Sunday, January 10, 2010

Read in 10

Books Read to Finish in Calendar 2010

Updated 22 February 2010

This listing follows the one began in Read in 08 and continued in Read in 09. It lists books in the chronological order I read them during the year. As before, I recount only those titles I read in full.

Ratings given follow the system established for the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom. Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections. SF – Stratford Festival plays. YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

John Hassler, The New Woman (2005). BC Hassler was a Minnesotan through and through, one of the states most popular authors. By popular, I mean he attracted large audiences to his readings. I was fortunate to hear him three times over a 15 year period and to have a conversation with him at the last. He was in charge of those presentations, assured and practice in his delivery, but also modest about his accomplishments. Hassler wrote from a common background as though somewhere in the midst of the state; one series of his novels revolve around the city of Staggerford and its residents. Agatha McGee is one civic leader who appeared as a side figure in Staggerford (1977) where in Hassler's words, "she took over" and went on to star in novels of her own - A Green Journey (1985) and Dear James (1993). Miss McGee returns in this one, eighty-eight in 1998.

A couple of bad turns in Agatha's life move her to leave her big house on the river. She tries and then settles into Sunset Senior Apartments alongside some old friends and many strangers. The novel seems like three short stories knit together - a missing diamond brooch Agatha thinks stolen, a kidnapped child she shelters despite the law and her conscience, the formation of a support group for the depressed - but Hassler claims to have given up short stories. The overall plot unrolls Agatha's internal life, and this is where Hassler excels; he is a master of characterization and stories that follow from character. Agatha, used to being in charge as a teacher and Catholic school principal, exercising her deep respect for tradition and morality even over the resident priest becomes for readers someone more than her apparent past.

Now, I want to read the other novels. 4

*Ursula K. Le Guin, Powers (2007). After Gifts (2004) and Voices (2006), this novel is the third in Le Guin's series Annals of the Western Shore. Though I am a devoted fan of Le Guin, who has long inspired me, these books were unknown to me. I read Powers at once, savoring every word. Le Guin has said that "in art, the best is the standard," and she endeavors to fulfill that aesthetic.

In her novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), Le Guin contrasts different cultures with one another. In Powers, young Gavir experiences one culture after another. Gav and his older sister Sullo had been taken by slavers from their distant home and raised in the household of Arcamand, a patrician family of Etra, a city state, one among many. Their teacher was a slave who passed on his conservative learning and traditional understanding to Gavir so that the Arcas could provide continuing schooling for the children, both of the family and slave. As a house slave, Gavir had opportunity to devote to his learning and relationships within the household.

Suddenly the dark underside of slavery descends upon Gavir. His sister drowns, apparently due to sexual games of the young lords of the town. Overwrought with grief, Gavir wanders away witlessly and would have perished were it not for a barbaric hermit who shelters him. Afterwards Gavir spends time with a band of slaves, then as the seeming favored of Barna's Heart of the Forest. Barna advocates freedom for all, but acts otherwise as the man in control. Gavir moves on once again in quest of his origins, finds his own people, but realizes he is not one of them and seeks once more for a home that satisfies.

Ostensibly a fantasy because of the power of visioning the future, Le Guin uses each vivid setting and complex relationship of characters to illuminate the powers of self-discovery and identification. All this in the most excellent prose. 5, or close to it.

Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (1923). Cather set many of her books and stories in a western town, actually her childhood home of Red Cloud, NB, the same town with several different names. This time it is Sweet Water, once a booming pioneer terminal, that flourished with immigration and the coming of the railroad connecting Chicago to Denver and points west. The town is in decline, and the principals decline with it.

Neil Herbert, a young man growing up, tells the story. Because he is the Judge's nephew, he has an in with Captain Daniel Forrester and his younger, second wife Marian when they host parties. The Forrester's are the hub of rural society, and Marian is the most gracious of hostesses and women of the town. Neil attends to Mrs. Forrester with innocent awe, marvelling how she endearingly presents herself and takes care of husband, house and hospitality with light touches.

Midway in the story, the bank that Forrester had as a primary investment went bankrupt and the honorable Captain sold his other interests in total to protect all the small depositors from loss. When the Captain has a stroke, Neil does everything he can to care for him and ease the burden on Mrs. Forester. He finds, however, that her attraction to men younger than her husband risks her status in his eyes and her reputation in the community.

Cather weaves the story of individual personality against the backdrop of western expansion that took the hard work and sincerity of the pioneers to make it a civilization. "Lost" gains a double meaning in that Marian Forrester was always lost, a woman of subtle beauty and attractive manners who little achievement of her own. Without education, profession, or wealth of her own, she was necessarily dependent on men of prominence who became devoted to her because she graced their lives.

A short book, but a tragic one. 4, thanks to its writing and the power of suggestion.

