Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Personal Bookshelf

I just rediscovered a book on my shelves called My Ideal Bookshelf. Over one hundred creative types from a variety of disciplines (including authors) were asked to produce a small representative bookshelf of their favorite titles, books that have changed their lives, or made them who they are today. I thought this was a captivating idea and started thinking about my own shelf. And here's what I came up with: One Hundred Years of Solitude, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry (the only time I've ever seen anyone else signal this title is in the book by writer Chuck Klosterman), Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy, A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford, Consider the Oyster by M F K Fisher, Out of This Century by Peggy Guggenheim, Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison, Catcher in the Rye, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Essays of E. B. White, Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker, Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz, the NYT Cookbook. Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson.

Send me your own shelf. What titles influenced your life?

I want to add more and more this is just my first off-the-top effort. I am trying to combine the bookselling years when I read and sold mysteries with the Latin American Studies years when I discovered Garcia-Marquez but I ought to drop some of the Latins for the odd European writer, certainly a Brit. I've read a lot of Brits in my time. Forster's Howard's End and A Passage to India, Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Mansfield's stories, that big Bloomsbury bio of what's-his-name, Ralph Partridge? which was mostly about Spain. Then with a nod at Curtis, Flannery O'Connor's stories, Garcia-Lorca's poetry and that of Denise Levertov. More poets such as Sexton, Forche, Williams, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Larkin, Neruda. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. All of Joan Didion and, at the same time, I was gobbling up Robert Stone (Flag for Sunrise), and At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen. Thank God for google in my dotage when I remember Robert but can't get Stone without a search. And there it is, instantly. And that lovely little book on Venice by Link? And the other Brodsky book on Venice. And Hemingway? His letters? His short stories. Post Office by Charles Bukowski?And that big fat reference by someone, Martin Seymour-Smith's New Guide to Modern World Literature which listed every 20th C. author around the world and gave an authoritative and opinionated appraisal in a sentence or two. There was Vonnegut and Muriel Spark and even earlier Aldous Huxley and Anais Nin. 1984. Geoff Dyer. Nick Hornby. What about Nabokov? Julia Child? Edith Wharton? Stephen Spender's Diaries. Steinbeck.Faulkner? The Russians? Pat's reading Simone de Beauvoir whom I've never read. In fact, other than Flaubert, I haven't read a lot of French writers. Francoise Sagan of course in my very young days and the expats in early 19C Paris. I see a lot of Lydia Davis here among others' notable books and Lorrie Moore, too. Not so much Shakespeare. Murakami, yes. Evelyn Waugh. The most obscure titles show up under a photographer, Alec Soth, from Minnesota. I only recognize his Wallace Stevens and WCW as well as Nicholson Baker and a book on Alice Neel. Henry Green's Loving shows up. No one has read him. He's supposedly a writer's writer so there you are. There's more of Harold McGee than I'd expect - he writes on the science of cooking.

But as I go through these shelves, I am thinking I should toss all this new stuff I spend so much time with. Get rid of it and go back to the classics, the tried and true. There is only so much time left. Read some quality. Tonight I am reading the new George Saunders and it's good, Lincoln in the Bardo. I now see Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, next month's book club choice, leap forward from Vendela Vida's page (she is a modern writer I've read). And Dani's favorite Ayelet Waldman has a few newer writers Ondaatje, Eggers, McEwan, Naipaul, St. Aubyn, and Jane Gardam's Old Filth and of course her husband, Michael Chabon, plus Shirley Jackson and Jane Austen. Some Harvard professor lists Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne which would hearten Helen but someone else lists her nemesis, Clarice Lispector. An artist mentions Niki de Saint Phalle's Remembering 1930-1949 which I must look up. Jane Eyre should be in my own shelf. Alice Waters includes Marcel Pagnol (there he is in my bookcase), Wendell Berry, Richard Olney along with expected food writers about the hearth and the wine.

I am walking through the house, examining my shelves, looking at LibraryThing where most of my titles are catalogued, and becoming verklempt over the satisfaction I've gotten from my books over the years, not just reading them but lending, fondling and perusing. How can I even begin to weed?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Sellout

The SelloutThe Sellout by Paul Beatty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've finished The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Man Booker winner this year, which is like Dave Chappelle (SNL) on steroids. The story of a "nigger-whisperer" and farmer from a small black enclave in LA called Dickens. As a "crisis negotiator, "I found myself in my pajamas, at least once a week, standing barefoot in an apartment complex courtyard, bullhorn in hand, staring up at some distraught, partially hotcombed-headed mother dangling her baby over a second-floor balcony ledge. When my father did the whispering...every payday he'd be inundated by teeming hordes of the bipolar poor, who having spent it all in one place, and grown tired and unsated from the night's notoriously shitty prime-time television lineup, would unwedge themselves from between the couch-bound obese family members and the boxes of unsold Avon beauty products, turn off the kitchen radio pumping song after song extolling the virtues of Friday nights living it up at the club, popping bottles, niggers and cherries in that order, then having canceled the next day's appointment with their mental health care professional, the chatterbox cosmetologist, who after years doing heads, still knows only one hairstyle--fried, dyed and laid to the wide--they'd choose that Friday, 'day of Venus,' goddess of love, beauty and unpaid bills, to commit suicide, murder, or both. But under my watch people tended to snap on Wednesday. Hump day."

This book took me a long time to get into, to get used to his language and craziness and a feeling of not wanting to be there at all, but now I look up at my favorite quotes and marvel at Beatty's creativity and smack-on descriptions and realize he is a winner. At times, I was thinking of Tom Robbins or J. P. Donleavy - you can see I don't keep up with today's comic writers much - because his plots and situations seemed so outlandish and out-of-my-world and they may be, but his is a formidable talent for writing. I am with him. The book club was not, only one other liked it. More favorite quotes:

"Most times there's so much Nina Simone 'Mississippi Goddam' despondency in the night air it becomes hard to focus. The deep purple contusions about the face and arms...And invariably, softly in the background, billowing the curtains through the parted sliding glass doors, there's always Nina Simone. These are the women my father warned me about. The drug-and-asshole-addled women who sit in the dark, hard up and lovesick, chain-smoking cigarettes, phones pressed to their ear, speed-dialing K-Earth 101 FM, the oldies station, so they can request Nina Simone or the Shirelles' 'This is Dedicated to the One I Love' aka 'This is Dedicated to Niggers That Beat Me Senseless and Leave.' Stay away from bitches who love Nina Simone and have faggots for best friends,' he'd say, 'They hate men.' "

"That's the problem with history, we like to think it's a book--that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn't the paper it's printed on. It's memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you." p.115

"You never see people in commercials that look 'Jewish,' just as you never see black people that come off as 'urban' and hence 'scary,' or handsome Asian men, or dark-skinned Latinos.. you see more ads featuring unicorns and leprechauns than you do gay men and women...But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn't Jewish people, homosexuals or urban Negroes, it's traffic." p. 139

Sister Cities. "Some unions, like that of Tel Aviv and Berlin, Paris and Algiers, Honolulu and Hiroshima, are designed to signal an end to hostilities and the beginning of peace and prosperity. Others are shotgun marriages because one city (e.g.,Atlanta) impregnated another (e.g., Lagos) on a first date...Some cities marry up for money and prestige; others marry down to piss off their mother countries, Guess who's coming for dinner? Kabul! Every now and then, two cities meet and fall in love out of mutual respect and a love for hiking, thunderstorms and classic rock 'n' roll. Think Amsterdam and Istanbul. Buenos Aires and Seoul." p.145

"For the most part in L.A. County you can gauge the threat level of a community by the color of its street signs. In Los Angeles proper the signs are a hollowed-out metallic midnight blue. If a bird's nest constructed of pine needles was tucked inside the sign, it meant evergreen trees and a nearby golf course. Mostly white public-school kids whose parents lived above their means in upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Cheviot Hills, Silver Lake and the Palisades. Bullet holes and a stolen car wrapped around the post signified kids about my hair texture, allowance level, and clothing syle in neighborhoods like Watts, Boyle Heights, and Highland Park. Sky blue signified kick back cool bedroom communities like Santa Monica, Rancho Palos Verdes, and Manhattan Beach. Chill dudes commuting to school by any means necessary from skateboard to hang glider, the good-bye lipstick prints from their trophy-wife mothers still on their cheeks. Carson, Hawthorne, Culver City, South Gate and Torrance are all designated by a working-class cactus green; there the little homies are independent, familiar and multilingual. Fluent in Hispanic, black, and Samoan gang signs. In Hermosa Beach, La Mirada and Duarte the street signs are the bland brown of cheap blended malt whiskey. The boys and girls mope their way to school, depressed and drowsy, past the hacienda-style tract housing. The sparkling white signs denote Beverly Hills, of course. Exceedingly wide hilly streets lined with rich kids unthreatened by my appearance. Assuming that if I was there I belonged. Asking me about the tension of my tennis racquets. Schooling me on the blues, the history of hip-hop, Rastafarianism, the Coptic Church, jazz, gospel, and the myriad of ways in which a sweet potato can be prepared." p. 191

"Daddy never believed in closure. He said it was a false psychological concept. Something invented by therapists to assuage white Western guilt. In all his years of study and practice, he'd never heard a patient of color talk of needing 'closure.' They needed revenge. They needed distance. Forgiveness and a good lawyer, maybe, but never closure. He said people mistake suicide, murder, lap band surgery, interracial marriage, and overtipping for closure, when in reality what they've achieved is erasure." p. 261

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The Sport of Kings

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great big tremendous sprawl of a novel about Kentucky thoroughbred racing, genetics, consanguinity, slavery, prison time, Cincinnati, bluegrass country and the Ohio River with some of most striking prose I've read in a long time. There are murders and revenge and love and incest across many generations. Survival is registered in different ways. I couldn't put it down but sometimes it took some pushing to pick it up. The book club struggled and agreed a tougher editor was needed but the writing took my breath away:

"The air was raucous and thick with birdsong, the afternoon's light refracted through a veil of pollen...cattle, sturdy on their legs and fattening...chewed their cud with the resignation of age... The youngest Miller...a girl of seven with violently red hair, a face mottled with freckles, and knees as fat as pickle jars."
Description of the Ohio River: "La belle riviere: the Great, the Sparkling, the White; coursing along the path of the ancient Teays, the child of Pleistocene glaciers and a thousand forgotten creeks run dry, formed in perpetuity by the confluence of two prattling streams, ancient predecessors of the Kentucky and Licking--maternal and paternal themes in the long tale of how the river became dream, conduit, divide, pawn, baptismal font, gate, graveyard, and snake slithering under a shelf of limestone and shale, where just now a boy is held aloft by his beautiful father, who points and says, "Look!" and the boy looks, and what he will remember later is not just the river like a snake but also the city crowding it, and what a city! A queen rising on seven hills over her Tiber, ringed hills forming the circlet of a crown. "

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IdahoIdaho by Emily Ruskovich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I want you to read this book, it is so beautifully written. The key points are bleak as the writer braids together the lives of a rural family in Idaho, Idaho is another character in the book, over five decades and the story weaves back and forth between the dead and the living. There is a shocking murder and then incarceration. There is early-onset dementia and a missing child but all along are the different kinds of love threading through the years. Descriptions of the two preteen sisters stay with me, May reluctant to leave her older sister even to sleep: "June so close beside her, and the scared-dog smell of June invisible beneath the smell of the wet cushion and the cooling trees, that she could fall asleep here on her sister's shoulder...and not wake up until morning." p.294 And more: “sibling laughter–he can hear it– not the laughter of school friends or neighbors or cousins. Something secret in that laughter, private, edged with meanness and devotion.”

The vague guilt and nobility of the music teacher, Ann, as she tracks the changes in her husband's mind during the piano lessons. "One week he's playing both hands together. The next week, he struggles on a children's song, with only his right hand. Slowly, as the weeks go by and the weather turns cold, she turns the pages the place where they met, to the place where he didn't know the names of any notes." Someone called the book a poem in prose. It catches you and holds you at first stunned by the irreversible final act and then by the empathy of the characters, and of the author, as they struggle to survive loss. Ruskovich's song lyrics haunt me as though I could hear the melody: “Take your picture off the wall And carry it away. Dye your hair the shades of fall. Don't let time turn it to gray..."
A captivating tale and worth your time.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Whither goest the Gardener?

“I can’t get enough of gardening. I’m outside all day every day and only come in when it pours or gets too cold,” said a friend at the swimming pool. Gardening used to be my passion and I took it on with zeal when we first moved into our bare-yarded house. I learned the Latin names for everything so I could talk to my expert gardener sister-in-law, Mary Ann, who husbanded thirteen acres on Vashon Island. She brought hunks of plants over and plunked them down in my yard any time of year. "They want to live," she said while I pored over the American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants about placement and needs; I tend to get waylaid by reference material. And together we'd line up for the horticultural sales. I volunteered for the Garden Show and traveled the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia to visit nurseries and gardens, subscribing to myriad catalogs. A new Heronswood Catalog was the crowning point of third class mail for Dan Hinkley's witticisms but White Flower Farms was welcome, too.

I was just pruning a rose bush stem which is now as big as my grand-niece's three-year-old wrist and I can no longer get the loppers to respond. Either they are dull or I am weak, or a combination of the two. Ah, no, Michael said I had the hedge trimmers rather than the powerful loppers. He trimmed the big rose bushes for me., but I am thinking what became of the avid gardener? I think it was most likely that shopping and design played the larger role in my avidity although I remember hours passing as I poked around in the beds contentedly, pulling weeds and dead leaves, examining with delight the opening buds. When did it all become a chore? With the established garden? My 70th birthday? My two knee replacements which put aside kneeling as an technique? Perhaps it was when I hired a part-time garden person who planted bulbs and weeded and pruned for me each month. In the past, winter evenings were spent reading wonderful garden writers like Eleanor Perenyi, Vita Sackville-West, Jamaica Kinkaid or Elizabeth Lawrence as well as the fellows, Henry Mitchell, Allen Lacy, Christopher Lloyd, Graham Thomas, or Russell Page. Really, when I wasn't fingering the soil, I was poring through essays on gardening. I had a scintillating library of such books, even some really old tomes like Alvide Lees-Milne (wife of James Lees-Milne, a favorite diaryist) or Constance Spry on flower arranging, or Gertrude Jekyll on the English perennial bed.  They are gone now as is my irrepressible sister-in-law and my own passion. Now looking at the overflow bookshelves to my left, I spy Katharine S. White, the indomitable New Yorker editor's Onward and Upward in the Garden so I haven't quite hung up my gloves yet. And my laptop sits high and posture perfect atop the AHS A-Z Encyclopedia.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

“There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.” Franz Kafka

Nocturnal angst. Tears shed on the pillow. A wave of shame thinking that no one will ever read this memoir, that it is crummy writing, mundane expression. Unique maybe as are all memoirs, but nothing anyone would want to read. Felt despondent thinking of all of those words and all that time and writing classes to arrive at this end. And how many years do I have left? And even if I enjoy writing, what is the point?

Two thoughts brought me here. One, we did a free write exercise in class last night and I wrote about not getting the full time position at the library after working in that role half time for years which was the source of shame and grief to me. My face grew hot again and tears filled the ducts just thinking back to those feelings of not measuring up and being shunned. I lost the job to a much less experienced person who was "more of a team player" and though I joked about this ever after, it hurt. Somehow it was tied up in my mind with my mom's death and how she would have clucked and tsked in surprise that I did not get the position. She had great stores of empathy for my disappointments and my successes.

Second, I was reading Idaho. a novel by Emily Ruskovich which is hardly an uplifting story about dementia, poetry and prison but shows powerful writing skill; the author fashions sentences like poems. If I could produce one such paragraph....but it also brought me down on my own writing. Maybe I am too old to learn or perhaps this is why I never pursued writing until now. Just loving books and words is not enough to make you a writer. So I search for the encouraging pieces by writers to teach me how to hush that harsh critic, that cruel judge in my head who screams opprobrium and tries to get me to surrender, to give up. I am not alone according to Psychology Today

"For many of us, this inner critic is so entrenched in our psyche, we’re hardly able to distinguish it from our real point of view. But when we do, we find that it’s actually extremely powerful and painfully prevalent. A 2016 survey found that the average woman criticizes herself eight times a day. Self-criticism is a strong predictor of depression, and several studies have shown that it consistently interferes with our ability to achieve our goals. So, if you think this mean inner voice is just a motivator, inspiring you to do better, think again, because chances are, it’s actually limiting you in ways of which you aren’t even aware."

 I find what I was looking for in Annie Lamott's stellar Bird by Bird which I should have picked up at first sniffle:

"I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward."

 And Novelist Richard Bausch's Ten Commandments for Writers, and I breathe a sigh of relief as I ponder #5, #9 and #10.

Ten Commandments of Richard Bausch

1. Read: “You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering, and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing.”
2. Imitate: “While you are doing this reading, you spend time trying to sound like the various authors — just as a painter, learning to paint, sets up his easel in the museum and copies the work of the masters.”
3. “Be regular and ordinary in your habits, like a Petit Bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.” — borrowed from Flaubert
4. Train yourself to be able to work anywhere.
5. Be Patient. “You will write many more failures than successes. Say to yourself, I accept failure as the condition of this life, this work. I freely accept it as my destiny. Then go on and do the work. You never ask yourself anything beyond Did I work today?”
6. Be Willing. “Accepting failure as a part of your destiny, learn to be willing to fail, to take the chances that often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something good.”
7. Eschew politics. “You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the personal cost of events, so even if history is part of your story, it should only serve as a backdrop.”
8. Do not think, dream.
9. Don’t compare yourself to anyone, and learn to keep from building expectations.
10. Be wary of all general advice.

And because his first and foremost commandment is to read, here is his reading list from a May 2012 interview with Emily Besh

"...yes, of course the classics—and books, books, books, all the time. Right now I’m reading Tolstoy—War And Peace for the fifth time, Anna Karenina, for the third; Kawabata—Thousand Cranes; Shakespeare—over these last five months, King Lear six or seven times, listening and reading; Romeo and Juliet four times, listening and reading; As You Like It twice, Macbeth three or four times; Hamlet four or five times; Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar; Graham Greene—The Power And The Glory for the third time; Eudora Welty—"Delta Wedding;" Percival Everett – Assumption; Alix Ohlin—Signs And Wonders; Trollope—The Eustace Diamonds for the first time (and I’ve been reading it for a year); and Philip Roth—Indignation, and I just finished Nemesis and Everyman.

I have work to do. Enough tears and gnashing of teeth.