“Grandfather and Grandson,” a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, a novel by G.K. Chesterton.
“Feathers,” a short story by Raymond Carver.
The Cossacks, a novel by Leo Tolstoy.
“In Another Country,” a short story by Earnest Hemingway.
First Book of Chronicles, a book of the Old Testament, KJV.
Catherine of Siena, a biography by Sigrid Undset.
“The Masque of Red Death,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“William Wilson,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“A Descent into Maelstrom,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“The Lovely Lady,” a short story by D.H. Lawrence.
“Hills Like White Elephants,” a short story by Earnest Hemingway.
“The Killers,” a short story by Earnest Hemingway.
Second Book of Chronicles, a book of the Old Testament, KJV.
“The Fall of the House of Usher,” a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
“The Waste Land,” a long poem by T.S. Eliot.
A Soldier of the Great War, a novel by Mark Helprin.
“The Shawl,” a short story by Cynthia Ozick.
ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms That Begin With the Word if, a work of non-fiction by Dr. Mardy Grothe.
“Rip Van Winkle,” a short story by Washington Irving.
The Book of Ezra, a book of the Old Testament, KJV.
“Chi Ti Dice La Patria?” a short story by Earnest Hemingway.
Lumen Fidei, An Encyclical of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Book of Nehemiah, a book of the Old Testament, KJV.
“Pillar of Salt,” a short story by Shirley Jackson.
“The Shape of the Sword,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.
“The Body-Snatcher,” a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson.
Pitching In A Pinch: Baseball From The Inside, a non-fiction book on baseball by Christy Mathewson.
“The Blue Cross,” a Father Brown mystery short story by G. K. Chesterton.
“Who Killed Bob Teal?” a short story by Dashiell Hammett.
“The Man,” a short story by Ray Bradbury.
“Early Marvels,” a short story by Romulus Linney.
“Miriam,” a short story by Noni Tyent.
“Fiction,” a short story by Alice Munro.
Macbeth, a play by William Shakespeare.
“Purgatorio,” 2nd part of the epic poem of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Anthony Esolen.
“Purgatorio,” 2nd part of the epic poem of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Robert M. Durling.
"Esmé,” a short story by Saki (H.H. Munro)
Acts of the Apostles, a book of the New Testament, KJV & NAB.
Imagist Poetry: An Anthology, a collection of poetry edited by Bob Blaisdell.
Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, a non-fiction history by Martin Goodman.
The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, a non-fiction book of theology by Luke Timothy Johnson.
Cannery Row, a short novel by John Steinbeck.
As busy as I was this year, this might have been one of the most productive reading years I’ve had. Four novels, the Helprin novel being over 800 pages; two separate translations of Purgatorio, Dante’s second cantica of The Divine Comedy; two works of poetry, “The Waste Land” for the umpteenth time, and a collection of imagist poets from the early part of the 20th century; one play, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, twenty-four short stories, achieving my goal of two per month; seven books from the bible, with Acts of the Apostles read twice in two separate translations; and six books of non-fiction. All in all I estimate I read somewhere around 4000+ pages.
Let’s start with the novels. All four were very different from each other. Tolstoy’s The Cossacks, while it’s not one of the great Tolstoy works (this was his first novel) is still a fine work, a work of picturesque beauty—set in the Caucus Mountains—of psychological probing (the central character is incredibly insecure and leaves the high Moscow society for the simplicity of Cossack life and still finds himself alienated), and rooted in 19th century Romanticism in a way that future Tolstoy works are less so. Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday is a story of early 20th century anarchism but unlike Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a work of realism and tragedy and which I kept thinking of as I read Thursday, Chesterton’s novel is comic and absurdist. I would say it is a forerunner to the absurdist movement later in the century. However, we normally associate absurdist art with nihilism, but Chesterton turns nihilism on its head so that the novel is life and tradition affirming. This novel should be ranked much higher on the Canon in literature departments, and frankly should be part of early 20th century literature curriculum. And to boot, it’s absolutely hilarious, reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide. Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War is an epic that situates the problems of the 20th century there at the first big crises of the century, but through sequences of light and dark and through the life of a professor of aesthetics who served in the war, Helprin captures what is truly important in life, the love of family and friends and art in the midst of suffering and terror. This work is a near masterpiece (a bit lengthy and verbose its only weakness, and perhaps on future readings I might be able to see why it had to be that long), and Helprin’s prose is a delight. He is certainly one of the top prose stylists in English of the last fifty years. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is a ball of fun. It’s a collage of vignettes around the lives of those in a seafood canning region in northern California. The characters are so memorable, Lee Chong, Mack, Doc, Dora, Gay, Frankie, and the rest. Most of them are a bunch of screw-ups. But there is lots of drinking (of the alcoholic kind), fights, prostitution (a bit glorified), and friends helping friends through difficulties. The vignettes are masterfully composed, vivid and concise and real; you get to feel like you live there, albeit it’s a bit more sentimentalized than life actually is. But you can’t have a Steinbeck work without sentimentality. While the vignettes are masterful, the novel’s shortcoming though is its lack of a strong central plot. The only narrative development that moves the plot along and brings the work to a close is the effort and misfires to give Doc a party, which to me seems to lack the gravity of the situation. But it’s still enjoyable. As I look back on it now, all four novel reads are life affirming in their own way. All four worth reading.
I read two different translations of Purgatorio because shortly before I started to read the Durling translation I discovered that Anthony Esolen, a scholar I hold in high regard, recently had come out with a translation of The Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. I also found out Esolen was a poet as well as a medievalist scholar, which I hadn’t known before, and so I got his translation of Dante and decided to read two translations side by side. Plus I realized that while I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy before, my readings of Purgatorio and Paradisio were cursory. I had read Inferno several times, know it fairly well, but I had just blazed through the other two once, and mostly just to say I had read them. One doesn’t typically read the other two unless one is majoring in medieval lit or Italian lit. I want to understand and know Dante like I understand Shakespeare, Homer, and Virgil. And it took me over three months to read them both. I was saturated in Dante. The differences between the two translations are noteworthy. The Esolen is certainly more poetic and tries to hold to Dante’s form. The Durling translation also in meter isn’t so concerned with maintaining Dante’s tercets and will spread out to four lines if needed for precision. Also Durling’s translation provides extensive notes. Esolen too provides notes, but I would say Esolen’s notes mostly focus on understanding the passage at hand while Durling’s notes crisscrosses the entire work to show the high integration of the Commedia, and once you appreciate that integration you can fully understand why I (and many others) consider it the greatest literary work. I might characterize the differences in translations this way: Esolen’s is for the undergraduate student while Durling’s is for the graduate student. But then Esolen’s poetry is excellent, about as good as any of the Dante translations I’ve ever perused. I’m curious to see what his original poetry is like.
My poetry read of the year was a collection of poems from the Imagism movement at the early part of the 20th century. I’m familiar with the imagist poets, especially Ezra Pound and D.H. Lawrence, but I wanted to sample a greater variety. This was one of those inexpensive Dover Thrift Editions, and I don’t know if the selections were poor or the poems selected mediocre (probably both) but I bet one can do better with a collection. There were a couple of oddities I found surprising. First, the editor included Wallace Stevens, and Stevens is not an imagist poet. He was friendly and traded letters with several of the imagists but he would not have included himself in their movement, at least that’s my memory of Stevens. The collection also did not include Marianne Moore, and I would believe she fit into the imagist movement quite well, though I don’t know if she considered herself such. But the intent of reading this was to broaden my reading of the imagists to those I had heard of but never read. I have to say that D.H. Lawrence’s poems stood out. If he weren’t already known for his fiction, which overshadows his poetry, I think Lawrence would be considered one of the top poets of the century. I read “The Waste Land” again because I had found such a great audio version read by Jeremy Irons. I don’t know if it’s still available for free. I did at the time provide a link for my readers to download. I read Macbeth again because I wanted to last year and never got to it.
