A Private View

[I’m up to number 14 in  my chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels.]

George Bland is 65 and newly retired. He  has lived his life cautiously, avoiding most emotional attachments. He has conscientiously but unambitiously worked his way over the  decades into the comfort of the middle class. There is little indication that George is disappointed by his rather, um, bland, existence, but much of it did seem predicated on a rather specific light at the end of the tunnel. He and his friend/co-worker Michael Putnam have long planned to spend their retirement travelling extensively through the Far East making up for years of delayed gratification. When Putnam unexpectedly dies George finds himself alone, unmoored, and incapable of enjoying a trip to France let alone the Far East.

George’s appetite for travel and adventure all but disappear with Putnam’s death. The most important relationship in his life has suddenly ended and he finds himself with nothing to fall back on. Aside from a network of friendly acquaintances, George’s only emotional connection is to Louise, a woman he dated so cautiously many years previously that she ended up marrying someone else and starting a family. Over the years, and Louise’s widowhood, they have remained in touch and her weekly telephone calls and occasional visit are the only real human contact George has left. But even this rather overstates the case. He expects her calls and wouldn’t think of missing them, but one gets the sense that they are merely a weekly milestone for Bland rather than something that maintains a real connection.

Into all of this steps Katy Gibbs, a youngish woman who convinces George to hand over the spare keys for his neighbor’s flat across the hall. She claims to be a friend and have permission to stay in their temporarily empty flat. It doesn’t take long for George to realize she  is squatting and probably doesn’t have permission to be there, but by that time he is both too embarrassed and too enthralled to move her. He finds  her off-putting and unlikable but finds himself uncontrollably drawn to her. Although he thinks about sexual conquest, this seems to be more of an impediment to fulfilling his interest in her rather than the point of it.

George’s deep funk seems to be a swirl of grief over his good friend Michael and the sudden awareness of a lifetime of missed opportunities.

Though it was only just past five-thirty he went back to the bedroom and lay down again on his bed. He knew that a lonely night of reflection awaited him, and he welcomed it.


Whether George and Michael were lovers–I will take Brookner’s text at its word–is beside the point. George seems to never have rebelled a day in his life. Never pursued any sort of exceptional, or even noticeable status in any endeavor. He deliberately declined starting a family, and never seems to have had a mid-life crisis. He took small pleasures and kept his nose to the grindstone assuming that at the  end of it all there would be some pay off in retirement. With those plans snatched away by Michael’s death, George ends up focusing his attention on Katy. Although he seems willing to throw away much for her, one gets the feeling that it really has nothing to do with her.

It is perhaps when the inevitable break with Katy finally comes that the reader is given the sense that there might still be light at the end of the tunnel for George. A happy ending? Possibly.

The tantrum maestro

Over the past 30 years I have seen 100s of classical music concerts. With 65 different conductors, 38 different orchestras in 22 cities in 9 countries. And I have never experienced a more unprofessional conductor than Claus Peter Flor.

When I went to hear the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi last week in Milan I didn’t know anything about the orchestra. I was in Milan to practice Italian and to hear opera (more on that later). I didn’t know that La Verdi (as the orchestra is called locally) had only been founded in 1993 and that their first music director was Richard Chailly. All I knew was that I was looking for additional classical music options while I was in Milan and they were doing Elgar’s cello concerto and Prokofiev’s Suite from Romeo and Juliet. Although I had heard of conductor Claus Peter Flor I didn’t know anything about him and I didn’t know that he had been Principal Conductor of La Verdi nor that they named him to a three-year contract as music director.

After a really substandard Bruckner concert the night before given by the orchestra of La Scala, I wasn’t sure  what to expect. The Elgar was up first. The fact that I don’t recall the name of the soloist is indicative of her playing. It was beyond lackluster. I didn’t expect her to be Jacqueline du Pré, but I didn’t expect her to be so bland and timid. The principal cellist played with more feeling and fire in the Prokofiev than any note played by the Elgar soloist.

Before I go any further, let me just say that I am not an expert. I love classical music but when it comes to the finer points of interpretation I’m not the person who is going to notice the types of things that a critic or professional musician is going to notice. I know what I like. I know what moves me. And I know, in general, the difference between bad, mediocre, good, and great playing.

But even to an amateur, when the conductor looks over and gives the violins a half-surprised, half-angry face that is visible to someone sitting in row 14, you start to get the feeling that something is wrong. It was somewhere toward the end of the Elgar. I didn’t notice any sort of slip up so the only thing I thought was that Flor was unhappy with the section’s responsiveness. And perhaps I was reading too much into it, but when he left the podium, he rather forcefully moved one of the violin music stands away from his path.

