Around the World in 40 Books: From the Dog's POV to the Novel-as-Peyote

My ramblings about reading are so valued that I'm now a big star in Tanzania. On my recent whirlwind tour I was mobbed at the airport and carried about on people's shoulders.

It's tough to be famous. I need hardly remind you, my dear avid followers, that on the occasion of our last virtual meeting, I cobbled together a column from my epistolary diaries on books I've checked out of the library in the last couple of years. It became possibly my most popular masterpiece. After a week of flurry, it flatlined at 88 "likes" and even got linked on a Facebook page called Tanzania Reads, where it picked up a few more likes. (Thanks, Tanzania.)

So I'm now big in Tanzania. I proved this on my recent whirlwind tour, where I was mobbed at the airport and carried about on people's shoulders. My money was no good there (although travelers checks worked), and after an exhausting round of interviews and personal appearances, I left groupies weeping on the tarmac as they waved handkerchiefs and articles of clothing and a few firearms at my departing plane. I could get used to this, which is why I've here fabricated a sequel from my readings of 2011--or does that make it a prequel? Anyway, my next targets are Peru, Singapore, and Norway. Tomorrow the world! I'm already looking forward to rehab.

As before, these are all books checked out of my local library, and I frequently use the past tense verb "redd", coined by me long ago. I have tried to corral these ramblings, never intended for publication, into semi-coherent bite-sized categories. Only you, Dear Peruser, can judge of my success. See that "Like" button over there? It's waiting for you!

One Need "Only Connect"

You've heard of Harold Bloom's "the anxiety of influence", a phenomenon whereby young writers are inevitably influenced by the classics they absorb, and therefore become cowed by the thought that everything's already been done better, quite apart from there being nothing new under the sun, and this puts a crimp in, while simultaneously spurring, their attempts to be original. My insight here is that originality is overrated, and I don't even think that's my own insight.

Anyway, in his book of essays, Jonathan Lethem dismissed that concept by inverting it as "the ecstasy of influence", whereby creators wallow in the reflexivity of homage. By sideways reasoning, this point reminds me of E.M. Forster's famous advice to novelists: Only connect. This advice needn't only be applied by writers, for there exists a world of curious, infinite possibilities and unintended connections made by readers. Here is an element neither writer nor reader can anticipate, and it's one of the wild cards that define the joys of reading. I illustrate this notion in the following titles.

1. I love books in which people rave about forgotten favorite books, and recently I got another such fun volume: City Lights Books, put out by a publisher that specializes in little travel guides. One of the books mentioned in it is a four-volume epic by East German Uwe Johnson that's in the form of a diary over the course of one year (1967-68) by a former GDR resident living in Chicago. Only two abridged volumes have appeared in English. It's a sequel to his first book, Speculations about Jakob.

So I ordered the two volumes cheaply enough and decided to get Speculations about Jakob through Interlibrary Loan. It's kind of slow reading, in the form of a collage spoken by a multiplicity of voices in conversation mixed with objective parts. The first page implies that the stolid Jakob, who worked as a railroad dispatcher, was evidently run over by a train, and then the book retraces his steps that month in minute detail, as recalled by various witnesses and the fact that he was under surveillance. This all takes place during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, an uneasy backdrop that East Germans hear about via West German broadcasts.

We learn that Jakob's mother abruptly moved to the West, as his unrelated "sister" already had. This "sister" is the writer of the yearlong daybook that Johnson wrote later, and in which we learn that she had a kid by Jakob. The value of these books lies in the journalistic, microscopic documentation of things and actions within the mystery of human behavior. Johnson is known as the slightly experimental realist of East German life (though he emigrated, like his heroine, and lived in Chicago during that period). I won't get to the daybook soon. Now, bearing all this in mind...

2. When I hadn't quite finished Jakob's story, I started reading a new book called Funeral for a Dog by German author Thomas Pletzinger. I almost stopped at page 60 because it seemed to be going nowhere in its dual narrative of a freelance journalist who might be leaving his wife (who's also his editor) while on assignment to interview a reclusive children's author named Svensson who supposedly lives alone on an island. Alternate chapters are Svensson's memoir, found in a locked suitcase and telling of being in New York on 9/11.

Without making the German connection, I thought this book is kind of like Speculations about Jakob, and then the journalist makes references to Johnson's books and says his piece should be called Speculations About Svensson! I was shocked to realize I got the reference. Our freelancer eventually finds out that the children's author doesn't live alone but with a family and has lots of connections to people. It still kind of goes nowhere, as though the fragmented "what's the secret" style props up what would have been duller straightforwardness.

3. Now get this. Then I redd another new library book, Tove Jansson's Fair Play, 100 pages of minimal, precisely observed vignettes about two old women artists who have lived together on an island for decades. It doesn't discuss their sex life but we assume they have it. Jansson is a famous children's author of the charming Moomintroll stories and the brilliant Moomin comic strip, now finally translated into English to the delight of all. The introduction to this volume explains that for years, the author's biography on her English editions claimed that she was living alone on an island when in fact she was really living with another woman. So this book should be called Speculations about Jansson. And for one more connection see Julian Barnes' book below at #4.

Read to Me (Books on CD)

4. Pulse by Julian Barnes is a collection of British stories about mostly romantic relationships. There are several historical tales, such as "The Limner" about a blind painter, and a few are in essayistic digressive style that flows intelligently. Each story is separated by a multi-part epic of after-dinner conversations among friends that range wittily over various how-we-live-now topics. It's all the sort of thing reviewers mean by "civilized".

Particularly interesting is "Sleeping with Updike" (speaking of anxieties or ecstasies of influence!) about two aging authoresses who travel together as a double act and are best friends but don't live or have sex together (unlike the Jansson book above). The point is that this is their only lasting relationship, and one of them wonders how the other will react when she dies. The writer of Jansson's intro had observed how rare was the subject of relationships between older creative women, and here's a story that echoes it after a fashion.

5. Also highly civilized, and specifically and ironically about the civilizing process, is Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, a novel narrated by a 17-year-old girl living on an island (later called Martha's Vineyard) with her independent-minded clan, and the last part is told by the woman at 70. She's recounting her friendship with a real historical figure, the first American Indian boy to graduate from Harvard in 1665.

One trap of historical novels is that they reflect their own time, which is partly why they're written of course, so there's a tendency to highlight those conflicts that seem relevant to today's values (politically correct observations on sexism, racism, religious oppression, etc.) instead of sinking wholly into another set of values more common to the era (as did Naomi Mitchison and Mary Renault, so effective at adopting the alien). Here Brooks uses one disenfranchised figure to view another, and it's done artfully in a manner not out of keeping with such contemporary radicals as Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet (both quoted). For a more strange and violent historical piece about the resocializing of "savages" that entirely adopts an alien viewpoint, see the novel by Skip Horack (#38 below).

6. Some of the most pleasurable works I hear while driving are the acknowledged classics, for example Wise Blood, Flannery O'Connor's droll, relentless tale of a would-be iconoclast whose failure is his success (according to the author). The anti-hero is Hazel Motes (presumably named for the color and qualities of his eyes and "vision"), an embittered young WWII veteran who declaims on streetcorners that he's founding the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ and has various misadventures with Southern Gothic types. This reading is performed by actor Bronson Pinchot, who played a funny foreigner in a witless '80s sitcom called Perfect Strangers. Here he's excellent as this very strange native in an estranged land.

7. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald seems like the work of a gifted undergraduate virgin, as it applies lavish description, half-labored whimsy, and self-mocking cleverness to a romance between a beautiful, hopeful but "poor" and useless couple. The final chapter is good because it rescues the penultimate chapter's stab at heavily ironic melodrama in favor of a credibility that's all the more ironic. The result is a clear forerunner to Revolutionary Road.

The postwar sequence where the hero tries a gig as a salesman (hawking "bonds" for a company that publishes a book called "Heart Thoughts") is very funny and reminded me sharply of when I had a narrow escape from gainful employment. I remember showing up, appropriately white-shirted and tied, in a fly-by-night rented space packed with people, half of whom had brought noisy children, and being called in two at a time with a touchingly clueless young fellow. Our interviewer was a polished specimen who launched into a mechanical spiel about a revolutionary product created by so-and-so. At the end of this speech was tucked the information that the nature of this exciting opportunity was door to door sales of this product, "which is perfume." At that moment, a profound calm descended upon me.

Our boss asked the other fellow if he had any experience with customer service, and he stumbled about and said "No, not really, well, you'll train us, right?" Yes, that's what the little ad said. So the boss gives the once-over to the guy's T-shirt and says in one breathless monotone that they'll make their decision by the end of the day after interviewing everybody, and he should go home and wait by the phone, and if he's called, he should show up at eight in the morning dressed for work. "And you have a fan-TAST-ic day!" he beamed as a signal for my non-colleague to exit. After the lad had shambled out, the boss turned to me with a smile and asked, "Do you prefer Michael or Mike?"

I replied, "Let me help you. I've just realized this job would bore me to tears." He paused in the manner of a hard drive taking a moment to access another disc, and then stuck out his manicured hand and boomed, "You have a fan-TAST-ic day!"

8. A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell is narrated by a hapless Jewish clodhopper-cum-occulist who, in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna, meets Sigmund Freud and later gets mixed up with the burgeoning Esperanto movement. Oh yes, and is haunted by the dybbuk of his reincarnated wife. Lots of sexual (especially virginal) comedy, vivid characters, and intellectual digressions about the vanity of human illusion, and rather much of it at 18 discs.

A late episode sees his brief ascension to Heaven with Frick and Frack angels for a peek at the heavenly throne, a tour imagined with typical well-dressed vaudeville to explain that God is weeping and that's why the world is in a mess and children are freezing in the Warsaw Ghetto, which I suppose is meant to console. Reminiscent of the work of Steven Stern, whose terrific collection The Book of Mischief I mentioned in my last column. There I also mentioned Selden Edwards' time-travel fantasy The Little Book, whose narrator meets Freud around the same time.

9. The Vaults by Toby Ball is set in an unnamed American city in 1935, and it's an odd mix of Dickens and Chandler with mysterious orphans and abandoned warehouses. In over 100 short chapters, it follows three protagonists who independently pursue aspects of a mystery, and only one of whom ever meets the other two. They are a private dick, a reporter, and a stooped aging archivist from a sub-basement who wanders his labyrinth like a Borges figure. We also drop in on the villains, including the corrupt mayor, without their ever explaining themselves. This suspenseful crime narrative joins the recent off-kilter "city" genre like Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, China Mieville's The City and the City, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, where the bizarre city is more important than anyone in it.

10. Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales gathers 30 stories newly translated by Tiina Nunnally. Andersen writes with complete liberation, not necessarily for children, and can go from casually absurd violence (the extraordinarily sadistic slapstick of "Big Claus and Little Claus") and heroes who are far from role models (the soldier who decapitates a witch for three matchboxes and kidnaps a princess) to the agony of the doomed, as in his brilliant masterpiece of "The Little Mermaid" and the gloomy "Steadfast Tin Soldier". Certain stories transparently reflect the bitter experience of disappointed love.

Some tales feel impromptu, others very planned. I assume the stories are in chronological order, because the later ones are the more elaborate in form, adopting many points of view, becoming more self-conscious and downbeat about the passing of time, the failure of love, the inevitability of death, the self-destructiveness of life and desire. One sour little anecdote of a family's decline isn't really a fairy tale yet is narrated by the wind. Yes, a great writer.

A Clutch of Comics (a.k.a. Graphic Novels)

11. Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese is a popular Italian comic book series in Conrad's South Seas territory. This first epic adventure is set during WWII and concerns a lot of backing and forthing between the title sailor of fortune and the rogue pirates, natives, soldiers and shipwreckees. They have a lot of dialogue amid painted panels showing off what look like light watercolors and occasional abstract line work. I'm guessing it's influenced by the comic strip Captain Easy (which has a more pell-mell narrative drive) but is more brooding and sunstruck.

12 & 13. Two by French master Jacques Tardi in his distinctively jittery black lines. The Arctic Marauder is a lovely Jules Verne pastiche from 1974. Big black and white panels of lovingly detailed hardware, ships, icebergs, etc. in a breakneck story where much of the explanatory narrative drive occurs offscreen but we see lots of discreet incidents of shipwrecked vessels. New York Mon Amour is several stories of that city, leading with the noir/horror tale of the psychic breakdown of a roach exterminator who goes to the wrong 13th floor and opens up a world of gangster crossfire. The black and white art is based on photos, with the man's uniform and truck standing out vividly in red.

14. Is That All There Is is a complete collection of Swedish artist Joost Swarte's comics of the '70s and '80s. According to the intro, he coined the term "clear line" to describe the Tintin style in which he draws his own retro '20s/'30s farragoes of bleak and violent slapstick absurdities, like an anti-social Disney. He belongs to that species of subversive or underground cartoonist who masquerades as clean and presentable -- until you take a closer look.

15-ish. I'll not bother to catalog and distinguish them from each other, but I've been reading charming '50s/'60s wacko surrealism in classic Superman collections, like whimsical stories about The Transformations of Jimmy Olson, or the Bottle City of Kandor, or clashes with Brainiac, etc. They are a bizarre combo of relentlessly expository dialogue ("Nobody knows that my secret identity of Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent conceals my true self as Superman, who came to Earth as a baby when Krypton exploded, so I'll use my heat-vision to melt this iceberg quicker than it takes to think about it.") and turn-on-a-dime whimsicality ("By sheer coincidence, his secret formula must have accidentally cured Jimmy's temporary telepathy!"). At its best, this is heady creativity with an air of making up as it goes along.

What Ever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow contains all four (really three) '80s Superman stories by British iconoclast Alan Moore, all having to do with his "death" and/or giving up his super-life. One kills off an array of regulars ("This is an imaginary story. Aren't they all?"), one has him meeting Swamp Thing, and one hypnotizes him with an alternate life in which Krypton never blew up and he became a middle class yegg.

While we're on the subject of heroes in tights, Interlibrary Loan secured for me some interesting collections of '60s comic books: Magnus, Robot Fighter (far future, humanity spoiled by robot servants, some uppity ones always trying to take over) and Doctor Solar (radiated scientist can turn into any form of energy), very cleanly and attractively drawn. I also devoured the first couple of years of a great forgotten newspaper strip, Jack Kent's King Aroo, a whimsical, sophisticated, self-conscious hipster fairy-tale comedy, similar in many ways to Pogo and also to Tove Jansson's Moomin, all of which are now being steadily reprinted. I hope you're taking notes.

16. Simon and Kirby Crime is a reasonably handsome volume of obscure crime comics by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Some are "true stories" of famous criminals. Early titles are perfunctory, while the later, longer, more interesting examples are romance hybrids narrated by a tough, sadder-but-wiser dame who, in the last panel, is often glad to be where she belongs scrubbing floors or working as a secretary. Only one story promises the heroine a husband waiting when she gets out of stir, so these stories go from the desire for freedom and thrills to a moral education that values properly gender-assigned self-reliance.

17. Unexplored Worlds by Steve Ditko is the second collection of his '50s material and shows, as the intro says, a quantum leap in visual innovation and narrative flow while drawing these horror and sci-fi parables. Some have political morals, like the one explaining that one planet has peace under an absolute monarch because only his family members live there while everyone else is a robot.

18. Jim Trombetta's "The Horror! The Horror!" is a beautifully designed showcase of covers and a few stories from the early '50s horror comics that alarmed America before the industry's Comics Code crackdown. Not only is this some truly revelatory artwork (despite the fact that you'd think this material has been well-covered -- well, it hasn't), but the brief textual pieces that in another book of this type would be throwaway fannish blather are brilliant. Trombetta combines scholarship, cultural analysis, and insight in a manner any recovering English major can admire. Get this puppy and feast your orbs and synapses!

19. Exit Wounds is by Rutu Modan, an Israeli woman in England. This is impressive: a simple/complex (simplex?) narrative of an Israeli cabbie and a tall rich woman who try to discover if the unidentified victim of a bombing is the cabbie's estranged father. Lines are clear and almost clumsy or primitive in composition, yet also delicately expressive, all in pastels. A fascinating interview with the artist closes the book.

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