Where I’ve been

 

OutfromlibraryNov2017.jgp

What’s at home from the NY Public Library now.

I tend to organize my sense of self into patterns–I guess we all do.  One period of my life will end, another commences.  The thing I worried about for decades actually happens and I realize I was worrying about it wrong–what takes place does not completely overlap what I feared would take place.  I’ll look back and realized I coasted along on magical thinking for those eight years, or I’ll that my forties were in fact, as I was always being told, the best years, and that the happy activity and social life of that period has now slipped away, and I’m somewhere else.  Maybe even someone else.  The patterns, or eras, wrap around jobs, or places I’ve lived.

For example, I’ve been in my current apartment for 9 years in December; I left a sweet little place on an old West Village block which I loved and had assumed to live in forever, because after decades on a wait-list, I was being offered a unit in a limited equity co-op, an offer too good to turn down for sentimental reasons.  And as it turned out, as the simile always is in my mind when I look back, this was a great good fortune, like being scooped by God’s Big Dipper out of the warming pot of water.  Because it was the beginning of the financial crisis, and unbeknownst to me, my freelance work was going to abruptly dry up.  Had I not gotten the offer letter from the co-op just then, I’d never have been able to stay in New York.  It was a real rescue, but it also marked an alteration in my sense of self.  A lot of things tumbled,  Friendships ended, the scene was changed.

The pattern of this year seems to be another indelible scene shift.  In late March it became clear that my parents could no longer live independently.  With no freelance offers, nor energy to look for gigs, I began a few months of devoting most of my energy to the complexities of their problems.  There was a big move to organize, there was an assisted living situation to find for my father, and then there was assisting and emotionally supporting both parents as dad progressed from the AL to a nursing home and dwindled away to his death a month ago.  My life’s felt to be on hold all that time, and it still does; I’m not in tune with what I can or want to do next, but very much in touch with what I’d like not to have to do any more.

In the midst of all this I’ve read a great deal this year.  I always do–last year I read 60 books, and 92 in 2015, when work was very scarce.  So far this year, I’m at 73.  I want to come up here with some original and lovely phrases to describe what reading does for me and has done for especially the last 8 months of upheaval.  Everything feels like a trope–escape, yes, a reassuring sense of being part of humanity, yes, entertainment, a transport in the imagination of a master of characters and atmosphere, yes.  These describe it as if it was the thumbnail of an entire body, and I can’t think how to talk about the rest of that body.  Every book I read seems to be for me only, and I experience an uncanny flutter of disbelief whenever I encounter, either in person or the media, someone who’s praising or discussing the same thing.  I’ve always felt alone with books, not in a sense of loneliness, but in having them, deliciously, all to myself.  The one area of my life where I’m not compelled by any outside force or responsibility.

Some of this year’s fiction choices were inspired by my discovery of the Backlisted Podcast which brought me to Anita Brookner, the WWII novels of Nigel Balchin, as well as Barbara Comyns, Nella Larsen, Jane Gardem.  Others were nonfiction books about race and other topics in American history, and about Russia.  I reread quite a bit, often via audiobook listening to books I’d read before; and read new fiction by authors I already love: Elizabeth Strout, Alice McDermott; and was swept up all summer in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.

Recently read Nov 17

Recently read

Another catharsis of the last weeks has been a nearly compulsive process of cleaning out–with the help of various friends, and on my own, I alphabetized my books, discarding many (I’m down to ~1850 volumes), purging and organizing my kitchen, my closets, desk, jewelry box, wardrobe.  Everything I get rid of makes me feel lighter, and gives me more pleasure in the things I surround myself with, my household gods as I think of them.  Handling all my books, seeing how many I own that I bought because I wanted to read them, but haven’t touched them yet, has inspired me to a reading project for 2018: I’m going to start at A, and read at least one completely new-to-me book from my own shelves for each letter, two letters a month.  Of course some letters are very overrepresented in author’s last names, and one or two letters don’t appear at all.  I’m going to begin in December with, I think, Renata Adler and Isabel Bolton.

