“Only a Mean Person Won’t Enjoy It”

Novelist Charles Portis (1933-2020)

Now that I have read four of his five novels and will in all likelihood have read most of his work before the end of the year, I can say that Charles Portis is one of my favorite American novelists of the Twentieth Century. He is perhaps the best thing to ever come out of Arkansas, the state where he was born, lived most of his life, and died.

First of all, here are his five novels:

  • Norwood (1966)
  • True Grit (1968)
  • The Dog of the South (1979)
  • Masters of Atlantis (1980)
  • Gringos (1991)

Undoubtedly, you have heard of True Grit. Hollywood turned it into two enjoyable movies, one starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, and the other (produced by the Coen Brothers) starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin.

The only Portis novel I have not read so far is Masters of Atlantis. He also produced a collection of essays in 2012 called Escape Velocity. The name comes from a quote from one of his novels: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”

Like J. D. Salinger, Charles Portis was a man who avoided the limelight. He would point out, however, that his phone number was in the Little Rock phonebook.

Everything I have read by Portis can best be described as gentle humor. As one reviewer said of True Grit, “Only a mean person won’t enjoy it.” Too true!

The End of the Beginning

My Janus-Faced January Reading Program

As I wrote in my post dated January 1 of this year, I like to devote a whole month out of each year reading authors I have never read before. As this is the last day of my Januarius Project for January 2023, I thought I’d report on the authors I have discovered.

I have read eleven books this month. Six of them turned out to be excellent:

  • Thomas Hodgkin. Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire. I. The Visigothic Invasion. The first of eight volumes and 5,000 pages on the Barbarian Invasions. Excellent scholarship and exciting even!
  • Magda Szabo. The Door. A superb Hungarian novel about a writer and her domineering housekeeper.
  • Laszló F. Földényi. Melancholy. Another Hungarian author dealing with the history of melancholy in Western literature and civilization. Not an easy book to read, but worth the effort.
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Writing Across the Landscape. Travel Journals 1960-2010. It’s always fascinating to see other places from a poet’s perspective.
  • Lucretius. The Nature of Things. An ancient Roman poet describes the science of his day—in verse. Reading Lucretius tells me we may have advanced in some respects, but not all.
  • Juan Rulfo. The Plain in Flames. Why have I not heard of this Mexican author before? Like John Webster, he could see the skull beneath the skin; and his short stories are powerful and gemlike.

The remaining five were merely really good:

  • Vilmos Kondor. Budapest Noir. A top-notch mystery set in the Budapest of the 1930s, on the track of a young woman’s murder.
  • Han Kang. The Vegetarian. A young woman goes from vegetarianism to pushing the envelope of what is human. The author is Korean.
  • Don Carpenter. Hard Rain Falling. A noir crime novel about a pool shark whose life goes from bad to worse. The beginning is particularly powerful.
  • Yu Miri. Tokyo Ueno Station. The author is a Japanese woman of Korean ancestry. A powerful look at urban homelessness in Tokyo.
  • Horacio Quiroga. 7 Best Short Stories. One for the kiddies. A Uruguayan author writes stories about the Argentinian jungle that are reminiscent of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

I can see myself reading other works by Hodgkin, Szabo, Ferlinghetti, and Rulfo in the year to come.

The Januarius Budapest Trifecta

Having finished my jaunt to the decaying Roman Empire during the Visigothic invasions, I decided to read three books in a row written by Hungarian authors:

  • Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir (2008), a first novel about a murder on the streets of Budapest.
  • Magda Szabo’s The Door (1987), a novel about the relationship between two women, a writer and a peasant.
  • Laszló F. Földényi’s Melancholy (1984), a history of melancholy through the ages.

As we begin 2023, I find the farther I get from my own Hungarian roots, the more at loose ends I feel. There is a figure in Greek mythology called Antaeus, about whom Wikipedia writes:

Antaeus would challenge all passers-by to wrestling matches and remained invincible as long as he remained in contact with his mother, the earth. As Greek wrestling, like its modern equivalent, typically attempted to force opponents to the ground, he always won, killing his opponents. He built a temple to his father using their skulls. Antaeus fought Heracles as he was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides as his 11th Labour. Heracles realized that he could not beat Antaeus by throwing or pinning him. Instead, he held him aloft and then crushed him to death in a bear hug.

Returning to my Hungarian roots is like Antaeus renewing himself by touching the earth. (If, however, I run into Heracles, I will pointedly avoid wrestling with him.)

So far, I am on schedule with my Januarius reading program.

Baker’s Dozen

Indian Novelist Anita Desai (Born 1937)

On this last day of November, I am happy to report that my month of reading only books by women authors was both highly successful and satisfying. In a post I made at the beginning of November, I wrote:

For the month of November, I will be reading only women writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the authors will be new to me; some of the books will be re-reads.I began by reading a short story collection entitled Dead-End Memories by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto.When I finish, I will re-read Joan Didion’s Salvador.

From there, a number of possibilities present themselves, including Virginia Woolf, Edwige Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Wisława Szymborska, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Freya Stark, Norah Lange, Dawn Powell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.I’ll just see where the spirit moves me. At the end of the month, I will summarize the discoveries I have made.

In the end, I came pretty close to my aim. Here is the final list:

  • Banana Yoshimoto, Dead-End Memories (short stories)
  • Joan Didion, Salvador (travel/history) – reread
  • Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (fiction)
  • Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (fiction) – reread
  • Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier (history)
  • Anita Desai, Journey to Ithaca (fiction)
  • Mary Austin, One-Smoke Stories (short stories)
  • Patricia Highsmith, Found in the Street (fiction)
  • Joyce Carol Oates, Wild Nights! Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway (short stories)
  • Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights (autobiography/fiction)
  • Norah Lange, The People in the Room (fiction) – reread
  • Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (autobiography/essays)
  • Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (noir fiction)

That makes a full baker’s dozen of thirteen books.

The best three were Jacob’s Room, Northanger Abbey, and Sleepless Nights. Writers I had never read before included Banana Yoshimoto, Elizabeth Hardwick (a real find!), and Edwidge Danticat.

I may well do this again next year. Too long I have been ignoring the real talent of great women authors.

Life Itself

Billie Holiday in Concert

In this month of reading only works by women authors, I have made an interesting discovery. The only works I have read this month that have the feeling of life itself are Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). 1920s London and Postwar Manhattan come alive in these books in a way that even James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses failed to with all the literary allusions.

Woolf and Hardwick make us feel present in a simple and direct fashion. It is almost as if they were writing their own autobiographies as they lived their lives. Sleepless Nights even reads like an autobiography. For instance, she knew Billie Holiday and writes about her as if she were a close friend:

A genuine nihilism; genuine, look twice. Infatuated glances saying, Beautiful black star, can you love me? The answer: No.

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

She goes on for several pages about the singer, all of them more real and vivid than anything I have read about any performing artist.

In the same way, Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway (1925) make the reader feel he or she is walking the streets of the London of George V. One does not feel one is in the past: She makes the past feel like the present.

Even Marcel Proust, whose description of the states of mind of his characters is without peer, cannot put the reader on the street running for a trolley and registering the sights and sounds of the city.

I am not sure I have expressed myself properly. I will have to investigate the matter more deeply. Stay tuned.

“Wise and Most Possible”

It was one of the most meaningful Twitter posts ever written when Maya Angelou said, “‎The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.”

For the month of November, I will be reading only women writers, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the authors will be new to me; some of the books will be re-reads.I began by reading a short story collection entitled Dead-End Memories by the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto.When I finish, I will re-read Joan Didion’s Salvador.

From there, a number of possibilities present themselves, including Virginia Woolf, Edwige Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Wisława Szymborska, Dorothy B. Hughes, Patricia Highsmith, Freya Stark, Norah Lange, Dawn Powell, and Elizabeth Hardwick.I’ll just see where the spirit moves me. At the end of the month, I will summarize the discoveries I have made.

And there are sure to be discoveries. Already I love Banana Yoshimoto’s stories, which deal with subjects that men feel uncomfortable with. And that where the Maya Angelou quote comes into play.

Pumpkins and Skeletons

This last Saturday, Martine and I visited the Grier Musser Museum, which had just re-opened to the public after the Covid-19 lockdown. I have always particularly loved their Halloween antiques, art, and other displays, such as the above throw pillow. Martine wore her witch costume (see yesterday’s post: Decidedly a Good Witch). We both resolved to re-visit them just before Christmas, when their displays will be less horrific.

Tonight, I watched four horror films in a row, three of which were the original Universal Frankenstein releases:

  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • The Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Plague of Zombies (1966)—a Hammer horror film

I waited by the door just in case some trick-or-treaters would come. As usual none came. I don’t think any have climbed the stairs for upwards of thirty years. I thought this year would be different because my downstairs neighbors are Ukrainian refugees with two young daughters.

Now that Halloween is almost past, I realize we are in the HallowThanksMas Continuum, where three Holidays seem to come one after the other like falling dominoes.

This October, I read four horror-related books in celebration of Halloween:

  • Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine (1817-1834)
  • Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), the first half of which is set in a spooky abandoned monastery
  • Edith Wharton’s Ghosts (1937), selected by the author
  • Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008), a re-telling of the original Mary Shelley story

In Praise of Minor Talents

The Good Doctor Ruffled a Few Feathers, Including Mine

As part of my annual Halloween reading, I just finished the Oxford World’s Classics Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine. In the early decades of the 19th century, that’s where budding writing talents turned for examples of tales of horror. Among the most devoted readers were Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Browning, and—most particularly—Edgar Allan Poe.

Of the seventeen stories in the collection, I had only heard of two of them before: Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg, a.k.a. the Ettrick Shepherd. The other writers (who were all new to me) were Patrick Fraser-Tytler, John Wilson,Daniel Keyte Sandford, John Galt, John Howison, William Maginn, Henry Thomson, Catherine Sinclair, Michael Scott, William Mudford, William Godwin the Younger, and Samuel Warren. All of their stories were first class.

Now I understand why Poe wrote him famous essay “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” And why Leigh Hunt wrote in 1819:

A man who does not contribute his quota of grim stories now-a-days seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death’s head, as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten every body, he is nobody.

Well, I could testify that I was frightened by this collection—by a bunch of “minor” writers who knew what they were doing. The credit for this collection goes to the two co-editors, Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick.

I was particularly entranced by the three selections from a long-running serial in Blackwood’s entitled Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (appearing from 832-1837) by Samuel Warren (1807-1877).

Hoke Moseley

Damn! He Looks a Lot Like Me

I have just finished reading all of Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels about a Miami police sergeant investigating homicides. Unfortunately, there are only four novels in the series:

  • Miami Blues (1984)
  • New Hope for the Dead (1985)
  • Sideswipe (1987)
  • The Way We Die Now (1988)

Hoke Moseley is a decidedly soft-edged detective. He soaks his false teeth in a glass, has no ambitions regarding promotion, is helping to take care of his two teenage daughters as well as his pregnant Cuban police partner (he was not the father), and is actually an all-around nice guy. He drinks beer, plays Monopoly, and is, in many ways, quite average. Very refreshing for a change!

If you like the Florida crazies in the novels of John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiaasen, you will love Willeford’s Hokester. It’s too bad that he wrote his best novels at the end of his career (he died in 1988) instead of earlier. That way, he could have written more of the Moseley saga.

I urge you to start with Miami Blues and continue with the other three titles. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better series for summer reading.

Writing on Water

How Many Literary Classics Are About Surfing?

Paul Theroux’s novel Under the Wave at Waimea (2021) looks at life through the eyes of an aging champion surfer whose life takes a turn for the worse after he runs over a drunk, homeless cyclist near his home on the North Shore of O’ahu.

Theroux describes his hero, Joe Sharkey:

Sharkey surfed every day, and every day tried something new—a turn, a cutback, swiveling on the face of a wave as though carving his signature on it, writing on water. It was not practice or preparation; it was a way of spending the day, easing the passage of time; a way of living his life, because he made the moves his own.

With the help of his girlfriend, Olivia, Joe seeks to change his luck by trying to find out more about his victim, whose body is still identified at the morgue in Honolulu. The result is a spiritual journey to understand his life and the life of the people affected by the accident.

I have always thought of surfing as a lightweight activity. In his book, Theroux manages to interweave Joe Sharkey’s life on the waves with an almost metaphysical understanding of what it all means:

Nothing was certain. Every wave had a hidden contour and something like a mystical muscle in it that could trip you: every succeeding wave had the capacity to hold you down and suffocate you to death. The world was a wave, a wave was pitiless.

With Under the Wave at Waimea, Paul Theroux has attained a level of mastery in the art of fiction that I long suspected he had the potential for, but have not hitherto seen in print—though he came close on occasion.

I am happy to give my highest recommendation to his Under the Wave at Waimea, certainly the best current American novel I have read since 2000.