The Tanners

I’ve dogeared most of this wonderful, sleepy, miraculous book.

  • Simon Tanner – the wanderer, no luggage, tattered clothing, taking up copy clerk positions around his country.
  • Klaus- the respectable older brother, worried about Simon’s lack of a footing in the world.
  • Kaspar – the artist, currently in Paris, a city Walser would never visit but that he dreamed of.
  • Emil – locked in a madhouse. Simon overhears two chaps discussing the sad tale of Emil at a bar one night, declares, “that is my brother!”
  • Hedwig – the teacher who takes Simon in for the summer, they become close, but she tells him to never contact her again once he leaves.

“When he arrived at home, he saw his brother’s letter lying on the table, he read it and then thought to himself: “He’s a good person, but I’m not going to write to him. I don’t know how to describe my circumstances, and they aren’t worth describing anyhow. I’ve no cause for complaint, and just as little reason to jump for joy, but grounds aplenty to keep silent. It’s quite true, the things he writes, but for just that reason I shall be satisfied with the truth – let’s leave it at that. That he is unhappy is something he himself must come to terms with, but I don’t believe he is really so terribly unhappy. Letters often come out sounding that way. Writing a letter, you get carried away and make incautious remarks. In letters, the soul always wishes to do the talking, and generally it makes a fool of itself. So it’s best I don’t write.” (p 47)

“You… cannot even imagine how glorious it is to ramble down country roads. If they’re dusty, then dusty is just how they are, no need to trouble your head about it. Afterwards you find yourself a cozy cool spot at the edge of the forest and as you lie there your eyes enjoy the most splendid view, and your senses repose in the most natural way, and your thoughts wander as taste and pleasure fancy. You’ll no doubt counter that another person can do just the same thing – you yourself, for example, when you’re on vacation. But vacations, what are they? The thought of them makes me laugh. I wish to have nothing to do with vacations. One might even say I hate them. Whatever you do, just don’t set me up with a position involving vacations. This wouldn’t appeal to me at all -in fact I think I’d die if I were given vacations. As far as I’m concerned I wish to do battle with life, fighting until I keel over: I wish to taste neither freedom nor comfort, I hate freedom if it’s hurled at my feet the way you throw a dog a bone. That’s vacation for you.” (p 50)

“I don’t want a future, I want a present. To me this appears of greater value. you have a future only when you have no present, and when you have a present, you forget to even think about the future.” (p 72)

“… in the practice of art all that was required to accomplish something were diligence, a joyful zeal, and the observation of nature…” (p 79)

“And then there were serving men in thin blue smocks with boots on their legs, large bristly mustaches and rather rectangular mouths on their faces. Could they help it if their mouths were rectangular? No doubt many a guest at the Hotel Royal displayed rectangular proclivities in the mustache region. To be sure, the angularity in that case was whitewashed with roundness, but what significance did this have?” (p 91)

“By this I mean only to illustrate the fact that all this lying-about makes you a dunce. No, I’m starting to feel something like pricks of conscience and believe that merely feeling such pricks is not enough: I must undertake something. Running about in the sunshine cannot, in the long term, be viewed as an activity, and only a simpleton sits around reading books, for a simpleton is what you areif all you ever do it read. Labor in the company of others is, in the end, the single thing that educates us.” (p 126)

“Here I am and shall no doubt remain. It’s so sweet to remain. Does nature go abroad? Do trees wander off to procure for themselves greener leaves in other palces so they can come home and flaunt their new splendor? Rivers and clouds are always leaving, but this is a different, more profound sort of leave-taking, without any returning.” (p 273)
“I fly into a rage whenever someone approaches me with the words ‘lifetime position and all the presumptions implied therein. I wish to remain a human being. In a word: I love what is risky, unfathomable, floating, and uncontrolled!” (p 275)

“Religion in my experience is a love of life, a heartfelt attachment to the earth, joy in the present moment, trust in beauty, belief in mankind, a feeling of carefree pleasure during revelries with friends, the desire to ponder and a sense of not being responsible for misfortune, smiling when death arrives and showing courage in every sort of undertaking life has to offer.” (p 282)

“The clock has not yet struck twelve, not for any of us; after all, any person lying on the ground impoverished enjoys the prospect of rising up again. I’ve a hunch that a proud free bearing can itself draw life happiness to a person like an electrical current, and it’s certainly true that you feel richer and more exalted when you walk about with dignity.” (p292)

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Ways of reading

Beautiful advice on reading, reproduced verbatim in case aworkinglibrary ever goes defunct:

  • Always read with a pen in hand. The pen should be used both to mark the text you want to remember and to write from where the text leaves you. Think of the text as the starting point for your own words.
  • Reading and writing are not discrete activities; they occur on a continuum, with reading at one end, writing at the other. The best readers spend their time somewhere in between.
  • Reading must occur everyday, but it is not just any daily reading that will do. The day’s reading must include at minimum a few lines whose principle intent is to be beautiful–words composed as much for the sake of their composition as for the meaning they convey.
  • A good reader reads attentively, not only listening to what the writer says, but also to how she says it. This is how a reader learns to write.
  • If a book bores you, or tells you things you already know, or is not beautiful, do not hesitate to discard it. There are better books awaiting you, just around the bend.
  • Every book alights a path to other books. Follow these paths as far as you can. This is how you build a library.
  • A single book struggles to balance on its spine; it pines for neighbors. Keep as many books as you have room for.
  • Read voraciously, many books at a time. Only then will you hear the conversation taking place among them.
  • The best library contains both books you have read, and books you have not. The latter should grow in proportion as the library expands. A working library is as much a place for the possible as it is a record of the past.

Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays

From telephone poles and lynchings, to Black Dolls and white Barbies, to a mother who gives birth to twins, one white one black, and has to give the black one to its natural parents (mixup at the lab), Bliss’s collection of essays dances around and sometimes strikes directly into the heart of race relations in America, our shameful legacy. She ends with an apology for slavery, because even if she didn’t perpetrate it, her cousin might have. Smart, personal songs from a talented writer, making comparisons between Hurricane Katrina (the focus on looting post-hurricane smacks of racism) and the tornado that ripped apart Iowa City (with looting by college students downplayed). Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frank gaze into the racism on the prairie (“only good Indian is a dead one”, “if you don’t like Indians, why did you move to their country to be surrounded by them?”)

Bicycle Diaries

Famous musician/artist/writer David Byrne travels the world and brings his portable bike along, giving us a travelogue from his handlebars. He tries to do too much with too little. Chapter on San Francisco focuses on the artsy edgy Burning Man-eque crowd and how they spontaneously dance and inject mayhem into situations. Not enough about biking, too much trying to teach us about how the world works. He likes referring to people as “meat puppets” and quotes too many lyrics from songs.

Running Away

Delicious, cool & refreshing book, which is odd, since the scenes in the book are mostly sweaty, dusty, from the cramped and packed streets of Shanghai. A Frenchman finds himself landing in China, swept into the care of Zhang Xiangzhi, a business associate of his French girlfriend Marie. He meets the intriguing Li Qi at a party, offers to accompany her to Beijing, and upon arrival at the train station finds Zhang will be with them. Marie gives her French boyfriend an envelope of cash to give to Zhang, which he then turns into drugs and causes a police chase from the bowling alley they meet up with Li Qi at. Meanwhile, Marie’s father has died and the boyfriend must fly back to Italy for the funeral. Very sparse, clean prose. Quick read, yummy.
Recommended by Green Apple’s book club.

Hopscotch/La Rayuela

I should have broken my cardinal rule a few weeks ago: thou shalt not purchase a copy of a book when you have a library copy of that same book with you in your bag. And alas, this is how it ends that I returned Cortazar’s Hopscotch to the library, intending to buy a copy of it later that day, and came up empty. Should have bought it when I saw it, lesson learned.
Learned about the magical Cortazar from Bolano’s translator, and love it so far. I’m somewhere in the middle of the book, but the way he encourages you to read it, jumping from one section to the next via guideposts at the bottom of each chapter, I have no idea how far along I actually am. Storyline so far is an Argentinian writer (Oliveira) in Paris having an affair with La Maga (from Uruguay), getting drunk in Parisian lofts with other intellectuals. I need to own a copy of this book to continue reading– it is an intimate experience, jumping from one to the next, and I begin to feel weary with a library book’s closeness.

L.A. Noir

It had everything I needed to be a sure-fire success– dark gloomy cover, about noir, about LA. And then the author opened his mouth and began to cobble together bits of information all quoted extensively from other sources. There are 41 pages of notes at the back, to prevent plagiarism charges. Taking other people’s work and rehashing it into a new book isn’t the mark of absolute death, but making it all boring is. Let me see if I can recap this for you to save you the pain of skimming it yourself: Mickey Cohen is the gangster who runs LA in the 1940s, after Bugsy Siegel kicks the bucket. LA cops are intermingled with the underworld, corrupt, taking bribes and payoffs. Various mayors and police chiefs walk on stage, passing over William Parker, who was openly ambitious about wanting to be Chief. Blah blah blah, wiretap here, prostitution bust there, gambling ring raking in enormous profits, Las Vegas taking off, WWII (Parker cleans up the German police force post-war), blah.
I lost faith in this book when the author described the movement someone as “westward, from California to Massachusetts.”
Miraculously recommended by the LA Times as a notable book of the year.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor

How on earth did my mom not drive me straight into the arms of Flannery, seeing that we were both intellectual writerly types in the sparsely populated Catholic South? Perhaps because Flannery was too controversial, too vulgar. As a result of reading Gooch’s bio, I’ll pick up a copy of her short stories and take her for another spin. Why the resurgence of Southern writers in the 50s and 60s? “Because we lost the war.”

Flannery was supposedly deeply influenced by the early death of her father to the disease that would eventually kill her, lupus, “the wolf within.” Her bones deteriorated, along with her kidneys, which stopped working when she was 39, when she slipped into a coma and expired.

Growing up, she was dedicated to writing, not really into the other social acts of people her age, never really having a beau. She determined to live the single life, to write 4 hours a day, eventually getting recommendations to get into the Iowa writing program, and later, the mythical Yaddo, a colony for artists/writers to explore and create and be fed and housed. She lived away from Milledgeville between age 20 and 25 then ends up back in the bird sanctuary after being diagnosed with lupus. Living the remainder of her life with her mother on their dairy farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, she has tense relations between her ultra-correct Southern domineering mother. Flannery orders a pair of peahens (peacocks) which then get the spotlight from visiting media whenever they arrive. Flannery also featured in a Pathe film from the 30s as a young girl, showing off her chicken that was taught to walk backwards.

Nothing Right

Wow. Amazing collection of short stories. I love how Nelson leads you into the action at odd angles, in media res, and then explains some hiccup in the action with enormous backstory. Well written, great detail, perfect depiction of the oddities of life.
Nothing Right – divorced mom helps her teenage son raise a baby he fathers after the baby’s mother shows no interest.
Party of One – a sister meets up with her sister’s lover to plead with him to let her sister break up with him instead of vice versa, because Mona might crumble, she is so delicate.
OBO – grad student falls in love with her professor’s wife, goes home with them for Christmas, stakes out a spot in the enormous house to follow all the action, she makes her move on the woman when her professor leaves for a conference (and to meet his lover, who doesn’t show up).
Falsetto – Michelle goes back to Wyoming to care for her younger brother Ellton after their parents end up in the hospital post-car wreck. Her boyfriend (Do Whop, from “Do What?” that he always says) tags along, and he cooks, cleans, and tries to cheer them. As soon as he enters her childhood home, she knows it is all wrong, that his handsomeness and being into her blinded her from the truth. She sends him away after a few weeks and deals solo with her intuitive brother and her dead parent.
Kansas – pregnant woman cleaning up a mess post-drunken party (she is not hungover, everyone else is), lets her niece take her other daughter to school. The niece runs away with the child, taking her grandmother with her. No one thinks to notice if the grandmother is gone. They have a boring road trip and then come back and sleep on the trampoline.
Biodegradable – A woman indulges in an affair while traveling, finds she is in love with the new boyfriend’s farmhouse, and when he puts it up for sale, leaves him.
DWI – begins with a retelling of a woman feeding her brother his last meal, a weenie cooked in the Easy-Bake oven that he chokes on. Then she finds out her lover has died in a car wreck, and feels that she killed him too, simply by wishing it, because he was leaving her.
Shauntrelle – a woman leaves her husband after having an affair with a young bachelor who has no desire to build a life with her, which she discovers only after she’s broken things off with her husband. Nowhere to live, she moves into a furnished apartment with a roommate, a woman in Houston from New Orleans while her house is being renovated and doing some reconstructions on her body while she’s there. The apartment they move into has a phone where people call for Felicia, the answering machine has a deep throated man named Ray, and one night a woman pounds on the door demanding to see Shauntrelle. In the end, the roommate goes back home, and the woman leaves the furnished apartment headed for who knows where.
Or Else – a man lures women to his “family’s house in Telluride”, but it is really the house of a family he was childhood friends with but never grew out of his love for. He gets a ride to the perfect spot to be hitchhiking to Telluride and passes up several rides until they come along, as he knows they will. His last attempt on the house, they are interrupted by the return of the family early, for a wedding.
We and They – A hippie family adopts two black children and raises them along with their own, in conflict with the Pierce family across the street, the ultra-Catholic & rich Pierces. Otis & Angel, the two children, orphaned when their dad was jailed for killing their mom, which Otis may or may not have witnessed. Otis is welcomed into the family, but Angel perpetually scowls and is unlikeable. Fast forward, Otis is a senior in high school, Angel is 15. The narrator recounts a night when Angel’s only friend, Candy, is invited to dinner. Candy is a 50+ year old woman who lives on the other side of the tracks. Angel is outed as being pregnant with a Pierce son’s child. She then marries and moves into the opulent house across the street.
People People – Martha the morbidly obese sister who leaves her think tank after spilling the secret of the long affair between two of the cohorts, goes to live with her sister Elaine in Houston for weeks, where Elaine’s husband Eddie has his own secrets from Elaine, including the possibility of an affair of his own. Martha spills that Eddie is working on a comedy bit for his stand-up act that talks about Elaine’s breast implants. Elaine stops eating food when Martha is around, her secret project is her own body, pride in how she look in comparison to her brainiac sister.

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