Doing double duty this month as my classics and two of my last few animal-themed summer reading choices are a record of a trek in France and a sleazy novella set in 1930s Hollywood.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)
I think I decided this was a must-read because I so love Christopher Rush’s recreation of the journey in To Travel Hopefully. The problem with the original is that there doesn’t seem to have been any particular reason for walking 120 miles in 12 days with a donkey as one’s pack animal and traveling companion. “I have been after an adventure all my life, a pure dispassionate adventurer, such as befell early and heroic voyagers,” Stevenson writes, but of all the options before him this must surely have been one of the safer choices.
As autumn comes on, Stevenson keeps being mistaken for a peddler and meeting religious extremists of various stripes, from Trappist monks to a Plymouth Brother. He stays in shared inn rooms or sleeps outdoors. He learns about the history of religious wars and martyrdom in the region. It’s the sort of material that might have inspired Guy Stagg in writing The Crossway, his account of a secular pilgrimage from Canterbury to Jerusalem. But it’s, for the most part, awfully boring. Rush at least had a good reason for undertaking his journey: after his wife’s death from breast cancer he needed a quest to take his mind off his grief.
But anyway, the donkey. Stevenson buys Modestine for 65 francs and she quickly proves to be a typical stubborn-as creature. Passersby encourage him to find an effective goad and show the beast who’s in charge.
They told me when I left, and I was ready to believe it, that before a few days I should come to love Modestine like a dog. Three days had passed, we had shared some misadventures, and my heart was still as cold as a potato towards my beast of burden. She was pretty enough to look at; but then she had given proof of dead stupidity
Between the early entries and the final ones, though, she is mostly invisible. And, regretfully, Stevenson then has to sell the poor beast again – and for only 35 francs with her saddle. That represents quite a financial loss after less than two weeks!
Ultimately, I prefer reading about Stevenson to reading his actual work. (Other examples: Nancy Horan’s novel Under the Wide and Starry Sky; the chapter of Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer in which he recreates the Cévennes trek.) My next Stevenson-themed reading will be The Lighthouse Stevensons by Bella Bathurst.
A lovely line: “to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden”
Wigtown gets a random mention! As he’s musing on the controversial religious history of the area: “If you met a mixed company in the King’s Arms at Wigton, it is not likely that the talk would run on Covenanters.”
(The e-book is available as a free download from Project Gutenberg, though I read a secondhand copy I’d had for ages.)
See also Kaggsy’s review: it’s more positive and includes helpful background information.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939)
Boy oh boy, this is one weird and sordid little book. Like The Great Gatsby, which had been published 14 years before, it shows the seamy underbelly of a glittering American city. Here the setting is Hollywood, where Tod Hackett is a set and costume designer. He’s smitten with his neighbor, Faye Greener, a 17-year-old aspiring actress (“taut and vibrant … shiny as a new spoon”) who’s not above taking a few shifts at the brothel to make ends meet.
Tod is not the only one obsessed with Faye, though; her other suitors include Homer Simpson (so hard to take him seriously because of that name!), a sad sack from Iowa who moved to the California desert for his respiratory health; Earle Shoop the cowboy; and Miguel, a Mexican cock-fighter. Comic relief is provided by Abe Kusich, a gambling dwarf whose slang includes “lard-ass” and “punkola.” The novella opens and ends with mob scenes, but while the first takes place on a studio lot the last is dangerously real.
There are some fairly disturbing elements here. The casual racism is probably to be expected, but the violence of Tod’s fantasies about Faye startled me: “If only he had the courage to wait for her some night and hit her with a bottle and rape her.” But like Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby, Faye is the sort of careless person who will always come out on top – “Nothing could hurt her. She was like a cork.”
West portrays Hollywood as a wasteland of broken dreams: “the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn upon it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath, and paint.” This was his final work before he died in a car accident in 1940. I got more out of Miss Lonelyhearts, but I’m still glad I read this Wigtown purchase. I have no idea what the title refers to, though it sounds like it might be a biblical reference.
I’m still plugging away at my last few #20BooksofSummer and plan to write them up for the last day, September 3rd.
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading