16. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Page 45 of 220. Clearly a work of genius, this one was suggested to me by my local used bookseller and framer of pictures at “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words.” Sorry, John. I’ll have the book back to you shortly, when you finish framing the Coltrane poster (joking). We talk books often, and this one surfaced in a discussion of McCarthy’s The Road. Similarly post-apocalyptic, Hoban’s book reveals an imagination of a diffent order altogether, however. I can’t complain about complacent language with this one either. Think Finnegan’s Wake with a bit more phonetic cues to keep your head somewhat above water. And yet that was part of my problem with the book–my inability to hear its voice. I stopped somewhere around this sentence: “Eusas voyce (which it wer all ways a low and sorrerful kynd of voice even them times when you myt think Eusa myt be jollyer nor other times) said […]” Brilliant, no? Twain would be hard-pressed to pull anything like this off. And yet in an imagined world, unlike Twain’s and McCarthy’s (to some extent) actual one, one still expects the language to rise naturally from the landscape. Hoban never gives me a sense of place–a way into his character’s actual encounters with external reality. Perhaps, I’m just a stick in the mud–but I like to know just how far I can go into the ground and if it will hold me. This one had me leaning far too often.
17. James Le Fanu’s Why Us. Page 72 of 262. This book gave me what I wanted and then I abandoned it. Selfish, I know. What did I want? I think it was some kind of re-assurance that human consciousness is “special” or “mysterious.” Another selfish, anthropocentric notion. What can I say, I’m frightened, or, more specifically, disturbed by materialist views of human experience. In a nutshell: Le Fanu takes the latest science on consciousness and identity and basically shows what little we really know and how science, as a discipline, continues to reveal our befuddlement. He’s preaching to the choir here, but sometimes the choir needs to let out a big Hallelujah and move on to the next song.
18. Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame. Page 89 of 262. A Problem from Hell, Powers’s Pulitzer-prize winning book on genocide, profoundly changed my view on geo-politics and U.S. involvement in world affairs. What that view is now is perhaps too nuanced for discussion here, but suffice it to say that she engenders MLK, Jr.’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” from “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” with new moral fervor. Her book, in fact, caused me to attempt to retract a poem of mine that was to be published in Sam Hamill’s Poet’s Against the War, but I’d already signed the contract. Chasing the Flame follows the life of the pioneering U.N. leader Sergio Vierrra de Mello. We experience his frustrations and strong will, his human weaknesses and profound sense of justice. A great book for those wanting to understand the complex role of the U.N. plays in world affairs. Spring semester was coming, however, and I had to prepare for classes. I was reading Meredith Hall’s memoir Without a Map for the third time, taking particular interest in her travels in the Middle East and the relationship between her personal and political life.
19. Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World. Page 141 of 354. I loved Hyde’s The Gift; for one thing, it completely changed my understanding of Ezra Pound. So if you have trouble with Pounds moral shortcomings, as I did/do, and those misgivings color your reading of his work, check out the chapter in The Gift on Pound as a manifestation of Hermes. Anyway, Trickster has the same appeal, with an even more unabashed reverence for myth and folklore. Hyde is a popular writer, but he is no slouch as a scholar, and his writing can be dense. To be honest, I’m having trouble remembering why I stopped this one, or remembering anything specific about the book at all. I do have an image of a coyote with its own intestines spooling out of its body only to be wrapped around its waste and tied like a belt. Maybe that was enough for me at the time. Fairly certain I’ll go back to this one, though; I’m curious about the whole eating thing and the problems external intestines might cause in that regard.
20. Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints. Page 57 of 385. Not sure if this is only a temporary cessation or not. One thing for sure, though, I’ve given up on the NYT’s Book Review as a credible source of literary assessment; I’ve been let down too many times. In the reviewer Stacey D’Erasmo’s words, Henderson “writes the hell out of every moment.” If only. And, perhaps, it is this myopic view of literature that ruins it all for me. I’m left wondering how a reasonably literate person–someone who I am sure is aware of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett–can find “overintense description” in this book. Even though D’Erasmo inevitably excuses Henderson her “flaws,” I’m dumfounded that she found any of this kind to begin with. What has happened to the “realist” novel? Are we to choose between fantasy and blandly rendered reality. Page 53, the end of the second chapter, exhibits one of Henderson’s rare exuberant encounters with her medium. She writes: “She clapped her hands, as though to scare a flock of crows from her garden, and the three beats echoed in Jude’s waiting ears, taking flight through the valley and up into the morning.” Is this the overintense description that so many critics find tiresome. The passage is lovely enough , but not, in my estimation, intense enough–if by intensity we mean lyric veracity. Are the boy’s ears really “waiting”? As if they’re sitting on a log with their legs crossed? And how are we to experience the noise moving from an echo in the waiting ears to a flight through the valley? The flaws here, as with most writers, are with complacency of description, not with over-description, which has become synonymous to far too many with over-indulgence. Is it that “deceptively simple” prose has more and more become the supposed corrective to literature’s only purpose worth preserving–attempting to describe the indescribable? Writers, all us lovers of the written word ask is that you try.