Just a quick note to say I’ve added The Yokota Officers Club by Sarah Bird to my hundred-novels list. I won’t be giving a full review today, but it is a worthwhile novel to read. I especially liked the picture of post-war Japan it presented.
Richard Gilbert once again has an interesting post at his blog Narrative. This one is on the New Yorker‘s practice of editing articles so they read chronologically.
The post led me to writer Dan Baum‘s site, which is nicely put together. Very clean and accessible. It seems perfect for a freelance writer.
Reading Fiction and the Craving for Creative Nonfiction in My Reading Life
When I started my 100 novels reading project three years ago, I imagined it would take less time than it has so far. Not that I’m giving up on it. To close to the end to do that.
Anyhow, the project seems to take up a inordinate amount of my reading time, and I’ve also been mindful of the desire to read nonfiction, as I read through thousands of words in novels.
It’s not that I haven’t read nonfiction in the past few years, but most of it has been books on writing or some form of self-help. I haven’t indulged in a favorite form — creative nonfiction, literary journalism — in some time, at least a year, and I think it’s time to take a break from novels for a while and sink my teeth into some meaty nonfiction.
I think it’s interesting to follow my mind and its reading cravings. It seems to tell me exactly what I need to read, or guides me toward a specific genre or form. Does your reading mind do this? Do you find yourself reading something and realizing this book is exactly what you wanted or needed to read?
I’m going through that, actually, at the moment on my novel list, reading Harry Crews‘s novel Scar Lover. I’ve been craving Crews’s gnarled fictive universe, something that’s part Hemingway, part Faulkner with the Sex Pistols thrown in for good measure.
The English Major
By Jim Harrison
Sometimes bawdy, sometimes loopy, always witty, Jim Harrison’s picaresque novel The English Major (Grove, 2008) chronicles the cross-country road trip of sixty-something Cliff as he tries to get a grip on his post-divorce, post-farm life.
Freshly divorced, and hornswaggled out of his farm by his ex wife, real estate mover and shaker Vivian, Cliff is inspired to set off cross country to rename all the states and state birds, using a child’s jigsaw puzzle map of the United States as his travel guide. Along the way he’s distracted from his project by an affair with Marybelle, a former student from Cliff’s years as a high school English teacher, by the overdrive lifestyle of his son, a movie producer in San Francisco, and by trout streams, thunderstorms, bad meals, good meals, cell phones and OnStar, as well as his own
sorted and unsorted thoughts.
What makes reading Harrison a pleasure is that there is so much to drink in. Harrison is a sensualist and makes readers feel, hear, taste or smell every experience his characters fall into, from meals to thunderstorms to sex. Here, for instance, is Cliff describing an oncoming thunderstorm after he’s been lost a few hours in the Arizona desert:
I fell asleep and awoke in an hour by my pocket watch to ripping thunder. It crackled and tore through the sky about a mile south of me and there were lightning bolts in the black sky that looked like maps of river systems with splintery little creeks coming out from the main bolts.
As I’ve read more and more of Harrison, he strikes me as a cross between Philip Roth and Henry Miller. He’s capable of Roth’s insights especially into the quirkiness of male sexuality and its twining with male psychology, delivering characters such as Cliff, who charge headlong into journeys of self-understanding, without Roth’s free-floating anxiety. And like Miller, Harrison delights in the sensual, whether it’s food, sex, trout fishing or being caught in a thunderstorm.
Where he differs from the two, especially Roth, is in the fun he seems to have taking readers on journeys with his characters. And each of his characters, in their own way, approach life with a particular attitude, one touched with something like optimism or Zen acceptance, as Cliff demonstrates when he concludes his journey with a return to Michigan, and a return — sort of — to Vivian:
This won’t be a bad life I thought happily. What there is left of it is undetermined but I’ll do fine.
Careless in Red
By Elizabeth George
Thomas Lynley is a man trying to walk away from death — the tragic death of his wife Helen, shot down in cold blood. Lynley is also, incidentally, trying to walk away from his career as a Scotland Yard detective. But, Lynley can neither step away from his loss, nor his career, when, on the forty-third day of his hike along the coast of Cornwall, he discovers the body of cliff climber Santo Kerne, who has apparently fallen to an accidental death.
When local investigators discover Kerne’s climbing kit was tampered with, the accidental death inquiry turns into a murder investigation. That investigation delivers the bulk of the plot of Elizabeth George’s hefty (640 pages) novel Careless in Red. Though the book’s bulk may be intimidating, George deftly and convincingly wrangles out a suspenseful crime novel that weaves a murder investigation into the lives of a small town on the UK coast. (Only one subplot, the relationship between Tammy Penrule, a teenager aspiring to be a nun, and her “grandie” Selevan Penrule, seems tangential. They are minor characters who offer detectives only a tidbit of information about the crime, although their story itself might make a good novel.)
George also has clearly done her research into crime scene investigation — the investigation itself is detailed and well thought out— and its limitations: there are no science-fiction-y crime-solving supercomputers as in TV crime dramas such as CSI New York to aid the detectives. Those limitations lead the investigation, and team of detectives (I won’t spoil it), to a satisfying and fairly realistic conclusion, a resolution very much unlike most crime fiction, especially the neat resolutions of TV shows.
Here’s is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:
Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?
My unread books are all scattered about. There are a few mingling with the read books on the bookshelves, pretending to be read and confusing me. There are a few in a wardrobe in the bedroom, hiding under gift wrap and a shoebox of old photos. There are a few on my night table, lurking underneath library books that I’ve recently checked out (which may explain how the books I own remain unread; I promise this is all with good purpose, one of the library books I’m reading is Elizabeth George’s mystery novel Careless in Red (Inspector Lynley), which I’m reading as part of my 100-novels reading project.)
Wide Sargasso Sea
By Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys’s classic revisionist novel Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects an obscure, strange figure, Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and gives her her own book. Essentially a plot device used in Jane Eyre to keep separate lovers Jane and Rochester until the end of the novel (Rochester marries the Creole Bertha for money but keeps her hidden away because of her madness), Rhys renames Bertha, christening her Antoinette Cosway, and explores her history from childhood to mad-arsonist of Thornfield Hall.
Rhys separates the narrative into three parts: part one follows Antoinette’s childhood, in which Antoinette and her family get burned out of their plantation during a slave revolt, an event that eventually leads her mother into madness, and Antoinette being sold into marriage to Rochester; part two follows — mostly — Rochester through his marriage to Antoinette to his increasing disdain for his wife after learning — mostly misinformation — about her past; and part three records Antoinette’s descent into madness (the voice reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper “— another madwoman in the attic), though the precise nature of Antoinette’s madness is somewhat vague (it’s brought on it seems by some combination jealousy, fear, and perhaps voo doo). The novel ends in flames at Thornfield Hall.
And, though Rochester spurns Antoinette, eventually sleeping with a house servant, Rhys’s portrayal of Rochester shows empathy toward him — his motives seem in part a result of an ego battle with his father.
What’s interesting about Rhys’s take on these two characters is the depth she gives both — Antoinette isn’t just the madwoman in the attic who torches Thornfield Hall: she’s affected by family, culture, history, and her relations with other people, including Rochester; there is no single cause to her madness; and Rochester isn’t just a brute bent on belittling his wife, he’s a young man caught up in a strange situation, in a strange place he doesn’t quite understand.
Nicholson Baker’s Vox (Vintage Contemporaries, 1993) made me want to cook. I finished reading the novel and felt the urge, the desire, the need to do something physical, something with my hands.
Cooking came to mind — my one specialty, lemon-oregano roast chicken. Images filled my thoughts: plunging my hand deep inside a whole chicken’s gutted cavity to pluck out the giblets; mixing the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, minced garlic, basil, salt and pepper to douse over the bird; feeling the heat of an oven at 350 degrees; tasting the first succulent slice of breast, juicetrickling as I bite into it.
If you know Baker’s novel, you know it has almost nothig to do with cooking. Although there is that scene on pages 132-133 of the trade paperback edition, an incident with Stouffer’s creamed chipped beef and pasta noodles . . .
You know the novel is about Abby and Jim, who have dialed a phone sex line for mutual arousal. Their conversations, however, go beyond basic arousal into digressions that lead them to learn much about each other — they seem compatible, but live on opposite coasts — and the nature of the erotic, although, as Jane Smiley notes in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Vox never projects itself as pornographic (though it often uses the language of porn) but “comments on the artificially lurid quality of pornography.”
Artificiality seems the word that stands out here. Very little is physical in this phone line affair.
The two protagonists have voice and image to guide them. No evidence exists, despite the couple’s seeming compatible imaginations, the two ever connect, or that they will somehow meet and have a relationship.
Vox peeks into the nature of the erotic and the role imagination and fantasy have in our sex lives. The novel also explores the distancing and dehumanizing effects of technology.
Even when Jim and Abby describe dates they’ve gone on, they seem to prefer masturbatory experiences over intercourse. Jim, for instance, describes one encounter in which he and a woman from his office watch an X-rated video together: both become aroused, and the experience is sexually satisfying, but afterward Jim realizes he prefers going solo to actual sex. The physicality of sex is distracting to him.
An neither Jim nor Abby, as they close their call, seem able to imagine meeting. The novel ends with the simple line “They hung up,” the two callers retiring to their separate corners of the world.
As for me, well, last Sunday I cooked: the chicken dish, of course, though not a whole chicken, only breasts, and some substitutions were made with key ingredients. But still, it turned out tender and delightful.
Saturday I woke up early, around 8 a.m., made coffee, as is my usual routine, and then began reading Garrison Keillor‘s WLT: A Radio Romance.
The novel’s epigraph comes from Walden:
I learned this at least by my experience: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live that life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.
The epigraph distracted me for a minute because of the phrase “advances confidently”. Shaken confidence has of late been a culprit barring me from my dreams as much as anything beyond me. What does it mean to advance advance confidently? What are my dreams? Are they just castles in the air?
I set the thought aside, though, and went on to begin the novel — so far proving a worthwhile read. If you’re familiar with Keillor’s radio program A Prairie Home Companion, this novel is a bit less genteel. Plus there is a fart joke early on. Can’t really have great literature without fart jokes. Chaucer. Joyce.
There’s much that seems prophetic as Keillor explores the early days of radio and hints at the medium’s decline when TV comes along. Video killed the radio star. It reminds me of the current state of print and even broadcast news as it deals with and declines to this amorphous beast, the Internet.
An hour after I started the novel, I set it aside because my stomach was craving breakfast. Made my wife happy when I headed out to Shipley’s Donuts. Mmmm, donuts . . . In the drive-thru, the novel’s epigraph came back to me: this one passage is the foundation of all the self-help books I’ve been reading over the past two years. Their premises could be summarized thusly:
- Be confident
- Define your dreams
- Plan accordingly
- Set goals, laying the foundations of the dreams so they may not turn to castles in the air
There it is: Henry David Thoreau,self-help guru.
In the past few years, when I’ve found myself feeling as if I’m living in a vacuum separated from everything I value, I turn to reading Jim Harrison’s essays. This past month I’ve been dipping into his collection Just Before Dark (1991).
I bought this collection a few years ago when I was first introduced to Harrison’s writing by a former colleague. My interest then was in Harrison’s Zen Buddhism; he describes his practice of Zen not as a religion but as an attitude toward life.
And it’s Harrison’s attitude toward life that compels me to read his essays and fiction. Almost every time I dip into his writing, I find my own life. A recent read, for instance, I discovered Harrison writing about living in Boston, and a moment of extended unemployment:
I had been unemployed and generally at the end of my tether for a year. My daily life had become a round of employment offices, interviews with personnel people who seemed to sense instantly that I was unsuitable, flatly unemployable. My jacket pocket was filled with application blanks for all manner of work — I seemed unable to get past my name and social security number.
I don’t know Harrison’s circumstances, how he became unemployed. I know mine —a bad choice to overreact to a passive-aggressive nitwit. Still these sentences hit me hard: more than a year unemployed now, I understand the whole sense of untethered freefall that Harrison conveys. I feel untethered, paralyzed.
1991. The year handwritten on the Contents page of my copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
I must have read the novel for the first time before entering grad school to learn about postmodernism and its ironic awareness that a work of fiction is exactly that — a work of imagined people and places bearing no resemblance to reality, built of language — and perhaps nothing more. As I think about it, I know for a fact I read the novel before I left for grad school.
I read the novel yearning for an erotic adventure with a woman to whom I will give the name Sabina as a tribute to one of fiction’s sexiest women, a fictional construct, indeed, of Kundera’s imagination, or rather the fictional construct of the “I” narrator, a writer, who narrates (can we really call a pronoun “who”?) the novel, perhaps a persona of Kundera himself. How can we know, however, given this “I” is a construct of language?
Anyway, real or not, who can forget the image of Sabina parading around in nothing but panties and her grandfather’s bowler hat? And so, inspired by the hopes of erotic adventure, I read the novel.
A little plot summary first (always, though, recall plot is a fictional construct): The novel is essentially about four couples — Tomas, a unrepentent womanizer; his wife, Tereza; Sabina, one of Tomas’ former mistresses; and Franz, Sabina’s lover — as they endure in various ways the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the year of my birth; the Russians, in fact, rolled their tanks into Prague right around the day I was born). Sabina emigrates to Geneva, Switzerland where she meets Franz, who gets involved with left wing activism, and dies accidentally during a protest against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Tomas and Tereza leave for Geneva themselves just after the Russian invasion, but return to their country once the occupation takes root. Both are harrassed by the secret police until they eventually seek refuge on a collective farm in the Czech countryside. The two eventually die in a car crash, though not before they discover they truly love each other.
Now, as you may recall (a thousand pardons for the long plot summary), I first decided to read the novel because I thought reading the novel would somehow lead to an erotic adventure, and who’s not for erotic adventures? But, as I read the novel, I discovered Kundera was delving into another of my interests — existentialism.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” writes Jane Smiley in an essay on this novel, “is openly a novel of ideas.”