Monday, January 26, 2015

Virginia and Vanessa

I've time for only a very quick post today, again drawing on Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf. Lee is particularly good on Virginia Woolf's relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell, making their combination of intimacy, love, need, jealousy, and competitiveness suitably complicated and wholly convincing. What caught my eye today was the following, from a letter Virginia wrote to Vanessa on February 20, 1922 after an afternoon spent with Vanessa where she must have let her jealousy--of Vanessa's lovers, children, Paris life, art--show:
Yes, I was rather depressed when you saw me--What it comes to is this: you say "I do think you lead a dull respectable absurd life--lots of money, no children, everything so settled: and conventional. Look at me now--only sixpence a year--lovers--Paris--life--love--art--excitement--God! I must be off." This leaves me in tears.
In a short paragraph, Woolf transforms her distress, no less painful for knowing that it's in some sense poorly founded, into a joke on her own absurdity--yet it's a joke that manages nonetheless to convey to her sister that the pain is real.

I'm rolling along happily with the biography, interrupted only by piano practice and work. Yet as good as it is, I'm having to fight the temptation that strikes any reader of a compelling biography of a writer: to take a break and re-read that writer's own work. There's a copy of Jacob's Room on the side table, calling to me . . .

Friday, January 23, 2015

Virginia Woolf, naturalist

Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf displays all her many strengths as a biographer: a seemingly insatiable appetite for research, an ability to synthesize huge numbers of disparate and complicated sources, an eye for a telling anecdote (and the ability to tell it, or get out of the way and let her sources tell it), and, most important, a powerful desire to understand. Again and again in this biography Lee offers us different possible Virginia Woolfs, different ways to read or understand particular actions, statements, or decisions. She has opinions, certainly, but while she clearly wants to end up with a coherent portrait, she's nearly as concerned with simply making sure that we understand the limitations of our definite knowledge. A biographer's art is necessarily speculative and interpretive; the better ones remind us of that regularly.

As Lee acknowledges on the first page, Woolf is a daunting figure for a biographer, if for no other reason that that there's been so much written about her, by her friends, family, and acquaintances, initially, and then by scholars in the decades since her death. In addition--and probably most important and most daunting--there are the thousands and thousands of pages of her own writing, particularly the essays, letters, and diaries, in which she presents, analyzes, and refracts her own personality and mind as they change over the years.

At the same time, those thousands of pages are a biographer's dream: they contain so many wonderful nuggets of insight, humor, aphorism, analysis, and character that choosing what to leave out is surely nearly as hard as figuring out what to draw on. Lee makes excellent use of the material, and in doing so she's all but cemented a hitherto vague conviction on my part that I will eventually need to read all of Woolf's writing--not just the novels and the handful of essays I've read and gone back to over the years, but the letters and diaries, too.

What caught my eye today was a small group of diary entries that Lee highlights, from 1917 to 1919, when Woolf took up diary writing again in earnest after a break in the early years of the war. She and Leonard were living in their country house at Asheham, and, as Lee explains,
To start with, as if a great soloist were getting back into shape with simple exercises, she put down brief, exact nature notes, suppressing the "I" of self ("went mushrooming") and becoming merely a mirror, a recorder, of wartime rural life.
Lee draws out a batch of those entries:
Swallows flying in great numbers very low and swift in the field.

The field full of swallows, & leaves broken off in bunches, so that the trees already look thin.

Found the same caterpillar--dark brown with 3 purple spots on either side of the head--that we found last year. We took him home . . . The caterpillar has disappeared. There is a purple smudge on the window sill, which makes it likely that he was crushed.

I waited for him [Leonard] in a barn, where they had cut mangolds which smelt very strong. A hen ate them.

The days melted into each other like snowballs roasting in the sun.
Elsewhere, Woolf refers to the "tragedy" of the smushed caterpillar.

Woolf's notes don't have quite the assurance of a true naturalist like Thoreau--you get the sense that Woolf still feels outside of nature in a way that Thoreau, at his most engaged, seems not to have--but they do share a keenness of eye, and a simplicity of description that lets natural objects be what they are, only later to be turned into ideas or symbols or metaphors. If Woolf's diary of that period is full of jottings like those, I think that volume is where I'll have to start reading.

