“The Locked Room”, a novella from The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster.
The Good Soldier, a novel by Ford Maddox Ford.
“Moon Lake,” a short story by Eudora Welty.
The First Book of Samuel, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.
“Sorrow-Acre,” a short story by Isak Dinesen.
The Quest for Shakespeare, a biography of William Shakespeare by Joseph Pearce.
“King Lear,” a play by William Shakespeare.
“The Altar of the Dead,” a short story by Henry James.
“La Vita Nuova,” a short story by Allegra Goodman, from The Best American Short Stories of 2011 collection.
The Confessions, a spiritual autobiography by St. Augustine of Hippo.
“Big Two-Hearted River Part I,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“Big Two-Hearted River Part II,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
“Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?” a short story by Gene Wolfe.
The Second Book of Samuel, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.
Treasure Island, a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.
“The Jelly Bean,” a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Flowering Judas,” a short story by Katherine Anne Porter.
“The Secret Garden,” a Father Brown mystery short story by G. K. Chesterton.
“Innocence,” a short story by Sean O’Faolain.
The First Book of Kings, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.
“O City of Broken Dreams,” a short story by John Cheever.
“A Fifty-Year-Old Man,” a short story by Shusaku Endo.
“Youth,” a short story by Joseph Conrad.
Why Read Moby-Dick? a non-fiction work by Nathaniel Philbrick.
“Send My Roots Rain,” a short story by Edna O’Brien.
Leaves of Grass: The Death-Bed Edition, a collection of poetry by Walt Whitman.
“Playland,” a short story by Ron Hansen.
“Credences of Summer,” a long poem by Wallace Stevens.
“The Pit and the Pendulum,” a short story by Edgar Allen Poe.
“The Loveliest Rose in the World,” a short short story by Hans Christian Anderson.
The Second Book of Kings, a book from the Old Testament, KJV translation.
My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, an autobiography by Clarence Thomas.
“The Ivory Acrobat,” a short story by Don DeLillo.
Moby Dick, a novel by Herman Melville.
“Hamlet,” a play by William Shakespeare.
“A Simple Heart,” a short story by Gustave Flaubert.
My Antonia, a novel by Willa Cather.
The Gospel According to Luke, KJV & NAB translations.
The Hobbit, a novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a Sherlock Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“The Undefeated,” a short story by Ernest Hemingway.
Five novels, a novella, four book length non-fiction works, two being autobiographies, a couple of hundred pages through the bible, most of it through the dreaded historical books, two plays, 23 short stories, two works of poetry, one being a major tome, the other a six page length poem that I consider comparable to a short story length work in fiction: actually an outstanding year for me, roughly one book length work, two short stories, and one other medium per month. I had a few long business trips this year and the air plane is great for catching up on reading. Plus if you don’t turn the TV on in the hotel room there isn’t anything to do but read.
Last year I had read essays by Emerson and Thoreau, and this year I wanted to complete the American Transcendentalism with Walt Whitman. And boy did I complete it. I read without skimming or skipping the 500-plus page Death-Bed Edition of Leaves of Grass. Now I can say I really have a feel for Whitman. I meant to blog about it, but unfortunately I never got to it. What I should do is go back through my highlighted poems and margin notes to refresh my memory and then blog. Here’s the bottom line: Whitman is not Shakespeare, cannot turn a phrase with the great poets, but is a very important poet. Besides being the progenitor poet of American English, as say Dante is of Italian or Shakespeare of English, his break with traditional poetic form revolutionized poetry. Modern poetic free verse starts with Whitman. Plus Whitman is an enjoyable poet. He doesn’t confuse the reader with esoteric affairs. Sure there may be some biographical details that would help the reader, but he fills you in enough to get most of the meaning. He amplifies and is the opposite of a minimalist; he’s abundant and gives freely. And he has such a sense of kindness and good will toward all. I actually wanted to give him a hug at one point.
I also completed the anti transcendentalists side of the American 19th century Romantics with Melville and Poe; I read Hawthorne last year. Moby Dick ranks with the very top handful of great literary works, and I put out a blog on it a month or two ago, so there isn’t much more to say here. Actually I’m realizing now that between Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick I covered the bedrock of the American language. Sorry to you Mark Twain fans, but Melville’s work transcends. I guess I’m kind of cheating if I claim to have completed the anti transcendentalists by covering Edgar Allan Poe with only one short story. The thing is that I’m just not an admirer of Poe. Take the story I read, “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Poe puts you into an intense existentialist situation, makes you magnificently feel the gravity of the situation, walks you toward a resolution, and then resolves it by some out-of-left-field outcome that seems to trivialize everything that happened. The story would have been great except for the last few paragraphs, and then it seems like a hack finish. Was there some sort of point between medievalism and the enlightenment? And if so, just because you throw it out at the end without it being integrated does not make it aesthetically sound.
