The Untouchable

Cover of The Untouchable
Cover of The Untouchable

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading recommendations, including two from David Coggins. I hadn’t read the books he listed in his newsletter… on a whim, I bought two, “The Untouchable” by John Banville and “A Month in the Country” by J. L Carr. The Untouchables was fantastic. Banville (who I need to read more) creates a world filled with memorable characters in England before, during and after WW2. It doesn’t check my usual boxes, but the writing overcomes any limitations.

Victor Maskell tells the story of his life as a spy. Not a James Bond type, but as an academic adjacent to upper-crust English society. The story begins with Victor revealing he was outed as a Russian agent but still lives freely in London. A young reporter interviews him about his life for a book and the rest of the story is Victor retelling his past.

I admit, I almost dropped this book twice… after twenty pages, and again after ninety. I couldn’t find the plot or the hook. Those first pages were a mishmash of characters and grievances. The Untouchable violated one of my main tenets… it didn’t have a strong and discernible plot. Rather than putting it down, I committed to fifty pages one weekend. Then I recognized the brilliance of the novel.

Banville, through the device of an elderly man recounting his life as a spy, places the reader in a world swirling with characters. Unlikable people… I can’t think of one character I rooted for or admired. But they were interesting, scheming, opinionated and memorable. A plot evolved through these characters… just hidden a few levels beneath the surface.

Also, hiding below the old stories and characters, was Victor Maskell’s double nature. He’s English and works on the war effort and is a trusted consultant of the King, and a Russian asset. He’s married with children and gay, a member of English society yet an Irish Catholic, etc. This dual nature is present in other characters as well, and, by the end of the book, the title “The Untouchable” also has double meaning.

This is a slow burn of a read, plot-wise. But Banville’s writing is compelling and his characters memorable. Sometimes when I read a book, I can’t wait to finish. I didn’t want “The Untouchable” to end.

A Second Look: Dubliners

Bridge over Liffey

I’ve read Dubliners by James Joyce three times. An upcoming trip to Ireland inspired my most recent read. I’ve viewed Dubliners as an easier way to read a classic; short, immersive stories. Also, a nice way to come out of the Hemingway jag.

I used to start my morning writing sessions by either copying lines of classic texts (The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Wool) to learn about sentence structure or read Dubliners to hear the lyricism. If I read quickly, I often miss the poetry of the words, reading to find out what happens next. The wordplay is more noticeable on slower, closer reads, as is the tone and speech of the characters. I wonder how much of what they say and infer is lost to time, though… every story has references to specifics that are very Irish or locked in the early 1900s.

Joyce wrote this short story collection while away from Ireland and Dublin. He spent most of his adult life abroad. Which is striking, since Dublin itself is one of the main characters in the book. Each story contains specific references to streets and bridges, specific pubs, etc. Not to mention the overall tone and mood of the city. It’s crazy to think an author wrote so intently about a place yet choosing to live somewhere else. In my many author-ly fantasies, I picture myself living somewhere exotic for a few months under the guise of research.

A few things struck me on this third read. There are a few thematic constants in the stories. One is the overall tone… it’s a depressing read. Almost every character is poor and struggling for money while living in the city’s underclass. Poverty hangs over each story… the characters fight and scrape for punts and shillings. Characters like Lenehan in Two Gallants scam young women, old men expose themselves to young boys in An Encounter, and Mr Duffy in A Painful Case condemns a beau to a life of despair. Gray is used to describe the characters and the city itself.

Another constant is alcohol consumption. Not in a merry, where’s-the-craic sort of way, but how much trouble it causes. Each story has at least one character whose life is significantly worse because of drinking.

Finally, it seems none of Joyce’s characters can escape Dublin. Joyce set all of the stories in actual places in the city. One character, Evelin in, well, Eveline, is set to leave what seems like an awful home life, but finds she can’t board the ship to leave. The young, middle-aged and near-dead can’t get out of the city.

Dubliners was an easier read this time. The older conventions, styles and attitudes didn’t jump off the page at me. Maybe this is because of reading so much of others from that same time period? Or just an expectation grounded in experience.

Books of the Irish

Library at Trinity College

My family will visit Ireland this year. I’ve been to the old sod 3 times previously: in high school with my parents and brother, in my mid-twenties with my brother and cousins and with my wife before we had kids. Before the trip, I want to read Irish books, listen to music, and watch movies.

For a long time, I had a history of Ireland in my Amazon wishlist. Ireland, A History, by Thomas Bartlett, a Tyler Cowen recommendation. He called it one of the best histories of Ireland. And it’s a good read. The author navigates through the stories, myths, and facts of Irish history. Rather than trying to put together a pre-history of Celts and Druids, he states no one fully understands the first peoples and all they left were rocks with squiggles. Same with the myth of Saint Patrick. It’s an enormous book, and I’ve skimmed through parts… in the 1800’s, there was a back and forth with English laws and revolts and tighter and looser controls around Catholic Ireland. Luckily, Bartlett adds an introduction and analysis to his chapters, so I don’t have to get bogged down in unnecessary details. I’m on the Troubles now.

Ireland, A History takes care of the factual part of my immersion. I’m re-reading Dubliners by James Joyce, my favorite Joyce (I’ve never attempted Ulysses, although The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is on my to-read list). Dubliners is a great read and timely thrice over; it sets the scene for Dublin (we’ll spend a night in the capital), opens the ear to lyrical Irish prose and complements my latest Hemingway jag.

Two more books wait in the wings. Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks by Fintan O’toole, is another Cowen recommendation. One of Cowen’s themes is how artistic the Irish are, and not just in prose. I’m really looking forward to this one, as I’m trying to expand my appreciation for other forms of art as well. The last book is a re-read, McCarthy’s bar. A super fun, quick read about an American name McCarthy who tries to visit every bar with his name in the country. My brother also re-read this and recommended.

The other parts of my immersion is music. Growing up, my idea of Irish music was the Clancy Brothers, a folk-ish Irish band playing classic folk tunes and a favorite of my mother’s. I will include some Chieftans and whatever else my Irish pandora station will select.

Movies are the last bit squarely aimed at my children. I won’t bother to ask them to read gasp physical books. We’ve seen Waking Ned Devine so far; The Commitments, Michael Collins and The Guard on the list of re-watches.

Hemingway’s Short Stories

Downed Tree in Big Indian Forest

As mentioned in my Now section, I read a collection of short stories from Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, The Finca Vigia Edition. This was my first exposure to his shorter stories; previously, I read the novels.

The novels, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Old Man and the Sea and especially The Sun Also Rises, are favorites. Hemingway has always been an approachable and fun read, especially when compared to other classics. My first exposure to modern American classics was my junior year in high school. We did Huckleberry Finn, The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. Another book, A Moveable Feast (I read it while traveling through France) was a fun read, but I didn’t connect with many of the references to the short stories.

As part of George Saunder’s Substack, we read a famous Hemingway short story, A Cat in the Rain, a quick story about an American couple in a hotel room in Italy. The wife spies a cat in the rain and tries to bring it back to their hotel room. Conversation with the husband and wife follows. In the Substack, we learned about Hemingway’s Iceberg method (I probably learned this in high school but had forgotten). This approach is the defining piece of real literature… not beautiful prose or amazing characters, but the subtle things happening beneath the surface. I remember being amazed as my junior-year teacher showed the symbolism and the true meaning between long passages of conversation.

Cat in the Rain inspired me to pick up Hemingway’s short stories. I haven’t gotten through all of them; I focused on the pieces that were mentioned repeatedly as classics. Works like The Killers, My Old Man, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Three of them really stuck out: The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, Indian Camp and Two-Hearted River. Macomber is damn fine Hemingway, set in an African Safari camp with two rich hunters and their guide. The dialogue, the way women are portrayed, the gossipy spousal cheating, the depiction of the violent hunts, the perspective of the lion were incredible examples of Hemingway at his best. And the title supports a fantastic arc. All of this in 23 pages.

Indian Camp moved me. A super short story about Nick Adams (Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical recurring character) visits a Native American settlement with his father. His father, a doctor, is trying to help a woman in labor. Written with short, declarative sentences, dialogue that sounds slightly off (Hemingway dialogue sounds funny to me, I assume because of the century between when the story was published and now), and Nick Adams as the limited and flawed narrator. The next short story I wrote, about a young boy living on an old landfill, is an homage to this style.

Two Hearted River contains vivid descriptions of the natural world, fishing, making camp. And more icebergs. The story is about the horrors of war and how truly damaged the young men returning from WW I feel. Nick Adams (again!) isn’t referred to as a veteran, but he hikes long distances with a full pack and relates to the world like a veteran would. There is a long passage about a swamp on the other side of the river that must relate to war, although I can’t fully understand it.

I’ve listened to a podcast about Hemingway as a companion to the stories. One True Podcast, a play on the old Hemingway line “Just write one true sentence…” discusses many of these short stories with various guests. The host is quite good, and it’s like a light version of an English Lit class. I’ve found that reading a story once, then listening to opinions/analysis of the story via the podcast or other online resource, then reading the story again is helpful. The stories are quick reads; this is a reasonable task.

Coming back to Hemingway via these short stories has been wonderful. They are quick dives into mastery. I now fall into the camp that Hemingway did his best work early on, these stories and his first real novel, The Sun Also Rises. I like some of his later work as well, but they don’t have the same crispness.

