Robert Hill is a New Englander by birth, a west coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. His debut novel When All Is Said and Done (Graywolf, 2006), was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. His second novel, The Remnants, was released earlier this year by Forest Avenue Press.
I am a very schizophrenic reader. Much as I like discovering new voices, or new works by favorite contemporary voices, more often than not international voices, give me a classic, preferably an American classic (not for nationalistic reasons, but because I love America’s self-delusion as a subject) and I’m totally Yankee Doodled. You would not know this about me by the books stacked on my nightstand, however, because when I come upon such an American novel (of which there are fewer and fewer left for me to read) I kick every other novel ahead of it out of line and read it right away. (And how much more American can you be than to be a book thug?)
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life has been taking up a lot of precious nightstand space for about a month now. Sometimes, it rises to the top of the pile like a rock unearthed by low tide, but the anguished face on the cover gives me just enough of the creeps that I have to lower its place in line and cover it with another book in the pile. There are two reasons I will read this book, neither of them because of its international best-seller pedigree. The first reason is because my book group is reading it. My book group, peopled with some very, very smart and funny and extremely well read folks, has been meeting once a month for over fifteen years, and just about every one of the 180+ books we’ve read has been worthy of lively discussion, with a few books even leading to fights, resignations and one nearly Lord of the Flies-ish expulsion from the group. We don’t kid around. The second reason I’m going to read A Little Life is because my friend John, who recommended the book for book group, told me that while reading it, he could not put it down. That’s 813 pages he couldn’t put down! John is a man of exquisite taste: in art, architecture and literature. If something fails to speak to him with truth, it’s Fredo to Michael Corleone – dead to him. But if a book appeals to his senses in a way that sneaks up on him and slaps him bug-eyed, makes him feel alive, damaged, challenged, changed from who he was before he read it to who he is after he’s finished, then I’m going to take his recommendation like a Moses moment, drop everything, and read every word.
I know this isn’t kosher to say, but I don’t really feel sorry for Germany, WW II Germany, that is. Too many people of that generation looked the other way while too many people disappeared and died, and that says something to me about a peoples’ collective national character or lack thereof, so the fact that her cathedrals got bombed and her palaces blitzed and her apartment houses reduced to rubble leaves me with a big ole mouthful of gehen Fick dich! However, I am willing to consider softening my views, at least from an architectural standpoint, by reading W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, as he explores Germany’s blind failure to come to terms with her sins, as manifested through her 131 smithereened cities and 600,000 dead civilians (not to mention those other seven million), and what that blindness to history means for her future. Because Sebald’s Austerlitz was so hauntingly beautiful and his writing style so at-once mesmerizing and heartbreaking, and because anything written about the holocaust, no matter how devastating, is still a million times more interesting to me than any “fictionalized” memoir about unhappy suburban childhoods, I’m looking forward to having my sympathies expanded, if not softened.
When I was a senior in college, I read Christopher Isherwood’s movie-biz satire, Prater Violet. Callow as I was at the time, I knew of Isherwood only as the guy whose stories were turned into a play by John Van Druten, then into a stage musical by Kander and Ebb, and subsequently into a movie by Bob Fosse called Cabaret, which gave the world Liza Minnelli and then forgot to tell her it was a wrap. In Prater Violet, the screenwriter catalogues his past lovers, to whom he refers by initials only, and though referred to by initials only, are clearly men. For a closeted college student like me at the time, it was like reading gay braille. Homosexuals as letters! A scarlet moment in my literary education! Many years later, I read A Single Man I think only because I knew there was a movie being made from it. The prose in it is as fresh and crisp and smart and subversive as anything written right this moment, and his matter-of-factness about being a gay man in the world so astounding, that I was smitten with Isherwood as I hadn’t been with Prater Violet, probably because I got hung up on all those scarlet letters during my nascent coming out-ness and couldn’t see the story for the subtleties. I told you: I was callow. Years later, when I worked in the movie industry, I realized that Isherwood’s Prater Violet was a documentary. Jump ahead. On my nightstand for the longest time has been Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, upon which much of the Van Druten play and the Kander and Ebb musical were based. Because of my reverence for Isherwood and his writing style, one of these days when I’m in a self-confident place where I won’t want to open a vein in envy, I will read The Berlin Stories and love them, no doubt, but until such time as my confidence and veins are strong enough, it will remain in the pile. Isherwood has that effect on me.
When Paul Harding won the Pulitzer Prize for Tinkers, I like many thousands of others said, “Paul who? Tink-what?” That slender novel, with its countdown to death, was so beautifully felt and written that I both hated Harding (from envy) and wanted to be his best friend (so I could poison him… from envy). His next book, Enon, has been sitting on my nightstand for over a year. I want to read it, I do. But as with so many magnificent first novels by writers out of nowhere, the second one out of the gate carries an unfair weight of expectation, both for the novelist as well as the reader. I did not and will not read the exhumed Harper Lee Mockingbird follow-up because I don’t want to taint a beautiful relationship. Similarly, I am not of the school that thinks Ralph Ellison ought to have published another book after Invisible Man, because, let’s face it, once you’ve written Invisible Man, what the hell else is there to say? (I admit I bought Juneteenth, another exhumation, but never read it.) I’m not saying the Paul Harding is in the same category with those two other lions, but Tinkers was such a lovely novel that I am reluctant to risk spoiling my opinion of the writer lest his second effort not touch me as deeply as his debut.
Upon the publication of my new novel, The Remnants, friends gave me a copy of Mark Crick’s The Household Tips of the Great Writers, a compendium of recipes, gardening tips and do-it-yourself household repairs by many surprising literary gods, gems drawn from their actual works. Think of it as a Tome Depot. For instance: Tiling a bathroom? Look to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Need a recipe for boned stuffed Poussins? Forget Julia Child, it’s the Marquis de Sade’s recipe you want. Need advice about planting a cheery garden? Who could give cheerier advice than Sylvia Plath? (What a thrill – my thumb instead of an onion…!) Whenever I am at a crossroads with whatever, I read a new entry from this book.
With all that said, the next book I read will probably be one I do not own, and is not in the pile, and was not on my radar at the time of this writing. That’s the way it is with readers and books: there’s always another you want to get to. It’s just so damn hard to decide which one first.