I first read this book around 1960 when I was in high school. The Catcher in the Rye spoke directly to me -- and to all my friends at the time. So itI first read this book around 1960 when I was in high school. The Catcher in the Rye spoke directly to me -- and to all my friends at the time. So it is interesting to see not only the book, but the earnest young teenager who read it so intently. The book hasn't changed much: I have.
There is an interesting aside: A few years later, I saw J.D. Salinger in person. I was assistant director of the Dartmouth Film Society, and the author lived nearby in Cornish, New Hampshire. As I write about this, I feel as if I were writing about Holden Caulfield instead. Salinger was a big Alfred Hitchcock fanatic, and the Film Society was putting on a year-long retrospective of his films. I remember we had to let him into the auditorium from a side exit so that no one would bother him. He sat alone, on the far right of the theater, probably much like his hero would have.
Now as I look back at Holden Caulfield, I feel sorry for him. His little sister Phoebe had it right: There was nothing that Holden really liked. Everything was phony or crappy. There was no one his own age or older that he looked up to as a role model. His former teachers—Mr. Spencer and Mr. Antolini—were phony, and the latter may also have been a bit of a perv.
In the end, I think The Catcher in the Rye remains an excellent book. Salinger caught the pessimism of adolescence and described it better than anyone else has since. ...more
For some reason, I had always avoided reading he work of William Saroyan, but for some reason I picked up a copy of The Human Comedy at the local librFor some reason, I had always avoided reading he work of William Saroyan, but for some reason I picked up a copy of The Human Comedy at the local library and read it. I was enchanted by the author's vision of a small agricultural town in which the local residents are, for the most part, decent human beings who are kind to one another.
At the center are the two Macauley boys, Homer and Ulysses (the name of the town is Ithaca), their family and friends. The father had died before the story begins, and the older brother is off to fight in World War Two.
I have never before seen in literature such a world of wish fulfillment. Yet it is never sappy. The world of Ithaca is surrounded by the same dark clouds that surround all of us, and Saroyan never Disneyfies his work. ...more
This book was recommended by film director John Waters. I expected something a bit out of it and was not disappointed. Jane Bowles has been associatedThis book was recommended by film director John Waters. I expected something a bit out of it and was not disappointed. Jane Bowles has been associated in my mind strictly with her husband, fellow writer and beard Paul Bowles. In Two Serious Ladies, Jane has anticipated the work of Argentinian writer César Aira in creating a work that drifts from event to event seemingly without any plan.
In an introduction to her work, Joy Williams wrote:
There was no discernible narrative strategy. There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work. Interpretation was useless. The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling. Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their particular journeys' flights as bats.
The two serious ladies of the title are Christine Goering and Mrs. Copperfield. At first, we have a section on Miss Goering, in which she meets Mrs. Copperfield. Then we follow Mrs. Copperfield on a madcap voyage to Panama. The Final chapter brings the two together, but alas, they find they no longer have anything in common.
Typical is this exchange in Section Three:
"I don't know why you find it so interesting and intellectual to seek out a new city," said Arnold, cupping his chin in his hand and looking at her fixedly.
"Because I believe the hardest thing for me to do is really move from one thing to another, partly," said Miss Goering.
"Spiritually," said Arnold, trying to speak in a more sociable tone, "spiritually I'm constantly making little journeys and changing my entire nature every six months."
"I don't believe it for a minute," said Miss Goering.
"No, no, it is true. Also I can tell you that I think it is absolute nonsense to move physically from one place to another. All places are more or less alike."
Curiously, it is Miss Goering who does most of the moving, while Arnold comes across as a couch potato.
My only problem with Two Serious Ladies is that, without any real organization, the book could have gone on forever and stopped at any point. César Aira realizes this in his own books, which are always short and crisp, like a Roomba vacuum cleaner gone mad. Still, I find the book interesting, but tending to drag at the end. ...more
Since first reading this short novel over fifty years ago, I have considerably revised my rating upward, from three to five stars. When I was a studenSince first reading this short novel over fifty years ago, I have considerably revised my rating upward, from three to five stars. When I was a student in a Catholic high school, I had some difficulty understanding the author's decidedly non-Catholic approach, especially the burning of Brother Juniper for heresy.
Now I see The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder as a classic. Also, since then, I have been to Peru and read something of its literature. I have not heard about Wilder's familiarity (or non-familiarity) with Ricardo Palma Soriano's Tradiciones peruanas (1872-1910), but I was amazed that Wilder wrote in the vein of this great collection of anecdotes from the days of Spanish domination.
Lately, I have been re-reading books I first read years ago as a useful measure of the ways I have changed in the intervening time. ...more
When I read Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato during a trip to Mexico some thirty years ago, I thought no one could write a better novel about the whWhen I read Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato during a trip to Mexico some thirty years ago, I thought no one could write a better novel about the whole Viet Nam experience. But thn O'Brien himself did with The Things They Carried.
O'Brien not only wrote about Viet Nam, but he examined his own reactions in writing the book, until we get to see so much more clearly the difference between the character Tim and the writer Tim, and why the writer Tim did the things he did.
