I returned from a three week trip to Cuba nine weeks back. I haven’t worked since and won’t start again until October. My working year gets shorter. Money is sometimes a problem, but I’ve enjoyed the time off. While in Havana, I read: A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle 1805-1915 by Miranda Seymour (The circle here included Hart Crane, H.G. Wells, Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Wharton and James’s brother William); Americans in Paris: Life and Death under the Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass; Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin; Conversations with Marilyn [Monroe] by W.J. Weatherby and You Talkin’ to Me: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith.
Quite a heavy selection, now I look at it, but I enjoyed every one. Possibly I wouldn’t have read all of those books at home – too distracted, but in Cuba I can read for hours undisturbed and with good concentration.
In the nine weeks I’ve been home I’ve read: Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism by Greg Grandin; The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene by Marie Francoise Allain; Defying Hitler, a memoir by Sebastian Haffner; Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (the horrific tale of the chemical spill) by Dominique Lapierre & Javier Moro; Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle; Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies; The Quality of Mercy: Reflections on Shakespeare by Peter Brook and Thirst by Kerry Hudson.
They appear, on reflection, quite heavy too, but they weren’t. And it’s taken me nine weeks to read them, mostly in bed; during the day there was little concentrated reading, being easily distracted.
I also noticed from one of my recent posts that I said I’d never read William Faulkner. The reason I’d never tried was just a few comments I’d read over the years. I remember Bill Bryson, ages ago, writing about a passage being three pages long “which would constitute one sentence for William Faulkner”; that and a few other remarks coloured my opinion of him. But having never read Faulkner, I became curious and, after all, he won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.
I decided to investigate Faulkner. I looked through his books on Amazon and settled on Light in August. The Spectator said that it:
“Burns throughout with a fierce indignation against cruelty, stupidity and prejudice – a great book”
A comment from a reader said;
“This a Faulkner’s major work which could be considered as one of the best American novels of the 1930s. This book represents the best introduction to Faulkner’s novels and to the history of the deep South. Anyone interested in American literature should read it.”
It has 384 pages. Surely ideal as an introduction to Faulkner. I enjoyed the first few chapters but found the style difficult. Faulkner describes everything, tells you everything. It is written in, what for the time, was a modernistic style. It is impressionistic. The following passage is fairly typical:
Then a cold hard wind seems to blow through him. It is at once violent and peaceful, blowing hard away like chaff or trash or dead leaves all the desire and despair and the hopelessness and the tragic and vain imagining too. With the very blast of it he seems to feel himself rush back and empty again, without anything in him now which had not been there two weeks ago, before he ever saw her. The desire of this moment is more than desire; it is conviction quiet and assured; before he is aware that his brain has telegraphed his hand he has turned the mule from the road and is galloping along the ridge which parallels the running man’s course when he entered the woods.
Beautiful writing. But essentially the man changes direction; that’s about all I wanted to know. Perhaps that makes me a moron; perhaps I have a short attention span, except there comes a stage where I just want to get on with the story – it seemed so slow, so stodgy. It is wonderfully written, but the whole book is like that: every action, every thought, everything surrounding that action and thought is described in detail. It was too much. I waited and waited for the story to move. I tried. I read 200 pages. I don’t mind that kind of description in moderation, but paragraph after paragraph, page after page – and I was never entirely sure what was going on. So I gave up. I don’t like abandoning books; I usually give a book ten to fifty pages; I really tried with this one. Ultimately I didn’t care.
Maybe I am a moron. If that is a good introduction to Faulkner, I won’t be reading any more. A wonderful writer. But not for me.
This post would be too long for me to discuss the above books in any detail, assuming anybody wants me to. Although I would recommend them all, I would like to praise a few unreservedly. I enjoyed Thirst. Kerry Hudson writes with great insight about Alena, a girl in trouble, but I didn’t care for the male character – a shame. Hudson though is a good writer. She writes about ordinary people and their interesting and, in this case, dangerous lives. She is also genuinely working class. Not enough of those writers around (see Rod Liddle) and I’ll watch out for anything else she writes.
Peter Brook is always interesting. He writes clear prose and thinks originally. He writes very slim volumes though. This one I read in an hour-and-a-half, and I’m a slow reader. Stiff at £12.99, full-price. All his books seem to be that way. Recommended though.
Strong recommendations for:
Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin.
I knew nothing about Hannah Arendt but found myself agreeing with everything she said and everything she thought. I liked the way she lived her life, her courage and her stubbornness. I disliked Martin Heidegger. Stranger from Abroad is a superb read. I’d never heard of Daniel Maier-Katkin. He’s an academic, but also a good writer and meticulously fair-minded.
Selfish Whining Monkeys: How we ended up greedy, narcissistic and unhappy by Rod Liddle
Rod Liddle’s book is a bit of a rant, but all the better for it. He says things most people haven’t the courage to say and, for me, need saying. Our society has become rather silly and unfair. He says so, says why and names the guilty. Selfish Whining Monkeys indeed.
Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good by James Davies.
Cracked is an exposure of the psychiatric industry; and it is an industry. It also reveals how drug companies are prescribing dangerous drugs worldwide, doing most of the published research themselves while burying negative reports. Very disturbing.
Despite appearances, all the above are easy reads with the exception of Light in August (for me). You Talkin’ to Me can be hard-going too.
Hope you weren’t bored.