I read Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer — and left it in Illinois for my mother when I was visiting. She suffers from serious dementia, but expressed excitement about this book and wanted to read it. It’s set in 17th-century Poland — during the aftermath of a catastrophic massacre of the Jews. Messiahs and Devils abound in this book amid the 17th century music Singer has miraculously composed. My mother was born in a similar place in this vicinity. My mother told me her mother died of fear. They were all terribly mad.
I’ve had to travel a fair amount this year, and these days travel is trying. The most pleasant cure is to read one’s way through the interminable lines, crowded waiting areas, cramped seating, and poisonous chemical-freighted food with books, old and new. I also spent a month in a cabin in Vermont, a place with a grand view but a steep washed-out driveway. The well went dry, there was no television nor radio reception. But I had a few books and on an excursion to a favorite old bookshop in New Hampshire I bought more. Here are some of them.
Paul St. Pierre, Smith and Other Events, Douglas & McIntyre, 1985. I have loved these funny, bittersweet cowhand-rancher stories of British Columbia’s Chilcotin Country for decades. The ethnically scrambled characters are stubborn, ornery, admire strength and the Noble Gesture. They stick together. Their common enemies are the government and outsiders. They admire bravery and toughness and wit. They are a dying breed and they know it. St Pierre’s dialogue, his timing and characterization are brilliantly on the mark.
John McGahern, By the Lake, Knopf, 2002. One of the great Irish writers, the late McGahern wrote a silky smooth prose that gathers up time as one might gather hay-scented sheets from the clothesline. The unnamed lake is likely in one of the border counties. Intimate and sometimes spiteful conversations wind the characters through the seasons and years. A man is psychologically damaged by a terrible childhood; a couple have never lived anywhere but on the edge of the water; the rich man in town, the Shah, is like a dangerous chess piece; a London couple try to belong but fail; and the Svengali of the region is on his eternal hunt for women. It is a novel of manners, a slowly unfolding kind of peaceful beauty for readers who live in a chaotic time.
Frederic Morton, A Nervous Splendor, Little, Brown and Company, 1979. Frederic Morton, who was born in Vienna and left at an early age, writes of the fateful period of July 1888 to April 1889 when history made a sharp right turn off its expected path and the Hapsburg dynasty abruptly ended. Prince Rudolf, last of the Hapsburgs, is the central character and his death and that of his mistress are presented by Morton as a murder-suicide, but many still believe it was a political murder by hands unknown. This was Vienna’s period of wild gaiety, waltz madness, fine horses, extravagant costumes and lacquered equipages, creamy pastries from Sacher’s, but the fin de siècle period is also tainted with febrile hysteria. We see Sigmund Freud struggling with his difficult ideas and penury, Anton Bruckner full of rage and jealousy, Gustav Klimt trapped into a painting job he despised, the ambitions of Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Theodor Herzl, and Richard Strauss. In this over-heated atmosphere Morton tells us Crown Prince Rudolf felt useless. This man who apparently had everything and would have been the next Holy Roman Emperor, made the extraordinary decision to kill his mistress and then shoot himself.
Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, Penguin, 2016. How to describe this wonderful book? Macfarlane himself calls it “a Counter-Desecration Phrasebook.” Years in the making, it is a compilation of glossaries of words related to the natural world of Britain and Ireland and the work done by “…fishermen, farmers, sailors, scientists, crofters, mountaineers, soldiers, shepherds, walkers and unrecorded ordinary others…” Macfarlane was shocked some years ago when he noticed that in the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary many words describing the natural world had been deleted because the editors felt those words were no longer relevant to contemporary childhoods. Macfarlane began gathering words that reflected and honored the natural world. The result is a voluptuously rich compendium of words tied to uplands, waterlands, edge places, woodland, coasts, and stones. It deservedly became a bestseller and excited hundreds of people to send Macfarlane their own words. It has become more than a book — a living, growing project open to all who respect words and the natural world.
Percival G. Lowe, Five Years a Dragoon, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, 1991, first published in 1906. This frontier military history is a favorite book of mine. Percival Lowe was a young man from New Hampshire who enlisted for a five-year stint in the Regular Army during peace-time, though the so-called Indian Wars, regarded by the Army as “police actions,” were ongoing. The book is remarkable as it is a rare account by an enlisted man of military, Indian, and settler life on the high plains. In the years I lived in Wyoming I was interested in and visited many of the forts and historic battlefields from Texas to Montana. Lowe is also interesting for his upright, rather stern but decent character and refusal to back off from difficult situations. When his five years were up, he became a civilian employee of the Quarter-Master’s Department in charge of transport and freighting supplies. After a try at the gold rush of Pike’s Peak, he married and started his own successful freighting business. When the Civil War began, he continued to freight supplies for the federal army. Lively and packed with detail of a vanished world, this is an important book for those of us interested in Western history.
Nancy Marie Brown, Ivory Vikings, St Martin’s Griffin, 2016. The charming and extraordinary 78 chessmen carved from walrus tusk ivory, discovered on a beach on Scotland’s Lewis Island in the early-19th century, are the most famous chessmen in the world. They catch at our imagination in many ways. This archeological treasure from the 12th century, generally accepted to be the work of Viking craftsmen, likely in Norway, is the source of fierce disputation and an ongoing mystery. Nancy Brown, a scholar of Medieval literature and Icelandic language, believes the chessmen were carved in Iceland by a master craftswoman, Margaret the Adroit, reputed at the time to be the best carver in Iceland and who worked for Bishop Pall of Skalholt. This book, which reads like a mystery novel, presents her evidence and the long complicated path to that conclusion.
Yuri Rytkheu, A Dream in Polar Fog, Archipelago books, 2005. One of the best. This acclaimed book is translated from the Russian, the language in which the author, a Chukchi, wrote. Chukotka, his native place in the far north, is a federal subject of Russia. This unique book is a rare example of a literary aboriginal voice. The story concerns John, a.k.a. Sson, a Canadian sailor on an ice-bound ship in the Arctic Ocean in 1910. Sson’s hands are badly damaged by an explosion as the sailors try to break free from the clasping ice. The injured man is left with the natives who live on the frozen shore. Exquisite writing takes us from the moment of the explosion to the years of Sson’s intimacy with the local people and his gradual assimilation into the Chukchi culture — and eventually his efforts to teach the people reading, writing, and an outside language to bring them into the 20th century. We have so little intimate information about these Arctic people, and the writer’s deep emotional attachment to this landscape of ice (today melting away under global warming forces) makes every sentence seem a poetic revelation.
Mordecai Richler, The Incomparable Atuk, New Canadian Library, 1989. This short, savage piece of irony was first published in 1963 when Richler was 32. Fifty-odd years later it maintains its puncturing power. Richler’s work often attacks the forever-ongoing discussion of Canadian identity subject to an encroaching American culture, and Atuk is part of his overall criticism of his home country. Atuk was a young, Eskimo, less-than-wonderful poet discovered by an RCM policeman and promoted by a visiting advertising executive. Atuk becomes the latest rage in a Canada of television contests, Jews, Negroes, drama critics, columnists, unemployment, investments, drugs, drink, Thunderbirds. He falls into the clutches of the sex-crazed swimmer Bette Dolan, Canada’s Most Popular Darling Girl film star, but when he tells his father, who has become a professional Eskimo after appearing in a National Film Board short feature, that he intends to marry her, the Old One, as he now prefers to be called, objects. It all ends badly, as it must, in a swirl of cannibalism, baby-switching at birth, contests, and psychiatrists. Oh, how we need Richler today!
I am currently reading Richard Ellis’s 1998 The Search for the Giant Squid, and Charlotte Gray’s brilliant new history, The Promise of Canada, Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016. Richly illustrated and displaying Gray’s wide knowledge, this examination of the churning and extremely complex cultural forces that have shaped Canada into a country generally seen as possessing a conscience and a heart — but itchy with ill-fitting parts — ought to be required reading for neighboring Americans.
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2015 was the year I first read William Styron and enjoyed Jonathan Franzen, two impassioned existentialists whose characters — machines célibataires initially persuaded of the arability of signs — fail at their world-building, not even spectacularly but in ways that embarrass even themselves, coming to rest at last on the eternally naked but fertile earth of the female sex. Such novels are jungles, with flaws that are numerous, open-mouthed, and hungry. So instead I will recommend two short masterpieces: The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, and Daniel Kehlmann’s Ich und Kaminski. If Styron and Franzen are high romantic symphonies, Drury and Kehlmann are baroque airs — instantly accessible and timeless, capturing known worlds rather than jury rigging the new.
My lasting joy in The End of Vandalism (1994) hinges on its portrayal of a certain kind of archetypal small-town egomaniac it is a punishment to know. I struggled and failed in my novel Mislaid to sketch this person in the character of Lomax, but here he is in the hulking, self-pitying “Tiny,” quick to offend and just as quick to forgive (himself). I love his patient and gentle antagonist, Sheriff Dan. Drury lands line after line of laconic idiom with the artlessness of true art.
Ich und Kaminski (2003) is told in a first-person voice whose transparent self-deception is the air we breathe. Art historian/reviewer Sebastian is under contract/freelancing to write a book-length biography/magazine profile of an epoch-making/insignificant world famous/forgotten abstract expressionist/dabbler in watercolor landscapes, best known for his progressive partial blindness. Assisted by a girlfriend who is seeing someone else but never got her keys back, he reunites the painter with the love of his life. Sebastian’s fall is long, awkward, and embarrassing, but he never knows he’s falling. As it is for most of us, blessed as we are not to live in existentialist novels, it’s the hard landing that gets his attention — right in time for him to get up and dust himself off.
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