Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.
In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”
When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”
Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.
Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”
A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.
From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“
The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages
The New Year’s resolution typically leads a short and tragic life. Its father is misdeeds, its mother remorse. Once born, the resolution swarms about its maker as irritating as a fruit fly. Often, too, it lives no longer than the common fruit fly, which is to say about two weeks. Its demise usually evokes in its pall-bearer tangled emotions of foolhardy chagrin and wild, celebratory relief.
Growing older does occasionally mean growing wiser, and over the last few years I have abstained from making New Year’s resolutions. For most of my adult life, I had made such pledges — to quit smoking, to drink less, to lose weight, to get into shape, to listen better — and while I eventually achieved some control over these vices, my change in habits never came about as the result of a New Year’s vow.
This year is different. Let me explain why I decided to make a resolution and how I determined to carry it out. But first the resolution:
“Resolved, that I will spend 20 minutes per day for the year 2012 reading the following books: Jane Austen’s Emma; Dante’s The Divine Comedy (the John Ciardi translation); Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy; the Oresteia trilogy; the Pauline Letters of the New Testament; G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man; Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I have previously read, but which has long demanded another visit); Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Selected Poetry; Joseph Pearce‘s Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Missed reading sessions must be made up within a week’s time.”
For more than a decade, I have vowed to read certain authors and books, writing that I had missed or neglected along the way. In my twenties, after I abandoned my graduate school studies in medieval history, I flung myself into fiction and poetry with the abandon of a man unleashed from prison, going from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, from John Donne to Sylvia Plath, from Scott Fitzgerald to Evelyn Waugh. I read these authors and many more for two reasons: I was genuinely interested in the books, and I wanted to learn to write.
By the time I entered my thirties, most of the books I was reading were newer, and by the time my forties and fifties rolled around, nearly all the books were contemporary. The classics still beckoned, and my life in a classroom has kept me in touch with older works of literature, but generally my reading has aimed, both from choice and necessity, at new works of fiction, history, and biography.
But the minutes tick away, and the old books call to me. The time has come to pay them heed. If asked why I want to have read certain books before growing infirm or dying — what difference will such reading make, really, one may ask — I have no more ready answer than the old-timer who wants to climb Everest or the grandmother who wants to run a marathon. The compulsion comes from inside the heart and defies ready analysis.
Resolutions are effective which come with this axiom: the more specific the goal, the greater chance for success. The man who sets out to “lose weight” fails nine times out of ten. The man who resolves to lose a pound a month between January and September has a fighting chance. I therefore decided to be as exacting as possible in the construction of my own pledge to myself.
Like everyone in today’s mad-rush world, I am busy with commitments. Days often pass in a blur of teaching, writing, caring for a teenager’s wants and needs, and completing the usual necessary household duties. My plan had to take into account the exigencies of my existence while at the same time allowing for some sense of accomplishment. Twenty minutes seemed a good amount of time, an easily remembered number less imposing than half an hour and more worthy than a quarter hour. Twenty minutes a day may seem inconsequential, but it adds up to well over a hundred hours of annual reading, and I am a reasonably fast reader. Self-knowledge led me to include an alternate plan in case, whether by accident or the demands of my schedule, I did miss a session of reading. I wanted a chance to compensate for my failure.
As for the books — I could have chosen any number of other titles. But the books selected here, with the exception of Caulaincourt and Pearce, are ones that I come across again and again in my reading. Some books are included to offset omissions in my education that are just plain embarrassing: to have neglected Dante is, given my interests and education, inexcusable. Some are appropriate to my stage of life; Boethius, for example, wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while under a sentence of death, a circumstance that looms somewhat larger in my life now than it did at age 20. Hopkins I have read in bits and pieces, and wanted a more disciplined approach to his work. I have read several Greek plays, and their stark prose and bare emotions drew me toward the Oresteia. I enjoy military history, hence Thucydides and Caulaincourt. (I also want to learn more about Napoleon and nineteenth century Russia, so the Caulaincourt fits several bills). Anna Karenina appeals to me for reasons of nostalgia; I can vividly remember reading the book and thinking it the best novel I’d ever read. The time seemed ripe to repeat the experiment and see what I think now of poor doomed Anna.
One great difference between this resolution and those made earlier in life is, of course, the fact that I am announcing it in a newspaper. Pressure can shape diamonds or break boulders. We’ll see how it goes.
That time of year has arrived when ritual and custom weave their magical threads into our lives. We sip Uncle George’s eggnog and bourbon, made from a recipe which his Uncle George inherited; we feast on ham at Grandma’s table; we sing carols off-key with the lusty disregard of a drunken sailor. Movie-lovers turn to old seasonal favorites like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street;” families open presents from beneath the tree, each in their special way; children play with new toys in a tangle of ribbons and wrapping papers while mommy and daddy doze on a sofa.
