If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea.
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Burns, Anna. Milkman. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2018.
This winner of the UK’s Man Booker Prize is a stunning read. From the outset, one is struck by this Irish writer’s Joycean style or even point of view. The novel is ostensibly set in Northern Ireland of the 1970s. Her stream-of-consciousness prose includes the practice of keeping her characters anonymous. The narrator calls herself middle sister, one of several female siblings, and refers to them as First Sister and so forth. Other characters include Milkman, the real milkman, and Somebody McSomebody. Such a practice paints a society of strict norms, in which everyone is judged by whom they associate with or don’t associate with, why one isn’t married to a particular man by a certain age. The practice keeps the reader at a distance, viewing this particular time period of strife with as much objectivity as possible. The novel might have been reduced by pages if the author had chosen real names instead of hyphenated characters like maybe-boyfriend being repeated hundreds of times, yet after establishing its own pace, the prose swoops in and snatches the reader up. At times you cannot put down the book. The narrator is her own Stephen Daedalus, striving to know her world, but also afraid to find out too much. Finding out too much might get her killed. A must read for 2019 and always.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-40 Idaho
Because I am needed to care for a loved one following his surgery, I am suspending my blog activity, hopefully for no more than several months. Also, I MUST finish writing a book I've been working on for over three years. When I've achieved those two things, I'll return to posting three or four times a week. Until then, please feel free to browse through my archives located to the far right. Below you can find links to a few of my favorite posts from the past year. RJ
Sally Field's Memoir Is Powerful
Thanks for stopping by . . . until we meet again, keep reading!
My Book World
Ginna, Peter, ed. What Editors Do: The Art,
Craft, and Business of Book Editing.
Chicago: U of Chicago, 2017.
Ginna has amassed a large number of essays by editors and agents, or those who used to be one or the other. He organizes their pieces around broad topics such as acquisition, editing process, and publication. But he also includes a section concerning memoir and one about careers in publishing. Writers have heard ad infinitum what editors want when they attend workshops, but somehow, when one is suddenly on the other side of the desk peering through the eyes of those editors one begins to understand. One begins to change how one might structure one’s book or write a book proposal. One suddenly sees what is important. One sees what editors do not want to see. I found three essays to be particularly helpful to me, but I imagine that each reader of this book may find others more attractive precisely because they have different priorities than I do.
1. “The Other Side of the Desk: What I learned about Editing
These essays are ones that I shall refer to again and again as I attempt to maintain a writing and a publishing life. Perhaps the reader might like them, as well.
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Strout, Elizabeth. Anything is Possible.
New York: Random, 2017.
Strout is a master at creating simple stories that are riddled with complexities and nuance that are difficult to apprehend with one reading. You might think you’re finished reading about one character, and then he or she returns to another chapter. Charles Macauley, for example, has layer upon layer added to his part until we might think we understand him. In the meantime, we learn of others: Two sisters, one who marries well, one who does not. And a prodigal daughter/citizen, who becomes a famous author and returns to her humble beginnings to have more than a little abuse heaped upon her. But now Lucy Barton is ready to face it all.
NEXT TIME: Defeating A Fib at Last-3
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Franklin, Ruth. Shirley Jackson: A Rather
Haunted Life. New York: Liveright,
Roger Straus, Jackson’s first publisher, often called her “a rather haunted woman” (2). She had plenty to haunt her life, especially a mother who fiercely dominated her daughter, even after she became a literary success.
“Jackson’s awareness that her mother had never loved her unconditionally—if at all—would be a source of sadness well into adulthood. Aside from a single angry letter that she did not send, she never gave voice to her feelings of rejection. But she expressed them in other ways. All the heroines of her novels are essentially motherless—if not lacking a mother entirely, then victims of loveless mothering. Many of her books include acts of matricide, either unconscious or deliberate” (25).
Jackson spends nearly the rest of her life fighting against her mother about how to raise her own children, how to cook and keep house, how to go about her career even though her mother had never had one of her own. At the same time that Shirley attempts to establish a literary career while being supportive of a husband in the related business of literary criticism and raising four children, she seems to love being with her children. She often packs them up into the car to go on day trips. She more or less lets them have free run of the house and town, while at the same time, scolds her children with the same invisible criticism that she learned from her mother.
Franklin goes into great detail about Jackson’s literary life, each novel, her famous story, “The Lottery.” She paints an honest picture of Jackson’s life, one that is so interesting, I didn’t want the book to end.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States—10 West Virginia
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Aciman, André. Call Me by Your Name.
New York: Farrar, 2007.
This novel is a romance, both with a capital “r,” the kind that emphasizes subjectivity of the individual, and the small “r” kind, the Harlequin type that you must devour page by page, word by word, until you come to the final sentence of this desperate love affair between two young men.
