Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Few Memorable Books

In the spirit of self-assessment and annual overview one nearly drowns in this time of year, I have put together a very casual, incomplete, and idiosyncratic list of books that I've read over the past year, which I enjoyed, which linger in memory, and which in one or two cases I have already re-read. This won't be another list of best books.

(A small disclaimer: People who know me already know that I am a very fast reader, and retain most of what I read. It's my secret superpower, if you will, and I exercised it a lot this past year, when illness forced me to spend more time in a chair than I was able to spend out hiking or camping or traveling. It's not an exaggeration to say that this year, I estimate I read some tens of thousands of pages with no special effort. I'm not even sure I can discuss everything I read here, without droning on and on for far too long. So this will be incomplete.)

I can give little higher praise to a book than that it lingers in memory and is worth re-reading. My shortlist of favorite books of all time would consist of those I've re-read numerous times, always re-enjoying them, in many cases always finding something new in them. The complete works of Raymond Chandler fall into this category; I re-read Chandler every few years.

This year I re-read large amounts of Virginia Woolf, including the short stories surrounding Mrs. Dalloway, some of the essays, and one of my two favorites of her novels, To the Lighthouse. The part of this novel that is so resonant for me is its close look at the lives of artists, the choices artists must make, the price they pay sometimes for being an artist instead of a "respectable member of society." This is my own dilemma, and it speaks to me in this novel directly, as I'm sure it has for many other artists.

This past year I also re-read Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land, in the complete, uncut edition. When Heinlein originally wrote this novel, the publishers insisted he cut it by about a third, for length, and probably also a bit for content. After the author died, his wife rediscovered the original uncut manuscript, and it was published in uncut form for the first time. The general consensus between Mrs. Heinlein, the publishers, many readers, and myself, is that the uncut version is a much, much better novel. It reads like a charm, smoothly and effortlessly, and the added details and scenes make the experience a much richer, much more immersive reading experience. I had originally read this a few years ago, when it first came out, but my copy of the novel was lost in a move, along with some other books I've missed. I finally found another copy of the uncut Stranger this past autumn, and enjoyed reading it all over again.

During the summer, I also re-read large portions of Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings. Not the entire saga this time, I just skipped around and read some favorite sections. This time through, I focused mostly on the chapters featuring the non-Hobbit characters, mostly Aragorn and Gandalf.

My science fiction "discovery" for the past year—an author new to me, who I hadn't read before, although he's had quite a career so far—was UK author Peter F. Hamilton. I am thoroughly engrossed in his Void Trilogy, having devoured The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void, and eagerly awaiting my chance to read the concluding book in the trilogy. I also went back and read the Commonwealth duology that came before the Void Trilogy, of which the Void books are set later on in the same universe. These two novels are Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. The latter novel was particularly thrilling, building to a climax of both action and concept that really soars. Hamilton is writing modern space operas, full of imaginative technology, culture, and characters that move with varying degrees of success through their milieu. I like science fiction sagas in which the concepts are mindblowing, which really make you think, and in which even the human characters can seem quite alien at times—such fiction makes you think, it stretches your thinking outside the usual boxes, and at its best it creates in you that "sense of wonder" which is hallmark of great fiction of all eras, be it speculative fiction or otherwise. Hamilton's Commonwealth series of novels, which I mention here, succeed on all those fronts.

There seems to be a contemporary revival of cosmically-vast and wide-ranging space opera going on right now, coming especially from the UK. Alastair Reynolds is another author, like Hamilton, who has been writing really amazing stories. One aspect I find fascinating about this current wave of space operas is that the scientific speculation contained in the novels is cutting-edge, exploring the implications of current theoretical physics, nanotechnology, biological discoveries, and so forth, to create a sense of wonder I haven't experienced in SF on this expanding cosmic scale for quite a few years. I like this trend because these novels think big, as in cosmically big. Since I trained as a geologist, I got used to thinking, as geologists do, in two kinds of time: everyday time, and deep time, or geologic time, in which the mind must take in literally millions of years. When I read a contemporary SF novel that makes me think in deep time, across thousand or more years of human cultural and technological evolution, it's quite a treat.