It's all there, the ghastliness, the unreality, the camaraderie, the bravery, the cowardice, the unearthly beauty. 'Nam was the first war where we and the enemy did not engage en masse. The Viet Cong would pop up out of nowhere and shoot off a mortar or a rifle or plant a mine. Just like our men fighting the Iraqis or the Taliban: there I think the operative word was IED. improvised explosive device.
I myself never made it to 'Nam. I drew a 4-F because of a brain tumor. The army wanted no part of my continuing medical care. All things considered, I'm glad things wound up that way. ...more
Van Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate iVan Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate it. His The World of Washington Irving was a pageant in which the literary figures of the United States between 1800 and 1840 pass in review.
The emphasis is on Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe; but he looks forward to the New England greats he was to explore in The Flowering of New England. At the same time, he reminds us of minor writers such as William Bartram, Audubon, N. P. Willis and John Lloyd Stephens, as well as painters such as Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.
I can think of few books I have read that have so many footnotes that I loved to read. If Brooks is a slow read, it is because he wants to share with us more information than he can fit in the main body of the text.
Brooks was a popular writer of my parents' generation, so fortunately one can frequently find good copies of his work in used book stores. I feel that if this were not such a conflicted time in our own history as a nation, that Brooks would be rediscovered and reprinted. ...more
Although I firmly believe that Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, he was perhaps only an indifferent professoAlthough I firmly believe that Jorge Luis Borges was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, he was perhaps only an indifferent professor. His An Introduction to American Literature is essentially an outline of writers which the professor deemed important enough to highlight.
In the process, he downgrades William Faulkner for being too complicated and spends more space on such writers as Edna Ferber, Gertrude Stein, Louis Bromfield, S.S. Van Dine, and Robert Heinlein.
I get the feeling that Borges did not read most of the authors he describes, as his blindness set in during the 1950s. ...more
To begin with, The Star Rover is by no stretch of the imagination science fiction. Its hero, Darrell Standing is a prisoner at San Quentin. Because ofTo begin with, The Star Rover is by no stretch of the imagination science fiction. Its hero, Darrell Standing is a prisoner at San Quentin. Because of lies told by a snitch, the prison warden erroneously believes that Standing knows where a hoard of dynamite is stored. Because Standing does not "cooperate," he is wrapped tight into a straight-jacket for days at a time.
Most of the book tells of Standing's previous lives, which he dreams of while in his straight-jacket. These range from Egypt, Korea, Judea at the time of Christ, and -- perhaps best of all -- a 19th century seamen cast away on an island near Antarctica.
Jack London manages to keep the reader's interest up, though the episode in Judea strains the credibility.
Ultimately, we as the readers know that Standing will be executed by hanging; so there is no chance of a happy ending. Yet, just before he dies, we hear Standing's defiant credo just before being hanged:
There is no death. Life is spirit, and spirit cannot die. Only the flesh dies and passes, ever a-crawl with the chemic ferment that informs it, ever plastic, ever crystallizing, only to melt into the flux and to crystallize into fresh and diverse forms that are ephemeral and that melt back into the flux. Spirit alone endures and continues to build upon itself through successive and endless incarnations as it works upward toward the light. What shall I be when I live again? I wonder. I wonder. . . .
London was never known for writing pleasant books, and this is certainly not one; but his indomitable spirit comes across and grabs us by the throat....more
Allen Ginsberg was the best that the Beat Generation had to offer. Jack Kerouac was too much the prisoner of booze; Neal Cassady, of his own rep; WillAllen Ginsberg was the best that the Beat Generation had to offer. Jack Kerouac was too much the prisoner of booze; Neal Cassady, of his own rep; William Burroughs, of his own demons; and the others, with the possible exception of John Clellon Holmes, were either too peripheral or (in the case of Ken Kesey) unknown to me.
Howl and Other Poems is probably Ginsberg's best-known collection, dating from the mid 1950s, and packed with intensity and beauty, as in this line from "Sunflower Sutra":
We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dead bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we're blesed by our own seed & golden hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.
The title poem, "Howl," is ostensibly dedicated to Carl Solomon, a mental patient Ginsberg had met in 1949 in a psychiatric institution. It's opening is like a clarion call to the postwar generation:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...
It is a wonderful poem that runs like a crazed locomotive through the streets of America....more
This is the third time I have read Moby-Dick. Each time, I become more admiring of Herman Melville's skill in changing this from a mere sea adventureThis is the third time I have read Moby-Dick. Each time, I become more admiring of Herman Melville's skill in changing this from a mere sea adventure tale to the mighty classic that continues ever to grow on me. When I was younger, I somewhat resented the long chapters about whales and whaling, as if they were interruptions to the business of getting at the white whale.
But no, this time I realize that what Melville was doing was making us see the white whale, and all whales in general, as a force of nature. If all we had were the dramatic chapters ending in the pursuit of the whale, it would have been a lesser work.
I have read other works by Melville, none of which come close to Moby-Dick in their intensity. Typee and Omoo were all right; Mardi was an outright bore. But there was something about whaling and the Ahab's monomaniacal quest for revenge on the white whale that made him realize that this was something special, and that it required a different narrative structure.
So many times I have heard of someone writing "the Great American Novel." Perhaps Moby-Dick is it, perhaps Huckleberry Finn, perhaps Light in August or one of Faulkner's other novels. Maybe there is no Great American Novel. But if there is, Melville's opus certainly deserves consideration. He didn't try to write the Great American Novel. It just worked out that way.
Every October, in honor of Halloween, I love to read classic horror stories. Last year, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this year I venEvery October, in honor of Halloween, I love to read classic horror stories. Last year, I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but this year I ventured on Shirley Jackson's other famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, which is equally spellbinding.
Haunted house novels like to go in for crude effects. In contrast Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is nuanced. Does this haunted house really do any damage with all its noise and strange writing on the walls? Actually, it does only one thing: It recognizes in Eleanor Vance, a spinster who is one of the party investigating the house, a kindred spirit. And it wants her. Badly.
The real terror is not external, it resides within the human breast. Eleanor had spent her adult life as a nursemaid to her mother, who has died before the action of the story begins. She has, as the saying goes, no life of her own. The one line that keeps running through her mind during the course of the book is, "Journeys end in lovers meeting."
For Shirley Jackson to see into the tortured heart of Eleanor Vance -- and through all the flummery of haunted houses and planchettes -- makes her one of the great writers of horror fiction. And this after Eleanor's initial response to the house, which is one of horror and loathing. At the risk of giving the whole shooting match away, I will continue the quote that ends the last paragraph:
Journeys end in lovers meeting; I have spent an all but sleepless night, I have told lies and made a fool of myself, and the very air tastes like wine. I have been frightened half out of my foolish wits, but I have somehow earned this joy; I have been waiting for it for so long.
This book deserves on the same shelf with that other great psychological story of haunting, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw....more
I have not read this book since my high-school years, and in the intervening years I had forgotten all but a few impressions. The tragic summer of 192I have not read this book since my high-school years, and in the intervening years I had forgotten all but a few impressions. The tragic summer of 1922 that brings together Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby with Tom and Daisy Buchanan ends in tragedy and total disarray. For a moment, it seems as if Gatsby and his sparkling parties were privileged moments in the Jazz Age years after World War I, but it was not to be.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote only four novels and a fragment of a fifth, but in The Great Gatsby he had a book that would stand the test of time. Reading it a second time, I wonder if today's high-school students could appreciate a book that looks at human relationship with such a jaundiced eye (the eye, so to speak, of T. J. Eckleburg).
The Jay Gatsby that is (like the James Gatz that was) is a mysterious character who emerged from some non-specific location in the "Mid-West" -- a Mid-West that somehow includes San Francisco -- and somehow became fabulously rich. Rumors are bruited about his past, of his having perhaps killed a man, or been a bootlegger, or some other romantic back story. In the end, all the mystery dissolves, leaving a lonely, lovesick man who has quite simply overreached himself.
As for Tom and Daisy Buchanan, they have in their own more overt way become wealthy with lucre, but spiritually impoverished. Gatsby's love of Daisy sets Tom and him on a collision course that is witnessed by Nick Carraway. Chaucer in "The Monk's Tale" defines tragedy as "a dite [ditty] of a prosperite for a tyme, that endeth in wrecchidnesse." Add in the total desolation that ensues, and you have the plot of The Great Gatsby.
I had always wanted to read this book, thinking it was a different sort of novel, perhaps from the point of the wealthy. Also, I had no idea that TheI had always wanted to read this book, thinking it was a different sort of novel, perhaps from the point of the wealthy. Also, I had no idea that The Gilded Age was such a serious work. Oh, Mark Twain's humor comes across frequently, especially in the sections taking place in Washington. Unfortunately, Twain had a co-author: the book is signed by both Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warren, his friend.
Twain wrote the first eleven chapters, which were brilliant at times, but the story began to sag when Warren took over. Gradually, the book improved; but it was never too difficult to tell when Warren was the sole author.
The Gilded Age is a tale of the American dream of entrepreneurship. Everyone wants to speculate, to go for the quick kill. What usually winds up getting "killed," however, are their own prospects and those of the people who love them. Perhaps the book's signature character is "Colonel" Beriah Sellers (notice those initials: B.S.), who is an insatiable dreamer around whom much of the plot revolves. Curiously, although virtually everything he undertakes fails, he receives sympathetic treatment because he is basically a nice guy who, himself, is caught up in his impossible dreams:
As may be readily believed, Col. Beriah Sellers was by this time one of the best known men in Washington. For the first time in his life his talents had a fair field.
He was now at the centre of the manufacture of gigantic schemes, of speculations of all sorts, of political and social gossip. The atmosphere was full of little and big rumors and of vast, undefined expectations. Everybody was in haste, too, to push on his private plan, and feverish in his haste, as if in constant apprehension that tomorrow would be Judgment Day. Work while Congress is in session, said the uneasy spirit, for in the recess there is no work and no device.
