Monday, October 22, 2018

Light? Not So Much


Robert Bly is perhaps best known as the author of Iron John: A Book About Men, an important and still timely book about modern masculinity. These poems have a robust voice -- distinctively masculine, if there is such a thing -- as they deal in dark images invoking death, disasters both national and personal, and the Viet Nam War. I read them with trepidation, still feeling tender and skittish from my recent post-apocalyptic reading.

Bly deftly combines disparate words and images, creating meanings that bounce off each other like ripples confined in a narrow pool, leaving the reader to make sense of the overlaps. His subjects are often political and always distinctly American, flavored with despair and resistance. They reflected a segment of the national mood when they were written, and they have aged well.

Excerpt:

At a March against the Vietnam War

Washington, November 27, 1965

Newspapers rise high in the air over Maryland

We walk about, bundled in coats
     and sweaters in the late November sun

Looking down, I see feet moving
Calmly, gaily,
Almost as if separated from their bodies

But there is something moving in the dark somewhere
Just beyond
The edge of our eyes: a boat
Covered with machine guns
Moving along under trees

It is black,
The hand reaches out
And cannot touch it--
It is that darkness among pine boughs
That the Puritans brushed
As they went out to kill turkeys

At the edge of the jungle clearing
It explodes
On the ground
 
We long to abase ourselves

We have carried around this cup of darkness
We have longed to pour it over our heads

We make war
Like a man anointing himself

Note: This book completes my reading for the Color Coded Reading Challenge (light). Hooray! But I still have a few reviews to write before I'm officially finished.  

Friday, October 19, 2018

Turning Back


I tried reading The Road. I really did. It's wonderful and awful in its grim depiction of a father and son journeying across a scorched post-apocalypse America toward the sea. Technology, gone. Government, gone. Civilization, gone. And the intricacy of nature, all gone, too.   

Cormac McCarthy makes every word count, somehow drawing the destroyed landscape and his characters in clear detail with just a few spare lines. I trusted him not to sensationalize his story, which is affecting enough without it.   

And almost immediately, it began haunting me. I thought about it all the time. I kept getting image flashes (a few good, many more horrific, all masterfully created) at odd times throughout the day. I couldn't stop thinking about it at night while waiting to fall asleep -- not in a good way -- and it was the first thing I thought about when waking up.

I cannot imagine how McCarthy faced these pages every day while he was writing it.

So I'm not going to finish it. 

I'll have to abandon my quest to read all the Pulitzers, and I'll have to select yet another book to substitute into the "black" category of the Color Coded Reading Challenge.

It's still the right decision for me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Nowhere Man


My reaction to this book may be an indication of my limits as a reader. Plenty of people have admired it -- it won Howard Jacobson the Man Booker Prize in 2010, after all -- and it's supposedly hilarious. Whatever they see in it was invisible to me, although it was occasionally clever and funny.

Julian Treslove makes a bland enough protagonist. After all, his occupation is being a celebrity lookalike although he supposedly doesn't look enough like any one celebrity to prevent him from playing anyone from Brad Pitt to Robert De Niro, as the occasion demands. Mostly he spends his time yearning to be Jewish. There really isn't much else to say about him. Presumably his desire to be Jewish is meant to indicate some higher meaning. In a character less beige, this desire might lead us on an exciting intellectual quest to explore various facets of Jewish history, politics, culture, and family. But in Julian, it's just kind of weird.

Julian spends a lot of his time thinking about his frenemy Sam Finkler, a pop philosopher. Finkler is Jewish and Julian envies him, although there isn't too much to like about Finkler, either. He's pretty much a pompous, self-centered social climber eager to stay famous. But Julian so identifies his friend with the Jewish essence (whatever that is) that he refers to Jews as "Finklers," hence the book's title. In a neat contrast, Finkler is the quasi-leader of a group of famous and semi-famous Jews who identify themselves as being "ashamed Jews," specifically because of Israel's actions in Gaza.

Rounding out the trio is Julian and Sam's former professor, Libor Sevcik, still intellectually sharp at ninety but mourning the death of his kind and glamorous wife. He's the most interesting character, a sophisticated Jewish man of the world descending into his twilight years, and his realization of the shifting nature of memory and grief for the departed is one of the more interesting aspects of this book. He's also a spokesperson for the pro-Israel viewpoint.

