A Month (or two) of Books: April/May 2018

Books Read, Fiction:

Foreign Affairs (1984) – Alison Lurie

A Summons to Memphis (1986) – Peter Taylor

The Monsters of Templeton (2008) – Lauren Groff                                                      

A Long Way from Home (2017) – Peter Carey

Every Shiny Thing (2018) – Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison

Books Read, Non-Fiction:

Look Alive Out There: Essays (2018) ­­– Sloane Crosley

Autumn (2017) ­­– Karl Ove Knausgaard

See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary (2018) – Lorrie Moore

I started this Month of Books installment on June 13. In a ’40s movie (or even in this year’s Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water”) pages flying off a wall calendar would represent my extended delay. What was taking me so long? I had eight books to cover. I started with snapshots of the novels, only to find myself mired down, starting over and then reluctant to open up the Word document at all. The fact is, the only novel I enjoyed was Every Shiny Thing. Full disclosure: Laurie Morrison, one of the co-authors of this middle-grade novel set in Philadelphia, is the daughter of a dear friend, and my copy was an autographed gift. I am not biased, however, when I say it was the only one of the five that I couldn’t put down. I really wanted to find out how the two middle school girls at a Quaker private school got through the predicaments they faced. The writing does not talk down, the voices of the two narrators are distinctive and genuine, and I recommend it as an example of the best kind of age-targeted novels out there today.

In contrast to the other four novels, all three of the non-fiction collections were noteworthy.

Look Alive out There is Sloane Crosley’s third essay collection. Her first collection came out in 2008, promptly became a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and was optioned for an HBO series. I was a fan of hers even before then as she originated the “Townies” column in the New York Times, and has since written for every publication a humor essayist would want to write for. And her 40th birthday is still weeks away! She writes of dealing with noisy neighbors, ascending a volcano, having an older relative who was a porn star, catching cabs in New York City. Her observations of the world around her can be laugh-out-loud funny, darkly mordant, gently snarky, and, in this third volume, poignant – sometimes all in the same essay. I am wildly jealous of Sloane Crosley. I want to be the Sloane Crosley of her mother’s generation.

Lorrie Moore is probably best known for her short story collections, in particular Birds of America (1998), which was a New York Times bestseller and won several awards. I first came to her through her novel A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Two scenes in that novel are so harrowing that I still have bad dreams about them. When she appeared on the Author Events schedule at the Free Library of Philadelphia I signed up, to see what she was like in person. Turns out she was terrific, completely engaging and entertaining, with a sly, dry sense of humor. She read an excerpt from her non-fiction collection See What Can Be Done, a recounting of her spur of the moment wedding. Her timing and intonation were pitch perfect. (Not all authors read their own works well.) And her handling of the Q&A was generous. Luckily, I had bought a copy of the book before the talk started, so I stood in (the long) line to get her autograph – not because I wanted the autograph, but because I wanted to ask this charming, lovely woman how she had written those two scenes that haunt me. When I asked her, she sat back, thought a moment, then said she didn’t know how she did it, that she procrastinated and kept writing around them. Not a complete answer, but I got the sense it was as hard for her to write the two scenes as it was for me to read them. I then started reading the new book in the car on the way home. (Jon was driving.) It is also terrific, completely engaging and entertaining. A chronological sampling of her non-fiction writing from 1983 to 2017, the bulk of the pieces in the collection are book reviews she has written for the New York Review of Books. But Moore’s book reviews are really broad-ranging essays. She also includes profiles and a handful of traditional personal essays. Each piece was a delight to read. Her reviews range from Nora Ephron to John Updike, Alice Munro to Richard Ford. She also covers television series and movies. Her range of knowledge is awe-inspiring, and her agility with the English language and metaphor so potent that you always know exactly what she means and then some. For example, when talking about the television series True Detective (a show I never watched, but now wish I had) she praises the originality of the program, noting that key elements are “in perfect sync with one another.” The setting, the cinematography, and the acting are “all threaded on the same needle” by the director. She is also a champion of the novel form: “We don’t always know what intimate life consists of until novels tell us.” And she is wary of academic film theory, “often written in a prose with the forensic caress of an appliance warranty.” She is fun to read (if a little too fond of adverbs). She also happens to be part of another one of my spooky coincidences. I learned that Lorrie Moore was a student of Alison Lurie’s at Cornell, and a generation later Moore was a mentor to Lauren Groff. I had no clue of this inter-generational connection when I chose my novels for this set of reading.

I recommend the Crosley and Moore collections without reservation. In fact, I strongly encourage you to have both handy to dip into whenever you want a treat. The third essay collection, Autumn, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, is another matter.

To quote Wikipedia, “Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian author, known for six autobiographical novels, titled My Struggle.” I had read enough about these novels to know that I wasn’t interested in reading them. However, about a year ago I enjoyed his essay on chewing gum in the Sunday New York Times Magazine‘s “Recommendations” column and noted that it was adapted from an essay in Autumn. I also learned that Autumn was the first of four collections of essays, gathered by season, written as letters to his then unborn daughter. This premise appealed to me, so I bought the book. The essays are short sketches of things encountered in his every day life. Some are beautiful renderings of unlikely subjects (Petrol); some are silly (Bed); some are surprisingly fun (Telephones) and charming (Toilet Bowls, “the swans of the bath chamber”). Some I could do without (Piss, Vomit), and some I just couldn’t follow at all (Silence). The bigger concern for me, however, is what I always struggle with when reading something in translation. What am I really reading? How much of the nuances of Norwegian am I missing, or conversely, how much of some of the charm is actually due to the work of the translator, in this case Ingvild Burkey? And what’s with the weird punctuation? Was that also an attempt to capture something about the flow of Norwegian prose, or was it just that Penguin didn’t want to let a copy editor near the book?

In any event, I cannot in good conscience recommend Autumn without reservation. Yet I am glad that I read it, and I have bought both Winter and Spring. I’ll keep you posted.

 

 

 

April/May News

Once again, “work-for-hire” assignments took up the bulk of my writing time during April and May. On the creative side, I posted only one lone piece on the Humor Outcasts website: my argument with Virginia Woolf over the nature of moths. You can find it by clicking on this title: Death to the Moth.

I did keep reading and will be sharing my thoughts on those books, short and long, in an upcoming “Month(s) of Books.” For now, though, some examples of uncanny connections and a question about coincidence.

  • One of the books that I read was the 2008 debut novel by Lauren Groff (of Fates and Furies fame). The setting is Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, NY, given the alias Templeton in the book. One of the major characters is the editor of Templeton’s newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal. A week after I finished the book, I read an article in The Writer written by “Libby Cudmore, who is the current managing editor of the Freeman’s Journal in Coopertown, NY.”
  • Two weeks ago an essay promoted in “Literary Hub,” a digest of “The Best of the Literary Internet,” caught my eye. It was written by a Tom McAllister, who had taught a non-fiction workshop in the very first Philadelphia Writer’s Conference I attended. (I hadn’t thought he was a very good teacher, but he continues to get books and articles published and I continue to read them, in an annoyed kind of way.) The link took me to McAllister’s lament that none of his friends or family ever buy his books. The publishing site was “The Millions.” I had never heard of it. Two mornings later, in New Sentences, my favorite column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson featured a sentence written by Lydia Kiesling…”the editor of the website The Millions.”
  • Several months ago when I was doing a Times crossword puzzle, I could not get the clue “those involved with forensics.” Crime labs didn’t fit. Coroners didn’t fit. Auditors didn’t fit. The following morning I was astonished to see that the answer was “debaters.” Debaters? What do debaters have to do with forensics? Well, those with better vocabularies than mine apparently know. In particular, David Sedaris knows. The very next day I read a piece about Sedaris in which, among other things, he shared that he likes to write speeches for high school debate teams “when they are practicing forensics,” or argumentative skills.

I have many more examples. I’ve been keeping a file. Is there some scientific explanation for these types of colliding occurrences? Is it some brain activity, like the explanation for déjà vu? Is it just a weirdly high rate of coincidences? Am I reading too much into it? Or am I just reading too much, period?

And now for something completely different…

I have to share an item from the May 2018 issue of the AARP Bulletin, page 12. It is extracted from an article distinguishing spurious health fads from genuine health fixes. Below is a clip, verbatim, describing one of the genuine fixes:

Fecal Transplant Donor stool with healthy bacteria inserted into a patient’s colon to alter the flora and treat ailments such as lupus and diabetes. “People have pooh-poohed this idea for years,” Ligresti said.

A sly piece of AARP humor, or just a tone deaf editor?

 

 

A Month of Books: March 2018

Books Read:

Miller’s Valley (2016) – Anna Quindlen

The Essex Serpent (2016) – Sarah Perry

Heroes of the Frontier (2016) – Dave Eggers                                                      

Keeping On Keeping On (2016) – Alan Bennett (collection of prose pieces)

(I’ve only just now noticed that all of my March books were published in 2016. Purely coincidental. I did not go on a nostalgic pre- Nov. 8, 2016, binge.)

