Summer Reading

I’ve always interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in the garden a bit differently from my dour Protestant forebears (and contemporaries). I believe the story symbolizes our fall from being active participants in Nature to exploiters or “Masters” of Nature. We gave up some rather amazing skills in order to become rational, “civilized” human beings. Birds can navigate using the stars because they are active participants in Nature, not because they sit down and calculate routes and shit. Dogs know which grasses to eat to ease an upset stomach not because of trial and error, but because their active participation in Nature grants them that knowledge. So-called “primitive” peoples know which plants are edible and medicinal not because of trial and error or the scientific method, but because their healers and shamans go into a trance and the plants they need are somehow revealed to them. I don’t believe some great Sin or blemish got us expelled from the Garden, but rather some evolutionary necessity forced us to develop different capacities.

Now those capacities have blinded us to much of how Nature really works. We have lost our relationship to the Earth and its other denizens. We have forgotten how to participate in Nature, how to hear her communications, how to learn from her. We need to get back, to blend our new mind with our old mind, in order to achieve the next step or phase.

I also don’t believe that some ethereal bearded dude in the sky created everything and has a plan or whatever. So, I’m an atheist but I’ve got some far-out ideas. Sue me.

Mother Nature keeps indigenous (what used to be called “primitive” peoples) living in extreme environments for a reason. Nobody’s ass wants to live in extreme altitudes. Nobody wants to freeze they bullocks off all the time. Nobody likes chasing herds of desicated animals across the fucking desert for years. But people live in remote, shitty, uncomfortable, undesirable locals to this day because whatever calamity is about to befall us will require their skills to carry us forward. If we have an Ice Age, or a complete desertification of the Earth, there will be some tribe somewhere who know how to deal with that shit and carry the species forward.

It happened before, during the last Ice Age. Those who knew how to manage, or who could quickly adapt, where the ones who made it and had families and kept them going. How many of us could have made it through that? That achievement alone makes the idea of “primitive” peoples seem totally ridiculous to me. “Primitive” people came up with language, story, math, astronomy, farming, hunting, tools, weapons, clothing, shelter, art, religion, fire…many could track lunar eclipses and the movement of planets and tides. They built shit we still can’t replicate with all our fancy machines.

The disappearance of indigenous folks, the destruction of their habitats, the loss of their knowledge and traditions and their still-vibrant connection to Nature, their ability to communicate with her…these traits are direly needed, now more than ever. And we are through greed and a reliance on “convenience” digging our own graves by allowing them to be cleansed off of land needed for natural resource extraction.

I’ve read several books along the lines of Wolff’s charming little memoir of his time amongst the Sng’oi. This is one of the best. Check it out.

And just by chance the Library Faeries dropped Foreign Gods, Inc into my lap at the same time I read Original Wisdom. Here we have proof of the challenge of moving back from Western, Modern, Scientific, Capitalist to Nature. The angel guards the gates to Eden with weapons forged against thee. A brilliant economist from Nigeria can’t land a job in NYC because of his thick accent, so he drives a cab. After a decade of that mess he’s had it, and hits upon a scheme to sell a deity from his home village to a gallery which specializes in foreign gods. The market is hot, Ngene is a cool war deity, it’s just a matter of bribing some customs dudes and bringing home the bacon! 

Not quite…

Let The Great World Spin

Life as high wire act: relationships a problem of tension, control, focus, flexibility in the face of variability. Is it possible to connect with another in a true and meaningful way? Or is life more a performance art, a continuous series of dramatic gestures, a dress rehearsal for an opening night which never arrives?

Extravagant acts of courage and strength pull us out of the mundane and banal of every day life. But is every day life really mundane or banal? Is not every step, every action, every breath an act of bravery? An extravagant gesture worth attention? Is not every interaction with another precious and thrumming with potential beauty?

A really good novel, this–for fans of DeLillo or Franzen or Toibin. Complex and meaty but not difficult. Lovely prose, interesting characters, a nice reconstruction of a sort of Indra’s Net of interrelated beings and situations. The characters are not always able to see the causes and effects and connections, wrapped up as they are in their own webs:

“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind. ” Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Struggling to get back into the discipline of daily blogging, BTW. Excuse the unfleshed-out jottings, but I must restart somewhere.

