The booksellers of America do a high percentage of their business in the six weeks leading up to Christmas. In the six weeks since, avoiding miserable weather, I have been working my way through a stack of Christmas gifts and other new and old volumes. Here’s a few I’d recommend.
Alice Munro. When the Canadian grande dame won the Nobel literature prize, I asked my literate neighbor if she had read her. Neither of us could recall more than a couple short stories, though her name is a synonym for quality. For Christmas my neighbor, recalling this conversation, kindly gave me a Munro collection as a gift which has allowed me to come to appreciate the elegant prose of a writer who has made literature of the lives of people from the small Ontario towns where she has spent most of her life.
I was interested to learn that she had been inspired when starting out by the example of another small town girl, Eudora Welty, who also found gold to mine in a supposed backwater. Munro’s stories, most of them long short stories, concern arid marriages, a man coping with his wife’s worsening dementia, women baffled by how the road from a hopeful past had managed to bring them to a constricted present, lost love, aging. In short, the human condition closely observed and grounded in a tangible place. An impressive feat she makes look easy.
“Manet Paints Monet: A Summer in Argenteuil“ by Willibald Sauerlander. This is a brief monograph by a respected art historian extended to 68 pages by copious illustrations. It occasionally descends to professional jargon, but for the most part narrates clearly and economically an interesting moment in cultural history, the summer of 1874.
The slightly older Manet, more academically trained and more a man of the city and the studio, spent s summer with the Monet family in a village on the Seine. There Monet, one of the leading exponents of the rising movement that became impressionism, was painting in plein air, even going so far as to rig a small boat for use as a floating studio. Manet’s intimate exposure to a man he called “the Raphael of water” changed his style forever, if not his preferred subject matter. The illustrations document the process with each man’s paintings of the other and of their shared summer home capturing a time that has been called the Indian Summer of western civilization.
“They Were Deceived” is novel by Rose Macaulay whose work I have been slowly but surely working my way through.This dates from 1934 and is her only historical novel. It is set in the early 1640s, at the moment when the antagonism between a roundhead Cromwellian Parliament and the Cavalier Court of Charles I was about to plunge the country into civil war.
The cast includes a number of poets including John Cleveland, Milton, Marvell and especially the country parson Robert Herrick whose Church of England was being whipsawed by the sectarian strife between the autocratic Archbishop Laud and his dissenting foes — Puritans, Presbyterians and others. The cast also includes politically conniving Cambridge dons, a freethinking physician and his scholarly daughter who is the books tragic heroine, too educated for her era and for her own good.
“Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love” by James Booth is a corrective to an earlier unflattering, much criticized biography of the great poet whose darkness and wit is captured in his remark that “deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth.”
The book is essentially a close reading of the poetry and prose of Larkin interlarded with the biographical events that illuminate it, and it actually is continually illuminating showing that Larkin’s often sublime art originated as Yeats famously said in the “rage and bone shop of the heart.” It also usefully demonstrates some of Larkin’s debts to predecessors, especially Hardy.
“Sinatra: The Song is You” by Will Friedwald is a similar work to that about Larkin. Though it traces the singer’s life chronologically, it is almost exclusively a musical biography that provides copious details for every recording session including who arranged the songs, conducted, played on them. It is a backstage look at the creation of some of the most memorable popular music of the last century.
I have also been dabbling in “A Population History of The United States” by Herbert S. Klein, which is the sort of thing an interest in genealogy forces one to learn about. It now joins other essentially volumes on the genealogy shelf including “American Colonies” by Alan Taylor, “Coming to America” by Roger Daniels, and “Albion’s Seed” by David Hackett Fischer.
Finally, I’m reviewing for my old employer two novels. One is by a favorite of mine, the very funny Frederick Barthelme. “There Must Be Some Mistake,” is a a droll dissection of our ramshackle era set on the Texas Gulf Coast. The other is the second medieval mystery by a UVA professor, Bruce Holsinger, “The Invention of Fire.” It is his conceit to have the poetic contemporary of Chaucer, John Gower, earn his daily bread by knowing who’s who and what’s what around the Court of Richard II, and occasionally solving a crime.
When the review are published in the Virginian-Pilot, I’ll try to remember to give you a heads up. In the meantime, it’s back to the still teetering stack of unread books awaiting me. What luxury, unread books to read.