Almost Book Friends

Almost Book Friends

“Mind if I sit here”

Two things strike me simultaneously:  We’re in a busy airport, flights have been delayed by snow and ice, few seats are open, and I can’t remember the last time anyone was courteous enough to ask.  And, in that same instant, I detect an accent, mildly central European, perhaps Israeli.  This could get complicated.

As he sits, my seat neighbor points to my shoes and asks, “You a runner?”  I’m not and explain that I’m not, without going into an explanation of my personal shopping creed, a set of convictions so rigid that I often buy and wear shoes and clothing somewhat at odds with my true persona.  Cheap but serviceable, in other words.  As I write, it strikes me that may, in fact, be my true persona, but to return to the moment at hand.

He’s brought his shoes, he says, but isn’t sure he’ll have time to run as he is heading to Medford for an intensive training seminar involving plastics and coatings.  I’m not sure that any sentence could have more surely prompted me to trot out some elaborate shuffling with the book I had been reading, but this guy is not to be shuffled off.

“I was in San Diego once, when my son finished boot camp, but this is the Northwest, huh?”

I nod and ask the question that had to be asked.

Newark, New Jersey,  he says, not a pretty place to live, he says, but affordable.  His son now lives in Arizona.  Yuma.  He and his wife might visit again, but not in the summer.

I agree that Yuma, Arizona in the summer would be hot, hellacious actually, but I keep that assessment to myself.   He points to my book and asks what I’m reading.  Ordinarily I would have been trying to mute my discomfort in flying by reading a fairly grisly potboiling tough guy police procedural, but I’d finally started George Saunders’ first novel and had found it irresistible.  Most casual conversations die quickly when literary fiction arrives as a topic, but not this time.

“I was a terrible student.  I don’t think we read anything, really, maybe some short stories.”  I might have nodded again and slumped back  into ostentatious reading, but it turns out that I am fascinated by what people read in school.  I confessed that I had been a teacher and asked him if he could recall any particular stories or collection, scanning my own memory of what might have been on the list in the late 1960’s , when I figured he might have been a high school freshman.  Maybe, “Paul’s Case” I thought, or a Steinbeck short story.

The names came quickly.  “Leiningen vs the ants”, “The Most Dangerous Game” He paused, then shrugged.  “I don’t remember the others.””

I do.  These were among the dozen stories contained in a remarkable collection, Great Tales of Action and Adventure, edited by George Bennett

Two copies of Great Tales of Action and Adventure are in my bookcase.  I bought both as used books from Powell’s.  I, too, read the stories in the ninth grade and can recall each in sharp detail.  Saki’s “The Interlopers”, still as unsettling as an extremely compact account of unexpected death at the paws of wild wolves could be.  I had been knocked out by Saki (H.H. Munro) and particularly taken with “Sredni Vashtar” and “The Open Window”, two stories with subtly surprising endings, a fondness for which unfortunately  crept into my own writing for the next decade, except for the subtle part.  “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Poe, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” by Conan Doyle, ” “August Heat” by W.F. Harvey.  That one was a corker.  It’s not exactly a ghost story, but I found it again in a DC comic, Secrets of Sinister House.

This guy read twelve of my favorite stories!

I have three or four “book friends”.  I’ve met some of them no more than twice, but we fell into conversation about books and bonded.  We don’t share the same tastes, exactly, but we take books seriously, which is not to say that we bond over serious books.  Anyone who has experienced the rhapsody with which technologically minded people can speak of the Logitech Wireless solar keyboard K750 for Mac will understand that there is a subset of humans who are book nerds, book geeks.  We know each other almost immediately as we respond to even the slightest reference to any of the books we have loved (immoderately loved, recklessly loved – see?) as a Great White Shark does to freshly slaughtered chum.  Our voices rise, we lean into the conversation, we grab pencil and paper to copy down recommended reading.

Great Tales of Action and Adventure was a gateway read for me.  It was presented as a text to be considered in class, thus a collection worth studying.  And these were not dusty classics; these were the sorts of stories I had been reading for pleasure.  A clunky ninth grade book nerd had been given permission to take seriously a book I loved from the start.  That may have been the moment when I saw that I could be a teacher.

“My wife never read at all.”  I am jerked back from “Sredni Vashtar” to find myself in  a conversation with a potential book friend, a person to whom I might recommend one of the books I love.  “She didn’t know about books.  But now we read to each other.”

They read Kidnapped to each other, then Treasure Island.  The Chronicles of Narnia had been a great hit, followed by the C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).  “We tried to read his books on philosophy and religion, but we didn’t understand them.”  I am impressed by their willingness to follow an author into a challenging conversation, but before I can respond with some suggestions they might enjoy, The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, he’s off again.

They’re reading L.L. Baum’s Oz books, now up to the fifth, which I recall is The Road to Oz, a strange, almost psychedelic, melange in which Dorothy Gale and the Shaggy Man, a disabled hobo, set out on an afternoon’s walk, meet two of Baum’s least engaging characters, Button Bright, a rich kid in a sailor suit, and Polychrome, the Rainbow’s daughter.  It’s all too precious until the gang arrives in Foxville.  Talking foxes are irresistible, and the chapter in Foxville almost saves the messy, Love Boat cast of faded characters brought out of retirement for a cameo appearance in this long wandering novel, but there’s no magic left in Baum’s Oz factory this time.

Baum was a racist, welcoming the extermination of Native Americans in a famous screed in which he describes Indians as “…a pack of whining curs who lick the hand of those that smite them.”  So, I’m not a fan even though I read the entire series as a kid.  I look over at my seat neighbor and decide we’ve made good use of our time waiting to board, but he will not be a book buddy.  I toss out a tentative recommendation, thinking they might enjoy reading The Golden Compass, but no pencil emerges, there’s no request for a piece of paper.

I can go for weeks without catching myself being myself, but as I wish my companion a good trip, I realize that before we had conversed, I had made up a story about him, based on his accent, his suit, his shoes.  I thought I was sitting next to a Willy Loman, a drab salesman pitching the plastic coatings in his line of coatings, liked but not well-liked. Perhaps that is his job, but at the end of the day, when he gets back from Medford, he’ll sit down with his wife and read The Emerald City of Oz to his wife, probably slowing down as they understand the crushing indebtedness facing the Gale family in the wake of the celebrated tornado’s churning through their farmstead.  They’ll talk about the characters, I guess, then go to bed, dreaming of the Gnome King and the plot to conqquer Oz.

I hope he reads better books along the way, but he is reading and enjoying reading.  I should have asked for his address. I have an extra copy of Great Tales of Action and Adventure; his wife might enjoy it.

Wait! You Haven’t Read That?

Wait!  You Haven’t Read That?

In my final decade as a teacher of English at Cate School in California, I found great pleasure in adding a course to the elective options given to students in their senior year.  I’d come to miss some of the books I most enjoyed teaching in my early years, and became determined to bring a few back into the classroom.  Fashions in literature change, less rapidly than some other elements in education perhaps, but with significant impact.  Abandoned are a number of books once found in every high school curriculum, from The Iliad and Tess of the D’Urbervilles to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter.   A few familiar standards still appear; The Great Gatsby, for example, appears to have staying power far beyond that of equally highly regarded novels by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck.  Over the years with my sophomores, I had brought back The Odyssey and Of Mice and Men, and had added newer books such as  All the Pretty HorsesNever Let Me Go, and Ordinary People and certainly would have added Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, but there were so many books and so little time left for senior before they sailed into whatever remained of discussion of books in their college years.

So, I grabbed two trimesters for a course entitled, “Wait!  You haven’t read that?”, presenting books that I thought deserved a place in the great conversation between books in the auditorium of the mind.  At the start, Pride and Prejudice had slipped from view, but was soon to gain traction again and take its rightful place on the bookshelf.  I loved teaching the book, but had to give it up  as it gained popularity.  Mansfield Park is ready for the next jump if my successor is looking for a dark horse.  Hemingway’s In Our Time was an obvious choice as were Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, and Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin.  Best book/worst response?  Lolita (worth it!) .  Second Worst Response?  Molly Gloss’ Wildlife (Still hurts).

Ok, with a few spare minutes in retirement and in the spirit of  continuing the adventure, I’m lumping through Infinite Jest with my eldest son as a jesting buddy.  We’ll see.  In the meanwhile, I tell my friends about the authors who have recently jumped on my list, most notably Heidi Julavits, David Mitchell, and Kelly Link, but all of these went out the window this morning when, in an ill-advised moment, I picked up the Spring 2015 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly.

Seriously, unless you have world enough and time to track down the seventy to eighty authors/philosophers/lords of enterprise/scientists/poets/historians whose work is anthologized in each journal dedicated to bringing voices from the widest perspective over the widest span of time to the contemporary reader, remarkable voices collected in order to animate the various themes of the quarterly, don’t even read past the cover  I include the link so that the unwary can appreciate the sweep of ideas taken up in the life of this extraordinary quarterly.

My mistake was in picking up, Volume VII, Number 2 – Swindle and Fraud.  Lewis Lapham is the editor of the Quarterly and its moving force, but also something of a literary firebrand, an American aristocrat with truly democratic sensibilities.  Formerly the editor of Harper’s Magazine, Lapham is a prolific writer whose 2005 film, The American Ruling Class, is one of the most curiously arresting documentaries of its time.  Described as, “… the bedrock of classic academic purity and discipline,” Lapham also enjoys a wicked sense of irony, made clear in his preamble to Swindle and Fraud, in which he compares the emptying of trillions of dollars from the nation’s resources during the Great Recession to Houdini’s performance at the Hippodrome Theater in 1918, a performance in which Houdini made a five ton elephant disappear from the stage.  Writing of the great and general fleecing in 2008, Lapham writes, “Throughout the whole of its extended run, the spectacle drew holiday crowds into the circus tent of the tabloid press, and joyous in Mudville was the feasting on fools.”

Feasting on fools is celebrated in articles written by a range of observers including Bertolt Brecht and William Shakespeare, Bernie Madoff and Charles Ponzi.  Two articles captured me entirely:  “Manila” by Lawrence Osborne in which the author, fascinated by accounts of faked deaths, sets out to perpetrate an act of “pseudocide” by purchasing in Manila an authentic certificate of his own death and an excerpt from David Maurer’s The Big Con in which Maurer presents an extensive guide to the language of the confidence artist.  

The ease with which Osborne was able to buy a death certificate was disturbing, but I was instantly absorbed in tracking down the novel that sent Osborne off on his quest, a meticulously researched book (Osborne assures us it was written,”with an entertainingly maniacal attention to detail”), The Family Business, by Byron Bales, who as a private investigator in Bangkok knew the ins and outs of faked deaths and disappearances throughout Asia;  Amazon will sell me the paperback copy for thirty-five dollars, but I can pop it on my Kindle for less than three bucks.

Except that, I have to read The Big Con if only to further broaden my grasp of confidence lingo.  I’m ok with “The Big Store” (essentially the con run in The Sting) and “The Money Box” (a con in which the mark buys a machine he believes will actually make genuine paper money), but “Cackle-bladder”?  “Tin Mittens”?  “Laying the flue”?

Except that, I just finished “The Fully Licensed Whore, or, The Wife” by Patricia Highsmith, which is stunningly understated, as in this passage: “Sarah’s idea was to kill Sylvester with good food, with kindness, in a sense, with wifely duty.” This short piece by Highsmith is but one of the eighty or so spider webs into which Lapham is pleased to toss me, each of which carries me off into yet another web.  I last read Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley more than four years ago, intending at the time to follow up with the other four books in “The Ripliad”, so there goes tonight’s bout with Infinite Jest.

Wait!  You haven’t read those?