Hello readers and welcome to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. For this portion I have been combining works of authors or genres, last time taking a look at two from James Baldwin. This time I decided to shake things up even more and take a “detour into drama,” reading some of what are considered the best stage plays of all time: Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and a “novel in dramatic form” The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. The first two pieces should be pretty well known so I won’t spend much time going over the plot and characters in favor of comparing/contrasting these works.
Death of a Salesman. This was Arthur Miller’s first true masterpiece of the stage, and I was blown away upon reading it. The tale of Willy Loman and his slow spiral into depression and death over the course of a day is not only an amazing story, but the way Miller uses the medium to tell it is even more impressive. I would say the most important bits for writers were the use of repetition and the use of contradiction. Loman and his sons both stress things they believe to be true (Willy being “well liked,” his uncle “walked into the jungle and came out rich”) but also contradict themselves repeatedly (Loman curses his eldest son one minute, then praises him the next). This, combined with the radical use of the stage to show how memory operates, makes this a true landmark of the form.
Our Town. This was an author I had never read, and decided to start with what is considered his greatest. While I was struck by the well-known properties of this piece (almost no props or settings - even for basic things like books, using ladders to evoke going upstairs, stage manager directly addressing the audience, etc) what really hit home for me was the underlying existential questions, especially those evoked in the third act. Viewed as a conversation with death, this was an extraordinary critique of the American way of viewing it and compares quite favorably with Miller’s consideration of the subject around a decade later.
The Sunset Limited. This “novel in dramatic form” was recommended to me by my editor Libby after I showed her a (bad) short story I wrote a few years back called a “Conversation with God.” And while parts of this piece were instructive for me, I found overall the work not nearly as good as McCarthy’s “actual” books. While his impressive use of dialogue is present throughout, literally driving the action, I was struck by some of the choices McCarthy made. For one example, the characters are known as “white” and “black” because of their skin color and disposition on life, but he consistently refers to “the black” in his state instructions while referring to the other gentleman as “professor” or something of the like. While this may have been intentional to show that “black” actually represents the death that “white” seeks by throwing himself in front of a train (“the Sunset Ltd”) I still found it jarring and possibly beneath such a talent to portray race in such a way. That being said, I still found benefits to reading this work given my recent struggle to escape the religious indoctrination of my youth.
All in all, while I think readers can find a lot more beneficial lessons in McCarthy’s novels, I would definitely recommend the other two dramatic works to anyone like me who has yet to read them or is interested in the stage. While the Reading List is always going to focus on books first and foremost, I enjoyed taking this little “detour” and hope to do the same with other literary genres as I close out this year and look to the next.
Speaking of what’s coming up, I will be back into literary territory with another author I have never read - Jack Kerouac. I’ll be taking on both On the Road and its semi-sequel The Dharma Bums. As always, thanks for reading and writing!
Back in 2015 when I started this blog, I wrote a piece about vacations that comes to mind every now and again. I penned it about a month after getting laid off and moving to a new apartment, and was quite uncertain about the direction of my life. My point here isn’t to really mess with that post (it holds its own lessons from the first time I went camping), but to rather find out how much I have changed since then.
This week we got to spend the entire week at the resort near the Chippewa Flowage. My mother-in-law was kind enough to rent two cabins this year so my wife Mary and I got one pretty much all to ourselves. The view from this cabin was extraordinary, and I found myself doing little else than sitting around staring at the lake for parts of the day. While I enjoyed every minute of being out there this week, I did learn some more about myself as a human and as a writer that I thought I should detail here.
So without further ado, more lessons to be learned from the wilderness above and beyond my earlier post on vacations and how they matter.
I may be going out into the woods for the third year, but I still have no idea what I’m doing. This became apparent the longer we spent out here, as the woodsy mentality accumulated by my wife’s family continued to overshadow any initiative I may have eked out. Most of them were constantly surveilling the fire pit making sure it was always going, they all knew how to get a rod ready for a line, and I wouldn’t have known the first thing about setting up a tent like their cousins do every year. I also almost hurt my wife in a dumb stunt with a canoe that taught me to listen up and pay attention to the people who are out here and know what they are doing.
The woods are a great place to unplug, but you don’t have to all the time. I made a big point in the previous vacation post by saying how I turned off my phone the entire trip. While that worked back then, I decided to take a different tack this time around and not only leave the phone on (this was partially to keep in contact with the cat sitter each day) but to document some of the trip on Twitter. I also brought my laptop but managed to check my email once the whole time.
