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Posts from the ‘Literature’ Category


Cheryl Strayed a Household Name

And it’s about time, too.  Strayed’s memoir, Wild, is now a movie set to go into wide release and starring Reese Witherspoon, whose presence should guarantee  an audience.  (I saw it yesterday, and it’s an excellent rendering of the book.  Reese Witherspoon is excellent, and Laura Dern, who plays Cheryl’s mother Bobby, is a lock to get an Oscar nomination — she just radiates grace.)

The Internet meme this week was about the contrast between John Kracauer’s Into the Wild and Strayed’s Wild: From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail, as if they were actually comparable.  In my brain Christoper McCandless of Into the Wild is batshit crazy, not to mention suicidal, whereas Strayed is pretty thoroughly mis-guided but not insane..  Yes, both go into the wild without adequate preparation, but their reasons for doing so are dissimilar — McCandless is unhinged and doesn’t have any idea where he’s going, while Strayed just wants to hike the Pacific Crest trail.

I’m a huge Cheryl Strayed fan — after reading Wild, I read Torch.  As an online reader of The Rumpus (a magazine of literature, interviews, cartoons, etc.), I became part of the Dear Sugar “cult”;  Sugar was the advice columnist at The Rumpus for years, and when her tenure was coming to an end, Sugar was “outed” as being Cheryl Strayed.

Tiny Beautiful Things Cover

Tiny Beautiful Things Cover

There’s a collection of Dear Sugar The Rumpus pieces (seems a little dismissive and inaccurate to call them “columns,” as they’re pretty substantial) titled Tiny Beautiful Things, and it’s on my bedstand, where I’m re-reading it just because it’s so damned good.  Strayed often replies to those writing in for advice by telling interesting stories from her own life, which she maneuvers into answers to the life and love questions asked.

Anyway, Strayed is soon to be a household word, and it’s a good thing, too.  In fact, I was listening to NPR the other day, and they were interviewing her and Steve Almond, who’s a Rumpus editor.  They said there is now going to be “Dear Sugar Radio.”


Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge”

I’ve been reading and very much enjoying Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, recommended to me by Jesse Kornbluth, who provides a service called Head Butler (, where he makes weekly recommendations of books, movies, music, and occasionally products ranging from hair dryers to stereos.

Maugham’s book is about the 1920’s, mostly in Europe, a period that’s been interesting me more and more in the last year, which puts me in range of the cultural zeitgeist (another movie version of The Great Gatsby was out recently).  It started when Head Butler sent me  Harold J. Arlen’s Exiles and Amanda Vaill’s Everybody Was So Young.  The latter is a brilliant book, about American expatriates in Europe in the 1920’s, especially Gerald and Sara Murphy, the prototypes for Dick and Nichole Diver  in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book Tender Is the Night (which I read for the first time actually in Paris in 1972 and reread last summer).

The Razor's Edge book cover

The Razor’s Edge book cover

When I mentioned The Razor’s Edge to my friend Doug at lunch yesterday, he noted that it was the film that almost sunk Bill Murray’s career — he was in a weak and not-so-popular remake of it in the 90’s (it was made in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney).  I can’t remember if I ever saw it — hardly a recommendation if I did.

The novel is about equally divided among Elliott Templeton, his cousin Isabel, and her temporary fiance Larry Darrell.  Elliott is a socialite, a guy who gives great parties, flies from Paris to London when he needs new suits, and would rather die than miss a party where “important” people in society will show up.  I don’t find him very likable, but he’s amazingly generous to his friends.  Isabel is a Mid-Western girl trying to find herself in life, and when Larry and she break up, marries stockbroker Gray Maturin (who manages to lost just about everything in the Crash of 1929.

Larry Darrell is a seeker, something of a mystic, a 1920’s prototype of the hippies we’re more familiar with from the 1960’s.  He has a small income and no inclination to work, instead reading books, studying languages, traveling to India, etc.

Pretty sure I read The Razor’s Edge when I was in college, don’t  much remember doing it, but glad to re-discover it and enjoy how well-written and entertaining it is, even though there have been times I wanted to reach into the pages and slap Larry, or slap Elliott.


