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Mostly lists and information about award books and other interesting lists of books, color coded as follows:

RED–Read since ~2000
PINK–Read before that
BLUE–To Be Read and Added to Goodreads

NOTE: Listings may not be complete and sources aren't always quoted but I'm working on that.

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Book Montage

Catherine 's to-read book montage

The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia
The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
Only You Can Save Mankind
Nice and Mean
Cruisers Book 1
The City of Ember
Crispin: The End of Time
Lost Goat Lane
Amelia Rules! Volume 1: The Whole World's Crazy
How I, Nicky Flynn, Finally Get a Life
As Simple as It Seems
Wolf Brother
The Ogre of Oglefort
The Pickle King

Catherine 's favorite books »

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Harrison, Jim. English major

Boston Globe 110208
In 'Major,' Harrison plots an impulsive odyssey

By John Dufresne | November 2, 2008

Grove, 255 pp., $24

"Wife. Farm. Dog. Gone." Cliff, the protagonist of Jim Harrison's "The English Major," finds himself at 60 detached from all that he has held dear, including Vivian, his wife of 38 years. Vivian is a real estate agent who likes butterscotch schnapps, snack food, and her old high-school sweetheart these days more than she likes her cheating husband. Cliff, the English major of the title, has been parked in his Michigan farm for 25 years, living simply and hermetically, his recent romantic indiscretion with a waitress notwithstanding. But now Vivian has sold the family farm. Cliff isn't sure where he's going, but he can't stay here.

When he finds a puzzle of the United States while sorting through an old trunk, Cliff decides he'll set off to see America. The puzzle connects Cliff to his childhood and to his beloved brother Teddy, who adored it - Teddy had Down syndrome and drowned when he was 11.

At first the journey proves exhilarating and curative: "Everything I saw was something I had never seen before." But Cliff is uneasy and misses the routine of agrarian life. Cliff's son Robert, a film location specialist, tells his father, "Dad, you are on a great adventure and have been liberated to a new life." But Cliff doesn't want to be free. "I want Vivian back," he declares early on. Well, he does and he doesn't. He will tell Robert, "I don't care if that bitch drops dead." Still, he longs for home, if not for marriage, and for the comfort of a woman.

He satisfies this craving with a phone call to a favorite ex-student, Marybelle, whom he remembers as "an off-brand peach," but will soon come to think of as a "ditz" and a "haphazard typhoon." Marybelle is a tad bipolar and is resolutely addicted to her cellphone. "It's a prime weapon against our essential loneliness," she tells Cliff. She's along for a ride to Bozeman to see a cousin. Or so she says. And so we're off.

The plot, however, does not so much build as drift. Cliff and the married Marybelle meander their way through the upper Midwest, making rowdy love in a series of motels. Cliff, we hope, is wondering, as we are, just what the purpose of this odyssey is. Will adultery be his only adventure? One morning in Montana, Marybelle asks Cliff if he's really searching for a creative solution to his life. He tells her he's decided to rename the states and the birds of America because "birds simply don't deserve the banal names we've given them." This enterprise might seem rather pointless and uninspired to us, but Cliff now has his requisite purpose and begins to consider the naming a sacred duty.

When Cliff learns that Marybelle has no cousin in Bozeman, no brother in Africa, that she suffers from "affection binges," which her long-suffering husband forgives, and that all of what she's told Cliff about herself is a fiction, he leaves her with her husband and drives on to the West Coast, where he'll visit Robert.

Problem is, we miss Marybelle, maddening as she could be. Cliff's an unusually dull traveling companion. His eyes are seldom on the spectacular panoramic vistas but are focused instead on the sinuosities of women's backsides. One derriere could start a war, another win the Olympics "if they had sense enough to have a best butt competition." And so on.

It's not that Cliff is shallow, but he has allowed himself to slump into a sentimental and parochial life. He once taught school and then let his profound distaste for teaching spoil his love for literature. Once he thought that books could save his life. Now he lets a child's jigsaw puzzle guide his way. When the puzzle fails him, he defers to his enigmatic and licentious friend AD (short for "alcoholic doctor"), who serves as both provocateur and sage, and who proffers this advice: "You're trying to start a new life at sixty, which is also impossible. You can only try variations on your common theme." And maybe AD is right.

Clearly plot is not the engine that drives Harrison's novel; character is, and Cliff is a poignant, if not a spellbinding, one. He sees himself as just another American fool on the loose. But Cliff's a reluctant nomad. This most pragmatic man acted, for once, impulsively. He tells us he has returned to his purest instincts on the trip. "Obviously my road trip had begun to tug my mind back from the so-called real world to the world of books I had so valued in my late teens and early twenties." Perhaps it has. Perhaps he was saved by the one impulsive act, the leaving, which freed him from the life of routine and preoccupation, and that liberation has allowed his suddenly unfixed mind to drift, to daydream, to imagine, and to observe the world outside himself. Cliff tells us about a startling conversation he overheard. One woman tells another that "her baby had only learned to crawl backwards which meant that objects of his desire were always receding." And now we understand what Cliff is up to - he's driving away from home with his gaze in the rearview mirror.

John Dufresne's most recent book is the novel "Requiem, Mass."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lopez, Barry. Mappist

Monday, October 20, 2008
Corlis Benefideo
I reread Barry Lopez's short story "The Mappist" on Thursday, and it grabbed me anew by the lapels.
It's a story about a cartographer—a sort of platonic ideal of a cartographer—and writer named Corlis Benefideo. If you haven't read it before, please do. There's an free unauthorized text here (you need to scroll down), or you can read the legal version in his short story collection Light Action in the Caribbean, or pay $2100 for the limited edition by Charles Hobson (again, scroll down), or (I haven't done this but I hear his reading is great) listen to Lopez reading the story.

Go on, read it.

OK, so when I talked about the story last year on CartoTalk, I was unsure about the whole cartographer as ideal hero thing. I'm still not sure, although as Martin Gamache said on that thread, there is a part of me wants to "drink the Koolaid."

What got me this time, in a way it hadn't before, was not so much the wonderful maps Benefideo makes, as it is his revelation of the narrator's situation. From near the end of the story, Benefideo says to the narrator:

“You represent a questing but lost generation of people. I think you know what I mean. You made it clear this morning, talking nostalgically about my books, that you think an elegant order has disappeared, something that shows the way.” We were standing at the corner of the dining table with our hands on the chair backs. “It's wonderful, of course, that you brought your daughter into the conversation tonight, and certainly we're both going to have to depend on her, on her thinking. But the real question, now, is what will you do? Because you can't expect her to take up something you wish for yourself, a way of seeing the world. You send her here, if it turns out to be what she wants, but don't make the mistake of thinking you, or I or anyone, knows how the world is meant to work. The world is a miracle, unfolding in the pitch dark. We're lighting candles. Those maps—they are my candles. And I can't extinguish them for anyone.”

There's a lot packed into that paragraph, and so it's easy to gloss over in the flow of reading fiction.

Benefideo is pointing out our love for "maps the way they used to be made" and that, to the contrary, he is making them not like he was taught, but as he thinks they ought. For all the trappings of old-fashioned tools and craft, he is in fact exploring new territory.

The middle bit echoed for me the old Quaker bit, Margaret Fell quoting George Fox's preaching "What canst thou say?" Except instead of scripture it's pointing to our received knowledge othe world. It's easy and quick to gloss over this as a typical challenge to go out and do good, but it's more subtle than that.

It's a conscious rejection of the idea of "reference" which forms the backbone of the idea of cartography—the idea that there is a certain set of facts about the world that we can start with. It makes reference a much more fluid concept. That bit about lighting candles in the pitch blackness reveals Benefideo not as some sort of super-perceptual being who is expressing what he knows. He is really an explorer who knows nothing but records what he finds.
Posted by natcase at 4:06 AM
Labels: fiction, Quakers, reference