Second Anniversary and some favorites…

Today is the second anniversary of my blog!  It’s been a fun outlet for all of my reading and I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.  It’s always been difficult for me to pick favorite books or stories, but there have been a few that stand out over the past year.

My favorite short story is J. D. Salinger’s “DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and it would also rank up there as the funniest story I read this year.  William Trevor’s “After Rain” was a very close runner up as favorite and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Camel’s Back” was a close second for funniest.  A few honorable mentions would include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”, Willa Cather’s “The Enchanted Bluff”, Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”.

William Trevor and George Eliot are the winners for favorite “new-to-me” authors with Margaret Mitchell and Mark Helprin being next in line.

Picking a favorite novel has proved to be a harder task but I’ll go with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which I finally read after it sat on my shelf for a very long time. And finally, here are a few quotes from the past year that I enjoyed:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

-Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

-Willa Cather on meeting Stephen Crane in her essay “When I Knew Stephen Crane”

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

-and Melville again from Moby-Dick

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The Lees of Happiness by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The final short story from my 2013 Deal Me In project is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Lees of Happiness”.  In somewhat of a departure from the other Fitzgerald stories I’ve read this year in Tales of the Jazz Age, this one has real people with real problems.  Even if it contains a little melodrama and sentimentality, I enjoyed it for the fact that the characters show a depth of humanity and responsibility that doesn’t frequently appear in Fitzgerald’s 1920’s “lost generation”.

Jeffrey Curtain, a budding writer, marries Roxanne, an actress.  They move to a Chicago suburb  with the proverbial house with a picket fence.  They move in social circles that are typical of Fitzgerald’s characters; however, tragedy strikes when Jeffrey suffers a blood clot in the brain and becomes essentially “brain-dead”.  Most of the story revolves around Roxanne’s sacrificial giving of her life to taking care of Jeffrey.  There are those that criticize her for continuing to maintain her marriage – those that tell her that Jeffrey wouldn’t want her to “waste” her life this way.  I would not say that Fitzgerald is attempting to take a stance on the “right to die” issue, by any means (nor am I attempting to do that with this post).  I think he just wanted to show one human being committed to another for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

While I still consider The Great Gatsby one of my favorite books, I am well aware of the shallowness and decadence portrayed in that novel.  I think Fitzgerald, himself, was aware of the situation and that’s why he wrote the novel.  But I’m glad he wrote a story like “The Lees of Happiness”, also, showing humanity with something more.

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

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Then the bow orchestra began to play an apocalyptically beautiful canon, one of those pieces in which, surely, the composer simply transcribed what was given, and trembled in awe of the hand that was guiding him.

I am usually not impressed with love-at-first-sight stories, but Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale, contains two instances and he manages to make it work.  Much of this novel tends to break the rules – or at least my rules – but somehow it doesn’t matter, I kept reading and kept enjoying it.  Helprin’s lyrical writing style serves as a major reason for the beauty of this novel.  Continuously trying to figure out a category in which to place the novel also kept me thinking and wondering – activities that greatly enhance any reading experience.  Is it a fantasy novel?  Probably.  Is it historical?  Definitely.  Is it more? Yes.  Several aspects of the novel jumped out at me even more so than the intricate plot.

I have always been in awe of authors who can take a geographical location and practically turn it into a character, itself.  In Winter’s Tale, Helprin takes New York City and does just that.  New York’s power, harshness, cultures and wonder are portrayed in what is more than simply a setting.  I’ve always been fascinated with New York, but my only visit to the Big Apple occurred just this year in June.  I have to say based on my short visit, Helprin’s take on the city is spot on.  In a smaller, but not less important, manner, the fictional location of Lake of the Coheeries also takes on a life of its own.  Lake of the Coheeries, located near New York or perhaps not, stands almost frozen in time and I mean that literally – I think its always winter there but that’s not a huge surprise considering the book’s title.  I would describe the town as a quirky version of a Currier and Ives painting.

