Reading log: October 2009

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Books bought this month: “The Shadow of Sirius,” W.S. Merwin.

Books read this month: “Local Knowledge,” B.H. Fairchild; “On Stage,” Ray Bradbury; “The Wizard of Venus,” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Cat’s Pajamas,” Ray Bradbury; “The Shadow of Sirius,” W.S. Merwin.

The news this month: 1) I bought only one book, and read it, and 2) in my quest to read 50 books this year, I succeeded, reading books 46 to 50 this month. Yay me. And with two months to go, yet.

Onward to this month’s books. The Fairchild (bought in September) and the Merwin are poetry. Now, poetry has never been this English major’s bag. I like a few of the things we’re all supposed to like, but for me, poetry is like jazz, classical music, modern art — substitute your own mystery art form if you like — that I don’t much understand and have no critical apparatus to evaluate properly.

That said, I bought Fairchild’s book at a reading I attended because he’s a Claremont resident and highly regarded (a National Book Award finalist, for one thing) and I felt I should know what he’s about. I liked his reading and I liked the book, enough that I’ll buy more of his work.

Merwin’s book was also purchased at a reading. He’s one of poetry’s heavyweights and his latest collection, the one I bought, won a Pulitzer this year. Well, what the heck, it was a slender paperback and he was there to sign it, so why not?

I was reading it sort of by autopilot — poems require more concentration and a different type of reading than prose, and I have trouble adjusting to the pace — when the poems started to connect. First came one about Merwin’s childhood memory of his mother’s hands as she played the piano: “the veins on the backs of her hands are the color/of the clear morning sky beginning to haze over.” The next one combined his parents’ first memories with their last moments before death, to great effect.

I can’t say I loved or even understood all the poems, but I liked a number of them, and if a non-poetry reader can say that, it must be an awfully fine book.

As for the rest: “The Wizard of Venus” (bought in March) is the last in ERB’s Venus series. It comprises an amusing 50-page novelette about a hypnotist who has convinced the terrified countryside that he has turned many of their family members into pigs rather than simply stashing them in his prison (ha ha!), and a 100-page short novel, “Pirate Blood,” exploring the nature vs. nurture debate as a Southern California motorcycle cop (in “Glenora”) who happens to be the great-great-grandson of pirate Jean LaFitte ends up on a madman’s dirigible to the South Seas (!), parachutes onto an island and ends up as a pirate. Not what you would call a model of neo-realism, but fun.

Now for this month’s obligatory Bradbury roundup. “On Stage” (bought in 1993 in Guerneville, Calif.) collects three slim volumes of plays under one cover. Useful, yes, but other than “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” and “The Veldt,” the plays are slight and inferior to the stories they’re based on. “The Foghorn” is terrible. No wonder I didn’t read this for 16 years.

“The Cat’s Pajamas” (bought a year or so ago) is the great man’s most recent paperback collection of stories, from 2004. The book is split fairly evenly between new stories, some of which aren’t so hot, and heretofore-unpublished stories located in his files and written in the 1940s and early ’50s, his classic period, most of which are very good indeed. Almost every story here is mainstream fiction. This is among Bradbury’s half-dozen best books of the last 25 years.

I’ve fulfilled the outer limits of my goal of 50 books in 2009: I originally said I’d try for “30, 40, even 50 books.” Still, I’m going to keep reading (of course); in fact, I’m partway through two more.

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  • Doug Evans

    Speaking as another English major, I never really got into poetry either… my attempts at evaluating it were worsened only by my attempts at actually writing it. Though I did knock out a pretty good “Sonnet to the Little Mermaid” back in the day that brought down the house. Or at least the dorm.

    Here’s a link I thought you might enjoy… Ken Jennings, the guy that won all those games of Jeopardy a few years back, writes an entertaining blog about whatever comes into his mind (which I guess is the definition of a blog). His entry today was about a new translation of Proust. I’ve never read Proust, which is maybe why he’s a famous Jeopardy contestant and I’m not, but I enjoyed his comments in the same way that I enjoy reading your monthly updates… always interesting to read other people’s thoughts about what they’re reading, even if I’m not reading same things.

    He didn’t include any pictures, though, so Dave Allen: 1, Ken Jennings: 0.

    http://ken-jennings.com/blog/?p=1428

    [Mr. Jennings isn't quite smart enough to figure out how to incorporate images, eh? Yaaaaah. -- DA]