EppsNet Archive: Literature

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road. — Jack Kerouac


At Any Rate, That Is Happiness

1 Apr 2014 /
Field of pumpkins at harvest time

Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

— Willa Cather, My Antonia

EppsNet Book Reviews: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

29 Mar 2014 /

Richard Yates poses the question of how much reality people can stand, and the answer he comes up with is “not very much.” Alternatives to facing reality head-on are explored in Revolutionary Road: avoidance, denial, alcoholism, insanity and death.

Some excerpts:

“You want to play house you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, you got to have a job you don’t like. Great. This is the way ninety-eight-point-nine per cent of the people work things out, so believe me buddy you’ve got nothing to apologize for. Anybody comes along and says ‘Whaddya do it for?’ you can be pretty sure he’s on a four-hour pass from the State funny-farm; all agreed.”

 

And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what the other most wanted to hear — until he was saying “I love you” and she was saying “Really, I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.”

People’s inability to absorb large, unfiltered doses of reality probably explains why New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell wrote to Yates’s agent in 1981, “It seems clearer and clearer that his kind of fiction is not what we’re looking for. I wonder if it wouldn’t save a lot of time and disappointment in the end if you and he could come to the same conclusion.”

And why at the time of his death in 1992, all of Yates’ books were out of print.

Rating: 5 stars


EppsNet Book Reviews: My Antonia by Willa Cather

5 Mar 2014 /

Woulda, coulda, shoulda . . .

Rating: 5 stars


EppsNet Book Reviews: The Known World by Edward P. Jones

23 Feb 2014 /

I bought this book and read it because it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. See, it says so right there on the cover: “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.”

Did you know there was a time in our country’s history when black people were bought and sold as property, sometimes by other black people? And did you also know that 15 minutes could save you 15 percent or more on car insurance?

Human slavery is deplorable, yes, but at this late date, can it be deplored any more than it has been already? If you have new depths of insight into the hearts and minds of the participants, by all means offer them, but Jones doesn’t have them. Reading The Known World is like reading a history book, albeit with a little more authorial contempt for some of the characters.

It’s customary in book reviews to mention authors whose work is called to mind by the volume at hand. The reviews included in my copy of The Known World cite

If you want to say something nice about a black author writing about the American South, you can’t go wrong with a Morrison or Faulkner comparison, although comparing an author writing his second book to Faulkner (or García Márquez) makes as much sense as comparing a young composer to Beethoven or Mozart. (I can’t comment on the Toni Morrison comparison as I have to admit I haven’t read her work.)

The author that Jones most reminded me of is Kurt Vonnegut, who once wrote

I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, which I think I have done.

Jones follows the Vonnegut model of introducing a lot of characters of equal importance and weaving their lives together via seemingly insignificant details. Vonnegut has written better books than The Known World — most notably, in my opinion, Breakfast of Champions, although many people prefer Slaughterhouse-Five — but he did not win, nor was he ever a finalist for, a Pulitzer Prize.

So it goes.

Rating: 3 stars


2013: The Year in Books

31 Dec 2013 /

These are the books I read in 2013, roughly in the order listed. The ratings are mine. They don’t represent a consensus of opinion.

Books of the Year: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren



A Display of Interest, However Shallow

17 Dec 2013 /

He himself did not care what happened at the house during the day. There was no more reason for her to be curious about his work than for him to be concerned with the groceries, laundry, getting the children to school, and whatever else she did. Yet it would seem rude, almost brutal, to drop the pretense and admit that neither particularly cared what the other was doing. A display of interest, however shallow, made life easier.

— Evan Connell, Mr. Bridge

The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates

4 Dec 2013 /
The Joy Luck Club

“Do not ride your bicycle around the corner,” the mother had told the daughter when she was seven.

“Why not!” protested the girl.

“Because then I cannot see you and you will fall down and cry and I will not hear you.”

“How do you know I’ll fall?” whined the girl.

“It is in a book, The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates, all the bad things that can happen to you outside the protection of this house.”

“I don’t believe you. Let me see the book.”

“It is written in Chinese. You cannot understand it. That is why you must listen to me.”

“What are they, then?” the girl demanded. “Tell me the twenty-six bad things.”

But the mother sat knitting in silence.

“What twenty-six!” shouted the girl.

The mother still did not answer her.

“You can’t tell me anything because you don’t know! You don’t know anything!” And the girl ran outside, jumped on her bicycle, and in her hurry to get away, she fell before she even reached the corner.

— Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

It Is Hard Living Down the Tempers We Are Born With

30 Nov 2013 /
Gertrude Stein

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”

It is hard living down the tempers we are born with. We all begin well, for in our youth there is nothing we are more intolerant of than our own sins writ large in others and we fight them fiercely in ourselves; but we grow old and we see that these our sins are of all sins the really harmless ones to own, nay that they give a charm to any character, and so our struggle with them dies away.

— Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

If You Quote Poetry at My Death, I Will Haunt You

12 Sep 2013 /

If you know me, and you outlive me, and you want to say something on the occasion of my demise, please do not quote a snippet of poetry or other literary material, e.g., “He did not go gently into that good night.” Or: “I think Wordsworth said it best . . .”

Portrait of William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

Bullshit . . . Wordsworth did not say it best. Wordsworth didn’t know me. You knew me. Go ahead and say something from the heart if you have something. Keep it real.

He was not a good person.

He had the most appalling social skills, which is why he had no close friends.

After his son moved out, he just unraveled like an old sock.

I remember at Jackie O’s funeral, her kids — was it just one kid, or both? I think both — read a poem. A poem! That’s when you really know that your life was not well-lived, when your own children have nothing to say about you.

Don’t you hope to god that your children at least will have some personal remembrance to share after you’re gone?

I remember when we used to go to the park and he pitched baseballs to me.

He spent a year of his life helping me with algebra homework.

He always believed in me.

To anyone tempted to eulogize me with a literary reference, I swear I will rise from the grave — in spirit if not in body, although body will be my preference — and cast a shadow upon your soul.


Seeing the Thing Through

3 Sep 2013 /

Ah, poor fellow!–and Herzog momentarily joined the objective world in looking down on himself. He too could smile at Herzog and despise him. But there still remained the fact. I am Herzog. I have to be that man. There is no one else to do it. After smiling, he must return to his own Self and see the thing through.

— Saul Bellow, Herzog

The Life That Exhibits Itself

2 Sep 2013 /

“In paths untrodden,” as Walt Whitman marvelously put it. “Escaped from the life that exhibits itself . . .” Oh, that’s a plague, the life that exhibits itself, a real plague! There comes a time when every ridiculous son of Adam wishes to arise before the rest, with all his quirks and twitches and tics, all the glory of his self-adored ugliness, his grinning teeth, his sharp nose, his madly twisted reason, saying to the rest — in an overflow of narcissism which he interprets as benevolence — “I am here to witness. I am come to be your exemplar.” Poor dizzy spook!

— Saul Bellow, Herzog

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

31 Aug 2013 /
Seamus Heaney

The way we are living,
timorous or bold,
will have been our life.

— Seamus Heaney, “Elegy”

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Boring a Lot of People For a Long Time

17 Jun 2013 /

I’ve probably been boring a lot of people for a long time. Strange to find comfort in the idea. There have always been things I felt I must tell them, even if no one listened or understood.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Happy Fathers Day

16 Jun 2013 /

I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

A Glutton for Punishment

16 Jun 2013 /

“You must really be a glutton for punishment,” he said.

“A gourmet, actually,” I said. “If it isn’t perfect, I send it back.”

— Jonathan Lethem, Gun, with Occasional Music

Goals for Today

9 May 2013 /

Stop one heart from breaking. Ease one life the aching or cool one pain. Or help one fainting robin unto his nest again.

What’s the billing code for that?


You Sat There All Your Life

5 May 2013 /

The taste of self-inflicted suffering, of an evening trashed in spite, brought curious satisfactions. Other people stopped being real enough to carry blame for how you felt. Only you and your refusal remained. And like self-pity, or like the blood that filled your mouth when a tooth was pulled — the salty ferric juices that you swallowed and allowed yourself to savor — refusal had a flavor for which a taste could be acquired. . . .

And if you sat at the dinner table long enough, whether in punishment or in refusal or simply in boredom, you never stopped sitting there. Some part of you sat there all your life.

— Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

Always Costly

27 Apr 2013 /
Photogravure of Charles Alexis Henri Clérel de...

Photogravure of Charles Alexis Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In democratic societies, there exists an urge to do something even when the goal is not precise, a sort of permanent fever that turns to innovations (which) are always costly.

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1831)

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