Readers, too, some of them, may follow some tradition in regard to the season. A father might recite to his little ones Clement Moore‘s “Night Before Christmas,” with its parental prayer that the “children were nestled all snug in their beds.” A celebrant with a strong sentimental streak may find satisfaction in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” that classic little tale of Della and Jim, of watchchains and combs, and the meaning of sacrifice.
Some readers this season will open Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. (By season, of course, I mean that period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the old Twelve Days of Christmas before our Black Fridays, parties, and feasting made so many of the holiday-hung-over happy to toss their dead trees into the street before the New Year). A score of movies and plays about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Christmas ghosts have embedded this tale so firmly in our blood and nerves that two words alone — ”Bah! Humbug!” — can conjure up entire scenes from a London buried long ago by time and fashion.
Dickens’ tale is so familiar to all of us, in fact, that we can open this novella to any page and place ourselves immediately within the story. There is a great delight in such an arrangement, because there is great delight to be found in Dickens’ words. We all know the story of the stingy man visited by ghosts, but our knowledge has often kept readers from exploring the original story. This is unfortunate, for those who love the English language and have never read A Christmas Carol might not realize the treat they are missing. Here on every page is Dickens at his most delightful, reveling in description, puns, and conversation, the prose bubbling like the story’s steam pudding, the author’s enthusiasm for his tale infecting us with bacilli composed of happiness and joy. His jocularity and passion sweep us along with Scrooge, so that by the time the last ghost has visited the old skinflint we can truly feel Scrooge’s delight on waking in his bed with the opportunity to make amends and expiate his crimes of selfishness and meanness of heart:
“‘I don’t know what to do!’ Scrooge cried, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”
Another story worth revisiting, older than Scrooge and his ghosts, and familiar to an even wider readership, comes to us from best-selling authors Matthew and Luke. Leaving aside the theology behind their telling (it is best your reviewer in particular leave aside theology, as his knowledge of that subject is approximately equivalent to his knowledge of homemade firecrackers, that is, he may eventually cobble something together, but is quite likely in the process to blow himself to hell and gone), let us instead look to the literary aspects of this story to explain its longevity and appeal.
We begin with a teenage girl who, according to the custom of her time, is espoused to an older man when she mysteriously becomes pregnant and is soon, as one translation puts it, “great with child.” This girl, Mary, accompanies her espoused, a carpenter named Joseph, to the city of Bethlehem, where she delivers her child in a stable and cradles him in a feeding trough for livestock. (Many will later consider this same infant’s flesh to be the food that brings everlasting life). Strange events then occur: angelic beings cavort in the skies over the tiny city, shepherds visit the stable in the night to pay homage to the child, wise men from the East follow a star and bring gifts fit for a king. Others, particularly a woman named Anna and a man named Simeon, proclaim the newborn the savior of their people.
This celebration is short-lived: Joseph receives word via a dream that the local king, fearful of a prophesy that such a child will seize his throne, plans to kill the baby. The family flees to another country before the king orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants in hopes that one of the dead will be the baby. Later the cruel king dies a deserved horrible death, and the tiny family returns to its homeland.
Matthew and Luke tell their story in a few pages. Here is no Dickensian excess. The prose is as simple, stark, and succinct as that found in one of Hemingway’s short stories. The authors use few adjectives and employ minimal descriptions of landscape, clothing, style, or manners. Comment on the emotions of the characters is almost non-existent.
Despite the absence of all these conventional literary devices, the story has stayed with us for a long time. Millions of people all around the world have read or heard the story. It stays with us because it possesses all the elements of a great story: love, birth, mystery, murder, shepherds and kings, angels, wise men, fools. It has, as some critics say, the power of story. One guy even called it a part of the “greatest story ever told.”
“What do women want?”
During the month of December, Sigmund Freud’s famous question haunts the minds of many men. Unlike the perturbed analyst, however, men face a more practical and restricted version of this question, specifically: “What do women — mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, wives — want to find under the tree on Christmas morning?”
On the Saturday following Thanksgiving, I landed in Asheville’s Barnes and Noble, where I meandered through the best-sellers and gift books, seeking for review books that might appeal to women at Christmas. A quarter of an hour had expired when three successive thoughts occurred: 1) I wasn’t sure what books were popular with women this season; 2) I was in a large bookstore; and 3) the bookstore was full of women interested in books. Why not simply ask them for their recommendations?
Here a natural caution exerted itself. Given the legions of sexual oddballs in our society, aware that I myself had reached the cusp of that age when someone might mistake me for a “Dirty Old Man,” and fully cognizant of the fate of those adventurers who accost their subjects with rash familiarity — think of the “Crocodile Hunter” and his grisly end — I deemed it prudent to take certain precautions in my approach to female shoppers and staff. I would avoid any female who looked anywhere near the age of 18. I would quickly identify myself and explain that I was writing a book review column for The Smoky Mountain News. I would ask only for first names and then inquire as to their recommendations.