The novels I read were all excellent reads. I was blown away with My Antonia and I blogged about it a few weeks ago. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford is a great work, and I think this was my third time reading it. I just took a peak at the Wikipedia entry, and it does not do it justice, and I’m not sure I can do it justice either in this short space. Suffice it to say that Ford in his telling of this simple story line—and it is simple once you unfold the time line—creates the perfect aesthetic representation of the collapse of European society. Look at the date the novel was published, 1915, so it was written as Europe entered catastrophe. WWI had just started, but led to the war (in Ford’s view, I don’t necessarily agree with it) is inherent self destruction, psychological repression, and a resulting modern society that is structurally askew. He compares society to a minuet on the surface but underneath a “prison of screaming hysterics.” In the story he weaves so subtly motifs of psychology, religion, and history, not just recent history but going back to the Middle Ages, but his greatest creation is the unreliable narrator, which creates the instability of the story, which in turn reflects the instability that was Europe. That is an incredible aesthetic accomplishment. Besides that, what I realized on this reading was that Ford’s prose here is the best of his era of all the British novelists. I’m fairly knowledgeable on the modern (WWI to WWII) British novel, and I love the prose styles of DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell, all great stylists in their own right, but Ford’s prose here is the tops. He’s exquisite, rhythmically beautiful, flowing with music as if it were a minuet itself. And that too aesthetically complements the central theme. It’s an amazing work.
The other novels on my list were fine reads also, though not great novels. I read Treasure Island after being swamped and weighed down with Whitman and St. Augustine, who’s Confessions turned out to be a lot more philosophical than I thought it would be. I just needed something light and refreshing and this most definitely was it. Plus Stevenson was a fine prose writer himself. I had read an abridged version as a teen and thought I knew the story, but there was more to it than I either remembered or was included in that abridgment. It’s got great characterization; an aspiring writer should study how Stevenson creates the distinctness of each character. I read The Hobbit because the movie just came out, and I wanted to have it read if I were to go to see it. This was another fun read, rich in detail and lots of humor. Though intended to be a children’s book, it does have profound themes, and it’s very well crafted. I’m not much on fantasy or sci-fi or whatever The Hobbit’s genre is, but it’s most definitely worth reading. I can see how Tolkien, though he doesn’t break into the great writer category (mostly because of the genre), does come close, and I can see why he has such a following. The Auster short novel was, like the other Auster works I’ve read, engrossing. However I just don’t know what to make of them. “The Locked Room” is the third novella in his trilogy, and I had read the first two a couple of years ago, and then I misplaced the book, and never read the third. That was a shame because the three works are interconnected and would have been best to read them sequentially. And then the book popped up out of nowhere (yes, my study room is a mess) to my surprise. Auster is worth reading but it always feels like one has entered a skeevy world and needs a shower after. I do love the New York City references and locations since I can identify them.
Why Read Moby Dick is not worth reading. It does inspire to read the classic, but I’m not sure Philbrick, who by the way is a historian and not a literary critic, really understands the work. While he pulls out some nuggets of observation he completely misses some of the big themes, and his obsession of linking the work to the Civil War, which was ten years in the future from the publication, is suspect at best. The Quest for Shakespeare is actually a biography but one whose focus is to pull together all the evidence for Shakespeare being a Catholic. That Shakespeare was possibly a Catholic is a long standing notion, but I’m not aware of any work until this one that pulled together all the evidence. I came away convinced he was, and like the author, Joseph Pearce, we both started out not thinking so, but when you look at the amount of evidence—though no smoking gun link—the odds are he had to be. For instance his parents were fined as recusants—people who refused to join the Church of England, as was Shakespeare’s eldest daughter when she was an adult. Shakespeare’s mother’s side of the family had actual subversives and I think Shakespeare had at least one cousin executed. Shakespeare’s best friend in playwriting, Ben Jonson, was jailed as a Catholic at one point. There’s even more than that. I should have taken notes. Perhaps I’ll re-skim it and put together a blog on it. The book is well worth reading whether you’re convinced or not.
The other two non-fiction works were both autobiographies. St. Augustine’s Confessions—I think technically the first autobiography ever written—is a classic work. I loved the actually biographical parts, but mostly those were touchstones for his going off into philosophical and theological discussions, and that was too analytical for me. But I’m glad I read it. The Clearance Thomas (the Supreme Court Justice) autobiography is also an engaging read. I loved his stories of growing up a poor black in the south raised by his grandparents—and so the title of the book. The grandfather, though flawed, was an amazing man, a true Conservative in his core, and it took Thomas decades to understand him and come around to his thinking. If you want to go beyond the cliché of only rich people are Conservatives, read this book and you’ll understand where our thinking comes from.
My Shakespeare reads were both re-reads, so I have not progressed on my pursuit to complete his opus. I’m still at 26 read of the 36 plays. My goal this year was to come to a resolution on "Hamlet." I’ve argued it’s a flawed play, and there are major critics that would agree with me—I’m not pulling that out of the air. I had some theory last year that if you read it besides "Lear" and "Macbeth" you’ll see how the structure falls into place. I don’t even remember the theory, so that went nowhere, but I did warm up to the play more so. The central spine of the play (the revelation of Hamlet’s father’s murder and the searching for the moral justification for revenge) does hold together, but really, why are the relationships with his mother and Ophelia part of the play, and why did the play within the play to catch the King’s reaction have to be so elaborate? It’s these damn digressions that seem unjustified. But I’ll concede that I’ve evolved and can say the play is not flawed, but perhaps sloppy. I consider "King Lear" the greatest play ever written, and I’m never sorry to read it. If I had a week left to live and was down to my last read before I go to that great library in the sky, it would be "King Lear." I don’t think any literary work captures the totality of humanity as Lear does.
It’s a pleasure to read such a wide range of short stories. This year I decided to include some genre stories: mysteries (Arthur Conan Doyle and GK Chesterton), sci-fi (Gene Wolfe), and folk tale (Hans Christian Anderson). They were fun but uninspiring. Eudora Welty, who I have hardly read anything from, blew me away with her story “Moon Lake.” She can write and has such a southern lady’s genteel touch. A group of young girls, about the age of first puberty at summer camp and one drowns. I might have ended the story a little differently, but no complaints in the way Welty ended. Henry James’ “The Altar of the Dead” is one of those classic stories that everyone should read. It’s James at his best, and if you don’t want to read one of his lengthy novels, then this story is for you. I read it many years ago, and it did not disappoint as a second reading. It took me three or four starts to get into Katherine Ann Porter’s “Flowering Judas.” It’s so tersely written that I was confused with who was doing what. Once I understood it, I realized what a little jewel of a story this is, condensed like a poem. I decided to read Shusaku Endo’s “A Fifty Year Old Man” because I was fifty years old last year, and that’s as good a reason as any. He really captured a melancholy of a receding life. Hopefully my life is not receding though this darned sinus infection is still bothering me. Ron Hansen’s “Playland” captured a time and place in the past, and the characters felt so very real. The four Hemingway stories were all very good. He’s at his best in that form. I had previously read the first three listed, and the two parts of “Big Two-Hearted River” are established classics, but it was the last story, read on New Year’s Eve as we waited for the New Year to ring (yes, we have no social life), one that I had never read before, that most impressed me. “The Undefeated” is about an aging, washed up bull fighter trying to still earn a living from the craft he knows and trying to keep his dignity as he realizes his skills have diminished. I loved it. All year long I thought the top prize of the short stories I read would go to “Moon Lake,” but in the end it was the great Gustave Flaubert who had the best story. I read “A Simple Heart” the first time about thirty years ago, and the only thing I could remember was that it was about the life of a simple peasant woman and it had brought tears to my eyes. So I figured let me read it again, and now that I’m a gruff, insensitive old-timer I could just go right through it. Well, I was sitting at the window seat of an airplane while reading the ending and I had to turn my face out because my eyes were welling up. It just goes to show how some stories of heroic lives just turn me to mush. If I had felt Flaubert was just playing with my heartstrings, I would have shrugged it off, but the authorial restraint was perfect. That’s one of those stories that need to be studied. It wins top prize for 2012. The other stories ranged from average to good except for O’Faolain’s, “Innocence,” which I thought was not very good.