I want you to think about taking this girl in.
They stared at her.
You’re fooling, Harold said.
No, Maggie said. I am not.
They were dumbfounded. They looked at her, regarding her as if she might be dangerous. Then they peered into the palms of their thick callused hands spread out before them on the kitchen table and lastly they looked out the window toward the leafless and stunted elm trees.
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
Yesterday I finished reading Kent Haruf’s new novel, Benediction, about an elderly hardware store owner, Dad Lewis, dying of cancer. I realized it was three years to the day since my father passed away from cancer. More than a coincidence, probably. I imagine something unconscious was at play. But I would have read this book eventually, no matter what, because I read everything Haruf writes.
My devotion to Haruf began when I read Plainsong, which he published in 1999. One of Haruf’s critics describes Haruf’s work as “exalted.” If you want to be exalted, get a copy of Plainsong or Eventide or Benediction and drop into the lives of the folks who live on the dry plains in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado.
Haruf writes about goodhearted people way off the beaten path trying to do the right thing. His prose is entrancing, deceptively simple, powerful. You may begin to be lulled by the humanity Haruf captures on the page, but before you get to feeling incredulous he hits you with some dark reality: bigotry, abuse, cruelty, abandonment, addiction.
I was surprised Haruf said in an interview one of the books that most influenced him as a writer was Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a novel that underwhelmed me both times I read it. But in Haruf’s plain, spare prose I can see Hemingway’s legacy. And it reinforces my interest in how what we read speaks to us, personally. That’s going to be different for everyone.
Benediction is a beautiful book, but an especially quiet and somber one. If you want to sample a novel by Haruf, I suggest you begin with Plainsong, which has more action and a greater diversity of intriguing characters, followed by Eventide and then Benediction. All are set in Holt, in eastern Colorado. Plainsong and Eventide are companion novels that feature the same cast, while Benediction introduces a new set of characters. I suspect Haruf may continue their stories in a future novel.
In Benediction, an eighty-year-old woman, two sixty-year-old women, and an eight-year-old girl skinny-dip on a hot afternoon in a muddy water trough for cattle. Cool and refreshed, they lie down under a tree in their thin, sleeveless cotton dresses to take a nap. Somehow, Haruf makes this scene riveting. It is emblematic of his writing.
Two of my favorite characters in all of fiction are Plainsong’s rough-hewn cattle ranchers Harold and Raymond McPheron, who take in Victoria Roubideaux, a homeless, pregnant teenager. They are so sweet, and clueless to the point of hilarity. One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read is their visit to the ob-gyn with Victoria.
As much as I enjoyed Benediction, the McPheron brothers from Plainsong and Eventide will always be in my heart.
This ain’t going to be no goddam Sunday school picnic.
No, it ain’t, Raymond said. But I don’t recall you ever attending Sunday school either.
Quotes from Plainsong, Kent Haruf. Vintage Books, New York: 1999.
BY KENT HARUF:
The Tie That Binds
Where You Once Belonged
I believe that basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead. - Ernest Hemingway on Writing.
When I visit a new place, I like to read the literature associated with that place or the literature created there. So when I went to Key West last month and the home of Ernest Hemingway, I reread The Sun Also Rises, which Hemingway wrote there, followed by A Farewell to Arms. Last night I finished For Whom the Bell Tolls for the first time and went to bed feeling rather devastated.
In my last post I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises. When I read it the first time, in high school, I didn’t understand the novel. Decades later, I again found the characters tedious, which was Hemingway’s intention, but I at least better understood the context of those alienated, war-devastated years. His writing style, a breakthrough in Hemingway’s time, was for me so stilted and self-conscious it sometimes pulled me completely out of the story, and I especially disliked his sole female character, Lady Brett Ashley.
My post about Hemingway generated a handful of interesting and insightful comments, all by women and mostly about Hemingway’s ego and sexism and macho persona. I wish my blog attracted more male readers, but I have noticed some gender segregation in the book blog world, and I can understand that. I tend to gravitate toward female authors, and when I find I’m reading only books written by women, I’ll switch to a male author. Reading Junot Diaz, for example, was a stretch for me, but I’m glad I did. I had to talk myself into reading Hemingway again, too, but I’m glad I did that as well.
