If you’re not there, you’re missing out on the latest LitBlog Co-op Read This! pick.
I like to travel but flying makes me anxious. On a plane, I am cramped in a seat for hours, with little to do but to inhabit the abyss of my mind. I wish I could shut out the world and sleep, but the incessant chatter of fellow passengers, drone of engines, and upright seats keep me awake. When I was fifteen, on a fourteen-hour sojourn from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the legroom was so scarce that my knees hit the seat in front of me. Somewhere near the International Date Line, I began eyeing the emergency exit doors. I wanted to open them and jump into the sky.
These days I live in Denver, where most major American cities are two to four hours away by plane. I travel often, whether for work or for pleasure, and on these short flights I see the proverbial light at the end of the aluminum tunnel before we depart, as long as I have earplugs and something to keep me occupied. I cannot seem to work or write, though I wish I could — imagine how much I could get done. What I need, I have found, is a good book. But there is airplane reading and airplane reading.
I write poetry, but I cannot read poetry on a plane. I picked up Cynthia Cruz’s third collection Wunderkammer when it came out and brought it with me to San Francisco the next day. Wunderkammer is saturated with images of old world Europe — the cover is a sepia photograph of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia dancing at a Parisian ball — yet the book made me think of California. Cruz’s poems blend decadent imagery with tense, controlled lines she pushes to breaking; perhaps I saw in her style an antidote to California’s excess. In any case, I wanted to read the book. But after two or three poems, I needed to take a walk and the trip down the aisle to the bathroom was nowhere near enough. I needed space to dwell in the silences of the work.
I also remember trying to read Djuna Barnes’s modernist novel Nightwood on a return flight from Miami. Granted, after a madcap Halloween weekend of drinking and boating on Biscayne Bay, I probably would not have been able to read a grocery list, but as much as I loved the gorgeous rhythms of Barnes’s language, I could not follow the ellipses in the story. I have not picked up the book again. I keep looking at it on my shelf, wanting to get back into the thorny opulence of its world, but Nightwood strikes me as a book that demands all of our inner resources, which lately I have not been able to marshal in my everyday life, much less in the brain fog I get at 35,000 feet.
Oddly, it’s the personal essay collection that seems to soothe my nerves on the plane. I read Melissa Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today on a recent flight to Charlotte, beginning when we took off from Denver, taking a break in transit in Minneapolis, and finishing just as I saw the lights of my destination in the night sky. It was a dream: the world fell away and reassembled just as I returned to land. So Sad Today is not an easy read: Broder writes about her experiences with anxiety, depression, addiction, and abjection, among other things. I especially loved her meditations on her husband’s chronic illness, their open marriage, and the love that sustains a long relationship. I had to close my eyes after each essay, reassessing the stories I tell myself about my life, but I kept reading. There is a thematic unity to the collection, but each essay could stand by itself, a perfect capsule of intensity that engaged my restless mind on the plane.
Another good experience: reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook while flying to Boston last summer, on the way to Provincetown for a writing workshop. The book, which Ortiz calls a “prose poemish memoir,” was born out of a blog Ortiz kept when she lived in Hollywood in her late twenties. The ninety short chapters range from a few lines to two or three pages, from meditations to lists and quotes, charting the banalities and epiphanies of a young woman trying to figure out who she is as a person and an artist. In the three hours I spent with Hollywood Notebook, I reflected on my own circuitous path to writing, the places I want to go in my own work. I did not find answers, or even questions; for a moment, I was content that my thoughts remained amorphous.
As much as I love reading personal essays, I rarely write explicitly from my life. At this point, it is not the genre that best channels the questions I am asking in my work. But I learn a lot from these writers who examine the interstices of life that we — or at least I — tend to overlook. I learn a language to describe the recesses of my mind that I would rather avoid. And on the plane, I can read personal essays without the anxiety of comparison.
Some years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell in Portland. Her book Legs Get Led Astray, which chronicles her early twenties in New York, had just appeared that year. I said that I had read it on a plane — I don’t remember which now, but it might have been that very flight to Oregon. She wrote in my copy of the book, “A book for airplane rides.” I still have it on my shelf. I look to it as a reminder that we can write from the idiosyncrasies of our experiences, whether in life or in the sky.
The Washington Post raves about David Sedaris’ latest book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Here’s an excerpt. At the local chain store I noticed, prominently displayed, David Foster Wallace’s new collection of short stories, Oblivion. Here’s an excerpt from that one. Also in the news, Oprah makes her summer selection, and in keeping with her recent predilection for dead authors, she chooses Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts.
If the forecast calls for snow, get ready for tweets about James Joyce’s “The Dead.” Literary Twitter’s favorite winter ritual is quoting Joyce’s lyric final line: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
I’m just as guilty as the rest. And why not? It is a gorgeous, solemn sentence. A conclusion to a masterful story; the crescendo of a funereal paragraph. Joyce’s melancholic consonance and inversion almost compels us to stand in front of a cold window and watch snow blanket the streets. Mary Gordon has called it “a triumph of pure sound . . . And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” “No one,” Gordon says, “has ever equaled it.”
No one? Perhaps no one has equaled Joyce’s grand final sentence — but there is a greater, darker, more consuming snow story than “The Dead” out there, ready to be tweeted: “The Pedersen Kid” by William H. Gass.
First published in 1961 and later collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a handful of unusual stories set in the Midwest, “The Pedersen Kid” is suffused with snow — as solemn as Joyce’s tale but somehow more claustrophobic. Gass began writing the story “to entertain a toothache.” That’s an appropriate anecdote. A philosopher by training and a critic by practice, Gass has always been in love with language. Words are his God.