I don’t think I ever read a novel in which the season of the year takes center stage.  Just like Helprin’s New York, Winter is both harsh and wonderful.  The clear white freshness of the season mixes easily with the various characters and situations.  From sledding on a frozen river, spending Christmas in a cabin by the Lake or getting caught on a train during a blizzard, Winter, in all it’s glory, is the story’s continual backdrop.  I would rarely say that anyone would have to read a book at a particular time.  In my mind, books usually pull the reader into their own world regardless of the real world; however, I happened to read this novel during a few cold snowy December weeks in Northern Kentucky and being able to look out the window or actually go out and walk in the same type of weather described brilliantly in this novel made my reading experience that much better.  Interestingly enough, as I finished the book, the cold spell broke and now it’s like spring.  Coincidence?

Their throats tightened, and they shuddered the way one does when one discovers or reconfirms higher and purposeful forces brazenly and unconvincingly masquerading as coincidence.

Another “character” in the novel is Time itself.  It took a while but the novel’s narration revealed that the plot began around the turn of the Twentieth century while the majority of the story is set at the turn of the Twenty-First century or the Third Millenium.  I was about a third of the way through the book when I realized it was written in 1983 – in between these two time periods.  So most of the book took place in what at the time of its writing would be the future.  Those who lived through the Y2K era might find some parts of the book humorous.  But what I found most fascinating about Helprin’s portrayal of these time periods is that he seemed to concentrate on what was the same about them instead of what had changed.  Throughout most of my reading, I didn’t actually notice that the details of the plot took place about 100 years apart.  It was almost as though Time didn’t matter.  (hmmm…..)

I have not heard much about Mark Helprin; however, he has a number of other novels and short stories that I think have jumped close to the top of my To Be Read list.  If any of them are as good as Winter’s Tale, they will be worth reading.  Incidentally, a film version is scheduled to be released for Valentine’s Day of 2014.

The Bookkeeper’s Wife by Willa Cather

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When it comes to stories about men falling madly in love with women who need money to keep them happy and running around in the right circles – money that the men typically don’t have but they do everything they can to get it including perhaps breaking the law, F. Scott Fitzgerald takes the top prize.  However, Willa Cather’s short story “The Bookkeeper’s Wife” gets an A for effort.

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Percy Bixby is the bookkeeper whose wife is mentioned in the title.  His wife, Stella Brown, has tastes that require more than Percy can accumulate.  His boss notices that Percy never takes a vacation from his bookkeeping which leads to a confession.  The main problem I had with the story is that there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable explanation as to why Percy would have any interest in Stella in the first place.  Certainly, men have fallen for shallow women over and over again throughout literature and history; however, in good stories there is at least a reason for their infatuation – it may be a bad reason, but there’s still a reason.

At the end of the story, Stella makes one statement that gives her an inkling of depth and the possibility that she might be a shrewd observer of human nature.  She compares Percy to Charles Greengay, the apparent challenger to Percy for Stella’s affection:

“No, you ‘re a spender or you ‘re not. Greengay has been broke three times, fired, down and out, black-listed. But he ‘s always come back, and he always will. You will never be fired, but you ‘ll always be poor.”

It’s not a pleasant observation for Percy, but a shrewd one on Stella’s part, nonetheless.

Since it’s the next to the last week of my 2013 Deal Me In Short Story project, I don’t have to wonder which story I’ll read next week.  It will be “The Lees of Happiness” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  We’ll see if he tops “The Bookkeeper’s Wife”.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

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I selected my final wild card of the year this week.  Since the Christmas season is upon us, I thought I would find a short story with that theme.  I decided on Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.   The characters and action of the story are fairly predictable.  There is a lot of snow.  Children get excited about Christmas.  Food is eaten.  Beverages are drunk.  Relatives get together and eat food and drink beverages.  Auntie Hannah especially likes her port and likes singing outside like a “big-bosomed thrush” – that’s usually after the port.

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What sets the story apart is Thomas’ “jingle-jangle” writing style.  I read another one of his stories when I was in junior high or high school.  I don’t remember much about it nor the title even.  I think of Thomas mostly as a poet, even if I haven’t read much of his poetry, either.  His style reminds me of Jack Kerouac’s writing.  Kerouac wrote in English as a second language (he grew up speaking French).  Thomas frequently hyphenates words  – just like Kerouac.  I’m curious if one influenced the other?  Thomas’ style at first glance appears to be rambling; however, after reading it for a while, a method and a purpose slowly emerge.

It’s a pleasant enough story – a remembrance of the innocence of childhood.  If it’s a little sentimental, I’m OK with that.  If you can’t get sentimental around Christmas time, when can you?

…much to my literary chagrin…

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Over a year ago, when I put together my list of short stories for my 2013 Deal Me In Project, I picked a few stories from a collection that I have called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  In glancing through the table of contents, I discovered “The Bell Tower” and “The Portent” by Herman Melville.  At that time, I had not read much by Melville so I thought I’d choose both of these for my project.  I read “The Bell Tower” earlier this year and have been looking forward to “The Portent”.

So this week, I chose the Ten of Spades which corresponded to this remaining Melville story.  Much to my surprise and my literary chagrin, I find the story in my book and discover that it is actually a poem – a very short poem.  In scanning through the table of contents, I had simply assumed that Melville only wrote prose.  Obviously, I was wrong. I have nothing against poetry, I’m just not quite as into it as I am prose.  I debated about choosing another story to replace this poem but decided I would just go with it.

Herman Melville

Another confession:  I didn’t know what the word “portent” meant so I looked it up.  It means “omen”.  The poem itself appears to stand as a warning.  The speaker of the poem directs their words to the Shenandoah river.  I immediately think American Civil War when I think of the Shenandoah.  As I read further,  a name jumps out several times – a name that gives no doubt to the Civil War backdrop of the poem.   In speaking to the famous river, the poet refers to a dead body saying:

So your future veils its face,/Shenandoah!

As I did a little research, I found that Melville wrote a number of poems about the American Civil War.  If they are as good as this one, they could be worth reading.

Even though this wasn’t what I was expecting when I chose the title, I’m glad I read it.  Feel free to read the poem yourself.  It’s takes approximately 20 seconds to read.  You can find it here.

Reading in 2014 – the long and the short of it

Since today is the first day of the final month of 2013, I thought I would post about my reading plans in 2014.  I’ve discovered that I don’t like having to follow a long list of books.  I’m going to continue reading for The Classics Club and my goal of reading 60 classics in three years.  It’s just that my final list of 60 won’t look like my original list.  In 2013, as I read a book that I considered a classic and it wasn’t already on my list, I simply added it and took another book off the list.  I’ve read 22 classics in 2013, so I’m meeting my goal. Back in February, I bought The Count of Monte Cristo and it’s been sitting on my dresser ever since – taunting me.  So in 2014, Alexandre Dumas’ novel will be my one-book reading project.

My favorite reading project of 2013 was my Deal Me In short story project.  Apparently, I don’t mind following a long list of short stories.  Ever since my former book group, the Indy Reading Coalition, started reading short stories every July, I have become increasingly more appreciative of this form of fiction.  One of the members of this book group, Jay at Bibliophilopolis, started a project a few years ago where he selected 52 stories that corresponded with each card in a regular deck of cards.  Since there also happens to be 52 weeks in a year, he randomly selected a card each week and read the story that went with that card.  In 2013, I joined him in doing this with my own list of short stories and found it to be a fun project that was easy to stick to throughout the entire year.  Well, I still have four stories to go for this year, but I think I’m going to make it.

For 2014, I’ve put together another list of short stories (I’ve come up with 48 stories and made 2’s wild).  I’m looking forward to randomly reading these over the next year.  In determining which stories to use, I feel like I left some authors out; however, even though William Trevor and Haruki Murakami didn’t make the list, I plan on reading ad hoc stories and novels from these authors.  I also feel like I snubbed Jack London by only putting two of his stories on the list, but since he is the author I’ve posted about most on my blog, I don’t feel that bad.  And I’m fairly certain I will be reading more of his work in the coming year.

What are your plans for reading in 2014?