Friday, June 24, 2016

Books That Shaped America: Round Two

Image result for library of congress bookshelves

Oh, how I love a book list. There is a new one that came out recently from the Library of Congress. 

A little background: In 2012, our nation's library put together an exhibit which shone the spotlight on Books That Shaped America. The library's curators and experts made their suggestions as to which books should be on that list.  (I wrote a bit about that exhibit here.) 

This year the library asked the public to nominate 40 books that they thought should be on a second Books That Shaped America list. People could also vote on another 25 from the 88 books on the 2012 list. Over 17,000 people responded. 

I was not one of them. 

I am hurt that the library didn't let me know about this survey. I hope it didn't have anything to do with my breaking and entering into its domed reading room a few years ago. I was sure all was forgiven...(You can read about that escapade here.)

Anyway, this second round of books make up an exhibit that will continue at the Library of Congress until the end of the year. It features the chosen 65 books and is open to the public. Many on view are from the library's rare book collection and seldom on public display.

These selections are not meant to represent the best of American literature, but are merely books that mean something to America and Americans.

I took a peek at the list to see if there are any glaring gaps in my reading history. Of course, there are. 

A few of the books I have no interest in reading - I am looking at you Uncle Tom's Cabin, Baby and Child Care, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking

You can read the entire list here.

Thoughts on a few of the choices:

The Wizard of Oz - I could have sworn I had a vintage copy of this but, alas, I don't see it on my shelves. I can't believe I would have given it away! I'll keep looking.

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut visited Louisville long ago and as a perk of working at the time for an independent bookstore I was privileged to attend his lecture and Q&A. Also, I just discovered that the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library is a 90-minute drive north of me in Indianapolis.

The Jungle - While in high school, I worked for a short time as a 'page' at a small branch library. One evening while Mrs. Bader the branch librarian was at dinner, an elderly woman came in looking for a reading recommendation. I innocently directed her to Upton Sinclair's exposĂ© of the meat packing industry and the harsh lives and living conditions led by the immigrants in Chicago. Oh, dear. Not quite what this woman of Southern Sensibilities was looking for. She returned it the next day. 

What about you? Are there books on this list that you have been meaning to read? Perhaps now is the time.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

I thought I would lighten up my reading a bit. I came across Texts from Jane Eyre in my library's ebook collection. Since I had just read Jane Eyre I decided to give it a try. I had no idea what it was. A modern retelling of Jane's story? Its cover led me to believe it might be funny. 

Well, I hadn't read the small print - And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters - so little did I know that it really is a book of text messages. We hear from William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolfe, and a host of other literary stars. Then there are the imagined text conversations between fictional characters: Jo and Meg from Little Women, Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Our Miss Jane and Rochester, Elizabeth Bennett and her mother from Pride and Prejudice, and Scarlett and Ashley from Gone with the Wind. Nancy Drew and Ned also make an appearance. 

Some entries are short while others go on for a little longer. The punctuation, spelling, and abbreviations are spot on - at least 21st century-wise.

Here is an example - an exchange between Thoreau and Emerson:

im going to the woods ok
im going to live deliberately
with essential facts
im going to suck all the marrow out of the
so dont follow me
how long are you going?
i dont know
however long it takes to live deliberately
so maybe a few months
or maybe forever gonna live in a cabin
i'm happy for you
can i use your cabin
you want to live in my cabin?
well i dont have a cabin
i need to be self sufficient
so i need to use your cabin

This cracked me up. 

These chats are imagined by author Mallory Ortberg and even the ones from books I haven't read (Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitters Club) I found to be amusing. They range along the literary timeline from Gilgamesh to Harry Potter.

To really get into the spirit of things, I read this book via the Kindle app on my phone because after all, it is a collection of texts...

Literary lads and lassies, rejoice. It won't change your life, but if you want a gentle chuckle or two, this is your book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Middle of Things by J.S. Fletcher and A Tribute to Muhammad Ali

I am in the middle of reading The Middle of Things which seems to be a perfect place to stop and share with you what I know about this mystery novel and its author. 

The Middle of Things was written by J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935) and first published in 1922. Wikipedia's profile on Mr. Fletcher notes that he wrote 230 books of fiction and nonfiction. He started out as a journalist, moved on to writing poetry and historical fiction, and then settled down in 1914 and wrote what was to be the first of over 100 mystery novels. He was one of the leading writers of detective fiction in The Golden Age.

This tale begins in the library of the London home of Richard Viner ("a young gentleman of means and leisure") and his aunt Miss Bethia Penkridge. She is a notable fan of mystery fiction. Their evening's entertainment usually consists of her nephew reading aloud three chapters from the latest mystery novel. 

What she loved was a story which began with crime and ended with a detection - a story which kept you wondering who did it, how it was done, and when the doing was going to be laid bare to the light of day. Nothing pleased her better than to go to bed with a brain titivated with the mysteries of the last three chapters; nothing gave  her such infinite delight as to find, when the final pages were turned, that all her own theories were wrong, and that the real criminal was somebody quite other than the person she had fancied. 

Viner gently scoffs at his aunt's taste in the sensational and questions if such books are relevant to real life. She assures him that real-life mysteries abound. Sure enough, he soon finds himself in the middle of one when later that evening he goes out for a stroll and comes across the dead body of a man in the dark passage off Markendale Square.

The chase is on from there and clues and leads and more mysteries follow one behind the other. Quite fun.

I must say that I am delighted to have discovered Mr. Fletcher. His writing is clean and crisp with a soupçon of humor. He doesn't rehash and belabor clues (as some mystery writers tend to do) and the action moves along briskly.  

One odd thing is his naming of characters. Consider monikers such as Portlethwaite, Methley, Woodlesford, Perkwite, Felpham, and Millington-Baywater. Those don't exactly roll easily off the tongue.

My library has eight more of Mr. Fletcher's detective stories in its ebook collection so I have many tales to look forward to.

And that is what I am in the middle of. How about you?

Image result for muhammad ali
Muhammad Ali

Today the world came to my hometown of Louisville -  a hometown that I share with Muhammad Ali who died last week at the age of 74. 

His funeral procession through the streets of the city and his memorial service today attracted thousands of people from all over who came to say farewell to this Olympic gold medal winner, three-time heavyweight world boxing champion, activist, and humanitarian. 

Ali was brash and beautiful, controversial and captivating, impassioned and inspiring.   He was known as The Louisville Lip for his predictions, pronouncements, and outrageous poetry. He had a way with words and a way with people. He had a big smile and an even bigger heart. 

Because of the Louisville connection, Ali was someone I was always aware of. I knew about The Champ's many victories in the ring and his accomplishments after he hung up the boxing gloves. I am heartened - and truth be told, quite overwhelmed - to see the outpouring of affection and respect that has been shown him this past week. He was quite a remarkable man who will be remembered for much more than just his knockout punch. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses by Anne Trubek

I am on another armchair traveling adventure. This time I am visiting writers’ houses, a favorite pastime. The book I am reading is titled The Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses and yet I am not skeptical in the least about my journey.

The author, Anne Trubek, is somewhat suspicious of the motives people have in visiting writers’ houses and museums. She seems to think that the literary pilgrim is hoping to acquire a dash of the writer’s genius or to brush up against the writer’s fictional characters.

Going to a writer's house is a fool's errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can't join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner's stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.

Not the best attitude to have as she sets out to discover for herself the allure of the writers’ houses across America from the homes of Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts to the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. Along the way she stows away her doubts and actually begins to enjoy herself.

I am a great fan of visiting writers’ homes, birthplaces, and even graves and have written here of those that I have visited. And no, I don’t think the writer’s genius will rub off on me (Oh, but wouldn’t that be lovely!), but I go for the history and just to get a peek at the bookshelves. (If you would care to read about any of my adventures, click on the 2012 and 2013 Grand Southern Literary Tour tabs above.)

Of the dozen or so literary sites that Ms. Trubek visits, I have been to three. There is Samuel Clemens’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri - the entire town pays homage not so much to the author but to his creations Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Then there is The Manse in Concord that was lived in by Emerson and later Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody. Finally, there is the Thomas Wolfe house in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, which she so rightly states is being swallowed up by more and more commercial development.

I still have Hemingway’s homes in Key West and Ketchum, Idaho to look forward to visiting, via Ms. Trubek, along with an Edgar Allan Poe house in the Bronx and Walt Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey.

It is amusing to read her reactions not only to the houses and their oftentimes faux furnishings but also the docents’ patter and the comments and questions of other visitors. Her musings range from thoughtful to scholarly to often witty and snarky. I liked them all.

The book has been on my bookshelf for many years. I remember now that I ordered it, pre-Amazon, from the Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller catalog. I am glad that I finally picked it up to read.

What literary pilgrimages have you made? Did you get your money’s worth or were you left feeling as if you had come upon an empty shelf?

Friday, May 27, 2016

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer

I like to travel. I like to read books about travel. I want to share another's experiences in foreign places, especially locations that I will likely never get to. It is, as they say, a Wide, Wide World and taking a journey from the comfort of my reading chair without the hassle of luggage, noisy hotel rooms, and trying to decide where to eat lunch is much less stressful. 

My latest armchair adventure has been with author Geoff Dyer. He was just this week a guest at the library for another terrific author event. His book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, was released earlier this month so his appearance in Louisville was one of the first stops on his book tour. Lucky us.

First of all, this book of nine tales is unlike many travel adventures that you might have read. The author states quite plainly that the stories are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction which makes the twists and turns more exciting as there is always a bit of mystery...did this really happen or not?

Geoff Dyer
For instance, in the titular piece, he and his wife (name changed from the real Rebecca to the made-up Jessica) are driving near White Sands National Park in New Mexico and stop to pick up a hitchhiker. All is well, until within minutes the car passes a sign:

Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers
Detention Facilities in Area

What happens from there includes much neurotic thinking (I laughed because I could follow every little byway of his fevered brain) and is as spooky as a Twilight Zone episode.  

