Author's Note:

The Long Habit of Living is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Friday, January 12, 2018

My Books of 2017.

My book list of 2017.  It was a quick year for reading, and I'm sorry to say I only read half the amount of what I read in 2016.  We'll have to do something about that.

The Pistol by James Jones.  This was a strange, quirky, at times irritating novel about a soldier who is a cross between an idiot and an obsessive.  Kirkus Reviews said:   “…one small area of the early days of war [WWII], the hardships without actual or imminent danger, the frustrations and yearnings of men...just ordinary men -- etched with sharp perception and understanding. Jones has proved that he doesn't need the false props of salacious depravity to give substance to his characterizations.”  I’m not so sure.

Mannequin by J. Robert Janes.  (A St.-Cyr and Kohler Mystery).  My books for fun reading lately have been mysteries, usually unusual.  This is part of Janes’ World War Two topography, a time that I’m deeply entrenched with.

Foreign Studies by Shusaku Endo.  Three stories linked taking us to post-World War Two Paris from the perspective of a young Japanese student.

To A Mountain In Tibet by Colin Thubron is a wonderful memoir about the author’s journey to Mount Kailas (southwest Tibet).  This is a mind-filler to be sure.

Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson.  Nonfiction.  I really liked this book, I became engulfed in the Trojan War as if I were an archeologist, reporter, librarian, myth-intimated man of the 21st century.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book; there is much quirky ridiculousness but it’s handled. 

Kinds of Love by May Sarton.  She does not kid around with her relationships.  We’re in a small New Hampshire town, back in 1970.  I liked being taken back there, finding an Iris Murdoch sensibility in the cold U.S.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble.  I love Margaret Drabble, and this is another book that I can add to my flag-waving arch of triumph for her.  It’s not for everyone.

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us by James Carroll.  This memoir was a bit thin.  Although Kirkus says “fresh retelling…about a son’s struggles with his father and his God,” it wasn’t a book to stay up late for. 

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  Memoir.  At times fascinating, at times lugubrious in its sentimentality over the death of her father and her hyper-self-consciousness.  There are a lot of anecdotes concerning the behavior of hawks and the unintelligible need for people to hood them and teach them how to hunt vis-à-vis showmanship.  Macdonald did, however, turn my lights on for T.H. White. (You remember him; The Sword in the Stone, The Once and Future King, The Book of Merlyn, etc..)

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.  This novel began with a curious eccentricity that I thought would level out, but by the time I finished this book I was so angry at such a waste of my life.  This is a pointless book.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.  This is a challenging book. It gives you a tense uncomfortable binding in your stomach and frown on your face over what people do in the face of and shrinking from passion.  Kirkus says it will remind you of Ian McEwan novels.  Maybe.

T.H. White - A biography, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a sad and sometimes brutal life.  Such a successful writer going at light speed without benefit of love. Born in India died in Greece. An interesting man. He was a strong influence on J.K. Rowling and Michael Moorcock and Ed McBain.

The Hothouse by Wolfgang Koeppen takes us to postwar Germany, early 1950s, late 1940s, with the guilt and love/hate fibers of that defeated culture showing through every character.  More bleak than Le Carre but without Le Carre’s charm and brilliance.

Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac.  This is nonfiction; it is exciting at times as well as amusing; there is love, sex, danger pitting your skills against Nazis occupying Paris and the French countryside.

Ballplayer by Chipper Jones by one of my sports heroes.  I enjoyed Chipper’s self-deprecation and his all-too-often true blue stock being sometimes swept away by appetite.

Stonemouth by Iain Banks.  Contemporary, hilarious, gritty novel says Kirkus.  Yes, it is.  Problematic you-can-never-go-home-again story that, once put down, I couldn’t wait to return to it.

Brief Lives by Anita Brookner is another novel by someone whose work I cannot get enough of; cliché, I know, but her “…portrait of a woman adrift in a comfortless world, where the hourglass never stops running” says it for me.

The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis is a gothic romance published in 1796.  Lots of scandalous behavior among nuns, princes, ladies, monks, abbots, etc.; not lurid, don’t get me wrong.

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano is his sixth novel, and won him the Goncourt Prize.  It’s about a detective who lost his memory a decade earlier.  I thought it was convoluted and confusing.

 King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild.  One of the most extraordinary books I read in a long time, certainly one of the three most impressive of last year.  The sheer horror of white men’s cruelty to other races is and has always been monstrous, but in this book, the atrocities committed by and in the name of the King of Belgium for money and prestige, including American entrepreneurs (another way of saying “sadists”) was like a super-cancer invading an otherwise innocuous body, pulverizing everything in its wake.  You will never forget what you’ve read between the covers of this book.

The Catcher Was a Spy:  The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, by Nicholas Dawidoff, is a strange biography of a strange man.  You get baseball’s Moe Berg working with intelligence agencies during the War, and then afterward, his lonely aimless life.  Moe Berg is a fascinating psychological study, I don’t know what of, but fascinating nevertheless.

