New(ish) fiction: Kawai Strong Washburn Sharks in the Time of Saviors
David Mitchell Utopia Avenue
Amor Towles The Lincoln Highway
Non-fiction: Heinrich Harrer Seven Years in Tibet
Short Stories: Paul Bowles Collected Stories 1939-1976
Poetry: Kenneth Rexroth In the Sierra: Mountain Writings
New (to me) writer: Maaza Mengiste
“Ah, I thought, seeing the corner of the book poking out from the folds of his sheets. I should have known. The poor old chap, he suffers from the most dangerous addiction of all.”
The Bastard of Istanbul Elif Shafak: It took me a few chapters to warm up to this novel of an American-Armenian family in SF and a Turkish family in Istanbul. Themes of identity/nationality and “home” and how these are developed (and destroyed) over the generations challenge comforts of identification. In a sense, are we all bastards? As the story weaves its way through the histories of these two families, it becomes as engaging as any novel should be and my chauvinism retreated to appreciation. The plot did lose me as it progresses towards its two major revelations; one, foreseeable even as you hope it isn’t so and, the second, so convoluted it diminishes it’s tragic/epic effects. Look forward to reading more of her blend of aestheticism and relevant realism:
The path of fiction could easily mislead you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, as open to surprises as a moonless light in the desert. Before you knew it you could be so carried away that you could lose touch with reality…
Nationalism was no more than a replenishment of oppressors. Instead of being oppressed by someone of a different ethnicity, you ended up being oppressed by someone of your own.
Collected Stories 1939-1976 Paul Bowles: A great Black Sparrow Press edition that kept me reading Bowles all year long…I think it has all his published short stories so some are re-reads (those from Delicate Prey). Got through the 1st hundred pages or so in January and decided to space it out through the year—partially to enjoy the writing but also I realized reading a Bowles story every morning to start the day can leave one disoriented and disaffected. His landscapes and characters are stark and seem to emanate from a cloud of kif. The tone and atmosphere are as identifiable as a Jerry guitar lick.
The River Swimmer Jim Harrison: Includes the title novella and another called The Land of Unlikeness which may be the better of the two as it tells the story of an artist turned academic turned back to artist as he visits his childhood home. After living abroad and in NYC art circles, his visit to the U.P. stirs up the predictable and not-so predictable emotions and characters from his past. The title story is a re-read that I remember primarily by my ignorance of the water baby legend…and there are some interesting versions:
Like always, reading Harrison takes me back to a simpler time no matter the actual time of the story’s setting.
He made himself a gravely needed martini and was slightly irritated looking up to a shelf where he spotted a blue cookie jar. The problem in his childhood was that when you stuck your hand in the jar you couldn’t get it out with more than one cookie. Life was like that but then he chose not dwell on a possible metaphor. Just stick to the cookies, bub.
Nine Stories J.D. Salinger: I had kinda dismissed him as “just” the writer of The Catcher in the Rye until watching a bio of him on Amazon (a little ironic). Despite casting an image of an ascetic hermit, he led a full life including landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day after being dumped by Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, for Charlie Chaplin. Anyway, the stories aren’t about any of that though the war (more like the after-effects) figure prominently especially in the acclaimed story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. An amazing account of a vet trying to fit back into a normal reality after the extremities of war. The rest of the stories have a memorable simplicity that shows someone confident in their craft…or maybe someone who toils over their work until it’s absolutely right.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X* Alex Haley: I won’t get into the conflicting ideologies discussed and my personal opinions in their regards (Ouch…biting my tongue very hard). As a book in itself, I found the 1st half quite engaging as it follows Malcolm Little from the slums of Lansing, MI, to Boston and finally to Harlem. The younger version of the man who was to become so judgmental of each race and religion except his own started out as a hustler, drug dealer and armed robber among other things. The characters he meets on the streets and in the band halls of 50’s Harlem are both anonymous and famous. Once the book reaches the point of his incarceration and conversion to Nation of Islam then Orthodox Islam, it stalls as he defends his position even as it changes. Still, the book introduces fantastic perspectives on race, religion and society; and I feel it’s a must-read for its historical significance, no matter how much I agree or disagree with its eponymous narrator.
Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata: Have to admit that this one baffled me in that it’s a highly regarded international bestseller but read more like a somewhat interesting short story. The writing is clear as it follows the life of the title character as she defines herself by the convenience store where she works and tries to leave but predictably returns. Even the so-called love interest in the novel is underwhelming in the form of a former co-worker who basically follows her home and never leaves. I guess “dystopian” is the word I would use and was surprised it didn’t show up in any of the glowing reviews. There’s a thin line between a book being minimalistic and just plain lacking…not sure which this was.
Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundation of Science Karl Sigmund: What to say about this tome on the history of Viennese (circa 1924-1936, with tangents straying from prehistoric to present times) philosophy, science and mathematics? Other than I’ll try to sum it up more succinctly than in the subtitle. It’s an amazing dedication to physicists, philosophers, social scientists and general progressive thinkers; focusing on the years between the wars but covering numerous generations. Some familiar names (Einstein, Freud, Wittgenstein + his infamous schoolmate, a guy named Hitler) and some that were new to me that provided the bulk of the narrative and entertainment (Ernest Mach ((of Mach1 fame)), Moritz Schlick, Hans Hahn and most memorably Otto Neurath). I’d get dizzy trying to describe all of the subjects, drama and history, encapsulated in this book. I am in no way a philosopher (or mathematician and especially not physics—hated that class in high school!) and never could be, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I found the reading difficult at times but also rewarding. Of most interest to me, is the role of language in all of these fields and how it is manipulated to justify all of these fields in the collective conscious. I mean, what does this mean:
I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; while pointing at a nearby tree, he says several times, “I know that’s a tree.” Another person hears this, and I say: “This fellow isn’t nuts. We’re just philosophizing.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
It reminds me of my Philosophy101 professor at U of I: old sweater full of holes, smelling of stale booze and an undisguised disdain for the classroom and everyone in it. Were we ever really there at all?
Everywhere You Don’t Belong* Gabriel Bump: A great debut by a well-respected, up-and-coming writer—hope he thrives with the expectations! The book itself has a seemingly simple theme…pretty much stated in the title. More like the flip side of finding a place geographically, professionally, personally and a bunch of other “-allys”. The narrative follows the adventures of Claude McKay Love as he navigates his way through the streets and citizens of South Shore, Chicago. As unforgettable as he is as a narrator, the other central characters—grandma, Paul and his girlfriend, Janice—and absent characters (his parents) are memorable, as well. The author’s clear style and the current topicality make it a swift but entertaining read that begs for a sequel or movie that I hope never happens.
Those kids, boys and girls, dealing drugs. I knew them when they were you: young and sad at the world. I knew their fathers and mothers, most of them. They’re smart like you. Smart enough to do basic math, smart enough to know when someone’s trying to kill or fool them. That’s smarter than a lot of people in this world. Still, society doesn’t want them to go anywhere. Those kids aren’t taking the bus. They’re going to stand all day; then, they’re going to stand all night. They’re going to stand until dust settles on their exposed skeletons.
The Master Colm Toibin: A fictional biography of Henry James that starts in his later years, 1895, and follows his life and memories to his also-famous brother’s death in 1899. If I were to use one word to describe the tone, it is “ghostly”, as many of his stories were. Most of the characters of the book are already deceased so we have only the protagonist’s memories of them. It seems each have a chapter of their own—immediate and extended family and the many writers and luminaries of his time. Some famous and some I was hearing about for the first time. There’s a lot of them but the one that stands out most (to the reader and to James) is the literary life and tragic death of Constance Fenimore Woolson: https://www.loa.org/books/623-collected-stories
A grand-niece to the well-known writer, she served as the model for Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady who seems to have touched James as much as anyone. Even James himself seems a ghost, disaffected and removed, as he travels throughout England, Paris, Italy and the States.
He had become like the Eternal City himself: he was dented with history, he had responsibilities and layers of memory, he was watched and studied and in much demand. And now he would have to show himself in public. Just as the streets of the old city were cleaner and better lit, he, too, would put on a brave face, cover up old wounds and erase old scars and appear at the correct time, attempting neither to disappoint those who viewed him nor to give too much of his own secret history away.
