Thursday, August 04, 2011

What I'm Reading This Summer

First off, I've been reading a lot of pamphlets and information packets relating to medical issues. There's even an illustrated booklet describing the surgery I've had, and the next planned surgery, too, co-written by my surgeon. There's lots of forms and papers and guidesheets to various issues pre- and post-operative, and more than one pamphlet on dietary needs and restrictions. Not to mention the exciting "how to" books about the ostomy appliances. These were all real page-turners.

But if that's not exciting enough, there are other things to read, recently acquired. I'll get to some of those in a minute.

First, though, I need to remind myself that I was completely out of commission for almost a month. I didn't go anywhere for weeks, and the truck didn't even get out of the garage for about three weeks. The engine turned over just fine when I finally got around to starting it, and this week I got the front brakes fixed, which had been waiting to be done since before my first date with the scalpel. Since then, I'm still catching up with life. I've spent a little bit of money on books and CDs since I got going again. I spent a fair bit before the surgery, too, laying in DVD movies to watch and books to read while recuperating. I didn't actually get to all of those I'd picked up, usually at random and mostly used at thrift stores for very cheap, but the pile is still there to be gone through. I didn't acquire ephemera, during that pre-surgery stocking-up period, I bought things I knew I'd want to watch, with pleasure, and re-read and re-watch again later.

I was thinking about doing what "What I'm Reading Now" post anyway, earlier today. Then I ran across some online literary friends' thoughts on the same thing, which pushed me over the edge. I've had a difficult night sleeping tonight, so it's the middle of the night now, after I did sleep for awhile, with vivid dreams, and I'm waiting until the pain pill kicks in and I can get through the rest of the night's sleep with better comfort. The idea was to post very short lists of what we've enjoyed reading lately, particularly for summer reading. Some other online poet friends have joined in with their lists, so since I was going to write about what I've been reading anyway, I thought to myself, why not?

Border's, the large bookstore chain, is going out of business. I have very mixed feelings about this. When I lived in Ann Arbor, I was a regular at the original Border's Book Store, the original store before it was ever a national chain. It was a haven for lovers of books. I discovered many treasures there, and they also would order anything you wanted. They were at the time an independent bookstore, the like of which is fading into the past, now. Then they became a chain, but they were still good, and I shopped there often. Now, with their going out of business sales, I've gone down to the closest store and spent a significant amount of money, acquiring rarities that I will treasure for a long time, divided more or less equally among books, CDs, and DVDs. One thing I always liked about Border's is that they were willing to stock music concert DVDs, a particular pleasure of mine, including some rare and unusual ones I never saw anywhere else. In recent years, for example, I picked up a couple of documentaries about Glenn Gould, a German film featuring an historical John Cage concert, and much more.

I've also been having luck at the local Goodwill thrift stores, after not having been to any of them in over a month. That's enough time for stock to turn over, and new things to appear. I found some real treasures earlier this week.

So here's a short list, as recommended, consisting of summer reading: 2 non-fiction books that we have enjoyed; 2 new fiction also enjoyed; and 2 old favorites we've recently re-read. To that list I'll add 2 poetry books also recently enjoyed, as part of this summer's post-surgery reading feast.


I read a lot of non-fiction. I've usually got several books going at once, dipping in and out of them on different days, when particular topics catch my attention. Sometimes I will become absorbed by a particular book, and finish it that day, ignoring everything else. This list is a very brief and very incomplete overview of what I've been dipping into this summer, both before and after the surgery.

Allan J. Hamilton, MD: The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with surgery, the supernatural, and the healing power of hope. Most surgeons, indeed most doctors, are trained to be highly materialistic, treating the body almost as a malfunctioning machine. There has been change, however, in my lifetime, towards a more holistic, multi-factored, and empathetic practice of medicine. The return of family practice is one sign of this trend. And surgeons like Dr. Hamilton are another. He is one of those who is willing to explore alternative medicine, both as a complement to allopathic medicine and on its own terms. There are stories in his book, all based on his surgical practice, of miracles of healing, and also miracles of spirit. He knows the difference between "healing" and "curing," the latter being the removal of disease, the former being the healing of the soul regardless of whether death is evaded or not. This is wise material. I was very impressed with book, and often surprised. As a patient myself, as the son of a doctor who has been around medicine and hospitals his whole life, I cannot say it better than Dr. Hamilton says here, near the end of one chapter: One of the great secrets of medicine is that, as a physician, you have unparalleled entry into the lives of others. Every patient is an existential conduit to seeing your own struggles. Each patient brings you one step closer to seeing the truth about yourself. I read part of The Scalpel and the Soul before I went for surgery; I will continue reading it through this summer, before my next surgery, and probably again after. It helps a lot.

Scott Herring: Another Country: Queer anti-urbanism. One very important truth about living gay in the United States was crystallized for me by several arguments I got into with other, very urbanized, ghetto-living gay men, soon after the movie Brokeback Mountain came out. I found myself confronted again and again with the truth that one of the most significant rifts in queer culture was not, as often postulated, between gay men and lesbians (and trannies, etc.), but between those who assumed that if you were LGBT you must move to one of the big city gay ghettos and live urban, and those who had chosen to stay in small towns, in rural areas, and make their lives there. As a gay man who has lived in big cities with major urban gay cultures, including San Francisco, but has always enjoyed living in small rural towns outside the big cities, as i do now in Wisconsin, the publication of this book has been a validation, an affirmation, and a blessing. Scott Herring has presented us with a very well-written, readable, and also seriously academic-theoretical book that is one of the best discussions of what lesbina cartoonist Alison Bechdel (who features in a long chapter in the book) "the complicated intersection between topography and destiny." This is a book about queer regionalism. It makes the point that not everybody who is queer wants to or likes living in the big city; nor do all of us like the bar scene, or the urban anonymous cruising scenes, or any of the other big-city scenes that have become the clichés of gay life in media presentations ranging from movies, books, and popular music, which are all assumed to be the pinnacles of gay life. The metropolitan lifestyle has been almost exclusively the focus of queer scholars and queer studies, to the point where it becomes an assumption that is never questioned. But Herring questions and deconstructs such assumptions, presenting several alternatives as they have been developed by individuals and groups outside the gay cultural mainstream. The Radical Faeries are mentioned, a decentralized group of misfits of misfits within gay male culture, which I am affiliated with. So are the rural lesbian communes of Albion, CA, in Mendocino County, which I have visited and enjoyed. The history of queer publications, both rural and urban, is compared and contrasted. And a whole lot more. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in alternatives to the urban gay lifestyle and subculture, who is looking for something different, or just plain likes country living. This book, one of only a few in its positional genre, is a revelation.

Victor L. Wooten: The Music Lesson: A spiritual search for growth through music. You probably know this author's name, if you know the music scene at all, as one of the greatest bass players currently living. He has his own band, he frequently plays duos with fellow bassist Steve Bailey, and he's with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones. Victor is also a genuinely nice person. His book falls into that small genre of memorable writing that you're never quite sure is either memoir or fiction, an absolutely true story or a fantasy made up of true elements. This book's closest relatives are books such as Richard Bach's Illusions: The adventures of a reluctant messiah, or Dan Millman's Way of the Peaceful Warrior. This is that kind of book. It gets at the difference between being able to play all the right notes, and being able to make Music. That's a distinction I've always made for myself, as a player and composer; I will never be the best player on the planet in terms of technique, but I can play a wide range of instruments, and when I play them I make music. Victor's book not only validates this attitude, he shows how great technical playing really can also be part of making Music—but the attitude has to come first. I have just started this book, but I already find it true and inspirational.


I don't read much mainstream literary fiction anymore; mostly it's not very good or interesting these days, despite all its pretensions. One of the worst of those pretensions is that mainstream literary fiction places itself above "genre fiction" in terms of writing quality, interest, and relevance to ordinary readers—none of which placements are defensible on the evidence—while denigrating "genre fiction" as basically pulp fiction, all the while ignoring that "realistic narrative mainstream literary fiction" is itself a genre. This attitude is promoted by the guardian gate-keepers of literary artistry, those literary critics who promote prose fiction as great art, usually with an agenda. But for the general reader, a pleasurable rather than critical ideology is more important; and on that criteria, genre fiction is at least as good in terms of writing quality as anything in the post-modernist literary mainstream, and often far more readable.

Jack Vance: The Demon Princes omnibus. Not exactly space opera, not exactly a novel of revenge, not exactly a baroque fiction, not exactly an adventure of discovery, not exactly a 19th C. bildungsroman, not exactly a 20th C. science fantasy escapade—but at the same time, all of these. Vance's style, well known in SF as inclined towards the Baroque, is in fact highly readable and very straightforward, even when it seems its most non-linear. Consisting of five novels originally published between 1964 and 1981, this five-part adventure is also a deeply moral fiction, not only in terms of its plot and its characterizations of future good and evil, but also in novelist and critic John Gardner's sense: a novel of adventure that is also a novel of ideas, with a moral compass that the reader leaves having learned from, beyond the plot itself. Vance was well-known as a great literary stylist, both within SF and in everything else he wrote. His stories were always inventive and colorful beyond the norm, truly a literature of ideas. Reading through these five novels has been great fun, and a reminder all over again that a good space opera can also be just a good story, period.

Patricia A. McKillip: The Bards of Bone Plain. Though this fantasy novel repeats some of the themes that the author is known for, notably the bardic harper on a quest for self-knowledge, which involves some very ancient magic and some very ordinary love—one of the things that attracts me to her fantasy novels, to be honest, of which I have most—in this shorter novel she takes everything to a new level. The key elements of this fantasy, around which all the action orbits, are poetry and music. These are the threads that run all through the story, that are woven into both cause and effect. The characters drive the plot, as it should be, with both good and bad choices having consequences. The culminating scene, in which many mysteries are revealed, was spine-tingling and unpredictable. Some things end conclusively, some threads move on without being tied up—very much like real life. In sum, these is indeed very realistic fiction, very true to life and experience, very natural in execution, with characters both believable and likable, with individual temperaments and quirks. This combination of modernistic realism and ancient magic is McKillip's unique trademark as an author; it's what makes her stand out as feeling very realistic a writer, even as her stories are wound with fantastic elements. If McKillip were not relegated as an author to "genre fiction," she would be a continuous best-seller along the lines of "mainstream" authors who dabble in speculative fiction without being labeled as "genre" writers.

By the way, Patricia McKillip could just as easily go onto my "re-read list," as some of her novels I have read multiple times, each time getting more out of them.

Gene Wolfe: Storeys from the Old Hotel. This collection of short stories and metafictions, experiments, dreams, and more traditional fantasy tales, underlines many critics' opinions that Wolfe is one of the greatest living stylists we have, whether or not you consider any labels for his writing. Like Ursula K. LeGuin, he is one of a handful of "fantasy" authors who has been published in The New Yorker magazine, a publication notoriously picky about what it prints. Wolfe has been called a literary giant, not only in science fiction, but in general, and this collection of stories showcases his talents very well. Contents range from single-page metafictions, including the title story, to longer fantasies, and even a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. I first read Wolfe back in the 1970s, and his writing then was like nothing else SF had to offer: clearly literary in the best sense, and rich in texture and deep in resonance. I can still remember the images evoked in my mind by such early works as "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and other stories." Wolfe has continued to be on the literary leading edge, no matter what genre you try to place him in. I'm still reading this collection, savoring each piece as I go. I'm taking my time and enjoying each piece on its own, as I'd recommend any reader do, as well.

Old Favorites Re-read:

Raymond Chandler, Trouble Is My Business. The short stories and novellas featuring Chandler's great character Philip Marlowe. I re-read Chandler periodically, both the novels and the collections, enjoying them anew every time. Even though I have this paperback edition, I found a fresh copy of it at a thrift store just before surgery, in nearly-new condition, for almost nothing. So I took that as a hint, and enjoyed re-reading Chandler again.

C.J. Cherryh, omnibus edition of the Chanur saga: The Pride of Chanur, Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back, Chanur's Homecoming. Four novels set in a particular future history that Cherryh has set several of her novels in, but what makes these unique and different is that humans are the aliens, newly-discovered, and barely comprehended. This is one of the most successful series in SF history for the story being told from an alien viewpoint, with a richly-detailed alien psychology and cultural context. Not only the hani, the lead viewpoint characters, but four or five other alien cultures, all interacting in trade and politics. It's also one of the most suspenseful space operas I've ever read, making you want to go back and re-read it again and again. I've re-read the entire series three times this summer, particularly right after the surgery, when I wanted something comfortable and familiar to read when my mind was still fogged with drugs, and I was tired all the time. I even took this omnibus edition along to my hospital room; I didn't read much of it there, but it was like having an old friend along for comfort's sake.


William Everson: Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a literary region. Published in 1976, this remains an important study of Pacific Coast literature, including historical writing, prose, fiction, and poetry. Everson was a poet, printer, once a monk, and a student and friend of some of the most famous names in California literature, not least among them Robinson Jeffers, who Everson championed for many years after Jeffers lost popularity with the fickle masses. Everson's thesis is that the coastal West creates its own literary style, and presents convincing arguments. It is quintessentially American writing, the end of the frontier West where it runs into the ocean, and encounters Asia. it is writing that treats nature as a living character, as a dominant feature of literature, not as a mere backdrop for human-centered dramas. Everson draws on many examples, and considers many famous West Coast writers in this study. I'm going to have to read it at least twice before I can absorb it all, but it will be worth it. Everson validates in this study what I've long believed to be true, which is also supported by many other writers of the West, from Jeffers to Gary Snyder, and many others.

Patricia Donegan: Haiku Mind: 108 poems to cultivate awareness and open your heart. A haiku-based self-help book? Why not. Actually, despite that caveat, this is a pretty good read. The author is an experienced haiku student and writer, and a long-time Buddhist meditation leader, so the credentials are in place. The book is divided into 108 chapters, each a meditation on the theme of the haiku cited at each chapter's beginning. The haiku themselves are a mix of classical and brand new, written by writers from Japan, America, and elsewhere. Some are well known classical masters (Basho, Issa), others their modern heirs. It's an interesting idea for a haiku book, and it works rather well; although, it's not really a book about poetry, but a book about life and healing and transcendence that uses poetry as its touchstone. So don't expect any poetry criticism here, but do expect some genuine wisdom.

Music: What I've Been Listening to This Summer

I also want to mention some CDs that I've been enjoying this summer. I've been on a lucky streak at the thrift stores, finding CDs both new to me, and filling in the gaps in my album collection with some old favorites that I've never owned before, but are classic albums of various kinds. I've been on a, well, not exactly nostalgia kick, but call it a historical review. Great albums from the past I've been picking up here and there to fill in gaps in my music library.

Simon and Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water

Dave Brubeck: a special five-CD edition of all the original "Time" series albums, boxed as a set, with the CD slipcases reproducing the original liner notes and cover art. I'd already acquired the special edition of Time Out, but I'd been looking for Time Further Out for some time now (ahem), and this filled in that gap. The set also includes: Countdown: Time in Outer Space; Time Changes; Time In.

Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen: Poetry for the Beat Generation. A classic with Kerouac reading his poems accompanied by Allen's piano and jazz stylings. This is one of those great albums that anyone interested in mid-20th C. poetry and music needs to hear at least once in their lives.

Igor Stravinsky: Miniature Masterpieces. A large compilation of several short orchestral and chamber pieces, many of them only rarely recorded or performed. The "Dumbarton Oaks" chamber concerto is here, probably the best-known work on this album, but so are the two Suites for Small Orchestra. Even rarer still are the wonderful "Circus Polka" and my personal favorite among Stravinsky's rarely-performed short works for large orchestra: the "Greeting Prelude," which is his arrangement of "Happy Birthday," a very witty and wry orchestral setting of the familiar song.

Various Artists: the original musical soundtrack for 2001: a space odyssey. I wore out two copies of this on vinyl, back in the 1970s. It was my first exposure, as a budding teen proto-composer, as I'm sure it was to many other listeners, of the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, whose dramatic and abstract works figure prominently in the film. Also included of course is a full performance of Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube," which still in mind evokes those spacecraft and space stations dancing gracefully in Earth orbit. This CD gives us all the music exactly as it was used in the film; in many ways, the long passages in the film in which the only sound is music prefigure my ongoing interest in non-verbal cinema, of which 2001: a space odyssey can be seen as a precursor of the entire genre.

Antonio Vivaldi: Cello Concertos, Vol. 4 as performed by cellist Ofra Harnoy. I've been listening to a lot of classical music again this year, and Vivaldi and Telemann have both been prominent in my listening. This CD was a revelation, giving me the chance to experience several beautiful concerti I hadn't really heard before. My favorite here is the Concerto in E-Flat, RV 408, which contains a middle-movement adagio of sublime beauty. It's a lovely cantabile, full of deep ardor and high emotion, which I find both soothing and mournful to listen to.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I was reading a bit yesterday about Vivaldi. It seems that he had something of an affinity with instrument with a low register particularly the bassoon (but also the cello). I’d never realised that. Over the years I’ve listened to more Vivaldi than is probably good for me – Christ, he was prolific – but the problem I find with him, as with Telemann, is that a whole CD is really too much to appreciate the stuff because I never sit down and listen to a single concerto, I’ll listen to a dozen or more and apart from those that get labelled as The Four Seasons I couldn’t identify any by name or number.

My wife got me into Brubeck – I bought her Time Out and Time Further Out for some birthday or Christmas. It’s pleasant enough music but it never grabbed me like Duke Ellington did when I was young. My knowledge of jazz is sadly lacking I’m afraid but that’s the problem of having such a broad taste in music, you miss out on as much as you sample. I know what I like but I’m often shaky on who exactly I like but I do veer towards the more traditional forms. I don’t think I’m quite as conservative as Larkin was but I do like a tune that doesn’t morph out of all recognition.

Ligeti I’ve listened to quite a bit of – I have a whole choral album that I quite like – but he’s someone I have to work at. Stravinsky too actually if you exclude the ballets although I do have a fondness for his Piano Concerto which I first heard when I was in my early teens (or probably younger) on an LP twinned with Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto. He’s like Britten, a composer I tend to forget about.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Russian music of late. Rachmaninov was one of my early loves and I’ve never really fallen out of love with Russian music. Mieczysław Weinberg has been a recent discovery. According to one reviewer (according to Wikipedia) he’s ranked as, "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich." Other than that I jump all over the place as the mood takes me. Over the last couple of days I’ve rediscovered the Bliss Violin Concerto and listened to it three or four times. It’s a fairly traditional concerto, of its time, but for some reason it’s been growing on me. I’m generally fond of concertos and I could give you a long list of Violin Concertos alone that I love. Glass’s Violin Concerto No.1 is probably my all-time favourite though probably followed by Khachaturian and Barber. I have a copy of Ligeti’s but it’s not opened itself up to me yet. Other than that it’s been mainly film music although I did have a Harold Budd afternoon yesterday because I had a headache.

It’s been a while since I listened to the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. I pretty much sickened myself of Strauss as a kid and so I find I can’t enjoy The Blue Danube as much as I once did. The same goes for Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and a ton of Tchaikovsky. That’s the problem when you only own a handful of LPs and relied on the local record library for fresh blood once a fortnight. I’ve only listened to the whole of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra once. That opening is impossible to follow and I remember being bitterly disappointed. I should try it again now I’m older and . . . I don’t know, whatever comes with being old.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I found Larkin's extreme—there's no other word for it—conservatism regarding jazz to be shocking and offputting. His vitriol regarding anything in jazz remotely avant-garde or post-bebop does not reflect well on him. I have his book of essays and reviews "Required Writing," and while some of those essays on literary matters are quite interesting, I find his jazz criticism unreadable because it's so wrongheaded and completely, willfully misses the point. His stance on jazz goes beyond stating matters of personal taste and crosses the line into prescriptive determinism, which frankly casts a shadow on his other work that is sometimes hard for me to get past. It's not that he's unable to comprehend the more modern styles of jazz, it's that he chooses to condemn them without giving them a fair listen.
He's actively hateful at times, and I saw no reason for him to be so.

The rest of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" has its genuine moments, but it's true one has to listen to it and get past its association with the film. As an overall tone poem, it's not as instantly memorable as some others by Richard Strauss, but it still works for me as a coherent piece.

3:30 AM  

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