Sunday, June 11, 2006

Book notes

I was fortunate to grow up in a household with lots of books, and in a high school crowd with quite a few aspiring writers, some of whom have realized those aspirations. Besides that, literary criticism has sometimes been a useful source for me, e.g. Edmund Wilson, Isaiah Berlin, Erich Auerbach, all of whom are entertaining to read just as writers -- more on them later. H. Stuart Hughes' Prisoners of Hope introduced me to modern Italian Jewish writers such as Carlo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Italo Svevo.

When I was a boy I decided that certain publishing houses were worth checking out: New Directions and to a lesser extent, Grove Press. More recently I've sometimes been partial to MIT Press and Penguin Books, the latter often having the best translations.

I read The NY Review of Books which includes good reporting as well as splendid essays masquerading as reviews, and which has introduced me to numerous fascinating books. More recently I’ve been reading the London Review of Books which has the advantage of being shorter and livelier.

I tend to distrust most bookstores since they're so small compared to the quantity of available work. I rarely will enter one without knowing what I already want. There are some exceptions, notably Powell's in Portland Oregon, which is enormous, and has both new and used. I generally prefer used bookstores anyway, and mostly buy through the on-line used book consortium

American History --

At one time I read a quantity of African-American and Native American history, believing that treatment of the oppressed told a lot about my culture. Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore introduced me to a prime ante-bellum source, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect of Central Park in NYC, Volunteer Park in Seattle, Golden Gate Park in SF, and other parks and campuses far too numerous to mention. In the 1850's he was a traveling correspondent for the NY Times and wrote three volumes which are noteworthy for their unadorned language, concrete observation of people and landscape -- he was a trained naturalist -- and humor.

A diarist from the period is Fanny Kemble of the British theatrical family, whose Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, a bit more flowery, has many interesting observations.

A popular genre of the period was the slave narrative. Some of these are quite striking. I recall particularly the Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, written by himself, and Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave, included in an old anthology Puttin' On Ole Massa.

For straight history within the period, Eugene Genovese's Roll Jordan Roll: the world the slaves made and Willie Lee Rose's Rehearsal for Reconstruction stand out in my memory. A practitioner of micro-history, Herbert Gutman, has an extraordinary study, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. (Gutman's collected articles are primarily concerned with labor history and include an evocative study of the textile factory women of early 19th century New England and the cultural milieu they created.)

Garry Wills’ “Negro President” is a startling treatment of Jefferson and the very effective support of the slave system through political means.

Journal of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname by Captain John Stedman was recently issued in an edition based on the original manuscript (ed. Richard Price). Stedman, a humane and enlightened man, in some ways typifies the naturalist-explorers of the colonial period: early editions as well as this one include engravings of his paintings of some of the flora and fauna as well as of the horrific treatment of slaves (some of the latter engraved by William Blake). He had an unusual access to and sympathy with all levels of society and provides a complete picture from the most wretched to the most exalted.

More recently, the Autobiography of Malcom X and Richard Wright's Black Boy and the posthumous American Hunger (collected in the Library of America edition) are American classics. For history, Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, Howell Raines' oral history My Soul is Rested, and a narrative-with-photos titled Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, by Danny Lyons, a former U of Chicago student who became SNCC's photographer, are all quite moving. Parting the Waters also is unusual historical writing because of its extensive use of direct quotation, derived from government wiretaps, bugging and police spy reports. Simple Justice is a somewhat more popular treatment of the legal struggle leading to Brown vs. Board of Ed.

For Native American history, I recall being most fascinated by Eve Ball's oral histories of 19th century Apache life, Edmund Wilson's Apologies to the Iroquois, Anthony Wallace's The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, and various volumes in the University of Oklahoma's Studies in the Civilization of the American Indian series – notably Dan Thrapp’s books about Apache/white conflicts, Jack Forbe’s Apache, Navaho and Spaniard, and The Indian and the Horse. Jaime de Angulo's Indian Tales, a book that poets William Carlos Williams and Gary Snyder favor, gives another perspective, as does Theodora Kroeber's Ishi (standard college fare). Edward S. Curtis' marvelous photographs, which have been widely reprinted in relatively tiny selections, are available complete at the Multnomah County Library (Portland), where they once let me inspect the thirty-odd oversize volumes in a staff office. Frank Hamilton Cushing's Zuni Breadstuff, illustrated, is an exhaustive and fascinating treatment of maize culture at Zuni pueblo by a late 19th century anthropological prodigy who writes with an obvious enjoyment in the doings of his subjects.

William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain crosses the boundary between history and literature, with a multitude of voices, arguments, styles.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is charming and pithy.

Susan Delano McKelvey's Botanical Explorations In The Trans-Mississippi West 1790 - 1850 provides many vistas of the pristine West for the botanically literate.

European History --

Georges Duby's William Marshal is a micro-historical look at the actual life behind all those medieval romances I grew up on, e.g. how marriage, infrequently permitted a knight, was a ticket to prosperity, since a married man was permitted to settle.

Norman Davies' God's Playground, a two-volume history of Poland, was a NY Review find. Poland interested me as a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state (e.g. the Jews had their own estate, with courts and legislature: a status comparable to nobility, clergy, royalty and municipalities) with an elected monarch and a rich intellectual tradition, including Copernicus, for example. Barbara Lifton's moving The King of Children, about the Polish Jewish pediatrician, educator, writer and radio personality Janusz Korczak includes some of the same preoccupations in a twentieth century setting. (Korczak’s own writings present a distinctly idiosyncratic view of the lives of children and, in his Ghetto Diary, of life in Nazi hell.) Shielding the Flame is a discussion between a Solidarity journalist, Hanna Krall, and Marek Edelman, a Solidarity figure and the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

E. P. Thompson's well-known The Making of the English Working Class is fascinating and detailed. Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels by another leftist British historian, E. J. Hobsbawn, includes many peculiar stories and introduced me to the great Turkish novelist Yassir Kemal, whose first novel Memed My Hawk describes the type in an Anatolian setting. Hobsbawm's The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 also interested me.

I found Herodotus' Histories most entertaining, Xenophon's Anabasis a good adventure story, and Peter Green's Alexander of Macedon sufficiently lurid, as was Tacitus' Annals, which is also written in magisterial style. Gibbons' The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, of which I've only read the first third, matches these last two in heights of style, depths of intrigue and anecdotal detail.

Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean, a long work that I’ve not yet completed, is an astonishing survey of sixteenth century life in the environs of the great inland sea.

The Italian Carlo Ginzburg, best known as the greatest living authority on witchcraft, has a couple of investigations of unusual world views of ordinary people during Renaissance, The Cheese and the Worms and The Night Battles, based on old Inquisition records.

The diaries of Victor Klemperer, published as I Will Bear Witness, detail everyday life in Nazi Germany from the sophisticated if heartsick point of view of a secular Jewish intellectual.

Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre and Natalie Zemon Davis' The Return of Martin Guerre both open peculiar doors into pre-revolutionary France.

The Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, sociology rather than history, has many charming fragments of life in virtually another country.

After the introductory section regarding putative history behind the formative myths of Norse culture, Heimskringla by the medieval Icelandic historian Snorre Sturlason paints a gripping picture of adventure and political intrigue. It includes many references to the origins of our own democratic politics. I like the Dover-published translation best.

Russian history --

I've explored this mainly through biographies. Joseph Frank, a Princeton professor of Slavic languages, has published a five volume biography, Dostoevski, which combines biography, social and intellectual history and literary criticism. Alexander Herzen, perhaps the leading liberal of the previous generation, wrote a four volume autobiography, My Life and Thoughts, of which I found the first volume, dealing with his youth in Russia, prior to his life-long exile, to be the most interesting: high spirited, vividly written.

Early Memoirs by the dancer / choreographer Bronislava Nijinska casts a brilliant light on the cultural life of the late Russian empire and western Europe through the 1920's, by focusing on the period of activity of her brother, the great dancer / choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.

For the Soviet period, Nadhezda Mandelstam's memoir Hope Against Hope and Solzhenitzn's trilogy The Gulag Archipelago are strong stuff. Varlam Shalamov’s stories of Gulag life, acclaimed by Solzhenitzn, translated as Kolyma Tales and Graphite, are extraordinary.