Thoreau, of course, was also more analytical. Woolf was observing in order to limber up to write; Thoreau wrote to record, analyze, and understand. In his journal for January 22, 1859, he records an encounter with some caterpillars that highlights the difference. He spots some thin lines in the ice on the pond, and initially he thinks they're cracks:
But observing that some of them were peculiarly meandering, returning on themselves loopwise, I looked at them more attentively, and at length I detected at the inner end of one such line a small black speck about a rod from me. Suspecting this to be a caterpillar, I took steps to ascertain if it were, at any rate, a living creature, by discovering if it were in motion. It appeared to me to move, but it was so slowly that I could not be certain until I set up a stick on the shore or referred it to a fixed point on the ice, when I was convinced that it was a caterpillar crawling slowly toward the shore, or rather toward the willows. Following its trail back with my eye, I found that it came pretty directly from the edge of the old or thick white ice (i. e. from where the surface of the flood touched its sloping surface) toward the willows, from northeast to southwest, and had come about three rods. Looking more sharply still, I detected seven or eight such caterpillars within a couple of square rods on this crystallization, each at the end of its trail and headed toward the willows in the exact same direction. And there were the distinct trails of a great many more which had reached the willows or disappeared elsewhere. These trails were particularly distinct when I squatted low and looked over the ice, reflecting more light then. They were generally pretty direct toward the shore, or toward any clump of willows if within four or five rods. I saw one which led to the willows from the old ice some six rods off. Slowly as they crawled, this journey must have been made within a few hours, for undoubtedly this ice was formed since midnight. Many of the lines were very meandering, like this: --

and apparently began and ended with the thin ice. There was not enough ice to support even a caterpillar within three or four feet of the shore, for the water was still rapidly rising and not now freezing, and I noticed no caterpillars on the ice within several feet, but with a long stick I obtained quite a number.
Thoreau--after drawing those very Tristram Shandy-like squiggles--goes on to delineate the three types of caterpillar he gathered, note that they "All curled up when I rescued them," and then to speculate on how they got trapped on the pond in the first place. The thoughts lead him to a mini-rhapsody:
Undespairing caterpillars, determined to reach the shore! What risks they run who go to sleep for the winter in our river meadows!
Virginia Woolf may demonstrate and unexpected openness to nature; Hermione Lee may be a wonderfully perceptive biographer of powerfully intelligent writers. But if a biographer of the caterpillar is ever needed, I think Thoreau's your guy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Woolf on Forster

A relatively recent re-reading of Howard's End, followed by Damon Galgut's fictional imagining of E. M. Forster's life, Arctic Summer, has left me with Forster on the brain lately. So I was pleased to encounter this brief sketch of Forster in Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, from Woolf's diary for 1919:
Morgan is easily drowned. . . . He is an unworldly, transparent character, whimsical and detached, caring very little I should think what people say, & with a clear idea of what he wishes. I dont think he wishes to shine in intellectual society; certainly not in fashionable. He is fantastic & very sensitive; an attractive character to me, though from his very qualities it takes as long to know him as it used to take to put one's gallipot over a humming bird moth. More truly, he resembles a vaguely rambling butterfly; since there is no intensity or rapidity about him. To dominate the talk would be odious to him.
As Lee puts it, "His tentativeness made her tentative," though that wouldn't keep them from developing a genuine, if at times strained, appreciation for each other's work.

The tentativeness Woolf describes dominates the portrait of Forster that emerges from Damon Galgut's novel, and it's easy to understand, given Forster's situation as a closeted gay man bound to a difficult mother. The novel is much more about the life, and the man, than the work, though Galgut does a far from poor job at the difficult work of uniting them, and the fiction's focus on the difficulties, and necessity, of connection becomes all the more poignant when seen in a context where so much can't be said, or acknowledged. That enforced silence reaches its painful climax when Forster's Egyptian lover dies, and Forster can do little but record the event in his diary.