It is this feverishness which is at the heart of The Gilded Age.
For all the ignes fatui, however, there is only one uccess in the novel, and it comes at the very end, when it is almost too late.
For Mark Twain's participation in this novel, I would give it five stars, but Warner lowers it to four. It's not that he is so bad: It's just that he is so far from Twain....more
Although I do not regard Kurt Vonnegut as belonging to the top echelon of American authors, I do regard his work as worth the effort to read, largelyAlthough I do not regard Kurt Vonnegut as belonging to the top echelon of American authors, I do regard his work as worth the effort to read, largely because he is wiser in the ways of life than many more talented authors who get by only with the help of liquor and drugs. Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations contains a number of interviews that largely overlap one another in several places, but which redeem themselves by Vonnegut's views on war, peace, and the grinding loneliness of American life.
He never trained as an author. In fact, he was a chemist when he went into World War II as a private. Even though he wrote many books, Vonnegut thought that
it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
Perhaps the only problem with this book is that the interviewers did not ask mthe questions I would like to have seen answered by Vonnegut....more
For years, I thought was familiar with Night of the Iguana, but it seems I was remembering only bits and pieces of the John Huston film, which is veryFor years, I thought was familiar with Night of the Iguana, but it seems I was remembering only bits and pieces of the John Huston film, which is very different. It was even more reinforced in my mind because I had visited Mismaloya Beach, the area south of Puerto Vallarta where the film was shot. In the end, I wound up liking the original play better, because of the touching relationship between the defrocked minister, Larry Shannon, and Hannah Jelkes. I particularly loved Shannon's description of God as a senile delinquent:
Yeah, this angry, petulant old man. I mean he's represented like a bad-tempered childish old, old, sick, peevish man -- I mean like the sort of old man in a nursing home that's putting together a jigsaw puzzle and can't put it together and gets furious at it and kicks over the table. Yes, I tell you they do that, all our theologies do it -- accuse God of being a cruel senile delinquent, blaming the world and brutally punishing all he created for his own faults in construction....
In that remote Mexican hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Shannon goes mad, by bits and pieces, while Hannah tries to keep him together. All the time this is happening, Maxine, the owner of the hotel, wants Shannon for herself. Having known him from other visits during which he had breakdowns, she is willing to take the chance and wants a someone to replace her deceased husband Fred.
This is not Williams's best play by any means, but it is interesting enough that I would love to see a live performance of it. ...more
The last seven days were spent in a haze while, on one hand, I was sitting in Los Angeles; on the other, I was transported to a brand new world createThe last seven days were spent in a haze while, on one hand, I was sitting in Los Angeles; on the other, I was transported to a brand new world created out of whole cloth by a writer who receives no end of lip service, but who is no read nowhere near as much as he deserves to be. I think back to how William Faulkner's Flags in the Dust was viewed by a score of publishers as too diffuse to be interesting to the American reading public. One publisher, Harrison Smith of Harcourt, Brace, liked it. In order to get the book published, for a fee of fifty dollars, he hacked it to pieces, lopping off a fourth of the story and renaming the book Sartoris, after the family who were the main focus of the novel.
Years ago, I tried reading Sartoris, but lost interest, abandoning the book half way through. This time, I read the original book written by Faulkner -- and saved by him for many years in hopes of issuing it as he planned it. It finally was released in 1973, years after its author was dead and buried.
To be brief, I loved Flags in the Dust. So early in his career, around the age of thirty, the whole of his mythical Yoknapatawpha County sprang into existence, with many of its characters who were to be developed in future novels and stories. To be sure, there are some differences: The place is referred to as Yocana County here. The character of V. K. Ratliff, so familiar from The Hamlet, was called Surratt here. But the Snopes clan is present, as are the Sartorises and Benbows and the McCallums.
Central to the story are the promethean Sartorises and the widowed sister of old Bayard, Aunt Jenny Du Pre, who is the main spokesperson for the family as she fights her brother Bayard II and her nephew Bayard III as they find their own uneasy paths to the grave. When old Bayard opens a chest in the attic full of family souvenirs, Faulkner launches waxes lyrical:
Thus each opening [of the chest] was in a way ceremonial, commemorating the violent finis to some phase of his family's history, and while he struggled with the stiff lock, it seemed to him that a legion of ghosts breathed quietly at his shoulder, and he pictured a double line of them with their arrogant identical faces waiting just beyond a portal and stretching away toward the invisible dais where Something sat waiting the latest arrival among them; thought of them chafing a little and a little bewildered, thought and desire being denied them, in a place where, immortal, there were no opportunities for vainglorious swashbuckling. Denied that Sartoris heaven in which they could spend eternity dying deaths of needless and magnificent violence while spectators doomed to immortality looked eternally on. The Valhalla which John Sartoris [died 1872, as described in Unvanquished], turning the wine glass in his big, well-shaped hand that night at the supper table, has seen in its chaste and fragile bubble.
The story is set in the years immediately following World War One, which were years of change in the Mississippi towns and countryside -- a change symbolized by Bayard III's convertible racing along the dirt roads scaring the livestock and horse-drawn carriages. Traditional modes of life are slowly vanishing, particularly in the adulterous relationship that develops between Horace Benbow and Mrs. Belle Mitchell, while Horace's sister Narcissa, like a throwback to the relative calm of an earlier time, finds herself falling in love for the self-destructive young Bayard. At one point, Faulkner gives us a frightening glance into the young man's mind:
Nothing to be seen, and the long long span of a man's natural life. Three score and ten years, to drag a stubborn body about the world and cozen its insistent demands. Three score and ten, the Bible said. Seventy years. And he was only twenty-six. Not much more than a third through it. Hell.
Probably part of what early publishers disliked about the novel was its broad-spectrum approach encompassing the Black population, rural good-old-boys like the McCallums, and the creepiness of Byron Snopes's pursuit of Narcissa Benbow. One chapter I particularly liked was young Bayard's stay at his old childhood friends, the McCallums, to go hunting possum. He is too ashamed to tell them that his father is dead, partly due to his reckless driving. He accepts a jug of moonshine to give to him without divulging the truth.
In all, this is a great novel - one that is infrequently read, but central to its author's oeuvre.
Immediately after the novel's dedication is this quote from Soren Kierkegaard, which pretty much says it all: "...the specific character of despair isImmediately after the novel's dedication is this quote from Soren Kierkegaard, which pretty much says it all: "...the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair." In The Moviegoer, we have a hero about to reach the age of thirty, one Binx Bolling, who is, to say the least, wishy-washy. He serially falls in love with his secretaries, is bullied by his aunt and constantly dragooned by her into family affairs, and liking but being more than a little apprehensive about his cousin Kate, whose fragility outdoes even Tennessee Williams's most neurotic female characters.
Yet Walker Percy has created an anti-heroic masterpiece. Binx rules his life on some gonzo principles that just take him around in circles: there is "the search," there is "rotation" and "repetition," and any number of mantras that he uses to justify his existence. For instance, on a train ride to Chicago with Kate, he ponders:
Money is a good counterpoise to beauty. Beauty, the quest of beauty alone, is a whoredom. Ten years ago I pursued beauty and gave no thought to money. I listened to the lovely tunes of Mahler and felt a sickness in my very soul. Now I pursue money and on the whole feel better.
Except he doesn't really "pursue" money as such: He is a lucky stockbroker, and money more or less falls into his lap. Perhaps what he really needs is "sickness in my very soul."
Eventually, at the tail end of the book, his aunt manages to read the riot act to him; and he actually does take action. But even then, the result is, like so many things in our lives, an uneasy truce.
The Moviegoer is a most unheroic novel with an unheroic narrator. But he is truthful, he is likeable, he is very much like you and me, hypocrite lecteur.
For a first novel by its author, The Moviegoer is an unexpected masterpiece -- one whose reputation has only grown over the years. I think I shall like to read some more of Percy's works.
It has taken me fourteen years since reading Light in August to pick up another Faulkner book. This must not happen again. I know the temptation to beIt has taken me fourteen years since reading Light in August to pick up another Faulkner book. This must not happen again. I know the temptation to be lazy is sometimes overwhelming, but it is definitely worth the effort. Reading Faulkner is like stepping into a vortex: After the first wave hits you, you start spinning around trying to make sense of what you see like the narrator of Poe's "Descent Into the Maelstrom." Faulkner's prose has a robust, but exceedingly difficult quality to it. I will occasionally miss some subtle plot points, such as how Chick Mallison uses the 70 cents that Lucas Beauchamp would not accept from him to buy his wife Molly a cheap mail order dress -- to which Beauchamp responds by giving him a pail of sorghum.
There are sudden moments of transcendence at unpredictable points in the story. At one point, Chick Mallison harks back to that turning point of the Civil War, just before Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg:
It's all now you see. Yesterday wont be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....
Long sentences that swirl, a King James sense of Old Testament ponderousness circling from the Godhead around to everyone else -- even to the bystanders who come into town expecting to see the lynching of Lucas Beauchamp -- all this and more. If you read too quickly, you miss things. If you are too meticulous, trying to match up vague pronouns with their referents, you miss everything. Especially the finely tuned sense of Southern morality. As Gavin Stevens tells his nephew Chick:
Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonour and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.
I remember, back when I was fourteen years old, how I was banefully influenced by the cadences of Faulkner's prose. I would write essays that used such odd grammatical constructions as ablative absolutes and sesquipedalian sentences that crept across the page like a slightly deranged snail. I hope to think I got better. Not because Faulkner's prose was any the worse, but because I didn't know what I was doing.
This 1891 novelette by Henry James tells of an ocean voyage on a ship called The Patagonia, sailing from Boston to Liverpool. The unnamed narrator isThis 1891 novelette by Henry James tells of an ocean voyage on a ship called The Patagonia, sailing from Boston to Liverpool. The unnamed narrator is friends with a Mrs. Nettlepoint, a woman of good family with a son names Jason. Accompanying them -- somewhat unexpectedly -- is a young woman named Grace Mavis, who is to marry a childhood friend whom she has not seen for ten years. During the cruise, it appears that Miss Mavis is spending an inordinate amount of time with Jason Nettlepoint, who is some years younger than she is. The usual shipboard gossip has decided that Grace and Jason are an "item," and that the woman's intended would likely be thrown over.
There is something of a surprise ending which abashes the characters circling around Grace Mavis worrying about the proprieties.
The Patagonia can be read in a single sitting and is not a bad story to begin an acquaintance with the psychological depths of James's oeuvre. ...more
Why is it that I have let more than fifteen years pass since reading my last Bukowski? I had always liked him. When he died in San Pedro in 1994, onlyWhy is it that I have let more than fifteen years pass since reading my last Bukowski? I had always liked him. When he died in San Pedro in 1994, only a year after the last diary entry in The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, I was surprised to see how busy he had been in his later years. Then, just a few months ago, I heard there was an exhibit of his papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino. I went on the last day and received the surprise of my life: The place was packed with young people -- so packed that I had difficulty barging my way to the glass to see all the exhibits. Something clicked in my brain.
The Captain Is Out to Lunch... is a kind of literary diary covering the period from August 1991 to February 1993. Bukowski had some more shocks for me: He was very much like me. He liked to write, and he liked to listen to classical music. The days of heavy boozing and hanging out with dubious women were over for him (for me, they had never begun, but, so be it). In his latter years, the poet and writer was not unlike me:
Classical music was my stronghold. I heard most of it on the radio, still do. [He listened to it on KUSC-FM, like I do.] And I am ever surprised, even now, when I hear something strong and new and unheard before and it happens quite often. as I write this I am listening to something on the radio that I have never heard before. I feast on each note like a man starving for a new rush of blood and meaning and it's there. I am totally astonished by the mass of great music, centuries of it. It must be that many great souls once lived. I can't explain it but it is my great luck in life to have this, to sense this, to feed upon and celebrate it.
Turning to popular music, Bukowski feels as disgusted as I do:
[E]very day as I drive to the track I keep punching the radio to different stations looking for music, decent music. It's all bad, flat, lifeless, tuneless, listless. Yet some of these compositions sell in the millions and their creators consider themselves true Artists. It's horrible, horrible drivel entering the minds of young heads. They like it. Christ, hand them shit, they eat it up. Can't they discern? Can't they hear? Can't they feel the dilution, the staleness?"
I didn't mean to spend this much time on Bukowski's taste in music. I was just surprised that he felt the way I did.
Although his prose style is brutally direct -- he never fails to call a spade a bloody shovel -- there is a directness about this diary with the aging author being drawn further and further into a life that consisted of spending hours at the racetrack, writing to the music of Mahler, and fending off crowds of hucksters who want to capitalize on Bukowski's reputation. They pound on his door for autographs, though they forget to bring paper and a pen; they try to photograph or interview him; they want to batten onto his energy and drink wine with him and his wife Linda. As he approaches his last year, he becomes ever more involved in his work and observations.
I'll have to read some more of Bukowski's work in the months to come. After all, he is probably the most representative Los Angeles writer of the last thirty or forty years; and I myself have been an Angeleno during all that time.
This is a book that takes some courage to read, and must have taken incredible courage and guts to write. It is never easy to face one's own mortalityThis is a book that takes some courage to read, and must have taken incredible courage and guts to write. It is never easy to face one's own mortality, and Everyman is about nothing but mortality -- about that inescapable transition between having a life to live and ... having a life to lose. The hero is an advertising man, son of a New Jersey jeweler, who marries three times and is now alone; who has three children, two of whom hate him; who has lived all his life troubled by visits to the hospital, beginning with a hernia operation as a child, to a burst appendix, and, of late, an accelerating series of cardiac procedures.
Oh oh, that's beginning to sound uncomfortably like me (except, thank God, no sign of cardiac ills as yet). There is something salutary about reading a memento mori like this book:
Yet what he'd learned was nothing when measured against the inevitable onslaught that is the end of life. Had he been aware of the mortal suffering of every man and woman he happened to have known during all his years of professional life, of each one's painful story of regret and loss and stoicism, of fear and panic and isolation and dread, had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had once been vitally theirs and how, systematically, they were being destroyed, he would have had to stay on the phone through the day and into the night , making another hundred calls at least. Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre.
It is as if Philip Roth were writing about himself, about his ornery self, his betrayed relationships, and the fear of the "massacre" he anticipates.
I have not read anything quite so affecting since Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's essay entitled "Of Experience," in which he describes the excruciating pain of his kidney stones -- now a minor condition -- but which made him face his own end.
