Stuff I’ve Been Reading

Been a while since I’ve done one of these.

The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick

I had never read her before. I was familiar with her as “Robert Lowell’s wife” – she shows up repeatedly in his correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop (which I read last year? The year before? The last two years, awful as they have been, blend together). I knew Hardwick was formidable, and I knew of her formation of the now-legendary New York Review of Books, where she perched for many years – her main outlet. But I had never read her. I am loving it. These essays are wide-ranging, literate, often bracing – she’s fearless in putting her opinion out there with no asides like “in my opinion” which would weaken her assertions. She writes about Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Elizabeth Bishop (whom she knew, of course), she writes about wives/mistresses of famous men, she writes about Henry James and Delmore Schwartz. There are essays about real-world events – the Watts riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King – and also broader cultural commentary. One essay called “Domestic Manners” looks at all the changes going on in society in the ’70s – the weary transition from the idealistic ’60s – and how that manifested itself in people’s behavior, their “manners”, their relationships. Hardwick is a Boomer, of course, and it was really interesting to read her on-the-ground analysis of what was going on – and as a Gen-Xer, the child of Boomers, it made a lot of sense. I was like “No wonder we – the forgotten generation – are the way we are (in general).” Things unfold in patterns, and there are reactions and counter-reactions. Hardwick often wields imagery in making her points – she’ll compare something to something else – and the metaphor is perfectly constructed, perfectly illustrating her point, making you see it before your mind. There’s also a pan of a book about English writers who spent time in America – Oscar Wilde (well, Irish), Dickens, Mrs. Trollope – and her pan is so intelligent and air-tight there’s no escape. I’m very impressed and very glad I have now “met” her, outside the reminiscences of her famous troubled husband.

A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel

A re-read. An 800-page “novel” on the French Revolution and its three major stars – Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. Peppered with famous people – I mean, they’re all famous now. Marat. St. Just. Charlotte Corday. Rene Hebert. and “the Capet family”. There’s barely anyone in here who is made up. I know I can’t expect people to be like, “Oooh, this book sounds super fun” – even people who “love to read” might balk at this one – and I don’t know anyone else who has read it – but all I can say is it is phenomenal and, in its way, superior to her famous Wolf Hall trilogy (although there are so many similarities in theme and approach). Wolf Hall centers around one man and this one skips back and forth and over among the three protagonists, through which you can see all of the events unfold, since they were each so central in their own sphere of influence. She has done her research. The book is so daunting and not for a regular audience (like Wolf Hall – if the trilogy had been all put into one volume, then there might be a comparison.) Mantel could not find a publisher willing to take on A Place of Greater Safety. It just sat around unpublished for years. Imagine devoting your life to years of research – and then finding no one wants it. Finally, though, it saw the light of day. So yes. I re-read it. It’s overwhelming the first time around. The number of characters you have to keep track of runs into the hundreds (just like with Wolf Hall, she lists out a Cast of Characters in the opening pages – extremely helpful). A Place of Greater Safety is an extraordinary book about power and revolution, about revolutions eating their young, and how once that process starts it is impossible to stop. The fall of Robespierre was the end of the Terror – at least it’s understood as such – but it’s pure madness, what went on. The rapacious lust to bring everyone down. Through its pages you get to know such people as the Duke of Orleans, Herault de Sechelles, Legendre the butcher, the Duplay family, all the women in these men’s lives – who played crucial roles in the revolution themselves (none so deeply as Lucile Duplessis, wife of Camille Desmoulins – who was executed right around the time her husband was). Anyway. If you’re a big reader, and if you loved Wolf Hall, I will let my recommendation stand. This is a great book.

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel, by Amor Towles

Reading Amor Towles’ second novel, A Gentlemen in Moscow, and I’m so into it I’m actually nervous. I read his first novel Rules of Civility and got so into it I missed my stop on the train and had to spend the night in a cheap scary motel in another state. Who IS this Amor guy?? Rules of Civility was published when he was almost 50. He had this whole other life in the financial sector and then out of the blue he came out with THAT? (I realize it’s not “out of the blue” to HIM, but to US it is.) Rules of Civility takes place in Manhattan in 1938, and it’s written in the tone/manner of a 1930s screwball, taking place among the high society of New York, with incursions from the “lower” society – just like in screwballs, but the book is organized around Walker Evans’ famous surreptitiously-taken subway photographs … All of these different things make the book practically tailor-made for me. (Because it’s all about me, you understand.)