Islamic history –

Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam takes a very large view of its subject, including theological, social, political, artistic, intellectual, and (for context) world history, with the ecological and archaic background also providing the setting for an enlightening treatment of a multi-dimensional civilization.

Louis Massignon’s The Passion of Al-Hallaj, Mystic and Martyr of Islam, is a moving four-volume account of the first Sufi to bring his awareness out of the small circle of devotees and into the marketplace, this in the empire’s capital at a time of great corruption; and the survival of his memory after his martyrdom. The first volume was reprinted as a paperback under a similar title.

SUNY under UNESCO’s auspices has published translations in thirty-nine volumes of the great chronology by the medieval Baghdad historian al-Tabari, as The History of al-Tabari. I’ve read several vivid volumes, The Victory of Islam, The Foundation of the Community, The Crisis of the Early Caliphate, The Community Divided, Revolt of the Zanj and The Abbasid Recovery. The last two concern a black slave insurrection and its surpression, and include the author’s own observations of a few of the events described.

The Baburnama in Thackston’s new translation is alternately tedious and fascinating – characterized as the first Islamic memoir, by the humane and gifted founder of the Moghul Empire in India, always nostalgic for the lost mountains of Afghanistan, with many observations of the people and places of his time.

Other history --

Jonathan Schell's The Gate of Heavenly Peace is an interesting treatment of Chinese intellectuals' response to the oppressive situation of their people from the nineteenth century to the present, and introduced me to a few writers.

S. D. Goitein's five volume treatment of the social history of the Jews based in Cairo during the Islamic high middle ages, A Mediterranean Society, based on some 12,000 secular documents surviving from the time, gives an extraordinarily rich and detailed view of life in a completely different environment with some curious echoes and reflections of our own in its entrepreneurial mobility.

For additional Jewish social history, Salo Baron's magisterial treatment in A Social and Religious History of the Jews in eighteen volumes (I've read the first six, so far) similarly recreates lost worlds from the tiniest fragments; as the sources become richer he benefits by the added detail. Arthur Koestler's since discredited The Thirteenth Tribe expands on an area that Baron's third volume outlines, the Khazar Empire (500 - 1000 AD) and State ( - 1200 AD) which converted to Judaism around 750 and which appears to be the source of the later large population of Eastern European Jews. The Jews Of Khazaria, with an unbelievable wealth of obscure citations in many languages, as in Baron, presents a surprisingly closeup look at its subject in less polished a style than Koestler’s.

Gershom Scholem’s Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, although initially heavy going when tracing the Kabbalah background, is a fascinating treatment of an astonishing mass movement, with Jews all over Europe and the Ottoman Empire selling up their homes and businesses to go to Jerusalem for the coming of the Messiah.

The Changing Faces of Jesus, by Geza Vermes, an academic expert on the languages and sources of the period, peels away revered layers of theological dogma and tendentious description to provide a closeup of the historical Jesus.

I recently finished The Fatal Shore which describes the Australian penal colony and thus the underside of the British class system and its more oppressed members.

Imaginative literature:

I recently acquired The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry which includes various poets whose work I already knew and others whom I'd only heard of and was glad to discover, such as the recent Nobelist, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.

Russian literature --

Anton Chekhov's stories, well translated and introduced, are arranged more or less chronologically in the Oxford Chekhov -- I prefer to avoid the earlier ones. The Garnett translations are serviceable but not ordered or well edited. The stories themselves are poignant snapshots. He is almost never medical. I don't enjoy his plays except performed. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have published a range of superior translations from Russian which seem closer to the ideal, in a volume of stories and another volume of novellas. I also enjoyed their translation of Gogol’s Dead Souls, of which only Book One seems worth reading.

Isaac Babel is a Soviet master of the short story, by turns comic, violent, always vivid and original. Reading his stories, variously collected, gave me a new set of eyes.

