Archive for the ‘Reviews and Responses’ category

delicious ambiguity

October 26, 2018

“Nothing is better than love,” says Dr. James Darke in the novel Darke by Rick Gekoski.

I picked this up at the used book store last weekend because the synopsis on the flap appealed to my curmudgeonly, misanthropic soul, the book being about a curmudgeonly, misanthropic soul. Due to a series of unfortunate life events, the protagonist has essentially walled himself into his London house, seeing no one, having his groceries and such delivered, and even sealing the mail slot in his front door so he won’t receive any missives. It’s over the top, of course, but it’s nicely done, and it’s a first-person narration so you can’t be sure just how much is true.

But on to that quote.

On face value it seems true and honorable, even if spoken by a curmudgeon. Love is the greatest thing. Yet if you think of the sentence as an equation, with two components, A (nothing) and B (love), you can reach a different conclusion. “A is better than B.” Love may be dandy, but Nothing is better.

The sentence is ambiguous; we live in the ambiguity!

I can tell you from the context of the statement that curmudgeonly Darke does mean that having nothing in his life is better than having love in his life. (“Nothing” being no personal entanglements or dealings with others. As close as he has come, so far, is the limited dealings with the workman who sealed the letter slot on his door and a char woman of foreign extraction who comes once a week and upsets his equilibrium. He pretends to be partly deaf with both of them to limit interaction even more, but the char sees through this early on.)

I’m only a third of the way through the novel, and I suspect that the equation in that statement will be reversed by the end, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the writing and the character.

Curiously, so far this novel bears a strong resemblance to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Time of the Angels. It too has a man who has removed himself from society, seeing no one and throwing away all of the mail he gets. As well, he has an adult daughter and a housekeeper who is foreign and who has developed a relationship with him. I don’t know yet how far Darke will hold to this course, but I hope not too far since the Murdoch novel does not end well.


recovery reading

September 24, 2018

Have you ever heard of a “recovery reading” or a “recovery writer”? I know I read about this somewhere, but I’m turning up no references. The idea is that after you’ve read something that wasn’t very good (for whatever reason, and there could be many where “good” is relative), you read something that you know is very good (again) as a way to “recover” from your “bad” reading experience.

Say, for example, you like to read Westerns but for some reason you picked up To The Lighthouse and all you can think about is getting back to Westerns you enjoy. The Westerns become your recovery reading; your favorite author is your recovery writer. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with To the Lighthouse, you concede, but it’s just not your thing, and you feel that you want to get back to where you once belonged.

That’s where I am now. I recently read the novel The Last Child by John Hart. I knew nothing more about it than what was blurbed on the back cover, and I picked it up at the used bookstore as something to read on the airplane coming back from Seattle last week. It turned out to be a police procedural thriller, filled with red herrings, tense cliffhanger chapters, and leading to a clever shaggy dog resolution. (Plus there were some well written images and word usages.) I don’t read in that genre, but it certainly seemed to deliver the goods. I was literally telling myself that I would read “just one more chapter” each night as I lay in bed, well past lights out. I did an eighty-page sprint to the end Sunday morning because I had to know how it all resolved. (It turned on an unreliable witness.) And while I don’t regret reading it, I don’t suppose I’ll read any more from this writer.

And now I’m turning to my recovery reading. I’ve started By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. I had read his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours, by fortunate coincidence not long after I had (re)read Mrs Dalloway, and the book connected with me. I was impressed with the three narratives and how they blended so well. And I reveled in the human nature insights Cunningham salted throughout. Not long after that I had listened to his re-told fairy tales The Wild Swan on a drive to/from my little Ozark cabin. After that I knew I would be reading Micheal Cunningham often.

I don’t mean to assert that Cunningham is a better writer than Hart. That would be like saying a baseball player is a better athlete than a football player (or whether a cat or a dog is a better companion). I only say that when I’ve ventured outside of my familiar (and am better for it), I am glad I have something to return to that works for me.

Do you have a recovery writer? (or any strong feelings on the dog/cat thing?)

Some books I liked in 2017

January 3, 2018

I am not a book critic. I don’t think I’m actually a very discerning reader. (How else can I explain that I’ve read a certain novel* more than 30 times and still find something new in it each reading?) But sometimes books stay with me and compel me to read more by the author.

Here are the books I read in 2017 that stayed with me:

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski – I wrote about it here.

The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine – I first read his acclaimed novel An Unnecessary Woman in 2016 and found I wanted to read more of his fiction. I have another of his novels on order at my local indie bookstore.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This novel is as much about story telling as it is about the men of the Vietnam War. I’d actually read quite a bit of O’Brien before coming to this novel, and I was surprised I had missed it for so long.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – I wrote about it here

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout – I was introduced to Strout by a comment from Teri Carter some time ago. I’ve since read every piece of fiction by Strout, and I expect to keep reading her words as they come out.

Of course I read plenty of other novels and nonfiction in 2017 including other works by Strout, and my re-readings of Iris Murdoch and Alvaro Mutis. Oddly missing throughout the year was anything by Philip Roth. I’m sure 2018 will correct that.




*The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

recent reading adventures

December 12, 2017

You’ll recall that I traveled to Seattle over the long Thanksgiving weekend to visit my son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter. (They have another on the way!) I find flying tedious and time consuming and hardly an adventure, but it is an effective way to get from right here to far there. And I look on it as a way to get a lot of good reading done. Generally I treat myself to a new book to carry on, one that I can conceivably finish en route.

I began with great ambitions. This was to be the trip when I would re-read Moby-Dick. (I would not have finished it en route.) I have a nice paperback copy of the Norton Critical Edition that would travel well, and the night before departure I pulled it from the shelf to flip through it. I was daunted. It seemed too dense for easy reading in unfavorable conditions — it deserves close and careful reading and time for reflection, none of which, I’ve found, is possible on an airplane. (Plus the print was really small.) And so, that night I found myself at Half Price Books, scouring the shelves for something to take on the flight with me.

I settled on The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin. I’d not read any of his writing before, and the story looked interesting enuf to keep me reading on a plane. (Plus the print was not really small.)

When we got to the airport that next morning, I found that — yes — I had left the book on my desk at home, dagnabit! This meant that I would either face a nearly four-hour flight with only my murky thoughts to occupy me or I would have to find something tolerable to read in the tiny, over-priced newsstand tucked into terminal B at the Kansas City airport. I approached the newsstand hopeful and doubtful. (Would that qualify as cognitive dissonance?) Best sellers mostly, with a horrifying selection of self help and business management tomes. I read the titles several times, trying to find something I thought I could stomach. The least offensive-seeming was a novel titled All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I had known of this book before, but because it had to do in large part with (historical) Nazis, I had never picked it up. Pickings were slim, however, and boarding was approaching, so I bought it. It was only then than I noticed the embossed emblem on the cover saying it had won the Pulitzer Prize. Well, that took me from doubtful to full-on hopeful.

I bought it under a sort of lending-library scheme. I could return the book when I was finished to any seller in dozens of airports around the world and get half my money back. Then it would go back on the shelf for the next reader. I doubted that the copy I would return would be in decent enuf shape to be returnable, with it going in and out of my carry on, getting stuffed in the seat back pouch in front of me, and all of the rough handling travel tends to cause. To verify my understanding, though, I asked the cashier if I could return it to the bookstore in the Sea-Tac airport when I got there, and she said yes but then scoffed that I could finish it in the time it took to fly there. Well, I saw that as a challenge. At 530 pages, it was beyond me, of course, but I began reading it as we waited to board, determined to give it a try nonetheless.

All the Light We Cannot See turned out to be an engrossing read, an ensemble of characters well drawn with an adventure before them just up to the edge of being implausible, but not quite. I wouldn’t call it a deep read, but it was very good storytelling. I did not finish it before reaching Seattle. I got half way though, and if I was diligent, I could at least return it to the same newsstand where I had bought it when I was back five days later.

I was more than diligent. Given that our trip to Seattle was governed by the whims, patience, and naps of a fussy two-year-old, we didn’t do much sightseeing and I had a lot of downtime at my son’s house. (Remember that I finished writing one story and wrote an entirely new story while there.) I finished the novel a couple of days before our return flight. Fortunately, one of the places my granddaughter allowed us to visit was an outdoor shopping mall that included an Amazon brick-and-mortar bookstore, which was a sort-of sight to see of its own. I wandered the fiction shelves there (while she frolicked on the covered playground) and bought myself a slim novel (186 pages) called A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. He is another writer I had never read before, and the novel seemed readable on the coming, shorter flight back home. (Tail winds and the conceit that it was “downhill” meant shorter travel time.)

Realizing that I would easily finish the Isherwood novel on the flight, I visited the Sea-Tac bookstore at departure to find something else to use up the remainder of my air time. And once again, the choices that would interest me were slim. I settled on The Painter by Peter Heller. I didn’t know this writer at all, but the blurb on the back cover sounded interesting, being either a penetrating view into the souls of several complicated characters or a tough-guy shoot-em-up. I couldn’t tell, but it was a book in hand that would fill the tedious hours.

When we boarded the plane I opened A Single Man and began reading. The style was interesting, and since I haven’t read much gay literature, I was looking forward to the tale. But then I decided I was going to close my eyes for just ten minutes. The next thing I heard was that we were beginning our descent into Kansas City. Dagnabit, again!

I finished the Isherwood novel several days after returning home (it was a good read) and then picked up The Night Listener, which had been waiting patiently for me. I was engrossed and managed to finish it quickly. One sign that I enjoyed a book is when I find myself interested in reading another by that author, and I intend to explore more of Maupin in the future. I’m also interested in watching the film made of it. The ending is ambiguous in the extreme, and I’m eager to see what they do with it in the film. (There is also a film version of A Single Man that I want to see now.)

Shortly after this I finished Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (so you don’t have to). I had been poking away at this autobiography for several weeks and left it at home during my travels. This book was disappointing, though I suppose to fans it would be interesting. The book is packed with anecdote and admissions, boisterousness and betrayals, but throughout I found myself wanting to hear the other side of the many story he told. He seemed to be trying too hard to make himself seem like a flawed but decent man. At 500+ pages, I still found little in the way of actual substance in the book.

I am now reading The Painter. I fear it’s going to be the shoot-em-up, but I’m giving it a chance.

As for All the Light We Cannot See, when we got back to Kansas City I did not return it to the newsstand there for half of my money. It was packed in my stowed luggage, and by the time we had collected that, it was time to find the shuttle to where we’d left our car so we could dash off to the “camp” where we’d boarded our dogs. So the novel sits on my desk. A dedicated trip to (and from) the airport to return it would cost in gas a good chunk of money that would negate much of the refund, and with family coming to town for the holidays, it’s possible that I will be traveling to the airport. If I have the presence of mind to take the book with me should I make that trip, and I have the time whilst there, I could return the book then.

But my wife has said she might like to read it. She usually has a half dozen books going at one time so she’s not a fast reader (of a given book). The return window for the Doerr novel is six months. I suspect this book will join the others sitting on a shelf to eventually be donated to the small-town library near my woods in the Ozarks, but that’s a good thing too.


House of Earth

January 18, 2016

A representative sampling from Woody Guthrie’s only novel, House of Earth:

“And still it was harder than this to see through. The ways and the laws that people used to judge one another did not lie in any one certain mold. The people knew the other people. They knew all the good, the half good, the three-fourths good, and the nine-tenths good. One would have six faults and no good. Another had three good habits and four bad ones. Another had eleven sins and twelve virtues. This one, two vices and one streak of honesty. The next one, fair in some things and no-account in others. The next one, all right when the wind is in the east. The next one was a good man while his wife done his thinking. Another was a hard worker but trailed loose women. And others had their own mixtures of the good and the bad and their makeup was as well known to the others as the times to plow and to plant and to cut and to gather. There were a few people around who fought, drank, gambled, fornicated, trifled, told lies, and cheated but were so outright and so honest about it that Tike and Ella Mae either one would lend them their last coin or feed them or shelter them at any time, because they paid them back sooner than lots of the ones that claimed to be so holy.”

(I am by no means a saint, but I hope I’m not guilty of trifling!)

There are passages like this on every page of this novel, so many, in fact, that sometimes there is barely even any narrative development. I don’t mind. In a way it’s like poetry I think. And I’m glad that Guthrie found an outlet for his creative way of looking at things through songwriting. (The novel ends with the central character singing a song he’s making up as he goes.)

It does read to me as a one-note novel though. Set during the Dust Bowl in the Texas Panhandle, it tells a bit of the story of a young married couple whose great dream is to build a house made of earth — much like adobe — that will withstand both the ravages of nature and the rapaciousness of landlords, big banks, big agriculture, and the like. There are three characters, and each is prone to speechifying in much the same way as the narrator does in the excerpt above. (There is also a baby who makes an appearance at the last minute, but he isn’t given a speech to deliver.) The speeches are about the desire to overcome or the inability to overcome the forces arrayed against the couple (and all proletarians to Guthrie’s point of view). All exemplified by the house made of earth.

There is some speculation about why the novel was never published in Guthrie’s lifetime, the most prominent view being that he had finished it just as the Red Scare was rising in the country and no publisher wanted to handle such a hot item in that environment. (Big publishing?) When the novel was finally published several years ago, it became a New York Times bestseller, with all of the proceeds going to charity.

