It was not one of my goals, during the current Global Time Out, to set a new personal record for number of books being read at one time. But I seem to have ended up there. Just as it is easier to buy books than to read them, they are generally easier to start than to finish. And it is not unusual for me to have several going at once, but things may have gotten a little out of hand.
By way of motivational self-shaming, here is a brief breakdown of literary works currently In Progress, along with my excuses for not having finished them:
Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin No shame in this one, as I am reading in conjunction with the Blind Assassin Meander, which still has three weeks to go. I am liking it but find myself constantly wrongfooted by its peculiar combination of humor, time-and reality-shifting, and an undercurrent of persistent dread.
J.G. Ballard, Hello America Written in 1981, Ballard’s delirious vision of post-apocalyptic America feels weirdly resonant today — there’s even a 45th president who, despite being obviously crazy and named Manson, seems vastly preferable to the actual one. This is one of those books that would be easy to rip through in a day — Ballard’s stripped-down prose is built for speed — but it’s more fun if you take it slow.
My reading for the second half of our Morocco trip was Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which seemed like a fairly appropriate pairing. The book is a sort of thinking-man’s Western and parts of Morocco resemble the American Southwest, particularly Arizona and New Mexico. I am less familiar with the even more arid Texas/Mexico region in which Blood Meridian is set, but surely it is not too dissimilar to parts of the Sahara.
McCarthy’s is a much-revered name among modern writers; Harold Bloom, defender of the Western canon, blurbed Blood Meridian as “the major esthetic achievement of any living American writer,” while heavy hitter John Banville said that it “reads like a conflation of the Inferno, the Iliad, and Moby-Dick.”
And yes, the man can write. The following passage on page 20 made me sit up straight in my chair: (more…)
This post is being written in Casablanca, Morocco, which so far is nothing like you see in the movies. It is a weird combination of breezy beach town and bustling modern city on the go. Yesterday’s itinerary included a visit to the local FedEx, where the workers were super helpful and friendly, which is very Morocco, and then the credit card machine was broken – which is also very Morocco. But all was sorted out and the package is, hopefully, winging its way back to the U.S. even now.
But my subject here today is not travelogue, it is literature. My reading for the first part of the trip was Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, which – despite being written three years after Stranger in a Strange Land – is one of Heinlein’s light entertainments, not one of his philosophical blockbusters. But it is still slyly subversive, not least because it is written from the perspective of an 18-year-old girl (8 in Mars years), over the stenuous objections of Heinlein’s publishers. A female protagonist was unheard of in science fiction in 1953, a good 26 years before Alien.(more…)
Congratulate me, I finished two books this week: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. And though they are very different books, written by very different people in very different places at very different times, I found some commonality.
For one thing, [spoiler alert, spoiler alert] main characters in both die of typhoid. In the event, this was during the week the wife and I were taking pills to prevent that very thing from happening to during our trip to Morocco (which is why I was reading The Sheltering Sky in the first place). In fact mortality is a main theme of both books, though Saunders manages to be somewhat uplifting in the process, while Bowles is pretty grim — in a refined literary way, of course.
And I’d love to share more of my penetrating analysis, but departure time is at hand. Check two off the list, anyway.
Recently I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time: took an inventory of all the books I’ve acquired but haven’t read. It’s not a pretty picture. The total comes to 60-some titles and thousands upon thousands of pages. But at least now I have an idea of the scope of the problem, and can begin to take steps to address it.
The first one, of course, is to stop the inflow. To that end I am pledging publicly to acquire no more books for the duration of calendar year 2019, except for Chris O’Leary’s giant Bowie book Ashes to Ashes, which I already have on preorder.
The immediate goal is to finish all of the several books I am in the middle of before leaving for Morocco in mid-February. Then after returning home at the beginning of March I’ll start to deal with The Pile.
So why am I telling you this? Partly because writing about something is a way to make it real. And partly because I hope to write some about what I’m reading, as that seems to be the only way I really remember anything anymore. You are excused in advance for not being interested (though I am always looking for fellow-travelers, so do be in touch if anything strikes a chord).
This excerpt from Hunter’s profile of the skier Jean-Claude Killy, circa 1970, is relevant to current events in a slightly different way from some of the other pieces I’ve been posting. See if you can spot it.
I boarded the plane and instantly found myself involved in a game of musical chairs with the couple who were being moved back to the tourist compartment so Jean-Claude and I could have their first-class seats. “I’ve blocked these two off for you,” the man in the blue uniform told me.
The dowdy little stewardess told the victims how sorry she was — over and over again, while the man howled in the aisle. I hunkered down in the seat and stared straight ahead, wishing him well…. “You sons of bitches!” he yelled, shaking his fist at the crewmen who were pushing him back towards the tourist section. I was hoping he would whack one of them or at least refuse to stay on the plane but he caved in, allowing himself to be hustled off like a noisy beggar.
“What was that about?” Killy asked me.
I told him. “Bad scene, eh?” he said. Then he pulled a car racing magazine out of his briefcase and focused on that. I thought of going back and advising the man that he could get a full refund on his ticket if he kept yelling, but the flight was delayed for at least an hour on the runway and I was afraid to leave my seat for fear it might be grabbed by some late-arriving celebrity.
Within moments, a new hassle developed. I asked the stewardess for a drink and was told that it was against the rules to serve booze until the plane was airborne. Thirty minutes later, I got the same answer. There is something in the corporate manner of United Airlines that reminds me of the California Highway Patrol, the exaggerated politeness of people who would be a hell of a lot happier if all their customers were in jail — and especially you, sir.