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A Pile of Books

It was introvert heaven.  Lynn left around noon the day after Christmas to take her dad back to Little Rock and to spend a few days sorting through more of her mom's stuff.  Marian and Josie had come over to say goodbye, but they left shortly thereafter.  From then until Tuesday evening, when Lynn got home, I had no obligations, nobody that I had to see, no place that I had to go, nobody that I had to talk to.

There was the daily email to take care of, but with a lot of people taking vacation, that was pretty light.  I fixed myself some nice meals, watched movies in the evening, played guitar for an hour or so everyday.  Mostly, I read.

I had been working my way through Just Enough Leibling, so I was able to finish that the day after Lynn left.  I'd bought it several years ago, based on the reviews it received when it came out.  I suppose I'd been vaguely familiar with the name, a guy who wrote long pieces for the New Yorker during that magazine's early heyday, but I don't think I'd read any of his stuff.  The review convinced me that I ought to, but then, of course, it sat on the shelf for a few years.  It was worth waiting for.  His tales of the characters in the streets of New York are great fun, and his exaggerated sentences, perfectly pitched to the extravagances of his subjects are a delight, but I was most moved by his reporting from World War II.   Here, his sentences are spare and almost flat as he describes the most dramatic and searing episodes.  The restraint makes it all the more moving.  The Library of America has just come out with a collected Leibling that is now on my shelf and I look forward to getting to that one day.

On the stand next to the chair in my study is a stack of books that have come in via the Booksmith's Signed First Editions club, so I looked through that next.  This year's free thirteenth was Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas.  Seemed like appropriate timing, so I picked that one up next.  It's the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol and, in the process, helped to establish many of the traditions that we now associate with Christmas.  I was very impressed with it -- it's fairly brief, but the writing is excellent and Standiford has done great research.  Down here in the Bible Belt, where the recent announcement that scientists have determined that the Christmas Star probably shone in June rather than December has been received with great consternation in some quarters, it was very amusing to be reminded that up until fairly recent times the major Christian holiday was Easter, and that in certain parts of the colonies it was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas, because the holiday had such a reputation for licentiousness and debauchery.  I wonder what Bill O' would make of that?

By then I was ready to dig into a novel, so I pulled from the stack Ron Rash's Serena, which turns out to be a reworking of the themes of Shakespeare's Macbeth set against a backdrop of the battles between the lumber barons and the conservationists in North Carolina in the 1930s.  Great story, well drawn characters, nicely absorbing.  I was particularly taken with the way that he uses one of the work crews to fill the same role that Shakespeare would give to his clowns -- minor characters who can comment on the main action and fill out the picture.  Impressively believable, given how over-the-top the story actually was.

Next from the stack I went with The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig, which got a good review in the NYT shortly after it arrived from the Booksmith.  There's nothing flashy about this novel, which takes it's starting point from a true story.  During WWII, the eleven members of the starting lineup of a Montana college football team all enlisted and all died (Montana had the second highest casualty rate of any state in the union, just behind New Mexico).   In Doig's version (which does not attempt to retell the actual story), one of the eleven is tapped to be a correspondent for a shadowy government outfit tasked with writing propaganda pieces about the other members of his team.  Of course, one by one, they get killed.  Doig comes close to melodrama on occasion and strains a bit at times with maintaining the central premise of his story, but he pulls it off.  It was particularly moving against the backdrop of our current idiotic war in which so many young men and women with so much to offer are being senselessly sacrificed to no good purpose.

By the time I finished The Eleventh Man, Lynn was back, it was New Year's day and Marian and Josie were here.    I was ready for something light.  I'd given each of them a copy of The Tales of Beedle the Bard as stocking stuffers and, unbeknownst to me, Marian had bought a copy for her Mom, so that one came to me.  It had gotten mixed reader reviews -- some people were disappointed that it wasn't more substantial, apparently wanting it to be the eighth volume of the Harry Potter series, so I picked it up without any particular expectations.  I thought it was marvelous.  It took just an hour to read, but all of Rowling's humor and inventiveness are on display.  There's no story in particular, but that's okay.  My favorite part was finding out that the seeds of the enmity between Dumbledore and Lucius Malfoy arise from Dumbledore's refusal to remove a book that Malfoy disapproves of from the Hogworts library.

Having cleared my palate, so to speak, I was ready to dig back into something substantial, and I went for Roberto Bolano's 2666 which Lynn gave me for Christmas.  It's shown up on several Best of...  lists and some of the praise has been quite extravagant.  I'm about midway through and from what I can tell at this point, the extravagance is not misplaced.  It's about 900 pages in total, so now that I'm back at work it's going to take me awhile to get through it.  I'm both eager and hesitant -- I know it's going to get a lot darker before we get to the end.

I won't get another chance to indulge in that depth of reading until at least next summer, I suppose, but that's okay.  By Tuesday morning, when I finally went out to the grocery store, it was the real world that felt strange and I knew I needed to get back to it.  Even introverts have to live outside of themselves.



Wow, quite a reading spree! We were just on a three week train travel extravaganza through Europe, and between the long flights and train rides I was able to read more deeply than in a long time as well. Google hasn't taken all my reading stamina away!

Here's the tally:

1. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (Larry McMurtry)

2. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (Anne Tyler, a re-read)

3. Snow (Orhan Pamuk)

4. At Large and at Small (Anne Fadiman; delightful, hilarious, and every so often profound)

5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz; amazing)

T Scott

I've read the Diaz, and agree that it was amazing. Your comment reminds me that I want to re-read it soon. I haven't read "At Large and At Small", although I was a subscriber to The American Scholar during her entire tenure there as editor, so I think I read most of the pieces when they first came out. I have read her earlier book of essays, "Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader", which is one of my favorite books of all time. Her book, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" is also very worth reading. It examines the case of a Hmong family in California that had a child with epilepsy, and looks into the cultural issues that surrounded their struggle to get decent medical care. It was the Freshman Discussion Book here at UAB a couple of years ago. Great stuff.


Oh yes, "Spirit Catches You" is brilliant and profound. I wrote a senior year paper at Northwestern about it!

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