|Hector Abad Faciolince|
1. Oblivion - Hector Abad - Memoir perfected by a Columbian writer. Just read it; you'll see.
|Edmund St. Aubyn|
2. At Last - Edmund St. Aubyn - A friend told me I should read St. Aubyn. "You'll laugh out loud," he said. Not likely, I thought, that's just not me. But when at about page six I came upon the line, "At the beginning there had been talk of using some of her [the narrator's mother] money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded," I actually did laugh out loud. I was glad I was in my bed and not in a library or a coffee shop. St. Aubyn is viciously clever and original. The title refers to the death of the narrator's mother; he was obviously not overly fond of her.
3. Some Hope - A Trilogy - Edmund St. Aubyn - Three short novels that seem based on the writer's life and which compel one to go on to the above mentioned At Last, and to then, at last, wait anxiously for St. Aubyn's next book.
4. Winter Journal - Paul Auster - A great style. Prose perfection. Fascinating look at a certain life of a guy who loves to write. Every situation of his life, every circumstance, that he writes about is ordinary enough but made extraordinary by Auster's sharply crafted style. If bookcases were made of words instead of wood, I'd want Paul Auster to build me a bookcase. It's the first Auster book I've read; it made me want to read all twenty-or-so of his others.
5. Running in the Family - Michael Ondaatje - The author (famous as the author of The English Patient) presents in this memoir an account of the lives of his extended family in what was then called Burma; it is an entire, unique and marvelous world made fascinating by Ondaatje's craftsmanship.
6. The Village in the Jungle - Leonard Woolf - Yes, Virginia's husband, who had a career as an English colonial official in Burma before marrying the fragile daughter of Leslie Stephens. While I was reading Running in the Family, my dear friend Ellen in the Lower East Side was reading The Village in the Jungle. We exchanged raves; we both loved both books.
7. The Dark Labyrinth - Lawrence Durrell - Starts off somewhat confusingly but then all comes together marvelously in a cave on a Greek island; you finish the final page and find it almost unbelievable that it was a young Durrell who accomplished this novel. For many years prior to reading The Dark Labryinth, this guy was already one of my favorite writers (and, oh, how the above picture of him makes me long for the days when I let myself smoke cigarettes!) -- one of my favorites mostly for the four-volumned The Alexandrian Quartet, which is comprised of four novels in each of which the more-or-less same story is told from the viewpoints of four different characters. (And, by the way, Lawrence Durrell's brother Gerald's My Family and Other Animals is one of my all-time favorite reads.)
8. The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller - Ah ... it took her something like twelve years to write this novel but what a gift it is to lovers of books. Beautifully written, beautifully paced. Achilles, his heel, his lover, his mother, the Trojan War ... all does not go smoothly, especially when your mother is a Goddess who can hold you by your heel and dip you into water that will make you (almost) immortal.
9. The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje (pictured above for Running in the Family) - While number five above is a memoir of the author's family in Burma, this seems to be a fictionalization of the author's journey by ship from Burma to London when he was perhaps twelve or thirteen. Great scenes aboard ship, great characters, and a bit of mystery.
10. The Empty Family - Colm Toibin - Short stories by one of Ireland's best-known contemporary authors. All excellent. One, set in Barcelona, is salacious; that was okay by me but if you have an ounce of prude in you just move on to the next story. Keep going and you'll come to the last story; it's titled "A Long Winter" -- at seventy pages it's really a novella -- and I don't know that you'll ever come across a more perfectly written story. Perfect in every way that a story can be made. Toibin wrote a novel some years back called The Master which was a fictional biography of Henry James. Here, at the end of The Empty Family, Toibin is as masterly as "the master."
11. Literary Seductions - Frances Wilson - Guilty pleasure? No -- no guilt at all where words are concerned, and I've never denied being a junkie for essays about writers. What I most took away from this book is how much disdain Frances Wilson has for Anais Nin. As a recovering Nin addict I was sumptuously amused. (One begins to recover from the seductive Nin immediately when one reads Gore Vidal's novel Two Sisters with its viciously portrayed character based on Nin.)
12. Under the Sun - Letters of Bruce Chatwin - I'm also a junkie for all things Bruce Chatwin. I like to know what he had for breakfast, and who made him angry, and what he wore on his treks around the world, and just how his wife responded to his philandering.
13. On the Black Hill - Bruce Chatwin again. Another step taken on my quest to read everything that Bruce Chatwin wrote; this one being a novel set in Wales about two quite strange and reclusive brothers. Chatwin's prose is, of course, of the quality of the exquisite works of art he had such a good eye for -- good enough for Sotheby's to hire him when he was barely old enough to begin his university education (which he never formally finished).
14. Scenes from Village Life - Amos Oz - I'll read anything by this Israeli who wrote a totally engaging memoir called A Tale of Love and Darkness. This Scenes from Village Life is not one of his most accomplished books; it is vignettes, really ... well, it's scenes just like the title says. I don't love Amos Oz for just his writing though; I also love his politics.
15. The Later Diaries - Ned Rorem. This contemporary composer is intelligent, gossipy, egotistic, and fascinating, and he would never be my friend because I'm not nearly cultured enough. But I like him nevertheless because he sure knows how to keep a fetching diary (it's not that easy to put just the interesting aspects of one's life in a diary). Besides, he was one of the first to set some Sylvia Plath poems to music. Kudos, Ned!
16. Growing Up - Russell Baker. My friend Dennis Clark said, way back in 1984, that I just had to read this book. I finally got around to it; I'm trying to catch up. It's really great and funny. And -- I don't say this to take anything away from Mr. Baker -- we all stand on the shoulders of gods -- but I think something is owed to Reynolds Price for the writing style and the way the characters are portrayed.
17. Emmaus - Allesandro Baricco. I was given a great gift -- the eight next books published by McSweeney's. This novel about a coterie of Catholic teenagers, translated from the original Italian, is my favorite of the eight surprises that came to my mailbox.
|Calvin Trillin and his wife, Alice; August 1965|
(A) Mothers and Sons - Calvin Trillin. He is an incredible stylist and funny and touching as all-get-out. My book journal tells me that I read sixty-eight books this year, but I can't for the life of me remember any contents of this particular one. Perhaps I read too much of him in The New Yorker, and all his books, and so one memoir just runs into the next. I can vouch for one thing though: if I read a book by Calvin Trillin it was interesting, probably humorous, and beautifully composed. (The picture above is brilliant, a perfect capture of a certain style.)
(B) New Ways to Kill Your Mother - Colm Toibin (featured earlier). Literary essays for literary junkies. Totally absorbing if you're a literary junkie. I was totally absorbed.
(C) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? - Jeannette Winterson. This lesbian author's over-the-top-Christian mother, one of whose comments provided the title for this book, lamented of Winterson's first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: "Well, it's the first time I've had to order a book under an assumed name." It turns out that Winterson was adopted and this is a memoir of the real life fictionalized in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, as well as the story of finding her birth parents.
|Charles Rowan Beye|
(D) My Husband and My Wives - Charles Rowan Beye. A friend recommended this book to me, saying, "I never realized that one person could have so much sex!" Well, Beye did. Being an eminent scholar (his other twenty-or-so books are mostly about ancient Greek and Roman civilizations), this autobiography is, aside from candid, superbly written; his descriptions of his unusual sexual exploits, while finely wrought, are, like all porn, boring. All else he writes about -- his family, academia, travels, etc. -- is remarkably interesting.
The day that, in the wee hours of the morning at his Plymouth, Vermont, home, Coolidge took the oath of office (upon the death of Harding), his son reported as usual to his job in a tobacco field. One of his fellow laborers said, "If my father was President I would not work in a tobacco field." The younger Calvin replied, "If my father were your father, you would."
(The rich soil of the Pioneer Valley -- nourished by the powerful Deerfield and Connecticut rivers -- produced huge crops of tobacco in those days, and I still see tobacco drying barns here and there in the fertile valleys thereabouts; these Western Massachusetts areas remain fertile; my friends in Deerfield look forward to harvest-time for what they say is the best to be had of everything that the soil produces.)
Sadly, within the first year of the Coolidge family's move into The White House, the sixteen-year-old Calvin developed a blister on his foot while playing tennis (no socks, someone said) and died of blood poisoning. It's also been said that my half-brother Daniel was a pall-bearer at the boy's funeral. I've found no documentation of this, for it is only the death and not the funeral that I've found mentioned in histories, and, anyhow, pall-bearers aren't customarily mentioned. I did read, in the Coolidge Presidential Library (which is housed within the Northampton Public Library, and is comprised of a large room of glass-doored bookcases, furnished and appointed with items from the President's era, and a smaller room of documents in metal cabinets, and, on my visits, a lovely, helpful curator) that the train carrying the body of the dead boy stopped in Northampton en route to Plymouth, Vermont, where all the Coolidge's are buried, so that the citizenry could pay their respects.