In the High Peaks

Friday, March 23, 2012

Hospital Reading: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I'm home now, but I spent the last four days in the hospital because the blood clot in my leg "shattered" and traveled straight to both my lungs. Isn't this saga becoming absurd? Fortunately, I made it through okay. Whew!

After the first horrible day, I was glad I had the Nook with me. I had been waiting for Cheryl Strayed's  Wild to be published, a memoir of hiking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail, and on Wednesday I was thrilled to download it. Strayed tackled the trail decades ago during a difficult period in her life when she was in her early twenties. I'm enjoying it, particularly the details of her confrontation with and defiance of the elements that threatened to either stop her or kill her. Yet anyone looking for details about the natural world or an intense experience with the flora and fauna may be disappointed. Strayed writes about nature, but not as a naturalist or a person intimate with or fascinated by the natural world. Wild is a bit more of an Eat, Pray, Love sort of memoir, though interesting nonetheless.

I've had the pleasure of receiving a number of packages of books in the past week or so. I hope to post an entry about them tomorrow.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Desert Wives and the Human & Economic Costs of Polygamy

Thanks to Maxine of Petrona, I learned of Betty Webb's crime thriller Desert Wives and read it in a couple of days. But Desert Wives is no ordinary thriller. Although it is fiction, it is also a carefully researched expose of polygamous compounds in the deserts of southernmost Utah and northern Arizona. At the end of the book, Webb reveals her research and quotes a number of news articles from newspapers in the western US.

Somehow or other, I watched HBO's Big Love for years thinking that the depiction of polygamy, both in the city and in a polygamous compound, was pure fiction and insulting to Mormons (I still think the latter.) I told Ken this as soon as I finished Webb's novel. He turned to me and said, aghast, "You did?" He then proceeded to tell me all he'd learned (he's more of a news hound than I am) of polygamous compounds, their abuse of women and young girls, their unchecked welfare fraud, their stockpiling of weapons, and worst, to our minds, the complicity of Utah and Arizona elected officials. What I don't understand is why anti-polygamy Mormons haven't succeeded in pressuring their representatives to do more about the problem. I'm sure they've tried.

Of course, polygamy does not define Mormonism or Mormons, but it is interesting that the governor of Utah and other state officials do not crack down on the enormous public costs perpetrated by this large group of male polygamists.

In contrast, a decade ago I researched Mormonism in the 19th century for a book I was writing. At that time, many polygamous men were away from their homesteads most of the time. They were on missions, spreading the faith and establishing new colonies. Their wives stayed home, farmed, raised livestock, raised their children, and lived independently a great deal of the time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tobias Wolff & In Pharaoh's Army: In the Works

I was all set to write about Tobias Wolff yesterday, but due to the discovery of blood clots in my broken leg, I had to go to the hospital emergency room. Never fear, the clots and I are home again, ensconced on my green couch, trying to see the humor in this situation. Nearly all book bloggers, I've noticed, never say anything about their health or lack of it, but this winter it has been impossible to keep blog-mum about these events. After all, they have had a profound impact on my reading life--for the better, in that single respect.

I'm three-quarters of the way through Wolff's memoir of his Vietnam military experience, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was published in 1994, five years after his bestselling memoir, This Boy's Life. In Pharaoh's Army is loosely organized in a series of unconnected narratives, each one replete with Wolff's eye-opening descriptions, characterization, sense of the absurd, and an acute sense of the vulnerabilities of his late adolescent self mired in an incomprehensible world.

If you have never read Wolff, I urge you to try him. His most polished art form is the short story, of which he is a master. There are many collections of his stories available. Follow the link to lots of articles and New York Times book reviews of his work. Also, an NPR interview.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Heat of the Day & Classic Movies

I've enjoyed some of Elizabeth Bowen's short stories so much that I've been keen on reading the novel that many consider to be her best, The Heat of the Day. Although Stella, the main character, flashes back to the Blitz and September 1940, the action takes place two years later, when London was not under bombardment.

I very much appreciated Bowen's exquisite rendering of setting throughout the novel. Mood and intricately detailed atmospheric elements enhance the suspense of the storyline, particularly the dark nights of the blackout.

The Heat of the Day would be a rich novel for group discussion. Stella is one of the most inscrutable characters I've ever encountered in fiction. What are her motivations for the things she does? With each of her significant actions, I found myself continuously trying to puzzle her out, and I must conclude that I don't understand her, perhaps because I've never met anyone even remotely like her. (?) I'd be fascinated to hear what other readers make of her. Bowen, the artist of nuanced characterization that she is, did not help me out, of course. Harrison makes a fascinating scoundrel, but I found his and Stella's conversations, sometimes many pages long, left me asking, "Whatever are they going on about?" Roderick, Stella's son, is the only character who is straightforward and without guile, which comes as a relief in this novel where no person can be known for sure and most are sinister, each in their own way.

One of the very few advantages of having broken my leg has been the opportunity to catch up on a few classic movies I've missed over the years. This morning I saw the incomparable My Dinner with Andre, which was, to use a dreadfully outdated term, mind-blowing. Equally excellent were Al Pacino's bravura performance in Scent of a Woman and, to a lesser degree, Robert DeNiro's in Taxi Driver. I watched again, after twenty plus years, Out of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Amazing!

Monday, March 12, 2012

SS Monday: John Updike & Woody Allen

I'm continuing Short Story Monday, courtesy of John Munford of The Bookmine Set.

This morning I read a number of stories from the collection Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker, edited by David Remnick, my least favorite editor of The New Yorker. Why least favorite? Remnick has the unshakeable conviction that women do not or cannot write pieces of narrative journalism worthy of The New Yorker.  When Tina Brown was editor, she saw The New Yorker boost its readership massively, and yes, she published the work of many women journalists. Needless to say, I can't wait for Remnick to move on.

I've read two New Yorker short stories by Woody Allen, both published in the 1970s, in the days when Allen was still experimenting with various prose forms. Both are full of one-liner laughs, but the stories themselves do not hang together--the elements flap in the wind. No real characterization, no plot, yet full of ideas challenging societal norms.

Warning: I am incapable of offering objective views about John Updike's work. I am much too close to view his literary merit.
Today I read "Snowing in Greenwich Village," by John Updike, which was published in 1956. I cannot deny that he's an exquisite prose stylist, based on all the stories I've read over the years. But I'm always left feeling hollow after reading his work. I wish I could finish a story knowing that I was taking something, anything with me. For me, and this is deeply personal, I wish his themes would rise above what I perceive as banality. I expect something more from him--some big idea, some grand concept or meaning.

And now we arrive at the crux of the problem. If there were ever a writer who encapsulated my parents' generation, and here I'm speaking of the least noteworthy aspects of their postwar lives in the 1950s and 1960s, it is John Updike. His characters, their situations, and their values exhibit the worst that my parents' generation had to offer--a singular lack of depth and meaning. And here it may seem that I'm castigating my parents' generation and John Updike, the chronicler, which is not true. I completely understand why they were the way they were after all they'd lived through. And I see why people of my generation are not capable of judging them. But I must say that Updike exposes their frailties, their foibles, their myths in a way that is very difficult for me to read.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Waiting for Snow (Pamuk) and Elizabeth Bowen

After searching my brain for the book I want to read next, I remembered I had never read the paperback copy of Snow that I bought in 2007. I happily dragged it downstairs (I drag everything while on crutches), opened it, and could have wept. The typeface is so faint and the font so small, I can't possibly endure what it would take to read the 400+ pages. I tried and tried but realized that I'd be missing the gestalt of the whole of each page. Disappointment! So I went online and ordered a used copy of the orginal Knopf hardcover. A wait of about two weeks, I wager.

So I studied German a lot today and I read some more dazzling Heinrich Boll short stories (in English). But I need a novel to fill the gap. And then, just minutes ago, I glimpsed Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day in a pile at the foot of the opposite end of the couch. I bought it a year ago and never got to it. So I'm off, back to the London Blitz by someone who survived it. Thank goodness. Phew. Being without a book these days makes me desperate!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Paul Auster & Sunset Park

I dug into Sunset Park this morning and am more than a third of the way through. I LOVE IT! How many times have I become immersed in a Paul Auster novel and am suddenly deluged with what I call "my crazy writer fantasies" when I am consumed by the yearning to write a novel like Paul Auster. His prose is so straightforward, seemingly so uncomplex, yet beautiful and profound, and then he slips into voicing a truism that hits me so hard, all because it's a truth I have acknowledged to myself and no one else. No one else knows that I've thought this way, but there goes an Auster character saying it. It makes for a powerful reading experience.