Willa Cather, Old Mrs. Harris (1932). Willa Cather intrigues me. After reading A Lost Lady, I needed something more from her and took up a collection of her selected shorter fiction. At an estimated 21,000 words - 75 pages in this showcase - Old Mrs. Harris may be more of a long short story than a novella that one source defines for me as 30,000 words. Characters are few and interrelated neighbors; the action encompasses the events of one summer.

Cather attained the artistry of subtle, but powerful suggestion; and her treatment is what captivates and leaves me pondering how she so lightly tells a story that has more depth than appears on the surface. Her aesthetic, presented in the brief essay "The Novel Démeublé" (unfurnished). She calls her approach "the art of simplification," a creation that does the most with the apt economy of her critically effective language.

Grandma Harris, an elderly woman, bears the household of her daughter Victoria's family. She appears as self-controlled, unassuming and satisfied with next to nothing. When not attending to the family, she retires to her closet of a room, its single rocker and hard cot. She has a dress to wear, two hanging behind a piece of drappery, and one in the wash. That is enough along side the comfort of a clean apron any time she wants it.

The neighboring Rosen's, immigrant European Jews who treasure languages and books and without children of their own, attend to Mrs. Harris and her family, especially the teenage Vickie, who wants to go to college purely for the sake of learning.

Victoria Templeton seems as lost as Marian Forrester; however bothered and disappoint she may be, she lives a life without drudgery, just as Mrs. Harris wants and is able to achieve for her.
The concerns of these people for one another form the story thanks to the solicitous Mrs. Rosen, the yearning Vickie, and the accommodating Mrs. Harris, who knows her own fate and quietly moves on in complete, realistic acceptance of it.

I remain impressed: I give a 4, held from the top because of the obvious moral stated at the end where Cather betrays her own intention.

Charles Baxter, The Art of Subtext (2007).
Baxter, a novelist, short story writer and teacher at the University of Minnesota, was unknown to me until the 2008 Minnesota Book Awards. I located his book in Garrison Keilor's bookstore, but it took a vaction to finish reading it. The idea of subtext - what is not said, but implied in one way or another - intrigued me as it had so fully in the Cather selections preious. This collection of essays, a couple published in earlier forms, gives the subject an analytical and impressive sweep.

Not all books on writing fiction work for me, some more than others while some not at all. Still, they attract me. This one really piqued my interest because it covered unknown territory, matters with my ignorance or with which I had disagreement or discomfort. Chiefly, my problem hinges on the handling of conflict. Most dramatic conflict I witness in various contempoary media stems from stupidity or misunderstanding that ought not to stand for real or significant problems. Such facile conflicts fail to interest me; in fact, they repel me. I expect more rationality and intelligence from people than forms the basis of the bulk of story-telling.

Baxter challenges my line of thinking and assumptions beginning with his second essay, "Digging the Subterranean." We all have areas in our thinking and conversation where we do not tread too deeply or for long. I know I dismiss certain things that I could think about more critically. I do so on the grounds that they are too complex for the moment, or too irreconcilable as dilemmas, or too far beyond available or possible evidence. If this situation harbors in me, who has a long history of self-examination, how much more are such refusals the case among people in general and therefore among my characters. This one idea lead me to analyze the whole issue of the relationships of life and fiction, their various domains and possibilities, and to begin to think through my current novel, At Last, I Depart, and its principal character Lady Frivovla of Allonor, afterwards known as the Consort. What are her assumptions, her suppressions?

Baxter references a lot of litterature in behalf of his observations and arguments, some of it high in my estimation - especially Borges, Cather, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Penelope Fitzgerald, Hardy, James, J.F. Powers, and Welty. Others, I have not been able to care for at all, but am willing to give another reading - chiefly Bellow and F.S. Fitzgerald. Many others I do not know at all but hear touted - Auster, Coetzee, DeLillo, Henry Green, Percy, and K.A. Porter. I know my education lacks the fullness it ought to have.

Baxter talks a lot about the importance of conflict as a means of capturing reader interest. The need in fiction, he says, is for the author not only to welcome conflict, but to walk straight into it. I recognize that Baxter states in hyperbole what is standard advice for fiction writers. The issue for me becomes a matter of what constitutes valid and significant conflict and what is conflict alongside other means of captivating reader interest. Much more is involved in reader interest than conflict. Basically we are entranced by language and a desire to know what happens next in the situations and to the characters that attract us. Even when novels are over and seeming resolved at some level, we want to know what happens next.

Medea's conflict consists of utter rage at being jilted so that she justifies Jason's abandonment as grounds for murdering his new woman and then her own children. For me the intrigue is the progressive argument of her justification as the grounds for action, something that has caused me, absorbed in cathartic sympathy with her, to weep. Othello's conflict consists of connived jealousy whereby he murders his faithful wife: I think he should have sought more conconclusive evidence and here feel intense anger for Iago's deception of Othello. Both shall have their due. Tokien's thousand pages hinge on one gigantic conflict of good against outrageous evil, but regardless of this intense fully fanticized plot, I pick up The Lord of the Rings at any point for the sheer pleasure of savoring the excellence of high quality writing.