This plan worked, as the adage goes, like a charm. I survived with all appendages intact and learned a few things about the literary tastes of the female of the species. Gentlemen, here is a summary of my time in that jungle of print, paper, and perfume.
Emily, the youngest of my subjects — I would place her in her mid-20a — was holding a copy of In Search of the Knights Templar: A Guide to the Sites of Britain. “I’m buying it for myself,” she explained. “I’d like to go to Britain in a few years.” But what would she give to her friends? “Well, I like Stephen King. I just started reading him. And Charles Dickens. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite all-time books.”
After duly noting Emily’s choices, I found Donna seated on the carpeting of the New Age aisle with six or eight books stacked at her knees. She reminded me that the key to purchasing books for presents was a familiarity with the recipient’s interests. “For example, I like books on spirituality,“ she said, pointing to the piled volumes, “and I’m looking at these books for myself. But if I buy for friends I mostly go for cookbooks or biographies.” (Here I will mention that I had earlier turned over the pages of Tupelo Honey Café: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen. Written by Elizabeth Sims and Chef Brian Somoskus, this colorfully illustrated volume would make a fine gift for anyone with an interest in cooking — or for that matter, in eating).
Susie, a clerk in the store, noted that best-sellers were always popular. “The Help is popular this year, too,” she said. “That book is older, but we sell a lot of them. And children and teens are now asking for their books for Christmas by title, which helps out their parents a lot with shopping.”
So what were young women reading this year?
“They still seem to enjoy paranormal romances, like the Twilight books,” she said. (Here I wanted to comment that my own encounters with romance had all smacked of the paranormal, but restrained myself). “Biographies are popular, too, for women and men as gifts,” she said.
Andrea, one of the store’s managers, prefaced her comments by saying “My reading tastes probably aren’t typical of a lot of female readers,” a remark made by every woman to whom I spoke. Andrea liked true-crime books and had just finished Jay Cee Duggard’s A Stolen Life: A Memoir. “A lot of our female customers enjoy historical fiction. A lot buy religious fiction.” (I had noticed the large section of Christian novels on the second floor). “Vicky Lane and Sarah Allen are two local authors who are popular with our female readers. In terms of the best-sellers, Patterson and Sparks appeal to women.” Later I found the new books by both authors — Patterson’s The Christmas Wedding and Nicholas Sparks’ The Best of Me — displayed prominently both on the store’s front table and on the best-seller aisle.
Barnes and Noble also features The Nook, its answer to Amazon’s electronic book-reader, the Kindle. When I asked Kate, one of the Nook sales staff, whether more men or women bought the Nook, she thought that purchases ran about 60 to 40 in favor of women. “Women who like reading like the Nook. In fact, people from ages 6 to 90 love the Nook,” she added. “Yesterday we sold $17,000 worth of equipment, and that doesn’t include the add-ons.”
There you have it, gentlemen, a feast of print: electronic book devices, best-sellers, cookbooks, biographies, novels of romance. Keep in mind, too, that these are only the hors d’oeuvres. Bookstores large and small serve a buffet aimed at many tastes.
Poor Dr. Freud. Maybe all he had to do to find an answer to his question was ask.
The rigors of holiday shopping are hard upon us, and bibliophiles, like everyone else, will turn their eyes toward bookshops, online stores and e-books to make purchases for their families and friends. It’s also that time of the season when clearing my own desk has become a necessity. Here, then, is a smorgasbord of books, mostly aimed at the male crew. Next time we’ll offer a similar feast for female lovers of the printed word.
For those who didn’t get enough of Halloween, Michael Renegar’s Tar Heel Terrors: More North Carolina Ghosts and Legends (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 0-914875-59-0, $12) will be a welcome addition to the gifts under the tree. Renegar, who currently lives in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, includes here stories of Carolina ghosts from the coasts to the mountains.
Because he resides in the Piedmont, and because he attended Appalachian State University, Renegar is particularly good in his selection of ghosts stories from these areas. Having grown up in Boonville, which is near Winston-Salem, I found, for example, several stories here from that area which were completely unfamiliar to me. Renegar does include the classics, like the Little Red Man of Old Salem fame, but many of his stories here should be new to readers. His previous book, Roadside Revenants and Other North Carolina Ghosts and Legends, is also a fine collection, focusing on the ghosts who haunt North Carolina’s highways and including a chapter titled “Tips for the Would-be Ghosthunter.”
An excellent choice of a gift for a young man is William J. Bennett’s The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (ISBN 978-1-5955-5271-6, $34.99). Bennett, author of the best-selling The Book of Virtues, offers in this 500-page tome a compilation of letters, interviews, essays, biographies, and historical accounts designed to embody what Bennett calls “the eternal qualities of manhood.”
Bennett’s book stands apart from some similar collections in its simplicity and appropriate selections. (Think Walter Newell’s collection What Is A Man? in which the editor does a fine job of surveying three thousand years of writing on manhood, but whose selections will not appeal to any but the most academic of teenagers).
Divided into sections ranging from “Man in War” to “Man in Prayer and Reflection,” The Book of Man gives us accounts ranging from Hesiod’s Works and Days to Paul Read’s Alive, but does so with younger male readers in mind. Bennett includes accounts of different soldiers in Afghanistan, the basketball team from Milan, Ind., featured in the movie “Hoosiers,” Davy Crockett’s discussion of the Constitution with a Tennessee farmer, Unabomber victim David Gelernter’s thoughts on marriage, and close to 300 other entries. Many of these selections will be unfamiliar to readers, and will perhaps inspire young men to search out the complete books and accounts of some of those featured here.
For young men and old, The Book of Man makes a fine Christmas gift.
If William Bennett writes to inspire men, Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025? (ISBN 978-0-312-57997-5, $27.99) will leave the most cockeyed optimist in the country splashing more bourbon into his Christmas eggnog. Here, as he has done in previous books, Buchanan works statistics, history, economics and philosophy into a bomb that he then hurls at the reader through his book. Buchanan returns to some of the themes of his earlier best-sellers — the moral and economic decline of the West, the demographics behind our changing world, the tribalism which is slowly replacing nationalism (a trend which, as Buchanan writes, President Obama had the foresight, unlike so many other politicians, to discuss at length in a political address).
What sets this book apart from some of his work is that Suicide of a Superpower offers ideas which would appeal both to Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd. He favors labor unions, calls for the legalization of certain recreational drugs, and a closing of many of America’s overseas military bases while at the same time espousing Western culture and warning of the dangers of American out-of-control entitlement programs.
In the chapter titled “Demographic Winter,“ his examination of the world’s population statistics, an issue about which he has long taken a deep interest, Buchanan will shock some readers and remind those familiar with these numbers that countries such as Japan, Russia and most European countries are already finding themselves, given their declining populations, unable to support the social programs which the post-World War II years brought into being. (For readers interested in the European Union and its current overwhelming problems, see Nigel Farage on Youtube. It‘s an astonishing performance, one which no American politician could dare give even if capable of speaking so well). Buchanan writes:
“A time of austerity is at hand. And from the riots across France to the anarchist attack on Tory Party headquarters in London to the garbage left piled high and stinking on the streets of Marseille and Naples in the fall of 2010, Europe is not going gentle into that good night. But go she shall.”
Suicide of a Superpower is a warning that this same good night awaits us as well unless we Americans — and our leaders — come to grips with the problems facing us.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death by suicide. He has remained, of course, an icon of American letters, a legend, a man whose life and art still seem to tower over today’s writers. Only his friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac have exerted the same kind of mythic literary pull on the popular imagination of his countrymen. There are Hemingway websites, numerous Hemingway biographies, Hemingway festivals and even Hemingway look-alike contests.
Joining the mania of all things Hemingway is biographer Paul Hendrickson. In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (ISBN 978-1-4000-4162-6, 531 pages, $30), Hendrickson connects the life of Hemingway to his love of the sea and the boat on which he sailed for so many years, the Pilar. Hendrickson is a man of many gifts: a meticulous eye for research, a writer who can bring alive the past on paper, a biographer who clearly loves his subject but who has the courage to present his foibles in full. He brings all these talents to bear in this study of the Nobel Prize winning author who also was wounded in war, lived his youth in Paris, hunted lions in Africa, spent countless days fishing the Gulf Stream, and changed the shape of the American fiction.
In his prologue, Hendrickson lays out some general thoughts regarding Hemingway’s life, observations that other biographers have either missed or downplayed. He writes, for example, that “I have come to believe deeply that Ernest Hemingway, however un-postmodern it may sound, was on a lifelong quest for sainthood, and not just literary sainthood, and that at nearly every turn, he defeated himself.”
He alleges, too, that “there was so much more fear inside of Hemingway than he ever let on,” mostly a fear of suicide (in perhaps a related phobia, he was also, by his own admission, terrified of falling asleep in deep darkness). Hendrickson also believes Hemingway was a man of heroic stature, torn apart by a high sense of honor and an inability to meet his own standards.
Finally, despite Hemingway’s reputation for killing friendships and abusing those around him, Hendrickson tells us that Hemingway possessed a kind and compassionate side to his nature often overlooked by other biographers. He returns to this point repeatedly throughout the book, showing us examples of this gentler Hemingway: his tender letter to a nine-year-old boy with congenital heart disease, written just days before Hemingway took his own life; his loan of money to a young man in distress; his love and concern for his sons, at least until they grew to manhood; his agonies of guilt when he would hurt friends and loved ones.
Two problems do arise in Hemingway’s Boat, difficulties to which Hendrickson seems strangely blind. The first has to do with Hemingway’s alcoholism. Hemingway regarded drunks as “rummies,” and either scorned them or pitied them, as he pitied Fitzgerald, but he could never acknowledge that he himself was an alcoholic. Hendrickson knows of Hemingway’s drinking and surely knows how deeply it affected his relationships with others, his mental state, and the quality of his work, yet he rarely mentions this enormous flaw. We hear again and again that Hemingway drove friends away, but Hendrickson doesn’t seem to make the connection that Hemingway was for years a rummy himself.
He notes, as others have, Hemingway’s penchant for mishaps — he shot himself by accident, for example, while fishing on the Pilar — but again doesn’t tell the reader that these accidents were often caused by alcohol as much as by Hemingway’s famous clumsiness.
Stranger still is Hendrickson’s long treatment in the latter half of the book of Hemingway’s relationship with his son Gregory, known as Gigi to his father. Gregory led a life troubled by his relationships with his parents and wives, his sexual identity, his alcoholism and drugs. In 2001, he died as a transgendered Gloria Hemingway in the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. (One note: when I worked as a clerk in the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston from 1975-1976, Gregory Hemingway visited the store for a book signing of Papa, his account of his father. He struck me as the author has described him here — a nice man, diffident, interested in others).
Certainly Gregory’s wild life, his drinking, his drugs, his inability to accept responsibility for his actions, is sad and arouses our pity, and to look at his relationship with his father is worthy and just in understanding Hemingway, yet Hendrickson gives almost no space to Gregory’s relationship with his mother, Pauline. It was Pauline who, after her divorce, did the bulk of the parenting. Hendrickson does note some details of her life and her time with Gregory, but why spend so much time investigating the effects Hemingway had on Gregory’s life without examining at length the effect of his mother?
Despite these failures in the book — and perhaps in part because of them, particularly the attempt to make so many connections between Hemingway and his third son — Hemingway’s Boat is one of the most compelling biographies of the year. This book will haunt you long after you have closed the covers, intruding at odd times into your emotions, roughing up the smooth waters of your thoughts like the winds on Hemingway’s sea.
Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved In Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf, 2011. 544 pages.
In recent years, a few individuals have taken on large reading projects and then written books of their own about their literary odyssey. Reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, Adler’s Great Books, various millennium book lists: all have received such treatment. Still others have assigned themselves certain timed races based on a particular book, the best known of which is Julie Powell‘s decision to prepare all of the recipes found in Julia Child‘s first cookbook.
In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (ISBN 978-0-06-199984-0, $23.99), Nina Sankovitch undertakes such a scheme, but with a darker personal motive. When her older sister, her beloved Anne-Marie, dies at the age of 46, Sankovitch is left bereft and extremely depressed. She is particularly bothered, as are many who lose a loved one, by such questions as why her sister had died, why Anne-Marie had died instead of her, why she herself had deserved to live.
For three years, Sankovitch bore the pain and questions of her sister’s death. Then one day, while on a get-away weekend vacation to the beaches of Long Island, Sankovitch began reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. She read through the afternoon and into the evening, and realized when she closed the covers of the book that she had read this classic in a single day. She decided then to try and read a book a day for a year, intuitively hoping that this reading would yield answers about her sister’s death and even the reason for her own existence. Of that evening, when her husband — he is surely to be admired for participating in her quest — asked her if she couldn’t read a book a week, she wrote:
“No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and pain.”
And so Sankovitch commenced her daily sprint, taking up classics like Forester’s The African Queen, Kipling’s Captains Courageous, and Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; newer works by authors like Wendell Berry, Jim Harrison, and Muriel Barbery; suspense and science fiction novels; biographies; young adult books. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair — the chair is a banged-up family treasure, stained and patched, which served as her reading headquarters — Sankovitch recounts in detail the pressure such reading put on her household chores and cooking, her duties to her husband and children, the difficulties brought by the exigencies of any modern daily life. Many evenings, she could barely keep her eyes open as she struggled to maintain her book-a-day agenda.
What is best in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, however, is not the author’s literary criticism, but the way in which she blends her accounts of her reading with the story of her family and with broader human concerns.
In a minor chapter titled “Sex By The Book,” for instance, she addresses her own sexual desires even in the face of watching over four children, shopping and cooking, and reading her daily text. Through books like The Delta of Venus and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she finds revelations that help her understand her own sexual desires and her long and continuous love for her husband, Jack, and of the world they have made together “where we are safe — or as safe as we can be.”
Sankovitch also takes us into her childhood, which differed from that of many of her contemporaries. Both her parents were immigrants who had suffered as children during World War II, and both brought to the United States the European love of custom and music now all but lost even in their native lands. Sankovitch describes her mother and father listening to classical music on Sundays and taking their own pleasures from literature. Both were professionals — her father was a surgeon, her mother a university teacher — who frequently invited friends, students, and other visitors into their home.
Throughout her writing Sankovitch also comes back time and again to her sister, the memories they shared, the books they enjoyed, her death. Though she realizes that “there is no remedy for the sorrow of losing someone we love,” her year of reading does bring her a sort of peace regarding Anne-Marie. She tells us that “reading one book a day was my year in a sanitorium,” and the answer which she derives from that sanitarium is that “our only answer to sorrow is to live, to live looking backward, remembering the ones we have lost, but also moving forward, with anticipation and excitement.” For Sankovitch, Cyril Connolly’s tag on the flyleaf — “Literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living” — takes on the import of a motto on a family crest. She reads herself back to health, finding in words and stories not only a respite from her hectic life, but an answer to that life.
One last lesson will strike to the heart of any reader who has suffered the death of a loved one. With the best of intentions, family members and friends will often tell the survivor that it is important to move on, to stay busy, to put the past away. There may be some truth to this advice, but in the pell-mell rush of the society in which we live, it is equally important to remember, as Sankovitch finally did, that to slow down, to contemplate, and to remember offer a reliable path to reconciliation and acceptance.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch. Harper, 2011. 256 pages.
It is no secret that writers are influenced by authors whose work they admire. Though he would later turn his back on them, Ernest Hemingway felt the literary touch of contemporaries such as Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein (his style was also molded by the “cable-ese” of his own newspaper reporting), while William Faulkner was drawn to French poets and to writers such as Balzac, who built his novels from a specific locale, what Faulkner would later call his “own little postage stamp of native soil.”
In a recent interview, novelist Dawn Tripp cited her own influences — Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Ondaatje, Marguerite Duras, and others — all of whom write, as Tripp accurately states, novelistic structures that are not straightforward and linear in time, but instead are either fractured or mosaic in their construction of story and plot. Of this particular novelistic approach, which tells its story by building on the perceptions of characters and their take on other characters and events, Tripp accurately says that “there is a certain dreamlike immediacy, a certain life of the work that takes precedence, a nuanced undercurrent of thought and feeling that runs through the narrative ….”
In her latest novel, Game of Secrets (ISBN 978-4000-6188-4, $25), Tripp creates a story that fulfills these ambitions, a tale that, as she says, “is absorbed by the reader in a more visceral, intuitive way” than that provided by most authors. The fragmented structure of Game of Secrets immediately and intimately draws the reader into itself, piecing together a mosaic built from adultery and murder, from small-town New England lives, from Scrabble games played between two women who are friends and strangers to each other, from the passions of the young who return to a place and circumstances which they have both loved and hated.
Game of Secrets enlists a squad of narrators to tell its sad, lurid story. There is Jane Weld, 11 years old when her father, Luce, disappeared (his skull was later found with a single bullet hole in it), who loves poetry — she is particularly enamored of the verse of Dylan Thomas — and who now plays weekly Scrabble games with her murdered father‘s aged lover, Ada Varick. There is Marne, Jane’s angry, wandering daughter, who has returned to the village from California as a burnt-out case, who in knocking about the country has picked up a knack for origami, and who now finds herself attracted to Ray, Ada’s son. There are Ada’s sons: Ray, to whom Marne looks for affection, and the darkly flawed Huck, whose wild and despairing bitterness is rendered less alienating by his love for Jane.
Through the eyes of these men and women, all possessed by virtues and faults, all haunted by a past not of their own making, we come slowly to understand how the long-ago affair between Luce and the tempestuous Ada has carried its weight down through the passage of years. As Game of Secrets reveals its mysteries, the reader — along with the characters — comprehends the ramifications of that long-hidden crime and its effects on the members of the Varick and Weld families. The story is much like the Scrabble game written about in scrupulous detail by Tripp, the contest played between Ada and Jane that runs like an Alpine rope through most of the book, linking characters and events. We see that this game of words, of words building on words in surprising and startling ways, mirrors the relationships and history of the characters themselves.
In addition to her gifts for characterization and for creating suspense, Tripp — she is also the author of the novels Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water — gives us an intimate portrait of rural New England itself. In reading Game of Secrets, we come to know Tripp‘s own “postage stamp of earth”: the ways of the town and the countryside, the tourists who vacation here in the summers, the hard lives of many of the natives, the play of air and wind and sunshine on the land and the sea. Here, for example, Marne takes note of the land while on a drive with Ray:
“When you first come home, you can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia. You see the idyll of the place — you see it like a person away might — the tranquil New-Englandy beauty, swatches of open land still left, the village at the Point, those cedar-shingled saltbox houses, the double-forked branch of the river, sea running into land.
“It’s a particular point of earth — you come home, and the light is like nowhere else. You think to yourself, I can do this. So you stay.”
Faulkner once famously observed that “the past is never dead. It is not even past.” Our own Thomas Wolfe, another author obsessed with time and its cumulative effects on the lives of all human beings, echoed this sentiment when he wrote at the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel: “…our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.”
In Game of Secrets, Tripp reminds us once again that the past is always with us, that we struggle both to escape its clutching fingers and to embrace its terrible beauty, and that the secrets of the past, once revealed, may not only inflict painful wounds, but may also in the end bring healing and acceptance.
Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp. Random House, 2011. 272 pages
Often the people, places, and things that we love most in this world become so familiar to us, so much a part of the tissue of our own lives, that only their end or impending loss reminds us of how much we truly value them. The descent of a loved one toward the grave, the loss of a family home by disasters natural or financial, the theft of some family heirloom: only when we suffer such misfortunes do we suddenly awake to the awful realization of what the loss meant to us, how much these treasures were a part of the tissue of our lives. Familiarity may or may not breed contempt, but it very often does engender in us a blindness to the worth of those everyday people and objects which we take for granted.
This very human failure to appreciate fully the gifts bestowed on us by providence or by past sacrifice may extend to the national level. It is difficult today, for example, being citizens of a country built 200 years ago on a foundation of freedom, to recognize how revolutionary are the words “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” When written, those words, composed though they were by a slave-holder, were utterly new to the great bulk of mankind, and they have since electrified the hearts of men and women around the globe. We take for granted “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” but for those who do not possesses these commodities, or who have lost them, these few words, coupled with the idea that the truths behind them are “self-evident,” continue to light a flame in the hearts of all who love liberty.
Give our current political antagonisms — the recent declarations by a few that the Constitution is dead should trouble all, left and right, who value freedom — perhaps it behooves us to turn the pages of a few American history books and recollect why “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” should remain at the heart of the American dream.
History, which is as much an art as a science, offers us a great choice of texts in looking at Revolutionary and Early Republic America. In addition to the best-sellers by David McCullough — his John Adams is particularly valuable for its insights into the Founders’ views on liberty — we can turn to a variety of other resources. Readers who lean left may prefer to peruse Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, in which Zinn looks at events through the eyes of the working classes, women, and minorities, an examination flavored lightly by Marxism, while those on the right would doubtless prefer Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States, another hefty book which takes a more traditional view of American history while debunking some of its recent interpretations (Ideally, our leftists would open Schweikart while right-tilting readers would take a look at Zinn).
In Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need To Know About American History But Never Learned, Kenneth C. Davis purports to “serve up the real story behind the myths and fallacies of American history.” He clears up some of these misconceptions, but his smart-aleck attitude and politically correct viewpoints will put off those readers who actually do know something about American history. The “Dummies” and “Idiots” guidebooks — U.S. History For Dummies, for instance, or The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Founding Fathers — offer the cheeky attitude without the sharply slanted views.
Larry Schweikart, a professor of history at the University of Dayton, has recently issued a book that might enlighten citizens of all political stripes. What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems (ISBN 978-1-59523-074-4, $26.95) needs to be read cautiously, for the author, as we may conjecture from the title, attempts to look at the writings of the founders of the Republic and then draw conclusions as to what they might say about our own contemporary woes. The chapters of the book are titled in the form of questions — ”Is The Government Responsible For Protecting The Land And The Environment?” “What Is The Purpose Of War And Should It Be Avoided?” and so on — and Schweikart, of course, tends to reply to these questions from a conservative viewpoint.
What makes the book valuable, however, is not the author’s political beliefs, but what he tells us of the Founders. He gives us their unvarnished views on topics like debt, war, and the limits of government. Here, for example, in discussing whether government should have care of the physical health of its citizens, Schweikart spends several delightful pages entertaining us with the dietary habits of early patriots. John Adams, for example, “pounded down a pitcher of hard cider with every breakfast” while Ben Franklin, who as usual offered good advice, wrote that “if thou are dull and heavy after meat, it’s a sign that thou hast exceeded the due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body, and make it cheerful, and not to dull and oppress it.” In other words, citizens who are expected to work, live, and sometimes fight in an atmosphere of freedom ought to be able to judge for themselves a standard of health.
