Wednesday, February 03, 2010

January: Reading & Reviewing Part 1

13 books for the first month! If I keep going like this, I'll be romping around in triple digits in no time at all. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to contain my enthusiasm into capsule reviews, so I'll review some now and finish in my next blog post.

1. Ask The Dust (novel) - John Fante. Barely out of his teens, Arturo Bandini isn't a famous writer yet, but he's working on it by writing furiously and sending out his work to editor J.C. Hackmuth, whose picture Bandini has taped to the wall and talks to on occasion. In the meantime, he's reminding a not-quite-interested audience of his acquaintances that he is already the author of "The Little Dog Laughed", a short story that is his sole publication (thanks to Hackmuth). Bandini also makes frequent trips to the library so he can visit "the big boys on the shelves...Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken" and checks out the spot on the shelves where he'll be someday: "...right there close to Arnold Bennett. Not much that Arnold Bennett, but I'd be there to sort of bolster up the B's."

Although he's dedicated to his art, there are distractions everywhere, like his nutso neighbor who gives up drinking and picks up a meat addiction in its stead and Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress at the nearby watering hole. Bandini and Camilla are interested in one another, but they have strange ways of showing it -- they're kind of like a low-rent 1930s Los Angeles Darcy and Elizabeth, circling one another.

Bandini is quite poor, so money's a constant concern. When his mother sends him ten bucks or he sells a story for fifty, Fante details precisely what the money is spent on. It's fascinating to see what everyday necessities and luxuries cost back in 1938 when Ask The Dust was published.

Fante's got a lean, engaging straightforward style -- kind of a cross between Saroyan and the hardboileds. I'm hoping to read more books by him, especially the others in the Bandini trilogy: Wait Until Spring, Bandini and The Road To Los Angeles.

2. Assassination Vacation (nonfiction) - Sarah Vowell. Vowell planned her vacation all around 3 assassinated presidents and their assassins as well as anything else remotely connected with their tragic stories -- for example, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd and the Oneida Community make appearances in Vowell's narrative. I'm dazzled by her ability to connect so many people and events. Watch for a brief cameo by Nick Hornby who accompanies Vowell on one of her excursions.

3. Moby-Dick (novel) - Herman Melville. Surprise! I've found another book that I want to re-read every 10 years! Melville is at the height of his powers in this, the greatest of all sea yarns. Actually, it's really the story of 2 men: Ahab, who met with near disaster in an encounter with Moby-Dick and wound up focused on finding this one whale and destroying him, and Ishmael who "alone survived to tell" about his near-fatal meeting with Moby-Dick and yet went on to develop a respect and fascination for all whales through years of intense study.

This novel is magnificent in its joyously expansive attempt to celebrate everything (science, history, philosophy, literature...) As far as American literature is concerned, Moby-Dick Melville seems a lot closer to Walt Whitman than to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was Melville's lit-hero. For the record, Hawthorne didn't care for the novel, although I'd bet you a nice sushi dinner or a big-ass bowl of clam chowder that he had to at least grudgingly appreciate Ahab's dark, psychological swirlings since they were so reminiscent of his characters who always seem to be brooding on Just. One Thing.

If you decide to read this book, get a copy with notes in the back. The novel is so rich with information and allusion that I'm sure I missed almost as much as I took in during this highly enjoyable reading experience.

4. The Life You Can Save (nonfiction) - Peter Singer. The Australian philosopher not only encourages people to donate to charity, he also explores reasons why we choose not to give. He answers these arguments one by one and provides a general guide about where to give and how much to give. The copy I read was part of a Bookcrossing bookring; I wish I had my own.

5. The Painted Veil (novel) - W. Somerset Maugham. This novel zoomed to the top of my 'favorite Maugham novels' list. This book is dark chocolate good. Maugham is a brilliant storyteller. Let me count the ways: He can do the pretty and descriptive writing thing especially when he's describing the Chinese countryside at sunrise. Narrative? There's none better when it comes to cutting cleanly and precisely to the heart of a scene. Characterization? Check. It's a pleasure to encounter a protagonist as flawed as Kitty Fane and watch as she slowly comes to grips with her shortcomings then tries to struggle out of them.
It drives me absolutely effing crazy that Maugham has been undervalued as a short story writer and novelist for so many years when in reality some of his contemporaries would have to balance on each other's shoulders just to be able to reach up and kiss his backside. What I really mean to say is : Read The Painted Veil. Read it, read it, read it.

6. Kidnapped - Robert Louis Stevenson. If Providence must put this novel within your grasp, you wouldnae be wise to thrust it away. Kidnapped is the story of that pretty boy David Balfour's trials and fortunes, but it's also the story of Alan Breck, the famous Scottish outlaw who befriends David and saves him from several disasters, including the one of the title (arranged by his carbuncle of an uncle). David also helps Alan on many occasions; it's a fine bromance.

Ah, Alan! He's canny and droll and a handy lad with pistols and swords. I cannae tell a lie and you must by now ken that I would be blithe to hide out in the heather with Alan Breck, birstling or freezing, depending on nature's whim. I'd gladly stir up his drammach at mealtimes and look after him if he felt donsy and all the while, out of the tail of my eye, I'd be keeping a sharp lookout at the brae for enemies that wouldnae be laith to drag poor Alan off to the gallows.

Dinna pass up this classic tale of adventure. If you should spy a copy, you must be brisk and bid it come to your arms.


Heather J. said...

Dinna pass up Bybee's book reviews - I cannae tell a lie, there are some gems in there!

Jenny said...

That's quite a plug for W. Somerset Maugham! I will read The Painted Veil if my library has it. If not, what are other really good ones by him?

Chris said...

I will definitely be reading more Somerset Maugham. The Painted Veil was really good!

Eva said...

Yay! I'm SO happy to see what you thought of Moby Dick!

Also, I'm reading my first Maugham soon (not Painted Veil, since I loved the movie so I'm afraid that will bias me), and you've made me even more excited. :)