July 2011 Reading: Blood Meridian, Bill Bryson, Daisy Miller and Other Stories

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
This is the third McCarthy novel I’ve read this year, and let me tell you, he doesn’t get any cheerier.  Set in the mid-nineteenth century, it tells the story of an unnamed ‘kid’ who finds himself part of the Glanton gang, a group of scalp-hunters who prowled the Mexican border.  The violence is extreme and relentless, and I found some of the worst passages almost physically exhausting to read.  However, bleak as his outlook may be, McCarthy still constantly astounds me with his mastery of language; I have never read an author who seems more in command of his prose.  His vocabulary is dauntingly vast: analogies and metaphors are drawn from everything from architectural structures to obscure ecclesiastical terms, giving me a chance to test my Kindle’s dictionary to the limit.  He is at his most impressive when describing the landscape his characters find themselves in:
Seated tailorwise in the eye of that cratered waste he watched the world tend away at the edges to a shimmering surmise that ringed the desert round.
The ‘villain’ of the novel, the Judge, is as sinister and amoral as you might expect from someone who takes such a dim view of humanity, and capable of invoking a genuine chill, especially towards the end of the book.  However, whereas in The Road, we were at least given someone to root for, and in Child of God, the protagonist was fascinating in a macabre way, here, ‘the kid’ is too loosely drawn, too anonymous, to hold attention throughout what essentially seems to be a series of ultra-violent episodes.  Or maybe I am just suffering from McCarthy fatigue: I think I’ll take a break for a while.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
For a bit of light relief, I usually turn to good old Bill.  Both of these are re-reads, but if you put a finished Bryson book away for a few years, coming back to it is like catching up with an old friend.  I’ve read his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything at least three times, and I always feel so much wiser when I have finished it.  For about a day, until I forget it all.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of his columns written for a UK audience on returning to the States after two decades away, and A Walk in the Woods is Bryson’s account of his attempt to hike the Appalachian trail.  Both are great reads, though the bitty nature of I’m a Stranger…makes it more suitable for dipping into than devouring in one sitting.  I am sure that one of the reasons Bryson felt at home in Britain is that he’s as self-deprecating and wry as any Brit.  I also find myself identifying with a lot of what he says, especially the following, which brings to mind my constant refrain: ‘It’s so hard, being me’:
Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.  I am constantly filled with wonder at the number of things that other people do without any evident difficulty that are pretty much beyond me.
Daisy Miller and Other Stories by Henry James (1878)
I have spent most of this year reading contemporary fiction, and I am beginning to worry that it has warped my ability to enjoy ‘classic’ literature, because to be honest, I struggled through this collection.  The title story somehow managed to be melodramatic and dull at the same time, and in general I found it hard to engage with the characters or the stories, which mostly involved variations on the Grand Tour theme.  The final story, about a man called Benvolio (actually not his real name, but “we shall call him so for the sake both of convenience and of picturesqueness”), had a bit more depth, telling of his inner battle between his two natures, one of which draws him to the strong, independent Countess, and the other to Scholastica, who, if you couldn’t guess from the name, is a bookish, quiet sort of girl.  James uses some nice descriptions: a blind man’s “mild, sightless blue eyes” sit
fixed beneath his shaggy, white brows like patches of pale winter sky under a high-piled cloud.
However, as much as I can appreciate his elegant style, for me, the substance is lacking.  I’d like to try again with James, though – any suggestions of what else of his to read?

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