B is for Burton

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Virginia Lee Burton.

How many books do I have by Burton?
Four: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, The Little House, Katy and the Big Snow, and Maybelle the Cable Car. I have Mike Mulligan twice: first in a single hardcover edition from my childhood, and second in Mike Mulligan and More: A Virginia Lee Burton Treasury, which collects these four books into a single volume. The latter was a gift to my daughter Maddie, from my parents.

How many of these have I read?
All of them, too many times to count. Maddie loved the Burton treasury, which was a regular staple of our bedtime reading when she was young. Burton wrote three other books that I haven't read: Choo Choo, Life Story and Calico the Wonder Horse. Maybe I'll find those last three by the time I have grandkids.

How did I start reading Burton?
Someone from my family started reading me Mike Mulligan at a very young age, and once I was able to read on my own, I kept re-reading the book. Oddly enough, despite loving that book so much, I never read (or was even aware of) any other Burton books until I started reading the treasury to Maddie. And as it turns out, I love The Little House almost as much as Mike Mulligan.

General impressions...
Mike Mulligan was my favorite book from my childhood, a warm, wistful and quietly thrilling story about a steam shovel operator and his anthropomorphized steam shovel, "Mary Anne." The themes of the four books are similar: all have an aging, anthropomorphized character (steam shovel, house, snow plow, cable car) that faces obsolescence and retirement from modern society, but who in the end proves to still have importance and something to give. It's not surprising how popular these books have been through the years; they're simple, wonderful stories for kids, and the parents and especially grandparents who read the books to kids might identify with Mary Anne, Katy and the little house as they face the retirement and twilight of their own lives.

If you've never read Burton, then you should start with...
Mike Mulligan, with The Little House right after.

If I had to get rid of one Burton book, it would be...
I would never get rid of any of them. Mike Mulligan will always have a cherished place on my bookshelf, and if for some inexplicable reason Maddie ever tries to get rid of the treasury during a periodic clutter-purge, I will grab it for myself.

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

A Is For Algren

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am starting this occasional new series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The first, appropriately, is Nelson Algren, my very favorite.

How many books do I have by Algren?
Ten: Somebody in Boots, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, A Walk On the Wild Side (actually in a three-book Algren volume put out by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the 1990s), Who Lost an American?, Conversations With Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel, and Nonconformity. Plus Bettina Drew's biography, Nelson Algren: A Life On the Wild Side (I haven't read either of the biographies by Mary Wisniewski or Colin Asher.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Algren books I haven't read are Notes From a Sea Diary, The Devil's Stocking, and Entrapment (plus a few other minor posthumous volumes). I don't really regret any of my omissions. I've browsed The Devil's Stocking (his posthumously-published novelization of the Hurricane Carter case) but the prose didn't grab me at all, and I've read the title story of Entrapment without being overwhelmed enough to buy the book during the few times I've seen it in stores.

How did I start reading Algren?
I first heard about Algren from a newspaper column by Mike Royko (another of my favorites - if this series survives long enough for me to reach the letter R, he will definitely be profiled here), who exuberantly praised The Neon Wilderness. I found a first edition of The Man With the Golden Arm a few years later for the ridiculous price of $7.50 (yes, this was way back in the ancient 1980s, but even then it was a great price), read it, and was hooked. I've read Golden Arm four or five times, and several of the others multiple times. Besides the brilliance of his early books, I was also drawn in by his reputation as a great Chicago writer; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in the city for five or six years, and both of my parents grew up in the city, so Chicago has endlessly fascinated me.

General impressions...
I think Algren could have been one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, but to me he instead holds the dubious distinction of America's most squandered literary talent. The second through fifth books noted above are nothing short of brilliant: gritty yet beautiful, angry yet thoughtful, brutal yet funny; he was the first recipient of the National Book Award, in 1950, for Golden Arm. But after City On the Make, for a variety of artistic and personal reasons, his career went sharply downhill for the last thirty years of his life. His first book during the downhill, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), is actually one of his better-known books (or at least the title is well known, thanks to Lou Reed, one of his admirers) but made little impression on me. (And I was even less impressed years later, when I read somewhere that Wild Side was basically a rewrite of his first book, Somebody In Boots - which was pretty bad - that was instigated by his publisher, looking for a big payday.) The Last Carousel had some good moments, including a couple of horseracing short stories which suggest that Algren still had a good horseracing novel in him during the late 1950s and early 1960s had he bothered to put in the work.

If you've never read Algren, then you should start with...
The Man With the Golden Arm. Followed by City On the Make, The Neon Wilderness and Never Come Morning.

If I had to get rid of one Algren book, it would be...
The three-book QPB volume, since I already own Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness (the other books collected there), and won't ever read Wild Side again.

July 2, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...with no tingle of imminent reopening.”

Alan Hollinghurst, on driving through London for the first time since the virus lockdown:

“It was the townscape of five in the morning, but stilled further, with no tingle of imminent reopening. Walkers were scarce, and if there was traffic it was a junction or two ahead – the drive was really too easy and unimpeded: silent squares, long vistas down cross streets, slid by too quickly to be absorbed. So I stopped and parked and sat for a long moment staring at an ordinary street, shuttered shops, two locked restaurants, a lightless pub, while the little aesthetic insights and ecstasies of the lockdown experience tried to hold their own against the unignorable sadness.”

June 14, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books that made me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quote

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

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

Quote

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

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

Quote

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

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

Irish March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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