James Street’s The Gauntlet, a novel about the trials of a young Southern Baptist minister in the 1920’s, will ring true, sometimes painfully so, for anyone who ever experienced small town church life….
The Gauntlet by James Street (image courtesy Goodreads)
From the literary efforts of arch poseur Jerzy Kosinski to the earnest writing of James Street is a pretty far leap, but I made it last week. I added this work to my “Southern, mainly North Carolinian” section of the 2015 reading list because I stumbled upon an account of Street’s untimely death in Chapel Hill, NC, in 1954 at the age of 50. That’s probably a rather macabre reason for adding a writer to a reading list, and certainly Street’s literary reputation is that of popular novelist rather than “serious” literary artist. The times we live in have pretty much eviscerated giving any form of art consideration by any other measure than “the marketplace,” however, and almost all of Street’s 17 novels were bestsellers in their time, so by current standards of literary excellence I can easily justify including him among those whose literary reputations might be more admired by the litfic crowd (of whom I’m a proud, card carrying member) whose achievements (and rewards) are too often intangible.
Besides, truth be told, Street is an able writer and The Gauntlet is a pretty good book that rings true in its depiction of small town church politics. Continue reading →
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell (image courtesy Goodreads)
Sometime back in my graduate school days I ran into an article in which the scholar spent a number of pages complaining that Charles Dickens didn’t create characters – rather, he created caricatures, exaggerated depictions of humanity. While I saw the guy’s point, it didn’t make me love Dickens any less. It seems to me Dickens’ caricatures (whether an Ebeneezer Scrooge or a Samuel Pickwick) vibrate with more of this thing we call life than most “realistic” literary characters (I’m looking at you, Emma Bovary).
I was a voracious reader as a child. Growing up as I did in the South, where for too many folks “reading” consisted of a) checking on how the Tarheels or Gamecocks or Cavaliers did, or b) reading (and usually badly misinterpreting) the Bible, my interests in books and learning made me both an anomaly and an object of suspicion, especially among my peers.
The poems in the Genet collection Treasures of the Night will shock and offend those unprepared to accept love’s alternative practitioners. Genet would like that….
Treasures of the Night by Jean Genet (image courtesy Gay Sunshine Press)
The next work from the world literature section of the 2015 reading list is an early (and problematic) translation of the collected poems of French playwright, novelist, poet, vagabond, and professional ne’er-do-well Jean Genet called Treasures of the Night. Genet is one of literature’s most celebrated “bad boys,” having been sent to a reformatory as incorrigible when he was 15 and to the French Foreign Legion, an organization with a long history of making bad boys shape up, at 18.
They failed with Genet. If anything, he became even more of a bad boy. According to conflicting accounts Genet either deserted or was kicked out of the Legion for “indecency.” The indecency involved Genet and another Legionnaire. Over the two decades following his separation from the Legion, Genet would be arrested and jailed on numerous occasions for vagabondage, thievery, and prostitution. Finally, perhaps out of sheer desperation, he began to write and became a cause célèbre among France’s most distinguished literati and artists including Cocteau, Sartre, Gide, and Picasso. As his career progressed he enjoyed considerable success as a novelist, even greater success as a playwright. Perhaps his least known works are his poems. Continue reading →
“That’s the South’s trouble. Ignorant. Doesn’t know anything. Doesn’t even know what’s happening outside in the world! Shut itself up with its trouble and its ignorance until the two together have gnawed the sense out of it.” – Lillian Smith, Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith (image courtesy Goodreads)
Books come to us in all sorts of ways. Some come assigned; some come recommended; some come by accident. Strange Fruit, Lillian Smith’s powerful indictment of the Jim Crow South, came to me in that third way. I was browsing the “sell off” books at my local library when I came across this powerful novel and decided to buy it based solely on the title – which may or may not have come from the Billie Holiday classic about lynching. Once I had decided to divide my reading year into world lit/Southern lit groups, StrangeFruit became a natural choice for the latter group. Following as it does Peter Taylor’s brittle, elegantA Summons to Memphis and Harry Crews’s over the top Southern Gothic nightmare A Feast of Snakes, Strange Fruit is a book that synthesizes both of those views of the South – though it was written 40 years before the former and 30 years before the latter works.
This is a book with a remarkable history. Vilified as obscene, there were numerous attempts to ban the book. The controversy made the book a best seller, in fact the best selling novel of 1944. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt became a champion of the book. Perhaps, as has often been noted, the greatest outrage over the book came when it became known that the author was a Southerner – and a white woman. A generation later, of course, a Southern white woman would become a national heroine – eventually a national treasure – by writing much the same story – only in a more saccharine treatment. Continue reading →
“Repetition of the same patterns, they say, provides an effective form of protective coloring. If he were to melt into a life of simple repetition, there might possibly come a time when they could be quite unconscious of him” – Kobo Abe
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (image courtesy Goodreads)
Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of those books that leaves one feeling as if one has read a textbook on how to combine schools of literary fiction of the 20th century into an amalgam – a brilliantly executed amalgam, but an amalgam nonetheless. One has the sense of oppression and confusion of a Kafka work like The Trial; the sense of determination to hold onto sanity in the face of absurdity like Camus’s The Plague; and the sense of existentialist grimness in a Sartre work like No Exit. (For good measure feel free to consider works by your favorite existentialist or absurdist author – Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter. et. al.)
