Bedside Books

The War with Hannibal by Livy: This was a great read distinguished by a consistent narrative drama chronicling Hannibal’s failed (barely) attempt to conquer the Roman empire. Hannibal was something of a military genius, certainly a relentlessly ambitious general, who led a largely mercenary army that spoke many different languages through decades of war with Rome. His elephants. His crossing of the Alps. He tested the Romans’ endurance, and they proved themselves absolutely resolute, even when he was knocking on their doorstep. He called forth a number of brilliant Roman generals, ending with Scipio who took the reins in the bleakest of times. He was still in his early 20s when he took command, after the death in battle of his father at the hands of Hannibal’s army. I don’t want to stop reading about the Romans, but I’ve nearly exhausted the stock in the local used bookstores so now I’ll have to make a list of the Penguin edition Roman history classics that I haven’t read and order them.

Travel: A Literary History by Peter Whitfield: This is required reading for anyone who loves real travel literature. It’s a comprehensive look at what we must call travel writing, but the story is always so much more in the hands of the masters. This survey goes back to the story of the Jewish people’s journey through the desert, and evolves through the centuries as travel stories change with the texture of the times, ranging from pilgrimage, exploration, conquest, adventure, science and the “search for the self.” Whitfield, a sharp intellect, is more than capable of expanding our mind about the role of the writer who sets out to record a journey, and what such books say about both the writer and the culture that produces them. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There is no foreign land; it is the traveler only who is foreign.” There are generous quotations from the earliest to the latest writers who take on the stories of their travels. Paul Theroux is immensely appreciated by Whitfield, as are Thoreau, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. His assurance makes Whitfield  brave enough to draw in such American writers who are not in the traditional travel-writing genre: the last three, of course, touch on the nature of inner journeys or attention to a place.  It takes someone with his literary abilities, learning, and reading to do this type of history justice, and he does.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson: I mentioned a review of this book in a post a month or so ago. This novella is what it’s cracked up to be: a perfect, short narrative that draws you into a simple man’s life as the U.S. western frontier  is closing. The mesmerizing and poetic language is haunting, a quality that Johnson has in aces. It’s very hard for me to make comparisons with Johnson, which is a sign of uniqueness. Something of Hemingway’s pristine sharpness, especially in the art of staying on the story’s pitch so that it never wavers. Something of Faulkner’s way with common folk, but the expansiveness of Johnson’s talent allows him to treat all people with precision. His unique gift centers on people in search of a spiritual awakening. In the story of Grainier this never surfaces. Grainier is too simple to even address those types of questions in his mind: but he’s there as a full human being, and the death of his wife and young daughter send him into remorse and haunting dreams, which he survives. A seldom seen acquaintance calls him a hermit of the mountains and deep forest, which shocks him. A simple soul beautifully captured in a story that stops more or less in his mid-thirties, yet he goes on to live another thirty some years before his death in the mid-60s.  I hope the telling of the second half of his life will be given to us later. It deserves to be placed beside Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. Two short masterpieces capturing the American West.

Cash by The Editors of Rolling Stone: Johnny Cash, like all great artists, seemed to be playing out his life and his art all at the same time, shake and mix. He did it with his song lyrics and his voice, and it’s pretty clear he’s not going to go away, and he will emerge as one of the great singer-storytellers of our time, along with Dylan. They both share many traits, and they recognized their religious kinship and folk-country roots. The fact that the last three of Cash’s recordings were among the best he ever did is amazing, and a hats off to producer Rick Ruben of heavy metal fame who understood Johnny Cash and allowed and challenged him to do those last CDs that covered some great Americana songs and also some of the wilder, modern singer-artists like Kurt Cobain, et al. Cash’s version of Hurt is going down in the Great All-Time Book of Songs. And this book is one of those great reads, a blend of hagiography, utterly appropriate in this case, and quick-take journalism of sundry days in Cash’s life as viewed by a vagabond writer on an assignment. Cash was an open guy, at home in his skin, and he had an ability to see himself  and wasn’t afraid to use his bad side to make good art. His story was played out to a large extent on the stage of life for all to see, or at least enough of it for us also to learn something about the art of myth-making. But Cash shines through for who he was, even acknowledging the myth-making. Managing the elements of an artist’s life isn’t a simple matter of myth-making. The elements have to be there. The outlaw spirit. A truth-teller. A willing disciple of the dark forces. A good, tender heart. The spirit of an artist. The touch of a poet. Cash had it all, and he turned it into a redemption story, a man expressing his deepest soul in song. Dylan writes about Cash in Chronicles, his brilliant autobiography: After praising “I Walk the Line” and the early Sun Records artists, he says: “Johnny Cash’s records were the same, but they weren’t what you expected. Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but 10,000 years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious, obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger…Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.”

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