Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957) I put this book on my reading list every summer because for as long as I can remember I get it out every spring with intention to reread it. I have, in the past, several times, but in recent years I've just been continuing where left off from the previous year. It's about a small, Midwestern town in the summer, told mostly from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. I've read that it's based a lot on Ray Bradbury's childhood—it takes place in the summer of 1928, but it's pretty timeless. On one hand it's pure nostalgia, but it's a lot more than that. I really feel like it gets at what is magical and unexplained in the world, and so I keep finding new stuff in it, every time I read it. It also touches on a lot of tragedy and sadness. It's about death as much as anything. I think I first read it for my freshman high school English class, and Mr. Kimball was a little frustrated that people didn't get it, but I felt like I did—that's when I first fell in love with Dandelion Wine. I think it's a pretty adult book, though, ultimately. More than a proper novel, it's actually a collection of related short stories (many have been published alone, in magazines), but it can be read as a novel, or you can skip around. This one chapter really struck me this time—interesting, because I used to think it was pretty corny. It's about this newspaper reporter who sees a photograph of a beautiful woman in the paper, so he looks her up, and it turns out that she only let one photo of her ever be published, taken when she was young, and now she is 95. He tells her that, and oddly, she had some similar strange connection to him, and they begin meeting up and become friends, for a short time, anyway, until she dies. The odd thing is, when I first read this, I think I read it more from the perspective of the 12 year old (who is friends with the reporter) and thought it was merely kind of interesting. Later, I read it more from the perspective of the reporter, and thought it was a little sentimental and corny. Now, however, I'm reading it more from the perspective of the old woman, and this time it really broke my heart. I stopped there for the summer—but I'll pick it up again next year.
Books I've Finished Reading
The Case of the Gone Goose by Scott Corbett (1966). This is the first book of the “Inspector Tearle” series, about a twelve-year-old detective, his sister, and their friend, who are trying to solve the mystery of three geese, at a local farm, who are being beheaded one by one. The story is mostly tedious and the mystery not very satisfying, and the protagonist, Roger Tearle, is so full of anxiety—you see a lot of antacid in his future. The appeal to me, the star of this series, is the treehouse that the kids use as their headquarters. It's nothing special (though it is equipped with a phone and a filing cabinet)—just a treehouse—built in a tree right next to the Tearle residence. Though, you know, everything is special about a treehouse—that's the point. When I was that age, we didn't have any mysteries, at least that we were able to solve, but we did have a lot of forts, hideouts, and clubhouses. A secret cave in a woodpile covered by building materials, guarded by snakes. An old pigeon coop (shared with pigeons). A room in a detached garage attic. A shack in the woods in which we dug a basement and 20 foot tunnel. A treehouse in the woods, high up, with a floor, ceiling, walls, and windows—a treehouse! Were there any adults involved in building any of this stuff? No adults!
10:04 by Ben Lerner (2014) I think I heard about Ben Lerner from David Shields, writing about various authors whose work crosses the line, back and forth, from fiction and non-fiction, or maybe erases the line, which is something I'm interested in, at least reading. I'm not sure about doing it. Well, I do do it, but I also just like fiction—I like making things up. Okay, I guess I'm there, as far as stuff I write, and I relate to the approach in this book, but I also would not take quite this approach. It's hard to explain. I was always attracted to the earlier, kind of more crude versions of erasing that line, like in some works by John Barth, and Richard Brautigan, etc. I guess some of that's called “post-modernism” and also “metafiction.” To me, those kind of labels and categories aren't very helpful, unless it's helpful in finding other similar stuff. So anyway, the story in 10:04 is about an unnamed character (so it may as well be Ben Lerner) who is in New York during this specific period of time, that happens to be framed by Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy—which is when I was living in NYC, and so a lot of this is both historically and geographically familiar to me: Christian Marclay's The Clock, The High Line, post 911, pre-Trump. Other major references are the movie Back to the Future (1985) and the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster (which Ben Lerner is almost too young to remember, but I happened to experience while living in NYC, the first time I lived there). A lot of this book is also about the author's struggle with a possibly catastrophic medical condition, and attempts to be a sperm donor for a close friend... so there's birth and death, which adds a lot of weight to the narrative, while also, in my case, creating considerable distance. Ben Lerner is an interesting character (i.e., real person) in that in this kind of rarified literary world he's a rock star, a Superstar, i.e., he's the guy, while at the same time, not a household word, and in fact virtually unknown (certainly among my friends, family, co-workers, and the man on the street), which makes him, in a way, exactly the person I want to be. But I wouldn't trade places with him for a million dollars, all the tea in China, or that elusive “happiness”—which I guess brings me back to a kind of self-reflection where I realize that I love my life, am eternally grateful for it and happy about it, even while recognizing that, as a career, or looking at it from “above,” it's a disaster, a car-wreck, and an absolute failure. But anyway, thanks Ben Lerner!