Mr. Dyer read this chapter as part of his presentation but never did let us know how much of the event was real. Maybe all of it or maybe part was just a figment of his imagination.

It doesn't matter. The writing is excellent and entertaining and funny in a snarky sort of way. I couldn't wait to get home and read more.

So far I have traveled with Mr. Dyer to The Forbidden City in Beijing where he has a mild flirtation with a non-guide tour guide; to Tahiti in search of a Gauguin experience; and, to The Lightning Field, an art installation in the American desert. 

I had him autograph my hardcover copy of his book. He didn't seem to be in any hurry and we had a brief intense chat. He is British (and charming of course). I asked him what writers had influenced him or that he continued to read and he answered: John Berger, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca West.

He especially recommended Ms. West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her 1200-page classic about Yugoslavia and the Balkans. He promised that if I read the first thousand pages and wanted to give it up to let him know and he would refund my money. (I told you he was charming.) Ms. West was one of the Dead Ladies in Jessa Crispin's book that I wrote about here.

As to Annie Dillard, Mr. Dyer wrote the preface to her collection of essays In Abundance (here) and also includes a quote from her in the front of his book:

The point of going not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place.

Mr. Dyer has taken her words to heart.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Birds of America by John James Audubon

I don't have a book to write about this week unless you want to count John James Audubon's historic Birds of America.

I took a little trip to the John James Audubon State Park which houses the Audubon Museum and Nature Center in Henderson, Kentucky. Just a two hour drive...pleasant enough.

Mr. Audubon was an ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He  lived from 1785 to 1851. He spent some time in Louisville and then moved on to Henderson where he spent nine years tracking down, sketching, and painting the birds in the forests and along the shores. I suppose even the little songbirds that lived in his own backyard posed for him as well.

Audubon moved around a lot in pursuit of his mission to capture on paper all the birds of America and in trying to keep his family afloat financially.  It wasn't until the years between 1827 and 1838 that he found a Scottish engraver to create the copperplates used to print his paintings. The printing was done on handmade paper that measured 39.5 by 28.5 inches.

The museum has a huge selection of his original drawings, paintings, copies of the four volume, double-elephant folio containing 435 life-size watercolors, and an interesting collection of memorabilia including a buckskin outfit that he must have worn when he was tromping about in the woods and the case he used to carry his brushes.

Visitors are not allowed to take photos in the museum or I could show you some of the items on display. But this isn't a stuffy place. It is also a learning center. There is an observation area where one can watch the birds in a afternoon feeding frenzy. There is a classroom with snakes and turtles and a tank with fish from the park's lake on display. It is all quite well done.

I was tempted by the books in the gift shop but kept my wallet in my pocket.  A courageous move on my part.

I did take a few photos which I will share with you below.

This is the French chateau-style museum. It was built in 1938 by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC).

This fellow is the sculpture of Audubon's American Eagle 
that greets visitors to the museum.

Here are a few of the little wrens feeding as seen from the observation room. There is a sound system that let's you hear the gushing stream outside and the birdsongs.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The 40s: The Story of A Decade from The New Yorker

A generous friend brought me a book the other day. As you can imagine, I rarely turn down the gift of a book. It was one he wanted to pass on and thought I would like.

Oh, yes.

The book contains a collection of fine pieces from that illustrious magazine The New Yorker and is entitled The 40s: The Story of a Decade.

And what a decade it was. During the first half the world was at war and the second half was spent beginning recovery from that war.

I whooped out loud with glee when I opened the book to the Table of Contents. Oh, the riches. Here are pieces written during WWII by E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, along with John Hersey’s profile on the then Lieutenant John F. Kennedy.

There are post-war pieces by Edmund Wilson, Lillian Ross, and Rebecca West’s report on the Nuremberg trials.

And, oh, the section of Character Studies: Walt Disney, Edith Piaf, Duke Ellington, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Of course I read the book section first. Clifton Fadiman muses on Ernest Hemingway’s latest offering For Whom the Bell Tolls (he finds it to be a much deeper book than The Sun Also Rises), and Lionel Trilling gets a glimpse of the future in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book he found to be “profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating.” It is compelling to read these reviews written so soon after the now-famous books were just hitting the market.

There is also commentary on film, theatre, art and architecture, musical events, and fashion.

And of course it wouldn’t be The New Yorker without poetry - verses by William Carlos Williams, W.H. Auden, and Elizabeth Bishop - and fiction - Carson McCullers, John Cheever, and the first publication of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

Irresistible! You can see why I am excited to have this book at hand. History combined with stellar writing. So much more convenient - even at almost 700 pages - than a mile-high pile of ten years’ worth of magazines.

It is one I will dip into slowly and savor every word.

P.S I am quite a fan of The New Yorker, especially its early years. You can read three of my previous posts on the writers from that era here, here, and here.