Pushkin is as great a master of romantic irony as Byron (and reportedly the superior craftsman) but unlike Byron, whose essential subject was himself, Pushkin's eyes were on his society. I especially liked Babette Deutch's translation of the "poem in the form of a novel" Eugene Oneigen and D. M. Thomas' translations of Narrative And Dramatic Poems, both for Penguin. A good translation (in Stanford and Everyman editions) of his prose includes a few marvelous stories and one lively novella. (Stories: Tales of Belkin & The Queen Of Spades; novella: The Captain's Daughter.)

Also translated by D. M. Thomas, Akmatova's “Requiem” describes the tragedy of the Stalinist period.

Turgenev’s Sketches From A Hunter’s Album combines aristocratic privilege and detachment with a very observant eye, observing with equal clarity and rendering with equal vividness the hunstman’s pleasures and their rural social matrix.

Tatyana Tolstaya is a contemporary stylistic cousin to the magic realists of Latin America; I especially like her essays in NY Review but her stories, which have been published in books, are good as well.

Bulgakov’s novel The Master And Margarita is an astonishing performance, an amalgam of peerless satire and tragedy by an author whom Tolstaya cites as a predecessor.

I started reading Tolstoy in my 30's: read War and Peace, read some of the novellas, read Hadji Murad, read Martin Green's Tolstoy and Gandhi: Men of Peace (they corresponded). I starting reading Dostoevski in my teens: read Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazof, The Possessed. I don't know what to say of these masters who are so well known as to be above my comment. The extraordinary five volume biography Dostoevski by the Princeton historian Joseph Frank combines biography, literary criticism and social and intellectual history.

Central European literature --

I love a sophisticated and gentle irony which seems to abound in Czech writers. Hasek's The Good Soldier Schwiek And His Adventures In The Great War -- find Cecil Parrott's complete, unexpurgated translation (about 600 pages) -- and Karol Capek epitomize this for me. I particularly like Capek's The Gardener's Year and How a Play is Produced. I don't find Kafka nearly as cheerful although the story is that his friends would roll to the floor in paroxysms of laughter as he read aloud to them.

Is a Bulgarian Jew who lives in England and writes in German within German literature? The first two memoirs of Elias Canetti (1981 Nobelist), The Tongue Set Free and The Torch in My Ear are exotic and fascinating; the third, a depiction of Wiemar literary life, less so for me.

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski specialized in reporting from third world countries in revolution. I was especially fascinated by The Emperor, about Ethiopia, which is a mordantly funny picture of autocracy, and Another Day of Life, about Angola at the end of the Portuguese period. His more recent Imperium about post-Soviet Russia has a little more of the wide-eyed tourist's view, but still many valuable insights e.g. that dictators think themselves experts in everything. Perhaps "mordantly funny" is a Polish ideal, as in Konwicki's A Minor Apocalypse which describes the encounters with officialdom of a dissenting writer on the day his friends have persuaded him to set himself on fire in protest outside a party conference.

The Polish poet and Nobel Laureate of 1996, Wislawa Szymborska, writes marvelous lyrics which translate well into English. I sometimes read her aloud to friends who are then smitten with love for this writer’s irony and compassion.

I love Brecht's plays and poetry, which have now been collected in excellent translations by Methuen (ed. Ralph Mannheim) and good ones by Grove Press (I prefer Grove's translation of Galileo, by Charles Laughton, included as an appendix in one of the Methuens). Especially: Galileo, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Good Woman of Setzuan, Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Puntila and His Man Matti, A Man's A Man.

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin adapts Joycean methods to a Weimar workman’s experience. A rich and sometimes difficult work (also Joycean categories).

Goethe’s Faust (I’ve read only Part 1, in a very fluid translation published by New Directions), in which Faust challenges Mephistopheles to restore his faded interest in life’s experiences, combines an elevated moral tone, magnificent language and characterization, and a moving story.

French literature --

The Red And The Black by Stendhal is wonderful, and his Charterhouse Of Parma has many brilliant and evocative scenes. Of Balzac I particularly enjoyed Eugenie Grandet and The Black Sheep, as well as A Harlot High and Low (all in Penguin translations). Of Flaubert, Three Tales and Bouvard And Pecuchet are my favorites; Sentimental Education and Madame Bovary less so. Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle is a great introduction to symbolist literature. New Directions publishes a good translation of Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil (2nd edition), which suits my taste for the twisted. The Journal of the Gouncourt Brothers is an invitation to intimate observation of French society and literary life 1850 - 1890 by the founder of France's premier literary award and his brother. Maupassant's stories are entrancing.

