Month: January 2015

Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Reading Old Editions

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I read an old copy of an old poem. I was given this gorgeous anthology of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s work, an original Excelsior Edition published in 1880. The book is both an artifact and a piece of art; beautifully bound, heavy, glossy paper framed in red and an ornate cover in browns and gold. Photographs don’t do it justice. It’s amazing to hold in your hands a copy of a book that was printed three years before Queen Victoria herself met with the author (arguably the greatest poet of the Victorian age) to tell him how much she admired -and found personal solace in- the poem you are reading right now. Which brings me to the point.

I read it. I didn’t just look at this artifact on a shelf, or open it to look at the pages before putting it away again. I read it (I was careful of course; I only read at my desk, handled it very carefully, didn’t eat a tri-tip sandwich while doing so, all that). My visual memory of this poem is forever linked to this specific artifact. It’s not priceless ( these kinds of things can easily be found for less than a hundred dollars) but I know people who’d cringe at my choice here. What’s wrong with picking up a Norton Critical Edition of the poem from Powell’s, or finding an old (not ancient) copy at a used-bookstore? Fair enough. I fully understand that my reading of it isn’t doing anything to preserve the life of this book, but books are first and foremost a means of communicating. This edition doesn’t just communicate the beauty of Tennyson’s poetry, but a concrete sense of the intangible “historicity”. In a poem most critically studied as a lesson on the essence of all things Victorian, that’s no small feat.

A River Runs Through It and USFS 1919

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I read these two novellas back-to-back, in an anthology that also featured the wonderfully named short story “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim’”. A River Runs Through It is far and away Maclean’s best-known work, and deservedly so. Maclean is a master at opening up the interior lives of strong, silent men, self-reliant individualists whose communication with the ones they love (or hate) all happens beneath the level of language. A River Runs Through It is the perfection of this revelation, a powerful story about family, nature, and the fellowship of men. The prose is beautiful and studied, the work of a man with a lifetime of reading and experience behind him. The story moves along like the kind of fishing it depicts, smooth and languid, even in moments of great tension and resolution. The last paragraph is one of the greatest closers in 20th century literature.

USFS 1919 is a great read, but it lacks the emotional resonance and sense of importance in Maclean’s more famous work. The plot is compelling, but moves forward at a stilted pace, sometimes feeling drawn out and other times rushing through. The relationships here are undefined and unimportant, taking a backseat to an admittedly good story about the adventures of a young boy coming into his own identity working among men.

This is the part where I get all angsty-white-guy. I love A River Runs Through It. I’m gonna try to get my dad to read it (he worked in Montana as a lumberjack, we used to fish together, etc.) I’m gonna read it again. It isn’t my world (I grew up in Southern California playing lead guitar in metal/post-hardcore bands) but it’s a world I’m familiar with, that I’ve looked into and visited on more than one occasion. This shit resonates with me. Should I feel guilty about that? Am I robbing myself of the diversity of human experience by reading books by and about White, heterosexual North American males and their identity as such, a subject I’m already pretty familiar with out of my own biography? Or is reading Maclean and Carver (and Johns Steinbeck, Gardner and Updike, John is a white-guy name) something I can appreciate on a deeper level, as it’s something that comes out of my own experience to a degree that other work doesn’t? I’m still feeling some lingering guilt over the fact that half of the books I read last year were written by straight, White American men. I don’t have an answer here; I’m honestly trying to figure things out.

Recommendation (regarding the book, not free-floating First-world angst): definitely read A River Runs Through It, and keep going if you dig it.

Reading Log: Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley

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At 58, John Steinbeck drove across America for a little over three months in a camper pickup with his elderly French poodle, Charley. The dog was not only a companion, but serves as a useful focal point around which Steinbeck structures his narrative. It’s 1960 and his trip begins just before JFK’s election. Steinbeck -a man born at the kickoff of the 20th century- is trying to get an idea of the nature of mainstream America as it enters the 60s and he’s trying his best to avoid getting soft. Being a renowned and financially successful novelist has its perks; Steinbeck’s vehicle is made-to-order for this trip specifically, offering all the accommodations one might desire, he is free to stop at hotels whenever he wants a hot shower or a different bed to sleep in.

Steinbeck’s narrative prose is refreshing and direct. He’s clearly intelligent and insightful but chooses to put down his observations in the most linear and direct form available. As much as I enjoy his fiction, I wish he had written more work like this. He communicates the essence of the people he meets in mere paragraphs, never resorting to caricature or stereotypes. Yes, rich Texans buy ranches with their oil money to play cowboy, but those jeans are worn pale blue from the leather of a saddle, not a heated Lexus seat.

This was written two years before Steinbeck flew to Sweden to accept his Nobel prize. He is -to use a phrase rendered rather trite by overly-enthused marketing copy- at the height of his literary power. He’s still hungry, challenging himself with a new kind of project, but with enough experience to know when to try a different approach. It’s a fantastic book, my favorite piece of nonfiction this year (so far).

Recommendation: Buy, read, write in margins. Read again later.

(Aborted) Reading Log: Gone Girl and Why I Need to Give Up on Reading Books That David Fincher Makes Into Movies.

(Image via Wikimedia)

(Image via Wikimedia)

I gave up eighty pages in and skimmed the rest for plot (I always try to make it at least 50 pages in good faith with any novel-length reading endeavor). The writing isn’t bad at all; far superior to most fiction that makes its way to a similar spot on the charts. What I can’t handle is the voice. I have no problem sticking through books full of -or narrated by- horrible people. Portnoy’s Complaint, Lolita, and the short stories of Annie Proulx and Thom Jones are all personal favorites, because the shitty human beings within are interesting. Not to say that Amy and Nick (Flynn’s two main characters) aren’t round or convincing; they’re fine, but they’re no more compelling than a couple suburban soccer moms comparing hair treatments and minivan MPG.

I understand that the book is full of action, full of intrigue and dramatic tension, I just can’t stand being in the heads of these two. They think boring thoughts about interesting things, their musings painted with a facade of hip cleverness that feels unnatural and forced. I’m also more than a little tired of hearing New York writers write about writing and New York, and writers in New York. If they must, -especially in 2012- they’ve got a lot of tropes to surmount. Flynn reaches for low-hanging fruit instead, describing a party of NYC writers with the word “ironic” no fewer than four times in the same chapter (ironic t-shirts, ironic apple schnapps, etc.).

This isn’t genre-bashing. I loved Denis Johnson’s novel Nobody Move, a modern noir thriller with pretty heavy Raymond Chandler shading. I loved it because the characters were interesting and genuinely funny and because the book stood on it’s own either on the level of prose or plot. A clever story is nice, but anybody can come up with a clever idea. It’s the the lucidity of implementation that’s actually impressive.

Recommendation: Pass. Don’t buy it, don’t borrow it, just don’t waste your time. See the movie if that’s your thing.

Reading Log: Paul Harding’s Tinkers

 

Tinkers
by Paul Harding
Powells.com

 

Tinkers is a short book, but it was hard to get through. One might be tempted to call the prose purple if it weren’t so wonderful and evocative; dense and elaborate figurative language and metaphors that shift and distort. It’s all done masterfully, with sentences wrought like Edwardian iron fences. The point-of-view shifts, the tense shifts, and glimpses within glimpses within glimpses offer different meanings on all three levels. It’s beautiful to read, but laborious. I found myself only picking it up when I was energized and in good spirits and choosing something else to read if I were tired or distracted in any way.

The heaviness of the book isn’t indicative of any failings, of course. It’s a fantastic piece of work and Paul Harding deserves every bit of success and praise that’s come his way through this book. It shows the innermost parts of the lives of ordinary people in a beautiful way, weaving together sensory images and evoking the wonder of a mind in an untethered state of pure remembrance, filling the gaps with judicious use of the omniscient.

Any complaints I have about the Tinkers are too nebulous to give any credible voice to. I feel like there is something too laborious in the prose, that the elevated perspective gives the book some reach that exceeds its grasp, but I can’t find any distinct examples. Another reading is definitely required before I can either make any substantiated criticism or give this book a place in my top 100. Nonetheless, I’m thrilled I picked it up and read it, slowly and deliberately, and I’ll recommend it unreservedly.

Recommendation: Read it, and then explain to me why I can’t make up my mind about how much I like this book.

Click here to visit Powell's Books!

Reading Log: Thom Jones’s Cold Snap

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Cold Snap is Jones’s second collection of stories, a follow-up to his acclaimed debut The Pugilist at Rest. Cold Snap borrows some of the characters from his earlier collection, and like The Pugilist, many of its own stories are interconnected, both in narrative and thematically. Many stories feature diabetes, expat medical aid workers in Africa, doctors, and the AIDS epidemic, among others. Boxing, Vietnam, and catastrophic mental illness are still present, but I don’t think Jones could publish a book without a little of that.

These stories are just as compelling as his first collection, visceral and full of emotion. I must confess that I read this collection a bit faster than his first, devouring most of it in less than a day -while I was fighting off bronchitis, on top of it all. I wish I’d let the reading stretch out a little longer, but I’m certain I’ll return to the stories I really enjoyed again this year. I loved half the stories, and the ones that weren’t my favorite I’d still consider quite good. Jones’s diversity is impressive, but it’s the source of my only complaint: the story “Rocketfire Red”. It’s written in a dense Australian dialect that is technically superb, but feels more like a technical exercise despite it’s otherwise engaging plot and great prose. It feels like Jones’s got lost in the craft after reading Trainspotting. Still, 9/10 is remarkable.

Cold Snap must be compared to The Pugilist, but it’s a hard comparison to make. I’m enjoying reading his work in the order of publication and would recommend it to anyone looking to read Jones’s work. Sophomore efforts are always tricky and it comes down to expectations. Was I hoping for Cold Snap to be “just as good” at the preceding collection? To improve on it? Just to not suck so I can enjoy a voice I’m already comfortable with?

Recommendation: Buy it and read it. It’s good. It’s not quite as good as The Pugilist at Rest, but that’s a damn high bar and Cold Snap is no sophomore slump.


Cold Snap: Stories
by Thom Jones
Powells.com

 



2014 Revisited, with Metadata!

Photo courtesy of Vogue.com

Photo courtesy of Vogue.com

I decided to go through the list of books I read last year, compiling data. I used the incredibly scientific method of thinking up some interesting categories on the drive back from a day trip to the coast and putting books into those categories as I saw fit. The results?

Total Books Read: 51
Novels: 24
Written by American White Guys: 29
Short Story Collections: 6 (I also read or listened to around 100 additional short stories)
Poetry Collections: 2
Translated Books: 6
Written by Women: 3(ouch)
Non-Fiction: 12
Plays: 5
Essays or Essay Collections: 5

 

 

Illuminating. Before collecting this data, I figured I needed to read mainly more nonfiction and works in translation. The fact that only 5.8% of the books I read last year were written by women totally escaped my notice (although one of my big goals for reading last year was to get up-to-speed on my knowledge of the American literary canon, so…).

2015 will see me seeking out more:
Female authors, especially in translation.
Poetry.
Books in translation.
Books published in the last 10-15 years.

Happy reading, everybody!