Miller’s Valley is Quindlen’s eighth (of nine) novels and the fourth one that I have read. I read them because I am a big fan of her essays. (I wanted to grow up to be a columnist like Anna Quindlen or Fran Lebowitz, both of whom I started reading at the beginning of their careers in the late ’70s. Of course, we are all around the same age, but that hasn’t changed my aspirations.) I haven’t become a big fan of Quindlen’s novels. I can appreciate that they are well-written and well-constructed, but that’s it. Miller’s Valley did not change my impression.

And I am a big fan of Dave Eggers the person. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was great. He does good things with his publishing house McSweeney’s and with 826 National, his network of seven tutoring centers around the country. I met him a couple months ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was promoting The Monk of Mocha, his latest non-fiction book. I bought a copy and in it he wrote a lovely inscription to my daughter, who has volunteered at the Boston center of 826. However, I find his novels uneven: I liked A Hologram for the King (2012), but gave up on The Circle (2013). Heroes of the Frontier was just frustrating. In this book, described in a New York Times review as a “picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age,” the “heroes” are Josie and her two young children and the frontier is Alaska. Running away from the mess that is her life in the lower 48, Josie has packed her kids into a rattle-trap RV and they go on one ill-conceived adventure after another. I get the “picaresque” because of the adventures without a real plot. But “coming of age” requires some narrative arc, and I detected none. She lacks judgment at the beginning of the novel and lacks judgment at the end, and she consistently puts her children at risk. I mostly just wanted to strangle her.

Now to the books I did like…!

The Essex Serpent is the second novel by British author Sarah Perry, but the first to be published in the U.S. Set at the very end of the 19th century, the story entwines two plots: (1) the growing hysteria among the populace of a small village on England’s eastern coast that a mythical murdering sea creature has returned as divine punishment on the village for some unknown corporate transgression and (2) the consequences of independence for a wealthy recently widowed London woman (Cora), an excellent amateur naturalist who relocates to the village with her son in her quest to find a scientific answer to the serpent mystery and in the process strikes up a close friendship with the village vicar. Perry is an elegant and engaging writer with a nice wit who can capture a moment with wry lines such as, her “father,…whose tenants liked him contemptuously,…had gone out of business” or, upon Cora having uttered an empty pleasantry, she and a cripple “both examined this statement for logic, and finding none let it pass.” She also uses the word “livid” in its 19th century meaning (to describe a discoloration of the skin, not an emotional state) so that it would be contemporary with the time of the novel’s setting. That was pretty impressive. (I taught Wuthering Heights for a number of years in my schoolmarm days, and the word “livid” shows up all over the place in that book.)

Perry’s novel is a classic late Victorian novel, with Gothic overtones and several subplots, and is a fun read (if a little long). But Perry also brings a 21st-century sensibility to her portrait of the complicated relationship between the highly intelligent country pastor and the highly intelligent – and willful – woman not his wife. Perry examines friendship, irrational fear, and the literal and figurative serpent in our midst. No fairy tale ending here, but also no moralizing punishment meted out, as it might have been if written more than hundred years ago. It was a refreshing study of how passionate yet compassionate people manage to work things out. Since 2014, Sarah Perry has won or been short- and long-listed for more than a dozen awards in Britain for her two novels. I look forward to her next book.

As for the Alan Bennett collection, to be truthful, I am still reading it, have been reading it for a couple months, and expect to be reading it for another couple months as it is 700 pages long. It is a delight. Bennett has been one of England’s most charming men of letters and comic writers since “Beyond the Fringe” in the 1960s. He’s probably best known as a dramatist (“The History Boys,” “Lady in the Van”). He is also a wonderful diarist and his diaries from 2005 to 2015 make up the bulk of this collection. (I am up to 2011.) To read his diaries is to live vicariously an idyllic life (at least for an English major and Anglophile). He and his partner Rupert divide their time between their home in London and their home in Yorkshire. They plan outings to village churches far off the M roads. They have tea with their friend Debo (the Duchess of Devonshire to us). Bennett spends his “working” days at a writing desk in Gloucester Crescent or backstage with actors we’ve come to know from watching four decades of Masterpiece Theatre. He writes with gentle, yet sardonic, humor and a clear-eyed assessment of what has been lost as he ages and as Britain stumbles into the 21st century. If you’ve never read any Alan Bennett, you might not want to start with a 700-page tome. Try The Lady in the Van (non-fiction) or The Uncommon Reader (fiction). If you do know Bennett’s work, this collection is a treasure.

