I spend several hours each day reading whatever I can get my hands on: poetry, short fiction, essays, novels, the news, biographies… When something strikes me as particularly noteworthy, I’ll mention it here.
THEY CAME LIKE SWALLOWS by WILLIAM MAXWELL, originally published 1937 (finished June 22, 2016)
I would like to believe that anyone would love William Maxwell’s observant and warmly open-hearted writing, but I recognize that he is probably an acquired taste.
His novels move slowly — no whizbangs here. I always feel as if I’m in the presence of someone who knows so much about people and how the world works. Therefore, I’m willing to settle in and go wherever he takes me.
They Came Like Swallows tells the story of a family in the Midwest just after World War I and during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The book is written in three parts. Part One is told from the point of view of a young boy named Bunny; Part Two from the voice of his slightly older brother Robert; and Part Three from the father’s point of view.
This is a small novel, only 191 pages in the Modern Library edition that I read. And yet he gives the reader an entire world inside this family that struggles with the effects of the illness that first infects Bunny, then Robert, then the parents.
I loved this quiet story of the dynamics between two brothers and their complex (and separate) relationships with their mother and their father.
SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by WILLIAM MAXWELL (finished… multiple times)
Maxwell’s last novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of my favorites. Originally published in 1979, it received the National Book Award. It’s told from the point of view of an old man as he remembers a friendship from when he was a boy and how that relationship changed following a murder.
It’s beautifully written and so smart. I’ve read it three times since first discovering it in the late 1980s.
And now that I’m writing about it… I may find and read it again. It’s as close to perfect as any novel could be.
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV by FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY, translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (finished January 22, 2016)
In this novel, Dostoevsky explores (nearly all) the subjects that interest me: the complications of religious faith; the challenge of believing while recognizing the inconsistencies in the Christian narrative; the nature of guilt — what it is, how damaging it can be, and ultimately how it may be unavoidable for certain people. He examines the complicated dynamics between a parent and his adult children. He asks the questions: what do we owe to another? Where is the dividing line between self-interest and selfishness?
One of the things I love about Dostoevsky is that he creates characters who represent ideas / positions that he then takes apart in great detail. I started The Brothers Karamazov while I was in Finland, and then resumed reading it in Colombia. Because some months had passed (I was teaching) I expected I would need to refresh my memory about the characters. But I started reading and remembered everyone, even the minor characters. This speaks to Dostoevsky’s skill in creating living breathing people on the page.
Since finishing this intelligent and sensitive story, I’ve spent hours reflecting on Dostoevsky’s insights. When was the last time you experienced that after reading a novel?
LONESOME DOVE by LARRY MCMURTRY (finished June 22, 2015)
I grew up in Texas and recognize Larry McMurtry’s voice in Lonesome Dove. It’s the story-telling ability of nearly everyone in our family. His use of elaborate language and metaphor is a natural part of many Texan’s speech. McMurtry writes:
“Augustus took the jug back to the porch and placed his rope-bottomed chair so as to utilize the smidgin of shade he had to work with.”
That could have come out of the mouth of my Uncle Herman. Or my dad. When a Texan says something like that, it isn’t intended seriously. The speaker won’t have a smile on his face when he says it, but will assume you understand the humor in taking the looong way around to get to meaning.
“I never had such a time of getting my feet out of the sheets and onto the floor this morning.” That’s Texas-speak for “I didn’t want to get out of bed.”
Lonesome Dove examines the rural lives of 19th century cowboys during a momentous cattle drive from Mexico (the cattle are stolen) through Texas and upward to Montana. Occasionally, I wished he had been less longwinded (this doorstop clocks in at 954 pages) but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Highly recommended for Texans, those who love language and elaborate constructions, and readers who appreciate colorful story-telling.
MACBETH by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (finished June 17, 2015)
It seems that contemporary culture hears “Shakespeare” and the word is a kind of placeholder… for education, culture, classrooms … but doesn’t connote the writer whose works still have the power to speak to us. He is the ultimate of classic English literature.
Everyone should make time to read him every few years, if not more often. Reading one of his plays would take about an hour, but I can’t imagine anyone not slowing down and savoring his exquisite language. The insights he brings to relationships, the human heart, and our complex imaginings are always relevant.
I spent a wonderful rainy afternoon with Macbeth. His wife is my favorite character.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS by PATRICK DEWITT (finished June 3, 2015)
I bought this novel on my iBook app about two years ago. Several friends have encouraged me to read it, and I finally made the time this week. The odd title explained: there are two brothers; their last name is Sisters. They’re hired killers in and around San Francisco during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s.
The story is told from the point of view of the younger brother, Eli. This first person narrator’s voice is slightly elevated, as if he is “orating.” This could have been off-putting but I found it charming.
The brothers have been dispatched by The Commodore, their employer, to kill yet another man who has wronged him. The brothers have a bond, certainly, but it’s threatened by the nature of their jobs as professional killers. The novel has genuine narrative drive, and DeWitt is a thoughtful observer of human nature.