I felt uncomfortable after I was dismissive of The Sun Also Rises, and I thought about that as I read Hemingway’s other novels. Because when all is said and done, I believe Hemingway is a master and, despite my personal reactions to it, I believe The Sun Also Rises is a great book. Visiting Hemingway’s home in Key West and looking at the many candid photos on every wall in every room, I sensed something of his spirit lingering. Reading The Paris Wife and Ernest Hemingway on Writing, I saw not just Hemingway the god-like, iconic writer but Hemingway the vulnerable artist.
I don’t do the close reading of a literary scholar or a book critic, though I admire those that do. On this blog, I don’t write book reviews, and I’ve been frustrated occasionally when I hear people say I do, although I understand why they wouldn’t make these distinctions. If you were to ask me to write a book synopsis or a book review, I’d have no enthusiasm for it. (And I’m a librarian.) Here, I want to share and talk about our own, highly individual reading journeys and our personal reactions to the books we read. I think if you’re an avid reader, books help to make you the person you are, and that’s going to make a difference in what you do and who you are out in the world.
(If you’re not an avid reader, maybe you love nature and have trekked across your country, or you know almost everything there is to know about the earliest jazz recordings, or you can recite from memory every baseball statistic ever recorded, or you’re devoted to helping the poor in Third World countries. You may be on some kind of personal journey of discovery that says something important about who you are and your place in the world. That journey of discovery is what I’m interested in.)
- I disliked Lady Brett Ashley because she was self-centered and slept with every man who came her way (except for Jake Barnes). Then I realized the men in The Sun Also Rises were the same, yet I wasn’t as critical of them. I held the female to a different standard.
- When I was young I accepted and enjoyed Hemingway’s fictional romances without question. I didn’t find them sexist or offensive until literary opinion told me I should, even though I came of age just after the feminist heyday. Now, while I don’t especially enjoy Hemingway’s portrayal of women, I have to say many women acted that way. I think Hemingway understood how we idealize the other in romantic love, and how we look to each other for rescue or at least a safe haven.
- I have trouble understanding the American Robert Jordan’s idealism and motivation for volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But when I think about the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m bothered that many of us are so emotionally removed from the reality of these wars and the sacrifices a small number of Americans are making. Since I’m not especially attracted to war novels, at first I didn’t take to For Whom the Bell Tolls. I didn’t want to follow Robert Jordan and the others on their mission to blow up the bridge. Of course, I became emotionally entangled in Robert’s relationship with Maria and the others. Hemingway fought and was nearly killed in World War I and reported from the front lines during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, so he understood war and he knew how to write about it. The last one hundred pages of For Whom the Bell Tolls contain some of the most beautiful, poignant and universally truthful passages I’ve ever read. With the final sentence, I do believe Hemingway achieved perfection.
BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
A Moveable Feast
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Old Man and the Sea
A Farewell to Arms
The Sun Also Rises
A Clean Well-Lighted Place
In Our Time
The Garden of Eden
To Have and Have Not
Men Without Women
Islands in the Stream
Death in the Afternoon
Many thanks to Claire McAlpine, who tagged me in a Five Favorite Books challenge, which I’m to pass on to five other bloggers. Here goes, but before you read on, be sure to visit Claire’s delightful blog, Word by Word. Claire, who lives and works in the south of France, is a prolific, passionate reader who never fails to inspire me when I’m wondering which book to read next.
Of course, it’s impossible for me to name my five favorite books of all time, so here are five books I love that happened to come to mind as I sat down to write this:
I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb. I’ve read all of Lamb’s novels, but my favorite is I Know This Much Is True, about twin brothers, one with schizophrenia. Dominick Birdsey is an unforgettable character, and so is his brother, Thomas, who battles the demons of serious mental illness. My mother had schizophrenia, so for me this book is especially meaningful. Lamb’s portrayal of the illness is spot on. I Know This Much Is True blends comedy and tragedy as Dominick soldiers on in the difficult odyssey that is his life, the kind of real-life struggles we can all identify with. You just won’t want to stop rooting for Dominick, and I, for one, couldn’t stop reading until I found out whether he would end up with the love of his life. I was taken with the darkly comic opening involving a librarian who has an especially trying day. (I read this before I knew I was going to become a librarian.) Check out Wally Lamb on Facebook. He’s a generous, down-to-earth author who loves talking with his readers.
In October, 2013, Lamb will publish his newest novel, We Are Water. In this video, Wally Lamb tells how We Are Water came about. Listening to his story will make you want to get the book, which I’ll be writing about in a future post.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I’m a romantic, partial to female gothics, and there is the undercurrent of madness, which “transfixes” me (as Mr. Rochester would say). I read this in high school and have been fascinated and mystified by it ever since. Has anyone seen the most recent movie incarnation? I thought Mia Wasikowska and Amelia Clarkson (young Jane) were fabulous. And Judi Dench, of course.
When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. When I was looking for a hyperlink to When We Were Orphans, I was surprised Wikipedia authors say it is regarded by some as Ishiguro’s weakest book. I don’t see that at all. For me, it eloquently captures childhood loss and its lifelong consequences, and there’s also the fascination of Ishiguro’s typically unreliable, self-deluded narrator. Except in this case I think the narrator comes to a sad, more realistic understanding of himself and the world. I’ll say no more since I’d like to write further about this book in the future.
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. I loved visiting this small Colorado town and meeting the simple, kind, and decent people there. It does my heart good to know there are writers like Haruf creating fictional worlds like this one. I was swept away by Plainsong and the sequel, Eventide. Haruf makes writing look easy, but this sort of simplicity isn’t easy at all. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading his newest book, Benediction. Can’t wait. I’ll be sure to write about it here.
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. I read this in high school, too, and haven’t read it since then, so I want to revisit it sometime soon. Another deprived childhood story. (Do you see a trend here?) After I read David Copperfield I felt I’d lived an entire life. This is a great book to read when you are young and just starting out, and then at least once again when you’re looking back. I believe there was a PBS version that aired in the dark ages when I was reading the novel. It, too, was wonderful.
FIVE BLOGS I LIKE:
A Leaf in Springtime Sheer exuberance in writing and photography, by Sharon, who is Chinese (born in Malaysia) and now living in Finland.
The Hiker Mama I love the Pacific Northwest, and I wish this blog had been around when we were hiking with our sons. Jennifer and I had the pleasure of taking a class together taught by Christina Katz.
Fine Little Day Because I’m half Swedish and I love fabrics and country houses and all sorts of beautiful domestic things.
66 Square Feet A tiny terrace garden, seasonal living, cooking in New York City, and travels to South Africa, by Marie Viljoen. Just beautiful, reminds me of my big city days.
Flowery Prose Plants, veggies, flowers, gardens, the outdoors, and lots of fascinating information about all of these.
Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer`s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful. Barry Lopez
In the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:
She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.
She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.
Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”
Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.
Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out - artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.
I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.” An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln. Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.
Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.
Over and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.
Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,” in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.
I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?
If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our bests interests to see that no one among us is silenced.
So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.
“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”
Quotes from: About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, New York: 1998.
What one loves in childhood stays in the heart forever. Mary Jo Putney
Books Can Save a Life is a year old this month.
I’ve grown so fond of it here and of you who visit and comment. Meeting people from all over and re-connecting with friends and distant family - I never expected that.
Not to mention the beautifully conceived and produced blogs about books, writing, food, nature, gardening, travel, creativity, and other topics I’ve discovered, and the artistic geniuses behind them.
Books Can Save a Life is a lot like my backyard retreat, where I sit by our homemade pond after I walk or run. I always look forward to visiting Books to set down my thoughts and see who has stopped by.
To celebrate a year of Books, I’m having a book giveaway. By the end of February, leave a comment about a book you’re reading. a book you want to read, a book that’s becoming a movie, a book memory, or anything at all to do with reading, and I’ll put your name in a hat. (Actually, I use a rice bowl.) If I draw your name I’ll send you the book of your choice. If you can’t decide on a book, I’ll surprise you.
You might have noticed I’ve redecorated, too. I’ve chosen a new design theme in honor of the coming year and to signify a more expansive focus on topics beyond books. There’s so much I want to write about.
But you’ll still find plenty of books here.
Your comments and guest posts are what I absolutely love about this blog. Many of you spoke of books from your childhood that years later still evoke memories of family and loved ones, places you’ve been, and particular times in your lives. I think sometimes the very story or book we need comes along, or somehow we’re led to find it.
Here are a a few comments from readers of Books this past year. Please keep them coming.
I can’t imagine my room without my personal bookcase, or a world without books. (Giuseppe)
It’s hard to put yourself in their places [The Hunger Games], living their lives and going through what they do daily in their “world,” but that’s what’s so great about books, they take you to different places and times through the amazing imagination of the authors. (Diana)
I find many so called adult novels pretentious. I want a story. I return, often, to what is classified as young adult literature, mostly because these are stories of life. Stories – in the true sense of the word. And, I can’t help but say that, years ago, I was saying to people, “Have you read the Harry Potter book?” And everyone said no. Then came that glorious day on the L in Chicago, traveling home from work, and I saw not one, not two, but six adults reading the book. I wanted to laugh out loud at the thought of those six people entering into another world…. (Donna)
Agatha Christie wrote a story without heroes; to me, that was heroic honesty. Conversely, the inevitability of justice satisfied me. For all my contempt for two-faced authority, I still relished the idea of wrongdoers punished by divine oversight. My sense of my own weakness as a child needed that reassurance. (Doug)
Cooking from Moosewood, even with its imperfections, was utopian. Funny how small, utopian practices can make you feel, despite the deepest contradictions, that summer is everlasting and life is good. (Judith)
….even the smallest person can step away from comfort and into challenge, that change is possible on scales small and large, that our efforts and intentions matter. The story reinforced for me that there are things in this world worth protecting–fellowship and love, food and conversation, adventure and courage, songs and stories. These are the things that sustain us when life is difficult, when we are hurt or afraid and have to be so much braver than we feel. (Adrienne)
All you need to do for a chance to win the book is check out my recent post, Now is the time to read Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and leave a comment about where you stand on climate change, or if you think a work of fiction such as Kingsolver’s can make a difference one way or the other.
I’m extending the deadline to December 3, when I’ll put the names of all who comment in a hat and draw the lucky winner.
I read an essay the other day in which the author mused that perhaps New York City will no longer exist in a hundred years. Or it will be located in Westchester County.
What do you think?
I welcome all thoughts and opinions (as long as we’re friendly and polite!)
So, comment away, please!
Monday was a holiday in Argentina, Dia del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural, and many businesses were closed. We’d come across town to visit El Ateneo Grand Splendid, one of the largest and most beautiful bookstores in the world, and we were relieved to find it was open.
This former theater in the Barrio Norte section of Buenos Aires featured some of the greatest tango artists and premiered the first sound films in Argentina.
There are Italian ceiling frescoes and original theater boxes where you can relax and browse through books.
We spent a couple of happy hours in the cafe located on the former stage.
You ask yourself why you’re reading This Is How You Lose Her, the short story collection by Junot Diaz. How could you possibly relate to Yunior, the irreverent, hard-drinking Dominican-born narrator and serial cheater of the most extreme sort?
You write this post in second person point of view, as Diaz does in his short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” just to try it on for size.
You read that Yunior cheated on the love of his life with no less than 50 women over six years. And then she found out.
Diaz writes, “You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together.”
Yunior’s ex-fiancee assembles all the damning evidence (emails, photos, etc.) in an album (the Doomsday Book) and sends it to Yunior with a note: For your next book.
You think: This is one funny writer.
The writing is so musical and overflowing with Spanish, maybe you can brush up on the language: blanquita, moreno, salcedeña, sucio, cuero. Then you realize some of the words are made up, and others are words you’re not likely to use any time soon.
Yunior’s suffering seems to know no bounds, as if he’s channeling all the deprivation of his poor, difficult, immigrant life (which the other stories in this collection portray) into mourning his lost love.
Yunior becomes a professor of fiction in Boston. Having grown up in Santo Domingo and New York City, he has a hard time in New England: “White people pull up at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers….Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID.”
Yunior visits the Dominican Republic with his friend, Eric, to see Eric’s presumed love child; the child and mother live in the Nadalands, where Yunior’s father was born and where his ex-fiancee is from. Mud, shanties, no running water or electricity, raw sewage.
You remember the volunteer work your family did in Nicaragua – you’ve only seen that kind of poverty once and, after a few days, you could return to your comfortable home in America.
You know Diaz’s fiction is partly autobiographical and you wonder which parts are true, which are made up. You find the second person point of view can be confusing: Does the “you” refer to Yunior, or to the author himself? Sometimes you think the “you” refers to you, the reader, because by now you’ve become so invested in Yunior you find yourself beginning to understand and identify with him.
There is that moment of self-reckoning when Yunior has to face what he has done. You agree with Yunior’s assessment of the half-life of love.
You think: this blurring of boundaries between author, narrator, reader – maybe that’s the point.
If you’ve read this book, please comment!
Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York: 2012.