What literature equals for me is my own aesthetic, not what I others say it is, but what I find it to be. I have more notes from Baxter's relatively short book than I do from many others of greater length and weight. He has informed me in ways that broaden my artistic horizons, yet do not totally convince me. Perhaps I misread him, but Baxter seems to defer to the trends of contemporary culture as current literature reflects them. Although he is excellent at permeating these connections, he gives way to them. He remarks that Hardy spends three pages on the description of Eustacia Vye's face in The Return of the Native, something he reluctantly admires. But we don't do that anymore: it is out of fashion. Did Hardy do it for fashion or effect?

By the by, I also relished what Baxter had to say about the current state of conversation and the lost attention to reading faces. He has been valuable to me, more useful than most books on the rhetoric of fiction. This contribution makes it a 4. Unfortunately, no index.

Olav H. Hauge, The Dream We Carry: selected and last poems (2008).
Hauge, 1908-1994, is a much-loved poet of Norway. Minnesota poets Robert Bly and Robert Hedin have been translating his poems into English over the years and collect those translations here. Bly makes some "improvements" in the alignment of Hauge's lines, but both are remarkably faithful to the originals. Such achievements are due to Hauge's style which is direct and as simple as the modest Norwegian language allows. Most notable, of course, is the wonderful, deeply tonal sound the poems make when read aloud in Norwegian.

Though the anthology is a small collection drawn from seven books and other uncollected poems over Hauge's lifespan, they reflect attention to nature and uncommon reflections stemming from everyday life. In very few words they lines pass from the mundane, pristinely expressed, to greater significance.

"Truth:"Truth is a shy bird/ like the Roc-bird who/ arrives when you don't
expect it,/ sometimes before,/ sometimes after. - page 31

"One Word:" One word/ - one stone/ in a cold river./ One more stone - / I'll need many stones/ if I'm going to get over. - page 49

However, beside the Norwegianness of the poems is Hauge's attention to the wider world, especially classic China.

"To Li Po:" ... didn't you have the whole world, the wind and clouds/ and happinesswhen you were srunk?/ Greater still, Li Po, is/ to master your own heart. - page 17

Mountains are hard to move around./ The roots of oaks pull back,/ who dares to tackle/ the great problems of the world?/ Oxen and elephans hold them on their backs ... - page 117

Many of the poems have become favorites for me. I want more Hauge. I want to regain my ancestral language. If not a 5, it's near to it.

Lewis Carroll, pseud., Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Surely, I read this one in the past. I've had the Modern Library edition since high school and clearly remember reading "Jabberwocky" (1871) and The Hunting of the Snark (1876) about that time. We saw our grandson, Benjamin, as the White Rabbit in a production of Alice in Wonderland where the director developed the dialogue direct from the novel and the stage directions clued from the narrative. That entertainment inspired me to review Carroll all over again.

Alice is one of those classic works, so popular in origin, and continuous of note for a century and a half that it influences our everyday expressions, and can inform our outlook on matters. Alice is also vague enough as a genre to allow diverse and contradictory interpretations such as the 1960s departure in its allusions to hallucinatory drug experiences relayed by a Oxford lecturer in robust mathematics and logic. Dodgson (Carroll) himself is the subject of much speculation as to his true personality, tantalized by vanished or suppressed volumes and pages of his diary.

I have since my own youth regarded that Alice trades on being a story of and for children, but either the children of Oxford were more adroit than they are at large or the novel is a cipher for adult satire and authorial gibes. I prefer the latter view. Since I finished the last chapters after reading The Art of Subtext (see above), I grew more aware of what is not being said in Alice and I looked for instances of conflict. Does Alice have conflicts? Yes, but they come in the guise of adventures.

Alice has mishaps that give her little anguish or pause as she goes on through a series of them that ultimately constitute a journey, but hardly a quest. None of these mishaps thwart Alice's essential childness; she falls from experience to experience with pluck but without anguish. We might view, as Dodgson did, that this is what children naturally do and constitutes their attraction for adults. He once wrote to Alice Liddell, "For I think a child's first attidude to the world is a simple love for all living things." Unfortunately, I have yet to read Mardin Gardner's The Annotated Alice (the definitive edition, 2000), or would have a wider context for my views.

I enjoyed the book immensely for its playful tone, interplay of miscommunications that rival Ionesco's The Bald Soprano, and exposures of fatuous talk. Alice brims with so much apt writing that I found myself identifying numerous potential epigrams in its text. Here his achievement reminded me of the manner of Baum in his best Oz books, wonderful and wise amusements without a hint of obvious artistry.

At the story's end, Alice's older sister stays outdoors thinking of Alice and dreaming herself as Alice had told her about Wonderland as though it were real. She wishes for her that in after-time, though Alice be grown with children of her own, she would retain "the simple and loving heart of her childhood." So might we all.

How can I do other than to give a 5 for something so exceptional, rich and lasting, to which I know I will return.

*Given to me by Cy Chauvin, who shares my taste in novels and well-knows what I like.
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