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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Liesl Schillinger on what to reread this summer and why

Guest blog post by Liesl Schillinger, New York-based writer, literary critic, and creator of the whimsical neologisms blog wordbirds

I’m about to go on my first true vacation this year, to an island in the middle of a lake where there’s no Internet and no electricity. In the daytime, our light comes from the sun; at nightfall, from oil lanterns whose glow extends halfway across our birch-bough beds. As a literary critic, I read at all times; but on holiday, I indulge in the pleasure of rereading. And since the Adirondacks (where I’ll be) are steeped in this country’s mythic past, I’ll be bringing American authors with me to reread. Here are the ones I’ll be dipping into, while the light lasts:

Edith Wharton. When I first read Wharton’s The House of Mirth, at 16, I loved this book and rued Lily Bart’s cruel fate. Reading it decades later, I was struck instead by the cruelty of Wharton’s social world and by her heroine’s bottomless venality. Wharton’s Collected Stories tend to be breezier and better-humored than her longer work (though still a little wicked), and I’ll be diving back into them—particularly “Charm Incorporated,” a story about a businessman who marries a beguiling immigrant whom the reader imagines to be a gold-digger, but who in fact rescues her husband’s fortunes.

John Dos Passos. What Carl Sandburg did with poetry for Chicago, Dos Passos did with prose for New York. In his tour de force, Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos wrote with striking, cinematic visual imagery, using dialogue (mostly) to convey a living, breathing portrait of Manhattan in the first two decades of the last century. Though Dos Passos includes the wealthy among his characters, he gives unusual voice to working American men, women and immigrants. Like Sandburg, who defended ordinary citizens in his long cycle, The People, Yes, Dos Passos championed the working man, and he ought to be more forcefully championed by those who admire Hemingway, Steinbeck and the modern novel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many people reread The Great Gatsby. But the Fitzgerald novel that haunts me is Tender Is the Night, in which he transmits love’s poignancy more evocatively than just about anyone else. And his passage about Nicole’s Paris shopping trip is my favorite run-on sentence of all time: “For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California; chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwash out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes quickly in August or worked rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve . . .” Best read when one is far from toil . . . say, on a dock in the afternoon, as the first gin and tonics come around.

Kurt Vonnegut. Growing up in Indiana (Vonnegut’s home state), I got to take an eccentric class in high school devoted to Vonnegut’s oeuvre—taught by a wry, obese teacher who resembled (I thought) Vonnegut’s portly “Mr. Rosewater.” I must have read Cat's Cradle—Vonnegut’s parable of connection and empathy in the age of mass destruction—five times. I have also reread Slaughterhouse-Five, his stories Welcome to the Monkey House, and even his wacky, cartoon-filled Breakfast of Champions. His books are mosaics studded with fertile, glinting thoughts and images, always worth poring over again, always producing a fresh impression.

Anne Tyler. I consider some of the novels Anne Tyler wrote in the 1970s and 1980s to be American classics: Searching for Caleb, The Accidental Tourist, and, my favorite, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (about a dysfunctional family, before that term came into wide use). Understated humor runs through her books like a stream among the rushes: in one novel, a woman drives a car that’s missing a door; after she parks it, another character rips an ad from a magazine and tapes it to the frame: "Wouldn’t You Really Rather Have a Buick?" Later, she pops a piece of candy into her mouth from a bowl on a coffee table, only to realize it’s made of glass. This is American vision, American nuance, told in American language. And even Tyler’s sharpest observations have a generous, merciful quality to them, elevating her writing above satire or tale-telling.

John Updike. Rabbit runs, Rabbit gets reduxed, and Rabbit is reread; but the Updike novel I’m drawn to over and over is his stately retelling of the American century through the multi-generational saga In the Beauty of the Lilies. Written in 1996, this book begins in the rural, decent small-town America we associate with Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, and progresses relentlessly but organically to the media-oversaturated 90s, by which time an uncentered population has lost its context, and a neglected boy (who is nonetheless somebody’s son) joins a Waco-like cult, and shakes off its spell too late. The confident breadth of Updike’s span inspires awe. It’s an ideal book to wrap up at sunset . . . before returning for reassurance and warmth to the companionship of friends and family around the campfire.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Edith Wharton: Novels, Novellas, Stories, and Other Writings; John Dos Passos: Novels 1920-1925; Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems; Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973

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