Perhaps because of the life he lived, I’d recommend this book over an academic biography for anyone but a dedicated James scholar (who’d read this anyway).
Sharks in the Time of Saviors* Kawai Strong Washburn: As much as I don’t like to agree with Oprah picks, this book is one of the best books of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I jokingly recommended it to a friend as about sex, drugs and Hawaiian folklore. Not totally inaccurate. The narrative follows the lives of the Flores family—parents Augie and Malia, and siblings Dean, Nainoa, Kaui. A Phillipino-Hawaiian family struggling to make ends meet after the closing of a sugar plantation on the Big Island. After an improbable miracle, the characters try to make sense of this event and how it effects their separate moves to the mainland and the changing Hawaii around them. Such a great job providing individual narrative voices for each family member and imbuing native island culture without it being just a book about Hawaii.
But that’s the problem with the present, it’s never the thing you’re holding, only the thing you’re watching, later, from a distance so great the memory might as well be a spill of stars outside a window at twilight.
I know the language even if it’s the first time I hear it this way, a language of righteousness and cycles, giving and taking, aloha in the rawest form. Pure love.
Maine Woods Henry David Thoreau: Not gonna lie: this one took me a while to read. It’s basically a kind of journal for 3 trips the author took in the wilds of Maine over a 15-year period of his much too brief life. Titled “Ktaadn”, “Chesuncook” and “The Allegash and East Branch”; respectively, they are filled with the minutiae of each excursion: plant/animal/bird names (in Latin and local American Indian dialect), geographical points, modes of transportation and how to build a canoe or hunt moose or the aesthetics of a pioneer log cabin:
It was a style of architecture not described by Vitruvius*, I suspect, though possibly hinted at in the biography of Orpheus; none of your frilled or fluted columns which have cut such a false swell, and support nothing but a gable end and their builder’s pretensions…
*Of course, I’ve heard of the Vitruvian Man but I was ignorant about the man himself: In the 1st century BC, known for his multi-volume work entitled De architectura. He originated the idea that all buildings should have three attributes: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas ("strength", "utility", and "beauty") Thoreau would agree with the 1st 2 tenets but probably not the 3rd.
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke: A comprehensive look at Roethke’s poetry collections as well as some poems unpublished until this edition. After reading so much open verse, it was refreshing to read one who utilized different rhyme schemes. The poems are so accessible at times they seem simple but generally carry deeper meaning especially as he copes with progressing mental illness. Especially liked this edition as it served as a “biography in poems”.
Little Caesar W.R. Burnett: A gangster-noir novel from 1929 that set the precedent for the many books and movies that followed. It’s set in '20s Chicago and doesn’t have any problem transporting the reader to this world. It’s a small, entertaining read that has a ton of history so enjoyed picking it up.
Utopia Avenue* David Mitchell: A must-read for anyone into 60’s rock and not just because one of the band members took an acid trip with Captain Trips himself, Jerry Garcia. A fictional account of a band going through the ups and downs of the industry is highly engaging in the deft hands of Mitchell. As usual, there is a hint of the surreal as the characters deal with mental health issues both from their youth and caused by their choice of vocation. The book itself is a lesson in narrative framing as each chapter is a title of a song that the character writes as they narrate the events of the chapter; and each section is a side of an album. Such a great read!
In memory and in dream, he’d re-visit this lacuna in time and in space. The place was a part of him now. Every lifetime, every spin of the wheel, holds a few such lacunae. A jetty by an estuary, a single bed under a skylight, a bandstand in a twilit park, a hidden church in a hidden square.
“Songs. Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they’ll land? Or what they’ll bring?”…”Where will all these song-seeds land? It’s the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually they land on barren soil and don’t take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile? What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this. An invitation to slip into somebody else’s skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in mind, it has already changed the world.”
These words from Jasper De Zoet, the guitar virtuoso of the fictional band that I won’t forget anytime soon along with Elf Holloway/keys and vocals, Dean Moss/vocals and bass, Griff/drums, and their somewhat-closeted gay Jewish-Canadian manager, Levon Kirkland.
