The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

You see a good number of books about the rich and powerful falling when the world around them changes. However, you don’t usually see it so quietly or calmly as it seemed to me in The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. A culture is lost in the depths of time, but it isn’t violent. It’s almost as velveteen and elegant as the prose.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Julian Barnes, 7th for Roxana Robinson, and 5th Jim Shepard.)

The Leopard centers on Don Fabrizio, a wealthy Sicilian prince with thousands of acres of estates a long, distinguished lineage. He is loyal to the Bourbon king. Unfortunately, the year is 1860. Garibaldi is about to land. The Bourbon king is about to go and the unification of Italy is coming.

Don Fabrizio sees this, he knows what is coming, but he doesn’t do a whole lot other than continue to live his life as he has. He doesn’t do much to stop it, or to aid it, or to come to terms with what is coming:

Never had he been so glad to be going to spend three months at Donnafugata as he was now, in that late August of 1860. Not only because he loved the house at Donnafugata, the people, the sense of feudal ownership surviving there, but also because, unlike other times, he felt no regret for his peaceful evenings in the observatory, his occasional visits to Mariannina. The truth was he had found the spectacle of Palermo in the last three months rather nauseating. He would have liked to have the fun of being the only one to understand the situation and accept that red-shirted “bogeyman” Garibaldi; but he had to admit that second sight was not a Salina monopoly. Everyone in Palermo seemed pleased; everyone except a mere handful of grumblers[.]“

Before Garibaldi, his nephew is a scamp for supporting insurrection, but Don Fabrizio still loves him. After Garibaldi comes, Don Fabrizio’s fortunes decline and a crass acquaintance gains more wealth and influence. Don Fabrizio would like his nephew to marry one of his daughters, but he knows that the marriage would be bad for the young man’s ambitions, as the match would not bring the young man much money or influence. Instead, he betrays his own daughter and encourages a marriage between his nephew and the daughter of the crass acquaintance.

Further, the new rulers court Don Fabrizio. They want him to help them rule. However, he declines. He instead recommends the crass acquaintance. He is declining, knows it, and is pretty ready for it to happen:

“I don’t deny that a few Sicilians may succeed in breaking the spell, once off the island; but they would have to leave it very young; by twenty it’s too late: the crust is formed; they will remain convinced that their country is badly calumniated, like all other countries, that the civilized norm is here, the oddities are elsewhere. But do please excuse me, Chevalley, I’ve let myself be carried away and I’ve probably bored you. You haven’t come all this way to hear Ezekiel deplore the misfortunes of Israel. Let us return to the subject of our conversation: I am most grateful to the Government for having thought of me for the Senate, and I ask you to express my most sincere gratitude to them. But I cannot accept. I am a member of the old ruling class, inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and tied to it by chains of decency if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realized by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside and watch the capers and somersaults of the young around this ornate catafalque. Now you need young men, bright young men, with minds asking ‘how’ rather than ‘why,’ and who are good at masking, at blending, I should say, their personal interests with vague public ideals.”

Don Fabrizio is fading. He’s fading and he just proceeds along, letting it happen.

I don’t know how historically accurate The Leopard is, though it certainly seems to be to me. I just know how beautifully The Leopard created the time, place, and tone. It’s a beautiful work chronicling the slow fadeout of the life that Don Fabrizio represents.

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

First, for those of you that don’t know, I’d like to clear up something that I didn’t actually know until about five years ago. Evelyn Waugh is a man. I know, I know, confusing. Just remember, Evelyn is a man, George Eliot is a woman.

I am pretty ambivalent about Brideshead Revisited. At first, I was pretty excited. The story starts out with a 38 year old soldier in the British Army during World War II. I was excited because the book was copyrighted in 1944 and 1945. I thought the book would be about the actual War, and thought it was kind of cool to be reading a novel written about a soldier while the war was still happening. That turned out to not be the case.

The full title of the novel, on the inside page is “Brideshead Revisited The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder”. The story starts out with Captain Ryder’s unit moving to a new section of English countryside. One on which their command headquarters is to be an old estate called Brideshead.

Capt. Ryder has a history with Brideshead, starting when he went to Oxford as a wee lad of 18 and fell into a friendship with the younger Brideshead son, Sebastian. At the beginning, Sebastian takes him to Brideshead when no one is there, except the old nanny because he doesn’t want Charles to get involved with his family. Eventually, however, that’s exactly what happens. Charles becomes entangled in the family’s life. Sebastian, his older brother, his two younger sisters and his mother. There’s also the estranged father living overseas in Rome, whom the mother, a Catholic refuses to divorce. He lives quite openly with his mistress over there.

Time passes. Sebastian runs into some difficulty and it gets to a point where Charles has had enough and cuts ties with the entire family. Only to run into the sister, Julia on a sea voyage years later after he is married with children and a successful artist. He becomes entangled with the family all over again.

There are some interesting things to note about Brideshead. There are openly gay characters in here, well only one truly open one, a minor character. He warns Charles towards the beginning of the book about both Sebastian and Sebastian’s family. Charles doesn’t listen. Later in the book, he takes Charles to a gay club. He is definitely out in society as gay as well. It’s also hinted at strongly that Sebastian is gay, and that quite possibly Charles had an actual relationship with Sebastian. I thought it was really interesting for a book published in the 40s to actually have an openly gay character and so many hints elsewhere of it.

Waugh does a great job with dialogue and with helping us see characters not only through Charles’s eyes (first person narrator) but as they really are too.

One of the themes of the book is how strongly memories can take us.

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life–for we possess nothing certainly except the past–were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning. These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflatus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race for which centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, forgetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new records won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.”

The reason I am ambivalent about this book might partly be my fault. For large portions of it, I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much about what was happening. Which, I don’t fully blame on myself because books from this time frame, set in the era after World War I, in England usually fascinate me. So, there must be something about the material that I just couldn’t connect with.

This isn’t a bad book. And I’d recommend it to certain people, depending on what they like to read, but I still just am not that excited about having read it.

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

I hate picking up an edition of a book made to capitalize on the release of a movie version. It shouldn’t matter, but I end up looking at the recognizable actors and such on the cover and get an impression of them instead of the book itself. I had that problem when I looked at Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. My copy had Glenn Close and Keith Carradine on the cover and mentioned how it was now “a riveting CBS drama on the Hallmark Hall of Fame.” I tried not to think about that and let it color my impressions instead of taking the book as it was, but I have no way of knowing how successful I was. I just wish I’d gotten a non-movie related copy of the book instead.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Sandra Cisneros and 5th for Kathryn Harrison)

Stones for Ibarra concerns Americans Sara and Richard Everton who have done borrowed everything they could to come to a small Mexican village and restart a copper mine long ago abandoned by Richard’s grandfather. It’s a strange, inexplicable move. Of course, there is some pleasant clash between the couple and the villagers. Both seem to respect each other, but they will never ultimately understand each other:

The Acostas reported back to the village. “The señora cooks food from cans over a gasoline fire. It must be very expensive. While she stirs the pot, the señor is in the kitchen. A man in the kitchen and not to eat. He is pouring from a whiskey bottle into glasses. He adds a thimble of Tehuacán water and gives one glass to the señora. They lift their glasses and laugh. We saw it ourselves,” said Remedios. “The señora wearing her shirt inside her ranchero pants instead of loose outside, decently covering that part of her. And drinking alcohol as she cooks, while the señor, whose father was born in that house, sits on the table and lets his long legs swing.”

Though the village is somewhat quiet. It is still a harsh place to live:

It was now that the Palacio brothers entered the Copa de Oro and walked up to the bar. They worked in the concentrating mill of the Malagueña mine and carried with them like an aura the bitter smell of cyanide. José Reyes first approached Tomás, then Julián. He asked for a small loan of money to be repaid tomorrow and was refused. When the Palacio brothers tried to turn away, he held them back and said, “I am not as rich as you are with a week’s salary in your pockets.” When they refused a second time, José pulled from the wide belt under his denim jacket the machete he had used to strip twigs from the firewood and, as if they had attacked him, cut Tomás in the neck and Julián in the stomach. Then José Reyes was outside in the street, running faster than one so besotted should run, with thirty meters between him and those who came after. There were five who followed him, and two were Palacio cousins and one a Palacio son.

Of course, that harshness doesn’t seem to affect the couple much. Instead, is a hidden illness discovered after the couple arrives that puts definite boundaries on their time there. Leukemia. It seems strangely separate, evidencing both a common fate with those of the Ibarra village and a permanent separateness.

The book just kind of seems to go on in this way. Quietly for the most part.

There is a beautiful melancholy in Stones for Ibarra. Cultures clash, respecting but never quite understanding each other. The environment is harsh as the prose is sparse, but that seems almost secondary to the real danger. Fate is still fate, though, regardless of where it comes from.

Stones for Ibarra reminds me of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop in some ways, though it is quite different in others. Perhaps it was just the lonely southwest of the past, but perhaps it is more than that. Similar language maybe. Faith would definitely be different, since the Everton aren’t believers. Maybe Stones for Ibarra isn’t so similar and I just felt it was. I don’t know.

Regardless, I enjoyed Stones for Ibarra…though I found it’s goodness to be a quiet one. Unassuming. Take that for what you will.

