Whole Lotta Hemingway (Part 1)

Ernest Hemingway is one of the few writers I re-read, which is probably the highest compliment I can give a writer. Lately, I’ve read a few things about and by him all in one go, which has made me both more critical and sympathetic to him as a person and writer.

Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 by Paul Hendrickson. Hendrickson chronicles the life of Ernest Hemingway, centering it around his 38-foot boat Pilar which he purchased in the early 1930s and had until his death in 1961. None of Hemingway’s marriages lasted as long as his ownership of the boat. Unfortunately, this book is a jumbled mess. There is a lot of interesting detail about Hemingway and his exploits on the boat in the 1930s off the coast of Cuba and Bimini. But then the author skips most of the 1940s to resume Hemingway’s story with the publication of Across the River and Into the Trees and the damning reviews of the book, and then spends a lot of time talking about Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory (Gigi) Hemingway, and the many troubles he had coming to terms with his gender identity. Then the story returns to how the boat is sitting on the tennis court of Hemingway’s home in Cuba. As a biography, I wasn’t looking for something exhaustive or complete so much as cohesive.
Recommended Only for Serious Ernest Hemingway Fans.

Paris Without End by Gioia Diliberto. Hadley Richardson was Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and was by all accounts is the one he treated with the most respect. Hemingway seemed to regret busting up his first marriage so that he could marry Pauline Pfeiffer, writing so eloquently an idealized account of his life with Hadley in his memoir A Moveable Feast. Diliberto’s exemplary biography of Hadley is rich and fascinating about a woman born in the Victorian Era who marries a man eight years younger, a man she loves and supports, a man who goes on to change American Literature with his prose style. She was no bumbling wall flower, as she has often been portrayed. She was an avid reader, hiker, fisherwoman, and skier. In fact, she was a better skier than her husband Ernest. She was also an accomplished pianist, but had little confidence in her abilities. After the divorce, Hemingway turned over his rights to the royalties from The Sun Also Rises to her. That’s something, eh?
Recommended for Artists and Muses.

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, 1907-1922, Volume 1. “The desire to get to the man behind the work can be sometimes overwhelming. I always go back to the letters.” – Patrick Hemingway in Hemingway’s Boat. Luckily for us, it will now be possible for anyone to go back to all of the letters. Ernest Hemingway’s complete letters will be released one volume at a time. This first volume offers us a look at Hemingway before his literary writing career; a young man who canoed on the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers, spent summers up in Michigan with his family at their cottage, worked his butt off for the Kansas City Star, joined the Red Cross and served in Italy where he was wounded (getting hit with over 200 shell fragments), returned to the United States unsure of what to do, met and married Hadley Richardson, and at the urging of Sherwood Anderson moved to France, where he and Hadley met Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and many others. As they are letters, sometimes the reading can be quite tedious, filled with so many banalities. Also, keep in mind that Hemingway harbored a number of prejudices against Jews and blacks. Hemingway signs off many of his letters as “Stein” or Hemingstein” because he thought it was funny to make his name Jewish. Later he would complain that he was getting “kiked” out of money for expenses incurred for his journalism in Europe by his editor. Ugh.
Recommended Only for Really Serious Ernest Hemingway Fans.



Recent Reads – Post-Holiday Edition

Before and during the Holidays I had some time to read, surprisingly, even considering all the travel we did (driving down to South Carolina to visit my in-laws, including meeting my one year-old nephew for the first time, and over to Chicago to visit my family, including meeting my seven-week-old niece for the first time). It was great and despite all the time in the car, no one was left at the side of road…though my wife and I were tempted at times. I didn’t have any time to write until now. So here goes.

All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling Down House by David Giffels. This Akron, OH journalist and his ever-patient wife Gina buy a decrepit old mansion that is not just in a state of neglect but they find out shortly after taking ownership that it is about to be condemned by the city. Why do they buy it? So they can fix it up and live in their Dream Home. “Fixing it up” entails far more than almost anyone can possibly conceive. More than simply rehabbing it. There’s a raccoon that lives in the attic, plumbing that doesn’t work at all, a garage that is collapsing, old money stashed away, a $1300 natural-gas heating bill for one month, a carpenter ant problem, and so much more. It’s a wonder neither David nor his wife went crazy and had to be medicated or carted off to an institution specializing in mental rehabilitation.

This is the DIY Home Improvement Tale to end all DIY Home Improvement Tales. Recommended for Anyone Who Has Ever Had an Inkling to Restore an Old House.

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James. This novella by James is far less well-known and unfortunately I can see why. All the elements are there: intrigue, European locations, relationships depicted with subtlety, and a hard twist at the end. But this story of a young writer who is in awe of an older writer feels not quite lifeless. It just that it doesn’t simmer the way a good James story does, like say The Turn of the Screw or The Aspern Papers. Recommended only for Fans of Henry James.

The Duel by Giocomo Casanova. Yes, that Casanova. This novella details similar events in Casanova’s life in which the narrator finds himself forced to duel a Polish aristocrat. There is plenty of tension amid the court intrigues and plot twists. The e-book edition from Melville House is loaded with great extras, including commentary on Casanova and short bios of famous duelists. Recommended for Those Who Follow an Anachronistic Style of Honor.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The Sony Reader store had a deal for this best-selling Young Adult trilogy ($18) and I took the plunge partly out of curiosity to see what all the press was about. This high-stakes fast-paced adventure is set in a very grim future where young people battle to the death in a high-tech coliseum (there are MANY parallels to the Roman Empire) at a competition called the “Hunger Games.” Revolution is spawned almost by accident thanks to the actions of 16-year-old expert archer Katniss Everdeen who volunteers in place of her sister to participate in the Hunger Games. Katniss is a serious ass-kicker, tough-minded and honorable despite the moral quandaries she finds herself stuck in. I liked this series. I didn’t love it. The plot is far more compelling than the characters, who are too often flat and perfunctory. But I understand the appeal of Katniss. Warning: she passes out due to injury or some other calamity at key points and then comes to in a hospital gown so frequently it becomes repetitive. Recommended for Young People Who Feel Put Upon.

Freethinkers and Sex

This round of Recent Reads features two books: one where the indispensable role freethinkers in U.S. history is resurrected and one where sex is depicted within the context of relationships in all of its wonderful banality.

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. “God” can’t be put “back” in the U.S. Constitution because “God” has never been in there. Susan Jacoby explains why, and so much more, in this illuminating (and necessary) look at secularism in U.S. history. She touches on a wide range of topics, from the country’s founding to the Feminist movement, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and more recent battles over abortion, stem cell research, and evolution. All involve secularists, be they agnostics, atheists, liberal Christians, or Jews.

If there’s one thing this important book does is to restore the reputation of Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic.” Ingersoll was one of our country’s greatest thinkers and orators. He wrote and said many things, among them,

It is contended by many that ours is a Christian government, founded upon the Bible, and that all who look upon the book as false or foolish are destroying the foundation of our country. The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. Our Constitution was framed, not to declare and uphold the deity of Christ, but the sacredness of humanity. Ours is the first government made by the people and for the people. It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do. And yet there are some judges dishonest and cowardly enough to solemnly decide that this is a Christian country, and that our free institutions are based upon the infamous laws of Jehovah.

Jacoby’s book came to my attention thanks to this article in Bitch magazine about the “Old Boys Club” of unbelievers.

Recommended for U.S. Citizens and Those Curious About this Country’s Philosophical History.

Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello. Frangello’s novel My Sister’s Continent was a book that lingered in my mind long after I had read the last page. It is not an easy book, as it deals unflinchingly with repressed memories, S&M, and the complicated tensions of a dysfunctional family trapped within itself.

With Slut Lullabies, Frangello explores the most discomforting parts of the lives of her characters. Her manner is non-linear but the prose is clear. From a cheating mother to a gay spouse-to-be who is conflicted about his relationship, to a kept woman, to a woman who suffers so much pain in her lower back that “sex is excruciating,” Frangello extends every ounce of human sympathy possible to her characters. The result is a collection of short stories about damaged and flawed people making mostly flawed but occasionally inspired decisions. Her generosity towards these people might make you want to condemn them or hug them, or both.

You’ll laugh, too. Frangello’s writing can shift from the blunt and funny, as in the story “Stalking God,”

Beaming with the authority of a woman with her husband’s checkbook in her handbag and her lover’s semen warm and glowing insider her, Mom says…

to the tragic, as in the story “Waves,”

“I’m leaving,” I promise, and then I feel an explosion, nothing like a kiss, nothing I can turn off, the opposite of my pain but equally fierce. Nothing like numbness, nothing like peace. “I think I’m leaving everything.”

Refreshingly, Frangello includes sex not to be purely titillating or unbelievably transformative, but as part of the collage that makes up her characters’ lives. As in life, sex is used, withheld, bartered, enjoyed, relished, and craved, and many other things.

Recommended for Human Beings.

Reading Roundup for October

While I was offline, I did a lot of reading (like always). I’ll have a few posts up like this in the coming month. Here’s a sample of what I read.

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy. Chalk one up for the “Angry Young Woman.” This viciously funny and deftly crafted novel by the author of the also wonderful The Dud Avocado kept me laughing with a turn of each page. A young woman lands in London in the early 60’s with one particular older Englishman in her sights. Why is she after him? Is Honey Flood her real name? To find out, you’ll have to read the book and follow the plot’s credible twists to its ludicrously touching and funny end. Recommended for Angry Young Women.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. A very different book than The Last Samurai. This satire of corporate culture, especially the language used in sales is funny. Joe comes up with a way to better manage the tensions which sexual harassment creates in the workplace. His unique solution proves compelling and wildly successful, but not without some very funny practical obstacles.

As enjoyable and playful as this fantasy of a novel is, I couldn’t help but think that the opposite would have occurred. If you discretely offered male workers a literal piece of ass whenever they wanted it at the workplace, the intended effect would be just the opposite of what DeWitt proposes. By encouraging and promoting the objectification of women’s bodies (which already occurs enough, just look at any form of advertising anywhere) in such a stark way, that sexual harassment would actually increase.

Full disclosure: I have picked up some Gender Theory here and there while being married to my wife, who happens to be a Gender and Immigration Scholar. Recommended for Corporate Sharks.

Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollock. Writer and unrepentant cynic Pollack gets into yoga. Big time. He details his initial dabbling in yoga at the urging of his wife to trying different kinds of yoga in yoga studios around L.A., to going to Yoga Potlucks, to participating in a yoga conference for an article in Yoga Journal, to attending a retreat in Thailand in order to take classes from a particular guru, and ultimately teaching his own class.

All the while Pollock smokes pot. A more apt title for this book would have been “Stoned Yoga.” Pollack toked up before class in the morning, class in the evening, whenever he could get stoned. He even found a quack doctor in L.A. to prescribe him medical marijuana, thus offering himself up as the poster boy for critics of medical marijuana.

Regardless, “Stoned Yoga” presents one cynic’s journey of self-discovery through yoga. It is funny, entertaining, and rarely dull. (Did you know that Bikram yoga is copyrighted. I didn’t. I mean, really? Like someone could copyright a type of Kung Fu or Karate. ) It’s only when Pollack goes into detail behind the Sanskrit words for the yoga positions during certain scenes that his story gets boring. But then I don’t practice yoga. So maybe those parts would be interesting to people who do practice yoga. Recommended for Cynics and Yoga Practitioners.

Recent Reads for August/September

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything. But my offline life has been busier than ever. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading.

My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands by Chelsea Handler. The stand-up comic and TV show host relates her one-night stands and attempts at one-night stands. Since not every night ended in a successful bout of sex, and the circumstances surrounding the one-night stands are often outrageous, this is a light funny read. Phrases I learned: “vagina elbow” and “vagina face.” Recommended for people with a Bawdy Boozy Sense of Humor.

Saint Monica by Mary Biddinger. There has been a glaring omission in these erratic reading roundups of mine: a lack of poetry. I do love poetry but do not read it as often as I would like to. Saint Monica is a collection of poems taking Saint Monica as their inspiration. They are funny, tender, fearful, jealous, sneaky, angry, and vulnerable. Some of my favorite poems include, “Saint Monica and the Babe,” “Saint Monica’s Sweet Sixteen,” and “Saint Monica and the Hate.”

“Saint Monica Stays the Course” starts off as laugh-out-loud funny but ends in a violent chill. Sister Cathleen is giving the girls whose names begin with the letter M their orders for how they’re to proceed in the May Crowning procession: “If Maeve erupts in her first period like a water balloon tossed on a bed of thumbtacks, keep marching….Magdelena may vomit up her cornflakes once she is seated in the pews. She has done this before. Keep your eyes to yourself.” It gets uncomfortable when this staying the course veers toward the absurd: “If your fiance slams you against a wall and you suffer a concussion upon impact, breaking your glasses, keep marching to the bathroom with a bottle of Windex and a roll of paper towels and make that crooked mirror shine…”

One thing I did not know that I probably should have known as both Catholic-raised and an alcoholic: Saint Monica is the Patron Saint of alcoholics.

Recommended for Catholics, Drunks, Women Who Survive, or a Combination of All Three.

Full disclosure: I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the smart, self-described “starry-eyed poet” Mary Biddinger at the Wayne College Writer’s Workshop last year. You should buy a copy of her book and also pay her a visit over at her blog The Word Cage.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher Mcdougall. My sister-in-law (who by the way takes phenomenal photos at Suna Photography), recommended this book to me awhile back and I only just recently checked a copy out of my local library. I read it to take a break from Proust’s Swan’s Way.

“Shoes are evil” is McDougall’s conclusion after taking a long roundabout journey to answer the question, “Why do my feet hurt?” McDougall is an avid runner who suffered pain in his feet from running. Then he found out about the Tarahumara, a tribe of Indians in Copper Canyon Mexico who are able to run in sandals for tens of miles at a time with seemingly little effort. Years ago, they were even brought over to compete in the Leadville 100 where they won against the U.S.A.’s best ultramarathoners. The “Greatest Race” in the title refers to a race in which McDougall himself participated in Copper Canyon against some of the Tarahumara, ultramarathoners Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, and Billy Bonehead, and the mysterious Caballo Blanco who organized the race.

It’s clear from a lot of the evidence McDougall presents that running barefoot is great for your feet and body. With all the cushioning that’s in most running shoes, you can easily develop bad running form which leads to injuries. So McDougall concludes with the convert’s zeal that running barefoot is the ONLY way to go. Which is weird considering that in the penultimate race, Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, and Billy Bonehead race in…shoes.

What I took from this book: 1) human beings are capable of running distances far longer than marathons, 2) running barefoot is a great way to strengthen the muscles in your feet, 3) running barefoot is an excellent way to ensure good running form. Recommended for Runners and All Other Athletes.

Reading Roundup for July (Just Under the Wire)

It’s been a busy month but here is what I have read.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa. An 18-year-old aspiring writer named Mario works at a radio station in 1950’s Lima, Peru with an eccentric scriptwriter. Mario meets his Aunt Olga’s sister, Julia, who is 13 years his senior and recently divorced. The two begin a surreptitious relationship. At the same time as the love affair is developing, this funny novel is interspersed with the increasingly bizarre stories by the scriptwriter, with characters shifting, dying, and reappearing. Interesting fact: Llosa’s first wife was his maternal uncle’s sister-in-law Julia, who was ten years older than him. Recommended for Aspiring Writers With a Taste for Cougars.

King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Guns by Michael A. Messner. “I still wonder, what does a son get from his father, and how does he get it?” Sociologist Michael Messner recounts the ways he first bonded with his father and grandfather through annual hunting trips and how as a teenager he came to abhor hunting. There are no rants against hunters or gun owners. Only a thoughtful examination of one man’s set of relationships with his father and grandfather, and the implications for his own fatherhood. Recommended for Fathers and Sons.

Full Disclosure: Messner is the husband of my wife’s dissertation chair. I have had the pleasure of his and his family’s company.

The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness by Antonio Damasio. The human mind is complicated. Mind-bogglingly complicated. Damasio writes in a mostly lucid manner about how the brain’s structure for emotion and consciousness. I say mostly lucid because medical terms do come up frequently. This is not a quick read, but it more than satisfied my curiosity about what we humans now know about how our own minds work. Damasio relates a number of interesting cases where damage to certain parts of the brain revealed what it can or can not do without those particular sections. Recommended for Human Brains.

Reading Roundup for Early June

Here’s what I read during the first half of this month.

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a big ambitious work of fictional history that weaves three narratives: the lives of the assassins of Rafael Trujillo and how they came to their task, the last day in Rafael Trujillo’s life as dictator of the Dominican Republic (DR), and the story of Urania Cabral’s return to DR after a 35 year absence. I knew close to nothing about Trujillo and the DR before I read this novel. Trujillo is one of those many SOBs who happened to be “our” (meaning the United States’) SOB. We trained him, helped him, and then eventually his terrifying leadership was so heinous that the CIA assisted in a coup against him. Recommended for People With Strong Stomachs Who Like History.

City of Glass by Paul Auster, adapted by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. This graphic novel is an adaption of Auster’s novel. It’s a detective story unlike any detective story I’ve seen. If I say that it’s one of those where the case is not what it seems and calls into question everything you and the detective think you know, it’s doing it a disservice. It is that, but that’s not because there’s some double-cross or engineered plot twist. The detective’s very hold on reality is questioned. Recommended for People Who Like Very Unusual Detective Stories.

Moving Pictures by Kathryn & Stuart Immonen. The Immonens, wife and husband, have crafted a beautiful, gripping, terse story about the efforts to catalog and hide art in Nazi-occupied Paris. It’s subtlety has befuddled more than a few reviewers. Too bad for them. I found this graphic novel to be a graceful grim account of one woman’s struggle to survive the occupation and the forced “choices” she has to make. Recommended for People Who Like Deceptively Simple Stories.