Gentlemen in Moscow is – if anything – even more up my alley, because it has to do with the first decade after the Russian Revolution and the changes it wrought upon society. It’s about a Russian Count, who in 1922 falls out of favor with the newly-in-power Bolsheviks (falling out of favor with that humorless lot wasn’t too hard to do). However, because he wrote a poem in 1913 that had been an anthem for the Revolution, the Bolsheviks decide not to kill him. He could live, but they would silence his voice. (This is exactly what they did to the great poet Anna Akhmatova.) When the Revolution broke out, the Count had been living in Paris. He raced home to 1. help his family get out of Russia and 2. secure his possessions on the family estate before the Bolsheviks commandeered all of it, grifters that they were. The Count moved into a palatial suite at the famous Metropol Hotel in Moscow and has been living there for a couple of years, undisturbed. Finally, though, like everybody else in the damn country, he was arrested and interrogated about his aristocratic past. Because punishing someone for being born into a certain class makes so much sense. (Lots of similarity with the whole sansculottes thing in the French Revolution). The Bolsheviks allow him to live but with one stipulation: he must never leave the Metropol. He will live out the rest of his days in one building.

This is the premise. What I just described is laid out in the first three pages of the book. The rest of the book is what happens after that.

Along with the character study of the Count (I love him so much), you get the social/cultural history too. The book is clearly well researched but he doesn’t wear his research on his sleeve (cough Michael Chabon cough) – it’s woven into the book. And it’s small details like the flower shop in the lobby of the Metropol – there for years, a part of the hotel’s social life – suddenly closing down after the Revolution. No more use for flowers. How the extensive wine list in the restaurant is cut down to either “white” or “red”, all the bottle labels removed – since good wine is seen as a vestige of the old order. I have no idea if these things are true but they RING true. The Count strolls through the Metropol, doing all the things he used to do, getting his hair cut, having dinner, conversing with Bolshoi ballerinas at the bar… but … what would it be like if you knew that was what you were going to be doing for the rest of your life?

I love how subtly and almost by stealth Towles walks you through the Metropol until now I am so familiar with it I bet I could draw up a floor plan. The layout of the lobby, the restaurants and their different ambiance and where they are located, the stairway, etc. I can see it all in my head.

I’m trying to slow the pace of my reading because I’m enjoying it so much.

That’s the other thing: Towles writes page-turners. This is why I missed my Amtrak stop and found myself in a darkened city at midnight, having to book a motel across state lines. I literally was lost to the current world, and living in 1938 Manhattan. I was literally *not in the present*. Things can be figurative and literal at the same time, you know.

The Damned: The Films of Elaine May, by Dan Callahan
Mae West: Pleasure Woman, by Dan Callahan

My good friend Dan Callahan was on a roll this month. Elaine May is being given an honorary Oscar this year, and Dan wrote a must-read piece about her work as a director (and actor/comedian) for Ebert. He also wrote about Mae West for Bright Lights Film Journal. Dan’s writing is always worth reading. I’m reading his Hitchcock book right now too!

Bridges, by Kelly Sedinger

My blogging-pal Kelly has been blogging since 2002 – same year I started! And he beat me to the punch by about 9 months. Early adopters. And we are both still here, still at it (along with our other writing. Kelly writes novels.) I love checking in with him – his scope of reference is vast (Beethoven, football, etc.) – and you never know what he’s going to write about on any given day. I have tried to keep that up here myself. Mostly for my own amusement but also for those who visit here on a regular basis. If you haven’t visited his blog, do yourself a favor!

The other day he wrote a really wonderful piece about the short time in his life bookended by books with “Bridge” in the title: Bridge Across Forever and Bridges of Madison County. Kelly and I have discussed Richard Bach’s work here extensively – I think my posts about soulmates (soooo long ago) encouraged Kelly to comment – we had similar journeys with Richard Bach: devotion and then disillusionment. People who start off hating Richard Bach – or who refuse to read him at all but have an opinion on him nonetheless – are not interesting to talk to. What’s interesting is to examine your own journey with authors you maybe outgrew – without disavowing the fact that once upon a time these books meant the world to you. Kelly really understands that. Anyway, his post on Bridge Across Forever and then Bridges of Madison County is so good!! He also gets into the writing itself, the prose of these two writers, its appeal and its … non-appeal.

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”, by Molly Worthen
Somehow I had never read this piece before. My friend Charlie includes it in his syllabus for the non-fiction-writing classes he teaches at NYU. Or maybe it’s not in the syllabus – it’s a requirement that potential students read it before the class even starts, just so they are prepared for his criteria. I don’t know how I had never read it before, but she puts into words so many things I’ve noticed about the current writing trends – something I am comfortable weighing in on because I’ve been at it for so long. The primacy of “feelings” as opposed to “thought” … this is connected to one of my pet peeves, the new use of the words “lived experience”. What other kinds of personal experiences are there? UN-lived? And it’s meant to be unassailable – it’s designed as an airtight stopper against any response, because who are you to argue with someone else’s “lived experience”? On the flipside, I have had people here comment on my personal essays with criticisms of my behavior described in the essay, or weighing in on what THEY think the story means. It’s irritating, but I recognize it as an inevitable consequence of trying to share these things. You need to own what you put out there. And saying “You can’t comment on my lived experience” … It’s understandable from SOME people, everyday people – non-public figures or, for example, the sharing that goes on in a therapy group. I’ve been in those groups and you’re supposed to listen and support, not weigh in with suggestions or judgments. It’s just not done in such groups. So it’s understandable on a private person level, in private interactions, etc., but I do not at all understand this tendency in writers. You’re putting yourself out there. People will respond. That’s the gig. People will respond in ways you can’t control. Find a way to deal with it (not reading comments is a good start). People criticize my “lived experience” all the time. Fuck ’em. I prefer to say “life” rather than the unwieldy and redundant “lived experience”. Words matter. Anyway, it’s a very thought-provoking piece and it’s made me think (and FEEL, lol) things about my own writing. It’s always good to keep a close eye on how you are putting your life – and your thoughts – into words.

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9 Responses to Stuff I’ve Been Reading

  1. Bill Wolfe says:

    You’ve made me want to read Elizabeth Hardwick’s book. I love a good essay collection. In that spirit, I recommend Rachel Kushner’s The Hard Crowd. It’s worth it just for the title essay, about her years growing up in a San Francisco very different from its current state.

    Add my two pet peeves, “price point” and “skill set,” to “lived experience.” Why not price, skills, and life?

    • sheila says:

      Rachel Kushner’s collection of essays is on my list. Her “Flamethrowers” was extraordinary – such an amazing read, particularly since I wasn’t familiar with her at all. It was so ITSELF, that book. I LOVED her writing – so un-fussy, not fancy. Been meaning to re-read that.

      I also want to read Meghan Daum’s latest, for which she has gotten so much SHIT – which, not ironically, makes me want to read it even more. I’ve loved her for a long time. I still remember an essay she wrote in The New Yorker years ago – 1999, maybe? – about going into debt, and how it got so bad she had to leave New York. I have a couple of her collections but I want to read the one that’s made everyone so mad. Because God forbid someone’s “lived experience” (lol) is against the zeitgeist.

      Skill set. Price point. It’s the infiltration of business language into personal speech and it’s extremely ominous. I also can’t stand words that are now verbs – “gifting” being the most egregious, although “adulting” also makes me want to vomit.

  2. OMG, thank you for the links! Your approval is always appreciated greatly!

    I’ve had several people gush suddenly in the last few months about Amor Towles, so onto my reading pile he goes. I’m looking forward to it!

    • sheila says:

      Kelly – as always, thank YOU for your writing!

      I think you will dig Towles. He has a new one out – so I’m so excited that there’s this new voice on the scene. He seems a bit set apart from our current time and the trends in fiction – a “throwback” – and beautifully so. These are sneakily deep books. Let me know what you think!

      People seem to have started with Gentleman in Moscow – but I started with Rules of Civility – which made me a fan forever, and how often can you say THAT!!

    • Melissa Sutherland says:

      Kelly, just found you through Sheila last night and I was up till all hours attempting to catch up. Apparently, I have years to go, thank god. Your writing is terrific, and you seem to cover many of my interests. I’d say “Where have you been all my life?” but why would I?🙂
      Love your animals.

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    That was a HELL of a rabbit hole you threw me down with Kelly Sedinger. Just spent the past three hours getting a taste and plan to go back often for more. Thank you.

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