I found the first half tediously slow. But then I thought, Aciman must want us to be inside the head of the protagonist narrator, Elio. These are the mind and heart of a seventeen-year-old boy who can’t decide who he is whether it’s with regard to sexual orientation or his prodigious musicianship (he transcribes manuscripts from one instrument to another and sells them). His mind belabors everything including the appearance of a young graduate student, Oliver, who comes to live in his family’s Italian villa for the summer of 1983, a tradition Elio’s father, a professor, has begun years before: the summer intern.
Both Elio and Oliver waste half the summer semi-rejecting one another, making love to girls, until finally Elio becomes more aggressive and discovers Oliver has wanted him since they first met. Their first kiss doesn’t occur until page 81. But for a short, intense two weeks they become so close that they almost become one, wearing each other’s clothing, Elio especially in love with a red swim suit of Oliver’s. The very idea of calling each other by their own names—taking the name your parents have given you and calling your lover by that name—is a mental flip the reader must make to understand the depth of their intimacy:
“Perhaps the physical and the metaphorical meanings are clumsy ways of understanding what happens when two beings need, not just to be close together, but to become so totally ductile that each becomes the other. To be who I am because of you. To be who he was because of me. To be in his mouth while he was in mine and no longer know whose it was, his cock or mine, that was in my mouth” (142-3).
Aciman carries the development of this intimacy, which in the form of a deep friendship is to last forever, to the very last sentence of the book:
“If you remember everything, I wanted to say, and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you’re just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there’s not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest, or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name” (248).
Through the specificity of this scenario, Aciman reveals a universal story of desire and love. We’ve all been there, and wow, should our lives turn out as exciting as those of the two men characterized in this romance.
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My Book World
Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story
of the American Women Code Breakers
of World War II. New York: Hachette,
Award-winning author Mundy writes of 11,000 women recruited in the early 1940s to help break codes of Japanese and German intelligence. The Navy recruits from exclusive women’s colleges in the Northeast, and the Army recruits from the ranks of teachers (mostly math but some who teach foreign languages), many of whom are disenchanted with their poor salaries and tough classroom conditions.
“Sworn to secrecy, the women were forbidden from telling anybody what they were doing: not their friends, not their parents, not their family, not their roommates. They were not to let news of their training leak into campus newspapers or disclose it in a letter, not even to their enlisted brother or boyfriend. If pressed, they could say they were studying communications: the routing of ordinary naval messages” (5)
This dictum is one that is repeated throughout the book until the very end. Even as some of these women survive into their nineties, even after the government grants them permission, finally, they are reticent to tell their stories. However, Mundy does a superb job of seeking out these sources, still sharp mentally, and getting their stories down. Mundy also combs written sources to fill out her epic narrative of quiet courage among these women—not only their work lives but their personal lives as well.
The code girls tackle many important difficulties, including the one of German U-boats sinking US ships in the Atlantic (as many as 500 by 1942). The women slowly but methodically solve this problem so that American ships are able to get supplies and matériel to troops in Europe. They are also paramount in intercepting official messages between Japanese and German leaders and confounding their strategies. Because of their unique skills the women make the work look far easier than it is. With a combination of innate ability and extreme dedication they are able to shorten the war and help save lives.
Every man should think about what it would be like to minimize his intellect, to hide what he does for a living, to keep it a secret for almost seventy years—and come to the conclusion that it is not fair. And never again in our history should women be called upon to keep silent in this manner. It’s not only unfair but it cuts in half the sources our country could be using to solve problems. This book is not only a tribute to these particular women but to the idea of women taking their true place in the world as multifaceted individuals.
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Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight straight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six- or eight-hour segments covering book festivals around the US. C-SPAN, by the way, is supported by most cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can also view at any time any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can view, download, and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Please find below a presentation that recently affected me very deeply.
Elie Wiesel. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, FSG, 2006.
On January 29, 2017, 3:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., the Museum of Jewish History in New York City presented an oral reading of Wiesel’s moving work, Night. Readers of all kinds—actors, directors and producers, rabbis and other Jewish leaders, authors, students, journalists, police and politicians, among many others, about a hundred—read straight through with only two ten-minute intermissions, until the late Wiesel’s horrific account of the Holocaust was told.
Each reading segment was no more than five minutes, and some segments were read in Yiddish. There were old readers, young, black, white, Jewish, Gentile, Asian, Latin—the total effect being that six million ghosts were telling their stories through Wiesel. In his work, night serves as an extended metaphor, that the entire ordeal is one long, hellish night, is every murdered Jew’s story, every detail, and this simple production/tribute may be one of the most powerful of its kind that I’ve ever witnessed. Everyone must view it, then read the book. You may view the five-hour presentation at one of the following Web sites:
Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
#WeRemember | #nycReadsNight
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four.
New York: Harcourt, 1949.
For summer reading in 1966, I was required to peruse Nineteen Eighty-Four for my first college humanities class, along with Huxley’s Brave New World and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes a book begs to be re-read because it whispers to you. Yes, as I pass by my bookshelf words like HATE WEEK (two minutes of hate is rather like 140 characters of venom) and BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU carry a familiar ring, yet as if for the first time making sense. Other Orwellian terms spring from this novel: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, a language called NEWSPEAK in which words are deliberately manipulated by the government to control people’s thoughts. When I first read this book at eighteen, I did not stop to realize that the character Winston Smith, by Orwell’s own calendar, was born in 1945, a few years before me, his girlfriend Julia, in 1957. At the time, 1984 didn’t seem like eighteen years away; it seemed like FOREVER.
Now one has to wonder. Like citizens of Orwell’s London with telescreens in every room (two-way cameras), we can be hunted down at any moment by way of our cell phones, the GPS systems in our cars, the fact that a certain G entity has photographed every one of our houses and connected them to our addresses so that anyone in the world—whether a relative or an assassin—can locate us within minutes. That the government can record our telephone calls at will or monitor our Internet use are ubiquitous realities that have become invisible to us. And how much does Orwell’s term DOUBLETHINK smack of 45’s ALTERNATE FACTS, DUCKSPEAK OF #TRUMPSPEAK?
“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy” (80).
And how is this for Orwell’s prescient definition of DOUBLETHINK:
“the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”? (214).
Upon my first reading years ago, I rather shrugged off Orwell’s dystopian depiction of life in the future. I wasn’t overly upset by Winston Smith’s treatment in the end, where he is severely punished physically and mentally for not believing in Big Brother because, to Smith, it is all make believe. Yet, in spite of the novel’s ugliness, Orwell does manage to limn the purity of human love, how Winston and Julia fall for one another but must hide their love, how the glass paperweight with a colorful piece of coral embedded inside is an extended metaphor for their hidden relationship, how in the end the paperweight is shattered like their love is shattered once they are discovered. In spite of the State’s efforts to “change” the two individuals, to erase their thoughts and make them party members, the State really doesn’t quite succeed, for in the end Winston sheds tears of love for who else, but Big Brother himself.
I purposely omit plot elements because many of you will already have read the novel, and if you haven’t, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. It would not be a waste of time to work it into your schedule at some point. If around today, characters Winston and Julia would be about seventy-one and sixty, yet it's hard to believe, given their plight in the novel, that they would be much more than folds of skin with hair.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
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Mallon, Thomas. Henry and Clara: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 1994.
At times, reading historical fiction seems much like painting by numbers. The skeletal outline is there; you merely select the correct colors and recreate a picture as it should be. With regard to the novel, the historical outline is there; you can’t deviate much from the actual timeline. But you can focus on characters who perhaps have been lost to history, in this case, Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, who are in the box with Abraham Lincoln when he is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, in 1865. The novel focuses on these step-siblings who grow up in the same house when one’s widowed father marries the other’s widowed mother. They fall in love, and in due time, get married, when both are in their thirties. Mallon bases his novel on a myriad of research about these two historical figures—turning Lincoln’s life and death into a mere backdrop for this story.
The only aspect of the novel I don’t care for is Mallon’s occasional peek at the future, when the characters of 1875 would have no such knowledge:
“If only men might devise some way of preserving sound, so their voices might be kept with photographs and engravings, not just sent out from the body to die upon the air” (261).
Yes, yes, I know. Mallon makes a good case by comparing such a desire to the already invented photograph, but still, it seems unnecessary to include such an idea in the character’s inner thoughts. Why can’t Clara lament the loss of her father’s speech without this glance to the future?
Otherwise, the novel is impeccably written, and, though the pace may seem slow, one’s reward for finishing it is to experience a climax that is both shocking and yet a surprise for which one has been well prepared.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
New Yorker Fiction 2016
November 14, 2016, Mohsin Hamid, “Of Windows and Doors”: Saeed and Nadia, a young unmarried couple, seek to escape their war-torn city. ¶ Hamid’s elegant prose and subtle omniscience take the reader inside the war of collateral damage. Both have lost family and friends. As the title suggests, both windows and doors figure importantly. Windows, once broken out by bombs or bullets, are really not capable of being resealed, but people attempt to do so with bookshelves, mattresses, or packaging tape and cardboard.
“A window was the border through which death was possibly likeliest to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire” (71).
Doors, too, alter in their significance, become a means of escape
. . . or doom, life or death:
“Nadia, who had not considered the order of their departure until that moment, and realized that there were risks to each, to going first and to going second, did not argue but approached the door, and drawing close she was struck by its darkness, its opacity, the way that it did not reveal what was on the other side and also did not reflect what was on this side, and so felt equally like a beginning and an end, and she turned to Saeed and found him staring at her, and his face was full of worry and sorrow, and she took his hands in hers and held them tight, and then, releasing them, and without a word, she stepped through” (76-7).
My Book World
I'VE MADE IT MY GOAL to read the entire oeuvre of late British-American author, Christopher Isherwood, over a twelve-month period. This profile constitutes the twenty-second in a series of twenty-four.
Isherwood, Christopher. Kathleen and Frank. New York: Simon, 1971.
Kathleen and Frank makes the twenty-second book of Isherwood’s that I’ve read in about a year, and I thought perhaps that his work couldn’t get any better, that his best writing occurred when he was younger. But I was wrong. Mr. Isherwood, in his late sixties when he pens this book, distinguishes his latter years as a writer by undertaking, instead of fiction, nonfiction. In this tome of over 500 pages, he culls through letters that pass back and forth between his parents in the early part of the twentieth century, as well as his mother’s daily diaries. He then stitches them together in not only a seamless narrative about his parents’ courtship and marriage but a curiously interesting one, by inserting commentary or historical information from third sources. Even after having read all of Isherwood’s diaries, I believe he saves some intimate or startling details for this book.
In his previous works Isherwood’s parents always seem rather cardboardy, perhaps purposely, or perhaps because of a blind spot Isherwood has. In this book, one finds his mother, Kathleen, a very early feminist, one who sympathizes with the Suffragist movement in England. Not only that. She’s not really that keen on having children at an early age. She is well past thirty when she marries and nearly forty when she gives birth to Richard, Christopher’s younger brother by eight years. She is highly cultured, and very opinionated about any bit of theater that she’s seen or literature that she’s read. One can almost hear Christopher’s voice in hers or vice versa. At the same time, one might have thought that Christopher, as a gay man had a distant father, but if that were true it would have only been in the geographical sense. His father, Frank, was a soldier who fought with distinction in the Second Boer war in South Africa, and later died in World War I in France. Frank made a point of telling Kathleen that he didn’t wish to make Christopher conform to societal norms for being a boy; he preferred that Christopher make his own way. What a gift from a father to a son who is different. Frank, before he leaves for war, is also interested in the theater, so much so that he plays the piano, performs in certain kinds of musicals. But he isn’t a soft officer. He is a distinguished one, an officer whose men honor and respect him. His loss in 1915 is exaggerated by the fact that his body cannot be accounted for. Months pass before Kathleen gives up all hope, in fact, receives official notice from the Royal army.
There is a third character, one that is not present in most American family sagas. In fact, there are two additional characters: Marple Hall, the Bradshaw-Isherwood home, and Wyberslegh, the younger Isherwood home. Both are over three hundred years old at the time Isherwood writes. His vivid descriptions of both halls (he defines “hall” loosely as the home of the owner of a large estate) are not necessarily flattering. Of Wyberslegh he says that it is damp most of the year, and that may be the kindest thing he has to say. The upkeep and maintenance on a large residence is quite costly. Yet Wyberslegh is the home where Christopher lives until his father is stationed in Ireland and before he is sent to boarding school at a rather early age. It is the estate Christopher signs over to his brother Richard, when he realizes he is never returning to England to live—quite a generous act.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2016
New Yorker Fiction 2016
November 7, 2016, T. Coraghessan Boyle, “Are We Not Men?”: This plot-driven story accomplishes what the author intends for it to. ¶ When the reader realizes one has entered the future of engineered genetics, of perfect little pigs and docile pit bulls and a statuesque young woman with a high IQ, one realizes that such beings are still capable of harming one another. According to Boyle, fucking with nature in this manner will never be satisfactory, down to grass that glows in the dark, not to mention Greek-chorus crowparrots spitting obscenities at the humans below who’ve allowed these atrocities to be committed in the first place. Boyle’s novel, Terranauts, came out in October.
Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad
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My Book World
I'VE MADE IT MY GOAL to read the entire oeuvre of late British-American author, Christopher Isherwood, over a twelve-month period. This profile constitutes the twenty-first in a series of twenty-four.
Isherwood, Christopher. Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951. London: Chatto, 2000.
With the completion of this book I’ve now read all 3,069 pages of Isherwood’s diaries. Though he calls this one a memoir, it is a reconstructed diary of the years 1945-1951. In essence, Isherwood keeps two records: a day-to-day account of people he interacts with, major and minor events. In the more expanded Diaries Volumes One – Three, he writes out detailed accounts of events, observations, prejudices, fears about his health, and high and low spots with his lovers, particularly Don Bachardy. In Lost Years, however, Isherwood holds nothing back. Except for changing some names of partners, he tells all about his sex life during these six years. At one point he quietly boasts (or otherwise he would not mention it) that he has had over 400 sex partners (and he’s only in his forties, heh, heh). His pattern in this volume is to list the day-to-day events, and, as of this writing (1973) he combs his (excellent) memory to expound on those events. At the same time, as a heavy drinker, he often admits he can remember little or nothing about things he has written.