That moment, and its pain, came to mind when, flipping through Forster's biography of his aunt, Marianne Thornton, I hit upon this passage:
Anyone who has waited in vain for a beloved person will understand what she felt. A wound has been inflicted which no subsequent reunion quite heals. The insecurity against which we all struggle has taken charge of us for a moment--for the moment that is eternity. The moment passes, and perhaps the beloved face is seen after all and the form embraced, but the watcher has become aware of the grave.
Only connect, because while all connections will be severed someday, their strength is the bulwark that keeps that knowledge in check, keeps our unknown yet inescapable fate from overwhelming our very existence.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Rasputin the Nicknamer

Dan Carlin recently released another episode, the fifth, of Blueprint for Armageddon, his account of World War I for his Hardcore History podcast. This one runs more than four hours and takes the war through the end of 1916, by which time things have gotten really complicated: it's clear that the United States will likely enter the war soon, Russia is teetering, and Germany and France have both nearly been bled dry.

The best part, though, is the arrival of Rasputin. Can anyone with a pulse not find him fascinating? There's not much new in Carlin's telling of the story of Rasputin for anyone who has read up on the Mad Monk, but there was one moment that really amused me. As part of his explanation of how Rasputin was able to worm his way into the royal family, and thereby the lives of the Russian nobility, Carlin points out that contemporary accounts describe him as being entertaining, his wild ways and unbuttoned approach a hit at parties. Carlin quotes from a book on Rasputin by Joseph Furhmann on the topic of the acute, funny, even cutting nicknames he would give to members of the Tsar's circle. To wit:
Rasputin was fun. It was a pleasure to be in his company He gave people nicknames, and they were often cutting and quite appropriate. He might dub a woman "Hot Stuff," "Boss Lady," "Sexy Girl," or "Good-Looking"; while a man would be called "Fancy Pants," "Big Breeches," "Long Hair," or "Fella." People accepted this as a charming characteristic, the humor of a peasant, who meant no disrespect.
Seriously? That's how respectful, hidebound, and stultifying noble life in pre-revolutionary Russia was, that nicknames as bland and innocuous as these could be seen as clever? Could be seen as clever enough to be remembered and quoted later? Good lord. I know there were a lot of valid reasons for the Tsar to be overthrown, but--horrors of the revolution of course aside--that might in itself be enough reason to rally to the barricades.

If you're interested in WWI or are simply a history buff, you should definitely check out Carlin's podcast. Twenty or so hours in, with a lot of the war to go, it already stands as a very impressive achievement, a telling of history that is fully alive, energetic, and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A missive from Texas warms my winter . . .

I am pleased beyond measure to be able to share the news that my Mysterious Correspondent from Texas--who in the past has sent wonderful unsigned postcards and letters--has found me at my new home!

Frustratingly, I seem to have left the actual card at my office, so you'll have to wait for a photo, but here's the gist: my correspondent suggests I check out Jocelyn Brooke's Orchid Trilogy, noting that the 1981 edition has an introduction by Anthony Powell. And, to my great entertainment, the date is marked "N. S.," so we know that he's dating the year from January 1, the Gregorian approach.

The tip on Brooke, whose book I immediately grabbed from the library, is greatly appreciated. I'll be reading it in the coming weeks, but I have already enjoyed Anthony Powell's introduction, which, like nearly all of his writing about other writers, is perceptive and personal, showing us their work through Powell's own interests and concerns.

One passage in particular struck me as appropriate in the context of my correspondent:
I was never a close friend of Jocelyn Brooke's, but we corresponded quite often, and he was one of those people to whom one wrote letters with great ease. He speaks more than once of his own liking for that sort of relationship, a kind that did not make him feel hemmed in. There are several incidents in his books when the narrator refuses an invitation from someone with whom he is getting on pretty well so that it was no great surprise when, a few months after Brooke had stayed with us for a weekend, he politely excused himself from another visit on grounds of work. The reason may have been valid enough, writing time always hard to conserve, but one suspected his sense of feeling "different," unwillingness to cope with face-to-face cordialities of a kind that might at the same time be agreeable in letters.
As someone who constantly has to fight the pull of home and quiet semi-solitude, I understand completely, and value the sort of friendship Powell describes.

Thanks, ! I'll report back on Brooke down the line . . .

Monday, January 12, 2015

One last (?) ride in The Getaway Car

It's been a while since I gathered reviews for The Getaway Car, and a big one has just appeared to cap off a long and very gratifying publicity run, so I hope you won't mind indulging me in a bit of linking and smiling. Like I told Gil Roth when he interviewed me for his Virtual Memories podcast recently, the nice thing about editing a book of someone else's work is that you can sing its praises wholeheartedly without feeling fully sheepish: it's their work, after all, not yours.

The biggest review thus far came from the Wall Street Journal, in which William Kristol went a bit farther than even I would be willing to go:
I hope I won’t shock anyone, but will merely expose myself to good-natured ridicule, if I profess myself inclined to the opinion that Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008) was the greatest modern American novelist.
The best thing about that review was that Kristol urged people not just to get The Getaway Car, but to go pick up the Parker books, too--and subsequent sales showed that a lot of folks took his advice.

Perhaps the review that meant the most to me came from the Washington Post, where Michael Dirda--a longtime IBRL favorite--was full of praise:
The Getaway Car may seem an odd title for a nonfiction miscellany, but it derives from a remark by Abby Adams Westlake. Her husband, she said, “no matter where he was headed, always drove like he was behind the wheel of the getaway car.” That suggests something of the rush and exhilaration with which most readers will turn these pages.
Having Michael Dirda say that the book was "expertly edited" really warmed my heart.

In the Daily Beast, longtime Westlake fan Malcolm Jones raved about the book and the oeuvre:
Is a posthumous collection of miscellaneous pieces (even one as smartly edited as this one) a good place to first encounter a writer known for his fiction? Normally I would say no, but in Westlake’s case, there really is no wrong way to approach his work. It is after all his sensibility—funny, fatalistic, humane but never sappy and always a little off kilter—that gives his writing its flavor, and you can find that sensibility in these pages as surely as you can in the novels. Because ultimately Westlake was not this kind of writer, or that kind, not a crime writer, or a satirist, or a comedian. He was just a writer, and as good as they come.
In the Guardian, meanwhile, my online friend P. D. Smith wrote a brief, but very appreciative review--the subhead says it all:
This wonderful collection, edited by Levi Stahl, includes entertaining autobiographical insights from the prolific American crime writer.
And then, to cap it all off, the New York Times Book Review on Sunday featured a brief review by Charles Finch (who earlier in the Chicago Tribune had named The Getaway Car one of the five best books to get a suspense fan this year). Finch wrote:
"This is a book for fans," Stahl insists in his introduction—the sole misstep of his whole enterprise, because in fact this is a book for everyone, anyone who likes mystery novels or good writing or wit and passion and intelligence, regardless of their source. . . . Stahl has assembled these pieces both lovingly and wisely. . . . A collection [that] one hopes will find him new readers.
Don't mind me. I'll just be over here blushing. I knew going into this project that I was going to enjoy the whole process, but the ride has been even more fun than I expected--thanks for going along on it with me.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Another winter reveler

In Wednesday's post, I all but nominated Thoreau as the patron saint of winter. Who else, I asked, made a better companion than this hiker of frozen swamps and admirer of frost?

It was only later that another name came to mind, a writer who could almost be seen as a bright mirror image of Thoreau, another man with hermitic tendencies, a love of nature, and an appreciation of wintry landscapes. But whereas Thoreau is prickly, this man's manner is genial, wry, even puckish: E. B. White.

White's descriptions of the wintry Maine countryside, often sent in letters back to friends in New York City, make the cold and snow seem as enchanting as a Currier and Ives print, or a Christmas carol sleigh ride. Here he is on New Year's Eve, 1937, writing to his wife, Katharine:
I don't know when I've had a better time, sick or well. If you were here it would be perfect. Had a good night's sleep, and this morning am almost whole--no more throat. The snow stopped at nightfall and this morning is bright, clear, cold and gorgeous--the harbor (half frozen over) shining in the sun; the little boys, too, shining in the sun. . . . . A country town on a snowy morning is agreeably deceptive--it leads one to believe there can be no bad in the world--even the dogs feel the extra gaiety and goodness.
Now despite my origins, I'm city folk through and through . . . but as I look out my back window onto our small backyard (the first time I've had a backyard as an adult), there is something about the pristine sweep of snow, overlooked by a benevolent birch tree, that calls to mind country pleasures, and country quiet, both best enjoyed in winter.

Here's White writing about a cold spell at the tail end of winter, from a letter of March 18, 1922:
This is really a most cheery and exciting time of year--the world holds its breath, anticipating the great event. Farm animals stand motionless against the mows, which at this season are gutted all round the base from being eaten into so much; country schools hold session with doors tight shut and windows; streams, silent beneath a thin crisp coat of ice, throw back the mild grey glare of the sky; cats, hunting in brown fields, are poised in the midst of motion, as though caught by the cold; and sad-eyed loungers at the cross-road inns stand blankly up against the outworn bar, awaiting the provocation to spit. A most cheery time of year.
White's letters, as much as those of any writer's I've read, are performances: feeling peeks through, especially when, as in the top letter, he's writing to his wife, but in the main they're deliberate and polished. This letter is a good example: the long series of observations of nature under cold has all the clarity and rhythm of finished prose. Try saying that line about the "sad-eyed loungers" aloud; it's a marvel.

As the mercury declares its intention to plunge yet again--like a high-diver, it climbed only briefly in order to show off, in its case with some lovely snow--I'll leave you with one last description, of a bitter late cold snap, described in a letter from April 4, 1954:
Blowing a living gale here from the NW, and the temperature this morning early was 10 degrees. All water pails frozen solid, pasture pond solid, all doors resisting all attempts at ingress and egress, frost-proof valve on outside water line frozen, master of house all alone and frozen, barnyard sunny and full of little black-faced lambs and their mammas. I have spent most of my time, since getting here, keeping the kitchen stove hooked up to fever pitch. Coldest 4th of April since 1879. Am living on a straight diet of rye whiskey and Franco-American spaghetti.
Rather than rye, I'm opting for coffee, and it's ready, so I'll sign off. Stay warm, folks.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Feeling the bite of winter's bone

{Photos by

It is currently -2 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago. Out in the 14 mph wind, it feels like -22.

At times like these, I always find myself thinking of Thoreau. Has anyone ever reveled in the cold like he does in his journals? His entry for January 7, 1856 is fairly matter-of-fact in its treatment of the cold:
At breakfast time the thermometer stood at -12 degrees. Earlier it was probably much lower. Smith's was at -24 early this morning. The latches are white with frost at noon. They say there was yet more snow at Boston, two feet even.
Straightforward, but that detail about the latches just chills you to the bone, doesn't it?

Things were milder by the 10th:
The weather has considerably moderated; -2 degrees at breakfast time, but this has been the coldest night probably. You lie with your feet or legs curled up, waiting for morning, the sheets shining with frost about your mouth. Water left by the stove is frozen thickly, and what you sprinkle in bathing falls on the floor ice. The house plants are all frozen and soon droop and turn black. I look out on the roof of a cottage covered a foot deep with snow, wondering how the poor children in its garret, with their few rags, contrive to keep their toes warm. I mark the white smoke from its chimney, whose contracted wreaths are soon dissipated in this stinging air, and think of the size of their wood-pile, and again I try to realize how they panted for a breath of cool air those sultry nights last summer. Realize it now if you can. Recall the hum of the mosquito.
What strikes you in that passage is its simple noticing: shivering, Thoreau nonetheless attends to detail.

I've never had to live with indoor cold quite like what he's describing, but his description of frost-rimed sheets does raise a chilly memory from late December 1996, as London endured what we were told at the time was its coldest stretch in history. (Let's be clear that it wasn't that cold, folks: Blitz aside, you Londoners are wimps.) The pipes supplying the semi-squalid travelers' house in Neasden where I was renting a room froze and broke, soaking the epidemiological minefield that was the living room carpet and knocking out the power--and heat. A flame-spitting hallway Salamander was better than what kings could have expected in medieval times, but the air upstairs was nonetheless bounteous in cold. It felt like nothing so much as walking through physical curtains of cold, or a host of ghostly presences, each caressing your face with a searingly lifeless finger. And when you got into bed, fully dressed, you could never quite shake the feeling that the sheets were icily damp.

Tomorrow, as I walk the mile to the L, I'll try to keep in mind Thoreau's enthusiasm, from later in that day's entry:
I love to wade and flounder through the swamp now, these bitter cold days when the snow lies deep on the ground, and I need travel but little way from the town to get to a Nova Zembla solitude.
Like Thoreau, I love my solitude, but I'll confess to preferring the version I have right now: sitting in my warm, if drafty library, blankets and lap cats close to hand.

Bundle up, folks.

Monday, January 05, 2015

MacDonald, McGee, and Big Data

The holiday weekend found me up to Free Fall in Crimson (1981) in my ongoing slow re-reading of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, which I last read in high school. At that point, I took all of MacDonald's pronouncements about life and society--divided almost equally between McGee and his friend Meyer--as truths, bordering on revelation. Newly encountered, at midlife, they are, not surprisingly, less convincing. Some observations give off a rancid whiff of blowhardism; others seem to protest too much--primarily those in which MacDonald opposes his thoughts on sex and women to Hefner's, while forty years later we can barely distinguish daylight between them; and some simply offer thoughts about society and its direction that weren't borne out.

It's nearly all forgivable. MacDonald was trying to do something more than just write about a tough guy; the attempt is admirable in itself, and it succeeds almost as often as it fails. Where those reflections do still work is in McGee's frequent sessions of self-lacerating doubt about his life and persona, reflections. As the series wears on, I find myself more and more drawn to those, seeing them as MacDonald's own voice, and a more honest assessment of the trap of the series writer than any I've encountered elsewhere.

What I find most interesting about the McGee novels, ultimately, is the snapshot they offer of a certain strain of postwar American social life and culture. Florida is MacDonald's primary subject, of course, and in the years he was writing it was undergoing an irreversible transformation into the all-concrete, all-tourist landscape that it is now. He shows us a world of small towns where people are worried about their place in the social fabric. We see suburbanites willing to risk all to maintain their status, a status that is clearly communicated by the size and style of their houses and cars. We see modest downtowns still alive with local shops, restaurants, and hotels, yacht clubs with available waitresses, tennis clubs with randy pros, the whirlwind drunken world of the postwar suburban boom, fierce and feckless. MacDonald loathes it--or, more properly, its refusal to ask any questions other than "How much?"--so we get it at its worst, but its seductions, or compulsions, nonetheless peek through now and again. By the time McGee had his last adventure in the early 1980s, that world would be mostly gone, already malled, fully corporatized, and, within another generation, about to be Internetted, but I doubt MacDonald would find its replacement any more tolerable.

Another preoccupation is with the standardization and record-keeping of modern life, and how its perpetual creep impinges ever more on individual choice, liberty, and anonymity. McGee, whose occupation and income wouldn't bear much scrutiny, objects on both practical and philosophical grounds, and it's reasonable to assume that MacDonald felt the same. Which makes the following passage from Free Fall in Crimson fascinating: Meyer is explaining to McGee that the profusion of computers and data will actually be good for someone like him, its overwhelming scale guaranteeing that any single person can learn to hide in it:
If you try to hide, you are easy to find. You are leaving only one trail in the jungle, and the hounds can follow that one. Leave forty trails, crossing and re-crossing. The computers are strangling on data. The courts are strangling on caseload. Billions of pieces of paper are floating around each month, clogging the inputs, confusing the outputs. . . . Think of it this way, Travis. With each new computer that goes into service, your identity becomes more and more diffuse and unreal. Right now today, if every man, woman, and child were put to work ten hours a day reading computer printouts, just scanning the alphabetical and numerical output of the printers, they could cover about one third of what it is being produced. Recycling of computer printout paper is a giant industry. We're all sinking into the oblivion of profusion, and one day soon we will all be gone, with no way to trace us.
It's easy to understand why MacDonald got this one so wrong: who among laymen would have predicted the incredible improvements in our ability to sort and store data? But I will admit to surprise along a slightly different axis: Surely anyone as cynical as MacDonald about the motives of his fellow man in pursuit of power or money could have predicted that people wouldn't stop until they found a way to put all that information to use?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best of . . . well, not of the year. Or even anything beyond a narrow slice of publishing. But oh, what a great slice!

I drew up a brief list of the books I most enjoyed reading this year for Proustitute's blog that will appear laster this week. I'll tweet and post a link to it when it shows up (though until then, you could do worse than trawling through the other lists he's gathered--I've already found some promising new books that way).

Rather than rehash that list, I'll do something different here. There's no secret that my favorite publisher--other, that is, than the one that pays my salary--is New York Review of Books Classics. They take up more than half a bookcase in my library. Those shelves contain nearly as many unread books--stored away against a rainy day--as favorites, and nothing that's not at least of interest.

But which are my favorites? Which do I return to again and again? Which recommend most often? It's not an easy choice--easier than picking my favorite of our three cats, but not wildly so. Still, five it is, so here they are (with apologies to Alvaro Mutis, Rebecca West, William Dean Howells, Thomas Browne, Richard Hughes, Elizabeth Taylor, Elaine Dundy, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Felix Feneon, Raymond Kennedy, John Williams, Edith Wharton, and so many others who could have made this list).

J. F. Powers/The Stories of J. F. Powers

Powers could easily be on this list for any of the three books NYRB Classics publishes. His novels Morte D'Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, especially the former, are masterpieces of thoughtful comedy, their satire pointed and effective while not carrying anything like the scorched-earth quality so often found in that form. Powers shows us human frailty, but nonetheless leaves us with belief--belief, if not always or necessarily in the god the priests he writes about purportedly serve, then at least in the value of acts of human kindness and morality.

I selected the short stories rather than the novels for the simple reason that the collection includes my two favorite pieces of Powers's writing: "A Losing Game," which may be the funniest story I've ever read (I have tried many times to read the first pages aloud to friends, and I've never gotten through it without dissolving into laughter), and, even more remarkable, its sequel, "The Presence of Grace," which within a few short pages transforms a priest whom we've seen as a figure of fun into, for one shimmering moment, an agent of grace.

Daphne Du Maurier/Don't Look Now

I first encountered Du Maurier as a child, when Robert Arthur included "The Birds" in one of the many Alfred Hitchcock-branded anthologies of suspense stories for children that he edited. I read and re-read that story, year after year, to the point where even today I know many sentences by heart--which I realized a few years back as I listened to an old radio adaptation and found myself speaking along with it.

I wrote about "The Birds" a few years ago, and what I said about why the story affected me so deeply as a kid remains true:
Death in "The Birds," whether avian or human, is concrete and horrible. It takes something beautiful and right--a living, moving, even graceful creature--and it replaces it with a broken thing, a perversion, an object of horror. It is irreversible, and, as the tension mounts, page by page, it seems increasingly inevitable. To a child, that knowledge is as chilling as anything. I read the story again and again, knowing the bleak ending would never change.
And that's only one story! Du Maurier was a master of the tightly turning suspense story, and this collection is full of them. A few are relatively slight, but they're never less than surprising, and the best of them are genuinely creepy and strange. "The Birds" may be unshakable because of childhood, but the one that I think will stay with me as an adult is "Monte Verità," a novella-length tale of interwar rootlessness, hopeless love, and the slow erasure of the hidden places of the earth. It's a daring story with a mystical tinge, and you turn its last page feeling as if you've been returned from somewhere very far away--possibly against your will.

Robert Burton/The Anatomy of Melancholy

I came to this book through Anthony Powell, who makes his fictional stand-in in A Dance to the Music of Time, a fan (and eventual biographer) of Burton. Powell admires the sheer surfeit of the Anatomy's 1,200-plus pages, its cascade of endless sentences and quotations and interpolations, the sense it gives of an attempt--under the guise of delineating and explicating melancholy--to take in all of the drivers and hidden currents of human life.

I'll admit to not having read nearly all of the Anatomy, but that doesn't keep me from wholeheartedly endorsing it in this list: it's not a book to read all of, but one to keep at your side for occasional investigation, serious or otherwise. For example, after hearing Melvyn Bragg devote an episode of his BBC radio program In Our Time to the book, I looked (with the help of Google Books) for "news" and found a passage that, if we imagine it beaten into submission with the AP Stylebook, could describe our media environment today:
Be content; 'tis but a nine dayes wonder; and as one sorrow drives out another, one passion another, one cloud another, one rumour is expelled by another; every day almost, come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors seen i'th' aire, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earth-quake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China, an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prage, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, prest to death, for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression; all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation; but by and by they are buried in silence: thy father's dead, thy brother rob'd, wife runs mad, neighbour hath kild himselfe; 'tis heavy, gastly, fearful newes at first, in every mans mouth, table talk; but, after a while, who speaks or thinks of it? It will be so with thee and thine offence: it will be forgotten in an instant, be it theft, rape, sodomy, murder, incest, treason, &c. thou art not the first offender, nor shalt thou be the last; 'tis no wonder; every houre such malefactors are called in question: nothing so common,
Even better, however, is to use the book like the ancients used to use Virgil, as I did with my Thanksgiving post. The sortes Burtonae rarely will divulge anything like comprehensible prophecy, but it is almost guaranteed to offer some previously unnoted gem. Let's give it a try:
We watch a sorrowful person, lest he abuse his solitariness, and so should we do a melancholy man; set him about some business, exercise, or recreation, which may divert his thoughts, and still keep him otherwise intent; for his phantasy is so restless, operative and quick, that if it be not in perpetual action, ever employed, it will work upon itself, melancholize, and be carried away instantly, with some fear, jealousy, discontent, suspicion, some vain conceit or other.
May the melancholy man be always accompanied by Burton.

J. L. Carr/A Month in the Country

This slim novel is the most haunting, and maybe the most moving, of all the NYRB Classics I've read. A young man returns from World War I and takes a job restoring a medieval mural in a country church. He sleeps out in the bell tower, surrounded by quiet--Carr makes us feel the comforting warmth of the English summer--as each day he scrapes away just a bit more of the covering to reveal the anonymous painter's hellish vision of the apocalypse.

It's a novel about loss, and, obliquely, about war. About returning a different person to a place become different itself, and thus being rootless. About that feeling of being between--of watching days peel off the calendar pleasurably, but darkened by the endpoint you know is nearing. It's about craft, and work, and solitude, and the power of all three to transport and transform us, about what a job done well can do for the doer. And it's about the risks we court when we open our hearts, especially--as with Carr's protagonist--when we've just come from a situation that demanded we close them.

A Month in the Country is a book I return to reliably every few years. I'm rewarded each time, and I don't see that changing in the decades to come.

(Actually, this book would be worth buying solely for Michael Holroyd's introduction, which includes a bizarre, Carr-related story of a literary prize that bestows meat on its winners.)

Henry David Thoreau/The Journal, 1837-1861

This final book, like Burton's, is more one for dipping into than for reading straight through. It's not been far out of my reach at any time since it was published. Through these journals Thoreau emerges, to my mind, as more interesting, more companionable, less irritating (for, let's be honest, he can be irritating) than anywhere else. He goes about in nature, and we walk alongside, day by month by year.

Whereas Burton is best enjoyed through the index or randomness, Thoreau's journal is perhaps most fun as a regular companion, a way to peer through the years to see what this specific day, long past, was like. As I write this, Christmas approaches--and on that day in 1856 a thirty-nine-year-old Thoreau offers advice from experience
Take long walks in stormy weather, or through deeps snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.
Though I will admit to having no intention of following Thoreau's advice--a seat by the Christmas tree with my family and cups of tea beckon instead--I find it bracing nonetheless. Day after day after day, he's there with you; you'll never regret it if you decide to join him on his daily wanderings.

Happy holidays, folks. Here's to another year of great reading (and perhaps even more reliable blogging? I can hope . . . )