Blogs: Literary

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Black River bookjacketThough I don't read a lot of typical Westerns, I love authors who experiment with the form. I enjoy Mary Doria Russell's approach to iconic stories of the Wild West (Doc and Epitaph) and I've always appreciated how Kent Haruf could take the stoic and hard-bitten cowboy out of history and place him in the modern world - in his stories set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.

Sadly, Kent Haruf died in the fall. But according to Ron Charles of Washington Post's Book World, with Black River, S.E. Hulse is poised to take up Haruf's torch. As a Haruf fan mourning the loss of an author who could capture a depth of character in just a few lines of dialogue, I immediately placed Black River on hold. I tried not to see the very young looking author photo on the back - how could she possibly write with the gravitas of Haruf?

I'm glad I didn't let my biases stop me. Black River is a beautifully taut and painful story of an embattled man who has lost everything. After the death of his wife, Wes Carver returns to the small Montana town where they met. At a time when he should be mending his troubled relationship with his stepson, he is instead intent on one thing - preventing the parole of a man Wes guarded years before while working at the local prison - a man who took something essential from Wes.

There are authors who can keep you emotionallly attached to a character even as you're mentally exhorting him to take another course of action. S.E. Hulse seems to have that knack. I hope you enjoy Black River as much as I did.

Imagine a world where a spell of forgetfulness sits like a fog over everything, rendering the past incomprehensible; where an ancient knight in rusted armour swears to defeat a dragon; where two people set out on a quest through a country divided by clan loyalties and war.

The surprise is that I am not talking about George R.R. Martin or Tolkien, but Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

Ishiguro sets The Buried Giant in an age of decline. The idealistic reign of King Arthur is a distant memory and chivalry is, if not dead, then mostly gone. An elderly couple makes their way across a ravaged landscape on a quest to reclaim something important but long forgotten. Though Axl and Beatrice are old, they are naive, having subsisted in a hovel in the ground with their fellow villagers for as far back as they can remember, which is not very far. Their journey is one of children in a strange world, wide-eyed at the ways of outsiders. As they travel, bits and pieces of their past lives come back to them. These memories fortify them sometimes, and burden them at others.

Ishiguro has crafted an odd and beautiful combination of adventure and psychological drama. It's also a study of love, forgetfulness and forgiveness, companionship and death. It's Joseph Campbell's the hero's journey redone in a totally unexpected way. This book will very likely find its way to my top picks for 2015.

Our Souls at Night jacketWhat's it like to be inside someone else's head, looking out? That's a nut technology has yet to crack. Luckily we have fiction. Everything I know about what it's like to be...a young gay man in a repressive society, an elderly woman looking back on her life, a Japanese man struggling with identity... and on... I learned from reading fiction. With each book, I push a little outside the known world of myself.

Kent Haruf was one of those writers who could take you directly into the experience of another. In language that is deceptively simple, he describes the emotional and often isolated lives of people living in the small towns and country of the west. He died in November of last year, and so sadly, there is nothing more to read except for his last book, Our Souls at Night.

Our Souls at Night recounts the story of two widowed people: Louis and Addie live a couple houses away from one another in a small town. They know each other to say hello at the grocery store, and of course, because it's a small town, they know the rough landscapes of each others' lives - how forty years ago, Louis had an affair; how Addie and her family lived through a tragic accident. Some believe that small towns have a stronger sense of community, but in fact, it's just as easy to be isolated and removed from life in a small place as it is in a large. Addie makes a decision to poke at this loneliness by inviting Louis to be her bed-mate, to come over each night and lie in the dark with her and talk. After some initial awkwardness, they settle into a quiet joy in their companionship. Their contentmet is shared out to Addie's grandson, who stays with her when her son's marriage begins to disintergrate. But the solace they find in one another will be tested by the bitterness and anger of others.

Haruf's story is heart-rending in its simplicity, and if you have older parents, it will challenge you to think about how aging, and loss, and the judgement of others affect our elders. And it will make you mourn for the loss of this great writer.

 

For those of us who love classical literature, Multnomah County Library is a great resource. There are Classics Pageturners book discussion groups at Hillsdale Library and Hollywood Library.  The book lists for those discussion series are below, and include the dates of the discussions in the annotations.  Following that are a series of lists of Western and non-Western literature from every era. For the rest of the Classics Pageturners 2014-2015 season, here is the schedule:

Hillsdale Library Classics Pageturners, second Saturdays, 3-5 pm

April 11, Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott

May 9, The Ambassadors, by Henry James

June 13, Tartuffe, by Molière

Hollywood Library Classics Pageturners, third Sundays, 2-4 pm

April 19, The Art of War, by Sunzi

May 17, The Second Sex, volume 1, by Simone de Beauvoir

June 21, The Second Sex, volume 2, by Simone de Beauvoir

Come on, admit the title at least piqued your interest.

cover image of the dud avocadoElaine Dundy’s first novel was The Dud Avocado. It is very loosely, a memoir of her time in Paris as a young woman in the 1950s. Her follow up was The Old Man and Me, cover image of the old man and mewith a slightly older narrator, this time based in 1960s London. These have been quietly forgotten while other similar novels of the same period have gone on to fame—Breakfast at Tiffany’s anyone? They are witty and for their time, possibly a little shocking. A very young, very American woman alone in a foreign city, taking strange men indiscriminately to bed with her, drinking, smoking...you get the picture.

Sally Jay and Betsy Lou are our two characters. The first suffers from vague nymphomania and costume dilemmas—Tyrolean peasant or dreaded librarian? And the second sets out to seduce and possibly kill for her rightful inheritance. Poor little rich girls. Thankfully New York Review Books has reprinted these two classics for another generation to discover.

Book Jacket: Family Life by Akhil SharmaI had just checked out Family Life by Akhil Sharma and thought I’d read a few pages over coffee before moving on to baking my pumpkin pie. A few pages in, I knew I had to see it through to the end.

Family Life is the story of the Mishras, who arrive from Delhi to settle in Queens in pursuit of a better life for their sons Ajay and Birju. Birju has just been accepted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science when tragedy strikes, leaving Birju brain damaged. The focus of Family Life quickly shifts from achieving success in a foreign culture, to simply caring for Birju.  Sharma’s novel is a story of being an outsider, but it’s also an extraordinarily perceptive story of being a family.    

Family life is an excruciatingly honest book.  It’s insightful, funny and messy.  It’s tragic and hard to pull away from. It’s a lot like family.

Epitaph bookjacketAfter years of consuming cartoon images of the Wild West inhabitated by larger-than-life characters like Wyatt Earp, Ike Clanton and Doc Holladay, it's quite a feat to reverse the trend and present them as real people. That's exactly what Mary Doria Russell does in Doc, and her latest, Epitaph: A novel of the OK Corral. Russell is always meticulous in her research, and she tells much of the story from the perspective of women, and in particular Josephine Sarah Marcus, the common-law wife of Wyatt Earp.

What I love about a well-researched historical novel is how it piques my curiosity. With Epitaph, I was intrigued to learn more about Jospehine and how she carefully controlled the public perception of Wyatt Earp and what occurred during those 30 seconds, yes! ... 30 seconds! ... that would fuel the public imagination and affect perceptions about the 'wild west' that are still curled up like a sleeping rattlesnake in the shade of the American psyche.

And yes, it's true that I've just told you about a book that won't be out until March, 2015. But that gives you time to read Doc, Mary Doria Russell's intricate and beautifully crafted portrait of Doc Holladay.  Then follow your curiosity where ever it leads in anticipation of Epitaph.

 

"But what¹s underneath it all? What is missing is a surgeon who has the courage to examine the tissue and declare: gentlemen, this is cancer, and it is not benign. What is cancer? It¹s something that changes all the cells, which causes them to grow in a haphazard manner, outside of any previous logic. Is a cancer patient who dreams the same healthy body that he had before nostalgic, even if before he was stupid and unlucky? Before the cancer, I mean. First of all, one would have to make quite an effort to re-establish the same image. I listen to all the politicians and their little formulas, and it drives me insane. They don¹t seem to know what country they are talking about; they are as distant as the Moon. And the same goes for the writers, sociologists and experts of all sorts."
-from Pasolini's final interview, conducted a few hours before he was murdered at the age of 53
Cover of In Danger - Pasolini

Italian poet, filmmaker, essayist, utopian, provocateur and queer libertine, Pier Paolo Pasolini lived relentlessly in his quest to envision and produce a world where art never confirms but always wrenches new ways of living and desiring.

Part of me feels that any attempt to do justice to Pasolini's work would simply and silently replicate the work itself.  Perhaps all we can do is situate the films, the poems, the essays, the life itself, in a specific historical conjuncture - 20th century Italy as it staggered from fascism to embattled republic including serious challenges from the PCI (Italian Communist Party) - and then allow them to do the talking.  Pasolini brought all of his trenchant intelligence, tenderness, hatred and sincerity to bear on everything and anything that smacked of middle-class quietism.  Born into a social milieu that primarily offered despair and isolation, Pasolini kicked against the pricks, staking ground to be abandoned as soon as comfort loomed.  In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology is a choice and tight collection - ostensibly zeroed in on Pasolini's political musings and provocations.  But to say that everything was political for Pasolini would be cliched and an understatement.  If you find In Danger bracing and inspirational, please do yourself a favor and try to check out everything Pasolini touched (there are a decent handful of texts and DVDs in the MCL collection for starters).

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