Ernest Hemingway

Writing

Looking for Hemingway in all the wrong places

I am on a quest to find a beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises. I'm not out here looking for a shitty copy.

Here are books I do not want:

They are ugly.

They are ugly.

As my search has drawn on I've gotten increasingly irrational about the copy of Sun that I'm going to buy. I can't just buy one online. I'm going to find one, I'm going to find one in a used bookstore, and I'm going to find it because Hemingway's ghost led me there.

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I went on an odyssey of sorts to the East Village to scour used bookstores for my perfect copy of Sun which exists out there and I will find it. Yesterday ... was not that day.

But I did find some books that want to share with y'all.

The Strand - 828 Broadway

The Strand is an enormous bookstore, and the best and worst part about it is that there are racks of $1-5 books that line the block outside. I didn't have time to go through these yesterday, and also it would have taken five hours, but it kills me to think that my Sun might have been there. Anyway, I went straight inside to the Hemingways and was waylaid by something even better: An LGBTQIA book display on the main floor.

And that's where I found Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes.


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Nightwood

Barnes was a writer and an artist active during the 1920s in New York and Paris. She had a lot of bad relationships with men and then swore off men, and then had a lot of bad relationships with women and swore off love altogether. She was known for, according to Andrea Barnet, "reams of sardonic poetry, dreamlike plays, short stories, and several edgy novels with lesbian themes."

Nightwood is one of those novels. It definitely sounds like it's going to be one of those classic "it's the 1920s so this lesbian is gonna fuck up her whole dang life" kind of stories, but also that was kind of like, Djuna Barnes' whole deal? Write what you know.

I'm very excited to get into this one, and look how beautiful the cover is. If some people (Ernest Hemingway) could manage to have covers that beautiful, then I would own a copy of The Sun Also Rises by now.

The Splendid Drunken Twenties - Selections from the Daybooks 1922-1930

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I found this book when I went to the basement of The Strand, looking for Leslie Blume's Everybody Behaves Badly, a biography of Hemingway's early years. I found a different biography with that picture of Hemingway pointing a gun at the camera on the cover and I'm not about that life, but while I was wandering forlornly in the stacks I stumbled upon The Splendid Drunken Twenties.

Carl Van Vechten was a writer and photographer who wrote another book that is extremely fucking racist but that book is not this book, in that this book I would actually take on the subway, and have in my home. Van Vechten ran in the same circles as Djuna Barnes and was also That White Dude that was obsessed with Harlem and the black artists of the time (they didn't need his patronage at all). Van Vechten noted down his daily activities in his daybooks, which are printed here. It's full of stuff like "had lunch with George Gershwin" and "went to a party at A'lelia Walker's" and it's all the mundane daily shit that is perfect research fodder.

Alabaster Bookshop - 122 4th Avenue

This place is quite literally around the corner from The Strand, going towards Union Square, and I like it because well ... it's a tiny used bookstore. In one of the most hopping parts of New York. Next to New York's most famous and biggest used bookstore. It's the kind of perfect used bookstore that is packed up to the ceilings, with books tumbling all over the floor.

All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913 - 1930

This book is not an in-depth biography by any means, but rather a thrilling, breezy account of the lives of some of the amazing women of the time. It covers five of the women in their own chapters, with another chapter devoted to salons. But it opens with a "Cast of Characters" providing paragraph-long biographs of some twenty notable women, and I want to read books about every single one of them.

I actually found this book at Alabaster in September and checked it out at the NYPL in ebook form. I really enjoyed it, but I kept not finishing it before my hold was up so I gave in and decided to go back and buy it. This I explained in a sort of stammer to the kind and patient bookseller who will hopefully not remember me.

I love this book as a jumping-off point, and as a fucking inspirational text. It does a few things really well. The cast of characters got me pumped and made me want to go out and find someone who thinks women never did anything in history and then bash them over the head with this book. It's a litany of baller women who left their homes, made their own way in life, wrote revolutionary prose and poetry, made art, and were celebrated for it. Many, many of them were queer.

The book also includes wonderful tidbits about contemporary life that are so useful — things like what bars people hung out at. These are the kinds of details you can only get from reading biographies or contemporary writing, and I love it.

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Where the book falls short: the author is white, and though there are chapters about the black women who were killing it at the time, I haven't read them yet because they're ... in the back of the book. The introduction mentions in a sanitized way that these black women artists were fighting both racism and sexism, and acknowledges that blues and jazz were the product of a "much-neglected" black America. But I would argue that "neglected" is nowhere near strong enough a word to describe the black America that was living under segregation, had seen the end of government-sanctioned slavery a mere fifty-odd years before, and was thriving in the decade that saw a major resurgence of the freaking KKK.

On one level I understand, because the whole tone of the book is about feeling very good about the accomplishments that women made. But it would be a disservice to women like Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter if we don't acknowledge the whole, awful truth of the odds that were against them. Both were lesbians, by the way.

I think All Night Party does tend to revel in the glamor of the '20s, and avoid some of its ugliness. That's mostly okay with me (mostly, see above) as long as we remember that ugliness on our own. Fredrick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday did that in '31 and it's a great read.

East Village Books and Records - 99 St. Mark's Pl.

Okay, I did not actually buy any books here because I felt fragile after accidentally spending so much money elsewhere — BUT. I had never been this bookstore before and I'll definitely go again. It's another hole in the wall, absolutely lined with books.

They also had shelves upon shelves of discount books in front and in a sort of shed in the back. I came so close to finding what I wanted here, y'all. But it just wasn't my day.

If anyone has other used bookstore recommendations please throw them my way! They're not easy to find, and apparently neither is a good-looking copy of The Sun Also Rises.

Reading List

Favorite books from August and September

Only slightly belated, but if anything that's because I read so many good books in these two months!

As always, here are my favorite books that I read in August and September!

Spectred Isle - KJ Charles

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How could I resist a new, 1920s-set paranormal from KJ Charles? I could never. Spectred Isle is the story of Randolph, an arcanist whose family has been destroyed by WWI, and Saul, a former archaeologist who is just trying to get by after destroying his reputation.

This book has basically everything that I look for in a KJ book: cracking dialogue, extremely poignant longing, and a neat little plot that comes together just right.

It's a perfect demonstration of the art of withholding information from the reader until the exact moment they need to know it. Flawless.

 

Everybody Behaves Badly - Leslie M.M. Blume

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The full title of this book is Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises which like, yes, gets the message across, but at what cost?

This is one of the most addictive historical books I've read. It's basically an account of Hemingway's early life leading through publication of Sun. Including, of course, the trip that he took to Pamplona with a motley crew of so-called friends, who he then completely ripped off for his debut novel.

The writing is absolutely fantastic. I found myself cackling with glee, and forcing everyone around me to listen to excerpts that I read aloud. Blume also gives background on — and is very sympathetic to — the people that Hemingway wrote about in Sun, which was a great choice. I came out of it thinking Hemingway was an absolute dick but also loving him more than ever, so YMMV.

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

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Hey, guess what, reading a book about the background of The Sun Also Rises made me want to read The Sun Also Rises!

This is the story of an ex-pat war veteran named Jake Barnes, who takes a group of people to the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona. Among the festival-goers is the beautiful, magnetic Lady Brett Ashley. Half the men on the trip are in love with her, and chaos ensues.

This was the first novel Hemingway wrote, and fittingly the first one I ever read. It has some of the most stupid beautiful prose. It's also eminently readable: Hemingway wanted to have it all, and thought that Sun was the perfect middle ground between readers with low vocabulary, readers who wanted sex and gossip, and the literary elite that he was trying to impress with his trademark spare prose.

The book comes with caveats — it's super racist, and Hemingway obviously hurt a lot of real people to write it.

Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s - Frederick Lewis Allen

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If you want to learn about the 1920s in America, this is now the first book I'll recommend. Published in 1931, Only Yesterday goes theme by theme through the 20s, addressing the biggest affects on America's culture: the Red Scare, the rise of the KKK, ballyhoo journalism and syndication, the Religion of Business, Prohibition, the stock market crash, and all the little things that don't make it into less comprehensive books.

It's beautifully, poetically written, and never too academic. This is an accessible history book, and an incredibly important one. It was a joy to read. And in case you're worried about reading a contemporary book, Allen had pretty modern-day sensibilities when it comes to race and women's independence. The section on the KKK (which was wrapped into the Red Scare chapter) was nonetheless super upsetting to read just because of the subject matter.

Allen's voice is dry, funny, and personable. I loved having his take on the '20s, and I'll hold this book close for the rest of my dang life.

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

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Yeah, I went there again. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway's own account of his early years in Paris with his first wife, Hadley. I read the restored edition, which there is some controversy about. I'd like to try reading the original as well, but I fear it's always going to be a he-said/he-said situation when it comes to A Moveable Feast.

As it is, Feast sits in a weird ground between fiction and non-fiction. Hemingway says in the closing chapter that it's not meant to be true, but he's still telling stories about real people and using their real names so... come on, dude. From reading genuine non-fiction books about him and his contemporaries, I know that he does straight-up invent or lie about some of the things in this book.

But God, it's still good. No one gets what it feels like to look back on your life and be sad like Hemingway does! He writes beautifully about Hadley and his regrets about how he fucked up their relationship. At least he takes responsibility for that. And it's a great historical perspective on what life was like in Paris at the time.

I had tried to read this book years ago and didn't enjoy it as much. I think I really benefited this time from knowing so much more about Hemingway than I did before. I have a lot of feelings about him, and this book exacerbated all of them.


Note: This post previously included a book by Santino Hassell. I can no longer recommend that book in good faith, so I've removed it from the list.

Reading List

Favorite books from April and May

If you've been following me on Twitter, you know that my life was recently overtaken by a historical obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald and every damn thing related to the 1920s.

So yes: This list has a bit of a theme. Here are my favorite books from April and May, 2017.

Editor of Genius

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If you're going to completely lose your shit over historical research into the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, like I recently did, I actually recommend starting with this biography of Max Perkins. A. Scott Berg's book is widely praised, and for good reason. It's an interesting, well-written account not just of Perkins' life, but also of the lives of the authors that he worked with, from the 20s through the 40s.

Perkins was the editor for Scott Fizgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Tom Wolfe, and many others. The book includes excerpts of their letters to each other, and clear timelines of their lives. Berg provides context that I found essential to enjoying and understanding the other non-fiction books that I went on to read.

Editor of Genius also has awesome insights into the publishing industry. I loved reading about Perkins' editing, the changes that were made to books like The Great Gatsby to get it in shape for printing, and the general "how things were done" of the age. This book is definitely a keeper for me.

The Great Gatsby

A third-time read for me, and maybe I'm big cliche, but I love The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's prose is so beautiful, and so magical. Describing characters was one of Fitzgerald's strengths. Ironically, one of the big edits that Perkins suggested for this book was that Scott didn't describe Gatsby enough. Changes were made, and now Gatsby has some of the most incisive character descriptions I've ever read.

Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding clothes could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.

This book holds up, in beauty and in readability. It's one of my favorites.

Dear Scott/Dear Max

The second of my non-fiction binge books contains the collected letters between Fitzgerald and Max Perkins. Some I had already read in the Perkins biography. Here they're presented without commentary and minimal context (there are some great and useful footnotes), hence the Perkins biography feeling pretty crucial to my understanding of this book.

That being said, I love it. Certain paragraphs were cut out, which makes me feel like I have to track down the original letters just in case I missed some good dirt. I love the chatty, depressing, witty, lyrical way that Scott writes his letters. I found it sad and illuminating to see someone who is now considered one of the great American authors, openly struggling with his alcoholism, depression, and imposter syndrome. Fitzgerald is very flawed and very relatable, and I appreciate that his writing, letters included, has been so well-preserved.

The Changeover

Brief non-non-fiction break! The Changeover, by Margaret Mahy, was recommended (and bought for me) by Amanda Jean. What a fantastic book. It's the story of Laura Chant, a teenage girl whose brother is cursed, and who has to turn to the hot older boy witch in her school for help. It's incredibly well-written YA that doesn't condescend, talks honestly about sex, and magical metaphors for sex and puberty, and the prose is beautiful!

The characterization was also fantastic — I especially appreciated Laura's mother, who feels very real. And the magic in this book! It's creepy and delightful. The villain, in particular, is unforgettably horrifying.

Passing

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Nella Larsen's Passing is the 1929 story of two black women who grew up in the same neighborhood. Clare has married a white man and is passing as white, while Irene is active in the black community in Harlem. Clare Kendry is a really vivid, memorable character. Every single description of her leaps off the page. The whole book is wonderfully written, with beautiful prose and character descriptions, and it feels so alive and relevant — even 88 years after it was first written.

 

 

 

 

Fitzgerald and Hemingway - A Dangerous Friendship

The cherry on my miserable non-fiction sundae, this is the definitive book collecting the letters between Hemingway and Fitzgerald, over the course of their depressing-ass friendship. I felt that Bruccoli (who has apparently devoted his career to documenting these assholes) was very fair to both Scott and Ernest — not allowing either to be demonized, or lionized. He also doesn't let Hemingway get away with any of the inconsistencies that he introduced into the narrative of their friendship (lying about their first meetings, Scott's behavior, etc.).

I just finished this book so I'm still a little raw, but it really hit me emotionally. The Fitzgerald/Hemingway friendship was very intense, and watching it implode slowly is rough. The things they said about each other were beautiful and they were hurtful. I appreciated that Bruccoli lets the book close with excerpts of Scott's Notebooks, and every reference that he ever wrote about Hemingway. Hemingway lived 20 years longer than Scott, and spent those years writing and saying things of various levels of unkindness about him. It felt fitting to let Fitzgerald get a tiny, last hurrah in the final section of this book.