Lost in the Movies: Literary Interlude: The last 20 books I read

Literary Interlude: The last 20 books I read

Here is a visual/quote diary of the last 20 books I read. I tweeted each book cover when I finished, and have now added a random sample as well (chosen mostly by complete chance, wherever I flipped the book open to). Books are listed in the order I read them; some selections inspired future choices so there's kind of a thread, or a few threads, running through the titles. Hopefully some of these inspire a visit to your own local library or bookstore; let me know if you've read or plan to read any of these, and what you thought!

(P.S. The above is a photo of my bookshelf, including many titles that aren't featured below; but if you have thoughts on any of them, share those in the comments as well!)

"Once in a while, a girl would freeze and not be able to push the doorbell. Or maybe she'd get to the door and something would happen to her voice. Or she'd get the greeting mixed up with something she shouldn't be saying until she got inside. A girl like this, she'd decide to pack it in, take the sample case, head for the car, hang around until Patti and the others finished. There'd be a conference. Then they'd all ride back to the office. They'd say things to buck themselves up. 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going.' And, 'Do the right things and the right things will happen.' Things like that.

Sometimes a girl just disappeared in the field, sample case and all. She'd hitch a ride into town, then beat it. But there were always girls to take her place. Girls were coming and going in those days. Patti had a list. Every few weeks she'd run a little ad in The Pennysaver. There'd be more girls and more training. There was no end of girls."

"Vitamins," from Short Cuts (compiled in 1993) by Raymond Carver

"The Romantic movement in English poetry resists easy definition. Perhaps what enables us to distinguish English Romantic poetry, so various in itself, from both the pure Augustan and the Victorian modes is a mark noted by Wordsworth in his famous Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and applying, I think, not only to his own poems:

'...but it is proper that I should mention one other circumstances which distinguishes these poems from the popular poetry of the day; it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.'

I think this neglected sentence is the most important of many sentences in Wordsworth's Preface, though it is the least often quoted."

A Short History of English Poetry (1981) by G.S. Fraser

"'Then came defeat and the battlefield was strewn with corpses.
The unclaimed bones are lying somewhere in a far-away land,
The rain is lashing down and the wind howling,
Who now will evoke their memory?'

If this is the fate of their enemies, the fate of the Vietnamese is to endure suffering and be redeemed through it. This is the theme of Nguyen Du's eighteenth-century epic poem, Kieu, which is written about a young woman separated from her lover, who experiences constant degradation, betrayal, and attempts on her life until she meets him once again. Kieu's search, of course, is the search of the Vietnamese for unification. Her willingness to sacrifice everything for principle is set down in these famous lines:

'It is better that I should sacrifice myself alone.
It matters little if a flower falls if the tree can keep its leaves green.'"

The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972) by Tom Hayden

"Ah, I am whirled by maddening furies! Now
Prophet Apollo, now the Lycian fates
And now, sent from above by Jove himself,
The messenger divine bears through the skies
His terrible commands. A labor this,
Indeed, for those supernal ones! Such care
Ruffles their calm repose! I keep you not
From going, nor shall I refute your words.
Go! find your Italy, and with the winds
Seek for your kingdoms. Truly I do hope,
If the just gods have any power, that you
Will drain your punishment even to the dregs
Amid the rocks of ocean, calling often
Upon the name of Dido! Though far off,
With gloomy fires I shall pursue your steps."

The Aeneid (19 BC) by Vergil

"The Castle of the Fisher King

At once the monks departed and the nuns and all the others. And he goes away, lance on felt, all armed just as he came there, and all day he held his way, for he encountered no earthly thing nor Christian man nor woman who knew how to teach him the way. He does not stop praying Lord God the sovereign Father that He give him to find his mother full of life and of health, if it is agreeable to His will. This prayer lasted until he came upon a river at the bottom of a hill. He looks at the swift and deep water and does not dare to enter it, and says:

'Ha! Powerful Lord God, if I could pass across this water, I should find my mother beyond, as I think, if she is alive.'"

The Story of the Grail (c. 1181-1190) by Chrétien de Troyes

"An essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that 'begging bowl' to which the gift is drawn. Remember Meister Eckhart: 'It were a very grave defect in God if, finding thee so empty and so bare, he wrought no excellent work in thee nor primed thee with glorious gifts.' It is the artist's hope that we may say the same of the creative spirit. In an autobiographical essay the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz speaks of his 'inner certainty' as a young writer 'that a shining point exists where all lines intersect ... This certainty also involved my relationship to that point,' he tells us. 'I felt very strongly that nothing depended on my will, that everything I might accomplish in life would not be won by my own efforts but given as a gift.'"

The Gift (1979) by Lewis Hyde


The essential failure, or at best the very limited success of the Grail quest, is intricately interwoven with the state of Europe's physical and spiritual health at the time when the legends first appeared. At that time the whole continent was in turmoil. While there appeared to be free access and many pilgrimages around the different regions there was no central authority except the Church of Rome. The various kingdoms were too busy squabbling and coveting their neighbors' lands to form any secular equivalent. And yet a fresh religious atmosphere and a new uplift of the spirit was trying to assert itself. The new spirituality had its true source in the earlier Christian sects of the Gnostics. At the very heart of Gnosticism lies an essentially female view of the cosmos which was the major ingredient to inspire Cathars and alchemists alike."

The Holy Grail: Its Origins, Secrets & Meaning Revealed (1994) by Malcolm Godwin

"'The Communist system is breaking down. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, they are all signs that it cannot carry on. Our lands in what is now Czechoslovakia used to be one of the most prosperous parts of Europe. Today they are under-developed, and one day soon they will ask for help - capital investment and expertise. We have got that, and we will offer it.'

What does the Lichtenstein family want with twenty-two castles?

'I'm not sure about the castles. They are not much of an economic proposition nowadays, and they are probably better off being used as they are - as museums and children's homes. But I am sure that some deal will be struck. We are bound to go back. Aristocracy has been thriving in Europe for more than a thousand years. Communism still has to prove that it can work for one hundred.'"

Aristocrats (1983) by Robert Lacey

"The single Host which, according to Chretien, feeds the father of the Fisher King, is paralleled by the nourishment which the Grail provides for Joseph of Arimathea in prison in The Romance of the History of the Grail. Both episodes derive from the tradition of miracles associated with the Eucharist, which is frequently portrayed as sustaining life in extremis. Within the circle of northern France and Flanders where the Grail romances originated, we can point to two contemporary stories of this kind, both recorded by jacques de Virtry, one of the most redoubtable preachers of the time. At Vernon, on the borders of France and Normandy, a girl was said to have lived for forty years on nothing except the Host, brought to her by a dove each Friday, and received by her from the priest each Sunday. A similar tale was told of a recluse at Leicester, whom St Hugh of Lincoln placed under close observation for a fortnight, and found that she had indeed taken no other nourishment."

The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (2004), by Richard Barber


'Ladder' is an apt metaphor, for the spiritual dimension of ancient astrology reflected the worldview of the time. The heavens and the earth were the progressively unfolding work of a creative intelligence whose energy still infused the manifest world. It was natural, then, to read celestial as well as terrestrial events as indicators of divine intention. Just as the universe unfolded from the invisible into the visible dimensions in a great linked chain, so the portents of today foreshadowed the events of tomorrow. Thus omen-based astrology is the most ancient and universal form of the art

For thousands of years, all known civilizations (in Mesopotamia, India, China, Egypt, Central and South America, Greece, and Rome, among others) have recorded solar, lunar, and planetary cycles."

"Ladder to Labyrinth" by Priscilla Costello, from The Inner West (2004), edited by Jay Kinney

"'We must have a bit of a fight, but I don't care about going on long,' said Tweedledum. 'What's the time now?'

Tweedledee looked at his watch, and said, 'Half-past four.'

'Let's fight till six, and then have dinner,' said Tweedledum.

Through the Looking-Glass (1872) by Lewis Carroll

"Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words 'EAT ME' were beautifully marked in currants. 'Well, I'll eat it,' said Alice, 'and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key; and if it makes me grow smaller, I can creep under the door: so either way I'll get into the garden, and I don't care which happens!'"

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll

"Within the Left, other factors combined with these to bury American Communism. Domestically, Browder's successor, William Z. Foster, a fanatic's fanatic, conducted a witch hunt against 'white chauvinists' within the CPUSA that depleted the party. From the Soviet Union, in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous speech to the Twentieth Congress, admitting the brutal crimes of his predecessor Joseph Stalin. When Congressman Martin Dies, Senator Pat McCarran, or FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had much such charges, American Communists chuckled. When Stalin's successor advanced them, they listened. What the Kronstadt rebellion, the Moscow show trials, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact failed to do, Khrushchev did. Russians made the American Communist Party. Russians unmade it. The party, already decimated, witnessed a mass exodus. By 1958, membership had sunk to three thousand, a figure that had been twenty-seven times greater just two decades earlier under Browder's stewardship."

A Conservative History of the American Left (2008) by Daniel J. Flynn

"In 1975 he announced he wanted to make a samurai epic based on King Lear, but he could find no financing. In 1980 he made the magnificent medieval epic Kagemusha as a 'rehearsal' for the big film; although it was a success, there was still no money for Ran. He filled notebooks with drawings of locations and costumes, and storyboards of scenes. Finally he found an angel in the maverick French producer Serge Silbergman, who had backed outsiders such as Buñuel and now found the funds for Ran. Kurosawa had directed fourteen films from 1950 to 1965, but Ran was only his fourth in the next twenty years.

I recount this history because I think there is much of Kurosawa in Ran, made when he was seventy-five. He was preoccupied with mortality in his later years."

"Ran," from The Great Movies II (compiled 2005) by Roger Ebert

"Fassbinder's project would have had to illuminate and probe Freytag's unquestionably anti-Semitic motifs in terms of their origin and consequences. But since film must show things, there was clearly a danger that, for instance, staged scenes of ghetto life might unintentionally contribute to the perpetuation of anti-Semitic stereotypes. That was the view of Friedrich-Wilhelm von Sell, director of the West German network WDR, who claimed in 1977 that using Freytag's novel to 'come to terms with the historical phenomena of anti-Semitism and anti-Slavism is subject to too many risks and misunderstandings.' His reservations led to a protest by more than thirty German filmmakers, including Volker Sclöndorff, Peter Lilienthal, and Wolfgang Staudte. Fassbinder was embittered. He believed that with this novel as a starting point, he could 'present the entire history of the German bourgeoisie from the middle of the last century to the outbreak of National Socialism - and do the exact opposite of what Joachim Fest did in his Hitler film, which is terribly reactionary and really only the attempt of a bourgeois to free himself of guilt.'"

From "Hitler" to "Heimat" (1987/English 1989) by Anton Kaes

"I insist, my charming friend: no, I am not in love, and it is not my fault if circumstances force me to play the part. Only consent, and return; you shall soon see for yourself how sincere I am. I made proof of it yesterday, and it cannot be destroyed by what occurs today.

Know then I was with the tender prude, and was quite without any other business: for the little Volanges, in spite of her condition, was to pass the whole night at Madame V---'s infants' ball. My lack of employment had, at first, inclined me to prolong the evening, and I had even demanded a slight sacrifice with this view; but hardly was it granted, when the pleasure I had promised myself was disturbed by the idea of this love which you persist in ascribing to me, or at least, in reproaching me with; so much so that I felt no other desire except that of being able to assure myself, and convince you, that it was pure calumny on your part."

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

"Where Dondero saw in Abstract Expressionism evidence of a Communist conspiracy, America's cultural mandarins detected a contrary virtue: for them, it spoke to a specifically anti-Communist ideology, the ideology of freedom, of free enterprise. Non-figurative and politically silent, it was the very antithesis to socialist realism. It was precisely the kind of art the Soviets loved to hate. But it was more than this. It was, claimed its apologists, an explicitly American intervention in the modernist canon. As early as 1946, critics were applauding the new art as 'independent, self-reliant, a true expression of the national will, spirit and character. It seems that, in aesthetic character, US art is no longer a repository of European influences, that it is not a mere amalgamate of foreign 'isms', assembled, compiled and assimilated with lesser or greater intelligence.'"

The Cultural Cold War (1999) by Frances Stonor Saunders

"CECILE: And last night he used it. I thought he'd just come to bring me a letter. But he hadn't. And by the time I realized what he had come for, it was, well, it was too late to stop him..
(She bursts into tears again; but this time Merteuil doesn't take her in her arms. Instead, she considers her coolly for a moment before speaking.)

MERTEUIL: You mean to tell me you're upset because Monsieur de Valmont has taught you something you've undoubtedly been dying to learn?
(Cecile's tears are cut off and she looks up in shock.)


MERTEUIL: And am I to understand that what generally brings a girl to her senses has deprived you of yours?"

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1985) by Christopher Hampton

"For example, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, released transcripts of Johnson's telephone conversations in the immediate aftermath of the assassination through the publication of the Warren Commission's report in September 1964. In one such conversation, Johnson and his close friend and mentor Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, a member of the Warren Commission, discussed the cornerstone of the commission's lone assassin thesis: the notorious single-bullet theory that maintained that a bullet fired from Oswald's rifle entered President Kennedy's neck, exited from his throat, and penetrated Governor Connally's chest, wrist, and thigh, shattering two thick bones and emerging virtually intact. Both Johnson and Russell emphatically expressed their utter disbelief in that controversial theory."

"Oliver Stone, JFK, and History" by Michael L. Kurtz, from Oliver Stone's USA (2000), edited by Robert Brent Toplin

"Reagan was different. He was swept into office by a tide of Republicans sick of wishy-washy, self-doubting liberalism and eager to reestablish ideals of masculine decisiveness and heroic patriotism. The Vietnam War was over, so its critics, whom Reagan had never liked, had little or no power over him. He proclaimed Vietnam veterans heroes and the war an honorable cause. He believed the problems of America were created by activist government, antimarket forces, and liberalism. Popular culture, in particular Hollywood and the entertainment industry, were fine ambassadors for American culture. What possible advantage was there in showing the country and the rest of the world that the American government was funding visual artists so that they could follow their creativity outside the market and help this economic and military giant find its moral and spiritual center?

Then came the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the equally sudden emergence of the United States as the only superpower. Had artists functioning on the edges of American society played any role in this victory?"

Visionaries and Outcasts (2001) by Michael Brenson

"King Arthur was seated there in high state. Cundrie rode on into the Briton's presence and addressed him in French, and though I am to tell you in German, her announcement does not please me too well.

'Fil le roy Utepandragun, what you have done here has put you and many Britons to shame! The pick from every land would be sitting in high honour had not some canker spoilt the vintage of their fame! - Now that Perfidy has joined it the Table Round has been destroyed! King Arthur, you once stood high above your peers for glory, but your ascendant fame now plunges down! Your prestige, which used to go by leaps and bounds, hobbles at the rear! Your praises are declining from their zenith! Your high name stands revealed as counterfeit!

'The mighty reputation of the Table Round has been maimed by the presence at it of Lord Parzival, who moreover wears the insignia of knighthood.'"

Parzival (c. 1200-1210) by Wolfram von Eschenbach


Doug's Blog said...

"You sure have eclectic and diverse tastes in literature, history and criticism! I found Jung's "Memories, Dreams and Reflections" a very absorbing read, one that would take a second reading for me to fully absorb.

Joel Bocko said...

Agreed re: Jung. I haven't read any of his books proper (though I hope to soon) but really enjoyed his memoir as you did. So many amazing dreams, memories and, well, reflections! I find a lot if them have made their way into things I've written.

Erich Kuersten said...

Joel you read some highbrow shite, but Ebert is no highbrow, nor major writer of criticism, but merely a sporadically witty populist. You should go for the brainiacs that will mix your higher brow stuff in a heady melange, like Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, James Agee, David Thomson, or even J. Hoberman, Michael Atkinson, or even the British Time Out Film Guide! And I say this as someone who admits frankly some of that junk you're reading is way way over my head!

Joel Bocko said...

Well, I enjoy Ebert (precisely for his intelligent yet low-key readability) but also the other writers you mentioned (Kael in particular I adore; my favorite autograph of all time comes from a Village Voice event where I got Andrew Sarris to sign a book to me with, "I forgive you being a Paulette." Truthfully, I read hardly any criticism at all these days - last time I did was about 4 years ago, just before I posted my big tribute to film books - which ironically marked the end of my regular cinema-tome reading oddly enough! As for good old Ebe, I actually tend to prefer his regular on-the-spot reviews to his more worked-out, diligent Great Movies essays but after his death felt a craving to read/re-read something by him, and this was at hand in my roommate's collection.

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