Friday, July 15, 2016

Reading With My Octopus Hands...Again

Overbooked, under-timed.

Yes, I’m reading with my “octopus hands” again. In the past three weeks, I’ve started new books like a salt water taffy addict unable to stop after unwrapping the first piece. Book after book keeps getting added to my currently-reading list. The truth is, I am enjoying every one of these books, each in their own way. Since we’re heading into the weekend and I have a little extra time on my hands (ha!), I thought I’d give you a quick snapshot of what’s currently passing in front of my eyes.

Not everyone can say what they feel in words, especially words on paper. Not everyone can look at a camera and make their face do what it has to do to show a feeling.
On the Kindle, it’s Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. I’ve meant to read Butler’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of short stories for yearsnay, decadesbut it has always somehow eluded my grasp. There’s always something newer, shinier, louder to snag my attention and good intentions fall by the wayside. Last week, I figured enough was enough. Damn the new Michael Chabon and full steam ahead into these stories of Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans. Collections of this size typically have one or two weaker stories; I’m halfway through A Good Scent and I haven’t found a single stinker. On the contrary, these tales are strong, strong, strong.

There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.
On the iPod, Timothy West has been reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers to me in his velvet-lined, dulcet tones. There are approximately 54,987 characters in this novel and it can be a chore to keep them all separate and distinct from one anotherespecially when one is only sipping at the audiobook in the short 12-minute drive to one’s workplacebut Mr. West more than fulfills his role as Best Audiobook Narrator I’ve Ever Heard in the way he fully inhabits each of Trollope’s residents of the fictitious cathedral city of Barchester. Over time, I’ve come to think of Septimus Harding, Mr. Arabin, Bishop Proudie (and his hen-pecking wife), the Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni and, especially, the oily Obadiah Slope as comfortable pieces of furniture upon which to sit. By the way, Barchester Towers and A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain are part of my five-year Essentials Reading Plan (on which I’m making decent progress).

The paradox of auto tourism brings the natural world close up but it remains, figuratively if not literally, beyond the windshield: closer but still removed, beyond the footlights...we often remain seated, passive, and virtual: spectators at least one remove from sensory participation in the mountain scenery. The outside is magnified yet we remain within a theater of glass walls, bodily detached. We love to sit, especially behind or above an engine.
Full disclosure: O. Alan Weltzien is a friend of mine and, consequently, I’ve been hearing about his “volcano book” for a number of years. When I say Exceptional Mountains was as high on my much-anticipated list as a climber summiting Mount Hood, I’m not exaggerating. Now that I have a copy firmly in hand, I’m happy to report the wait was worth it. The book is a fascinating and illuminating study of why and how we love, revere, and abuse our favorite Pacific Northwest volcano-mountains. A lifelong climber and outdoorsman, Weltzien takes us on a sociological, cultural, political and ecological tour of the slopes of Mounts Rainier, Hood, Baker, Adams, St. Helens and others. While visiting my daughter in Tacoma last week, I’d hoped to take a quick trip up to Mount Rainier, Exceptional Mountains in hand, to get a selfie (a “bookie”?), melding the wonderful cover design with the actual mountain itself; but alas, I never made it to the park. I had to settle for a distant, cloud-shrouded view of Rainier and comfort myself with the zoom-in, telescopic pictures Weltzien paints in his pages. I heartily recommend Exceptional Mountains to anyone interested in how we interact with our wild places.

As ravening fire rips through big stands of timber
high on a mountain ridge and the blaze flares miles away,
so from the marching troops the blaze of bronze armor,
splendid and superhuman, flared across the earth,
flashing into the air to hit the skies.

I cannot recall when I first read The Iliadjunior high? my first year in college?but it is far enough behind me that I knew I needed to revisit Homer to refresh my memory of Achilles’ Adventures in WarLand. When my editor at Grove Atlantic, going over his notes on my new novel, mentioned The Odyssey in the same breath as Braver Deeds, I turned to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad to determine just how delusional my editor really was. I don’t remember which translation I read back in my younger days (Richmond Lattimore? Robert Graves?), but I’m confident that Fagles’ translation leaves them in the dust: bloodied, broken and mangled. These lines are alive and writhing and make for hardy sailing through the Trojan War. Bernard Knox’s introduction is lengthy, but also very enlightening. I especially liked this summation: “The Iliad is a poem that lives and moves and has its being in war, in that world of organized violence in which a man justifies his existence most clearly by killing others.” P.S. I still think my editor is delusional when he calls my novel Homeric, but I love him anyway.