Still, he does comment on his writing projects, his relationship at the time (a younger man, William Caskey, a photographer), and notes about books he is reading and films he’s worked on as a screenwriter or viewed for entertainment. His prejudices against Jews, the French, and dark-skinned people seem more entrenched than when he is older. Again, is he a victim of his time and place of birth, or does he willfully deny that these prejudices are immature and wrong-headed? In spite of his flaws, I find much to admire in Isherwood: a man who creates, sings, listens to and critiques his own tunes. Opinionated people often become that way because they realize they are correct about so many things, and that reinforcement causes them to be even more opinionated. We trust them. And often we should.
Editor Katherine Bucknell, from her Introduction: “Isherwood never gave up his writing as [Edward] Upward did; for he was a writer above all, not an activist, even when it came to his homosexual kind. By writing in explicit sexual detail about his intimate behavior and that of his close friends and acquaintances in the years immediately following the war, he was portraying the hidden energies and affinities of homosexual men all over the United States who during that period were gathering increasingly in certain, mostly coastal cities as peace and prosperity returned to a country much altered by vast wartime mobilization. This hidden social group, whose consciousness of itself as a group was intensified by the demographic shifts brought about by the war and then extended throughout the 1950s, was to emerge in its own right as a significant force of change in American and in western culture generally during the final third of the twentieth century. Much of this change began in southern California, and Isherwood was living at its source. His personal myth is part of, and in many ways emblematic of, the larger myth of the group to which he belonged: and his reconstruction of his life during the postwar years foretells much of what was to come” (xiv).
This statement may have continued to resonate with Isherwood as his life progressed, because he kept an active social (and often sexual) life, rife with smoking and drinking. Though he did finally give up the former, drinking (though he was not a classic alcoholic, often giving it up for weeks or months at a time) to excess remained a part of his life until quite late in life.
Isherwood begins keeping journals when he is a schoolboy and continues during his short time at Cambridge. He continues while living in 1930s pre-Nazi Berlin. After he writes The Berlin Stories, he destroys those diaries, thinking that they have served their purpose, that he’d rather relive his past through his fiction than his journals. However, he lives to regret his decision and spends the rest of his life attempting to document his life. I believe that perhaps these diaries may end up being his true literary legacy. They provide the scaffolding upon which his other twenty or so works rest. And for all his “fumbling,” his is a life truly fulfilled. He both works hard and has a great deal of fun, and he never apologizes for either.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2016
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McMurtry, Larry. Roads: Driving America's Great Highways. New York: Simon, 2001.
“I wanted to drive the American roads at the century’s end, to look at the country again, from border to border and beach to beach” (11). With this statement, McMurtry begins his travel book, which is not so much about the places he sees—although he does go into some detail about literary people, places, events—as much as it is about the roads that take him there. McMurtry loves to drive and not along those quaint roads where you can get stuck behind a slow-moving RV or semi, but the big ones, the Interstates. And every road he introduces with the article, t-h-e: the 15, the 40, the 35. He’ll often take a plane to a target city, rent a car, and drive back to his native Archer City in Texas.
“My casual intention, in thinking about these journeys, was to have a look at the literature that had come out of the states I passed through. For Minnesota there is not a whole lot. Scott Fitzgerald, though a native son, spent most of his life east of Princeton or west of Pasadena. His work seems to me to owe little or nothing to the [M]idwest. Louise Erdrich lives in Minneapolis now, but most of her work is set well to the west, near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota” (30).
Once, while with friends in Boise, Idaho, following our attendance of a play set in an outdoor amphitheater, we and our hosts got in the car. I dreaded the wait for all of those vehicles to vacate the huge parking lot (recalling how savagely impolite most Texans are when it comes to their own motto of Drive Friendly), but I was hugely surprised when, at a certain juncture, as if there were a four-way stop, drivers politely took their turns until each car, of the hundreds, had made its way to the exit—all without frenzy, all without rancor or rudeness, and in record time. Surely such a land is not as bad as McMurtry makes out. Think of all the wise academics at Idaho universities. Think of all the Mormons and other religious people who make their homes in Idaho. Are they all to be tainted by a group such as the Aryan Brotherhood? Come on, Larry.
And talk about hatred of government: once when I was on a trip with forty other West Texans to visit the city of Ottawa, Canada, a majority of my fellow travelers booed the very mention of our president’s name. You see, this particular bakery had dared to rename their maple leaf cookie the Obama cookie. I never felt so ashamed to be an American in my life. I personally HATED George W. Bush, but I NEVER would have booed his name in any public setting, particularly in a foreign country—because much as I detested him and his policies, he was still my president. Larry, please, no more generalizations about people who hate or don’t hate. They’re just not relevant. We are all capable of hate in almost any context. I certainly won't let this one slip prevent me from loving your book!
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2016
My Book World
I'VE MADE IT MY GOAL to read the entire oeuvre of late British-American author, Christopher Isherwood, over a twelve-month period. This profile constitutes the twentieth in a series of twenty-four.
Isherwood, Christopher. Liberation: Diaries, Volume Three: 1970-1983. New York: Harper, 2012.
Having now read Isherwood’s diaries, except for his Lost Years, which is a reconstruction of his life from 1945-1951, I feel, in a sense, that I’ve lived life alongside him. Yes, I believe I can say I’ve lived a parallel life of voyeurism as I’ve read all three diaries (2,681 pages), covering the greater part of his life, right up to his death in 1986.
I’ve more or less lived in his house with him, sometimes sharing his bed with some of the (apparently) sexiest men in the world, including his long-time companion, Don Bachardy. I’ve struggled through his writing, as he articulates what he fears are certain problems taking place in the manuscript he is working on at the time. I’ve been to every party he has, where he often, by his own admission, drinks too much—so much so, in fact, that he can’t remember exactly what has happened or whom he’s insulted. I’ve accompanied him every time he strolls along the beach in Santa Monica, California, where he lives, or squabbles with local residents or fusses over a neighbor’s nocturnally barking dog or rascally kids who have no respect for the private bridge that somehow sets their property apart from others. I am exposed to every opinionated thought he holds about other writers, artists, agents, actors, directors, composers or religious leader, and their work. Oh, yes, I’ve suffered through his anguish over not being able to participate in Hinduism as authentically as he wishes, almost daily writing something about his Swami or the monastery or his inability to meditate properly. I’ve sat on the toilet with him as he struggles with the indelicacies of an aging body. I’ve noted his weight, daily, as he records it in his diary and stews over how he can lose even more, while at the same time ingesting great quantities of empty calories found in drink and rich food.
I sympathize yet am a bit impatient with his concern over his fading looks. Photos of his youth indicate a stunning gentleman, who, besides being smart, is handsome, and often wins over any body he indeed decides to win over. So as he ages, he must accept it, and does, with a certain reserved grace. In some ways he is an average person with sometimes extraordinary foibles. Though he is highly intelligent, his life seems tinged by racism and classism, perhaps a product of his time and birthright, however hard he otherwise tries to escape them. He drops out of Cambridge University after one year, yet it doesn’t seem to hurt his career. Maybe it only narrows him in some way, although god knows he travels the face of the earth enough to be capable of empathizing with a broad range of peoples.
As I near the end of this document, I become a bit bored with his obsessions, particularly with death, since he knows he is going to experience a slow decline from prostate cancer (one of his biggest fears). At the same time, he is able to view his life in a larger context—he’s kept such copious records of it—and make some rather stoic and pithy statements. “I’m not in a good state. Death fears—that’s to say, pangs of foreboding—recur often. They seem to be part of a quite normal physical condition; the pangs of a dying animal, thrilling with dread of the unknown” (686). He writes these words on October 23, 1983, a little over two years before he dies. In spite of the struggle of his last years—all chronicled in this tome—he often lives with a joie de vivre that most of us only hope to experience a few times ever. As I often do, I’ve listed some nuggets from this, the final installment of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries.
The following comes under the category of gossip, interesting only because of its noted victims: “The usual pronouncement that Truman Capote is a ‘birdbrain.’ Gore [Vidal] has finished a novel called Two Sisters in which he admits that he and Jack Kerouac went to bed together—or was that in an article? (Gore told me about so many articles he’s written and talks he has given that my memory spins.) Anyhow, Gore now regrets that he didn’t describe the act itself; how they got very drunk and Kerouac said, ‘Why don’t we take a shower?’ and then tried to go down on him but did it very badly, and then they belly rubbed. Next day, Kerouac claimed he remembered nothing; but later, in a bar, yelled out, ‘I’ve blown Gore Vidal!’” (11).
As I finish reading the last few pages of this diary and absorb the editor’s statement about Isherwood’s death (1904-1986), I weep a little. Yes, after 2,700 pages of three diaries, I feel in a sense that I have lost a friend. I know, that is so sentimental as to be crap, the sort of thing Isherwood loathes, yet I can’t help it. And he started it! I don’t believe he would have written the diaries and left them to us if he hadn’t wished for us to know him, the good and the bad. And know him I do, at least a little.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2016
A WRITER'S WIT
A Long Way to Ireland
September 15, 2014, Danielle McLaughlin, “Dinosaurs on Other Planets”: Kate and Colman’s daughter Emer and grandson Oisín come home to Ireland from London to visit Emer’s parents, and bring the young woman’s current boyfriend, Pavel, a man nearly old enough to be Emer’s father. ¶ Some interesting symbolism. “Dinosaurs” by way of a sheep’s skull. Colman puts it in bleach as his grandson watches. The process forces out maggots and other insects. More symbols. Emer, the couple’s daughter, doesn’t appear to like her parents much—she’s made the trip out of a sense of duty. The only two characters who seem in any way nice are Kate and Emer’s guest, Pavel, whom Emer brings along unannounced. ¶ He’s close to being Kate’s age, and they have a brief but nearly meaningful conversation as they take a walk. Finally Emer reveals she and her six-year-old son will be moving to Australia. It seems to be indicative of the vast emotional distances that exist between most of the members of the ensemble. Well written but almost airless. I feel nothing on behalf of the characters, but I don’t think that is their fault.
Photograph by Michael Marcelle
NEXT TIME: MY BOOK WORLD
THE WRITER'S WIT
All in the Details
September 8, 2014, Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode”: David Jenkins, a cattle breeder in his twenties, is coerced into driving Ray, an old man, out into the Montana countryside to meet up with a young woman Ray has become acquainted with online. ¶ With McGuane writing seems to be all about details, sensory details. The story begins in such a way that it could go in five different directions: is it about cattle geneticists out of Oklahoma, ranch clients, a dog with a first-class stamp on its butt, an old man (Ray) who ostensibly has come to Jordan, Montana, to do some comet watching? ¶ Ah, no. In short order Ray points a gun at young David and says they’re headed out of town to a ranch so that he can meet up with the woman he’s met online. I won’t spoil the fun or exploit the danger, but no one hits the motherlode in this story—it’s all about getting there, arriving at the end of it alive. I’m speaking of the reader, of course. Gallatin Canyon is one of McGuane’s most recent books.
Jenny Hueston, Photograph
NEXT TIME: MY BOOK WORLD
A WRITER'S WIT
September 1, 2014, Joseph O’Neill, “The Referees”. Thirty-six-year-old Rob Karlsson moves back to Manhattan from Portland, Oregon, after a divorce, and requires referees to let an apartment in a co-operative building. ¶ At first the focus of the story seems to be Rob’s search for two of what Americans call references. He contacts first one person then another, but most decline to help him. A friend of his former wife, for example, feels that she must remain aligned with Samantha—there’s nothing inherently wrong with him. Then Rob’s cousin offers to sign a letter if Rob will write it. And Rob finally does receive a second letter of reference from Billy—a childhood friend from whom he has been disengaged over a decade. So it would seem that there is a certain irony by way of his receiving references from parties who are now least acquainted with him. ¶ The story concludes with Rob’s own rundown of his character, basically claiming, “I’m an okay guy who won’t make trouble.” His rant continues with a short biographical sketch that further demonstrates why he is one who should be trusted to occupy a certain piece of urban property . . . even if, over most of his life, he isn’t exactly the most reliable . . . friend. I suppose one must experience this kind of dehumanization to get what O’Neill is going for here. His book, The Dog, is out in September. [The magazine gives no credit for the story’s simple illustration.]
NEXT TIME: MY BOOK WORLD
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Williams, John. Stoner. With an introduction by John McGahern. New York: New York Review Books, 1965.
My aunt, who lives in the Netherlands, recommended this book to me almost a year ago. Evidently, years after its release, the book has become a great success in Europe by way of various translations. I bought the Kindle version, figuring I would read it in airports during my travels but actually didn’t get around to it until now. Stoner is a difficult book to read at times, not because of the prose or the structure. No, the words flow in a sort of drudge-like way, like the protagonist’s life as an academician at the University of Missouri in the early part of the twentieth century. I’ve never read a novel that so flawlessly used a spare amount of dialogue. Instead, Williams reveals much by way of interior monologue or narrative description. He pens entire decades in the stroke of one sentence, and yet the act seems natural. We were there; now we’re here.
The novel is also difficult because there are a number of emotionally grueling scenes or sections. William Stoner is born to Missouri farmers in 1890—about the age of my late grandparents. At eighteen he is mildly encouraged by his parents to attend the University of Missouri in agricultural studies. The idea is that he will return to the farm one day. Instead, however, he is drawn into the world of literature by a rather cynical professor, and after his first two years Stoner changes his major to English. He does so without informing his parents, and when graduation nears, Stoner’s professor sees that he is awarded some money to pursue his master’s degree and then a PhD. Then in sort of a fluke, he applies for and receives a position on the faculty at MU.
Williams, perhaps more than any writer I’ve ever read, reveals what it is like to teach university level students. Any number of novels take place in the university setting, but Williams actually takes the reader into the life of a professor: the books he teaches, his classroom, his office as he advises. We see him as he grows, becomes more confident in his field. Williams, like Stoner, enjoys teaching, loves it in fact.
“His job gave him a particular kind of identity, and made him what he was . . . It’s the love of the thing that’s essential. And if you love something, you’re going to understand it. you’ve got to keep the faith.”
Stoner is stubborn and adheres to his opinion, no matter what it may be—whether he flunks a student or prevents a PhD candidate from advancing because he believes the young man will be a menace to the classroom. In this slim novel we see William Stoner move from age eighteen through his reluctant retirement at age sixty-five. In between, we see him shut out of his own family by a neurotic wife, so that beyond a certain point, he doesn’t even become acquainted with his own daughter. He falls in love with a woman in the department and carries on an affair with her until they are found out. Because of departmental politics, he is demoted to teaching nothing but freshman classes, which is a blow not only to him but the graduate students who have depended on him for his wisdom and guidance. Stoner’s end is equally gripping, and the reader should be prepared for it. I was not. And yet Stoner is; he always has been prepared.
“He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to the death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living” (41).
Stoner is a brief but significant read, well worth the time, whether you’re an academic or not. It’s as arduous as any war novel. It may be the best portrayal of the war that can rage on between the sharpest minds found at any university English department.
Black Witch Moth
Found on our patio door the evening of August 18. Two shots of same moth. Located mostly in desert Southwest and other arid or semiarid regions. Whee!
NEXT TIME: PHOTOS OF RENO/LAKE TAHOE AREA
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Pasternak, Boris. Dr. Zhivago. New York: Signet, 1958.
As a high school youth I saw the film Dr. Zhivago at least twice. Then when I went to college I was required to view it for a humanities class, whose theme for the semester was “creativity.” Among other titles we also read Leo Tolstoy’s What is Art?. The book cost a dollar. One evening early in the semester the entire college, who was required to take humanities, showed up at the local theater to view Dr. Zhivago; the venue was capable of holding all 700 of us. Even out of the three showings all my tender mind could derive from the three-hour film was that Dr. Zhivago simply wished to live his life, free of political wranglings. He had no thoughts of being rich; he merely wanted to live his life creatively—mainly through writing poetry. Through the years I’ve continued to revisit the film, and, as an older man, derive different gifts from it.
Back when I was in college I was not required to read the novel but bought a Signet paperback version (the cover says) for ninety-five cents. I estimate that Dr. Zhivago, the novel, moved with me at least a dozen times from Winfield, Kansas to Dallas to Lubbock, Texas, each time packed up in a box and then placed in its alphabetical niche on various shelves. But only recently did I find the time to pull the yellow-paged copy off the shelf and read it—close to fifty years after I bought it. I’ve not been disappointed in Pasternak’s novel first published in Italy in 1955. It caused a furor both in Russia, where it was officially denounced, and in the Western world, where it was heralded as a realistic account of Tsarist Russia’s shift to communism.
The plot, of course, is only too familiar. Dr. Yuri Zhivago comes from a rather well to do family, and he receives his education with grace and anticipation of living a charmed life. He marries Tonia, and they have a son. At some point he works with Lara, a nurse, and though he is attracted to her, he does not admit it. Years later they are reunited by working in the same hospital, and they fall in love. Zhivago is then swept up in Russian history as he is captured by the partisans, who conscript him as a medical officer. He “serves” with them for a long period, and he never again sees Tonia or his son, Sasha, who have moved to Paris. As an older man he marries and fathers two children, but this part is left out of the film. Unlike the film, which seems to conclude with Yuri’s heart attack on the street, the book ends with a detailed account of the life of Tania, the love child of Yuri and Lara. The film devises a frame by which Zhivago’s brother searches out Tania and the entire book seems to be told as one flashback.
The following passages are but two that indicate how Pasternak seeks to portray the savagery of the war.
“Zhivago had told him how hard he found it to accept the ruthless logic of mutual extermination, to get used to the sight of the wounded, especially to the horror of certain wounds of a new sort, to the mutilation of survivors whom the technique of modern fighting had turned into lumps of disfigured flesh” (99).
I’m glad finally to have read Pasternak’s novel. His words continue to reach out to us, imploring us, worldwide, to find diplomatic solutions to human conflict. War does nothing but separate people, obliterate their lives into something that is forever after incomprehensible. War serves to separate those who might love one another and raise children in relative peace, and that ought to be the least people can expect out of life.
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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