Top Ten Tuesday: My Bookish Bucket List

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme: my top ten “bookish” bucket list items. Should be fun…

10. Read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”
I’ve managed to cross off a lot of the other notoriously long – but great! – books but not this one. I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina last year and didn’t like it as much as I’d been led to believe I would. That may make me put this off even longer…

9. Found/Launch the perfect book club
I’ve started or helped start two good book clubs in my life, but they both fizzled out eventually. Interest in joining my planned “Jay’s Benevolent Dictatorship Book Club” has been lukewarm so far, though.

8. Finally incorporate “Jay’s Future E-Publishing Company”
Yeah, that’ll never happen.

7. Read the Bible front to back
Of course, I’ve read almost all of it at times, but never cover to cover. An old friend of mine once gave me a foldable, bookmark-ish card that listed what you needed to read each day to be done in exactly a year. I need to dig that out and do it some year.

6. Visit the Lew Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, IN
I mean IN THE DAYTIME (see my old blog post). One of many literary treasures in my part of the country that I have yet to take advantage of.

5. Visit “Washington Irving Country” in New York
I’m talking Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow and the Hudson River Valley. The land of van Winkle and Crane. Ah…

4. Attend one of the Big Book Conventions in New York
I might as well do this the same trip as #5, huh? I always joke that if I go to New York, though, I’ll just disappear into that city and never return. Several employers have asked me to delay this trip.

3. Have a nice home with a Big Library
I’m talking a dedicated room for my library of course. It would also have maps of the world (from different eras) on the walls, comfortable chairs, and a huge globe in the middle of the room. “Nerd alert!”

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2. Go on a road trip that retraces some of Kerouac’s “On the Road” travels
Why not? I will point out that I would be better behaved than he and his crew were, though. Doubt I’d do the Mexico route in my version, either. It may be my favorite part of “On the Road,” but probably a wee bit more dangerous these days.

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1. Visit “Poet’s Corner” in Westminster Abbey
This would be my literary Mecca. So many great authors there…

So… What’s on YOUR BBL?

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LEFTOVERS – from the July meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting about “Palm Sunday”

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As the size of a book club grows, the amount of time each member has to be heard shrinks (assuming the length of the meetings remains the same). This is beginning to happen to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club. I went to our July meeting armed with several things I would like the group to talk about, but didn’t get a chance to voice most of them. This is fine. I have a book blog where I can talk about anything I want. 🙂 So as a result, I have some leftovers from the book I’d like to share.

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Published in 1981, Palm Sunday is an outstanding collection of mostly essays, speeches, and excerpts from letters with a sprinkling of previously unpublished fiction. It’s not a book I would recommend to those not already familiar with Vonnegut’s oeuvre, but is full of his trademark witticism and truth-speaking, no matter if the latter may be painful to the reader.

One of our members, Karen, asked a great question near the end of the meeting, and we didn’t really have time for everyone to weigh in on it. It is perhaps more appropriate for our group, where most of us have read a lot of Vonnegut already. Her question was, “What new thing did you learn about Vonnegut from reading this book.” My reflex answer would be something cheesy like, “too much to pick just one,” but I’ll share a couple.

I did get some detail on KV’s brief encounter with another favorite writer of mine, Jack Kerouac. I had known from other sources that Kerouac had visited Vonnegut’s home in Cape Cod, and that Kerouac had behaved in a boorish manner. Here in this book we learn the pity felt for Kerouac by Vonnegut. “There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man.” He goes on to relate how Kerouac almost picks a fight with Kurt’s son, Mark, when the latter shows up dressed in what might be described as typical beat generation gear. It seems Kerouac was disturbed by this. “You think you understand me,” he said to Mark. “You don’t understand me at all. You want to fight about it?” Interesting and sad at the same time time. (below: Mark Vonnegut, M.D. See the resemblance?)

