Currently Reading

August 18, 2015--Mostly because of a library due date, here's a quick update of recent reading.

Farther Away is a collection of essays written by Jonathan Franzen between 1998 and 2011. Interestingly, the essays are presented reverse chronologically, sending you toward a decreasingly mature psyche. You find a commencement address, some book reviews, meditations on friendship with and loss of David Foster Wallace, investigative journalism about endangered birds, a bizarre attempted interview with the State of New York. It's a mixed bunch, and I read it with long breaks in between reading sessions. Overall worth reading, but not easy to hold the diverse topics in mind. Several themes--environmentalism and human relationships--remind me of what I know of Franzen's fiction (Slow Motion, The Corrections, Freedom).

June 23, 2015--Thisbe Nissen's list will be a fine way for me to catch up after a whole year of hiatus on my reading page. No, I haven't stopped reading. To the contrary. I've tucked book comments into blog posts from time to time, but there's a pile I could catch up on (This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, which gave me a vivid sense of place and time, and The Circle by Dave Eggers, which creeped me out and was pretty irritating to read, are on the "to shelve" pile, for example).

I met Thisbe Nissen in 2008 at the Wesleyan Writers Conference in Middletown, Connecticut. I'd won a partial scholarship to attend, and Thisbe was there as a fellow. I took advantage of the chance to speak with each of the three fellows about my writing. Thisbe gave comments on my manuscript and left me with a list of books she thought would be instructive. Seven years later while sorting my files, I found Thisbe's list. She seems to have been looking for examples of form for memoir as a way of helping me along with my fragmented material (grief/loss and memories in short vignettes).

In May of 2015, I started down her list using my local interlibrary loan service (these titles go beyond the English collection in Heilbronn), as mentioned in my blog on May 18 and June 12.

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso (2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This slender book (184 pages) reports on Mangusso's years of suffering from an autoimmune condition that depleted myelin and left her in states of near-paralysis off and on for nine years. It's like a report directly from her consciousness, offered in unnumbered chapters of one to three pages. The sentences are short--five words is a common length. Occasionally a sentence has 20 words. Often one sentence stands alone as a "paragraph"--there's a lot of white space. She discusses her topic in a non-chronological way, saying "I remember things in the order that they make sense" (83).  Her meditation throughout the book on existing in the moment (and many of hers were excruciating) is powerfully capped in the final stanza-paragraphs of the book (184).
Everything that happens is the last time it happens. We see things only as their own fatal brightness, and there is nothing after that brightness. 
You can't learn from remembering. You can't learn from guessing. 
You can learn only from moving forward at the rate you are moved, as brightness, into brightness.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn (2004, W.W. Norton & Company). Flynn's memoir is another ride through a-chronology, and he adds varying forms as well (standard prose paragraphs find company with text in italics, indented text, dialogue, and at one point a screenplay). The short version: an adult Nick Flynn works at a homeless shelter in Boston, having been abandoned as a young child by his father, who eventually comes to the shelter, homeless. They build a relationship, of sorts, with the young Flynn navigating the tales told by his alcoholic bank-robber father. Near the end comes a passage that pulls many threads of the memoir together.
We sit on his stoop in the fading sun, his sandwich difficult for him to negotiate, bits of fatty steak dropping onto the concrete. I ask him about his father again, about the life raft. He tells the same story, nearly word for word—how he watched his father test it, dropping it over and over from a crane into Scituate Harbor until he got it right. I am now the age my father was when he entered his first bank, which is the same age my mother was when she killed herself. The sun is setting on us now. My father tells me that he has the original blueprints for the life raft. I know, I say, I gave them to you. You did? I was wondering where I got them. You’re Thaddeus, right, named after my grandfather? No, I say, I’m Nicholas, named after the Czar. (340)
My notes: a virtuosic paragraph, on the second-to last page of the book. The alignment of ages—son, mother, father—and the positions they took relative to one another at this particular age make a rounded feeling at the end of the book, but one so flimsily built on happenstance that the tidiness of it is not too pat. It’s a gesture that grabs a bunch of things up into one handful—the sunset, the steak sandwich, the question about the grandfather, the repeated story, the age comment, the father’s lack of reliable memory, and the bizarre twist at the end about being named after the Czar—very satisfying.