March News

Since my last “News” bulletin, only one creative piece has managed to escape from my computer. It was a remembrance of things past as I approached an interesting milestone: receiving my Medicare card. (No madeleines were involved.) The piece was posted on Humor Outcasts: Crushing It.

I wish I had more to report  for March, although I wasn’t completely idle. I wrote a half dozen biographical profiles that will be of interest to Princeton alumni when they vote this spring for alumni trustees to the University’s board. The profiles do not have entertainment value. Instead, I am going to use this space to share my admiration for Sarah Ruhl, the American playwright who, among many other things, was nominated for a Tony Award and was a finalist for a Pulitzer for her play “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).” She is also on the faculty at Yale School of Drama and is a wonderful essayist. In 2014, she published 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write. The subtitle is “On umbrellas and sword fights, parades and dogs, fire alarms, children and theater,” and that’s only a partial list of topics. The essays (in addition to being envy-enducing) are engaging, entertaining, and in many instances  enlightening.  Essay #13 is “The drama of the sentence,” a meditation on the power of individual sentences, on the importance of how “word follows word,” transcending just the telling of a story. (Sam Anderson in his “New Sentences” column in the “New York Times Magazine” also focuses on the power of a single sentence.)

Below are two sentences that I’ve saved as examples of the power a careful arrangement of word following word can have:

“What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realised, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf afterwards.” (From Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl.)

“Lynwood was malevolent, truculent, and brittle, and it seemed as if one were always in midsentence with him, as if the subject had been lost but the verb was firing like a crazed piston so that one might perceive the action but not the context.” (From Kenneth A. McClane’s essay “Sparrow Needy” in The Best American Essays 2017.)

A Month of Books: February 2018

[Yes, I know. I am about three weeks late on my compilation of books read in February. That’s what four nor’easters and a trip to Boston will do to one. At least, though, I am posting it before we are into April!]

Month of Books: February 2018

Books Read:

The Past (2016) – Tessa Hadley

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) – George Saunders

The 50 Funniest American Writers According to Andy Borowitz (2011) an anthology

Disquiet, Please! More Humor Writing from the New Yorker (2008) an anthology

 

The two novels in February could not have been more different from each other. The Past was Hadley’s seventh novel with echoes not only of her earlier novels (see January’s Month of Books) but also of other novels I’ve been reading by British women, right down to setting the story in another deteriorating old house in Cornwall populated by family members in contention! While in this one the narrative switched back and forth between the present and the past as it related the stories of the family members, Hadley still focused on what one critic called “crystallizing the atmosphere of ordinary life” – once more, not exactly a rave review, hinting at stasis

In contrast, Saunders’ novel was in constant motion, teeming with everything but the ordinary.

First, I have to confess that I was not one of those who rushed to buy this book. (My copy is the paperback edition.) I had never been a fan of Saunders’ short stories and read a couple only because a dear friend suggested that I should. Second, I was very annoyed that Lincoln in the Bardo won the Man Booker Prize. I am allergic to change. I still hadn’t gotten over being peeved that the prize is no longer just the Booker. Then they went and opened it up to writers outside of the British Commonwealth! If you are going to have a national kind of prize, then keep it national. We have our National Book Award, they should have the Booker. Somehow it feels diluted, less special. (“They’ll give that award to anyone now. Even an American!” Sniff.)

I also have to confess my intellectual failings (once again) and admit that I didn’t know what “bardo” meant. In addition, I managed to hear the title as Lincoln at the Bardo, which made it sound as though Lincoln was frequenting some sleazy dive. My brain created a mash-up vision of a bar where all the waitresses looked like Bridget Bardot. Then I looked up the definition: “a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.” That made me equally uncomfortable. I feared the book might be some serious version of “Lincoln vs. the Zombies,” and I thought that would be a terrible thing to read.

Nonetheless, I started the book, though remained skeptical for the first 12 pages or so. Since I hadn’t paid close attention to the reviews, I didn’t know the basic premise, which is: Lincoln in such grief at the death of his son Willie that he visits the mausoleum where Willie’s body has been taken following the funeral. A cast of characters who are themselves in the bardo, between their earthly lives and whatever was next, witnesses this extraordinary event. Not having this context, I  found the first exchange between the two lead characters in the bardo, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III, puzzling. What’s a “sick-box”? Several (short) chapters followed that were nothing more than quotes from various primary sources who were at the White House at a gala event the night Willie died and various historians who have written about the same. This seemed to me a pretty easy way to write a book: just create pages of quotes from other people!