Late august reading

 

This summer (I’m writing this in mid-August), my reading took an expected turn when I discovered a podcast that might as well have been made to order for my interests: Backlisted, which is about old books.  I don’t recall what put me on to it, but looking over their list of old episodes, I saw many writers I already liked, and sensed that whatever these folks picked out to discuss would be of interest to me one way or the other. Each episode was so full of enticing descriptions of books that even though I already had a to-read pile that was sufficient for summer, I wanted to read NOW.

The podcast put me on to “All the Devils Are Here” by David Seabrook, a Smiths-back-catalogue of a read that I’d never have discovered for myself.

A cock-eyed ramble among the seaside towns of Kent, taking in the weird, the violent, the homosexual, the  gossipy, the scandalous, the atmospheric,the  readerly and literary,  the murderous, the psychologically-twisted, imporverished, the fascistic, mysterious, pathetic, minor celebrity adjacent, in a mélange of deep inquiries and rambling anecdote given out by the kind of slightly spooky great talker whom you both want to listen to forever and back away from slowly.   I read the book again a day or two after finishing it, and then lent it to a friend.

Also read “Darkness Falls From the Air” by Nigel Balchin, a world war two story of London in the blitz, which again, I’d never have heard of, and which was compared, on the podcast, to Greene’s “The End of the Affair” much to the detriment of the latter (a book I’ve loved a time or two.)  This one is about a government official in London who’s allowing his beloved wife to have an affair with a literary twep because it’s the war and who is he to preclude her from having a life while they wait for the big bombing to begin, except that of course while he’s being very polite and repressed and civilized about it, he hates it.  It’s mostly dialogue of the kind that you long to hear coming from the black and white mouths of Bacall and Bogart, though they wouldn’t really do those clipped upperish English 1930s voices.  I imagined them though, with maybe Leslie Howard as the squirrely lover. A perfect downer of a book, which I mean in the sense that it’s melancholy, the inevitability of its surprises, and its ending, worked completely, a perfect unit of hope and despair.

With no prompt from this podcast, but because of a Meet-up reading group I really wanted to get off my butt and attend (that is, the small part of my psyche that wants to get off and usually is squashed by the larger part that wants to stay recumbent), I read The Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.  I owned thse books, and had tried, off and on since the 1980s, to read “Justine“, always falling out in the first 30 pages with a sense that the characters and narration and apparent emotional situation of the story were overwhelmingly pretentious.  This time, with the idea that I’d go meet other people and hear what they thought of it, I persisted, and pretty much a page or so after my old falling-off point, I was gripped, and realized that in fact this book was just the kind I like best, set in a strange location, slightly overwrought, vivid, difficult to track, and soaked in all five senses.  And then as I read the rest of the quartet I was delighted to find it was one of those works that delves into point of view, into how inaccurate are our perceptions of one another, how unknowable everything is.  As the subsequent books reveal the apparent ‘reality’ that’s concealed from the narrator of “Justine”, worlds open up.  And ultimately the overwroughtness of it all was just the kind of overwroughtness that I eat up with a spoon.

What I’m reading right now: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller, which makes me want to shout: “Comrade!”  (I tweeted the author my compliments), “Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch, and “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

Finding exciting books and a revival of my reading intensity is this year’s one bright spot, in the midst of freelance longueurs, the collapse of my aged parents’ independence, and our appalling political dilemmas.  A cliche to say reading is a life-line, but for me it’s literally true; I don’t know if I’d have made it out of my childhood much less this far, without books.  (I may write more about why this is, but not yet.)

Finally, I’m new to the book-and-reader-blogging world, and frankly don’t know where to begin there either.  I suppose I’ll find like-minded bloggers (and readers)  bit by bit.  Meanwhile, comments welcome.

 

Blurbs! What do they do? Do they do things? Let’s find out!*

Finished “Look at Me” by Anita Brookner yesterday, and rolling it over in my mind.  If I had to describe this book to someone, how would I do it?  If I just said a few sentences about the story — it’s about a young woman living a prematurely staid solo life, who seizes an opportunity to join the entourage of a glamorous couple, even as she’s wary of giving up the freedom of the solitude in order to have a brimming social life. That really doesn’t convey much, because,  a novel isn’t so much about what as about how.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but “Look at Me” struck me as an especially good example because my experience of the main character kept shifting as I read.  It’s the story, told in first-person, of a young Londoner named Frances; she works at a medical picture library, seems to be socially isolated, and lives in her childhood apartment where her mother has recently died and their old housekeeper still resides. The flat is in a building full of elderly people. Frances describes herself as an observer; she sees herself as polite and correct and other people as more or less out of control; most of them are unattractive, and those who are, like Nick and Alix, are almost supernaturally superior.  Drawn into their orbit, Frances undergoes popularity and its sudden withdrawal.  The wound she suffers swings her back to her earlier impulse to live in a solitary way.

I kept asking myself how I felt about Frances; was I taking her at her word, was I willing to be in general sympathy with her, was she deluded, or trying to delude the reader, and was I over-or-under estimating how much?  In a way, was I reading this book as Brookner intended it to be read?  Frances went in and out of focus as I went along.  She also reminded me keenly of myself. The theme of loneliness and solitude, and how they push-pull against each other, two sides of the same state, something to suffer and then quickly to covet, depending on how one feels on any given day, is something I’ve endured (and welcomed, and hated, and loved and felt powerless against) all my life.

Some years back I stopped reading blurbs on fiction almost entirely.  The standard question when someone recommends a book is often “What’s is about?”  I’ve been guilty of this non-question all my life; when I was younger I often used the answer to make a snap judgment about whether I was interested in the book.  On my frequent visits to the public library, it was almost entirely the blurb (after the image on the cover, and the title) that made me decide to borrow the book; I seldom opened it at random to sample the actual writing.  Then, after reading some books that, based on their jacket copy, I would have rejected, I found my feelings about this changing.  I finally started to see that the ‘aboutness’ of a novel is often irrelevant.  It’s the ‘whoness’ and the ‘howness’, it’s the flow of the prose, it’s the ineffable, individual attraction or not to how a writer lays out her stall.  More and more I wanted to go into a novel with no preconceptions, other than having heard that it was worthwhile.  I wanted to meet the opening paragraphs, the writing and characterization, in an open state.  I’m really glad I’ve made this swerve.  Now I’ll read the blurb when I’m finished, to see how this marketing squib compares with my own reading experience.

Good blurb writing is an art — one or two paragraphs to hint at characters and their dilemmas, pique curiosity so a look turns into a purchase.  I imagine the kind of mind — which seems not to be my kind of mind — that can digest a novel, pick out its key theme and intrigue, and set it out with the tight impact of an unrhymed sonnet.

*Rewatched all of BoJack Horseman on Netflix ahead of watching the new season, and was delighted again by the subplot in which, called out of his self-imposed exile to produce a TV show about anything he wants, JD Salinger pitches “Hollywoo Celebs and Stars! What Do They Know?! Do The Know Things?! Lets Find Out!”

Why am I doing this?

I’m one of those compulsive, serious readers-for-pleasure, and always have been.  So it surprises me how much I struggle when I’m confronted by the opportunity to write something about a book.  At the sight even of something as casual as a Goodreads comment window, something in me squeezes up and says HELL TO THE NO, it’s too hard, and whatever I write will fail in any way to resemble what I actually think.  Probably this traces back to one of the many banes of my childhood, the Book Report.

These probably started in 3rd grade or so–you’d be assigned to read a particular book, or else allowed to choose one for yourself–and then you had to write a Book Report when you’d finished, and hand it in for a grade.  Now, this always seemed to me like a huge punishment for reading.  A minority, a very small one, sometimes it seemed, just me, in my school liked to read.  Not just to read in school, for school, but to read all the time, to constantly bring books back from the library, to attempt books that were too hard for me, and so on. In this was joy and wonder, excitement and curiosity.  In a required Book Report, there was Topic Sentences, Plot Synopses, and Themes (pause to shudder).  Having to come up with these, in paragraphs, seemed to snatch away all the richness and pride and secret accomplishment inherent in having read a book, in owning its story and characters inside my own mind, and replace it with a heap of dry Wheatena.  It took the book away from me and made me belong to someone else–the teacher, and his expectations.  It confiscated the marvelous story and gave me back a list of ways in which I was doing it wrong.  All I wanted to do in this scenario was squirm; get it done as quickly as possible so I could back to what was really interesting: my pile of library books.

Hence, though I went on to become a college English major, a writer of fiction, and a professional copywriter, I’ve always baulked at how to “write up” my reading experiences.  I’ll long to reach out to the world — even if only in the form of one or two randos on the internet — and share the real depths of my unique enthusiasm and appreciation for a novel, only to find myself throwing out a few dry sticks of stilted colorless description. (This doesn’t happen when I can talk about a book–a conversation with someone who has recently read the same book, or loves the same Henry Jameswriters that I do, which doesn’t happen to me as often as I’d wish, is usually lively and wide-ranging and bubbling over with information, opinions, delight.)

It was with the idea of somehow overcoming this that I began this blog.

It’s giving me a lot of unease, this blog, because it’s just bringing up all these blockages and bad Book Report memories.  There’s a tone and energy I’d like this blog to have that so far it completely lacks.  My energies feel too po-faced, and vague.  I keep changing the title of the blog, all of which strike as pretentious, and that’s a good sign that I’m still not sure what I want it to be, or how I can get it to be that way.

Maybe the title ought to just be Bad Book Report.  Hmmm.

But I intend to persist.

When I was a kid

… I didn’t finish reading my favorite chapter books.   Not because I wasn’t a good reader, or lacked stick-to-it-iveness.  (I did lack that, according to certain adults in my life, who didn’t seem to notice it wasn’t the case when it came to things I cared about.) They were my favorites because I liked their set-ups, settings, characters, illustrations, dialogues and set-pieces, but I did not like when their plots kicked in and their climaxes loomed.  I wanted to be it with the characters, not find out how it would end.  Why must it end at all?  I borrowed them from the library over and over: “Harriet the Spy” and “The Long Secret”, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler”, “The Egypt Game”, “A Wrinkle in Time”.  Most of them — including others not listed here, I never read all the way through.  The exception is the Harriet books — as an adult I wanted to know what those were about and to understand the things in them that, as a kid, had gone right over my head, especially what all those adults out in Water Mill were really up to.

A couple of good things

Henry James’ reaction to a first novel sent him by a friend:

“I am such a fanatic myself on the subject of form, style, the evidence of intention and meditation, of chiseling and hammering out in literary things that I am afraid I am rather a cold-blooded judge, rather likely to be offensive to a young story-teller on the question of quality.  I am not sure that yours strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.”

God, I love Henry James.

(Not frequently depicted as the bicycling type.)

***

“I suppose that is why I write, in order to recompose events, to make them sharper, funnier, than they really were.  Above all, funnier.  I write to be hard.  I do not intend to spare any feelings, except, of course, my own.”

The narrator of Anita Brookner’s 1983 novel, “Look At Me”,  who I suspect is riding for a major fall.

Trying to spare my own feelings has taken me up many writing no-thoroughfares, so I recognized  myself in this.

