Constant Havoc

Yes, I thought about this stuff before I put it here.

Category: books

The Heirloom

worn out book

Names carry weight. A good one can lift a person through life, while a bad one can anchor him like a ball and chain. I am named after both my grandfathers, and when it came time to name our children, my wife and I took pleasure in passing down family names. I had a grandmother and gladly gave her name to one of our daughters.

Recently, one of my older sisters called me mentioning she had our grandmother’s Bible. She asked if my daughter would like it, and I did not hesitate to say my daughter would love to have something of her great grandmother’s. It dutifully arrived in the mail, and I opened the box to find a carefully wrapped package. I left that for my daughter.

She and my other daughter came to my house in the evening after I told her I had a special present to give her. Who can resist such enticement? I told her it was from her aunt. She sat on the sofa, and I placed the package in her hands. She gently removed the paper to reveal an aged book. The black leather smoothed from years of handling. No lettering to be seen. No binding left to contain the covers. Simple masking tape crossing the back hoping to hold it.

Cautiously opening the front, we read the simple inscription of my grandmother’s name and “from Mother, December 25, 1909”. She was seventeen when she received it at Christmas.

There was a gasp from my other daughter, “You’re seventeen, too.”

We all smiled at the beautiful coincidence, and we explored the treasure further. The pages quickly opened to bare paper-thin pressed flowers of untold age. A Christmas card marked another page. One fragile page had been torn loose and was held in place by the finely cut edges of some very old postage stamp.

Between the Testaments, my grandmother wrote in exquisite penmanship her husband’s name, her own name, and the names of each of her five children. Beside each, she added their date of birth, and two of the children were marked again by their dates of death, dying in childhood.

My grandmother died 37 years ago at the age of 84. I remember her white hair and slow walk. Her kitchen had its own odor. It was an amalgamation of years of cooking. Rarely but occasionally, I will smell something wrenching me back in time to her tiny house with its ramshackle, odd bathroom added at some undetermined date after the original structure was built.

There was a barn in the back filled to the rafters with stuff. After it was emptied, the building collapsed in a big wind. The contents had literally held it up for years.

The root cellar contained shelves of preserves from decades before. I kept two antique jars. One was from Folgers coffee with mountains silhouetted on the glass and the paper wrapper still in place. There was also an old jar of Crisco shortening with a complete wrapper in light blue.

Families carry us. We are held aloft by our past, guiding us forward. My grandmother’s presence is very much here, and her Bible rests safely in a chest.


Thomas Pynchon’s Got a New Book

A well-worn book

A well-worn book

Bleeding Edge will be available in just two days, and I can’t wait. It’s Thomas Pynchon’s newest book, and the reviews promise more of what I love about his work: conspiracies, paranoia, funny names, and a critical eye on modernism. The setting is New York City in 2001. Pynchon writes about history and how events shape people. His plots always threaten to drown the characters in impossibly complex underworlds. His books stop me and force me to think about my little place in the world.

I read his most famous work, Gravity’s Rainbow, when I was a university student, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since. That was back in the early 80s before the Internet. It was back before personal computers and the World Wide Web were ubiquitous. Books were made of paper.

I spent last evening delving into the dark underbelly of Amazon’s Kindle books downloading all the free ones I could find. I got some great stuff. I found well over a hundred, which are now stored safely on my computer and even more loosely in The Cloud.

I have not downloaded any of Pynchon’s books onto my Kindle. Bleeding Edge will be the first.

Back when I read all books on paper, I kept a little one of quotes I found particularly poignant. I have wide ranging entries from many different sources. Gravity’s Rainbow moved me to include a few as well.

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates the incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines.

These sentences come early in the book before the conspiracies are too thick. The idea that there is a connection between the animate and inanimate is praised. Human bureaucracy and man made definitions push things apart.

Pynchon values love and all its entanglements. Roger Mexico writes movingly about Jessica:

You go from dream to dream inside me. You have passage to my last shabby corner, and there, among the debris, you’ve found life. I’m no longer sure which of all the words, images, dreams or ghosts are “yours” and which are “mine.” It’s past sorting out. We’re both being someone new now, someone incredible….

