Monday, August 19, 2019

Larry McMurtry on Susan Sontag

The following excerpts in which Larry McMurtry mentions Susan Sontag are from his 1999 memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen:

     Susan Sontag is a reader who can almost be said to sweat literature--it is in her juices, as basketball is in Michael Jordan's. With Susan, I think, the tug of literature is as constant as breath. A characteristic she shares with all great readers is that, however stern she may intend to be, politically or philosophically, when she begins to talk about her reading she reveals a broadly catholic taste. The thrill Susan experiences when she spots a desired book she has not been able to find is probably comparable to that of a bird-watcher who at last glimpses a long-sought species. [pp. 124-125]

     Both in my library at home and in my bookshops I have a hard time hewing to any strict philosophy of shelving. Shelving by chronology (Susan Sontag's method) doesn't always work for me. The modest Everyman edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refuses to sit comfortably next to Leonard Baskin's tall Beowulf, and exactly the same problem--incompatibility of size--crops up if one shelves alphabetically. Susan Sontag, on a visit when all my books were in the old ranch house, found that she couldn't live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving. She imposed a hasty chronologizing which held for some years and still holds, in the main.
    Susan's principles notwithstanding, I make free with chronologies when the books seem to demand it. My Sterne looks happier beside my Defoe than he looks next to his nearer contemporary Smollett, so Tristram Shandy sits next to Moll Flanders rather than Peregrine Pickle. [p. 167]

Friday, August 02, 2019

Book Blackout Bingo: Deep Diving With Susan Sontag

July's reading found me taking a deep dive into Susan Sontag's work. It's not a bad way to spend time. This all began when I read an article saying that a new in-depth biography of Sontag would be coming out in September.

It really began 30 years ago, the first time I saw Bull Durham. In the movie, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes on a long rant to Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about things he believes in (high fiber, good scotch, Oswald acted alone, Astroturf and the designated hitter should be outlawed, long slow wet kisses that last three days) and in this lengthy list, he spewed out that he thought the novels of Susan Sontag were self-indulgent overrated crap.  The next time Crash and Annie meet up, she retorts that she likes Sontag's novels. Well, of course the screenwriter threw Sontag into that long list for comedic effect and to show the depth and breadth of Crash's erudition.

 Did Sontag ever see Bull Durham? Of course she did. In her diaries, she talks about seeing 3-4 films a day. This was before the advent of the VCR. Of course, she lived in NYC, but racing from movie house to movie house indicates a real devotion to cinema. Also: I'm no Sontag, but if some character says my name is some movie, disparagingly or not, I'm there. Plopped right down in the center of the front row.

So yeah, Bull Durham left me wondering about Susan Sontag. A tiny bit of research into her bibliography was enough to scare me off.  But I continued to hear her siren song. I bought a paperback copy of In America, Sontag's last novel, and it sat unread on my bookshelf for years. I was too intimidated.

In the meantime, I read an anecdote about Susan Sontag in Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Sontag came to Archer City to visit McMurtry. Upon seeing his massive but haphazardly organized home library, she vowed that she couldn't go to sleep until she'd gotten it into some kind of order. My intimidation started to melt away. How could you be afraid of someone like that? Perfectly understandable impulse. Susan was me and I was Susan and it wasn't just the first name, either.

Flash-forward to last year, which I guess would technically be a flashback: I was in Dollar Tree (never underestimate their book section; they've got some quirky treasures there) and I saw Reborn, which is volume one of Sontag's diaries and journals which were posthumously edited (lovingly, meticulously) by her son, David Rieff. After paying my dollar, Reborn sat on my shelf until last month, then I just fell into it, utterly entranced. After that, I had to have the second volume, When Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. (That title doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?)

When I had polished off Vol. 2, I discovered that Vol. 3 is the works???  I was ready to move on to the novels. A search of my local libraries turned up one: The Volcano Lover. It's a historical novel about Sir William Hamilton, Lady Emma Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most famous love triangles in history. But it's more than that. Told primarily from Sir William's point of view, it's a meditation on collecting, possession, theft and loss. Cerebral and compelling. It's good in the way Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall novels are satisfying.

I paused in reading to watch a YouTube video of Sontag being interviewed at about the time In America came out. I didn't get very far. Sontag was breathtaking, but the guy interviewing her (Charlie Rose, I think) was a complete and utter horse's ass. Apologies to the horse. It is to Sontag's credit that she treated him with the utmost courtesy instead of decimating him with first her gaze and then her intellect, which is what he richly deserved.

My deep dive is spilling over into August as I'm happily reading In America. Next up is a memoir of Sontag by David Rieff,  Swimming in a Death Sea, and after that is an audiobook of her essays, On Photography.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Beach Blanket Book Blackout Bingo

Beach Blanket? Why yes...don't I wish. But where there's still summer, there's still hope. We're only in July.

Book Bingo Blackout? I've been working my way through:

Elevation - LGBTQ . Two of the characters are a lesbian couple.

Nomandland - Life Hack. Rent too high? Take to your vehicle and do it with panache!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gen X Author. Gail Honeyman was born in the Gen X time frame. 1970, I believe.

The Nightingale - Heroine. More like HeroineS in the French Resistance.

If Beale Street Could Talk - Place Name.  The book doesn't take place on Beale Street; James Baldwin named it after a famous blues song.

Buttermilk Graffiti - Odd Couple.  Chef Edward Lee explores more than a dozen cities across America and finds unlikely but happy culinary/place combinations: Lowell, Massachusetts and Cambodian food. Lebanese food in the heart of Mississippi blues country. Nigerian food in Kentucky, and the best Jewish deli in the United States -- not in New York as you might guess, but Indianapolis. Lee delights in his discoveries, and it shows in his writing. His prose makes the tastes and aromas fly right off the page.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Reading Independently: My Crush on Nathan Hale

I remember hearing about and seeing pictures of cotton-haired George Washington and the cartoonishly-shaped Abraham Lincoln in the days before I could read by myself. Cherry trees and log cabins. They were so neatly bundled in February that they didn't make much of an impression.

A couple of years passed, and I was reading independently. Somehow, (maybe from my aunt?) there came into my possession an illustrated book of American history. Starting with Christopher Columbus and ending...I don't remember how. Highlights of American history were summarized in an informative paragraph, accompanied by a picture in full color. It was a handsome volume.

There were two pages I was particularly stuck on: One was the 'story' of Pocahontas and John Smith. What a great picture: John Smith with his hands bound behind his back, head on a large boulder, face looking worried and brave, all at once. The would-be executioner's hatchet coming down, and Pocahontas, running in, arm fully extended for the interception, looking scared but angry. The paragraph said that she shielded him from the fatal blow. Of course, I had to look up 'shielded' 'fatal' and 'blow'. Wow.

Then there was Nathan Hale. I can't find the exact picture I saw in the book, but it was somewhat like the one above, except that Nathan Hale was standing on the left, defiantly facing right and wearing a white shirt with no jacket. He had the rope around his beautifully strong neck. This was the first time I'd ever heard of someone being hanged. Also, the language was a little beyond me.  I double-checked with my father. Yes, hanging was a method of killing. "Giving [one's] life" meant that they died. Also, Nathan Hale was captured by the British for spying. He was a spy. What was a spy? And the paragraph said he was 19. I cried. A lot. Because this wasn't a story. A fairy tale. This was a true story. Nathan Hale was real. This really happened.

For a long time, I brooded on Nathan Hale. Where had his Pocahontas been? If only we weren't 200 years apart! I could have rushed in and shielded him from the fatal...blow? I wasn't exactly sure how hanging was accomplished. Yes, I thought, I would have rescued him. Of course, I would have given him a chance to make his stirring, final speech, then I would have defied those ugly guys in red jackets. Then Nathan Hale could have gone back to being a spy, and maybe I could have somehow helped. Maybe by bringing him some water, like Molly Pitcher?  No, I'd make him show me how to help him with spying. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019


This week, I read the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer. It's one of those reads that showed up in my life at the right time. Can you hear that viscous, sucking, sticking noise? That's me, mired in my life in all sorts of ways. Including this blog. I want to blog, but it feels difficult. I don't know why. The books have been read. 29 so far this year, and I have thoughts, really thinky-thoughts, but sitting down and writing a blog post...[shaking my head]

Anyway. Time to whip out a can of Kaizen and spray vigorously. Baby steps.

I clicked on the "New Post" tab.
I wrote a title for this post.
I put up a picture.
I've now written the equivalent of a couple of paragraphs.

Now I feel mired again, struggling to continue, but this is where Maurer would argue that I've done enough for one day. With Kaizen, sitting down and just thinking about blogging would have been more than sufficient. Then, the next day, I could have gone to Blogger and looked at Blue-Hearted Bookworm. Then, the next day, perhaps I could have clicked the "New Post" tab.

So, I have this person in my life. Her name is Amy G. Dala, and she can be a bitch to live with. She lives with you, too. All of us. She's insane in the midbrain.  Hopefully, she's not always camped out in plain view on the sofa of your mind, getting crumbs everywhere and stinking up the joint with her own special cologne, Eau de Fear/Stress/Anxiety. She's always telling rational thought to shove it, and sadly, that's just what rational thought does.

But here's Maurer! And he's bringing his can of whoop-ass Kaizen! But Amy G. Dala doesn't have a clue, because they're moving really freaking slow! The baby steps are so imperceptible that they stealth right by Amy G! If Amy G. starts to suspect anything, she with her fight/flight/sis boom bah, Kaizen takes an even smaller step towards improvement, and Amy G. goes off to sleep, hot sauce all over her chin. Kaizen gives rational thought the thumbs-up, and it's all a go, though one that can barely be measured. That's not a criticism. I love big, bold innovation, but in its way, Kaizen is kind of sexy, too.

Well, I wrote more than I thought I would. Thanks, Kaizen. Thanks, Robert Maurer. Take that, Amy G. Dala.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On Mother's Day

I lost my mother a month ago today. At the time of my last post, her health began to go south with a sickeningly rapid trajectory downward. She died on April 12 at 6:15 a.m.

I've still been reading, but the process of grief can be cruel and specific and I can't quite focus my mind on recounting what I've read.

In her honor, I'd like to re-post a blog entry I wrote a few years ago. Mom was no bookworm, but she knew I was a big fan of the "Little House" series, so she buckled down and read all the books, detailing her progress in a series of emails.

 She continued to refer to the books for the rest of her life, and although she didn't mention it in her emails, she was indignant about the part in The Long Winter in which Pa goes over to visit Almanzo and his brother and eats pancakes then returns home and eats the meager meal Ma has prepared, never letting on that he had pancakes while he was out. Our revisiting of this usually revolved around our trips to IHOP.

My mom was a champion at shopping and bought me countless gifts over my lifetime, but this was one of the best I ever received. I can imagine her snort and the skeptical raised eyebrow in response to that statement.

Thank you again, Judy Sue Stouffer Thomas 1938-2019.

Mom's a Bonnethead!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Fourteen So Far In Nineteen

What did you read in January, Bybee?

1. Elevation (novel) - Stephen King. Uncle Stevie was phoning it in with this short novel, but I appreciate him always.

2. Nomadland (nonfiction) - Jessica Bruder. Journalist Bruder, in sympathy and solidarity, follows a group of people, mostly senior citizens who have taken to the road to avoid homelessness. Depending on where you are in life, you will either read this book as horrifying, heartbreaking, or hopeful. I found it hopeful.

3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (novel) - Gail Honeyman. This one was a surprise. I thought it was going to be chick-lit, but it was so much more.

4. The Nightingale (novel) Kristin Hannah. Two sisters work for the Resistance during World War II in Nazi-occupied France. Quelle cinematic! I couldn't put it down. Kristin Hannah is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.

5. If Beale Street Could Talk (novel) - James Baldwin. Gritty, sad, and wise. James Baldwin's 1974 novel about Tish and Fonny, in love and in jail (Fonny) and expecting a baby, has been made into a movie, and I can't wait to see it. The trailers look like both cast and crew internalized the book and captured the very soul of it on film. I read it back when I was a teenager, but of course it was infinitely more beautiful and devastating this time around.

