Editor's notebook: Rich finds in a year of novels

“Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

Graham Greene, long one of my favorite authors, wrote those words in “The Power and the Glory,” his 1940 novel of a tormented priest on the run from the authorities and from his own faith and identity.

The above quote demands to be heard again, in our current and troubled times, and remembered throughout the coming year.

I read the book as part of my attempt in 2017 to read 12 novels in 12 months. I reached the goal, and then some: 17 novels in 2017.

As I wrote in a column on Oct. 11, the 2017 book list is an attempt at a diverse selection of topics and authors. My plan was to read six new and re-read six others. Greene’s book was one of the re-reads and with all of the ones I returned to, I was struck by the overriding sense of the new. In re-reading these titles I found new meaning, the feel of new territory.

That feels like bit of irony, which, along with identity, are the two dominant themes I pulled from my reading.

“Every age dreams its own hell. Dullness is the worst thing we can think of. We see so much of it,” wrote Benedict Kiely in “Cards of the Gambler.”

In Primo Levi’s “If Not Now, When?” a character is described as “crammed with memories, and at once filled with forgetting.” Irony AND identity.

“Slow, what-if thoughts that cut deep but struck nothing solid.” (Toni Morrison)

The points are not all depressing.

“He rips at reality and tears aside concealing veils.” (John Kennedy Toole)

Dill Harris, a boy in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” declares, “I’m going to be a new kind of clown. I’m going to stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at folks.”

In order: “Chicago” by the late Brian Doyle; “Cards of the Gambler” by my friend, the late Benedict Kiely; “Ordinary Grace,” by William Kent Krueger (the 2017 Hood River Reads title); “The Power and the Glory” by the late Graham Greene; “The King Must Die” by the late Mary Renault; “The Brothers K” by David Wallace Duncan; “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by the late Mark Twain; “If Not Now, When?” by the late Primo Levi; “The Natural Man” by Ed McClanahan; “Beloved” by Toni Morrison; “A Confederacy of Dunces” by the late John Kennedy Toole; “To Kill A Mockingbird” by the late Harper Lee.

In November and December, I read “The Road to the Sea” by Tim Schell of Hood River, “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, and “Innocent Blood” by P.D. James.

That last title was a double bonus, in that I had read it once before, around 35 years ago, and remembered it as a remarkable mystery by a remarkable mystery writer. Not only was I not disappointed in the revisit, but I found new depth in it, and as a study in identity, it best exemplified the main theme that ran through all these books.

Phillippa, the protagonist, an adoptive child recently turned 18, thinks, upon meeting her mother for the first time, “It was like recognizing oneself. It was the beginning of identity.”

The book that fascinated and disturbed me the most, “Beloved,” had one of the most profound explications of identity: “Sad as she was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.”

Also this year I read two graphic novels I found through a window I intentionally left open — serendipity: “Alone,” by Chaboute, which simply caught my eye on the shelf, and “It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken,” by Seth — which I ran across after googling a song of the same title by the band The Tragically Hip. I loved the fact that my reading traversed across media.

The band took the title from Seth’s book, and it is said to “evoke” the book while not actually being ABOUT it. Says the song, an exploration of identity, “Go somewhere we’re needed/ Find somewhere to grow…”

The book’s protagonist, a loner cartoon aficionado, goes on a quest for what appears to be his alter ego, an obscure New Yorker cartoon artist from decades earlier. (As a collector of New Yorker cartoons, I knew I had to read the book. Seth terms his book a “picture novella.”)

“Goon Squad,” taken from the quote “time is a goon,” I read late in the year because it was reviewed as a novel assembled like a series of lightly-connected short stories, and it’s my goal in 2018 to read one short story for each day of the year. Egan’s book is ingeniously constructed and marvelously written; to characterize it as a set of short stories diminishes the amazing narrative power of the book. Published in 2006, it anticipates our data-profiled online consumer world.

“Because he could never forget that every byte of information he’d ever posted online was stored in data bases of multinationals who swore they would never, ever use it. That he was owned, in other words …”

In one passage, a large-screen TV “has a nervous sharpness that makes the room and even us look smudged.”

But what we feel for the characters can be fully human, and Egan has an uncanny perception of the human condition. Which of us has never felt thus: “Her only thought was getting away, as if she carried a live hand-grenade out of the house, so when it exploded it would destroy only herself.”

I am confident some of the stories I take in during 2018 will carry the same degree of power. Collections I know I will read from include Nick Adams stories by Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” Roald Dahl (all re-reads), Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and P.D. James. (I accept suggestions.)

Will I read 365 stories? Perhaps not, but I doubted 12 months ago that I would finish 12 novels. In the end, I found the act of spending time with stories to be nearly addictive, certainly therapeutic.

How’s that for irony?

Other favorite passages:

The Brothers K

Comparing baseball to organized religion, Papa says, “Hell, they even have the same stinking organ music.”

If Not Now, When?

“To be lucky is a good thing, a guarantee of the future; to deny your own luck is blasphemy.”

Cards of the Gambler

“He would no longer question the peculiarities of events, would accept them as men must accept the oddities of everyday life. The daftest incidents must in the end come to a logical, reasonable conclusion.”

Chicago

“Each religion makes some claim to understand and interpret a force that no one understands at all.”

The Power and the Glory

“It is one of the stranger discoveries a man can make: that life, however you lead it, contains moments of exhilaration; there are always comparisons which can be made with worse times: even in danger and misery the pendulum swings.”

Beloved

“Today is always here. Tomorrow, never.”

Innocent Blood

“I thought I was entitled to one small personal preference of identity.”



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