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Introduction

Resolved: no more brown amazon boxes until I read through (and weed) my own library.

I’ve gotten a little more apprehensive each time an amazon package arrives with a new book. It’s far too frequent, unfortunately, for me to keep up with the influx. Beginning July 19, 2017, I resolve to not order another book until I read through and digest all the books I already own. That is, approximately, 685 books, those on my library shelves that for some reason have been deemed worthy to sit in my permanent collection, and 20-40 other stragglers–new, as yet unopened books and a few oldies that have migrated to a potential give away pile. Continue reading “Introduction”

In Our Time, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Byline by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, is a collection of stories and vignettes. I really enjoyed the stories, and the vignettes are thought-provoking, visceral and vivid but I don’t understand how they are supposed to work together. There are a few scenes from a war, a few from bullfights and one about the hanging of a convict. They seem to have little to do with each other, but they are short and never drag. One of the very great things about Hemingway is brevity. He is concise and economical yet vivid and original. It is very difficult to write vividly and originally and yet keep it brief. I’m thinking about the razor-sharp writers I admire–Dorothy Parker, James Baldwin–their observations were keen, quick and so originally phrased.

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The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve been through peaks and valleys with my admiration for Hemingway. Fact is, when I read about him I like him less but when I read his actual writing, I admire him enormously again. He left all these astonishing books–so what if he, like his compatriot Picasso, wasn’t faithful. To take a Tom Robbins quote about the rich and apply it to geniuses: “A lot of geniuses are assholes, but a lot of idiots are assholes too and at least a genius can contribute something great to the world.”

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The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

From Gravity’s Rainbow to elevated chick lit! It’s astounding how enjoyable the ride of a good, straightforward novel can be after a Pynchian or Joycean brain wreck. It’s like going from a groaning board of beautifully prepared pigs feet and sweet breads served with absinthe and laudanum in a darkened hall to a simple morning repast of a scone and coffee in the sunlit corner of a cozy kitchen. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain is smart historical fiction about one of the historical figures I’m most fascinated by, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway.

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Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

Go into any person’s house who has a liberal education and you will probably find a copy of Jung’s Man and His Symbols. I found my nice, hardbound edition in a used bookstore in San Francisco; I think it was in the Mission district, or the Castro, on the way home from an Ntozake Shange reading (I also found a book of hers there). I have flipped through MAHS many times but never read it. As I am working on a book that has to do with Jungian psychology, I am finally cracking it for real–for the words, not just the pictures.

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Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

In 1991 I was hanging out occasionally with a wine magazine editor who lived in New York and would visit San Francisco once a month to make forays into wine country for tastings and interviews with winemakers. He had graduated from Princeton and was a real east coast snob, but when I was young many of my self-improvement activities were attempts to win the approval of various snobs and iconoclasts, or at least get them to have sex with me. The editor had written his thesis on Pynchon, so in order to prove to him that I was not the California air head I thought he thought I was, I devoured Pynchon’s V, then slogged through Gravity’s Rainbow.

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The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Gardening has become my new favorite hobby. I’ve had a lot of resistance to gardening, but on an acre and a half in the country, especially with the added threat of wildfires nearly year round, I’ve had to pay more attention to my landsaping than ever and have finally, after a ton of work, relaxed into it and started to enjoy it. As Pollan discusses in Second Nature, his first of many excellent books relating to plants, a dislike of gardening is usually rooted in childhood experiences.

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Warlock by Jim Harrison

One of the first Jim Harrison books I ever read was Warlock and I remember loving it. In the fall of 1993 I went to Bordeaux as an ignorant young wine writer for Wine & Spirits magazine and had dinner at a modest chateau in one of the more modest appellations of the region–Cotes de Bourg or Cotes de Castillon or something like that. I learned two things at that dinner that I have never forgotten. One was that butter leaf lettuce drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt makes a delicious, wine friendly (no vinegar) salad. The other was an introduction to the existence of Jim Harrison, an American writer almost more highly regarded in France than in his home country. “You Americans,” the host Denis Dubourdieu fairly sneered, “You don’t even know your best writers!”

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Although I remembered One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of my all-time favorite novels, when I reread it for The Selfish Book Club I found it very frustrating. If you’ve kept up with this blog, you’ll remember that I’m a survivor of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. I climbed out of that black pit of depression only to confront horrendous wildfires in 2017 and 2018. The pandemic, of course, struck in 2020 along with another huge wildfire that got within a quarter mile of my house. Now, in 2022, Russia has invaded Ukraine and all my childhood Cold War fears are coming up (although not as strongly as you’d think, since I’m so used to bad news by now that I’m not taking as hard as I might be). Considering all of that, the magical realism and Circle Game of Jose Arcadio’s, Aureliano’s, Remedio’s, Ursula’s and Amaranta’s didn’t delight me as they once had. My reality was too hyper-real and bleak to allow stories about flying carpets, alchemy and women who smell like smoke to hold my attention. My fearful and impatient mood made it feel a little like going from an in-depth seminar on black and white Bergman films to watching an episode of Friends.

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 was hyped as Haruki Murakami’s magnum opus before its American release in 2011 and I remember being as intrigued by its description as I had been about Donna Tartt’s equally hyped The Secret History many years earlier. Even though I rushed to buy a copy, my cherished hardback with its amazing translucent dust jacket is a somehow disappointing Third Printing.

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When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is one of those writers that has me laughing out loud while I’m reading, even in public places. In fact, I recommend not taking a drink of anything while reading Sedaris lest you end up spitting, choking or having liquid come out your nose. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud behind my anti-virus mask when I was tucked into a comfy chair at the BMW dealership, waiting for my i3 to have its oil changed and I think I made the other people in the waiting area uncomfortable.

Not every essay in When You Are Engulfed in Flames made me laugh out loud and some didn’t even make me chuckle silently. Sedaris can be perverse, gross and even mean, and sometimes his subject matter doesn’t appeal to me. However, since I’ve read that he is an avid roadside litter collector–something I would like to be more avid about, especially since I often find cash while I’m picking up trash–I give him the benefit of the doubt.

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