Critical Mass

Summer Reading Notes: Maureen N. McLane


Re-reading Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America,” since there’s been a flurry of reviews  of her new “Collected Stories.” A few of the stories felt brittler, more same-y than I’d remembered-some stylistic and tonal tics a bit more evident (snappy characters self-interrupting their thoughts with witty albeit desperate exclamations and asides!).  But still, all in all, a marvel-the much-praised “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” “Agnes of Iowa,” and certain other stories which shone out even more brightly for me this time around-e.g. “Community Life.”  It is no small delight, too, to read a writer unafraid of articulate characters.

Anyone else re-reading?

Also re-reading: Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel, “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” the old translation by William Weaver, not the new one by Jamie McKendrick, which has been reviewed in the UK. I only have my old copy, which unfortunately bears on its cover the rubric “Library of the Holocaust.”  A gorgeous, deeply sad, mature and intermittently comic book, it—like much of Bassani’s work—is set in Ferrara, focusing on Ferrarese Jewish life between the World Wars, as the Race Laws intensify and the full Fascist toxicity of the late 30s and early 40s sets in. I was in Ferrara for a day in March; to read the book now, having biked the famous walls and streets, and having seen the formidable Castle of the Este family (who make the Sopranos seem like wimps), is to have a much more vital sense of the places so lovingly itemized in the book. Now: to see the famous 1971 movie by Vittorio de Sica.

Also in the mix: John Ashbery’s landmark volume, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.”  Whew. Whoo-hoo.  Still a knock-out.  And I haven’t even reached the title poem.

Just started: Pierre Michon’s “Small Lives,” a book just in from Archipelago, which is putting out beautifully made translations of brilliantly selected lesser-known European writers (lesser known to us American provincials, that is).  An increasingly dense, rapturous series of eight interconnected portraits: a wonderful book, with subtle, sometimes mordant, always sensuous etchings of peasant lives in the Creuse region of Central France, stretching back to the mid-19th C. up through Michon’s own floundering, drink-and drug-addled young adulthood. 

Past year recap:

Unread: Harry Potter: any volume.  Was I alive in the 20th century, or the early 21st?  This to be remedied. 
Unread: any memoir by a Bush appointee, crony, servant, etc.
Unread: any book about oil, Islam, Iraq, Iran, terror, evangelicals, global warming, though many articles on said topics read.
Unread: any novel by a sad literary young man.  Unless Mischa Berlinski’s “Fieldwork” counts.  Or Joshua Ferris’ “Then We Came to the End.”
Unread: any book whose title is constructed thus: “How X Came to Rule the World!”, or “How Y Invented the Huminahumina.”
Unread: “The Audacity of Hope.”  Yes I can!—Maureen N. McLane