2011, A Reader’s Year in Review

December 22, 2011

Being by nature really quite modest, I’m hesitant to spotlight The Best Blog Post of 2010. True, it’s mine, but a virtuous performance cares not one jot who the performer is. The rendition is what really matters. I don’t even have to cite Foucault to bask in the glow of this certainty. The glory of The Best Blog Post of 2010 is that it breathes life into an exhausted form, you know, the obligatory year in summary reading list. Everyone has one. James Wood’s got one and Coetzee does too. Ends up, however, that innovating on a form even as piddling as a blog post takes time. Which is why I happily follow in the steps of Wood, Coetzee and others, here, here, here, here and here. Theirs are very good lists by the way. Much better than mine so please pay them a visit.

As for my favorite reads of 2011, here they are:

Farmer by Jim Harrison, a slim novel filled with beautiful descriptions of rural life. A cowhide rug is to Farmer what liver is to Portnoy’s Complaint. Except only a wee bit different.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates explores inauthenticity without employing this jargonistic term. Thankfully.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. As I said in a comment to Karyn on her very fine blog, Whitman’s poetry is so grand I don’t care if it’s verse and not prose fiction. It can even be termed statistics for all I care.

Herzog by Saul Bellow solves the problem of existence. This can’t be shown. Only felt.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis is an American odyssey rife with humor. Portis’ storytelling voice is his great, abiding gift to anyone who cares to read him.

Embers by Sándor Márai is simply exquisite. Five, 10, 15 years from now, I will remember 2011 as the year I read Embers. Just fantastic.

Paradoxically Foe by Coetzee and Vanity Fair by Thackeray make honorable mention precisely because I only enjoyed them retrospectively and well after the fact.

Although I haven’t mentioned non-fiction on Interpolations before, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes is a very fine book. He argues that a low-fat, high-carb diet is unhealthy because it leads to insulin resistance, obesity and the diseases of civilization. For brief articles by Taubes, I direct you here and there.

Have a great holiday season!

why read?

August 20, 2011

On January 22, 2009, I had this to say about literature on a blog that will remain nameless, not because I begrudge her a tip of my hat, but because I feel slightly awkward re-purposing it for my own gratification. I’m bad that way.

Reading good literature:

1. Exposes readers to what a well-constructed sentence looks like, sounds like, feels like.

2. Introduces unsurpassed words, images, ideas, and feelings.

3. Provides unique access to the qualia of others’ lives.

4. Demands thoughtfulness, as good readers must be attuned to changing points of view, the glories of characterization, and the causal constraints of plots, etc.

5. Encourages self-clarification, -knowledge.

6. Sharpens powers of observation through metaphor, myth, and analogy.

7. Encourages empathy for and tolerance of others (speculative), i.e., we’re better insight psychologists as a result of reading about characters in stories.

8. Improves abstract and social reasoning and as well as cultivates prudence (speculative).

Of course, I wish 7-8 weren’t merely speculative. I wish they were certitudes known by all. I wish that reading the world’s great literature (profane is sane!) is the surest path to moral improvement.

But I have my doubts.

Now, while these may be effects of reading, they don’t figure as reasons or motives for why I read, at least not largely. In truth they strike me as too intellectual. I’m wary of them, suspicious. They might pick my pocket when I’m not looking. Maybe my reading of Herzog is to blame. Moses, that poor old bastard, that rejected husband and washed-up scholar, loves abstractions; he delights in categories. And look where it gets him. Mired. He’s just as likely to state a truth as he is to spit venom.

Anyhow, I don’t read for these reasons. Or if I do, I read for all of them and none of them, as the case may be. Have I just performed an academic pirouette, my answer, that is? I hope not, I don’t think so. I read for enjoyment and insight, for distraction and entertainment. But mostly I read because no matter what state of mind I’m in, I can readily find a reason to read, be it what it may.

And any old reason will do.

wherein bellow is compared to spinoza but not joyce

August 2, 2011

I solved the problem of existence when I was 38. In itself this isn’t a big deal. Plenty of other people have solved it, too. What’s tricky is communicating it to others. That’s no easy feat. Plato shares it, but Aristotle doesn’t. Spinoza delivers the goods, but Kant flounders. Cervantes nails it, but Chaucer blows chunks. Sorry, he does. Proust gets it and gives it, but Joyce, that drunken Irish pirate, only amasses details and complexity. Among American novelists, M. Robinson (Gilead) and C. McCarthy (The CrossingNo Country for Old Men, and The Road), as different as their subject matter and narrative techniques are, both solve the problem of existence, while Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, and a host of other splendid writers do not.** Of course I reserve the right to change my mind about Roth because American Pastoral strikes a profoundly revelatory note. Wait, yes, I just changed my mind. Roth is in the mix. Which is apropos, because his mentor S. Bellow follows in the footsteps of Plato, Spinoza, Cervantes, Proust, and other great unriddlers of life.

In Herzog, Bellow presents a picture of Moses Herzog. Moses is a sick man, unhinged, not physically but mentally, emotionally. He writes long beautifully barbed letters dipped in the poison of anger and regret. He writes to the living and the dead, to old lovers, scholars, and politicians, and to Nietzsche and Heidegger, among others. Moses is addicted to ideas, “sick with abstractions.” “Curse Hegel!” his now ex-wife screams at him in a rage. Gradually Moses realizes that his pursuit of a “grand synthesis” has separated him from reality, from fact and value. He frees himself from “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness” and solves the problem of existence.
The solution is simple and sweet. It really is. I’m tempted by silence because I’m no Plato or Spinoza; I’m no Proust or C. McCarthy; I’m no Bellow. At the risk of clicking like a porpoise, excitedly yet unintelligibly, I give you The Answer, in outline form only, mere signposts. You’ll have to chase down a philosopher or an artist—or read Herzog. Here goes. Break the identification of the “I” with the ego, as Moses does when he realizes his scholarly concerns are infected by ambition and vengeance. Feel the pain of others, or witness several painful courtroom scenes, just like Moses right before his awakening. Devote yourself to something bigger and more important than yourself. In Moses’ case, he renews his attachment to his children, to his family and friends. Delight in the word despite its impermanence: “Life is life only when it is understood clearly as dying,” or, “Ruin comes to beauty, inevitably.” Love your monkey. Literally. Moses’ good friend Asphalter is devastated by the death of his pet monkey. Not a fan of hirsute primates? Then weed your garden, instead; tend your tomatoes and cantaloupes, or like Moses, paint a piano for your daughter. Actively participate in life; attend to the simple things that make it go. At the end of the novel, after parting the sea of illusion from reality, Moses turns the pump switch on, connects the range, and turns the refrigerator on. He chills a bottle of wine, makes dinner, and chats and laughs with Ramona. Then he cleans up and listens to the hermit thrushes and blackbirds.  

Like I said, simple.
**Wharton, for one. A first-rate writer. She puts most novelists to shame. But she’s no where near solving the riddle of life, focusing as she does on all the ways one’s pursuit of love, freedom, and happiness can go sideways. 

visions of geniuses become the canned goods of intellectuals

July 24, 2011

Sentences plucked from contexts are like riddles. And who doesn’t like staring a good Sphinx in the eye? Many of Bellow’s sentences in Herzog are striking, memorable, and sharply (and humorously) aphoristic. Like bright, shiny surfaces glinting in the sand, they clamor for attention, begging to be picked up, turned around a bit, pocketed. Wait. Even better than the metaphor of sea glass and sea shells is the metaphor of flowers. That’s more in keeping with the symbolic structure of Herzog, where flowers figure so prominently, “that pernicious thing, fragrant beauty, shapely red.” So without further ado, I give you the finest flowers plucked from Bellow’s fields of prose. 

“A painful, grotesque scandal … is after all a sort of service to the community.”
O Lord! forgive all these trespasses. Lead me not into Penn Station.”
“Seashores are good for madmen—provided they’re not too mad.”
“A man is born to be orphaned, and to leave orphans after him.” Orphaned. I say “plucked” above, but I flat-out stole this epigram from Bellow, inadvertently—and I am pleasantly gratified I did. See previous post, about widows and widowers, orphans and orphaners. Timeline: I read Bellow, an idea influences me, I’m enthralled, I use it without recalling its origin, I thumb through Herzog and am astonished to find it again, carefully underlined, thereby confirming one of Bellow’s central points: ideas are wily things, and we’re much more under their influence than we give credence.  
“Nietzsche has a Christian view of history.” Take that, you syphilitic anti-Christian, you sickly-weak power praiser. The proof is in the pudding and can readily be plated. I know how. Do you?
“Each man has his own batch of poems.”
“We must be what we are.”
The visions of geniuses become the canned goods of intellectuals.” Orphan is to black widows what Mr. Interpolations is to Bellow. That’s a fact.
“Death watches.”
“Ruin comes to beauty, inevitably.”
“Whatever man’s age, history, condition, knowledge, culture, development, he has an erection.” Bellow is sporting a pre-Rothian tent; or Roth a post-Bellowian is-that-a-roll-of-coins-in-your-pocket-or-are-you-just-happy-to-see-me. Your call.
“You can’t turn an old herring into a dolphin.” Sexually speaking, that is.
“The body is a spiritual fact, the sinstrument of the soul.” Indescribably perfect. I detect a hint Spinoza (the mind is the idea of the body), a pinch of Nietzsche (the body is the outwardness of the soul, which explains why Socrates is so ugly), and a dash of Puritanism (sinstrument!).  
“The strength to do evil is sovereignty.”
“Readiness to answer all questions is the infallible sign of stupidity.”
I dare not riff on all these aphorisms, tempting as that might be. For that would surely be an infallible sign of something.
So I depart, gladly.

stealing snatches of herzog

July 16, 2011

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” Thus begins the story about a man who wants to have his insanity and eat his rationality, too. He’s unhinged, and rightfully so. His wife has just dumped him for his best friend. Usurper. For the past week, whenever I can steal a moment, I’ve spent time with Bellow’s magnificent novel, savoring lines and whole passages. I say magnificent in part because I read the book years ago, in a rush, and with no enjoyment and even less understanding, and flat-out despised the thing. Hated it. Even donated my nice hardbound copy to the first set of hands that would relieve me of it. Totally unheard of. Anyhow, I picked up a dog-eared copy at the used bookstore and have cherished the damn thing silly. For those of you unfamiliar with Herzog, many of its scenes and incidents occur in Chicago, New York, and other urban metropolitan areas. Despite these settings, Bellow still has a fantastic eye for nature. Or at least for uncultivated front yards. And the skies above. “Tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings surrounded him in the yard. When he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires of course; gases — minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat.” Here’s another passage: “The first frost had already caught the tomatoes. The grass was dense and soft, with the peculiar beauty it gains when the cold days come and the gossamers lie on it in the morning; the dew is thick and lasting. The tomato vines had blackened and the red globes burst.” I’ll have more to say about Herzog, in particular about transitions, as I continue to follow Moses’ leopold-bloomian journey through inner and outer space. Leopold Bloom, meet Underground Man. Yes, I think I’m on to something here….

Postscript. I have mixed feelings about the new theme for my blog. Largely because my blogroll, something I like to publicize, is way down at the footer. Sorry about that. But it’s only an experiment.