The Apology by Eve Ensler 2019 This book takes the form of a letter written to Eve Ensler from her father, dead for some 30 years, written from the afterlife, as an apology to her for the horrific sexual, physical, and mental abuse he inflicted on her from the time of her birth to his death. I've found myself, when trying to imagine the reasons an adult would sexually abuse a child, with no answers, and for one, this depiction, in first recreating her father's childhood, gives insight into understanding the unimaginable. It is a difficult story to stomach, and I wanted to put it down, but I made myself read through it, hoping to learn something, and I learned a lot. Not to lessen the vision of horror of the sexual abuse, I think I found even more upsetting the relentless reign of terror her father then inflicted on her in his attempt to discredit her, erase her, to make her disappear. I mean, he nearly killed her, and failing that, was determined to cause her to kill herself. As upsetting and just plain heartbreaking as this story is, just the fact that she survived is beyond hopeful. And not only survived, but has worked and written at a high level, powerful and poetic, and reached out to people who have gone through similar ordeals and helped them. This book will continue to do so, of course—this is and will be, I'm sure, a really important book in a lot of people's lives.
Ready Fire Aim by Kevin Triggs (2015) One of the pleasures, and indeed benefits of reading in a relaxed way, and as slowly as I do (several books at once, slow as molasses) is that I make a lot of connections with other books I'm reading at the same time—and even my life as I'm living it. This novel, by a Milwaukee author who I've met, follows George, our late-teen protagonist, through a year or so of his life as he navigates one big interconnected storm of hormones, intense but very small family (him and his mom), first love, alcohol, drugs, work, responsibly, friendship, group politics, and his vital connection to the world. It's set among the backdrop of Milwaukee's anti-racist skinhead culture of the time, and that alone is pretty fascinating—the struggles and support within a close-knit group, amidst external struggles (directly and sometimes violently opposed to overtly racist groups, while being misunderstood by the mainstream). But it's also a great portrait of guy, a place, and a time. As far as the place, since I live here, it's fun to know the references, whether exactly on or slightly fictionalized, but if you've never been to Milwaukee you can get a pretty good picture of one side of it, at least from the early-Nineties perspective. And then as it travels through a year or so of time—I found myself, by chance, reading along as the seasons coincided. Also, it just happened that a major cultural event in the story—the police beating of Rodney King, and subsequent riots, in spring 1991—also took place in the timeline as I was reading this Leonard Cohen biography. George, I'm guessing, is roughly Triggs' age, at the time, and as the narrative is in first person, with a distinctive voice, one has to wonder the extent of it being autobiographical. I know you're not supposed to ask or care, but I like that tension. George is a guy who's very much that age (you want to take him aside, once in awhile, and tell him to relax, be patient!), but he's also much more advanced than I was. He's very much looking at the big picture, and you think, he's going to be okay. Whether the world is going to be okay remains to be seen, but I found this story, while often being painful, to be about growing, and thus ultimately hopeful.
