Yarn, Introspection and Pancakes – The New York Times

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Our critic recommends old and new books.

“Lezende jongen,” by Frans Hals

Hello, readers.

Earlier this week I trundled over to the library book sale and found that the room had undergone a remarkable change since my last visit. It was filled with yarn. A Cambrian explosion of yarn. Some of it was nestled in paper bags; some of it was wrapped in protective plastic. A lone ball of neon novelty yarn sat atop a book called “Manual of Zen Buddhism,” producing the effect of a found object sculpture. There was no one else in the room, just me and a hundred miles of interlocked fibers. I was reminded, as I am daily, that places exist independently of my expectations for them.

That day’s purchase was a new (used) copy of an old favorite, Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” which I bought strictly on the basis of the cover’s typeface. (It’s called Windsor, if you’re curious — also known for its appearance on The Whole Earth Catalog.)

I went upstairs to pay. “That’ll be a whopping one dollar,” the librarian said. Eureka!

Here’s hoping you uncover a few surprises and bargains this month.


Fiction, 1925

The back-cover copy on this edition (from 1973) is a hypodermic needle of adrenaline straight into my heart. I’ll condense for brevity: “In this study of introspection, Willa Cather tells the story of a professor in a Middle Western university passing through the critical, uneasy period between middle age and old age.” Are you fist-pumping yet? We’re talking inner monologues. We’re talking lengthy descriptions of furniture. We’re talking professional alienation, sibling squabbles and simmering private discontent.

If that doesn’t make you salivate like the scent of a fresh-baked Shaker lemon pie (classic Midwest delicacy), I will excerpt this verbal crystal of domestic disharmony:

When he reached the dining-room Lillian was already at the table, behind the percolator. “Good morning, Godfrey. I hope you had a good night.” Her tone just faintly implied that he hadn’t deserved one.


Read if you like: The novel “Stoner,” by John Williams, tinkering, going to bed early, exercising fortitude, coming to terms with decisions you’ve made in life
Available from: Free at Project Gutenberg

Fiction, 1989

After futzing around with a bunch of mediocre recreational reading over the past month, I gave myself permission to return to “London Fields.” For me, Martin Amis is the pancakes of writers. When it comes to these golden carbohydrate discs, even the inferior specimens are satisfactory, while the superb ones vault me into realms of indescribable ecstasy.

If you haven’t read any of his books, you might as well summit Mount Amis by starting with the superb. “London Fields” is the saga of Keith Talent — one of literature’s great brutes — and Nicola Six, an uncontrollably attractive woman cursed with clairvoyance. Nicola knows when she will be fired from her various jobs, what she will dream about and when she will die. Keith plays darts and commits crimes and conspires with Nicola to pull one over on a wealthy doofus named Guy Clinch.

This is a novel about murder, money, apocalypse, love, sex and other celebrated topics, but it is mostly an opportunity to gasp in the presence of a writer mighty enough to imbue a description of litter (litter!) with charisma.

Read if you like: Gambling, Paul Schrader movies, obscenity, sensing the cold breath of mortality on your neck
Available from: Vintage (should also be plentiful at online used bookstores or in libraries)

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