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“...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)