The Shore Road Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon (1928) This is the original version, actually written by Leslie McFarlane, I'm pretty sure. Like some of the other, early, original versions, it's a much more relaxed approach, with some early chapters dedicated almost entirely to hijinks. After staying up very late one night in their efforts to catch the car thieves, both of the Hardys are so tired in school that they are falling asleep in class, much to the amusement of their chums. There is also a prank, played by Chet, involving a raw, dead fish. One odd thing, later on in the story, during a particularly daring adventure, the Hardys are debating how to proceed, and Frank is for being more reckless, while Joe is more for being careful, and it says, of Joe: “he was of a more cautious nature than his brother...”—which is exactly opposite of my understanding of the Hardys, in which Joe is more “impetuous.” I don't know if that was played up in the re-writes, but I think McFarlane might have forgotten—for a moment, here—anyway. I'll keep that in mind reading further original texts. Toward the end, just after being apprehended, the villain says: “I'd have been clear away if it wasn't for them brats of boys!” Which made me think, that's a weird way to re-word that line you stole from Scooby-Doo—before, remembering, of course, that this book was published in 1928. When the Hardys finally use the old Trojan Horse device to catch the car thieves, they carry their revolvers with them—remember, these are high school kids. They don't make a big point out of it, but it's probably one of the things that prompted the rewrites—that began in 1950s—whereas kids probably still did have guns, some of them, but it's the kind of thing the big publishers didn't want to focus on in their mass market fiction. Actually, being successful and having a long publishing life is one thing that prompted these rewrites. Sometimes it's just changes in hardware. In the 1964 re-write, the boys hide in the car trunk. In the original, they hide in the “locker” on back of the car. If there is a current re-write of this book, they probably catch the car thieves by using a drone.
The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). This is not a book, it's a short story, but it got my interest on several levels and was worth reading and reading about, as it's at once considered an early work of feminist literature, and also psychological fiction, and also gothic horror. If you know me, you might guess I'm also obsessed with both yellow rooms and living, breathing wallpaper. I hadn't been thinking about this until I read it, but besides all the usual accounts of patriarchal oppression—which was at one time blatant and scarcely disguised, and in our present time just as blatant but more pathetically disguised—for political control, personal control, and control for the sake of control—the idea of not allowing a woman to write, for “health reasons,” is a particularly chilling one. That the husband in this story is a doctor who likely really believes he is acting in the woman's best interest is also horrifying. The idea of evil, I mean as an externally influenced (by Satan, etc.) force is of little interest to me, but “good” people—whose well-intentioned actions are harmful—is of particular interest to me. I also have little interest in “horror” per se, but am very attuned to everyday horror. Also, I have little interest in the exercise of writing from the point of view of the mind in descent into madness (it just feels like work, the writing part), but there is something about this story that is gripping, as I can't exactly figure out the point of view. Also, that it was published in 1892 and reads as pretty contemporary, and probably still will in 2112 in the Temples of Syrinx, or even 2525 (if woman can survive). Like many of us, my personal experience informs everything I come into contact with, and I remember writing a story called “The Yellow Room,” which may or may not be eerily close to this story (though mine is already all but lost). And finally, what is it about wallpaper that is so creepy? I can never really shake that feeling. And what is it about certain patterns of repetitious design (like why does houndstooth give me a migraine?) that's, while manmade, seem to take on a disturbing life of its own?
