When writers read -- 1
This summer's ``When writers read'' calls on contributors appearing in The Home Forum since last year's gathering. We invited each to name a book, new or old, that he or she had recently enjoyed and to write a short comment suggesting why. Replies from poets, artists, and musicians will follow on Wednesday. William Buckley reads Tom Clancy
``The book I most recently read fascinated me for several reasons, the first of them a display of technical virtuosity quite overwhelming,'' writes William F. Buckley Jr., whose ``When Mr. Buckley said it was time to learn music'' appeared in The Home Forum Dec. 26. ``You see, I write novels in which when I run into mechanical or technical problems I rush to my word processor and telex an SOS to a remarkable gentleman, recently retired as an executive of the telephone company. He is a Jules
Verne type who could tell you how to defrost your refrigerator while driving your car. My illiteracy in these matters extends to needing to concentrate on whether, in unscrewing something, one goes at it clockwise or counterclockwise. Well, `The Hunt for Red October,' by Tom Clancy, is dazzling in the familiarity it exhibits with the most modern (fantastic?) contrivances of the kind that govern the lives and fortunes of submarines, missiles, sonars, telecommunications, admirals, and industrial complexers. It is like reading an issue of Popular Mechanics with an exciting plot. A second dividend is a tightly engaging story, rich in inventiveness. Characters come in for the briefest appearances, and they are given flesh-and-blood backgrounds. And all of this from a nonprofessional writer, published by a nonprofessional house: a best seller, quite rightly so. Have a look, and if you have the double-talking powers of Sid Caesar, you can come home and sound as though you had just spent a few years at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. My wife was not impressed, but then that's my problem.'' Irene Corbally Kuhn reads of Queen Marie
``Before World War I, Britain and Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains were ruled by kings and queens and a czar of all the Russias,'' writes Irene Corbally Kuhn (``Friends for all seasons,'' April 22). ``The most beautiful of the royals was Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and Czar Nicholas. In this historical biography -- `The Last Romantic,' by Hannah Pakula -- Marie comes alive as the talented, fascinating, and politically astute woman she was. Just as Europe t hen was like a fairy-tale land compared with our modern world, so was Marie a beautiful anomaly. This book had a special appeal for me because as a young reporter in New York I was assigned to accompany Queen Marie when she visited the United States. I walked and talked with her and she complimented me by exchanging ideas. I could see why she was ahead of her time; a liberated woman who used her talents, accomplishments, and charm to achieve her ends. She loved her country and would have fought in exile to keep it free had she lived to see World War II. Romantics and careerists alike will enjoy this book, I'm sure.'' Barbara Tuchman reads Sherlock Holmes
``On returning from a friend's house in Washington last week,'' says Barbara W. Tuchman (``Are we smart enough for our technology?'' Oct. 26), ``I borrowed from the guest-room bedside table a paperback copy of Conan Doyle's `The Hound of the Baskervilles' for reading on the plane going home, because, having started it, I could not let it go unfinished. It is astonishing how this old and worn-out story, which I must have first read more than 50 years ago, gripped my attention and held it in suspense until I reached the last page.
``Curiously enough, though a Holmes addict from about the age of 12, I did not remember a word of the story except for the phosphorescence painted around the dog's muzzle. Yet I remembered very well the incidents in `The Sign of Four.' The `Hound' evidently had not made much of an impression on me at first reading.
``On this reading I found it absolutely absorbing and proof again of what a marvelous storyteller Conan Doyle was, and what a master of setting and local atmosphere. The lonely house on the moor and the sinister moor itself were more dark and eerie and successfully fearful than `Wuthering Heights' and `Jane Eyre' combined, and by the time I reached home, glued to the book through dinner and retirement to bed, I was again under the spell of a master craftsman of the storyteller's art, as I had been when first reading `The White Company' in my early teens, or when I had to refrain from reading my sister's copy of the `Last Tales of Sherlock Holmes' for fear of coming upon the passage where Holmes is pushed, apparently to his death, over the cliff by Professor Moriarty.
``Story, since `The Iliad' and `The Odyssey,' is the source and the bloodstream of literature.
``With seeming ease Conan Doyle could achieve the goal of every writer's desire -- to enthrall the reader by the written word.'' Edward Weeks reads Marchand's `Byron'
``Byron,'' by Leslie A. Marchand, was enjoyed by Edward Weeks (``When Ike cooked with foil in the Dartmouth Grant,'' June 6): ``This biography has given me absorbing pleasure in its sensitive portrait of Lord Byron. Marchand writes as a friend, admiring Byron's generosity, his physical attractiveness, his spontaneous sense of humor, and the almost unbelievable celerity of his writing. He applauds Byron's growing sympathy for the revolutionary spirit which was breaking through the crust of Eu rope. Fundamental in this portrait is Byron's inability to command the means to which he felt entitled. But after he had married one of London's wealthiest prospects he could not avoid indebtedness. Not until alone and in exile did he employ the mock-heroic style which perfectly expressed his genius, paid his debts, and freed his spirit.'' Rushworth Kidder reads Thoreau
`` `Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden pond,' wrote Henry David Thoreau. Near the end of November 1964 I sat in the sun outside a shuttered-up boathouse on a Maine lake, reading `Walden,' '' writes Rushworth M. Kidder (``Nibbling at Shakesp.,'' July 30). ``It was one of those rare afternoons when all that a writer says merges gently with all that surrounds the reader. `Simplify, simplify,' said this self-appointed inspector of s nowstorms. `I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.' Powerful potions, those, for a young and formative reader.
``But was he really that good? This summer, beside the same lake, I've reread `Walden' -- impatiently at times, but marveling at Thoreau's sheer dexterity. Sometimes he writes with the stops all out and every key pressed down, pouring so much air through the pipes that his little church shivers with cacophony. But just when his sanctimony almost overwhelms his insight, he scales back to the clear one-finger melodies. `The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles!' he writes, and ` men have become the tools of their tools,' and `the man who goes alone can start today.' In an age of yuppie-yap, such writing deserves rereading.''
Earl Foell reads . . . and reads
A summer roundup comes from Earl W. Foell (``In tune,'' March 26): ``What to do when most fiction seems forced and arty rather than artful? When even mysteries, the staple of summer escapism, have become as formulaic as a syndicated crossword puzzle -- or else have gone all sociological and dull.
``History and science are two answers. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't confess to an execrable reading habit: consuming four or five books at once. Not simultaneously; alternately. Two on the bedside table; two or three at living-room sofa and kitchen table. Bookmarks ranging from the quarter to nine-tenths finished mark.
``This summer's quartet: `Comeback,' by Ezra Vogel. Stagy title, but interesting case studies of the way Japanese industries are leading the world, and American industries are responding, to make quality production a better horse race. Professor Vogel, remember, was the Paul Revere who raised the cry that the Japanese were coming. `Earth's Aura,' by Louise B. Young. A marvelous combination of scientific knowledge and reverence for the atmosphere (gaseous) that gives Earth its atmosphere (flavor). `Time
Frames,' by Niles Eldredge, and `Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes,' by Stepen Jay Gould. Companion works that use colorful fieldwork to show how the scientific method works -- in this case mostly putting life and adventure into fossils. The subject is how evolutionary theory is changing because of what shows up in those creatures frozen, not in aspic, but in limestone.'' Pearl Strachan Hurd reads MacLeish
``When, as Wordsworth said, `the world is too much with us,' I turn for comfort to three American poets -- Walt Whitman, Stephen Vincent Ben'et, and Archibald MacLeish,'' writes Pearl Strachan Hurd (``Dogs about town,'' July 17). ``I have just reread my worn copy of MacLeish's `America Was Promises,' a present from the author himself. It was published in 1939, when we used to say, `Democracy is on trial.'
``Answering the question of to whom America makes its promises, the poet declares that Jefferson knew; `Old Man Adams' knew; also Tom Paine -- and adds, `Man turned into men in Philadelphia.'
``As for the promises, he warns: `Believe unless we take them for ourselves/ Now: soon: by the clock: before tomorrow:/ Others will take them: not for now: for longer!'
