Time Reading Program 1962: The Ox-Bow Incident

It’s been quite a long time since I read and reviewed one of my Time Reading Program books. But this September, I read The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. In fact, it was the only book I finished in September — which says a lot about how hectic life’s been for me of late.  Walter Van Tilburg Clark published The Ox-Bow Incident in 1940, and Time, Inc. reprinted it in 1962.

Two cowboys return to town in the spring after spending months isolated on a winter range. They are thirsting for drink and interaction with more people than each other. In the saloon, they learn that one or two locals have been the victims of cattle rustlers and tensions are running high. Soon a young man enters the bar and excitedly announces that the rustlers have struck again, but this time, they killed a man, too. The sheriff is out of town, but that suits many of the locals well; they’d rather take the matter into their own hands by tracking down the rustlers and hanging them.

This is when the novel begins to take shape. Clark carefully describes many of the men (and one woman) who enthusiastically join the manhunt, the two who try to prevent it, and the ambivalent ones like the narrator. It becomes obvious that Clark is using this stereotypical Western scenario to dissect the different forces, personalities,  and social dynamics that lead people to participate in group violence, even when they know it is wrong.

I can’t say that I loved this novel as I was reading it. It’s a disturbing topic, and it reminded me too much of recent news headlines and political players who advance morally dubious and oftentimes downright cruel social policies for personal gain, convenience, or expedient power politics. So I didn’t feel like the theme of the books was new or revelatory. But I keep coming back to the word “careful” — Clark so very carefully structures the action and characters to give maximum illustration to his theme.  Also, the narration was in the first person, which really put me, as the reader, in the middle of the events and enhanced my feelings of ambivalence and responsibility. As a result, the book and its ideas have stayed with me and my appreciation of it has bloomed.

This Time, Inc. imprint was illustrated by Antonio Frasconi. Frasconi was considered a master of the woodcut print who illustrated over 100 books in his long career. He favored political and social themes, so it seems apt that the Time, Inc. editors would choose him for this novel. The stark woodcut of clustered tree trunks seems neutral until you read the novel and realize what happens in that grove of trees, which is very political indeed.


Copyright 1940 by Walter van Tilburg Clark
Reprinted with permission and new introduction by Time, Inc., 1964



19 Books of Summer + Middlemarch Round-Up

I did pretty well on the 20 books of summer challenge — better than I expected. Before September 3 rolled around I had finished 14 books. This number includes the last three books of Middlemarch and concludes it. Huzzah! That’s a pretty good run for me, especially considering how busy my summer was.

But September has proved to be busier yet. I’ve not even finished a single book this month. But in the spirit of finishing this up and moving on, I am going to mini-review the last three books I read as part of the challenge and say a few words about Middlemarch. And be done.

  The Marquise of O— by Heinrich von Kleist

In this strange novella, published in 1808, the virtuous,  respectable, and widowed Countess of O— finds herself unaccountably pregnant with her fourth child. Certainly the Marquise is aware of how babies are made, but she cannot recall the circumstances that have brought about her condition, and it puts her honor in serious question with her family. So she places an ad in the newspaper asking for the father of her child to present himself to her. The story is a bit more complicated that I am describing, but even a close reading left me puzzled. Most analyses infer rape by a Russian Count seeking her hand in marriage, but there is a strange scene with the Marquise sitting on her father’s lap kissing him deeply that was disturbing and suspect. It’s a short and interesting read, but I guarantee you will be going back to try to figure out what you missed. Let me know if you find it. 4/5

A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler

This thriller reminded me of a classic 60s-era James Bond with a dash of John Le Carré. Set in Zurich and the French Riviera, an Iraqi general is found murdered and a beautiful woman, the general’s mistress, is seen fleeing the scene. No one can find her, not even the police, until Peter Maas, a Dutch reporter with a troubled past, is put on the story to find her and figure out what happened. Maas succeeds in locating the luscious Lucia and discovers that the general was involved in planning a Kurdish uprising to overthrow the Iraqi government. Soon Maas tosses in the towel with his magazine, and he and Lucia are running a triple scam to sell the generals papers to three different international parties. Lots of safe houses, clandestine meetings, backtracking, aliases, etc. I’ve made this sound totally cheesy, but it’s really a well-written thriller of the period. 3/5

The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

This is the third book I’ve read by Rowell, but my least favorite. A sweet and sincere young guy named Lincoln gets a job policing email for a company. He soon gets hooked on the very funny and confidential emails between two women — and of course he begins to fall for one of them. I loved the emails between the two women. The two come off as smart, clever, and relatable, but Lincoln was a bit TOO sweet and sincere to be believable. And the romance and resolution in the book were too pat and saccharine for my taste. It’s not horrid, but better suited as a good airplane or beach book. Light, quick, and utterly undemanding. 2.5/5

And last a few words about Middlemarch. I’m not going to review or rank Middlemarch. It’s one of those books the world doesn’t need my opinion on. I’m glad I read it, but I wish that I’d done so in a college setting under the guidance of a professor who could tease out the finer points and illuminate the themes and context in which Eliot was working. I’d read it again under such circumstances in a heartbeat, so I’ve got my eyes open for an online class or similar. That said, this website, created by a college prof who teaches Middlemarch and other Victorian classics, gives great pointers if you are reading it on your own.


Two Best Westerns (and I don’t mean motels)

I don’t think it’s really fair to call Death Comes for the Archbishop a Western, but it is set in the west — in New Mexico in the nineteenth century — and it evokes the landscape, air, and light of that western state so well that I’ll take the liberty.

The ride back to Santa Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still,–and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Throughout the,  Willa Cather writes scenes that conjure a physical landscape and atmosphere that you can still find in New Mexico. You can still travel to Taos and experience a  sunset where

the yellow rocks were turning grey, down in the pueblo the light of the cook fires made red patches of the glassless windows, and the smell of piñon smoke came softly through the air. The whole western sky was the colour of golden ashes, with here and there a flush of red on the lip of a little cloud. High above the horizon the evening-star flickered like a lamp just lit…

What fascinates me about Cather’s writing, and this novel in particular, is how much passages like these two I just quoted make up the story. Death Comes for the Archbishop doesn’t really have a plot. It’s the story of one’s man life, Father Latour, in New Mexico territory, from his arrival as a young bishop until death comes for him in old age. From the title, you might think that his death is a point of action in the story, but since this is not a plot-driven novel, it’s no more a spoiler than saying death comes for us all.

Instead, this novel relates vignettes about characters and experiences in Father Latour’s long and interesting life. And it gives Cather a framework to write about New Mexico and Arizona, which she does beautifully and evocatively. In many ways, this book shouldn’t work as a novel, and yet it does. I enjoyed it immensely. Cather has become one of my very favorite writers.

I followed up Cather’s book with Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. It is entirely fair to call this book a full-on Western, and one of the best I’ve read. The story is narrated in first person by one Jack Crabb, a 111-year-old Forest Gump of the old West. Crabb starts off his tale by describing how he was taken captive as a ten-year-old boy by a band of Northern Cheyenne in the 1850s. After living with them for five years or so, Jack manages to meet every character and turn up at every famous event in Wild West lore. He becomes a buffalo hunter, a drunk, a card shark, and befriends Wild Bill Hickock who teaches him how to shoot. Jack even tells a tale of how he survives a gunfight with Wild Bill — and he’s the only one to ever do so. He has a white wife and child taken captive by the Cheyenne, and later an Indian wife he loses track of in a battle with U.S. soldiers. Jack fights in the Indian wars, ambivalently at times and on both sides (sometimes in the same battle). He claims to have been at two of the biggest real historical battles: the Battle of the Washita (the Cheyenne were butchered) and the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn (the great Sioux/Cheyenne victory and Custer’s demise).

You might think that this sounds like a silly bunch of Wild West tall tales, but Berger really creates a masterful storyteller with Jack Crabb who blends seamlessly into real, known history and then adds a believable insider twist on the events. If you liked Lonesome Dove, you will probably also really like Little Big Man.

These two books were on my 20 books of summer reading list, which brings my total so far to 11 (plus I finished Middlemarch). I’m well into two more that I think I can finish by September 3, so that gets me closer to the twenty than I expected!



On pilgrimage

On my bucket list for many years has been the desire to do a long walking holiday, and most recently, I’ve been curious about walking a 1,000+-year-old pilgrimage route around the Japanese island of Shikoku to 88 temples. This pilgrimage traces the same route of one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist teachers, priests, and folk heroes, Kobo Daishi, who lived in the 800s and founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. The pilgrimage (or henro in Japanese) takes about 45-50 days to walk straight through for a distance of about 1000km (670 miles) or more if you also go to satellite temples. Pilgrimages, and this one in particular, are still incredibly normal (if not popular) in Japan although most Japanese now drive or take tour buses to complete it (all perfectly legit in Japanese terms). Continue reading

Imaginary Worlds: #20books 4 & 5

The library system I work for has a cache of noncirculating popular titles called Lucky Day books. You can’t reserve them or find them in the catalog, but if you walk into a library and see a title you want on the shelf,  it’s your “lucky day” and you can check it out. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Exit West by Moshin Hamid after my shift, so it’s jumped into my 20 books of summer reading list.

Exit West starts in an unnamed middle eastern city, where Saeed and Nadia meet and start a love affair. As the violence deepens, their relationship deepens as much by necessity as by desire. Rumors swirl in the city about magical doors that are escape routes to western cities. Nadia and Saeed pass through such a door and find themselves in Berlin, and then take another door to London. They join hundreds of others, all unnamed, from a variety of countries, forming haphazard alliances and stateless communities in these Western cities. Of course, they are refugees, immigrants, the diaspora in general, and the novel reads like a parable on current political and social upheaval. The only characters with names in the entire novel are Nadia and Saeed — the rest are the huddled masses they are swept along with.

I did not love this novel even though I usually enjoy novels about immigrants and crossing cultures. There are some beautifully written passages, and Hamid can construct paragraph-long sentences with the best of them (a la Virginia Wolf or Faulkner). But the novel left me feeling kind of empty because as Hamid writes, “for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” I guess I just found it depressing.

But I bounced from this sobering book into the high-energy fantasy land of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Set in a dystopian future where everyone is wired into a giant virtual reality net called Oasis, this is the story of one lonely, orphan teenage boy who becomes a cultural superhero when he is the first to unravel a clue in an 80s-themed virtual Easter egg hunt/game constructed by Oasis’s creator before he died. And he gets the girl.

It’s fun and smart, and I especially enjoyed all the 80s references because, even though I wasn’t into video games, such as they were back then, or  fantasy role-playing games, the 80s were my teen/young adult decade — my youth. My son read this book before I did and adored it, too, but perhaps for different reasons. In his case,  I know it’s because he would love to be strapped into a virtual reality world 24/7 and living out every wild fantasy. Gah!

These were books 5 & 6 in my 20 books of summer.


20 Books of Summer 3 & 4

I am already being very flaky about how strictly I follow the rules of the 20 books of summer. I’ve added in two books not on my list (Train Dreams and Exit West). And  I said I was going to read In the Wet by Nevil Shute, but I opted for his Pastoral instead.

Pastoral2Pastoral is romance  set during WWII. At first I found the writing, especially the dialogue, stilted in that old movie way and it turned me off. But slowly I warmed to the story itself.

Both the main characters, Gervase and Peter, serve in the British military. She is a WAAF section officer and he is the highly capable captain of a bomber running raids with his devoted crew  over targets on the continent. Some of the best parts of the book are the fighting episodes when Robert and his flight crew get into trouble and barely make it home. I’m not a huge war novel fan or plane buff, but I was completely engaged. Continue reading

Two train rides

The first train I took in my summer reading was the M Train by Patti Smith. I just listened to a podcast interview with her and learned that the M stands for “mind,” like follow your train of thought.

Unlike her earlier book, Just Kids, which traces her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is a meditation on writing and life. More than anything, I got a sense of who Patti is as a person, her day-to-day habits and routines,  and how she works, crossing over genres of music, writing, photography. She is an artist in what I think of as the truest sense: she takes her thoughts and interests seriously and follows them obsessively in all her various mediums.  Some of the things I learned about Patti:

  1. She drinks a lot of coffee. The book could have easily been called the M train with a large black to go.
  2. She is a creature of comfort habits. Eats and drinks the same coffee and plain toast with olive oil every day at the same place and same table, wears the same uniform of white shirts, black ‘”dungarees,” a watch cap, “bee” socks, and a black coat day in and out.
  3. She travels far and wide to take photographs of objects or places that people who inspire her have touched or lived in. Frida Kahlo’s bed, Virginia Woolf’s cane, Sylvia Plath’s grave (a lot of graves, actually) and so on. Sometimes she gets to touch these objects and places, too, as if there is a transmitted energy of the previous owner’s energy and genius vibrating within. Somehow, I get this. It’s why I like historic places and artifacts, imagining the feet, hands, heart, and lives lived with the object.
  4. She writes obsessively. And often on napkins, receipts and other scraps of paper which she stuffs into pockets.
  5. She wings it. A lot. Particularly speeches and performances.
  6. She is obsessed with detective TV shows, particularly British ones. She seems to find in them the same level of quality and inspiration that she does famous novels or poetry. She likes them enough expressly to fly to London, check herself into a hotel and watch TV for days.
  7. She binge reads. She describes becoming obsessed with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, reading it over and over and over. She obsessively researched Tokyo trying to figure out where the novel was set because she wanted to go there. Then she lost her copy and forgot to go to the site when she visited Tokyo. Her behavior reminds me of how, say, churches or temples fall into ruin or sacred ceremonies are lost.
  8. She doesn’t open her mail for months, but replies quick-as-a-wink once she finds a letter of interest.
  9. She keeps cats. Possibly too many cats.

Patti’s lifestyle and her thoughts takes me back to my early twenties, when I was living the post-college ragtag artist life, traveling, writing, painting, drinking coffee by the gallon, reading French existentialist writers, hanging out in cafes–and listening to Patti Smith. I love that she’s still doing it. I’ll read anything that Patti publishes. She’s fascinating.

The other train  I took was the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. This book was not originally on my 20 Books of Summer list, but it is now. The book flap describes it as an “epic in miniature,” which is pretty perfect.

It’s the story of Robert Grainer in the early years of the twentieth century, which are also the final years of the changes wrought to West in the nineteenth. Robert’s small story of love and loss is intertwined with his experiences with the iconic and often stereotyped aspects of the old West: the railroad and its “Chinamen” builders, logging, raising a cabin, wildfires, wise old Indians, and so on. It feels like much more than its 119 pages.

I read both of these books as part of my 20 Books of Summer challenge — or 19 + the rest of Middlemarch. Seventeen plus 200 pages of Middlemarch to go.

M Train
personal copy

Train Dreams
library copy