All That Is

Perhaps the last word of this title was edited out, “Disappointing”. I was caught up in the masterly writing of Salter from the start, but became jaded by the twists and turns his characters took. Various grand love affairs consume the aging but still handsome Bowman, divorced early and burned by a conniving woman who took the farmhouse he purchased for them. It was a bit too obvious that something was going to happen to the mom and son in the train when Eddins packs them away into the car and waves goodbye. I was especially displeased by the eye-rolling need for Bowman’s character to whisk the daughter of the conniving girlfriend away to Paris, only to leave her a note in the hotel room and smirk about how her mother would take it. But the ending was the weakest part: he realizes that he needs to hide his shriveled old man legs beneath pants so the new girlfriend won’t see, and proposes a trip to Venice in November. He doesn’t even like this new girlfriend, but we see him churning on, always in need of a companion. (Poor review of this book due mostly to the fact I finished it a week ago and tried to purge it from memory)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

I’ve avoided Didion for most of my life, but had this book thrust upon me by the Biblioracle. Most of the stories are from other publications, published in the late 1960s. Didion sneers at her victims, too good for them, clinically and dry-panning exactly how they are freaks but not in a welcoming way. Writing about the Communists and hippies in San Francisco, you get the sense that she is an automaton, simply recording facts, passing judgement, not living. And oh, her precious essay about leaving New York after eight years, after being too exhausted, simply, to go on. Into the warm welcoming arms of jasmine-scented Los Angeles. Blech. California’s native daughter is not the best writer it’s produced, and Didion is full of a pretentiousness even in her late twenties that I can only assume grows greater with age.

Watership Down

The grand finale of my week of children’s books was to tackle this beast, run along the tunnels in its warren, nibble at its delicious bits in the sunshine, bravely fight off marauders. What a delight! I stayed up into the wee hours finishing the tale of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig and the rest of the rabbits who escape from their home warren to venture toward safer ground. Fiver’s mystical visions send them on their way, and the normally skittish rabbits become adept at overland travel, outrunning terrors like dogs, foxes, man along the way. Sprinkled with stories told of the olden days while they huddle together in their great hall, they create several adventure stories of their own as they scrape and pull themselves into a new warren. Safe, they find that they’ve neglected to bring any does along, thus won’t be able to maintain the population. (I would like to see this book re-written from a female rabbit’s perspective– could be very entertaining and instructive) Hazel befriends a mouse, a bird, anything that could help them. A small party ventures to a nearby warren to ask for a party of does to return with them. This is where they encounter hell, or Efrafa. The rabbits are only allowed topside twice a day, in shifts, and must loll about underground most of the time. Harsh discipline is imposed. The party escapes from Efrafa and straggles home, to find that Hazel’s exploits to a neighboring farm have netted two tame does. A larger excursion to Efrafa for does is planned, with secret plans to infiltrate the elite police squad and have the bird help them flee. They slip into a boat and float away from danger, but the Efrafa elite track them down and attack the home warren. Fiver races to free the dog on the farm nearby, which then gobbles up the leader, General Woundwort. And happily ever after, etc.

Cotton Tenants: Three Families

Agee went on assignment for Fortune magazine in 1936 to write this 30,000 word essay, taking his pal Walker Evans along for the months-long investigation. Fortune shelved his piece, and it remained unpublished until the Baffler took up the cause after the manuscript showed up a few years ago. This was the starter piece that ended up as his famous Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans’ photos show the stark reality of sharecropping in Alabama in the 1930s: bare walls, broken down furniture, frayed frocks. Agee handles the families with delicacy, describing their meals, their sleeping arrangements, their clothing, their education, with respect but also incredulity. He catalogues their silences, the children’s oversexed energy, the flour sacks turned into clothing, the necessity of rationing food throughout the year. After detailing the food the families ate, Agee writes:

The human organism, however, is remarkably tenacious of life, and miraculously adapted to it. In the course of adapting, it may be forced to sacrifice a few side-issues, such as the capability of thinking, of feeling emotion, or of discerning any possibilities of joy or goodness in living: but it lives.

My Side of the Mountain

In the thick of children’s adventure stories, I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Sam Gribley sets out from NYC to run away from home and inhabit his great-grandfather’s land in the Catskills. His dad thinks he’ll be back the next day, but Sam lasts a year in the wilderness, skinning deer hide for a door to his hollowed out tree home, making fur clothes to keep him warm in the midst of snowstorm and ice storms. He scoops a baby falcon from her nest and trains it to hunt rabbit and other game. Deeply knowledgeable about survival in the forest, Sam knows which plants to eat (or to watch what the other animals are eating), how to make salt from hickory bark, how to preserve meat through winter, how to make a chimney in his tree home, a needle to sew his clothes, forks, etc. Sam also enlists a bit of help from the librarian in town (the librarian a common figure in kids’ books– the backstage hero urging them on with information and books), who also gives him a haircut when he straggles back for more information after a few months in the wild. Great detailed survival skills, a DIY book for the intrepid traveller. Good for all ages!

Summer of the Monkeys

Dipping into some recommended favorite children’s books this week, I pounced on Summer of the Monkeys, an easy read about a family on a farm in the 1800s where Jay Berry wants a pony and a .22 gun more than anything else in the world. He stumbles onto a cache of monkeys escaped from a circus train derailment, finds they are worth $2 apiece or $100 for the chimpanzee. With help from his esteemed grandpa, he sets traps which are foiled by the chimp. Jimbo the chimp steals Jay’s “britches” and gets him drunk on sourmash at a local still in the woods. Eventually a big storm blows in which terrifies the domesticated monkeys and they’re led docilely back to the farmhouse. Jay’s twin sister Daisy has a crippled leg and after much deliberation, Jay gives his monkey money to help her get an operation. He ends up with his own reward at the end. Sweet, slightly cloyingly so, but enjoyable if you’re a young-un. Written by the author of Where the Red Fern Grows. Yes, that is an awful awful cover; apparently they made a movie and Wilfred Brimley stars as the grandpa.