Six for the Storm!
As the ‘Nor’easter Frankenstorm’ Hurricane Sandy makes its historic run at the Eastern seacoast, hundreds of thousands of people hunker down in their homes, facing the prospect of two full days lashing winds and pouring rain. Those people face these hardships in much the way their Puritan and Huguenot ancestors did: by periodically refreshing their Twitter feeds. They’re getting three kinds of tweets for their trouble: 1) crackpot New Yorkers angrily complaining that this storm – currently 1200 miles wide, the largest storm system to strike the United States in recorded history – is “nothing special,” that they’ll be going to work same as always, even though nobody else is going to work, work has been cancelled, and their workplace is under water, 2) storm-crows like Ed Champion keeping everybody informed minute-by-minute, and 3) people choosing to look on the bright side, cheering the hurricane as a great chance to catch up on reading.
Long-time Stevereads readers will know which of those three is the most interesting.
Yes, strange as it seems, there’s an undeniable meteorological comfort to reading. Bad weather somehow enhances the impression that books are actual physical places we can enter at will, literal escapes. This shouldn’t make any sense, and yet it inevitably does; I’ve lost count of how many different kinds of weather-catastrophes I’ve escaped by taking up a book (snowstorms by far the most numerous of that group, including a gigantic one endured in the Canadian Yukon in a cave about the size of a refrigerator, but also heat waves, rain storms, and more than a few hurricanes, including two at sea), and the feeling is always a delicious combination of doing what’s right and playing hooky.
Rain is pattering my window panes as I write this, and Hurricane Sandy is still lurking offshore, trying to decide where to make landfall. Two friends have had to evacuate their cool New York apartments, two dozen more are already without electricity, and all are staying put to wait out what could be a very wet and windy 12 hours (this is one of those rare instances where dog-owners openly envy cat-owners) – and they’re curling up with books in a wild abandon of nerdishness.
Not just any kind of book, however, in their case or my own. As a dues-paying citizen of the Republic of Letters, I should by rights continue to plow my way through the 300 or so galley copies in this apartment. But when it’s storming outside, such books feel like all the bad kinds of work. Like every other inveterate reader out there, I tend to turn to known quantities when it’s dark and blowing outside. Here are six choice examples, to help you pass the time:
The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon -This is the, er, inimitable compilation of idle thoughts, pan-shallow reflections, and utterly beguiling daily snapshots made by Sei Shonagon, a twittering, cultured lady at the Heian court of tenth-century Japan, and there’s really nothing else quite like it in all the world’s literature (I’ve always maintained that its nearest rival, both for mundane interest and utter lack of self-consciousness, is the diary of Samuel Pepys). Our lady jots down glimpses of whatever happens to be happening around her that day – ghost stories, pet troubles, endless reams of gossip – and she’s also fond of making lists: Unsuitable Things (“a handsome man with an ugly wife”), Things That Have Lost Their Power, Interesting Things, Things That Don’t Quite Look as Good When Painted, Elegant Things (“shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl”), and so on. Our lady has fine sensibilities, although we cannot shake the suspicion that she’s something of a twit:
Once I wrote down in my notebook a poem that had greatly appealed to me. Unfortunately, one of the maids saw it and recited the lines clumsily. It is really awful when someone rattles off a poem without any proper feeling.
You want to hate her, this first of all YouTube stars, but you can’t. She just keeps burbling along, and even when she’s complaining about this very thing – rain – you’re entirely in her long-vanished world while she does it.
The Natural History of Selborne by Glibert White – Likewise this little classic of English literature, once one of the most read and reprinted books in the Western world: those of us who’ve read it more times than we can count (it’s gone on travels with me to very, very far places and back) know almost to the page-number when the book’s rains or snows will fall, but they nevertheless feel welcoming, as does White’s gentle presence itself, always curious, always noting to his two correspondents (Tom Pennant and Daines Barrington) all the goings-on in his beloved Selborne – and about its many animal inhabitants, from voles to harvest mice and most especially all variety of birds. White is the ultimate amateur birder, full of the ready amazement that is the birder’s chief counter to damp, chilly feet on a morning slog:
Your account of the greater bramblings, or snow-fleck, is very amusing; and strange it is that such a short-winged bird should delight in such perilous voyages over the northern ocean! Some country people in the winter time have every now and then told me that they have seen two or three white larks on our downs; but on considering the matter, I begin to suspect that these are some stragglers of the birds we are talking of, which sometimes perhaps may rove so far to the southward.
Johnny-come-lately preservationists strove mightily to keep White’s Basingstoke and Selborne much as they were in his lifetime, and although they’ve had some success, it’s largely beside the point: we al make our own Selborne out of the wondrous materials of White’s book – and we retreat to that Selborne when our own environs seem less inviting.
The Collected Sherlock Holmes Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle – These stories form an even more enduring monument than Gilbert White’s book, and often, perversely, one of their greatest allures is … bad weather! How many of these immortal stories of Holmes and Watson open in abominable weather, with London damp and chill and fog enshrouding 221b Baker Street? “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” (a murder mystery hinging on the intricacies of a subway-system!) has just such an opening, with our heroes engulfed in fog – and Holmes chaffing at it:
“Look out this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”
The Holmes & Watson stories are the quintessential literary ‘comfort food’ – these, too, I’ve read more times than I can count, quite often in chill and damp and fog. They ought not to provide the sanctuary they do, but it happens every time just the same. Our heroes dash out into all kinds of horrible weather at a moment’s notice – indeed, Holmes seems to relish it (although Watson has the good grace to grumble). It should make a reader hiding from inclement weather feel the worst slug-a-bed imaginable. But it doesn’t.