Halls of Fame by John D'Agata (2001, GrayWolf Press) is a book of sevens, among many other things. He plays on the "seven wonders of the world" and offers a running alphabetical list of books about wonders, dividing the list into seven parts at the beginning of each of seven essays. The essays themselves include hints of the personal (his mom leaving his dad when he was quite young, his college time, travels along the way) and explorations of the curious. D'Agata has an "all comers welcome" writing style, as far as absorbing text from other sources, recreating cadences of speech, and finding a format to suit a particular moment's needs (list, prose, footnote, block quote). I especially enjoyed the lists of wonders, the one-periodic-sentence essay about Deep Springs, and the Martha Graham portrait as "audio description." Once through is not enough to have much more to say, but I've got to return the book today (interlibrary loan).

July 6, 2014--I've just finished Cheryl Strayed's Wild (2012, Alfred A. Knopf; my copy 2013, Vintage), a memoir of her long-distance hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, an act of self-renewal undertaken out of desperate grief after her mother's early death to cancer. I was convinced to pick up a copy after hearing Lee Gutkind read the first paragraphs of the prologue as an example of vivid, from-life writing during the Creative Nonfiction annual conference in Pittsburgh at the end of May. The prologue presents a perilous scene mid-hike: the loss of a hiking boot above the tree line. It's a metaphor for the suddenness of loss, for the mind's struggle to comprehend, for the necessity to figure out how to move on. The prologue continues with an economical explanation of the background to this hiking journey. In four pages Strayed deftly manages to tell us nearly everything that's yet to come in the memoir.

As she proceeds, the unfolding narrative of the hike itself is interwoven with visits to the past--her mother's sudden illness, her childhood, her first marriage, her exploits with drugs and sex. Her lack of backpacking experience sets her up for disaster; her blind will and infinite ability to learn send her forward. Other characters appear along the hike, but the solitary nature of the four-month journey defines the story. Her literary life hikes along, mostly in books she reads and then burns to lighten her load, but I can recall only one scene in which she depicts herself writing. I wonder how much journaling she did, how much photography. In 1995 it would have all been analog. For most of the trip, she sounds too exhausted to move a pen at the end of the day.

I met Cheryl Strayed, ever so briefly, when she was signing books after a reading at the Writers at Work conference in 2006. She was part of the teaching faculty in the Young Writers program, which, alas, is no longer part of the annual conference. The high schoolers gave a reading of their work each year and never failed to impress me. Cheryl read at the downtown public library from her novel Torch. I can't recall if it was forthcoming or already published. Because it was a cancer story--and I was just two years past the death of my son to cancer--I told her I was also writing a sad story like hers. She said she had chosen fiction, although the book is based on her own story, because it was too hard to write as nonfiction. Six years later (2012), though, she brought forth her memoir that addresses a similar part of her life. I remember she encouraged me to keep writing, as I probably stood there with tear-filled eyes, nearly paralyzed just talking about my desire to write my own hard story.

A book like Wild certainly belongs on my list of "comps"--books that are somewhat like what I'm writing. I can learn from Strayed's ability to talk sparingly and meaningfully about medical catastrophe and to move neatly through space and time, holding the through-narrative clearly in place while having all the flashes back and forward add meaning and texture. A long hike is the same thing, over and over. But this one goes beyond sore feet, thirst, sweat, snakes, snow and mountain panoramas to be a crucible for personal metamorphosis.

July 6, 2014--I read the young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green a few months ago, and last night I watched the film to match. As a cancer mom, I practically have to read a book that takes on pediatric cancer this fully, similar to Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper (which I only know from the movie of the same name). How realistic is this depiction? That's the sort of question we ask from the trenches. I've even seen a dust-up on Facebook about a pediatric oncologist who came out saying that the selection of cancers for these teenagers (one boy loses his eyes, one loses a leg, and the main character has lung trouble after temporarily beating back thyroid cancer) is unrealistic. Normally things don't go nearly this badly was his point. There are so many good cure rates. He didn't make many friends with that commentary.

