Author's Note:

The Long Habit of Living is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Halldor Laxness' Independent People - Posting No. 3


Halldor Laxness, Nobel prize winning author of Independent People (1946).











I completed my reading of Laxness' Independent People.  This post is the third of a few that  highlight why I think he is a well-deserved Nobel laureate, and why his writing still matters, at least to me anyway.

Novelist Jane Smiley said "I love this book.  It is an unfolding wonder...one of the
Jane Smiley
best books of the 20th century.  I can't imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time."


Excerpts from INDEPENDENT PEOPLE-
[regarding the life of independent people, lone workers, and what they're up against when it comes to banks, businessmen, politicians, great landowners, churchmen--thieves the whole lot of them]


"In foreign books there is a holy story that tells of a man who was fulfilled by sowing his enemy's field one night.  Bjartur of
Summerhouses' story is the story of a man who sowed his enemy's field all his life, day and night.  Such is the story of the most independent man in the country."  

"Once again had they laid waste the lone worker's farm; they are always the same from century to century, for the simple reason that the lone worker remains the same from century to century.  A war on the Continent may bring some relief, for a year or so, but it is only a seeming help, an illusion."  

"The lone worker will never escape from his life of poverty for ever and ever; he will go on existing in affliction as long as man is not man's protector, but his worst enemy.  The life of the lone worker, the independent man, is in its nature a flight from other men, who seek to kill him."  

"From one night-lodging into another even worse.  A peasant family flits, four generations of the thirty that have maintained life and death in this country [Iceland] for a thousand years--for whom?  Not for themselves anyway, nor for anyone of theirs.  They resembled nothing so much as fugitives in a land devastated by year after year of furious warfare; hunted outlaws--in whose land?  Not in their own at least."  



Laxness, Halldor.  Independent People: An Epic,  New York: Vintage International, 1997.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Halldor Laxness Matters: Posting No. 2

Halldor Laxness, Nobel prize winning author of Independent People (1946).

I've been reading Laxness' Independent People for the past few weeks.  This post is the second of a few that will highlight why I think he is a well-deserved Nobel laureate, and why his writing still matters, at least to me anyway.

Excerpts from INDEPENDENT PEOPLE-

[Regarding Nonni's grandmother and her morning ritual of starting the fire in the stove.]

    "The flame in the wall-lamp would gutter low on the wick.  But his grandmother's ritual gambling was never so protracted that it didn't carry with it the promise of coffee.  Never was the smoke so thick or so blue, never did it penetrate the eyes, the nose, the throat, the lungs so deeply that it could be forgotten as the precursor of that fragrance which fills the soul with optimism and faith, the fragrance of the crushed beans beneath the jet of boiling water curving from the kettle, the smell of coffee."

"She had another trick too.  After having lain for hours as if dead, life would rise to the surface in her like the slow bubbles rising at long intervals from the bottom of the stagnant pools down in the marshes--life revealed in strange mutterings, whisperings, and grumblings, in odious psalms from another world.  ...No one who sang so many hymns and knew so much about the joys of the eternal life and so on could be more devoid of missionary fervor than his grandmother."

"...True, she taught him to lie down to sleep with its language on his lips; he discerned nothing of its landscape through the words, and still less of its insubstantial inhabitants."


     "The alien life of the hymns, as it rose to his grandmother's unconscious lips, aroused in him the same dread as the pools in the marshes with their muddy, acrid water, their slime, and their shaggy, loathsome plants, their water beetles."

"Presently the smell of coffee began to fill the room.  This was morning's hallowed moment.  In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten and the soul is inspired with faith in the future; when all was said and done, it was probably true that there really were far-off places, even foreign countries."















Laxness, Halldor.  Independent People: An Epic,  New York: Vintage International, 1997.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Halldor Laxness Matters: Posting No. 1


Halldor Laxness
Halldor Laxness, Nobel prize winning author of Independent People (1946).

I've been reading Laxness' Independent People for the past few weeks and I must say the language in this book is startling.  This post is the first of a few that will highlight why I think he is a well-deserved Nobel laureate, and why his writing still matters, at least to me anyway.


Excerpts from INDEPENDENT PEOPLE--

[Conversation between little Nonni and his mother.]
"When anyone grows very old he becomes like a little baby again."
"And dies?" asked the boy.
Mother horse and son
It was a string in his breast that snapped, one of those delicate childhood strings which break before one has had time to realize that they are capable of sounding; and these strings sound no more; henceforth they are only a memory of incredible days."

[the relationship between little Nonni and his father's prize ram]
This was a most unpleasant prospect, for no animal scared him half as much as the Reverend Gudmundur.  This ram, which hated the sight of human beings, had a nasty trick of chasing the boy all the way into his dreams and through his dreams, and the boy would run as hard as he could, from one dream into another, fleeing in terror from this monster, which in spite of his father's faith in its pedigree was as preternatural in its hideousness as the Christmas cake and the meat soup in their splendour.  Thus there may also be an element of danger in a person's dreams.




   But as morning came nearer, his father's snores gradually lost their resonance, the resounding chest-notes dissolved on a slowly ascending scale, moved by degrees into the throat, from the throat into the nose and mouth, on to the lips with a whistle, sometimes only with a restless puff--the destination was near, the horses prancing with the joy of traversing scatheless the sounding wastes of infinity.  The homeland lay spread before the eyes.
   The breathing of the others lacked altogether the range and the magnificence of his father's snores, and was, moreover, heedless of time.

[Nonni and his mother]
There must have been something on his conscience to make him so attentive to her tonight: he had held her hand, a thing he had never been seen to do before, and then he had rushed off somewhere in the middle of the night, as if he were afraid.
   Few things are so inconstant, so unstable, as a loving heart, and yet it is the only place in the world where one can find sympathy.  Sleep is stronger than the noblest instinct of a loving heart.  In the middle of his mother's agony the night began to grow dim.  ...the drowsiness of midnight, so sweet, so heavy, began again to flow through his limbs; and little by little, like a hundred grains of sand, his consciousness filtered down into the abyss of his sleep-world until oblivion had once more filled it full.




Laxness, Halldor.  Independent People: An Epic,  New York: Vintage International, 1997.


Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Last Echo in "34th Parallel Magazine"

My latest short story, The Last Echo, has been published in 34th Parallel Magazine, yesterday actually.  Very glad to share this news and this magazine with you all.


From the teaser on the website--

"...Animals were not allowed in the Green Zone. What was this cat doing here? Animals in the closed-in-island-that-is-not-an-island of Baghdad were rounded up and disposed of, as per orders of the war contractor. The contractor said nothing about the burning embers of a Dell computer outside a bookstore or the irascible conscience of a junked Mercedes Benz—the ground beneath the car ringed by spreads of bullet casings. The smell of cordite, although thin, was ever present and unmistakable. Please don’t let that cat lead to bad luck, he thought...."


Link to the magazine's site: https://www.34thparallel.net

However, the link to purchase is below:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/34thparallel-magazine/34thparallel-magazine-issue-64-bw-print/paperback/product-24073622.html


Sunday, February 10, 2019

I love quotes about pain, how wonderful it is to be young, one's parents, and about being a fool.



I love quotes about pain, how wonderful it is to be young, one's parents, and about being a fool.

Those mentionables and other snippets from the good novel, Time Will Darken It (1948) by William Maxwell, are what I'm posting on this rainy Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica.



It's been about 20 years since I first read William Maxwell.  That's when I read  The Folded Leaf (published in 1945).  That book went straight to the heart for me, and I wished I'd read it when I was in high school.  But I didn't.  Time Will Darken It is a thoroughly sympathetic and engaging novel.  While reading it, authors and their connections to Maxwell began to pop up.  It was crazy.  I began to find William Maxwell's link to another author I just finished, Mavis Gallant, whose Paris Stories I couldn't get enough of.

He was her editor at "The New Yorker" magazine.  I then I found out that John O'Hara, John Cheever, John Updike, Frank O'Connor, were all Maxwell's authors at that beloved magazine for decades.  My god, I thought, he's everywhere.


