I finished Bewilderment at the end of October. There is much to like here, the retelling of Flowers for Algernon, the invented planets shared by the father and son at bedtime, the barely concealed references to real public personalities, all worked into a compelling and moving narrative. What I enjoyed most about this book though was the character of the mother, powerfully present in her absence. Her personality sometimes felt like one of the imaginary planets described by the narrator, pieced together from memories and the perceptions of others, particularly her son, the way one might ascertain the composition of a distant celestial object through the scattering of light.
I started reading Powers back in the early 1990s with The Gold Bug Variations on a transatlantic flight to England. Since then, I’ve read him periodically and long the way I bought most of his novels faithfully on publication. Reading Bewilderment made me want to go back and fill the gaps.
Getting back to this book blog after a period of general life business.
I finished Mary Oliver’s collection of essays a few weeks ago. I am new to her writing and wish I’d discovered it earlier. I could have benefitted from the wisdom in these beautiful essays on art, creativity, nature and memory many times during my life. This is one of those books you burden with sticky notes and underlining. Oliver’s unsentimental observations about animals, foxes, birds, spiders and turtles are enthralling and occasionally shocking, but it is her reflections on creativity that really spoke to me.
The clock! The twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly.”
Of Power and Time
No one has yet made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. It’s concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.
Of Power and Time
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.
The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road.
Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.
Little, Big, John Crowley
I began this post to comment on my love of the Bard Books/ Avon imprint. These books, once ubiquitous, are now are seen most frequently in used book shops. Charles Williams made me think of C. S. Lewis, of course, and the opening paragraph of Out of the Silent Planet made me think of the opening of Little, Big, and this is how works of literature speak together through us. It’s also why I will never thin out my library. There is no greater joy than following a trail of breadcrumbs through your collection of books.
For fun, here is a piece of art I did back in 2003, inspired by John Crowley’s Little, Big.
I have a terrible vice—book hoarding. I buy books, and then due to over burdened bookshelves in my living space, store them in the dreaded plastic bin (okay dozen plastic bins) in my basement.
Occasionally, I’ll go down there, brave the spiders, sow bugs and spent Christmas decorations to search for something that occurred to me. Usually, I have no luck finding what I’m looking for and come up with several things I wasn’t. Such is the case with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel.
What is extraordinary is that I haven’t read it yet. It is, as they say, up my alley. The art is amazing, the period is dear to my heart and it looks a hell of a lot less intimidating the Moore’s Jerusalem, which also mocks me from the murky depths of a Home Depot storage bin.
I finished re-reading Dune recently. When I first read it the first time, I was a teenager. Setting out now, I realized that most of what I thought I remembered came not from the book but the film directed by David Lynch—no monstrous Guild Navigator in a Baroque fishtank, or festering Baron Harkonnen here. Some great scenes in this one, and the story moves at a good pace, if a bit abruptly in places. I love this retro cover designed and illustrated by Jim Tierney.
But now, when I tried to see the whole affair from the point of view of the self interest of each of the parties involved, the anomaly came to me suddenly.
The Quincunx, Charles Palliser
I spent most of the Christmas break reading The Quincunx, which somehow I’d managed to put off since it was recommended to me sometime in the 1980s. At 781 pages, it it the longest novel I’ve read in a while. It also weighs a ton. I think it left a permanent groove in my chest. It’s dense, immersive and in places harrowing. For this image, I paired it with Philip Davies’ Lost London, 1870-1945, which is filled with beautiful archival images of London. Both books are highly recommended.
I write down what I observe in my notebooks. I do this for two reasons. The first is that Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness. The second is to preserve whatever knowledge I possess for you, the Sixteenth Person.
So many books are inextricably connected with friendships. I still remember the moment in the 1970s when a friend insisted I read Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis while we were waiting for his Greyhound in a snowstorm. He nearly missed his bus when we made a mad dash for a nearby bookstore. On another occasion I was leaving a friend’s house in Toronto when she handed me a copy of John Crowley’s Little, Big, a book that remains a favorite to this day. A few years ago, my friend Tim passed away. Our friendship was based on words – we never met in the real world, just online. Tim, a writer and instructor of writing during his life, was well read and often recommended authors to me. Here are few, which include some old friends and some yet to meet.
I am enjoying Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. It seems the perfect book for this moment. These essays vary in length and it’s the longer pieces I like best. My favorites so far are Tekels Park and In Her Orbit. Tekels Park reminded me of my own childhood explorations and In Her Orbit, introduced me to Nathalie Cabrol and her fascinating research.
Macdonald’s observations are always interesting and filled with unexpected pieces of information. Did I mention she writes beautifully? The thing I like best about this book is that despite the frequent acknowledgement about the sorry state of our natural world, there is an underlying curiosity and sense that there is still so much to see and learn about. I haven’t read H is for Hawk, but I will soon.