I’m not sure it’s a great novel, though it should probably stand in the same part of the Pantheon as The Grapes of Wrath, as a companion read.

run away

January 7, 2015

I did something last night that I haven’t done in a long, long time. I gave up on a book. I just stopped reading it, in the middle of a chapter, even in the middle of a sentence.

I’d been forcing myself to keep at it for a few days, always thinking that it was going to get better or somehow tie in and make sense, but all it seemed to be doing was getting deeper into . . . catechism.

The book is Running & Being by George Sheehan. I’ve been reading a lot of books by runners lately (and for the most part, I’ve learned that they — at least the elites — are not the kind of people I want to know) and I saw this book the last time I was at Powell’s in Portland. The title suggested that it touched on two of the three things that are important (writing being the third?).

Was I surprised. This is an old book in the field, first published in 1978, and I should have guessed from the tagline that it was self-congratulatory: “The book that got the whole world running.”

From what I could see (and I got nearly half way through it) Sheehan simply spouts airy platitudes, quotes disparate philosophers out of context (to show his erudition?), takes conventional wisdom and asserts the opposite (in a way that I suppose he believes is shocking), and then delivers a lesson in Catholic teaching to sum it all up. He struck me as the kind of person who had a lot of opinions that he thought everyone would benefit from, but he never had an audience.

This book was not about running. I think you could literally (and I think I used that word correctly here) substitute “swimming” or “glass blowing” or “bank robbing” every time the word “running” came up and not affect the drift of the ideas.

I could probably scrape together a few more complaints I have about the book, but I don’t think it is worth the bother. It’s gone to my giveaway shelf, and good riddance.

But what to read now?

better left unsaid

September 11, 2013

“To me the best novels are the ones that don’t explain everything, but give the reader just enough hints about the full story to keep the reader questioning and thinking about the story long after it’s finished.”

~ Peter Anderson, in a interview about his novel Wheatyard

Peter’s quote above just about perfectly sums up my attitude toward fiction writing. If the experience of fiction is collaborative, equal parts brought to bear by the writer and the reader, which I think is not only true but inevitably true, then the best writers leave plenty for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Peter’s novel, about the summer of an unmoored business graduate and his encounter and growing fascination with an inscrutable novelist leaves plenty unsaid, which gives the reader room to expand and enrich the story with speculation and musing. It has been said that every person’s life is a complete book, and the best we can hope to know of another is a few pages. That could be the theme of Wheatyard the novel and the deliberate goal of Wheatyard the protagonist. While Peter has a keen eye for telling detail, he doesn’t flood the narrative with pointless descriptions or dumb it down by telling the reader everything that needs to be known. The reader, just like the unmoored graduate who is the narrator, is invited to speculate on the things left unsaid, to fill in the story that is untold, and in the end, to complete the tale in whatever way is most satisfying (including the tantalizing “satisfaction” of never really ever being able to know).

Both of the long-time readers of this humble blog know of my aversion to what has been called Nancy Drew Moments. Peter is certainly not guilty of this writing sin. He gives his readers plenty of berth for providing their own details, and I think this approach is exactly what the writer Robert Boswell speaks of in his non-fiction book on creative writing, The Half-Known World. (Among the questions Boswell asks in his writing guide is what your character would think of you if the two of you met in a bar. Know this and know your character better. Tellingly, Wheatyard and the narrator have several meetings in bars in the novel.) Boswell suggests that the reader be given ample space to fill in details. Peter’s narrator spends the novel trying to learn more about Wheatyard the character, for Wheatyard is almost pathologically guarded about the details of his life, and if the narrator perhaps never learns more than a few pages of Wheatyard’s life, he is left with the engaging emptiness that he can fill, or not.

It’s almost inevitable that the reader of Wheatyard assumes the same role as the narrator of the novel. Wheatyard the character is a novelist (unpublished and perhaps even unpublishable). So, too, is Peter Anderson (though, of course, published), and as a reader I was trying to peer between the lines to see what details of his own life might be slipping into his fiction. It’s a fair and often-asked question to wonder how autobiographical a novel is. And while I know that Peter has far more in common with his narrator than with Wheatyard the character, the built-in quest for more details about that writer spilled into my experience reading Peter Anderson the writer.

Which is informed by the fact that Peter and I have been long-hand correspondents for more than a year. (Anyone remember letter writing?) I also regularly read his blog, Pete Lit, and exchange witty barbs on that great social networking site that will remain unnamed. (Speculate as you will about that one!) Wheatyard is a novel I will return to, for while it doesn’t necessarily tell you everything, there is plenty in it to chew on and muse over.

Wheatyard is available from Kuboa Press.