Where I Was From

Where I Was From was a pretty entrancing book. It’s quite a mixture of things (sort of like its subject–California). It starts by recounting Didion’s family’s history of traveling (as part of the Donner Party) to California and settling in the Sacramento Valley. Didion then explores the massive railroad and irrigation projects that ‘settled’ California and the self-image that developed out of its western image. From the mid-twentieth century, Didion details the similarly massive, government-sponsored factories which built military planes and formed the basis of California’s twentieth-century boom…but which ends in a tragic economic crash with people trapped and lives crushed. In each of these woven stories, Didion sees similar themes: an imagined frontier open to seemingly endless growth which ends up being exploitative and destructive before moving on to the next iteration of this similar cycle.

An Amazon reviewer called it “profound and sad, half poetry, half NPR, half Men to Match my Mountains.” That’s dead-on. The book is informative and meditative, sometimes beautiful, sometimes bleak. While I don’t think Where I Was From is as memorable as Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, this book did reminded me a lot of her best essays from earlier book, particularly in Didion’s clear-eyed view of the naivete of the dreamers she is studying. This is well worth a read, and it has left me eager to move on to Didion’s more personal writings.

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Book Goals for 2018

I’ve never posted my specific reading goals for 2018, but I find it really helpful to make a list to push me to be reading particular things. Here they are:

*Out of all books, 50% +1 should be written by women.*

*I will allow books to appear in two or more categories this year, just so long as the categories are covered.*

Five books by Joan Didion:

1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem

2. Where I Was From

3.

4.

5.

Ten Nature Books:

1. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating – Elizabeth Tova Bailey

2.

3.

4.

5.

6 .

7.

8.

9.

10.

Three Pulitzer Prize Winners:

1.

2.

3.

Three Modern Library Top 100 Novels:

1.

2.

3.

Three Newbery Medal Winners:

1. Caddie Woodlawn – Carol Ryrie Brink

2.

3.

Three Books by Texas Authors:

1. The Killer Inside Me – Jim Thompson

2. Transcendental Misappropriation – Robert Harper

3. Arcane Transmogrification – Robert Harper

Five New York Review Classics Books:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Three Books from the “Books I Should Have Read By Now” List:

1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion

2.

3.

Four Theology Books:

1. Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy – Anne Lamott

2.

3.

4.

 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I thoroughly enjoyed this, my first book by Joan Didion. Several things stood out to me.

First, I think the thing I’ve always heard about her is what a great prose stylist she is. I think I’ve always heard more about this–her force of observation matched with the most precise and vivid vocabulary–than even the content of her writing. About a page into the first essay, I could sense why people think this. Every word and image seems so fresh. I will admit that some of the essays are forgettable (by no means are they all), but they are each, regardless, a pleasure to read.

Second, several of the essays stood out to me as offering such strange and prophetic visions that they were really remarkable to read and think about. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is indeed the landmark essay of this collection for the way Didion encounters the people of Haight-Ashbury in 1967 without judgment, seeking understanding, and yet she seems to sense the far-reaching and destructive spiral that was being born at that moment in that place. The final image of this essay will always stick with me I fear. The first essay, too, is remarkable for how it compellingly details a Dateline-worthy murder mystery, but Didion’s writing transcends the details of this trashy story to see it as a symptom of a growing vanity and unmooring all around.

This was a thoughtful and foreboding book that seems fitting for our own current strange and spiraling times.

2018 Author Challenge

Each year, I choose a new author whose work I’ve not yet sufficiently explored. Typically, I’ve not even read a single book by the author. So far, these are the authors I’ve covered:

  • Georges Simenon (2014)
  • William Stringfellow (2015)
  • E.M. Forster (2016)
  • Anthony Trollope (2017)

One thing that bugged me all of last year is that I’ve yet chosen a female author to read for this project. So, I spent a good portion of last year speculating on female writers who I should have read by now, and there are several that I really need to get to soon. Eventually, I decided to read at least 4 books by Joan Didion.

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I’ve chosen Joan Didion for a couple of reasons:

  1. My wife loved The Year of Magical Thinking.
  2. She has an unmatched reputation as a prose stylist, and I want to see what I can learn.
  3. I’ve been increasingly interested in writing short essays. I should, then, be reading short essays.
  4. I already own two of her books–The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Towards Bethlehem–and am eager to read them both.
  5. Lastly, just the unknown. I almost definitely know less about Didion’s work than I have about the previous writers in my author projects. Part of me likes the thought of launching into 5 books of an author about whom I don’t know a lot. I’m curious what I’ll find.

So far, I have really enjoyed each of the authors I’ve covered, and I look forward to looking back on what I learned during a year of reading Didion.

2018 Resolutions

I would like to post my resolutions somewhere publicly (if this counts as publicly) so that I’m at least a little bit accountable to them. I’ll revisit these resolutions (as well as last year’s) throughout the year.

As usual, most of them have to do with reading  and writing.

  1. Keep some sort of journal going, even if it is one observation on the day.
  2. Read 80 books in total.
  3. Of the books I read, 50% +1 should be by women.
  4. Write something every day (not including the journal). ≈ 15 minutes
  5. Write at least 12 blog posts on the year. (This is 1!)
  6. Complete one education book curriculum project.
  7. Reach my goal weight, at least for a day.

Here goes.

Framley Parsonage

This was my fourth book in the Barset Chronicles to read this year, and the fifth and final book in my little 2017 Trollope challenge. Though I really enjoyed Framley Parsonage, I did find it to be the weakest Trollope novel I’ve read this year, and I think I will take a break before finishing off the series, perhaps next summer.

Framley Parsonage occurs in the same world as the previous novels in the series, and it largely centers around two related plots. Mark Robarts is a young minister who has had the very good look to land an appointment in the patronage of Lady Lufton. It’s a plum position for a man of his age, with few enough duties and compensation in both money and prestige. Nevertheless, it all begins to go to Mark’s head, and he ambitiously begins to cultivate relationships with political operators associated with the dreaded Duke of Omnium. Lady Lufton has recommended against such relationships, and we know that things are going to go badly in these relationships for Mr. Robarts.

Meanwhile, Mark’s sister Lucy has come to live with him. Though the Robarts are well-inferior to the Luftons, Lucy and the young Lord Lufton (son of Lady Lufton) have fallen in love. Similarly to in Doctor Thorne, their relationship has quite a few financial and social barriers, and the worse Mark’s troubles become, the worse Lucy’s are, too.

I thoroughly enjoyed the things in Framley Parsonage that I’ve enjoyed the Trollope’s other novels. The characters are fleshed out, and this includes the ones who cause the most trouble and do the most stupid things. Lady Lufton would appear a villain for objecting to Lucy and Lord Lufton’s relationships, but she’s also understandable. We know that she’s kind and wise, and so this conflict is both more realistic and more complex. Even Nathaniel Sowerby, who really does some wicked things in the novel, is just a pathetic creature, more to be pitied than hated. I very much admire this moral complexity in Trollope’s worldview and think that the plots, too, are the better for it.

The general plot of Framley Parsonage works, too. Some parts of it are a rehash of Doctor Thorne, but on those points (the romantic subplot), I’m not sure that Framley Parsonage isn’t superior. Lucy and Lord Lufton, to me, are a more mature and realistic couple than Mary and Frank in Doctor Thorne, and so I thoroughly enjoyed the romantic subplot here.

Other parts of the novel, though, can be a little irksome. I found Mark to be so naive that it was almost unbearable. At each point, it’s so obvious how he’s going to foul up things, and he does it anyway. I found myself cringing at times reading it. I also wondered if the novel went on too long, particular given the predictability of some aspects of the plot, and one of the subplots with two familiar characters from the series (I won’t say who for fear of giving something away) struck me as unrealistic given their previous characterizations.

Nevertheless, on the whole, this is a generally satisfying novel, with an effective romance and strong characterizations. It’s a quiet read, perhaps slower and less dramatic than other Barset novels, which I liked. This is yet another successful Trollope novel, and with each one, my estimation of this underrated novelist has kept growing.

Third Trollope Project Book: An Autobiography

Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography was the third book I read this year as part of my Trollope project. I am committed to read four books by Trollope this year, but the summer is winding down with several especially long novels ahead of me in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. So, I chose An Autobiography primarily because it was shorter than those behemoths. I’m actually very happy that I read it because I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it added to my estimation of Trollope (which is pretty healthy as we head toward the end of this summer).

I enjoyed several things about this book:

1. Trollope overcame a lot. From other sources that I’ve read, I know that Trollope underwent even more than he reports in this autobiography, but he really did have a difficult beginning to his life. His family went through some pretty impoverished spells and were often forced to go running from down in order to escape Trollope’s father’s creditors. In school, Trollope was bullied mercilessly by his classmates, teachers, and brothers. Anthony himself was something of a failure at school. Despite his father’s high hopes, he never got into a college. Anyway, Trollope tells his story in a very casual way, and with a touch of humor, so that it doesn’t feel whiny, and in the end, I found it to be pretty affecting and inspiring.

2. I loved Trollope’s breakdown of his writing process. Trollope famously wrote to a schedule (since he had a day job) and at an enormous pace. I doubt that I could ever keep such a rigorous schedule as Trollope, but his career is a testament to the power of good habits and everyday diligence.

3. I also enjoyed reading Trollope’s thoughts on his art. He was so lacking in pretension. He had no grand theory of his work. He just sought to imagine characters he liked in minute detail, but by introducing you to them, he would have a story. He believe that you should write only if you have a story to tell, and if he didn’t have a good story, he wouldn’t force it. Trollope, too, thought that he had a responsibility to not be sensational, particularly to have heroes who are decently moral. It all worked for him.

4. Finally, I just tend to like Trollope himself. Reading the autobiography isn’t entirely unlike reading his novels. Trollope strikes me as a person who had an essential good humor to him and lived his life pleasantly surprised that it had turned out happy and well. I think that something of his gaiety imbued both his life and his novels, and it makes this a good read.

On the whole, I will admit that An Autobiography has some parts that drag, and I’m not sure I would recommend this book to a lot of people who aren’t Trollope devotees. It added to my appreciation of Trollope, though, and I think I’ll enjoy his novels even more for having read it.