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin (1955) This book is a collection of essays, and while probably one of those books you feel like you should, or should have read, it's not a huge drag like I find a lot of the “should stuff”—but it's by no means a hoot, either, or even a workout at the gym. I love James Baldwin's writing, and his voice, and I like hearing it in my brain, and I might go right back and start this book over, both because I don't think I came close to getting it all, and also because his style of writing inspires me. I don't know if I've exactly come to terms with my role as a white person amid ongoing racial inequality, but it's an evolving process. All learning is, of course—never done. It's equally as hard to accept that I'm not very smart, in a relative sense—but of course, what point is there dwelling on that? One can just keep trying to do better, I guess. I was surprised at, on one hand, how specific some of the essays in this book are, like an examination of Carmen Jones (1954) which I haven't seen, but probably will, some day, and think of this. And how compelling, in an almost fiction-like way some of the other accounts are, of the harrowing adventures of young James Baldwin, faced with the various forces of society—and trying to remember these things happened half a century or more ago. And mostly of how totally relevant this all is to the times we are living in now. It may be more relevant now than it ever was—and I don't know if that's just really depressing, as for our world, or it's just saying a lot about his insight and vision—I suppose both those things.
Good Old Archibald by Ethelyn M. Parkinson (1960) For whatever reason, this book was just my favorite when I was a kid, and I used to check out a lot of books at the downtown Sandusky, Ohio library. I have a very strong memory—before it was remodeled—of how that library looked and felt. I think I must have picked books based on the covers, or titles—I certainly didn't read them all. This story isn't the greatest—it's about a new kid in the neighborhood and the slow process of accepting him. What I think really attracted me to it was the vivid portrait of this very large family who are in a lot of ways creative and eccentric. One of the kids cooks meals in the basement—dead animals and vegetables from the wild, and another kid holds funerals for wildlife that has perished, including a bat from the garage. The illustrations here, by Mary Stevens, are also among the best of this era of kid's books—she did a lot of them. Ethelyn M. Parkinson wrote mostly about young boys, and I guess she never had children of her own. She writes with a really singular sense of humor—the situations, and the dialogue, and her word choices—I've never read anything quite like it. She's in a lot of ways like Beverly Cleary, who I also love, but I think (I've not read all of either of them) a bit more odd. She continues to be my favorite children's author, and I'm trying to find and read all of her books.
The Missing Formula by Ann Wirt (1932) This is the short-lived Madge Sterling mystery/adventure series (at least I see only 3 books) supposedly written by Mildred Wirt Benson, author of the early Nancy Drew books, among others. It came out a couple of years after the first Nancy Drew—and what's kind of interesting to me is that (though I've by no means read or even am aware of all the kid's series books at the time) is that the girls mysteries seemed to be more in the circle of society, school, and romance books, while the boys more about adventure, the outdoors, sports, and science. The exceptions, to me (so far, in reading, and very admittedly biased) are the Hardy Boys, which are—at least the ones written by Leslie McFarlane—kind of in a somewhat strange, insulated, bizarro Hardy Boy reality of their own. And Judy Bolton, which are very much based in an actual place and time (and I've heard, based quite often on actual events). This Madge Sterling series seems like another exception, at least based on the first book—as it's very much an outdoor adventure, with Madge living in a summer resort run by her aunt and uncle, very hearty and capable, while by no means tomboyish. She meets (and immediately saves from drowning) a troubled young woman, Anne, who is at the center of the mystery. The two become fast friends, and though Madge has an ongoing flirtation with an older, male park ranger, she and Anne have a friendship which—maybe I'm reading too much into it—struck me as pretty romantic. The ranger is a bit of a distant (too busy) hero, and the aunt and uncle are just kind of blah and neutral, and other than that, the two girls are up against a slew of bastards, from the harmless but lazy handyman to the, greedy local speculator, to the soulless rich industrialist (who eventually finds his soul through filet of sole), to the totally underhanded greedy creep. None of them evil—just a catalogue of human failings. The books starts out, like so many Hardy Boys adventures, with weather (I love weather in these books!), and a nearly fatal boating mishap. It then takes on the endless tedium of the characters trying (and having ongoing thwarted success) to find the key to the mystery—so many of these series books are built on that tired device. In this case, it's, you guessed it, the missing formula. Just once I want a story where the thing that's missing just goes on being missing at the end of the book! But I guess for that you have to go to the movies of the 1970s, or absurdist drama, or I'll have to write it myself.
