A Baker's Dozen of Unique Books
What makes a unique book? It is certainly a matter of individual taste. I appreciate a fresh approach to a topic, a finely honed style, but also dollops of description now and then and some philosophical undercurrents. By much desultory reading in shadowed places I have stumbled upon some authors who offer literary offshoots not often explored. Alice Meynell, primarily known as a poet, wrote some outstanding sketches; the novelist J.B. Priestley penned a number of non-fiction books; George Gissing, who thought he was writing fiction, created a unique genre of essay-within-novel. Therefore, I offer you some works that impressed me upon first reading and continue to do so.
TALES OF THE ALHAMBRA, Washington Irving (1832)
Some critics and historians have written that Washington Irving was the first ambassador of literature between the U. S. and Europe. Europeans were fascinated by American legends like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Collections of his essays and stories about Europe—The Sketchbook, Bracebridge Hall, Tales of a Traveler—became best sellers here and abroad. That is why I find him so intriguing; that and his rich writing style. For seventeen years he lived in Europe using England as his base. He became secretary of the American legation in London. One of Irving’s friends was the American minister to Spain.
Thus, Irving, as a noted writer, was allowed to live in the very center of the vast complex of the Alhambra, a most unusual place to live. The Alhambra was constructed in the ninth century on the hills of Granada and was added to until the sixteenth century, accreting hundreds of rooms. It consists of towers and palaces, parks, fountains and cascades. Irving’s collection of sketches and stories investigates some of the towers, courts, and statues but also the government, the Moors, social traditions, and famous visitors.
This passage is from the chapter “The Alhambra by Moonlight”: “I have sat for hours at my window, inhaling the sweetness of the garden and musing on the chequered fortunes of those whose history I dimly shadowed out in the elegant memorials around. Sometimes I have issued forth at midnight, when everything was quiet, and have wandered over the whole building . . . At such a time I have ascended to the little pavilion called the Queen’s Toilette to enjoy its varied and extensive prospect. To the right, the snowy summits of the Sierra Nevada would gleam like silver clouds against the darker firmament , and all the outlines of the mountain would be softened, yet delicately defined. My delight, however, would be to lean over the parapet of the ‘tocador’ and gaze down upon Granada, spread out like a map below me, all buried in deep repose and its white palaces and convents sleeping, as it were, in the moonshine.”
EXOTICS AND RETROSPECTIVES, Lafcadio Hearn (1898)
Lafcadio Hearn was one of the first American writers to introduce Japanese culture to our shores. But he wasn’t a tourist. In 1890 he went as a professional journalist to write an article. Greatly attracted by the culture he stayed to teach English in various schools and eventually reached the level of Professor at Tokyo Imperial University. He became a Japanese citizen, married a Japanese woman, had children and died in Japan in 1904. What fascinates me are the many obscure shrines he visits, the customs and the ancient legends he recounts during his life there.
In the following chapter called “Fuji-No-Yaira,” Hearn himself has made a very hard climb up Mt. Fuji. As he stands on the summit, he stresses not an external view so much as his internal feelings: “But the view—the view for a hundred leagues—and the light of the far faint dreamy world—and the fairy vapors of morning—and the marvelous wreathings of cloud: all this, and only this, consoles me for the labor and the pain . . . Other pilgrims, earlier climbers—poised upon the highest crag, with faces turned to the tremendous East—are clapping their hands in Shinto prayer, saluting the mighty Day . . . The immense poetry of the moment enters into me with a thrill. I know that the colossal vision before me has already become a memory ineffaceable—a memory of which no luminous detail can fade till the hour when thought itself must fade, and the dust of these eyes be mingled with the dust of the myriad million that also have looked, in ages forgotten before my birth, from the summit supreme of Fuji to the Rising of the Sun.”
THE PRIVATE PAPERS OF HENRY RYECROFT, George Gissing (1903)
George Gissing was a talented author who wrote twenty-three novels. However, he seems to have selected friends who were detrimental to him, so he often skirted poverty. Many of his books were about hard lives in an urban environment, but toward the end of his career he wrote The Private Papers. I found it a deep and curious novel, more a series of essays about a journalist who has retired to the country and ruminates on life. It is the ideal life Gissing might have desired, but he never found it. He died the year this book was published.
Of the many thoughts Gissing offers, in Chapter Ten he discusses the usage of memory: “Whilst I was reading this afternoon my thoughts strayed, and I found myself recalling a hillside in Suffolk, where, after a long walk, I rested drowsily one midsummer day twenty years ago. A great longing seized me; I was tempted to set off at once, and find again that spot under the high elm trees, where, as I smoked a delicious pipe, I heard about me the crack, crack, crack of broom-pods bursting in the glorious heat of the noontide sun. Had I acted upon the impulse, what chance was there of my enjoying such another hour as that which my memory cherished? No, no; it is not the place that I remember; it is the time of life, the circumstances, the mood, which at that moment fell so happily together . . . What I remember is just one moment of my earlier life, linked by accident with that picture of the Suffolk landscape. The place no longer exists; it never existed save for me. For it is the mind which creates the world about us, and, even though we stand side by side in the same meadow, my eyes will never see what is beheld by yours, my heart will never stir to the emotions with which yours is touched.”
THE BOOK OF TEA, Okakura Kakuzo (1906)
Can you imagine an entire book just about tea? Not just a history but the aesthetics of the tea ceremony. At the age of fifty-eight in 1910, Kakuzo, a noted scholar, became the first head of the Asian art division of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. As a scholar he wrote in English as well as Japanese, having traveled to Europe, China and India. Everything about this book is delicate, even the illustrated slipcase in which the first edition is housed.
From the chapter titled “The Tea-Room”: “The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill.
Even in the daytime the light in the room is subdued, for the low eaves of the slanting roof admit but few of the sun’s rays. Everything is sober in tint from the ceiling to the floor; the guests themselves have carefully chosen garments of unobtrusive colors. The mellowness of age is over all, everything suggestive of recent acquirement being tabooed save only the one note of contrast furnished by the bamboo dipper and the linen napkin, both immaculately white and new. However faded the tea-room and the tea-equipage may seem, everything is absolutely clean.”
THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, Kenneth Grahame (1908)
It might be considered a children’s book, but my viewpoint is different. In Victorian times the literate middleclass was dominant, businessmen working long hours. Other than with nannies, children found little time with their parents. Thus, when possible, families reading together became paramount. Notice the vocabulary and sentence structure in a Victorian book; it would have to appeal to the adult first as well as the child. And we know that if something is read aloud—ranging from poetry to fiction—comprehension is easier.
Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows for his only son, but I am sure the author enjoyed the creation too. Some passages might well appeal to adults only. With great imagination the author is able to bring animals to life and the nature in which they lived. One of the most striking chapters is called “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The two principal characters, the mole and the rat, feel the power of nature and intoxicating music all around them. Then Ratty actually glimpses the god Pan: “And then, in the utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked into the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward.”
ESSAYS, Alice Meynell (1914)
Alice Meynell was a poet born in 1847 who grew up in Italy. Her father was a friend of Dickens. When Alice married, she and her husband started a press which published poetry books, some by their friends Francis Thompson and Coventry Patmore. By 1908 Alice had become a leader in the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. Despite all the involvement in things English and political, she never lost her memories of Italy which shadow both her poetry and her poetic essays. In the chapter “Ceres’ Runaway” she declares that things are always growing in Italy:
“Italian grass is not turf; it is full of things, and they are chiefly aromatic. No richer scents throng each other, close and warm, than these from a little hand-space of the grass one rests on, within the walls or on the plain, or in the Sabine or the Alban hills. Moreover, under the name I will take leave to include lettuce as it grows with a most welcome surprise on certain ledges of the Vatican . . .
Moreover, in Italy the vegetables—the table ones—have a wildness, a suggestion of the grass, from lands at liberty, for all the tilling. Wildish peas, wilder asparagus—the field asparagus which seems to have disappeared from England, but of which Herrick boasts in his manifestations of frugality—and strawberries much less than half-way from the small and darkling ones of the woods to the pale and corpulent of the gardens, and with nothing of savage savour and simplicity. The most cultivated of all countries, the Italy of tillage, is yet not a garden, but something better, and her wilderness something better than a desert. In all the three there is a trace of the little flying heels of the runaway.”
ALL IN A SUMMER’S DAY, Sacheverell Sitwell (1926)
Sacheverell Sitwell was part of a famous and wealthy English family; his brother Osbert a major novelist, sister Edith a recognized poet. “Sachy” became a well-respected art critic, writing many volumes on European paintings through the centuries. As years went by and his reputation increased, he developed a special category of writing—he called them “Fantasies,” eight books which appeared during his lifetime, with titles like For Want of the Golden City or Journey to the Ends of Time. In each Fantasy Sitwell wandered around the world, as well as in his mind, with great imagination and vigor. For example, All in a Summer’s Day explores in a short space: blackberries, his old tutor, music, tea, trains, drama, etc.
From the chapter “The Comedians at Luncheon,” he is staying alone in a distant hotel, which becomes a symbol of life: “The door was knocked upon, beaten almost, with a heavy thumping hand. The room poured into my eyes and that brass unfamiliar bedstead broke into memory and made it move. I turned on the light and it was as pale and brassy as the bedstead.
A drizzling, sighing sound, blown to and fro in little pattering gusts, could be heard above the usual matutinal sounds of sweeping and hurrying, and as soon as I had drawn the curtain, I saw the damp court below, with the white, moist porcelain of its brick walls . . .
I was driven up into my room once more and constrained by the dampness of the window-sill, which made it difficult to stay there long, to read once again all the evening papers that I had brought with me in the train. But in order not to achieve this too quickly, I gave myself long intervals, in which I lay back in my chair.” It seems that he can not escape from the hotel.
ORLANDO, Virginia Woolf (1928)
Virginia Woolf’s reputation continues to grow to this very day. Her novels, criticism, diaries, letters are studied around the world in many translations. One book that is really uncategorical is Orlando. In this fantastic adventure the major character Orlando metamorphoses from male to female and back again through several English centuries. Critics state that Woolf was positing an early case for women’s equality and freedom. I am elated by her daring plot, comments on famous people and the continuation of a fine style that glows through all of her works.
Woolf experiments with the concept of personality change throughout her writings. A passage from her novel The Waves: “For I changed and changed; was Hamlet, was Shelley, was the hero, whose name I now forget, of a novel by Dostoevsky; was for a whole term, incredibly, Napoleon; but was Byron chiefly.” Yet this is what any creatively healthy person does. We imagine, but Orlando actually changes sex and lives through many eras.
Chapter four of Orlando takes place in the eighteenth century: “It was happy for Orlando, though at first disappointing, that this should be so, for she now began to live much in the company of men of genius, yet after all they were not much different from other people. Addison, Pope, Swift, proved, she found, to be fond of tea. They liked arbours. They collected little bits of coloured glass. They adored grottoes. Rank was not distasteful to them. Praise was delightful. They wore plum-coloured suits one day and grey another. Mr. Swift had a fine Malacca cane. Mr. Addison scented his handkerchiefs. Mr. Pope suffered with his head. A piece of gossip did not come amiss. Nor were they without their jealousies.”
SNOW COUNTRY, Yasunari Kawabata (1935)
Kawabata received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. It took him several years to complete his masterwork Snow Country. He lived in the north of Japan while writing this book; the inn where he stayed has become an historical landmark and a yearly contest for Miss Geisha (his female protagonist) takes place as part of the winter festival.
What makes Snow Country special to me is that the author through words attempts to imitate the unrolling of a scroll painting. From the opening scene, which is a train ride, the feeling of movement and revelation weaves throughout the entire novel. There are no chapters; sentences, paragraphs, sections vary from short to long and back again. Flashbacks intensify that sense of motion and unveiling. As in observing a painting, you begin to notice tiny details. One line can be a nature description, next a human description; vague references resemble the smudges of brushstrokes.
The entire book is simply divided into two parts. In the first part the male protagonist is taking a winter stroll:
“Diapers hung high beside the road to dry. Under them stretched the vista of the Border Range, the snow on its peak glowing softly. The green onions in the garden patches were not yet buried in the snow.
Children of the village were skiing in the fields.
As he started into the part of the village that fronted on the highway, he heard a sound as of quiet rain.
Little icicles glistened daintily along the eaves.
‘While you’re at it, would you mind shoveling a little from ours?’ Dazzled by the bright light, a woman on her way back from the bath wiped her forehead with a damp towel as she looked up at a man shoveling snow from a roof. A waitress, probably, who had drifted into the village a little in advance of the skiing season. Next door was a café with a sagging roof, its painted window flaking with age.”
DELIGHT, J.B. Priestley (1949)
J.B. Priestley was a very successful twentieth century playwright (writing Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls) and a novelist (The Old Dark House and The Good Companions) –many of which have been turned into film. His memoir Margin Released leads us directly to his great ability in essay form. The collection called Delight contains short, wry and pithy essays both imagistic and imaginative. The book is 170 pages long containing 111 essays—each one paragraph! Here is an example in toto called “After Finishing Some Work”:
“After finishing a piece of work that has been long and rather difficult, I have a sense of satisfaction that can expand into delight. This does not come from surveying the work done, for at these times I am rarely sure of the value of what I have just created, and more than doubtful if my first intention has been fulfilled, and may even wonder gloomily, while I hold the work in hand, if I have not been wasting time and energy. No, the delight springs from a sense of release. I have been in prison with this one idea, and now, I feel, I am free. Tomorrow, ten times the size of last Tuesday, is suddenly rich with promise. Time and space are both extended. I catch a glimpse of fifty new ideas, flickering like lizards among the masonry of my mind; but I need not bother about them. I am now the master and not the slave. I can go to China, learn the clarinet, read Gibbon again, study metaphysics, grow strange flowers in hothouses, lie in bed, lunch and dine with old friends and brilliant acquaintances, look at pictures, take the children to concerts, tidy up the study, talk properly to my wife. What a world this is to be free and curious in! What a wealth of sunlight and starlight and firelight! And so for a little while, before the key grates in the lock again, there I am, out and free, with mountains of treasure before my dazzled eyes. Yes, there comes a moment—just a moment—of delight.”
THE SILENT TRAVELLER IN SAN FRANCISCO, Chiang Yee (1963)
Chiang Yee lived a peripatetic life. In China his country of birth he was a chemistry teacher and newspaper editor. In 1933 unhappy with political developments he went to England to study economics. Soon after, he had the original idea to write his “Silent Traveller” series; he also had the ability to paint charming water colors and include them in his volumes. Here is our Euro-American culture viewed from a completely fresh point of view. Yee wrote about London and Oxford, Edinburgh and Dublin. In 1955 he journeyed to the U.S. to write books about New York and Boston. I find San Francisco a uniquely beautiful city, so this has become my favorite of Yee’s books.
This excerpt is from the chapter “Climbing Perilously”: “It was a very clear morning; not only had the early sea fog long disappeared, but there was no morning haze shadowing the Berkeley hills. The few skyscrapers of San Francisco, spaced a little apart from one another, looked like white candles ready to be lit up for some special festival. Every house was dressed in white satin. The faint towers of the Bay Bridge seemed to be flag-posts standing at equal intervals; an impressive procession might have been passing between them. The sky was an enormous canopy made of azure silk. The fresh green of the Berkeley hills opposite the pure white of San Francisco City, enclosing the deep blue of the Bay, made a perfect color scheme pleasing to my eyes . . .
The steel structure was softened by the thin veil of mist and looked similar in shape to the South Gate of Heaven on the summit of Tai Shan Mountain in Shantung Province where Confucius was born some twenty-five hundred years ago.”
PLANET OF THE BLIND, Stephen Kuusisto (1998)
Stephen Kuusisto’s life is in this memoir. He was born with no vision in one eye and the ability to see only light in the other. And yet, being very intelligent and having a photographic mind, he was able to jog, ride bikes, hitchhike through Europe, teach literature in a college, among his many daring accomplishments. Not only am I fascinated by the story of how a “disabled” person functions in modern life, I am enthralled by his richly poetic writing style. His few numbered chapters are really collections of episodes as his life evolves. We might call this passage from Chapter Three “In the Attic”:
“Even in the attic there are rooms and more rooms. A raccoon coat hangs in a doorway, a huge anthropoid black ghastliness stopping my breath until I inch forward and touch it. Dead moths fall like specks of tissue paper. There’s a smell of spoiled rubber, and then I find them under the hanging coats, a pair of gutta-percha boots, the height of two umbrella stands. Inside the left one is a rolled newspaper, and inside the paper is a pair of broken horn-rimmed glasses, a memento of a fishing trip . . .
There are doors in the attic that open onto the deepest closets, places of rich concealment, rooms without lights, rooms that have never had lights. In here I am not at a disadvantage: my body is like a falling silk scarf in the blackness.
This is a treasury, and I open it: the attic closet is my sebeel, my Mohammedan drinking chamber.
There are trunks here, steamer trunks with rivets and leather straps, and inside them are smaller boxes—they open like Russian dolls, inside are smaller dolls, until you finally hold a bead in your fingers. My hands are actually breathing. This is a pleasure: to be blind in the museum dark, unwrapping and holding.”
THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES, Edmund de Waal (2010)
This book, a recent best seller, has all the ingredients to totally captivate me. Yes, it is in part a history of the rise of the Nazi war machine but also a history of a certain family. The Ephrussi family originally were poor Russian Jews who with talents and energy worked in the grain markets, then the oil fields, eventually within a couple of generations becoming bankers who rivaled the Rothchilds in Odessa, Vienna and Paris. Each of these cities lives in its era under the unique word use of de Waal’s pen.
However, the focal point—and what drew my attention throughout the book—was the 264 netsuke carvings that moved through the family in hair-breath suspense from one generation to another, always risking loss. A netsuke is an intricate carving so tiny a child can hold it in one hand, but it is made of the toughest woods or ivory. In the 1870’s in Paris, Charles Ephrussi bought the netsukes from Sichel, a major import-export dealer. Charles was an avid art collector who aided many Impressionist artists financially. He was the editor of the Parisian art magazine “Gazette des Beaux-Arts”; his fame placed him in Renoir’s painting “Luncheon of the Boating-Party.”
Edmund de Waal, a present day potter, was determined to research his family as thoroughly as possible. In doing so he delineates the character of Charles, who first purchased this Japanese collection; Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother who indirectly saved the carvings from the Holocaust; and Uncle Iggie, who completed the netsuke circle by going to live in Japan and taking them with him. De Waal writes with a poet’s eye for the significance in the seeming unimportant with descriptive power. I liked best the moments the netsuke became not just objets d’art but durable toys for the children to love and play with. From the chapter “Types of the Old City”:
“The children in the dressing-room choose their favorite carving and play with it on the pale-yellow carpet. Gisela loved the Japanese dancer, holding her fan against the brocade gown, caught in mid-step. Iggie loved the wolf, a tight dark tangle of limbs, faint markings all along its flanks, gleaming eyes and a snarl. And he loved the bundle of kindling tied up with rope, and the beggar who has fallen asleep over the begging bowl so that all you see is the top of his bald head. There is also a dried fish, all scales and shrunken eyes, with a small rat scuttling over it proprietorially; its eyes are inlaid jet. And there is the mad old man with his bony back and bulging eye, gnawing on a fish with an octopus in his other hand. Elisabeth, contrary, loved the masks with their abstracted memory of faces.
You could arrange these carvings, ivory and wood, all the fourteen rats in one long row, the three tigers, the beggars over there, the children, the masks, the shells, the fruits.
You could arrange them by colour, all the way from the dark-brown medlar to the gleaming ivory deer. Or by size. The smallest is the single rat with black inlaid eyes chewing his tail, little bigger than the magenta stamp issued to celebrate the sixtieth year of the Emperor’s reign.”
IS THERE AN ENDING?
I had to add The Hare with Amber Eyes because I’m continually coming upon unique writing. I could go on and on: I could have discussed Cyril Connolly’s essays making up The Unquiet Grave, or Conrad Aiken’s autobiography Ushant, or Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel of the five senses Against the Grain. Only about one third of the books discussed fit the major genre, the novel. But I have discovered gems in other literary areas, in by-lanes and walking paths. What makes a favorite book? I could reread all of these thirteen books; I could reread all the books some of the authors—like Sitwell, Irving, Hearn, Yee—have written. All we need is time and an open eye!