I wrote an essay once about the pleasures of rereading and a not-so-enthusiastic fan wrote back suggesting that I was riding on quite a high horse since he was a working stiff himself and, what with getting up early, working all day, commuting, and raising his family, rarely had time to read a book once let alone twice.
Time is the big problem, isn't it? Unlike a movie on DVD or in a theater, that rolls smoothly before our eyes and ends after an hour and a half or two, most novels and biographies and histories require much more of a commitment.
A short novel — something like, say, Joan Didion's little masterwork Play It As It Lays, only a couple of hundred pages long, with a lot of white space between sequences — can take you a day or two to read. A longer book, a Dickens novel, say, or a Faulkner, can take weeks and weeks, if you only approach it in spare time, before sleep, or in the odd hours when you might be commuting on a bus or subway. Even frequent flyers would have to spend a number of trips to take on Melville's Moby-Dick.
To spend the kind of time reading fiction and poetry and history and biography that many books need — the kind of time you might have spent in school — you have to give up a lot of television and movie viewing.
Because of the pressure of daily life and the need to kick back and free the mind from the workaday world, many people throw up their hands and then turn on the TV. Once school's out forever and no exams loom at the end of a season, you can peck at books rather than devour them and no one will fault you.
But then comes holiday time, sacred days, time outside of ordinary time, when it's possible to find free hours for reading during a day usually given over to work. On a day such as this you can commit the absolutely marvelous act of reading for pleasure, the heightened version of this being the stimulating mix of entertainment and edification about the world and life that comes from reading great fiction and poetry. In this way, we truly participate in the holy separation of ordinary time and sacred time.
Meditation practice in a number of spiritual traditions separates special thought from ordinary, rational thought. Holiday reading distinguishes itself from reading for courses or reading for business reasons or reading to keep up in a book club. It is the gift you give yourself, the gift of time infused with adventure, the gift of supercharged language and deep insight into character, the gift of story that we need every day — and if only everyone could seize the time! — to instruct us in how to understand the seeming relentless forward propulsion of our lives.
To help you seize the moment, here are my choices for reading and giving this holiday season:
Madeleine Is Sleeping, the lyrical novel by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum that was nominated for the National Book Award last year, has just come out in paperback. Though the main character sleeps her way through the entire length of the novel you, I predict, will stay awake, enamored of the book's lyric flow and the rich skein of images. It's a wonderful combination of Virginia Woolf and Freud and Jung, and Bynum's own gifts for imagery and wordplay.
The prestigious Library of America — the U.S. answer to the French Pleiade editions — has issued two volumes of the work of the late fiction writer, journalist and film critic James Agee. Agee's powerful, though unfinished novel, A Death in the Family, is the main attraction in the Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction fiction volume. It's a novel about the effect of a father's death on a young Knoxville boy and his devout and grieving mother. It opens with a prose poem titled "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," that offers some of the most sublime pages in American literature.
Moving from the sublime to the... sublime, I want to call to your attention Transcendent, the new science fiction novel by Stephen Baxter. It gives us the story of the future evolution of our species, taking us back half a million years in time and projecting us forward millions of years into the future. Baxter collaborates from time to time with Sir Arthur C. Clarke, and his own work comes close to inducing the same sense of wonder as Clarke's.
And going from the transcendent to engrossing low-falutin entertainment, here's a book for your friends who like to devour legal thrillers like popcorn: The Color of Law by Mark Gimenez. The novel is about a high-flying Dallas lawyer whom a federal judge calls upon to defend a black Dallas hooker accused of murdering the son of a Texas senator.
For the art lover you know, look to Jonathan Harr's nonfiction narrative about the search for a lost Caravaggio masterpiece in The Lost Painting. The story begins in Rome and takes us to Dublin as well as into the heart of a wonderfully appealing student of the history of art and the fascinating work life of an Italian art restorer. I'll give it the best compliment I know about nonfiction: The book reads like a novel.
For someone who wants to read about the lives of novelists, in this case, one of our greatest, there's Andrew Delbanco's new biography of Herman Melville. His story is one of the most instructive and saddest we'll ever know. The book tracks the New York writer's rise as a best-selling author and his decline after publishing his masterpiece Moby-Dick.
Soaring up into space again, this time with best-selling writer Dava Sobel — her new collection of essays, The Planets, is delightful and idiosyncratic. I especially love the opening of the chapter about the moon, called "Lunacy."
For the traveler here on Earth, one of our finest living prose writers, has a new book of essays called There and Then: The Travel Writings of James Salter. It's a collection of the maestro's recollections of kicking about France, skiing, climbing.
For children, I like poet Quincy Troupe's boldly told biography of Stevland Judkins Morris Hardaway, otherwise known as Little Stevie Wonder. The book is lavishly illustrated by Lisa Cohen and there's an accompanying CD with two Little Stevie Wonder(ful) tunes.
Also for kids, I couldn't leave this one out it's so terrific, Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs. It's one of the most striking and elaborate pop-up books you'll ever wrestle away from your child and play with on your own. It's so realistic you can almost hear the prehistoric beasts roar. Your kids are going to love this book as much as you loved Jurassic Park.
And, one final suggestion, for anyone and everyone, a poetry DVD: Reading Rumi in an Uncertain World, a two-hour videotaped performance of poets Robert Bly and Naomi Shihab Nye reading the poetry of the great 13th century Persian Sufi mystic Rumi. Long after the images are gone you'll remember the words...
About the AuthorAlan Cheuse is an author and regular book critic for All Things Considered. He teaches writing at George Mason University. Explore some of his previous holiday reading lists:
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
This novel by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is "a wonderful combination of Virginia Woolf and Freud and Jung, and Bynum's own gifts for imagery and wordplay," says book critic Alan Cheuse in his holiday roundup for All Things Considered.
Hush, Mother says. Madeleine is sleeping. She is so beautiful when she sleeps, I do not want to wake her.
The small sisters and brothers creep about the bed, their gestures of silence becoming magniﬁed and languorous, ﬁngers ﬂoating to pursed lips, tip toes rising and descending as if weightless. Circling about her bed, their frantic activity slows; they are like tiny insects suspended in sap, kicking dreamily before they crystallize into amber. Together they inhale softly and the room ﬁlls with one endless exhalation of breath: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh.
A grotesquely fat woman lives in the farthest corner of the village. Her name is Matilde. When she walks to market, she must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her ﬁngers and hooking it over her wrists. Matilde's fat moves about her gracefully, sighing and rustling with her every gesture. She walks as if enveloped by a dense storm cloud, from which the real, sylph-like Matilde is waiting to emerge, blinding as a sunbeam.
On market day, children linger in their doorways. They hide tight, bulging ﬁsts behind their backs and underneath their aprons. When Matilde sweeps by, trailing her luxurious rolls of fat behind her, the children shower her. They ﬂing bits of lard, the buttery residue scraped from inside a mother's churn, the gristle from Sunday dinner's lamb. The small ﬁstfuls have grown warm and slippery from the children's kneading, and the air is rich with a comforting, slightly rancid smell.
Mme. Cochon, are you hungry? they whisper as she glides by.
Matilde thinks she hears curiosity in their voices. She smiles mildly as she continues on, dodging the dogs that have run out onto the street, snufﬂing at the scraps. It feels, somehow, like a parade. It feels like a celebration.
Once, as matilde made her way through the falling fat, she was startled by a peculiar but not unpleasant throb, which originated in her left shoulder but soon travelled clockwise to the three other corners of her broad back. She wondered if the children were now hurling soup bones, and made an effort to move more swiftly, but suddenly the joyous barrage slowed to a halt. The children stood absolutely still, lips parted, yellow butter dripping onto their shoes. They stared at her with a curiosity Matilde did not recognize.
Hearing a restless ﬂuttering behind her, she twisted about and glimpsed the frayed edges of an iridescent wing. With great caution, she ﬂexed her meaty shoulder blades and to her delight, the wing ﬂapped gaily in response. Matilde had, indeed, ﬂedged two pairs of ﬂimsy wings, the lower pair, folded sleekly about the base of her spine, serving as auxiliary to the grander ones above.
Leaping clumsily, all four wings ﬂapping, her fat, like sandbags, threatening to ground her, Matilde greets the air with arms spread wide open. A puff of wind lifts the hem of her skirts, seems to tickle her feet, and Matilde demands, Up, up, up! With a groan, the wind harnesses Matilde's impressive buttocks and dangles her above the cobblestones, above the hungry dogs, above the dirty children with fat melting in their ﬁsts.
Madeleine stirs in her sleep.
When madeleine sleeps, Mother says, the cows give double their milk. Pansies sprout up between the ﬂoorboards. Your father loves me, but I remain slender and childless. I can hear the tumult of pears and apples falling from the trees like rain.
Smooth your sister's coverlet. Arrange her hair on the pillowcase. Be silent as saints. We do not wish to wake her.
On dark mornings, when the church still lay in shadow, Saint Michel looked absent-minded, forlorn, penned in by the lead panes that outlined the sad slope of his jaw. She thought him by far the most heartbreaking of the saints, and occasionally yearned to squeeze the long, waxen ﬁngers that were pressed together so impassibly as they pointed towards heaven.
He had been a prince once, whose appetite was such that he could never quite keep his mouth closed. In deﬁance of medieval conventions, even his portraits attest to his hunger: his lips are always ajar, teeth wetly bared, as if about to bite into his tenants' capons or cheeses or one of their ﬁrm daughters. In his castle's feasting hall, he liked to stage elaborate tableaux vivants, resurrecting the classical friezes he had seen in his travels, himself always cast as the hero or the young god, a bevy of peasant girls enlisted as dryads, pheasants and rank trout imitating eagles and dolphins. Imagine the depravity, the priest whispers: women with nipples as large and purple as plums, birds molting, dead ﬁsh suspended from the rafters, and rising in the midst of them all, the achingly glorious Michel, oblivious to the chaos surrounding him. His vanity was unmatched!
And then a plague struck, a drought descended, and Michel found God.
While outside his castle walls the pestilence raged, Michel was struck by the face of the cruciﬁed Lord, preserved in a primitive icon that hung beneath the stairs. His fair face had been obliterated by tears and blood; His perfect body was desiccated and dotted with ﬂies. Wracked by self-reproach, the prince vowed to destroy his own beauty; he surrendered himself and his lands to the monastery at Rievaulx, where he spent the rest of his days inﬂicting torture upon himself.
He suffered through ﬂagellations, hair shirts, and fasting while the abbot meticulously chronicled his decline: Prince Michel can barely leave his pallet; his ﬂesh has fallen away; repeated ﬂaying has reopened and infected old wounds; his sackcloth has spawned monstrous lesions about his groin. It was as Michel wished. When he ﬁnally expired, his face was contorted in anguish, his loveliness effaced by tears and blood. The abbot washed the ravaged body and laid it upon its bier, but by morning the saint had been miraculously restored to perfection, his body whole and sound, his face ﬂawless and somber. This is the Saint Michel depicted in the cathedral window. Even the devout ﬁnd it difﬁcult to remember the suffering he endured.
I should have loved him more, she thought, if he had remained mutilated.
On a sunday in summer, a blade of empyreal light illuminated his once melancholy face, and she instantly recognized it as her own. Why, it's me, she said to herself, without wonder. I have been looking at myself all along.
And the face was no longer lengthened in sorrow, but bright and ﬂuid with color. She stood up from her family's pew and walked towards the stained glass, her eyes locked with her own. At the altar, she pivoted on her toes and faced the congregation. Look upon me, she said.
Stepping down from the altar, she approached a stout man sitting in the front pew, the collection plate balanced on his knees, and she touched his chest, with all the tenderness in the world. His stiff Sunday vest peeled away like an orange rind, and she grazed her ﬁngertips against the polished, orderly bones of his rib cage. Beneath, she found a curled and pulsing bud, and when she blew on it, it began to unfurl its sanguine petals, one by one. His heart unfolded before her.