``And he concludes, `America is promises to/ Take! America is promises to/ Us! . . . With love. . . . O believe this!' '' Paul Beeching reads Harriet Beecher Stowe
From Paul Q. Beeching (``Then and now: the teacher of America's best writers of the past,'' May 6): ``Harriet Beecher Stowe's neglected novel, `The Minister's Wooing,' pits the historical character Aaron Burr against the minister of the title, who represents the last gasp of Yankee Calvinism. Burr stands for sophisticated, unfeeling rationalism, and of course emerges as the winner, as he always does. We Americans have quite a literature devoted to the colonel: 30-some plays and over 50 novel s. Mrs. Stowe understood why: the fascination of that `. . . disdainful calm which will neither give sigh or tear. It was not that he killed poor Hamilton, but that he never seemed to care.' Ah, that's what gets me -- the old Byronic hero -- in Mrs. Stowe or Charlotte Bront"e or Gore Vidal.'' Richard Sorenson reads memories of Beethoven ``My enjoyment of Beethoven's music made me want to read something of his life and times,'' says Richard Sorenson (``TV with my aunt,'' July 24).``The usual biography finds the author in charge of collecting, interpreting, and weaving together all the facts. Thus, it becomes the subject's life as seen through the eyes of the author. But this one -- `Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries,' edited by O. G. Sonneck -- is a little different in that Mr. Sonneck compiles, in chronological o rder, reminiscences from more than 30 of Beethoven's acquaintances. So in effect, there are more than 30 authors. Contradictions are allowed to stand. Beethoven and his works are seen from varying angles, some of them surprising. For instance, Louis Spohr, himself a good composer of that era, uses words like `monstrous,' `tasteless,' and `trivial' in describing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The book's many voices make it an interesting reading experience.'' Amy Lee reads June Goodwin
From Amy Lee (``Another Lombardo beat goes on,'' Dec. 31): `` `Cry Amandla!' by June Goodwin, a former Christian Science Monitor correspondent covering South Africa, hardly qualifies as light summer reading, but it certainly takes your mind off the heat and humidity. It may even overturn your hammock.
`` `Amandla' means power and it is a cry rising from South Africa's oppressed black majority struggling to break the stranglehold of apartheid.
``June Goodwin chose to find out how South African women -- white Afrikaner, English, Jewish, black -- viewed their society. With compassion and insight she probed and reported on their attitudes, prejudices, fears, acquiescences, aspirations. Their settings, from the harsh poverty of a Soweto to the opulence of a white Johannesburg suburb, she limns with unfussy, often shocking facts.
``I cry read `Cry Amandla!' Its wake-up power outlasts that dip in the pool.''
Mary Tanenbaum reads `Chinese' Wilson
``Rich, diversified coverage of a plant hunter's experiences makes `The Flowering World of ``Chinese'' Wilson' (edited by Daniel J. Foley) of unique appeal to travelers and adventurers as well as gardeners and horticulturists,'' writes Mary Tanenbaum (``I sort of have a Hopper,'' June 24). `` `Chinese' '' Wilson was for many years, at the start of this century, attached to Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum, and on its behalf made trips to the Far East in search of plant life, later to be
transplanted to the Western world. One hair-raising tale involves his tripping on a chilling Chinese precipice, in search of the regal lily. Apart from the regal lily, with its breathtaking crown of blooms, `Chinese' Wilson also tracked down many other contemporary backyard standbys. His discoveries and imports include forsythia, azaleas, roses, and rhododendron.'' Margaret Tsuda reads Kenneth Clark
``When Kenneth Clark's `Civilisation: A Personal View' was published, I wasn't interested in television scripts turned into a book as I either possessed or had read Clark's more scholarly tomes on individual artists,'' writes Margaret Tsuda (``When an elegant ambler goes back to the easel,'' June 5). ``Recently I found with delight the book is like an extended conversation with someone whose views on art and Western civilization (from the Dark Ages into the present century)
parallel mine. His ability to marshal inconspicuous historical bits to vividly support trenchant attitudes is equaled by his graceful, gently ironic style. Handsome illustrations provide the graphic dimension. One does not agree with all his conclusions and generalizations, but he disclaims the most egregious in an engaging foreword. Moreover, appropriate passages of poetry, from the Saxon bards to Walt Whitman, adorn the text, captivate me.''