Previous inebriations don’t do the trick. I once had a pretty unhealthy addiction to both cigarettes and alcohol, and while I have conquered both, this trip is always a gateway to getting back into both things. After a week I have it pretty well decided: I don’t like drinking and never will, and same with the smokes. I may have thought I needed such substances to have a good time (that was certainly my mindset circa 2006, and even somewhat circa 2015) but today I know that I don’t.
I love my life. As mentioned, the previous post regarding this Wisconsin trip was written at a time in which my life felt very much in flux. Just got fired, new apartment, going out on vacation where I don’t know a thing (not everything has changed). This time I had a bit more of a revelation: we tried to plan out stuff to do all week but even though we had seven days of pretty much nothing to do, we still didn’t get it all done. This made me think differently about our own lives and how day-to-day we try to cram in as much as possible. We think this should be done in “real” life but in actuality, if most of us had all the free time a week could offer we still couldn’t prioritize it all. Part of the trick is to just enjoy it, and this trip has taught me all the more how to do just that: I love our apartment, my wife, our kitties, and my career. Getting away from it all is important, but so is understanding what “it all” really is. The next step now that I’m back in Minnesota and back to work, is continuing the work with a new perspective.
Vacations (still) matter. It’s all in how you use the time, and what you get out of it.
Hello readers and welcome to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. To wrap up the first half I took on another female author and read Wise Blood. For the latter half of the year I’m going to switch up the formula but still continue to get as many books read in this year as I can. To that end, I’m going to put some titles together and see how they combine to show deeper writing lessons. As I said last time, it felt right to read James Baldwin now, so I this month I took on his 1963 classic The Fire Next Time and his 1957 novel Giovanni’s Room. Both were stunning in their own ways, so I want to get to the major lessons writers can learn from this landmark American author.
Using the novel/essay to speak about society. This is the entire point of The Fire Next Time, and I must say even in 2018 I don’t think I have come across as searing a dissection of religion and the ways it is used to manipulate people. The poignancy here comes from Baldwin’s refusal to make this a color issue, as he denounces both whites’ use of Christianity to cover up their racist minds, and blacks’ relatively more recent use of Islam to further a similar goal. As he discusses at length, both religions were used to preach an idea of a separation of the races, which Baldwin denounces in very stark terms as the opposite of what is needed in this nation. As we can see even today, this vision proved incredibly prophetic. This lesson can also be found in Giovanni’s Room, especially involving the way homosexuality was viewed in the West around this time (the main character describes it as against the law, which in many states it was at the time).
Use of imagery. This was possibly the highlight of Giovanni’s Room, as Baldwin uses basic language to describe the world of Paris (made up of stones that reflect light during the summer and repel it during the winter) and the people he meets (Giovanni and his “boyish” legs, his “leonine” figure, Jacques in his presence appears “very frail and old”), painting a world of intrigue the main character David is attempting to navigate. Though the story reflects Baldwin’s own of escaping cloistered America, David soon learns to resent most of Europe and its inhabitants as a scandal grows from his time in Paris.
Using the novel to reflect your own life. This is a lesson I continue to learn in new and different ways, and without a doubt Giovanni’s Room is a huge example of this. It is well known this book is a parallel to Baldwin’s own time spent in Europe, but he digs even deeper to dissect his relationship with Giovanni, in whose room they both stay for a period, and his own internal shameful thoughts and what they are doing. This becomes even more enhanced when David’s fiancee Hella arrives and he attempts to lead a double life, which leads to Giovanni’s ruin and eventual killing of another character. The end chapters of the novel become incredibly moving and deep as David puzzles through what he should do and while the ending is quite tragic, it contains much to understand about life in the world at this time.
I would highly recommend this author to anyone who seeks a better understanding of race and gender relations during the Cold War, and there were few more powerful American voices on this than Baldwin’s. I definitely will return to this author to gain more insight into these topics.
Up next, as promised I’m shifting the Reading List into a different territory, but one I’ve become more interested in over the years: drama. To that end I will be reading a pair of the greatest stage plays even written, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as well as possibly another “sort-of” drama if I have time. And stay tuned for an essay concerning what writers are for (especially now), as I have approached the ten-year mark of doing it in one form or another. Thanks as always for reading.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.