I did something in 2014 that would throw a wrench into anyone's reading: I bought a bookstore. Selling books, as I wasn't surprised to find, doesn't leave much time for reading them. Also, it meant I became -- not for the first time, but never so publicly, on such a daily basis -- a professional reader, as many of us are lucky to end up being in one way or another, as teachers or editors or researchers or some other line of work that corrals your attention from the luxury of polymorphous curiosity into something more traditionally productive, in my case trying to keep up with some of the new releases I might be able to share with my customers. So, early in the year, my reading shifted back from personal to pro, but there were good books on both sides of the divide. And aside from a few favorites (see below), what I find myself remembering as vivid reading experiences are not consistently excellent books like Marilynne Robinson's Lila, Ben Lerner's 10:04, David Markson's Reader's Block, Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, Lawrence Wright's Thirteen Days in September, Tove Jansson's The Summer Book, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, Edward Hirsch's Gabriel, Brendan Koerner's The Skies Belong to Us, and William Gibson's The Peripheral -- all very good books I'd happily put in your hands if you walked into my store -- but the more jagged-edged books I might hand you with a caveat. I remember, with delight, the first half of Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds -- "Finally reading Trollope," I told everyone, or, rather, tweeted. "What took me so long to sample this deliciousness?" -- before his stamina started to outlast mine. I was delighted too with the first half of Joseph O'Neill's The Dog and the voice he captured, as companionable as Netherland's but more chilling (like P.G. Wodehouse telling a J.G. Ballard story), even if for me that voice never grew into a full book. I admired and enjoyed Farther and Wilder, Blake Bailey's biography of Charles Jackson, but I wondered if his subject was worth his talents until the final third -- usually the least interesting in any biography -- when Jackson's accumulated troubles, and his belated reckoning with them, made his life profoundly moving. And though Joel Selvin's Here Comes the Night had for me a hole at its center == the interior life of its ostensible subject, unsung record man Bert Berns, remained a cipher -- I loved Selvin's hepcat riffs on Berns and his fellow "centurions of pop." And then there were the books I loved best, all novels, it turns out. The best book I read this year was Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I hope I don't need to say much about. In Manny Farber terms, it plays a white elephant game rather than a termite one: tackling a major national and personal subject head on and relying on the traditional methods of the novel to do it. It's the kind of book that wins awards, and in this case deservedly so. I also loved Michael Winter's Minister Without Portfolio, a much more termite-ish book after it gets beyond an early Big Event and settles into working out the everyday morality of rural life in a reticent romance I was startled to realize reminded me of Kitty and Levin's in Anna Karenina. Merritt Tierce's debut, Love Me Back, more or less tore my scalp off. She tells the story of a single mom waitressing her way up the service-industry ladder to a high-end Dallas steakhouse, with disarming amounts of sex and drugs along the way, and strips it of any success -- or redemption -- story arcs. Desire and discipline and self-destruction are constant forces that ebb and flow and are by no means sated by the story's end. Peter Mountford's The Dismal Science is also about the always underserved topic of work: a high official at the World Bank decides to speak a few truths (which he's not entirely certain are true) and thereby blow up his life. In part I loved it because it captured the culture of Red-Line-to-Shady-Grove D.C. and Maryland I grew up in like no other fiction I've read, and in part because it's the kind of novel where a character walks into a room and you get the feeling that neither he, nor his creator, knows what he is going to do there until he does it. (Right afterwards I read Mountford's previous novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, a companion to this one, and liked it nearly as much.) And lastly, the first book I read all year (if the January 2 train ticket still inside is to be believed) is the only one close to Flanagan's in my mind: J.M. Ledgard's Submergence. It's both an excellent book and a jagged one. Its jaggedness -- the resistance I felt when reading it, and the thing I feel obligated to warn about when I'm recommending it -- is its almost perverse formality. To someone schooled in the hi-lo tendencies of our time, Ledgard's elevated style is a provocation; I'm not sure there's a contraction in the entire book, for instance, aside from a few in dialogue. And the characters in his dual storyline, who connect for a few days at a quietly luxurious hotel on the French coast, have an equal sense of exceptional cultivation. They think of life in terms of centuries: one a mathematician and ocean researcher who, as she prepares to descend to the floor of the Atlantic in a tiny submersible, is confident her name and her discoveries will live for hundreds of years, the other a British spy in Africa whose thoughts, as he is held hostage by Somali jihadists, keep returning to his English forebears and the utopias they imagined half a millennium before. I find myself wanting to make fun of Submergence, to goof on its gravity (and on Ledgard himself, whose author bio describes him as "a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies"), but the thing is, I can't. He pulls it off, and earns every bit of profundity he claims. And it's the thinking in centuries that does it: the awareness of the massive scales of biology and history, alongside the poignancy of individual existence. I often don't care about the ends of novels, and I can't tell you what finally happened in many of the ones I love most, but there are some endings that, in the process of tying things up, open up an abyss of meaning that's almost unbearable. This is one of them. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria. Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not. One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It's an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends "round the fire," about which we learn little except that it was "gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be," and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale. Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career. Gather round the fire with these December tales: Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845) In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother's house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights--which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child--flood the dark skies above them. The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861) Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868) If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (1934) Julian English's three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation. "The Birds" by Daphne du Maurier (1952) Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier's story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951) Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell. Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963) The "twenty years of unhappiness" recounted in Athill's memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer's Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark's career seven years before). Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965) The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964. Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976) Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979) The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth's best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff. The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998) Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche. Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999) Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005) Didion's year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband's sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn't seen the year before. Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (2007) Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel. December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012) Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down -- if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog: Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”? Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.” But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813) What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet's path most enjoyably at November's Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness. Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845) In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first "Conversation," a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She'd later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were "talking with pen in hand." Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853) Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins -- nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed -- Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878) The restless desire of Hardy's doomed characters, especially the bewitching "Queen of the Night," Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel's beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th's Bonfire Night. Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928) It's on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and -- either lost or saved, she doesn't know -- makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there's no escape. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945) Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation? Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947) The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) "Mr. Ewell," asks the prosecutor, "would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?" Those disputed events are what the jury -- "twelve reasonable men in everyday life" -- is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch. "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" by Gay Talese (1966) A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile -- and profile of celebrity -- for Esquire. The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970) Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal -- trying to make a number of deals, in fact -- in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.” The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979) The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother -- both lost to him -- stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994) Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice. Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995) The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen. A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004) November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
If you like Fall, you like October. It's the height of the season, the fieriest in its orange, the briskest in its breezes. "I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers," exclaims the irrepressible Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. "It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn't it?" October at Green Gables is "when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson" and "the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths;" it's a "beautiful month." Katherine Mansfield would have disagreed. October, she wrote in her journal, "is my unfortunate month. I dislike it exceedingly to have to pass through it -- each day fills me with terror." (It was the month of her birthday.) And Gabriel García Márquez's biographer notes that October, the month of the greatest disaster in his family history, when his grandfather killed a man in 1908, "would always be the gloomiest month, the time of evil augury" in his novels. Some people, of course, seek out evil augury in October. It's the month in which we domesticate horror as best we can, into costumes, candy, and slasher films. Frankenstein's monster may not have been animated until the full gloom of November, but it's in early October that Count Dracula visits Mina Harker in the night and forces her to drink his blood, making her flesh of his flesh. It's in October that the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the season, leaving Jack Torrance alone for the winter with his family and his typewriter in The Shining, and it's in October that his son, Danny, starts saying, "Redrum." Can you domesticate horror by telling scary tales? Just as the camp counselor frightening the kids around the fire is likely the first one to get picked off when the murders begin, the four elderly members of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub's Ghost Story, who have dealt with the disturbing death of one of their own the previous October by telling each other ghost stories, prove anything but immune to sudden terror themselves until they trace their curse to a horrible secret they shared during an October 50 years before -- just after, as it happens, another kind of modern horror, the stock market crash of 1929. In the odd patterns that human irrationality often follows, those financial terrors, the Black Thursdays and Black Mondays, tend to arrive in October too. Here is a list of suggested reading for the month of harvests and horror. The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1867) Those planning to celebrate National Novel Writing Month next month can take heart -- or heed -- from Dostoyevsky, who, having promised a publisher the year before that he'd deliver a novel by November 1866 or lose the rights to his works for nine years, didn't begin writing until October 4. He handed in this appropriately themed novel with hours to spare. Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878) Scholars may argue whether Keats wrote the sonnet that begins, "Bright star! would that I were steadfast as thou art" in October, or even whether it was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne, but there is no doubt that on October 13, 1819, in a letter that wasn't published until nearly 60 years later, he wrote to Miss Brawne, "I could be martyr'd for my Religion -- Love is my religion -- I could die for that -- I could die for you." Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James (1904) James had modest aims for the wittily unsettling tales, often set among the libraries and ancient archives that were his professional haunts, that he wrote to entertain his students at Eton and Cambridge. But their skillful manipulation of disgust has made them perennial favorites for connoisseurs of the macabre. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919) Oddly, one effect of Russia's October Revolution was to modernize the calendar so that, in retrospect, it took place in November. But wherever you place those 10 days, Reed, the young partisan American reporter, was there, moving through Petrograd -- soon renamed Leningrad -- as history was made around him. The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz (1950-52, 2004) October is of course the month of the Great Pumpkin (whose arrival Linus didn't anticipate until 1959), but it was also on October 2, 1950, when Shermy said to Patty in the very first Peanuts strip, "Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown! How I hate him!" Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956) The leaves are turning red, brown, and yellow in the small New England town, while the sky is blue and the days are unseasonably warm: it must be Indian summer. But let's hear Metalious tell it: "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle." A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962) It's a dark and stormy October night when Meg comes downstairs to find Charles Wallace waiting precociously for her with milk warming on the stove. Soon after, blown in by the storm, arrives their strange new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, "her mouth puckered like an autumn apple." Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966) The October wedding in Jamaica of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason, which plays a peripheral role in Jane Eyre, takes center stage in Rhys's novel, in which Rochester greets his doomed marriage with the words, "So it was all over." 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970) "Gentlemen," New York screenwriter Helene Hanff wrote to the London bookshop Marks & Co. in October 1949, "Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books," the first note in a cross-Atlantic correspondence that has charmed lovers of books, and of bookselling, ever since it was published two decades later. Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975) The first day of October is the date of Mr. Victor Hazell's grand shooting party, which means that it's also the day on which Danny and his "marvelous and exciting father" conspire to ruin that piggy-eyed snob's plans with the aid of a hundred or so tranquilized pheasants. The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (1979) There's no particular reason to read The Dog of the South in October except that it begins in that month, when the leaves in Texas have gone straight from green to dead, and Ray Midge's wife, Norma, has run off with his credit cards, his Ford Torino, and his ex-friend Guy Dupree. Any month is a good month to read Charles Portis. "The Ant of the Self" by ZZ Packer (2002) Packer's short story uses 1995's Million Man March as the backdrop for Roy Bivens Jr. and his son Spurgeon -- "nerdy ol' Spurgeon" -- who, on an ill-fated mission to sell some black men some birds at the march, work out a more elemental drama of fatherhood and ambition. Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (2004) On a fall night in Harlem, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Brown recorded a show that turned him from a chitlin'-circuit headliner into a nationwide star, an event whose abrupt intensity was put brilliantly in context in Wolk's little book, one of the standout entries in the marvelous 33 1/3 series. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) The landscape McCarthy's father and son travel has been razed of all civilization, calendars included, but as their story begins, the man thinks it might be October. All he knows is that they won't last another winter without finding their way south. Image Credit: Pixabay
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet. The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death...offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary. I don't know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let's read one another nevertheless. Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825) Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator's journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed. The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter Potter's tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn't feel left out, of a frog who dines on "roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce." The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933) "I may say," Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, "that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken": Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, "a golden brown presence" in a "warm brown corduroy suit," whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco. Act One by Moss Hart (1959) One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) “JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer. Stoner by John Williams (1965) The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment. Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968) There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become. Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969) A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious. Deliverance by James Dickey (1970) It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination. White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985) Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990) The central document in Malcolm's ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald--long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald's guilt--"It's a hell of a thing--spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey--not for long." Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992) It's not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal's home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008) Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it. Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012) There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware's big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building's inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember. Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.” It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.” What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution. Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.” Put your idleness, if you're fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings: The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875) What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else's industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) Among the threads in Ford's intricately woven "saddest story" is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it's the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide. Light in August by William Faulkner (1932) Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.” The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946) It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962) It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.” Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967) One of literature's most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka's August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite -- or because of -- what he describes as her "bony, empty face," he reported he was "completely under the influence of the girl." The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974) The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson's hands, and one by Manson's prosecutor that's part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood. The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981) Bradley's nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting -- self-inflicted, the legends say -- of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history. "The Fall River Axe Murders" by Angela Carter Carter's fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995) A book -- call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel -- grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000) In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived -- I’d enjoyed.” Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
Tom Nissley’s column "A Reader's Book of Days" is adapted from his book of the same name. July is the month of revolutions, so much so that in France's upheaval even the month itself was swept away. The French Revolution that began with the liberation of the Bastille on July 14 tried to reinvent many traditions from the ground up—the metric system lasted longer than most—and the calendar was among them: under the new regime 1792 was declared Year I, with 12 newly defined months of three ten-day weeks each. (Since that only adds up to 360, the five or six days left over became national holidays, les jours complémentaires, at the end of the year.) The poet Fabre d'Églantine was given the task of choosing names for the new months, among them the two that overlapped the traditional span of July: Messidor, from "harvest," and Thermidor, from "heat" (British wags were said to have suggested "Wheaty" and "Heaty" as local equivalents). Each day of the year received an individual name too, inspired by plants, animals, and tools: In Year II, for example, luckless Fabre d'Églantine was executed for corruption by his own revolution on Laitue (Lettuce), the 16th day of Germinal. He handed out his poems on his way to the guillotine. By comparison, America's revolution hardly altered its calendar, except for the new Fourth of July celebration (which didn't become an official federal holiday until 1870). For fiction that evokes the American Independence Day, you can turn to Ross Lockridge Jr.’s nearly forgotten epic, Raintree County, which uses the single day of July 4, 1892, to look back on a century of American history, while George Pelecanos’s King Suckerman crackles to a final showdown at the Bicentennial celebration in Washington D.C., and Frank Bascombe, in Richard Ford’s Independence Day (a Pulitzer winner like Raintree County), attempts a father-son reconciliation with a July Fourth weekend visit to those shrines to American male bonding, the baseball and basketball Halls of Fame. Here is a list of suggested reading for the heat and upheaval of July: The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788) Anybody can have a revolution: the real achievement of the American experiment was building a system of government that could last, as argued for in these crucial essays on democracy and the balance of powers. Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (1873) In July 1806, the scholar James Mill challenged a fellow new father to "a fair race with you in the education of a son." It's hard to imagine Mill didn't win: his son, John Stuart Mill, was reading Greek at three and was a formidable classicist by 12. His memoir of his precocious childhood remains a legend of Victorian education. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922) No Antarctic tourist would choose the height of the southern winter for a visit, but that’s when emperor penguins nest, so Cherry-Garrard and two companions set out on a foolhardy scientific expedition across the Ross Ice Shelf in the darkness of the Antarctic July, a “Winter Journey” that became the centerpiece of Cherry-Garrard’s classic account of the otherwise doomed Scott Expedition. "Why I Live at the P.O." by Eudora Welty (1941) Why? Because they all ganged up on her: Mama slapped her face and Papa-Daddy called her a hussy and even Uncle Rondo threw a package of firecrackers into her bedroom at 6:30 in the morning, all because Stella-Rondo came home on the Fourth of July and turned them all against her, that's why. [millions_email] The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959) Before there was John Frankenheimer’s film in 1962, there was Condon's original Cold War fantasia—the direct source of most of the movie's deliciously bizarre dialogue and convoluted paranoia—which begins with an Army patrol that goes missing in Korea in July before being saved by their sergeant, Raymond Shaw, the finest, bravest, most admirable person they've ever known. The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald (1973) The fifth of Fitzgerald's eight Great Brain books is perhaps the finest and most dramatic in the superb series for kids set in turn-of-the-century Utah, with a story of a rigged Fourth of July tug-of-war between the Mormons and the Gentiles and a rare comeuppance for Tom, the charming, swindling Great Brain himself. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974) “It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July.” There's no danger of spoiling the ending of Shaara's Pulitzer-winning novel of Gettysburg by giving away its final words, but knowing the battle's outcome makes the drama no less appealing. Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990) Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure—dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in—follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall. Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (2002) What better way to celebrate Canada Day and Bastille Day (and Independence Day, too, for that matter) than with the stories of Montreal’s great expatriate writer, who left empty-handed for Paris with a plan to make herself a writer of fiction before she was 30 and found an American audience for her stories in The New Yorker for six decades afterwards. Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005) It's July 11 and everything is in place: the glum pianist playing Rachmaninoff, the liver lady frying liver in a pan, the motorcycle enthusiast clanging in the courtyard, and the staff ready behind the scenes for the first re-enactment in McCarthy's relentlessly provocative (and diabolically approachable) experiment in fiction, in which a suddenly wealthy man's attempt to recreate his own fleeting past exposes the limits and seductions of memory and the tyranny of unlimited power. [millions_ad] The Damned Utd by David Peace (2006) Brian Clough’s unlikely decision in 1974 to manage Leeds United, the club that had once been his bitterest rival, began a spectacularly disastrous 44-day summer reign that Peace transformed, with his propulsive and obsessive style, into what many have called the greatest novel on English football. Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman (2007) “This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Hardly. For teenage Elio, the intrusion of a young American academic into his family’s Italian summer sets off a summer’s passion whose intensity upends his life and still sears his memory in Aciman’s elegant story of remembered, inelegant desire. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012) Five years are all it’s taken for the marriage of Amy and Nick, a once-high-flying media couple, to curdle, and Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary, July 5, sets off this twisted autopsy of a marriage gone violently wrong. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
June is sickly sweet; it's insipid. Is that because it's so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon... But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his "red, red rose / That's newly sprung in June" with a "melody / that's sweetly played in tune," Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of "We Real Cool": the rhyme she finds for "Jazz June"? "Die soon." Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. June is called "midsummer," even though it's the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It's the traditional month for weddings -- Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream is overflowing with matrimony -- but it's also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day -- or, as it's more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that's a beginning. It's an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for. But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There's the narrator's friend "Shiny" in James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like "a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life," and there's Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he'd composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town's leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a "battle royal" with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary's patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the "Negro national anthem," "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson). Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings: McTeague by Frank Norris (1899) One of American literature's most memorable -- and most disastrous -- weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, "Oh, you must be very good to me -- very, very good to me, dear, for you're all that I have in the world now." Ulysses by James Joyce (1922) Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day -- June 16, 1904 -- with a book. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004) After reading Colette's account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, "If that's all she could get out of June, I'm not worried," and continued work on her own version, "Storm in June," the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she'd survive the Nazis long enough to complete. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson (1948) It's a "clear and sunny" morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots. "The Day Lady Died" by Frank O'Hara (1959) Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O'Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the "quandariness" of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away. Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" by Eudora Welty (1963) On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that "nothing under heaven would prevent" him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks. Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974) Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again? Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?) We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President's Men, but Dean's insider's memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale. The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977) We've never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover's wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it's too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher's lawyers who said it couldn't be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon. Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979) Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator's life -- which closely resembles Hardwick's -- and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time's power. Clockers by Richard Price (1992) It's often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price's novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team. When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995) Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud's first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they've made and suddenly open to the life around them. "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx (1997) Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack's teeth draw blood from Ennis's mouth. Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002) Three Junes might well be called "Three Funerals"--each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass's title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it. Image via circasassy/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the "uncertain glory" of April, Shakespeare's May, with its "darling buds," is always sweet, and ever the month for love. Traditionally -- before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot -- May Days in England were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations. It's on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose "bouncing handsome womanliness" among her fellow country girls still reveals flashes of the child she recently was. May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother's Day to honor the death of her own mom. The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in "The May Magnificat" Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that "May is Mary's month," and asks why. "All things rising," he answers, "all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature's motherhood." The many meanings of a simple word like "May" can get to be too much, though. When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse's fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy: "month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida." Here is a selection of recommended May reading, including love, friendship, underground adventure, and a very bad prom: Memoirs by Lord Byron (unpublished) You might wish to read Byron's Memoirs (who wouldn't?), but you can't, thanks to a decision made by six men in the drawing room of the publisher John Murray in May 1824, a month after their dangerous friend had died of fever in Greece. Fearing the effect of its publication on "Lord Byron's honor & fame" (and perhaps on their own reputations), they instead fed the pages of the manuscript, unread, into the fire. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865) She may have met a March Hare that was mad as a hatter, but it was in the month of May -- the birthday month of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson's model for his heroine -- that Alice followed a rabbit with a watch in his waistcoat pocket down a hole and began her adventures underground. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (1899) In January he had written to her, "I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett," but it wasn't until May 20 (from 3:00 to 4:30 pm) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met in person for the first time, in her invalid's bedroom in the house of her domineering father. They eloped the following year. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954) What better cure for end-of-term blues than the campus novel that launched the whole genre (along with Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, published the same year)? You may never want to go back to class at all, especially if you're lecturing, miserably, on medieval history at a provincial English university. "The Whitsun Weddings" by Philip Larkin (1964) Amis based Lucky Jim on, and dedicated it to, his good friend Larkin, who made his own mark on postwar British culture with this ambivalent ode to the hopeful mass pairing-up of springtime, three years before the Kinks captured the same lonely-in-the-city melancholy in "Waterloo Sunset." "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" by Hunter S. Thompson (1970) A son of Louisville returned home for the ninety-sixth running of the local horse race in the company of the bearded British illustrator Ralph Steadman and emerged with his first piece of journalism that earned the adjective "gonzo." Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970) The lesson of "Spring," the opening tale in Lobel's thrillingly calm series for early readers, is, apparently, that there is honor in deception, as Frog fools hibernating Toad into joining him on a fine April day by tearing an extra page off the calendar to prove it is, in fact, May. Carrie by Stephen King (1974) "Remember, it's YOUR prom; make it one to remember always!" With over 400 dead in the town and the school gymnasium a charred and blood-soaked ruin, it's not likely that anyone -- assuming they survived it -- will forget the climactic late May event of King's debut. Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982) An early May visit to the Eastman film archives in Rochester and then to the nearby apartment of the forgotten elderly woman who had starred so thrillingly in the silent films he screened there led first to Kenneth Tynan's classic New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, "The Girl in the Black Helmet" and then, following her rediscovery, to the publication of this collection of Brooks's own sharp-witted memoirs and film criticism. Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004) All within the month of May 1948, Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph meet, become engaged, and are wed, and Gilbert sets off from Jamaica for the larger island of Great Britain, to be followed six months later by Hortense, who had funded both their journeys in an immigrants' alliance that's as much a business partnership as a marriage in Levy's subtle, sympathetic novel. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (2008) "I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK," sixteen-year-old Sontag scribbled on the inside cover of her journal for May 1949, marking a moment when she was colossally precocious -- rereading Mann, Hopkins, and Dante -- and falling in love for the first time, with a young woman in San Francisco. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010) In late May 1943, just a few days after Memorial Day, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, former Olympian runner and holder of the NCAA mile record, crashed in the Pacific with two fellow airmen, beginning a record forty-seven days drifting on a raft, which proved to be just the beginning of his ordeal. Image via Leland Francisco/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader's Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name. Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet's month. "April" (or "Aprill") is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April -- "spungy," "proud-pied," and "well-apparel'd" April -- is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate -- and easy to cruelly undercut, if you're T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death. Eliot wasn't the only one a little tired of the ease of April's imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won "third honorable mention" in a local literary contest. "Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry," she mused. "All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness." A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those "spear-points" and "shafts," confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: "Maybe I'll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious -- 'little spear points of green' -- It might be impossible." In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball's Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace's last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS's Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace's characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism. Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century) When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer's nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature's founding classics. The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857) It's no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville's great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool's Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture -- and one of the funniest extended jokes -- in American literature. "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922) Whitman's elegy, composed soon after Lincoln's murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you're not likely to find. You certainly won't in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman's funeral lilacs among many others). On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951) The legend of On the Road's frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007. "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan's Edge by Taylor Branch (2006) April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch's 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968) Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature. Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion In the "cold late spring of 1967," Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich April in Erdrich's North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest. The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986) Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son's death, Ford's indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them. The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987) Smiley's early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that's as close to an American version of "The Dead" as anyone has written. My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999) "How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed." Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most "ungardenlike" ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections. The Likeness by Tana French (2008) Ireland's French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011) Don't expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through. Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler