Reading List

Haven’t done a reading list all year. First obstacle was a very busy beginning to #MoPrint2020, then a frantic round of cancellations. For a while, I wasn’t getting a lot of reading done, perhaps from burnout? Then, there was a family visit back east, and a short staffed day job creating long hours. Through those, I’ve been reading, and now as the quarantine stretches into long weeks or even months, it will continue to be a major activity. It’s cheap, it’s peaceful and safe, it’s… socially distant.

The British Are Coming, Rick Atkinson: Covers the first two years of the War for Independence; roughly, Concord through Trenton. Two more volumes are planned. I’d read 1776, by David McCullough, but this book, in addition to being more granular, was more of a cultural history, with the experiences of the common foot soldier, farmer, and wife given a central role. Even the Tories, those loyal to the King, get some coverage here, which can be rare. It was compelling in that way, and of course, the words and movements of the politicians and generals was fascinating, too. This was an ARC, (bound galley) from work, so I have a long wait for the second volume, but will watch carefully for it.

Endeavour, Peter Moore: I savored this book from Xmas through March, and if I ever have a Besties for prose, this will be on it. Another hybrid history, with cultural and scientific events and a general examination of the Enlightenment all bound in with what traditional histories see as the dawn of global colonialism. A very complex and thrilling tale of Captain Cook’s first South Seas voyage, that takes as its protagonist the ship itself, with Cook, Royal Society scientist Joseph Banks and naturalist painter/ illustrator Sydney Parkinson as co-stars.

The book begins in the oak forests of Yorkshire and bounces back and forth between day-to-day accounts of English coastal coal trade, descriptions of Tahitian society, and sea faring adventure on the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. It ends with the American War for Independence, where Endeavour, having been renamed, then recruited for transporting Hessian mercenaries, meets an ignominious end, ironically within yards of where Captain Cook’s second ship also ended up. I couldn’t help recalling Rocket Men, the account of Apollo missions to the moon, which carried fragments of one of those ships.

It’s now an indicator of a book’s impression on me that it finds a rare and precious spot on my crowded shelves, awaiting my return to it. This one did.

The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson: Yet another cultural history. They are becoming popular, and I really can’t get enough of them. Is this indicative as some sort of academic/historiographical populism? This one takes a close look at Churchill and family during the first year of World War II. Though aristocrats, they had much contact with ordinary Brits during this period, thus giving a close-in picture of life during the blitz.He also skips across the channel to give a picture of members of the Nazi elite for contrast.

I haven’t read that much about Churchill, so it was a real fascinating look at how he galvanized British resistance to the Nazis, with an eye to doing the same for the American public, too. I read it on my visit back East, and it went fast.

Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway: my second Hemingway obsession started with Hemingway’s Boat, a fresh look at the author’s middle and end years by Paul Hendrickson, which I read in 2018. I am culling my shelves to clear space, and often, part of the process of selling a book such as this one, that I haven’t read since my college days, is to re-read it.

I remember my first impression, which was of a fragmented, second-rate book, by the standards of his earlier classics. Hemingway’s literary reputation had suffered since those early books ( The Sun Also Rises, A Farwell to Arms ), monuments to the man’s man modernism of the early 20th Century. His later, callous behavior as a hard drinking celeb author -especially to women, and his spotty creative output ran afoul of the rise of academic feminism and post modern critical theory in the 70’s.

My sophomore (-ic?) college reading binge was thus already outdated by the late 70’s, but my decision to buy and keep the book, a Book Club first edition, was undoubtedly colored by the fact that Middle American manhood of that period was inextricably bound in with Hemingway, by then enshrined as the great Middle American modernist. All of my drinking binges, skiing and hiking years in Wyoming, and creative excess, along with that of many of my friends, was inspired by the image of Hemingway, not so much a hipster saint, like Kerouac, but a god.

Hendrickson’s book is part of a revival of sorts, which drew heavily on his later and posthumous work, such as this, and The Garden of Eden, to examine the author’s history of head injury, mental problems and gender issues ( as examined in Garden) to forge a more sympathetic portrait.

Upon re-reading, the book remains fragmented. It was started in the early 50’s as a grand trilogy of earth, air and sea; and a reply to the critical disaster of Across the River and Into the Trees, which I haven’t read. As often happened in his hard drinking, head-trauma-ravaged 50’s, it was set aside. A small part was extracted and became The Old Man and the Sea. The rest was found after his suicide, and cobbled together under this title.

It reads as three novellas, all centered on a single protagonist, Thomas Hudson, a story of a summer on Bimini with his three children; then a grief stricken drinking binge in Cuba after the death of his fictional oldest son, and finally, a taut war time chase off the coast of Cuba. This last is an imaginative embellishment of Hemingway’s wartime activities hunting for Nazi subs after he’d badgered the U.S. and Cuban governments for extra gas rations and equipment to equip his boat, which in real life, came to nothing much.

