Friday, March 13, 2015
One Good Read Leads to Another
When I was a kid, I did exactly the same thing. I'd sit in my room all day reading until my father would come up and kick me out of the house mumbling something about getting outside in the fresh air and playing with the neighborhood kids. Which I did, and even enjoyed.
But I wasn't happy in my own skin and other kids made me feel awkward and socially inept. At 50 I do not have a single friend from my childhood days. I don't even remember their names.
But I do remember the first time I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. I reread that one in paperback until the cover fell off. So it's fair to say that my best friends, the ones I've kept for decades, are stories written down on dead trees.
According to my Goodreads list I have read 116 books this year. Don't get too excited because not all those books were hard reads. I'm an eclectic reader and my tastes range from paranormal romance to scholarly works on international migration. It's all good because within each genre there are authors who shine so bright. Whenever I read something by Nalini Singh I sigh and say to myself, "God, I wish I could write like that." I am in awe of the research done by Nancy Green or Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels and their ability to produce books that are readable and enjoyable for a non-academic, general reader like myself.
Out of those 116 books which ones are my new friends and which ones were people I wish I'd never met? I won't waste words on the latter. In fact I don't think I've ever written a review panning a book I didn't like. I just can't do it. Writing is hard. Putting yourself out there is painful. Anyone who has that kind of courage has my admiration even if I don't personally care for the result.
So here are a few I liked (where one book led to another) and I'll do my best to explain why.
Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James. This man is a brilliant essay writer - every single one is well-crafted. So well-crafted that I can't read too many of them at one time - it's like standing in the sun too long. I started this book over a week ago and I'm only halfway through. In each essay James talks about a person - famous, infamous, and someone he thinks should be pulled out of the obscurity that was his or her lot when died died. It's in alpha order and if we peek at the M's, for example, we'll meet Norman Mailer, Michael Mann, Chris Marker, Czeslaw Milosz, Montesquieu and a few others. "Meet" is the correct word here - we can't pretend to know these people or their work through James' words. He's just telling us what he thinks of them and what they accomplished in their sometimes very short lifetimes. It's up to us to further the acquantaince. So far I've been moved by James to read two books that I had never heard of: one by an author I know a little about and another by someone completely unknown to me.
The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald (edited by Edmund Wilson). In my time The Great Gatsby was required reading in high school. I have no idea if that's still true but having been forced to read it as part of my American Catholic convent school education, I never picked up another book by Fitzgerald until The Crack-Up - though I did re-read The Great Gatsby last year and still don't get why it is claimed to be one of the Greatest American Novels Ever Written.
I did not enjoy most of The Crack-Up (the book). In particular his letters to fellow authors and friends were boring. Yes, they were well-written but I'm not at all interested in reading Gertrude's Stein's letter to him telling him how wonderful he was. Two things saved the book for me: the actual essay called "The Crack-Up" in which Ftizgerald lets it all hang out: depression, anger, self-loathing, sense of failure. "In the dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day." Yes sir, it most surely is.
The other was a poem at the end written by his friend Edmund Wilson and I have read these lines over and over again:
"The hour of utter destitution
When the soul knows the horror of its
And knows the world too poor
Past three o'clock
And not yet four-
When not pity, pride,
Or being brave,
Fortune, friendship, forgetfulness of
Or of drug avails, for all has been tried,
And nothing avails to save
This soul from recognition of its night."
Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg. This is the memoir of a woman who was arrested during Stalin's purges in the 1930's and sent off to prison and camps where she languished for 18 years. I'm assuming (though Amazon does not say) that this is a translation. It's a good read - the prose style is a perfect match for the story. This is her personal catastrophe where she lost everything - work, spouse, children, reputation - and she describes how it happened simply and with such clarity. A pleasure to read and I did so in one sitting.
I really sat up and paid attention during the part of the book that described her arrest, interrogation and trial. Nearly 90 years later and totalitarian systems may be long gone, but the totalitarian impulse is alive and well. Worlds where the law is what the powerful say it is and can be changed arbitrarily (or applied in some cases and not others), where accusations of wrongdoing are rampant and innocence is irrelevant, where people get caught up in a political or bureaucratic machine that simply spins and spits a broken person out, where those lucky enough to escape it say to themselves that there is no smoke without a fire and X must be a terrorist or an "enemy of the state" because the powers-that-be are basically benevolent and wouldn't do this to someone who is blameless? Seen any of this around lately? I have.
All those people who end up no-fly lists for no reason that they can discern and no one will tell them? Citizens who get deported even though they have proof that they are citizens? Millions of people presumed guilty of criminal activity and lumped into a group labelled "tax evaders" (the new "enemy of the people"). Protests are met with sly statements that if they don't cooperate in the "war of the day" then they clearly have something to hide.
And just as the loyal, "I will die for the Party" Ginzburg was stunned to be labelled an evil counter-revolutionary based on no reason she could find, so are ordinary people astounded to wake up one morning and discover that they are awaiting deportation, signing away their rights, and being refused travel or basic bank accounts. Granted, in our day none of these things is a death sentence or 20 years in a work camp but I get the impression that there are still plenty of True Believers out there who are nostalgic for the Good Old Days of the 20th century.
These books led me to other books which filled my to-read folder very quickly. And isn't it pure joy when that happens? Reading Fitzgerald reminded me that I hadn't read anything by Robert Graves in years. So I added Count Belisarius and started reading last night. So far I find it disappointing. Can anyone tell me if it is worth soldiering on and giving it a chance? The Demon by M.J. Lermontov is also on the list. And one that James mentioned about the life of Lady Hoshokawa Gracia which I can't find (a play written by a Catholic priest?) but it looks like there are many books about her and if anyone can recommend one in particular in a language I understand (French or English), I would be most grateful.
I don't want to give you the mistaken impression that I have some sort of impossible standard that I'm trying to meet when I read. I'm just not that virtuous (or pretentious). When I pick up a book I am hoping for a future friend, not someone whose name I can drop.
So let me balance the above with a few other books that I am reading or desperately want to read: The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes (self-help for writers), Dark Instinct by Suzanne Wright (x-rated paranormal romance), Magic Shifts by Ilona Andrews (brilliant urban fantasy) and The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks (publication date is 2016 and I want to kill the son of a bitch for making me wait so long for volume 4 in this fantasy series).
I am going to stop there and give you a chance to tell me what you are reading. Have a great weekend, everyone.