For me, September was a tough month filled with medical research, hours on the phone dealing various other personal and financial concerns, not to mention a troubling reaction to a vaccination I got on the first day of October, and frustrated preoccupation with the obstruction causing the federal government’s shut-down. So I did not do as much writing, or as much focused thinking on literary matters, as I would have liked, but I did do a bit of reading, and have some passing thoughts on what I read:
*****I have been reading, contemporaneously, Showing My Colors, by Clarence Page; Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin; and a Dover Thrift Edition of selections from the writings of Frederick Douglass, with an introduction about his life by Philip S. Foner. My impressions:
Granted, Clarence Page, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune and often a guest pundit on MS-NBC news shows, is the product of a different time and different circumstances from that of either Baldwin or Douglass, and his essays are, perhaps, attempting something different from their works. (Page might justifiably protest that he is a journalist while they were, essentially, advocates.) Nevertheless, since all three address some of the same subjects, I can’t help making the comparison and feeling that his book pales next to their works. Page’s essays suffer from what ails many modern pundits: too great an effort to sound erudite–to lean on conventional sociology, and to quote other experts, while pretending to say something original–and too little inclination to take a position on what they address. It makes such works, in the end, rather wishy-washy endeavors that use many words to tell us not much.
Baldwin, and Douglass, on the other hand–while also themselves products of very different times and circumstances–write directly and powerfully. They take my breath away (particularly, Frederick Douglass), and once I pick them up, I cannot put them down. They were true original thinkers.
*****I read a bit of Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors, and though I was not expecting great depth, I was hoping for an enjoyable escape. I was not impressed. It’s the first Christie book I’ve ever picked up, so perhaps I needed to try an earlier work. Maybe her writing got more pro forma after the upteenth book she wrote. It happens. Perhaps the National Public Television rendition of They Do It with Mirrors prepared me to expect better, but I found the writing and the characters quite thin, even for a cozy.
*****I also read a number of stories in The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, and I’ve got to say, I think her work has been highly underrated. Her stories combine the cynicism of a Saki with the whimsical turns of a Hitchcock. And, in this very thick book, the stories run the gamut from mystery to domestic to science fiction to ghost stories of a sort. I particularly liked the short-short “The Female Novelist,” which takes a poke at fiction writers who are essentially self-absorbed persons writing masked autobiography. On the second page, the female novelist complains about her novel’s rejection, saying “I know my story is important!” Her husband refers to mice he has seen in the bathroom and responds: “So is the life of the mouse here, to him.” What has that to do with anything, the wife asks, and he responds: “…mice are concerned with a more important subject–food. Not whether your ex-husband was unfaithful to you, or whether you suffered from it, even in a setting as beautiful as Capri or Rapallo…” As I am sometimes fond of saying, a story about a love affair ending shouldn’t be about “my boyfriend left me,” but about the nature of love. There needs to be a connection of the particular to the universal.
******Finally, I read Pat Barker’s novel, Blow the House Down, and for gritty toughness, I’ll only say: “Take that, V.S. Naipaul, when you say women’s writing is unequal to you because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.” I’ll match her toughness against yours any day. Nyah. (You must picture me sticking my tongue out. And if you don’t know why I’m bringing Mr. Naipaul into this, see my post from July 2013.)