It’s one of the best action sequences he ever wrote, and if the book doesn’t always hold together as well as the precise and focussed Sun and Farewell, neither is it as mawkish, at times, as his wartime romance For Whom the Bell Tolls. It contains some very affecting writing on family, love and loss, along with much self examination by his narrative stand-in, Hudson, despite the writer’s rep for macho posturing. That’s here, too, as well as a grief/mercy fuck from his much longed-for first (fictional) wife, a dramatic deep sea fishing scene, and a penchant for arbitrarily killing off some characters as he became estranged from their real-life counter parts. Does this include, as joy and adventure give way inexorably to loss and regret, himself?

So, Hemingway, for all of the violence and pathos of his last years, in this book does examine his own role in the disappointments of his family life. The narrative reactions do seem arbitrary and reflexive- ex-wife dies; must drink, go fight Nazis- but the interior struggle of his protagonist is real, and affecting. The book seems somewhat essential to understanding his life and art, and also, fun to read. I’m still selling it, but I’m glad I’ve given Hemingway a second look.

Hemingway in Love, A.E.Hotchner: Also somewhat essential to understanding facts about Hemingway’s late years, but aside from that, a disappointment. This is because the story, about E.H’s regret over the dissolution of his first marriage, might have been an embarrassment to his surviving fourth wife ( also a possible reason for setting aside Islands) and is necessarily told second hand. Hotchner, despite a long career writing, is no where near the writer Hemingway was, and cannot replicate the author’s powerful, concise voice in what are apparently, reconstructed quotations. Thus the tale, though inherently interesting, seems maundering and (doubly so, given Hemingway’s penchant for paranoia and self pity during the time it was narrated) self-serving.

The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker: Far from a fluffy tribute to our precious little predators, Tucker, self professed cat lover, provides a wake-up call for her fellow fanciers. She explores Felis Silvestris as an invasive, parasitical species, and not just on Facebook! Kittehs as bold interlopers that ” domesticated themselves” and have a major impact on the environment.

What, in fact, did humans get from allowing them to spread into households around the world? Precious little, science tells us, the psychological comfort in their blank, Hello Kitty faces aside. And they may, in a very real biological way, be controlling our minds. Heavens to Murgatroyd! This book provides a cautionary tale to those of us who are tempted to anthropomorphize our pets.

While I, for one, welcome our new feline overlords, there is one easy conclusion to report: for your health, sanity, and the sake of threatened species everywhere, keep the adorable little monsters inside.

Islands in the Scream

A relatively short reading list. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading; in fact I’ve got a ton of others I’m working on. But these were sort of a breather after my summer of dense Victorian and Edwardian Impressionist novels. This lead, for reasons set forth below to a Hemingway mini-binge. Even the comics I read tended toward an early 20th C. European theme.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox FordThe book is very odd and compelling. It advances the concept, taken from James, of very subjective narrative voice, sometimes categorized as Literary Impressionism, while anticipating the dissipation and moral rootlessness of the Lost Generation. Thus, my subsequent and somewhat accidental Hemingway binge.

Good Soldier  is a story of unfaithfulness and emotional alienation. It reads quickly enough, but its deliberately disorienting plotting and somewhat dated language and syntax mark it as transitional between the Victorian and the Modern, especially in comparison to The Sun Also Rises, similar in spirit but leaner and more direct, a few years later. Soldier inspired critical inquiry for its use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ as the years went by; Sun, a distinctly un-critical craze for trying to turn hangovers into art, which still held when friends and I hit our college years after Hemingway’s death.

Everybody Behaves Badly, Lesley Blume: A spur of the moment pick-up and a natural one after reading Edwardians. Hemingway’s then extreme life- and writing- styles still  generate exposes that read like long Vanity Fair pieces. Imagine my shock to read the author’s blurb and discover that she’s a Vanity Fair regular. But he epitomizes Literary Impressionism, and the “Lost Generation” ethos of dissipation as art. This book attempts to examine the process by which Hemingway turned his life into the groundbreaking novel The Sun Also Rises, but as with most EH bios, often reads like a high-toned gossip rag.

The Sun Also Rises was the birth of the modern literary tendency to romanticize the self, indulged in by many of us in sophomoric ways during our actual sophomore years. We glamorized the self-glamorized heroic drunks in the book to justify  drinking and boorish behavior. Around us, some did not move on, and the same is true with the real life models of characters in the book. Donald Ogden Stewart (Bill) had a good career, until blacklisted by Hollywood, but came to revile Hemingway and his work. Pat Guthrie (Mike) died of a drug overdose, and the real-life “Lady Brett” also died young having spent her life drinking. The Cohn character’s real life model enjoyed a fairly successful life by most standards, but remained obsessed with Hemingway’s venomous portrayal of him.

It gets to the heart of what makes a successful life- and novel- and its author’s eventual suicide, only a few years after having won the Nobel Prize, poses some of the toughest questions of all. Now I have to re-read the original again, not an onerous or lengthy task, so bring on the cheap cabernet.

Hemingway’s Boat, Paul HendricksonThe stated purpose of this book, which had the full cooperation of much of the author’s family, with whatever was expressed or implied in that arrangement, is to step away from the studies by ‘psychologizers’ so popular in literary criticism and provide a more “benevolent” view of this troubled author. It covers a specific part of his life and career from 1935 when he acquired the Pilar, a 38 foot cabin cruiser, to his death by suicide in 1961.