But I soon was caught up in the extraordinary interplay that Saunders created to allow us (1) to see multiple human perspectives ( often contradicting each other) on a real event and (2) to experience a community of not quite ghosts whose time on earth took place in different eras and whose own witnessing of Lincoln’s grief brings out their compassion and their best (and in some instances worst) selves.

Politics and pathos. Factions spar in the White House at the beginning of the Civil War while the depth of Lincoln’s loss is described by those around him (the living and the dead). Humor and humanity. The characters’ “dead” bodies make visible the characters’ traits in life: one character always enjoyed observing all around him so in the bardo he has multiple eyes to take in everything, while another was somewhat randy in life so in the bardo has to maneuver with a hugely outsized member.

I don’t want to say much more, as part of my delight in this book was my own dawning of appreciation for what Saunders was accomplishing, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. He has woven an intricate tapestry of history, stitched through with a fantastical shadow world, suspended beyond the grave but right there beside the president. Full of wonders and great heart, the book ultimately demonstrates that when spirits, no matter how different, work together, a miracle can happen. I savored every minute of reading it.

The two humor anthologies were fun incidental reading. Not surprisingly, some pieces appeared in both collections. Though a fan of Andy Borowitz, I was disappointed with some of his choices. The pieces in the New Yorker collection were all terrific. What was surprising was how some of the older pieces in the Borowitz could have been written today. I recommend Mark Twain’s “The Presidential Candidate.” Read it on Google Docs for free.

A Month of Books: January 2018

Books Read:

Winter (2017) – Ali Smith

Everything Will Be All Right (2003) – Tessa Hadley

Clever Girl (2014) – Tessa Hadley

What She Ate (2017) – Laura Shapiro

This Is the Place: Women Writing about Home(2017) – Margot Kahn and Kelly                       McMasters, editors

My Mistake (2013) – Daniel Menaker

———

No, I did not spend the month of January lounging on the couch, reading by the fire. The essay collections What She Ate and This Is the Place were begun in December, and I didn’t get around to finishing them until into January. Two airplane flights in mid January gave me five to six hours with nothing to do but read. Don’t be envious (or possibly judgmental) about my knocking off six books. It probably won’t happen again.

I am going to focus on the three novels by two British authors. The best of the three is Winter by Ali Smith. I sheepishly admit that I had never heard of her until just this past October. While doing the tourist thing at the Notting Hill Book Shop in London, I saw the magic words “Man Booker Prize” on a paperback with a pretty cover picture of a country lane. So for completely superficial reasons I bought Autumn by Ali Smith – and it turned out to be an extraordinary novel. Since I didn’t read it in January, I’ll save it to talk about in a future month when I might be a little lax in my reading. But it was so good, I immediately started researching (that is to say, Googling) Ali Smith to see if she had written other books I could read. Turns out she is a Scottish writer who has been producing award-winning short story collections, plays and novels for twenty years! Autumn was the fourth(!)of her nine novels to get short-listed for the Booker. How had I missed this writer? (It also turns out that what I was calling a “pretty cover” was a photo of a David Hockney oil titled “Early November Tunnel.” The whole experience was a bit of a comeuppance.)

Putting aside my artistic cluelessness for now… When Autumn was published in 2016, Smith announced that it was the first of a quartet of novels she was working on. On January 17, I was walking around the Books & Books bookstore in Key West (where I was taking a writing workshop) and I spied Winter on a display table. I began reading it on the flight home. Winter is also a gem, and maybe more accessible than Autumn. The premise sounds like a British novel set piece: dysfunctional family members end up together at a rambling house in Cornwall for the Christmas holidays. But Smith moves around the pieces of this novel in a wholly original way. The elderly mother (Sophia), who lives in the house chats with a disembodied head that has appeared; the London-based neglectful son (Art) picks up a young woman from the street and pays her to impersonate his girlfriend who was to visit his mother with him but who has dumped him instead; the mother’s estranged sister (Iris), who has been an environmental activist dating back to the ’60’s, shows up (as does a busload of birders). Smith takes real delight in upending expectations, pushing limits of reality, and allowing her characters to emerge into fully rounded and cherished figures through dialogue and deeds – never telling you what you should be thinking when. She does all this through an extraordinary facility with language and a love of wordplay and comic scene-setting that is a joy to read.