The Gold Rush was a wild time in the history of the U.S. West Coast, and there are many factual events that are used as backdrops for this exceptionally fine novel.
DAVID AND GOLIATH by MALCOLM GLADWELL (finished June 1, 2015)
Let’s hand it to Malcolm Gladwell. He keeps you turning pages and gives the reader plenty to think about. David and Goliath explores the misconceptions surrounding underdogs, and how people who seem to have the least may have developed the skills and wherewithal to overcome the giants.
Gladwell uses classic story-telling techniques (you think you’re headed to X but you’re being led to Y) to examine the lives of ten individuals. The stories explore contemporary (false) ideas about what is desirable in the classroom, the basketball court, and the research lab, among others. Gladwell’s provocative ideas move through mid-century U.S. racial conflicts, the politics of research and the process of finding treatments for childhood disease, and on to the 30 year conflicts of Northern Ireland. The classic myth of David and Goliath is used throughout as a foundation for understanding individual motivation and the perceptions of weakness and strength.
This is Gladwell’s fifth volume of nonfiction, and I’ve read them all. It’s difficult to imagine anyone starting one of his engrossing books and not finishing it. Highly recommended.
THE FOLDED WORLD by AMITY GAIGE (finished May 16, 2015)
It’s no surprise that Amity Gaige began writing as a poet. The Folded World is clearly informed by a lush sensibility and a facility with metaphor. I adored this novel.
Charlie Shade is a social worker who loves being loved by others. He meets Alice, his soon-to-be wife, after watching her avoid stepping on cracks. The novel explores the lives of these two young lovers, their marriage, the birth of their twins, and the lives of the people around them.
The language is rich, and Gaige isn’t afraid to slow the narrative and explore emotional ideas and states of being. The following is about Charlie:
It was the fall of his second year of graduate school, and he liked it: his classes, his classmates, the gritty, bus-fumed city, his little crow’s nest of a bachelor’s apartment high up on a windy corner in an old gray house. He liked New England. He didn’t even miss the Midwest and its river-dripped willows and its silence and all the people that he knew. But all the while he felt a nagging impatience. This wasn’t it either, he thought, was it really. He scratched the back of his neck, under his collar. Where was the seam? Where were all the adjacencies? The collisions? Where did lives touch in a less casual way?
Here’s a passage about Alice:
Her apartment was narrow as a shoebox and dark all day. But she liked it anyhow because it was hers and she decorated the walls with old postcards and book covers. By day, she worked as a receptionist for a dentist and listened to the distorted confessions of anesthetized patients. She tried to wean herself — unsuccessfully — of her superstitions. She saved up money for college classes. She spoke to her mother daily, then weekly, once or twice even letting the week go by, practicing a kind of emotional calisthenics. After a while, it appeared that she had successfully escaped Gloucester. And her mother did not die, and did not very often guilt her, and with a pang sometimes Alice heard new names peppering her mother’s speech. Sometimes, opening a fresh book, Alice would say to herself: This is the last book. This is the last story that is not my own.
I found myself feeling uncomfortable as I realized the lives of these two people were going to unravel, as of course they do. This is hardly the kind of novel that most readers would describe as gripping and yet that’s the way it played out for me.
No novel is perfect, of course. I wish that she had had a friend, an editor, to help her pull back during the final 45 pages. The insights and conclusions come rapidly, and the language becomes too ornate… I wished she had recognized how much power she had created with the narrative. Gaige should have trusted what had come before, and realized that her novel — and the reader — don’t need flights of dizzying prose as the story concludes. She’s already given us so much.
Oddly, I feel disloyal writing this… The Folded World is still fresh in my mind; I finished it last night. I’m still in the midst of loving it, and prefer not to focus on the flaws. Gaige is a marvelous writer and this novel gave me many pleasures on this chilly gray day in Spring.
And what will I do this evening? I’ll buy and download her first novel O My Darling. Gaige’s company sounds like an ideal way to spend those hours on the plane as I fly toward Finland.
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER by PATRICK SÜSKIND
I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was 14 years old. I discovered that my impressions of the novel (a horror story featuring a monster) were inaccurate. I had never questioned the story as told by television and the movies.
The tension of Frankenstein isn’t about whether he’ll hurt other people, but how this sensitive figure will survive the fear and distrust of the villagers. Shelley explores the isolation of being The Other and the loneliness of Not Fitting In. Or at least that’s the way I interpreted it as a 14 year old.
Reading Perfume by Patrick Süskind — in brief bursts over two afternoons —gave me a similar sensation. The publisher’s back cover description and blurbs — “rising storm of terror” and “horrifying” — didn’t apply. I felt empathy for Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a strange perfumer who experiences the world primarily through his sense of smell. His self-reliance and need for isolation are intriguing. He prefers being left alone until he detects an aroma he must capture and keep with him forever.
Süskind creates a vivid 18th century Paris with its rich stew of odors. Jean-Baptiste is one of the oddest characters in literature I’ve come across in years. I highly recommend this novel.