“The Pedersen Kid” is his finest offering. Unlike other stories — like Joyce’s — that include snow at opportune moments, Gass’s novella is suffused with snow from start to finish. Set in North Dakota, a quirky Swedish-American family makes a horrific discovery: a snow-covered child from a neighboring farm on their front steps. “The sun burned on the snow” as they rush the Pedersen kid inside and put the child “on the kitchen table like you would a ham.” They take off the child’s frosted clothes and try to resuscitate him.
“Resuscitate” might not be the best word. The child appears dead, and they seem to resurrect him with a Gass-appropriate Holy Trinity of whiskey, dough, and slapping. The child soon retreats into the background of the story, as the Segren family is more concerned with understanding why, and how, the child made it through a blizzard to their home.
Gass couldn’t have created a more absurd cast. Pa is a violent alcoholic who “don’t like to get waked.” Big Hans, the farm hand, is unpredictable, and lives to antagonize Pa. Ma is overwhelmed, frustrated, and afraid. Jorge, the young narrator of the story, is sarcastic and unpredictable: it is not clear if the Pedersen kid is dead, or if Jorge simply wishes the child was dead so they could be done with this mess.
Snow rages outside the small home, and the kid is asleep upstairs, but the family is consumed with the desire to know the story of how the kid got there. Only Big Hans seems to have answers. He says the kid told him a stranger broke into the farmhouse. The boy’s testimony is fragmented: “The green mackinaw. The black stocking cap. The yellow gloves. The gun.” The man put the Pedersen family “down the cellar,” so the kid ran away, into the snow. The Segren family wonders if he stranger is on the way to find the kid — the on the way to their home.
Big Hans and Pa argue. Should they go to the Pedersen farm? Should they catch the killer before he ambushes them? Pa looks out the window, and says “See — see — what did I tell you — snowing . . . always snowing.” He’s convinced the snow will strangle and suffocate them, and taunts Hans: “You’re a bigger fool because you’re fatter.” Pa and Hans continue to argue as they drift, with Jorge, into the snow.
They enter the vast Dakota expanse like cutouts from a Beckett play. The second half of Gass’s novel is a frightening trek into the windless, unforgiving snow. “Sometimes the snow seemed as blue as the sky,” Jorge marvels, as they sink into the white stuff. Their horse scrambles to move forward. Big Hans has a shotgun and a Navy-issue .45.
They trudge forward, and joke about freezing to death. “It was frightening,” Jorge thinks, “the endless white space . . . Winded slopes and rises all around me.” Jorge “could hear us breathing and the snow, earth, and our boots squeaking. We went slow and all of us was cold.” By the time they reach the Pedersen farmhouse, they are exhausted, hallucinating, their souls frozen.
Back at home, Ma is with the Pedersen kid. She has biscuits, elderberry jam, and coffee. But what happens to the men at the Pedersen home is a nightmare. Jorge’s final sentence is chilling and Joycean: “The winter time had finally got them all, and I really did hope that the kid was as warm as I was now, warm inside and out, burning up, inside and out, with joy.”
“The Pedersen Kid” is a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead.
And just like that, my Los Angeles chapter has been brought to a quick and frenzied close. After a marathon of packing and a lot of time spent trying to make all of the junk we acquired over the last few years disappear, Ms. Millions and I set off east through the desert, nine and a half hours behind schedule but determined to make up the time. Unlike four years ago when we spent three weeks driving five thousand miles, pausing often, here and there, when we found a place that held our interest, this trip was a delirium of driving, hundreds of miles between stops, trying to keep the needle of the speedometer above 90 as we traversed desolate stretches of highway in New Mexico and Texas. But now I am in Washington, DC, which will be my base of sorts for the summer, leading up to and beyond my wedding until it is time to move to Chicago. I no longer have a fantastic book store at my disposal, but I am hoping to offer some insight, now purely as a reader, even though my bookselling days are behind me. Another thing I would like to do this summer, between wedding planning and hopefully a little traveling, is work. If anyone out there knows of or can offer me an internship for the summer, preferably in journalism, let me know. I don’t need to be paid much or at all, really; just looking for some experience and for something to do. Email me if you can help. But enough of that, on to some books.While on the road, I received an email from Steve from Virginia containing a couple of recommendations. First, noting my interest in the books of the British war historian, John Keegan, he suggested that I endeavor to read The Mask of Command as it is, in his opinion, Keegan’s best. Also of note: Keegan’s latest, The Iraq War, will be released soon. It will be interesting to see how a man of Keegan’s expertise analyses such a modern and non-traditional conflict. Steve also wrote in suggesting that I take a look at Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica, a book about George Steer, the South African war correspondent who broke the story of the firebombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Thanks for the recommendations, Steve!As I was packing up to go, I heard on the radio an interview with the author of a new book called, Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle. Jad Adams, the British journalist behind this book, wanted to explore the curious hold that this beverage had on generations of artists and writers who were looking for inspiration.Finally, I caught this amusing little story about the intersection of fiction, marketing, and copywrites. The cover of Tom Perotta’s Little Children will be switched from goldfish to cookies sometime soon.
USA Today rounds up media coverage of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. They share this tidbit, too:The Maltese Falcon was first published serially in five parts in Black Mask magazine from September 1929 to January 1930; Knopf published it as a book in 1930. “There are about 2,000 differences between the two published texts – sometimes a comma or a paragraph placed (differently), but often it’s Hammett fooling with the prose to get it just right,” says Richard Layman, author of six Hammett books, including Shadow Man, a biography, and a trustee of Hammett’s literary property trust.USA Today also put the book’s first chapter up. Check it out.