Saturday, July 28, 2018

My 10 Favorite Books -- So Far

Any Human Heart, William Boyd

“It's true: lives do drift apart for no obvious reason. We're all busy people,we can't spend our time simply trying to stay in touch. The test of a friendship is if it can weather these inevitable gaps.” 
-- Any Human Heart

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart.” 
-- Henry James, Louisa Pallant

The protagonist of this magnificent, highly-readable novel, Logan Mountstuart (1906-1991), is a writer, a spy, the manager of an art gallery, and a teacher. The story follows him through much of his checkered, fascinating, intense and ultimately meaningless life, a life like many of us live, only we're usually not spies, accomplished writers, friends of Ian Fleming, thrice married, veterans of years in solitary confinement, and so on. What I admire about Boyd is that he gives us the whole man, lets us get to know him, decide for ourselves, add up his life next to our own. For Boyd (as Robbe-Grillet said of film) his works are always a multi-coded space. It's up to us to break the code; he helps by making signals through the glass.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

“I think it's terrible the way people don't share things in this country. I think it's a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies.” 
― God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

True and funny. Funny and true. And heartbreaking, of course, 'cause it's Kurt Vonnegut through and through.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end."
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude

Seven generations of the Buendía family, creators and (conceptually) royal family of Macondo, a utopian city in Dreamland, South America traced from 1820 to 1920. It goes from high to far beneath and takes you with it because you cannot let go. Marquez never revealed how he pulled off this sustained dance of word-magic and we are better off not knowing. There are many books, and other things, you can skip in life. This is not one of them. Even most great writers could not match this tour de force.

Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan

“The bookstore was a parking lot for used graveyards. Thousands of graveyards were parked in rows like cars. Most of the books were out of print, and no one wanted to read them any more and the people who had read the books had died or forgotten about them, but through the organic process of music the books had become virgins again.” 
​-- ​Trout Fishing in America

​T​rout Fishing in America has no plot really, and its protagonist/narrator is never named. Some found this disconcerting when the book was first published, and still do. In my case, I was seduced, transported and became an evangelist for Brautigan's storytelling brilliance. And he was funny, very funny, Kurt Vonnegut funny (not sure if the two ever met; Google that for me, would you? I just did; They did not). We hear of the narrator's boyhood, his trout fishing experiences, some as a boy, and his adventures as a beatnik in San Francisco. He marries, procreates, but all along it is his voice and quirky sensibility that surrounds us, carries us along with him. We go willingly, of course. Brautigan was not hung up on chronology. Throughout this winding tale his values shine through -- love, nature, freedom, humor. Why, then, did he kill himself in 1984 with a rifle he borrowed from a bartender friend? Maybe because he could never get his life and his extraordinary narratives to quite merge.

Coming in to the Country, John McPhee

“In the society as a whole,” he writes “there is an elemental need for a frontier outlet, for a pioneer place to go. People are mentioning outer space as, in this respect, all we have left. All we have left is Alaska.”
-- Coming into the Country

Coming into the Country examines what Alaska was like in the 1970s using the clean, clear documentary style that McPhee excelled at; he was one of the best non-fiction stylists of his generation or any generation. This was the book that hooked me on McPhee and I went on to read everything he wrote -- he was dauntingly prolific -- until he couldn't shut up about geology, then I had to cut him loose. His portraits of people and landscape, and people in landscapes (Encounters with the Archdruid) stand as the finest written depictions of their kind to see publication. I learned so much from him about writing, and thinking -- ideas and approaches I have drawn on ever since he immersed me in the vast wilderness of The Country, the outer space of Alaska.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey

"Never before did I realize that mental illness could have the aspect of power, power. Think of it: perhaps the more insane a man is, the more powerful he could become. Hitler is an example. Fair makes the old brain reel, doesn't it?”
― One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I knew a lot of people who knew Kesey, as I come from Merry Prankster Land, California's San Francisco Peninsula. Vik Lovell, to whom Kesey dedicated the novel ( “To Vik Lovell who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs ...” ) was my psychotherapist when I was a teenager. I met Kesey just once, when I spent a night on his Springfield, Oregon farm, a half-century ago when I was a wandering 16 year old. We walked down to the pond together and fed his geese. "Now in Thailand," he told me, " or maybe it's Malaysia, what they do to sort out the toughest babies from the not so tough ones is they throw them up on a roof. The tough ones hang on, and the not so tough ones they catch as they tumble off. Pretty good system." He was a prankster through and through, pranking his young visitor who was in awe of him (I still am). Kesey, a psychedelic redneck, high school wrestling champion, a "bull goose loony" to use his Cuckoo's Nest hero's McMurphy's term, was also a bull goose novelist. He was a man of great love, charisma, artfulness, fun and good humor. In his sphere as a teen ( I knew many of the Merry Pranksters; my sister's boyfriend in the late '60s was Roy Sebern who painted the famously misspelled "Furthur" on the front destination panel of the polychrome bus) I found him fascinating and compelling. That his novels still hold up as literature is testament to his vast talent. In Cuckoo's Nest he wrote, “But he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.” That was Kesey, talking about McMurphy and talking about himself.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing

“My sense of urgency is very simple,' said the professor, 'I've remembered that much. It's because what I have to remember has to do with time running out. And that's what anxiety is, in a lot of people. They know they have to do something, they should be doing something else, not just living hand-to-mouth, putting paint on their faces and decorating their caves and playing nasty tricks on their rivals. No. They have to do something else before they die— and so the mental hospitals are full and the chemists flourishing.” 
― Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

From the time I was 8 until I was 30, my mother regularly tried to kill herself. Consequently, she spent many months in mental hospitals, was heavily dosed with antipsychotics, such as Thorazine, and antidepressants, such as Elavil. She had many series of electroshock treatments; I recall going to visit her once when her dark brunette hair had turned completely grey in a week. Madness has fascinated me from an early age. I've written about it, researched it, lived it and read about it. I had a Jungian therapist who once who told me that my motivation for the many LSD trips I took was to stay close to my mother even when she vanished into psychosis. "The LSD experience is a model psychosis, you know," the therapist told me. "You were doing everything you could to stay close to her emotionally and intellectually, maybe even spiritually. I think you learned a thing or two about the outer limits of inner space." "Yeah," I replied. Lessing's novel centers on a man experiencing a nervous breakdown. She takes you there. He's lost at sea, he believes. His hospital keepers say he is delirious. That may or may not be true, certainly he is adrift and Lessing allows us to swim out to him. One of the dangers of trying to save a swimmer in trouble is that you may drown yourself. You don't when you read Briefing for a Descent into Hell. But you come damn close.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion

"I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were."
-- Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is perhaps the definitive Didion book and the one that introduced me, and many others, to her razor sharp prose -- matched only by her razor sharp thoughts and ideas. A trenchant essayist and social observer, she, maybe better than any other writer of her era, limned how the counterculture was just as shallow as its nemesis, the Establishment; just as indifferent, self-centered, given to casual relationships, and flimsy rationales. “My only advantage as a reporter," she once wrote, "is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” She shared this trait of apparent harmlessness with Oriana Fallaci, who completely took apart Henry Kissinger in an interview and he didn't even realize it at the time; he was too busy trying to charm her (later he'd call granting Fallaci the interview the most the most disastrous decision of his career). Didion also took apart, dissected, people, places and situations, cultures and counter cultures. She did it with grace, insight and emotional penetration. And her writing matched her observational skills. She knew she had a gift, and she had the energy and skill to capitalize on it.

River of Shadows: 
Eadweard Muybridge 
and the Technological Wild West, 
Rebecca Solnit

"His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time — the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom."
-- River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Here, in River of Shadows, we have a writer whose poetic, elegant style is perfectly matched to her subject. As Brainpickings termed it: "The Annihilation of Space and Time: Rebecca Solnit on How Muybridge Froze the Flow of Existence, Shaped Visual Culture, and Changed Our Consciousness." Muybridge, an out of round genius if there ever was one, did experiments that prefigured motion pictures. By setting up a battery of still cameras with trip wires, he was able to prove that a race horse had all four feet off the ground at once -- and win Leland Stanford a bet. Later he used sequential photos to make "movies" of dancers, runners, and all manner of living creatures as part of his motion studies. The great impact that technology was then having on society was the compression and manipulation of time and space. The railroad, for example, compressed time. Suddenly a weeks long journey could shrink to hours. We are still feeling the impact, good and bad, of this single innovation. Muybridge, Solnit tells us, "In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California... also became a father, a murderer [he killed his wife's lover], and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects." But his greatest achievement was the capturing of time, the anticipation of motion pictures. Radically, irreversibly, the world was changing and Muybridge got it. Solnit explains it like so, “What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.” And now that we are here, what shall we do? If Solnit can't answer that question, her book does an astonishingly good job of explaining how we got here.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it.” 
-- Americanah

This novel will bite you and bite you hard, if you've got a soul, a lick of morality, of empathy, if you have experienced racism or know some who has or even just heard about it. Or if you've ever been in love. It's a story of race, love and immigration. The protagonist, a young Nigerian woman named Ifemelu, is living in Princeton New Jersey. Following a breakup with her boyfriend, she moves back to her home, Nigeria. Through the lens of Ifemelu, we first see her new life in America, her love, her work and struggles. Then we experience her return. But the subject is race, race and race. Adichie writes (in Ifemelu's voice), “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.” Racism is as old as America and it's clearly not going away. This is as good an examination of why, how to cope, and the role(s) that love plays as has ever been put on paper. Required reading for anyone with a brain...and a heart.

Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, 
Douglas Cruickshank

Yes, this one's by me. Published in 2013, named Photography Book of the Year in 2014, and I still have a few for sale -- at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! You gotta get one, drop me a line for details --

Here is what a few critics had to say about it:

"Somehow is decidedly not arty. It has a friendly sprawl, comes on much like a let's-take-a-beer visit with a man who not only knows how to set the visuals, but also can, in a paragraph or two, reveal the singularity of the countryside about him. He lets his pictures do the walking, lets them carry us over the hills and into the vistas and down in the valleys into the heart of the Kyarumba. Since Cruickshank is a friendly old sot, he's apparently willing to talk to anyone and set it down here ... the taxi-drivers, the hotel people, the villagers, the kids, the women washing their clothes outside, carrying things on their heads, the families who gather for the weddings, the people who invite him to dinner, the Bukonzos who can't get enough of staring at this big pale gringo with the camera around his neck. -- RALPH; full review here:

"[A] big, remarkable book... the opposite of so many Africa books I’ve seen, wry and weird and moving and startling, in ways I’d never associated with that kind of book before." -- The Rumpus; Read the entire article:

"He's a superb photographer and an equally evocative writer, with well defined wit and wisdom... I’ve viewed and read enough fine coffee table books to rank this one among the very best. My take away after viewing Uganda through Cruickshank’s lens is the distinct feeling now that I’ve been there, too. Peace Corps Worldwide; Read the entire article:

"I was transported by this book. Partly it was the strength of the writing. It is often laugh-out-loud funny — and believe me when I tell you it takes a lot to make me laugh out loud at something I read. It is also intelligent, affectionate, wry, perceptive, occasionally poignant and often beautiful...
-- The Chicago Tribune; Read the entire article:

"Although Cruickshank had traveled all over the world for pleasure and as a travel writer, he had never been to Africa let alone Uganda and barely knew anything about it except what he calls tragedy porn. "I didn't know anymore about it than what most Americans know and here's what most Americans know — gorillas, Idi Amin, ebola. And now it's the anti-gay law," says Cruickshank, who helped grow a coffee cooperative of mostly women-owned farms in Kyarumba, a village in the Rwenzori Mountains, from August 2009 to April 2012. Everything we know about Africa is wrong, he says. "All you get is the rapes, the murders, the wars. But what goes on most of the time is nothing — people getting their kids ready for school, they're getting some coffee or tea, they're working in the garden, they're fixing a roof. Their life is not a big tragedy and they don't see themselves as victims," he says. The Marin Independent Journal; Read the entire article:

Buy a copy of Somehow: Living on Uganda Time at a discount, shipping in the USA paid! Drop me a line for details --

The Entire List:
​1. Any Human Heart, William Boyd
2. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut
3. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
4. Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan
5. Coming in to the Country, John McPhee
6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
7. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing
8. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
9. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Rebecca Solnit
10.​ Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

10-1/2. Somehow: Living on Uganda Time, Douglas Cruickshank

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