The Portable Dorothy Parker – this one in the gorgeous recent Penguin trade paperback which, if it were even so much as one wafer-thin short story thicker, wouldn’t be ‘portable’ at all. This enormous volume isn’t just the portable Parker – it’s pretty much all the Parker you’d ever want to read. The entirety of the old (and improbably best-selling) Viking Portable Dorothy Parker is here, and to its length is added more than twice again the material, selected by Parker’s winning biographer Marion Meade with an unfailing eye for quality. Here are lots of letters, lots of short stories, and most precious of all, plenty the savage, note-perfect book reviews Parker wrote on deadline for ready money (which, coming from newspaper editors, wasn’t always all that ready). There is no Dorothy Parker that’s more Dorothy Parker than these fantastic book reviews; her deadlines and her paltry pay made her brilliant in the way only reckless genius can be – as in this reeling aside about a certain modern American classic:
Literature, it appears, is here measured by a yard-stick. As soon asThe Sun Also Rises came out, Ernest Hemingway was the white-haired boy. He was praised, adored, analyzed, best-sold, argued about, and banned in Boston; all the trimmings were accorded him. People got into feuds about whether or not his story was worth the telling. (You see this silver scar left by a bullet, right up here under my hair? I got that the night I said that any well-told story was worth the telling. An eighth of an inch nearer the temple, and I wouldn’t be sitting here doing this sort of tripe.)
She herself would have been mortified to hear it, but Parker is in the same category as Sei Shonagon or Gilbert White: she’s invariably good company, despite all the drizzling New York streets she had to negotiate in her day, quick-stepping through slushy snow, eager for the night to begin – or eager to hail a taxi before the pitiless dawn. This big collection by Meade never runs out.
Five Skies by Ron Carlson – They aren’t all ages-old, these rainy-day standbys! Sometimes the rain or the snow simply aren’t going to last that long (hence, the neatly compartmentable nature of our selections thus far) – and there are dogs to walk, and meals that need fixing no matter what, and there’s always that thing you should be writing, for some rapacious set of editors who look with otherworldly disdain on such things as playing hooky (or hurricanes, for that matter – after all, some parts of the world don’t get ‘em). Long hibernations aren’t always possible in this always-connected world (ask me for a different story if Hurricane Sandy succeeds in knocking out my electricity), but sometimes you want your rainy-day reading to be one complete organic whole, with no skipping around selecting bits here and there. For that, you not only need a novella but a really good novella, something that won’t ever fail to pull you in and move you. Five Skies by Ron Carlson is one of those – it’s the much-praised story of three very different men who are engaged in building a ramp in the middle of nowhere, in the Idaho Rockies Carlson describes so tersely and wonderfully, with every word carrying weight:
The sound wasn’t a generator and it wasn’t people talking. When he stood, he knew it was at some distance a river, and as he walked toward it and saw clearly the mortifying fissure through which such a vast river ran, the geology of the entire plateau settled in his mind as an entity, a huge primitive place that few men had seen. He went to the edge of the sandstone gorge and looked down. In the deep gloom he could see the electric white gashes where the water boiled over the boulders. Here the sound was terrific, magnified, real.
Even after you know the plot of what transpires between those three men, you can keep going back to Five Skies for those jolts of cold air and human insight Carlson does so incredibly well.
Under the Small Lights by John Cotter – Carlson himself praised the last of our books – our second novella – as a “kaleidoscopic glimpse at an intense circle of friends as they mix love and obsession in a sort of game of art,” which is just about as accurate as you can reasonably expect from a man in a hurry, but ‘glimpse’ feels wrong just the same: Cotter’s debut work of fiction feels more capacious than any glimpse could be. It’s the story of a quartet of young people in upper-middle-class suburban American Everywhere, impatiently and cross-grainedly wiling away the last days of their collective youth, forever mourning over lost innocences they never really had. These young people are lopsidedly in love with each other – all erotic, all hyper-charged with pretentious self-consciousness, and at the heart of the story is a pair of would-be literary giants named Jack and Bill, as complex and perfectly-realized a ‘problem’ friendship as has ever been put on paper for public consumption. We follow these young people through the travails of a season, but time is constantly bearing down on them, and Cotter catches it all with a sentimentality so sharp it’s breathtaking. When Jack keeps expecting to see Bill at the book’s denouement and doesn’t, the longing is exquisitely rendered:
Kat followed Toby into the lobby of a bank to get some cash and I half-listened to the others talk while I scanned the city for Bill, still not believing he wasn’t there, hurt and giddy. A chance to be Bill without Bill there, misplaying him.
I shook, from hands to feet.
Gorgeous moments like that litter Under the Small Lights with a prodigal generosity. I try to read just about all the fiction currently going by young English-language authors, but I don’t know of any who could have caught the little chill of “a chance to be Bill, without Bill there, misplaying him” – I hardly know any who would have seen the potential to. That sort of thing makes this novella a top pick for re-visiting.
Of course there are plenty of other candidates – even thousand-mile-wide storms can only last so long! Hurricane Sandy is predicted to get worse before it gets better, but no matter how bad it gets, it will have moved on into the history books by mid-week, and these storm-cellar books will be back on the shelf, elbowed out of the way by all those clamoring galley copies. But these six always make my hunkerings-down even more enjoyable – you should give them a try next time you’re breaking out the candles and the wine.