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 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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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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Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli and Me by Patricia Volk

I ended up loving everything about this book, yet when I first pulled it from my library and looked it over, I thought it might go into the give away bag without a reread and blog entry. The gorgeous, heavy and shagreen-pebbled dust jacket, in shocking pink of course, convinced me to at least give it a try. It had been a long time since I read it and didn’t remember it at all. It hooked me immediately.

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For some reason I was hesitant to pick up this book again. I’d read it at least twice before and remembered loving it but didn’t recall too many specifics; it had been a long time. Nothing about the Library of Congress list of themes particularly appealed to me: hermaphroditism, teenagers, Greek Americans, Detroit. One did lightly strike a chord–gender identity–because I’ve recently completed an experimental class on body image and sexualization of females. So I pulled Middlesex off the shelf.

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The first time I read A Gentleman in Moscow was for a real book club. I absolutely adored it on my first read, and I had been very attentive, knowing that I would be discussing it with some very smart women in a few short weeks. I had really enjoyed Amor Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, although it had a somewhat chilly tone, and found A Gentleman in Moscow to be a much warmer and even more satisfying a read. Continue reading “A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles”

Picasso by Norman Mailer

Yo–el Rey. I, the king. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso wrote that three times on a self portrait painted when he was just 19 and about to leave his native Spain for Paris, where he became something more than a king. The funny thing about a grotesquely outsized ego is that very occasionally it is actually representing an equally legendary and outsized talent, intellect, beauty or charismatic personality; the deep flaws of entitlement, narcissism and infidelity such an ego sanctions can be overlooked, even forgiven. Continue reading “Picasso by Norman Mailer”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

It was easy to pull Electric Kool-Aid off the shelf after reading the Grateful Dead biography. Tom Wolfe brilliantly describes Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster scene, of which the Grateful Dead were a major contributor, in this somewhat novelized, novel-length report. Continue reading “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe”

A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally

A few weeks ago I found out that a man I’d lost touch with killed himself last spring. He’d been a magnificent influence on me in the early 1990s. We wrote for the same magazine, but his writing was many leagues beyond my work horse prose. Where he would wax romantic, I would wane maudlin, and he wasn’t afraid to tell me so. But he was kind. One late night in his office cluttered with rock specimens, empty bottles of great wines and hundreds of books, he let me recite “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in its entirety. I was nervous, so he handed me a stress ball to squeeze. That’s a good friend. I’d forgotten his kindness. Continue reading “A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally”

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

As I wrote in my unfinished report about Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God, I encountered Joseph Campbell (who I refer to as “the other JC”) in around 1987 after his death and after he had done the famous Powers of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers. Nothing makes me feel more like a water buffalo in a herd than trending with the rest of America after a PBS special. Continue reading “Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell”