©2018 by Central Coast Writing Services

 

 

 

January

Road Dogs Elmore Leonard:  A breezy read to start the year.  It’s an extension of the ‘Out of Sight’ story with Jack Foley taking his bank robber’s charm and sensibility from prison to the craziness that is Venice Beach.

Cherry Nico Walker:  Intense new voice in fiction, hope he keeps it up!  Kind of neo-bildungsroman by and about a decorated Army medic.  Follows the path of a normal kid who goes a little heavy on drugs, ends up dropping out of college and enlisting in the Army.  After 200+ combat missions, he returns state-side, reconnects with his girlfriend and the two go down the drain of opioid addiction.  Partially autobiographical, the author wrote the novel at his current home in the Federal Correctional Institute in Ashland, KY, serving 11 years for bank robbery (He’s scheduled to get out in 2020 and has committed some of the money from the movie rights to paying back the banks he robbed…or at least that’s what Hollywood is saying)

***Sidenote:  I gotta say here that I was NOT considering robbing a bank to start the year.  Pure coincidence that the protagonists of the 1st two novels of the year had that as their profession.  Very different characters and very different direction with the next novel on the list.

The Street* Ann Petry:  The most honest, heartbreaking and poignant account of civil injustice since Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Yes, I’m making that comparison.  Follows the travails of Lutie Johnson as she tries to get ahead for her and her son in late 1940’s Harlem.  Her insights to how one race of human being treats another makes me cringe and hope that there’s been real improvement in prejudices of all kind. 

The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod Henry Beston:  Originally published in 1928, it is still touted as an “indispensable” nature book.  Kind of like the opposite of travel writing, he stays in a remote cottage for a calendar year observing the surf, tides, birds, plants and activities; on the Cape.  A little too much focus on birds for me but yields some amazing descriptions:  Some spirit of discipline and unity has passed over these countless little brains, waking in each flock a conscious sense of its collective self and giving each bird a sense of himself as a member of some migrant company.  Jonathan Livingston Seagull, eat your heart out (not sure what that expression really means but seems to work here).  And my favorite:  I watch the lovely sight of the group instantly turned into a constellation of birds, into a fugitive pleiades whose living stars keep their chance positions…  I will forevermore think of flocks of birds as constellations.

Ledyard:  In Search of the First American Explorer Bill Gifford:  Sheesh, the more non-fiction I read the more I realize the need for a “title editor”…are these subtitles necessary?  Randomly came across this book in the Live Oak library and grabbed it, first, because I thought it might be a local SC history related to the former foodservice company.  Then kept it, since it proclaimed to tell the story of the first American “traveler”; someone I had never heard of.  Possibly because he wasn’t all that successful despite being in communication with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin among other notables of the time.  His presence on Capt Cook’s third (and fatal) voyage presaged other disappointments:  an attempt to establish a trade route between Russian-controlled Alaska and the east coast by walking from Russia to NYC; also on foot, attempting to find the source of the Niger River.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m as pedestrian as the next man, so what he accomplished in these “failures” is impressive but, sadly, lost in time.

 

The Water Museum Luis Alberto Urrea: A collection of short stories with a broad range of emotion that starts and ends with two great examples of the genre.  Stripped down in language and action but penetrating.  One way to define the range is to say that some of the stories that didn’t do much for me now, would have been my favorite stories had I read them in my 20’s and others in my 30’s.  Lamenting the loss of his Native American wife with her brother, the central character in ‘Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses’ narrates:  We sang for a long time, together.  We sang until dark.  We sang until I thought we would never find our way home.

February

Animal Farm George Orwell: Surprisingly had never read this before.  An awesome parable about the evils of human construct with an Eden-istic view of the world before the Fall.  Really enjoyed the first half as he develops the animals and their particular traits…which unfortunately leads to their expectant demise.

The Persistence of Memory: A Biography of Dali Meredith Etherington-Smith: An accessible insight into a man who liked to self-mythologize providing an interesting challenge for the biographer.  Such a quintessential 20th century artistic force with a rakish lifestyle to match.  He had a deep connection with the Monterey Bay that I did not know about and a museum that I need to visit pronto.  Another tidbit:  he designed sets for such Hollywood heavyweights as Alfred Hitchcock.

Killing Commendatore* Haruki Murakami:  Phew!  A little unwieldly at almost 700 pages but it certainly is an achievement (for both writer and reader).  In one reality, we get the improbable life of a portrait artist.  His wife asks him to leave and his temporal and spiritual journey takes him to the studio of a former artist that he uses as a retreat to paint however he wants.  Here he encounters an intriguing collection of characters (Menshiki especially) whose connections culminate in an otherworldly journey amongst the World of Idea and Metaphor where Double Metaphors become dangerous entities.  The critics compare it to Gatsby but I also felt it had a strong connection to the works of David Mitchell.

Low patches of clouds hung over the surrounding mountains.  When the wind blew, these cloud fragments, like some wandering spirits from the past, drifted uncertainly along the surface of the mountains, as if in search of lost memories.

And:

The gurgle of whiskey pouring into the glass was music to my ears.  Like an old friend opening his heart to me.

In the Loyal Mountains Rick Bass:  A collection of short stories that was literally a breath of fresh air after the preceding book.  Set on the firm ground of reality, I especially enjoyed the stories revolving around the inhabitants of “the valley”.  The setting is so well-described that I feel like I’ve been there before…or maybe that’s where I’m headed.

Gypsy Ballads Fredrico Garcia Lorca:  To tell the truth, didn’t make it all the way through this one.  Lots of good background info in the intro but my primary takeaway is that poetry is almost impossible to translate and maintain its rhythm and effectiveness.  This edition had the original Spanish on one side and English on the other.  Needed an audiobook for this one.

Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism Marc Aronson & Marina Budhos:  Turned out to be kind of a coffee table book but so good.  A story of the ferocious approach to life possessed by both of these “photo-crossed” lovers.  Detailed account of the Spanish civil war both photographically and textually with the standard cast of characters in this era:  Hemingway, Lorca, Dos Passos, Orwell, etc.  A beautifully done book.  I was so taken with the tragic death of Gerda (birth name Gerta Pohorylle) that I developed a new rating system based on teardrops…this one earned 4 out of 5.

News of the World* Paulette Jiles: Read this in one sitting and almost wish I hadn’t.  Ended much too soon and I felt like I could live with these characters through several more adventures.  Capt Kidd (Kep-dun) and Johanna (Cho-anna) resonate resoundingly.  Story of a tri-war veteran (1812, Mexican, Civil) who accepts the mission of delivering an ex-captive of the Kiowa in Indian country to what remains of her German family.  Fascinating historical account told poetically and poignantly without the flowery language that it might suggest. 3/5 teardrops.  Have since been recommended to multiple friends with no disappointments.

March

Virgil Wander Leif Enger:  A novel of small-town intrigue centering around a regal but fading movie house from the author of the much-loved Peace Like A River.  The story of the eponymous character is ironic in that he hasn’t traveled far at the onset of the action but is psychically changed after driving his car into Lake Superior and adopting a long-lost friend’s, long-lost father…who happens to be a Norwegian kite-flier.

Thinking it over I became a bit less angry, and more proud of the kite itself:  it had refused to be flown by Leer [antagonist] one moment longer.  It broke the line and caught the next gust out of town.  A perilous beautiful move, choosing to throw yourself at the future, even if it means one day coming down in the sea.

The Surprising Place Malinda McCollum:  well-written collection of short stories by a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop.  Lots of Midwestern angst in these stories.  However, tough to sympathize with these malcontents…ya reap what ya sow, y’all.

The House of Broken Angels Luis Alberto Urrea:  The cynic in me looks at this book as a glib, Mexi-cana version of ‘100 Years’.  Even so, it’s a modern look at the Mexican-American experience with a plethora of memorable characters.  At times it felt forced but then I was amazed by the force of the narration and, in the end, thoroughly entertained and enlightened.  Since the countdown to the end of one life ends with the reader finishing the book, there is a sense of dread at finishing the book and thus the life.  And, yes, it leaves a lump in the throat for a 3 teardrop rating.

It was a swirl.  He caught small flashes of family history like shreds of colored paper spinning in the wind.  Until massive assaults of revelations and confessions came out of nowhere and destroyed whatever drinking party they threw.

