Tag Archives: Books

Ranking Ernest Hemingway’s novels

Zelda Fitzgerald, who did not suffer fools gladly unless she married them, had his number from the start: “Bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullshit” goes her famous dismissal of Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. The more professional Hemingway got, the more his point of view curdled into self-pity; all he could do was marshal that semaphore of a style in the service of male blowhards beset by women, children, the elements, fish, and themselves. And the piety of his followers didn’t help. John O’Hara claimed the following about Across the River and Into the Trees, presumably while sober and eating ham and eggs: “The most important author living today, the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare, has brought out a new novel…The author, of course, is Ernest Hemingway, the most important, the outstanding author out of the millions of writers who have lived since 1616.” The “of course” is a delectable touch.

He’s best read when young. A three-page story about a fever-stricken boy who confuses Celsius with Fahrenheit temperatures called “A Day’s Wait” inspired me in eighth grade to buy the Scribner’s paperback of his collected short stories. Reading the deflowering scene in “Up in Michigan” — a scene devoid of romance — was my first acquaintance with Adult Fiction. Few American writers conjured the erotic pleasure of eating: a story called “The Battler,” A Farewell to Arms‘ Lieutenant Frederic Henry keeping anxiety over his wife’s labor at bay by stuffing himself with tapas. He introduced me to Pernod and casual racism and anti-Semitism.

His long fiction only touched the hem of goodness once. The posthumous The Garden of Eden would rank higher were it not for its discursiveness and lack of polish: the only time he examined the machismo he had done so much to promote; a queer novel, a discomfiting one in which the reader can sense the material sprinting away from Papa (“a pansy with hair on his chest,” good ol’ Zelda also remarked in the 1920s). Don’t skip it, though, if the Hemingway cult still mystifies you.

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Irrational exuberance: ranking Saul Bellow’s novels

His novels are so lumpy, right? Rereading Humboldt’s Gift several years ago, I’m having the same trouble with its anxious plotting and almost flippant way with chronology as I did a decade earlier. The only post-Herzog I enjoyed was Humboldt’s Gift, more for the exuberance of the last eighty pages. Henderson and Mr Sammler’s Planet are such ponderosities – and they’re shorter than Augie March. Tracing the etioliation of post-1930s radicalism into neoconservatism is easy with figures like Bellow. By the time he wrote The Dean’s December the transformation into sour crank was complete. After a while it mattered little that He Wrote Well; by the seventies his style was hard candy with a booger stuck to it.

However, his short stories and novellas don’t get enough attention. “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” is as generous and hilarious as his long fiction, and “A Silver Dish,” “Mosby’s Memoirs,” and “By the St. Lawrence” are a notch below. Collected Stories is the Bellow from which I still derive pleasure. James Wood’s introduction is less hagiographic than expected, less than Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens; he explains what animates Bellow’s less strenuous sentences (I suspect a certain male British “stylist” loved Below because his prolixity rated as admirably indecorous). Bellow is the sort of writer for whom “Dickensian zest” is most prudently handled by sprinkling its citrus delights over a cold salad.

The Hague

The Dean’s December
Henderson the Rain King


Dangling Man

More Die of Heartbreak
Mr. Sammler’s Planet

Sound, Solid

Humboldt’s Gift
The Bellarosa Connection
The Victim
The Actual

Good to Great

Seize the Day
The Adventures of Augie March

The best books of 2019

I read fewer new novels than I would’ve liked in 2019. Beginning last January with Rebecca Makkai’s uneven, likely classic The Great Believers, I trudged through an estimated two dozen histories and biographies and old favorites. Sally Rooney’s 2017 Conversations with Friends and Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 A Little Life consumed time, fruitful and otherwise. The former’s study of the ambiguity of erotic friendships among women fascinated me, while the latter’s eloquent passages couldn’t hold their own against the garish and offensive ones; A Little Life‘s mania for suffering wore me down.

