Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 30, 2017

2017 Reading: Midpoint Observations

At the halfway point of 2017, I’m pleased to report that it’s been a good year for reading.

I’m not going to get into whether I’ve read more books than your sister has; the number isn’t important. I’ve made some excellent discoveries, with books by authors from 6 countries. Exactly 50% of my books were borrowed from the library, and the bulk of the rest I received as gifts, pulled from the shelves of Rancho Retro or picked up for a dollar or two at the Friends of the Library book sale. Amazon and the brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t happy on my account.

The books (almost all fiction) span just under 200 years: 1819 – 2016.  That range will expand by about 400 years at the end of 2017, assuming I finish out the year with the traditional rereading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Speaking of Re-reading

I’m an inveterate re-reader. I return again and again to a few treasured favorites, but this year has been an exception, only one of my 2017 books to-date being one I’d read before; even that was for a specific reason. I discovered the French writer, Emmanuel Carerre, and the first of two of his books I read (in English translation) was I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a biography of one of my all-time favorite authors, Philip K. Dick.

Having just become aware of Carerre’s work, and waiting while I moved up the library wait list for his 2016 book, The Kingdom, I was delighted to find that he’d authored a study of Dick. The book is a mixture of thoroughly researched fact and personal reflection and associations, a hallmark of his work.  As it happens, 2016 had been my year to re-read a number of Dick’s novels, so the references in Carerre’s book were fresh in my mind, but it had been many years since I’d picked up A Maze of Death, a classic bit of Dickian storytelling, set on an alien planet and mixing myth, interpersonal conflict, psychotropic drugs and — inevitably — disaster.

By an incredible stroke of luck for me, The Kingdom (about the relationship between  Saint Paul and Saint Luke) once it came to me, is replete with references to the period in Carerre’s own life when he was suffering a crisis of faith that informed his investigation of Dick’s life. The science fiction writer also wrestled with matters of faith, converting to a committed Catholicism at one point, and using it as a platform for much of his writing that followed.

Sadly, A Maze of Death didn’t hold up to the high regard I developed for it when I first read it 40 years ago, but I recommend Carerre to you if you’re not familiar with him.

Previously Reported

The first 2 months of the year included 2 impressive books, The Bridge over the Drina by the Serbian writer, Ivo Andrich, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. I was moved to write blog posts about each of those, which you can find by clicking on the respective book titles.

Czars of the Name Game

Still looming on the list of books I intend to read this year is one of the Big Ones: War and Peace. I’ll get there. You’ll probably read about it here. In preparation, I’ve done a couple of Russian Lit warm-ups: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

My previous experience with Russian writers —Dostoevsky, Anna Karenina, Chekhov and a handful of others — came flooding back in one notable way.

Those names! Every character has a first name, a patronymic, a family name and one or more nicknames (Arcady Nicholeyevich in Fathers and Sons gets a raft of nicknames from his mother, who seems to generate a new one with every appearance she makes). Fortunately, my editions of both books provided a list of characters with most of their names. Perhaps that’s a fixture of all Russian novels; a necessary survival tool.

Brits

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about a list of “100 Greatest British Novels.” I majored in English literature in college, and I’ve read a large number of the books on that list … until about 1960. I was stunned to discover that I had read none of the 29 books on that list published after 1962. None.

I’m continuing my catch-up game, and so far this year my reading’s included fascinating work by four British women: Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966), Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man,  2002 and NW, 2012),  Monica Ali (Brick Lane, 2003), and Ali Smith (There But For The, 2011). All have things to recommend them. I particularly enjoyed There But for The.

American Masters, Old and New

As for American authors, I’ve been filling in gaps, too. I revere Mark Twain, but had never read any of his travel writing, so I started with A Tramp Abroad. There are brilliantly hilarious portions, and some powerful ones, too sometimes simultaneously. I don’t actually know whether or not to trust his first-hand account of the dueling fraternities at Heidelberg , but it was captivating. There are, I must say, some long, slow-moving and not inspiring sections of the book, too. I was fortunate that my library’s copy was a reprint of an 1880s edition of the book with several hundred illustrations, including 4 by Twain. It was a reminder of the cultural context in which Twain was working. Books were one of the primary forms of entertainment in a world before recorded sound and moving pictures, and that edition by the American Publishing Company put me in the place of a person 130 years ago, reading about travels through Europe as told by one of the world’s foremost (and most entertaining) writers.