Homage to Catalonia* George Orwell:  Has to be the best 1st person account of war and receiving a bullet wound:

As soon as I knew that the bullet had gone clean through my neck I took it for granted that I was done for.  I had never heard of a man or an animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it.  The blood was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth.  ‘The artery is gone’ I thought.  I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably.  Everything was very blurry.  There must have been about two minutes which I assumed that I was killed.  And that too was interesting – I mean it is interesting to know what your thoughts would be at such a time.

It wasn’t just the blood and ennui of war that made this a great book but also Orwell’s dissection of the political influences on the Spanish Civil War that are discombobulating to say the least:  Fascists, Communists, Socialists, Loyalists, Anarchists, etc.

April

Santa Cruz Noir ed. Susie Bright:  Wouldn’t recommend.  I got sucked in because of the locality and I am a sucker for detective stories but maybe 1 or 2 of these resembled the genre.

The Analects Confucius, illustrated by C.C. Tsai:  The illustrations are what sets this edition apart.  Its layout is like a comic book but with messages of ancient origin.  Such a great way to experience these works, I’ll definitely check out others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The South Colm Toibin:  Have to say, I was a little disappointed even though it is a well-told story.  A woman leaves her family in Ireland to start a new life as a painter in Barcelona.  Her life there becomes predictably tragic but not under predictable circumstances.  I appreciate the writing style and will continue to read his works…

First Snow on Fuji Yasunari Kawabata:  A later collection of short stories by the first Japanese winner of the Nobel and a contemporary of Mishima, both of whom took their own life under incredibly different circumstances (more on this later).  These stories center on male/female relationships, memories, the past and how they can become confused and misinterpreted.  Looking forward to reading his novels.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* Betty Smith:  Amazing coming-of-age story set in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn during the early 1900’s.  Francie and the rest of the Nolans feel like an adopted family from the first page.  Beautifully written and so accessible that someone from a completely different background can thoroughly sympathize and understand.  Simply put, the book made me want to work harder at being a better me.  No teardrops but 4 stars.

May

Homage to Barcelona Colm Toibin:  An indispensable look at this incredible city for anyone planning a trip there or simply interested in its cultural and political activities circa early 90’s.  Fittingly finished it on the train from Valencia to Barcelona after a week exploring the coast of Northern Spain.  Not as emotional as Orwell’s book nor as in-depth politically (which is a good thing) but definitely more useful for a visit and to “experience” the city as it was on the author’s visits.  He discusses the sexuality and openness of the city residents in detail (in a chapter simply titled ‘Food and Sex’) so I felt it necessary to verify one tidbit:  In the classifieds section of La Vanguardia under “Relax” … you can find prostitutes and acceptable forms of payment and behavior.  Right there in the city’s conservative newspaper.

Cloudbursts Thomas McGuane:  A comprehensive look at his short stories.  They are accessible and direct so that the meaning may be buried deep but the language is sparse.  Still a fulfilling read that filled up many late morning and early evening gaps with resonating landscapes:

As Szabo headed away from the Denver airport, he could see its marvelous shape at the edge of the prairie, like a nomads’ camp – a gathering of the tents of chieftains, more expressive of a world on the move than anything Szabo had ever seen.  You flew into one of these tents, got food, a car, something to read, then headed out on your own smaller journey to the rapture of traffic, a rented room with a TV, and a “continental” breakfast.  It was an ectoplasmic world of circulating souls. [WOW-last sentence is the quote of the year!] from ‘The Good Samaritan’

Neon Prey John Sandford:  Cheese read.  I include these just to shame myself at the end of the year 😊

***These next three titles I read concurrently…not always that easy to do but the individual voices are distinct and the subject matter inter-related so it worked marvelously.  The Wilson-Boyle combo was especially interesting as the psychologists looking for the “light” while experimenting with LSD used a lot of the same language and reach comparable conclusions as the scientists researching the biology of creation.  There could be a thesis here, or fecis as Fitz refers to it in Boyle’s book.  Of course, Bukowski defies normative psychology which serves as an interesting case study in itself.

The Origins of Creativity Edward O. Wilson:  Could easily have been called ‘Ramblings on Origins’.  Not to take away from the many great concepts that are introduced here, ie imprinting (which is also a theme in Boyle’s book), competition vs. cooperation; but this book was a lot more about the science of origins than the origin of creative impulses.  Felt like a swan song for a well-respected writer/scientist who wanted to share and emphasize concepts important to his understanding of the world.