She worked her way down each pew, gently touching and blowing as she went, and when she looked around she noticed, with pleasure, that the small ﬂowers she had uncovered were of a heliotropic variety; their delicate heads nodded to her wherever she went, following her movements like those of the sun.
Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
About the AuthorAlan Cheuse is an author and regular book critic for All Things Considered. He teaches writing at George Mason University. Explore some of his previous holiday reading lists:
The 20 Finalists for the 2004 National Book Awards were announced today, and for the first time in the Awards' 55-year history, all five of the fiction finalists are women. Among the other finalists are five established poets, two distinguished historians and — in a bit of a surprise — the 9/11 Commission for its final report. The winners in each of the four categories — young people's literature, nonfiction, poetry and fiction —- will be announced on November 17. Greta Cunningham from Minnesota Public Radio reports.
Read excerpts from the five fiction nominees:
Excerpt from 'Madeleine is Sleeping,' by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
HUSH, MOTHER SAYS. Madeleine is sleeping. She is so beautiful when she sleeps, I do not want to wake her.
The small sisters and brothers creep about the bed, their gestures of silence becoming magnified and languorous, fingers floating to pursed lips, tip toes rising and descending as if weightless. Circling about her bed, their frantic activity slows; they are like tiny insects suspended in sap, kicking dreamily before they crystallize into amber. Together they inhale softly and the room fills with one endless exhalation of breath: Shhhhhhhhhhh.
A GROTESQUELY FAT WOMAN lives in the farthest corner of the village. Her name is Matilde. When she walks to market, she must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her fingers and hooking it over her wrists. Matilde's fat moves about her gracefully, sighing and rustling with her every gesture. She walks as if enveloped by a dense storm cloud, from which the real, sylph-like Matilde is waiting to emerge, blinding as a sunbeam.
ON MARKET DAY, children linger in their doorways. They hide tight, bulging fists behind their backs and underneath their aprons. When Matilde sweeps by, trailing her luxurious rolls of fat behind her, the children shower her. They fling bits of lard, the buttery residue scraped from inside a mother's churn, the gristle from Sunday dinner's lamb. The small fistfuls have grown warm and slippery from the children's kneading, and the air is rich with a comforting, slightly rancid smell.
Mme. Cochon, are you hungry? they whisper as she glides by.
Matilde thinks she hears curiosity in their voices. She smiles mildly as she continues on, dodging the dogs that have run out onto the street, snuffling at the scraps. It feels, somehow, like a parade. It feels like a celebration.
ONCE, AS MATILDE made her way through the falling fat, she was startled by a peculiar but not unpleasant throb, which originated in her left shoulder but soon travelled clockwise to the three other corners of her broad back. She wondered if the children were now hurling soup bones, and made an effort to move more swiftly, but suddenly the joyous barrage slowed to a halt. The children stood absolutely still, lips parted, yellow butter dripping onto their shoes. They stared at her with a curiosity Matilde did not recognize.
Hearing a restless fluttering behind her, she twisted about and glimpsed the frayed edges of an iridescent wing. With great caution, she flexed her meaty shoulder blades and to her delight, the wing flapped gaily in response. Matilde had, indeed, fledged two pairs of flimsy wings, the lower pair, folded sleekly about the base of her spine, serving as auxiliary to the grander ones above.
Excerpt from 'Florida,' by Christine Schutt
She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding out from under curtains, rump polishing the floor, and she was saying, "Sit with me, Alice." She was saying, "Talk to me. Be a daughter. Tell me what you've been doing." She spoke uninflectedly, as if thinking of something else—the dishes to do, drawers to line, clotted screens to clean out with a toothpick. Handles missing, silver gone, and a Walter in the next room unwilling to leave!
Bitch, bitch, bitch, the sound the broomsticks made against the floor in Mother's nettled cleaning and talking to herself, asking, "What am I doing? What does it look like I am doing?"
"You are stupid," I overheard Walter say to my mother. "You'd be better off dead."
And Walter was as smart as any professor; he was the first to admit it, saying to my mother, "Why are you so stupid?" Stupid about composers and who was playing. Stupid about motherhood and about how much money she had. Why didn't she know, why didn't she plan ahead? Why was it always up to him to think it out for her? Walter sat in the armchair and sipped at his whiskey and held out a hand no one took.
All day he sipped warm whiskey from a highball glass. He smoked cigarettes; he listened to his records on Mother's stereo—crashing, oppressive, classical sound. If Walter spoke, it was to shout for it, "Louder!" when I was thinking the music was already too loud. Enough, I was thinking, creeping nearer to the stereo myself with other ideas for music. The composer's portrait on the long-playing album cover looked, I thought, like Walter. They shared a melancholy nose and disappointed mouth, old-fashioned eyeglasses, Einstein hair.
I never saw him in the sun or on a sidewalk, never at the porch or beside the car about to open a door for Mother. I never saw Walter laughing. The brown yolks of his eyes had broken and smeared to a dog-wild and wounded gaze. He was not handsome; yet I looked long at the length of him slant in a chair with his drink.
No man Mother knows seems to work. They go away sometimes in the day and come back wrinkled. They come back to us and sit half the night half concealed by the wing chair's wings. They drink and listen to music.
"The Germans," Walter said. "Schubert."
Sometimes I found Walter crying in the chair, and once I found him in the morning on the downstairs couch in a twisted sheet with Mother.
With my father it had been different.
At the restaurant one winter afternoon, months before he died, we made a scene; we dragged the waiter into our story; we were the last to leave. I danced around the heavy black tables and the matching chairs; I spun on the barstools and watched the TV. Mother cried, and she let herself be kissed.
"We're drunk," Mother said. "We are."
"Open wide," my father was saying to her and then to me, "open wider."
One winter afternoon—an entire winter—it was my father who was taking us. Father and Mother and I, we were going to Florida—who knew for how long? I listened in at the breakfast table whenever I heard talk of sunshine. I asked questions about our living there that made them smile. We all smiled a lot at the breakfast table. We ate sectioned fruit capped with bleedy maraschinos—my favorite! The squeezed juice of the grapefruit was grainy with sugar and pulpy, sweet, pink. "Could I have more?" I asked, and my father said sure. In Florida, he said it was good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors. In the Florida we were headed for the afternoon was swizzled drinks and cherries to eat, stem and all: "Here's to you, here's to me, here's to our new home!" One winter afternoon in our favorite restaurant, there was Florida in our future while I was licking at the foam on the fluted glass, biting the rind and licking sugar, waiting for what was promised: the maraschino cherry, ever-sweet every time.
Excerpt from 'Ideas of Heaven' by Joan Silber, from the story 'My Shape'
I wanted to be an actress. I was too silly and shallow to be any good at acting, but I could keep my composure onstage, which is something. I was given small parts in summer stock, the hooker or the stenographer or the cigarette girl in the nightclub scene. The summer after my first year of college, I worked in the Twin Pines Theatre. I slept with the bullying director, a fierce-browed man in his forties who had sex with a lot of us and didn't give anybody a bigger part for it. Sleeping your way to the top is a bit of a myth, in my experience.
I liked acting, at that age. You got to dwell on feelings, which were all I dwelt on then anyway, and turn them over, play them out. We had long discussions: would a child afraid of her father show the fear in public? would a man who was in love with a woman talk more loudly when she entered the room? Those who'd had real training (I was not one of them) spoke with scorn about actors who "indicated," who tried to display a response without actually feeling it. An audience could always tell. What was new to me here was the idea that insincerity was visible. I understood from this that in real life I was not getting away with as much as I thought.
But otherwise I was a little jerk. I was so hungry for glamour that I put a white streak in my brown hair, I wore short-shorts and wedge heels, I drank banana daiquiris until I threw up. I thought the director was going to find himself attracted to me again and we might have a legendary romance, although I could hardly talk to him. I didn't know anything.
Excerpt from 'The News from Paraguay,' by Lily Tuck
For him it began with a feather. A bright blue parrot feather that fell out of Ella Lynch's hat while she was horseback riding one afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne. Blond, fair-skinned and Irish, Ella was a good rider — the kind of natural rider who rides with her ass, not her legs — and she was riding astride on a nervous little gray thoroughbred mare. Cantering a few paces behind Ella and her companion, Francisco Solano Lopez was also a good rider — albeit a different sort of rider. He rode from strength, the strength in his arms, the strength in his thighs. Also he liked to ride big horses, horses that measured over sixteen, seventeen hands; at home, he often rode a big sure-footed cantankerous brown mule. Pulling up on the reins and getting off his horse, his heavy silver spurs clanging, Franco — as Francisco Solano Lopez was known — picked the feather up from the ground; it briefly occurred to him that Inocencia, his fat sister, would know what kind of parrot feather it was, for she kept hundreds of parrots in her aviary in Asunción, but it was Ella and not the feather that had caught Franco's attention.
The year was 1854 and the forty miles of bridle paths and carriage roads were filled with elegant calèches, daumonts, phaetons; every afternoon, weather permitting, Empress Eugénie could be seen driving with her equerry. Every afternoon too, Empress Eugénie, in fashion obsessed Paris, could be seen wearing a different dress, a dress of a different color: Crimean green, Sebastopol blue, Bismarck brown.The Bois de Boulogne had recently been transformed from a ruined forest into an elegant English park.
Sent as ambassador-at-large to Europe by his father, twenty-six-year old Franco was dressed in a field marshal's uniform modeled on Napoleon's, only his jacket was green — Paraguayan green. He was short, stocky — not yet grown stout nor had his back teeth begun to trouble him — and his thick eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead like a black stripe but he was not unattractive. He was self-confident, naïve, ambitious, energetic, spoilt — never had anything, except once one thing, been denied him — and he was possessed of an immense fortune. Franco put the feather in his pocket and mounted his horse again. He caught up with Ella easily and followed her home.
Excerpt from 'Our Kind: A Novel in Stories,' by Kate Walbert
Chapter One: The Intervention
It was one of those utterances that sparkled — the very daring! Could you see us? Canoe shrugged, to be expected. After all, Canoe was our local recovering; it was she who left those pamphlets in the clubhouse next to the men's Nineteenth Hole.
Still, the very daring!
Canoe cracked her knuckles, lit a cigarette. We sat by her swimming pool absentmindedly pulling weeds from around the flagstones. The ice of our iced tea had already melted into water and it was too cold to swim, besides.
"It's obvious," Canoe said, blowing. "He's going to kill himself in less than a month. I don't want that blood on my hands."
He was someone we loved. Someone we could not help but love. A colleague of our ex-husbands, a past encounter. We had known Him since before we were we, from our first weeks in this town, early summers. We loved His hair. Golden. The color of that movie actor's hair, the famous one. Sometimes we caught just the gleam of it through the windshield of his BMW as He drove by. Sporty. Waving. Green metallic, leather interior. Some sort of monogram on the wheel. You've seen the license plate? SOLD. A realtor, but never desperate. Yes, He sold our Mimi Klondike's Tudor on Twelve Oaks Lane with full knowledge of her rotting foundation. But desperate? No. Just thirsty.
"Intervention," Barbara repeated. Canoe flexed her toes as if she had invented the word.
This a late summer day, a fallish day. Ricardo, the pool boy, swept maple leaves from the pool water, in this light a dull, sickly yellow. We watched him; we couldn't take our eyes off. Canoe interrupted.
"Actually, I shouldn't be the one explaining. There's someone from the group who's our expert. Pips Phelp, actually."
Pips Phelp? The lawyer? Pips Phelp?
We spoke in whispers. Who knew who lived in trees?
Besides, He might drive up any minute. He often did. You'd hear the crunch of His tires on the gravel, see the flash of blond hair behind the windshield. These times you'd dry your hands on your shirtfront, check your face in the toaster. You wouldn't want to be caught, what? Alone? You let Him in. He'd ask you to. He would stand at your door, behind your screen, wondering if He could. Of course, you'd say, though you looked a mess. If you were unlucky, the dishwasher ran. One of the louder cycles. If you were lucky, all was still — the house in magical order, spotless, clean. He surveyed; this was his job. You never knew, He told you, when He might be needed.