Eudora Welty said that "...his sensitive prose is the good and careful tool of an artist who is always doing exactly what he means to do.  [Time Will Darken It is a]...careful, meditative examination of unfolding relationships among people of several sorts and ages...the story's quiet and accumulating power a dark and disturbing beauty that has some of its roots, at least, in fine restraint."  

The book opens one fine evening in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1912.

(from page 350 of the David R. Godine edition, 1983; a misfortune involving fire has occurred)--

"Pain is movement, the waves of the sea rising, receding; waiting is the shore they break upon, the shore that changes, in-time, but never noticeably.  The will that waits and endures is not the same will that makes it possible for people to get out of bed in the morning or to choose between this necktie, this silk scarf, and that.  It is something you never asked for and that never asked for you.  You have it and live.  You lose it and give up the ghost."

Earlier in the book, from p. 120--

"The house next door is never the sanctuary it at first appears to be. If you reach the stage where you are permitted to enter without knocking, you are also expected to come oftener and to penetrate farther and in the end share, along with the permanent inhabitants, the weight of the roof tree."

"...their musical selections and their behavior (especially when they grabbed up their clarinets and trumpets, shoved their chairs in a double line, and indulged in a mock sleigh-ride) were light-hearted and long remembered.  The grey-haired members of the audience, guardians of a gentle Calvinistic era and with fixed ideas of what entertainment was appropriate to a day of worship, sat shocked and disapproving.  The rest applauded wildly, reminded of something they had almost forgotten or known only in snatches--of how wonderful it is to be young."
(p.152)

There is nothing so difficult to arrive at as the nature and personality of one's parents.  Death, about which so much mystery is made, is perhaps no mystery at all.  But the history of one's parents has to be pieced together from fragments, their motives and character guessed at, and the truth about them remains deeply buried, like a boulder that projects one small surface above the level of a smooth lawn, and when you come to dig around it, proves to be too large ever to move, though each year's frost forces it up a little higher. (p. 222)


After a significant tragedy, a fire, takes place toward the end of the novel...--

"The knowledge that you have been a fool hurts just as much, is just as hard to admit to yourself if you are young as when you are old.  Every error that people make is repeated over and over again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum...if they know what they are doing and cannot help themselves.    There is not only a second chance, there are a thousand second chances to speak up, to act bravely for once, to face the fact that must sooner or later be faced.  Windows that have been nailed shut for years are suddenly pried open, letting air in, letting love in, and hope.  (p.348)

Williams Keepers Maxwell, Jr. 1908-2000



Monday, January 7, 2019

My Year in Books - 2018

Among others, there were five sensational first-timers for me:

K. C. Constantine, Ned Beauman, George Grossmith, Carl Hiassen, and John Lawton, and


four wonderful and more-than-satisfying returns to Simon Schama, V.S. Naipaul, Richard Russo, and Margaret Drabble.

Each bold-face title is a hyperlink to a synopsis of the novel, either from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Goodreads[dot]com, The Guardian, The New York Times, or the New York Post, among others.

January...

 Three novels in January were my first introduction and light-speed springboard to the superb novelist, K.C. Constantine.  These books, police procedural/murder mystery/social and political commentary/peculiar and comic characters hooked me from chapter one.

The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972) is the first book I read of the "fictional, blue-collar, Rustbelt town in Western Pennsylvania," launching the hook in my gills with Chief Mario Balzic, "a Serbo-Italian American cop, middle-aged, unpretentious, a family man who asks questions and uses more sense than force."  I loved it.  Then came The Blank Page (1974) and A Fix Like This (1975).  These books start with the strangest dilemmas and take you through Mario's home life, the internecine warfare between the police and fire departments, the rough times that fell upon Pennsylvania during the Nixon administration, and the constant upheaval in the social fabric caused by drugs, racism, and class dogmatism; however, there is a lot of let-up whenever Mario visits his favorite Italian joint Muscotti's Bar.and relies upon cold white wine to calm the policeman's jitters or gather information.  There is a lot to laugh at and with in these and the successive 14 novels.
 Constantine's rants, not dissimilar from Bill Maher or John Oliver, often left me depressed or feeling incredibly disenfranchised from the forces that control American history, not because I was to blame or that I disagreed with what he said, but that I have lived through the facts and outrages he wrote about and have wished for, hoped for, voted for better times.  Except for some labor laws and a bit more, a bit mind you, understanding of ethnicity, Constantine's 1970s-1980s Western Pennsylvania for the most part is current day U.S.
Then there was another book by a novelist whom I hold dear, Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters, about the "mid-life crisis of an estranged woman named Candida, when she moves to a rundown London apartment."  I have not yet been disappointed by Margaret Drabble.



  In February, there was Frank Giles' Napoleon Bonaparte - England's Prisoner, which I found fascinating.  The stupidity of the English jailers mixed with the raw elitism, egomaniacal urges of the former Emperor of France had me shaking my head continuously. A very good book.
 And as previously stated, I continued my obsession with K.C. Contantine's novels: The Man Who Liked Slow Tomatoes (1982), Upon Some Midnights Clear (1985), and Joey's Case (1988).

I suppose the most post-it decorated of Constantine's books so far was Joey's Case.  I couldn't stop saying, this is beautiful, or this is great, this is unbelievable.  Here's why:

"I can understand that you want to find a reason why this terrible thing happened to your parents--and to you.  But you're gonna have to look someplace else--"
"You cops are a bunch of clowns!  You don't know what they hell you're doin'!"  The woman was sobbing and shrieking and her eyes burned with a rage so bright that Balzic had to turn away.  It was like looking at the sun.
"We don't always know what we're doin', that's true.  I won't argue that.  But we were not at fault here, and my best advice to you is to talk to a lawyer."
Later on, Balzic could not recall how much longer they had stayed or when they left or what prompted them finally to see the futility of staying.  All he could recall was that he could not look at the woman's furious grief.  There had been a time when he would have dismissed her by thinking that she had probably harbored some long unresolved conflict with there mother and that she was merely projecting her guilt over this onto Balzic and his men.  But that was when he had been reading all the psychology he could lay hands on; now, he could no longer allow himself an easy explanation, even if it was more or less true.  Reading about the sun under artificial light was one thing; nothing you'd read could keep you from turning away if you were suddenly caught in its glare...

...This guy could obviously take a ton of punishment and still motor.  It's hard to explain these things sometimes, Chief.  Hell, I saw guys in Nam, they had holes you could put your fist into, I mean they were not supposed to be alive, but they were.  And I saw other guys, one second you were sayin', you know, 'Hey, what the hell's wrong with you?' and the next second you couldn't get a pulse, and you'd peel their clothes off, man, and just start turning' 'em over and over and you'd find this little hole and just a trickle of blood and they'd be gone, man.  Just gone.  And there's no explaining' it...no explaining' it.  I quit tryin' a long time ago."

"Mario," the priest said, opening his eyes and leaning forward slightly, "the Church is many things, but democratic she is not.  If the Bishop believes that the bride of Idi Amin is who I should have for a housekeeper, then Mrs. Dombrisky is who I shall have--until death do us part.  Which by the way is the best argument I could ever muster for celibacy.  Mario, I feel awful.  I mean, just hideous.  I feel sorrier for myself than I do for Mrs. Regoli.  And when I feel the worst is when I say, hey, at least she's in a coma.  I'm awake!  Mario, what am I going to do?  This woman is absolutely loathsome.  And she is going to be in this house twenty-four hours a day to infinity--or my death, whichever comes first.  Mrs. Regoli is not going to recover.  She'll be dead in a matter of days.  I've seen that look before--many times.  All I know is I cannot stand to be around this person!  And I have no choice.  All I can do is request a transfer.  And even if that is approved it won't be for months.  Months!  What in the hell am I going to do until then?  Tonight...tonight at supper she hovered over me while I ate.  She kept asking me if this was okay and that was okay, were the beans all right and was the meat all right.  Mario, I don't consider myself a gourmet, but the food was truly horrible.  It was all boiled.  If you closed your eyes, it all smelled the same, and if you bit into it, you couldn't tell the potatoes from beans.  And she stood there asking me if everything was all right.  Mario, may God forgive me, I wanted to hit her."