Outside Looking In TC Boyle: Top-shelf Boyle, like good acid you feel the plot coming on in a crescendo-ing euphoria.  Which includes some of the most accurate descriptions of the LSD experience I’ve read.  Total command over subject matter that begs to get out of hand, or at least mildly opaque, to the reader.  The characters and situations here are immediately identifiable thus sweeping the reader into the world of the story.

South of No North Charles Bukowski: Irreverent short stories but what else would you expect?  A good sampling of the style and subject matter that carries his legacy.  He pretty much sums it up here:

Like anybody can tell you, I am not a very nice man.  I don’t know the word.  I have always admired the villain, the outlaw, the son of a bitch.  I don’t like the clean-shaven boy with the necktie and the good job.  I like desperate men, men with broken teeth and broken minds and broken ways.  They interest me.  They are full of surprises and explosions.  I also like vile women, drunk cursing bitches with loose stockings and sloppy mascara faces.  I’m more interested in perverts than saints.  I can relax with bums because I am a bum.  I don’t like laws, morals, religions, rules.  I don’t like to be shaped by society – from ‘Guts’

But even with his crassness he uncovers some gems:

My objection to war was not that I had to kill somebody or be killed senselessly, that hardly mattered.  What I objected to was to be denied the right to sit in a small room and starve and drink cheap wine and go crazy in my own way at my own leisure – from ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’

Snow Country Yasunari Kawabata: A toned-down masterpiece about a doomed romance in post-war Japan.  I’m beginning to feel like this is the only kind of romance in Japan but the world of the novel is the world of the geisha girl that the man only visits during poignant moments of his life.  We hear nothing of his home life but when he visits the snow lodge the setting becomes a character in itself.  As one critic said, it’s a novel that reads like a haiku:

 

The sound of the freezing snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know:  The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce Colm Toibin: A little disappointed after such an alluring title.  Great info on the lives of these writers and their families.  Felt kinda like a college thesis constantly being re-stated, ie “…and again we see how the father played a role in shaping his son’s artistry and life.”

June

A Walk in the Woods:  Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail Bill Bryson:  Picked this up at my sister’s in Denver after literally taking a walk in the woods at the Lair o’ the Bear Park outside aptly-named Idledale, CO.  Great summer-y read with lots of facts and history covering the span of the trail which you don’t get in the movie.  Never been a huge fan of his narrative voice (even though it now sounds like Robert Redford) but he introduces us to some fun, memorable characters along the way.  The “explorer” naivete, which I understand is part of his schtick, still irks me.  Think Into the Wild on a middle-aged man level.

Spring Snow Yukio Mishima:  A sweeping and emotionally intense novel set in/outside 1912 Tokyo.  I joke that all Japanese love affairs are doomed but this is no joke.  An exquisite narrative establishing setting and characterizations that have an interwoven development both real and otherworldly.  A snapshot of one set of morals and reactions resisting a natural generational curve accentuated by the meeting of the East and West.  The 1st of a tetralogy…it may be a while but looking forward to the next.

Screaming With Joy:  The Life of Allen Ginsberg Graham Caveney:  A pictorial featuring 150+ photos bridging the beats to the hippies and so much more.  A frank look at his sexuality, career and ever-entertaining group of friends.

Howl and Other Poems Allen Ginsberg:  An awesome reminder of what the so-called Beat Generation personified, ie freedom of speech, sexuality and American identity.

Dark Sacred Night Michael Connelly:  Cheese read…with the interesting distinction of being depicted in the Amazon series ‘Bosch’ so the characters have now developed their on-screen personas.  Postmodern head-scratching to follow.

Someone to Watch Over Me Richard Bausch:  Kinda depressing stories about failed relationships between men & women and their offspring.  Knowing that the author is a lifetime academian, I can’t help but think that he had a failed relationship with a student…or at least thought about it enough.  Well-written so I will consider other works as long as there is a clear shift in subject matter.

The Vicar of Wakefield Oliver Goldsmith:  Struck me as a Don Quixote of Victorian England.  Turns out to be an astute assessment of the justice system (Foucault scholars take note), Christianity and family values.  The eponymous vicar has a series of misadventures as he tries the best he can for his family and faith.

