FRIDAY: My Book World | Tales Told in Holland
FRIDAY: My Book World | Tales Told in Holland
My Book World
Haslett, Adam. Imagine Me Gone: A Novel. New York: Little Brown, 2016.
Having loved Haslett’s previous work (luuvved Union Atlantic), I jumped in with all limbs once again, and I was not disappointed. In this novel, an American woman meets a British man, they marry, and settle down for a time in London. All three of their children are born there but wind up being raised in New England, where the mother is from. The father is apparently normal (wife gets one big hint he is not just prior to the wedding, but she does not change her plans) until he is not—first losing his career and then sinking into a deep depression. He’s a kind man, a good husband and father, but he wanders into the woods and kills himself. One no longer has to imagine him gone. The title become a multifaceted jewel in which each member (as the first-person POV indicates) can imagine such a thing for themselves.
Another great feature of the novel is that Haslett passes the narration around from family member to family member, thus lighting every corner of this household (the first person is subjective and messy, but that may be Haslett’s intent). Michael is the eldest child, a brilliant person, who, in one chapter writes letters to his aunt about their transatlantic voyage from America to England, letters parodying perhaps the writing of Oscar Wilde; they are that hilarious. The facts are all there, but he is letting the reader know this is how he expresses himself best—at a sardonic slant. Celia may be the most sensible and peacemaking of the three siblings, winds up being a shrink. Alec, the youngest, finally comes out as gay. I like that his story does not take over the novel, that it is just one of five narratives, yet it is handled as sensitively and fully as the others.
The dynamic that sets the tone for this family is how everyone deals with Michael, who has difficulty establishing himself in a career, is always in debt and dependent on his family for help—a family that through the very end is willing to sacrifice everything to save him. Michael is an ultrasensitive person, feeling the hurts of the world yet a bit deaf to the needs of his family. His character is the one who determines the lives of the other four: his actions, his failures, his medical complications, his addictions. The tragic ending is both expected and not. Michael is obviously on a downward spiral, but one hopes, as do all his family, that he will pull out of the dive before it’s too late.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | TBD
My Book World
Cheever, Benjamin, Ed. The Letters of John Cheever. New York: Simon, 1988.
This collection of letters from the 1930s to 1982 is as much about the editor, John Cheever’s eldest son, as it is about the senior writer. So many times in reading a compendium of letters, one is left alone to solve certain puzzles the letters may contain. For most letters Benjamin Cheever glosses events, dates, but most important, personalities, and by doing so he allows readers a deeper view into his father’s letters, his father’s life, the life of their family: John Cheever’s wife, Mary; daughter Susan, Benjamin, and a second son Fred (born Federico in Italy).
Having read Cheever’s journals some years ago, I again encountered his wicked wit, in which he slices humanity a new asshole but also a humane man who loves that very flawed humanity and is kind enough to portray his characters that way. For the wicked sense of humor: “About a month ago Mary took a job teaching English at Sarah Lawrence two days a week and so she journeys out to Bronxville on Tuesday and Fridays and comes home with a briefcase full of themes written by young ladies named Nooky and Pussy” (124).
Or this, with a scintilla of rage: “I got back to work on the book about a month ago, but was dealt some crushing financial blows three weeks later and now I’m back in the short story business. I want to write short stories like I want to fuck a chicken” (125).
And a sweet cat story: “The cat, after your leaving him, seemed not certain of his character or his place and we changed his name to Delmore which immediately made him more vivid. The first sign of his vividness came when he dumped a load in a Kleenex box while I was suffering from a cold. During a paroxysm of sneezing I grabbed for some kleenex [sic]. I shall not overlook my own failures in this tale but when I got the cat shit off my face and the ceiling I took Delmore to the kitchen door and drop-kicked him into the clothesyard” (235).
But ultimately, as I said, Cheever loves humanity and declares as much by way of a Time magazine interview chronicling his career: “My sense of literature is a sense of giving not diminishment. I know almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together disparate incidents so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is a creative process, that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the next, and the we possess some power to make sense of what takes place” (240).
Now for the sex part of this profile: Editor Ben, eldest son to Cheever, discovers that his father is not bisexually bicurious in a furtive, shameful sort of way but has had sexual-emotional relationships with many different men over his lifetime. Cheever’s letters attest to having done the deed with (grad student of Cheever’s) Allan Gurganus (about his son’s age) and photographer Walker Evans about whom he tells this story: “When I was twenty-one Walker Evans invited me to spend the night at his apartment. I said yes. I dropped my clothes (Brooks). He hung his (also Brooks) neatly in a closet. When I asked him how to do it he seemed rather put off. He had an enormous cock that showed only the most fleeting signs of life. I was ravening. I came all over the sheets, the Le Corbusier chair, the Matisse Lithograph and hit him under the chin. I gave up at around three, dressed and spent the rest of the night on a park bench near the river” (304).
