Summer Reading

During the Heat of Summer, My Mind Turns to India

Most people’s idea of summer reading is of some cheap paperback to be consumed on a beach towel or on a long plane, train, or bus ride. There are a large number of trashy novels written each year to satisfy this undemanding audience. My taste in reading material, however, is more of what you would describe as deep-dish.

When the temperature rises into the 80s F (30s Celsius), there are certain books that appeal to me. Looking back over July and August in the last several years, here is what appeals most to me during temperature spikes:

  • Books about India, such as those written by William Dalrymple, author of City of Djinns
  • The novels of William Faulkner set in Mississippi
  • The novels of Brazilian author Jorge Amado set in his native State of Bahia
  • The novels and short stories of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño
  • American and French noir novels
  • The Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald set in South Florida
  • Travel books such as those written by Freya Stark, who traveled extensively by herself in the Middle East

Sometimes, I go in the opposite direction: I recently read Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, about a failed trip to discover the North Pole.

I am currently rereading William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and have Jorge Amado’s Home Is the Sailor in my TBR pile.

“A World Construed Out of Blood”

The Best American Novel I Have Read in Years

I have seldom been so impressed by an American novel—especially a recent one—as I was by Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The young hero, Billy Parham, crosses back and forth three times between New Mexico and Old Mexico. Finding his parents killed and robbed of their livestock, he is not at home either in the United States or the mountains of Mexico.

McCarthy writes with an Old Testament intensity of the kindness and evil that Billy finds across the Rio Grande. At one point, he writes:

When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alcahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to destroy it.

After finding his family slain and dispersed, Billy manages to locate his younger brother, Boyd, and returns with him to Mexico looking for the horses stolen from his father. Boyd manages to impress the campesinos they meet, wins the nickname El Guërito, and is described by the author:

He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy of the way the world was.

Author Cormac McCarthy

I have been impressed by McCarthy’s work before, when I read Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) and All the Pretty Horses (1992). So far, I have read the first two novels of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which consists of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). After reading the next novel in the trilogy, I will backtrack and read his first four novels, which are set in the South. Then I will move on to No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006).

One little note: I would not recommend that you read The Crossing unless you know some Spanish. Much of the dialog set in Mexico is in untranslated Spanish. I was able to get by pretty well, though I had my Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary at my side. But if you can tolerate the language factor, I think you will be mightily impressed by McCarthy’s work.

The Great American Novel

Chasing the White Whale in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

I think that Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is the Great American Novel. There are a handful of other claimants, but the search for the White Whale—I think—knocks them all into a cocked hat.

Yet it was not always thus. Published in 1851, it took decades before it was recognized for the masterpiece it was. In his Conversations 1 with Osvaldo Ferrari, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges makes an interesting observation:

I believe that [Moby-Dick], upon publication, remained invisible for some time. I have an old an excellent edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the eleventh edition published in 1912. In it, there’s a not-too-long paragraph about Melville, describing him as a writer of travel novels. And though it mentions Moby-Dick, it is not distinguished from the rest of his books. It’s on the list but there is no mention that Moby-Dick is far more than a traveller’s tale or a book about the sea.

This makes me wonder how many American books written in the last sixty years will suddenly emerge to future generations as the *new* Great American Novel. Will it be something that we now regard as second-rate stuff? We may never know: The future is a closed book.

Arthur’s Knights

Tapestry Showing Arthur and Guinevere

I am currently reading Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian tale Eric and Enide. I fell in love with this picturesque list of the Knights of the Round Table as detailed by this 12th century French author:

Before all the excellent knights, Gawain ought to be named the first, and second Erec the son of Lac, and third Lancelot of the Lake. Gornemant of Gohort was fourth, and the fifth was the Handsome Coward. The sixth was the Ugly Brave, the seventh Meliant of Liz, the eighth Mauduit the Wise, and the ninth Dodinel the Wild. Let Gandelu be named the tenth, for he was a goodly man. The others I shall mention without order, because the numbers bother me. Eslit was there with Briien, and Yvain the son of Uriien. And Yvain of Loenel was there, as well as Yvain the Adulterer. Beside Yvain of Cavaliot was Garravain of Estrangot. After the Knight with the Horn was the Youth with the Golden Ring. And Tristan who never laughed sat beside Bliobleheris, and beside Brun of Piciez was his brother Gru the Sullen. The Armourer sat next, who preferred war to peace. Next sat Karadues the Shortarmed, a knight of good cheer; and Caveron of Robendic, and the son of King Quenedic and the Youth of Quintareus and Yder of the Dolorous Mount. Gaheriet and Kay of Estraus, Amauguin and Gales the Bald, Grain, Gornevain, and Carabes, and Tor the son of King Aras, Girflet the son of Do, and Taulas, who never wearied of arms: and a young man of great merit, Loholt the son of King Arthur, and Sagremor the Impetuous, who should not be forgotten, nor Bedoiier the Master of the Horse, who was skilled at chess and trictrac, nor Bravain, nor King Lot, nor Galegantin of Wales, nor Gronosis, versed in evil, who was son of Kay the Seneschal, nor Labigodes the Courteous, nor Count Cadorcaniois, nor Letron of Prepelesant, whose manners were so excellent, nor Breon the son of Canodan, nor the Count of Honolan who had such a head of fine fair hair; he it was who received the King’s horn in an evil day; he never had any care for truth.

Svetlana: Circles of Hell

A Great Writer Who Manages to Look Like an Average Person

I have now reach three books by Svetlana Alexievich and regarded all of them as superb:

  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2014), about the lives of average Russians after the fall of Communism
  • Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)
  • Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1991)

Reading each of those books was a profound experience. Very rarely do I ever re-read works of nonfiction, but I can conceive of myself re-reading all three of these books. Why? Because all of them struck me as being definitive, while all three of them represented multiple points of view. In her own words:

I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.

There is something about Russian history that elicits both admiration and dismay:

If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath – an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.

I look forward to visiting more of these circles of hell in Svetlana Alexievich’s company. There are two more of her books available in English that I have not read: one about the role of women in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, and another on the role of children in the same conflict.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages and published in 47 countries.

The Flowering of New England

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Original House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts

We tend to think that the most recent works of biography, history, or literary criticism are the best, on the general principle that the present corrects the errors of the past. Yet I do not think that is true. I like to read scholarly books written before our time. More often than not, I find they are better.

I am currently reading Van Wyck Brooks’s New England: Indian Summer, itself the sequel of The Flowering of New England. The books were published in 1940 and 1936 respectively. They are incredibly rich on a paragraph to paragraph level. There are numerous footnotes, which themselves are frequently more interesting than the text. As I read Brooks, I take notes for books to read in the future.

These titles are part of a series of five books called the “Makers and Finders” series. They consist of:

  • The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865, pub 1936
  • New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1915, pub 1940
  • The World of Washington Irving, pub 1944
  • The Times of Melville and Whitman, pub 1947
  • The Confident Years, 1885-1915, pub 1952

So far I have cracked only the first two titles, but I intend to read all five. Fortunately, they are readily available in used book stores, as they were exceedingly popular in the period they were written.

On the Cover of Time Magazine

It doesn’t much matter to me that Brooks’s writing is currently regarded as unfashionable. After all, I am wildly unfashionable. He did write a biography of Mark Twain that I didn’t like, but this “Makers and Finders” series is pure gold, compared to much of the dross being published today. These are books for people who like to read, and I am certainly one of them.

A Little Man With a Big Nose

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I have just finished reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life. As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually like biographies, because if you admire the person who is the subject of them, you are devastated when he or she dies in the last chapter. Sitting in my little library, I was devastated when the American I most loved and admired succumbed to consumption at the age of forty-four.

Everyone knows a little about Thoreau, most of it wrong. When I first read the book, I was told by friends that when he moved to his cabin by the shores of Walden Pond, Thoreau “cheated.” What kind of a hermit was he when he spent a lot of time in Concord with his friends. The answer is: He was no kind of a hermit. The first chapter of Walden, or Life in the Woods is entitled “Economy,” not some eremitical mumbo-jumbo.

Long after he returned to his house in Concord, Thoreau lived an active life giving speeches, writing thousands of pages of notes on nature, fulminating against slavery (his house was a station on the Underground Railroad), and supporting John Brown and his followers even after Brown was executed for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. He had read and understood Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, even while thousands of Americans condemned it as heretical.

I love the above photograph of Thoreau, which also is on the dust jacket of Laura Walls’s biography. Look at those piercing blue eyes. The scraggly beard was to warm his neck to protect him from the ravages of consumption.

This biography is nothing less than spectacular. I was saddened to come to the end of it.

Why do I admire Thoreau so much? I can only say that he was one of the most observant people who ever lived, easily on a par with John Muir and Charles Darwin. It was Thoreau’s notion of land set aside from human occupation as “commons” which led, via Muir, to the creation of the National Park System. Also, I regard Walden as a great book in a century that included such luminaries as Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now I’m going to have to read some more Thoreau. Lucky me!

Captain of a Huckleberry Party

Author Laura Dassow Walls and Her Biography of Henry David Thoreau

Today I did not even set foot outside my apartment. It was a nice day, even a bit on the cool side, but I was entranced reading Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life.

Ever since I first read Walden, I have been entranced by Thoreau. I even liked A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which was not exactly received with open arms when it was published. Wikipedia describes him as a Naturalist and indicates his chief interests as being (in no particular order) ethics, poetry, religion, politics, biology, philosophy, and history.

In addition, he was a pencil manufacturer (the family business), handyman, surveyor, builder, and agronomist. His published works represent but a small part of his interests. Perhaps his major work consisted of his notebooks, which were voluminous. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson promoted him and his work, but lost interest as the friendship wore off and referred to Thoreau as the ideal captain of a huckleberry party.

I am not always fond of reading biographies: As soon as I become interested in the subject, he or she dies at the end of the book. Still, I always wanted to know more about Thoreau, so I’ll have to put up with some grief when I get to that last chapter.

I’ll leave you with this great quote from Walden:

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Thomas Hart Benton Mural of Huck with N-Word Jim

This is a re-post from my January 7, 2011 blog for the late unlamented Multiply.Com.

As one who has frequently been accused of speaking in an “inappropriate” way, I am still grateful that no one has attempted to apply a muzzle to my face. (Not that some haven’t been thinking about it.) If someone tried, I would resist—which is more than poor Mark Twain can do a hundred years after his death.

Unless you have spent the last few weeks visiting the moons of Jupiter, you’ve probably heard that some publisher has attempted to bowdlerize Huckleberry Finn by giving the slave Nigger Jim a more respectable name, and I don’t mean Reginald or Percival. It’s the first word of his name—the so-called N-word—that many find objectionable.

So be it! While I would never venture to call a person of color a nigger under any circumstances, I find any attempt to tinker with a great author’s work objectionable on the face of it. If the name “Nigger Jim” is objectionable, I suggest that the offended parties restrict themselves to reading kiddie books written by the oh-so-politically-correct.

You can’t wipe out the sins of the past as if with an eraser on a clean board: People thought and wrote differently then. The past, they say, is a different country.

Yet it has not stopped people from trying. In the Eighteenth Century, Shakespeare’s plays were substantially re-written before being put on the stage—just to make them more acceptable. As soon as the powder fell out from peoples’ wigs, the changes were canned and the original was restored.

So you PC types can get all het up about this nonsense. Me, I’m going to go home and read Joseph Conrad’s The Afro-American of the Narcissus.

The picture above is a detail from a mural by Thomas Hart Benton of Huck Finn and Colored-Person James from the Missouri State Museum.

Happy Birthday, Bill!

The Martin Droeshout Portrait of Shakespeare for the First Folio

Today is the 457th birthday of William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon. In my lifetime so far, I have read all the plays attributed to Shakespeare and about half of the poems. Many of the plays I have read multiple times, the leader being Hamlet. Currently, I am re-reading The Winter’s Tale, and, in the months to come, I hope to revisit several other of my favorite comedies, such as Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night.

I know it would be better to see the plays performed. But even if Covid-19 were still not on the rampage, it’s not easy to see the Bard in performance. So I must reconcile myself to reading the plays.

All in all, he wrote some forty plays, most alone, but some in partnership with other playwrights. No, I do not think that Francis Bacon wrote his plays, nor the Earl of Southampton, nor Wile E. Coyote. I suppose I could live my life in an alternate universe like Donald Trump’s supporters, but I much prefer the real world. Consequently, I am not interested in doubting his authorship. After all, we probably know more about the Bard than we know about any of his contemporaries.

If you like Shakespeare as much as I do, I have a film to recommend: Jacques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) is about a group of young Parisians putting on a performance of Pericles, Prince of Tyre—not one of Shakespeare’s best plays, and one most likely not 100% written by him, but definitely fun for all Bardaholics.