Hendrickson set out to avoid the sort of literary psychoanalysis that has been a hallmark of Hemingway bios for decades. That’s hard to do. The tough questions remain. Beyond the simple fact that five of the eight immediate Oak Park Hemingway family ended their own lives, sometimes violently, Hemingway’s pattern of rejecting old friends and marriages, seen in Everybody Behaves, along with drinking and gunplay, invite theories. And his son Gregory’s gender identity travails invite comparisons to the author’s own transexual themes as seen in the posthumously published Garden of Eden. So Boat drifts sometimes, especially in the last half, where Gregory’s story takes over, despite the fact that it has little to do with the boat.

Hemingway’s life is undeniably interesting, and Hendrickson often writes lyrically about it. But one wonders how relevant is the question of who or what was up ‘Papa’s’ ass, compared to the fact that increasingly, he’d crawled up it himself.

“Something bad happens when Hemingway writes in the first person” Hendrickson quotes Edmund Wilson, formerly a defender, in a review after the publication of Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway never reacted well to these sorts of reviews, and it seemed to set the tone for the rage and alcoholism that dogged much of his later work. Though For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea were still to come, and the Nobel prize, so also, the not well received Across the River and Into the Trees and the first shock therapy sessions. An idiosyncratic career makes for a very idiosyncratic book that often digresses into accounts of people fairly tangential to Hemingway’s writing, possibly in search of “benevolence”.

Arnold Samuelson is one, a North Dakota journalist, novelist wannabe who shows up at Hemingway’s Key West door. Hendrickson makes the very useful point that Hemingway, having already abandoned or betrayed his Parisian literary friends, was starting to welcome more sycophants and hangers on into his daily life, even as his closed world gave itself to somewhat self reflexive themes of sportsman against nature, as opposed to emotionally disaffected lost generations. The psychologizers  began to theorize Hemingway macho behavior as hypercompensation for being dressed as a girl in childhood.

Hendrickson says he set out to distance his book from this, but then speculates- benevolently? on more recently revealed incidents and writings as a possible sign of support for his troubled son. How are we to judge any of this?

The boat winds up on blocks in Hemingway’s tennis court. It’s a fairly confused tale, and almost impossible to put down.

Boundless: These are very experimental stories from Jillian Tamaki, who is apparently trying to break out of the YA category she has often brilliantly claimed, with cousin Mariko Tamaki, in clean, sharp, but quiescent rite-of-passage stories  Skim and This One Summer.

Changing direction can be much harder than a youngish artist may think. A solid first step was Superhuman Mutant Magic Academy, a hilarious web comic sequence of short one-a-day gags which nevertheless added up to a different sort of rite-of-passage tale that still hit all of her concerns dead center. That book is honestly, better than this one in several ways, but the formal innovations she is trying to incorporate in Boundless may serve her well in future books.  A couple of stories were published in smaller magazines. Most deal with self and many with media iterations of self. I’m reminded of the vaguely futuristic short stories of Eleanor Davis, another cartoonist who may be casting about after initial success.

There are formal experiments, such as the placement of images on the page; shifts in narrative voice and tone, for example, from the omniscient and reportorial to the personal biographical in “Sex Coven”, but in other stories the art and story are a bit self conscious. It smacks of an artist trying to break out of what she may see as too constraining a success and she seems determined to see it through. Brava. But I’ll be rereading Super Mutant.

Fog on Tolbiac Bridge, Jacques Tardi: Gorgeous black and white noir murder mystery based on a novel by Leo Malet. One of the first euro comics that Fantagraphics published, in serial form, in the mid 80’s. I’d encountered Tardi’s work previously in Raw Magazine and possibly even before, in Heavy Metal. It sticks with you, and I was glad to see it in album form, as I’d missed some chapters the first time, so this was my first time reading the whole thing in one sitting. A fairly standard genre piece about a between-the-wars anarchist found murdered in 50‘s Paris, but it is worth it for the ambience alone. Tardi captures in drizzled ink lines the appealing wet gloom of Parisian backstreets in winter, and is so specific about researching his locations that he includes a map. At a time when American comics were lost in fan boy minutia, this jazz age elegy was a glimmer of hope for lovers of the medium’s potential.

Berlin City of Smoke, Jason Lutes: Long-running, slow building tale of the Weimar Republic’s slow dissolve into Nazism. It really is in a very traditional form, espousing a relatively sedate, slightly claustrophobic clear line style as opposed to Tardi’s more dynamic homage. It’s a masterpiece of comics in that it tells a complex cultural and historical tale using both visual and narrative information, avoiding the wooden characterization and creeping didacticism of some historical fiction. It is the first fiction I’ve read that treats the degradation of liberty and the rise of social control under fascism as an epic societal tragedy, and it seems to spare no person or faction. I haven’t read Isherwood, but Berlin seems to take up where the movie Cabaret left off.