Hello readers and welcome to this special installment of the 2020 Reading List. As I mentioned in the last post I am pivoting to other literary genres through the end of the year and beyond. This is a route I have taken before with dramas and a graphic novel, but have not yet expanded. For now I wanted to start off the genre escapades with another “detour” as before, looking at some of the best regarded plays from the twentieth century: The Glass Menagerie and Waiting for Godot
The Glass Menagerie. This was Tennessee Williams’s first stage work, produced in 1944. While it seems simple by his later standards, the thematic elements that would garner him major fame are all here, albeit with a bit smaller cast and setting. This was the author’s most autobiographical play, pulling from his own life as he struggled with desires to leave home and his later realizations about his sister’s lobotomy. This comes across as the narrator Tom discusses his needs with the audience and then demonstrates them in the brief scenes. Williams decided to leave in the screen instructions from the original production to give some visual clues at various interludes. While my wife and I have seen his better known works performed at the Guthrie over the years, having never read this play I found it to be just as compelling and thoughtful about the vagaries of life.
Waiting for Godot. I decided to temper the angst of Williams with the absurdity of Beckett, reading his masterwork that premiered in 1953. This was without a doubt one of the most hilarious pieces I have read in a long while, and made me ponder the throughlines to the century’s later humorists, from Christopher Guest to Ricky Gervais. While you might be familiar with the overall thematic elements, if like me you have not encountered this work yet I would recommend it, as there is so much to interpret and enjoy. The dialogue alone rings with multiple meanings and concerns and elements that it’s hard to believe this is another work that accomplishes so much with just a few main characters. It was a true benchmark of comedic timing that has led to countless other references I have probably missed over my lifetime.
While I would recommend either of these works, I would like to state that mixing up genres is becoming an essential part of my reading. As promised, I will be diverting more in the coming months. Up next will be a book of poetry, Scott Edward Anderson’s 2018 collection Dwelling. Thanks as always for joining me on this reading adventure, and have a good holiday.
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!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.