July

Island* Aldous Huxley:  Braver than Brave New World in that it tackles the same concepts of government, healthcare, education; with the more esoteric principles of religion, philosophy and death, in a more readable way.  He accomplishes this by providing a setting where you want to go.  A lost sailor is stranded on the island of Palu and learns the magic of the people (even as they resist the ever-enclosing civilized nations) and their mok-sha mushrooms.

Born in Tibet* Chogyam Trungpa, The eleventh Trungpa tulku as told to Esme Cramer Roberts: An incredible account of this Buddhist llama’s early training and escape to India during Communist China’s takeover of his homeland and unnecessarily killing of a peaceful people.  A great way to experience a completely foreign existence that has largely had to acquiesce to “progress”.  Hard to believe this is the same guy rightfully vilified by many in Boulder for his antics in founding and administrating the Naropa Institute with Ginsberg.  I never met him in person but would see his Mercedes limo pulling in and out of various watering holes around town with an entourage of bodyguards and pretty girls…so yeah, I guess I’m a little jealous that I’m not the eleventh tulku of some clan or another.

Heathen Days 1890-1936 H.L. Mencken:  Immerses you in a time period of our country that now seems so removed from our current existence barely a hundred years later.  An incisive look at Mencken’s pieces over this period with such inviting titles as “Adventures of a YMCA Lad” and “Notes on Paleozoic Publicists” employing words such as “gallimaufry” and “fructify”.  Quaint but no less important historical looks at sports, politics, religion, travel and social consciousness; in a country that’s lacking a truth-teller of his irk in this day and age.

Metropolis Philip Kerr:  More historical novel than cheese read, I still finished it basically in one sitting but the characters (and author) will resonate for a good while.  Part of the ‘Bernie Gunther’ series and possibly the last since the author has now passed on to where writers go to die…the card catalog in the sky. It centers around Germany in its Weimar Republic days right before Hitler comes to power.  The cast of characters includes many real-life figures largely lost to history, yet there is an appearance (rather funny) from Lotte Lenya, the actress who gained a modicum of fame as Rosa Klebb in the Bond flick “From Russia With Love”.  The backstory here is worth another novel in itself.

 

August

Runaway Horses* Yukio Mishima:  A lyrically dense novel continuing the story of Shigekuni Honda as he becomes a well-respected judge only to experience the crumbling of a world built on reason and principles dictated by the law he studies; when he meets a youth who is the reincarnation of his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, from the first book.  Deep discussions of life, afterlife and/or a lack thereof result as the youth is determined to lead his friends on an ultra-nationalistic mission ending with seppeku – a fate eerily presaging the death of the author.  It’s as if the author is involving the reader in a very personal debate on his own fate through the actions of his characters.  Heavy going but so worth it as the narrative is seemingly imbued with beautiful metaphors on every page:

 

As naturally as one leaf falls and comes to rest on another, Isao came upon the first and final kiss of his life.

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman Robert L. O’Connell:  A comprehensive, if not chronological, chronicle of the Civil War general’s life.  Starts with the war years and backtracks to family life before and after.  Not an easy guy to like but the book describes his personal demons and how they impacted his approach to life which brought understanding if not acceptance to a mercurial type.  Not too impressed with the narrative voice but did have multiple random metaphors comparing military strategy and war to…surfing (?)

The River Peter Heller: Part nature/travel account and part mind-bending thriller. I enjoyed the former which comprised the first part of the book, following the canoe trip of two college buddies as they traverse lakes and rivers in the northern Canadian wilderness.  However, their (and the reader’s) idyll doesn’t last as they come across more travelers with less-savory reasons for their journeys.  The plot devolves into something I’d expect from a non-sensical Hollywood farce, though they’d at least come up with a better ending.

The Reckoning John Grisham:  Enough said.

September

Granta: Summer Fiction: Collection of short stories, poetry and essays from established and up-and-coming authors.  Amor Towles’ ‘The Line’ is a stand-out from known writers.  I was a little disappointed in Murakami’s story, though.  Pleasantly surprised and looking forward to more fiction by Te-Ping Chen and Adam O’Fallon Price.