Winter is coming, and winter evenings are a time for long thoughts. We might all benefit ourselves and our country by turning those thoughts, even briefly, toward the treasures of the past and by remembering that what we will be comes from what we are, and that we are comes from how we perceive what we were.
What Would The Founders Say?: A Patriot’s Answers to America’s Most Pressing Problems by Larry Schweikart. Sentinel HC, 2011. 256 pages
In last week’s The Smoky Mountain News, Gary Carden began his review of Ron Rash’s collection of poems, Waking, by praising the writer’s description of a trout brought home and kept alive in a trough, where “its gills were like filters/that pureness poured into.”
The streams and rivers of Western North Carolina attract anglers like — well, like a well-tied fly attracts a trout. Even casual hikers are accustomed to the sight of a man or woman in waders in the middle of a stream, line out, intent on the dark shadows of the moving waters. In some families, fishing and what Hopkins once called “the tools and tackle” are passed along as heirlooms with the same reverence as that shown to Granny’s Bible, Uncle John’s shotgun, and Aunt Martha’s quilts. Others come to the pleasures of fishing — the solitude, the skills, the thrill of hooking a brown or a bass — later in life. However people find their way to water with a pole in one hand and refreshments in the other, they frequently become as passionate about their avocation as a golfer in a clubhouse on the eighteenth hole.
In Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey (Bright Mountain Books, ISBN 978-0-914875-60-4), David Joy offers readers both a paean to fishing and a memoir of his own days on the water. He takes us from the coast of North Carolina, where he fished as a boy with his family (he dedicates his book to his grandmother, who not only helped teach him to fish, but who also gave him a collection of stories from her own days of fishing), to the creeks and rivers of our own mountains.
A fisherman since the age of 4, Joy as a child studied fishing shows on television while other adolescents were watching Saturday morning cartoons. He recounts what a fine teacher his Granny was, showing him, for example, how a fish on the line feels as opposed to the tugging of an ocean wave. He then extends his story into his many forays into the mountains, recounting trips along the Tuckasegee, telling us stories of his catches and near misses, explaining how he learned to tie flies from a friend named Zac, whose “Burke County blood had toughened him into a man.”
Joy, who credits his Granny for first teaching him the fine arts of story-telling and the power of description, does his mentor proud in Growing Gills. Here, for example, he recreates a scene on a coastal beach:
“The winter sun had sunk behind the swaying sprigs of sea oats and disappeared beneath the smoothed dunes. A sleek pane of wet sand, a remnant of receding waves, shone like a sheet of ice in the dying sunlight.”
Joy also lets us feel the emotions of those who put a line into water:
“When I see a trout rise to a fly or turn on a nymph, pleasure builds in my chest nearing explosion. This is when an artist knows to wait: oftentimes I do, but at other times the urge becomes too much, usually resulting in a missed fish.”
Yet Joy does more than wax poetic about fishing in Growing Gills. Here are practical chapters on fly-casting and its difficulties, on scouting the shadows and sunlight of a creek for various fish, on the challenges and rewards of night fishing. Both amateur and veteran anglers may learn some good lessons from Joy’s clear, clean prose on the technical aspects of fishing.
The last half of Growing Gills is somewhat marred by Joy’s Bambification of nature and a concomitant misanthropy. “I was the species that dismantled the world with empty syllables, with metaphors meant to dominate,” he writes. “I wanted out. I wanted to become a fish.” In wanting to become one with nature, he frequently attributes to its creatures human thoughts and feelings. He doesn’t seem to realize that a fish is; it doesn’t read Plato, it doesn’t drink beer and smoke cigarettes, it doesn’t write books about fishing. (His approach here is sometimes baffling. He kisses the fish which he releases, for example, but not the ones he eats, which seems to set an old Native American tradition on its head). Joy’s feelings for fish and for nature in general then led him to a dislike for the human. He yearns to “revert to primitiveness,” to “escape the madness of the mechanized world and become in tune,” and is finally forced “to accept my humanity.” The man who truly wants to be a fish rather a man must leave his listeners wondering whether he understands in full what it means to be a man or a fish.
But these are quibbles, given the intent of Growing Gills. Even those who have never baited a hook will find pleasure here. The delights of Joy’s prose are enhanced by the drawings of Michael Polomik, a talented illustrator whose work here compares favorably to those wonderful drawings once found in certain fine books produced 70 and 80 years ago.
Both Joy and Polomik will launch their book at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept.18, at Blue Ride Book and News in Waynesville. Both the publisher of the book, Cynthia Bright of Bright Mountain Books in Asheville, and a representative of the Waynesville Fly Shop will also appear at this event.
Growing Gills: A Fisherman‘s Journey by David Joy. Bright Mountain Books, 2011. 208 pages.