The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk was a disappointing post-Nobel Prize work by one of my living heroes.  Well written, captivating prose, but it is certainly a minor work.  And I hate myself for saying that.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty is a delightful book, my first read of Ron McLarty and I can’t wait for more.  I was reminded of the first time I read St. Burl’s Obituary by Daniel Akst, a great book I must say. (Not that the stories are the same, but the sensibilities are.)

A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre was not what I expected.  A rehash and retelling of the Spy Who Came In From the Cold under the microscope of 21st Century British (could be anybody) stupidity.  Point taken, but not a very good novel.

1356 by Bernard Cornwell is a grand book.  It is bloody, amusing, brilliant history and should benefit the Medieval enthusiast certainly, but what a miniseries it would make.   This is a very good book.

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin, early murder mystery work introducing his Fandorin hero.  I have a fondness for Czarist Russia, imported from my devotion to Dostoievsky and Tolsoy.  I’m hooked.

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  I loved this second book almost as much as I loved the first one of the trilogy (Shadow of the Wind).  I’m drawn to the darkness in Zafon’s novels as much as I am to the scholarship.  The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, I love it.  Los libros olvidados.   Naturally I’m chomping at the bit for the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven.

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford.  First one I enjoyed very much, but Pigeon Pie is not as much a satire as her other work, though it tries to be.  Outset of the Second World War crushed Mitford’s family.  The twists and champagne-blurred characters lost me.

David Crockett: The Lion of the West by Michael Wallis is an interesting book about a remarkable man, but the narrative was informational so often, as if I were reading the index cards. 

An April Afternoon by Philip Wylie is beautifully written.  I understand why he was so controversial.  (This book premiered in 1938.)

 The Man Who Liked To Look at Himself by K.C. Constantine.  Constantine is a new compulsion for me, like I need another one.  Small Pennsylvania town, chief of police is the protagonist, strange and colorful characters, and murder.  I’m looking forward to lining his books up like a flotilla.

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanche Tribe by S.C. Gwynne.  This book is insightful, full of American history, and the wretched acts of incarceration, slavery, and genocide that the white settlers and U.S. government perpetrated upon the indigenous native populations of the American wilderness.  Early history of Texas is prominent, certainly nothing to be proud of in any sense.  A waste of lives and a destruction of resources, that’s us.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Repose comes easy in a gloomy place, a story should be a story, and other words of comfort.

In anticipation of my Year of Books 2017 list, I thought I'd share some pieces of brilliance from writers who have made a dent in my thick skull and about whom I don't write or speak about as often as I should.

"At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height," Hermann Hesse asserted in contemplating the three styles of reading, "we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading."

A little something from Irwin Shaw:

Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort and started walking toward Washington Square. The sun was warm, even though it was November, and everything looked like Sunday morning--the buses, and the well-dressed people walking slowly in couples and the quiet buildings with the windows closed.
Michael held Frances' arm tightly as they walked downtown in the sunlight. They walked lightly, almost smiling, because they had slept late and had a good breakfast and it was Sunday. Michael unbuttoned his coat and let it flap around him in the mild wind. They walked, without saying anything, among the young and pleasant-looking people who somehow seem to make up most of the population of that section of New York City.
"Look out," Frances said, as they crossed Eighth Street. "You'll break your neck."
Michael laughed and Frances laughed with him.
"She's not so pretty, anyway," Frances said. "Anyway, not pretty enough to take a chance breaking your neck looking at her."
--from The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, 1939

Isaac Bashevis Singer, when asked if Arthur Conan Doyle influenced him in any way, replied:

"Well, I don't think that the stories of Sherlock Holmes had any real influence on me. But I will say one thing, from my childhood I have always loved tension in a story. I liked that a story should be a story. That there should be a beginning and an end, and there should be some feeling of what will happen at the end. And to this rule I keep today. I think that storytelling has become in this age almost a forgotten art. But I try my best not to suffer from this kind of amnesia. To me a story is still a story where the reader listens and wants to know what happens. If the reader knows everything from the very beginning, even if the description is good, I think the story is not a story.
--from The Paris Review, Fall 1968

I love this from John Cheever:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night." You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the
tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.
"I drank too much," said Donald Westerhazy.
"We all drank too much," said Lucinda Merrill.
"It must have been the wine," said Helen Westerhazy. "I drank too much of that claret."
This was at the edge of the Westerhazys pool. The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green. It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand
of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance from the bow of an approaching ship that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack.
The sun was hot. Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.
--from The Swimmer, 1964

A classic from Joseph Mitchell:

To a devoted McSorley customer, most other New York City saloons are tense and disquieting. It is possible to relax in McSorley's. For one thing, it is dark and gloomy, and repose comes easy in a gloomy place. Also, the barely audible heartbeat-like ticking of the old clocks is soothing. Also, there is a thick, musty smell that acts as a balm to jerky nerves; it is really a rich compound of the smells of pine sawdust, tap drippings, pipe tobacco, coal smoke, and onions. A Bellevue intern once remarked that for some mental states the smell in McSorley's would be a lot more beneficial than psychoanalysis or sedative pills or prayer.
--from McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, 1943