***

 

Denton Welch was on my radar for some years; I owned a copy of “In Youth Is Pleasure”  because I’d heard John Waters praise it on a Fresh Air interview, but hadn’t read it. The episode of the Backlisted Podcast that discussed Welch and his first book “Maiden Voyage” piqued my interest. It tells, in memoir form — though some of it seems heavily fictionalized to me — about how Denton ran away from his English boarding school at 16, spending some days living rough until his resources run out, and was eventually sent off to join his father, a businessman in China, at the time (1930s) when the British empire was still rampant. The Pekin and Shanghai that Denton experiences are colonized places where the English live as arrogant sitters-upon, the Chinese servants are all called Boy, and Westerners who like “pretty things” are buying up antiques and objets d’art at a furious pace to ship them back to England.

The charm of the book is in its teenage narrator’s presentation of his emotions and judgments of other people as he moves through a series of small or momentous human situations — dinner parties, a boating accident, a collecting trip in the provinces, a boxing lesson, evening encounters with English soldiers based nearby, the misunderstandings ensuing between Chinese servants and the expats they serve. He’s frequently funny in the subtle, dry English way, not afraid to make the reader aware of his own ridiculousness, and the word portraits of the people he encounters are succinct, deft, and often amusingly nasty.  (I wouldn’t want to know he’d describe me; I can surmise.)  The narrator is a young gay man, but his gayness isn’t explicit, it’s there in his impressions, interests and judgments, as something latent; either not yet grasped or suppressed in the writing.

Just now finished reading “Hotel du Lac” by Anita Brookner.  Read it years ago when it was new, and I was very young, and had forgotten everything about it.  Now I find it’s a beautiful tight little novel of the kind I especially like–a small-scale cast of characters, a deep dive into an inner life.  I squirmed a lot, reading it, as the dilemma the novel turns on is the problem of being a middle-aged unattached woman, a position Brookner presents as essentially impossible — whether this was her own true opinion or not, it’s the worldview of the book, at least most of the way through.  It could almost be titled “How Should A Woman Be?”, and most of the possibilities illustrated by the characters are in way or another, ghastly.  As the noose of the plot tightens, one’s throat tightens too; is there no way out of this pitiless paradigm of needing a man in order to fit in, to be treated fully as a person?

*

As I write this, it’s early autumn in New York City, where unlike vast swathes are the country experienced quasi-apocalyptic weather, we’ve been having a long run of perfect late-summer days.  I’m sitting on my balcony looking out across the tops of a lot maple trees whose green leaves are losing their vibrancy, some already browning at the edges, beneath a sketchy sky of cloud wisps that don’t seem to want to come together into anything properly fluffy.   From here I can see four rooftop wooden water barrels, three American flags flying fairly briskly, the top of the Freedom Tower, and the facade of London Terrace which always makes me feel as if two elegant ocean liners are pulled up at a pier.

Changes of season always make me pensive.  This year has been unusual.  I’m an only child, and relations with my parents have, over the course of the years, weighed a lot heavier in the unpleasant/fraught side of the scales.  In spring they reached the point of no return; mom had a hospitalization, after which we recognized that dad’s dementia was such that they couldn’t go on living independently in their apartment on Long Island.  My main occupation from April through the summer was helping them hire the right consultants in order to make all the things happen — and work on getting dad into assisted living, moving mom from the suburbs into their city pied-a-terre, now her permanent home, selling the suburban apartment, and more more more.  All emotional, detail-exacting, slow and frustrating and then fast and stressful.  Now mid-way through September, dad’s gone from assisted living to a nursing home; his decline over the summer astonished everyone who saw him.  It’s been my focus to support my mother through all this traumatic change; we’ve always been prickly with each other, and haven’t had so much proximity since I was in elementary school; even with the best will I find myself getting into tangles with her that I completely didn’t intend.  In the midst of all this upheaval I’ve been reading very intensely.  That’s to say, I’m always reading, but these last few months the role of books in my life became a kind of project of applying balm, of having a place to retreat to, that feels different than ever before.  Reading has helped situate me in taking this level of involvement with my difficult parents; and made me feel less alone, through being able to see the multifariousness of human experience in every novel or nonfiction book I visit.