Now on to Tessa Hadley. She writes what might be thought of as traditional, family-driven novels. Both of these books follow women living through the cultural changes in England from c. 1950 to c. 201O. Everything Will Be All Right follows four generations of women in the same family; Clever Girl follows one woman through the same time span. I confess that I inadvertently did the second book a disservice. Hadley wrote the books more than a decade apart, publishing four other novels in between. If I had had that ten-year break between them, I might have written, “Hadley returns to familiar themes.” Instead my reaction was, “This again?” I found myself just pushing along to get to the end. In addition, Meg Wolitzer, reviewing Clever Girl in the New York Times Book Review, wrote, “A story that doesn’t overreach…told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startingly exact.” Damning with faint praise?

To shift gears, I did get a surprising history lesson by reading all three novels. In each, one of the main characters plays an active part in the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Starting in 1981 and going until 2000, nineteen years, women chained themselves to fences, camped out, and marched at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire to protest the British government’s decision to use it as a site for nuclear missiles. While the protest didn’t stop the government from going ahead with its plans (surprise), an article in the Guardian gives it credit for changing “the nature of protest,” with that kind of protest apparently having some success in recently saving a British village from fracking.

Once again I am astonished and abashed at my ignorance. I do not recall ever hearing about the Greenham Common protests, and I was 28 years old when it started and 47 when it ended. How did I miss this obviously seminal moment for the advancement of women in England that surely should have been spotlighted as a primary example of “I am woman, hear me roar”?

Finally, Dan Menaker, author of the memoir My Mistake, was the leader of the writing workshop I took down in Key West. Read it for the inside scoop on days at the New Yorker, from William Shawn to Tina Brown. Dan is a character.

A Month of Books: An Introduction

My kids know me very well. While this means they show no mercy in mocking and mimicking me, it also means they give me presents that are always perfect.

They both had me pegged early: wine and books. When Jay took a Middle School trip to France, he was somehow able to bring me a bottle of white wine from Provence. I was so moved that at 13 he knew just what to get for me, I decided not to ask any questions. (For example: Where was Madame when you were off buying wine?? How did you get this in and out of airports??) Almost 20 years later, the bottle is still intact down in the basement refrigerator. I didn’t wanted to consume it, as then it would be gone. (It did occur to me, many years too late, that I should have consumed the wine and conserved the bottle, thus having my wine and drinking it, too.) This past Christmas, Jay and Erica gave me a case of Brouilly from Louis La Tour — my favorite that, of course, cannot be found in Pennsylvania State Stores. It is, however, accessible to Brooklyn dwellers.

This year Annie gave me note cards, cleverly packed into what looks like a truncated drawer from an old library card catalog. The note cards themselves on one side are replicas of actual old cards, handwritten with penciled notes. The first one is A335 Alcott, Louise May, 1832-1888, Little Women. I want to keep them all intact to show off to my library-loving friends of a certain age who will appreciate Annie’s excellent insight into her mother’s psyche. (However, I’ve also asked Annie to get me another set to use for actually writing notes. I learned my lesson about figuring out how to have my gifts both ways.)

A couple years ago Annie gave me Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, a collection of the monthly columns that Hornby (About a Boy) wrote for Believer magazine. Each column was headed by two lists: “Books Bought” and “Books Read.” Then followed 1500 to 2000 words of Hornby reacting to, riffing off of, and sometimes ranting about books and the world of books. He rarely touched on all that he read and regularly wandered off on tangents with only the thinnest thread of connection to his starting point. And it all was “hilarious, insightful, and infectious,” to crib from the back cover.

As I made my way through the book, I kept thinking, what a great job! I wish someone would hire me to write about all the books I read in a chatty sort of way! Yet, strangely, no one has asked me.

I have written legitimate book reviews, but here’s the problem: When I am reading a book I like, I read fast. I want to take the whole book in. I don’t want to break up the experience by stopping to take notes. When I get to the end of a book, no matter how much I liked it, I don’t want to have to go back and recreate all those notes I should have taken on character development, use of language, narrative arc, etc., if I had wanted to write a formal book review. I am both too lazy and too eager to get to the next book in my stack of “waiting to be read.” Books pile up that I had intended to review, but never do.

So, since no one is stepping forward to ask me to write a monthly ramble around my reading, I’ve decided I’ll just do it myself on this blog. I will use Hornby’s column as a (loose) model. While we do have some similarities – we both buy more books than we can ever read – the differences are somewhat more noticeable. At the top of my “column” I will list only the books that I have read in the month under examination. I definitely will not go on for 1500 to 2000 words. (I’ll stick closer to 750 or so words.) I will be unlikely to make knowing remarks about an author’s life to rival Hornby’s since often the authors he was reading were also his friends. (But if I happen to know some interesting tidbit, I promise to share it.) And don’t count on my being hilarious, insightful and infectious like Hornby’s work, though I do hope every column will be fun to read.

I plan to publish my look back at a month of reading on the first Sunday following the end of a month. The title of the post will always be “A Month of Books: [month and year]. The first one will be this Sunday, so will read “A Month of Books: January 2018.”

Finally, I do want to make clear, if it hasn’t been clear already, that I won’t be writing traditional book reviews. I am aiming more for entertainment than enlightenment. I will understand if this way of “chatting” about books is not your cup of tea. If that’s the case, when you see that “Month of Books” post show up in your email, go ahead and delete. (I won’t know anyway!) If you do enjoy hearing about the books and you would like some further discussion, please comment!

H is also for Hopper and Hollidaysburg

I recently read that Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Yes, that Gertrude Stein. Poet of Paris salon fame, hostess to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, author of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook beloved by beatniks decades later for its famous hash-infused fudge recipe. Did she really grow up in a small town in Pennsylvania? And why did I care?

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania: Hollidaysburg, population (then and now) about 5,000. I thought I had found a famous female writer who shared my background. This news was worth a visit to Google!

Well, it is true that Stein was born in Allegheny (in 1874), but she didn’t exactly grow up there. When she was three years old her parents whisked her off to Vienna and then Paris. A year later they returned to the States to settle in Oakland, California. Stein grew up a California girl. (No Allegheny newspaper headlines blaring, “Local girl makes good in Paris writing incomprehensible poems!”)

Plus, Allegheny was more cosmopolitan than one might have suspected for a town that doesn’t  exist anymore. I learned that in the 19th century Allegheny was large and quite prosperous, even having a street known as “Mansion Row.” But on December 9, 1887, against its population’s wishes, Allegheny was annexed by Pittsburgh. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “145,000 people who had gone to sleep the night before in Allegheny woke up in Pittsburgh.” Allegheny was henceforth referred to as Pittsburgh North Side. Not exactly Russia and Crimea, but still.

Discovering all of this was disappointing. I had wanted Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to be like Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t. And Gertrude Stein was not to be the famous female writer who shared my background.

I then researched (for another 15 minutes) “famous writers who came from Hollidaysburg.” What I came up with was Hedda Hopper. This seemed an even more improbable pairing of writer with birthplace. Known for her outrageous headdress and the outrage she provoked during the heyday of her Hollywood columnist years, Hopper was born in Hollidaysburg in 1885 and christened Elda Furry. (As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.) Like the Steins with Gertrude, Elda’s parents also whisked her away at age three to another location, but that was the end of any similarity: the Furrys had moved their nine children only 7 miles north of Hollidaysburg to Altoona. By her high school years, Elda was studying singing in Pittsburgh and had stars in her eyes for Broadway fame and fortune. She bolted at 18 when her parents refused to let her pursue her dream.

Elda did make it onto Broadway and in 1913 became the fifth wife of a handsome young actor named DeWolf Hopper. Hopper’s four previous wives were inconveniently named Edna, Ella, Nella and Ida. Stories have it that, annoyed by her husband’s unhappy habit of calling her by the wrong name, Elda Hopper went in search of a new name. She consulted a numerologist, who came up with the nicely alliterative Hedda Hopper.

With the rise of the motion picture industry just after World War I, Hedda Hopper moved with her husband to Hollywood where she appeared in almost 100 films. In the mid 1930’s, however, Hopper reinvented herself. By then divorced and facing a fading acting career, she switched to gossip journalism, first on the radio and then in the newspapers.

While her column became wildly popular, appearing in thousands of newspapers large and small and read by millions, her personal nastiness and rumor-mongering made her just as wildly unpopular among many in the celebrity world. Even 50 years after her death, Hollywood still chafes at her name. In a September 2015 issue of Variety, editor Peter Bart wrote, “The best news about Hedda Hopper is that few remember her. Hedda was a journalist (of sorts), who famously wore exotic hats and devoted herself to destroying the careers of anyone she identified as being communist, gay or otherwise reprehensible.”

So, that’s it for my model female writer. Hedda Hopper from Hollidaysburg, a scribbler of screed widely read but generally despised, if remembered at all. At least, Hollidaysburg does have one beloved superstar to call its own, though gender undetermined: the Slinky. But that doesn’t give me much to model myself on. I’m really not limber enough to write while flopping down stairs head over heels…

H is for Hawk…and Hungry

Noted writing teacher Natalie Goldberg recounts in Old Friend from Far Away that, while she was reading James Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, she thought, “I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life.” During a weekend when she was supposed to be helping her 90-year-old mother cope with the aftermath of a Florida hurricane, she could barely put the book down, reading through a morning, through an afternoon. She was “entranced” and gobbled it up.

When I first began reading H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s meditation on reading T. H. White, training her hawk and mourning the death of her father, I had a similar realization: I was reading one of the most beautiful books of my life. But my gut reaction was very different: I have now been reading it for over a year, consuming it in (very) small bites.

It is like a rich dessert. The writing is so exquisite that I want to read each sentence slowly, lingering over every word and savoring the pleasure of it all. Sometimes I am tempted to write out her sentences, just to see what it would feel like to have the kind of control that she does. (This is not a new idea, of course. Many writing craft books and articles suggest a practice of copying out word for word a passage, a paragraph, a page of a favorite writer as a way to experience the writer’s style from the inside out.)

Each of Macdonald’s sentences has a rich texture – but how to explain that? How does each of her words become an ingredient in a whole? How, when taking a bite of crème brûlée, do you identify with your tongue the individual taste of the egg, the cream, the sugar, the essence of vanilla bean? I suppose if I had all the time in the world I could diagram every sentence. Is it her use of subordinate clauses? Is it that she never uses the passive voice? Is it the interplay of simple and complex sentences? Is it that the nouns and verbs evoke a visual image, an emotional reaction, a physical response like a shudder or a sigh?

But why do that, because it is of course all of those things and more, all precisely measured and mixed. I can know that a spoonful of crème brûlée is delicious without having to go back into the kitchen to watch how the dessert chef put all the ingredients together before carefully lowering the filled custard cups into a water bath and then gently putting them into the oven before carefully finishing them off under the broiler with a crown of crusty glaze.

But frankly, I think the main reason I am digesting the book so slowly is that I just don’t want it to come to an end. Who wants to know that she will never have another bite of a great dessert?

Peacocks vs. Pussycats

Knowing how much I like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), several years ago a good friend gave me a copy of Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, a collection of O’Connor’s essays and lectures, many not published in her lifetime.

The collection begins with O’Connor’s classic essay about her pet peacocks, “The King of Birds,” filled with wry humor and Technicolor scenes of farm life in mid twentieth-century Georgia. Following that, though, I struggled to get through the rest of the offerings.

I should have enjoyed her essays and lectures on writing and teaching literature. Instead, I found the writing distant and dated, as though the words were a black-and-white movie. But the book was a gift, so I felt compelled to finish it.

This took me two years, reading in fits and starts, but finally I came to the end a couple weeks ago. And there I was rewarded for my perseverance. The last entry, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” was riveting: it revealed her observations of the South then that are at play right now in this crazy election season and it illuminated something of the appeal of a certain Republican candidate. She noted that the Protestant South had (has?) a traditional hostility to “outsiders…foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey,” yet also an instinct “to fall eager victim to every poisonous breath from Hollywood or Madison Avenue.” Those who are “long on logic, definitions, abstractions” are likely to come up short “when they find themselves in an environment where their own principles have only partial application” to the society in which they are finding themselves.

But what really startled me was tucked into the appendix: a one-page excerpt from a review of a short story collection by J. F. Powers, a novelist and short story writer from Minnesota who, like O’Connor, was a devout Catholic. The review is clearly a rave, with one reservation: O’Connor takes exception to Powers’ having seen “fit to use a cat for the Central Intelligence” in two of the stories. She allows that the cat has wit and sensibility as well as faith and charity…

 …but he is a cat notwithstanding, and in both cases he lowers the tone and restricts the scope of what should otherwise have been a major story. It is the hope of this reviewer that this animal will prove to have only one life left and that some Minneapolis motorist, wishing to serve literature, will dispatch him as soon as possible.

 Wait just one minute there, Flannery!

That’s a bit harsh, especially coming from someone who loves farm life (and presumably animals) and who in particular admires an oddly shaped show-off of a bird that has a fingernails-on-blackboard call and is known to attack young children.

So let’s take a look at what Flannery O’Connor found so fascinating about peacocks. I quote:

“If I appear with food, they condescend…to eat it.”
“If I refer to them as [mine], the pronoun is merely legal, nothing more.”
“When it suits him, the peacock will turn to face you.”
“The peacock himself is a careful and dignified investigator.”
“Sometimes one will chase himself, end his frenzy with a spirited leap into the air, and then stalk off as if he had never been involved in the spectacle.”

That sounds very like a cat to me. So I suspect some inter-species rivalry going on here. And cats would win that battle, hands down.

Cats are cuddly. Peacocks are not.