Posted by: zhiv | May 17, 2010

Reading Notes: The Middle of May

Everything seems really scattered, even more than usual. So I’m thinking that I’ll check in on some of my areas of interest and try to remember all of the things that I haven’t been doing. I’ve been dipping in an out of all sorts of stuff. I’m a little scared right now, but here goes.

–Richard Yates and Richard Russo. Richard Russo has written a wonderful screenplay based on three Richard Yates short stories, Builders, Saying Goodbye to Sally, and Oh Joseph I’m So Tired. I have a post in the bank from last November when I first read the script, for whatever that’s worth. I wanted to read more Yates, to head towards completion, but haven’t gotten going. Reading Russo went much better, as I knocked out three of his books pretty quickly. Then I got sidetracked, and I didn’t make it past the second or third chapter of the next Russo on my list, Nobody’s Fool. The plan here, I would think, is to read a Yates story or two, then a Russo story or two from his collection The Whore’s Child, and then, after getting past a couple of books in the bullets below, to go after Nobody’s Fool again. The next Yates for me would be A Good School, which I’ve started a couple of times, and then maybe A Special Providence, but there are still stories I haven’t read.

And I should also mention here that I haven’t read my homie KCJ’s dissertation on Yates yet (but I don’t think she’s read my novel, either). I could use the excuse that I haven’t read all of Yates’s work, but that didn’t stop me from reading Blake Bailey’s biography. I have good reasons to get into all of this, so I’m looking for some quick progress.

–Stories Segue. Yates and Russo stories provide a nice transition to something that I have been doing , which is reading a short story here and there. There’s a nice assortment on my bedside shelves. I’ve read J.D. Salinger stories and I keep dipping into Chekhov and I’ve wanted to organize my Chekhov approach for a long time. My follow up on the Kate Chopin front was to read some of her short stories. And I wanted to bring Chekhov and Chopin together by reading Maupassant. There are other authors on my story list too, just to take a sample, writers like Henry James and Willa Cather.

–Academic/Teacher Novels. You know, I realize I never got the Elaine Showalter book on Academic novels. I have a couple of her books now, but that’s the one that crosses my mind. I remember bumping around the internet somewhere and seeing how many people are writing essays and theses and doing courses on academic novels: it was a bit strange, but pretty amazing. I feel good about the topic, and I loved reading Straight Man, Stoner of course, and Lucky Jim. The next one I want to read is Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe–another book I get to buy. Maybe Moo after that.

But I moved onto this topic because I mentioned Willa Cather and I was remembering The Professor’s House. Zhivhomie Dorothy W. made a lightning quick comment on my last post, calling it a nice “reading history.” She made me realize how that’s something that I like to do, and I do it a fair amount, and it’s one of my favorite elements of blogging, where anything goes, right? I like to use blogpsots as a way to record my own reading contexts, or histories or whatever you want to call them. I wish other bloggers would do it more, settle in and share their reading backgrounds. Everything always seems focused on the present: I read this, and here’s what I’m thinking. I like to hear how people got to books and authors, what they’re bringing to the current read. You get it at times, but maybe there could be more. But I don’t suppose I need a justification for my own enjoyment in doing it. And I’m a little different I suppose–we’re all unique readers of course–in that 25 years ago I left behind an academic career that never started, and I’ve been carrying around a lot of unexpressed book baggage all that time. What can I say: I find the “reading history” to be quite satisfying, and it’s probably even more so when I’m not doing a whole lot of reading. Maybe I should suggest that bloggers who feel like taking a break might consider doing a reading history or two, getting away from the necessity of having a specific book to write about. At any rate, the point here is that I’d like to look at the list of Academic novels and review some of the ones I’ve read in the past: remembering Willa Cather made me think of that.

–David Foster Wallace and others. There’s no way I’m going to read Infinite Jest until I’m settled, calm, focused and effective, which will probably never happen, but it’s become clear to me what an extraordinary writer he was. I’ve read a couple of essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing and I started Shipping Out and want to finish it. I read the fragment of his unpublished novel in The New Yorker, along with the accompanying essay, and I’m curious about all things Wallace. My daughter is almost a DFW completist now, and I might have to get her the new David Lipsky book of interviews with DFW. The other novelists who have managed to make their way onto my radar over the past year or so are Jonathan Lethem and David Mitchell, just to mention two. I could move further along this tack, but I’ll stop there.

–Maine Novels. Remember that this is a subset of Literary Boston and New England Novels, where there is a lot of work to be done. The book I was excited to begin reading yesterday was The Pearl of Orr’s Island by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I think I have a rambling consideration of Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin that I never typed up–I’ll have to give it another look and see if it makes sense. Fingers are crossed that I’ll actually make it through this book. I know that it’s a key text for Sarah Orne Jewett and her work, and I should look around to see if anyone is reading it. I made a great book purchase last week, finding a solid set of the Houghton Mifflin Fireside Edition of Stowe’s works, 8 volumes for $50. I had faked at ordering a copy of The Pearl a number of times, but never did it. And of course I still have that last story in Deephaven to read, going on a couple of years now. But if you’ve read Olive Kitteredge and made the Jewett connection and read Country of the Pointed Firs (and Deephaven and A Country Doctor–The Pearl of Orr’s Island already reminds me quite a bit of A Country Doctor), this is a note to say that Stowe is up next. It makes me wonder, after writing about Thackeray and Vanity Fair, how and if people read HB Stowe. I might spend some time trying to figure that out, but first I should look at the stuff I wrote about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Without setting up a separate Jewett-Annie Fields bullet, I’ll note that Annie Fields wrote a “Life and Letters” biography of Stowe, which I happen to have on my shelves.

–John Williams. You know what I’m really excited about reading? (Too bad I don’t seem to read much these days.) Butcher’s Crossing, by John Williams. Williams’s Stoner is the best book I’ve read since reading Yates, I think, and from what I can tell Butcher’s Crossing is great too. I also have a copy of Williams’s National Book Award-winning Augustus, which has to be good. I think I’ll hold off on that one, however, since reading Roman historical fiction would open a fairly substantial can of worms: a fun reading history to be done there I guess. All in good time.

–Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkle. I just need to regain momentum to do a quick read of this book, which was the follow-up to Gessen and Batuman. I got a good start on it but was distracted. What should have been fun, fast and interesting, as Gessen and Batuman were, didn’t happen. I’m not sure why I don’t feel like getting back to it. Maybe I topped out on reading smart writers who are much younger than I am, and needed to read dead writers for awhile. I want to try to get back to it, maybe after I get through some other stuff.

–African-American Literature: Cane. Another book I’m threatening to finish reading is the brief and fascinating Cane, by Jean Toomer. I’ve been sidetracked from the African-American Reading List for quite a while now, with enough other interesting topics that I haven’t missed it, but there’s work to be done there. I found a random copy of Cane, even though it’s in the most awesome Norton Anthology of African-American Lit, which is one of the most impressive books I know. I jumped into it, so at least now I have an idea of what it’s like–it’s a unique text. I saw the Classics Circuit African-American read in January too late, and it might have prompted me to get through James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way, which I didn’t see on their list and I had set it as my next book back when I was in this mode. I might like to get into the Classics Circuit world–have been meaning to go back and check it out again. I can mention that I want to read more HL Gates, and I’m working intermittently on Anatole Broyard stuff too: Gates’s essay on Broyard is an amazing literary tale.

–I’ll conclude with a brief follow-up on the Summer Reading Ideas post, trying to bury the personal stuff down at the end, after all but the hardiest zhivers have dropped off: my daughter is going to study English at Oxford next year(!), for her junior year abroad. She reads this blog and isn’t wild about me talking about her, although she did mention the possibility of doing some guest-blogging as she plows through her summer reading. Amongst other facets, one part of the Oxford thing is that she doesn’t go until October 10th, so she has a really long summer (150 days) up ahead here. It started last night when we picked her up late at the airport. It’s exciting to have her home, and I put the copy of Wuthering Heights in her hand as she went to bed. Funny to think about where we are at present on the reading journey, speaking of histories, and how we used to read to the kids every night for years, when they were little, a long time ago now I guess.

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