The Wandering Hillis the second volume of Larry McMurtry’s four-book “Berrybender Narratives.”
Along the way, McMurtry introduces his cast of characters, including real life Indian chiefs, mountain men, and others of the period, and begins to flesh out those who are destined to become the books’ main characters. Particular standouts in this first book are Berrybender’s oldest daughter, Tasmin, her twelve-year-old sister Mary, and, of course, “Sin Killer,” the mountain man around whom the four books are largely anchored.
Some of you will remember that I promised myself last month that I would start working on what has become a rather permanent TBR stack, the one spread throughout the books on my bookshelves. I say “rather permanent” because many of the books have been there since the mid-eighties, and they are in the same pristine condition they were in when I brought them home from the bookstore all those years ago.
I started the project with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and was beginning to wonder if it would end up being one of those books I abandoned upon reaching page forty because it had not yet caught my imagination. Well, it was a close call, but I made it past that self-imposed cut-off point, and I’m very much enjoying Tan’s writing now (I’m on page 102 as I write this).
I suspect that it has been a number of years since most of you read The Joy Luck Club, so I will refresh your memories a bit. The book is about four elderly Chinese women and the four daughters they raised in America after themselves coming to this country as young women.
The book is neatly divided into four sections, with each section itself subdivided into four separate parts in which either one of the mothers or one of their daughters serves as a first person narrator. The first and fourth sections are devoted to the mothers, and the second and third to the daughters. The first 100 pages have carried me through the initial stories of each of the mothers and the first of the daughter narratives.
|Amy Tan as seen in first edition of The Joy Luck Club|
What struck me this evening is that the first of the daughter-story (told in the voice of Waverly Jong), called “Rules of the Game,” is a near perfect short story. So I started to wonder which came first, a bunch of short stories or a novel. And a look at the book’s copyright page answered my question: short stories came first, and they were then cobbled together to form one of the most successful debut novels of the eighties.
On that copyright page, Tan thanks various magazines (The Atlantic, Grazia, Ladies’ Home Journal, San Francisco Focus, Seventeen, and The Short Story Review) “in which some of the stories, in slightly different form, have already appeared.” I know that is a common approach, especially, I think, to first novels, but I have to wonder if Tan was surprised by the immense success that she found by combining all the stories into a novel.
And I wonder why I never knew this about The Joy Luck Club before tonight…
I need another project like I need another hole in the head.
But I think that I have finally motivated myself to start chipping away at a special TBR list made up strictly of books that have been on my bookshelves for at least ten years without having been read. I keep stumbling onto books that have been there more like 20+ years…and I’m wondering if they really deserve still to be taking up that much precious shelf space. It’s come to the point where I need to either read them or abandon them to someone else who might enjoy them.
These are the first five that caught my eye this afternoon:
The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks (2000) – I have enjoyed several of Banks’s novels over the years (Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, Continental Drift, Trailerpark, among them) and must have believed that the short stories would appeal to me equally when I purchased this first edition. The thirty-one stories were written over a 30-year period.
Any Old Iron, a 1989 novel by Anthony Burgess – I have no idea where I bought this book, or more importantly, why, since I am pretty much unfamiliar with this author’s work. But here it sits…and sits. It is said to be a “multilayered historical portrait of our cataclysmic (twentieth) century from the sinking of the Titanic through the Russian Revolution and the two world wars to the creation of the state of Israel.” Burgess is best known, of course, for A Clockwork Orange, and I suspect this to be a prime candidate for abandonment.
Eagle’s Cry, a 2000 novel by David Nevin that is billed as “A Novel of the Louisiana Purchase.” This is a period in American history that I find intriguing because the country was still in the process of taking its final shape as more and more territory continued to be added to it. Now all the U.S. had to do was hold itself together and a new world power would be born. Easier said than done. Central characters include Jefferson, Madison, and Napoleon Bonaparte. I have not read Nevin, but I see here that he wrote two historical fiction novels prior to Eagle’s Cry, and I know he’s written several since. I place the odds at about 60-40 that I will finish this one.
Amy Tan’s famous 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club, has been sitting on my shelf in the form of a pristine first edition almost since it was first published. This one is the story of four Chinese women who started a club to play mah jong, invest in stocks, and eat good food together. Forty years later, one of the women is gone, replaced by her daughter, and the story continues. This little first edition has become valuable enough that I would never abandon it, but I do need to read it…very carefully. And I will.
Bluebeard, the 1987 novel by Kurt Vonnegut has been sitting on one bookshelf or another since 1987. It’s another pristine first edition whose pages have never seen the light of day. I probably bought it because it was Vonnegut, and for no other reason (unless it was the cool boot on the cover), since the book’s description does not much interest me: “This one is about a man who was in on the founding of the first major art movement to originate in the United States, Abstract Expressionism, and whose pictures all fell apart due to an unfortunate choice of materials.” A bit “ho hum,” that. I place the odds of finishing it at something like 50-50.
My plan is to read one, maybe two of these books a month, until I exhaust the backlog on my shelves. Frankly, though, that could take years, so I would probably settle for checking off ten or so a year in hopes that I don’t end up falling any farther behind than I am today. Wish me luck.