Hons and Rebels (New York Review Books Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Hernán Diaz

Few of the books I read this year have touched me as deeply as Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. Eventually, after blackening almost every sentence with underlines and every margin with exclamation marks, I had to give up highlighting the passages I found remarkable. This is an untamed, unlit, unforgiving book—which makes its relentless beauty all the more impressive.

This was the year when I finally read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I have always been interested in aesthetics, and Gaddis gives wonderfully diagonal and opaque answers to the eternal questions about representation, originality, and how personal expression struggles to make its way through historically sedimented forms and materials. Also, I love loners, and Wyatt Gwyon is Arctically alone. Then, there is the prose. A few chapters into the book, I found myself creating a document that collected Gaddis’s descriptions of skies. (Bonus: the Dalkey Archive edition features an intense introduction by William Gass.)

Being obsessed with P. G. Wodehouse, Max Beerbohm, and, to a lesser degree, other British parodists from that general era, I am surprised to have come to the Mitford sisters only this year. But more than with Nancy, my heart is with Jessica. I simply loved Hons and Rebels, and for a whole weekend I annoyed everyone around me by sharing passages made totally unintelligible by my fits of laughter. Many events in the book are genuinely horrifying and heart-wrenching: two of her sisters’—Diana and Unity Valkyrie (yes, that’s right: Unity Valkyrie)—ties to Nazism, the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, the death of Jessica’s first baby… Still, when it comes to family dynamics and politics, Mitford keeps a Wodehousian stiff upper lip that exposes their ultimate absurdity.

I have been reading a lot of Theodore Dreiser, and I am almost done with the Trilogy of Desire, of which, I believe, only the first volume, The Financier, is still in print. I can’t say I am enjoying the writing or the general architecture of the novels, but I think they are helping me to understand American realism (and America) a little better.

 

About a year ago, Mandy Medley, Coffee House Press publicist and fanatical Scandophile, told me to read Elisabeth Rynell’s To Mervas. I did, although it took me a very long time. The novel—which narrates a recluse’s impossible journey to find the great love of her life, who sends her an enigmatic letter after decades of absence—is almost physically depressing: After a few pages, the weight would become too much, forcing me to put the book aside for days. The result was an extended read that, in a way, mimicked the protagonist’s trip. I know this doesn’t sound like a recommendation. But it is.

Briefly, in the 19th century, a strong taxonomical drive in science coincided with the diametrically opposed experience of the sublime the Romantics found in nature. I suppose both were, in their own way, totalizing impulses—the former was systematic and detached, the latter transcendental and rhapsodic. But these opposites came together in the short-lived figure of the naturalist. And yet, in the 20th century, Loren Eiseley brought to the cosmos the same sense of awe his predecessors had for far-away lands. I don’t ever want to finish the double volume of his Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos. These are texts by a true polymath and, above all, one of the greatest stylists I have read in a long time. It was fortunate that I was late to come to Eisley: earlier, his influence would have been paralyzing.

Eisley was one of our most eloquent environmentalists, and it was quite an experience to read his work almost in conjunction with Lauren Groff’s latest book. Florida addresses the urgent dangers posed by climate change but does so without falling into the didacticism that often characterizes “engaged” literature. Groff can create a reality, down to the last detail, only to shatter it in the most brutal, gorgeous ways, showing us that our world is a fragile construct besieged by forces over which we have no control—among them, increasingly, the rightful revenge of nature. The range of the prose is striking: from transcriptions of the barely audible murmurs of a conscience to the deafening roars of apocalyptic storms.

Describing one of Diane Williams’s stories inevitably takes more words than those in the story itself. And there is something equally wonderful about the dissonance between the sheer size of the megalithic Collected Stories of Diane Williams and the conciseness of the perplexing, beautiful texts within. I have always been drawn to books that can be opened at random and still provide a full reading experience. This volume is that and more. It reminds me of Borges’s book of sand, which has neither a beginning nor an end because its pages multiply infinitely as one turns them.

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Beverly Cleary’s Dispatches from the Golden West

In our benighted age, which is as scornful of navel-gazing as it is desperate to find new avenues for its pursuit, memoirs and autobiographical writing proliferate and in proliferating incite bitterness.  Long personal pieces on, for example, Salon or Slate are usually accompanied by several hundred comments, mostly variations on “I can’t believe someone got paid for this” or “I hate you.”

In many respects I’m as likely to be a hater as the next embittered internet user, but I think memoirs are nice.  The Liars’ Club, Hons and Rebels, Goodbye to All That–I like me a memoir, you might say.  The obvious caveat is if it is crappy.  What I found so bewildering about the James Frey controversy was not that he had made things up, but that people had enjoyed his prose enough to feel personally betrayed upon learning of the author’s (rather transparent) perfidy.  I would rather read forty-five leaked, unedited Twilights than one authentic, inauthentic Frey.

That said, I’d like to offer up a set of memoirs I feel that only a really first-class  hater could malign.  They are by Beverly Cleary, one of the architects of post-war American childhood, without whom we would have no Beezus or Ramona or Klickitat Street.  In addition to being the hero of children (now grown-ups, although I hope children still read Ramona books), she’s also a fine memoirist.  A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet are my personal cure for winter blues or bad news or just generally feeling sort of droopy and dépaysé.

The first book, A Girl From Yamhill, documents Cleary’s childhood in Depression-era Oregon, from early years in a farm town, to schooldays in Portland, to her departure for junior college in California.  In My Own Two Feet, Cleary goes to junior college, goes to Berkeley, falls in love, graduates library school, and starts a career that included a wartime stint in a barracks library.  Yamhill is the better of the two, I think, but only by a minute measure. Perhaps it’s the influence of her long experience of writing for children, but there is something very immediate and compelling in the written memories of her own childhood.

Cleary maintains elegant balance on all fronts–she is warm without being sentimental, honest without being maudlin, probing without being neurotic, frank without being prurient.  She writes about moving from small town to big city, the specter of pioneer ancestors, the pathos of only children, restless mothers, crooked teeth, perverted uncles, gloomy boyfriends, and tonsillitis.  She writes about discovering the pleasure of reading and of writing.  She writes about the uncertain times, her own uncertain future, and the miracle of California and junior college–begun with a solo trip on the Greyound bus, five dollars in her stockings.

It sounds appallingly smarmy, but when I read these books they give me a little national kick.  I don’t get misty when I see a bald eagle on a gentleman’s tank top, but I have a soft spot for well-told narratives from across our geographic and cultural landscape.  I like to read about the spunky women who went to college and made dresses out of old shirts and dreamed of writing children’s books.

Cleary writes on the familiar beauties of Mount Hood and the unique revelation of California, where avocados are eaten off the tree and Crab Louie abounds.  She writes about San Francisco, which might be the most beautiful city in the world.  She writes of driving over the Bay Bridge, newly opened to traffic, and of seeing the unfriendly scrub of Siskiyou County for the first time.  These are books that make you feel the American West right in your bones.

I first read these when I had mostly outgrown Ramona but yearned for more Beverly Cleary.  Maybe it’s because I was a young adult (as in Young Adult Fiction) before the advent of sixth-grade sexting, but I found these books meaningful even seventy years after the girlhood they described.  I just read them again, and I’d like to think that they transcend time–that they’re just right for precocious little girls, ornery millenials, the young and old alike.

Surprise Me!

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