Do Not Sell At Any Price by Amanda Petrusich (2014) Subtitled: “The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the Word's Rarest 78 rpm Records” sounds like the thing a publisher would slap on (why does “non-fiction” have to have the subtitles, but not novels?) in order to generate excitement, but that's unnecessary, because this is an exiting book—and especially toward the end, I found myself saying, “yes” out loud to parts. Most fresh in my mind is the last part where she really gets into examining the personality of the 78 collector, but more in general, the collector, the archivist, the obsessive, the hoarder (pretty much all of the men I know fall into those categories). Even if you have no interest in the music most of this book is about (though you might easily become interested, to some degree, by reading this and searching it out), the intimate portraits of her subjects are really enjoyable. It seems like most of those prominent record collectors are crusty, older, white guys, and Amanda Petrusich is a young woman (and an experienced music writer—I just noticed she did one of those 33 1/3 books, on Pink Moon), and she seems in the high end of the spectrum for passion about music in general, and obviously had an interest in this music, and during the course of the writing was discovering and becoming more obsessed with the music in question (mostly, but not all, 1920s and 1930s recordings, preserved on 78 rpm records). I suppose during the research and travel and dealing with the people, she became considerably more crusty herself, on the road, sweating, and eating diner food, and most severely, scuba-diving in the Milwaukee River. That was my favorite part of the book, close as it is geographically to me—her research of Paramount Records and the Wisconsin Chair Company, where many 78s were pressed, which was the first I've heard about this. I personally “discovered” Grafton, Wisconsin because it was the furthest I was able to ride my bike from Milwaukee and still make it back. I stopped for coffee, with no idea of its storied early 78 rpm record history, until I read this later. Yes, she donned scuba gear and mucked around the bottom of the river where supposedly the pressing plant just dumped the overstock. She was unsuccessful at finding any, but totally successful at proving she is pretty hardcore, and also has a sense of humor about it all.
Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion by Julie Campbell (1948) This is the first Trixie Belden book, and she claims in the first paragraph that she'll die if she doesn't have a horse—I felt much the same way, as a lad, at least until I started drinking. Trixie makes what I think is going to be a lasting friendship with Honey Wheeler, the rich girl new neighbor. They're a great duo. The most annoying part of this book is Trixie's pest little brother, but I was glad he didn't die from the copperhead bite, which Trixie bravely administered first aid on. Thankfully, that slowed him down, at least. The mystery here, as you'd guess, is about an old mansion which holds a lot of mysteries and possibly some kind of treasure (a plot repeated over and over in kid's books). I like how the ending leads directly to the next book. I'm definitely planning on reading more.
Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall by Alice B. Emerson (1913) This book is subtitled: or, Solving the Campus Mystery, and it's the second in the Ruth Fielding series (I did not read the first) published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, who published like billions of childrens series titles—and this author is a pseudonym—the actual writer was probably a staff writer who was paid peanuts. It's very well-written, though, and compelling—I loved this book. It's about Ruth and her friend going off to boarding school, where there is a mystery, some adventure, and lots and lots of personal politics and social tension. The weird thing is that I started reading this at almost exactly the same time as reading (for the first time) the first Harry Potter book, and both stories follow remarkably the same path, concerns, and plot points. I mean, minus the wizardry, and details, of course... but really, it made me think that probably Harry Potter (at least the first half of the first book) comes from a very regular tradition of young reader boarding school stories. It was totally by accident that I started reading those at the same time, but that's cool—it's nice when it feels like there's a plan out there. I'm not going to start studying the boarding school form or anything, but I may come upon more, at some point, if I keep reading kids' books. Which I'm planning to do. More Ruth Fielding? If I find more, I may well read them. Ruth is a really good character—very human, with her anxiety, vulnerability, resolve, and courage—all well balanced and clearly expressed. The ending of this book leads to the next story, too, so maybe I'll keep an eye out for that one.
The Amazing Spider-Man – Enter Dr. Strange (1972) This is Marvel Comics No. 109, an old comic book I had since I was a kid. Somehow, through 40 or so moves and a lot of lost stuff, I managed to hold onto one box of childhood comics. Unfortunately, this one is in bad shape, since it goes for nearly a dollar on eBay—it looks like I used it for a cutting board. But it's still readable, so I did my best to try to figure out the appeal of Spider-Man. There is a lot of writing in this thing—first bringing us up to date on the story, about some Asian monks who are going to kill this guy, and Peter Parker's dilemma: that he can save him by being Spider-Man, but then this woman he likes, Gwen, would find out he's Spider-Man, and not just this wimpy guy who always disappears when things get tense. So he's got to lie, which in most popular culture has dire repercussions, but not here? Anyway, he teams up with this Dr. Strange, who looks kind of like the gray-templed Fantastic Four guy dressed for Mardi Gras. There's a lot of action, which is boring beyond words. Toward the back there's a letters page, and some news and a “Soapbox” column by Stan Lee, which is pretty fascinating—a lot of personality—it really feels like his personal zine. Most interesting to me of all, though, are the ads—most geared toward adolescent boys, of course. There are five different ads for various body building programs! Also, a lot that are trying to direct kids into heinous career choices, the most prominent being sales. There are several ads that offer fantastic prizes for selling their products—I don't know how young kids used to sell stuff—maybe to their friends, or relatives, or door-to-door? Anyway, the most nostalgic thing here is the of-the-time multitude of prizes they are offering—I'm going to page through and list some: Jr. Typewriter, guitar amp combo (I wonder what kind of guitar?), two-man rubber boat, Estes rocket kit, Mini Bike (does anyone remember these? They were tiny motorcycles), “banana seat” bikes, chemistry set, microscope, telescope, small open-reel tape recorder (like the first one I had), cassette tape recorder (like the ones everyone had), GE Wildcat stereo (which I had), Aurora model motoring set, Kodak Instamatic, Cox dune buggy and Corsair airplane (I'm guessing these were the gas powered, radio controlled ones), rock tumbling kit, Polaroid Colorpack camera, Magnus electric organ, Panasonic Bolero radio (which I'm guessing you might be able to sell for something, now)—and it just goes on and on. Kids, if nothing else, you can be a superhero in sales!
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson (2018) There is something about Denis Johnson's fiction that always makes me think it's not only autobiographical in nature, but just straight non-fiction, verifiable truth down to the smallest detail, even when I know it's fiction all along. He's like a magician. I'll end up googling names of characters only to find the only reference to them is people discussing these stories. When I'm really connecting to one of his stories, he's my favorite. I'm really sad that he died. Is it possible someone might discover tons of unpublished stuff? Probably not. I have the feeling that he worked terribly hard on the writing that's presented to us, and there are only so many hours in a day, but who knows? There are a lot of his books I haven't read, at least. Jesus' Son (1992) was a huge book for me, of course. Some of his stuff I don't connect to all, but it's like that with any writer, I guess. I never hear anyone talk about The Name of the World (2000), but I'm kind of obsessed with that short novel, have read it twice, and will probably read it again. I didn't really connect with the middle three stories in this book, but I'll try again sometime. The first one, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” I loved, though, and even re-read it before I finished the book, and I'm going to re-read it again right now. For having read it twice, I can't tell you what it was about or why I liked it so much, but it kind of did something to my brain. I just finished the last story, “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” which is another one that made me feel like, “this can't be just out of his imagination, can it?” It's about a professor's friendship with a slightly younger student and poet who has a secret obsession with Elvis' stillborn twin. It's a very weird story—and it resonated with me quite a bit because of several relationships with friends, gone now—I can maybe go into it more in person, if you're my friend, and I'm talking to you over coffee. And I need to re-read this one, too. There is a novel's worth of stuff in this longish short story. It almost has the quality of being a kind of weird epitaph, too, one fitting Denis Johnson. Maybe I re-read to a fault, but I'll argue with anyone that it's worthwhile, re-reading things, and this is especially true with DJ, and I do imagine you'll find one of his books by the side of my deathbed.
Aja by Don Breithaupt (2007) This is one of those 33 1/3 book series, “pocket-size” books, each one by a different author about a different LP record, which is a great project (there are well over 100 of them now), but I've found that you've really got to love the record, or otherwise even these relatively short texts can feel stretched beyond normal attention spans. This book is by Don Breithaupt, a Canadian musician and music writer; an interesting side note: he's referred to, briefly, in Jonathan Lethem's novel Chronic City, and Lethem has also written a 33 1/3 book. Well, I love Steely Dan's Aja (1977), and I happily read this entire book, even though I didn't have a lot of patience with the large portion of the chapters that are hardcore music theory that's frankly miles over my head. For somebody, though, it must be a dream come true. The chapters here cover various themes, as reflected on the album—like, production, process, lyrics, sidemen, etc., and a lot of this relates to all of Steely Dan—and it does go into depth. There are also various appendices, including a “Glossary” I find particularly fun. If they keep publishing these 33 1/3 books, which I think and hope they will, there is plenty of room, eventually, in my opinion, for books about all of Steely Dan, and especially the first seven albums—and they may all want to refer to this one—and I'll buy all seven.
A Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864) I started reading this classic—that I'm sure everyone is familiar with—as research for my novel about traveling to the center of the Earth (I admit, one of my favorite subjects)—and everyone knows, or should, that there is no procrastination quite like “research”—in fact, one could easily research one's life away, and many do. It was an enjoyable yarn, nonetheless, even if it got me no closer to my own journey. I can confidently say that the best stories have at least a character named “The Professor,” or a narrator named “Axel,” or an Icelandic guide named “Hans,” and this one has all three, and pretty much no one else—just the journey. I don't envy Jules Verne writing this thing, it's pretty relentless forward movement (or downward, inward) with little to draw on but the imagination (or other “research”). It must have taken quite a few bowls of tobacco and a lot of black coffee, and he didn't even have the luxury of thinking of James Mason's speaking voice whenever the Professor talks (which isn't often). Hans is pretty much silent, and most of the speaking is done internally, by Axel (is that even his name, I'm not sure now?) and it's a pain to write that stuff when your own concerns are nothing like your character's. But I was in this guy's head for awhile, and it was as much of a relief to get out of it as it was to emerge, finally, onto the surface, into daylight and warmth and fig trees.
Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson (1958) This is one of the most important children's books for me, that I read several times when I was a kid, and have re-read as an adult. I feel like it's not dated at all, but I don't know if young kids would feel that way. At this point it's maybe an adult book, and it's written in a way that it appeals to adults, I think, as well as kids. I think the adventure parts probably appeal more to kids, and the humor more to adults. Of course, for me it's impossible to separate it from my nostalgia for it. It's about a young boy, Henry Reed, whose parents are diplomats, so he lives overseas, but comes back to stay with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey for the summer and decides to keep a journal of his summer—so it's written in journal form. I think this is the first thing that influenced me to keep a journal, when I was 12, and I've done it ever since. Henry meets his only similarly aged neighbor (they're pretty much in a rural setting), a girl named Midge, and they start a “research” firm together, kind of a summer business, but also for fun. They have quite a bit of success all around. One thing that is impressive to me, reading it now, is the really full portrait you get of these two kids, and the idea of how as people mature, one aspect of their personalty matures faster than the other, which leads to interesting misinterpretations and miscommunication. Henry is like a little a adult in a way, very smart, but still kind of clueless in other ways, like what's behind some of his own motives. One of the running jokes is Henry not getting Midge's sense of humor, which is much more advanced and adult-like than his. Despite their differences, though, they do become close friends, and there are sequels to this book on the horizon. Keith Robertson is one of my favorite children's authors, and I've read many books by him and probably will re-read more. One other note—there have been a lot of re-printings of this book over the years, but you can still find the Viking hardcover, which I recommend. At the very least you must get a version with the original illustrations by Robert McCloskey (the great children's author, and illustrator)—as they are absolutely integral to the book.