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown

I will preface this with the statement that I don’t have much to say about Flat Stanley.

I don’t have much to say about Flat Stanley.

A. M. Homes listed this book as #8 in his Top Ten list.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, Flat Stanley is a children’s tale written in 1964. I found out when searching it on amazon that it’s since spawned a whole collection of Flat Stanley tales. Some were written by the original creator, but since his death was somewhere around 2003 (Wikipedia isn’t always the treasure trove of information you’d wish it would be and you have to obtain facts by contextual clues), this Flat Stanley book published in 2014, obviously is not written by Jeff Brown. Click on that link. Seriously. Do it. It confuses me that there would be 12 Flat Stanley books that are in addition to the original ones written by Jeff Brown and yet I’ve seriously never heard of anything beyond Flat Stanley. I feel that I need to turn in my “books of all genres nerd” badge and go home.

Flat Stanley is a book that if you have a child whether boy or girl, and if you can get said child to want to hear about something that isn’t Disney princesses or Bat Man, this would be a good selection to read. It’s a funny story. Basically Stanley is squished flat by a bulletin board that his father hung on the wall for Stanley and his brother to use to pin up papers and all sorts of stuff on (I envision a treasure map with a picture of Selena Gomez underneath).

Now, because this was the 60s and not the 2010s, no authorities were called when Stanley was squished to an inch wide by his father’s inexpert hanging of large bulletin boards next to little boys’ beds and the doctor in fact just marveled at it and said that there were some things even doctors didn’t know.

Stanley has a variety of adventures as a flat boy until



His brother blows him back up to normal size using a bicycle pump. Thereby ending Stanley’s adventures and heartache of being a flat boy.

If you read the author bio, you find out that Jeff wrote these after making them up as nighttime stories for his sons. You can tell sometimes, since there’s just the right touch of Cleaver morality thrown in (Cleaver, as in Leave it To Beaver, not cleaver as in the meat cleaver at Just Good Meats here in Omaha). Stanley’s mother tells off policemen for calling her crazy while Stanley is in the sewer finding her wedding ring and she is holding him by a piece of string (seriously!? these parents could get away with -anything-!!!!) and tells them that if they can’t say something nice they shouldn’t say anything. They tell her they’ll remember that going forward. There’s a couple of other instances like this.

It is cute. You should read it to your sons and your daughters. I do like that it could be for a boy. I feel like there aren’t a whole lot of books that are straight fiction written for young boys. It’s changing, but I know if you go look at children’s books, there’s usually way more for girls really. But, I also like that it’s funny enough and interesting enough that any kid, girl or boy would get into it.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

When I think of the Great Depression, I tend to think of either Grapes of Wrath or soup kitchen lines in long ago New York. I don’t tend to think of Hollywood, though it certainly existed at the time and was certainly part of what that time meant for the people of the country. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West is going to change that for me somewhat, as well as possibly change how I see many people’s dreams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Connelly.)

In The Day of the Locust we have a painter, Tod Hackett, who has come to Hollywood to design sets, though he is constantly planning and never actually working on a painting that will show what Hollywood taught him about the nature of people. He falls in love with a hard-nosed girl who is dead set (clearly hopelessly) on being a star, but several other men do as well…including a very naïve man from the Midwest who is almost certainly doomed to be hurt. Of course, the poor Midwesterner eventually is.

We don’t really see the studio powerhouses in The Day of the Locust, the stars. We see all the ordinary mass of humanity who move to Hollywood with great dreams…dreams they have no real hope of fulfilling:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon….It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sign. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

We know from the very beginning that the characters aren’t going to end well. However, people still dream. Along the course of the book, West comes to some conclusions about those dreams:

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a “holocaust of flame,” as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…..Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

I’ve seen books that focus on the sleazy side of Hollywood before, but never quite like West’s take. Most look at the underbelly of the glamor, but West looks for the mass humanity that never even gets to the glamor. It simply was never there for them.

In reflecting on that situation in The Day of the Locust, West manages some interesting insights on how much of what we dream never really exists. There is disillusionment, but unlike the norm it only comes to the most hopelessly naive because the rest didn’t even get to have many illusions.

Not only is Hollywood not paved with gold, it isn’t even a trick of light. Even that was only rumor.

The Golden Argosy-A Collection of the Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English language

This is an eclectic collection of short stories. It was published in 1947 and re-released in 1955. It’s now out of print, so I had to interlibrary loan it. And, now I am actually regretful that it is out of print. Because I’d totally tell anyone that was a lover of short stories to run out and get it. It is available on Amazon
as of the writing of this post. If you do love short stories, I recommend getting this book. Or check your library, it might be on the shelves there.

This is listed by Stephen King in his Top Ten. He was the only one to do so. He wrote a short blurb in Top Ten about it, stating that he found it by chance but absolutely loved it.

The collection includes some of the classic short stories that you may remember having read or at least heard of over the years, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, The Lady or the Tiger, The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. it also includes stories by “greats” that might have been known in the late 40s but aren’t as well known now (making them new to me), like Paul’s Case by Willa Cather, The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Killers by Ernest Hemingway, The Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley.

The foreword from the collection states: “The compilers of most collections of short stories quite naturally seek to present material which, if not actually new, is at least likely to be unfamiliar to the reader. Frequently, some old favorites are included, but as yet no anthology, as far as we know, has been limited to the tried and true….Yet it seems obviously desirable, particularly for those who have not large libraries, to have in a single book as many as possible of the established classics in the field.”

They end the foreword with “Here, we believe, is a treasury of great storytelling–a reference collection of the best of a favorite form of literature–a book which we hope will prove to be a source of recaptured delight for many and a new and rewarding adventure for many more.”

The short story is often proclaimed as “dying” or “dead”, and there is a significantly limited venue for it. However, short story collections continue to be published, and short story collections continue to be sold. There are also the well-known places to seek out short stories (The New Yorker for example) and the lesser known places (email Dave, he’d be more than happy to point you out to quite a few of them if you’re looking for a place to read some). There are the new places, like the ones being released by Joe Hill and Stephen King exclusively for Kindle (at least initially).

A well-written short story is a testament to an author’s writing ability, in my opinion. Many short story collections that come about nowadays have stories involving already established characters. They’re created for fans of a particular series. I almost see that as a cheat of the short story form. If you’ve already established a character over a series of books, to use them seems to defy the art of short stories. A short story has to be economical with details. But, it also has to create the scene, and flesh out at least one or two characters into a real person.

A lot of these stories have twist endings. A character finding something out at the very end that is a revelation, or the story revealing something to the reader at the very last moment. I love these types of stories (The Gift of the Magi for example).

I definitely will be buying a copy of this book, as some of the stories I want to re-read. It also introduced me to some authors I’ve heard about over the years but have never read. W. Somerset Maugham is an author I’ve toyed with reading in the past. After reading his short story, Rain, I am definitely going to read more of him.

Sorry for all the gushing. It was just a joy to read this.

And for any aspiring or actualized writers reading this, I leave you with:

“You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.
– Larry Niven”

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford centers on the friendship between two sets of “good people,” the English Lenora and Edward Ashburnham and the American Florence and John Dowell. The couples have been casual friends for almost nine years, regularly meeting at a German health spa for Florence’s and Edward’s respective heart ailments. Only, John suddenly discovers that his wife Florence has been having an affair with Edward for nine years. The collapse of the lives involved and the corruption running throughout, of which John was previously unaware, occupies the bulk of the novel.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Julian Barnes, 1st for Mary Gordon, 3rd for David Leavitt, 5th for Tom Perotta, and 7th for Ann Patchett.)

You’d think John would hate Edward once he makes his discovery, but things aren’t that simple. He seems to come to hate his wife Florence (whom he ceased loving long ago and thought more of as a fragile invalid to protect, not knowing that his marriage had been deliberately set up on this deception so Florence could live the life she wanted) and Edward’s wife Lenora somewhat, but he still seems to think highly of Edward even after discovering the affair:

For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance. And, you see, I am just as much of a sentimentalist as he was….”

Florence set up John to be a patsy from the beginning, though that was the only way available in that society to achieve her goals. Edward had a continual problem with fidelity, though he wanted to be good. Lenora was aware of her husband’s failings, but even aided him and was willing to have people destroyed to maintain the marriage her religious principles ordered her to maintain.

I got the idea that John, and Ford through John, thought the whole situation inescapably (and perhaps excusably in John’s view) doomed. For and John seem to leave the question of where the ultimate blame rests, though there seems to be blame, ambiguous:

Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people—like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords—broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?

I don’t think I would have liked The Good Soldier so much if it was just a tale of hidden deception amongst longtime friends who still remained somewhat surface despite the length of the friendship. What I like is the ambiguity in where Ford (and/or John) lays the blame. He seems fatalistic about it, but also seems to lay blame equally on all of the individuals, the conventions under which they operate, and the circumstances of their lives. The blame doesn’t seem to ultimately matter and everyone remains “good people” to at least some extent, “good people” who all have miserable lives.

That ambiguity, particularly as expressed through the main character John, is what makes The Good Soldier particularly intriguing for me. I could ponder over it for a good long while.