“Sometimes,…our ignoble desire to read private letters is matched by a letter-writer’s ignoble desire to be read.”

I used to send my first ex-boyfriend postcards from each new city I visited, for quite a while after we stopped seeing each other  – unsigned, of course; a dramatic moment never passes me by.  I’d usually get a coy text message in response, “someone’s been sending me mail, I wonder who that could be…”

Cute, right? Vomit inducing. But I still wonder what happened to those postcards, even now nearly a decade on – are they tucked away in a drawer somewhere? Were they read and chucked straight in the bin? Were they even read, and I mean read, those short lines I’d imbued with so much meaning?

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A postcard I sent to my parents from NY. It still holds pride of place on their fridge.

And there is meaning in hand-written communication; the particular weight that time, thought, and effort offers up, that can’t be replicated by any other means – emails and text messages are but pixels; even a typed, printed letter doesn’t quite have the same power as something hand-written.

imageIt’s this power that John O’Connell explores in his book, For the Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication, published 2012.

I don’t generally like light history books; I tend to find them a bit toothless in both content and analysis, and a bit forced in their attempts to be airily amusing. The blurb on For the Love of Letters’ dust jacket made it sound like just that kind of book, but I’m glad I worked through my initial cringe and read it anyway. O’Connell is not only genuinely witty and deeply knowledgable about the history of letters, but the deeply personal context of the book set it apart for me.

The book opens with O’Connell preparing to pen a reply to a letter of condolence, hand-written and sent by a friend following the death of O’Connell’s mother; and closes as he completes his reply – a copy of which is included as an epilogue, a touch which adds a particular legitimacy to the narrative. What happens between is an agile trip through the history of letters, from the rhetorical theory set out by Isocrates around 400 BC, the origin of the modern postal system, to famous letter writers and styles – love letters, advisory letters, letters confronting death.

It’s light history, light philosophy, and light humour, but it’s the personal and charming elements of the book that make it a satisfying read – it feels far more like having a conversation with an old friend than anything else.

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I’m always interested in how people attempt to shore up their lives against time, the kinds of precautions we all take to safeguard our experiences against the unsympathetic eye of reality and history, so I am likely the kind of reader O’Connell imagined appreciating his book.

…the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. (p. 22)

Perhaps I’ll spend this holiday season writing some letters of my own.

“Tainted. It’s a funny word, isn’t it? Is it like fruit, rotten a bit? But not completely spoiled?”

I’m not much into romances (doomed or otherwise), and I have little time or sympathy for self-pitying men (fictional or otherwise), so Alfred Hayes’ 1953 novel In Love is not the kind of book I would usually be drawn to, much less enjoy. I’m glad I put those doubts aside and ordered a copy anyway  – it might only be the end of July, but I think In Love may be my favourite read of 2016.

In Love begins with a man of nearly 40, propping up a bar mid-afternoon in New York, telling a pretty young thing about the decline of his last affair. A fairly dreary setting, for a fairly dreary protagonist. Despite the man’s poetic reminiscences, it’s a largely unsatisfying relationship for both of them, once lust and convenience are both discounted – he is “often bored… with absolutely nothing to say to her” (p. 28), she is “frequently depressed” (p. 28), lonely and self-conscious. With no desire to commit to her in any kind of way, the protagonist’s interest is only really piqued once she leaves him, for a (somewhat) more reliable, and richer, man.

Men are never more interested in a toy than when someone else wants to play with it.

… the temporary possession of her had given me the illusion that it [my life] was not, while I had her, barren; now that she was gone, the barrenness that she had temporarily helped conceal lay exposed. It was because we thought so much that love could save us, that having nothing else but the dry labor of our work we looked so anxiously toward love. (p.60)

Had Hayes been a less skilled writer, In Love could have quickly descended into either sentimental dreck or tedious whining, but Hayes’ prose is simply glorious – it’s the reading equivalent of slipping into a warm bath.

She always insisted that she could remember every detail of the very first evening we were together; how, for example, there was snow falling, and how the taxi meter, a little yellow glow above it, ticked, and how she felt, excited, in the interior of the heated cab, touching hands, but sad too, sad inside, the way you feel when you like a man, and when you know that with him it will happen, and you’ve made up your mind even before it happens so that he doesn’t really have to ask you, it’s something… you feel and he feels, a pleasurable tension between you, a silken tightness, waiting to get to a place, his apartment or yours or a friend’s room or a hotel, or even a deserted country road, so that you sink into a trance of waiting, a deliciousness that’s somehow sad, too, and you feel, because of the sadness both there and not there, inside the cab and holding hands and not inside the cab at all and not holding hands at all. So that there must have been, for her, a momentary pang of something lovely, something that the hush of whiteness and the somnolent heat of the cab gave her. Perhaps it was the anticipation, that moment sustained by the drive home, when one is in a taxi with a stranger who is about to be transfigured into a lover, and there is an interval, as in music, when the chord of desire has been struck, and the chord of the fulfilment of desire hasn’t; when everything remains suspended and anticipatory, and the snow falls through the air of a city whose ugliness is temporarily obscured, and the cab itself seems to exist inside a magical circle of quiet heat and togetherness and motion; and, I suppose, for that moment, it is beautiful: the snow, and everything. (p.20-21)

I do so love a good unreliable narrator, and despite gestures towards self-awareness of his own faults, the narrator of In Love is neither reliable or particularly likeable. The unnamed female love interest is far more interesting, and far more sympathetic. That’s despite some of the more bitter commentary:

And I thought, suddenly, that all these women, accompanied or unaccompanied, alone or on the arms of men, going somewhere now on the street, must be enacting within themselves little dramas of copulation as equally calculated as hers. That, really, the city was nothing but a huge bedroom, with some office buildings attached, as they said in the army, for rations, and that for each of these women there was an absolute conviction that the universe was arranged for only one end: her in bed. (p. 111)

It’s a great pity that Hayes isn’t more well known, and In Love isn’t considered an American classic. I feel like the speed at which both cultural attitudes and literary trends changed in the 1950s meant In Love might have seemed unappealingly outdated soon after its publication, but good things never really go out of style.  I feel like I’ll be coming back to In Love time and time again.

I suppose no evening is ever again like the very first evening, the nakedness ever again quite the nakedness it is that first time, the initial gestures, hesitant and doubtful and overintense, ever again what they were, for nothing we ever want ever turns out quite the way we want it, love or ambition or children, and we go from disappointment to disappointment, from hope to denial, from expectation to surrender, as we grow older, thinking or coming to think that what was wrong was the wanting, so intense it hurt us, and believing or coming to believe that hope was our mistake and expectation our error, and that everything the more we want it the more difficult the having it seems to be… (p. 23)

“Invite a Jew to the White House (and You Make Him Your Slave)”

imageBruce Gold is a frustrated middle-aged academic who feels unappreciated by the world at large – with an ageing father who constantly bullies him, siblings he struggles to connect with, a marriage long past its honeymoon years, children who neither like nor respect him, a public that doesn’t recognise his authorial genius, and surrounded by peers Gold deems far less capable than himself – but who’ve managed to achieved far greater success. Such is the unpleasant, but very human, protagonist of Joseph Heller’s third novel, Good As Gold. 

Gold has big plans to write one book about the Jewish experience and another on Henry Kissinger, but he finds neither plan easily realised – he doesn’t actually know what the Jewish experience is, and he never gets further with Kissinger than big ideas and a big collection of newspaper clippings. The (fairly pompous) articles he does publish never gain the attention or respect he desires – but instead attracts derision from his teenage daughter, criticism from his peers, mixed deference/apprehension by his family, his sarcasm and seriousness misunderstood in equal measure – until the day a call comes through from the White House. The President has read Gold’s work, was deeply impressed, so how would Gold feel about a cushy Washington position?

Good As Gold is a mix of political satire, class commentary, complex family drama, all laced with a heavy dose of middle-aged anxiety, and while it’s written with Heller’s inimitable touch… I didn’t love it. I really, truly wanted to. His first novel, Catch-22, has been an unwavering favourite of mine for the last decade; I loved his second novel, Something Happened, even though it left me seriously depressed for weeks. I’ve certainly read less enjoyable books than Good As Gold, but I’m so disappointed with how cold this left me.  It’s far more era-dependent and dated than his other novels, and I was frustrated by how much I knew I was missing because I’m not overly familiar with the general state of 1970s US politics or the details of Henry Kissinger’s political and post-political career. Not being Jewish myself, I likewise felt I was missing a lot of the specifically Jewish commentary/jokes. That’s not to say it was all bad – it’s not as tight as Catch-22, but hilariously irrational double-talk and nonsensical situations still abound.

“What are you making?” he’d asked her one time out of curiosity that could no longer be borne in silence.
“You’ll see,” she replied mysteriously.
He consulted his father. “Pa, what’s she making?”
“Mind your own business.”
“Rose, what’s she knitting?” he asked his sister.
“Wool,” Belle answered.
“Belle, I know that. But what’s she doing with it?”
“Knitting,” said Esther.
Gold’s stepmother was knitting knitting, and she was knitting it endlessly. (p. 26)

One of Heller’s strengths is familial pathos, which I’ve always felt is a bit under-appreciated. A lot of the family drama in Good As Gold is absurd verging on frustrating, but that only serves to make the serious moments, Gold’s realisation of his family as fellow humans instead of two-dimensional roadblocks to his personal success, so much more poignant.

“Didn’t you mind having to take care of me?” Gold asked softly. “…Sid, it’s okay to say yes. People in a family often dislike each other for much less than that.”
“No, I didn’t mind.” Sid spoke with his face partially averted from Gold’s fascinated gaze…. “Pop was crazy about you when you were small. We were the ones he was mean to. we were the ones who couldn’t stand you.”
“Then you did dislike me.” Gold pursued the point doggedly. “You just admitted you couldn’t stand me.”
“Oh, no,” said Sid softly. “I never disliked you. I was always very proud of you.”
Pity cast a shadow of restraint over Gold, and he ceased trying to untangle the hazy conflicts in Sid’s repeated aversions. He felt fifteen years distant from his older brother, and a thousand years wise. And perhaps, for the moment, equally repressed. There was more to Sid indeed, very much more, but whatever lay secret in him would remain occluded forever beneath the shield of denials Gold would not again make the effort to penetrate. (p. 311-313)

While Catch-22 skips along frantically and quite joyfully, Good As Gold is more densely plodding. If books were drinks, Catch-22 would be shots at the bar with your best friends; Good as Gold a pint of guinness after a big meal.

I’m ambivalent on how to rate this one. It’s not terrible – I wish I’d ~gotten~ more of the jokes, and I’ll probably read it again one day down the line. Read it if you’re committed to Heller. Read it if you know lots about 1970s political machinations. Read it if you don’t really have anything else on your to-read list. I don’t regret reading it, but my frank recommendation would be that you read Catch-22 instead, then read it again.

“The hour is midnight and the library is deep and carried like a dreaming child into the darkness of these pages…”

From one repository of dreams to another. A fouDSC08394 2r hour train ride yesterday allowed me time to start and finish Richard Brautigan’s gentle little book, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966.

Our unnamed narrator is the custodian of a very peculiar public library in San Francisco. No one visits to read the books – the books aren’t even available to get checked out – and there is no indexing system to keep track of the books. Instead, this is a library where aspiring authors of all ages (“all the losers and the dingalings”) submit the books they’ve written for safe-keeping.  Our unnamed narrator takes his job as custodian of these books very seriously. He welcomes each book, each author, with respect and sensitivity – whether it’s five year old Chuck with his book “My Trike”, or fifty year old Charles Green who’s had his book rejected by publishers 459 times.

“I’ll show you how we honour a book into the library. ‘Welcome it’ is the phrase I use…. and you have to be friendly, too. That’s important. To make the person and the book feel wanted because that’s the main purpose of the library and to gather pleasantly together the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” (p. 71-72)

Sounds like an ideal job to me – if it came with one day a week off and a decent wage, I’d be beating down the door to get hired. Our unnamed narrator has manned the library for three years, day and night without ever leaving – faithfully and alone. And then one day Vida shows up, her own book under her arm. Vida shows up, with her ethereal face and her Playboy body – her “grand container”. Vida shows up, and never leaves.

“What an abstract thing it is to take your clothes off in front of a stranger for the very first time… Your body almost looks away from itself and is a stranger to this world.” (p. 45)

When Vida becomes pregnant, they leave the library to procure an abortion in Tijuana, Mexico. I never had Brautigan pegged as an overly particularly political writer from the other works I’ve read (A Confederate General From Big Sur, The Hawkline Monster, Dreaming of Babylon), so I wasn’t sure how the eponymous abortion would be written, what proportion of the book it would inhabit. I was a bit nervous that it would be a cheap plot device, shock value and nothing more – but the issue is treated surprisingly humanely.

The decision to have the abortion was arrived at without bitterness and was calmly guided by gentle necessity.
‘I’m not ready to have a child yet,’ Vida said. ‘And neither are you, working in a kooky place like this. Maybe another time, perhaps for certain another time, but not now. I love children, but this isn’t the time. If you can’t give them the maximum of yourself, then it’s best to wait. There are too many children in the world and not enough love.’ (p. 55)

Even though the decision is reached quickly, it’s not one that Vida or the librarian take lightly. They’re ambivalent toward the decision – it’s the right decision for them at that time, but not one they’re happy to undertake.

“Some children were playing in front of the doctor’s office… We were no doubt a common sight for them. They had probably seen many gringos in this part of town, going into this green adobe-like building, gringos who did not look very happy. We did not disappoint them.” (p. 127)

The book is typical Brautigan, light and absurd, with a host of unreal characters – but it’s narratively quite straight, and far more solemn than I was expecting.  A lot of reviews make the book seem funnier, lighter, than I found it – but perhaps like most cult American authors of that early-to-mid-20th Century style (from Hemingway to Kerouac to Thompson), Brautigan’s standard audience is made up of undergraduate boys who’ve never seen a woman naked outside of a computer screen, who think Nietzsche is the ultimate height of Western thought. Sympathising with Vida, as a woman of childbearing age who could potentially face the physical experience of abortion (or at least faces the spectre of unwanted pregnancy), gives quite a different experience of the book than does sympathising with the librarian.

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I’ve enjoyed other Brautigan books (particularly The Hawkline Monster), but I enjoyed this book in a different way, particularly any description of the library. The library can be seen as a metaphor for plenty of things – the hedonistic 60s, the abortion itself; great moments, all the joy of production, which ultimate leads to nothing – but perhaps that’s a stretch. I’ll leave the metaphors to more expert readers, and just enjoy Brautigan’s inimitable turn of phrase.

“I know it’s going to rain.
Clouds have been playing with the blue style of the sky all day long… but so far nothing rain has happened.” (p. 11)

Getting up at 6am on a Saturday isn’t my idea of a good time, but I’m (begrudgingly) ok with it when it involves books. I dragged mum along to the opening day of the annual Lifeline Bookfest, the largest second-hand book sale in Queensland, and one that raises funds for Lifeline’s community support programs – 24-hour crisis line, suicide prevention and bereavement, community recovery, and other community services across Queensland. I certainly don’t need an incentive to buy more books, but it’s nice to know that my obsession might contribute to a good cause or two.

The sale is massive, with millions of books laid out across nearly 4 kilometres of tables. 4 kilometres! That amount of books is pretty much the stuff of fantasy, but I’m self-aware enough to know that setting myself loose would be a pretty dangerous idea – so I went in with a shopping list, a budget ($40), and a time limit (3 hours).

Even with three hours to play with, I didn’t even make it out of the classics & literature section, except for a cursory glance through the philosophy section (cursory because I knew that was a rabbit hole I didn’t have time to fall down!)

I’m glad we got there early – there was already a decent crowd gathered before the doors opened, but with so much on offer the crowd dispersed pretty nicely. By 9.30 it had started to get really busy (obviously a good thing for a charity event!), but it did make it a little trickier to look through the books as well as I’d have liked. I can’t complain though, I walked away with a pretty wonderful collection of books.

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I stuck to my budget and my time-limit, and ended up with 21 books for $39, some of which look like they’ve never even been opened. Thrilled is an understatement, I came away with nearly exactly what I wanted, and now you also have a hint as to some of the books that will likely appear on this blog in the next couple of months!

The LifeLine Bookfest runs in Brisbane until the 26th January, with other dates around the state to follow. Very well worth a visit.