From my perspective on the losing end (my child fell in the 60-75% of cases that die before the end of five years) there is no such thing as exaggerating the tragedy of pediatric cancer. One tragic case is 100% for that child and that family. I am all in favor of books and movies that make this point clear. I have been the character Laura Dern plays in this film: the mother on constant edge, desperate to stop pain, willing death away. There's a lot to say for both book and film (I recommend the combination because the movie of course misses a lot, yet the film adds some humanity to the sarcastic narration of the book). I personally feel a welcome companionship from both.

The other thing I'll say is that I live with a 14-year-old girl who is pretty unlikely to pick up a book and read it. After hearing so much about The Fault in Our Stars from friends (it's a weeping competition for one thing, also in the cinema), she bought the book last Saturday and had read it by the end of Sunday. She begged me to take her all the way to Stuttgart to see the film last night in the English original. She rarely has this sort of question, but last week she asked how old she'd been when her brother got sick (she was two, and he was four). For the way the book roused her interest in reading and in her personal story, I am grateful.

Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014--In the category of books I've been reading because I heard about them on the radio, this week's book, The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, was particularly fitting for the season. I heard an interview with Tóibín on Fresh Air with Terri Gross in February (a rebroadcast from 2012). The project he set himself was imagining the gospel story from the perspective of an aged Mary, twenty years after the crucifixion of her son. A nervy project. The Fresh Air interview dips deeply into the book, which is a novella of 104 pages. It may, in fact, go too deep because I felt it preempted important scenes. Nonetheless, I've drawn inspiration for my own writing from Tóibín's description of his practice. How do you write about Mary witnessing the crucifixion? Tóibín says (around minute 15) that writing fiction is "serious work":
"…You have to go in and pretend it hasn’t happened yet, that it’s happening now, and go into absolute detail, so you’re almost working the same way maybe as a painter is working, or as a photographer except…that it’s occurring word by word, sentence by sentence. And you have to imagine it in that way."
Tóibín depicts Mary under a kind of house arrest by two of Jesus' followers, who want to note her recollections of the story but refuse to read back what they have written down (she is illiterate). She talks of familiar events, eventually reaching the crucifixion and her escape from the hill. (Music from Jesus Christ Superstar and Bach's Passions ran in my head as I read). Tóibín has imagined all of it, of course, and in telling the story offers observations that take a little time to absorb (page 89): "Dreams belong to each of us alone, just as pain does."

April 16, 2014--I see I have some catch-up work to do here again. I am certain not to recreate a half-year's reading, but I'll pull together what I can find. For this entry, I'll finish out reading from 2013.

The standout book of last fall was Quench Your Thirst With Salt by Nicole Walker, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the 2013 Writers at Work conference in Alta, Utah. (See my blog post on Writers at Work.) Nicole consulted me on a manuscript during the 2013 conference, and she had an incisive impact on my revised essay, which recently won the 2014 W@W nonfiction competition. Nicole knows what she's doing, and especially after John McPhee (!!) praised her essay collection, I bought a copy and read it. Personal history, quizzical assessment of news events, musings about geography. It's difficult to describe. I recommended it to a writer friend because I love Walker's blend of scientific and anecdotal. For a taste of her writing, see her essay on Carbs in Defunct Magazine. To hear Nicole Walker discuss Quench Your Thirst With Salt (I recommend you consider reading the book before you listen), check out this New Books interview.

Looking for memoir and narrative inspiration in December 2013, I re-read Mary Karr's The Liars' Club. It's the book everyone will tell you to read if you're seriously thinking of writing a memoir. I read it first around 2008 after numerous recommendations. Karr depicts a child's painful quest for love amid astonishing sensory images. All the while, she's one of the finest models I've found of the retrospective narrator having her say now and then. (It's even more startling in the earlier parts of the book when the contrast is between a seven-year-old protagonist-narrator and the retrospective narrator.) Here's a sample from the last page of the book, although you'll find many others. Page 320:
"…Dark was closing in. We hit a long stretch of roadside bluebonnets that broadened to a meadow. Here and there in the flowers you could make out small gatherings of fireflies. How odd, I thought, that those bugs lived through the refinery poisons. Beyond Mother's tired profile, the fireflies blinked in batches under spreading mist like little birthday cakes lighting up and getting blown out."
I love such a whimsical and apt imagining of fireflies.

