When you have 8,409 books on your TBR list, the smallest detail can boost a handful of them to the top of the stack. Which feels tremendously specific. And terrifically random.
So when Karen and Simon chose 1965 as their next reading year inspiration, a few books presented themselves (see photo in last week’s post about my main read for the event, Marie-Claire Blais’ third novel) and three more wormed their way into my stacks.
First, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Orgy (1965). This landed on my shelves because I had recently read a copy of the author’s collected poems. Not in the way in which I usually read volumes of collected works, leafing and sampling, but in a surprisingly studious way.
While I had planned to pick and choose from her poems, to browse and be done with the volume in a week’s time, I began at the beginning and I read straight through. Even when I did not understand what I was reading, something pulled me onwards.
The Orgy has the same quiet and steady power of seduction. And not in the way in which one might expect from a volume with such a provocative title. But simply drawing readers into the story through the deliberately melodious prose.
“The white horse racing across the long field away from the train, the couples taking in the hay, the green stations; the grief-stricken children with their father leaving; suffering of poverty, ragged along the roads, standing at exposed train-crossings, their wrists thrust out, their big hands red; his rifle down to help his 86-year-old mother, whose turkeys the fox was getting; the girl trained in Dublin as a stenographer, with no typewriters in Ireland; the glimpse of Killorglin, where the goat would be crowned; and if this, whatever it was, emerged from these bodies, this suffering known and unknown to me, a day like this reaching into this landscape.
And if you’re looking for some historical context, there are excerpts in the appendix, from other writers’ works on the annual celebration of Puck’s Fair, in the town of Killorglin in the county of Kerry.
Next, Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret (1965), in which Harriet is still learning to be a writer in this sequel to Harriet the Spy (1964).
In this volume, she carries two notebooks, one for spying and one for writing. It’s interesting to think about her process, the way that the details and observations and musings and unanswered questions exist in the spying notebook, the way all that coalesces into the stories she writes in her writing notebook.
And, perhaps even more importantly, the way that she grapples with the unanswerable. “BUT HOW CAN I HAVE HIM SOLVE IT WHEN I CAN’T EVEN SOLVE IT?”
When she cannot locate the source of some neighbourhood mischief, but she seeks to resolve the question in her fiction, Harriet is stumped.
She is struggling with one of the biggest issues haunting creative writing teachers everywhere: write what you know, or write in order to know.
There are so many things that Harriet doesn’t know. She is only eleven. And still at that age where it is mystical and strange to have your friends turn twelve before you turn twelve too. When a birthday is something that someone else also has, but differently. When it turns out that your parents have lives that are not only separate from but similar to your own. It’s a long summer. But Harriet’s writing life is just beginning.
Also, Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben (1965). An animal story that’s been on my shelves since I was a girl.
Everyone in Mark Andersen’s life warns him against the brown bear that Fog Benson keeps chained in a shed and, indeed, in the landscape these families inhabit, one must be ever vigilant. Wild animals are unpredictable and oversized brown bears are a serious threat. And Ben is a brown bear who has been abused, imprisoned and left to starve.
But Ben is different, which is the entire point of this story: he is an exception. And not only an exception to the Andersen family’s experience, but every other adult who interacts with Ben, who insists broadly and loudly that bears cannot be tamed. Each of them has to unlearn their assumptions and test new possibilities against their understanding.
So, on one hand this is a story about a bear and a boy, but on the other hand, it’s a story about fear and how people often respond to it, and how we can choose to respond to it differently.
“People are more than mad, Mark. They’re afraid. And fear’s the worst thing. It makes people take drastic action to protect themselves.”
It’s also a story about a marriage and working relationships on a fishing boat, about living in proximity to wilderness (a feeling “of being utterly alone in a huge and vacant land”) and strong family ties and community to balance that solitude.
And it’s a complicated story, because not everyone is willing to examine the evidence, to allow what they observe to change their thinking. (Mark’s father in particular takes a long time to observe the animal, in a variety of surroundings, faced with a variety of stimuli, before he adjusts his position.) Which is true, of course, even when there is no bear involved.