Sunday, December 09, 2012

Nine in November

November's been over for ages, but here's what I read during that month.

1. Ham on Rye - Charles Bukowski.  A novel detailing the origins of Henry "Hank" Chinaski, Charles Bukowski's alter ego.  Hank has a sadistic and cruel father, an ineffectual mother, a Depression-era childhood and adolescence and then he develops a case of acne so painful and disfiguring that he has to leave school and be hospitalized.  His consolations are few:  he discovers that he has a taste for both literature and booze, not always in that order.  Grim and funny all at the same time.

2. Mortality - Christopher Hitchens.  A collection of Hitch's last pieces about his cancer that were originally published in Vanity Fair.  I'd read the essays before, but reading them together, one after another is so sad because the reader can see Hitch slipping farther away, then he's gone, and the end of the book is notes he made about his essays.  It's like listening to the indistinct whisper of the voice of someone you really cared about.  I feel a little less guilty about not liking The Last Lecture; Hitch considered it a blueprint of what not to do when you're dying.

3. The Mill on the Floss - George Eliot.  Although I still like Middlemarch better, I was engrossed with the Tulliver family.  What I really find gorgeous and breathtaking about Eliot is the depth of detail and shading of the characters' personalities.  Although it was a short scene, (well, short by Victorian literature standards) I really enjoyed when Maggie and Tom Tulliver's Aunt and Uncle Glegg genteelly lock horns at the breakfast table, retreat to their respective corners then make up again by suppertime.  I know these people!  I'm ready for my next George Eliot novel, but don't know what to try next.  Maybe I'll reread Silas Marner.

4. Kira-Kira - Cynthia Kadohata.  One of the Newbery winners.  I had three students read this book for their Newbery assignment in Children's Literature last semester and they loved it.  Katie Takeshima's Japanese-American family relocates from a close-knit community in Iowa to the American South in the 1950s.  Katie's beloved older sister Lynn becomes seriously ill. The mother and father are employed at a poultry house and a hatchery, respectively, where working conditions are abominable.  Sad but sweet coming-of-age story.

5. Factotum - Charles Bukowski.  Factotum picks up where Ham on Rye left off.  Hank Chinaski is now grown and drifting from city to city and job to job.  When he gets to a new place, he looks for a cheap room and a local bar. As he puts it: "Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed.  So I stayed in bed and drank.  When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat."  But it's not all bad, because after years of hand-printing his short stories and sending them to literary magazines, he finally gets an acceptance for one titled My Beerdrunk Soul is Sadder Than All The Dead Christmas Trees of the World.  I read this book while listening to a lot of Tom Waits songs.  I didn't have anything to drink, but I should have.

6.  Clock Without Hands - Carson McCullers.  The setting is Georgia, 1954, right before school integration became the law of the land.  McCullers gives us four characters:  J.T. Malone, who is dying of leukemia and refuses to believe the diagnosis; Judge Clane, a partly senile leftover from the Old South who dreams about the South of his boyhood returning and Confederate money finally been redeemed; Jester Clane, the judge's orphaned grandson who seems to have all the requisite teenage confusion going on (McCullers was masterful at writing about adolescence); and Sherman Pew, a blue-eyed, African-American orphan who has no idea where he came from, and is always trying to fill in the gaps with worldly pretensions.  If Tennessee Williams had written novels, they would be like Carson McCullers', and vice versa.  Beautiful, piercing work.

7. Bottom of the 33rd - Dan Barry.  On Easter Saturday in 1981, two minor league teams, the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings started a game in Pawtucket.  At the end of the 9th, the score was tied.  At the end of the 10th, the score was tied...and so it went for the next several hours.  Due to a glitch in the umpires' rule book, the page was missing that states an inning cannot start after midnight, so they took the book at its word (or no words in this case) and the game went on.  And on.  And on, setting a record for the longest game in baseball. (The previous record had been 27 innings).  Bottom of the 33rd is about the game and so much more: the players, the spectators, the history of Pawtucket and baseball in Pawtucket, and the happiness and the heartbreak that comes from playing in the minor leagues.  It feels like a Greek epic poem.  Barry hits some Walt Whitmanesque notes in telling the story.   Terrific fun and my favorite read for the month.

8.  The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman - Meg Wolitzer.  I loved it that most of the action in this juvenile  novel takes place at the Junior Scrabble Players' Championship in Yakamee, Florida. Loved all the Scrabble tips and drama surrounding the game.  When the book got away from Scrabble, it seemed to lose some punch and feel fairly workmanlike.  I've been a Meg Wolitzer fan since her first novel, Sleepwalking came out in the early 80s.

9. Lit: A Memoir - Mary Karr.  Lit takes the reader from Mary's wild late adolescence through her marriage, motherhood, alcoholism and finally, to her life as a recovering alcoholic and practicing Catholic.  I was compelled to keep reading, even in the parts that seemed to drag.  There's something about Karr's raw, confidential tone that keeps a reader hooked.  More and more, I'm beginning to appreciate writers who are also poets because they've got that great ability to economize with words and they always have that striking image at the ready.  I read Karr's first memoir, The Liar's Club so long ago that it would be like a new book to me.  I want to read that and also Cherry, the memoir of her teenage years.


fantsmacle said...

I absolutely love Mill on the Floss. Did I ever tell you that Joo-Young and I read Eliot together? We read Daniel Deronda, which was inferior to her other writings. Silas Marner is really good, and short!

ettible said...

Scrabble showdown! Way more exciting than chess, I have to imagine. If it teaches me more ridiculous big-point words like hadj, I'm on it.