Books #14, #15, and #16 of 2013

Yeah, I’ve been reading a bit but not keeping up with blogging. The end of the school year is insane, even more insane than the beginning and middle of the school year. Forgive the lapse!

Black Dogs: A Novel is another finely crafted short meditation by Ian McEwan. Is there meaning in the Universe, or do things unfold merely in a giant net of cause and effect and random chance? The narrator of the novel grapples with these worldviews when confronted by his in-laws: mother-in-law has moved from a clinical rationalism to spiritualism and mysticism, while her husband maintains his scientific worldview. Their conflicting POVs move them to live separate lives in distant locales. While the narrator works on a memoir of his in-laws’ experience, several deeply symbolic and synchronistic events occur, and I will say nothing more lest I spoil the read. The best book of its sort I’ve read since Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy.

And speaking of moving from clinical rationalism to spiritualism and mysticism (or vice-versa), I had a blast reading Esoteric Christianity, Or The Lesser Mysteries by Annie Besant. I recall as a youngster confined in a sweltering pew for eternal Sunday mornings and Vacation Bible School classes wondering how the interesting parables and admonitions and poems and tales in Scripture could result in such befuddling, disgusting, hate-filled, confused, and outrageously dull church services. Besant believed like other esotericists that there is a surface church for the unenlightenable, and a true Church for the Initiate. Tolle, lege!

And as long as Ramsey Campbell keeps on churning out spooky stories and novels, I’ll keep reading them.
begins with a refreshing return to form for Campbell–it reads initially like The Doll Who Ate its Mother, or the stories from The Height of the Scream. Taut, sharp sentences, and concise impressionist descriptions. But alas it’s not sustained, and the excesses of Campbell’s later style–clunky misapprehensions between characters, labored punning, and awkward and obvious false trails frustrated what began with much promise. Had Ghosts Know been a 100-page novella it would have worked swimmingly. Go back into his catalog and check out The Face that Must Die instead of this one.

Book #13 of 2013

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality is Gary Lachman’s latest bio in a series of books about important figures in the Western Esoteric Tradition. And like its subject the book is by turns fascinating and frustrating.

At times it seems Lachman, whose books are almost always clearly organized and engaging, has bit off more than he can chew. There’s a lot of speculating and justifying, though he’s careful to make sure the reader knows when the evidence is scanty, or open to interpretation, or simply absent. Though HPB was a major public figure and an interesting thinker, her life and work were controversial–she had enemies, she had detractors, and not all of them were honest. There are fakers (and fakirs), plots, calumnies, exposures, publicity stunts, investigations, splinter groups and factions, political intrigues, etc. Lachman tries to pilot a course through multiple accounts and contrary motivations by key players to sort out what’s true…this drags down his narrative a bit, and makes for some clunky writing now and again.

But Blavatsky herself is so damnably interesting, so vital, and so important that the book is definitely worth a read, even though it’s occasionally a slog. Lachman does the best he can to sort out the myriad complexities of this figure, and though he has some obvious sympathies for her, he is fair and reasonable in his conclusions.

Book #12 of 2013

When Gore Vidal died a few months back I had to pause and allow that fact to sink in for a while. I devoted a huge chunk of my 20s to reading him, after all, and much of my knowledge of US history comes from his historical novels. I also loved his essays and admired his bitter exasperation with American empire and its two corporate parties pushing thinly disguised versions of the same agenda to two groups of befuddled and misled voters.

I decided I should re-read something following Vidal’s demise, and it took a while for me to chose Creation: A Novel. As much as I loved the US historical novels, I really enjoyed Creation and Julian the most–and these led to intense reading in ancient history and religion during my 30s.

So I just finished re-reading Creation. What prevents it being merely Vidal showing off his detailed knowledge of history is the fact that its narrator Cyrus Spitama is actually Gore Vidal thinly disguised. We get to be inside Cyrus’s (Gore’s) head as he meets and grapples with major historical figures like Confucius, Socrates, the Buddha, Master Li, Darius the Great, Xerxes the Great, Pericles, Thucydides, Aeschylus, and Democritus. Cyrus is the grandson of Zoroaster, raised in the harem of Darius, and a childhood friend of Xerxes. From these humble beginnings he ends up an ambassador for Persia to Cathay and India. As a result we get Gore Vidal’s snarky take on the workings of power in these regions, and on the beliefs and traditions of each culture. It’s great fun, and I think by the end of the year I’ll likely re-read more Vidal, perhaps Burr or Julian or Lincoln? Or maybe my fave, Live from Golgotha.

If you’ve never read Vidal’s historical novels, this is a great place to start. If you don’t like the narrator or presentation, you likely won’t enjoy any of them. Check it out.

Book #11 of 2013

Typically I prefer to know a novel well before seeing its film adaption. But occasionally it happens the other way round, and even more occasionally it’s a pleasant experience.

I’m a fan of the Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate, and finally got round to reading its precursor, The Club Dumas. I liked the book a lot, but it’s rather a different experience from the film. Polanski had a degree of fun with the text, removing the main conspiracy of the novel and concentrating almost entirely on an occult secondary plot. He also removed an important character and subsumed him into another name involved in the main conspiracy, changing his role completely. All of this makes perfect cinematic sense.

The Club Dumas is a bit complex, dabbling as it does in Umberto Eco-ish material: the occult, literary criticism, book collecting, antiquity forgeries, etc. I’ve never read Dumas in English or French, so I’m sure many Musketeer references soared over my head–but the narrator Boris Balkan is quite helpful at explicitly pointing them out as we go. The novel never feels cumbersome as some of Eco’s do; the characters are interesting and finely drawn, the action moves right along, there is humor and a bit of sex.

Books #9 and #10 of 2013

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews is everything you want in a non-fiction collection: it’s provocative, annoying, stimulating, dull, frustrating, interesting, and amusing by turn. I particularly like Dyer’s writing about photography and jazz–he’s no technician or expert in either field, but he’s more than just a fan, and he turned me on to some photographers I enjoyed browsing on Google Images (What would Walter Benjamin think about THAT?).

Less interesting were Dyer’s little memoirish pieces; he’s no Tony Judt. Meaning primarily that I never thought “Tony Judt is a dickhead” while I read his memoir essays–rather the contrary. I often, however, thought “Geoff Dyer is a dickhead” while reading his. But part of Dyer’s charm is being a dickhead–he’s managed to wrangle a pretty successful life out of abusing the dole and writing about stuff he doesn’t know shit about in a certain sense, but to which he’s paid attention and about which he’s thought carefully . On the strength of the novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Vintage) and this current volume, I will be reading more Geoff Dyer.

The Cement Garden
is another light-hearted and charming romp by Ian McEwan. Dad kicks off, followed shortly by Mom. Their four kids are left to fend for themselves in a castle-shaped house in some weird suburb being dismantled to make way for a highway. It’s kind of like a cross between John Hawkes’ The Blood Oranges and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle because it’s by equal measure disturbing, funny, and sexy. McEwan’s concerns here are the vague barriers between adulthood and childhood, and how very fragile we can be during that transition, especially without kindly predisposed elders to guide us.

Books #7 and #8 of 2013

Monster is a lot of fun. We read it in Humanities class with the guiding question “Do you wear a mask?” The students sympathize with Steve Harmon, and they cheer at the end of the book, but then I asked them “What is the difference between innocent and not guilty?” We had a very rich discussion before looking back in the text and finding sections which cast doubt on the protagonist’s claims on the stand. Myers created an engaging book which can be used to teach point of view, screenplay format, memoir, or as an enrichment for a zillion social studies topics.

The Comfort of Strangers gave me a sinking feeling and this feeling got more and more intense as the novel progressed. Creepy, claustrophobic, and deeply disturbing–The Comfort of Strangers showcases Mckewan’s taut, clinically precise prose. Brought to mind other creepy and beautifully crafted books like John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, or The Talented Mr. Ripley. The inevitable climax so disturbed me I could barely keep reading, but was at the same time compelled to finish–a deliciously intense literary experience.