Here is not only love but touching the deepest core. Here is where real human interaction shows us importance.

And then there are the missiles. Roger and Jessica shelter in each other’s arms while bombs fall on London. On the other side of the war, Franz Pokler works designing them to go aloft. He experiences the change in the environment where the scientists labor.

No one was specializing yet. That came later, when the bureaus and paranoias moved in, and the organization charts became plan-views of prison cells.

The team succumbed to the bureaus. Men define and separate instead of build up and celebrate.

Is redemption possible in the post-modern world? Is there no more connection? Will even the rainbow surrender?

…plastic saxophone reed sounds of unnatural timbre, shampoo bottle ego-image, Cracker Jack prize one-shot amusement, home appliance casing fairing for winds of cognition, baby bottles tranquilization, meat packages disguise of slaughter, dry-cleaning bags infant strangulation, garden hoses feeding endlessly the desert

In the end, Tyrone Slothrop, the Rocketman, fades somewhere we seemingly cannot follow, and we wonder. We hope. We pray:

But an Aether sea to bear us world-to-world might bring us back a continuity, show us a kinder universe, more easy-going….

Should we look to the heavenly spheres that assuaged us before Copernicus obliterated them? Where do we fit into Galileo’s assertion “It moves”? Are humans evolution’s pinnacle or just a chance occurrence? Is continuity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki merely a dream? Can we love any more?

I hope Bleeding Edge enlightens some of the dark corners of our questions.

Children’s Books

“Every book is a children’s book, if the kid can read!”

Mitch Hedberg

What Should a Teenage Girl, a Budding Feminist, Read?

What book to give?

What books to give?

I’m the proud father of two teenage girls. Part of the pride lies in their love of reading and especially their love of reading books with strong female characters. In an effort to encourage their learning about women’s issues, I’m asking for ideas of what books they should read. I’m hoping to find books about women’s lives and about the feminist movement. Your suggestions will be greatly appreciated. Please, leave a comment.

Artemis Dreamt is probably where I’ll start. It’s hard to resist since I read the early manuscript. The book has a troubled girl who journeys and discovers abandonment. New novelist Crystal Beran wrote an excellent YA book.

A good friend found this list on Bitch Media for me in answer to my search. I showed it to a librarian friend, and she said while it’s a good one, she cautioned that some of the titles might be too young for my daughters who are fifteen and seventeen. The Sweet In-Between from the list looks quite intriguing, though.

My librarian friend recommended this Norton Anthology, but I wonder if it might be too daunting for a first introduction to the genre. She also suggested The Essential Feminist Reader, which I’m more inclined to offer my daughters.

I relish searching for books, and I love to give gifts. Here, I get to satisfy two desires at once. My other penchant is for real classics, so I want to have them delve immediately into Sappho. I have to be careful to consider their wants, too.

Living Abroad

from here to there

from here to there

I had the great fortune to live abroad for quite a number of years as a young adult. I called Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, England, and France home at one time or another. Reading travel writing is one of my favorites, and I get the most pleasure from what experienced writers have to say about their jaunts. I like both fiction and nonfiction when it comes to stories about life overseas.

Graham Greene wrote often about the many different places he visited. He is well known for The Quiet American, and I have a couple of favorite quotes from the book.

[Americans] were so charming, and I wanted to send them home too. (Part 3, ch. 2, 2)

Americans abroad need protection. We’re too cute for our own good.

“Perhaps you ought to have been a priest.” [Thomas]

“I didn’t read the right authors for that — in those days.” [Vigot] (Part 3, ch. 1, 1)

Reading plays an important formative role for all of us, and perhaps it’s a bit different for those who ruminate over words. I was marked and changed by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The words, characters, and ideas of the book invaded my head at a young age. My university English professor, who guided me through Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, asked me why I’d thought I could read such a tome. My quick, youthful and honest reply was “Arrogance.”

Mark Twain traveled, and of course, he wrote.

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak, now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I shall have finished my travels. Innocents Abroad, vol. 1, ch. 23

Of course, I am a consummate ass and a proud one, too. There’s such a wide world to see, and in the twenty-first century, it takes very little to become a consummate ass. Join us.

Nox by Anne Carson

Nox by Anne Carson is a type of accordion book.

Nox by Anne Carson is a type of accordion book.

I bought Anne Carson’s newest book the other day. She is one of two authors alive today whose works I will buy at the drop of a hat. (The other is Thomas Pynchon.) It’s called Nox, and it is a beautiful piece of literature. Physically, it is a beautiful book.

It’s more of a box than a book exactly. The box opens like a book, but the pages come out in accordion-like fashion as one long strip. It is one piece of long paper. At first, it’s difficult to decide how to handle these odd pages. I assumed the thing was fastened into the bottom of the box-book somehow, so I carefully held it in my lap and gently turned the pieces over revealing one page at a time the words.

Then came a section that ran on for several folds in the manuscript and made me look at the thing in a whole new light. I could lift out the front part and stretch the words out over several pages and take in a larger section than is normally afforded to the reader with the average book.

Finally, came the realization that the back of the manuscript was free of the bottom of the box-book. I could lift it entirely from its case. So, I did. I spread it out before me on the bed where I sat reading and took in the beauty of the lovely words that lay before me.

Nox is the Latin word for night, and the manuscript is a long, loving translation of Catullus 101. The pages alternate between dissertive translations of the poem word by painstaking word and fragments of letters from Ms. Carson’s deceased brother and her thoughts on their life and relationship. The manuscript is a facsimile of something she created for herself in memory of her brother.

There are old photographs and copies of handwritten letters. I should say that there are copies of torn pieces of letters from her brother. We are left wondering whether we have all to go by to decide what we should think.

But isn’t that life? Aren’t we in a constant state of wondering whether we have all the information we need to think?

The physical manuscript itself calls out to me and begs to be handled. It implores me to stretch it across the floor to try to piece it together.

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

Reading Opening Lines

Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape

Gravity’s Rainbow. Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape.

A screaming comes across the sky.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon opens with that sentence. I like the simple, declarative structure. Sound takes on the active role. Something that we see as normally passive and received becomes the actor, the mover. It does so in a medium that is painted with adjectives to adorn it with meaning. Here sky stands alone. It’s not stormy, blue, clear, cloudy, or even star-studded.

And how does sound relate to this empty sky? It comes. Of all the ways it could have passed, ridden, approached, or appeared. The whole idea has been stripped to its essence, and in those naked words, a glimmer of what is to come is born.

Opening sentences carry enormous responsibility in books. They have to inform the reader about the subject of the book, and good ones subtly set the tone. Great ones make the astute reader stop and stare. The line quoted above is one of those. It announces to anyone interested enough to consider it that the following book is going to be loud enough to fill an empty space. Gravity’s Rainbow roared into literary space in 1973 and has been the subject of study, adoration, and derision ever since. It happens to be one of my top 5 favorite books.

Another great book also opens simply. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden starts with “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” At first glance, the sentence is almost boring, until you consider the elements. There is a name, and there is place echoed from the book’s title. What follows in the story is a wrestling of name and identity in place that grows, anchors, and frees.

I read books. I can tell a lot by the opening line. I’ve read some pieces in which I knew the entire plot by the first sentence, and I’ve read some that needed a lot of work on that one little sentence.

My favorite opening line of all time comes from a little book with a big title, Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. While it’s very good, no, the book did not win the National Book Award. That’s not what we’re here to consider.

What does the opening line say?

Lightning sought our mother out, when she was a young girl in Brown County, Indiana.

There it is. It’s got sentient natural electrical weather. It’s got the maternal role juxtaposed against the promise of a youthful girl. And it’s got place. I love that the moving inanimate electricity searches for the girl. It injects just a note of paranoia. But it’s in the past and in a seemingly unlikely place. The book goes on to fulfill the promise of this opening. It’s got bad weather and women and an odd place little thought of by people except those who live there.

When I browse bookshops, I often read the opening lines of books. I rarely look at what the cover has to say. The verbiage written on the dust jacket is advertising, but the opening line is there to hook me. It’s there to compel to read what follows.

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