From The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis:

The full moon, ranging through a blue and cloudless sky, shed upon the trees a trembling lustre, and the waters of the fountains sparkled in the silver beam; a gentle breeze breathed the fragrance of orange-blossoms along the alleys, and the nightingale poured forth her melodious murmur from the shelter of an artificial wilderness.*

Doting upon his wife, and believing that a look of pity bestowed upon another was a theft from what he owed to her, he drove Matilda from his presence; he forbade her ever again appearing before him.**

One of literature's guardian angels, Margaret Drabble, has this to say about John Cowper Powys:
"The realm of John Cowper Powys is dangerous. The reader may wander for years in this parallel universe, entrapped and bewitched, and never reach its end. There is always another book to discover, another work to reread. Like Tolkien, Powys has invented another country, densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien's, but it is as compelling, and it has more air."***

* - "the artificial wilderness" is what jazzes me completely.
** - Thievery by a look, what was owed to someone.
*** - It's why I love Margaret Drabble. She said this in 2006, published in The Guardian.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Archangel - a poem instead of an observation.

[I thought a poem would do better than an observation.]

 The Archangel
 (for Joseph Centrone)

I'd known you thirteen years when I arrived
in Brooklyn, to work beside you in the plant.
You had by then become a Legend; and
the word Friend had become titanic, mythic.

More often than I can count I begged the power
of that friendship, when I should have played the employee;
played the employee when I should have been a friend.

Priorities become muddled
     when roles become simultaneous.

That is not to say I lacked in loyalty,
the heart of friendship; it is a mirror
of my own interior monologue and I
never stop talking to myself.

Pronouncements flew between us in battles
of who was right, as delivered editorials
went the way of gossip.

How eager to cry fault and corruption, how eager to commit
     each to memory, or to dust.

In the corner by the lobster crates
under seaweed and beneath Norwegian salmon,
waiting mouths were open.  I found a tag
that read: "Armondo's Brooklyn, before one o'clock."

Your words, crammed from a corner of your life,
fumbling; a mundane shove by then had caught you up;
by then indifference was metal pushed, humor garroted.

I still jump to visions, you toting the fishhook, wielding artistic threats, promises to disrespectful galley men,
while riding on a forklift, like Teddy Roosevelt,
at two o'clock in the morning.

I feel like an ice age has passed,
and my quiet form and shaking hands
remind me of existence.  Now
a fixed bridge stands between comfort 
and the mistake I call the world.

There was a time when my every move,
my every satisfaction had about it
wrong gestations of motive, and prizes
kept their value by their unattainability.

There was a time when simple nods
and handshakes brought us closer,
saw us moving closer; directions
that hope managed like a dowager.

Advice on romance and crises,
solutions taken half in recompense
for fear that if they were true
it would ring of culpability.

Like a mad muse was frailty, subterfuge secretly protected what should be left in silence.
Should I have left it silent, like
the part my conscience never played?

Yet held within the grip 
that some good natures keep are
found moments of cynical serenity.
I can hear them now:

At least yours died for sins.  I killed mine
     for lesser things.

 --Mark Zipoli, 2017

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Catamaran Literary Reader publishes "Final People"

"The homeless waif who appears in Mark Zipoli's touching short story Final People lives a life less promising and more Dickensian."  So says the latest issue of the Catamaran Literary Reader, published today and available for your reading pleasure.  
Here's an excerpt:
"She’s like the rain in Los Angeles, he thought, as he stood before his office window and stared out through the venetian blinds. He was watching the measured steps of a blonde 16-year-old girl walking up Gower Street.

 Like the occurrence of rain in L.A., she was measured: The moments of her loss of control were scarce, few, never sure to be expected, unlike so many of her young homeless friends, whose tempers and spirits carried them exposed, vulnerable, angry from one street to the next. Today, as the winter sunlight collapsed over her head and lay upon the parked cars and bone-dry asphalt, she bore the burden of being used to things."

It's only $14.95 and you can buy it directly from their site. 
Click here.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What echoes down the river like a broken secret?

What is it with me and travel writers?  Writers like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Ian Frazier, Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron; perhaps I shouldn't refer to them as "travel" writers per se, because, in point of fact, they are the poets who didn't sit still, who haven't, can't, won't. They are writers of place; and place, like any philosophy, has its value in a person's internal cosmogony, the book of ourselves.

Each of these writers has made me feel sentimental for times and locations to which I've never been; they use language in a way that sets a wreath around some beautiful, holy artifact that I suspected existed but didn't know how to describe.

(Clockwise from top left- Pico Iyer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Colin
Thubron, Jan Morris, Ian Frazier, Freya Stark, Barry Lopez)

 They bring out emotions and psychologies that are as comfortable on the page as they are in the author's mind, as they might have been in the air, the river, the sunlight that he or she digested and found meaning in as a prelude to setting it to record.

I have been of late thrilled by To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron's 2011 book.  His prose, like the things he sees, is often "elegiac" (in the words of Sara Wheeler), lyrical, reflective to the point of profound sadness.

To a Mountain in Tibet is Thubron's story of his grueling trek through Nepal and southwestern Tibet. His pilgrimage is to the most sacred of the world's mountains, Mount Kailas, also known as Mount Meru.  It is bordered by the Himalayas and patrolled by the Chinese Army.  It stands high on the Tibetan Plateau, once part of the Tethys Sea, that now vanished 150-million-year old body of water that flourished before the supercontinents, groaning in their evolution, collided, split apart, and collided again.

And so I give you selections from To a Mountain in Tibet---

"We are through the village almost without knowing.  Granite boulders overshadow dwellings frailer than they: cottages of dry-stone walls and bleached timbers sunk among the igneous rocks.  They look half deserted, mellow and pastoral above their fields, so that as we go on high above the river, past rice paddies and a little shrine to Shiva, I imagine this a valley of Arcadian quiet."

"When the sherpa cries back, 'Mount Kailas!' the name echoes down the river like a broken secret.  The farmer does not hear it.  It is the noise of somewhere imagined or hopelessly far away."

"But the God of Death dwells on the mountain.  Nothing is total, nothing permanent--not even he.  All is flux.  In the oceans around Kailas-Meru, beyond a ring of iron mountains, countless embodiments of Meru, each identical to the last, multiply and repeat themselves, dying and resurrecting into eternity."

"...You cannot walk out your grief."

After an extensive reflection on the deaths in succession his mother, his father, and his sister (in reverse order)....

"It is already evening.  Our feet grate over the stones.  You cannot walk out your grief, I know, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back.  You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are.  So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth's surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage."

Such an odd place for the sad reckoning of the past, memories of his father's excursions in India as a soldier of the British Empire before the Second World War.  Fascinating reading, I'm telling you.

Talking of his parents' love letters that came into his possession, as the only one left of his family....  "I tie them with new rubber bands--the old ones have corroded over the envelopes--and stack them away, I do not know for what.  This, I suppose, is how once-private things endure: not by intention, but because their extinction is unbearable.  So I dither between keeping and destroying--both seem like betrayal--and I store the letters, in all their devotion, their longing and sometimes loneliness, until another time."

"...because their extinction is unbearable."

"Sometimes the darkened world and wasted years seem only a tunnel to the dream light of reunion.  But their mutual danger went on haunting them.  During the Blitz, my mother had driven trucks in the the London docks.  Then my father begins to mention the Russian advance,...."

But, back in Tibet...

"...misting away through gullies dense with deciduous forest.  The water sounds below like smothered talking.  Files of solitary pines patrol the hilltops above.  And the last horizon to which the river points--far away under high cirrus cloud--seals the sky in a glistening, snow-lit wall to which we are unimaginably going.  ...the horse is laden with rope-lashed tents and ground-sheets and blackened kitchen ware, and we are moving into the dawn.  This is the hour of elation.  You fancy you are walking into a pristine land."

"You go as if dreaming. Rock pigeons are flitting between cliff crevices below, and the sun climbs warm behind you.  The terrain looks thin-covered, yet wherever the valley sides ease out of sheer rock, tremendous trees take hold.  First and hundred-foot blue pines bank up with cypress and poplar in precipitous tiers, and weeping spruces thrust along the middle slopes.  Soon we are among them, ascending in their shadow.  As we toil up close to 10,000 feet, the heights that circle round us darken, crows croak from the pine tops and we are tramping among powder-grey boulders."

"...this is the hour of elation."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What I read in 2016

What I read in 2016.

Friends, following is my reading list for 2016. Numbers after the entries refer to the sources of the quotation.  

Submission by Michel Houllebecq. I'm a big fan of Houllebecq.  He gets four stars from me.  "...imagines a situation in which a Muslim party upholding traditionalist and patriarchal values is able to win the 2022 presidential election in France, with the support of France's Socialist Party."(1) 

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst.  "...Cristián Ferrar is a Spanish émigré living in Paris. And unlike a lot of Mr. Furst’s other leading men, he is an influential person in his own right. He works for a powerful international law firm, and at the start of the book, the firm is deluged with the business of Spanish clients whose problems can no longer be solved by the legal process. With the Spanish Civil War now in its 17th month (mid-December 1937), people and corporations are cut off from their money, and records of ownership no longer exist. “We regret your misfortune, Monsieur, but the oil tanker has apparently vanished.”"(2)  As readers of my blog might already know, Furst, is one of my favorites.  pre-war and during WW2 is cataclysmic interest to me.

John Le Carre  The Biography by Adam Sisman.  le Carre is one of my literary heroes and I loved this book.  “Written with exclusive access to David Cornwell himself, to his private archive and to the most important people in his life...and featuring a wealth of previously unseen photographic material, Sisman's insightful and constantly revealing biography brings in from the cold a man whose own life has been as complex and confounding and filled with treachery as any of his novels."(17)

The Death of Achilles by Boris Akunin.  It is Moscow, 1882.  Akunin's version (Czarist Russia's version) of Sherlock Holmes "returns from Japan with his manservant Masa, he enters the service of Moscow governor Prince Dolgorukoi. Later that day, the White General Mikhail Sobolev, nicknamed the Russian Achilles and an old friend of Fandorin's, is found dead in the same hotel. Officially, he died of a heart attack, but Fandorin becomes suspicious when he talks with the body guards of the general."  And so the game is afoot. This is an excellent read and mystery readers, which I am not one of, would love Akunin.

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner.  As usual, I can't get enough of Anita Brookner, "...the origins, nature, and consequences of human isolation...played out in the lives of two bright but troubled sisters, Miriam and Beatrice. ...narrative deftly shuttles back and forth over several decades, tracing the sisters' conflicted yearnings for love and independence."(3)

Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe.  "...the built environment imitating nature, as a steel train bridge forms a “canopy” over a canal. ...the urban is replaced by the rural, and the narrator is “walking along under a canopied row of cherry trees so heavily overgrown that hardly any light fell on the road”. Forests and floods rise up. This is a novel about a drowning in a river a long time ago, and about overwhelming waves of memory in old age. It is also explicitly about the late style of a Nobel-winning writer."(4)  Three stars.

Men and Brethren by James Gould Cozzens.  "...The Reverend Ernest Cudlipp, almost 45, urbane and intelligent, is vicar of a prominent 5th Avenue church in New York. Men and Brethren follows him through a singularly eventful summer weekend, his dealings with parishioners and friends, his professional and personal relationships. His solutions to the problems he confronts are characteristically forthright, often unorthodox, a product of the struggle between his beliefs and his experience."(5) This is very funny, at times, but  mostly sentimental, in a good way.  I'm a fan of Cozzens, and am still on my journey with him.

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. “...sets out to rediscover his adopted country ...he follows a straight line from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath and shows us every pub, stone village, and human foible along the way... with vivid detail and laugh-out-loud humor. Irreverent, endearing, and always hilarious."(18) Bill Bryson cracks me up.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris “...separated into two parts...consists of essays about Sedaris’s life before his move to Normandy, France, ...his time working odd jobs in New York City, and a visit to New York from a childhood friend. The second section tells of Sedaris’s move to Normandy with his partner Hugh...drawing humor from his efforts to live in France without speaking the French language and his frustrated attempts to learn it."  Sedaris, Bryson, I mean really, you will hurt in the gut from laughter.

The Doris Lessing Reader.  "...from the workings of the mind and heart of the workings of the cosmos....  [Here] we are given the best possible way to encounter this extraordinary writer across the great range of her work.  ...a wide and deep representation of the work of this unique writer who continues to surprise us - and convince us - with the ever-increasing power of her imagination and her intelligence."(6)  As you may well know I love Doris Lessing.

A Friend from England by Anita Brookner.  Yes, again.  "...the narrator is part-owner of a Notting Hill bookshop and a reader of Stendhal; Rachel unusual in feeling a strong attraction towards people for whom comfort is more important than culture. In her case, the soothing solidity of the bourgeois is embodied in the mutually devoted [family] Livingstones and their unnervingly contented daughter Heather."(7)

Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark.  "Art history student Robert Leaver has fled from his Venice to study the Santa Maria Formosa. ...he meets up with his new love Lina, a Social-realist artist and Bulgarian defector [who] is searching for the grave of her father Victor, suspected of being involved in the poisoning of King Boris and who was killed by Bulgarian Royalists. [Leaver's lover] follows Robert to Venice and warns him that Lina is being followed by the Bulgarian secret service. Robert also meets his father Arnold a retired headmaster, ...on holiday with his mistress." And we're off. (1)
Love In a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar by Colm Toibin “...collection of essays...devoted to individual artists [who] 'helped me to come to terms with things - with my own interest in secret, erotic energy, my pure admiration for figures who, unlike myself, weren’t afraid, my abiding fascination with sadness  and, indeed, tragedy.”(1)

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.  “...argues that many 20th and 21st-century discoveries of neuroscience are actually re-discoveries of insights made earlier by various artists, including Stein, Whitman, Cézanne, Stravinsky, and Proust.”(1)  A fascinating and well-written book.

Robinson by Muriel Spark.  "Three passengers survive from the plane that crashed on Robinson's eponymous island: January Marlow, a youngish widow, Tom Wells, an unpleasant salesman/charlatan specializing in lucky charms, and Jimmie Waterford, a Dutchman despite his name. [There's a] boy Miguel who is the son of one of the pomegranate planters who worked on the island before Robinson purchased it, and now cared for by Robinson. At first life is idyllic."(8) This is a great read, and even though you might figure out what's what, it's still good examination of human behavior, which of course, continues to ASTOUND us.

A Shooting Star by Wallace Stegner.  "Sabrina Castro, rich, tantalizing rather than beautiful, at the end of her tether in a marriage that holds seemingly no love and little affection. In a slow spiral of disintegration she goes down through various stages of infidelity and dissipation, always battling with her own New England conscience and her agonized need to be wanted and loved. The story is set against the isolation of great wealth in the Peninsula section below San Francisco...and against Sabrina's vacuity of heritage and background is highlighted the content and satisfaction of a childhood friend, serene in her middle-class suburban home." (3)

On the Move by Oliver Sacks is “ impassioned, tender, and joyous memoir ...with unbridled honesty and humor [showing] us that the same energy that drives his physical passions also drives his cerebral passions. He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists Thom Gunn, A.R. Luria, W.H. Auden, Francis Crick.”(19).  Sacks's books are the best.  I love Oliver Sacks.  

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.  "...narrated by The Continental Op, a frequent character in Hammett's fiction, much of which is drawn from his own experiences as an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  The labor dispute in the novel was inspired by Butte's Anaconda Road Massacre. André Gide called the book "a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror."(1)

Public Image by Muriel Spark.  "...set in Rome and concerns Annabel Christopher, an up-and-coming film actress. [who] carefully cultivates her image to keep her career on course, managing to mask her lack of talent. But she reckons without her husband Frederick's loathing of his wife's manipulations and inexplicable success for which he plans his final revenge."(1)

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson. "...a lean, gaunt narrative rich with implication about a 12-year-old boy who witnesses the anguish of his sheriff father, who is forced to arrest his own brother for rape."(3) This is a wonderful book.  Please, if you value your reading life, read this.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.  "A fictional treatment of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and his long history of humiliation and persecution under Soviet rule."(3)

American Boy by Larry Watson. "A literary tale chronicling the painful struggle required of a boy to birth himself as a man."(3) Another excellent book.

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett .  "...features Ned Beaumont, ...tubercular, a his creator....not a detective, but a political fixer for a construction magnate. The toughest of Hammett's heroes, he is the ten-minute egg of the genre. This quality springs partly from his lack of "luck," a Depression-era belief that the novel probes, and partly from his defense of his minimal idealism from political corruption."(9)

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. “The best Sedaris essays... crack you up with their wacky observations about bizarre things:  taxidermied owls and Pygmies, the bliss of colonoscopy sedation, before working their way around to moving conclusions about the nature of love.”(10)

Simenon by Pierre Assouline.  “Georges Simenon (1903-1989), one of the most widely read novelists in the world. A flamboyant personality, controversial. A turbulent life. Exceptional fecundity. A talent that impressed his "master", André Gide.   ... warm and lively biography. Surprising revelations. A suspense worthy of Simenon."(20)

Bark Skins by Annie Proulx.  "...spans more than 300 years and 700 pages, is a multigenerational epic following the descendents of two men. [One] founds a logging empire; [the other] marries a Mi'kmaw woman. By giving the two dynasties the same starting point — small men among big trees — Proulx demonstrates the long-flowering fruits of character, but also the ways that heritage is destiny. "How big is this forest?" "It is the forest of the world."(10)  This book is so relevant to today's environmental crises.  The history of the forest in North America, the history of the greed of the Europeans who came here...  Truly, I loved this book.

A Hero of France by Alan Furst.  "...follows five months in the life of a Resistance cell, begins in March 1941, nine months into the German occupation. The escorting a downed R.A.F. airman from the countryside to Paris so that he can be smuggled back to England."(11)
The Double by Jose Saramago.  "...story of the awkwardly named professor Tertuliano Máximo Afonso who one day, while viewing a banal video..., discovers that one of the minor actors in it is his identical, if younger, twin. Tertuliano becomes obsessed with...meeting the person he takes to be his double and...manages to discover the actor's name, and track him down."  Anything more and I'd spoil it for you.  It is a weird, sometimes comical, modern tale. (4)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.  “ atmospherically Deep South coastal (Savannah, Ga., Beaufort, S.C.) and Southern Gothic in tone, depicting a wide range of eccentric personalities in and around the city of Savannah: man walking an invisible dog; voice of the drag queen; a high-society man in its elite community. Virtually seeming like a novel and reading like a tale.”(1) Skip the movie, please, it's nothing like the book.  This is charming, hilarious, far reaching in its microsocial consciousness.  There, I said it. 

Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.  “This revealing account of the postwar administration of Iraq, by a former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, focusses on life in the Green Zone, the American enclave in central Baghdad.” (21)

Love and Sleep by John Crowley.  I realized too late that this is a sequel to Crowley's 1987 novel The Solitudes. "...the protagonist...continues his book project begun in The Solitudes, exploring especially the relevance of systems of thought, even those magical and supposedly obsolete in writing a non-fiction book about the Renaissance and Hermeticism."(1) This was a disappointment, especially after having read Crowley's Little, Big.

The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield.  "...story revolves primarily around Ransome, a dissipated, disillusioned man; a worldly woman who had been his mistress, briefly, many years before she became Lady Esketh; a missionary's daughter, who found herself in loving Ransome and in escaping the unrealities her ambitious mother imposed upon her; and others."
You have in this book "... earthquake, flood, death, plague, and [it brings] rebirth to almost everyone who survived it... A book for those who like a dramatic and well-told story, with a certain phase of social consciousness as underlying motive, and a vivid picture of modern India."(3)  This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.  Early critics of this book found the language art-y.  It's like saying the Pieta is sad.  Oh, really?  But keep in mind, I had so many post-its for clips from this book, it was like an index.  The movie of this book was not so bad; you simply lose 3/4 of the narrative, that's all.

The Confusion by Neal Stephenson.  "The beginning of [this book] finds [our hero from the prior volume] Jack Shaftoe awakened from a syphilitic blackout of nearly three years. During this time he was a pirate galley slave."  You have no idea what's going to happen next.  I liked Quicksilver, the first volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, of which The Confusion is the second.  But by far Quicksilver has been the most innovative, funny, brilliant, and historically deep of his work that I've read so far. (1)

Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz.  Picks up five years after Palace Walk ends.  "...largely focused on two of the sons, Yasin, the eldest, who is decadent, foolish, and very kind; and his much younger brother Kamal, a serious young student."(12)

Drop City by T.C. Boyle.  "...a California hippie enclave in 1970, we observe through the eyes of its newest members: “Star,” a restless dropout from her parents’ straight life, and Mario, a hardier type who drifts into the City because he knows he wants to build things. Boyle then shifts to Boynton, Alaska (near Fairbanks), where homesteader Cecil Harder and his new wife Pamela begin their life together in [his] well-stocked cabin in the deep woods."(3)  Didn't like much about these character because they reminded me of the real thing.  Not because I'm a redneck but because I despise hipocracy.

Measuring Time by Helon Habila.  "Twin brothers Mamo and LaMamo grow up in the comfortable home of their widowed father Lamang, a prosperous cattle merchant bent on carving out for himself a prestigious political career. But he’s an unloving father, and vigorous, energetic LaMamo runs off to join the army, while frail, introspective Mamo (the protagonist), weakened by congenital sickle-cell anemia, must [remain] home. Throughout the 1970s, infrequent letters from his adventurous brother give Mamo an imaginative connection to the complexities and perils of African nationalism, as he grows to manhood...."(3)  A lovely book.

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad. "...sketches of life in the tribal lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan."(3)

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. "In between the sea and the plains of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Some of these islands are vast and some no larger than sandbars; some have lasted through recorded history while others have just washed into being.
These are the Sundarbans - the beautiful lands. Here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. The tides reach more than two hundred miles inland, and every day thousands of acres of mangrove forest disappear only to re-emerge hours later. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed and the hopeless dreamers of the world have braved the man eaters and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the unyielding mud." (from the book)  This book is beautiful.  I found the narrative at times crystaline.

Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner.  “...brilliantly renders the life of the late writer Harry Crews in this well-researched and vivid biography. It captures the wild spirit of an unflinching American writer from his early years in impoverished Bacon County, Ga., to his years as an esteemed but volatile faculty member in the University of Florida’s creative writing program."(16)  I love Harry Crews, and will ring the bell for him anytime.

In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson. “...the road to Baghdad began with a midnight flight out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in late February 2003. Atkinson...would spend nearly two months covering the division for The Washington Post.  the war in Iraq provided a unique opportunity to observe today’s U.S. Army in combat...”(22)

Run by Ann Patchett.  " unexpected incident connecting and affecting a seemingly disparate cast of characters, isolating them within their own microcosm."(3)

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.  "8-year-old Molly and her 10-year-old brother Ralph are inseparable, in league with each other against the stodgy and stupid routines of school and daily life; against their prim mother and prissy older sisters; against the world of authority and perhaps the world itself. One summer they are sent from the genteel Los Angeles suburb that is their home to back-country Colorado, where their uncle Claude has a ranch."(13)  Let me tell you, you will laugh out loud during the early childhood sections of this wonderful work; she is a brilliant writer.  I never knew, I'm sorry, I never knew. 

The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam.  "The book is set in the first few months following 9/11. Its action moves back and forth between the small town of Heer in Pakistan and the mountains of Afghanistan, where American soldiers have begun the fight against the Taliban and the hunt for alQaeda terrorists. intricately knotted group of characters based around a school in Heer, whose devoutly Muslim founder, Rohan, still lives in its lovingly tended grounds, though the school itself has been taken over by hardline Islamists."(4)  At times Aslam's prose is so ethereal, flawless, that it becomes inspiring.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud and The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal are two books my people and I received from our friend Lee Ann Swanekamp.  The de Waal book, let me tell you, one of the best books I read all year. Beautifully written, heart-rending at times.  Thank you Lee Ann!  This book is an extraordinary moment of your time.  It will never be forgotten.

 “For nearly 100 years the Ephrussi family was a major force in European grain, shipping and banking....
Their wealth and urbanity rivaled that of the Rothschilds.  Proust modeled Charles Swann in part after the Parisian connoisseur Charles Ephrussi, patron of Manet, Degas and Renoir and owner and editor of the Gazette des Beaux Arts. His poetical daughter corresponded with Rilke. The monumental Palais Ephrussi, employing 17 servants, was located on the Ringstrasse, not far from the offices of Sigmund Freud.  ...tells the astonishing story of the Ephrussis' fortunes.”(2)

October 1964 David Halberstam.  “...recounts the end of the New York Yankee dynasty that began in 1949, an era that included 14 pennants and 9 world championships. After their loss in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964, the Yankees would not return to the World Series until 1976. Halberstam's narrative [is] engaging, his anecdotes, his anecdotes amusing, his insights into the game and its players often shrewd."(11)  I had many discussions about managers and general managers and owners during my reading of this book with my friend Joe Savino.  It was an amazing eye-opener about the struggle of baseball players and the ugly nature of managers and general managers and owners.  Like that's a surprise, I know.  

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  "...story of pharmacologist Marina Singh, who journeys to Brazil to bring back information about seemingly miraculous drug research being conducted there by her former teacher...."(1)  This is a very good book.  I don't care what the New York Times said.

The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh.  "A saga of flight and pursuit, this novel chronicles the adventures of Alu, a young master weaver who is wrongly suspected of being a terrorist. Chased from Bengal to Bombay and on through the Persian Gulf to North Africa by a bird-watching police inspector, Alu encounters along the way a cast of characters as various and as colorful as the epithets with which the author adorns them."(14)  Sometimes good writers disappoint.

The Final Opus of Leon Solomon by Jerome Badanes.  Kirkus Reviews said it all for me:  "The puerile, famous memoirs of a Holocaust survivor written in the few days before his suicide, focusing upon his sexual fantasies, fetishes, and humiliations. Skillfully enough written, but always raising the question of why written at all."

The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carre.  “Once upon a time, le Carré was a literary enigma wrapped in the kind of mystery appropriate to his genre, the spy thriller. In the footsteps of Graham Greene, he kept himself in the shadows, rarely if ever gave interviews, and cultivated a persona that offered a teasing mix of riddle and conundrum. ...despite an admitted “childish aversion” towards the press, and a declared love for “the privacy of writing”, here he comes again, backing into the limelight, with “Stories from My Life.”(4)  My fascination with le Carre is well documented in this blog.  Such a great book of stories about life, his life, and it will make you cringe as much as exult.
Irwin Shaw A Biography by Michael Shnayerson.  “This sympathetic, objective biography... convincingly shows how Shaw's career, character and fiction, influenced more by Hemingway's lifestyle than by his writing, were marked by incongruities. ...his romantic and alcoholic appetites overwhelmed him. ...high living in Europe, surrounded by adoring friends, softened his self-judgment, and he took to writing ``fluffy essays for swells.''(16) I don't care what those higher-brow New York savants say, in spite of everything, Irwin Shaw is someone, was someone, you would pray to have as your friend.

Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.  "In settings ranging from eastern Kentucky to northern California and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, [she] uses her distinctive voice and vast knowledge of human nature to address some of her favorite themes: the importance of personal and cultural heritage; how the past effects the present and the enduring power of love. Kingsolver’s characters, many single mothers, struggle to make sense of their lives and find meaning in a difficult world." (15) She's the best.

Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd.  "The three Hanway brothers, blessed or cursed by being born in London "at the same time on the same day of the same month" in successive years in "the middle of the last century", find themselves quickly absorbed into the torrent of change that pours through the 1950s and 60s."(4)

Big Bad Love by Larry Brown.  "...parades a club of backwoods loners--men who swill too much beer, want too many women and write too many short stories. dint of his integrity and wit, his heroes are savants of the down-and-out set, harrowingly aware of their own limitations without abandoning hope of salvation. Brown's people are disempowered but canny."(16)

Under My Skin Vol.1 of My Autobiography to 1949 by Doris Lessing.  “...first volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography, covering the period of her life from birth in 1919 to leaving Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1949. Although Lessing describes her fiction as not autobiographical, in this volume she makes explicit comparisons between herself and the leading characters [of some of her books].”(1)  I love Doris Lessing and I loved this book, have quoted numerous passages of it to my friends.  

Reference Notes
1.  Wikipedia
2.  Washington Post
3.  Kirkus Reviews
4.  The Guardian
5.  Rowman/Littlefield
6.  Doris Lessing dot org
7.  London Review of Books
8.  White Threshold: A Cult Fiction Blog by Matthew Francis
9.  Detnovel dot com, William Marling
10. NPR
11. New York Times
12. Africa Book Club
13. New York Review of Books
14. Amitav Ghosh dot com
15. HarperCollins
16. Publishers Weekly
17. Bloomsbury Publishing
18. Penguin/Random House
19. Oliver Sacks, MD dot com
20. Babelio dot com
21. New Yorker magazine
22. Liberationtrilogy dot com