April Books


This month features comic book, Irish writers, a couple of Nobel Prize winners and Willa Cather, and a special video for the Pfannkuches, or anyone who likes trains. Unfortunately, I am having trouble posting photos, so this post is not illustrated.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1986, 1991)

Spiegelman received a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 for Maus, a comic book. Sometimes classified as fiction, sometimes as history, this comic book was hard for the Pulitizer committee to put in a category, according to a New York Times article at the time. Many people are now aware of this unusual book, the narrative of a son interviewing his aging father about the father’s experiences as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. The book tells of Vladek’s life avoiding and then being imprisoned by the Nazis and Art’s coming to terms with a difficult father, as well as the memory of his mother who had committed suicide 20 years earlier.

The story is compelling, as are the comic strip pictures. Jews, no matter their nationalities, are depicted as mice, non-Jewish Germans as cats, non-Jewish Poles as pigs, and other nationalities have each their own animal. Both of Spiegelman’s parents survived the camps, which is known at the beginning of the book, so that outcome is never a mystery. But how they did, and what they went through before they were put in the camps, and how the rest of their families fared slowly unfolds in the story.

I’ve read several  books about or set during the Holocaust. I have seen movies. I have visited five camps. I thought that I was going to avoid the Holocaust literature/movies from now on because I wouldn’t learn anything new and I understand as well as someone now can. But the book did teach me a lot and I am glad I read it. The book is two short volumes, published five years apart. It was easy to read a volume in an evening. Highly recommended. This was easily the most satisfying book I have read this month.

The Web and The Rock by Thomas Wolfe (1937)

Wikipedia tells me that Wolfe is renowned for his pioneering work on the autobiographical novel, his poetic descriptions, and his influence on other writers. He wrote long, giving his publishers huge manuscripts that were then cut down to marketable size. When he died of a type of tuberculosis that destroyed his brain when he was 38, his publisher had a large manuscript, from which he carved several publications, including this book. This is the second Wolfe book I read. It will be the last.

He can tell a good story and he can paint a scene like a master, but his characters are tedious and I just skim his “poetic” description. David, skimmed, parts of this book too, but I suspect we skimmed different parts. In this book of a small town southern boy (two chapters about childhood) goes off to college and then hits the big, Northern city of New York (the Rock in the title). The boy, George Webber, turns into a manic depressive, with the emphasis on depressive, and has an obsessive, emotionally abusive, love affair with an older woman. There is also a theme that he has the “sensitive” soul of an artist but a simian body, and the two do battle.

Stories and Plays by Flann O’Brien (1974)

Flann O’Brien was a pen name for Brian O’Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na Gopaleen. There were several pieces I liked a lot, some that were O.K. but not great, and a few I didn’t “get.” The first piece, Slattery’s Sago Saga, is an unfinished novel and draws Ireland and Texas together. It was a good beginning, I would have liked to know how it turned out.

           John Duffy’s Brother is a brilliant short story. Can’t tell you anything about it, or it will ruin the pleasure – but read if you can. It will only take 10 minutes. Or, you can see a beautiful 15 minute rendition narrated by Michael Gambon at this link:


The Pfannkuches will find this story particularly resonant.

            Faustus Kelly was well worth reading, funny and a new twist on the Faustus theme. I would love to see this play performed.

           Thirst was a play that had an obvious trick in it. Short so at least it didn’t get tedious, although you knew the ending pretty quickly on.

            The two I didn’t understand were A Bush in the Tunnel and The Martyr’s Crown, likely because of my ignorance about his references. The first was about Joyce (among other things) and I have only read Dubliners. The second had to do with early 20th century Irish history.

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather, first published in 1927

A pleasant evocation of the mid to late 1800s in southwest US from a French Catholic missionary’s perspective – when life was hard, but not as hard as the life of the earliest Spanish missionaries. Told with a sympathetic eye. I like her “clean prose” in which she can say a lot in a few words.

O! Pioneers by Willa Cather, first published 1913

The American Corner at the Khujand public library had a copy of three other novels by Cather, so I decided to pick it up and read two of them. O! Pioneers satisfied me as much as Death Comes to the Archbishop. I like her characters in general, particularly her women character. This books is more sparse than Death…, but I like the realistic approach she takes to human relationships.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, first published in 1915.

            This was the longest of the three books I have read by Cather in Khujand, and overall not as satisfying as the previous two. What kept me going through the tedious parts is Cather’s ability to depict realistic, individual women. The book is about Thea who is born in a provincial town in Colorado, moves to Chicago to train as a pianist and ends up as a celebrated soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The theme is about what a person must do and must give up to develop her art, if she is in fact an artist. I suspect it reflects some of Cather’s attitudes toward her own life. Cather writes about sexual relationships (unhappy marriages, relationships between Thea and a married man) that would not be considered acceptable in her time. She treats them somewhat within the moral conventions of her time, but she depicts them in a way that is honest and unsentimental. Unsentimental may be a good way to describe her work in general.

I thoroughly enjoyed her depiction of Chicago and especially her trip to the Chicago Art Museum. As a child, I saw several of the paintings that she writes about, including Song of the Lark by Jules Breton. In fact, I had a poster of it in my bedroom.

I finished the first Cather at the end of the month and finished this one on April 30. Now I have read four (including My Antonia a long time ago) and have one left to go, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in World War I called One of Ours.

Open Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney, published in 1998

Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, and so I figured this would be a good way of learning why he won. This book also included his Nobel speech as well as a few poems not published previously. I have to admit I did not read the entire book, but I read at least some poems from each of the previous 12 collections and spent some quality time with his work. It was interesting reading chronologically and noting how he worked in different styles, including one collection of prose poems.  I really liked several of the poems and wish that I had copied or at least noted their names before I gave the book back to the American Corner here in Khujand.  My favorite part of the book, however, was the Nobel speech.

One of my projects is to read some major works by every Nobel Prize winner in literature, and with this book and his translation of Beowulf, I can tick him off the list.

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry by William Butler Yeats, originally published in 1886

The title tells it all, and there are some fun stories. Most of the stories are actually told by some of Yeats’ friends and acquaintances who have collected them, but he edited the book and provides comments and context. In order to be able to tick him off the Nobel reading list, I am now reading a collection of his poetry and will read, when I get home, some of his plays.

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One thought on “April Books

  1. Russell

    You must be in a very elevated state of mind after all this highbrow reading (yet coming from a uni famous for its study of popular culture)

    I can’t remember ever hearing of Maus, I’ll pick it up if I come across it. The only Wolfe I read was Look homeward Angel, and though you could see the birth of our modern sensibility there and it was obviously ‘worthy’ I didn’t read any more Wolfe. I guess you’ve already Faulkner, so he’s not on your Nobel list, but Faulkner I loved.

    I love American Southern Gothic, so, Flannery O’Connor, and being stupid, somehow thought I would enjoy this author called Flann O’Brien. No.

    Willa Cather I loved, and read everything … as much as I can recall, My Antonia was the one I liked the best.

    Yeats and Heaney and O’Casey et al.. Sorry, but had enough of that in my years in a Catholic school that might as well have been in Ireland. The memories can make you laugh or cry – I’ve never forgotten Mother Helen’s approach to literary criticism (and mind you we were 17 years old and preparing for uni entrance exams): “First you divide the characters into which are the good and which are the bad ….. “

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