A Few Kind Words About Bill W.

Recently, I’ve been a bit critical of the A.A. “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous), published in 1938 and written primarily by Bill Wilson, A.A.’s co-founder.

However, there are times in the “Big Book” that Wilson catches a wave, much like the prophet Isaiah does around Chapter 43 of his book (“Those who wait on the Lord\Shall renew their strength”).  Wilson writes about the typical alcoholic’s reluctance to believe, at first, that he is mentally or physically different from others in regard to drinking, and his continual experiments with alcohol. These experiments never works, finally leading to “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.”    That couldn’t possibly be better expressed — the words “incomprehensible demoralization” heavy with sorrow, as is “pitiful.”  To anyone who has been there, the words (as I heard read tonight at the start of our meeting) are always moving.

One other felicitous Wilson phrase: “the burden of self.”  At times he suffers from metaphoresis (too much metaphor), but “the burden of self” works well.  It comes in what’s know as the Third Step Prayer: “Relieve me of the burden of self, that I may better do Thy will.”

I should also note that IMO Wilson’s writing gets better as he becomes more practiced — Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, written in the early 1950’s, is in many respects better than his first book.  It’s taut and to the point, somewhat “nuts and boltsy”; he and his cohorts have been building the A.A. program for 15-20 years, and they have practical advice on what works and what doesn’t, and why.

As Bill Sees It, a collection of his writings from the two aforementioned books, from his Grapevine pieces, and especially from his letters, has many gems.  He was no saint, but he was a major figure in the 20th Century, we have much to thank him for, and it’s a fun thing to see him develop as a writer (at least to this former writing teacher).


What A Piece of Work!

In church today, our first reading was the whole day-by-day creation story from the Book of Genesis (read beautifully by Vaughn, with her Granada accent).  The creation of humans in God’s image made me think, as I often do, of famous literature I’ve read and taught.

In Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark gives a little speech that seems taken from Genesis — he makes the speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who’ve come to spy on him for the King and Queen.  He’s probably trying to communicate to the King and Queen that he’s depressed, but the first part of what Hamlet says is so very lovely:

            What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!

             In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.

              And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Hair -- the Hamlet Song

Hair — the Hamlet Song

This famous quote from Shakespeare was incorporated, words unchanged, into the musical Hair, and you can hear it here:


More Profound, Drastic “Big Book” Criticism

Lately, I’ve been present when people in meetings roundly criticized the A.A. “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, written mostly by A.A. co-found Bill Wilson and first published in 1938.  The wonderful Lorena, in fact, as part of a rant about how the book was shoved down her throat repeatedly when she first joined A.A., called it the “worst book ever.”  After the meeting, first congratulating her for an interesting, fun contribution to the meeting after, I had to tell Lorena that competition for worst book ever was pretty stiff, so Wilson’s book is probably out of the running.

Last couple of days, one friend has shared in a meeting that she was offended by not only the stilted language but also the sexism and (to her) overwhelming plethora of God references.  Another friend, in a meeting the next night, also objected to the ideas and wording.

Now, I’m always ready to jump aboard with profound and drastic criticisms of the “Big Book.”   For one, it’s just too big — so much better if it were about a third smaller, eliminating the all-too-frequent wordy elaborations that Wilson can’t seem to help even after his point is made. (In the first chapter of John M. Lannon’s Technical Communication, a book I taught from for 8-10 years when I was an English professor at Santa Fe College, he warns about burying the essential point under too many words — I try to always remember that in my writing.)

But, this time I raised my hand and said there’s a context we should consider: the book was largely written by a White, male, Protestant New Englander who was born in 1895.  Those circumstances explain a lot — and what’s left can be explained by noting that Bill Wilson, though an educated man, was not a professional writer but instead a businessman.


The White Rose

About a month ago, I read jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, You Should Have Known — it’s about a New York therapist who writes a book called You Should Have Known, which is about relationships, especially about how women should have known when their husbands have been cheating on them, living double lives, trending toward divorce, etc.  The book gets some traction, media play, and its author, Korelitz’s protagonist, finds out some things about her own life that she should have known.

