More Snow! More Reading!

Peering down into  the “backyard” from my bedroom window

A week or so ago, I clipped this Robert Bly poem out of The New Yorker and taped it to my computer monitor. He’s always been a favorite poet of mine. Reading this poem each morning — especially when it’s snowing — just makes me feel kind of good.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON

The snow is falling, and the world is calm.

The flakes are light, but they cool the world

As they fall, and add to the calm of the house.

It’s Sunday afternoon. I am reading

Longinus while the Super Bowl is on.

The snow is falling, and the world is calm.

What else makes me feel good? Books.

I’ve been reading a lot of them in the last few months. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Brooklyn (fiction) by Colm Toíbín: I loved this novel. Intimate, deeply affective and bittersweet, it tells the story of a young Irish girl who emigrates to New York City in the early 1950s. The characters are rich and unforgettable.
  • Olive Kitteridge (fiction) by Elizabeth Strout: Marvelous. Un-put-downable. A string of short stories stitched together with the formidable, complex character of Olive as its thread. A seventh grade teacher in Maine who is married to a pharmacist, Olive is the type of person that changes the weather of a room just by entering it. I’ve read Strout’s other two beautiful novels, Amy and Isabelle and Abide With Me. My one regret is that she has only written three. OK has one of the most spot-on, completely satisfying endings I’ve read since Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
  • Stitches (memoir) by David Small: Writer and illustrator (and Caldecott Medal-winner) of this jaw-dropping, deeply moving graphic memoir, Small manages, though the artistry of his sketches and prose, to portray the story of his bizarre, traumatic childhood with unusual insight and surprising compassion.
  • This is Where I Leave You (fiction) by Jonathan Tropper: obsessively readable, crack-you-up funny, with some of the sharpest and most original metaphors I’ve had the pleasure of reading. He’s a splendid writer.
  • The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia (non-fiction) by Mike Dash: I’m a mafia junkie. I like the movies, the books, the newspaper articles. This book differs from most in that it is assiduously researched and sharply written by a brilliant Ph.D. journalist. The first page will knock you out. Beginning around 1890, it tells the story of Guiseppe Morello, a.k.a. “The Clutch Hand” (so-named because of his deformed left arm and hand — missing all fingers save for the pinky.) The first true “capo,” he was a ruthless monster from Sicily responsible for bringing the Mafia to America. Thanks, Clutch Hand. Compulsively readable. Dash is a superb writer.
  • Invisible (fiction) by Paul Auster: I’ve said it in other posts. I’m a Paul Auster fan. I’ve read a lot of his books. I think you either like him, or you don’t. I do. Very much.
  • My Faith As a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (essay collection) by Joyce Carol Oates: In this slim volume, the anecdotes she supplies to describe the successes and failures, trials and tribulations, influences and self-doubts experienced by herself and other writers make for enjoyable reading and provide enlightenment as to process.
  • Fierce Attachments (memoir) by Vivian Gornick: I may have alluded to this book in another post, but I’ll mention again how much I enjoyed it. I love the way it’s structured. Also not to be missed by Gornick: The Situation and the Story, her brilliant book on the craft of writing.
  • Tree of Life (a fictionalized journal of the life of lapsed minister Thomas Keene) by Hugh Nisseson: Deftly written in diary form, a fascinating glimpse into American life of both settlers and Indians around the time of the the War of 1812. Johnny Appleseed, who appears throughout these pages, is quite an interesting fellow, and, arguably, America’s first “hippie.” Original, disturbing, powerful and haunting.

Others I’ve read, which I’ve enjoyed, but not with the same intensity as those mentioned above:

  • Nothing Was the Same (memoir) by Kate Redfield Jamison: In this memoir, Jamison (a clinical psychologist with manic-depressive illness) writes about coping with her grief after the death of her husband (a leader in schizophrenic research.) It’s impossible not to compare this book with her brilliantly written first memoir about her manic-depressive illness, The Unquiet Mind. This new book is just not as compelling.
  • Lit (memoir) by Mary Karr: After page 145, when Karr gives birth to her son, the book finally becomes interesting. Up until that point, however, the writing felt rushed, as if she were trying to encapsulate the earlier events of her life (which, perhaps, she’d written about in other books) so she could arrive more quickly to the moment of her son’s birth — a pivotal point in the book (and, in retrospect, maybe a better starting point for it). Admittedly, I haven’t read The Liar’s Club or any of her other books, so this is speculation on my part. Even so, regarding the relationship with her poet-husband, the father of her son, I felt similarly frustrated by her lack of detail. The juxtaposition of his wealthy birth family vs. her not-so-wealthy family is played out in stereotypes and contributes little to perceiving them as three-dimensional people. Puzzling, too, is that the writing process, itself, is barely mentioned, except to say that her husband is kind of a poet workaholic. Overall, this book brings nothing new to the table regarding alcohol abuse. It reiterates the familiar path of joining AA and, alas, becoming born-again. Yet, this memoir was wildly praised by the press before it was even released. Makes me a little suspicious.

Slab City, CA

  • The English Major (fiction) by Jim Harrison: Engaging, yes, but I sense that it is more of a “guy’s” book. The main character, a 60 year-old retired teacher who has just lost his farm, wife and dog, decides to drive around aimlessly through several mountain states motivated by a half-baked idea to rename each one (N.B., the names he chooses are not witty.) Along the way, meets up with a former student (now married and in her 40s). They have a fling. He then spends the remainder of the novel daydreaming about her incredible ass. Really. Maybe if I were a guy… Nah.
  • The Sugarless Plum (memoir) by Zippora Karz: As much as I enjoy reading about ballet (I was a dancer once, see photo, below), Karz’s memoir about dancing while battling diabetes amounted to a little too much diabetes and not enough dance to sustain my interest.

  • This Book Could Save Your Life (fiction) by A.M. Homes: if you’ve ever lived in Los Angeles, this book will evoke from you frequent, knowing chuckles (and a few guffaws.) It was definitely a fun read — even if the ending is a bit farfetched.
  • Mafia Son (non-fiction) by Sandra Harmon: I managed to get through the entire book, but Harmon had lost her credibility early on when, for reasons unknown, she opted to portray the murderous moronic thug of the title in a sympathetic way — as a victim of an unfair system of justice (even though he viciously murdered 25 people.) Please. The lunatic mobsters inhabiting these pages and their capacity for bloodbaths and violence will curl your hair. Most of them are lower echelon mobsters, meaning they live in middle class houses in Bensonhurst and Staten Island, and prefer not to delegate. They do the murders themselves because they simply like to kill.
  • Omega Point (fiction) by Don DeLillo: a relatively short novel that I did enjoy, but at the same time found thin. The opening chapter, a literary replication, if you will, of an art installation in NYC — a slowed down, frame-by-frame screening of the film “Psycho” was recounted in a mesmerizing way. It was the best part of the book. What followed never matched the power of the opening chapter. As always, DeLillo has interesting things to say about the state of the world, but, for me, he just never delves deeply enough.
  • Falling Man (fiction) by Don De Lillo: Same problem as in Omega Man. The first half of the novel captured my interest. Set right after 9/11, the events, scenes and references were skillfully portrayed. Some were quite poignant. Half-way through, though, I lost interest. I just didn’t feel like finishing the book. I’ve read White Noise by DeLillo and did enjoy it. But these two books somehow felt unfocused and missed the mark, at least, for me.

Next on my list? Shadow Tag (fiction) by Louise Erdrich.

Happy Reading!

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