6. My Life in Middlemarch (nonfiction) - Rebecca Mead. The author has been reading and rereading Middlemarch since she was in high school. I admire her triangulation in this work: She examines George Eliot's life, especially the writing Middlemarch part.  She breaks down the book into its various sections and looks at the characters. She also compares her life to the characters' and Eliot's. It's so rich and satisfying, and put me in the mood for my every-ten-years reread of Middlemarch.

And February???

7. Clock Dance (novel) - Anne Tyler. In the midst of bad news, it was comforting to sit down with a new Anne Tyler novel. I can't explain it, but it's like being home sick from school with all the creature comforts such as Lipton chicken noodle soup, the living room couch and a soft old afghan. Clock Dance feels like vintage Tyler. She makes it look so easy, but there's some careful, masterful writing going on here.

8. Becoming (nonfiction) - Michelle Obama. I audiobooked this one, and so glad I did! Becoming is great, but even more so with Michelle Obama's voice in my ears. I love and respect her even more than I did before, which was considerable.

9. Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters (nonfiction) - Anne Boyd Rioux. A scholarly and ardent fangirl examination of Louisa May Alcott's enduring classic. Rioux looks at the novel (is it really one, or two?) and the movie and TV versions. She also examines how and where the book is still being read and the history of its readership. Surprise! Males as well as females read and enjoyed the novel in its earlier days of publication. There's something for everyone in Little Women, as well as this enjoyable tribute.

10. The Library Book (nonfiction) -Susan Orlean. In 1986, the downtown Los Angeles Public Library caught fire. Susan Orlean follows the search for a possible arsonist, and also goes back more than one hundred years to its roots and some of the more colorful characters who influenced its growth, then flashes-forward to what it's like to work within such a large system. She also muses on the future of libraries and their place in communities. I am eager for my son, who works for a large library system, to read this one so we can discuss it.

11. The Dwelling Place (novel) - Catherine Cookson. I don't think I'm going to read any more Catherine Cookson. I hate that she writes with great depth and knowledge about a particular time and station in England and creates complex, compelling characters, then seemingly tosses it all away and throws characters under the bus (or carriage wheels, in this case) because she must have her creaky, cringe-y, old romance novel plot. Boo.

What about March? In like a lion...???

12. An American Marriage (novel) - Tayari Jones. I couldn't help comparing this novel to If Beale Street Could Talk, and I mean that as highest praise. Both books feature men of color mistakenly and unfairly for the same crime. Both have the same level of searing honesty. Both broke my heart. I hope An American Marriage wins the Pulitzer for fiction this year.

13. Dopesick (nonfiction) - Beth Macy. An examination of how the opioid epidemic began in Appalachia and spread throughout the country. It's sickening to read about the greed of the pharma reps and salespeople, the mostly-guileless medical professionals, the cluelessness of the government concerning recovery, and the overwhelming hardship of addicts and their families left to pick up the pieces after the disaster perpetrated by these insidious drugs.

14. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend (nonfiction) - Susan Orlean. I was always a little afraid of German Shepherds, so as a child, I was more of a Lassie person than a Rin Tin Tin one. I really enjoyed this look at the canine legend who was born on a French battlefield near the end of World War I, and his rise to Hollywood stardom, then his resurgence as a television icon. Orlean also surveys the humans devoted to Rin Tin Tin in all his incarnations who never doubted that they were part of an everlasting mystique.

What are you working on now?

Unsheltered (novel) - Barbara Kingsolver.   Two lives, one house, 130 years apart. I love the storylines and the structure. It may because I'm reading Middlemarch right now, but I'm getting enjoyable whiffs of the novel in the 19th century sections.

Middlemarch (novel) - George Eliot. I've been working on the book since early February, but in this reread, it's slow going. I still love it, but I'm not as engaged as I was the previous two times. Hoping this will change. I'm only 20% in, so there's time.

The Story of a Marriage (novel) - Andrew Sean Greer. This short novel is surprising, with all its layers. Greer won the Pulitzer for Less, which felt very slight to me. The Story of a Marriage is dreamlike, ruminative and complex.