Books That Are Short And Good

Fourteen months ago I wrote a piece (click here) about my successful attempt to re-enter the world of book-reading after a two-year hiatus from same. I’d taken baby steps, no doubt about it, but the two books I’d read at that point during 2017 (Henry Beston’s The Outermost House and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means Of Escape) had me bursting with pride at my accomplishment. I was back in the saddle!

One major reason for my choosing to read those two works was that they were très compact. As were nearly all of the five subsequent volumes that passed before my eyes in 2017. I don’t know, my attention span has shrunk like an icy dick in somewhat recent years. So, any book I’m apt to tackle is going to be on the easily consumed side in terms of page count and likely blessed with nice, big print. The days of possibly giving Ulysses or The Brothers Karamazov a shot are gone, baby, gone. And I can live with that! Happily.

Well, I’m here to report that consistency continues to reign in my book selection process. So far this year I’ve etched three notches on my literary belt, and the books for which the notches were created average around 200 pages in length. Short, in other words.

Good books they are, too. And although dubbed novels, two of them come awfully damn close to being memoirs pure and simple. As for the third, also a novel, it’s a memoir at its core despite its many flights of fancy.

The first one that I took on, Big Sur (by Jack Kerouac), is a mass of jagged and breathless energy. It recounts Kerouac’s efforts, three years after 1957’s publication of On The Road made him famous, to get away from the fans and from the media attention that he felt were dragging him down. To a cabin in California’s idyllic Big Sur he retreated, soon to discover that he couldn’t escape his alcoholic and highly unsettled self. In Big Sur’s pages, Kerouac tears into himself pitilessly. The public might have thought of him as a cool guy, a free-flying bird. But in reality, uh-uh. The so-called and supposed King Of The Beatniks, Kerouac wasn’t destined for many more years on our orb. He passed in 1969 at age 47.

Next up was Portrait Of The Artist, As An Old Man. Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame, completed it shortly before his demise, at age 76, in 1999. Catch-22, which entered the world in 1960, was Heller’s first and most popular book. I’d say that Portrait, of whose existence I was unaware until noticing it sitting all lonesome on a library shelf in March, deserves to be a lot better known than it is. This is the book that I mentioned above wherein flights of fancy flourish.

I tell you, this book made me squirm, not because it’s creepy or weird in any way. No, this is Heller’s account of a novelist (himself with a fictitious name) whose muse has bolted south. But needing to write (“He had nothing better to do with his leisure than to try writing another novel . . . ” Heller notes in one of many permutations on the notion throughout the book), our hero keeps coming up with one lame or unworkable story idea after another. Man, I can relate! Funny, human, almost adorable, Portrait is a satiric picture of a man determined not to give up, for lack of anything better to do, come what may.

I’ve known of Charles Bukowski for eons, but never read a word of the zillions he put to paper until I decided to give Post Office a spin. It’s Bukowski’s telling of his career during the 1950s and 60s as a mail carrier and letter sorter with the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, and of his life during the hours when he wasn’t on the job. Crazy anecdotes and bushels of nastily humorous lines fly from Bukowski’s pen. It doesn’t take long for the reader to realize that Bukowski wasn’t cut out to work within a bureaucracy. A model employee he never was nor ever wanted to be. A hard-liver, a heavy drinker, a denizen of society’s underside, a street poet and a true character, it’s amazing that he hung onto his job for as long as he did.

Bukowski was and remains a cult literary figure, primarily known for his poems. I get the feeling, though, that quite a few millions of folks are into his work. That’s a big cult. I might relax with another of his “fictional” novels one of these days, because rapid-paced Post Office pleased me. Apparently totally at ease with his drinking, race-track frequenting and disheveled lifestyle, Bukowski comes across as a guy I’d probably have enjoyed talking to, but maybe for not too long. His energy would have swallowed me whole. Despite holding the antithesis of a holistic orientation, Bukowski hung around for a decent amount of time, his tenure ending at age 73 in 1994.

Okay, that’s enough about those three guys. It’s time to get back to what this publication mainly is all about. Me. Hell, if I don’t write about myself, who the f*ck will?

But, appropriately, I’ll keep it short. Getting back to my short attention span, I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly when and how it developed. Maybe it settled upon me as a result of societal osmosis, since cultural analysts and pundits have been saying for 20 or so years that most peoples’ attention spans are skimpy. Whatever the reasons may be for the state of mine, I’m not sure if I can or want to elongate it, to bring it back to where it once was during the decades I spent in the academic and paid-employment worlds.

But hey, maybe I just stumbled upon the key. It could be that when I hung up my career spikes in 2009, when additional hours each day became mine to deal with as I chose, my ability to stay focused began to slip. Now I kind of flit from one thing to another. Not that I mind flitting, to tell you the truth. I’ve gotten used to it and maybe even like it. In fact, in a day or two I’m going to flit over to a local library and scour its racks for a shorty. It’s time to etch another notch on my literary belt.

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Sue Miller The Novelist Got Me Thinking: Uh-Oh!

Who am I? Deep inside, I mean. For that matter, who are any of us? Man, those are questions I don’t think about too much. They make my head spin. You wouldn’t think they would, though, considering that my college major was psychology, some of whose branches attempt to help humans find answers to such concerns. I liked my psychology courses, and did pretty well grade-wise in them, but I guess that psychology and I never clicked meaningfully enough. We didn’t waltz together as a loving couple. At no time, then, did I see a psychology-based future for myself in my crystal ball. In fact, sad to say, when I gazed deeply into that glass hunk I didn’t notice any future career at all. Alas, with college degree in hand following graduation in 1969, I trod a long and winding road halfway to nowheresville, scrambling with little sense of direction to find steady employment and a decent-paying job.  Oy vey summed up my situation and prospects nicely.

Thank the baccalaureate gods above, the ship began to right itself a number of years later, the proverbial pieces starting to fit together. And in the end pretty much everything worked out quite attractively for me. But looking back on it all from five decades later, maybe I’d have found steady employment and a decent-paying job a whole lot sooner had I been more attuned to examining and answering the foreboding question, “Who am I?”. Not to mention another question, to which we’ll turn our attention shortly, that wasn’t at all on my radar screen in those days of yore.

In any event, here I am today, rolling “Who am I?” and its like around in my brain because of a novel I snatched off the shelf in a local library a few Fridays ago. Not paying attention to the hour of the day, I arrived at the library only 10 minutes before closing time. I realized this when the lights began to flicker, a signal to pack up and get out of Dodge.

Determined not to leave empty-handed I moved quickly down the fiction section’s M aisle, which is where I was standing when the lights started doing their thing. My eyes darted here and there and landed on books by various Millers. Should I try something by Andrew Miller, whom I never heard of but whose volumes were emitting vibes that appeared to be meshing happily with my own? Or one of Henry Miller’s opuses, HM being a hip and bawdy cat I’ve plenty dug over the years? Nah, I wanted a female author. In the intellectual, not the carnal sense. Which is why I grabbed a few of the novels by Sue Miller off the shelf and scanned the synopses on their inside covers. I knew of Sue, she of the bestselling The Good Mother and The Senator’s Wife, and made my decision pronto. Home I went with The Lake Shore Limited sitting beside me in the car.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. In this case I won, because The Lake Shore Limited is a fine, fine book. If you are in search of a handsomely-wrought creation whose characters act and talk and think believably, it might be for you.

The Lake Shore Limited not only is the name of Sue Miller’s novel, it also is the title of a play set within the novel. What’s more, it is a real-life passenger train that connects Chicago with several cities in the northeastern United States. The play, which is seen through the eyes of various characters in the book, is the novel’s fulcrum. Its powers cause them, including the play’s author, to take good, hard looks at themselves and in some cases at those in their immediate orbits. All find within the play circumstances that resonate with or parallel their own lives.

Wilhelmina “Billy” Gertz, the novel’s main character, is a playwright living in Boston when the book opens. The year is 2007. Her latest product, The Lake Shore Limited, is in performance at a small Boston theater. And gaining strong reviews. Billy felt compelled to write the play, which she battled with for years trying to discover what she really wanted to say, because her once-boyfriend Gus had perished in one of the planes that demolished the World Trade Center on 9/11. Billy’s play tells a tale of an emotionally-numb man, Gabriel, waiting for Elizabeth, his wife, to return from a trip. She is travelling on The Lake Shore Limited. For many a moon, he and Elizabeth have not exactly been the happy couple. In no real sense are they together.

But life can change fast. The Limited has been targeted by terrorists, bombs ripping through it as it reaches Chicago’s Union Station. Gabriel’s soul-plumbing, while he waits to learn of his wife’s fate, reveal him to be more alive than he or the play’s audience expected.

Moving back and forth in time, Miller lays out the lives, past and present, of Billy, Leslie (Gus’s sister), Rafe (who portrays Gabriel in the play), and Sam (Leslie’s friend and Billy’s pursuer). We view events and encounters through their differing perspectives. And we learn that each character often isn’t too certain of the solidity of his or her perspective to begin with.

Which, to me, sounds like the way things are in real life. That’s one reason I enjoyed The Lake Shore Limited as much as I did. Its players come across as true flesh and blood. Miller’s novel also is layered delicately and precisely, which makes it rich. And ripe for discussion. Care and concern, unbridled love, grief, selfishness, infidelity, deception . . . these primo examples of the human stew are on full display in the novel. Maestro-like, Miller elegantly weaves these themes and emotions through her pages.

Not to downplay those just-mentioned examples, two of the things that have stuck in my mind like glue about The Lake Shore Limited even more are the “Who am I?” question and another question with which it goes hand-in-hand. Miller doesn’t dwell on them, but I felt them running as undercurrents in her novel. Billy, for instance, thinks of herself as a semi-loner. And, I believe, she knows that not only is it her insecurities that lead her in the loner direction, but that trying to overcome them by adopting a less-defensive approach to life might result in a jump in her happiness quotient.

And Sam, a successful architect, can only feel bad about how he failed pretty considerably as a parent when his children were young. They, now well into adulthood, and he don’t have world-class relationships. “Who the heck am I?” I can envision Sam asking. “What do I need to do to change my course?”

Billy and Sam . . . I can relate. We homo sapiens are emotional and malleable creatures, open to improvement and expansion, and vulnerable to blows. Yes, “Who am I?” is a biggie as questions go. But even if you find the answers to it, you’re not going to bloom enough if you don’t get around to examining, and acting upon, “What sort of person do I want to be?” too.

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Keeping It Short (A Story About Books)

Man, I don’t how they do it. They being the book bloggers I’ve come across who not only read an incredible number of books — three and up per week — but somehow also find the time, and have the brain power, to write sharp and detailed reviews about them. My little ol’ head spins madly just thinking about those folks’ accomplishments. Even in the days of yore when I read books aplenty I’d never have been able to follow them up quickly with well-plotted, good quality commentaries. Uh-uh. That kind of mental grandeur and endurance I do not possess, and never did. To put it a related way, my thoughts do not exactly flow in structured torrents along my neural pathways to my typing fingers. Hell, I’m lucky if a writing session produces 150 words that fit together in a useable manner. All I can say is that I stand in awe of those book bloggers. To repeat, I don’t know how they do it. (Lynne LeGrow, whose blog is called Fictionophile, is an example of what I’m talking about. Click here to find her blog.)

I bring up all of this partly because this is the first opus I’ve written that touches upon my book-reading activities. As I alluded to moments ago, I used to consume more than my share of books, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Leafing through a list that I’ve been keeping since 1970, I see that I knocked off 45 volumes in 1971, for instance, and 59 in 1983. The latter is my highest-ever yearly total.

Alas, my bookish endeavors came to a grinding halt in February 2015 when I reached the final page of Birds Of America, a collection of cool short stories by Lorrie Moore. That’s when the dark months set in, months marked by so much fretting about my place in the universe and in the kitchen, I became a cowering wreck. Books could wait. Oh well, it might have been worse. Like, if Trump had been elected president. What? You mean he is president? Holy crap! Let me outta here!

But the dark times didn’t last forever. Quite amazingly, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself picking up a book that had been hanging around the house for a pretty long while. I ran through it in five or six days. And one day after finishing it I headed to a local library and took out a work that I almost immediately set upon. Two days later I reached its end. Bravo, Neil, bravo! Back in the book-reading saddle I am, and probably will remain there for a decent spell.

Book number one, The Outermost House, by Henry Beston, was right up my alley. In fact, it is surprising that I hadn’t turned its pages ages ago, as it is set on Cape Cod, a locale I’ve gotten to know and crazily love over the last 20 years. The Outermost House describes the months (autumn 1926 till autumn 1927) that Beston spent living in semi-solitude, housing himself in a two room cabin in the dunes of Cape Cod’s raw and wild Atlantic Ocean coastline. Many times I’ve trod on the very sands and wetlands that grabbed hold of Beston’s heart and spirit.

Beston’s book has become one of the so-called classics, remaining in print since hitting the marketplace in 1928, and apparently still selling pretty nicely. I loved it. Beston writes gracefully and has an eye for subject matter that you don’t frequently cross paths with, such as his lengthy descriptions of the differing types of sounds made by the ocean waves and surf. Next time I’m on The Cape I’m going to have his book in hand as I investigate some of the observations that his keen senses and abstract mind came up with. I won’t be able to check out his cabin, though. A violent storm in 1978 destroyed it.

Now that I think about it, I believe I had the notion in the back of my head for a while to reacquaint myself with books, and that I knew I’d have book-reading success only by taking baby steps. By which I mean I wasn’t about to tackle monsters like Dickens’ David Copperfield or George Eliot’s Middlemarch, both of which ain’t that far from the 1,000 page mark. No, whatever I was to read would have to be short, and The Outermost House fit the bill just fine. Its 218 pages are endowed with a large typeface and spacious margins. Perfect. So, I seized the moment and gave the dark months a hardy wave goodbye.

As with The Outermost House, short also needed to apply to the next book I opened if I were to have any hope of establishing a bit of book-reading momentum. Which is why I bow to the memory of the late Penelope Fitzgerald, whose remarkably slim The Means Of Escape, an okay-but-could-be-better short story collection, became the second title I conquered this month. I tell you, a more ideal specimen for length-phobic and trepidatious book readers would be hard to find. You want short? Hey, The Means Of Escape numbers only 117 pages, and a bunch of them are blanks that separate one story from another. The pages that actually contain printed words total a very genial and genteel 96. My kind of book, for sure!

On the living room sofa I began to gloat about my accomplishments to my wife Sandy as the final pages of The Means Of Escape drew within sight. “Can you believe it?” I said. “I’m about to finish my second book in a nine or ten day period.”

Sandy gave me one of those looks. And then she gave Penelope Fitzgerald’s micro-tome one of those looks. “That’s not a book,” she said. “That doesn’t count as a book.”

Oh yeah? I beg to differ. Was it sitting on a library shelf? You bet it was. Does it have a front and a back cover? Damn straight.

It counts!

 

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