2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

The Dalai Lama: The Power of Compassion

16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 10 – World Peace Day

Words of Wisdom


The Dalai Lama speaks about the Four Noble Truths, maximizing your inner strength, dealing with anger and death, the power of compassion, the challenges facing humanity today (including globalization, warfare, environmental protection, overpopulation), and the great world religions’ core tenets (as opposed to their elements that primarily responded to the needs of the historic societies in which they emerged).  As we’re about to begin another new year, a perfect reminder of what matters (or should matter) to us — and what doesn’t — and simple small things that each of us can implement in our own lives every day … and short of His Holiness himself (who didn’t originally set down these texts in English), there couldn’t be any better person to read his words than Sir Derek Jacobi.

 

    

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1627446/16-tasks-of-the-festive-season-square-10-world-peace-day-words-of-wisdom

Rina Swentzell / Luci Tapahonso / Tony Chavarria (eds.): Here, Now, and Always – Voices of the First Peoples of the Southwest

“We are the people.”

“I am here.
I am here, now.
I have been here, always.”
Edmund J. Ladd (Zuñi).

In 1989, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, NM, began to put together a project designed to present Native American culture, traditions, and contemporary life from an Indian point of view: not looking in from the outside but looking out from the inside, not analyzing in the way of anthropologists but giving its Indian contributors themselves a place to raise their manifold voices. The process thus begun resulted in a fascinating permanent exhibition presenting all aspects of Native American life from its historic origins to modernity, from arts and crafts to farming and hunting, and from the sacred to the secular (if that distinction applies at all, for there is a profoundly spiritual element to every single act performed over the course of the day). Endowed with a multitude of exhibits – many of them of priceless value – and using traditional displays as well as a multimedia approach combining various audiovisual tools, from its inception the exhibition rested on one inimitable centerpiece: the multi-timbred choir of the First People’s very own voices.

Bearing the same title as the exhibition and illustrated by numerous photos, “Here, Now, and Always” provides an additional forum for these voices and sends them out into the world at large. “Listen carefully. Let the stories carry you to the center created by each Native community. Here, at the intersection of sky and earth, you will find the Southwest’s people,” the museum’s former archeology curator, Sarah Schlanger, is quoted at the end of the introductory text to the book’s first part, “Ancestors.” And thus, the book’s Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Zuñi, Apache, Tohono O’odham (Pima) and manifold Pueblo contributors become messengers of their respective peoples; talking about Earth Mother, Sun Father, Changing Woman, Spider Woman and Spider Man, Salt Woman, the Great Spirit, the formation of the first clans and their wanderings, the sacred places marking their world and the meaning of home and community, the interrelation of the elements and man’s interaction with them, the significance of clay, salt, corn, and tobacco, of minerals and precious stones, and of farming and hunting, the cycles of life, time, and the seasons, the importance of language, oral tradition, and sacred ceremonies in cultural preservation, and obstacles overcome and new challenges arising.

“Each mountain carries precious knowledge. Each is symbolized by certain birds, insects, trees, plants, songs, and prayers. Try to remember this when you think you might want to bulldoze these mountains. Let the sacred remain,” warns Gloria Emerson (Diné) in the chapter entitled “Elements.” Anthony Dorame (Tesuque Pueblo) explains about cycles that they are “circles that travel in straight lines.” In the chapter on agriculture he recounts how his people revived their already-forgotten life as farmers, and wonders, “Today, we again hear the musical thump of a watermelon being split open in the field. Will we forget again what we now remember?” and later on, he adds that “[w]hen the branch is broken, the twig cannot survive. Without our language and without our ways, you cannot survive as a people.” Similarly, recalling the young Zuñis shipped off to Pennsylvania in the 1800s, all of whom died from loneliness after having been cut off from their cultural roots, Edmund J. Ladd (Zuñi) – whose words also provided the project’s title – reflects that these days, it is his people’s language that is dying from loneliness. In the chapter entitled “Arts,” Michael Lacapa (Apache/Hopi/Tewa) adds that the word “art” does not exist in his language at all, and muses, “We make pieces of life to see, touch, and feel. Shall we call it ‘art’? I hope not. It may lose its soul. It is life. It is people.” And in talking about a mid-20th century professor’s prediction that traditional Indian life would vanish within a matter of years due to the spread of a cash economy, federal relocation policies, and WWII veterans’ reluctance to return to their prewar lifestyle, Dave Warren (Santa Clara Pueblo) points out that like the footprints and handholds left behind by their ancestors in the southwestern canyons, cliffs, and plateaus, “tradition is deeply etched into our very being. … [W]e are of these spaces, places, and times. We leave our footprints for another generation; we leave our handholds to steady their journey.”

Bringing together all these and many other voices, “Here, Now, and Always” pays tribute to the rich heritage of the Southwest’s Native people, and builds a unique bridge to a way of life, traditions, and beliefs sidelined and on the brink of extinction practically from the moment the first white man set down his conqueror’s foot in the region, although these very traditions had survived in (largely) peaceful coexistence for centuries before. A slim volume of less than 100 pages, the book is nevertheless powerful testimony to the First People’s resilience and ability to adapt to altered circumstances while maintaining the core of their cultural values. As such, it is highly recommended reading – and hopefully, also an incentive to one day go and see the exhibition from which it originates.

“Together we traveled,
in search of the center place.
In numbers we grew.
The center place had not been found.
The gods divided the people.
Some traveled north,
to the land of winter.
Some traveled south,
to the land of summer.
We are the people.”
Edmund J. Ladd (Zuñi).

Merken

Merken

Eudora Welty: One Writer’s Beginnings

One Writer's Beginnings (The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization) - Eudora WeltyGlimpses Into a Unique Writer’s Mind

“Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” Eudora Welty entitled the three chapters of her autobiography “One Writer’s Beginnings.” And while these may be steps that most writers will undergo at some point, Welty’s compact memoir is notable both because it allows a rare glimpse into the celebrated writer’s otherwise fiercely protected private life and it illustrates the roots from which sprang such extraordinary protagonists as “The Ponder Heart”‘s Edna Earle and Daniel Ponder, Miss Eckhart and the Morgana families in “The Golden Apples” and, of course, the anti-heroes of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” Judge McKelva, his second wife Fay and (most importantly) his daughter Laurel.

A native and – with minimal exceptions – lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty received her first introduction to storytelling as a listener; and early on, learned to sharpen her ears not only to a story’s contents but also to its narrator and its protagonists’ individual nature: “[T]here [never was] a line read that I didn’t hear,” and “any room … at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to,” she notes in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” adding that the discovery that all those stories had been written by someone, not come into existence of their own, not only surprised but also severely disappointed her. Equally importantly, family visits to relatives brought out the born observer in her; each trip providing its own lessons and revelations, each a story onto itself – the seed from which later grew her manifold unforgettable literary creations. At the same time, her father’s interest in technology introduced her to photography as a means of capturing visual impressions, one moment at a time; and when traveling around Mississippi as an agent for a state agency (her first job) she learned to use that camera as “a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know” and discovered that “to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was [then] the greatest need I had.” Not surprisingly, her photography was published in several collections which have found much acclaim in their own right.

Thus, from early childhood on, Eudora Welty not only had a keen sense of the world around her but also, of words as such: of their existence as much as the interrelation between their sound, physical appearance and the things they stand for. Encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and over her father’s worries (he considered fiction writing an occupation of dubitable financial promise and, worse, inferior to fact because it was “not true”), Welty embarked on a writer’s path which would lead her to award-winning heights and to a reputation as one of the South’s finest writers, with as abounding as obvious comparisons to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner in particular; a literary debt she acknowledged when she wrote that “his work, though it can’t increase in itself, increases us” and “[w]hat is written in the South from now on is going to be taken into account by Faulkner’s work” (“Must the Novelist Crusade?”, 1965).

An approach that Welty herself developed early on was to consider the publication of her short stories in periodicals merely a step towards each story’s final shape, and she generally revised her stories before including them in their various collections. – Not only a keen observer, she was also a writer endowed with a sharp sense of humor and satire, and with the gift to brilliantly use location, localisms, accents, patterns of speech and customs to make a point.

Yet, “[t]here is no explanation outside fiction for what its writer is learning to do,” Eudora Welty maintained in her essay “Writing and Analyzing a Story;” explaining that each story references only the writer’s vision at the moment of the creation of that very story, and the creative process itself: nothing that can be “mapped and plotted” but a product taking shape within the process of its creation as such, thus giving each story a unique identity of its own. And considering her reluctance to comment on, or to explain her own fiction writing, the insights into that creative process’s origins she allowed her readers in “One Writer’s Beginnings” are all the more to be treasured.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

“She read Dickens in the same spirit she would have eloped with him.”

“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”

Merken

Merken

Eudora Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir (Library of America)

Stories, Essays, and Memoirs (Library of America #102) - Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, Michael KreylingCreations of a unique voice

“Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice,” Eudora Welty entitled the three chapters of her autobiography “One Writer’s Beginnings,” the concluding entry in this collection, one of the two Library of America compilations dedicated to her work. And while these may be steps that most writers will undergo at some point, Welty’s compact autobiography is notable both because it allows a rare glimpse into the celebrated writer’s otherwise fiercely protected private life and it illustrates the roots from which sprang such extraordinary protagonists as “The Ponder Heart”‘s Edna Earle and Daniel Ponder, Miss Eckhart and the Morgana families in “The Golden Apples” and, of course, the anti-heroes of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Optimist’s Daughter,” Judge McKelva, his second wife Fay and (most importantly) his daughter Laurel.

A native and – with minimal exceptions – lifelong resident of Jackson, Mississippi, Welty received her first introduction to storytelling as a listener; and early on, learned to sharpen her ears not only to a story’s contents but also to its narrator and its protagonists’ individual nature: “[T]here [never was] a line read that I didn’t hear,” and “any room … at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to,” she notes in “One Writer’s Beginnings,” adding that the discovery that all those stories had been written by someone, not come into existence of their own, not only surprised but also severely disappointed her. Equally importantly, family visits to relatives brought out the born observer in her; each trip providing its own lessons and revelations, each a story onto itself – the seed from which later grew the literary creations collected in this compilation and its companion volume. At the same time, her father’s interest in technology introduced her to photography as a means of capturing visual impressions, one moment at a time; and when traveling around Mississippi as an agent for a state agency (her first job) she learned to use that camera as “a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know” and discovered that “to be able to capture transience, by being ready to click the shutter at the crucial moment, was [then] the greatest need I had” (“One Writer’s Beginnings:” Not surprisingly, her photography was published in several collections which have found much acclaim of their own.)

Thus, from early childhood on, Eudora Welty not only had a keen sense of the world around her but also, of words as such: of their existence as much as the interrelation between their sound, physical appearance and the things they stand for. Encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and over her father’s worries (he considered fiction writing an occupation of dubitable financial promise and, worse, inferior to fact because it was “not true”) Welty embarked on a writer’s path which would lead her to award-winning heights and to a reputation as one of the South’s finest writers, with as abounding as obvious comparisons to fellow Mississippian William Faulkner in particular; a literary debt she acknowledged when she wrote that “his work, though it can’t increase in itself, increases us” and “[w]hat is written in the South from now on is going to be taken into account by Faulkner‘s work” (“Must the Novelist Crusade?”, 1965). The Library of America dedicated two volumes to her work; one containing her novels, the other – this one – her short stories, essays (some, like her autobiography, based on a series of lectures) and her autobiography.

An approach that Welty developed early on was to consider the publication of her stories in periodicals merely a step towards each story’s final shape, and she generally revised her stories before including them in collections. This compilation brings together all her short stories in the versions intended to be final by Welty herself: the 1941 edition of “A Curtain of Green and Other Stories” (her first short story collection), the 1943 edition of “The Wide Net and Other Stories” and the 1949 edition of “The Golden Apples” – each collection suffered substantial editorial revisions in subsequent publications. Included are also two stand-alone short stories (“Where is This Voice Coming From?” and “The Demonstrators”), the first one inspired by the 1963 murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers and revised by Welty over the telephone after having been accepted by “The New Yorker,” to avoid a potentially prejudicial effect of its original ending on the then-impending trial.

A keen observer, Welty was also a writer endowed with a sharp sense of humor and satire, and with the gift to brilliantly use location, localisms, accents, patterns of speech and customs to make a point. Not a single word is wasted: “Marrying must have been some of his showing off – like man never married at all till he flung in,” we’re told about King MacLain in the opening story of “The Golden Apples,” “Shower of Gold.” And you don’t have to learn anything more about the man, do you? Equally as instructive on Welty’s writing are the eight essays included in this collection, all taken from the 1978 compilation “The Eye of the Story” and dealing with particular aspects of her own fiction as much as, more generally, with “Place in Fiction” (1954) and the fiction writer’s role (“Writing and Analyzing a Story,” originally published in 1955 under the title “How I Write” and substantially revised for its inclusion in “The Eye of the Story” and “Must the Novelist Crusade?”).

“There is no explanation outside fiction for what its writer is learning to do,” Eudora Welty maintained in “Writing and Analyzing a Story;” explaining that each story references only the writer’s vision at the moment of the creation of that story, and the creative process itself: nothing that can be “mapped and plotted” but a product taking shape in the process of creation itself, giving each story a unique identity of its own. And while her fiction, alas, can no longer grow any more than Faulkner‘s, she has left us enough of those unique creations to cherish for a long time to come.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them …”

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

“She read Dickens in the same spirit she would have eloped with him.”

“Through travel I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”

Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems (Library of America)

Collected Essays and Poems (Library of America #124) - Henry David Thoreau, Elizabeth Hall WitherellA treasure

Henry David Thoreau, born in Concord, Massachusetts, on July 12, 1817, was one of the co-founders and most influential representatives of the philosophical school known as “Transcendentalism.” (Others include fellow Concord residents Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, reformist teacher and father of Louisa May Alcott.) Thoreau’s life centered around his home town; yet, as his writings reflect, he was very familiar with all major philosophical schools of his time, not only those developing in America but also the writings of Kant, Goethe, Schiller and Hegel – indeed, the very term “transcendentalist” derives, as Emerson explained, from Kant, who had first recognized intuitive thought as a kind of thought in its own right, holding “that there was a very important class of ideas … which did not come by experience, but through which experience was acquired … [and which] were intuitions of the mind itself.” These were the ideas which Kant had called “transcendental forms.” (Or, as Thoreau himself once put it in his Journal: “I should have told them at once that I was a transcendentalist. That would have been the shortest way of telling them that they would not understand my explanations.”)

To this day, transcendentalist philosophy, and Thoreau’s work in particular, has proven enormously influential – on the program of the British Labour Party as much as on people as diverse as spiritual leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. on the one hand and rock star Don Henley on the other hand. Henley in the 1990s even went so far as to found the Walden Woods Project, teaming up with the Thoreau Society to preserve as much as possible of Walden Woods and the land around Concord, and foster education about Thoreau. Yet, during his life time only few of his many works, now considered so influential, were published, and even those did not find wide distribution. “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself,” he commented on the poor sales of his “Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.”

This collection, one of two Library of America volumes dedicated to Thoreau’s works and edited by renowned Thoreau scholar Elizabeth Hall Witherell, presents the majority of his essays and poems, from well-known works such as “Civil Disobedience,” “Life Without Principle” and “Walking” to a large body of lesser known (but just as quotable!) writings and loving observations of nature (“Autumnal Tints,” “Wild Apples,” “Huckleberries”). A companion volume, edited by Robert F. Sayre, contains Thoreau’s four longest publications (“A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” “The Maine Woods,” “Cape Cod” and, of course, “Walden”) – thus omitting from the Library of America series only his extensive journals and the posthumously published “Faith in a Seed,” a collection of four manuscripts left partially unfinished at Thoreau’s death in 1862 and published for the first time in the early 1990s, to much fanfare among Thoreauvians the world over.

Introspective to a fault, the man who once built a cabin on Walden Pond and for over two years lived the life of a hermit, was also a keen observer; of nature as much as of the world surrounding him. The shallowness and greed he saw in so-called “civil” society filled him with skepticism (“intellectual and moral suicide,” he scoffed in “Life Without Principle”) – and with the tireless need to encourage free thinking and personal independence. “I wish to speak a word for Nature,” he thus opened his essay on “Walking,” and explained that he sought to make a point in favor of “absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, – to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” And he went on to mourn the fact that few people were truly able to walk and travel freely, to leave behind the social bounds that tied them down, and to open up to nature’s beauty. This, of course, echoed his famous statements in “Walden” that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation;” that however, as he had learned by his “experiment” on Walden Pond, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” And this was the same spirit who, staunchly opposed to both slavery and to the Mexican War, would rather spend a night in jail than pay his taxes, and who summed up his posture in “Civil Disobedience” by saying that “I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right” – a statement echoed roughly a hundred years later when Mahatma Gandhi told an English court that he believed that “non-cooperation with evil is a duty and British rule of India is evil,” and also resonating through the publications of many an American civil rights leader, first and foremost Martin Luther King Jr.

While I had read much of Thoreau’s work already before I discovered the Library of America collections, I am extremely pleased to see the majority of his body of work reunited in two volumes in this dignified series. For one thing, while there are innumerable compilations containing “Walden” and some of his other better-known works, it is still difficult to get a hold of Thoreau’s lesser known essays and poems. Moreover, though, and more importantly, reading his works in the context provided by this collection makes for much greater insight into the man’s personality, and his philosophy as a whole. While a biography certainly adds perspective, nothing surpasses the experience of reading Thoreau’s works in context – and in the context of the works of other Transcendentalists, first and foremost Emerson. This is a true literary treasure: to behold, cherish and read again and again.

Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (Library of America)

Collected Works: Wise Blood / A Good Man is Hard to Find / The Violent Bear it Away / Everything that Rises Must Converge / Essays and Letters (Library of America #39) - Flannery O'ConnorA literary voice silenced way too early.

Flannery O’Connor did not even live to see her 40th birthday; she died, in 1964, of lupus, the same inflammatory disease which had killed her father when she was a mere teenager and which all too soon began to cripple her as well. A graduate of the Iowa State University’s journalism and writing program, she had started to write her first stories, poems and other pieces when she was still in high school, and had submitted a collection of six short stories entitled “The Geranium” as her master’s thesis in university. (Most of the stories contained in that collection were published individually in various magazines and anthologies around the time of their inclusion in the thesis; the collection as a whole, however, was first published only posthumously in the National Book Award winning “Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.”) Only a few years after having obtained her master’s degree, and after a prolonged residence at Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York, O’Connor began to spend time in hospitals and, in due course, was diagnosed with lupus. From that moment on, she focused on her writing even more than she had before – and the result were two novels, two short story collections, several stand-alone short stories, essays and other pieces of occasional prose, as well as a barrage of letters. The majority of that work product, including twenty-one previously unpublished letters, is reproduced in this collection published in the Library of America series; notably, the fiction part also includes, as one piece, O’Connor’s master’s thesis, “The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories.”

A native of Georgia, Flannery O’Connor defined herself as much as a Catholic writer as a Southerner; and she commented on the impact that regional influences on the one hand and her religion on the other hand had had on her writing in the 1963 essays “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” and “The Regional Writer.” Yet, while religion (and more specifically, Catholicism) certainly plays a big part in her writing, from the “Christian malgré lui,” as she herself characterized the hero of her first novel “Wise Blood” in the Author’s Note to book’s 1962 second edition, to the “odd folks out” and searching souls populating her short stories, and to her frequent biblical references, it would not do her writing justice to limit her to that realm, nor to that of “Southern” fiction. (No matter for which specific dramatic purpose a writer employed a Southern setting, he would still be considered to be writing about the South in general, and was thus left to get rid off the label of a “Southern writer … and all the misconceptions that go with it” as best he could, she quipped in her 1960 essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Rather, she added three years later in “The Regional Writer,” location matters to an author insofar as any author “operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet,” and it is up to him to find that precise spot and apply it to his writing.) Similarly, while her heroes are certainly not the kind of people you expect to meet on your daily errands (or do you?), it would shortchange them were we to succumb to the temptation of merely defining them as some particularly colorful examples of grotesque fiction. For one thing, “[t]o be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man,” as O’Connor noted in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” More fundamentally, however, she saw her calling – and that of any Southern author treading the same ground as William Faulkner and trying not to have their “mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down” – as an attempt to reach below the surface of the human existence to that realm “which is the concern of prophets and poets,” and to strike a balance between realism on the one hand and vision, poetry and compassion on the other; to recognize the expectations of her readers without making herself their slave.

Thus, the famously unexpected endings of Flannery O’Connor’s narratives are more than merely weird plot twists, the encounter between the grandmother and The Misfit in the title story of her first published short story collection “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955) is the result of a wrong turn in the road as much as that of a series of wrong choices, coincidences and essential miscommunications, and the title story of her second, posthumously published collection of short stories “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) truly does indicate more than a physical proposition and indeed, a situation applicable to the entire world, as O’Connor wrote in a 1961 letter regarding the initial publication of the collection’s title story in New World Writing.

A six-time winner of the O. Henry Award for Short Fiction and winner of the posthumously awarded 1972 National Book Award for her Collected Short Stories, in her short career as a writer Flannery O’Connor left an indelible mark on American literature, far transcending the borders of her native South. We can only speculate what she would have contributed had illness and death not intervened – and in a time when, as O’Connor wrote so prophetically in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” too many writers abandon vision and instead contend themselves with satisfying their readers’ more pedestrian expectations, her contributions would doubtless be invaluable. Alas, we are left with a body of work that fits neatly into this marvelously edited single-volume entry in the “Library of America” series – but the content of this one book alone is worth manifold that of the much ampler output of many a writer of recent years.

 

favorite Quotes:
Wise Blood

“In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories

“Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.”

Letters

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”

Some Aspects of The Grotesque in Southern Fiction

“[A]nything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”