I haven’t returned to posting anything lately because I’m still rewriting my travel book, after helpful advice from several friends. However, to break the grind of copyediting, rewriting and adding new material, I’ve been reading again and before long I’ll catch up on my Bedside Books post.
Lately, between daily bouts with the travel book, I’ve read There and Then by James Salter, a classy travel book by a beautiful writer who I hadn’t read before. I was attracted to his writing by a review of All That Is, his latest novel. I ordered his autobiography, Burning the Days, which I’m reading now.
In the unread stack of books are Love Songs from the Grave, the ninth in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri crime series set in Laos, and The Great Leader by Jim Harrison.
The Shorter Science and Civilization of China: 1 by Ronan and Needham: This is the condensed version of Needham’s classic history of China, starting at the beginning and focusing on the foundations of China’s developing religions.
Needham is a story in himself. Wikipedia says: “Under the Royal Society‘s direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946. During this time he made several long journeys through war-torn China and many smaller ones, visiting scientific and educational establishments and obtaining for them much needed supplies. His longest trip ended in far west in Xinjiang at the caves in Dunhuang at the end of the Great Wall where the first printed copy of the Diamond Sutra was found. The other long trip reached Fuzhou on the east coast, returning across the Xiang River just two days before the Japanese blew up the bridge at Hengyang and cut off that part of China. In 1944 he visited Yunnan in an attempt to reach the Burmese border. Everywhere he went he purchased and was given old historical and scientific books, which he shipped back to England through diplomatic channels and were to form the foundation of his later research. He got to know Zhou Enlai and met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuoren, and the meteorologist Zhu Kezhen who later sent crates of books to him in Cambridge, including the 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopedia, a comprehensive record of China’s past.” The personal side: he remained married to his wife but had a Chinese “second wife” who lived on the same road in Cambridge as his wife for decades, with her knowledge, and whom he married after the death of his wife.
The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder: I’m now a dedicated Thornton Wilder fan. This historical novel is an imaginative recreation of the period before Caesar’s assassination told through the eyes of Caesar, his rivals, Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, conniving aristocratic women, famous actresses, Anthony and others. Wilder was a lifelong student of Classical Rome, and he inhabits the voices of his characters, weaving their stories, letters, diary entries and experiences together to recreate the life of Rome as effectively as we’re ever likely to experience it. I ordered his two other novels of the period, The Cabbala, and The Woman of Andros, plus his selected letters. A nice side story: Wilder spent a year and half in Douglas, Arizona, living anonymously, savoring the life of the local people, especially the nightlife and bar crowd that would cross the border to Agua Prieta at closing hour to continue the fun. It was a roisterous version of Our Town.
The Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson: His first novel, written at age 22, but delayed publication until not long before his suicide, is a revealing look at the well-spring of his talent. The novel is a solid piece of work and depending on the extent of later revision, a mystery as to why it wasn’t published earlier. Had it been published earlier, it might have done what he predicted at the time in a letter to a friend: it would, “in a twisted way,” do for the Caribbean what The Sun Also Rises did for Europe. Paul Kemp, age 35, is a vagabond journalist looking for a place to settle in, who sees the odd assortment of journalist has beens at the Puerto Rican newspaper that’s hired him sight unseen as what he secretly feared: a near crazy house mirroring the pretense, posing and fakery in the island’s culture at large. But, he can do his own good work anywhere, and he finds the odd misfits help keep his interests alive. A love triangle is handled realistically. The writing shows off his exuberant, tabloid-comic book adjectives, and his later trademark joy in exaggeration, satire and humor leavened by sharply outlined characters and scenes with a relentless pace.
The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane: This is vintage McGuane essays on fishing, while framing his well-known descriptive talents. His personal and family life slowly unfold as the essays pile up, revealing a man at a slight remove from his children, who see his obsessions to know and to master his various interests with risible disinterest. If McGuane has a religion, it’s fishing and horses. He invests his fishing quest (South America, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Michigan, Montana and other locales) with all the hyper-sensory mystery surrounding Nature and the self, especially the mandatory attainment of accepting the outcome – win, lose or draw. It’s fishing as a source of the sublime, the unexpected, the inability to know anything concrete or take away anything that gives anyone an edge during the next roll of the dice. Nothing to take away to use again, except the relish to continue the quest and savor the experience. That’s a lot.
Some Horses by Thomas McGuane: I followed up with more essays by McGuane on his other passion: horses and competitive quarter horse roping. He says some years he won more prize money at roping competitions than he earned through his novels. His essay on Buster Welch, a West Texas quarter horse trainer, is worth the price of admission. The kernel of McGuane’s talent has always rested on his untouchable American traits.
The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: This is the best description of old age I’ve ever read. It could as well be called The Old Friends. Really brilliant. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Martin Amis’s father. Wonderful dialogue and roguishness, with women characters fully the equal of his men characters. In fact, compared to the women, the men remain rather vague, except for Alun Weaver, an ex-TV celebrity who’s retired and become a professional Welshman eager to rejoin a group of old chums soaked in afternoon cocktails and sodden binges. His wife, Rhiannon, is the strongest – and most mysterious – character in the book. Death hangs over it all. Kingsley understands how to let the mask of humor slip to reveal desperate pathos, but life goes on thanks to the guise of British manners. The book celebrates the wear and the endurance that long friendships demand, and as death encircles everyone, why a momentary solace counts for all.
Nobody Move & Resuscitation of a Hanged Man by Denis Johnson – Both of the men in these two novels are specialties of Johnson: flawed souls who could fall apart in uncountable ways because their lives have been lived on the other side of normal sensibility for too long. In Nobody Move, a darker than dark crime noir, Jimmy Luntz discovers he can pull the trigger – kill people. He’s taken up by Anita, “another class of person,” a woman way too good for him, a rare beauty, an American Indian who has entered the world of the “other” people. That means both us and a world we can’t see, but she can. She has stunning beauty masking strength, a real aphrodisiac. She talks to spirits. She is braver than brave. She sees into Jimmy’s soul and figures what the hell, he’ll keep her alive for a while longer or die trying. This is Johnson in a stripped down prose, non-stop action, real suspense, everything – as always in his writing – charged and alive. There couldn’t be a better dark jaunt with two desperate, fascinating losers. Real fear – or is it empathy – arose when I read this tale. Of course, you want to rescue Anita, you don’t want her to go away, but…this is crime noir in spades. Good stuff involving bikers and people who collect money for gamblers and loan sharks and drug dealers. Oh, yes, Luntz sings in a Barbershop Chorus. It’s set around Bakersfield, California, and the Feather River – need I say more. Ok, more…at the end, we’re not sure if Anita dies. They might reunite, but they’ve been, as some say, through a grinder turned by some very bad people.
In Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, Leonard English drives into Provincetown on Cape Cod to start a job as a radio disk jockey and private detective with no experience in either. Men on the street are wearing skirts. He falls for Leanna, a beautiful gay woman he’s assigned to follow, and she’s attracted by his deep communion with God, or what God might radiate if He wanted to bring people to his side, as Lenny might say. Lenny has saintly, apocalyptic visions in which the entire world is charged with God’s spirit, which ultimately leads him to shoot the hat off the local Catholic bishop, or so he imagines. This is Johnson loading up the deck with opposing symbols: sexuality, faith, love and reality. In another life, Leonard must have followed Moses into the desert and enjoyed every minute of it. Normal life in other words is sorely lacking all around, a big disappointment if God is real. He can’t decide. Why all the waiting around? To survive, Leonard has focused his attention on attention itself, and he’s wired into everything around him save for the ability to live a normal life. Again, this is a type of character that Johnson can do better than anyone. At some point, Johnson discovered that he could write about the feelings of consciousness, not the normal feelings consciousness produces but the feeling of feelings themselves. Hard to explain, but I’ve often felt drunk or stoned when reading Johnson as he gets into the mind of these type of people, and I guess that’s the highest tribute I could pay him (no pun there, right?). I’m included in a place few writers can create. I’m not sure if it erases literature and exposes life or if life is erased exposing the power of words. Johnson’s ability to handle people who experience spiritual feelings reminds me of Norman Mailer, another writer who treated spirituality and God with real seriousness. I’ve also just finished On God, a conversation with Mailer with promptings by J. Michael Lennon. It would have been something to have brought Mailer and Johnson together to talk about some of these matters and how they can play out in people’s lives. Mailer was a Manichean gnostic; Johnson, I think, is probably religious in the sense that he is drawn to the mystery, or else he’s in deep as a practicing born-again Christian. Both men shun religion in the hands of institutions, as well-intentioned as some of them are, but we know from history many have not been well-intentioned as they went forward. Mailer speaks revealingly of the role of ceremony. Johnson has pegged the disturbed fringes, and the loners, as where the most inspired God-seekers reside. That reminds me of Updike’s Lillies of the Field, which has a wonderful section on people who ban together in search of God, as in Waco, Texas, many years ago, one of a long list of apocalyptic callings.
The English Major by Jim Harrison – Back to Jim Harrison again, and in this novel he’s on a roving romp. The character Cliff (as in fallen off) is who Denis Johnson’s flawed lost souls would be if they could get a ticket to a normal life. Cliff gets by. A normal guy, not brilliant, but smarter than most, not full of himself because he’s had too much of a normal life, lacking in a wide range of experiences which he’s now ready to rectify because he finds himself recently divorced and free to wither away or flourish at 60 years old. Is it too old to live out some fantasies? No way…he’s soon driving across America with a former high school student he taught some 20 years ago. His ambition is to travel to all the states and to rename them and their state bird. It’s a grand, large project and Cliff carries it off with aplomb while Harrison drops his perennial wisdom gems for over preened souls: get out of your chair, eat something different, roll the dice of life and double down till you win or understand something valuable. Harrison has perfected a style that rests partially on his non-stop ability to unfurl the discursive in-the-moment workings of Cliff’s mind. Cliff, it turns out, has been selling himself too cheap, and there’s a glimmer toward the end that at 60 he still has something to offer younger, attractive women, but that intimation is left as is, and he rolls back to where he started in life, into his mother and grandmother’s abandoned home, an adventure ended that has shown him he’s ready to knock on new doors, and he’s not nearly the same person as when he set out. Being on the road is a good thing indeed.
Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino – We leave the Roman consuls and dictators behind in this wonderful book of daily life in the Roman Republic in the second century A.D. This is a type of history that we need more of, as my friend Red Pine says, taking us to the places where significant things occurred. It’s one thing to read about the exploits of the grand names of Roman history and quite another to read about the non-exploits of the nameless in history, where most history really takes place. To read the story of Rome’s evolution as a city, the nature of its streets, its apartments, its shops, its public baths, the theater, the public forums, the nature of education, prostitution, marriage, sexuality, religion, the morning routine after awakening, breakfasts and the evening meals, the nature of clothing, the look of the sleeping quarters, the kitchen, it all adds up to create a living backdrop where the betrayals and bravery of the Roman elite are played out. It brings far away quite close.
Here are some links to recent things by or about Martin Amis. The first is an Amis website that is more or less authoritative and comprehensive, and can be found here. The second is an article Amis wrote about the Republican Party candidates out hustling for votes, which can be found here. The third is a Wall Street Journal article that’s a nice look at his marriage to Isabel Fonseca, and contains her description of Amis’ personality, found here. Last is the most recent glimpse of him at the Jaipur Literary Festival in India, located here. He’s jet lagged, but as always his observations wake you up. I haven’t looked at the website thoroughly yet, but apparently he’s moved his family to Brooklyn.
“Style is not neutral, it gives moral direction.” – Martin Amis
Comanche Sundown, Jan Reid’s new historical novel, is, as some reviewers have written, a masterpiece of imagination and prose, capturing a time in the nation when Quanah Parker, a half-breed, and his unexpected friend, a black cowboy named Bose Ikard, himself a son of a slave owner, lived life on the Texas plains fighting the Union Army and watching the old ways disappear. Quanah’s epitaph on his grave at the Parker family plot at the Fort Sill Cemetery in Lawton, Oklahoma:
Resting Here Until Day Breaks
And Shadows Fall and Darkness Disappears is
Quanah Parker Last Chief of the Comanches
Died Feb. 23, 1911
Jan Reid’s Comanche Sundown is a beautifully imagined novel with two real-life quintessential Americans at its core, the Comanche half-blood chief Quanah Parker and a half-blood black named Bose Ikard, the son of his slave-owning father. This book should be a contender for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It’s in the ranks of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Quanah and Bose are blood brothers engaged in living their lives as men at a pivotal moment in history when Whites are turning the Comanche ranging ground into cattle country. The story is also an intoxicating tale of the Indian women who shared their lives. The novel puts flesh on two real-life figures and their time, not so long ago. Reid’s re-imagining of the Comanche way of life and Quanah’s shamanistic aura and fearlessness is a masterful feat of story-telling. His recent biography of Doug Sahm, the Texas Tex-Mex rocker, is also a good one for the road. His The Bullet Meant for Me defies easy description. It’s an autobiography of a writer who took a pistol shot in the stomach that passed on to lodge against his spine––paralyzing him for months until he regained the partial use of his legs: bracingly tough-minded, inspiring, beautifully written, a portrait of an artist in mid-flight who refused to go down for the count. In Comanche Sundown, he’s written a masterpiece on the richness and tragedy of frontier life.
Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia is encyclopedic in scope, his summing up of a lifetime of reviewing, 851 pages that cover a daunting range of literature with a particular nod to European writers, historical and modern. The more I read James the more I’m reminded of his rare qualities, the mind of a poet blended naturally with the hard-earned wisdom of someone at home on the streets, who can’t and doesn’t want to put literature behind academic walls but keeps it rooted at the forefront of lived life, as it was when it was created by writers struggling with the temper of their time. He writes with the assurance of someone who knows that literature, poetry and the lives of writers can teach truths far beyond the esthetic sublime.
Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence just came in the mail. What can I say. I love what his critics find irritating about his prose, the quick-wrapped lightning illuminations that fearlessly strike at the quick of a writer’s essence. If they would only accept that Bloom is a Jewish mystic writing not so much from a historical view but from a point of revelation, they wouldn’t be so vexed by his approach. He’s the most inspired, broadly visionary critic in American history, and his books will rest on a shelf reserved for uniquely American writers, close beside the three mentors who gave him the courage to be himself––Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.
Larry McMurtry’s Hollywood and Literary Life. I always fall for McMurtry’s quirky nonfiction voice. What I like about these two memoirs, the first was Books, is their lack of personal or literary pretension, his tendency to dodge any serious discussion in mid-course and go off to eat a burger and fries or some such ordinary undertaking. I know underneath it all is a reader and storyteller of the first magnitude, but taking himself too seriously in these memoirs isn’t in his nature. At any rate, the memoirs feel honest. They have a diary feel by a diarist who knows pretension is the kiss of death.
Talk about social media, the ubiquitousness of cameras and instant communication: Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul unexpectedly encountered each other at a literary festival in England, which led to a long handshake and a smiling exchange. Here’s a post of the video. I’ve always admired Theroux’s “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” for its evocation of their early encounter in Malawi and the unknowable, dramatic course friendships can take. Here’s part of the post on The Book Bench:
“Talk about being in the right place at the right time: Reza Aslan was at the Hay Festival last weekend, where he gave a talk about his latest project—the gorgeous, comprehensive “Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East,” a collection of Middle Eastern essays, fiction, and poetry from the past hundred years in English translation—and was in the green room when Paul Theroux and V. S. Naipaul had their encounter. Aslan happened to be taking a video with his phone, when, to his surprise, Theroux approached Naipaul and offered his hand. As Aslan put it on his Twitter feed (he’s @rezaaslan): “Holy Cow! I caught first face to face reconciliation of Paul Theroux & VS Naipaul. Magical moment.”
McEwan was interviewed on some of his favorite books, and he launched into an appreciation of John Updike. He’s called him ‘the greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death’.
Interviewer: What is it about Updike that deserves that praise?
McEwan: Great sentence-maker; extraordinary noticer; wonderful eye for detail; great fondler of details, to use Nabokov’s phrase. Huge comic gift, finding its supreme expression in the Bech trilogy. A great chronicler, in the Rabbit tetralogy, of American social change in the 40 years spanned by those books. Ruthless about women, ruthless about men. (Feminists are wrong to complain. There’s a hilarious streak of misanthropy in Updike). He reminds us that all good writing, good observation contains a seed of comedy. A wonderful maker of similes. His gift was to render for us the fine print, the minute detail of consciousness, of what it’s like in a certain moment to be another person, to inhabit another mind. In that respect, Angstrom will be his monument.
And it goes on…click here to read the full interview.
Check out page 295 of Jim Harrison’s newest novella collection, The Farmer’s Daughter, when you see a copy. He kindly slipped my name into one sentence in this force majeure book, particularly the first two novellas: The Farmer’s Daughter and Brown Dog Redux. There’s simply no writer like Jim Bear. He shares his buddy Thomas McGuane’s luminous language plus an always beating, warm heart, making for characters that are the closest you’ll ever get to pulsing human blood on the printed page. Plus funny, out loud laughing.
The V.S. Naipaul biography (The World Is What It Is) is done, confirming the tiresome personality which has become so much of his myth. Fortunately, his biographer chose to treat the negative aspects of his personality as matter of fact; he had no choice; from Naipaul’s beginning as a teenager, it was apparent he was destined to be insecure, egocentric and cruel, seeing himself as privileged. He is impervious and unconcerned about his failings as a human being. He’s cultivated, and had it cultivated for him by others, a myth that he sacrificed all for his art, but I don’t see it that way. To say that, is to say you have no responsibility to the people around you, whether casual strangers or loved ones. He is routinely awful to too many people. About the only thing positive that can be said for his cruelty and rudeness is that he does it to people face to face, with no pretension. There’s an element of sadism here, the small boy who enjoys torturing the weak and unsuspecting. But enough of that. “Enough,” in fact, is his biographer’s , Patrick French’s, last word in the book, which stops at 1996. In a footnote, French writes, “but more later.” It must be said, I have nothing but admiration for Naipaul’s cooperation with his biographer, allowing him full access to all his papers, etc., and in his comments to his biographer admitting his failings in so many areas regarding those who he loved and who loved him. His mother died estranged from her son. It’s one of the great tragedy’s of his life, which he didn’t comment on.
But I don’t care about Naipaul’s personality. Many people are loaded down with flaws that make them pretentious and unpleasant. But none of them, and few others in the world, can come even close to touching Naipaul’s artistry and vision. It’s perhaps a small stretch to suggest that he changed, at least among a certain circle of intellectuals (left), the way people looked at the third world, and the so-called responsibility of the West. I read A Bend in the River when it was published in 1979 and thought it a masterpiece, which it is. It was written in the period of his great nonfiction books. I was first attracted by his nonfiction writing, which still holds me, and, because of its structure, mostly still holds together, still offering great lessons through its weaving of history, exacting details, personalities and, most essentially, Naipaul’s hardcore distrust of shibboleths and the fashionably correct. At bottom, I guess, it’s his very distrust (and lack of compassion) of other human beings for not taking greater responsibility over their lives that he uses to color his point of view regarding the West and the so-called third world or emerging nations, or the rest of the world. Anyway, his books have been a necessary corrective, truly a monumental achievement, in the literary sense. So now I’m reading his newest book, A Masque of Africa, which starts off with some of the most awkward prose ever written, at least the first 40 pages or so. At the same time, I’m reading his essay on Conrad in Literary Occasions. It’s as if the writing is by two different people. More on this later. There are some signs that Naipaul is mellowing a bit in old age. As his ego melts down, he’ll have much to reckon with, but he can also say that he’s created an unmatchable body of world-class literature. The books will stand for a long time, the rest is soon dust, and eventually the books will be too.