Balzic is talking to Muscotti, owner of the bar:  "What's special about me is that I always saw myself as bein' hard, being' as hard as I had to be, but I never saw myself as bein' mean.  I deal with mean people all the time and I always told myself, hey, I ain't one of them.  No matter what, I ain't one of them.  But in the last month or so, I found out where meanness comes from.  It comes from feelin' weak, it comes from feelin' you got no power.  It's adolescent bullshit is what it is.  And I always pride myself on not fallin' for that crap.  And now I find out it isn't something you fall for.  It's somethin' that falls on you.  And once it falls, everything you do from then is a struggle to keep everything else up.  And Christ, in the last week I've been mean to people, chicken-shit mean.  I can't stop it.  It just pours outta me...I'll see ya, Dom, g'night."

"Sometimes the things we think we love are the things that kill us."
"Hey, I'm sure that's true," Balzic said, nodding his head vigorously.  "But I'm also sure that, well, some fo the best times in my life I associate with wine.  Besides, I been drinking it all my life--since I was a kid.  The only time I didn't have wine--the worst time of my life--was when I was in the Marines, in the war...Some of the most peaceful times I know are when I'm just sittin' with my wife and she's havin' some wine with me.  We're sittin' on the deck, watchin' the birds and the squirrels, hey, that's peace for me--or as near as I'm ever gonna get to it."

Balzic is depressed because he needs to take medication for low testosterone levels:
...What in the hell were all these bizarre characteristics--masculinity, manhood, virility, integrity, potency, power, courage, strength, nerve, guts, balls---what in hell did they have to do with oblong, yellow caplets of artificial hormone?  What in hell did they have to do with cunning or guile or intelligence or earning money?  What in the hell did they have to do with three-piece-suits and neckties?  What in hell did they have to do with pistols and shotguns and rifles and intercontinental ballistic missiles?  What the hell did they have to do with muscles and motorcycles?  What they hell did they have to do with tattoos?  Why could an Orthodox priest have a wife and a Catholic priest not and why could a Moslem have four wives?  Did they all have a different prescription of oblong, yellow caplets?

My nonfiction selection for the month was This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind by Ivan Doig. It is a memoir of Doig's early boyhood.  I found it riveting at times.



March began with Constantine's Sunshine Enemies (1990),  Bottom Liner Blues (1993), Cranks and Shadows (1995), Good Sons (1996), and Family Values (1997).



 I love this excerpt from Bottom Liner Blues:
"Hey, Mo told me I was supposed to apologize, and I did that.  I should've apologized, because what I did wasn't real smart.  But I'm never gonna learn what you think I oughta learn.  'Cause when people try to shit on me, I ain't never gonna shut up.  'Cause it's not just me, you know?  I speak for a lotta people who don't know how to speak.  I mean I hope you understand that, but I don't care if you don't.  I'm not gonna go out and buy another gun, and I should've never pointed that one at you, but as long as I'm alive I'm gonna talk and I'm gonna write.  'Cause all my life I've been watchin' rich white pricks think they can shit on anybody who doesn't belong to their club.  But they can never seem to remember that they're the ones who make up the rules for who gets in and who don't.  You know the guys I'm talkin' about, and don't say you don't.  They come in every flavor, but in this country they're mostly white-bread bastards."

April.  Brushback by K.C. Constantine.  Another excellent book.  I have a huge print excerpt from this book on the back of my bedroom door.  It's freaking brilliant, but too long to put here.
April wasn't a very prolific reading month.  But in May I had Shusaku Endo's Volcano, which I thought was at times maudlin but worth it; The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago, yet another wonderful book by the Nobel Prize winner who began writing novels at age 60.  The House on the Borderland was a bizarre science fiction novel by William Hope Hodgson.  At times the writing was sublime, as in Chapter XIV, The Sea of Sleep: "I would write down the story of those sweet old days, but it would be like the tearing of old wounds; yet after that which has happened, what need have I to care?"  "It was thus that I came to the place of the Sea of Sleep...  I looked around, with a puzzled sense of something unusual.  There was a misty look about the room, giving a curious softness to each table and chair and furnishing."
That chapter was for me an umbrella, over all the delicate dry things that can't get wet.  They are the paradoxes, the plain truths.  So when I read this book, I must say, it had its moments, especially in the chapter "The Trap in the Great Cellar."




I also read George Eliot's Adam Bede.  What an extraordinary novel that was.

June.  Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman (this was a strange, intriguing mystery about a British homosexual boxer with the personality of a horseshoe crab, but I didn't want to put it down), Black Out by John Lawton (right up my street, London sometime before D-Day, murder mystery), Devil's Brood by Alfred Duggan (not the people next door, those Plantagenets--Henry II, Richard the Lionhearted, John, Eleanor, etc.), Always a Body to Trade by K.C. Constantine (fantastic Constantine), and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Prisoner of Heaven (not as great as the first in the trilogy but good enough for me).







In July I finished Blood Mud by K.C. Constantine.  "Now, retired police chief Balzic, conscientious and cranky, is hired by an insurance lawyer to investigate a claimed loss of 40-plus handguns and 30,000 rounds of ammunition stolen from a firearms company.  Bored with retirement, trying to ignore his wife's suggestions that he exercise more and they move to Florida, the self-described old-geezer eagerly takes the job.  Of course, what he uncovers is more complicated and corrupt than a simple heist."  I'm surprised I waited this long.  I can't say enough about these books.
In August I read Ravelstein, one of the least enjoyable books by Saul Bellow that I ever did read after Mr. Sammler's Planet.  This late Bellow novel was so predictable, obvious, and I tell you, I would have welcomed any degree of pretentiousness other than what this book offered.  And I'm a big Bellow fan.  My August nonfiction books were David Sedaris' Calypso and Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly, as well as Graham Greene's Ways of Escape.  Sedaris makes me laugh so much, and this recent book, although well-stocked with serious family melodrama and remembrance, was one of his best.

In September, I made strides to complete the Constantine canon with Grievance and then Saving Room for Dessert.  The socio-politico commentary still dominates, and it's impact on the plot of the story is profound.  Grievance is the story of James Deford Lyon, philanthropist and CEO of one of Pittsburgh's greatest steel companies, who has been gunned down in his mansion by a sniper, and detective "Rugs" Carlucci is quickly besieged by the demands of media figures from Washington and New York and sifting through hundreds of suspects who've been downsized by Lyons. In a second plot, Rugs' mother has a violent outburst that leads her to a mental hospital; Rugs' partner is operating behind his back, hoping to nail the killer and gain a promotion; and his relationship with a one-time Miss Pennsylvania runner-up is coming to a critical crossroad. Saving Room for Dessert follows three beat cops in Rocksburg, all of whom we've seen in earlier novels, but they are the focus, and not Balzic and Carlucci.
Loved Saving Room for Dessert.  Also read the brilliant and prolific Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton; another Ackroyd success as far as I'm concerned. 



 For my September nonfiction reading, there was V.S. Naipaul's A Writer's People, which is an excellent, compact survey of later-day English literary influences.  I'm a big fan of V.S. Naipaul, always have been.  Richard Russo is another writer I admire, and his book The Destiny Thief made a tremendous impression on me, as his books usually do.

October.  Simon Schama's Scribble, Scribble, Scribble.  I love Simon Schama, I love his television programs, and I'm going to tackle his History of Britain sometime this year.  Somersault by Kenzaburo Oe was the fiction book of this month.  Somersault is such a disappointment; I can't believe his editor let this out of the house.  It's nothing compared to his other works.


 I was, dare I say it, more boring than misrepresented.  Move on, reader, move on.




November.  Stephen Greenblatt's Tyrant: Shakespeare as Politician was so interesting, lots of segments of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories that contribute to his examinations of tyranny.  Interesting how many, so very many, personality traits parallel our current president in the White House.  Scary.

The fiction book was Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.  This is a hilarious novel written in a diary form.  Its 19th-century headaches and joys are so crazy, yet so familiar to 21st-Century.

December.  Carl Hiaasen's Double Whammy (this is a wild Florida murder mystery) and Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone (one of the best books I've read in a long time).  I highly recommend Cutting for Stone.  I concluded the year with Hugh Aldersey-Williams' extensive and exhaustive, scholarly work In Search of Sir Thomas Browne.  Excellent work.