Book #6 of 2013

I re-read Kindred to use in a reading group with advanced 8th graders. It’s a knock-out even the second time around. Could this be the most sophisticated novel about race relations in the United States? Is time travel the best way to demonstrate the enormous complexities of this history? I think Butler had an enormous heart to go along with her enormous intellect, and that both are on vigorous display in this delicious book. My old blog had a long post about Kindred but it got shut down by Blogger because someone hacked it and used it to send out Trojans. I’ll see if I can find and repost that old blurb.

Books #4 and #5 of 2013

Last week I stopped at the gas station on the corner of North and Madison just a couple blocks from my house. As I put my wallet in my coat and begin fueling I was hallooed by a tall light-skinned young gentleman with a genial air. It took me a moment to recognize The Gardener who was a student at Booker T. the year I did my student teaching. He was in the Language Arts class I co-taught with my mentor Luky. I’d seen him a couple times in the five years since he was my student-he sometimes walks past as I’m setting on the stoop on his way from Mondawmin Mall back to the projects. I recall him being the smart, sane, respectful, and often productive kid in a Wild West classroom. And if you think a Wild West classroom would be a site to behold I can only tell you that the halls at the Book were much worse, like San Pedro Sula bad, or Beirut in the early 80’s bad.

I didn’t recognize The Gardner because he cut his long blond/reddish dreads off. He was an uncannily attractive kid–like an Elf, with his vanilla skin tinged with the barest trace of mocha, his aqualine nose and narrow, chiseled Roman features extremely rare in West Baltimore. He’d softened a bit in the face and his great golden mane was gone, but he still had an incredible smile and sparkling hazel eyes, and he was as soft-spoken, congenial, and respectful as ever.

I will pause for a brief aside here: there is no better feeling as a teacher than to run into a former student who is genuinely warm and happy to see you. That is the case even if you see that student slinging at the projects just south of North on Eutaw.

“What you are up to?” I asked after the obligatory slanted handshake/man hug/back slap.

“Workin’, makin’ that money,” he said and smiled.

Though I knew, I asked anyhow. “Where you working?”

“Here, man, on the block. Shit you know.” He laughed. “I fucked up in 6th and 7th grade and I couldn’t apply to the good high schools. I went to Douglass and oh my God there was not much schoolin’ goin’ on up there! I got my GED though and it’s all good.”

Had The Gardner gone to a reasonably sane middle school he’d have had a chance to do whatever he wanted. Thinking of him asking questions and completing his worksheets in that ridiculous Warner Bros cartoon environment 5 years ago, thinking of how eager he was to succeed, and then seeing where he ended up after all his effort makes me want to puke.

So that brings me to The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, which tells the improbable story of two West Baltimore kids with two completely different destinies: one ends up in prison for life, the other a Rhodes Scholar. They both happen to share a name, which is the least significant thing they share, but at the same time a fact which draws one into the story because of the improbability of such a thing.

The luckier Wes More had just a bit more support and stability at just the right moments. The other Wes More’s support systems failed at crucial points in his journey. One escaped the ‘hood, the other didn’t–not because of a lack of intelligence or a lack of skill, but because of failures in his family and community which left him few options.

Wes More the scholar seeks out the other Wes More and engages him in several conversations which appear throughout the book. He also found and interviewed many of the important people in the other Wes More’s life, creating a biography to accompany his own autobiography point by point. It’s a good, quick read. And terribly sad.

I also greatly enjoyed Forge (Seeds of America). This is the first of Ms. Anderson’s novels for me, and I didn’t think of it as a young adult novel while reading it. Forge buzzes along on the strength of its fine central consciousness, its strong and enjoyable characters, and its action sequences. I could definitely use this in small reading groups, or as part of an academic Expedition around revolutionary-era America. Good stuff. I will eagerly look forward to reading more of Ms. Anderson’s series!