It is my hope that I somehow manage to escape the whistling of the scythe long enough to read some more books by that brilliant bastard, Philip Roth....more
Zack Hara is a Japanese-American who feels confined by a sense of emotional aridity. He decides to go to Japan, where he becomes intrigued by so-calleZack Hara is a Japanese-American who feels confined by a sense of emotional aridity. He decides to go to Japan, where he becomes intrigued by so-called "suicide clubs," whose members bolster one another's resolve in putting an end to their lives. He loses his translation job because he has overstayed his tourist visa and falls under the sway of a Professor Imai, who employs him part-time and sets various tasks for him to perform, such as writing poetry, investigating a particular suicide club incident, and looking for stones shaped like Asian pears.
The full title of Todd Shimoda's novel is Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware; and it is the key to much of what happens, and doesn't happen. As I have understood it, especially in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, mono no aware is a sense of sympathetic sadness that wells up in a person when confronted by the fragility of life. It is akin to Virgil's expression from the Aeneid, when he has Aeneas say "sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt": "these are the tears of things as mortality touches the soul."
In between the short chapters describing Zack's quest, there are attempts to define mono no aware that seem to spiral around, just as the life of the book's hero spirals down into a crisis.
Oh! is a singularly beautiful book as published by Seattle's Chin Music Press. The aestheticism of the Japanese literary concepts is mirrored in the beauty of the book with its tactile cover, tipped in handmade pages, and sewn signatures. Curiously, it is almost as if the subject of the book were commenting on its own physical aestheticism. In the end, there is a series of full-color art pages providing a kind of answer to Zack's search.
The author is a member of Goodreads who has written a number of works which I hope to add to my reading list....more
It was pure serendipity. I had never heard of James Welch, the Blackfoot/Gros Ventre who was one of the figures of the 1970s Montana literary renaissaIt was pure serendipity. I had never heard of James Welch, the Blackfoot/Gros Ventre who was one of the figures of the 1970s Montana literary renaissance (which I had also never heard of). I had read several books by Sherman Alexie, another Native American writer. I would have to say that Welch's Winter in the Blood hit me at such a keen angle that I felt my bones ache as I read it.
Welch gives us chains of simple declarative sentences that never pall, because suddenly he is off somewhere else; and you have to backtrack to get your bearings. Here he describes his deceased father, First Raise:
"The toolbox had held my father's tools and it was said in those days that he could fix anything made of iron. He overhauled machinery in the fall. It was said that when the leaves turned, First Raise's yard was full of iron; when they fell, the yard was full of leaves. He drank with the white men of Dodson. Not a quiet man, he told them stories and made them laugh. He charged them plenty for fixing their machines. Twenty dollars to kick a baler awake -- one dollar for the kick and nineteen for knowing where to kick. He made them laugh until the thirty below morning ten years ago we found him sleeping in the borrow pit across from Earthboy's place."
Later in the book, he describes a blind Blackfoot named Yellow Calf, whom he remembers his father First Raise taking to visit many years ago:
"But now, something else, his distance, made it all right to study his face, to see for the first time the black dots on his temples and the bridge of his nose, the ear lobes which sagged on either side of his head, and the bristles which grew on the edges of his jaw.... But it was his eyes, narrow beneath the loose skin of his lids, deep behind his cheekbones, which made one realize the old man's distance was permanent. It was behind those misty white eyes that gave off no light that he lives, a world as clean as the rustling willows, the bark of a fox or the odor of musk during mating season." [Italics mine:]
This is big sky country, and the sky here is immense. Behind its proscenium, vast movements of clouds and an occasional eldritch greyness play their parts. The Indians interact with one another with an emotional nakedness that seems odd to us. They also interact with whites, occasionally sleeping with their women, but there is no real connection made. It is like the Catholic priest who is the friend of the narrator's mother. He is friendly, but won't step onto the Reservation to attend the hero's grandmother's funeral.
I loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see the world through different eyes. ...more
Why have I not read everything that Joseph Mitchell ever wrote? When I read The Bottom of the Harbor a number of years ago, I was enthralled by MitcheWhy have I not read everything that Joseph Mitchell ever wrote? When I read The Bottom of the Harbor a number of years ago, I was enthralled by Mitchell's brand of journalism-as-literature. Today, I found a copy of Old Mr. Flood being remaindered. I not only snapped it up, but roared through it in a single sitting.
Both books I have mentioned deal primarily with the world of New York Harbor, comprising the boatmen, buyers and sellers of fish, and anyone else even remotely connected with the getting and distribution of seafood. What makes them particularly poignant is that the world has changed. Oysters are no longer a major part of the American diet, when at one time they were perhaps the main source of protein in coastal American cities.
Now we have factory ships, fish farms with diseased fish, and the price still keeps going up for a commodity whose quality continues to plummet. Mitchell not only reminds us this wasn't always so, but he has such a canny ear for dialog that it is a positive joy to read him. ...more
No, I don't think you can capture all of America in a single book -- however much John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. That "No, I don't think you can capture all of America in a single book -- however much John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. That "In Search of America" was probably the idea of some overeager editor for the Curtis Publishing Company. Just as I don't think there will ever be a Great American Novel. This is one contest that Herman Melville wins hands down with Moby Dick, if only because he doesn't even try to capture the U.S. "from sea to shining sea." It's about whales.