I’ve read my share of Henry James, now some decades ago, but had never read The Portrait of a Lady. I was riveted by it, both the narrative structure and the language, and now I’m at risk of going on a James bender, reading or rereading a big portion of his novels.

I knew Willa Cather’s stories, but not a single one of her novels. I broke the ice with O Pioneers! Highly recommended.

I continued my exploration of the work of one of my favorite recent discoveries, Richard Ford, although he’s now 73 and I should have found him sooner. I finished working backward through a trilogy I began at the end last year, reading The Sportswriter. Ford has all the archetypically American perspective of Updike, Cheever and O’Hara, a marvelous ear, and compelling command of narrative. I have more of his work on my to-read list.

Late in the game, I’ve discovered another writer, a slightly older contemporary of Ford’s, whom I should’ve known long before this, Robert Coover. While waiting for my turn at his recently published Huck Out West (continuing the story of Huckleberry Finn, an outrageous idea if ever three was one), I read his staggeringly audacious novel, John’s Wife. I can’t think of a book that’s slammed me in the head with the impact of that one. Everything about it is stunning. How I could have read Pynchon, Gass, DeLillo, Barthelme, Gaddis and the rest of his generation and not come across Coover is a mystery, but I look forward to making up for lost time with more of his books.

Muy Borracho Under the Volcano

I’ll conclude with a perennial theme of fiction: alcohol consumption.

Hemingway is probably the gold standard when it comes to novels that feature drinking, especially The Sun Also Rises, but you may have other favorites.

Personally, I’ve always held Kingsley Amis’ description of Jim Dixon’s hangover in Lucky Jim as the single funniest bit ever written about drinking, and the role alcohol plays in Dixon’s misadventures is just one of the many charms of the book. Last year, I discovered that Amis’ son, Martin, took on the old man and out-Heroded Herod, as the saying goes, in Money, which, page for page, derives about as much entertainment value from imbibing as one can pack into a book. Or so I thought.

However, this year, I finally tackled Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. There’s a lot to say about a book that’s been lauded as one of the greatest 20th Century British novels without discussing all the drinking. The main story takes place in one 24-hour period, and I don’t know of any fictional character who’s managed to consume as much alcohol as the protagonist, Geoffrey Firmin, and with such panache, although it’s not humorous. That’s not a reason to recommend the book — there are much better ones — but Lowry sets the bar higher than ever ol’ Papa leaped.

What’s your favorite book of 2017 so far? And, really, has anyone ever had more drinks per page than Lowry’s character? Let me know.

© Brad Nixon 2017

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Responses

  1. Every book is an adventure – is how I look at it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Brad, I love your favorites. Many of them are mine, too–and because we share so many, I’ll make sure to read the ones that I haven’t.

    I’m reading Liane Moriarty right now, The Hypnotist’s Love Story. She’s pretty amazing. Such a good writer! I’m also finishing Ali Smith’s There but for the. I like her “writerly conceits” but have enjoyed Artful better. Next is Zadie Smith’s NW.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure I could narrow my 2017 reading down to one favorite book. There have been very few “duds” during my library read through.

    Like

  4. As an old geezer, I’m not likely to train my squinty little eyes on the small print of some voluminous tome of a literary icon. Instead, I prefer large format books with lots of pictures, like books about art exhibitions I have attended or would like to attend. (The one exception to this rule may be when I read Julian Green, or some other Francophile writing vignettes about Paris, while I cool my hot, dry heals in the waiting room of the office of my doctor or dentist.)

    I recently finished a book about an art exhibition I attended in Los Angeles at the Getty Museum called “Bouchardon, Royal Artist of the Enlightenment.” While Bouchardon might not be a household name here in the U.S., in 18th century France he was a very big deal, relentlessly sought after by wealthy patrons and universally admired by contemporary artists (it was reported that some artists who came to visit his studio left depressed after discovering the chasm that existed between their work and his).

    Bouchardon was highly skilled in all media (though best known as a sculptor), and his drawings were remarkable for the total lack of any revisions or reworking — the first line drawn was all he needed to complete his fully finished draft. His colleagues conceded that he simply had no peer in his day.

    Although I admired Bouchardon’s exceptional drawings at the show, I truly enjoyed closely examining his marvelous marble sculptures of such creative beauty and gentle fluidity of form.

    Like


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