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"...the true spirit of literature..."

Adam Kirsch, on Bob Dylan's apparent indifference to winning the Nobel Prize:

The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer.

Interesting parallels there between Dylan and Sartre - I wouldn't have ever made that connection. I totally understand what Kirsch is saying. The personal responses of a handful of readers to Wheatyard - including a distant friend who grew up in a town of 200 people, who said I got the small-town scenes just right - mean far more to me than any award ever would. (Not that any awards are in the offing, of course.)

October 30, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely...

From a new English translation of Halldór Laxness' Wayward Heroes (originally published in Icelandic as Gerpla, in 1952):

They took great pleasure in the sport of searching cliffs for seabirds and their eggs, lowering themselves on ropes from the brinks of the cliffs and ransacking the ledges and crevices for spoils. The cliffs that men descend for seabirds can often be a hundred fathoms or more, and those who forage them feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely and dangle freely in the air than they do inching themselves over their edges. 

The original English translation (The Happy Warriors, 1958) was done indirectly, via a Swedish translation. This appears to be the first direct Icelandic-English translation. I find Laxness' writing to be interesting, though challenging, and will be keeping my eye on this one. 

(Via Tin House.)

October 28, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class – the private schoolmaster, the half-starved freelance journalist, the colonel’s spinster daughter with £75 a year, the jobless Cambridge graduate, the ship’s officer without a ship, the clerks, the civil servants, the commercial travellers and the thrice-bankrupt drapers in the country towns – may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches." - George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

...which is on my short-term reading list. I hope to read it this year, or early next year at the latest. 

October 24, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Here things are pretty awful and little hope of improvement." - Samuel Beckett, on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature

I wonder if Bob Dylan's virtual silence indicates a similar lack of enthusiasm over winning the award. 

October 23, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...these sweaty wayfarers..."

They are pioneers, these sweaty wayfarers, for all their telephones and bank–accounts and automatic pianos and co–operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs is a pioneer land.

Reflections on Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (published October 23, 1920) and Midwestern small towns, then and now. I haven't read the book in years, and it deserves another visit. 

October 22, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Debs for President

Always nice to see a modern reference to Eugene Debs. Roll Call's Walter Shapiro:

During the same answer, Trump rediscovered his authoritarian side by dramatically announcing that his Democratic opponent “shouldn’t be allowed to run. It’s crooked.” That’s right — because of charges about her homebrew email server that the FBI director said did not warrant prosecution — Trump would have banned Hillary Clinton from the ballot.

It is worth recalling that in 1920, Eugene Debs, as the Socialist candidate for president, received nearly 1 million votes while serving as Prisoner 9653 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Debs’ conviction for opposing American entry into World War I was unjust. But back in 1920, no one suggested that he should be banned from the ballot in a democracy.

October 21, 2016 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Boy's gotta have it.


A gorgeous pen, made of wood reclaimed from an 1874 Chicago building, Brand's Hall. Perfect. And then I saw the price. Boy's not gonna have it.

October 18, 2016 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage." - Winston Churchill

Churchill could have easily been describing Trump: a bigmouth who can't take criticism.

October 16, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid." – Audre Lorde

October 16, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...he saw the sadness in her surroundings..."

From Work Like Any Otherby Virginia Reeves:


(Via Sam Sattler.)

October 10, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The covers of this book are too far apart." - Ambrose Bierce

October 7, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Steinbeck

Until this summer, the only John Steinbeck that I had read was The Grapes of Wrath (ten-plus years ago) and the nonfiction A Russian Journal (last winter). At the outset, my only definite plan for this year was to finally read East of Eden. To broaden the experience, I also planned to read several selections from the omnibus The Short Novels of John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men was a no-brainer choice (I was already familiar with the story, from seeing the Steppenwolf Theater stage version while I was in high school), and Cannery Row also a top candidate, though I was only vaguely familiar with it. Beyond those, we also own copies of The Winter of Our Discontent (his final novel) and his early story cycle, The Pastures of Heaven.

East of Eden was the most daunting challenge - I'm usually put off by longer books, and struggle to maintain interest after a few hundred pages - but proved to be a rewarding experience. The book is a boldly ambitious, multi-generational epic that tells the story of California pioneers, roughly within the Biblical frameworks of Adam and Eve, and especially Cain and Abel. It's slow, and sometimes maddeningly detailed, but it works. As I mentioned on Goodreads, even the ponderous passages about patriarch Cyrus Trask - not really essential, at first glance - were indeed critical to explaining how his progeny came to be the men they were. A great book, though admittedly not one that I'll ever read again.

Cannery Row (which I will indeed re-read in the future) was outright fun - a rollicking and hilarious story of social misfits in Depression-era Monterey, California. Most of their lives are spent, besides drinking or pursuing hopeless get-rich schemes, in revering Doc - the erudite-yet-everyday man who runs a business in town that collects and sells marine specimens - and trying to do something special for him. Their attempts at "something special" are expectedly disastrous, but Doc mostly remains patient with them, recognizing their good intentions, but also delivers a strong dose of tough love when they go a bit too far. You can tell Steinbeck had a lot of fun writing this book - and "fun" isn't a word that is commonly used to describe Steinbeck's work.

Next up was Tortilla Flat. Halfway through, a thought came to mind, and in pursuing the hunch I looked up, for the first time, a chronological listing of Steinbeck's works. And I wasn't surprised to see that this novel was only his fifth book, published in 1935 when Steinbeck was 33 years old. Though he wasn't exactly young and this wasn't among his very first books, I was struck by how much this felt like the work of a younger, less mature writer. The characters are thinly-drawn, and almost caricatures, their premise of their lives is implausible (a diet almost entirely consisting of red wine, with almost no food), and the narrative is episodic and disjointed. To me, it almost seemed like a sketchbook for Cannery Row. (Incidentally, I recently read that Steinbeck had reservations about Tortilla Flat after publication, having come to the conclusion that he had written about the paisano characters in an unflattering, perhaps even racist, light. Actually, I didn't find the book overly racist, but only because the characters were so cartoonish. Had they been more vivid and real, I might have thought Steinbeck had more of a sinister intent.)

My worry - that Steinbeck's early books were apprentice-like work - made me become less than enthused by the prospect of reading The Pastures of Heaven, his second book which was published in 1932. What a surprise it was, then, to find the book to be a fully-realized, richly drawn, highly realistic set of stories. The stories are about the lives of the residents of a rural, secluded valley - "The Pastures of Heaven" - located some distance from the "big city" of Monterey. The way the stories were connected - by the setting, of course, but also by recurring characters - made me think of this as sort of a California version of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (with the only missing common element being Anderson's omnipresent central character, George Willard). It's more than a story collection, with recurring characters drawing the individual pieces into a coherent whole. It's certainly closer to being a novel than the episodic Tortilla Flat.

Despite both books being well-regarded, I backed away from The Winter of Our Discontent and The Moon Is Down, since their settings (amongst East Coast academics and in wartime Norway, respectively) seemed so distant from Steinbeck's familiar Northern California haunts. Of course, Steinbeck was such a good writer that he probably could have had success with any setting, but either book would have seemed like too much of a departure from everything else I read during the summer. (I'll certainly read both books eventually, but they just didn't fit this summer.)

So instead, I turned to his 1947 novella, The Pearl. From summaries I had read, I assumed this was another California book, but after only a few paragraphs I realized that The Pearl is actually set in Mexico, on the Gulf. So while the setting isn't California, I decided to keep reading once I saw that the characters (the poor, living off the land) and theme (the divide and tension between social classes) in the first chapter were consistent with my other Steinbeck reading. As it turns out, The Pearl was the perfect book to finish my summer - sort of like a light, refreshing dessert after a rich meal. Not that the story was light in tone - a definite sadness pervades - but that it is so plainly and simply written. No huge cast of characters, no detailed histories, no deep philosophy. Just a sad, sometimes heartbreaking parable of the false promise of material wealth, which is very consistent with Steinbeck's worldview.

Overall, the six books show Steinbeck's admirable range, from weighty, multi-generational epics to comic romps to plainspoken parables. Yet he wrote in these various styles while remaining faithful to his central obsession: the plight of poor Americans and their struggle to survive in a harsh, unrelenting society that treats them, at best, with indifference. Reading these books this summer, and The Grapes of Wrath earlier, has made me realize that Steinbeck is one of the very best writers that America has ever produced.

October 2, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)