But by night Martin sat alone, tousled, drinking steadily, living on whisky and hate, freeing his soul and dissolving his body by hatred as once hermits dissolved theirs by ecstasy.
This has been my Summer of Sinclair. Starting with Main Street and moving through Babbitt and now Arrowsmith, I’m hitting Sinclair Lewis’ greatest hits (also part of my Reading Essentials plan). Up next: Elmer Gantry and then I’ll wrap up with Dodsworth (I don’t have the time to read the entire Lewis canon, for Pete’s sake!). While Arrowsmith isn’t as scathingly satirical as Babbitt and Main Street, it shows a definite maturity in Lewis’ ability to develop his characters. I’ve gotten so deeply involved in this saga of scientist-doctor Martin Arrowsmith trying to find a cure for disease that when I mentioned I was reading it to my wife, she said, “Oh, just like the rock band.” I’ll admit I had a Stupid Moment right then and there; somehow, I’d never made the linguistic bridge between the rockers and Mr. Lewis (though, according to at least one source, the novel was not the original inspiration for the band’s name).

He had...“an extraordinary energy of speech, a very great diversity of ideas, a certain air of frenzy in his look, speech and gait, a frenzy half comic, half melancholy.”
Throughout my Sinclairian odyssey, I’ve been using Mark Schorer’s 1961 tremendous (and tremendously-thick) biography as my roadmap. I’m taking my time with Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, trying not to get too far ahead as I read Lewis’ major novels in chronological order. Schorer strikes the right balance of scholarly reportage, respect for the author’s work, and forthright, painful honesty. To wit, the first sentence of the biography: He was a queer boy, always an outsider, lonely.

Poem Taking Place Before Lights Were Electrified
A man at a round table, his work boot
heeled on the rung of his chair,
his head in a black plate of blood.
I could see the bottle and the pan bread
through the blazing pine knots;
I watched the man who just shot him
walk the puncheon floor
bellowing My brother, my blood...
hoist the man onto his back
and stumble into a fine, filthy snow.

Ten lines, sixty-eight wordsand yet, C. D. Wright manages to pack a novel’s worth of story into that one poem. And, man, that phrase “a black plate of blood“ will stick with me for a long time. Shallcross, published after the poet’s sudden death in January this year, is easily one of the best collections of poetry I’ve read this year (and I’ve read quite a few). In these pages, she pushes the boundaries of form while never losing the reader in a jimble-jumble of show-off poetics. One long sequence, “Breathtaken,” documents the murders in New Orleans across a two-year time span and the spare, haunting way she describes the victims’ bodies comes at us like startling flashes from the camera of a crime-scene photographer. It’s sad, sobering, and should be mandatory reading for every member of Congress. My favorite part of Shallcross, however, is the section called “40 Watt,” from which the above poem is taken. Each one of them reads like notes for a Raymond Carver short story; they are fascinating in their precision and compression. Worlds within worlds.

     I’m thinking of ending things.     Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates. There’s not much I can do about it. Trust me. It doesn’t go away. It’s there whether I like it or not. It’s there when I eat. When I go to bed. It’s there when I sleep. It’s there when I wake up. It’s always there. Always.
A late entry into my “Oh-My-God-I’ve-Already-Got-Too-Much-To-Read” pile, Iain Reed’s creepy novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things has held my attention for the past two days. I was initially attracted to the book not only by those unnerving opening lines quoted above, but also by the blurb by Nick Cutter (author of The Troop), who said, “Here are some near-certainties about I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Number One: You’re going to read it fast. Over the course of an afternoon or an evening. The momentum is unstoppable—once you start, you won’t be able to stop. And Two: once you race to the end and understand the significance of those final pages, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.” Well, I haven’t finished the 210-page novel in one sitting, or even in two days (I blame my octopus hands), but I am certainly thinking about it during nearly all my waking (and troubled-dream sleeping) hours. I’m midway through and I don’t know where it’s heading, but there are enough odd, scary things getting under my skin that I think I’ll probably swallow the rest of this book-pill today. No guarantee of sleep tonight, of course.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to know I am not the only one reading too many books at once! What a diverse collection you are into.