I've read many books in which the authors went looking for America: There was Henry Miller in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, Jack Kerouac in On the Road, William Least-Heat Moon in Blue Highways, and Robert Pirsig in The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I'm probably missing a couple dozen others in this category.
The damned thing of it is that they are all good books, and they show some aspects of our incredibly varied country and ignore others. I think I like Steinbeck the most, because there is a real honesty to the old man; and then, too, there is Charley the Poodle. Steinbeck writes about what he sees, even if what he sees is horrendous, such as the racial hatred in the South around the time of the Civil Rights struggle.
I would like to take such a trip myself, though not with a dog -- they're nice, but I'm allergic to them. And I couldn't pretend to be as honest as Steinbeck was, because there are parts of this country I dislike intensely for political reasons. (I won't say what my politics are.) I would just like to get away and drink tea while seeing what is left of the great beauty of our land.
Are you looking for America? Just walk out your front door, and you are smack dab in the middle of it all. Add some TV and radio, a few shopping malls, some scenic parks, some dicey motels on blue highways. Then there are the Americans themselves. Most of them are approachable, at least to some extent. You just have to know when to let well enough alone.
Yes, Steinbeck is a fine writer. I must read some more of him....more
I first read The Unvanquished half a century ago, because I had been told that it was the best Faulkner novel to start with. (Actually, it's not a novI first read The Unvanquished half a century ago, because I had been told that it was the best Faulkner novel to start with. (Actually, it's not a novel at all, but a linked series of short stories with the same characters.) Seeing the Civil War through the eyes of Bayard Sartoris, son of a Southern war hero, and Ringo (short for Marengo), a former family slave who is Bayard's age, was nothing short of brilliant. I loved the book even more the second time around, and I definitely understood it more.
In the six stories (and the seventh, "An Odor of Verbena," which serves as a coda), Faulkner memorializes the culture of the Deep South through the horrors of the war and the Reconstruction that followed. That culture included some amazing characters, such as Uncle Buck McCaslin:
There was more to Uncle Buck and [his brother] Buddy than just that. Father said they were ahead of their time; he said they not only possessed, but put into practice, ideas about social relationship that maybe fifty years after they were both dead people would have a name for. These ideas were about land. They believed that land did not belong to people but that people belonged to land and that the earth would permit them to live on and out of it and use it only so long as they behaved and that if they did not behave right, it would shake them off just like a dog getting rid of fleas. [Italics mine]
This would be a major theme in Faulkner's stories and novels in the years to come. (I think particularly of the Snopes family that was to move in on Yoknapatawpha County.) In this book, the example of Grumby's Independents exemplified the McCaslin code. Grumby is a guerrilla who is more into theft, rapine, and murder than he is for the Confederate cause. In the interstices between the withdrawal of the Southern forces and the return of the Yankees after Appomattox, he fattens like a tick until Bayard and Ringo catch up with him.
What draws the boys' revenge is the murder of Bayard's grandmother, Miss Rosa Millard, who is one of Faulkner's most memorable characters. After the Sartoris house has been burned down by the Yankees, she goes after the Yanks for stealing her mules. As a result of a misunderstanding, the Union soldiers give her over a hundred mules. She then sets herself up in business re-selling these mules to the North, and then -- using a clever forgery -- getting the mules back, eliminating the U.S. brand on their haunches, and selling them back yet again. In the process, she partners with the wildly unreliable Ab Snopes; and this is what draws Grumby to her.
After Bayard's father has been gunned down by a former business partner, the father's friends solemnly gather around Bayard
with the unctuous formality which the Southern man shows in the presence of death -- that Roman holiday engendered by mist-born Protestantism grafted onto this land of violent sun, of violent alteration from snow to heat-stroke which has produced a race impervious to both.
How that man can write! I am no Southerner myself, though my heart skips a beat when I see in this and his other books a clarity and a love for the land of his birth....more
I decided to re-read Henry James's The Turn of the Screw for my annual October reading horror-thon. This time around, I was a little disappointed by tI decided to re-read Henry James's The Turn of the Screw for my annual October reading horror-thon. This time around, I was a little disappointed by the story's ending, but even more impressed by its opening. In the end, it all evened out.
A man narrates the story written down by an unnamed governess who tells of her being hired by a wealthy man who asks her to educate his nephew and niece, with the stipulation that he not be bothered. The governess meets Miles and Flora, who turn out to be almost ideal children -- until something happens that troubles her and astonishes the reader.
Before our governess, there was another governess, a Miss Jessel, who had taken up with one of the grooms, one Peter Quint. Both of them died, but their ghosts appear to exercise control over the children, Quint on Miles, and Miss Jessel on Flora.
When she learns of what is happening, our governess attempts to save the children under her care, with mixed results.
One unusual slip-up for James is that he abandons the framing story when he describes what happens to Miles, and ends the story abruptly.
Still, although it is not his best work, The Turn of the Screw is still one of the best ghost stories ever written....more