In the Sierra: Mountain Writings* Kenneth Rexroth: An amazing collection of poems and prose (journals and newspaper writings) from someone who knows his way around the Sierras. Even though he eventually wanted to distance himself from the Beat movement, there is no question he served as a precursor and even mentor to many of that generations most recognizable authors. He and his first wife started exploring the West in the late 30’s and his adventures lasted up until his sickness and death in the early 80’s. Many of the pieces in the collection are reflections of his life with his first wife and on the changes in the environment and world he passes through.
Unless we can stop treating the planet as a mine and start treating it as a crop, people now living will see the end of the human species.
I was continually blown away as I made my way through this book I didn’t want to end. He spent his last years in the Santa Barbara area and I’ll raise a toast at his gravestone the next time I visit.
All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blonde hair
And gentle confident eyes.
She climbs slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
“It must be very beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons."
American Dervish Ayad Akhtar: An exploration of growing up in the Muslim faith especially their views of Judaism and to a lesser extent Christianity. It could almost serve as a textbook for how the differences in faith can change lives in an ever-evolving world. Reads as a bildungsroman of a Pakistani youth being raised as a devout Muslim in Wisconsin. The conflict and subsequent plot development arise when an aunt divorces a Muslim and starts a relationship with a Jewish man sending the youth into an exploration of his own faith.
Deacon King Kong James McBride: A novel full of delightful characters and, on the surface, a story of the denizens of a housing project in a fictionalized version of Brooklyn…ironically in full view of the Statue of Liberty. It becomes a deeper, involved exploration of race, religion, society; and the archetypal individuals that live within these constructs. The action of the novel takes place in 1969 and follows the stumblings of the local drunk, Sportcoat, who attempts to right wrongs even as he looks for the answers at the bottom of a bottle of the local hooch, aka King Kong. Along the way he mentors, confuses and enlightens an amazing cast: Sister Gee, (who falls mutually in love with the Irish) Sgt Potts, Deems Clemens (drug dealer shot by Sportcoat but also baseball prospect coached by his shooter), the Elephant (local smuggler much feared but possessed of a much bigger heart than expected), his mother and so many others. Hope this one has a sequel…and I’ll continue to read his other works until then.
Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam Frances FitzGerald: A Pulitzer and National Book award-winner originally published before the war was over (this edition includes an afterword from 2000). It’s not a step-by-step account of the war. It focuses more on the history of Vietnam especially the geo-political, religious and revolutionary factions that lead to the war; and ultimately contribute to America’s confusion and failures there. Her primary point is that America’s inability to understand the Vietnamese people and culture was the reason for ultimate failure. She supports her ideas with tons of valid points…making it a little embarrassing as an American…though the circularity of her arguments could’ve been summed up more succinctly. It felt a little like a master’s thesis run amok (not that I would know anything about that :) She included a running metaphor with Shakespeare’s The Tempest which would have made for a great, shorter book.
A Children’s Bible* Lydia Millet: What seemed to be a young adult novel quickly devolved into more of an anti-adult novel with serious consequences. Wouldn’t recommend it to your kids…but it is a fun, impossible-to-put-down read. The characters and events are worth it alone but there are much deeper themes to explore that are handled with skill and cleverness. It starts with an idyllic summer idle in upstate New York…fittingly close to Bethlehem…where a group of friends from college get together with their families at a lake house. However, the kids soon create a separate, more-disciplined world from their parents who devolve into hedonism amidst an earth-changing storm:
“They gave up completely on fixing the holes,” said Sukey. “The water keeps pouring in and they just smile and chew their bottom lips. And stroke each other’s junk.”
The younger children receive a copy of a children’s bible helps them navigate the chaos around them with some practical conclusions:
Jesus = Science
Heals sick X X
Makes blind people see X X
Turn hardly any food into lots X X
Walks on Water (HOVERCRAFT!) X X
Raises the dead X
Between the World and Me Ta-Nehisi Coates: As much hype surrounded this book, it was hard not to be a little disappointed…but still enlightened. I was expecting more of a story but it reads like a treatise on differences; primarily, color (where “white” serves more as a faulty dogma than a skin color, or both) but anyone outside what he refers to as “the Dream”.