Revolutionary Road, courtesy of my library, became my introduction to Richard Yates in the fall of 2013. The enormous reputation of the book did not disappoint. I love his language and the way his characters appear unselfconscious and fully observed. Here's a quick review I posted on Goodreads: "Revolutionary Road lives up to its reputation. The plug by David Sedaris--that he re-reads the book every year--was enough to convince me to read it. Clear, evocative and unburdened language. The narrative position, just beyond the characters' reach, puts the reader in a place both uncomfortably close and yet safe from the hurt and harm of the actions. Frank Wheeler's vulnerability and Shep Campbell's lusterless life awoken by crisis reached me most deeply of all the riveting strands in the novel."

Somewhere in the last half year, I'm quite sure I read Lorrie Moore's Anagrams. I like Lorrie Moore's work. I've read quite a lot of it. This novel, though, did not leave much of an impression.

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in November, I took a celebratory look at my bookshelf and determined that she occupies more shelf inches than any other author in my personal collection. I started in on Selected Stories of Alice Munro and got through eight stories. That tends to be what happens when I read a longer collection of her stories, and that's OK with me. "The Love of a Good Woman" was my most recent favorite story by Munro, and that one's not even on my shelf--I probably got the book from the library.

Last spring/summer/fall I read The Gathering and The Last Waltz by Anne Enright, probably because I found them on the library shelf in Heilbronn. Both books had enough to keep me going to the end--Enright's voice is cynical and occasionally warm, sometimes enlightening. If I had to recommend only one, I'd pick The Gathering. I made a bunch of notes on that book, and here is a sample from Chapter 6, page 39:
“As I open the fridge, my mind is subject to jolts and lapses; the stair you miss as you fall asleep. Portents. I feel the future falling through the roof of my mind and when I look nothing is there. A rope. Something dangling in a bag, that I can not touch.
 I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass.”

This passage is an example of Enright’s ability to nail an image that is mostly an idea (as opposed to a vivid rendering of action). Rather, she’s found an analog for the feeling of that twitching foot in pre-sleep that makes you feel exactly as though you’ve miscalculated the final stair step and are surprised at the sudden lack of support. I marvel at the economy of these mentions: no long, careful, tortuous rendering, just a simple connection made bang-on, like a plug in a socket. [End 4/16/2014]

August 18, 2013--As reading for a 6-day trip to Paris last week with my daughter, I took along Life of Pi (Yann Martel, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2002). I'd never read it before, nor have I seen the Ang Lee film. It took me several chapters to figure out the writer first-person narrator is also a fictional character. I felt more comfortable once I could consider the entire book under the "rules" of fiction, despite its theme of "true story" telling. It's fantastically imagined and quite entertainingly told. Yet I could also carry it around with me and read on longer Metro rides and in longer lines for rides at Disneyland. I believe my reading may have verged on skimming at times, but I never felt lost and almost never flipped back to remind me of what I'd missed or forgotten. I think that worked because of the forward-flow of the story. In essence, whatever happened previously became irrelevant in the character's quest for survival. Since finishing the book, I've looked for reviews of both the book and the movie and will consider watching the film on DVD, albeit without 3D.

August 7, 2013--Because I wrote a review for Goodreads, I'll post the same review here. This time it's Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which I read around the first week of July, in about a week.

Capote's "true crime" account is engrossing, probing and masterly in scene and character rendering. It's addictive, especially toward the end. Somehow it keeps me, the reader, from feeling shamelessly voyeuristic. Instead, I compliantly absorb what's presented.

The final two pages of part III "Answer" typify Capote's style and gift for putting many elements together economically and meaningfully. This is the scene at the courthouse, which is also the jail, just before the Perry and Hickock are brought there for detention and trial. The scene starts with two grey tomcats scavenging bits of birds caught in car grilles. The crowd is decidedly unbloodthirsty as the men disembark from arriving cars. Cold weather makes for a quick disbursal. All in all, an anticlimax to the long and mystifying manhunt after brutal murders in this community. Final paragraph:
"No one lingered, neither the press corps nor any of the townspeople. Warm rooms and warm suppers beckoned them, and as they hurried away, leaving the cold square to the two gray cats, the miraculous autumn departed too; the year's first snow began to fall."
The tomcats and the weather aren't merely observations or backdrops to the action. They play a role in the story. Capote makes a simple reference to the cats again in his final sentence--not gratuitously, but in a way that completely characterizes the sudden emptiness of Courthouse Square. Then there's the poetry and symbolism of the snow.