William Gibson: Spook Country. Gibson doesn't write trilogies, but he does tend to write books in groups of threes, each novel individual but set in the same basic conceptual universe, and often with secondary characters appearing in the related group of novels. Spook Country is the second in the current group of three; the first was Pattern Recognition, which I read in the previous year, and which I thought was Gibson's most compelling and absorbing novel since his Neuromancer. The third book in the current set of three is Zero History, which I look forward to reading soon. Like Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition rewrote all the rules. This current set of three novels are all linked by being set in the very near future, exploring artistic trends on the bleeding edge of artistic technology, and examining the world as it has come to be since 9/11 when the Twin Towers were brought down. Many of the characters in this set of novels were directly, personally affected by 9/11. Gibson isn't writing SF of the distant future, he is turning his extrapolator's eye on the present, and showing us ourselves in a clarifying mirror. Pattern Recognition, in one or two of its climatic scenes, actually made me put the book down and weep a little. I cared that much, I was that deeply affected. Spook Country didn't affect me quite as deeply, but its thinking about culture and cutting-edge art was, if anything, more resonant, more lingering. Some of the ideas about art in this novel are so far ahead of the groove that they fall into Björk or Bill Laswell territory—two musicians who are always ten years ahead of everybody else. It makes for fascinating speculation about where technology and art meet and converge, and how new media generates new art, in a feedback loop of mutual discovery.

Jim Harrison: Letters to Yesenin. This is one of the great book-length poems of the latter half of the 20th C. I originally first read these poems in an earlier collection of the poet's work, Selected & New Poems, 1961-1981/ More accurately, I read through the Letters back then, but not that carefully, and they didn't leave that strong an impression on me. In 2007, Copper Canyon Press republished Letters to Yesenin as a separate paperback again, along with the newer poems "Postscript" and "Return to Yesenin." This is the edition I acquired and read twice this year. The second time, I sat down and read it all the way through. I have already written about how this book has inspired and influenced my own series of poems begun this past summer. I love the language and tone of these poems, which are basically prose-poems. They wander, they include a great deal of the everyday. They're not exactly lyric poems, they're not really elegies. If you read the entire book at one sitting, it reads almost like a mid-length narrative poem, with page after page accumulating to add depth to story and feeling alike. These poems were written at a time in Harrison's life that was hardscrabble, living poor on a dirt farm in northern Michigan, during which depression and suicide were never far away. This context is part of the poems' resonance, and it's also why they speak to me, in my own extremis this year, brought on by illness-caused nearness to dying. This edition of Harrison's Letters is also a clean, elegant book design, making for a whole experience of reading that comes highly recommended by me.

Sofia Cheviakoff, editor and co-author: Minimalism: Minimalist (2008). This is a thick overview of the minimalist style in fashion, design, architecture, and interior design, including a history of the style, and also some of its related history in fine art. If I had my life to do over again, if I were 20 years old right now, I would seriously consider studying architecture. I love design, and I love architecture. I would apply to Taliesen, the school of Prairie architecture founded by Frank Lloyd Wright; which is one of my favorite styles. But minimalism as a style also speaks to me very strongly. Ando Tadao is another favorite architect. I also love the work of Santiago Calatreva. I have visited Marfa, TX, the small town that became a center of minimalist art under the direction of sculptor Donald Judd. I would like to visit there again, and spend more time in silence with the art. This book, which is an overview, is also a bit of a manifesto, in that it explains a lot of the ideas behind minimalism. It took me a long time to read, as I savored it, and only took in a few pages at a time. Each section is dominated by photos with captions, with the occasional commentary by the people involved. It's quite thorough, and quite international, and quite compelling.

Two books new to me from Federico Garcia Lorca, one of my favorite poets. One is a newer translation of Poet in New York, by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman (2008). This is a luminous new translation of these incredible poems, en face with the Spanish originals. There is also an illuminating Introduction and Notes. This is probably the third or fourth different translation of Poet In New York that I own. It is a set of poems that moves me deeply every time I read it, because of the intensity and emotion. These were also the poems in which Lorca first began to be open about his homosexuality in his poetry; the "Ode to Walt Whitman" is one of the great poems of the 20th C., and I have read it many times, and responded to it, as a poet, in a poem or two of my own. My best response is often to write a poem, rather than a book review.

The second Lorca book is A Season in Granada: Uncollected poems and prose, trans. and ed. by Christopher Maurer, who is one of Lorca's most important translators. Many of these were poems and other texts I'd never seen before, so you might imagine my excitement. (This year I also acquired Maurer's Collected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, in the revised bilingual edition which also contains these poems.) This was an exciting couple of new reads, and almost-re-reads, that I am still going back to savor. Lorca means a great deal to me, on several levels.

Oliver de la Paz: Furious Lullaby (2007). I discovered this book of poems by accident, picked it up and enjoyed skimming it in the store, and found it to be one of the most exciting poetry discoveries I've made lately. I've written a review of this book of poems, so I won't repeat that here. But this book also inspired me to write several aubades this summer, as part of the new series of poems. So it influenced me, and inspired me, and re-reading it I still find amazing and powerful turns of phrase on almost every page. Truly de la Paz writes with his language on fire, writing eros in the complete sense of life-force and passion and engagement.

At this point I find myself wanting to include everything I read in the past year, somewhat obsessively prowling my shelves to remember. And then stopping myself, knowing full well I'm going to leave most things out. The best I can do is sample a few memorable reads here, that I would recommend to other readers. So you have to be selective. I mean, why do we read anyway? Not just for pleasure? Not just for edification. Not just for the purposes of engaging with the literary world. (The latter reason least of all, to be honest.) Not just because we're interested in everything, and have the long habit of reading everything in sight. All of these are true. I choose not to sort between them for which might be most important, or least. So I'll just dip in and sample some more.

Two books by and about the late, great Kenneth Rexroth, poet, translator, poetic champion, host of salons and readings, one of the reasons there ever was a San Francisco Renaissance in poetry. I found two different books at, believe it or not, thrift stores, the past summer, one by Rexroth, one a festschrift. The latter is The Ark 14: For Rexroth (1980) a book-periodical edited by Geoffery Gardner, a hefty 400-page hardcover. The first half is writings "On Rexroth," consisting of critical essays, discussions, memoirs, assessments; the second half of the book is "For Rexroth," mostly poems dedicated to and/or inspired by the poet. In the center is a small chapbook of a Rexroth poem accompanied by Morris Graves illustrations. It's quite a diverse anthology, with familiar and less familiar names comingling. I found this to be a valuable and useful read, opening some doors to aspects of Rexroth's poetry I hadn't encountered before; it deepened my appreciation both of his own achievements, and the impact he has had on 20th C. poetry in general. Rare and out of print, good luck finding yourself a copy; I got lucky, myself, in stumbling across this one.

The book by Rexroth is his book-length overview and essay, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (1971). This is mostly a history, and a useful one, putting into sequence who influenced who, what little magazines were important to poetry in each period, and creating a narrative of 20th C. that any general reader would find helpful. Rexroth was ever the cheerleader for poetry, and there are many names he recommends that one goes and reads here, some of whom I intend to seek out since they were new to me. When Rexroth pauses to make a commentary or an assessment of a poet, or movement, or period, I find his writing extremely convincing. Most of the time I was pleasantly surprised to find myself agreeing with his assessments, as in many cases they were what I already thought for myself but hadn't yet articulated. He points out exactly what's right and what's problematic with the strain of inherited Surrealism in American poetry. Rexroth's assessment of Yvor Winters, to pick only one example, struck me as dead on target, both as poet and as teacher, and clarified many things in my own mind about Winters, whose poetry I have often liked but whose opinions on poetry, and poetry teaching, have often struck as incredibly, astoundingly wrongheaded. This was a very useful overview for me; again, though, it's long out of print, and you might have to go find it in a university library to read it for yourself.

Speaking of poetry teaching, I also read this past year the third, posthumous collection of writings about poetry and teaching from William Stafford: Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further views on the writer's vocation (1998). The book itself is a hodgepodge, mostly uncollected and previously unpublished articles, lectures, interviews, and poetry, all associated with writing as a craft and a way of life. Long associated with the Iowa Poetry Workshop, with writing workshops in general, and also known as a poetic heir of Theodore Roethke, Stafford is still controversial in some quarters, although almost always respected and admired. What I like about Stafford is his quiet insistence that the best reason to write is because you want to, rather than to impress the masses or achieve some kind of award-winning standard. There is a lot to criticize about poetry workshops and the poems that come out of them, and I among others have been critical, but Stafford manages to make it all seem effortless and inviting. He also addresses the role of critique and criticism (they're not the same thing at all) in teaching writing, and I think argues well for the supremacy of writing as a way of discovering the self, finding out what sort of person is writing the poem, rather than the emphasis (often presented in workshops and MFAs) on craft that teaches you how to write to get published. Stafford is actually critical of many habits of teaching in poetry workshops. I found this book quite refreshing.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: American Vertigo: Traveling America in the footsteps of Tocqueville (2006). Explicitly calling on the spirit of de Tocqueville as his guide, Lévy herein tours around the USA, meeting people, making interviews and observations. He particularly examines American patriotism, religiosity, and the return of ideology in its relationship to "the tyranny of the majority." I found this a fascinating read, as it's an outsider's viewpoint, but also a lover's viewpoint. The comparisons between American and European culture are very interesting. One recurring theme examined here is Neoconservatism and its political and social fallout, about which Lévy can be scathing in his questions. A very revealing look at ourselves, and a very valid heir to de Tocqueville's original study of American democracy. I know some people who will hate this book, which is a good recommendation in itself.

Brenda Wineapple: White Heat: The friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2008). This was very informative and interesting. I learned a bit about Emily, and her family and close friends, but I really learned a great deal about Wentworth Higginson, who was not only Emily's friend but her first editor and publisher. Some of her current fame must be given credit directly to his efforts to publish, and publicize, her poems. Even though he quite admittedly didn't really understand them, or her. (I wish contemporary poetry editors had such faith in the work, even beyond their own understanding; a lot more non-boring poetry might have a chance at seeing the light of day.) The history here is fascinating, but one of the best aspects of this book is how personal it gets; the excerpts from the correspondence are luminous and fascinating. There is a lot in here. I will probably re-read this book in the near future, and respond to it all over again.

I've been hearing a groundswell of reappraisal about poet Jack Spicer in the past year or two. This is partly because a major Collected Poems was published in 2009. It's also because of renewed discussions about how Spicer's being gay affected his art. Spicer is highly regarded as part of the San Francisco poetry renaissance in the 1950s and 60s, and he spent most of his life in the SF region. The book I found at a used book store, and paid a bit dearly for, is an old Collected, not the new one: The Collected Books of Jack Spicer (Black Sparrow Press, 1975), edited and with a long essay by Robin Blaser. This is long out of print; you might know Black Sparrow as the publisher of several West Coast poets, some of them not highly regarded by the critical elite but all of them quite popular (ranging from Wanda Coleman to Charles Bukowski and Diane Wakowski among others) among readers. Blaser was Spicer's friend and executor, whom Spicer gave his manuscripts to even before his death; I like this book in part because it is well-edited by Blaser, and because Blaser's own essay and commentaries are superb. I still can't account for Spicer, or why he is so often claimed as a poetic ancestor nowadays; in part this is because he is so revered by contemporary schools of poetry for whom I have little interest or respect (LangPo, the post-avant, et a;.). So I was challenged by Spicer's poetry; and Blaser's commentary helped me a great deal. But I don't think I read this book successfully. I will probably have to read it again, awhile later, to get more out of it. I want to understand why Spicer is so important to so many people; and I'm not there yet.

By contrast, the last book I'm going to mention here (I can hear the sighs of relief) is about a poet and a poem to whom I have always felt connected, personally and politically. The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" fifty years later (2006), edited by Jason Shinder, who was an assistant to the poet. Of course we're talking about Allen Ginsberg and his poem "Howl." I have argued elsewhere that "Howl" along with Jack Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness novel On the Road were the two mid-century works of writing that both reflected and galvanized the zeitgeist. Fiftieth anniversaries of both works have been prevalent in the past decade. (Although my favorite Kerouac novel is The Dharma Bums, which I think might be a better book.) This book is a festschrift, a long meditation by many writers on why the poem is so important, and why it was important to them. Even Ginsberg's memories are included here, but the most interesting essays are those that tell us why the poem changed the writer's life. If you want to get a sense of how poetry can blow your mind, and excite you, and change your life, this collection is a good place to start. Poetry here is not a cerebral, safe, unoffensive thing: many contributors to this collection talk about the Dionysian aspects of poetry. There's history here, about the poem, the poet, but also about poetry in general. I very much enjoyed reading this book, and have written about it earlier. I mention it again here because I think it's so worthwhile a book to read, and quite a bit of fun.

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