Another Tuesday, and I could barely sleep last night! Two of my favorite people, not to mention writers. One of the many things I enjoy about this new column is the wide ranging choices that astound me every week. Rest assured, this week is no different. I hope you have fun with these selections by two of the kindest, talented writers that I know. Thanks, Gay and Kathy!
TWO FOR TUESDAY: GAY DEGANI
Dumas’ Two Counts- Alexander Dumas
Sometime earlier this year, I listened to Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo on CD, the two-part library edition. Full of adventure, betrayal, lost love, and surprise, it was a revelation. The week I plugged into this story, I cleaned out the refrigerator, ironed an overflowing basket of clothes, pulled the weeds taking over my potted plants, went on long rambling walks, all because I didn’t want to stop being a part of this swashbuckling19th century French novel.
How could I not have read this book before? Well, it’s long. Penguin Classics; Unabridged edition (May 27, 2003) puts it at 1276 pages. Sitting down to read a tome this long is way too daunting in today’s busy-busy world. That’s why I strap on my ugly fanny pack and tuck headphones into my ears. I can multi-task!! And I’m so grateful because The Count picked me up and carried me off, surprising me with his misfortunes and singular brand of justice.
Don’t all readers love it when books make them gasp in disbelief? After a lifetime of reading and listening to books, this doesn’t happen to me very often. As a writer, I’ve trained myself to see clues, understand structure, and anticipate the twists and turns, but Dumas astonished me time and again. Surprise is always a most delicious treat.
Count of Monte Cristo, Library CD edition: http://www.amazon.com/Count-Monte-Cristo-Blackstone-Collection/dp/1433215772/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416023790&sr=1-8&keywords=the+count+of+monte+cristo+on+CD
Count of Monte Cristo, Penguin Edition: http://www.amazon.com/Count-Monte-Cristo-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140449264
Paperback, 1276 pages, (Penguin Classics, Unabridged edition- May 27, 2003)
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo- Tom Reiss
Then, I recently discovered another audio book at my public library, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss and the surprises continued to mount up. I had some vague memory that Alexandre Dumas (the author of The Count of Monte Cristo) was of mixed race, but I didn’t realize the rest of the story, that his grandfather was the ne’er-do-well elder son of French aristocrat and a slave in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
When the old Marquis died, Alexandre Dumas’s grandfather returned to France to claim his fortune and title, bringing with him his son Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (he sold his other children). The “Black Count” was this Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and it is from his life, his hardships and his triumphs as a general in the French Revolutionary army that Alexandre Dumas drew his inspiration for “Monte Cristo.”
From Reiss’ biography, I began to understand the differences between the French attitude toward race and slavery and the attitudes held by the U.S. I also learned more about the French Revolution as well as the craft of writing, how Dumas incorporated the stories he’d been told by and about his father into his own work.
I’m surprised when I discover there are seemingly inadvertent patterns to my reading. Time and time again I will pick one engrossing story only to find another shortly thereafter that somehow links perfectly with the first one. It’s my subconscious at work, I suppose, but too often I choose books blindly, especially audio books, having to take what’s on the shelf, but they often dovetail one into the other, giving me a richer look into history or into the human heart or both.
Paperback (or audio, Kindle, Hardcover): 432 pages, Broadway Books, reprint edition (May 14, 2013).
Gay’s Bio: Gay Degani’s suspense novel What Came Before is available in trade paperback and e-book (What Came Before – Kindle edition by Gay Degani. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com). She is founder and editor-emeritus of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, content editor at SmokeLong Quarterly and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her published work can be found. She’s had three stories nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. She has written a novella, The Old Road, as part of Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project and is working on the prequel to What Came Before.
TWO FOR TUESDAY: KATHY FISH
Nine Stories- J. D. Salinger
Everybody has read The Catcher in The Rye. It was much later that someone recommended Nine Stories to me. I studied psychology in college, not literature, so I was late to a lot of great fiction and poetry. It wasn’t until I started writing that I read Salinger’s short stories. No matter how many times i dip back into this book, I remain astonished at how good they are. How perfect they are. I learned so much from this book. I’m convinced that nobody does dialogue better. Salinger makes it look easy and effortless. When his characters talk to each other in these stories, it just flows naturally and yet, his dialogue does an incredible amount of work in the stories. Voice, characterization, back story, the advancement of plot–all accomplished in a simple phone conversation between mother and daughter or a seemingly playful back and forth between a man and a child. Salinger’s physical descriptions of his characters are actually rather scant, but I see them. I see them so clearly because of how they talk. And also, their small gestures that carry so much weight. Every character in every story is so alive, so fully realized. Salinger doesn’t explain much in these stories. He doesn’t have to. I always go back to this book when I”m stuck and need inspiration. The thing about these stories, though, is that they’re so perfect as to almost make you want to close your laptop forever and try your hand at something, anything else. Almost, but not quite. What I’ve learned from Nine Stories is that stories are about people, and that people sad and funny and bewildering and full of secrets. You start with fascinating people, fully realized, and story takes care of itself.
Paperback: 320 pages (January 30, 2001)
The Shipping News- E. Annie Proulx
Mention this novel and there’s always a mixed response. Some people really hate it. The strange, fragmented sentences. That harsh, forbidding setting. All the shitty things that happen to poor, passive, lumbering Quoyle. I absolutely loved it. It’s another book I’ve read multiple times. I love Proulx’s diction, her brilliant descriptions, they way her characters talk. I love the harshness. How setting in this book is indeed another character. How Quoyle is pushed around and molded into the man he eventually becomes. Or rather, how his presence molds the people around him somehow. It’s a relentlessly sad, dark, odd book. And again, I love how Proulx is not afraid of words. Fresh, strange, arcane words. I read this book with such pleasure. And I learned so much about writing from reading this book. Proulx loves her characters in all their imperfect humanity. Quoyle is so moving in his loneliness and desire to connect. I can tell you that I never fail to cry when I read the final amazing paragraphs:
“Quoyle experience moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of the Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.
For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
Paperback: 352 pages, (Scribner, June 1, 1994)
Kathy’s Bio: Kathy Fish’s stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers (BLP), Slice, Guernica, Indiana Review, Denver Quarterly, Elm Leaves Journal, and elsewhere. She is the author of three collections of short fiction: A chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women, Rose Metal Press, 2008 (A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness), Wild Life, Matter Press, 2011 (Wild Life | Matter Press) and Together We Can Bury It, The Lit Pub, 2013 ( The Lit Pub • Kathy Fish’s Together We Can Bury It). She blogs at http://kathy-fish.com/.
Recently I listened to Brad Listi’s Other People podcast with Frederick Barthelme (Episode 327 — Frederick Barthelme) who’s new book, There Must Be Some Mistake, is available from Little, Brown & Co. Frederick is such a sweet man, so self-depracating, and I was fascinated by his reflections on growing up in this amazing American southern literate family. I also recalled one of my favorite collections, which had an enormous impact on me. I devoured it the first time I flew between New York and Los Angeles. Then read it again on my return flight. (And sorry, Frederick, but this one is by your older brother, Donald). And a second book which really spoke to me around the same time was Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips. ‘Nuff said!”
Overnight to Many Distant Cities- Donald Barthelme (Overnight to Many Distant Cities: Donald Barthelme: 9780399128684: Amazon.com: Books)
Black Tickets- Jayne Anne Phillips (Black Tickets: Stories: Jayne Anne Phillips: 9780375727351: Amazon.com).
What books were instrumental in your youth? Were there any that made you want to write? Or want to take action? Thanks again, for another fun Two for Tuesday. Now get your pen moving!