The novel is just so well written, so intriguing, that immediately when I finished it, I went looking for another Korelitz book — and Book Gallery West, my neighborhood used bookstore, with which I trade books regularly, have done so for years, had The White Rose, which I’m currently reading.  It’s set, like You Should Have Known, in New York City, and it’s so good that I finish chapters and say out loud, “Wow.”

New York City

New York City

The White Rose begins with Marian and Oliver.  She’s a history professor at Columbia, and he owns a flower shop called The White Rose.  Oliver is 26, Marian is 48, and he’s the son of her oldest friend, Caroline.  Marian is married, Oliver is not.  So their situation is, uh, complicated.

And quickly becomes further complicated when he’s at her apartment, they’re post-tristesse, and her cousin calls, says he’ll be right over.  Marian can think of nothing but to rush Oliver into his clothes as she rushes into hers and send him out the service elevator.  Oops — the service elevator is broken, so she asks him to hide.  Which he does, for awhile, but then he sashays out to the living room where she and cousins Barton are having drinks.  Fair enough, accept that Oliver is dressed in Marian’s clothes and is introduced as her assistant, Olivia.

Oh, my.  To say much more would lead me to have to issue a “spoiler alert.”  I will say, however, that the novel proceeds with the lives of Oliver and Marian, Barton Ochstein (Marian’s cousin), and his fiance Sophie Klein, an heiress.   Also, Marion’s oldest friend, Oliver’s mom Caroline, a pesty gossip columnist whose name escapes me.  Oh yeah, and the mysterious Olivia. It’s an amazingly good book–it winds its way to an ending that astonished and exhilarated me.  Great book — 6 or 7 stars out of 5.)

Maybe Book Gallery West has another Korelitz book.  Amazon probably does, though I like to buy from a local store when possible.


Stop All the Clocks

For no reason that I can bring to a conscious level, I woke up one morning thinking about this W.H. Auden poem (and kept thinking about it every day for the past week):

W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,

Wystan Hugh Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


No one in my life has died recently.  Went to a meeting Saturday where we talked about death and loss, but I didn’t have anything from current inventory to share.  But the experience of loss and death are part of my history, as they are with us all.

Looking at Auden’s poem, one thing especially strikes me: 1) He begins with the personal in Stanza 1, moves out to the larger world in Stanza 2, goes back to personal in Stanza 3, and goes to the much larger world of nature\the universe in Stanza 4.  That is, in Stanza 1, clocks, the telephone, the dog, the pianos, are all things we might have in the house — the “muffled drum” and coffin, not so much.  In Stanza  2, skywriting planes, public doves, and traffic policemen are part of the neighborhood, maybe part of the city, not part of the house.  Stanza 3 is about the dead, loved person, “he,” and is quite personal.

Then, in the concluding Stanza 4, the speaker of the poems moves out of the home, the neighborhood, the city, and into the cosmos — the death is felt, he imagines, in the stars, moon, sun.  Back to earth a bit, with the death causing him\us to “pour away the ocean,” to “sweep up the wood.”  This move from personal to cosmic is very Shakespearean, very Late Renaissance — in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, Titania’s squabble with Oberon has caused crops to fail and “disasters in the sun.”  The world and the universe is connected to the personal — everything corresponds to everything else.  As Giordano Bruno wrote, “The world is a poem spoken by God, and God is an acutezze favolare” (a “witty speaker”).


Happy Birthday, Will!

Today, April 23rd, is William Shakespeare’s birthday (as best we can determine from the less-than-perfect records of the 16th Century, he was born this day in 1564).  It’s also the day Shakespeare died, 52 years later in 1616.

An Image of Shakespeare, Maybe

An Image of Shakespeare, Maybe

My “Today In Literature” email (you should check it out: told me that today is also the day Miguel de Cervantes died — ya know, the author of Don Quixote.  (If you object that Pierre Menard is the actual author of Don Quixote, then you’re both kidding and know the Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote“).

Michelangelo died in 1564, the same year that Shakespeare was born (transmigration of souls, anyone?).  And today’s last factoid, Galileo (also born in 1564) died in 1642, the year Isaac Newton was born.


If you’ve never read Borges lovely story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” it’s worth an hour of your time.  The trick of the story is that Pierre Menard, who lives in the 20th Century, decides to so steep himself in Cervantes’ time, 16th Century Spain,

An Edition of Don Quixote

An Edition of Don Quixote

and Cervantes’ language, 16th Century Spanish, that he would be capable of writing Don Quixote.  And then finds himself actually writing Don Quixote.  (Yes, the story’s a bit fanciful.)  So, in that sense, Pierre Menard is the actual author of Don Quixote.  The story insists that he’s not plagiarizing — he’s not copying Don Quixote; he’s writing it.


Tender Is the Night

The book’s title is from the John Keats’ poem, “Ode to a Nightingale”:

Already with thee! tender is the night….

…..But here there is no light”

Fitzgerald introduces the whole story and cast on the French beach and hotel Dick and Nicole have made their own (Cannes? the Riviera?) mostly through the character of the young American film star Rosemary, who arrives with her mother in tow, and who then almost instantly falls in love with Dick Diver,  also developing a quick affection for Diver’s wife, Nicole — with whom everyone is in love, thankfully also Diver.

There’s a round of parties, a good bit of drunkenness, some worry about Abe North’s excessive drinking, then a rather out-of-control party during which Violet McKisco encounters a mysterious and upsetting scene upstairs, during a trip to the bathroom.  We as readers wonder what it is, but Fitzgerald seems to have little interest in telling us.



Then there’s a flashback, to Dick’s days as a medical student (he’s Dr. Diver), studying psychiatry in Europe with the first generation of psychiatrists after Freud.  Soon we learn that Nicole is in the sanitarium where he’s studying, and he doesn’t yet know her.  When he encounters her, though, he’s intrigued by her.  He wonders what it would be like to care for her, and have to care for her medically.  He goes away, and she writes him 50 letters.  Who she is and her mental state (or states) is masterfully expressed through the letters.  Letters that are charming, amazing, and quite unhinged; frighteningly so. Read more »


Coolest. Book. Ever

I order books from Amazon fairly often — sometimes it’s a download for the Kindle, and sometimes it’s an actual paper book that comes through the mail (no Amazon ornicopters (octocopters?) in the sky yet).

When it’s paper-mailed, I tend to forget I ordered it and therefore get a surprise when it arrives.  Which happened today — Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky.  Seemed as if it oughtta be a paper book, since it has maps; the Kindle probably just wouldn’t do justice to the graphics and layout.

St. Kilda, far north of the British Isles

St. Kilda, far north of the British Isles

Pictured above is St. Kilda, far to the Northeast of the British Isles.  The book locates it, “at the furthest edge of the United Kingdom, beyond the outermost of the Outer Hebrides” (34).  There is one village, and Schalansky notes that between the seventh and ninth day of life, “two-thirds of the newborn babies die, boys outnumbering girls” (34).  The cause is unknown — the diet, inbreeding, suffocation from peat fires in the middle of rooms.

The book is beyond amazing; I’m only 50 pages in, and I’ve read about island after island that I’ve never heard of and didn’t even imagine was possible.  Some of them were discovered hundreds of years ago, some more recently, and some were discovered long ago by famous sailors (e.g., Captain Cook, Vasco de Gama) and couldn’t be found again for a time (being in Earth’s remote regions, like the far south Atlantic or the far north seas), in a time before there were airplanes or Global Positioning Satellites.

I’ve loved maps ever since I was a child.  At St. John of the Cross School, which I attended from grades 1-6 in the 1950s, our teachers, mostly nuns, made us draw or trace maps for homework.  I guess the idea was to familiarize us, by hand and by eye and mind, with geography.  I loved doing it and have been in love with maps ever since — paper maps, globes, Google maps, everything.

Fascinating book.  Fascinating maps.