In the 20th century, Louis-Ferdinand Celine's novels (trans. Ralph Mannheim) are explosive, funny and cynical, written in a unique and vital style. I especially enjoyed Guignol's Band and Castle To Castle, which is the first of a trilogy of his adventures as a refugee from the French Resistance in Nazi Germany during the closing years of the war. Simenon is the compelling and unbelievably prolific author of both gloomy psychological novels and a mystery series with a similar atmosphere relieved by the imperturbable presence of Chief Inspector Maigret. I’ve read only the first two books of Proust’s enormous architectonic recreation of upper-class French life and enjoyed him as a satirist and as a most idiosyncratic and baroque prose stylist.

Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (notorious for his mystery novel omitting all e’s, translated as A Void; followed by a short story in which all vowels were e’s) is a very peculiar and funny novel which purports to describe a Paris apartment and all its inhabitants at one particular moment of one day. The ancillary stories that get worked in have extraordinary variety and richness.

English literature --

Just a smattering of some favorites here -- I liked the claustrophobic atmosphere of Conrad's The Secret Agent and Victory. Boswell's journals are like the life itself, from the time he meets Johnson a third of the way through the first one (London Journal). Byron's Don Juan and multi-volume Letters And Journals introduce a sophisticated, ironic and genial companion. Don Juan takes a lot of skimming, though. Lawrence's Women In Love is as intense as Dostoevski. Henry Green's Loving is an amazing below-stairs novel; Living, a great workplace novel influenced in its occasionally fractured syntax by the work of Virginia Woolf, who was his first publisher. His Party-Going is a dizzying look at the lives of the wealthy. I also enjoyed his Caught and Back, although these later novels are not quite at the same level. Auden's poems, in their original versions before his conversion to Catholicism, are sometimes worthy of Byron in their irony and compassion. Heaney’s translation of Beowulf brings it to life.

Irish literature --

I read Ulysses a few years ago, without a trot, and was entranced; I'd been similarly recently fascinated by Dubliners but haven't reread Portrait Of The Artist as a Young Man since youth. Shaw's plays before 1920 are scintillating. Playboy of the Western World is also as good on the page as in the theater, as is Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Everybody loves James Stephens' The Crock of Gold. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds is a hilarious travesty of Irish literary life in a language as honed as Beckett’s.

Italian literature --

I liked Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped At Eboli and Primo Levi's memoir of his return from Auschwitz, The Reawakening. I liked the autobiographical sketches in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. Silone's Bread and Wine is a great novel of the anti-fascist resistance. I have recently been fascinated with the work of Natalia Ginzburg, especially Voices In The Evening and All Our Yesterdays (also published as A Light For Fools), which present themselves as the random happenings of life itself. I’ve enjoyed three Sicilian writers: Giovanni Verga, whose Little Novels of Sicily is translated by DH Lawrence, and whose two late novels Mastro-Don Gesualdo (not in Lawrence’s inferior translation) and The House by the Medlar Tree are gripping tragedies of ordinary life; Lampedusa’s The Leopard; and the novels and stories of Leonardo Sciascia, whose unsettling mysteries bring the underside of Sicilian life to light.

Classical literature --

I love Catullus' poems in suitably frank translation. I read Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Iliad a few years ago and it knocked me out.

Scandinavian literature --

Strindberg's A Witch in a new edition is an astonishing portrait of adolescence. His genial novel about islanders off the Swedish coast, People of Hemso, is unambitious and occasionally comic. Hamsun's The Growth of the Soil is a novel of Norwegian pioneers in the north. My wife loved Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy with which I'm unacquainted. Independent People by the 1950’s Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness, reprinted in paperback, is a marvelous pastoral combining comedy and tragedy, realism and fantasy, in astonishing proportions.

The Complete Sagas Of Iceland have recently been published complete in excellent translations in five volumes by an Icelandic publisher, with selections appearing in various Viking/Penguin volumes. Well worth finding are these translations of Njal’s Saga (by Robert Cook), Saga of Grettir the Strong, Egil’s Saga, and many others. A fine selection The Sagas of Icelanders was remaindered in hardcover and may still be available, also published in paperback.

Oriental literature --

I greatly enjoyed two lengthy medieval Chinese novels, Outlaws of the Marsh (trans. Sidney Shapiro) with its enormous cast of roughnecks, and The Journey to the West (which I read abridged as Monkey) with its broad comedy and heaven-resident Buddhist parodies of the Chinese civil service. I'm currently in the second volume of the great salacious (and banned) medieval Chinese novel Chin Ping Mei in a recent translation (The Plum in the Golden Vase, earlier abridged as The Golden Lotus), with its sexually ravenous anti-hero, detailed picture of society, and textural complexity. The somewhat later The Story of the Stone, better known in abridged versions as The Dream of the Red Chamber, combines a very detailed look at later Chinese manners with an endless round of parties, poetry contests, and many portraits of young women both wealthy and in service.

I read a great medieval Japanese novel for school many years ago, Tale of Genji by Murasaki by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.

My favorite books by the contemporary Turkish novelist Yassir Kemal are The Sea-Crossed Fisherman and The Birds Are Also Gone. The better-known Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red combines a post-modern sensibility with a murder mystery and encyclopaedic assessment of the art of the miniature set in 16th century Istanbul.

For Egyptian Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz, I especially enjoyed Midaq Alley, Fountain and Tomb, Adrift on the Nile, all very different: respectively a novel of variously sordid and elevated Cairo life, a reminiscence of his Cairo youth, and a tale of marijuana smokers. The American Paul Bowles has translated several weird novels or collections of stories by a Moroccan hustler and compulsive story-teller named Mohammed Mrabet. Bowles’ translation of Charhadi’s A Life Full Of Holes gives an indelible impression of Moroccan life, as does his translation of Choukri’s straight autobiography For Bread Alone.

Vikram Seth’s very lengthy A Suitable Boy combines the readability of a popular generational novel with a Tolstoyan sweep over Indian society and politics in the early independence period. From Australia, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey adapts some of the feeling of an actual surviving Ned Kelly document into a more extensive and moving treatment.

Latin-American literature --

Mario Vargas-Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is funny, poignant, and contains quite a few great stories interspersed with the main narrative. I especially enjoyed Garcia-Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude and The General in his Labyrinth. His Love In The Time Of Cholera seemed a little frothy for me. Guillermo Cabrera-Infante's Infante's Inferno, which takes quite a while to stop introducing new characters, is as funny as Henry Miller.

I enjoyed The Chase (1956) by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, which seems to have poured out of the writer in a baroque excess of sometimes incomprehensible language. An extraordinarily evocative work. (His more conventional earlier work The Steps was less interesting to me.) On the jacket Carlos Fuentes credits Carpentier with inventing magical realism.

The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra has everything in his poems, which are written in an unadorned vernacular and thus are quite susceptible to translation. Jorge Luis Borge's stories (I like the collection Labyrinths the best) are unique and almost monastic in their tone.

The late 19th century Brazilian novelist Joaquin Machado de Assis’ novels combine wit, occasional surrealism and a detailed view of contemporary life, presented in post-modern fashion in many miniature chapters. His Dom Casmurro, often considered his masterpiece, is ultimately pretty gloomy. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas can be pretty funny. Quincas Borba (older translation: Philosopher or Dog?) sits between these extremes.

Spanish literature --

Camilo Jose Cela's The Hive is like some of Mahfouz in its wealth of characters, with an even richer depiction of society and greater irony, as well as a more sordid imagination, which if you've read Mahfouz may be hard to conceive.

Portuguese literature –

Jose Saramago’s All The Names is a bureaucratic comedy, a bit repetitious perhaps but with a grasp of the comedy of institutional life approaching Kafka’s and Mahfouz’.