I made my way through some of the hardest books (the dreaded histories) of the Old Testament in the King James translation as I make my way through the bible. I say this every year, and I might as well say it again, I am not a fan of the King James translation, but because of its influence on the development of the English language I feel duty-bound as a student of English literature to read it through at least once. I can’t wait until I’m done, but that’s going to be a few more years at this pace. I did read Acts of the Apostles from the New Testament (in two translations, because I really want to understand the NT) and found it way more enjoyable than I expected. St. Luke knows how to organize his material.
I read more non-fiction than I expected this year, six works in all. One biography (of St. Catherine of Siena by the Nobel Prize winner, Sigrid Undset), one book on writing (I do one every year), an encyclical by the Pope which had come out and was about the length of a short novel, a book on baseball by a hall-of-fame old timer, a history of first century Rome and Jerusalem (I’m an ancient Roman history buff) leading to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, and a book of Christian theology on the formation of the Nicene Creed and what it actually means. The book on writing, ifferisms is a book on the use of “if” in rhetorical phrasing and how it could improve one’s writing. It was fun and I wish I could find more reasons to start sentences with “if” but the opportunities don’t seem to come up. I had never read a papal encyclical before but I often have seen people quote them, so when this one came out in the spring I decided to pick I up. Pope Francis is designated as author, but he had just been elected a short while before and it’s widely known that his predecessor, Benedict XVI had written a good 80 percent of it. And I think I can identify who wrote what. The Nicene Creed is the core of Christianity, and Johnson’s book is excellent in going through the history and breaking down each phrase to show its full meaning. It’s also non-denominational; just about all Christian denominations profess the Nicene Creed. The biography of St. Catherine touched me immensely, and I now consider her my patron saint. The history and the baseball books reflect my interests, and were very good in their own way.
I have to say my short story reads have become the joy throughout the year. How else can one get such a diversity of writers, a diversity of subject matter, and diversity of style and form all within a day or two of completion? I love the short story, and it serves as a pleasant diversion when bogged down with a long work. I don’t really have a method to selecting the stories I read, except I’m slowly making my way a few stories per year through all of Hemingway’s. I also had a few this year of Edgar Allen Poe, but that’s because I’ve been trying to round out my grasp of 19th century American literature, and one story from Poe wouldn’t be enough for a fair survey. Other than that my choices are fairly random and impulsive. I now have three shelves of a bookcase with short story collections, so I can choose almost any writer whim takes me to. There were some duds in the reads. The Stoker story (I had not read anything by Bram Stoker before and just wanted to sample), the Stevenson, and, two writers I had never heard of and probably will never read again, Linney and Tyent were disappointments. All the rest were at least good, but I should highlight the cream of the crop. The top tear stories here were “Grandfather and Grandson” by Singer, “Feathers” by Carver, “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Killers” by Hemingway, “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Poe, “The Blue Cross” by Chesterton, “The Shape of the Sword” by Borges, “Fiction,” by Munro, and "Esmé” by Saki. I have no problem considering any of those in the excellent category. Though Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” has the reputation of being one of the great contemporary short stories, I found it fell short. So as I do every year, I will award the prize for the best short story read of the year, and this year it goes to…hold your breath…to Edgar Allen Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This was a complete surprise for me. Many times I have said I am not an Edgar Allen Poe fan. I can’t help feeling that so much of his work is slapped together for quick sale using gratuitous sensationalism to hook the reader. But there’s no question that he can be first rate. The more I broke down “The Fall of the House of Usher.” the more I saw the subtle craft and integration. I posted two whole blogs on this one short story. If I were to put together a collection of the top twenty-five stories of all time, this one would be in it. This year, I’ll give a runner-up prize and it goes to “Feathers” by Raymond Carver.
I didn’t get to Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain and Washington Square by Henry James. They’ll have priority in the New Year.