Things seemed a little odd, but nothing more. Then after the intermission, the Prokofiev. I’ve seen many a conductor jump around on the podium in an animated way, but I have never seen a conductor work so hard to get so little out of an orchestra. They were so non-responsive to Flor’s machinations that I began to think he was conducting from the wrong score. At first I thought he was hitting the baton on his stand by accident but then I  began to have the feeling that he was trying to get their attention or to mark time or otherwise express displeasure.

I started to feel like when I was a kid and a friend’s parents started to argue in front of me. It was uncomfortable. And then clear as a freaking bell–at least to me in row 14–Flor yells out “fortissimo!” I was gobsmacked. Sometimes when listening to a recording with headphones you can hear the conductor grunt and moan and occasionally hum, but a shouted fortissimo? And it seemed to go downhill from there. Although I couldn’t make out any other words, there were several more times in the piece where Flor called out instructions to the orchestra. Did he think this was an open rehearsal? It sure felt like an open rehearsal–with an angry conductor who doesn’t have the ability to get what he wants out of the orchestra so he takes to just yelling and stomping, and hitting the stand with his baton. It also seemed like the  more he raged the more amused some of the players got. There were more than a few smirks and giggles on stage.

As I mentioned, at that point I didn’t know he was the orchestra’s music director and I assumed he was a guest conductor pissed off over a lack of preparation. Perhaps his first time with the group and unhappy with the result. Maybe not enough time for rehearsal or jet lag or something. Now some might think that the orchestra is partially to blame for this situation. Perhaps. But all I know is that if a conductor isn’t able to lead the band and get them to play it his way, he shouldn’t throw an on-stage tantrum. It made him look ridiculous and made me (and perhaps others) uncomfortable. The piece itself, the barn burner that it is, was pretty enjoyable. I closed my eyes occasionally so I didn’t have to look at Flor, but his vocal gesticulations made that pretty useless.

Thankfully La Verdi only hired Flor for three years. One and a half of which are over. It might be time for them find someone else.

But seriously, what did you think of 2018?

I like to have fun with my annual Hoggies. Although truth be told, I had been thinking that I wasn’t going to do them for 2018. I just wasn’t feeling like I had the creative juices to come up with anything amusing. But then someone out there said she was looking forward to them. So then it became a matter of giving the public what they want. Happily, as I started to contemplate what the awards would look like this year I got inspired and enjoyed doing them after all. So now that I have done them three years in a row, I guess they are now a tradition that must be kept up.

It did occur to me, however, that the awards were much less substantive this year because I didn’t really have many blog posts to refer back to for those books that won awards. So now that the accolades for the Hoggies have died down, I decided I might reflect for a second or two on the books that really blew me away this year.

There were quite a few books that I really enjoyed in 2018 that I wanted to put on this list, but as I started narrowing down the possibilities I realized there was a much smaller set of favorites that really transcended mere enjoyment. Books that packed an emotional wallop that was hard to ignore. The oddest part about this very short list (only four out of 126), is that they are all by men. This is fairly unusual for me. Also unusual is their subject matter is decidedly not the type of thing I would normally go for. And there is a lot of bleak here. Devastating but beautiful.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
If you want to see how an author can write an American epic in only 116 pages, you need to check out Train Dreams. I had never heard of Denis Johnson until one of the attendees at The Readers Retreat talked to me about how much she liked him. When I went looking for a book by him, the only one available was Train Dreams. So I took a chance on it. A story about an adult orphan in prohibition-era Idaho. It has so much devastation and beauty in such a small package. When you read something this short and this good, it really makes you wonder what all those other authors are doing wasting your time with endless pages of prose.

All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
I had read two or three of Stegner’s better known works, but this one was completely new to me. It’s a story about retired man in 1960s northern California in a battle with a young squatter who has created an impromptu commune on his land. I enjoyed this for its development of the setting and the characters and how completely intertwined they both are. It’s full of quiet moments that are tender, devastating, and beautiful. It’s also not short of high drama that is equally devastating.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
I am not a fan of Westerns, but when a book is well written, it often doesn’t matter what its setting is or what genre it belongs to. I was (and am) indeed a fan of John Williams’ wonderful academic novel Stoner, but I must say, Butcher’s Crossing is a far better book. It’s the story of a Will Andrews, a Harvard student who heads out west to join a buffalo hunt at a time when pretty much all the big herds have been decimated by the buffalo trade. He runs into one hunter, however, who talks about a herd he is convinced still exists in a remote mountain valley. I won’t say anything more about the plot except that Will does go on a hunt. It’s all pretty breathtaking. If this hasn’t convinced you to read this one, you can see more detail here. It’s one of the few books I actually wrote about on Hogglestock in 2018.

The Hunters by James Salter
If Catch-22 wasn’t a horribly tedious, boring, overly long, one-note, overly satirical look at the stupidity of war, it could have been half as good as The Hunters. Published in 1956, the novel is about an ace fighter pilot who has less than an ace time when he is deployed to Korea. I loved everything about this book. I loved the period detail. I loved the plot and character development as the well regarded pilot has trouble maintaining his reputation and starts to see the whole situation differently. It kind of takes testosterone and turns it on its head.

Turmoil At The Hoggies

LOS ANGELES – There were more than just bow ties at this year’s gala Hoggies, with an unprecedented number of categories posting tie winners. The awards for best reads of 2018 were awarded last night by the Academy of Reading Arts and Sciences during a live telecast from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles

In a stunning turn that drew a collective gasp from the crowd inside the pavilion, the Ambler award went to Helen MacInnes for her novel Agent in Place. The announcement was especially shocking given that MacInnes wasn’t even nominated in the category and the Academy read two well-received Ambler novels this year. Reached in Gstaad where he is Januarying, Ambler said “MacInnes is an amazing writer and Agent in Place was a fine novel. I am honored to have her associated with the prize.” In her acceptance speech MacInnes spoke of the strides women had made in the field but noted that there was still much ground to make up saying “You know you don’t need a penis to write this stuff.”

Perhaps in an even more stunning turn, it was revealed that two authors received telegrams ahead of the telecast that their work would no longer be considered by the Academy. Thomas Otto, president of the Academy explained “After giving Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham yet another try, the Academy decided it finds their work tedious beyond redemption.”  When asked if the Academy was singling out female authors in this category given that Freeman Wills Crofts received an award for The 12:30 from Croydon, Otto looked visibly annoyed. “Look, if John Dickson Carr or Edmund Crispin submit something I can pretty much guarantee they will get the same telegram. And don’t forget the lifetime ban the Academy has placed on Colm Tóibín after this year’s reading of The Blackship Lighthouse. Now there’s some pointless fiction that will put you to sleep.” Otto was silent about Jospehine Tey whose Brat Farrar found some favor with the Academy this year.

The Academy was also under attack for the overall dearth of female authors this year. A spokesperson pointed to the Academy’s completion of A Century of Books and its focus on whittling down its to-be-read pile which turned out to be be surprisingly androcentric. The spokesperson noted that the completion of ACOB and very little in the way of challenges for 2019 promises a much better gender balance in the coming year.

The Philosopher’s Pupil
by Iris Murdoch
The Road Home by Rose Tremain

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Hunters by James Salter
Butcher’s Crossing
by John Williams

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Not only a charming book, but charmingly read by the author with actual trumpet sounds for Louis’ voice.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
Open City by Teju Cole

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Prairie Avenue by Arthur Meeker
A charming book about old Chicago purchased solely for its cover.

Oracle Night
by Paul Auster 

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes

The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

Slide Rule by Nevil Shute

A different kind of year

[Update 1/1/19: It turned out to be 126 books for the year!]

Twenty-eighteen was all about reading at least 10 books a month and getting through A Century of Books. At 123 books read, I beat my goal of 120 books for the year, but I did not, repeat, did not, achieve all 100 books required by ACOB. I fell short by three books. Some of you might be thinking that it is only the 26th and that surely I still have time to finish. But, truth be told, I am in the throes of finishing number 123 (which happens to be Storm Tide by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood) which means I actually have four to finish. And I’m enjoying Storm Tide and don’t want to rush it just to get to those other three books in the next five days. Even as I write this, it seems eminently doable, but I think reality will skew otherwise, so I am bowing out of ACOB. It was a lot of fun this time around, but the year is pretty much over and I am going to set it aside to make way for 2019. Clean slate and all that.

And speaking of 2019, I’ve got a fairly radical idea for the year partially inspired by my experience in 2018.  I liked that my aggressive goal for the year kept me focused on reading. But, there were times when I felt the pressure to read rather than enjoy–like I feel right now-so for 2019 I’ve decided not to put that kind of pressure on myself. I know I will start to get competitive with myself or others at some point if I don’t do something kind of drastic. I need to come up with a way to keep myself from being drawn into a reading race. So…

I’m going to limit the number of books I read in 2019

Say what? Yes, rather than set a number to beat, I’m actually going to put a limit on myself this year. Since I turn 50 in August this seemed like a nice round number, but with some of the other stuff I have planned, 50 is probably too high a number. I think I will shoot for a limit of 40 books. A full 83 fewer than I read this year. And yes, this might be the craziest thing I have ever suggested. If I hit number 40 in September am I going to stop reading? No. Don’t be stupid.

No reading in English for the first month and half of the year

I’m spending a week in Milan in February to go to a few operas and to immerse myself in the Italian language. I’ve put in some effort over the past year or so into trying to build on the two years of college Italian I took 30 years ago, but it clearly hasn’t been enough. I still feel hopelessly bad and need to do a lot of prep for that trip. I’m even leaving John at home when I go to Milan so I don’t fall back on speaking English to him. I will have 2 hours a week of class and 2 hours a week of private instruction in January and February, but that won’t be enough. I need to listen to, and read, and speak much, much more Italian before my trip. I don’t want to get there and wish that I had done more prep. So, with the exception of reading a bit in English before I got to sleep at night and English audio books on my commute, I am only going to read in Italian. It will be very time consuming and involve a lot of dictionary use, but it has to be done. I have books and magazines, not to mention websites I can read, so I won’t be short of material. I also need to watch copious amounts of film and TV programming in Italian because I have a really hard time understanding lightening speed Italian when it is spoken. In general, I just need to use all my free brain power for a month and a half for learning Italian to really prep for that trip to Milan.

The remaining 12 Brookner novels

For about six years now I have  been doing a chronological re-read of all of Anita Brookner’s novels and so far I am half way through having re-read 12 of them. One of the things I have been doing is keeping a list of all of the London place names mentioned, but I don’t feel like waiting another six years to finish the project. So this year I think I’m going to read  a Brookner a month. This way by the end of the year I will have completed not just my re-reads, but my London place name gazetteer. I have plans to make vast improvements to the current format of the list/gazetteer and those changes will take a fair amount of time.  My greatly reduced reading pace will certainly free up some time to work on that.

A full shelf of something

Last year in preparation for ACOB, I organized the 736 books in my TBR by the year they were published. Since my un-read books are no longer in alpha order by author, this means each shelf has quite a lot of variety with almost no duplication of authors. For about six months I’ve been thinking about how much fun it would be to just plow my way through an entire shelf. Since they are in chron order it would mean I would be reading a whole shelf of books published around the same time. And since I read so much older fiction, I am kind of drawn to one of the newer shelves like the one in the picture below which consists of 2015 through part of 2017. Then again, I have probably 40 books that I bought this year that I need to add to the shelves, so it may end up being a whole shelf of just 2015. Since the more recent books on my TBR represent book buying binges influenced by bookish friends on social media, it will be interesting to finally see what everyone was talking about…four years ago. No one could ever accuse me of being an early adopter.

Then again maybe nothing

The overall theme of all of this is just not wanting any pressure in 2019 to read anything. So any or all of these ideas for 2019 may not happen. It’s wide open. I’m going to try and keep it that way.

When you don’t know what people like to read

Two years ago we spent Christmas with some friends who have the most picturesque farm you could ever imagine. Waiting on each of the very cozy guest beds was a present for each of the overnight guests. We each ended up getting a book. Being the bookish person control freak that I am, I was a little dubious. How dare someone give me a book. I’m the book guy. My present was a novel that I had never heard of but ended up really quite liking: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. The whole experience opened me up to the idea of people giving me books. I’ve been so particular in what I’ve wanted to read for the past decade, I had forgotten what it was like to accept a book gift or loan from someone.

So this year, as we plan to stay overnight with these friends again the week before Christmas, I thought I should get them a book or two. Why not? I’ll tell you why not, because I know they read, but I have no idea what they like to read. But then I thought about how they took a chance giving me something to read so maybe I shouldn’t make the whole thing too complicated. So I went to Politics and Prose and picked out a handful of books that I have really liked. I kept thinking of dystopian novels I wanted to give them but realized I should probably limit those to just one. Not everyone finds a good dystopian read a fun experience. In the end I tried to make it an eclectic stack thinking that at least one of them will interest them (and hoping that they both end up liking all of them).

I think you will agree, it’s a fairly eclectic stack. I wanted to add Elif Shafak’s Three Daughter’s of Eve to the stack but that one wasn’t in stock.

I loved the A.M. Homes short story collection. Especially the one about the respectable couple who decide to try crack.

The Jackson lets in a bit of Gothic mystery weirdness.

Although a huge fan of John Williams’ Stoner, I think I like Butcher’s Crossing even more. And it’s a better book.

The Starnone (Mr. Elena Ferrante) was a quirky, touching tale of a long-married couple.

I love the end of civilization as we know it scenario that Mandel created in Station Eleven.

I guess The Dinner is dystopian in its own way, but all too real.

And then this happens.
Et voila.