This month we introduce a new column about what our leading authors are reading. It is intended to be an eclectic collection of notes and observations by some of the best writers we have ever met. The book choices are theirs and theirs alone and they are individually responsible for their comments, critiques and observations. We hope, however, that by reading what great authors have to say about others, you will come to know each of these exceptional writers on a more personal level.
The books noted this month are: The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius; A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds; The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño; Bad Haircut by Tom Perrotta; I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.
The Twelve Caesars
By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
I enjoy reading history because I find it reassuring. The pages of the past are filled with stories of men and women who had every possible advantage yet failed, and also stories of those with no or little chance who succeeded. This is just what I see in the world I live in and provides me with perspective on my own life.
I'm currently reading a book entitled in its original Latin De vita Caesarum, that is "About the Lives of the Caesars", and it was written in 121 AD by a man named Suetonius, who was a nobleman in the court of Emperor Hadrian, and a noted Roman historian. The work is known in English as The Twelve Caesars, and it chronicles the lives of Julius Caesar and then the first eleven emperors that followed him. It might sound like dry, scholarly stuff but it is far from that. Rather than focus on public events such as wars and political struggles—the big picture—the historian prefers to record personal conduct, personality traits, and incidentals. That's what makes The Twelve Caesars a fascinating read.
For example, in it we learn that Julius Caesar had thinning hair, and that he was greatly bothered by the jibes of his fellows regarding that. He took to combing his hair forward, which of course fooled no one. This first Caesar was a fiercely loyal friend, and very generous to his soldiers, who he referred to as "comrades." Perhaps naturally then, he was an intractable foe. He was frankly obsessed with power, and was not above wholesale bribery to secure his position.
Suetonius tells the tale of Caesar as a young man, when he was captured by pirates. After they tell Caesar they will ask for a ransom of a certain weight in gold, he informs them that he is worth much more than they are asking. While awaiting his release, Caesar talks philosophy with the pirates, but he also assures them that once he is free, he will return to punish the crime. True to his word, the young Roman did indeed pursue the pirates, and he had them crucified. This book also makes the first references to Caesar's affliction of epilepsy. Suetonius speaks of the man's "fainting fits," and chronicles that he was "twice seized with the falling sickness while engaged in active service."
Julius Caesar's famous assassination is dealt with in an illuminating way. Suetonius relates that Caesar was in fact handed a note warning him of an attack, and he ignored it. Further, the historian theorizes that the dictator was aware of his impending death, and welcomed it, as he was tired of Rome's eternal power struggles and sought relief from them. Suetonius even suggests the Brutus, the most famous of the assassins, was in fact Caesar's illegitimate son. The historian also claims that the victim did not utter the famous words e tu, Brutus (you too, Brutus?) but rather simply said, "This is violence," as he was being attacked.
Suetonius's work is a valuable lesson for any writer: character is most fully revealed in details and small moments. It is those that a reader remembers. The Twelve Caesars surprises as it enlightens.
Matt Cutugno is the author of The Winter Barbeque.
A Gracious Plenty
by Sheri Reynolds
By Pamela Ditchoff
Liverpool, NS, Canada
I found this novel several years ago while browsing through a bookstore. I read the first three pages, and I was hooked. A Gracious Plenty is a novel of wonder and possibility. I am partial to southern literature and to magic realism; this novel represents both in true southern gothic style. I came to this novel at tragic time in my life. A deeply loved family member had died too young of pancreatic cancer. A Gracious Plenty was a balm to my soul.
As a toddler, Finch Nobles, the only child of her cemetery caretaker parents, pulled a pan of boiling water from the stove, scalding her face, neck, and one arm, an accident that caused her terrible physical and psychic pain. Guilt and grief drove her mother to an early death. When Finch's father died, Finch took over the cemetery duties.
She has learned great respect for the dead, and perhaps because of this and her loneliness, Finch begins to hear and see the dead buried in her cemetery. She becomes aware of The Mediator, a being who helps the dead adjust to their new forms. Finch learns that the dead do nature's work.
"The Dead control the seasons. Everything depends on them. In June, The Dead tunnel earthworms, crack the shells of bird eggs, poke the croaks from frogs. The ones who died children make play of their work, blowing bugs from weed to weed, aerating fields with their cartwheels. They thump the bees and send them out to pollinate gardenias."
She learns as well that before the dead can grow lighter in spirit as well as appearance, they must give up their pasts and their secrets before moving on to wherever they are meant to go next. This is harder for some than others. Marcus, the Mayor's baby won't stop bawling. William Blott, who left his wealthy family home as a young man, a cross-dressing musician, cannot be comfortable in the family mausoleum. And Lucy Armageddon, the town beauty queen who ran away from home at age seventeen, insists Finch tell Lucy's mother that her death was not murder, but suicide.
This novel was not consistently well reviewed in the press. Too much emphasis was placed on Reynolds's previous novel, The Rapture of Canaan, an Oprah pick, and how that fact would guarantee the success of A Gracious Plenty, and not enough emphasis on how the novel is told in a quiet, wise voice, how the author places you in that southern cemetery and brushes you with pain and hope, how faith in your heart can bring about redemption of the soul.
Pamela Ditchoff is the author of Mrs. Beast.
The Savage Detectives
by Roberto Bolaño
By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I've always been fond of following Sartre's directive when trying to figure out what a book is really saying—the first step is to try to apprehend the author's metaphysics. Bolaño's metaphysical vantage, however, is not easily discernible in The Savage Detectives. On the one hand, there is the absence of determinism in the universe that he creates. On the other hand, there is the reoccurring theme of hallucination, madness and schizophrenia, which seems to indicate that there is a pattern—we, as readers, may just not be able to follow it.
I don't know if I fully understand what Bolaño wanted to say in this book, which is how I felt as I was reading 2666. The book spans twenty years, jumps between Mexico, Europe and Israel, and includes several narratives. His prose is certainly exquisite (as is the translation by Natasha Wimmer), and each narrative he writes has a distinct voice, even if they all share Bolaño's sense of rhythm and knack for storytelling. I just don't fully understand what all of these narratives are supposed to mean when taken as a whole.
This is not uncommon when reading big novels. I've always been drawn to them, and I've always been drawn to characters seeking to apprehend the indefinable, even if their quest is quixotic and destined to result in failure (The Golden Ass, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, Against the Day, My Name is Red). The Savage Detectives is similar in this regard, and, like the other books, it demands the ability to remember a lot of ancillary characters that readers don't get to know all that intimately. This is the majority of Bolaño's book—vignettes written from the perspectives of characters who ultimately don't play a major role in the grand plot of the book. They are like buttresses in a cathedral—both functional and beautiful, but somewhat insignificant when one is examining the entirety of the structure.
So many of them are mere acquaintances of the two primary protagonists, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, that it stands to reason that Bolaño wanted the two to remain somewhat shadowed, even if the separate narratives strive to elucidate the personalities of the young poets. He writes as though he is creating their silhouettes, since he defines them by the way in which others interact with them, and this allows readers the opportunity to speculate on why they behave the way they do.
So perhaps this is at least one of the messages Bolaño means to convey: That both life and literature exist communally; that a person or his work is not merely a conjunction of experiences or words. Rather, both are necessarily defined by an audience to which the actor can only sometimes address. It's an interesting thought, and an incredible story told by one of the most intelligent and erudite novelists of the past twenty years.
Jay Fox is the author of The Walls.
by Tom Perrotta
A Novel Look at the Short Story
By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Steven Jay Griffel
Though I greatly enjoyed each of the stories in Tom Perrotta's book Bad Haircut, I was oddly unfulfilled when I finished reading the last one. I attribute this feeling to the book's unusual form. Bad Haircut is a hybrid, a collection of related short stories that work together like a novel. As with other hybrids,like the wholphin or the liger, Bad Haircut combines the attributes of both its progenitors.
Bad Haircut is a book of ten chronologically-arranged, first-person narratives. Each story is told by Buddy, a young boy who lives with his parents in a middle-class town in New Jersey. With each story, Buddy gets a little older: he plays ball, gets laid, survives a bad haircut, and eventually goes to college. Each story is a gem and can be read independent of the others; when read sequentially, the accrued effect is something like that of a successful novel's—but not quite. For me, something is missing, some integument that might have wrapped all the living pieces together.
I loved the parts more than I did the whole, and the experience got me thinking about the differences between the short story and the novel. Generally speaking, the differences are ones of degree. The novel has more characters, more plot elements, more of everything. In literature, as in life generally, more means value added. Bigger is usually better. The haiku is a great form, but there is no haiku that can compare with Beowulf or the Iliad. Similarly, countless great short stories have been written, but none are regarded in quite the same way as great novels are. O. Henry and de Maupassant are master writers, but they are not so great as Faulkner and Balzac.
Unfair or not, I tried to imagine why Perrotta chose to create a collection of closely related stories rather than craft a novel. Perhaps he thought that the force of each story lies in its independence and would be attenuated if melded into a longer narrative. Perhaps he didn't have a main idea or theme in mind, which sometimes helps focus the writing of a novel.
I don't think the answer is that Perrotta prefers the short form to the longer one. Following Bad Haircut he has published more novels than collections of short stories. Personally, I am more interested in reading his novels, and this realization has led me to this insight: these notes have more to do with my own tastes and my own writing than they do with Tom Perrotta and his work.
I love reading short stories and enjoyed writing them in my past. A successful short story is a wondrous organism, a literary form with a life of its own. Still, the form proved too limiting for me. I seem to have more to say than can be contained in a short narrative.
Steven Jay Griffel is the author of Forty Years Later.
I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
by Sylvie Simmons
By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
A reporter asked Leonard Cohen, "Are you a practicing Jew?"
"I am always practicing," Cohen answered.
He could have said, "I am a practicing Zen monk, painter, singer, songwriter, novelist, therapist, hypnotist, and I live in Hydra (Greece), Nashville, Montreal, London, Manhattan, and anywhere else I hang my hat."
For those who, for some reason, don't know Cohen's work, he was, and is, one of our greatest songwriter-poets. Many think of him as an equal, perhaps even a bookend to Bob Dylan.
They were friends, probably still are and Dylan much admired Cohen's poetry. Cohen himself had a hard time with his muse, muses, and poems. In fact, as this astute biography tells us, Cohen was as dysfunctional as he was talented. He was consumed with his own insignificance as a writer. The more awards he won, the less he liked them.
In concert, he was often stoned on acid. But, unlike other acid-takers, he often became extremely calm under the drug and addressed his audiences – no matter how large – with love and affection. Sometimes he jumped offstage into the arms of his admirers and embraced them – literally. This kind of burning sincerity won him friends, fiends, and occasionally riots. In Germany he once opened a concert by clicking his heels and doing a Hitler salute. A riot ensued.
When other performers of the 1960s and 70s were singing only to fans, Cohen took his band to "mental institutions", recited poems, talk-sang his verses, and spoke directly to the residents, often one at a time, as he roved and lullabyed them offstage.
As a result of his amazing and unpredictable tours – not to mention his sundry hits from Suzanne to Bird on a Wire and many others – Cohen developed a large following of not only admirers but lovers. He was beloved, his words were all but worshiped, and whatever he did had the power to charm and bewilder. He is still touring, by the way.
This is an incredible book if you want a jaunt into the 60s, 70s and 80s. Also if you want to know what makes Cohen tick and how as an early teen he hypnotized his family's maid into stripping naked so he could see what she looked like underneath her clothes.
Gerald Hausman is the author of The American Storybag.