Below are five books in which I found pleasure, even if my readers find the inclusion of a 1973 novel given a New York Review Books spit polish an indulgence. My blog, dammit.

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What I read in 2019

I read a bunch this year, and the list as usual includes books to which I returned for seconds or in some cases fourths (Jude the Obscure, The Europeans). W.S. Merwin, Toni Morrison and Harold Bloom died. Tomorrow I’ll write a few blurbs on a few of the year’s most notable books.

Not included: poetry collections.

Rebecca Makkai – The Great Believers
Muriel Spark – The Mandelbaum Gate
Muriel Spark – Symposium
Irving Howe – Leon Trotsky
Anthony Trollope –Framley Parsonage
Elizabeth Bowen – The Death of the Heart
* Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
Ursula K. Le Guin – The Word for World is Forest
Madeleine L’Engle – Many Waters
Bob Spitz – Ronald Reagan: An American Journey
Jane Sherron De Hart – Ruth Bader Ginsberg: A Life
* Henry James – The Europeans
Zachary Leader – The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife, 1965-2005
Andrew Britton – Katherine Hepburn: Star as Feminist
Richard White – The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896
Richard Stern – Other Men’s Daughters
Denis Diderot – Rameau’s Nephew
Andrew S. Curran – Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
Joan Biskupic – The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts
* Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
Elizabeth Bowen – The Hotel
Toni Morrison – The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Fiona MacCarthy – Byron: Life and Legend
Richard Stern – Natural Shocks
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Elena Ferrante – The Story of the Lost Child
Thomas Mann – The Holy Sinner
Willa Cather – Lucy Gayhear
Nicholas Lemann – The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America
John Williams – Nothing But the Night
Thomas Mann – Doctor Faustus
Wilkie Collins – The Law and the Lady
* Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure
Amanda Hollis-Brusky – Ideas with Consequences: The Federalist Society and the Conservative Counterrevolution
Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child
Albert Camus – The First Man
David Thomson – Gary Cooper
Evan Thomas – First: Sandra Day O’Connor
Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
Julian Jackson – France, The Dark Years: 1940-1944
Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
Robert A. Caro – Means of Ascent
Henry Green – Doting
Elizabeth Taylor – Angel
H.W. Brands – Heirs of the Founders: Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants
Raymond Williams – The Long Revolution
William Faulkner – Go Down, Moses
Elizabeth Taylor – A View of the Harbour
Thomas Mallon – Landfall
* Henry James – The Princess Casamassima
Hanif Abdurraqib – Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest
Corey Robin – The Enigma of Clarence Thomas
* E.M. Forster – The Longest Journey
Herman Melville – Typee
Toni Morrison – Jazz
Anthony Summers – Not in Your Lifetime: The Defining Book on the J.F.K. Assassination
Ocean Vuong – On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
J. Douglas Smith – On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States
Richard Ellmann – Yeats: The Man and the Mask
Elizabeth Taylor – A Game of Hide and Seek
J.E. Ballard – Concrete Island
Victor Serge – The Death of Comrade Tulayev
Hanya Yanagihara – A Little Life
Vita Sackville-West – All Passion Spent
Julian Jackson – A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle
Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer – Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
Elizabeth Taylor – The Soul of Kindness
Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends
* Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own
Charles Kaiser – The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
Richard Wright – Black Boy
Margaret A. Hagerman – White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America
Susan Sontag – The Benefactor
Thomas Mann – A Sketch of My Life
Jeffrey Rosen – William Howard Taft
Benjamin Moser – Sontag: Her Life and Work
Edward Said – Culture and Imperialism
Brenda Wineapple – The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
* Muriel Spark – The Driver’s Seat
Andrew Delbanco – Melville: His World and Work
* George Eliot – Daniel Deronda
Charles Moore – Margaret Thatcher At Her Zenith
Joan Didion – A Book of Common Prayer
Nick White – How to Survive a Summer
Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing
Joseph Roth – The Hundred Years

Art and ardor: ‘Little Women’

Film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel reflect their decades. An air of making-do with genteel poverty suffuses George Cukor’s 1933 Depression-era version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo March. The air of a proficient radio show melodrama characterizes the credible 1949 version directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation glows as if the four sisters stoked a fire in their hearts. Not for Greta Gerwig gentility or stoicism. In the writer-director’s telling, the March sisters rush pell-mell through rooms and across each other’s sentences; the camera and editing can hardly keep up. It took a half hour to adjust to its rhythms before this Little Women charmed the hell out of me. It makes you work, like a worthwhile relationship. Continue reading

On impeachment, moderation, and whiteness

Inspired by Brenda Wineapple’s fine recent study of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Alex Pareene intertwines the similarities between Johnson and Trump’s voting bases, the political establishment’s fetish for moderation, and having the moral clarity to recognize what is at stake by leaving Trump in office for the sake of keeping his attention long enough to sign legislation.

I’ve written often about the snow job that teachers did on us high schoolers when we got to Reconstruction. Presented as a well-intentioned mangling that ushered in the so-called Gilded Age, Reconstruction was taught as if textbook writers had toiled at the bottom of the ocean to avoid dealing with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts passed a century after the Civil War ended; if they endorsed those attempts to redress a hundred years of spilled blood, then a good faith argument required them to credit the Radical Republicans of 1866 and 1867 for wrenching leadership away from the racist demagogue in the White House whom Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to woo War Democrats, had placed on the ticket a few years earlier.


The Radicals were right about nearly everything, and the moderates—who made a big show of caution and deference to the Constitution and generous accommodation to the office of the president—were plainly wrong. The ones who didn’t even have skin in the game but who wanted representation for those who did were correct to be fanatical in their pursuit of a more perfect country—and, more important, they were right about the baleful and regressive consequences of moderation in the face of extremist and reactionary unreason.

And any actually reasonable observer of American politics over the last several decades would have to conclude that it isn’t the diversity of one party that has led to gridlock. Rather, it’s been the brittle, homogeneous outlook of a conservative party that increasingly counts on a base that is overwhelmingly white and male—but, of course, anyone posing as a moderate interlocutor of good faith can blame their extremism on the diversity of the other side. “Radical liberals made me more racist” is, alas, not a remotely novel claim in American politics. Wineapple writes how, after Johnson angrily declared that “this is a country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men,” The Chicago Times—a reasonable Republican paper of the time—wrote: “If he used the language attributed to him, it was undoubtedly in reply to fanaticism and impudence.” In other words: The Radical Republicans made him do it.

We’ve heard variations on the last sentence from our Trump-loving relatives: if liberals didn’t push bathroom bills, paper straws, panic over rising seas, and an equitable health care system, I wouldn’t have voted for the racist!

In the last week we’ve heard testimony from career diplomats that in another era would have flipped a couple of querulous Republicans and instead will remind Americans which party cares about the Constitution. I waffled too on the political merits of impeachment; I’m no legislator. If Pareene is chiding Democratic leadership for abjuring its constitutional duties until early October, he’s not wrong, which makes the timing of this essay unusual.

‘It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell’

Long neglected, Léonie Adams wrote a chiseled verse that, published at modernism’s peak, hearkened to a Pre-Raphaelite splendor. Her friend Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower” bore a heavy debt to Adams’ “The Bell Tower,” posted below.

I have seen, O desolate one, the voice has its tower,
The voice also, builded at secret cost,
In temple of precious tissue. Not silent then
Forever – casting silence in your hour.

There marble boys are leant from the light throat,
Thick locks that hang with dew and eyes dewlashed,
Dazzled with morning, angels of the wind,
With ear a-point to the enchanted note.

And these at length shall tip the hanging bell,
And first the sound must gather in deep bronze,
Till, rarer than ice, purer than a bubble of gold,
It fill the sky to beat on an airy shell.

Happy November.