My struggle with this account, and with other journalistic accounts of intimate human experience, is the non-defined narrator. We know that Truman Capote was essentially a journalist in gathering and writing this story. We know he read things and talked to people. Often, though, he gives a scene or a character's inner thoughts in a way that indicates he, the journalist, must be there as interlocutor. Yet, we don't see or hear from him. I recently struggled similarly with an article in the Washington Post near the 6 month anniversary of the shootings in Newtown, CT. The article was painfully close to the grieving parents, watching them at their computer desks or sitting over breakfast in a diner. But the journalist/author, Eli Saslow, withheld any information about how he obtained his confidences: were they told to him? was he in the next booth over? did the parents know they were being eavesdropped on? were they "performing" in some way? I expect there are conventions. If there's a photo, then I have to know a photographer was also present. But where was Capote, really? How much did his presence affect the narrative he could tell?

Other reading has included Nicole Krause's The History of Love. Very engaging, if a little manufactured in order to create the distinct narrative voices. For example, Leon Gursky's frequent interruption by final punctuation. It makes his narration recognizable, and it does characterize his life and his sense of coming to the end of it. But there's an overtness I dislike, similarly to the young Alma's style of writing in lists. These choices serve the writer's need for presenting the narrative with clarity, but do they serve the characters as rounded individuals? Less so. I once put down a Jodi Piccoult novel (Sing You Home) after getting sick of three narrational points of view coming at me in crassly different fonts. Irritating and insulting of readerly intelligence.

And Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. This book was a spot-on recommendation from a dear college friend. (I gave her Franzen's The Corrections in return.) And others.

January 23, 2013--There's been a long break from my writing about books here, but essentially no break in my reading activities. I gave Infinite Jest  a whole blogpost write-up back in November. Sometime over the last year I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home. I'm eager for her recent collection of essays to make it to my library or to be released in paperback.

What of the others along the way? Time to move into the present, where I have a working recollection of what I've read.

Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (Truman Capote 1948, Vintage International, 1994). Again, from the library shelf. Last year I read Breakfast at Tiffany's along with three short stories. I was very taken with the stories, less so with Breakfast at Tiffany's. As I understand it, Other Voice, Other Rooms is Capote's first published novel. Joel, a 13-year old orphan, has been called to a rural place in the deep South where he is supposed to meet his long-lost father after all. He encounters the very particular, the very strange. All the deeply steeped flavors of character and place draw me to the book. I come for the language, junkie-like. Here are some samples.

"Swarms of dragonflies quivered above a slime-coated watertrough; and a scabby hound dog padded back and forth, sniffing the bellies of tied-up mules." (27-28)

"A dormer window of frost glass illuminated the long top-floor hall with the kind of pearly light that drenches a room when rain is falling." (50)

Fair weather over a funeral makes Joel reflect. "It seemed odd to Joel nature did not reflect so solemn an event: flowers of cottonboll clouds within a sky as scandalously blue as kitten-eyes were offensive in their sweet dierespect: a resident of over a hundred years in so narrow a world deserved higher honor." (163)

"Deep in the hollow, dark syrup crusted the bark of vine-roped sweetgums; like pale apple leaves green witch butterflies sank and rose there and there; a breezy lane of trumpet lilies (Sainst and Heroes, these alone, or so old folks said, could hear their mythical flourish) beckoned like hands lace-gloved and ghostly." (174) Such richness and originality in the word choice, the syntax.

"He was gone now, and running toward the mailbox, Idabel, outside. The road was like a river to float upon, and it was as if a roman-candle, ignited by the sudden breath of freedom, had zoomed him away in a wake of star-sparks. "Run!" he cried, reaching Idabel, for to stop before the Landing stood forever out of sight was an idea unendurable, and she was racing before him, her hair pulling back in windy stiffness: as the road humped into a hill it was as though she mounted the sky on a moon-leaning ladder; beyond the hill they came to a standstill, panting, tossing their heads." (186) Rhythm! Rubato! Expression of simultaneity, even as words march on one after the other.

Torch light illuminates old wallpaper in a ruined hotel. "Around the torch swooped white choirs of singing wings which made to leap and sway all within range of the furious light: humped greyhounds hurled through the halls, their silent shadow-feet trampling flowerbeds of spiders, and in the lobby lizards loomed like dinosaurs; the coral-tongued cukoo bird, forever stilled at three o'clock, spread wings hawk-wide, falcon-fierce." (225)

Previous "Currently Reading" entries begin here. I took a 22-month vacation, apparently. [End 01/23/2013]

Reading and discussing what I read are two of my most absorbing activities. This page contains a record of what I've been reading, followed some thoughts on each work. I'd love to have a conversation about any of these books and invite you to post comments.

My reflections make reference to a book by Francine Prose called Reading Like a Writer. I've put a write-up of that book at the very bottom of this page, where you might prefer to start if you're here for the first time.

After rather falling off the wagon on this section of my blog, I'm back with some quick notes on some books I've read since winter '10. When the Killing's Done (T.C. Boyle, Bloomsbury, 2010) This book called to me from the English bookshelf at a shop in Heilbronn. As one of about twenty-five titles on that shelf, it had minimal competition. I've been curious about Boyle for a while. I think I've read his work from time to time in The New Yorker. Anyway, he seems prolific and current, and I wanted to give that a try. Interesting book. Characters and scenarios are fully drawn such that no one seems "right" or "wrong," and the central conflict remains unresolvable, even if the story feels complete. I've moved on to Boyle's look at Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women. Boyle has a knack for portraying wildly unreasonable individuals (Dave Lajoy in When the Killing's Done and Wright in The Women. The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen, Picador, 2001) A Francine Prose recommendation for indefatigable detail and characterization. I definitely liked it better than your average customer. Just Kids (Patti Smith, Bloomsbury, 2010) Because it won the National Book Award and I found it in a museum shop in Essen, Germany. Stunning example of telling a story that everyone knows the outcome of and making it exceedingly suspenseful nonetheless. Like Oedipus, but the discoveries of individual artistry are stories of success, not tragedy. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach, W.W. Norton, 2003) I bought this book after hearing the author (who is a near-classmate of mine from Wesleyan days, although not an acquaintance) on NPR. I read it this winter because I have lingering questions about dead bodies, which is the subject of the entire 292 pages. My questions still linger, but I learned a few things and often enjoyed the bravura and whimsy with which Roach reports and writes of her investigation. I have not read her other titles, Bonk, Spook, and Packing for Mars. American Pastoral (Philip Roth)
Loved this book, which I turned to after one hundred pages in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. I just couldn't dig into another story of rich people and their manners. I've been inspired by Nick Hornby's Polysyllabric Spree admonition only to read texts that you are desperate to keep reading. More on that eventually. Both the Roth and the James are on Francine Prose's list. Clearly, the late 20th century author is more my kind of writer. 03/17/2011

Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen, Penguin Classics: 2008, first published 1811)
In December I checked to see if there was anything on Francine Prose's list on my bookshelf that I still hadn't read. Not much--not because I've read the list, but because I don't own that many of the titles (I miss my local library in Salt Lake City very much). I did find two 19th century classics: Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. And Raymond Carver's Cathedral. I have made several attempts to read Little Women, but it has yet to draw me in. So, I picked up the fabric-bound Jane Austen (an item I acquired at last year's Arts Academy faculty Christmas party, at which the nabbing of someone else's already opened gift is allowed, and I snatched this one; I still don't know who brought it to the party).

What to say about Jane Austen? She's not a particular favorite of mine, yet I found myself drawn into the narrative in Sense and Sensibility, wanting to find out how the story would go (even though when the end arrives nothing seems to have been the least bit unpredictable). Two main effects linger for me. One, the endless machinations of politeness and whether or not the characters are living up to their social duties and, if not, what that must mean about their emotional state. It all seems so frivolous, but then I notice my own social interactions and how much it helps to remember the basics of asking another person about the well being of family members, of being courteous, and so forth. In Austen's tales, this decorum seems to be ALL that the characters are concerned with. But I think that's just Austin's selectivity. She's not telling us about how someone required a chamber pot or stepped in something smelly or yearns to have a certain trinket. It's all about manners and their upkeep.

Second, Austen's language tends toward abstract words and syntactic complexity, so much so that part of the pleasure of reading her books is the feeling of having held on tightly through some challenging terrain. Here's an example from Chapter V (28-29) that strikes me as quintessential Austen (the character, from whose perspective the sentence comes, is Mrs. Dashwood):

"Her eagerness to be gone from Norland was preserved from diminution by the evident satisfaction of her daughter-in-law in the prospect of her removal; a satisfaction which was but feebly attempted to be concealed under a cold invitation to her to defer her departure."

The only word in the sentence that refers to a tangible entity is "Norland" (the family home, left solely to the eldest son after Mrs. Dashwood's husband's death). The rest requires the reader's imagination to fill in any kind of detail, despite the fact that the prose is elaborately specific. It's a very weird feeling I get, reading Austen. Intriguing, but doesn't make me crave more. 01/11/2011

Sommerlügen (Bernhard Schlink, Diogenes: 2010)
Schlink is known for Der Vorleser (The Reader). I'm reading the German version and am not sure if the book is out in English translation yet--I can't find it. Interestingly, many of the stories are set in the U.S., but they are written with a distinctly German voice. The book "spoke" to me from the new acquisitions shelf on my first visit to the little library here in Flein. As the cover promises, it offers seven irritating-moving stories. Schlink doesn't explain his characters, and most of them engage in the inexplicable. For example, does the man with cancer in "Der letzte Sommer" receive sympathy from his family when they discover his plan for suicide once his pain is too severe? No, they all simply pack up and leave immediately from the summer house where they were gathered. Schlink tells little about the pre-history. As a reader, you have to imagine what sorts of strains underlie the relationships such that this man would be abandoned at that point. I mean, under what circumstances would anyone say: "You lied to me; go ahead and die when your pain is unbearable; just don't expect me to be around." Yes, irritating. 12/2010

The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien, Penguin: 1991)
Tim O'Brien's collection of linked short stories about Viet Nam shows up on my reading list twice. First, because literature instructor at the University of Utah, Paul Wilson, recommended and loaned the book to me, saying he thought it might inspire my writing about the harsh topic of my son's illness and death. Second, it's on Francine Prose's list of "Books to Read Immediately" (117 titles listed at the back of Reading Like a Writer, Harper Perennial: 2006). Paul was right: the iterative techniques, the unflinching and flinching recollections, the humility of the storytelling--these will merit lengthy study, imitation, and aspiration to discover story within the inexplicable and the indescribable.

Francine Prose's list has been posted online by another blogger. My progress through the list is modest: 7 down, 110 to go (not counting the few of my acquaintance that I haven't read since high school). 11/2010

Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays (George Orwell, edited by George Packer, published 2009)
See blog post Harder than you'd think for reactions to Orwell's essay about the coal fire. Orwell inspires me with his honest voice, his holding of a given moment in a way that allows careful viewing without condemning the moment to preciousness. I'm eager to get my hands on All Art Is Propaganda, Packer's recent collection of Orwell's critical essays. 10/2010

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of the English Language (John McWhorter, Gotham Books: 2009)
McWhorter has a way of both fascinating and irritating me. His facility as a linguist and his verve in expressing an opinion pull me in. His insistence on writing a very spoken-sounding (and, I would say, very idiosyncratic) English tires me, as does his use of extended analogies. Another book I've read parts of is his The Power of Babel. Still, McWhorter's theories on the development of English over the past 3000 years make sense to me, especially to the language instructor part of me. To put it very briefly: English differs from other Germanic languages substantially because of a few things that happened after the language took root in the British Isles: the Celtic impact and the Viking impact. Two aspects of English that are especially difficult to teach to German speakers are the use of "meaningless do" and the present progressive.* Both of these, McWhorter asserts, came into English from existing Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish). The Vikings are responsible for making English a whole lot less fussy than other languages descended from Proto Germanic. Where German still requires four distinct cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive), English basically only has one (compared with its predecessor, Proto Indo European, Proto Germanic had already reduced its case load from about eight to these four). McWhorter makes a believable case that it was the Vikings who learned English, imperfectly, as adults and who caused it to lose the details of case and gender.