I bought Sunset Park when it came out in November 2010, and it surprises me I haven't read it until now.

I dug up a wonderful interview with Auster about Sunset Park. I chose it above all the other interviews I dug up because Auster seems to be loving answering the questions in this one. I was quite charmed by it. Do take a look if you are an Auster fan.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Mary Wilkins Freeman--Short Story Monday

Thanks to John Munford of The Bookmine Set, I'm still reading short stories on Monday. Actually, I read a number yesterday and today. My favorite of the lot is "Across the Bridge" by Heinrich Boll, translated by Leila Vennewitz, and is the first story in the collection Children are Civilians Too. (That's the English title.) The story creates a stark contrast of crossing the Rhine by train before the war and after. I was so awe-struck by this story. It gave me chills.

Another story I read today is "The Revolt of 'Mother.'" by the New England writer Mary Wilkins Freeman, which was published sometime in the late 1890s, I believe. Freeman was quite popular in her day--writing numerous stories and a number of novels. Like her contemporary and friend Sarah Orne Jewett, Freeman's reputation suffered during most of the 20th century, primarily because predominantly male-dominated American literary experts pigeon-holed Freeman's and Jewett's work as "New England regionalism" or as "local colorists." Yes, women who wrote stories about life in rural New England seemed to defy categorization, so as "regionalists" they were marginalized following the years of their popularity.

Freeman, like Jewett, receives more attention today, especially from women scholars who have tried to resurrect marginalized American women authors.

"The Revolt of 'Mother'" is one of Freeman's best-known stories and was very well- known in her time. It's the story of a middle-aged farm woman who decides for her family that no, her husband's prized new barn will NOT be a barn but will serve as the first decent living space of their married lives, a decision that is a testament to the resiliency and strength of farm women. The historical reality is that most farm women were full partners with their husbands, so it is no overwhelming surprise for anyone, least of all her husband, when, without any fanfare, she ups and moves all the family's household belongings into the new barn.

Supposedly Freeman was very upset when the public pointed to this story as her treatise for women's rights. To her, it was nothing of the sort, and to have the story reduced to a contentious political cause must have been unnerving, especially because she was a social conservative. To her, it was the story of an unusually strong woman and that was that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reading Frustrations & Siegfried Lenz

Early this morning I realized that my broken-leg confinement would be nearly unbearable without plenty of books to read.

This weekend I've been zooming through The Leopard, of course. At 400 pages, with 100 pages left to go, the case appears as though it's nearly solved, and, at this point, I'm very disappointed in Jo Nesbo's choice of the killer. Without giving anything away, I must say that I'm frustrated that loose ends are starting to be tied up around this individual. This character's motivation is so weak and unconvincing. Things don't seem to fit--nothing is satisfactory to me about this result, YET I must remember that I still have 117 pages left to read. So perhaps there's hope for me and The Leopard? When a crime thriller is 517 pages long, and I reach page 400, I feel I have a lot invested in the outcome. It's as if I'm saying to the author, "You better make good on this or else!"

I think this "frustration thing" I've been experiencing with The Leopard is 100 percent related to my frustration with life at the moment.

I'm reading a short story by the German author Siegfried Lenz. Like Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, Lenz was a member of the Gruppe 47. I should say I'm trying to read it because I'm stumbling over it in German. "The Listener, or the Description of a Route with a Hidden Motive" was first published in 2000 and is the first story in a wonderful little collection entitled Short Stories in German, which is a volume in the "parallel text" series published by Penguin. On the left-hand side of the page is the original German text and on the right is the translated English version. Another thing I like about this small collection is that all the stories were published in the 1990s-2002.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Leopard!

Oh, I am enjoying my romp through The Leopard by Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian crime writer. I'm nearly a third through and savoring every morsel. I read Nesbo's The Snowman on the Nook this summer, and I think I'm appreciating The Leopard even more. Maybe my preference is because I'm so desperate for entertainment, and partly because I'm reading it in a lovely Knopf deckle-edge hardcover edition. In any case, I'm a third of the way through and it's going much too quickly.

Getting the previous Harry Hole novels is not an entirely straightforward affair. Some are available on Nook and Kindle and as mass-market paperbacks, never having been published here in hardcover. I will have to do some investigating.

To my mind, Nesbo's crime thrillers are truly a cut above the crowd of the supposed best and brightest crime writers' novels.