This is not to say that the work is not engrossing (in a relentlessly depressing way) or that Abe is not a fine writer (he is). For me, however, this selection from the 2015 reading list does not have the resonance of the earlier selection I read, The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata. That book engages us deeply in Japanese life as actually lived, especially in the years after WWII even as it engages profound questions of national and cultural guilt; Abe’s book is a nightmarish fairy tale set in a bizarre dystopia (yes, I know, dystopias are sooo cool – but I’ve made myself clear on my lack of enthusiasm for such settings as the stuff of serious literature) that posits its hero, the only named character in the book, as a victim of – name your 20th century angst and anxiety inducing trend in human behavior.
In other words, The Woman in the Dunes is a beautifully, complexly written put up job. Continue reading →
Catherine Morland is like most adolescents: too certain about what (she thinks) she knows, too uncertain about what she knows (she thinks) she doesn’t. Her negotiation of coming of age is about learning to manage both what she knows and what she doesn’t know – as well as learning how to recognize when she knows and when she doesn’t….
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)
My life as a famous and beloved book essayist has its twists and turns. This week’s particular turn took me north to Maryland where I served in the graduation festivities at the university where I teach. As a result (and because I’m currently working my way through Daniel Forbes’ dystopian satire Derail this Train Wreck), I’m doing what I warned you I might a week or so ago: writing about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey is probably my least favorite of all great Jane’s works. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you may as well know them. First, it was published posthumously (as was my favorite of Austen’s works, the marvelous and prescient Persuasionabout which I will write near the end of this year) although it was the first novel she ever completed. The story behind that is well documented: Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication, but the publisher later decided not to issue the book. Over a decade later – near the too early end of Austen’s life – her brother Henry bought the book back from that same publisher for the same price for which it had originally been purchased. Evidently, that publisher, Crosby and Co., was not known for either editorial or business acumen: in the time between their purchase of the manuscript in 1803 and Henry Austen’s repurchase of the manuscript in 1816 (a mere year before Jane’s death), Miss Austen had published four other novels of which a good publisher ought to have heard: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Though published initially by “A Lady,” anyone with an interest in literature or reading knew who the author was – except the fine folks at Crosby and Co. it seems. To get to the point, reason #1 why Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work is that it’s a first novel with a first novel’s foibles: too much self-satisfied obvious authorial voice, too little attention to smoothing out the rough patches, which are numerous. Continue reading →
Even the most avid reader, and the most dedicated writer, and I think I qualify as both, occasionally hits the doldrums – whether from a slow book, personal distractions, or the impositions of silly stuff like work…
The author, much younger, engrossed in a favorite pastime.
I am still making my way through Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, a book I began about a week ago and which I’m only two-thirds through. Saramago is a Nobelist and a brilliant writer,but reading him is a slow business. Whether that is due to his leisurely pacing or to the density of his writing (Baltasar and Blimunda is a novel of ideas as well as a historical work), I’ve found myself slogging through a very fine and engrossing novel.
So maybe it’s not my fault that I’m not writing a book essay yet again. Maybe I’ve just run into one of those writers whose work one simply can’t race through.
“Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. And to me he’s a Mississippi person that went to Chicago and play[ed]. John Lee Hooker was born in Mississippi and went to Detroit. B.B. King was born in Mississippi and went to Memphis.” – B. B. King
B.B. King and Lucille (image courtesy Wikimedia)
The news announced on B.B. King’s web site that the great guitarist and singer is in home hospice care means that soon another of the great blues musicians produced by the Mississippi Delta will soon no longer whinny with us, as Dylan Thomas would say. The loss of a figure like King is greater than the loss of a brilliant musician; with his passing another link to the long, storied history of one of America’s great original musical forms will be lost. In our current cultural malaise, with musicians unable to get paid for their creative efforts, King is also one of the last reminders that talent and perseverance could once lead to musical success, cultural respect, and recognized influence. Continue reading →
In his films Buster Keaton is often like Camus’s Sisyphus – he will keep pushing that boulder up the hill no matter how many times it rolls back down.
Buster Keaton in The General (image courtesy indiewire.com)
I find myself caught out short this week. I had planned to review Scott Archer Jones’s book The Big Wheel, but events (read work stuff) have conspired to keep me from finishing (I’m about 2/3 through and will review next Thursday). That explained, I have found myself scrambling for a topic to write about.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve re-watched my collection of Keaton films (I have all the significant features except The Cameramanas well as a considerable collection of the short films), in the meantime making my way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography The Words. The similarities of Sartre’s and Keaton’s weltenschauungs were underscored for me yet again, so it seems apropos to say a few words about Buster Keaton, Existentialist. Continue reading →
My friend Anders Thyr is an extremely talented illustrator and designer, and I’m quite a fan of his work. His ongoing Weltschmerz Bears series, for instance, manages to be both whimsical and deeply thought-provoking, and it has gotten me pondering the ways humor can open a subversive back door into my intellect.
Some San Francisco street reality for your happy brunchy Sunday…
The fellow was clearly homeless, or pretty close to it. But it was a relief to see that at least in this one passing moment he had some food. It looked like a tamale of some kind. And he was really enjoying it. Devouring it, to the exclusion of his consideration of everything else around him as he walked the curb and gutter down Valencia Street.