*I see the snow. | I sehe den Schnee.
Do you see the snow? | Siehst du den Schnee?
I don't see the snow. | I sehe den Schnee nicht.
You saw the snow, didn't you? | Du hast den Schnee gesehen, nicht wahr?

I am looking out the window. | Ich schaue zum Fenster hinaus.

Waiting (Ha Jin, Vintage International: 2000, winner of the National Book Award)
I picked up a copy of this book for $1 at my neighborhood bookstore, The King's English, in Salt Lake City. I'm sure I was attracted to the gold book award medallion. Its portrait of Cultural Revolution China, of life in a socially constricted setting, and of a man whose desires never match his realities kept me somewhat engaged. I assume that Ha Jin writes English as a second language and that some of the formulations derive from underlying thought patterns in Chinese. Two usages struck me as particularly unusual (and, to my ear, annoying). One, he uses way more forms of the verb "to be" than any instructor in writing craft would "allow." These show up in simple formulations, such as, "His collar was unbuckled and the top buttons on his jacket were undone, displaying his prominent Adam's Apple" (page 21) Even more striking than the frequent use of passive/past participle as adjective constructions is, in my view, an overuse of the past progressive tense. For example: "Beside him, chickens were strutting and geese waddling. A few little chicks were passing back and forth through he narrow gaps in the paling that fenced a small vegetable garden. In the garden pole beans and long cucumbers hung on trellises, eggplants curved like ox horns, and lettuce heads were so robust that they covered up the furrows. In addition to the poultry, his wife kept two pigs and a goat for milk. Their sow was oinking from the pigpen…" (page 4).

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this observation, but the effect of the past progressive here, to me, seems non-idiomatic as well as littered with forms of "to be." More natural might be finding the "ing" forms as gerunds or participial adjectives. By contrast, in the same paragraph, Ha Jin writes: "From the kitchen, where Shuyu was cooking, came the coughing of the bellows" (page 4). The verb form calls attention to the character's current action. This usage makes sense to me, but it seems excessive when applied to the scene in the barnyard. Might it be more "idiomatic" to say: "A few chicks passed back and forth… Their sow oinked from the pigpen."

I realize I may be the only person who ever read this book that ever cared about this point.  09/2010

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (Francine Prose, Harper Perennial: 2007)
I was introduced to this book during a course with a similar title in the Lifelong Learning Program at the University of Utah several years ago. There's a wikipedia article (currently a stub) that offers a brief summary of the book. Off and on since I purchased the book, I've been reading Prose's chapters, which discuss literature concepts (words, paragraphs, dialogue, etc.) by giving numerous examples from writing that Prose admires. Her discussion is insightful, and I'm generally intrigued to find a given book and read more than the excerpt she's provided.

At the end of the book, she lists 117 titles under the heading: Books to be read immediately. As of 1/11/2011, I have read nine. (I'm not counting King Lear (the only Shakespeare on the list) and Franny and Zoey (the only Salinger) or Wuthering Heights (the only Brontë) because it's been at least 30 years since I had those in my hands.) To give an idea of the range of titles on her list, here are the ones that I have "checked off" so far: Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen); Sense and Sensibility (Austen); Cathedral (Raymond Carver); The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald); Selected Stories (Alice Munro); Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov); The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien); Oedipus Rex (Sophocles, although not in Prose's suggested translation by Sir George Young, but in the version printed in my Intro to Lit textbook from my first literature course since high school (taken at the age of 44, by the way) by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald); The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White (although not the version with illustrations by Maira Kalman recommended by Prose)--I think I memorized this book in high school, so I'm counting it even though I haven't read it in a long time; and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (I subbed last spring in a 7th/8th grade humanities class when they were at the beginning of this book; encouraged by Prose's list, I decided to read it to the end and am glad I did). 01/11/2011