John Lingan talks Van Morrison, not caring one whit about Jane Austen, and getting serious with canonical nonfiction.
I live with two children in a small house that needs work — a new basement most of all. Until I actually get around to that work, all square footage of my house goes to board games and backpacks and paperwork from school, meaning my “bookshelves,” so to speak, are really just bedroom closet space and a nightstand (both locations are piled high with unread stuff I’ve bought from the criminally cheap used book stores nearby). When I finish a book I own, it goes on the bottom of my nightstand until that pile overgrows its constrictions. The overgrown pile will eventually join my “book collection,” or a bunch of straining cardboard boxes in my unfinished basement.
The nightstand shelf is therefore a small summary of the last few months’ books, excepting the many library checkouts, donations back to the criminally cheap book stores, and stuff I gave away to my friends. The shelf currently reflects the remnants of an extremely weird summer: one where I published my first book, and one where my wife and kids traveled to Europe to see my in-laws. I’ve been living with this disorienting combination of extra free time and total tunnel-vision, meaning my reading habits have been even more scattershot than usual. I’ve tended to grab whatever I thought I could finish in that moment, but I’ve also plowed my way through some dense reads and tossed aside other things that weren’t instantly enjoyable. Here are the survivors of a months-long obstacle course of reading.
Starting from the bottom: Ryan H. Walsh’s Astral Weeks, a music book that’s really about place. Walsh describes Boston in 1968, where Van Morrison is simultaneously hiding out from bad management and careening toward the album that redefined his early career. Walsh’s love for his town is infectious; he makes Boston, not exactly renowned as a hip mecca, seem like the center of a globally revolutionary year. Now I wish that someone would write another book this well-researched about Van in the late 1970s — middle-aged, divorced, and even deeper down a metaphysical path that would take him to the edges of easy listening within a few years. He wasn’t the center of anything by then, and that’s what made him most interesting.
Wolf Solent and Kristin Lavransdatter, two big woolly masterpieces from the 1920s that I read … why exactly? Why not? Both are proclaimed to be sui generis for totally different reasons. John Cowper Powys wrote like Emerson on acid, and Sigrid Undset wrote like she actually grew up in the Middle Ages and isn’t impressed by the strangeness of it. I found him exhausting, but found her transporting. For books these long, Undset’s calm tone works better than Powys’ nonstop parade of epiphanies. I suspect I’ll read more by them both.
I haven’t liked many books more than Happy All the Time, an absolutely perfect novel that feels wide open, almost like the people are real and could do anything. The writing is loose and passionate. This book could only have been written in the late 1970s, by a woman, an epicurean, and a food lover, as Colwin was. She was so alive to the joys of life, from flirtation to marriage to turns of phrase. I look forward to reading everything she ever wrote.
J. M. Synge went to the rural-most part of Ireland in the late 19th century because it was, even by the standards of that time, a romantic backwater, full of mythology and rumor. Great scenes, even though I wish Synge liked nature as much as stories; I wanted more craggy rock and green moss and roaring seas. Tony Judt, meanwhile, was bedridden and dying when he wrote The Memory Chalet, a memoir with the soul of a history book. He sees every personal experience as part of a wider cultural movement (which of course it is). I picked this book up on a whim, looking for something short to read. It was short, but it was also an engrossing testimony by a committed progressive who fought for a better world and came to accept that he’d never get it. Essential.
Three more slim nonfiction books follow: Camp Austen by my dear friend Ted Scheinman, 1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose, and The Long-Legged House by Wendell Berry. I’m a biased reader of Ted’s book about Jane Austen devotees, but I also don’t care about Jane Austen one whit and found this really invigorating. Ted writes with panache, and is equally talented at character-based reportage and accessible literary criticism. This is a delight for anyone who loves to read. 1 Dead is the opposite: a shot of rail liquor in the post-apocalypse. Rose was a reporter in New Orleans during Katrina, and his quick dispatches in the immediate aftermath earned him accolades and infamy. This little self-published volume was republished in an expanded version by a major publisher, but the early pamphlet-sized copy I have is more unsettling for its small scale. It’s pure horror and anger, a 21st-century masterpiece. I read The Long-Legged House because for years I was writing a book about the rural South and felt guilty for never having familiarized myself with this literary legend. I liked this book fine, especially the parts of political leftism. I suspect I’d love his fiction more.
By coincidence I read two small The New York Review Book Classics about berserk childhoods almost back to back. I thought I’d love Barbara Comyns, who published The Vet’s Daughter in the 1950s, though I found it a weird deadpan mashup of family misery and underdeveloped paranormal horror. Darcy O’Brien, meanwhile, wrote A Way of Life, Like Any Other in the 1970s, but based it on his life with two fading Hollywood parents in the 1950s. This novel has no right to be as good as it is, but O’Brien is just such good company, offering sketches of various film-industry hangers-on and schemers, emotional devastation delivered with a light touch, and a coming-of-age story that never hits the typical beats. A quintessential NYRB rediscovery.
Summer is nearly over, my kids and wife are nearly home, and I’ve survived the first blast of book publicity and travel. It’s time to get serious, which means canonical nonfiction, in this case two award-winning social histories. Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock, published in 1991, and Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake, published in 1972, concern Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, respectively, though both feel like three books stuffed into one. Greene’s prose gets a little purple when she writes about the coastal Georgia black community, while FitzGerald’s is somehow dense and ambling, like early Garry Wills. I admired how they both found the outer reaches of their subjects, and brought research, political insight, and literary ambition to what were, when published, current events stories. Like a few of my other books, these two get a place of honor, down in the basement boxes. What will autumn bring?