Thursday, December 31, 2015

Books and things read, 2015

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Krokodil
Angell & Marzluff In the Company of Crows and Ravens
Scieszka & Smith The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
Marly Youmans Glimmerglass
Gene Wolfe The Shadow of the Torturer
Anton Chekhov Sakhalin Island
Anton Chekhov "The Seagull"
Anton Chekhov "The Cherry Orchard"
Lev Tolstoy Tolstoy on Shakespeare
Anton Chekhov "Three Sisters"
Anton Chekhov "Uncle Vanya"
Anton Chekhov The Notebook of Anton Chekhov
Gorky, Kuprin & Bunin Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov
Gene Wolfe The Claw of the Conciliator
Rosamund Bartlett Chekhov: Scenes From a Life
Anton Chekhov "Ivanov"
William Shakespeare "The Tempest"
Harvey Pitcher Chekhov's Leading Lady
Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited
Edith Wharton Ethan Frome
Walter Scott Guy Mannering
Mikhail Bulgakov Heart of a Dog
Franz Kafka The Castle
Yukio Mishima Spring Snow
Anonymous The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (Jeff Sypeck, trans)
Anton Chekhov The Steppe
Fr Alban Butler Lives of the Saints
T.S. Eliot The Waste Land and Other Poems
Julie De Sherbinin Chekhov and Russian Religious Culture: Poetics of the Marian Paradigm
Heiko Haumann A History of East European Jews
Ezra Pound ABC of Reading
Alberto Moravia Contempt
Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales
Aeschylus The Oresteia (R. Lattimore, trans)
Sophocles, the Theban plays (var trans.)
Greek Tragedies, Vol. I, Richmond Lattimore, ed.
Greek Tragedies, Vol. III, Richmond Lattimore, ed.
Hesiod Theogeny
Tristan and Iseult as told by Joseph Bedier
Henry James New York Revisited
Aeschylus The Complete Plays
Sophocles The Complete Plays
Mikhail Bulgakov A Country Doctor's Notebook
Bertolt Brecht "Der Augsburger Kreidekreis"
Arthur Scott Bailey The Tale of Rusty Wren
Mikhail Bulgakov White Guard
Various Der Weg Zum Lesen
Thucydides The Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley trans.)
Hesiod Works and Days
Äsop Fabeln
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter, a Critical Case Study
Selected Essays of Samuel Johnson (W.J. Bate, editor)
W.B. Yeats "Cathleen ni Houlihan"
W.B. Yeats "On Baile's Strand"
W.B. Yeats "Deirdre"
W.B. Yeats "The Death of Cuchulain"
Selma Lagerlöf The Wonderful Adventures of Nils
Anton Chekhov In The Twilight
Lionel Terray Conquistadors of the Useless
D.H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley's Lover
Euripides The Complete Plays, Vol I
Edith Wharton The New York Stories
Gertrude Stein Three Lives
Gertrude Stein QED
Alexander Pushkin The Captain's Daughter
Isak Dinesen Out of Africa
Ernest Hemingway A Moveable Feast
Sandra E. Adickes To Be Young Was Very Heaven
Michael Smith Tom Crean
David Von Drehle Triangle
Virginia Woolf Selected Stories
Gunter Grass Katz und Maus
Angela Thirkell Wild Strawberries
E.R. Dodds The Ancient Concept of Progress and other essays
Marly Youmans Maze of Blood
Jennifer Niven The Ice Master

The surprise winner of all of the above books is Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War. What a great book that is. I'm usually not a fan of history, non-fiction in general not being all that well written, frankly, but this is a tremendous book. In 2016, hopefully, I'll read Herodotus and Xenophon, the bookends of Thucydides, so to speak.

I did not, I see, finish my Greek Tragedies Project, and have one fat volume of Euripides to go. Well, it'll be waiting for me in 2016, alongside the last of the Shakespeare and everything else I haven't read yet (an infinitude of literature, which is a good thing for me because one hates to run out of new things to read). I did manage to read more books in German this year than in years past, and that's likely a trend that will only increase, though I still read German fairly slowly, depending on the writer's vocabulary and use of figurative language. But I already have a stack of German novels waiting for my attention next year, another good thing.

I would like to take a moment to recommend Jeff Sypeck's The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier, a translation of a long medieval poem that starts with a tradesman slapping a king and goes on to incorporate ideas of nobility and then swallows the Crusades whole. A ripping yarn in a strange poetic form that Sypeck makes sing in colloquial English. Buy a copy at his Quid Plura? blog.

Marly Youmans continues to put out superb novels. Early in 2015 I read her excellent Glimmerglass, a book about life and inspiration. Very late in 2015 I read her latest, Maze of Blood, which is naturally getting good reviews and you should buy two copies, give away one and read the other. I will hopefully be able to write something both worth reading and coherent about this excellent new novel. I've twice already written incoherently about it. Go read the book, is what I mean.

Because it's traditional for these obligatory "what I read this year" posts to also say something about what I wrote this year, I will tell you that I completed a first draft of a novel called Antosha!. It used to be called Antosha in Prague, but I have decided that an exclamation point is necessary for this one. It is some of my finest writing, some of my best thinking. Clearly unpublishable. I also have revised, for the nth time, a novel called Mona in the Desert. I am working on the pitch letter, so I can query the novel to literary agents in 2016. Mona is a nonlinear narrative about women and love, spanning 60-odd years, with large doses of literary theory and philosophy. Clearly unpublishable. Currently I am drafting a new novel, called Nowhere But North, a book about a fictional American expedition to Antarctica in 1914. It's about Emersonian ideals versus human decency, by which statement you can tell I think the two are opposed. The book is in three parts, which overlap and tell the story in sideways-reverse chronological order. Clearly unpublishable. I expect to finish the first draft come spring 2016, at which point I'll go back to Antosha! and revise that MS. I do not plan to write any more novels after I complete Nowhere But North. I do plan to buy more hats.

The German-language blogging seems to have been a mistake. I will do more English-language blogging. Possibly a foray into Esperanto at some point, too. Has anyone written a novel in Esperanto? Yes, I see that lots of people have.

What else, what else? In 2016, I plan to read more poetry, more Ruskin, the rest of Euripides, whatever Aristophanes I haven't read, more theology, more Melville, the final six (five?) books of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, more Virginia Woolf, more Shakespeare, more early 20th-century British women novelists, a lot of Chekhov, and I don't know what else. That Le Guin trilogy, certainly. Max Frisch's Homo Faber. The German-language edition of The Hobbit I picked up a few years ago. More Henry James. I might read Middlemarch and the epic of Gilgamesh and The Long Ships finally. I'll come up with plenty of things to read, I always do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In Our Stars: notes on Marly Youmans' "Maze of Blood"

I realize that Marly Youmans' remarkable new novel Maze of Blood is based loosely on the biographical facts of Robert E. Howard, who shot himself in the head when it became apparent that his consumptive mother had fallen into a terminal coma. Conall Weaver, Youmans' fictional pulp fiction writer, lets "normal" life, "normal" love, and "normal" success pass him by as he remains in the family home, providing his mother the care and attention his mostly-absent physician father won't provide. Conall's friends have gone away, to college or other callings, as he stays behind in his small Texas town where he is an outcast, a freak who writes foolish stories nobody in his home town will read. That Conall makes more money than his neighbors is no mark of success to them. He is not one of them, and never will be. My argument is that, despite Conall Weaver's suicide at the age of 30-something, this is not a tragic story of lost opportunities.

Youmans has, in previous books (Thaliad and Glimmerglass especially), shown that the creation of art is itself an otherness, a thing not of "normal" life. To choose the way of art is turn from the "normal" path, at least in part, because the "normal" world is not generally friendly to a life of making art. Conall Weaver chooses the way of art. More importantly, he also chooses the way of compassion, staying with his mother, nursing her when she is too sick to care for herself, honoring a childhood promise many of us would forget as we grow into adulthood. Conall strains against both the way of art and the way of compassion, and it would be easy to see him as a defeated man, brought under by his obligation to his mother and his entrapment in a small Texas town. I do not think we are meant to see Conall Weaver this way, though. Youmans is a subtle writer, and I've been thinking about how little Maze of Blood feels like a story of defeat and desperation. It wasn't until I was leafing through Butler's Lives of the Saints last weekend that I began to think that Conall Weaver's story is possibly one of grace, like the grace achieved by Flannery O'Connor's characters. Conall Weaver, then, presented as a sort of anchorite, choosing to remain in that small town to look after his mother, because he knew it was wrong to go. (This is all a bit too reductive, I know, but I'm going to follow this angle anyway.)

I don't really know if that's Youmans' argument, that Conall Weaver stayed where he was because he knew it was wrong to go anywhere else. He chose to remain with his mother, possibly making a professional sacrifice but, you know, possibly not. It might simply be that Conall's place was with his mother, and he knew that. He and his mother formed a sort of small private world, and if you don't insist on a Freudian spin, maybe there was nothing wrong with that small private world. Maybe Maze of Blood isn't a story of repression and loss. Maybe it's a story of Conall Weaver making the most of what he was, of what he had. Maybe his mother and his small republic of letters was the biggest world he could have, and when his mother died, he recognized the impossibility of entering a new--another--world. Hence the borrowed pistol. Conall's dedication to his mother was the correct moral choice if you take selfishness off the table. The villain of the piece, if there is one, is Conall's father, a doctor who spends as much time away from home as he possibly can, proud of Conall's success as a writer but taking almost no responsibility for his wife's quality of life.

I don't think that Youmans intends us to look at Conall Weaver's story and think, "Oh, what a pity, what a pity." I don't think that we are to see Conall remaining at home as a great tragedy. I think a lot of reviewers recognize Youmans' high achievement in prose and storytelling, but somehow misunderstand the action of the tale, seeing a thwarted hero's journey. These readers miss the particular truth of Conall Weaver by looking for a happy generality they can apply to themselves, I think. Conall Weaver was victorious on the moral plain, the place where it counts. This is one of the great strengths of Youmans as a novelist: she defies the easy commonplaces of fiction, refusing to align her novels with the cliches of the day. She gives us beautiful and discomfiting works of art, and we should pay better attention.

(I thought I was going to quote from Maze of Blood, but apparently I'm not. Maybe in my next post, when I talk about the book instead of talking about myself.)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Happy Christmas

Best gifts received, 2015:
  • A small hexagonal box of which I unfortunately don't have a photo handy
  • Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy in the original covers (Earthsea was my teenage choice for high fantasy, much preferred to LOTR; I last read the books about a decade ago and they held up fine)
  • Drinking With the Saints by Michael Foley, a mixology guide that's a cross between Butler's Guide to the Saints, the Roman missal, and Paul Clarke's Cocktail Chronicles. I like that Foley takes the theology seriously, that faith isn't the butt of jokes.

Monday, December 21, 2015

no-limit Texas hold 'em

Yesterday I read the first half of Marly Youmans' latest novel Maze of Blood. There is a point, about a third into the book, where Youmans does an amazing and subtle thing: the protagonist Conall (a professional genre fiction writer) and his girl Maybelline (a schoolteacher with ambitions of being a writer) are having an argument about stories. Conall denies that the real-world events all around him are compelling stories; real life is dull and empty compared to the fantastic tales he writes. Maybelline denies that the fantastic tales Conall writes tell the truth about actual human life; they are false and ignore the intimate details of real lives. Both of these people, Youmans shows, are wrong; both "realism" and the fantastic have the power to tell truths, both large and small, about real life. Youmans brilliantly demonstrates this by having the lives of Conall and Maybelline exist simultaneously as prosaic narratives and as myth-sized wonder tales, the daily lives informing the mythic fictions, the mythic fictions transforming into the daily lives, the real-world scene in which Conall and Maybelline have their argument itself existing in both worlds, both the "real" and the fantastic, the whole narrative wobbling ironically around these people's denials. It's just wonderful stuff, high-degree-of-difficulty writing, and Youmans is wise enough that she doesn't point out what she's doing, she just does it and perceptive readers might ask themselves how their own lives are both prosaic narratives and mythic battles between primal forces. Great writing indeed.

The closest thing I can think of to what Youmans does here is the bit in Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight where, as the narrator V describes Sebastian's various novels, the narrative itself becomes those novels for a few pages. That was a cool trick, Vladimir. Youmans does something different, but it is also a cool trick. I could barely contain my excitement while reading that chapter. Yes, I thought. Yes, this is the stuff.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Three, Wise"

The first raised an astrolabe. There’s the Star, he said. We’re directly below it. Where are we?

Yehuda, the second answered. He was tired of carrying the chest of valuables. He'd thought they'd assign him the astrolabe.

Directly below is vague, don't you think, asked the third. You can't triangulate with one sighting. We should have maps, stand apart on the edges of the plateau. Can we identify one woman in these villages? What if she's in al-Quds?

Let's just walk, the first said. We're bright fellows.

Behind the three, the starlight fell upon the raised swords of Herod's soldiers.

This is my small contribution to Loren Eaton's annual Advent Ghosts shared storytelling event. Every year Loren invites a large and varied group of writers to come up with 100-word stories that might be creepy and might have the season as a theme. It's always a good time and I always dash off my story at the last minute. Thanks again, Loren!