Old School

Flat section of trail on a rocky mountain

I recently read Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby, a collection of his musings about books. Fun read, although there’s not much overlap between our reading. Still, his observations were interesting, and he is hilarious in the British-self-deprecating way. I had read none of his stuff since going on a Nick Hornby jag over twenty years ago. I was inspired by his description of certain books and authors… he really likes Dickens (I decided in ninth grade, while reading Great Expectations, that I didn’t care for Dickens… especially after learning he was paid by the word and invented entire characters and subplots just to increase his word count). So much so I may consider picking up a Dickens (Bleak House?). Another author he praises repeatedly is Thomas Wolff. I’d heard the name but wasn’t familiar with his work.

Based on Hornby’s writing and some quick internet research, two of his books topped the list: Old School and This Boy’s Life. I picked up Old School, a story about a private school in the sixties and the unnamed narrator’s journey. Immediately the reader is immersed in a New England private school for boys, with Masters and ties and leafy campuses. As someone who didn’t attend that type of school, I immediately picture the campus and boys from Captain my Captain.

Old School uses three author’s visits as scaffolding. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway are all scheduled to visit the unnamed elite boarding school where writing and writers are held in the highest regard. Hard to imagine, with the laser focus on STEM and hard studies now, a time when writing would have held such a prominent place in a school’s collective consciousness. Neither of the authors fare very well; Frost is a doddering old man with ponderous eyebrows, Rand is a nasty narcissist and Hemingway, a student favorite, receives backhanded and sideways praise.

Wolf does some interesting things. One, the narrator and the main character is unnamed. The narrator has secrets but reveals them indirectly, clever, but I asked if I had missed something earlier (I hadn’t). Another is his use of time. Most of the book takes in 1960-1961; the last section of the book fast-forwards ten years. He describe these years over a few pages to paint a picture of how life when for the narrator after school. The shift between real-time dialogue and descriptions to pages of exposition was notable, but worked just fine. Another case of rule-breaking. I’d like to go back and pay more attention to the transition and figure out what stylistically allowed Wolf to pull it off.

A delightful read, sandwiched in between Cloud Atlas and Hemingway short stories. Compared to its neighbors, it felt light, not to mention blissfully short at 195 pages. The emphasis on writers and notable authors from the middle of the 20th century made the read fun. Recommended, and look forward to reading more Wolf in the future.

A Second Look: The War of Art – Part 2

My copy
My copy of the War of Art

read Part 1

The last part of The War of Art that stood out on this read was Pressfield’s discussion on the Ego and the Self. Terms I’ve heard a million times but never considered. He describes the Ego as what we think of when we say “I”, the conscious, day-to-day brain. The Self is a greater entity that includes the Ego but also the unconscious, dreams, the collective.

I’m uncomfortable with this thread; I’ve never delved into any Jungian theory. But, and I’m sure this was the intention, if one considers the role of the artist is to listen and accept work from the universe, then only knowing and operating on the Ego isn’t enough. The Self is where the good stuff lives.

The following put this into sharp focus. “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.” I meditate and dream, but did I know why? Is this why creators like Neil Gaiman and his endless production of new and wonderful stories, can tap new ideas so consistently? My big takeaway is to concentrate more on this idea of the Self and how to access it more regularly.

My re-read of The War of Art was incredibly useful. It reaffirmed so many of the practices I already put into place… during a period where I’ve been questioning them. I actually listened to the last part of the book and to the synergies Pressfield describes. The professional artist is open to the world and, through the consistent habits and approaches, can listen and absorb and act as a vessel… by having the requisite skills, honed by the honest feedback of others and by accessing the Self.

A Second Look: The War of Art

Tetons
The Grand Tetons

The first book in the Second Look (!) series is The War or Art, by Steven Pressfield. I initially read this in late 2017, a couple of years before I actually set an intention to write. It is part of the canon recommended by people that pursued their own creative, non-standard paths, like Ferris, Holiday, Roll, etc. The War of Art is also part of the set of recommended books for new writers, alongside Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and Stephen King’s On Writing.

I didn’t have a practice or a goal or the tens of thousands of words behind me during my first read. Many of the ideas and habits in this book made their way into my daily routine and how I approach writing. Do work every day. Treat the work seriously. Don’t worry if the work is terrible. Don’t self-edit while creating. Master technique. Finish what you start. I don’t think I gained them straight from the text; this advice went mainstream and if oft repeated. But The War of Art is the source text. And his main thesis is Resistance and its many forms; naming and describing Resistance is the core of the book.

The ideas that stood out in the second read were more subtle. The first is around feedback. Specifically (Pressfield contrasts how amateurs and professionals differ), the amateur does not expose themself to real world feedback. “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” (Pressfield, p. 71). How many times, on this website, have I bemoaned the lack of feedback and criticism for my writing? This part, or lack of part, of my writing is amateur. I need to get my writing out there and elicit more feedback, both from editors/gatekeepers (more than just “Thanks for submitting, your piece isn’t what we’re looking for right now,” etc.) and regular readers. I used to rely on Scibophile for feedback, but it was inconsistent and required so much peer review I had to abandon the platform. Posting more work here will get readers, but not the desired feedback and criticism. Reading this again served as a glorious reminder.

The War of Art has three sections, Defining Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance, The Higher Realm. On my first read, I just skimmed the last part.
“The next few chapters are going to be about the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves. I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” (Pressfield, 106) Yes! At least it did the first time. So I missed Pressfield’s idea that stories and characters and stories are out there, in the ether… or with the angels and muses. I’m not a spiritual or mystical person, but this grabbed me. It is reassuring and hopeful that the primary job of an artist is to open themselves to the world. Not to rely on voodoo for inspiration, but sit every day, get yourself in a consistent habit of preparing and opening up, and a professional will tap into that energy, muse, whatever. And, if they have done the work on their craft, they can take whatever they receive and turn it into art. “…it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it…It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist… to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear.” (Pressfield, p 117)

(part 2 coming soon)

Lost and Found

Gibson Covers

Like many homeowners, we’re renovating our kitchen, and, by extension, flooring for the main floor and re-doing our living room. New floor, paint, bookshelves, furniture, etc. As a result, we’re getting rid of four overstuffed bookcases.

We have a few areas for books in the house; the living room shelves and the shelves in my office. The office shelves are well maintained and I can rattle off what books are here and when I got them, my impression of them, etc. Because of our changing use of the house, I rarely wander past the living room shelves; they became dusty and ornamental.

I sorted through the shelves to decide which books stayed. Most stayed. I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of a book. Some were easy; I had old textbooks from college (in the 90s!), falling apart and wildly dated (Principles of Management? Gantt charts?). Also parted with some below-average novels, especially tech-focused stories from the early aughts. Now I have two boxes full of books, and nowhere to put them.

A few stood out; not just classics, but works I remember fondly and would love to read again. I placed them outside the box and they surround me as I write. So, so many excellent memories. Selected titles:

A Confederacy of Dunces: O’Toole. I first saw this book as a junior-high school student in the East Brunswick Public Library, on a display. The cover and the title enticed me to check it out. I read it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it. A few years back, some famous actors were interested in making it a movie. And they referred to it as a comedy… and I didn’t remember it being funny at all. So I bought and re-read it; hysterical. Big difference between reading it as an adult compared to a teenager. On the short list to read again.

Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition, William Gibson. When I was first starting out in technology, in 1998, the noir world of hackers and techno music and people wearing shades typing in the command line seemed very cool… cyberpunk. Neuromancer isn’t the first cyberpunk novel, but is the best. I’ve read it three or four times. Pattern Recognition is a much later work, part of the trilogy. I only sorta liked these books when I read them the first time, but they are held in such high regard, I want to try them again. They need a careful, slow read, as Gibson purposely doesn’t reveal everything you need to know early in the book; the reader needs to puzzle through early scenes. Intentionally. My father would hate them. As a writer, I want to figure out how he does it.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

Highly recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I heard of the book via Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations with Tyler.  It’s a great read; I couldn’t put it down.    I  noticed the craftwork, with the changing perspectives, narration, time shifting and tiebacks.  Not sure if that’s an endorsement or criticism.  I hadn’t noticed it that strongly in other books I’ve read.
The plot involves an airborne disease that wipes out most of humanity and launches the world (we think) into a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Reading this in the spring of 2020 gives the story extra weight.  St. John Mandel include a lot of typical post-apocalyptic elements, but with a unique twist. Groups wander around this ravaged world and encounter danger and violence; but the travelers are a troupe of actors and musicians that perform in each town, called the Traveling Symphony.  When they find untouched houses, they look for costumes for their plays and parts for their instruments, besides cans of beans.  A great riff on the traditional post-apocalyptic story.  Everything gets tied back, and rewards the reader for learning extraneous details.  Recommended.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell


TLDR; Great read.  An immersive books, requiring fifty pages to settle into this world and the Dutch names.
I picked up “The Thousand Autumns..” after Hugh Howey referred to it here.  Howey’s recommendation focused on Mitchell’s use of sound and smell to set a scene.   Based in Dejima, a Dutch trading settlement outside of Nagasaki at the turn of the nineteenth century, “The Thousand Autumns” features an immersive plot, remarkable characters and brilliant descriptions.  One can imagine the streets and buildings of Dejima and the formalized Japanese settings.  The first chapters of the book require patience, between the Dutch and Japanese names and customs. This is only the second Mitchell book I’ve read.  The other was Ghostwritten, also excellent.  
Highly recommended, immersive, memorable.