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (2009) I read this book just after it was published, while I was living in New York, and it's very much a New York book. It's kind of an alternate reality story that focuses on several outsiderish (to varying degrees) characters, and it's ultimately somewhat ambiguous about the level of reality we are meant to interpret. All of that really appeals to me, so much so that I read it a second time. Some of the magic had worn off the second time around, and I was more trying to figure some things out about the story, maybe discover something new—though I wasn't able to relive, too much, the kind of weird discoveries the first time around. One of my favorite things about it is the way it uses actual people, occasionally, and actual places, a lot. While I was reading it the first time I had fun visiting some of the places referred to, like the Jackson Hole hamburger joint around the corner from Brandy's Piano Bar on the upper east side. I ate there once, almost feeling like I'd see the characters in the novel walk in. Later in the book it was destroyed, and later when I tried to visit again, it had turned into something else. I remembered hearing that Jonathan Lethem did some kind of marathon reading of this novel when it came out—I'm not sure if the whole thing (it's kind of long!) at multiple locations. I think that might have been the best way to experience this book—it's kind of a rock star idea—and very much in keeping with the spirt of the book. I would love to talk to that guy. Sometimes his writing infuriates me, and sometimes it intimidates me—but overall, I like the writing, and feel like I'd like him (it's an easy bet I would) but of course, it's probably a mistake to think you know him, from reading a novel. You get to know some great characters, though (though it's part of the nature of this book that you don't really know if you know them). I was expecting to see immediate news of a film version happening—you almost can't help casting it, in your mind—but at the time of writing this, that doesn't seem to be happening.
The Sweet Ride by William Murray (1967) I had a paperback copy of this for years, but I guess I was afraid to read it, since it's the novel my favorite movie of all time is based on. The book came out about the same time as the movie, so you wonder if someone was working on the screenplay before it was even published. Anyway, Murray was a pretty successful author, it sounds like, but you won't find a lot about this book. It's pretty interesting to read, knowing the movie, because some of it is identical, almost word for word, but in a lot of cases the book naturally elaborates more and goes deeper. The book is also much more graphic, hardcore, cynical and, especially regarding the outcome of the story, much darker. I'm not going to go into the plot of either one, but quickly, it's about three guys who rent a house near Malibu in the mid-Sixties—a tennis hustler, a jazz musician, and a surfer, Denny, who meets a young Hollywood actress who is later nearly murdered. The movie focuses more on Denny's story, asking us identify with him, but the novel is told mostly first person from the hustler's (a slightly older guy named Collie) point of view, which made me really happy. Sometimes we get a more omniscient viewpoint, but it's often as if Collie is retelling what he heard from another of the characters. We get a lot more details about Collie's hustling in the book, and we get a lot of stuff about surfing from Denny, and a lot about the actress, Vickie, as told to Denny (then presumably told to Collie). There's a lot about biker gangs, too, but the version in the book is a lot more gritty and unpleasant than the cleaned up version in the movie. After a run-in with some bikers and their right-wing neighbor, Parker, Choo Choo (the musician) points out how Parker hates the bikers, but in their shared racism, doesn't realize they're his natural allies. Also, there was side trip to Las Vegas in the movie, which is very much more elaborated on in the book—especially a part where Collie ends up by himself in an eccentric local bar, and makes one of his kind of hipster philosophical, cynical observations: “That's it, the American essence! A great towering pyramid of love, equality and good times built solidly on a deep foundation of loathing.”