Agee on Film by James Agee : Screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who also wrote film reviews for The Nation and Time for many, many years. I read his 1949 appreciation of silent comedy, which at the time helped revive nostalgia for the genre even among people who weren’t alive to experience it. Precepting a film history class, Edward Branigan (film scholar!) is much on my mind, and Agee’s article definitely falls under Branigan’s category of “adventure history” (fittingly so), but elsewhere Agee writes otherwise. I also just rewatched The Night of the Hunter, which he scripted. The film owes its incredible beauty to Charles Laughton’s direction, I imagine, but Agee has a fine religious sense and deep feeling for the plight of “little lambs” (children). Agee is also included in a recent anthology of film critics that I have checked out (including Manny Farber, Otis Ferguson, Edmund Wilson and others) and hope to get to soon.
The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek : Haven’t gotten to the story (“Pet Milk”) that is apparently much loved in creative writing programs across barren and manly America, but the first story, “Farwell,” is brief and soothing. The collection has been compared to Winesburg, Ohio, my fave.
Other recent reads:
Narrative of Sojourner Truth : Elusive narrative, dictated to white abolitionist Olive Gilbert. The insufficiency of the written word is more upfront than in any slave narrative read thus far. But I had to present on all that in class today…
Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down by Ishmael Reed : A Western parody, smarter than (perhaps) but not as funny as Blazing Saddles. The Loop Garoo Kid is a black traveling circus performer who steals a green horse and begins a voodoo reign of terror on the town of Yellow Back Radio, in revenge for the white man’s land-grubbing. All of American history occupies the same Western landscape. Some of it is very funny, some of it brilliantly explodes conventions, some of it is simply pornographic, and all of it was very clearly written in 1969.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell : Marlon James asked us toward the beginning of the semester to name the single book that made us start writing (his was Shame by Salman Rushdie). I didn’t have a good answer at the time (not that I haven’t read a heck lot of inspiring stuff), but now I’ve just read the book that may become my definitive answer. It’s not because of anything to do with the story (though it’s a great story), but because Maxwell, in his digressions and his indifference to consistency of point-of-view especially, validates the disjointed (but not incoherent) way that I like to write. It’s a book that I can let inspire me without feeling that I’m imitating it. Maxwell is another guy beloved in creative writing departments (along with the aforementioned “Pet Milk,” Revolutionary Road, etc.): a friend in the department lent it to me, and my independent project advisor says it’s one of his favorites. But the book is not all writerly tricks; as for the story, there’s a bit with a dog that will reopen all the old wounds you’ve ever experienced after losing a pet—not cathartic necessarily, but not a meaningless sadness either.