Los Angeles Times
Books to conquer — and the ones that got away.
Ilove the classic mysteries of California. I’m always telling people to read Walter Mosley, Don Winslow and Ross Macdonald. So how come until last month, I’d never even opened a James M. Cain novel?
I’d looked at “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” but the cover, with the halfnaked blonde, made Cain seem cheesy, Hollywood and probably filled with the worst cliches. And “Mildred Pierce” — the name sounded as dull and Midwestern as a someone else’s great aunt.
Then Michael Tolkin, making a guest appearance in the class I teach, looked at me like I was crazy when I said I hadn’t read Cain. “ ‘Mildred Pierce,’” he said, “is one of the best American novels. Period.”
So I walked directly to the library and checked out a Vintage paperback, noir-ish cover. I read the first pages sitting on the cement steps outside and could barely put the book down to drive home.
I read it the next morning on a plane to Boston, at 6 a.m., riveted by the Glendale “grass widow,” alone in a suburban tract house because her husband went bust in the Depression, riveted by how familiar it was. The economy ruins Bert Pierce, and Mildred makes pies.
Iwas electrified by a book I never planned to read. In Boston, in a small room with windows white from ice and glittering snow, I read until 2 a.m. with a child’s exhilaration. All I thought of was Hollywood diners, Pasadena swells, decaying mansions, a brutal winter storm exactly like the ones we had this year, and Mildred’s insecurities.
She gets picked up at her waitress job by a rich guy who drives her to Lake Arrowhead, and all she can think of is that her hair smells like bacon grease. She hides soap, dives casually into the lake and scrubs her hair while holding her breath.
How could Cain, a man from the East Coast, know California, and women, like that? How could I have let that other cover steer me away? Must have been a blonde thing.
Susan Straight’s latest novel is “Take One Candle Light a Room.”
Last week at my bookshop/ library, I lent out a copy of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” to a neighborhood kid. I congratulated him on his choice. But what do I know? I’ve never read the blessed thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I revere Joyce. Love “Dubliners”; wrote a piece or two years back about “Ulysses” (which may be how I wound up moderating a Times Festival of Books panel on “The Experimental Epic” Saturday morning). I even love the first four pages of “Finnegans Wake,” and cherish my rain check for the rest. But somehow I just never got around to “Portrait,” and it feels weirdly liberating here to confess it in public.
There are certain works that folks are perfectly entitled to feel mortified about skipping, such as “Huckleberry Finn” or “Othello” or, for Californians, “The Big Sleep” or “Vineland.” But I’ve lived quite comfortably with the shame of putting off “Portrait” — until now. It so happens I’m actually co-organizing the North American James Joyce Conference and Literary Festival in June. Might be a good idea to dip into “Portrait” before then, don’t you think?
This brings up the single greatest impediment to deferredpleasure reading: no deadlines. In school, or for reviewing purposes, books usually come with defined dropdeads. Get the thing read by Friday, or else.
Pleasure reading is different. A book without a deadline can cast reproachful looks at you from the shelf for years. Library due dates light a feeble fire under some of us, but lenient renewal policies and smallish fines generally add more guilt than urgency.
Luckily, technology may have the answer: expiration dates. Publishers are already inflicting them on libraries for e-books. How much harder could it be to impose a readby
date on individual purchasers too? Reading should be a cherished method of procrastination, not a casualty of it.
By the way, when that kid brings back “Portrait” next month, I’m thinking it’s time for me to curl up with it at last. Once that’s out of the way, I can finally face my fellow Joyceans in June with head held high.
Unless, alas, one of them compares it to “Othello.” Shhh.
David Kipen, founder of Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights, is the author of introductions to the newly reissued WPA guides to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Erin Aubry Kaplan
Harold Cruse’s “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” was one of those manifestos that I knew I should read. If you were black, conscious, came of age after 1967, had any kind of public platform and, of course, were middle class, the famously dense analyses of “Crisis” were a must.
But I got lazy. It seemed to be enough that I was familiar with the title, with its implicit critique of the black bourgeoisie. I could bring Cruse up at cocktail parties and press conferences and impress, even intimidate, people. Of course I was committing just the sort of sin of intellectual and racial shallowness that Cruse warned against in his book, settling for the appearance of knowing rather than actually knowing. I did have real curiosity, but I didn’t follow through on it. Not a great thing for a journalist to admit.
But I also believe now that I needed to mature before I read the book. A couple of months ago, sitting in a restaurant on Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park, a thought came into my head: I need to buy “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” It wasn’t a revelation or an epiphany. It was nothing cosmic. But it was
very clear to me that it was
So after I was done eating, I walked down the block to Eso Won Books, bought the book (it was the store’s last copy) and started reading that night. Needless to say, Cruse’s passion and insights about the state of black folks in America in the ’60s grabbed me by the throat in 2011; the fact it all resonates so loudly right now is both relieving and alarming. I’m not finished, but getting started was the event. Erin Aubry Kaplan’s collected essays will be published in October.
When I sat down with “Moby-Dick” a few months ago, I was under the impression that I had read it before, in college. Of course I’d read the book about which my professor lectured for two weeks, wearing a necktie decorated with spouting whales. I was rather self-satisfied about it. Smug, even. What a good book it was, though daunting, I seemed to recall. Now, I was ready to refresh my memory.
But by Page 10, I knew I’d never read “Moby-Dick.” The novel — if you can call such an idiosyncratic book by any generic name — hit me like a storm out of nowhere. It contained a wild deluge of thoughts and ideas and sempiternal images. I fell down into its pit and was shaken to — to what? My bones? My very soul? Yeah, that’s it, my soul.
Sometimes, it read like Shakespeare, sometimes Joyce, sometimes the King James Bible (Parts I and II). It was ancient and modern at the same time, a mad ride piloted by a madman (and I don’t mean Ahab but Herman Melville), during which I felt the rocking of the ship, watched the rope and the harpoons rip through the air, heard Ahab’s ivory peg leg on the deck and smelled the boiling blubber.
But it was the narrator’s shocking imagery and changeable voice, harsh then mellifluous, dazzled and dazzling, angry and gentle, learned yet curious, that I loved and admired. That, and the forgivingly short chapters, so many of which end with a richly deserved exclamation point!
I realized later that I thought I’d read “Moby-Dick” because, one, I remembered my professor’s tie, and two, bits of the book have seeped into the popular culture. Most people think they know Ahab: an obsessive nut. They might compare a guy looking for the right spare part for his car to Ahab (how wrong they would be!). They knowMoby Dick too: He’s a big whale. There’s a guy called Ishmael.
That’s what I knew too, but now I know all about whaling and also about everything in the world, because that’s really the subject of “Moby-Dick.” Among other things.
Amy Wilentz is at work on a book about Haiti after the earthquake.
I’ve never been moved by Saul Bellow — especially not by his 1953 picaresque “The Adventures of Augie March.” I know, I know — it’s one of the great American novels of the 20th century, but I just can’t seem to pierce it, can’t escape the sense that it’s a book written with the head and not the heart. That’s my Bellow problem in a nutshell; other than “Seize the Day,” an incandescent candle of a novel, I’ve never felt a fire in him, an urgency that makes me turn the page.
With “Augie March,” however, it’s particularly frustrating, not least because it starts so well. The opening lines are, admittedly, a revelation: “I am an American, Chicago born,” the book begins, a groundbreaking statement for a mid-century Jewish writer, with its promise that the immigrant experience no longer need define us, that we have defiantly, definitely arrived.
What happens afterward? I’d like to tell you, but I’ve never been able to stick with the novel long enough to find out. Each time I try to read it — and over the years I have tried three, four, five times — I get bogged down in the setup, in Augie’s endless, rambling monologue, all those words going nowhere, cluttering up the page. He’s dull, that’s my problem, and there’s something about him that I don’t quite believe.
The last time I picked up the book, I bailed out after the second chapter, unable to find a point of entry, to immerse myself in Augie’s life.
And yet, I still eye “Augie March” periodically, wonder if I’m missing out. It sits on a shelf in my living room along with the rest of Bellow, flashing its cold eyes at me, making me feel a little guilty, as if I am, in part, to blame.
Will I ever try to read it again? So many people I respect think so highly of it that I feel as if I should. The truth, though, is that I don’t want to; great or not, this book is not for me.
David L. Ulin is book critic of