December Reading:

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Jack’s dead and his mates are taking his ashes off on a final journey. One of Jack’s mates is an undertaker, and was charged with cremating his remains. In the car, one of them wonders:

Whether it’s Jack in there or Jack mixed up with bits of others, the ones who were done before and the ones who were done after. So Lenny could be holding some of Jack and some of some other feller’s wife, for example. And if it is Jack, whether it’s really all of him or only what they could fit in the jar, him being a big bloke.

Friends since WWII, and with that in common, they’ve grown into men with families and responsibilities. During the trip, driven by Jack’s adopted son, they look back internally on their friendship and their failings.

…what a man does and how he lives in his head are two different things.

Anger, guilt, resentment, stress and growing old, these are all themes. The book is laced with humor, too, black and otherwise. They are a hormonal bunch, close to death, dreaming of liaisons and carnality. Then there are flashes of a beautifully-turned phrase. This is Jack’s wasting and the subsequent effects of illness on his body:

He ought to look less like himself but he doesn’t, he looks more like himself. It’s as if because his body’s packed up, everything’s going into his face and though that’s changed, though it’s all hollow with the flesh hanging on it, it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.

It’s the memory that is the point of it all:

…The dead are the dead, I’ve watched them, they’re equal. Either you think of them all or you forget them … And it doesn’t do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It’s what makes all men equal for ever and always. There’s only one sea.

Last Orders won the Booker Prize in 1996.

November Reading:

A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham takes the fantasy right out of the fairy tale in this dark book, going beyond the safety and comfort of the words ‘The End’.

What happens after the story ends? Misunderstood and misused, the characters in this book have failings, whether they be hero or villain. There are erotic idiosyncrasies and immovable convictions, lonelinesses, and very human emotions. The reader has no choice but to empathize.

This is Rumpelstiltskin, willing to help someone who has 24 hours to spin a room full of straw into gold; otherwise, the king will cut off her head:

‘It’s instinct then, that tells you, Help this girl, good might come of it. Maybe simply because you, and you alone, have something to offer her. You who’ve never before had much to offer any of the girls who passed by, laughing with their boyfriends, leaving traces of perfume in their wake; perfume and powder and a quickening of the air they so recently occupied.’

And the Tin Soldier:

‘He knows about damage the way a woman does. He knows, the way a woman knows, how to carry on as if nothing’s wrong.’

Cunningham crafts the two-dimensional fairy tale world into full 3-D.

Michael Cunningham won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

The Incantation – Shakespeare’s MacBeth, Act IV, Scene I

A dark cave. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
Thunder.
Enter the three Witches

FIRST WITCH
Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.

SECOND WITCH
Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

THIRD WITCH
Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”

FIRST WITCH
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

SECOND WITCH
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blindworm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

THIRD WITCH
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.

ALL
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

SECOND WITCH
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

[Enter Hecate, to the other three Witches]

HECATE
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

[Music and a song: ‘Black spirits,’ etc, Hecate retires]

SECOND WITCH
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks!

Enter MacBeth.

October Reading:

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of those overlooked writers, maybe due to the fact that The Lottery is required reading in high school lit classes. Kids grow up thinking she’s a one-hit wonder.

Shirley’s writing is tight, focused. A sign of a true professional is when the writing is so effective it doesn’t need an adjective. Those tend to bog things down. These stories have movement. At times, Shirley uses repetition but for the right reasons. In The Possibility of Evil, the roses are mentioned so often they can be smelled right through the page.

It’s not all grim. Some of it is dark but funny: I snorted out loud reading Louisa, Please Come Home.

Then there is the Kafkaesque quality of Paranoia. Maybe everyone is out to get you.

Shirley had a miserable marriage with her husband. She birthed out some kids and then settled into her house and her writing in Vermont. She became ever more reclusive as the years passed.

Maybe this misery contributed to the disturbing stories she wrote. The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best horror novels of the 20th century. As an aside, it was made into one of the best psychological thrillers of the 1960s.

Shirley died of heart failure when she was 48, in 1965.

It’s Banned Books Week

The Biloxi, Mississippi school board just removed To Kill A Mockingbird from its 8th grade curriculum. Their reasoning: “It makes people uncomfortable.”

The writer Wole Soyinka said: “A book if necessary should be a hammer, a hand grenade which you detonate under a stagnant way of looking at the world.”

Here’s a link to the ALA’s most frequently challenged books.

September Reading:

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Patrick was best known as a travel writer (see A Time of Gifts) but he was also a soldier; after fighting in WWII for Cretan resistance, he lived in Greece. And as a scholar, he had no peer. Patrick was self-taught in multiple languages. He was a bon vivant in the best sense, a charismatic character who lived life to its fullest.

Patrick made a pilgrimage of abbeys in the 1950s to read and write, and learn from the abbey libraries he visited. At one, the father librarian handed him a key and let him take as many books as he’d like to his room. It was a book reader’s dream:

‘The library was beautifully kept, and considering the Abbey’s vicissitudes, enormous. Vellum-bound folios and quartos receded in vistas, and thousands of ancient and modern works on theology, canon law, dogma, patrology, patristics, hagiography, mysticism and even magic, and almost as many on secular history, art, and travel.’

The monasteries commanded silence, perfect for a writer. They were ‘beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations.’ And Patrick was there to write, and to learn. His details of the rituals of mass are lovely:

‘The anthem was followed by a long stillness which seemed to be scooped out of the very heart of sound.’

When speaking was required, during the canonical hours, it was a complement to this long stillness. There is a soothing quality that comes with communicating in different languages. It is the prism of sliding between languages throughout the liturgies, all sides of the same glass. The abbots slip from Latin to French to Latin; then Patrick follows with the English narrative.

The book is more than a book of stillness; it is a history of monasteries, abbeys, and sects. It is a thank you letter from Patrick to each monastery he visited.

Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011. This is The Guardian’s obit for him.

July Reading:


W.B. Yeats

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?