November 29, 2010
It’s time again to weed the stack on the reading table. Take a reality check of what I will likely read in upcoming weeks. Enough with the “I want to read these books soon” stack and the “flat stack” that grew like a snake across my dining room table so I could work my way from one end to the other.
That snake, however, proved to be delightfully satisfying as I watched it shrink. Antonya Nelson’s Bound and Patricia Engel’s Vida got picked up rather quickly followed by A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr and then Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women. But then I started adding more books, and I didn’t like the ongoing look of the snake, more boa than garden variety. I’ve been here before. I nurture a monster then have to face it.
I won’t detail the long list of weeding, rather share the highlights that I, Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson got moved off because it’s not a time for them. (That was painful.) But, as it goes, remove a Man Booker candidate and then add one. Rose Tremain’s Trespass, long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker, as was Skippy Dies, now appears on the RT. Considering it’s a 14-day library book, it won’t be sitting there for long.
You might ask, why not read Skippy Dies instead of Trespass? I wish I could answer that in a way that would offer a template for successful reading table management. I don’t have it in me.
Speaking of library books (there’s another one on the RT, too), if I end up reading a library book, I’ll then scout for a copy for my bookshelves at used book stores and/or shows. The annual Dayton, Ohio, Bookfair held in November is a great place for such finds.
Here are five other novels — in addition to Trespass — that survived the weeding. They are among 12 books listed on My Reading Table, a TLC page reflecting the high points neatly stacked on my dining room table. Some survivors have been long-standing titles on the table, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor.
Only 12 books on TLC’s My Reading Table, you may ask? Again, they are merely the highlights and/or immediate next reads. Not reflected are books stacked on two other tables outside the dining room table. You likely have your own monsters to deal with. You don’t need mine.
♦ Faithful Place by Tana French
NYT book critic Janet Maslin listed this as one of her 10 favorites of 2010. Then I saw it at the library and checked it out. Faithful Place is a story about an Irish family with a mystery to go along – one of the family members returns to his hometown, Dublin, Ireland, to investigate the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart.
♦ Stoner by John Williams
A classic published by The New York Review of Books, this is the story of a man who encounters a succession of disappointments. From an essay in the NYT: “John Williams’s ‘Stoner’ is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.”
♦ The Visiting Suit by Xiaoda Xiao
A memoir-in-stories by an author whose first novel, The Cave Man, awakened me to human rights atrocities going on in modern China. Published by Two Dollar Radio whose branding is “books too loud to ignore,” which aptly fits the work of Xiaoda Xiao. Also on the RT from Two Dollar Radio, The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning, which looks “too good to ignore.” Scheduled for February 2011 release.
♦ Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford
This terrific book has been on and off the RT, and it’s now back on again. The stop-and-go reading has nothing to do with my interest in the book, rather being called to pick up other books and to let it go for a while. These letters are fascinating, and they read like a great story about the Beat Generation.
November 25, 2010
I’ve collected the books of Katherine Anne Porter for a few years, and while the collection is not complete, I have some fine first editions from her literary canon. This southern author is known for her small output of flawless short stories and one novel, Ship of Fools, published in 1962. She won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter published in 1965.
The Washington Post recently ran an article about a court battle going on over Porter’s literary estate. On opposing sides are the University of Maryland and Porter’s friends/trustees. The article stated: “At stake are future rights to some of [Porter's] work, as well as control of the 175 linear feet of letters and literary artifacts she left to the [University of Maryland] in College Park, where she spent her last decade living near campus.”
Porter likely would have relished the drama. She went for that sort of thing, being one to create colorful exaggerations, denials and lies of love and success about her life. She lied about her age, her husbands, her lovers and her work so easily the author’s note in Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter: Refugee from Indian Creek claimed the content may not be an accurate autobiography: “The lines between the life of the imagination and the life of Katherine Anne Porter blurred and melded.” Author Enrique Hank Lopez may have captured her words on a tape recorder, but he couldn’t be sure what was truth and what was fiction.
One of Porter’s fibs involved a book she edited, the anthology What Price Marriage, which includes 24 pieces by Voltaire, St. Augustine, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and others. The book’s theme, according to biographer Darlene Harbour Unrue in Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, reflects marriage as it was changing to accommodate new attitudes. Porter accepted the editorial assignment because she needed money, and she requested the book be published under the pseudonym Hamblen Sears. She denied any involvement with the anthology.
A footnote in Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times by Janis P. Stout says: “[Porter] said later that [the anthology] was a ‘cheap little idea by a cheap publisher’ who had paid her ‘several hundred dollars to assemble a kind of anthology.’ She added, ‘This kind of thing should have no place in the list of my works.’ KPA to Edward Schwartz, Nov. 7, 1951, McKeldin.”
