Archive for September, 2011

Not Anyone’s Bookshelf

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

We’ve all had the experience of someone new in our lives checking out our CD collections (when such things still existed) or what was on our bookshelves, and feeling the need to explain that the John Grisham was a gift and that you weren’t sure how the Hanson Brothers got in there.  But people look because they’re looking for insight and a shelf full of books can provide that.  The ones in rented spaces cannot.  In summer cottages that get let on the weekends, furnished apartments rented for longer terms to transient workers, in the occasional inn, the books on the shelves only tell you the owner couldn’t bring themselves to throw out what was readily discarded by the passing occupants.  The books themselves are a fascinating cross-section of the “people who came before”.  That someone who read The Picador Book of Sports Writing once slept in the same bed as the readers of Last Tango in Toulouse and The Hours.  Presumably not at the same time.  I’m now staying in a place with such a bookshelf and while I would likely have passed by The Best that Man Can Get had it been in bookstore or a library, the fact that it sits there by the bed I now, too, occupy provides it a certain notice.  But I’ll still likely give the sports writing book a pass.

From the Back of Beyond

Monday, September 19th, 2011

I visited the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield the other day – a large (for its day) wooden house in one of the older parts of Wellington, New Zealand.  I don’t know Mansfield’s work.  I once read one of her short stores and it left me indifferent but it was hardly enough to judge her work more generally (plus, I’ve mentioned before how I feel about short stories).  But I have always been impressed that she had the gumption to pull herself from the back of beyond – which Wellington in 1908 definitely was – and establish herself as part of the Bloomsbury group despite of (or perhaps because of) her petty bourgeois background and colonial accent.  At the Mansfield house I learned that she would also take on different personas so that she might, as Virginia Woolf notes, “knock about with prostitutes”.  At one point she complained that she had taken on so many masks that she didn’t know what was real any longer, making me think that she wasn’t so much full of gumption but a little unhinged in her search “to be a writer, a real writer”.  It did, however, also make me far more interested in her work.

Where’s my Delete Key?

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

I recently read Passage to India by E.M. Forster: a terrific book with some lovely imagery, great insight into the inconsistency and vagrancy of the human spirit, and an ability to capture relations in a just a sentence or two.  It is set during the dying days of the British Empire written from the perspective of someone who could not know that the end was nigh but, nonetheless, a fascinating, subconscious sense of it permeates the book.  So despite the fact that the book’s central premise is a young, and seemingly sensible English woman, acting in an extremely silly fashion, I liked it.  But it was also interesting from a perspective that was separate from the book itself: the writing seemed very unedited.  This is not to say that it was filled with typos and errors in sequence, but that there were passages – really, namely the end – that just went on and on.  I felt like I had finished reading it a good 30 pages before it was really over.  Of course, there are modern books that are similarly flawed and there are personal tastes in such matters, but it did make me wonder if the book would have looked the same if Forster had had the book on a computer with the delete readily at hand.  In some ways that would have been a shame.