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Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays Hardcover – April 8, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
I was aware that this was a contraband item under the embargo against Cuban goods and that the embargo had been promulgated by the very man who had just pressed the cigar into my hand, writes Styron about John F. Kennedy in the title essay of this fine new collection of mostly previously published work. Combined with Styron's muscular yet subtle language, a sense of self-revelation and insider clarity infuses the 14 essays like a lungful of fresh, crisp air. Mostly assembled by Styron shortly before his death in 2006, these perfectly crafted and deeply expressive essays range effortlessly from smoking the aforementioned stogies with JFK to his run-ins with editors during the editing of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. In one essay he describes a visit to Marilyn Monroe's grave with noted literary hellion Terry Southern: he was scowling through his shades, looking fierce and, as always, a little confused and lost but, in any case... like a man already dreaming up wicked ideas. Styron is known to most readers for his bestselling novels and painful etching of his bouts with crippling depression in Darkness Visible. These essays open up an entirely new territory to explore and appreciate for the fan and general reader alike. (Apr.)
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In his last year Styron (1925–2006) was working on a retrospective collection of personal essays from the 1980s and 1990s, a project subsequently completed by his widow, Rose. The result is an exhilarating parade of pithy, wry, and revealing true tales that remind us with a jolt of just how spirited, incisive, and spit-shined a writer Styron was. A southerner and the grandson of a slave owner, he joined the marines at 17, published his first novel at 26, chafed at being hailed as an heir to Faulkner, and stirred up considerable controversy with The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979). In his essays, Styron is strategically charming. The collection’s curious title is plucked from an arresting remembrance of President John F. Kennedy and his passion for Cuban cigars. Styron also pays piquant tribute to Mark Twain, Truman Capote, and James Baldwin; praises walking as a catalyst for creativity; and tells harrowing, hilarious, and socially incisive tales about a youthful medical scare and a trip to Chicago to visit Nelson Algren, whose idea of fun was a tour of Cook County Jail’s Death Row. Beneath the wonderfully diverting dazzle of his wit and virtuosity, Styron addresses crucial matters of freedom, art, and empathy. --Donna Seaman
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Top Customer Reviews
These essays are called "personal," as indeed they are. Mr. Styron, as is the case with many writers whose background is Southern, does not always take the shortest route home; but the walk is always a pleasant one. I had not seen the phrase "sine qua non" in print in years. It is thrilling to see Ayn Rand described as "hectoring." And the writer's view of the Christian religion is worth remembering. He sees it, at least in its "puritanical rigors--as a conspiracy to deny its adherents their fulfillment as human beings. . . High among its prohibitions was sexual pleasure." That puritanism of course leads to censorship, whether it be the refusal to publish a work of literature or the insistence of editors that words be changed (in LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS, Styron had to change "ass" to "bottom" to satisfy his publisher) or the policing librarian intent on perserving the morals of the youth. The writer's remembrance of the humiliation of being told by Miss Evans, the librarian of Styron's hometown library in Tidewater Virginia that at fourteen he was too young to read Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH made me smile since my own mother took the book away from me when I was about thirteen. My grandmother had read it and did not find it the sort of novel that I should be reading.
Mr. Styron certainly made up for lost time as SOPHIE'S CHOICE is replete with four-letter words and here he discusses in "A Case of the Great Pox" syphilis in the military and tells us more than we ever need to know about his urinary problems in "Too Late for Conversion or Prayer." A contemporary of his, the great Eudora Welty-- something tells me-- would have remained mum on the subject.
There is, as I said, much to enjoy on the walk home, not the least of which is Styron's list of writers who walked rather than jogged: Immanuel Kant, Walt Whitman, Einstein, Lincoln, Thoreau, Nakokov, Emerson, Tolstoy, Matthew Arnold, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Mann at al. Finally there is his love for literature and his reading everything he could get his hands on in the Duke University Library when he feared he would be shipped out to fight in the Pacific (World War II of course) and would face certain death, A line from Sir Thomas Barowne gave him solace: "The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying." Another beautiful example of why we read.