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura Christine Wunnicke:  A curious little book about a Japanese doctor studying cases of fox possession at the turn of the 20th century—which, I guess, is really a thing; see kitsune-tsuki:

Compared with other types of animal spirit possessions, kitsune tsuki is a relatively common [?!?] form of possession in humans. A person possessed by a fox spirit often develops physical features that appear fox-like, such as sharper teeth or a streamlined, pointy face. For much of Japanese history—until modern medicine was introduced—mental illness and insanity were usually blamed on kitsune tsuki.

The writing is superb but the subject matter is a bit confusing as Japanese myths are merged with European (Freud, Charcot, Breuer) views of female hysteria—which is definitely a thing 😉

Don Juan: Comedy in Five Acts Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere:  Had never read this before and found it hilarious.  The translator did a tremendous job of making this 17th century play fresh and vital.  Also included a helpful introduction discussing the history of the story from the Spanish to Italian to French; even though this is the French version the action takes place in Sicily.  It was banished from the French stage after only 15 performances by religious militants.

City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris Holly Tucker:  Not exactly what I expected but an engaging account of the ‘Chamber Ardente’ created by King Louis XIV to investigate poisonings in his court.  A very detailed look at life in France from 1665-1682 (which coincidentally is when the above went to the stage).  Shows how public paranoia feeds police enforcement that went beyond actual poison crimes to also include anyone who sold herbs, or told fortunes, or had their fortunes told; and the cruelty of their methods at this time.  You want to root for Nicolas La Reynie (in his role as police chief, he insisted on adding over 2000 lights to the streets of Paris to fight crime; hence, the City of Lights) but by the end he comes off as a Gestapo-esque figure who has everyone wondering who will be next…to stand trial for some tangential crime that has nothing to do with poisoning.

October

The Hotel Neversink Adam O’Fallon Price: A well-written book by one of the authors introduced to me in “Granta”.  Tells the intertwining story of the Sikorsky family and the hotel the family patriarch staked their future to…only to be dealt a frightening dose of karma.  Chock-full of colorful characters and intricate story lines, I look forward to more by him.

The Natural* Bernard Malamud:  An incredible baseball story that reads like a tragedy.  I definitely need to go back to the movie and see how Hollywood ended it.  The tragic story of Roy Hobbs who works hard and tries to do the right thing only to be crushed, first, by circumstance and then by opportunity:

“We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live after that.  Suffering is what brings us towards happiness.”

The Assistant and Collected Stories Bernard Malamud: Didn’t plan on spending this much time with Malamud but his voice is so accessible and inviting even when the invitation is to misery and hopelessness of the human condition.  Which is where it always seems to lead in these stories but the mastery is that through all the despair there is an inherent hope that keeps you reading and believing in these characters.

Poet in New York / Poeta en Nueva York Frederico Garcia Lorca: A more accessible collection of his poetry but still challenging poems imbued with disjointed imagery and confusing metaphors, which might be explained by his friendship with Dali.  This edition is bi-lingual which helps both learning the language and seeing it in its original form.  The poems were written during a disappointing trip to New York in 1929-30.  The author’s impression of NY at this time can be summed up in this stanza from “Dawn”:   

                                                            Dawn in New York

                                                            has four columns of filth

                                                            and a hurricane of black doves

                                                            splashing in putrid waters.

November

Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life Adrian House: Incredible to read about the machinations of human existence 800 years ago.  Francis, like Siddharta Gautama, was born into a privileged life as a successful merchant’s son and enjoyed all the trappings of success in the Middle Ages.  However, he soon starts stealing from his father to give to the poor before finally renouncing all property and possessions (including his clothes).  He begs for alms and preaches at villages setting an extreme example for Christians everywhere to follow.  His interactions with the Vatican and Muslim Sultan were interesting enough but my favorite character of his acquaintance became St. Clare, founder of the Order of Poor Ladies.  Someone I was completely ignorant of until this reading.  Amazing the detail you can get from Italy in the 1200s no matter the uncertainty of complete authenticity.

