catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 1 :: 2012.01.06 — 2012.01.19


Ten (plus) books randomly encountered during the holidays

Holiday breaks, if you’re lucky enough to have them, should ideally be a pleasant study of contrasts. For teachers, this is often so: the frenzy of concluding classes, final exams, grading term papers and tabulating final grades gives way at last to some less structured time, particularly after the attendant busyness of the holiday season. For most academics, the contrast can be a little misleading, as classroom work simply transfers into work on this or that project, or becomes time for long deferred research or writing. (Guilty as charged.) That said, my holiday has also become a brief window when I attempt to introduce a little cerebral randomness into my life again, a bit of serendipity. Intellectual curiosity can feel less fettered, with more opportunity to read whatever may happen to be encountered.

In what I suspect is a cheap form of middle-aged therapy, I like to spend some of this time driving around my Chicagoland environs, often while listening to sports radio.  Now, to prevent these excursion from becoming totally aimless, which just seems sad, I often like to retrace former trips, and set up various bookstores or similar locations as destinations. I revel in the recently restored freedom to find whatever is there to be found, to hear whatever author may suddenly seem to be speaking to me during this tiny convalescent season. Here are ten gladly discovered (or rediscovered) books that have resonated lately.

1. What a timely pleasure, to happen upon a Modern Library edition of Truman Capote’s Christmas stories just before Christmas day. Sometimes the season in which we take in a book can really affect our reading experience. (Location works upon us with similar powers.) I found this title in Orland Park, while killing an hour or so before picking up arriving family at Midway airport. First appearing in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958, “A Christmas Memory” was the story I savored. In it Capote crafts a vivid world, one largely autobiographical, of an Alabama childhood during Christmastime. It focuses on a seven-year-old boy, called “Buddy” by an older woman, whom the young narrator calls his friend. She is a distant cousin, and “still a child,” with “shorn white hair.” She is, he writes, “small and sprightly, like a bantam hen.” The cold, clear sound of the bell and lack of birdsong lead the woman to declare, “It’s fruitcake weather!” and soon we’re following the pair as they collect the necessary ingredients.

Descriptions of their friendship are glorious, as are those of their rural universe, and the modest but vividly appreciated pleasures they enjoy. Queenie, their tough rat terrier, enjoys chicory flavored coffee, and boy and woman daydream of winning a contest to name a new coffee brand — “A. M. Amen!” is their slogan. Trekking to cut down a Christmas tree, they cross a creek where “a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water,” and later they lug it home “like a kill.” Later the dog will eye a bone placed in the treetop in a “trance of greed.” Eventually the tale takes a poignant turn, one foreshadowed early when the older woman explains that picture shows would make her squander her eyes: “When the Lord comes, let me see him clear.” There is a tenderness here that Capote’s personal reputation sometimes belied. I shortly encountered a related book, Anthony Arthur’s Literary Feuds, that narrates the longtime quarrel between Capote and Gore Vidal. They first met during Christmastime 1945, when Anaïs Nin was hosting Vidal, and Capote arrived. Introductions made, Capote asked Vidal in his high-pitched voice, “Well, how does it feel to be an enfant terrible?” He drew out the French words in flamboyant fashion, and thus was born a beautiful, often bitter and highly entertaining rivalry.

2.  I also found there a wonderful anthology new to me, The Anatomy of Memory, with passages by Freud, Frances Yates, Thoreau, Loren Eiseley, Andre Dubus, M. F. K. Fisher, and others. I soon alit upon a few pages from Annie Dillard’s classic, Teaching a Stone to Talk: “Nature’s silence is its one remark,” she writes, and a little later, “The soul may ask God for anything, and never fail.” Narrating the Exodus story, she explains how the “wilderness generation” of Israelites found God’s speech to be too loud. It scared them witless, and they wished for God never to speak so directly again. The modern predicament is a contrary one: “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us?”

