Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 30, 2018

2108 Reading: Mid-Year Observations

Halfway through 2018, I look at a few highlights from my reading this year.

Many of these books represent my first exposure to the author, reflecting my determination in recent years to break out of my mid 20th-century habit.

The point of the exercise is to get a reaction from you: Agree? Disagree? Curious enough to try one that’s unknown to you? I welcome your comments.

The Sense of an Ending, Brian Fagan (2011)

This first-person narrative follows the narrator and three friends from their school days in England into adulthood, then narrows focus as the friends drift apart. The narrator’s life continues, but he maintains an awareness of the vivid place one of the friends has in his memory. At a certain point, the recounting of past and present becomes a compelling search for answers as that now-departed friend re-enters his life through circumstances I won’t detail, because I want you to have the experience yourself. It’s something many authors attempt to carry off: a protagonist forced to reexamine their own lives, and Mr. Barnes accomplishes it with stunning craftsmanship and careful manipulation of what we know, when and how we learn it. Highly recommended.

Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes (1930)

Every American — at least — reader should know at least something of Langston Hughes’ poetry. My own acquaintance with his work is far short of his merit and the place he holds in American letters. This book, however, is a novel, and was utterly new to me. The storytelling rang a bit dated and pat for me, but the characters are compelling and the dramas of their lives are convincingly real. Hughes’ command of an artful, fluid and — yes — poetic voice is the reader’s greatest reward, as well as the opportunity to gain an African-American perspective on an era in which black voices were not commonly heard.

How Late it Was, How Late, James Kelman (1994)

This novel is so audaciously, boisterously outrageous that I can scarcely find enough hyperbole to convey the manic, magnetic drive of the thing. Large chunks of the narrative are first person indirect interior stream-of-consciousness monologue in an all-consuming Glaswegian brogue, alternating with more traditionally structured narrative in standard English. Kelman takes enormous risks to even dare tell a story in such an extreme manner with his unlikely protagonist, and challenges us to step out to the edge of the cliff with him … blindfolded. Highly recommended.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig (1974)

This was a second reading of Pirsig’s book for me, 44 years after the first. His death in 2017 and discussion with friends who’d enjoyed it prompted me to revisit a book that impressed me when I was much younger. I’m still impressed with Pirsig’s ingenious combination of storytelling drama and philosophical inquiry. Admittedly, some of it can wear a little thin, especially if — like me — one has only a casual acquaintance with the discipline of philosophy. There’s added pathos now, because some years after the book was published and I first read it, the author’s own son, a central character in the book as a teenager, was murdered. I recommend this book as worth investigating.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824)

This book persistently appears on those lists of “greatest all-time novels,” and I determined to find out why. Hogg was a Scot, raised in a harshly Calvinist tradition against which he rebelled. On one level, the book is a screed against the notion of religious predestination. The story has powerful elements of a supernatural thriller, long before such things were commonplace. What’s remarkable about the book is his storytelling structure. In two narratives, one following the other via an intriguing framing device, we get the same story viewed from two different perspectives. One is an ostensibly objective account of events 100 years in the past (18th century) by a writer who’s investigated an odd story that came to his attention. In the course of his research, he uncovers a first-hand account of the events by one of the parties — and we have no guarantee that either version is entirely reliable.

The book’s been called one of the first psychological novels. I find it interesting to compare Hogg’s use of disparate points of view with a book published only ten years prior to Confessions: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Also a “moral” tale with supernatural elements, as is Hogg’s, Shelley’s enormously popular book may have informed Hogg’s.

Recommended for readers who have some knowledge of 19th century fiction or an interest in the development of the idea of the novel.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) and The Story of a New Name (2013), Elena Ferrante

Here are my two least favorite books of 2018, the second of which I set aside unfinished. The first two of Ms. Ferrante’s enormously popular “Neopolitan novels” left me not caring about any of the many characters, nor about what might happen next. Terrible things would keep happening, sometimes inexplicably, driven by the almost unaccountable carelessness, arrogance and harshness of the people and their lives.

I also found the writing unremarkable, but I’ll attribute that to the translation. By the middle of the second book, I lost any interest in what terrible disaster would fall on the neighborhood and the people in it next, because I didn’t identify with anyone. I’m apparently in the minority of readers, given the popularity of the books. The Counselor found all four of them captivating and emotionally compelling. It didn’t work for me. I’m interested in your opinion.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

There was already a distance of some 50 years between Ms. Wharton and the Gilded Age New York of her youth when she wrote this book, and the additional century that’s passed puts us at a far remove from the polite society of a distant era. We lose some of Wharton’s ability to empathize with characters who to us seem motivated or constrained by hopelessly artificial notions of right behavior. But Wharton’s prose, her descriptions of people, settings and scenes is still crystal clear and endlessly admirable. I found myself comparing her again and again to her near contemporary and friend, Henry James, often favorably.

I recommend this book, which made Wharton the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf (1915)

A Virginia Woolf novel you haven’t heard of? It was for me. I resolved to re-read Ms. Woolf’s books, none of which I’d opened since college. Then I discovered this one, her first. It’s a more traditional narrative than her subsequent stream-of-consciousness books, but her distinctive, idiosyncratic prose is already in evidence. It is, notably, a powerful argument for the liberation of women from the tyranny of male-dominated society, no less critical a topic today than in 1915. Mildly recommend, but not as one’s first Woolf novel.

This isn’t any fun if I don’t get at least a few responses. I welcome agreement and disagreement with my opinions, both. Let me know if you’ve read these books, and how you like them. Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018

 

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Responses

  1. As you and The Counselor are both voracious readers and experienced writers, I thought it was interesting that you each had opposite reactions to Ferrante. I’d be interested in why Ferrante worked for her.

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    • She has stated her intention to address that subject in a comment, but she’s been busy. We await revelation (although I have some clues already).

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  2. I haven’t read a single book on your list, although I have read other works by Woolf, Wharton, and Hughes. I do remember now that I wanted to re-read To The Lighthouse, so on the list it goes.

    Since I can’t comment on your list, I’ll offer a short list of my own from this first half-year’s reading. You might find something to pique your interest here; I certainly recommend them all.

    Absolutely On Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami — a slow read because of my unfamiliarity with musical history, but fascinating. I ended up liking both men, and wanting to read Murakami.

    The Mathematicians’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer. A first novel, it made higher mathematics intriguing: NCIS meets Wolfram Math World. Not the best-written novel in the world, but immensely entertaining, and a great introduction to a world most of us know nothing about.

    The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism by Aaron Sachs. In “East Coker,” T.S. Eliot advised that “old men ought to be explorers.” He might have had Humboldt and his compatriots in mind.

    The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. This is a book I read every year. If nothing else, it’s a reminder a Thomist can have a sense of humor, and the trenchant observations can be laugh-out-loud funny.

    C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, the revised version, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. I came to Cavafy via Lawrence Durrell and Leonard Cohen, which is pretty darned interesting in its own way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I owe you reply.

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    • Thank you for your suggestions. I read my first Murakami novel last year, and his Ozawa book sounds interesting. So does “The Humboldt Current.” An eclectic variety of reading, which is just what I’d expect from you. I’ll look into all of them. Thanks again.

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  3. Here’s a sample of where my travels take me when I’m not copying Old Masters:

    1. Van Dongen & Le Bateau Lavoir

    2. Toulouse-Lautrec & La Vie Moderne

    3. Berthe Morisot

    4. Picasso-Lautrec in the Adventure of Modern Art

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    • No wonder you’re the go-to resource for les questions d’art.

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      • Merci! 😍

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