Saturday, August 27, 2005

Louise Welsh and Marilynn Robinson

Summer Reading List

Summer slows down. As I look forward to cooler crisper weather I also get my reading list ready. I'm one of those old-fashioned chicks -- a red apple, a glass of wine, a good book, a pug in my lap. (Pug? They slip into just about any activity around here. Get used to it.) When the leaves start their slow burn into hickory gold and sassafras red, it's time to pull out a few books, relax in a lawn chair, and enjoy the glorious absence of mosquitoes.

What I read over the summer was pretty good. I found some "writers for writers" -- the kind of writing that subtly but insistently pulls you to read the same paragraph over and over, enjoying the textures of it and wondering how the heck the author pulled that off. For readers who are not themselves writers, this kind of book is simple and pure pleasure, but for those of us who are fascinated by writing itself this kind of book is passion incarnate, a wicked and private delight.

At the top of my summer list were two books by Scottish author Louise Welsh. I'd only intended to read one book, but it was so good I had to go back for more. I read The Cutting Room first, directed to it by a strong review in The New York Times Book Review. It's a gripping book with an unsavory character who is impossible, finally, to dislike. Rilke is an auctioneer in Glasgow, a city with fascinating dark undersides that match the character. Rilke is gay, a lonely loner, and a little amoral about life in general. All those characteristics are portrayed in compelling, beautifully written, and humanly frightening detail. He falls into am auction job that involves clearing out an estate, and in going through the personal items he finds an object of questionable moral history involving a woman who may or may not have died in an act of sadomasochism masquerading as art. Rilke's amoral and outsider personality has a vulnerable and large heart at its center that leaves chinks in his outward coolness toward life -- and the bit of compassion he feels on his discovery leads him on a mystery and a self-discovery that propels the book forward.

The Cutting Room left me a little chilled around my own darker edges (and if you think you don't have any, you will be disabused of that notion by the end of the book as you, along with Rilke, discover chinks in your personal armor). But Welsh is very much a writer's writer, and even when her character is someone you'd rather not be in a room with, her prose is always the kind you'd want to bring home for dinner and an introduction to your parents.

I was hooked. Next I picked up Tamburlaine Must Die, Welsh's most recent book. It is slim, and although that usually infers a quick read, I was again so fascinated with the prose that I found myself reading paragraphs and pages over and over. The book is fiction but is so knowledgeable about the historical facts and ellipses its plot is based on that you will learn some very good solid history from it. It's about Chrisopher Marlowe (the author of the play Tamburlaine), the brightest literary star of Elizabethan England, and his still mysterious and unsolved death.

The book begins with Marlowe's recording of his last few and (unknown to him) what will be his last days. He begins: "I have four candles and one evening in which to write this account." How deliciously good even from the outset -- already I can sense his character, the time, the emotional timbre of the unknown situation. No wonder the book is slim -- who needs a huge number of pages when every sentence is pared down to a gorgeous and revealing essence? Do yourself a favor: return to 1593 and read this book.

Louise Welsh's The Cutting Room was her first published novel. She cut her teeth on short stories before that, and cut them well. Tamburlaine Must Die is her second novel, and the world will be graced if she has many more to follow.

Another author on my summer reading list was Marilynn Robinson. Again, I read one book and was compelled on to a second. Gilead: A Novel is Robinson's most recent and was my first read; from there I back-tracked to Housekeeping. Gilead is in the voice of a preacher, John Ames, who lives in Iowa -- he's old, knows he's near death, and wants to write down some thoughts to leave to his young son who's only seven. He addresses the entire book to his son, with clarity and spareness and restraint. In explaining why he's writing the book, he says "It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this -- it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then -- I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things." Ames wanders on, as an old man writing this sort of account would, and talks about his own past, how he met his son's mother, the personal history of the town they are in and the larger history it touches, through Ames's own father and grandfather, going back to the Civil War. As the curtain is pulled back, Ames also reflects on the sermons he has written -- tell me this isn't a little about any author's own natural anxiety regarding the future of their work! -- and some brief and startlingly simple glimpses of what it means to believe in God, day by day. The insights are beautiful, honest, and sharp as glass.

I'm reading Housekeeping now. This is another brief book that appears as if it ought to go quickly. But the writing is meditative, the voice of a child exploring her place in the world, her solid or not-solid presence in a life that removed her mother, left her with relatives incapable of holding anything tightly, and then again with an aunt who always, no matter how long she stays in the role of parent, has the personality and habits of a transient. The prose is hypnotic, and so compelling and tangible in describing the aftermath of a flood in the town that I will never look at water the same old way. There are pages that I've read and re-read. I might never finish this book. . .

Louise Welsh, bio and author information:

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Midwest poets, arise!

Not that Ted Kooser really needs my help in defending his poetry, but why would the New York Times Book Review ask Brad Leithauser, who tends trippingly toward New Formalism and academia and also Poetry as Fun, to review Ted Kooser? Go figure. Isn't the realm of poetry broad enough yet to make room for something that can survive outside the east- or west-coast belly-button-gazing high-stakes (drumroll please) poetry towers?

It's not the first time Kooser's been smacked by a big-city snit at the NYTimes, but this is getting old. Not just Kooser, but non-coast poetry in general. I remember my first trek to the coasts -- 30 years ago, a venture to Massachusetts and what I hoped would be a society of poets. Well, not quite. A New York poet asked me where I came from and when I replied "Illinois" there was a blank stare. "Midwest," I then said, going up the ladders of abstraction to clarify. Ah, that did it. . . she looked at me in pity and tried to start a conversation about how there weren't, really, were there? any poets of significance from the Midwest -- but that's ok, I had lots of time to catch up. . .

Lots of us have run into this attitude. Poor Kooser. It probably means nobody will read his poems, or publish him, and if they do, he'll be the only one from the Midwest who really "made it." The rest of us poor flatlanders. . .

Are we to believe Marianne Moore wouldn't have written anything worthwhile if she hadn't left Missouri? Robert Bly is just a fluke. Gwendolyn Brooks hailed from Chicago, and cities that big can be excused from being midwestern. On the contrary, St. Louis, a pebble's toss across the river from my own midwest location, is home to a few MFA programs and a list of highly respected poetry mags: Boulevard, River Styx, Margie, Natural Bridge. It has a history of literature and poetry behind that, entertainingly memorialized as the ground we all (literally) walk on, the The St. Louis Walk of Fame.