

- John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers

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

G is for Guralnick

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Peter Guralnick.

How many books do I have by Guralnick?
Two: Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, and Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n' Roll.

How many of these have I read?
Both books, several times each. The books have been on my shelf for so long (on shelves in at least eight different residences, for more than thirty years) that the spines have faded in the sun from a vivid yellow to a dull beige.

How did I start reading Guralnick?
I was heavily into the blues during my early twenties, and though I had never heard of Guralnick before reading Lost Highway, I must have discovered the book and writer in the music section of a used book store, most likely The Used Bookstore, a wonderful place in the basement of the Campus YMCA in Champaign, Illinois, where I spent countless hours during my undergrad and grad school years. (My copy of Lost Highway has a price stamp from Follett's, the textbook chain, but I don't remember that store selling used books. It was probably bought there new, then later sold to The Used Bookstore.) Having loved Lost Highway from the start, Feel Like Going Home entered my library a few years later.

General impressions...
Though I've only read two of his books, Guralnick is my favorite music writer - probably because he's more of a biographer than a critic. Criticism usually leaves me cold (my one attempt at reading Greil Marcus sure did), especially when I'm oblivious to the critic's learned but arcane references, and also when I realize that criticism is just somebody else's opinion. Guralnick writes with such warmth and love for his subjects (often from first-hand conversations) that I can't help becoming completely absorbed in his narratives of the musicians' lives. (Even the country singers - and I'm not really into country.) Other Guralnick books on my to-read list are his latest, Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing, as well as Sweet Soul Music, Searching for Robert Johnson and his only novel, Nighthawk Blues. (He's probably best known for his massive, two-volume bio of Elvis Presley, and while Elvis interests me, I would expect that my interest would wear thin long before finishing the 1,300+ pages.)

If you've never read Guralnick, you should start with...
Lost Highway, which would be a serious candidate for my single desert island book.

If I had to get rid of one Guralnick book, it would be...
I guess it would be Feel Like Going Home, but only because it has slightly less of an emotional tug on me than Lost Highway. But I don't expect to ever get rid of either one.

Other "G" candidates:
Hamlin Garland, Kirby Gann, Kevin Guilfoile, Edward Gorey.

November 26, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

F is for Fridegård

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Jan Fridegård.

How many books do I have by Fridegård?
Two, or maybe three: two editions of Land of Wooden Gods (both in English translation and in its Swedish original, published as Trägudars land (1940)), and I, Lars Hård (1935). Whether it's two or three depends on if you consider an original-language book and its translation to be a single book, or two distinct books.

How many of these have I read?
Two: Trägudars land (in Swedish), and I, Lars Hård (in English). I bought Land of Wooden Gods last year, and it's very high on my to-read list.

How did I start reading Fridegård?
I took four semesters of Swedish language and two Scandinavian literature classes at the University of Illinois during the mid 1980s from Dr. Rochelle Wright (who has translated some of Fridegård's work, although neither of these two translations, both of which were by Robert Bjork). We read Trägudars land during my fourth semester of Swedish, probably as a test for how much of the language we had learned during the previous three semesters. And it was pretty slow going; though my verbal Swedish was fairly decent at the time (I often told people that I was capable of having a reasonably intelligent conversation with a four-year-old Swedish child), my written Swedish was less so. At least half of my reading time was spent consulting my Swedish-to-English dictionary. And I read I, Lars Hård at roughly the same time, in a Scandinavian literature class that also covered Knut Hamsun, Tarjei Vesaas, Par Lagerkvist and many others. It was my favorite college class ever; and in a nice twist, my daughter took the same course at U of I last year, although with a mostly different syllabus and a different professor, as Dr. Wright retired several years ago.

General impressions...
Trägudars land, set in the Viking Age with a thrall (a white slave) as protagonist, was a fascinating and exciting story, which came across even through the haze of my limited grasp of the Swedish language. Thirty-five years later, I'm excited to read the English translation, to see what I've forgotten or what I completely missed the first time. I, Lars Hård is also really good—an earthy, sometimes funny proletarian novel that rails against the Swedish statare system, which once bound laborers to aristocratic estates. The novel is the first in a trilogy; the final two installments, Jacob's Ladder and Mercy, are collected in a single volume that is on my hunting list.

If you've never read Fridegård, you should start with...
I can't vouch yet for the translated Land of Wooden Gods, so I'll recommend I, Lars Hård.

If I had to get rid of one Fridegård book, it would be...
In a pinch, I would unload Trägudars land, since I will definitely never attempt to read it again. But I like the novelty of owning the only two books I've ever read in a foreign language (the other is one of Tove Jansson's Moomin books, also from that Swedish class).

Other "F" candidates:
James T. Farrell, Patrick Michael Finn. (But, alas, neither Fitzgerald nor Faulkner. I've read one novel of each author, both of which left me completely cold.)

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

E is for Ellison

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Ralph Ellison.

How many books do I have by Ellison?
Two: his masterpiece, the novel Invisible Man, and his essay collection Shadow and Act. I also once owned his second, posthumously-published but nowhere-near-completed novel, Juneteenth, but found it so unsatisfying that I got rid of it.

How many of these have I read?
Of the Ellison that I currently own, I've only read Invisible Man. I've also read Juneteenth (see above) and his story collection Flying Home and Other Stories (checked out from the library). I bought Shadow and Act only recently, and will read it by the end of this year.

How did I start reading Ellison?
I think I first read Ellison's short story "The King of the Bingo Game" in a literature class during college. Or maybe I didn't read it in that class, but it was in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction that was the textbook for the class, and I read the story sometime afterward. It's a truly great story that I re-read recently. I might even record a reading of it for the blog. Fortunately, that story eventually lead me to Invisible Man.

General impressions...
Invisible Man is simply brilliant, and one of the greatest works of American literature. Besides the impeccable prose, vivid scenes (oh, the Battle Royale! the Golden Day!), exciting plot and deep philosophical ideas, the novel gains much of its power from its timeless relevance. Although Ellison writes about the 1940s, its events could still happen today; in fact, the narrator's eulogy for Brother Tod Clifton could have easily been used this year to honor George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I've read the book five or six times since acquiring it during the late 1980s; it's a long, densely-written book that demands a slow, careful reading. But the brilliance of Invisible Man made Juneteenth utterly disappointing for me. Ellison spent something like forty years writing and re-writing the latter, and obviously never quite got it the way he wanted it. The thousand-plus page manuscript he left behind at his death must have been an unruly mess (the unedited manuscript has also been published, as Three Days Before the Shooting), which his literary executor had only minimal success at stitching together into an only occasionally coherent novel.

If you've never read Ellison, you should start with...
Invisible Man. Obviously.

If I had to get rid of one Ellison book, it would be...
Actually, I already did - Juneteenth.

Other "E" candidates:
Andrew Ervin, Jeffrey Eugenides.

September 28, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Terrified as the mindless are terrified.”

A previously unknown interview of James Baldwin, in which he relates a Black voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, in 1963.

They sounded like parrots. It was the only phrase they ever used: “Move along—you’re blocking the sidewalk.” And also, I must say, when I finally looked into their faces, they were terrified. With their guns and their helmets. And terrified in a very strange way. Terrified as the mindless are terrified. Because the only way they could react to any pressure was a rock or bullet or gun. They don’t have any other defenses at all! This is the police force the Southern oligarchy has used and created to protect their interests.

Terrified, because the officers, and the white establishment of the American South, knew their position was illegitimate and could not be morally defended.

September 27, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)