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(author Jack Kerouac)

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Another hitherto unknown trove of information dealt with his family history, presented as it had been compiled by a family friend named John G. Rauch. It’s always interesting to learn more about the background of a favorite artist, and the urge to come up with some “Ah, well THAT explains it!” moments is almost irresistible. In reality, though, too many factors are in play to truly figure out why someone “turned out the way he did.” Vonnegut adds a page or so with the postscript of Rauch’s history. Quoting Goethe, he advises that “Whatever it is that you have inherited from your father, you are going to have to earn it if it’s to really belong to you.” Words of wisdom.

Vonnegut also gave us a little more of a glimpse into his time at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He expresses that he has a mysterious (he actually uses the word “irrational”) persisting concern about whatever became of his coworkers there, noting that they became a somewhat tight-knit group and that they shared the common ground of all “just getting our footing as adult citizens.” He also speculates that “I may have been born with some sort of clock in me which required me to love those working alongside of me so much at that time.” He sadly adds that the company’s view of what sort of relationship they should have with their coworkers was different. “It was the Darwinian wish of General Electric, of the Free Enterprise System, of course, that we compete instead.” Sad. He lasted there three years, from 1948 to 1951. Coincidentally, I just finished my third year at the most “corporate” job I’ve ever had. Almost gives me the idea it’s time to go. Hmmm….

There were some parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy, though, particularly a labored “musical comedy” based upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” for which I couldn’t wait to end. The strongest parts of the book to me were the author’s interview of himself (chapter five) as published in the Paris Review in 1977. You can tell Vonnegut is happy to seize the opportunity to answer all those questions he wished he had been asked. Great stuff.

Another favorite section of mine was from his chapter (13) concerning his children. He says, “What is my favorite among all the works of art my children have so far produced,” and chooses a letter written by his youngest daughter, Nanette, who was working as a waitress in the summer of 1978 when an irascible customer made complaints about a fellow waitress’s service. This other waitress was fired as a result, and management posted the customer’s letter of complaint on the company’s bulletin board. Nanette wrote him back (heh heh) and really let him have it, but in the nicest, most civil language you can imagine. The complete text of the letter is included in the chapter. It’s too long for me to re-type but its conclusion is representative:

“I feel it is my duty as a human being to ask you to think twice about what is of importance in life. I hope that in all fairness you will think about what I have said, and that in the future you will be more thoughtful and humane in your actions.”

Now, what was that I was saying earlier about heredity…?

(Below: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis)

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Jack’s Book

A couple of months ago I wrote about a trip to Half Price Books to pick up “I Capture the Castle” for a book club read. As usual, I didn’t escape the trip without picking up some other, random purchases. More recently, I made a similar trip to pick up “The Sun Also Rises” for yet another book club read. This time, my “collateral damage” included “Jack’s Book,” an “oral history” of the famous author, Jack Kerouac, by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. I read this book over just a couple days last weekend. I recommend it highly, but only if you are already somewhat familiar with Kerouac.

I’ve read several biographical accounts of Kerouac (& friends) in the past, but what made this one unique was the lengthy quoting of his friends (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Luanne Henderson, John Clellon Holmes, Al & Helen Hinkle, Lucien Carr – the list goes on an on). It was fascinating to read again about some of these stories that I already knew but to this time hear them through some of the other characters and in their own words.

Kerouac’s interlude at Big Sur received more attention in this book than in some of my other reading. It was truly a sad stage of the author’s life to read about. Lenore Kandel (the then girlfriend of poet Lew Welch) had this to say about that: “He (Kerouac) was in a very bad place, and he went there to clear his head. But it’s a really elemental place, Big Sur, and it really burns. I guess it must be a little like an acid trip, a very heavy concentration of reality.”

Another thing I pondered while reading – and this is kind of a favorite speculation of mine – is whether or not this group of friends and aspiring writers (later to become known collectively as “The Beats”) knew they would become as famous as they did, or rather that their work and the “movement” would take hold. Clearly their ambition or goal was clear, but did they really think it would become reality? I remember a discussion at a book club meeting last year where we were talking about the book, Fahrenheit 451, which certainly has become an undisputed classic, and I posed the question “Do you think Bradbury knew he had something special when he was done writing?” I like to think he did, at least to some degree. The same goes for the “Beat Generation” standard bearers. I guess what I really hope is that it’s not just a kind of crapshoot whether books become popular or not.

Another memorable observation in the book – this one by John Clellon Holmes – was this one: “Most books that come out are contained. That is, ‘I want to read that book.’ But what happened when On the Road came out was , ‘I want to know that man.’ it wasn’t the book so much as it was the man.” He noted also that Kerouac became “more and more confused as it went on.”

This book also contained several more “convergences” with my other recent reading. The authors describe a meeting of Kerouac with Kurt Vonnegut in the late sixties in Cape Cod. Apparently, Vonnegut and others were playing poker, and Kerouac joined in but was not on his best behavior (drunk again) and kind of made an ass of himself in that company. Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is also quoted at one point, and Holmes mentions that he had discussions with Jack regarding how “Dostoevsky wrote in the 1880’s that Russia is talking of nothing but the external questions now,” and that “with appropriate changes, something very like this is beginning to happen in America, in an American way.” The book also re-prints the famous, original New York Times book review by Gilbert Millstein, which helped launch On the Road, and within it is a reference to The Sun Also Rises: “Just as, more an any other novel of the twenties, “The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the “Lost Generation,” so it seems certain that “On the Road” will come be known as that of the “Beat Generation.”. I love it when all my reading starts to link together like this.

How do you feel about Kerouac?

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Next Year’s Project/Progress Report

PART I

I need help! Suggestions, input, recommendations, anything. You see, each year I try to have a personal reading “Project” where I focus on a particular author or genre or subject. Like 2008’s “Project: Shakespeare” or this year’s “Project: Civil War.”. I have a few ideas for next year but nothing definite yet. Some things I’ve kicked around:

1) Project:Kerouac (or would that more appropriately be called “ProJack Kerouac?”) I almost did this a few years ago, but wasn’t organized. On the down side, I’ve already read a lot of his books (not that I wouldn’t enjoy reading some again). On the upside, I would really, really enjoy it, as I love his writing.

2) Project:Scotland (or Project:Sir Walter Scott) where I focus on Scottish authors or books set in Scotland, or even Scottish History. I really enjoyed the Sir Walter Scott books I’ve read this year, but on the downside, they were very tough going for me. Worth the effort, but I worry that I will lack the perseverance to slog through some of his work. On the upside, I’ve become really interested in Scotland of late and am eager to learn more…

3) Project: History of England – here I would make it a point to read several books on English History, which is a relatively weak spot for me (often pointed out when I’m watching Jeopardy! on tv, or participating in Buzztime trivia at the local bars). Downside: reading non-fiction is not as entertaining as reading fiction. Would I stick to it? Upside: I’d really like to fill in this embarrassing gap in my knowledge of history and this might “force” me to do it.

4) Project: Epic Poetry. Now this would be really ambitious. Read or re-read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and maybe throw in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Song of Roland, the Epic of Gilgamesh (I’m not sure all of those would qualify, but how cool would it be to be able to say I’ve read all of those?) downside: how HARD would it be to read all of them?!?

Help me out with some recommendations please. 🙂

PART II

I need to get cracking if I’m going to complete my “required reading” for this month. I have two books to read for book club commitments. The first is Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, form which we are having a meeting next Thursday, 11/18. At this point I am still hopeful that I can attend (I’ll read the book whether I do or not, though) as I have some software training related to a systems upgrade at work. The training is currently scheduled for 11/15-11/18, so I would have to miss part of the final day’s session and I’m not sure how that would fly at the office, or even if I should ask to be excused from it. I guess I’ll kind of play it by ear and see how things look next week. I would really hate to miss a meeting, though.

The second is for my personal book club’s meeting on 11/23. For that we’re reading P.T. Deuterman’s Darkside, which is 407 e-pages long. My fellow book club members assure me it’s a quick read, though, so hopefully I can knock it out out late next week and weekend.