The three men have dinner together on a regular basis, forming a rather sad men's club (Sam and Libor are both widowers, and Julian has been left by a series of women). Julian gets mugged, recalls his affair with Sam's wife Tyler, and succeeds and then fails romantically with Hephzibah, a distant relative of Libor. There's plenty of Jewish/Gentile-related angst familiar to anyone who has read Philip Roth, including the obligatory obsession with sexual performance and circumcision or lack thereof.

It's all well enough written, if you don't mind a frequently shifting point of view, a complex chronology, a handful of loose ends, and a protagonist who disappears in a most unsatisfying way from the final pages. I suppose that's appropriate for a celebrity look-alike who doesn't really look like anyone.

Excerpt:

Sam Finkler, or Samuel Finkler, as he still was then, had not done [an impractical] modular degree at a seaside university. He knew better, he said, which side his bread was buttered. Finklerish of him, Treslove thought admiringly, wishing he had the instincts for knowing on which side his own bread was buttered.

"So what's it going to be?" he asked. "Medicine? Law? Accountancy?"

"Do you know what that's called?" Finkler asked him.

"What what's called?"

"That thing you're doing."

"Taking an interest?"

"Stereotyping. You've just stereotyped me."

"You said you knew which side your bread was buttered. Isn't that stereotyping yourself?"

"I am allowed to stereotype myself," Finkler told him.

"Ah," Treslove said. As always he wondered if he would ever get to the bottom of what Finklers were permitted to say about themselves that non-Finklers were not.

Note: This book counts for the Color Coded Reading Challenge (white).

Monday, October 15, 2018

Re-Returning

(But from where? The ether, I suppose.)

Vacation was wonderful! But it knocked me out of any habits I might have acquired (good or bad) and put me behind on everything. I guess that's the story of my life and I wonder if it will ever change. Probably not, unless I develop some better habits!

I've said yes to teaching again this semester and the Tuesday/Thursday schedule keeps me hopping. Added to my regular 30-ours-a-week job, it's been a struggle to balance everything. The manager of the book store took a two-month vacation herself, and I shared coverage duties with another volunteer -- to add to the schedule. So . . . It's been a busy late-summer.

Now, what's the upside?

Home improvements peaked this spring and then lagged, but in a burst of my usual fall energy I unpacked the last of the boxes in the living room and hung pictures throughout the house. The living room and master bedroom are settled now. The bath is mostly settled while I await the arrival of a shockingly expensive but irresistible new shower curtain that will change the look completely. The kitchen and guest room still need some work, as do the porch, the shed, and the yard. But it's all good and I'm enjoying the process.

(Well, I should say I'm mostly enjoying the process. I had a falling out with the lawn guy who mows all the yards in this part of town. Before I went on vacation I planted some large, native firebush shrubs that a friend had given me. I thought something so mature and so obvious (and surrounded by freshly turned dirt) would be unmistakably intentional, but the lawn guy thought . . . well, who knows what he thought? He tore them out and I returned from vacation to find them missing. I was heartbroken and angry -- not only for the loss of the plants (they were about 3 feet tall and blooming like crazy) but for their sentimental value. Considering my mental state, I left a very reasonable message on his answering machine. I definitely said, "I'm very upset about this" but I didn't shout or anything. In response, he left me a note saying he didn't want to mow my lawn anymore. Well, okay then. I'm now in search of a lawn guy with a clue about native plants and customer service.)

The cats are much happier in the new place. They have multiple views from multiple windows, and I've contrived to arrange the furniture so they have lounging places where they can watch the street and the birds. That's a big plus.

I'm getting more exercise than in the past year or so. That's definitely a plus.

I've cut WAY back on my Facebook time and I like it. It's certainly helped me find a few more hours that can be used in better ways. Thanks to a recent cool snap, "better ways" includes reading on the porch with a cup of coffee.

Hurricane Michael zoomed by to the west and gave us just a breezy day with a few rain showers. We were very lucky. Seeing the destruction in the Florida panhandle confirms my decision to avoid living on the coast and to evacuate if a big one comes this way. Even so, everyone here is still keeping a wary eye on the weather right now. 

Kayak Guy and I are still spending quite a bit of time together and having fun adventuring. Maybe it's just the daily life that taxes us? What an interesting thought.

I'm turning the corner on some of my reading challenges and think I might actually finish a few this year. That would be huge!

Here's to keeping this fall energy thing going as long as I can. Maybe it will help me write all those reviews that I'm backed up on . . . .

Friday, August 31, 2018

I Got Away


A few days in Boston, a few days in New Hampshire, and a hundred fun travel stories! So glad I made it happen before the summer got away -- just barely!

This kind of roadside beauty -- seen along NH 118 -- is the icing on this vacation cake.