Reading feels a little like this, too, either between us and distant, often long gone authors from whom we wish hear, or, in the case of used books, with those volumes’ former readers. In the inside back cover of this particular hardcover, a former owner, Sarah from Russia, had written in pen a whole host of details: patient or client names, with their years of age; items needed, including a Swahili-English dictionary (“=$” she wrote beside this listing); the name of a health center; the name of a terrific Chicago restaurant (Xoco); another person’s background (kinesiology, MS in education). We’re always retracing steps — our own when we take aimless holiday drives for the sake of taking them again, or others, when we read old books that they once read, too.

3. One afternoon I traveled with a friend into Chicago, and soon we landed along Clark Street, just south of the Belmont El stop. The Duke of Perth is there, a fine pub with three great virtues:  a fine offering of food and drink, much of it from Scotland; a small wood stove with flame visible through its little door’s clouded window, an effect enhanced by the place’s darkened interior; and  no televisions whatsoever. Just up the street is a corner bookstore that has to be seen to be believed. Once you enter, you pretty much have to maneuver around the little store as if you were playing a life-sized game of Operation — one inadvertent touch or grazing of a shelf or stack, and you’re a goner. Piles of books rise everywhere, out of control and towering, and look to imperil both the proprietor and his customers. The shelves rise up high and rickety; some visible lean over, and others are held in place with twine. If the store has ever seen a duster, several years ago perhaps, it was quickly gobbled up or belched dustily out of the door. For all this (or because of all this?), it is a fine, highly visitable shop, offering rare finds at good prices.

That day I came across a selected edition of Augustine’s writings, “On the Inner Life of the Mind.” It is worth checking out, not just because of Robert Meagher’s commentary interspersed throughout, but also because, for all but the most extreme expert on Augustine, such selected volumes are quite valuable when reading a most prolific church father such as he. “He who made us also remade us,” Augustine writes in one of his epistles, and it is a fitting insight for the season. He comments late in his Confessions that his soul falls back and becomes an abyss, and yet faith, God-kindled, can still speak into that abyss. Eventually, says a passage from Expositions on the Psalms, “all sorrows will be taken from us, and nothing will remain but praise.”       

4. Closer to home, in a resale shop in our quaint downtown, my son looked for old videos (Batman and Scooby Doo caught his eye) and I scanned the few shelves of mainly forgettable donated books. Yet there’s almost always something of interest, if you look hard enough. Pleasantly surprised, I picked up two books, the first being Larry McMurtry’s Hollywood, a typical romp of a read by this Pulitzer-winning novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter. In an early chapter he describes how his 11-year-old son had been cast in Peter Bogdanovich’s film Daisy Miller (1974), and how he had his own gift of open days while the crew was filming in Rome: “I was working on Terms of Endearment then. I wrote in the mornings and wandered in the afternoon.” I felt a charge of recognition: these occasional drives and the capricious browsing (a pleonasm, that), with bursts of rewarding work in between — it was as if I were following his schedule, albeit far more mundanely.

McMurtry also enjoyably relates his attendance at the Academy Awards in March 2006, as screenwriter (with Diana Ossana) of Brokeback Mountain. He showed up in a Texas Tux — dress shirt, dinner jacket, jeans and boots. (The host, Jon Stewart, made a “snippy remark” about his attire.) His impressions sound so wonderfully deflationary: he thinks about bladder control, laments having to hear sound mixers thank everybody they know, and is fascinated by the “adroit kids” who slip into seats whenever someone dares to step out, in order to give cameras a constant impression of a full house. Ah, Hollywood’s many fictions! Brokeback won for Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost out to Crash for best film. The winner, whose setting was L.A., was a “hometown movie,” and easy for academy members to support.  