Completing those two would give me four books for the month (my “par score”) and I would feel pretty good about my November reading accomplishments. What’s missing is my 11th Civil War book, though. My goal of finishing one Civil War-related book per month in 2010 may be in jeopardy. The book I’ve chosen has been ordered from Borders, but I may not receive it for another couple weeks. Hopefully I’ll get it in time to read over the long thanksgiving holiday weekend. Well, I guess I’m working that Friday (sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a banker), but I’ve been toying with the idea of taking Monday the 29th off. That would give me “plenty of time” to read my Civil War book. We’ll see…

My Kerouac stories Part I

(above: one of my favorite pictures of Kerouac, conspicuous in the pocket of his jacket is one of his notebooks)

I was a late discoverer of the amazing writing of this American icon. Of course, I knew of him, and knew that On the Road, was “one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century,” but I hadn’t gotten around to reading him (or it) yet. Then, in the summer/fall of 2006, I began to plan starting “A New Book Club” (my first one had petered out in the 90s – lack of dedicated readers, lack of of sufficient number of members, lack of direction that a benevolent dictatorship -as I’ve been accused of in my current club – would have avoided) with some co-workers in downtown Indianapolis. I remember our first planning “meeting” (i.e. lunch) sitting at a table on the western side of the center building of the downtown City Market. Somehow, we came up with the plan for book selection that we are still using today. We also came up with a ‘random number generator’ – in this case the last two digits of the ending Dow Jones Industrial Average (hey, we were all accountants and bankers, what would you expect?) to determine who would make the first pick. Sonja was the lucky member and picked one of Dale’s books, (these two, along with myself, were the members present at this meeting so I consider us the Founding Fathers, er – “Parents” of the book club) and it just happened to be On the Road.

(above: Colts owner Jim Irsay with the On the Road manuscript)

Sometime later, as our first meeting approached. Sonja and I were talking about how, fairly recently, Jim Irsay (owner of the Indianapolis Colts! – hey, that’s my team!) had purchased the original manuscript of this iconic work. I jokingly suggested that Sonja talk to our friend Nancy in marketing – we did, after all, work at The Official Bank of the Indianpolis Colts at the time – and see if she could get Jim Irsay to come to our book club meeting. On a lark, she did, and no, he didn’t come to our meeting, but he did dispatch his assistant and the keeper of the manuscript scroll, who was the ‘conservator’ (I think I’m getting that term right – he’s the person who takes care of manuscripts) at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, IN, where the scroll resides when not on tour.

(the manuscript up close)

Well, we were all a little surprised that we would be having guests at our very first meeting, but we were also excited. Irsay’s assistant brought some memorabilia to the meeting, including the bidding “paddle” used by Irsay at the auction.

The guy from the Library brought a box full of Kerouac-related books to show us and he was clearly someone who was passionate about Kerouac, even being moved to tears once when describing the author’s futile struggles against alcoholism. He gave me a new appreciation for the depth of Kerouac’s work beyond On the Road which, until then, had been all that I had known of his writings.

Irsay, who – upon buying the manuscript – had realized that he had given very little thought to what he would do with it or even where he would keep it. It was sheer luck that, theretofore unknown to him, his offices were just an hour away from one of the most extensive collections of original manuscripts in the whole country, and their custodian, the man who came to our book club meeting, was also a lifelong and devoted fan of Jack Kerouac.

Why am I writing about all of this now, you ask? Well, last Saturday I made one of my “irregularly scheduled” appearances at a coffee shop in the “Meridian-Kessler” neighborhood here in town. This is on the ‘old’ north side and home to many old, grand houses (think Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons which, in fact, is probably an actual fictional (actual fictional?!) representation of this part of town). Anyway, the thing about this coffeehouse is that it is the home of the “Bishops of Cappuchino” chess “club” (cute name, huh?), and – although I’m still retired from tournament chess – I do still enjoy a casual game every now and then.

Anyway, on this day, I met up with an old chess friend/colleague of mine who we’ll call Bob. I’ve known Bob for about ten years, and I’d known he did some technical writing for his job, but little else about his “literary history.” I don’t remember today how the subject came up, but we started talking about Jack Kerouac and I found out that he actually wrote a book (!) about the author back in 1981. It was part of the whole 25-Year Anniversary celebration of the publication of On the Road that was going on at the time, and there was apparently a host of Kerouac scholars making the pilgrimage to Colorado for this event…

To be continued…