Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Reading

April, 2009
Spring Reading
“Spring comes slowly up this way.”

In its simplicity, its easy colloquialism, the line quoted above sounds more like Robert Frost. In fact, it’s from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dark, mysterious, and lovely poem “Christabel.” Every April, I cite it to anyone who’ll listen because if there were ever a place on the face of the earth where spring comes slowly, including Coleridge’s North Country of England, that place is the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Then one morning there’s that shrill konkeree of the first red-winged blackbird. Out comes my copy of Walden. Who knows what revitalizing spring reading that will lead to next? I’m still not halfway into my annual, vernal reading binge, but the following five books have helped me through the spring snowstorms that have hit my northern corner of the Green Mountains since I heard that early redwing a month ago.

Book reviewers, with me at the head of the list, routinely overuse the term “Dickensian.” In fact, there was only one Charles Dickens and there’ll never be another. So I won’t say that Tim Gautreaux’s magnificent, brand-new novel, The Missing, is Dickensian, just that it is chock-a-block with memorable and colorful characters, heart-pounding action, mysterious disappearances and reappearances, several journeys into the heart of darkness of the backwoods American South that make the more frightening passages of Deliverance seem tame – you get the picture.

The Missing is the story of World War I veteran Sam Simoneaux’s epic search up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for a kidnapped child. Along the way, Sam, an itinerant piano player and steamboat hand, encounters some of the most evil yet compelling characters I can recall from contemporary fiction; fights his way through moccasin-infested swamps; confronts a hideously dark secret from his early childhood; and manages to retain the same basic human decency that has characterized many great American literary figures from Huck Finn to Inman in Cold Mountain. I didn’t think Louisiana’s Tim Gautreaux could ever surpass his own earlier masterwork, The Clearing. He has, though. The Missing probably wouldn’t have softened Dickens’ harsh opinion of outback America, but my, how Mr. D would have loved this story. For two snowy spring days and nights, I carried the book with me everywhere I went.

At least until the last years of his endlessly fascinating and inspiring life, Dr. Samuel Johnson didn’t care for, or understand, America and Americans any better than Charles Dickens did. I’ve often wondered what “Bear” Johnson would have thought of Huckleberry Finn or, say, Lonesome Dove. We’ll never know. This much is certain, however. Jeffrey Meyers’ new biography, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, is a great literary accomplishment in its own right. Meyers’ book has been widely praised for its fresh, sympathetic exploration of Johnson’s psychic demons. I was equally taken by his account of the Great Cham’s – and here I go again – “Dickensian” youth and young adulthood as a tormented misfit: an unhappy child, college dropout, failed schoolteacher, ineffective bookseller, disappointed suitor, and most of all, struggling Grub Street freelancer. Meyers, who writes wonderfully himself, is marvelous on Johnson’s development as a writer.

“Johnson made writing sound so wretched, so full of mental anguish, that it’s surprising he ever wanted to be an author,” Meyers observes. And yet, aspiring writers of the world – and aren’t all of us clueless scribblers just that – take courage. Go down to your nearest independent bookstore. Locate Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. Read the first section of Chapter Six, “London Observed,” pp. 109-116. (Do not try this in a chain bookstore; you might be arrested for loitering before you’ve had a chance to buy the book.) If I’ve ever read anything better on the art of writing, I don’t know where. My thanks to Samuel Johnson, Jeffrey Meyers, and the independent booksellers of America.

Long-buried sarcophagi, arcane carvings and pictographs, tantalizing historical mysteries from an ancient Assyrian civilization. Wow. Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger) has all this and much, much more in his latest novel, Land of Marvels. I devoured it in three rapt sittings. This time around, Unsworth has spun a beautifully character-driven tale of a desperate, wildcat archaeologist, on the brink of failure and financial ruin, who unlocks a great secret deep in the heart of what’s now Iraq. Set in 1914, with its themes of German, British, and American imperialism, international intrigue, and willful violence and ignorance stretching back to the beginning of civilization, Land of Marvels is at once an exciting read and a sobering commentary on the past eight years of madness in the region once known as Persia. Unsworth ends his story with a sort of reverse deus ex machina catastrophe that some readers may feel diverts attention from his characters. But his cataclysmic ending has metaphorical implications of its own. One of the central dramatic questions of this fine novel is, what have we frail mortals learned, over the last 5,000 or so years, about the evils of power run amok? Sadly, the short answer to that question may be – nothing.

My goodness. Coleridge, Dickens, Dr. Johnson, Barry Unsworth – I seem this month to be drawn to writers British. Paul Micou, the author of eight of the flat-out funniest novels I’ve ever read, was born in San Francisco, graduated from Harvard, and currently lives in France. Some of his most hilarious fiction is set in and near London, where he’s also hung his hat. For starters, if you haven’t read Micou before, I’d recommend Rotten Times and his most recent novel, Confessions of a Map Dealer (2008). Dickens would surely roar over Paul’s feckless conmen, Henry Hart and Darius Saddler, but the writer he most reminds me of, in his exquisite exploration of human foibles and the human heart, is Jane Austen. And then, in Rotten Times, we have the incomparable portrait of the right-wing Governor Peele, from the American South, who is “as fervent a believer in the death penalty as he [is] in the rights of fertilized ova.” Poor Governor Peele. What to do when an unrepentant, multiple murderess who has offed three of her lovers and is due to be executed – becomes pregnant?

Back here in the arctic Northeast Kingdom spring, let it snow, let it snow, on into May and even June. It wouldn’t be the first time. With six more Paul Micou novels to go, and Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing to tell my bibliophile cronies about, I could care less.

Literary Updates from the Northeast Kingdom:

Do check out long-time Kingdom writer Garret Keizer’s brilliantly original, entirely accessible and very funny serious poem, “When the Snake Became a Man,” in the March 30th New Yorker; also his essay “Shine, Perishing Republicans” in the April issue of Harper’s. Garret is currently completing a book on the history and politics of noise. I’ve had a sneak preview. Garret’s forthcoming book is as entertaining as it is readable and timely.

Kingdom essayist Edward Hoagland, acclaimed as “the Thoreau of our times” by the Washington Post and “our best living essayist” by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review, has just published his 20th book. Early in the Season is the wonderful sequel to Hoagland’s acclaimed British Columbia memoir, Notes from the Century Before. Its evocations of a place and way of life that won’t be seen again, and profiles of the last frontiersmen and frontierswomen in North America, are incomparable. Whether he’s up in the wilds of northern Canada, deep in war-torn Africa, under the Ringling Bros. big top or at home on Wheeler Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom, Edward Hoagland is, for my money, the best line-by-line prose writer in America.

I started this blog – what a peculiar and unpleasant word! – by quoting a line from a Coleridge poem. I’ll end by directing readers to the best new work of poetry in America since Robert Frost’s North of Boston. Of course, I mean Kingdom poet Leland Kinsey’s book-length epic poem, The Immigrant’s Contract (David R. Godine, Inc., 2008). The Immigrant’s Contract chronicles the life and times of an unforgettable French Canadian immigrant and self-taught iconoclast who, over the course of a full, hard lifetime, works in the woods, trains horses, builds dams and wilderness roads, digs dinosaur bones in Alberta, runs a car-repair shop, tours nocturnal Havana with the beautiful moll of a Prohibition-era gangster, participates in a professional tug-of-war – the list goes on and on. Leland Kinsey, who has brought poetry and poetry writing to more than 100 schools in Vermont and New Hampshire, and is the author of six acclaimed collections of poems, including In the Rain Shadow and Family Drives, should be Vermont’s next State Poet. No one has ever written better about the people, natural history, and especially, work and indigenous activities of New England than this superb American poet.
Who says people don’t read anymore? Probably the same naysayers who’ll tell you that the short story is dead. Please watch for next month’s entry here in the Kingdom Journal. I’ll be writing about the half dozen or so wonderful new short-story collections I’ve read lately.

Happy spring reading!