Green Hills of Africa Ernest Hemingway: A 2nd read…and judging by the Amtrak stub dated 10/24/93 going from Homewood, IL to Champaign-Urbana…I haven’t read it since undergrad.  Who was I then?  Books hide all kinds of treasures.  Anywho, it’s a factual account of an African safari Hem went on with his second wife, Pauline.  Contains amazing detail on his approach to hunting, animals (in general) including humans, writing, drinking, etc.  Not one I’d necessarily recommend except to a big game hunter or Hem scholar.  Despite all the bloodthirst and misogyny there are some classic anecdotes and descriptions:

Emerson, Hawthorne, Whittier and Company….They were all very respectable.  They did not use the words that people always have used in speech, the words that survive in language.  Nor would gather that they had bodies.  They had minds, yes.  Nice, dry, clean minds.

Then the plain was behind us and ahead were the big trees and we were entering a country the loveliest that I had seen in Africa.  The grass was green and smooth, short as a meadow that has been mown and is newly grown, and the trees were big, high-trunked, and old with no undergrowth but only the smooth green of the turf like a deer park and we drove on through the shade and patches of sunlight following a faint trail the Wanderobo pointed out.  I could not believe we had suddenly come to any such wonderful country.  It was a country to wake from, happy to have had the dream…

The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year Jay Parini:  An introduction to the genre of fictional biography and evidently Parini has had a large part in defining it.  Pretty great book set apart by the kaleidoscopic narrative voices re-created from the diaries of Tolstoy, his wife and children, along with other associates at the end of his life.  A pastoral somewhat reminiscent of ‘Blithedale’ as it follows the innerworkings of a literary/philosophical/theological community centered around Tolstoy as he struggles to end his life more a Franciscan monk than a patriarch of opulence and fame.  The book is a bit bogged down with the acerbic relationship between his wife and pretty much everyone but manages to end with a celebratory funeral:

We were carried along, buoyed up, by a thousand singing voices, men and women who loved Tolstoy as much as we did, who understood, as he did, that death was simply one of life’s many noble transformations, and that nothing mattered in the world but love.

The Temple of Dawn* Yukio Mishima:  The 3rd book of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy finds our “hero”, Shigekuni Honda, discovering another reincarnation of his friend this time as a Thai princess.  As a child, her attendants and family think her insane as she vehemently proclaims to be Japanese and wants to return “home”.  Honda is pleased that this incarnation of his friend recognizes her previous life which leads him (and the reader) on an extensive exploration of samsara and how Hinduism gradually overtook Buddhism in this area of the world.  Part of the text could almost be read as a history of Eastern religion.  However, the action is interrupted by WWII and by the time the princess is grown and comes to Japan to visit Honda, she has lost the recognition of her previous lives but Honda already has his confirmation.  The book is so amazingly written that the language itself drips like an extended metaphor so I could quote almost the entire thing here but instead something short and sweet:

History is as hesitant as a young maiden before a romantic proposal.

I approach the final book with intrepid steps, knowing the author commits seppuku after its completion.

December

The Killer Angels Michael Shaara: Incredible account of the Civil War, more specifically, the Battle of Gettysburg.  Hard to call this historical fiction when it seems so real.  Great details on what went into battles in this era and what each combatant went through.  As he says at the beginning:  Stephen Crane once said that he wrote The Red Badge of Courage because reading the cold history was not enough; he wanted to know what it is like to be there, what the weather was like, what the men’s faces looked like.  In order to live it he had to write it.  Shaara’s book accomplished the same goal.

Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero David Sandison and Graham Vickers: An odd collaboration in that Sandison started the book, passed way and Vickers completed it.  Didn’t seek this book out but it seemed to find me in the Bio section of the library.  Having read bios of most the Beat writers, I hadn’t thought much about “the man behind the beat” mainly because of his shortcomings as a writer.  Well, he owned up to his insecurities and became a legend.  My biggest takeaway was how much time he and his milieu spent in Los Gatos and the other side of the Santa Cruz mountains.

Hadji Murad Leo Tolstoy: At almost novella length, a good look into Tolstoy’s writing style sans extensive character introspection.  A book of action with detailed descriptions of the people and events during the end of the Caucasian War which Tolstoy witnessed as a soldier for the Russian Empire.  Also begs the question, why do I check boxes for Caucasian ethnicity?

The Art of Raising a Puppy The Monks of New Skete:  A regimented look at what to expect and how to train a puppy.  If nothing else, it serves as a base manual for raising a puppy that is also interspersed with anecdotes and personal insights.  Became a book of necessity after I adopted my puppy, Miska: