Monthly Archives: June 2007

Choosing a book and other things

First of all, my race report: same as last week, basically. Yay! We rode 24 miles and finished in about 55 minutes; I stayed with the pack the entire time and finished somewhere in the middle. I do have things I want to work on (like staying closer to the front of the pack), but that’s the kind of finish I’m very happy with these days.

But I entitled this post “choosing a book” because I’ve been thinking about how much I enjoyed Denis Johnson’s story collection Jesus’ Son and how surprising that might seem because it’s so different from what I usually read. I picked it up because of a friend’s recommendation, but this isn’t a friend I always agree with when it comes to books, and I got the recommendation a long time ago, and I’m not sure why it stuck with me. And I had no idea why this friend recommended it and what the book was about when I bought it. So these weren’t the most auspicious circumstances.

But it makes me think I should choose books in this almost random kind of way a little more often — to take more risks. It’s so easy to make judgments about what a book will be like and whether I will like it or not, based on criteria like what the book looks like, what I’ve heard about it through the media, things I know about the author. But it’s such a pleasure to be surprised, isn’t it? To find out that the book is nothing like what we thought? Or that if it is like what we thought, that we’re surprised by how much we like it?

Here are some of my recent choices, some typical of what I usually read, some not: I finished Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home recently, and I hope to post on it soon — this is fairly typical of what I turn to frequently — contemporary fiction, thoughtful, character-driven, about ideas. I just began Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, which is a bit of a departure, although not a huge one — mainly it’s a departure because it’s not British or American, and it’s made up of novellas and stories, when I usually choose novels. I also received A.J.A. Symons The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography in the mail today through Bookmooch; this is even more of a departure because I have no idea who A.J.A. Symons is, no idea who Corvo is, and little idea what is meant by “an experiment in biography.” But I read about it in a Michael Dirda book and was intrigued, and, although I have little idea when I’ll actually pick it up, I’m excited about it.

I suppose there’s no sure-fire way to make surprises like Jesus’ Son happen more frequently, except to stay open to suggestions from unusual places and to try to develop courage as a reader.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re a participant in the Slaves of Golconda book group (or want to be one — new readers are always welcome!), check out Imani’s choices for the next book and vote on what you’d like to read.  She’s got some great possibilities.


Filed under Books

More on The Walk

Every time I pick up Jeffrey Robinson’s book The Walk it makes me happy, and what more can one ask from a book? The Walk also makes me open up my computer almost immediately to see if the books it mentions are available. Yesterday I came across a reference to The Lore of the Wander: An Open-Air Anthology by George Goodchild (Amazon doesn’t have it, although I found it elsewhere), and E.V. Lucas’s collection of essays Turning Things Over, which contains an essay entitled “A Journey Round a Room” which Robinson praises highly, and which is inspired by Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around my Room (published by Hesperus), which I read and loved a few years ago. You see why this is fun?

This book isn’t perfect; I was disappointed by the third chapter, entitled “Throwing off the Burden: Walking and the Self,” which sounds so promising but didn’t quite deliver. Robinson seemed most interested in talking about walking and the self to make a point about Wordsworth, when I would have preferred him to talk about Wordsworth to make a point about walking and the self. This book is quite short — 140 pages — and I’m discovering that it makes no attempt to dive deeply into ideas, but instead covers a lot of ground (so to speak), and so is more suggestive than thorough. I’d like it to be more thorough, but I’m also coming to think that its suggestiveness is part of what makes me so happy; it leaves lots of room for me to read and think some more.

But even that disappointing chapter has this utterly charming pair of quotations to offer; first, this is Hazlitt from his wonderful walking essay “On Going a Journey”:

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner — and then to thinking! It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy. From the point of yonder rolling cloud, I plunge into my past being, and revel there, as the sun-burnt Indian plunges headlong into the wave that wafts him to his native shore. Then long-forgotten things, like ‘sunken wrack and sumless treasuries,’ burst upon my eager sight, and I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.

I think that’s wonderful, but I’m also sympathetic with Robert Louis Stevenson who has this to say about Hazlitt (from “Walking Tours”) — and those of you who are feeling overwhelmed by all that laughing, running, leaping, and singing might like it too:

I do not approve of that leaping and running. Both of these hurry the respiration, they both shake up the brain out of its glorious open-air confusion, and they both break the pace. Uneven walking is not so agreeable to the body and it distracts and irritates the mind. Whereas, when once you have fallen into an equable stride, it requires no conscious thought from you to keep it up, and yet it prevents you from thinking earnestly of anything else. Like knitting, like the work of a copying clerk, it gradually neutralises and sets to sleep the serious activity of the mind.

Although I admire Hazlitt’s energy and joy in his walking, I’m more on the side of Stevenson; I prefer to let walking soothe and calm my mind, almost to put it to sleep, and to walk in a regular pattern that invites a kind of quiet meditation. I don’t need to walk to think; I need to walk to keep from thinking.

And a couple more quotations from the introductory chapter (I haven’t even touched on the chapter on the walking essay, which I’ll have to save for another post):

The walker observes things from a distance, and if the power of the object is in some way too compelling, he by definition detaches himself from it by walking on. Yet the walker is in experience, feels and thinks in his movement through time and space, and is reaching out (or can) to the world in time. To deny either side of the walk is to deny half of experience.


When I walk, my mind does not flow like a stream. More literary than that, it works in mixed genres: at times autobiography, polemic, natural description, dialogue, essay, even treatise, story. Sometimes it seems a genre that keep resisting genre. Sometimes internal pressures or laxities break the integrity of genre. Other times the break comes from the squirrel that will not get off the path, the sprinkler’s spray that I must circle around, the old man trudging past in a heavy great coat on this warm day, the vague green lines of algae on lake water.

Robinson constantly points to the ways writing and reading and walking are all similar; in fact, I don’t think you can write a book about walking without doing so to some degree. He slips back and forth between the experience of walking and the experience of reading as though they are the same thing: “walkers, who are almost always bona fide essayists, are urged from somewhere to ambulate on paper about ambulation.”


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

imagedbcgi1.jpg I finished this book a few days ago and have been thinking about it since then. It’s a collection of linked short stories with the same first-person narrator in each one; it’s a powerful collection, moving and disturbing and beautifully written. This is very far from the usual sort of story I read — the narrator is a young man who is an alcoholic and drug addict who drifts through his life looking for more drugs, wandering here and there, meeting people, getting into trouble, getting high, and thinking about life.

He doesn’t tell us a whole lot of what he thinks about life, actually, as more often than not he seems to be trying not to think, but he comes out now and then with comments and judgments on the world around him that are all the more startling for being relatively rare. The narrator’s voice is haunting; he’s mostly matter-of-fact in the way he recounts his life, often using strings of short sentences or long sentences made up of strings of short phrases that seem not to reveal much until suddenly they reveal a whole lot. This is the way one story begins:

I was after a seventeen-year old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.

This is a typical Denis Johnson sentence, I think, one that starts off a little bit shocking and becomes more complicated as you go on, and then ends with a phrase that takes you into another place entirely, some place larger and more thoughtful. Here’s how another story begins:

I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d even known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.

And you’ll find passages like this one, where the narrator starts off describing the events of a day and end up taking the measure of his life:

Georgie and I had a terrific time driving around. For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before and after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back. Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breasts. A champion of the drug LSD, a very famous guru of the love generation, is being interviewed amid a TV crew off to the left of the poultry cages. His eyeballs look like he bought them in a joke shop. It doesn’t occur to me, as I pity this extraterrestrial, that in my life I’ve taken as much as he has.

I’d like to keep giving you example after example of the writing, because it’s so beautiful and so stunning. You can see in the last quoted sentence that the narrator is looking back on his life, writing about it in some future time; occasionally he’ll make reference to how he has changed and what he has lost, sounding nostalgic at times for this youthful, free-wheeling life and culture. He mentions urban renewal a number of times, soon to become reality (the book is set in the early 70s), which will destroy the landscapes he knows, bleak ones, yes, but familiar ones too.

And yet he also is writing from the perspective of sober adulthood, knowing very well just what a harsh and difficult life he has led; the last story describes a narrator newly-sober and struggling to settle into a new life, offering the reader a hint of the narrator’s future trajectory. This last story is one of the best and most disturbing, I think; the narrator spends a lot of time spying on an unsuspecting couple in their home, longing to understand and maybe to imitate their normalcy. He can only gaze in on this conventionality from the outside, though, and the people he finds himself actually involved with are outcasts like himself. The story ends with this thought:

All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.

In spite of all the darkness, the collection ends with the possibility that the narrator will find his place after all, will figure out how to shape a life for himself.

From the collection’s title you will be able to guess that there are religious references throughout; these don’t occur all that often, but just enough so that you know the narrator has a spiritual awareness; he is aware of just how far he has strayed from God, perhaps, or maybe it’s that he feels that God has abandoned him and the world he sees around him. The title feels ironic at times — this guy is Jesus’ son? — and yet he also seems watched over, somehow, as though the older narrator knows that the younger version of himself will find a way out of the mess; if he won’t find salvation, exactly, he’ll find a new life:

There were many moments in the Vine like that one — where you might think today was yesterday, and yesterday was tomorrow, and so on. Because we all believed we were tragic, and we drank. We had that helpless, destined feeling. We would die with handcuffs on. We would be put a stop to, and it wouldn’t be our fault. So we imagined. And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons.

To be found innocent for ridiculous reasons — that’s one version of salvation, I suppose.


Filed under Books, Short stories

The Walk

156478459201_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v63860474_.jpgI’m wondering now why it has taken me so long to pick up this book, The Walk, by Jeffrey Robinson; I’ve had it on my shelves since December, and I’ve kept my eye on it as a possibility, but never quite got around to it. But when I picked it up yesterday on a whim, I realized very quickly that it is a book I’m going to enjoy a lot. First of all, and this isn’t even related to the book itself, I noticed that it’s published by Dalkey Archive Press, and it’s got a list of their books in the back, a list which looks quite wonderful, full of world literature titles, some of which I’ve heard of and many of which I haven’t. From what I can tell, they seem to be lesser-known works that tend toward the experimental and subversive. I’ve only recently begun to check out publishers’ websites and blogs, and now I’m wondering what took me so long with this too; I’ve enjoyed checking out the Hesperus Press blog and A Different Stripe, the New York Review of Books Classics blog.

But back to the book; after checking out the Dalkey Archive books, I looked through the “Bibliographic Essay” and the “Afterword,” both of which list books about walking. This sort of essay is a goldmine, isn’t it? Neither of them lists a whole lot of books, but the ones they do are intriguing. Here are a few of them:

  • The Walker’s Literary Companion, eds. Roger Gilbert, Jeffrey Robinson, and Anne Wallace
  • Walks in the World: Representation and Experience in Modern American Poetry, by Roger Gilbert
  • Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust (I’ve raved about this one on this blog before)
  • Joseph Amato’s On Foot: A History of Walking
  • Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (I’ve read bits of this but never the whole thing)
  • Edward Hoagland’s Walking the Dead Diamond River
  • Gary Snyder’s book of poems The Back Country (I’ve never read Snyder, but think I will one day)
  • Eric Newby, A Traveller’s Life
  • Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
  • Aldous Huxley’s Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist
  • Authors who write about urban rather than rural walking, including Restif de la Bretonne, Baudelaire, Nerval, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin. Also, Alfred Kazin (A Walker in the City), and poets Frank O’Hara and Charles Reznikoff.

And that’s not even all of it, and doesn’t include books mentioned in the main text itself. I’ve read the first two chapters of the main text, the first one an introductory chapter and the second on “The Foot and the Leg.” I love the idea of a chapter on the foot and the leg! I may post on quotations from the introductory chapter some other time, but for now, here are a couple of things from this second chapter:

People observe their feet or write about them with a unique detachment. The foot is not quite a part of the rest of the body, but not quite part of the mind and heart that direct actions and receive impressions. The foot is simply there, as the shoe that eventually may fit it is simply there.

Yet this does not mean that thoughts about the foot are simple or that people agree about its functions and, more provocatively, its character. Thoughts about the foot tend to exist in oppositions: the useful vs. the useless, the primitive or natural vs. the civilized, the animal vs. the spiritual, the physical vs. the mental, the heavy vs. the airy, the earthly vs. the spiritual, the ugly vs. the beautiful, the repulsive and disgusting vs. the sexually attractive and the adorable, the innocent vs. the seductive. The foot either responds to the body’s commands or works from an independent center. The foot is a thing or it is human.

And one more thing from later in the chapter:

Charles Lamb gushed over walking: “walked myself off my legs, dying walking!” This would be life as a pleasurable fulfillment, a leavening of the body into spirit, the rhythm of the legs dissolving the weight of the legs into energy. “To walk one’s legs off” does not indicate dismemberment. No violence hides beneath the swing of the legs. Along with the legs, one will have walked off self-consciousness, all heat. One may have arrived at what Rilke calls “The profound indifference of the heart.”

This is one of the reasons I love walking so much; I can walk off self-consciousness, and turn weight into energy.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction