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2011 Book #27: The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken

I read The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken by accident, though I've been meaning to read it for years. I'd just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and was waiting for UPS to deliver The Savage Detectives, and I figured I'd read a couple of the stories. This collection includes my very favorite short story ever, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," so I thought I'd enjoy the rest of them. Once I started reading, I found myself enjoying the stories differently than I'd expected to. I thought they'd all be like "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," but they're not.

"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is about a boy, who, one morning in his bedroom, imagines that snow is falling. He hears the postman coming down the street as he always does, but his footsteps from the farthest house are muffled due to the snow. The boy gets up, looks out the window, and sees that there is, in fact, no snow at all. He becomes obsessed with the snow, hearing it in the mornings and imagining it all day, and he loses interest in real life. His parents and teacher are concerned, as his condition progresses very quickly. Every morning, he imagines the snow getting deeper and deeper, and he can only hear the postman when he gets closer and closer. Eventually, the boy recedes completely into his world of snow, oblivious to his parents and the real world around him.

I've always liked that story. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school. I don't remember whether it was assigned or not or how I found out about it. I still have a copy of it from a library book. The funny thing is that I own the library book, now, and that's what I read. I don't remember how I got that, either. It's from the main branch of the Jefferson Parish Library, and I assume I got it from a book sale. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting to be read.

And I like it most of the stories. I only really like two of them, though: "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" and "Mr. Arcularis," which is about a man taking a boat to Europe after surgery in the US. He meets a woman, and things turn out interestingly. Lots of stories in this collection are about failed love, and some, like "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," are about crazy people.

I did a bit of reading about Conrad Aiken, and it appears that love and insanity were some of his major concerns. Evidently, when he was a kid, his father went crazy and killed his mother. He was always afraid he would go crazy himself. And he was married three times. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said he was primarily a poet, but he started writing short stories for the money and decided he liked them. I don't think I've ever read one of his poems, and I'm not to interested in doing so. He was a friend of T.S. Eliot's and surprisingly influential in the literary world in the 1920s and 1930s.

I don't see myself revisiting Aiken, though I enjoyed the stories. I'll probably stumble across "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" or "Mr. Arcularis" again, but his other work doesn't interest me.

2011 Book #28: My Life in France

My original plan for this blog was 50 novels in a year, but a friend recommended and loaned me Julia Child's My Life in France. It sounded interesting enough, and though I'm usually not one for nonfiction, I figured I'd give it a try. My Life in France is an "autobiography" about Julia Child's years in France when she decided she loved cooking and went to the Cordon Bleu, etc, etc. I put "autobiography" in quotes because her nephew, Alex Prud'homme, actually wrote the book. From the forward, written by Prud'homme:

For a few days every month, I'd sit in her living room asking questions, reading from family letters, and listening to her stories. At first I taped our conversations, but when she began to poke my take recorder with her long fingers, I realized it was  distracting her, and took notes instead. (x)

Yeah, that's not autobiography, and after I read the forward, I almost decided not to read the book at all. But, even though it's written by someone else, I really enjoyed it much more than I imagined I would. There's something exciting about it, and after seeing Julie and Julia, which I also liked immensely, I wanted to hear the real story. It seems that lots of the bad stuff was glossed over, like tension between Julia and Louisette when the latter wasn't really helping with the cookbook, and Julia had her name removed as an author. That said, My Life in France is an inspiring look into Julia Child's life that made me want to drink more wine, at the very least - and keep a diary (at which I'm generally terrible) because it'd be nice to look back after many years and remember little things, like fantastic meals, that I enjoyed.


2011 Book #29: The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives is kind of a hard read. It's also really, really long. It's also worth getting through. I'm not sure how I came across it, though Roberto Bolaño's 2666 has been on my radar for quite some time. I haven't tackled it yet because it's even longer than this one. Until recently, I've never been a fan of long books, probably because I was conditioned in college to read short ones quickly. Longer books, though, like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, are steadily growing on me.

The Savage Detectives is split into three parts. The first is somewhere under two hundred pages, and it's a nice, easy read. It's generally about this early college-age kid, Juan Garcia Madero, who fancies himself a poet and joins a sort-of movement in Mexico called the visceral realists. He meets other people, some of whom are poets and others who pretend to be poets, and Things Happen. The most important of these other characters, we figure out later, are Ulises Lima and Arturo Bolano. They end up running off withe Garcia Madero and a prostitute named Lupe. Then we get to the second part, the bulk of the book, told by lots of narrators. All of the stories at least mention Ulises and Arturo, but some only tangentially. Wikipedia (I know) has a good list of the various characters telling the stories. Ulises and Arturo went to Europe for a few years, then back to Mexico, and got into mischief. They kind of turned people off. They didn't seem to write much poetry. Finally, we reach the third part, which is a continuation of the first. After leaving town (they were all trying to hide Lupe from her pimp), they drive to the Sonora Desert to search for the founder of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, and Things Happen.

I really loved this novel, though it took me forever to read. It seems like the kind that you need to reread and study: it's really complex, and working on wrapping your head around all of it would probably be rewarding. That said, I'm not going to reread it - at least not in the near future.

For a novel about poets, there's very, very little poetry in it, and we only get to see one official visceral realist poem by Cesárea Tinajero, which is basically a series of drawings. It's interesting that we don't hear anything from Ulises Lima or Arturo Bolano themselves, that it's all stories surrounding them. Even Garcia Madero, to my knowledge, only appears in the first and last parts.

A funny bit: At some point while I was reading, I tweeted that Bolaño shares Don DeLillo's love of lists, even that he puts DeLillo's lists to shame. Then, toward the end (page 574), Bolaño talks briefly about DeLillo, calling him a "phenomenon." That gave me a chuckle.

It would actually be pretty interesting to compare Bolaño to DeLillo. The Savage Detectives fits pretty squarely under the Postmodernism bracket (vague as it is), and there are lots of Deserts and unhappiness and motels. Bolaño almost makes DeLillo interesting again.

2011 Book #30: Cannery Row

I waited too long to write this one, so I don't have much to say. Cannery Row is a very short novel about, well, Cannery Row in California around the Great Depression. It starts off with a description of the town's grocery store owner and how he influences the community, then moves on to other characters, like a series of vignettes. Eventually, though, Steinbeck settles on some guys who rent from the grocery store owner and do occasional work for a doctor (they call him doc) who supplies medical parts, mostly in jars. The men want to throw him a party, and they accidentally cause lots of damage in his lab. They try again, and Doc finds out about it first, so he makes preparations, but windows get knocked out and the like, too. There are some fun fights and dealings with the local brothel madam. And that's about it. It's short.

I love Steinbeck. He's one of my very favorite authors. Many years ago, I read Travels with Charley and Of Mice and Men, and, more recently, I read The Grapes of Wrath. I enjoyed all of them immensely, just as I did Cannery Row. My favorite was The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden is on my to-read list. Next up, though, is Sweet Thursday, which is a sort of sequel to Cannery Row, and the liberry happened to have it. I have a few of his other novels in one of my bookcases, and I think I'll be moving through them pretty quickly.

2011 Book #31: A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust is a strange novel. It's also really good, though not nearly as good as Waugh's earlier novel, Brideshead Revisited. It's strange because of the ending. The penultimate chapter of the novel was originally a short story called "The Man Who Liked Dickens," which had been published in a magazine. Another American magazine wanted to serialize the whole novel sans that short story, so Waugh wrote an alternative ending, which is wildly different. The short story part isn't anything like the rest of the novel.

A Handful of Dust is a satire about English society. Brenda Last, Tony Last's wife, has an affair with Mr. Beaver, a young London man who is basically a player and who has no money. Brenda falls in love with him and convinces her husband to rent a flat in London because she is supposedly studying economics at the university and can't be bothered to go back to their family home in the country even though she has a son who is constantly asking about her. The kid is my favorite character in this novel and (whoa, spoiler!) Waugh kills him off before the halfway point. Brenda doesn't really care and uses her son's death as an excuse to divorce Tony. Then the story splits: Brenda continues her life in London, and Beaver eventually breaks up with her after the party season is over, and Tony goes to Brazil. Here's where the endings split. In the actual novel, Tony goes with an anthropologist-of-sorts looking for a certain tribe around Brazil, ends up with a fever and hallucinates, and he and the anthropologist get lost. The anthropologist goes down a river in a canoe and gets killed in a waterfall. Tony, hallucinating, starts walking until he comes upon another tribe that's run by an insane Englishman who keeps him captive and makes him read Dickens aloud every day. The End. Then there's the alternate ending, in which Tony just went on a tour around the Americas, and when he returns to England, Brenda is there, and they (sort of) reconcile, except when Brenda asks Tony to get rid of the flat in London, he secretly keeps it for himself. The End.

The more I think about A Handful of Dust, the more I like it. It's a good summerish sort of read, and it's really interesting. The alternate ending situation is cool if for no other reason than its novelty. Waugh says it's "included as a curiosity." If I were one to sit on a beach and read, this would be the novel to take with me. It's really light reading, but Waugh does a lot of interesting things that veer away from what you might expect of an English novel from the 1930s.

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