I must say that I admire John Cheever’s zest for life, an enthusiasm he did not relinquish until the day he died. And even then?
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
MY BOOK WORLD
Bell, Matt. Appleseed. New York: HarperCollins, 2021.
Every novel creates an environment of its own. Author Matt Bell does so in spades in this ambitious work of three worlds and how they eventually converge. Slowly you do sense the three strands coming together, especially each time that Chapman and Nathaniel come to live with the Worth family and they witness the payoff of having planted apple trees from seed decades earlier.
Bell alternates chapters by way of individual characters beginning with Chapman and Nathaniel (loosely based on Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman and brother Nathaniel Chapman). This strand is set in the 1700s and traces the two brothers as they prepare acres and acres of apple nurseries in Ohio and surrounding states, planting individual seeds rather than using grafting—to earn money in the future. Bell makes Chapman’s character even more legendary by creating him as half human/half faun (a mythological character, not a fawn).
The other two strands—a science-fiction thread set in the latter half of this century, and a thousand years from now when the earth is experiencing a new ice age, creating an environmental plea—alternate back and forth between the Appleseed thread until the cataclysmic climax and almost languorous denouement. Readers must trust author Bell, that he knows what he is doing because at times you feel as if you’re on a runaway roller coaster ride that won’t end. And the fact that he releases details gradually makes the speculative and sci-fi aspects of the novel more believable, more easily woven into its fabric (and your memory). At one point, he lists five and a half pages of what have become extinct species, and you make yourself read every one of them, to the experience the pain of what it would (will?) be like to lose that many creatures in the future.
Bell creates the novel’s own vocabulary, much like Anthony Burgess does in his A Clockwork Orange and other works—they are endemic to that novel. Words like “rewilder” (persons attempting to rebuild the natural world); Sacrifice Zone; Volunteer Agricultural Community (VAC); advertainments; nanoswarms; macrofarms; barkspot; no-when; somewhen. Just a few. (The publisher might wish to include a glossary in the back, in a final edition.) Bell makes a good practice of recapping or summarizing backstory so readers know where they are in the sweep of things.
Perhaps because this copy is the publisher’s “advance reader’s edition,” (I received it as a Goodreads giveaway fulfilled by HarperCollins) it may feature more than its fair share of typographical errors, but I list the ones I found because it’s a thing I do:
Typo: “hope_ are” (184) should be “hopes are”
Typo: “unlike t he one” (232) should be “the”
Typo: “Chapman say_,” (297) should be “says”
Typo: “Eury most not expect” (311) should be “Eury must not
Typo: “if Earthtrust was a country” (362) should be “if Earthtrust
is a country” to be consistent with contextual use of present tense.
Reading Appleseed is a big ask, not so much on the part of the author (who is excused on the basis of creative control) or the publisher but on the part of literature itself. One must approach the novel with an open mind, especially if you don’t often read fantasy, sci-fi, or speculative fiction. Bell produces a phrase that might just rise up as a slogan for our earth’s future: Either we all survive, or no one does (159). Frightening but possibly true.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Kendi and Blain's Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019
My Book World
Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. New York: Random, 194- (1903).
I found this late nineteenth-century novel fascinating for a number of reasons. First, Butler undertakes to explore the centuries-old problem of conflict between fathers and sons. The Pontifex family is indeed a family of priests (how audacious of Butler to further his satire by borrowing the word from Roman times). But dear young Ernest Pontifex does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps; and then he eventually does. For a while, anyway. Then he rebels big time, winding up in gaol for molesting a woman, at which time his parents disinherit him. Mr. and Mrs. Pontifex have taken the following line of thinking as they raise their children, including Ernest: “If their wills were ‘well broken’ in childhood, to use an expression then much in vogue, they would acquire habits of obedience which they would not venture to break through till they were over twenty-one years old” (22).
A number of sources advocate for the idea that Samuel Butler was gay, largely because he never married and seemed to maintain a number of close emotional relationships with men. If the subliminal crumb-droppings of this novel mean anything, Butler leaves all kinds of clues that this assertion may indeed be true (as does Maugham in his Of Human Bondage). Ernest’s father, Theobald, says the following: “It is an unnatural thing for a boy not to be fond of his own father. If he was fond of me I should be fond of him, but I cannot like a son who, I am sure, dislikes me. He shrinks out of my way whenever he sees me coming near him. He will not stay five minutes in the same room with me if he can help it” (122). Why is Ernest disposed toward this behavior? Probably because elder Pontifex beats Ernest for any number of reasons (his manipulating mother aids in this process). And which comes first, father’s rejection of son, or son’s rejection of father? When does the endless cycle of enmity begin? At any rate, many gay men are rejected by their fathers because they may see something in their sons that they do not like in themselves. Other clues? Ernest does not marry or marries badly (a bigamist, canceling his marriage) because he doesn’t get women; he has no positive feeling for women (especially his mother, though he forgives her in the end); but he does maintain longstanding relationships with various men throughout his life.
Yet, the most interesting aspect of the novel may be Butler’s treatment of the root of all evil, the way of all flesh: greed, the lust for money. Readers can locate the plot on the internet, but suffice it to say that Butler makes much (a biting satire) of the British notion of passing on wealth to one’s heirs, or not doing so, which action plays a large role in this novel’s satisfying climax and denouement (the elder Pontifexes get their comeuppance for their poor treatment of son Ernest).
Unlike other authors of this period, Butler writes for the most part in a manner that is simple and easy to follow, yet the novel is far from facile. Butler’s is a story that continues to unfold. It echoes throughout homes in England and around the world.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Benjamin Dreyer's Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
My Book World
Kendig, Robert E. Sojourn at Stevenson College: Campus Tales from a Bygone Era. A compendium of whimsical events that actually did occur, modestly embellished. Wilmington: Winoca, 2005.
This book is a satisfying read because the author opts to tell his story of teaching in a college town in the 1930s in a nonlinear manner. Although some characters carry over from one chapter to the next (like a meddlesome underling in the history department), each tale can more or less stand alone.
This book has its poignant moments, but it is largely about humor:
A filling station owner installs a large speaker under the seat (ew) in his customer outhouse and connects it to a microphone. “‘Lady, would you move over please, we’re working down here’” (46-7).
At Stevenson College, students are a bit perturbed because the faculty are “unnecessarily indolent” (78) in standing for the opening and closing hymns. “During the holidays, some of the students—we never knew who were the guilty ones—gained access to the chapel. They ran uninsulated wires through the tops of the cushions on the front pews, and under the carpeting on the floor to the loud foot pedal of the piano and thence to a substantial dry cell battery located to the rear of the instrument” (79).Well, one can imagine that on that day, every faculty member stood for the opening and closing hymns.
Later, the meddlesome underling commandeers the visit of a literary figure from England, attempting to make his visit as English-like as possible, even to the point of faking a British accent in what is probably a mid-South community. All throughout she rudely attempts to guide the discussion away from the local department and what and how the professors teach. Finally, when the woman expresses her fascination with the spelling of British names, the Brit himself has had enough: “This was more than Sir Reginald could stand. He sat upright in his chair and, looking directly at Mrs. Garber, he responded, ‘No, madam, I am not hyphenated. I am not even circumcised!’” (108).
The story that may touch educators comes near the end when Kendig renders how he advises a star pupil who, upon graduating, has the opportunity either to play a professional sport or take advantage of a Rhodes Scholarship. The pupil asks Kendig what he ought to do. The esteemed professor asks him to ponder the following: “But think about the two opportunities ahead of you and assume for a moment that either one can lead to your being famous. Then you might ask, ‘For what would I want to be famous?’”(165-6). I won’t say which he chose.
This is one of those books published by a small press that may not be picked up because it is “too parochial or too regional” in its nature. Yet it is a book that is well edited, well-designed, and one that is both enlightening and entertaining. Kudos to publisher/editor Barbara Brannon for bringing this book to light for all of us.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh
My Book World
Amis, Martin. Inside Story—How to Write: A Novel. New York: Knopf, 2020.
I believe this novel falls under the category of metafiction (Google: fiction in which the author self-consciously alludes to the artificiality or literariness of a work by parodying or departing from novelistic conventions). Martin or Mart becomes a character in his own work (à la Christopher Isherwood and others). His self-consciousness revolves around the writing of his own fiction, that of Saul Bellow, and others. As the customary disclaimer in the front matter states, “Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance . . . is entirely coincidental.” But how coincidental is it when “Martin” or “Mart” spends much of the book citing characters with real names, people like his father, author Kingsley Amis, people like longtime friend Christopher Hitchens, as well as other famous (Iris Murdoch) and not-so figures?
Amis begins and ends (“Preludial” and “Postludial”) the novel by addressing his readers directly, that he is about to give us tips concerning writing techniques. And he does: such advice is scattered throughout the (did I say?) novel, as if indeed, it is a how-to book and not a work of fiction. I like it. It’s odd, but I like it. You can’t help but believe he is digging down deep to reveal what has worked for him and speaks so authoritatively about writing (and with more than twenty-five books under his belt why shouldn’t he?).
However, Amis spends the final 150 pages or so memorializing the life and death of essayist and intimate, Christopher Hitchens. They’re both about the same age. Both straight, both with families. Yet they are Platonic lovers. Martin greets Christopher and sometimes leaves him with a kiss. As his fans will know, veteran smoker Hitchens develops throat cancer, and much of this section takes place at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. Amis takes readers through every painful step he witnesses in Hitch’s treatment. All to no avail. The man who has always seemed to battle against life and death in equal measures finally succumbs. That is in 2011. Perhaps writing in a fictional mode about this death allows Amis to conceptualize the work differently than if it were in a nonfiction mode. It allows him to eulogize his friend without getting too sentimental about it.
And yet—true to the title’s promise—Amis, I believe, does offer the writer, especially the writer of novels, some sage advice. Oh, and before I list a few nuggets along these lines, I’d like to say I detest the excessive footnotes, particularly in a work of fiction. Is it a kind of laziness by which the author cannot manage to incorporate these ideas into the main text? Or is it a way of padding an already lengthy book and forcing readers to peruse longs passages in teensy weensy little print? Or is it a way of showing off, of augmenting an already verbose passage even more? At any rate, here are some passages about writing:
“So avoid or minimise any reference to the mechanics of making love—unless it advances our understanding of character or affective situation. All we usually need to know is how it went and what it meant. ‘Caress the detail,’ said Nabokov from the lectern. And it is excellent advice. But don’t do it when you’re writing about sex” (27).
In his Inside Story Amis writes about so much more: Philip Larkin’s death, 9-1-1, crises in the Middle East, his life between the early 1980s through 45’s stint as president. Since the work is fiction can we believe “Mart” when he says this will be his last book? I hope not.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Annie Proulx's Barkskins
TOMORROW: My Book World | Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow
FRIDAY: My Book World | Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow
FRIDAY: My Book World | George C. Edwards's Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America
TOMORROW: My Book World | Fiona Hill's Mr. Putin
Bailey, Blake. A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. New York: Picador, 2003.
Tragedy is a horrendous thing for any human to endure, and yet we all do endure it to one extent or another: adverse childhood experiences, deaths, career failures, and more. The author of this exhaustive literary biography, Blake Bailey, does not employ the word lightly, neither in the title nor how he uses it throughout the book. Bailey’s subject, novelist Richard Yates, born in 1926, has about as tragic life as one can live, yet Yates uses it to formulate his fiction with a high degree of success, perhaps too well, to listen to some critics, many of whom are put off by his lack of “happy endings” or his “dim view” of humanity.
No matter what, Yates comes by his viewpoint honestly. In short, his parents’ divorce, not to mention he is raised by a mother who probably has a better opinion of herself than her real talents manifest themselves in her life. She believes herself to be an “artist,” and because of her opinion, her two children (Richard and sister Ruth) are always at the bottom of her priorities. On the other hand, she is a highly seductive person, among other things, encouraging her young son to sleep in her bed. On nights that she stays out late or all night, the boy child lies in bed, wondering where she is. And when she comes home and falls in next to him and vomits on his pillow, his rage is stoked in a way that remains with him his entire life.
“. . . he fixed on his round eyes and plump lips as physiognomic signs of weakness; more to the point, he thought they made him look feminine, ‘bubbly,’ and he had a lifelong horror of being perceived as homosexual” (39). Hm, I wonder why, with the mother thing he has going on.
Anyone wanting to get inside the head of one of the greatest American twentieth-century novelists must consider reading this book. It’s that great. My second-hand copy is marked with a “WITHDRAWN” stamp from the Mishawaka-Penn-Harris Public Library in Indiana. Guess it wasn’t much of a hit there.
NEXT FRIDAY: Michael Waldman's The Fight to Vote
My Book World
Weinman, Sarah. The Real Lolita: The
Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel
That Scandalized the World. New York:
Weinman takes two narratives—one, the actual kidnapping case of Sally Horner, in 1948, and two, author Vladimir Nabokov’s shaping of his 1950 novel, Lolita—and weaves them into a single, seamless story. About halfway through the Weinman’s book, Sally Horner is rescued by the FBI and returned to her mother. Two years later, Sally dies, at fifteen, in a car accident, and I wonder, In what direction could the author possibly now take this book?
All along, Weinman has woven the saga of how Nabokov writes Lolita with the story of Sally Horner, providing textual proof by way of his notecards and other documents that Nabokov was indeed influenced by Horner’s story. To what degree foments a debate between Nabokov and the literati that Weinman covers extensively. She also develops the idea that Nabokov has long been fascinated by the narrative of pedophiles and the children to whom they are attracted; in Lolita he finally produces the right combination of elements, one of which is the deployment of an unreliable narrator to steer the reader away from what a sinister crime he is actually participating in. Weinman skillfully stitches together these two narratives and provides a long, relaxed denouement tying up all the loose ends: relatives affected by Sally’s premature death, the imprisonment of her captor, a discussion of the abuse of young girls and women, and more.
Because of her unrelenting research and attention paid to detail, Weinman provides a satisfying read combining the genre of true crime with serious literary discussion of Nabokov’s novel. It is one of the few books I’ve read this year that I have not been able to put down once started. It’s that good.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-31 South Carolina
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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