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The first time I visited Cape Cod, a city boy unaccustomed to the ways of the natural world, I encountered what seemed to me one of the primal mysteries, the secret from which so much else in life sprang. Although I have witnessed this phenomenon again and again over the past twenty or so years, it mystifies me still. During that first trip, my wife and I made an initial foray to the beach on Cape Cod Bay and looked out across the magnificent body of water held in the cup of land stretching from Bourne to Provincetown and marked by a length of watery horizon that could not be encompassed by peripheral vision alone. We waded out into that gentle ripple of surf and could see, at our feet, patches of waving sea grass, the scurrying shadows of hermit crabs hustling out of our paths, and an occasional darker-hued stripe indicating a gully in the sand and subtle deepening of the water. When we returned the next day at a different, later hour, expecting more of the same, we found the water gone, as if the whole bay had been sucked down a great central drain. What had happened? What could we do except stare, bewildered by the vast, striated plain of sand before us containing only a few attenuated channels and residual pools of water? The uncovered sand was striped with gray, green, orange, and pink, and at the horizon was a thread of blue, a shimmering dream nearly a mile away, an indication of the distance to which the water had retreated.
Those of you worldlier than I was will have recognized by now the ancient rhythm of the tides, a drama which plays out every six hours, day after day, and has done so for as close to “forever” as you’re likely to come. Now that I’ve returned from my annual jaunt to the beaches of Cape Cod and tried to return to the unnatural rhythms of the workaday life, my mind keeps going back to that great tidal clock, which continues without my having to do anything about it, without even the slightest necessity for willfulness or action on my part. I suppose it even happens when I’m not there to see it.
What, you might well ask, does any of this have to do with a blog whose main focus, so far, has been books and reading?
For many of my early years I fretted about the inexorable fact of not having time to read everything I wanted to read. Even if I spent all my days curled in a chair, turning pages, there would still not be enough time. The world was full of inviting books, little worlds full of other people’s souls and personalities, all wedged conveniently between covers, yet every one I read only seemed to open up fresh avenues and lead to six other books, and all those books led to still more books, and soon it began to feel like I was trying to outrun the clock--an effort I knew even then was doomed to failure. But some things do change with time. While I’m still as voracious a reader as I was, I’m also a more relaxed one. There is no longer the fear that I’ll miss books, as the right books always seem to find me, and generally at the right time.
As I’ve written before, a great deal of what I read is the result of my frequent, restless perambulations through the fiction section of the Mid-Manhattan library. Like many other fiction-gobbling readers whom I’ve encountered in my librarian capacity, I avoid the handful of glossy new titles in the bestseller section and go instead to the shelves at the back of the building where the quirkier, more obscure titles--perhaps relics of a different generation, sometimes earlier works of a popular author, occasionally international authors in English translation--reside. It never bothers us die-hards if the binding is a little shabby, the pages give ample evidence of having been turned, or even if an over-enthusiastic reader has penciled notes in the margins (certainly not a practice I recommend). Now that the year is about half over, I’d like to share a few of my seemingly haphazard discoveries. Of course these titles might be familiar, even beloved, favorites of yours, but if I hadn’t stumbled across them at the Mid-Manhattan Library, they might have remained hidden from me forever.
I came upon the novelist A. B. Yehoshua’s busy, complex novel, The Liberated Bride, about an engaging middle-aged academic and his wife who are caught up in the clash of Israeli and Palestinian cultures. I was so taken with the author’s narrative voice and skillful weaving together of wisdom and humor that, as soon as I finished the one book, I moved on immediately to another, Five Seasons, first published in English in 1989. In the autumn, Molkho’s wife dies after a protracted illness during which he has lovingly and attentively cared for her. The ensuing seasons of the year chart his progress through grief, loneliness, erotic reawakening, and renewal. Each season brings the possibility of travel either inside Israel or abroad as well as a potential new love interest. Although this richly textured novel can be profoundly moving, it is also, curiously, quite funny. Another book I unearthed was the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi (1924), whose masterpiece The Makioka Sisters (1943-48) I had previously read and relished. This early novel about a young man’s sexually obsessive relationship with a modern, westernized young woman is a curious but engrossing parable of old Japanese culture meeting new.
I also have not neglected the siren song of what might be regarded as classic literature. Last year’s How Fiction Works by James Wood, a passionate yet readable study of how the fictional universe operates, planted a few seeds of ideas for books I had somehow overlooked in the old days, when a large part of what I read was simply to get it under my belt. So, for the first time, I read and enjoyed both Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. When it comes to fiction in translation, where a number of translations exist there is always the question of whether the one you’re reading is the best. This is something I used to trouble myself with, until I realized there is no such thing as a “best” translation; the faults of one will always be superseded by the faults of the next, and it is best to just forge ahead with whatever version is at hand. The translations I ended up with seemed perfectly fine to me, and if a superior one exists, I don’t really need to know about it.
Last year’s Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo was another revelation to me, an extraordinarily compelling novel by a contemporary writer of whom I had no previous knowledge, despite his having won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls. Thanks to Mid-Manhattan, I was able to catch up with some of his older work, the novel Nobody’s Fool, about a decaying town in upstate New York and its curious inhabitants, and a collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child, whose most peculiar quality for me was that each of its seven longish stories were all of an equally high quality, not one of them causing my sometimes fragile attention to drift. Although short stories are not always my favorite form of fiction, often being too fragmentary to stay involved with for very long, it was with a great sense of discovery and enjoyment that I came upon the Collected Stories of the Irish author, journalist, and critic, Claire Boylan, who died in 2006. Her very notable stories of family dynamics, aging, marriage, and love affairs seem to blend the best of Alice Munro and William Trevor, and in terms of superlatives there is none higher. She’s also written a number of novels, which I look forward to tracking down in the future. Finally, I came to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. I vaguely recall a Shirley Maclaine movie based on this novel from the very early seventies, which might have made more of an impression on me if I’d been older or more seasoned. The novel is certainly one for adults, involving a childless professional couple in late 1960s Brooklyn whose lives become abruptly and devastatingly unhinged. The main character, Sophie, feeds a stray cat in her backyard one evening and is viciously bitten. Subsequent events, which flow from this initial attack, are played out against the possibility of rabies. The author’s prose is chiseled, grim, and in its own stark way often unearths a vein of dark comedy.
These are only a few of my titles so far this year, and while they might seem fairly arbitrary, following no particular pattern or prescription, I don’t think my selections are derived purely from chance. They reflect too much of who I am and what I am. I do believe that, as with so many other experiences, reading follows its own hidden rhythm, as regular as breathing, as natural as those tides flowing in and out of Cape Cod Bay.