One day a few years ago, a local rare and used books shop owner put a copy of What Price Marriage into my hands for purchase. It’s signed by Porter with the telling comment, “Phooey!” The copy sits on my Ohio bookshelf, far from the legal struggle going on in Maryland. The Washington Post states: “For now, Porter’s legacy is in limbo. The university’s plans to digitize her work are on hold. Who is in charge of granting access to publish her works is uncertain.”
November 18, 2010
Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award (NBA) for fiction. The book’s publisher, McPherson & Company, released the book just days ago (November 15), so few have read and/or reviewed this astonishing winner. That’s not the big news, though, rather that once again a surprise unknown from a small press took a huge fiction award.
At the beginning of 2010, the year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to Tinkers by Paul Harding, published by the small Bellevue Literary Press. During the years Harding tried to get his book published, New York agents and editors sent rejections and this laughable advice: “Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book.” (via The New York Times)
These two awards may well be the harbinger of small independent presses assuming the helm of literary fiction. They’re giving hope to readers and authors of this genre that small plus literary no longer equals obscure. Bruce McPherson, owner and publisher of McPherson & Co., said he usually prints 2,000 copies of a new book. When the Lord of Misrule was nominated as an NBA finalist, he took a chance and printed 8,000 (via WSJ Speakeasy).
I’d wager he’s going back for a second printing.
Here’s the list of winners for the 2010 National Book Award:
- Fiction: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
- Non-fiction: Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
- Poetry: Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Penguin Books)
- Young People’s Literature: Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)
November 17, 2010
How is it I’ve missed the work of Antonya Nelson? She’s written nine books of fiction, and Bound, her newest novel, is the first I’ve read. Before Bound, I wouldn’t even have recognized the name Antonya Nelson. That’s a testament to the glut of published books in the marketplace. It’s a tsunami of titles, burying some of the best literary authors, whom readers then don’t realize exist, depriving them of great reading opportunities. Yes, so many books, so little time to find them all.
I purchased Bound after I’d read several comments about Nelson’s talent with the written word, her expertise with rhythm and styling. Michael Chabon’s back-of-the-book blurb says, “She’s absolutely one of my favorites…and I envy the reader who has yet to discover her work.”
I enthusiastically second that, after experiencing Nelson’s writing and storytelling for the first time. Within the first few pages of Bound, I was enthralled by her use of words — intelligent, unadorned and meaningful. Her sentences create universes with uncomplicated ease. One doesn’t rush through them but reads them slowly to enjoy the keen observations. And then, there are the characters, so realistically drawn you understand them immediately – who they are in this life and the behaviors that define them. Such as Bound’s Grace Harding, the mother whom protagonist Catherine Desplaines daily visits in the nursing home. She’s “struck by stroke” and no longer able to speak, her damage “a specific cruelty” for this once pontificating professor whose disapproval still derails her adult daughter.
On one of her visits, Catherine finds a letter buried in her mother’s mail informing that Catherine’s childhood best friend Misty Mueller died in a car accident and Catherine is named guardian of Misty’s teenager, Cattie. The notice is a complete surprise, considering Catherine and Misty haven’t communicated for 23 years. This guardianship isn’t legally binding, yet Catherine moves toward considering it while her somewhat indifferent husband of 18 years, Oliver, encourages her to gather all the facts. He’s a successful, self-involved, approaching 70 entrepreneur trying to stay young. Catherine is his third wife, closer in age to Oliver’s estranged daughters than to him, and she’s now — like his previous wives – a victim of Oliver’s addiction to giddy new love: he’s cheating on Catherine with an even younger sweetheart.
This is the stuff of great domestic fiction in the right hands, and Nelson’s definitely dead on. Her insightful interpretations of the things that bind us to one another and our pasts are moving and memorable. One caveat: The story takes place in Wichita during the reappearance of the BTK serial killer. It’s a creepy connection to the aforementioned theme of the things that bind us, considering this real criminal bound, tortured and killed his victims, reigning terror over Wichita for years until he was caught. Especially unsettling is Catherine’s fascination, driving around the city with Grace in the passenger seat to look at the victim’s houses. This is what people do, though, gawk at tragedy, and it lends even more realism to this very rewarding, astutely imagined story.
November 12, 2010
Now here’s a book title that screams bad-boy poet Charles Bukowski. Beerspit Night and Cursing collects the correspondence between him and Sheri Martinelli from 1960 to 1967.