And it occurred to me, listening to your mother that France was not a thought experiment but an actual place filled with actual people whose traditions were different, whose lives really were different, whose sense of beauty is different.
Black life is cheap, but in America black bodies are a natural resource of incomparable value. (Sad that someone felt this needed to be written)
Also had lines that were easily relatable:
The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.
Selected Poems William Carlos Williams: A comprehensive look into one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. He was a master in turning the mundane into something of beauty and observation in the fewest of terms:
“The Locust Tree in Flower”
Maybe a little too mundane but there are some great poems and I’ll be very interested to read his acclaimed longer work, Paterson, which was only represented by a brief excerpt in this edition. Speaking of, did not like the organization of this New Directions edition (which I ordered specifically because they are usually so good) so I’d recommend one of the original collections to explore this poet…and if you don’t like it he has these words for you:
Say I am less an artist
than a spadeworker but one
who has no aversion to taking
his spade to the head
of anyone who would derogate
his performance in the craft
-from “The Visit”
The Shadow King* Maaza Mengiste: An incredible and surprising novel that I must’ve got from the NYT Notable Books mention. The story reminds me of Spanish civil war stories as it follows Ethiopian guerilla armies trying to defend their land from an Italian invasion in 1935. Not knowing much about Abyssinian (really...a country with both “abyss” and “sin”?) history, the book is set in the second Italo-Ethiopian War so there’s remnants of the earlier conflict in the form of characters, settings and remembered atrocities. Told through the eyes of multiple characters, the storyline centers on two women who create a women’s army and ultimately come to guard Haile Selassie, and his “shadow king”. So much to say about this novel…just read it (unless you find realistic war accounts disturbing). Looking forward to more by this author!
Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits: Pure nostalgia read. Loved his column in the Sunday paper growing up…would read it ahead of sports and comics. Dated but hilarious.
Richard II Shakespeare: Re-read this one before seeing an adaptation at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. Never a huge fan of this play but I did like the production in Delaveaga Park. I’d recommend seeing rather than reading it.
West Carys Davies: A short novel about an immigrant to America in the early 1800’s who sets out on a quixotic adventure from his Pennsylvania mule breeding operation to find a living specimen of a prehistoric mammal he has read about in the paper. He heads to the undiscovered territory using only Lewis and Clark’s recently published journals as a guide. In doing so, he leaves his young daughter in the hands of a narrow-minded sister and multiple lecherous men. A little disappointed in the novel after really liking her short stories.
Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw’s Adventures in Moonshine Max Watman: Not as adventurous as the title suggests but does provide a comprehensive look at all aspects of moonshinin’ including those who make, drink, regulate and enforce it. The author gives a first-hand account of his own attempts at building a still and producing a drinkable product…so a good handbook for anyone doing the same but a bit dry for me (no pun intended).
The Book of Evidence John Banville: A disturbing but well-written account of a murderer putting himself through a hypothetical court case in his cell as he awaits sentencing. His sordid tale reminds me of a Dostoyevsky or Kafka protagonist in that despite being the central character you cannot sympathize with him. He leaves his wife and child on a Mediterranean island in the hands of an unsavory character he borrowed money from and goes back to Ireland to try to mooch money from his mother or friends. These events lead up to the murder of an innocent bystander he killed “because he could.” Although the plot wasn’t my favorite, I was super-impressed by Banville and look forward to more!
It was not just the drink, though, that was making me happy, but the tenderness of things, the simple goodness of the world. This sunset, for instance, how lavishly it was laid on, the clouds, the light on the sea, that heart-breaking, blue-green distance, laid on, all of it, as if to console some lost, suffering wayfarer.
Northernmost Peter Geye: Another great contribution to “tundra fiction”, if that’s a thing. Follows the parallel lives of a Norwegian man at the turn of the 20th century who survives a harrowing ordeal on the Arctic Islands of his country; meanwhile a female descendant of his decides to leave her husband and visit the ancestral home 100 years later. Well-written and great command of language make his books satisfying reads…best to have a hot toddy on hand!
Foregone Russell Banks: Had high hopes that he’d turn back the trend of disappointing novels but this one isn’t it. Hopefully, he’ll respond with a more poignant swan song. The story follows the life of a Canadian filmmaker as he recounts his memories to a film crew as he’s dying. A sad premise that becomes even more so as the author contemplates his own mortality.
Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain: An autobiographical account of his many adventures on the river from cub pilot to visiting dignitary. The early chapters detail the specifics of becoming a captain and the nuances of the river and boats. Later chapters reminisce on his experiences and the stories of the river. Told with his trademark mixture of localism, realism and wit; a great read for aspiring riverboat captains everywhere!
Seven Years in Tibet* Heinrich Harrer: Such an enriching read not just for the sheer adventure of escaping an internment camp in India by traversing the Himalayas to Tibet but in the history of the region and culture circa 1930-50. As hard as it is to sympathize with a German at this time (and an admitted member of the Nazi Party), it somehow happens and if the Dalai Lama accepted him as a tutor then he must’ve made amends somehow. I found the plight of the young Dalai Lama even more fascinating as he becomes the ruler of the region just as Mao and Communist China were annexing it.
Only the music of the monks could be heard—the oboes, tubas, kettledrums and chinels. It was like a vision of another world, a strangely unreal happening. In the yellow light of the flickering lamps, the great figures of molded butter seemed to come to life. We fancied we saw strange flowers tossing their heads in the breeze and heard the rustling of the robes of gods. The faces of these portentous figures were distorted in a demonic grimace. Then the God-King raised his hand in blessing.
Now the living Buddha was approaching. He passed quite close to our window. The women stiffened in a deep obeisance and hardly dared to breathe. The crowd was frozen. Deeply moved, we hid ourselves behind the women as if to protect ourselves from being drawn into the magic circle of this Power.
We kept saying to ourselves, “It is only a child.” A child, indeed, but the heart of the concentrated faith of thousands, the essence of their prayers, longings, hopes.
Not that I know German but I really liked the translation with its clear, scholarly language without getting too esoteric. As Harrer says himself: “I have no experience as an author, I shall content myself with the unadorned facts.” Still, I found his prose more than acceptable:
I often think I can still hear the wild cries of geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear cold moonlight. My heart-felt wish is that this book may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.
Sidenote: After current research, it was sad to discover that the government in Beijing is insisting that they are the only acceptable authority in choosing the next Incarnate
Trio William Boyd: I’ve never read anything by him before and was pleasantly surprised. The story is told through 3 viewpoints during the making of a film in Brighton in 1968; that of the producer, the leading lady and the wife of the director. Each character and their backstories are well-defined as is their relationship to the world of the movie and the tumultuous period they are inhabiting. Looking forward to others by him!
The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War Malcolm Gladwell: Not sure about the last part of the subtitle…the whole thing seems like one long nightmarish night. Anyway, the author recounts the story of how Carl Norden’s bombing sight changed the war and the philosophy of air battle. The writing and explanation are clear…except that it doesn’t seem to have changed anything in practice, only in theory. Basically, he posits the American concept of ‘precision bombing’, ie going for factories and supply lines, as more effective than the British use of ‘area bombing’, ie strafing the whole landscape regardless of civilian targets. Lots of interesting ideas and characters in the book to make it a worthwhile read, for example:
The psychologist Daniel Wegner has this beautiful concept called transactive memory, which is the observation that we don’t just store information in our own minds or in specific places. We also store memories and understanding in the minds of the people we love.
The Mutiny of the Elsinore Jack London: A refreshing sea yarn about a wealthy passenger on a doomed voyage from the port of Baltimore around the Cape to Seattle. Wonderful descriptions of the South American coast and memorable characters populate the ship that is eventually divided between the first and second mates after the death of the captain…whose daughter becomes a central figure to the journey herself and becomes the romantic interest of the narrator. London doesn’t get a lot of credit in certain literary circles but I found this novel worthy of academic interpretation and just fun to read.
Oh, well, the sailors for’ard may be hard-bitten, but I can promise Miss West that here, aft, is one male passenger, unmarried and never married, who is an equally hard-bitten adventurer on the sea of matrimony. When I go over the census I remember at least several women, superior to Miss West, who trilled their song of sex and failed to shipwreck me. [Spoiler: He’s singing a different song by the end]
Miracle at St. Anna James McBride: Liked this one a lot! A touch of schmaltz, I’d say, in the dialogue but it’s overshadowed by the entertaining story told with a beautiful prose style that makes it both accessible and meaningful. It’s the story of a company of Buffalo Soldiers that is decimated as it moves on the increasingly desperate German forces in the Italians Alps in WWII:
…in central Italy, the war was fought out of the public eye, at night, in winter, in cold, chaotic blackness, by Ghurkas, Italians, Brazilians, British, Africans, even Russian defectors, and most of all, by American Negroes, who were convinced that the white man was trying to kill them, in mountainous terrain where icy winter rains and high winds lashed the trees and bushes with hurricane force, pushing aside sanity and loosing all the ghosts and goblins of Italy’s past. The lovely mountains of Tuscany, mountains that would years later inspire dozens of gushing travel books from breathless American writers, were not friendly to the coloreds. They were rude and discourteous, dangerous and deadly.
Eventually, four of the soldiers are trapped in a small mountain village where the miracle slowly reveals itself. Though the language and style are very different, it is impossible not invoke thoughts of Hemingway’s war novels and their similar senseless war massacres and settings. Recommend this one for it’s historical as well as fictional content. Hard to refer to it as “dark humor” without the racial connotations the term would insinuate here but it’s both humorous and bleak:
In short, the town had known pain, glory, suffering, pity, self-sacrifice, grief, jealousy, murder, mayhem, peace, war, grapes, wine, and wisdom, but it had never known the smell of good ol’ stinkin’ fried rabbit cooked Kansas City-style by a smooth-talking fatback lover named Bishop Cummings, who was called Walking Thunder back home at the First Baptist Saving Souls Center.
On Such a Full Sea* Chang-Rae Lee: Such a full sea of entertainment and information in this novel. Highly recommend it! Set in a future, fast-declining world where everyone is separated into settlements based on strict class values…privileged, working class, outsiders. An enigmatic protagonist, Fan, leaves the boundaries of her neighborhood on an un-defined quest. Narrated by a voice from her settlement, we get both the story of Fan and the life she left. The narration is so incredible that you lose yourself in the story of Fan and then you’re pulled back to the world she left behind seamlessly. The author imbeds wisdoms and prophecies throughout, including the demise of his own profession:
So what happens to someone when his livelihood disappears literally overnight? It’s not the same as losing one’s job and having trouble finding another like it. The entire reason is gone, like old-time writers who at some point found that very few people, if any, actually practiced reading anymore. But at least those writers had time, the change happening over many decades, until readers became rare enough that they were believed to be nearly extinct, like some twitchy, sensitive creatures who lingered in the twilight brush.
Brave Companions: Portraits in History David McCullough: A nice, economic look at some of the lives and events that shaped American (and World) history. It served as a good launch pad to more in-depth readings of aviation and its pioneers, more fiction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, an extended biography of John Q Adams; among others. Also fascinating is the story of the trans-continental railroad that was the predecessor to the Panama Canal as well as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. These snippets of history spur the imagination!
Wind, Sand and Stars Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A classic autobiographical work about early mail aviation and the beginnings of the Spanish civil war. These flights were before instrumentation and flown over some of the most forbidding places on Earth: the Sahara Desert, the South American Andes. I plan on reading more books on early aviation thanks to the above but the lyrical prose makes this book an enjoyable read even during some real life-and-death adventures.
The machine which at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, actually plunges him more deeply into them. As for the peasant so for the pilot, dawn and twilight become events of consequence. His essential problems are set him by the mountains, the sea, the wind. Alone before the vast tribunal of the tempestuous sky, the pilot defends his mails and debates on terms of equality with those three elemental divinities.
Gift from the Sea Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Thanks to an earlier read I discovered that she was much more than married to a famous man. She had quite a life in her own right and look forward to reading more by her. This particular book is like a lyrical memoir as she reminisces about trips to the sea and how they help center her as a writer and woman. Much of the book is an extended metaphor with shells representing different stages of womanhood and relationships, in general. As the title suggests, it makes a great gift!
The Lincoln Highway* Amor Towles: Another great read by an author who is becoming one of the most popular contemporary American writers. Don’t want to give up too much of the story but follows the adventures of brothers Emmett and Billy as they try to make their way from their unlucky Nebraska home to California by way of New York City. You’ll have to read it to find out how all that works out. With his usual style, the author immerses you in the landscapes and lives of a litany of memorable characters that will stick with you for a long time.
The funny thing about a picture, thought Woolly, the funny thing about a picture is that while it knows everything that’s happened up until the moment it’s been taken, it knows absotively* nothing about what will happen next. And yet, once the picture has been framed and hung on the wall, what you see when you look at it closely are all the things that are about to happen. All the un-things. The things that were unanticipated. And unintended. And unreversible.
*not sure if it would count in scrabble but great word!
The Sea of Grass Conrad Richter: Impossible not to call this a “quaint, little book”…which is not to diminish the writing or entertainment therein. However, when colloquialisms like this appear it has to be acknowledged:
See the elephant and hear the owl hoot up in Denver?
Meaning, of course: http://www.warriortalk.com/archive/index.php/t-6706.html
The story itself sounds like a season of “Yellowstone” with equally enthralling landscapes and characters even more so -- though this is a review of the book not a tangential tv show. It follows the battle between the settlers of New Mexico and the government-sanctioned “nesters” who have little respect for the land. Richter has a well-celebrated bibliography which I look forward to exploring!
And that night as I lay in my sleepless bunk staring into the white haze that entered my deep window, I fancied that in the milky mist I could see the prairie as I had seen it all my life and would never see it again, with the grass in summer sweeping my stirruped thighs and prairie chicken scuttling ahead of my pony; with the ponds in fall black and noisy with waterfowl, and my uncle’s seventy thousand head of cattle rolling in fat; with the tracks of endless game in the winter snow and thousands of tons of wild hay cured and stored on the stem; and when the sloughs of the home range greened up in the spring, with the scent of the warming wet earth and swag after swag catching the emerald fire, with horses shedding and snorting and grunting as they rolled, and everywhere the friendly indescribable solitude of that lost sea of grass. (Phew, whatta sentence?!)
The Minister’s Wooing Harriet Beecher Stowe: My appreciation for this novel stemmed not so much from the plot (the title pretty much says it all) but from an appreciation for the language and themes of American Romanticism…to clarify, not like Harlequin Romance, but that of early writers establishing a national identity through freedom, imagination and the unknown. Not gonna lie, there’s a lot of theology discussed in the book and although it’s fiction two of its more compelling (and polarizing) characters are based on Dr. Samuel Hopkins and Aaron Burr. Reading ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was influential on my becoming a serious reader but never realized how much she had written—I’ll definitely read more. Gotta love this take on the years we’re living (wish she was right!):
In the millennium, I suppose, there will be such a fulness and plenty of all the necessaries and conveniences of life that it will not be necessary for men and women to spend the greater part of their lives in labor to procure a living. It will not be necessary for each one to labor more than two or three hours a day—not more than will conduce to health of body and vigor of mind; and the rest of the time they will spend in reading and conversation, and such exercises as are necessary and proper to improve their minds and make progress in knowledge.
John Quincy Adams Harlow Giles Unger: A straight-forward (which I love) bio of one of those presidents you don’t hear a lot about. Kinda odd since he had an incredible life on a world-wide scale. I mean, he was the son of a founding father and president but by the time he was 14 he was already serving as a diplomatic secretary on his own in St. Petersburg Russia. His presidency was (theoretically) undermined by the beginnings of party affiliation but he served our country in so many ways; as a staunch abolitionist (which made it a good companion reading to the above), refused to campaign or serve any one party, his extensive travels and understanding of foreign affairs…he even died in Congress:
When the clerk read the next resolution and called his name—his was third on the alphabetical roll—he tried to stand, his right hand gripping his desk as he rose. Then he slumped to his left—fortunately, into the arms of a fellow congressman who had been watching him. “Mr. Adams is dying,” he cried.