For a few months now I’ve been completely out of sorts with my reading. I’ve felt as though I’ve been merely going through the motions of reading without getting any real reading done. This has made me unfocused and completely unmotivated (I’ve a feeling that you may have noticed :)). Thankfully, I seem to have put all this behind me, when the fire was reignited in my belly over the weekend, setting me off in great haste once more on my personal journey through the literary landscape. I thought I’d mark the ocassion by telling you what made the fire spark up again, and I thought I’d do so through the feature that’s been missing for a long time on RobAroundBooks – my reading journal.
The mighty Joe Queenan
It all started on Saturday when I picked up Joe Queenan’s latest essay collection, One for the Books (Viking). If you don’t know, Mr. Queenan is held up as one of America’s top contemporary humorists. He’s written for a ton of top magazines and aside from anything else he’s a bit obsessed with books and reading. One for the Books is about his obsession with books and reading.
My daughter had bought me the book for Christmas, and feeling guilty about it languishing for so long without ever having being opened, I thought I’d pick it up and tick off a few pages, if only to make my conscience that little bit clearer.
As it happened I was instantly hooked, and I read Queenan’s book through in a single sitting. And although I found Queenan to be somewhat abrasive and doggedly opinionated at times (this might just be the flavour of his humor), his boundless passion for books and reading came through, and I found him to be oh so inspiring. So inspiring in fact that the dreadful cloud of bookish melancholy that’s been hanging over me these past few months was quickly blown away.
By speaking about the books he owns and how long it can take him to read for any of his whacky personal reading projects, Queenan really got me thinking about my own book collection and the journey that I myself was taking through literature. It quickly dawned on me that my literary journey had actually ground to a halt. Rather, I had pitched my tent in a clearing in the woods and I was satisfying myself with just nibbling at the fruit and fauna that was within comfortable reach. In other words I’d stopped shooting for distant destinations in the literary landscape and heading for mighty milestones, and instead I was just lethargically gazing out into yonder, not growing, not evolving, and not challenging myself in my reading. Boo, me!
Queenan also makes a point about having less freedom as one gets older to read things at whim (I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist). As one ages and the years begin to run out, one has to get more picky with one’s reading if one is to be able to read all (or at least most) of that which he desires to read. Wow….wake-up call! I may not be as old as Queenan (he’s just into his sixties and I’m forty five), but why am I sitting here acting as though I have all the time in the world when actually, I don’t? Should I be blessed to be reading up until the age of eighty, that still only gives me a measly thirty five years of reading time. So little time, I must get a shift on. Farewell rudderless reading, it’s time to get myself back on track. (hehe..I bet I’ve got you lot thinking about this now, too :))
“The Canadian Moveable Feast”
Aside from Queenan managing to get my gears turning again, he also helped to set me up with my second full read of the weekend (hardly surprising given the number of books he reels off in his essay collection).
Part of Morley Callaghan’s description of F. Scott Fitzgerald, on meeting him for the first time outside his Paris apartment. ::From That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Some Others by Morley Callaghan (Exile Editions)
Luckily I was able to source a copy of this book quickly, which enabled me to spend much of Sunday consuming it. It’s a day that I will always remember fondly because I found That Summer in Paris to be exquisite; an absolute treat. What a beautiful, warm and affectionate book it is, and it’s made all the more so through Callaghan’s illuminating prose.
That Summer in Paris follows Callaghan briefly from his part time reporting days while a student, to the summer of 1929 where his dreams come true and he spends a few short months in Paris with Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, and a number of other leading literary and artistic figures of the period.
It’s a ‘worth its weight in gold’ kind of book because not only does one get an insight into some extraordinary Parisian events – dinner with James Joyce, boxing bouts with Hemingway, dates with the Scott Fitzgeralds, unexpected encounters with artists such as Joan Miro etc. but one also gains some perspective on the relationship between Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. It also lays to rest, sort of, the rumour that Callaghan knocked out Hemingway in a grudge match, after Hemingway gauded Callaghan into fighting him.
Is That Summer in Paris as good as A Moveable Feast? Well, it’s close to being an equal. I certainly found Callaghan’s memoir of the period to be a lot warmer than Hemingway’s (mainly because of the reverence that Callaghan shows almost continually for both Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald), but how can one possibly top such an iconic work from the great man himself? Callaghan’s efforts are certainly laudable however, and I urge everyone to go and seek out a copy. Read it (with a pinch of salt) and you’ll walk away with that warm glow that accompanies every read of a great book.
There was even time for shorts
Leaving That Summer in Paris on a high, I even had the time and motivation to read a couple of short stories yesterday too. The first was a story recommended by my good friend and fellow short story lover Sue who lives all the way over on the other side of the Big Pond. Not so long ago she encouraged me with much enthusiasm to read Belgian, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s short story collection, The Most Beautiful Book in the World (Europa Editions). She was most taken by the titular story of the collection, and so this was the one I chose to read as a warm up to journeying through the collection as a whole at some point in the future.
The story itself (or rather ‘fable’ as it’s dubbed) concerns a group of female political prisoners who find themselves desperate and needing in some Gulag on the frozen plains of Siberia. A new woman (Olga) joins the group and the women are hopeful that she has something secreted on her person. It’s not one of the obvious things like weapons, drugs or files in cakes etc. Rather it’s something a lot less innocuous. Remarkably, Olga has what the other women are looking for, and so begins a story that has a degree of warmth, hope and tenderness to it. Personally, not one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, but nowhere near one of the worst either. A fuller review when I get around to the collection as a whole.
The second short story I read? Well, given all the praise that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were allegedly heaping on Callaghan in the 1920s for the quality of his fiction, I couldn’t let the day go by without at least sampling a taste of the Canadian’s short stories. I sourced a few in the New Yorker archive (I’m a subscriber don’t you know? :)), and I set about reading An Escapade, the first story he had published in the magazine in November 1928. Did Callaghan’s story live up to my expectations? In a nutshell: yes it did, but if you want to know more than you’ll have to click over to my afterthoughts on the story.