5. The second book found there, a completely different one, was The One Year Book of Psalms. I didn’t have the Psalms in this edition’s New Living Translation, and was intrigued by the day-by-day format. Whenever I encounter a book in this kind of almanac, daily-calendar format, I cannot resist looking up the entry for that day. The last entries, especially, fill out the book by featuring readings other than Psalms, such as a Gospel passage or a Wesleyan hymn, followed by a “Psalm link.” December 23’s entry began with The Song of Zechariah, linked with Psalm 71:23 — “I will shout for joy and sing your praises, / for you have redeemed me.” Across the page was a stanza from the early Christian poet Prudentius, “Now he shines, the long-expected.” Amen, and amen.

6. A few days later I picked up a different friend and we made our way to Evanston, where we were meeting another buddy for lunch. I had previously noticed a warmly lit, welcoming shop just north of downtown, Howard’s Books, but had never had the free few minutes to stop and look around. This time, we did. It is a highly recommended store for bibliophiles. One poetry volume I was pleased to find here was a selected collection, All Shook Up: Poems 1997-2000, by English poet Adrian Mitchell. I had only ever seen his books for sale in the UK, and now, here was one just north of Chicago.  The back cover copy compared him to Blake and to the rich tradition of English balladeers. His poems, it continued, are often recited at rallies and protests — a poet for our own wobbly, contentious age, then. More often, though, Mitchell comes off as a formalist-parodist, often to diverting effect. “To a Helpful Critic” begins, with faux defensiveness, “Perhaps I wasn’t writing for people like you,” and ends, “I can’t write everything I do / With one eye on the paper and the other on you.” Just beneath it, “This Be the Worst” is a hilarious send-up of a famous poem by Philip Larkin. It converts Larkin’s edgy statement about family dysfunction into a purportedly misheard poem compatible with The Night Before Christmas:

They tuck you up, your mum and dad,
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

7. The second book picked up there features what may well be one of the most hideously designed covers now in my library. Treasury of Love Proverbs from Many Lands caught my eye as a potentially useful resource for a current project of mine on love poetry. The title was in blunt, black letters, on a spoiling yellow cover, framed with poorly drawn and colored roses and — even more poorly drawn, in the top-right and bottom-left corners — chubby, tumbling cupids, complete with fair hair and dainty little wings. The collection of proverbs, though, is a blast to read through: “Love is a bad neighbor, but to have none is worse” (Spain), “Love and a cough cannot be hidden” (Latin), and “When one is in love, a cliff becomes a meadow” (Ethiopa). Finally, “A kiss tells more than a whole book,” says a Ukrainian proverb. Fair enough, but in this case, the book tells quite a lot, too.

A collection like this one got me to thinking about the values and wonders of books that collect many disparate things, whether an anthology on memory such as the one mentioned above, or an assembly of sayings on love, that inscrutable thing. A few days later I happily obtained a very cheap copy of John and Charles Wesley’s Selected Writings and Hymns, in the praiseworthy “Classics of Western Spirituality” series. Reading excerpts from John’s journal was worthwhile (“Lord, save, or I perish! Save me:”), but still preoccupied with thoughts of anthologies, I took special interest in Charles’ preface to the hymn selection from the 1780 Handbook. Now, I adore the Wesleys’ hymns, but had never really read this prose introduction. Such a collection, he remarks, is “highly needful,” and should not be either “cumbersome or expensive.” But the selection must be a good one, too, for too many faulty ones lead to purchasers feeling “bewildered in the immense variety.” What he offers here, he says with immense understatement, “will not soon be worn threadbare.” The rest is likewise a treasure: he boasts that nothing previously has reflected so fully a scriptural Christianity, and as for the poetry, he asserts that there is “no doggerel, no botches, nothing put in to patch up the rhyme, no feeble expletives.” Many others have reprinted his and his brother’s hymns, and he is fine with that, but desires that “they would not attempt to mend them — for really they are not able.” More than one hundred pages of hymns follow.

8. The next book, found in a strip mall store in Niles, nicely brought up the issue of rereading, which should be an achievable luxury during a holiday break. It is called, unsubtly for this particular practice I’ve raised, Rereadings: Seventeen Authors Revisit Books They Love, edited by the lively essayist Anne Fadiman. First readings are about velocity, she observes, but rereadings are about depth — “the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story.” However, for the rereader, difficulties can arise, as when Fadiman was reading C. S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy to her eight-year-old son. He quickly grew tired of her penchant for analyzing it, as she revisited it so many years after her own young readerly rapture at it, and fiercely said, “Mommy, can you just read?” Later in the book, Patricia Hampl’s recollection of reading everything by Katherine Mansfield is thrilling: “But I didn’t just read Mansfield. I stalked her. I chased down primary sources, secondary sources, tracking any shred of memory or gossip.” In a suggestive image, she writes of dragging Mansfield out of “low-rent housing” that was her limited presence in anthologies and, by connecting her to a grand literary lineage, Shakespeare-Keats-Mansfield, she “dragooned her into the firmament.”     

I reached this particular shop by taking a long drive north up Harlem Avenue, surveying the miscellany of shops and services, the oversized and colorful business signs. The approach was fitting, then, for a book fit for my own rereading, or at least a different kind of reading — James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in a battered old Viking paperback edition. Reader, I paid $1 for this book. Hallelujah. I had dutifully waded through this last great book of Joyce’s once before, armed with a commentary and a pile of secondary sources, and only after I had read Portrait of the Artist as a self-satisfied college student and Ulysses as a graduate student. Finding this charmingly ragged but durable copy now, though, brought to mind an old poet friend who lived just off Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It seemed he had read everything, especially international poets of varying centuries but always of the most obscure variety. He translated verses from the Czech, I think. I picture him wearing fingerless wool gloves, though this may be merely a convenient misremembrance, highly appropriate if not exactly accurate. I do remember visiting his apartment once after a poetry slam in the square, and it was noticeably cold. He kept the temperature extremely low to minimize heating costs. I remember he poured some wine or something, and then, as we settled into his dimly lit living room, he pulled down Finnegans Wake from a high shelf and commenced, not to reading, but to dipping. Joyce’s mesmerizing, sometimes incomprehensible prose sounded forth in glorious bursts. I hadn’t read, much less studied, the book yet, so this taste mesmerized me. And so in honor of this, till then, long-forgotten friend, I have spent parts of this short break dipping into Finnegans Wake: “Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”

9. The two final books are especially random, even compared with the central randomness of this list, and the lackadaisical habits that made it possible. The first was a guidebook to the Palazzo Corsini, in Rome, a title in the Intinerari series published by the Libreria del Stato. A part of the National Gallery of Antique Art resides here, and this thin guide is full of reproductions of paintings by Arpino, Bassano, Carracci, Rubens, Andrea del Sarto, and many others. I recognized the 18th century palazzo, but it took some reading and investigating to recall where it was — next to the Villa Farnesina, with its exquisite frescoes, as it turned out. The residence stands near the bank of the Tiber, on the Trastevere side, with its gardens sloping up the Janiculum hill behind it.

10. Finally, on a somewhat different, seemingly even more improbable note, there appeared to me a 2007 issue of Poetry Ireland Review, whose offices are located in Proud’s Lane, off Saint Stephen’s Green, in Dublin. And now here was this issue, a few years old but still with very timely poems (“news that stays news,” as it’s said), awaiting me on a cluttered store shelf. I encountered much, a random plenty’s horn, here — Helen Dunmore’s poem about a taxi queue, a wish to get to Kilburn; Peter Fallon’s petrel walking upon water, “a flash of faith through a gauze / of spray”; Dennis O’Driscoll’s six pages of pronouncements on poetry, collected from recent journals and books. Best of all, though, or at least best tuned for this down time, and dumb time, of silence and wandering, was Christopher Reid’s “Last of the Campus Poems”:

Term ends, and it’s a poignant
satisfaction to know
that I have nothing new to say
on the subject of snow —
or, if I do have,
I am certainly not about it say it.

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