Sunday, August 19, 2018

More or less recent reading

A new unabridged translation of Anna Seghers' The Seventh Cross is Tolstoyan in its breadth as it surveys a wide range of German society in the later pre-war years, through the framework of a leftist activist's desperate effort to avoid capture after his escape from a concentration camp.

The theme of someone alone in a great city reminds me of my youthful fascination with Knut Hamsum's Hunger whose hero struggles for survival in the face of dire poverty.

Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulayev is a very different portrait of a totalitarian society, Russia during the Great Terror, as seen largely through portraits of members of the ruling class and its security apparatus, including Stalin who makes several brief appearances.

Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo mixes the picaresque and the sordid, the near-comic with strains of desperation, as it follows a small group of men and women through adventures in high and low Nigerian settings.

Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (recommended in Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore) presents his early life, experiences during and after the Mexican War, and finally his increasing involvement and leadership during the Civil War.  It is striking that his humanity comes through fully despite his oversight of the military slaughter of thousands of Confederate soldiers.  The deliberate absence of maps in the version that I read, The Complete Annotated Edition, reminded me of various medieval works with their huge casts of characters, genealogies, and place names;  while still often remaining fascinating reading.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev is a picture of a remote society that seems almost like a parody of stereotypes of Russians.  Even so, the conflicts that it illuminates are drawn powerfully enough that it usually remains compelling.

After being unable to get very far at all into Tristram Shandy, I listened to the whole thing on as an audio book during some very long automobile trips.  And what a wonderful trip it was!  And while some of author Laurence Sterne's setups fall flat, so many of them make it aloft that they keep this work mostly quite entertaining.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., by James Boswell, includes much wonderful repartee and intimate reflections once it gets past the earlier portion that Boswell did not himself witness.

T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom becomes an adventure story at the highest pitch, as he describes his participation in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia gives the context and consequences of Lawrence's efforts.  Lawrence's own later reporting of anonymous military life in The Mint is a frank look at the simple brutalities of barracks and parade ground.

Henry Green's Caught was recently republished in an unabridged edition that includes the wartime adultery that the original publisher, Leonard Woolf, omitted as harmful to the then ongoing war effort.  The novel gains cohesion and thus more effect by these inclusions.

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri gives a vivid picture of Indian village life during the colonial period as well as the author's developing intellectual maturity after childhood.

Willa Cather's short novel A Lost Lady briefly illuminates the changes that come to a Midwestern town and some of the most eminent people in it in the late nineteenth century.

For the fancier of classical music, the extended dialogues between the conductor Seiji Ozawa and the novelist Haruki Murakami in Absolutely on Music are quite stimulating, as they cover various personalities, recordings, and musical organizations.  Charles Rosen's Arnold Schoenberg clarifies what might seem like a mechanical production of notes, but in fact was conceived as expressionistically as the visual arts of Schoenberg's friend Kandinsky.

For jazz fans, especially if they can read his transcriptions, Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz and The Swing Era are marvelous guides to a music that now seems inevitable but was continually evolving during the times under discussion.

Charles Reznikoff's Testimony is an extended series of anecdotes in verse that describe injuries and injustices that would end in court;  they are derived from court cases in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The cumulative effect is somehow epic.  His Holocaust, similarly structured, is more difficult reading.

I listened to the entire series of Phryne Fisher mysteries by Kerry Greenwood while commuting to and from my employment.  The author infuses these lively books with humanism, feminism, left politics and sexual liberation while exploring unusual areas of Australian society.

For anyone birdwatching in the Great Basin, Fred A. Ryser, Jr.'s Birds of the Great Basin is an invaluable companion, replete with anecdote as well as the usual descriptive notes.

Jeremy Bernstein's Einstein provides a brief, well-written and comprehensible overview of Albert Einstein's life and contributions.

Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a beautifully written travelogue concerning Yugoslavia in the late 1930's.  In addition to the descriptions of place, people and history, West tosses off the occasional profound reflection that gives further lift to this very lengthy performance.  I think of it as resembling an extraordinary lengthy New Yorker article, perfectly paced, perfectly written.

The  Russian writer Ivan Goncharov's novel Oblomov is a frequently humorous treatment of the title character, who cannot bring himself to do anything -- even getting out of bed is too much.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jazz fathers and their jazz children

For Father's Day, preparing for a show on KLCC (

Albert Ammons & Gene Ammons
Tony  Big T" Lovano & Joe Lovano
Dave Brubeck & Chris/Danny/Darius
Cab Calloway & Chris Calloway
Al Cohn & Joe Cohn
Ornette Coleman (w/Jayne Cortez) & Denardo Coleman
John Coltrane (w/Alice Coltrane) & Ravi Coltrane
Chris Columbus & Sonny Payne
John Dankworth (w/Cleo Laine) & Alec Dankworth
John DeFrancesco & Joey DeFrancesco
Kenny Drew & Kenny Drew, Jr.
Duke Ellington & Mercer Ellington
Gil Evans & Miles Evams
Von Freeman & Chico Freeman
Terry Gibbs & Gerry Gibbs
Roy Haynes & Graham Haynes
Jimmy Heath & Mtume
Chubby Jackson & Duffy Jackson
Oliver Lake & Gene Lake
Mike Mantler (w/Carla Bley) & Karen Mantler
Ellis Marsalis and Wynton/Branford/Delfayeo/Jason Marsalis
Jackie McLean & Rene McLean
Charles Mingus & Eric Mingus
Charles Moffet & Charnett Moffet
Grachan Moncur II and Grachan Moncur III
Thelonious Monk & T. S. Monk
Charlie Parker & Kim Parker
Bucky Pizzarelli & John Pizzarelli
Jimmy Raney & Doug Raney
Dewey Redman & Joshua Redman
Max Roach & Maxine Roach
Jimmy Rowles & Stacy Rowles
David Sanborn & Jonathan Sanborn
Sonny Simmons (w/Barbara Donald) & Zarak Simmons
Lennie Tristano & Carol Tristano
Fred Van Eps & George Van Eps
Randy Weston & Azzedin Weston

Did I miss anyone...?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

More old reading

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte is vivid and bears the stink of truth in its recollections of the horrors of a war, the Second World War seen from the Axis side.  That so much of it has been revealed to be fiction disguised as journalism takes off some of the edge; but not much, really, because it retains its plausibility whatever the reality of the events it invents or purports to describe.

On The Yard by Malcolm Braly, a prison novel, is gritty and evocative.

I encountered the work of Jorge Luis Borges while a teenager, because I liked his publisher, New Directions, which had produced Labyrinths, an anthology of his stories.  This is still my favorite of his books translated into English, of which it was the first.

Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers is a fascinating mix of literary criticism and philosophy, including his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which includes a brilliant focus on Tolstoy.

I still prefer the Louise Varese translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations to anyone else's including Ashbery's recent publication.  As with Borges, the first translations to which one is exposed often evoke the most lasting affection.  It took a while for me to come to prefer Peter Constantine's raucous translations of Isaac Babel's stories to those translated by Walter Morison, which I had read so many years previously.  Perhaps someday a more recent translation than Stephen Spender's of Rilke's Duino Elegies and M. D. Herter Norton's of his Sonnets to Orpheus will loosen my expectations of the "right" words.

Speaking of Rilke, I remember as a teenager being much moved by The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, where the narrator's disease echoed my own adolescent uneasiness.  I wonder what I would make of it now, or Sartre's Nausea, or any of the other dimly understood books that I read at the time?  This was all in the air at the time and I breathed it in, however imperfectly.

The last of those teenage years appear in surreal fashion in my old friend Michael Disend's Stomping the Goyim, wherein I make two brief appearances.

Amidst all this literary company, I wanted to mention The Tallest Trees by Richard Preston, portions of which I first read in The New Yorker magazine.  He treats of scientists and adventurers who discovered entire ecosystems at the top of redwood trees, complete with meter-high shrubs and a unique species of nematode.  Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by the journalist Timothy Egan, formerly of The New York Times, is a popular treatment of the life of the photographer Edward S. Curtis, mentioned earlier in this blog.  It quickly overcame my usually dismissive attitude towards popular history and biography.

I close today with a proverb, from the "Proverbs of Hell" section of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, a magnificent short work that I would describe oxymoronically, as manifesting an enigmatic clarity:  Enough! or Too much.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Recent reading

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey shines a brilliant and largely skeptical light on heroes of what was then the recent past.  He treats of Cardinal Manning with Cardinal Newman as a telling sidelight on Manning's climb;  Florence Nightingale (whom Strachey clearly respects more than the others) and the appalling state of British military medicine before her interventions;  Thomas Arnold, who reformed the British public schools into what many considered an even worse institution;  and General Gordon, who is still associated with his defeat by al-Mahdi at Khartoum.

I found Baladhuri's The Origins of the Islamic State a largely tedious retelling of stories mostly of conquest.  Perhaps the translation was somewhat at fault.  However, there were occasional surprising anecdotes which sweetened the slog for this interested layman, and I quote one here:  "The state of 'Uman continued in a fair way, its people paying sadakah on their property, and poll-tax being taken from those among them who were dhimmis until the caliphate of ar-Rashid who made Isa ibn-Ja'far ibn-Sulaiman ibn-'Ali ibn-'Abdallah ibn-al-'Abbas its ruler. The latter left for 'Uman with some troops from al-Basrah, who began to violate women, and rob the people, and make public use of musical instruments.  The people of 'Uman, who were mostly Shurat, having learned that, fought against him and held him back from entering the city.  Finally, they succeeded in killing and crucifying him."

Alec Wilder's American Popular Song is a valuable treatment of the work of composers for popular media in the period 1900 - 1950.  He provides extended treatments of the work of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, with briefer treatments of numerous others and finally of outstanding individual songs.  These treatments include many samples of musical transcriptions, for which some ability to read music is of course requisite.

Another novel by R. K. Narayan, The Vendor of Sweets, includes many beautiful touches of comedy and nostalgia in a tale of a generational cultural clash.  As usual, it is my favorite of his books, since it is the last one I read!

Over recent weeks of commuting I listened to a recording of Joyce's Ulysses read by Jim Norton, with the Penelope episode read by Marcella Riordan.  This version loaned additional humor to the written page, and gave me more insight into the work.  Additional insight came from reading the first half of Richard Ellmann's biography James Joyce.  I abandoned this after it tells of the publication of Ulysses and its aftermath, as I found the tale of the artist ascending far more interesting than the story of Joyce at work on Finnegan's Wake.  This I continue to find unreadable other than in the beautiful or comical excerpts provided by Joyce's legion of commentators.

I found the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's lengthy The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle easy enough to read but lacking in meaning.  Li Yu's The Carnal Prayer Mat contains some truly extraordinary pieces of adult fiction, so it's not for everyone!  But it is unique treatment of Chinese society during the Ming and Qing dynasties, at least among the various translations of old Chinese writing that I've seen.

I've not previously noted two books by the artist Rockwell Kent that have given me great pleasure.  Both are diaries illustrated with his often beautiful woodcuts.  N by E describes a sailing adventure from the US to Greenland in a small boat that wrecks on the Greenland coast.  Wilderness tells of a time with his young son on a nearly uninhabited island near Seward, Alaska.  Richard Nelson's Hunters of the Northern Ice and Hunters of the Northern Forest are anthropological treatments of vanishing North American aboriginal cultures.

Georges Perec's W, or, The Memory of Childhood has two seemingly distinct narratives:  one regarding his childhood in occupied France and after, and the other a treatment of a prison-like society.  It is an enigmatic yet powerfully told story.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, in the Moss Roberts translation, has many hundreds of pages of action, adventure, profound strategy and psychology, elevated and debased rhetoric and ethics, and a compelling set of overlapping stories.  It was the first of the "four great Chinese classic novels," a favorite in China for hundreds of years and is still widely read today.  It shares some characteristics with my other medieval favorites, the Baghdad historian al-Tabari and the Icelandic sagas:  pithiness, action, interspersed poetry, and such a large canvas of characters that one must be prepared to be satisfied without full understanding.

A selection from Plutarch, The Fall of the Roman Republic, with biographies of Caius Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar and Cicero, in Rex Warner's translation, shines an illuminating and occasionally harsh light on the lives of some very powerful and ambitious men.

Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is a quick and vivid read, following heights of the pleasures of youthful freedom and dissipation with depths of the degradation that follows.  Kipling's Kim is a great boy's story, full of exotic adventure.

The Book of J, i.e., the Jahwist, is a selection from the Torah with translation by David Rosenberg and commentary by Harold Bloom.  It presents especially in Bloom's commentaries a startling version of the meanings in this ancient book.  TANAKH: The Holy Scriptures, a contemporary translation of the Jewish Bible (roughly equivalent to the Christian Old Testament) by the Jewish Publication Society, contains many fascinating stories and some lovely religious poetry.

Arthur Rubinstein's My Young Years spends many pages on the great pianist's dissipated youth, with its repeated cycles of poverty and luxury, mixed with tales of acquaintance with great musicians and various aristocrats.  With its purportedly faithful reproduction of dialog and descriptions of many loves and high society, its tone is reminiscent of Casanova.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sol T. Plaatje's Mhudi gives a colorful depiction of native life in what became South Africa, including early contacts with the Dutch colonists, from a young African woman's viewpoint.

I've read the first two parts of Arturo Barea's memoir, The Forging of a Rebel, including The Forge, about his boyhood in Spain, and The Track, concerning his experiences with the Spanish military in Morocco. The stories he relates are accentuated by his unusual attention to concrete details of description.

Evelyn Waugh's novel about journalists in Africa, Scoop, retains its comic effect despite the author's Tory views.

Henri Pirenne's A History of Europe combines the details of European politics from late Roman times through the Renaissance with an overarching sense of the evolution of social and economic life, resulting in a stylish work of great explanatory power.

Vasily Grossman’s unfinished Forever Flowing (also published as Everything Flows) loses its compelling story of a political prisoner's return from Stalin's camps to Soviet society in angry reflections about the Soviet leadership, and the evils they brought, from Lenin on. But the first half is extraordinarily powerful.

Halldor Laxness' Iceland's Bell has many extraordinary scenes in Iceland and Denmark as he recreates aspects of Iceland's colonial period under Danish rule. His dark humor is alternately darker or more comic.

Monday, November 16, 2009

George Lewis’ A Power Strong Than Itself combines academic discourse, intellectual biography, oral history and other normally segregated genres in its extraordinary story of a long-lived self-help organization created by black Chicago avant-garde musicians.

Carlo Emilio Gadda’s That Awful Mess on Via Merulana is a witty treatment of the mystery genre. Cesar Pavese’s The Moon and the Bonfires and The Beach are like Antonioni movies magically translated to the printed page: beautiful, frustrating, intermittently but perhaps meaninglessly eventful, puzzling and seductive.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is a profound novel of the battle of Stalingrad and the lives of Russians elsewhere in that period.

The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin Ping Mei) is an anonymous Ming Dynasty classic replete with literary allusion, occasional pornography, and an amazing variety of villainous or put-upon characters. The Scholars, by the Qing Dynasty writer Wu Jingzi, is a series of linked tales, gentle satires describing the attractive or vicious characteristics of quite a few from the class of literati with office.

Jorge Amado’s Gabriella Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands are marvelous works of overflowing humor and humanity, with particular sympathy for women in their oppression, set in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia and very particular in their treatment of local society, customs, nightlife, and so on.

R. K. Narayan’s Swami and His Friends; Mr. Sampath: the Printer of Malgudi; The Financial Expert, The Painter of Signs; The Bachelor of Arts; The Guide are as particular as Amado, in their treatment of a small southern Indian city, peopled with a marvelous set of characters and sparkling flashes of wit. I find that Narayan has difficulty bringing a plot line to a satisfactory conclusion but this is not a great fault in his short and highly entertaining novels.

Confucius Analects, translated by Slingerland, is both readable and precise, and includes much supplementary material, in particular material on each saying drawn from the long Chinese tradition of commentary.

Casanova’s History of My Life, in twelve volumes combined into six books in an excellent contemporary translation, is full of thrills and details about life in post-Renaissance Italy and France. Casanova played out many roles in a very eventful lifelong attempt at material and social success and I tend to believe his claim that remorse over a particular bad deed (described in some detail) compels him to perfect honesty. True or not, many fascinating stories.

V. S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil are entertaining memoirs of his childhood, youth and apprenticeship as a writer. The first of these two has wonderful descriptions of the older people in his life.

Although The Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, translated and introduced by Guillaume, is overlong, excessively credulous, replete with tedious martial lyrics, yet contains much material that is so full of another actual world, the world of sixth-century Arabia, as to provide intermittent fascination.

David Shapiro's New and Selected Poems is by turns (or often, simultaneously) enthralling and bewildering.