I don’t remember where I came across a mention of it this week, and the librarian who helped me find it couldn’t say how the book got lost in the stacks. No matter. It sits in front of me now, and I like the look and feel of this apparently much used library edition. Beat up and repaired, as the drinking, gambling, whoring, “laureate of lowlife” Bukowski would like it. (via Wikipedia)
Their correspondence began with a letter Martinelli sent Bukowski rejecting his poetry submission to her San Francisco literary magazine Anagogic & Paideumic Review. She said “i don’t find a ‘thump’ in yr work” and suggested he:
“go to the old boys–the greeks/latins/a good translation in library & discover that life has never been any different… then awakens in the soul… a desire to leave a message of help for those who come after us/ & not to list what life does & is doing to us/ maestro ezra pound kept telling me ‘now don’t dump yr garbage can on my head…’ so I learned this lesson the hard way…”
Bukowski was in fact well-read, having spent much of his youth in libraries. And so he informs Martinelli:
“I have read your classics, I have wasted a life in libraries, turning pages, looking for blood. It seems to me that there has not been ENOUGH garbage dumped, the pages do not scream; always the effected dignity and know-all and dry page sunburned and listless as wheat.”
You just gotta love the blunt-speaking Bukowski. The reason his poetry claims devoted fans, including this one.
Martinelli is not well-known today, but she was high-profile during her time, especially among the Beats. According to the book’s introduction, she was a protégée of Anaïs Nin and the muse and mistress of Ezra Pound. E. E. Cummings and Rod Steiger collected her art, which is now in collections around the world.
November 8, 2010
This photo of W. S. Merwin signing a book was taken after his reading at The Kenyon Review Literary Festival last Saturday night. The audience packed into Rosse Hall, putting me — delayed by traffic congestion on I-71 – in likely the worst seat in the house: the first row, smack up against the stage, in front of the podium that stood at the edge of the stage.
Imagine sitting in the first row of a movie theater, and you’ll get the idea of my crooked neck. All I could see was this U.S. Poet Laureate’s brilliant blue eyes and thick white hair. But what did it matter? One attends these events to listen.
W. S. Merwin read first from his collection The Vixen: Poems, published by Knopf in 1996, and later from The Shadow of Sirius, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In between and among his readings of poems, he talked about his role as poet laureate, his love of dogs and our human connection to the natural world, which he said we should neither ignore nor exploit.
There was no Q&A after the reading. W. S. Merwin was escorted to a desk on stage where he signed one book per person. That’s his signature below on my first edition of The Shadow of Sirius. I also got another take-away from this event – curiosity to investigate, perhaps re-read, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame. Merwin invoked the satirist when he quoted from the Miscellanies: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”
Merwin’s first collection of poetry, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952. From The New York Times: “Mr. Merwin came to wider attention for his hard-edged political allegories that condemned the Vietnam War and environmental destruction, starting with his 1967 collection, The Lice.” He’s written more than 30 books of poetry and prose as well as many translations. The Poetry Foundation provides a comprehensive list of his work.
William Stanley Merwin is the nation’s 17th poet laureate.
November 3, 2010
Imagine all the books you’ve ever read neatly shelved in a battered Winnebago that’s a night bookmobile. I mean every book, including the ones you sold to Half Price Books, and the ones you loaned to friends and relatives and never got back, and the ones you partially read standing in the aisle of a bookstore. We’re talking not just novels and biographies, but textbooks and cookbooks, picture books and car manuals. This would be your very personal library that followed you through time, and it would include all the letters you’ve read, and the cereal boxes, too.
Audrey Niffenegger, bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, tells such a charmed, eerie story in her graphic novel The Night Bookmobile. The narrator is a young woman named Alexandra. She comes upon a Chicago bookmobile while walking the city streets at 4 a.m. after a fight with her live-in boyfriend. The librarian, Mr. Openshaw, invites her inside. Alexandra discovers stacks of books that are everything she’s ever read and only everything she’s ever read.
Books cannot be borrowed from this library on wheels. Also, it’s only open dusk to dawn, so Mr. Openshaw sends her away and drives off at sunrise. “Have you ever found your heart’s desire and then lost it? I had seen myself, a portrait of myself as a reader. …It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly.”
Alexandra walks the streets at night looking for the Night Bookmobile, but nine years pass before she finds it again and, after that, another 12 years. Each time her voracious reading during the interval appears on the shelves. She wants more than anything to stay with the Night Bookmobile, but Mr. Openshaw says she cannot. Even though she becomes a librarian, working for a Chicago branch library, Mr. Openshaw refuses to hire her. He says, “I’m sorry. You don’t know what you’re asking.”
The ending of The Night Bookmobile is shocking, and profound for the way it illuminates a passion that gives up everything for reading. Niffenegger writes in an afterword that this graphic novel began as a story about a woman’s secret life as a reader. She writes, “As I worked it also became a story about the claims that books place on their readers, the imbalance between our inner and outer lives, a cautionary tale of the seductions of the written word.”
The Night Bookmobile ran as a serial in the Guardian May to December 2008. You can still read it on the Guardian’s website, but the book version is a more pleasurable format. This is not the last we’ll hear of The Night Bookmobile — Niffenegger says it’s the first installment of a larger work, The Library.