Holiday Cheer

As I walked past the Dive Bar on 96th and Amsterdam last night, a woman and her friend stumbled out those saloon-style doors, clinging to each other for balance. “Good night,” she said, “I’m headed to the liquor store.” He did not dissuade her. We won’t let these little sordid city moments, or a subway strike, cloud our Christmas cheer. Admittedly, the city in its profusion gives mixed holiday signals, and in this spirit I would like to do a little blog experiment, a first for Think Denk: a holiday reading list. ACTUALLY two lists: one for the optimist who wants his or her heart warmed (“Just what I need,” said Woody Allen, “hot cockles”) and another for the black-hearted Scrooge who wants to wallow in holiday depression. Choose your poison.

Anti-Holiday Reading List

1. Dostoevsky: The Idiot. I think Crime and Punishment is probably too heartwarming.

2. Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida. Perhaps the most nihilistic Shakespeare play? Certainly a contender. For instance: “… thou great-sized coward,/ No space of earth shall sunder our two hates./I’ll haunt thee like a wicked conscience still,/That moldeth goblins swift as frenzy’s thoughts.” Or how about: “O false Cressid! False, false, false!/Let all untruths stand by thy stainèd name, /And they’ll seem glorious.”

3. Baudelaire, Selected Poems. I am referring to my beloved Penguin Classics edition with ugly English literal translations in small print at the bottom of the page. Imagine waking Christmas morning as a family to read “La Squelette Laboreur”:

Are you trying to show … that even in the grave the promised sleep is not certain; That the Void betrays us; that everything, even Death lies to us, and that for all eternity, alas! we shall perhaps, in some unknown country, be obliged to flay the stubborn earth, and to push a heavy spade under our naked, bleeding foot?

4. Nabokov, Lolita. Lost laughter of childhood, incurable perversion, etc. (“Picnic, lightning.”)

5. Mann, Doctor Faustus. “In those days Germany, a hectic flush on its cheeks, was reeling at the height of its savage triumphs, about to win the world on the strength of the one pact that it intended to keep and had signed with its blood. Today, in the embrace of demons, a hand over one eye, the other staring into the horror, it plummets from despair to despair.” Etc.

6. Sebald, Austerlitz. Especially the passages about the futility of fortifications and the organization of Theresienstadt.

7. James, The Golden Bowl. For instance its final line: “And the truth of it had with this force after a moment so strangely lighted his eyes that as for pity and dread of them she buried her own in his breast.” Ahh, and they lived happily ever after.

8. Atwood, Cat’s Eye. More childhood cruelty, yippee!

9. Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge. I’ve never finished it, but I assume everything turns out horribly. Am I wrong? Have always enjoyed the first third of it though, before casting it away out of dread. Perhaps I got too caught up emotionally in the story; I am not the “ideal” reader.

10. (Of course) Kafka, the complete works, but if you had to select one: The Castle.

Okay enough enough. In the list above, with only one exception, I tried to choose books that I actually ENJOYED despite their high depressive quotients. But, on to the heartwarming recommendations:

1. Nabokov, Pnin. For just being beautiful: “Presently all were asleep again. It was a pity nobody saw the display in the empty street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags.” Or for being tender: “… the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of disance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle would happen.” Or both.

2. Chabon, Wonder Boys. No, not the movie. I will hold to my opinion that this is the best of his books. Its tale of renunciation and self-awareness, brilliantly plotted over the weekend of a writer’s conference, makes me happy again and again. How dare they cut the f**&()#$ tuba from the movie!

3. Capote, A Christmas Memory. How topical! How about this passage:

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sounds as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. “We mustn’t, Buddy. If we start, we won’t stop. And theere’s scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes.” The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

That’s what I call musical prose.

4. Proust, Time Regained. The catch of course is that there are six essential prequels, which makes the title of this last volume somewhat ironic.

5. Emerson, Essays: “We grizzle every day. I see no need of it. Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old, but grow young … In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial tomorrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be setlted; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” And more in that vein.

6. Frazier, Coyote v. Acme. The title essay alone probably worth the purchase price. Don’t forget Boswell’s “Life of Don Johnson,” however.

7. Thoreau, Walden. “Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perhaps the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then through a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlour of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

8. Marianne Moore, Nevertheless.

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
went through the little thread
to make the cherry red!

9. Oliver Sacks, Awakenings. I know it’s a bit of a stretch. How about this passage:

“I used to think of Hell as a place from which no one returned. My patients have taught me otherwise.”

Okay, so far, not so heartwarming. Going on:

“Those who return are forever marked by the experience; they have known, they cannot forget, the ultimate depths. Yet the effect of the experience is to make them not only deep but, finally, childlike, innocent, and gay.”

10. Cervantes, Don Quixote. What more needs to be said? If you own the new translation by Edith Grossman, my favorite passage is on page 145.

Okay, really got to get back to Beethoven now. So far behind, so much to do.

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  1. Bryant Manning
    Posted December 23, 2005 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Poor Michael Henchard withers away as one sad old bastard; the note he leaves, pathetic as it is, is proof that we can only forgive him. And the last lines via Elizabeth about “a general drama of pain” are Hardy’s apex.

  2. Sarah Louise
    Posted December 23, 2005 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    It seems in vogue to write about books these days. Our unofficial blog-ring has been doing the “15 things about books” meme, check it out when you take a break from Beethoven!

    word verif: tbkwm: the book woman, of course! (one of my co-workers has book woman as her vanity liscense plate)

  3. Erin
    Posted December 23, 2005 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I believe this will give you the general tone of the end of Casterbridge:


    “That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
    “& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground.
    “& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
    “& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
    “& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
    “& that no flours be planted on my grave,
    “& that no man remember me.
    “To this I put my name.


  4. Chris
    Posted December 23, 2005 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the b’ful Marianne Moore – I will set aside Bishop and recurse a layer to Ms. Moore, as I clearly should have done earlier. Amazing lines.

    But really, *both* Emerson and Thoreau on a happy list? Seems like overkill to me.

    Cheer to all –

  5. chris
    Posted December 23, 2005 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    oops, afterthoughts

    How about Les Illuminations as set by BB for soul-invigorating prosody and uncanny music? And, will you tell us what you think of Brokeback Mountain?

  6. Tiffiny
    Posted December 24, 2005 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    For working in a library, I’ve only read a couple of these books. How sad! I do love Atwood.

  7. DO
    Posted December 25, 2005 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    You’ve prompted me to compile my own top ten list of CDs: Soundtrack for the War on Christmas. Somewhere between “My Favorite Things” by Coltrane and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams, I realized the only recording of Beethoven’s Opus 132 accessible to me at this moment is by the Cleveland Quartet. I looked at the rarely used disk and moaned how I wished I could listen to my old LP of the Yale Quartet playing it, but it’s been years since I’ve owned a turntable. I think we always favor the first recording we encounter of beloved pieces, and it was their performance of this work that cemented its importance to me. I wondered: what are the chances I can grab it from iTunes and be enjoying it once again within minutes? Mirabile dictu, it’s almost enough to make you believe in Santa Claus. Happy Festivus!

  8. dr. c
    Posted December 27, 2005 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Excellent choice in Nabokov’s Pnin. For more anti-holiday reading of academic hubris and hijinks (and to see what eventually happens to Pnin) there is also Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

  9. Gimme A Chance?
    Posted May 4, 2006 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

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