William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.

 

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Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Happy Banned Books Week to y’all!

I was originally going to talk about Clockwork Orange today, but for reasons I will save for a future entry, it wasn’t the easiest thing to read.

So I grabbed Huckleberry Finn, since I was one of the only Americans to not at least pretend to read this book at some point.

I think this was probably my favorite book to read so far from the Top Ten.  This book was listed by the following authors:

Lee K. Abbott

Kate Atkinson

Russell Banks

Madison Smart Bell

Chris Bohjalian

Fred Chappell

Clyde Edgerton

Percival Everett

Arthur Golden

Barry Hannah

Kent Haruf

Carl Hiassen

Haven Kimmel

Stephen King

Walter Kirn

Wally Lamb

Bobbie Ann Mason

Joyce Carol Oates

Robert B Parker

Jonathan Raban

Louis D. Rubin Jr

George Saunders

Cathleen Schine

Scott Spencer

Susan Vreeland.

 

I listed them this way, to highlight how _many_ of the authors picked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  Obviously, I am in good company with loving this book.

Huck Finn has been banned countless times due to the use of the word “nigger”.  They (the ignoramuses who ban it) obviously are unable to critically read a book and to see past the usage of the word “nigger”.  They say it’s racist.  However, anyone who has read Huck Finn with half a brain can see it’s actually the opposite of racist, and is actually a criticism of slavery.

It reminds me of a time in college (a conservative school) where the literary magazine published a poem about and against suicide that had the word fuck at the end.  They banned the literary magazine as “offensive”.  It was a case where the poet had used the curse word to underscore his point as to why someone shouldn’t commit suicide, and the poem was about God’s love for us as creatures etc.

Much like that, Huck Finn is the story of a “pre-teen” boy who runs off to get away from his drunkard dad who is attempting to get 6000.00 that Huck Finn received as a result of the happenings in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  He runs across his benefactress’s slave Jim in the process, who has run away as he overheard talk that he was to be sold “down river”.  Jim and Huck Finn go on the run together, rafting down the Mississipi.  They have a variety of adventures and throughout the book, Huck has attacks on his conscience about aiding and abetting a runaway slave, but then he remembers how Jim helped him, how Jim would take his watch at night and let Huck sleep, how he tells Huck that he’s his only friend.  So he keeps deciding to not turn in his friend, that maybe Jim is more man than slave (Huck doesn’t actually say this, this is my own analysis).  Twain spends time fleshing Jim out into a full character, instead of a caricature.  The following is just one example of how Twain does that.  Jim is telling Huck about an experience with his little girl who had just recovered from scarlet fever and was 4 years old.  Jim told her to close the door and she just stood staring at him and smiling at him.  He tells her again.  And she still just stands there.

“En wid dat I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sont her a-sprawlin’.  Den I went into de yuther room, en uz gone ’bout ten minutes; en when I come back dah was dat do’ a-stannin’ open yit, en dat chile stannin’ mos’ right in it, a-lookin’ down and mournin’, en de tears runnin’ down.  My, but I wuz mad!  I was a-gwyne for de chile, but jis’ den-it was a do’ dat open innerds-jis’ den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam! en my lan’, de chile never move!  My breff mos’ hop outer me; en I feel so-so- I doan’ know how I feel.  I crope out, all a-tremblin, en crope aroun en open de do’ easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof’en still, en all uv a sudden I says pow! jis as loud as I could yell.  She never budge! Oh, Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en says ‘Oh, de po’ little thing!  De Lord God Amighty fo’give po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to fo’give hisseff as long’s he live!’  Oh she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plum deef en dumb-en I’d ben a-treat’n’ her so!”.

Admittedly, much like Gone with the Wind, there are characterizations of Jim as being a good “nigger” and how slaves liked their masters and were a little simple-minded.  However, Twain does show that Jim has brains, even if he’s not book smart or even smart in the way Huckleberry is.  The thing to remember when you run across things like this is when the book was written.  Even if someone was against slavery, certain ideas prevailed about how a black person would act or behave, just as it does today about different ethnic groups.  How many times has someone cracked a joke around you about “Mexicans all living in a one bedroom, ten of them”?  I’ve heard it at least a dozen times in the last decade.  Twain does a great job in my opinion of making Jim into a character to love and a character to respect.  His comments by other characters in regards to the general temperament of Jim shows the attitude of the day, not a purposeful attempt to be racist.  If the same book was written today, yes, the author would be going for the shock value of racism.  However, Twain’s era meant that he actually wrote quite an enlightened book for the time.

