Where's the book?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Actually on track

Although I doubt I can keep it up, I am actually on track with the book-a-week schedule. Of course, it probably helps that work is slow and I'm not doing all the other things I really should (exercise, socialize, leave the house). Exaggerating slightly, but I do spend a lot of time sitting down, which I am told, repeatedly and endlessly -- why has the media become so obsessed lately with how much we sit? is it some kind of anti-chair lobby? -- is bad for me. But sitting is just so much fun! And all the things I really like to do (except cooking) involve sitting. It's hard to read a book standing up. Or go to the theater. Or watch Game of Thrones (although I do bounce around a lot for that -- it's hard to sit still when someone is having their head lopped off).

I digress. As I said back there somewhere, I am actually on track. It's the sixteenth week of the year and I have just completed book number 17 (giving myself a little bumper for future longer reads). Drumroll please, here are the two latest:

#16 Zoli by Colum McCann. After reading Let the Great World Spin last year, and loving it beyond measure, and then going to hear him read (charmingly) as part of the launch of this Esquire book, which he edited, I was determined to read more of Mr. McCann. But this book disappointed. It's the story of a Romani (Gypsy) woman, spanning most of the 20th century and told in several voices. But none of the voices felt compelling, and although it was interesting to learn about a world and a people that are completely unfamiliar to me, the writing felt somehow both dense and thin -- hard to get through and unrewarding at the same time. But I will not abandon McCann. More of his work is in my future reading plans.

#17 The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. A completely different reading experience. This book was very compelling, despite being a relatively simple story. The narrator is in her late thirties, an elementary school teacher, living a
mundane, somewhat sad, existence. But underneath it all she is surging with emotion and desperate to hide her anger, her jealousy, and her desperation. As a young woman, she wanted to be an artist, and dreamed of a life fame and artistic creativity. Now she lives in the town she grew up in, tends to her elderly father and aunt, and teaches third grade. The story focuses on her newfound friendship with a family that moves to town. She falls in love with all of them -- the artist mother, academic father, even the sweet child. They are the artists, the travelers, the intellectuals, the family she wants for herself. The writing has you sitting on the edge of your seat -- you know something dreadful is going to happen, but you can't imagine what direction it's going to come from. Messud captures the envy women have for other women, the sense of betrayal when our needs are not met, and the feeling of dreams that have been swallowed, denied, or simply ignored. It's a powerful and intelligent book.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tra-la-la Trollope

To reward myself for getting through #14, I returned to a favorite author for #15: Anthony Trollope. Revisiting Trollope is always a treat, and although Dr. Wortle's School is not considered a major work, even a minor Trollope is a pleasure. It's a relatively short (for Trollope) novel of a cleric and headmaster, Dr. Wortle, and the schoolmaster who works for him. It's a slight tale, but an enjoyable one, and an interesting and engaging exploration of Victorian morality. It's a challenge, I admit, to not find the Victorian tsk-tsking a little silly. But you have to put aside your twenty-first century vision and put on nineteenth-century spectacles while reading. It's worth it.

I admire Trollope for not only what he wrote, but how he wrote it. He disdained the concept of the starving artist waiting for the muse to strike. He rose early every day, wrote his designated number of pages (and it was always a designated number; Trollope worked on a quota system), then went off to the office. He worked his entire career for the British postal system, and is credited for having invented the mailbox -- the iconic red pillar box that is still in use. Prior to that time, you had to take your letters to a post office to send them on their way.

Trollope was one of the most prolific authors of his time (or ever): 47 novels, numerous short stories, and more than a dozen works of non-fiction. It is said that he not only wrote on a quota system, but he didn't re-read or edit. Having finished the last page of one of his massive novels (many are 500, 600, or 700 pages long), he would simply put it aside, pull out a clean sheet, and begin the next book. Perhaps these stories are apocryphal, but they, along with his discipline, lifelong postal career, and avowal that of course he wrote for money, have contributed to the derision that has often been fashionable where Trollope is concerned. A great artist doesn't write on a quota system! A creative genius waits for the muse to strike! No output that vast can be of any worth!

As Mr. Trollope would surely say: Bosh.

His work ethic is clearly admirable, as is the fact that, unlike his ne'er-do-well father who died in debt, Trollope supported his wife and two sons, had a successful career, ran for Parliament (sadly, he lost), made money from his writing, rode to hounds (his favorite pastime), and generally lived the life of a prosperous Englishman of his time. He made his reputation not by writing grand, sweeping sagas, but by chronicling the lives of people much like him: ordinary Englishmen and women.

I'm going to give another great writer of that time the last word on Trollope. Nathaniel Hawthorne had this to say about Trollope in a letter to his publisher: "Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste; solid, substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Rare non-fiction: #14

I don't often read non-fiction, because it doesn't offer the escapist joy of fiction. I find it interesting, but not gripping enough (usually) to really do what the "frigate like a book" can do. But I was telling a friend about how much I enjoyed Life After Life, particularly the lengthy section of the book set in London during the Blitz. It was such a powerful and moving time (in the book and in life, of course). The friend said, "Have you read this?" and offered me a copy of Lynne Olson's Citizens of London, a non-fiction account of the wartime alliance between Britain and the United States, told through the stories of three important American players in London at that time: the head of CBS News in Europe Edward R. Murrow, Lend-Lease director Averell Harriman, and the U.S. Ambassador to Britain John Gilbert Winant.

I had heard of Harriman and Murrow, of course, but amazingly had never heard of Winant, who was the book's most compelling personality, as well as being perhaps the key American in London both before and during the war. Shy, idealistic, incredibly admirable, his story was fascinating, sad, and deeply moving. 

I enjoyed the book, and learned a great deal (let's hope some of it gets retained!) but it wasn't a book I ran to pick up when I had some reading time. I think Olson is an excellent writer, so I don't blame her. I think it's just my fiction predilection (love the rhyme).

Friday, April 4, 2014

See more Glass

Went back to the Glass family (and others) and Mr. Salinger for #13: Nine Stories. The collection was published in 1953, although most of the stories had previously been published in The New Yorker. Three of the stories feature members of the famous Glass family. A Perfect Day for Bananafish is the story of eldest son Seymour's suicide. Uncle Wiggily in Connecticutt is about two women getting drunk together in Connecticutt, during which one tells the other of the man she once loved, Walter Glass, who died during the war. The third is Down at the Dinghy, a rare peak into the life of Boo Boo Tannenbaum (nee Glass). It's also, for me, the most moving of the stories, as Boo Boo coaxes her sweet, hurt young son from his father's dinghy, where he has taken retreat.

The others stories are equally wonderful, especially the final one, Teddy, which packs quite a punch. Teddy himself could easily be a member of the Glass menagerie and the theme of the damaged genius-child and spiritual search are reminiscent of so much other Salinger writing.

On to Seymour, An Introduction and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.