American literature --

The New American Poetry 1945 - 1960 has a lot by my favorite American poets. I especially like the last two-thirds of Frank O'Hara's writings, the first third of Gary Snyder's (especially Myths and Texts and Mountains and Rivers Without End, collected I believe in The Back Country), "Marriage" and a few other things by Gregory Corso. Recently I’ve again come to appreciate Allen Ginsberg, whose last book, Death And Fame, contains much wisdom and humor. William Carlos Williams is too old for this anthology; his Paterson and Selected Poems are wonderful. I also love his doctor stories The Farmer's Daughters and In The American Grain as noted above. I’ve come to great appreciation of Emily Dickenson and always have enjoyed the earliest Walt Whitman.

William Kennedy's Albany Trilogy Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and Ironweed is wonderful. Dreiser's Sister Carrie is compelling reading. I'm a big fan of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch which is written with an axe-edge of satire; Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Quiet Days in Clichy and "On Turning 80" which was collected with some other late writings as Sextet; Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm; Kerouac's Dr. Sax which is by turns a charming reminiscence and a vivid recreation of little Jackie's comic-book fantasies, as well as his more conventional portrait of Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums.

A comment by Allen Ginsberg -- he prefers the later Melville -- put me onto The Confidence Man which is written in a prose that challenges the reader to unravel it, as twisted as the Confidence Man himself.

Peter Mathiessen's Far Tortuga uses dialect for dialogue to catch the speech rhythms of seamen of the Cayman Islands. I like the stories of Paul Bowles, variously collected, as well as his Points in Time, sketches of Moroccan history, and his novel The Spider's House which describes the forced French exit from Fez from a variety of viewpoints, including (most remarkably) that of a teenage Moroccan. Sam Shepard's plays are fun to read, e.g. Curse of the Starving Class.

In the mystery category, the earlier novels of Raymond Chandler are wonderfully evocative of late '30's and early '40's LA. I'm a fan of stories and novels by Dashiell Hammett, however they mostly read almost more like untutored memoirs than literature, and are thus not perhaps to everyone's taste. Chester Himes’ novels of black police detectives are wonderful escapes. I especially liked the first, printed as A Rage in Harlem or For Love of Imabelle and destroyed on film.

Popular science --

Richard Feynman's two books of lectures, QED The Theory Of Quantum Electrodynamics and especially The Character Of Physical Law are very well done and enlightening. I've enjoyed several books by Jeremy Bernstein, the New Yorker's physics writer..

For essays on the arctic, Barry Lopez' Arctic Dreams emphasizes the natural and historical worlds; John McPhee's Coming into the Country the recent social environment. Almost everything by McPhee is entertaining although I find his geological writings of lesser interest.

I want to mention a couple of books by Helmut Tributsch from MIT Press: How Life Learned to Live and When the Snakes Awake. The former discusses the biophysical adaptations of various life forms, e.g. how porpoises and barracudas cope with large Reynolds numbers (representing potential for turbulence) resulting from their combined speed and size. The latter describes animal precursors to earthquakes, widely known from anecdote, and proposes a mechanism accounting for this behavior.

Self help --

Chogyam Trungpa's The Myth of Freedom first proposed the virtues of boredom to me -- to help me lessen my addiction to fascination. Skillful Means by Tarthang Tulku, another Tibetan, is less tuned into specific Buddhist doctrine and describes how to improve the work experience.

Jazz --

I've read lots of books about jazz, one of my amateur specialties -- you can find a number of my reviews at I especially enjoyed autobiographies by Art Pepper (Straight Life) and Miles Davis (Miles: The Autobiography), as well as Bird Lives by Ross Russell, To Bird With Love which is an enormous Charlie Parker photograph album, and Too Marvelous For Words about Art Tatum. Carl Woideck's Charlie Parker: His Life and Music is a reliable and readable treatment.

I also enjoyed four books of interviews: Jazz Talk by Robert Rusch (whose great periodical Cadence Review: Jazz & Blues Creative Improvised Music has a pair of striking interviews every month), Jazz Spoken Here, Notes and Tones in which the great jazz drummer Art Taylor evoked some frank talk from his contemporaries, and Robert Reisner's Bird: The Man and the Legend, with many reminiscences of Charlie Parker. To some degree this stuff is for fans only. None of these are hagiographic, the weakness of the genre.