Another thing I loved about this book is that I spent most of a chapter giggling and laughing outright.  Tom Sawyer and Huck are going to rescue Jim from captivity (he was recaptured).  Tom has all kinds of grandiose ideas about how to rescue Jim.  The following exchange happens during this chapter:

Tom is asking Jim to allow some rattlesnakes to stay in there with him while he and Huck are digging the hole to get Jim out.  Jim has an obvious issue with this.

Tom: “Blame it, can’t you try?  I only want you to try-you needn’t keep it up if it don’t work.”

Jim: “But de trouble all done ef de snake bite me while I’s a-tryin’ him.  Mars Tom, I’s willin’ to tackle mos’ anything’at ain’t onreasonable, but ef you en Huck fetches a rattlesnake in heah for me to tame, I’s gwyne to leave, dat’s shore”

Tom:  “Well then, let it go, let it go, if you’re so bullheaded about it.  We can get you some garter-snakes, and you can tie some buttons on their tails and let on they’re rattle snakes and I’ll reckon that will have to do”.

JIm:  “I k’n stan’ dem, Mars Tom, but blame’ ‘f I couldn’ git along widout um, I tell you dat.  I never knowed b’fo’ twas so much bother and trouble to be a prisoner”

Tom: Well, it always is when it’s done right.  You got any rats around here?”

Jim: “No, sah, I hain’t seed none.”

Tom:  “Wll, we’ll get you some rats.”

Jim:  “Why, Mars Tom, I doan’ want no rats.  Dey’s de dad-blamedest creatures to ‘sturb a body, en rustle roun’ over ‘im, en bite his feet, when he’s trying to sleep, I ever see.  No, sah, gimme g’yarter snakes, ‘if I’s got to have ‘m, but doan’ gimme no rats; I hain’ got no use f’r um”.

Tom:  “But Jim, you got to have them-they all do.  So don’t make no more fuss about it.  Prisoners ain’t ever without rats.  There ain’t no instance of it.  And they train them, and pet them and learn them tricks and they get to be sociable as flies.  But you got to play music to them.  You got anything to play music on?”.

 

And Jim is good tempered and allows Tom to try out all his ideal prison escape ideas on him.

Another thing I loved about Huck Finn is I felt Mark Twain was giving us a glimpse into the actual society during this time.  The characters that Huck and Jim run into all seem to come from types of people that were really around at that time.  Not Twain thinly fictionalizing people he knew, but more instances, tales and people he met around over the years.  I felt like that was another theme of the book actually.

Really, people that want to ban this book should listen to what the author himself has to say as the very first part of the edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn says;

“NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.  By ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance”

That more than anything suggests to me that Twain might have been just mainly telling a story in his head and not trying to write an allegorical tale about the evils of society at his time.

 

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

When talking about Stendhal’s The Red and The Black, I suppose it wouldn’t be untoward to look first at the actual story. After all, it is a thoroughly developed and interesting story, packed with vivid and human seeming characters.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for Norman Mailer, 6th for Joyce Carol Oates, 5th for Louis D. Rubin, Jr., and 4th for Elizabeth Spencer.)

In The Red and The Black, we have the poor but ambitious carpenter’s son, Julien Sorel. As the story progresses, Julien rises to become a tutor to a rich man’s children, falls in love, flees to study at a seminary, flees the intrigues of the seminary (and rises farther) to become another rich man’s secretary, falls in love again, and eventually falls from grace.

I don’t think I’m exactly giving away spoilers in saying the above. It isn’t like the basic plot of this book isn’t well known. Anyway, that quick summary is really far from giving away anything significant.

Regardless, impressed as I was with the overall story and characters, the most interesting aspect for me is how Stendhal twists human emotion and scheming together. The characters go about their passions in a scheming way at the same time that their passions drive their scheming thoughts.

For example, the wife of the provincial rich man who hired Julien to be his children’s tutor falls in love with Julien. Julien ends up falling desperately in love with her, but his first motivation is not love. Instead, he pursues Madam de Renal out of revenge:

When he went into the garden that evening, Julien was ready to listen
with interest to the thoughts of the fair cousins. They awaited his
coming with impatience. He took his accustomed seat, by Madame de
Renal's side. The darkness soon became intense. He attempted to clasp 
a white hand which for some time he had seen close beside him, resting 
on the back of a chair.  There was some hesitation shown, but finally 
the hand was withdrawn from him in a manner which betokened displeasure. 
Julien was prepared to regard this as final, and to continue the 
conversation in a light tone, when he heard M. de Renal approach.
 
The rude words of the morning still rang in Julien's ears. 'Would it
not,' he said to himself, 'be a good way of scoring off this creature,
so lavishly endowed with every material advantage, to take possession
of his wife's hand under his very eyes? Yes, I will do it, I, for whom
he has shown such contempt.'

Later, the daughter of the Parisian noble who hired Julien as his secretary decides she is in love with him. She eventually does become as passionate about Julien as she believes, but she initially goes after him out of boredom:

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: 'I have the good fortune to be in
love,' she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of
joy. 'I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a
young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not
in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for
Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti.  They are perfect, too perfect
perhaps; in short, they bore me.'


She turned over in her mind all the descriptions of passion which she
had read in  Manon Lescaut, the Nouvelle Heloise, the Letters of a
Portuguese Nun, and so forth. There was no question, of course, of
anything but a grand passion; mere fleeting affection was unworthy of
a girl of her age and birth. She bestowed the name of love only upon
that heroic sentiment which was to be found in France in the days of
Henri IV and Bassompierre. That love never basely succumbed to
obstacles; far from it, it caused great deeds to be done. 'What a
misfortune for me that there is not a real Court like that of
Catherine de' Medici or Louis XIII! I feel that I am equal to
everything that is most daring and great. What should I not do with a
King who was a man of feeling, like Louis XII, sighing at my feet! I
should lead him to the Vendee, as Baron de Tolly is always saying, and 
from there he would reconquer his Kingdom; then no more talk of a 
Charter ...  and Julien would aid me. What is it that he lacks? A
name and a fortune. He would make a name for himself, he would acquire 
a fortune.

Usually writers seem to pick one of these to dominate, but in The Red and The Black all this scheming and passion seems hopelessly intertwined and completely inseparable. Are these people ruled by their scheming, or their passions? Perhaps they can’t stop scheming any more than they can prevent themselves from being ruled by their emotions.

Now, I don’t know if this was Stendhal’s intent. Regardless, this is what made the novel fascinating for me. It was substantially more complex than I had been expecting. The story and characters are wonderfully done, but the interplay between these themes entranced me. It easily kept me reading all the way through The Red and The Black.

Starting in on eleven and a half years of books…

My friend Kim was talking to me the other day. She had picked up The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books edited by J. Peder Zane and she had an idea.

Apparently, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books compiles lists of what a ton of various authors (Barry Hannah, Francine Prose, Ben Marcus, Emma Donoghue, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and many others) consider to be the ten best books of all time. They even compile various lists out of the lists. Books and books and books.

So, Kim came up with the idea that it would be fun to start a book blog (this) and go through book by book, reviewing each as we went. I was game, so that’s what we are doing.

Now, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books lists a total of 544 total books. The intro claims that if you read one a week it would take you eleven and a half years to finish. Seeing as that was about the rate we were planning (trading off), we suddenly had a clever name for the blog.

I should mention, we may not do each and every book. We might not keep this up for eleven and a half years, and may not stick to our planned schedule exactly. Some of the books on the lists aren’t even books (such as references to the entire work of an author or an entire form of their work). As it is right now, I’ve already read about 167 of these (not counting partials for the vague references mentioned a second ago) and may not want to always revisit. I also currently refuse to read any more Henry James.

We also might wander around a bit. We might talk about some of the authors who gave their opinions and how their work has influenced us as opposed to the books they talk about. We might even talk about totally different books. Really, we might do just about anything we want. However, it will likely all be (or mostly be) book related.

As such, feel free to follow along. Our opinions are just our opinions, but we have some great books to talk about.