The January Book Choice Is:

Desert Notes by Barry Lopez

I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here, the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe a distance of twenty yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps ten miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.

Barry Lopez wrote his first book after spending time in the Alvord Desert in Oregon in the late 1960s. He was 24 at the time. He transformed what he took away from that experience into a set of poetic short stories, and it set his writing career into motion. This collection has a running theme of the human relationship with the natural world. His short story ‘Coyote and Rattlesnake’ explores the invasive nature of people, the encroachment and usurping; the big picture reveals that people are just passing through and are part of the wider narrative. Lopez is our country’s finest writer of the natural world and his work has heavily influenced subsequent generations of writers.

When Desert Notes was anthologized with River Notes & Animal Notes in 2014, Lopez wrote about his writing technique in the afterword:

“When I write a story, I am not trying to make a point or demonstrate any particular proficiency as a writer. I am trying to make the patterns of American cultural life more apparent, patterns any individual reader might be able to take further, metaphorically, than I am able to, patterns that I hope will serve the reader’s own search for meaning. In the creation of the story, it is the reader’s welfare, not the life of the writer, that is finally central.”

Barry Lopez’s latest book ‘Horizon’ will be released in March.

The December Book Choice Is:

The Ravenmaster by Christopher Skaife

Chris Skaife, yeoman warder of the Tower of London, is chief Raven Master there, and though he claims to not be a raven expert, he is as close as it comes to understanding, and more importantly, revering them. Chris is in charge of the general welfare and the keeping of the ravens. Currently there are seven ravens housed at the Tower and it is foretold that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, it will fall, along with London itself. Hence, the importance of the job, not the least being that it keeps the mythos alive. Chris speaks romantically of London with its rich backdrop and substantial past:

‘History and prehistory, legends, fables, and stories, they’re everywhere here. I sometimes think that the Tower is just a vast storehouse of the human imagination, and the ravens are its guardians.’

Yeoman warders are informally known as ‘beefeaters’ and besides being the guards of Her Majesty’s crown jewels, they chaperone the droves of tourists who visit the Tower. Chris guesses that he must be photographed nearly 400 times a day during the summer: ‘I reckon the ravens and I have probably featured in someone’s family album in every country in the world.’ Guilty as charged: I also have a photograph of a beefeater from a trip to London.

As the head of Team Raven, Chris has attuned his senses to his birds’ needs. Ravens are smart birds but much-maligned and they have more in common with us than we might think: ‘Ravens are creatures of habit, and even the slightest change to their daily routine can lead to stress and psychological problems. Sometimes by the time I pick up on a dispute between ravens, it’s too late. Like a lot of us, they tend to hide their sicknesses and their grievances. I assume it’s a self-protection mechanism. I’m not an expert on raven social systems, but I can see that they have complex social lives, with feuds and disagreements between them, just as we humans do.’

Check out Chris’s twitter feed at twitter.com/ravenmaster1 to see images of the Tower’s magnificent ravens.

The November Book Choice Is:

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

Neil White was incarcerated in 1999 at the federal prison in Carville, Louisiana for bank fraud and soon after found that the prisoners shared their low-security buildings with the only colony in America of patients suffering from leprosy. Carville had been established for over a century and was home to a large population when leprosy was more prevalent. As the medical community learned more about prevention and treatment, leprosy began to die out and thus, unused space at Carville became available. The state of Louisiana deemed it a federal prison in 1990 and began sending low-risk prisoners there. Most inmates believed there was some sort of government conspiracy going on, having to do with experiments and testing. But it was home for the leprosy patients.

“Initially, I couldn’t imagine why the federal government would decide to put inmates in the same facility as leprosy patients … But now I was beginning to realize what an insult it was to the leprosy patients. Despite how the inmates felt about it, for the patients, it was another slap in the face. That the federal government thought nothing of moving criminals into their home said a lot about their standing.”

White is an egocentric guy when he’s admitted. He learns his most valuable lesson at Carville from the leprosy patients, especially Ella, an 80-year-old patient who was admitted when she was 12, abandoned by her family (as all the patients have been). Ella teaches White empathy, and how to really see others. It’s a lesson to everyone: leprosy was once thought to be a contagion and sufferers were unduly removed from society’s eyes and abandoned by their families and communities. Today, we can replace the word leprosy with any other that emits an intolerant tone. Every era has its own prejudices.

The October Book Choice Is:

Autobiography of a  Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

This strange little book with the excellent title is a collection of short stories, each with an underlying layer of psychological creepiness. Here is a diagnosis of three:

In the Pupil begins with a man and woman in a newly formed relationship. But something odd happens: he sees his reflection in her eye: ‘It was then that I saw him, a tiny little man staring at me from out of her pupil, my Lilliputian likeness: He had already slipped in there. I smiled and nodded to him. He nodded politely back.’

Nothing unusual about this except that the little man is real:  ‘One day , as I was nearing my lips to hers, I looked into her eyes and I saw the little man look out from under her lashes and wave to me, then he turned on his heel and trotted away into her pupil.’

What follows is a strange telling of the room in his lover’s eye where her lovers are trapped, not as reflections, but as miniature representations of each.

In The Land of Nots, the narrator travels from his land where the ‘Ises’ live into where the ‘Nots’ live. It is a macabre negative reality as the narrator describes the social system, beliefs, and mythos of the Nots: ‘The succession of events in the head of a Not is as follows: first the soul, then a piece of dead flesh, then decaying detritus, and then, if one peers through the skull’s blind sockets, the Not reduced to naught.’

It becomes an existential question: ‘Imagine the Not’s surprise when out of the window he saw no world at all, as if the whole world, lambent with stars and sun, clad in green and azure, had fallen away, had come unstuck from the panes like a cheap paste-on picture washed off by the rain. Still clutching the cord, the scholar stared into the yawning darkness. There was absolutely no doubt: This was nothing, the most ordinary nothing.’

The Runaway Fingers, a strange little story about a concert pianist’s rebellious appendages, are eager for adventure. But first they need to break free:

‘With a desperate tug the fingers suddenly wrenched themselves free, hand and all, from the pianist’s cuff and jumped – diamond ring on the little finger glinting – down onto the floor. The parquet’s waxed wood struck their joints a painful blow, but the fingers, without missing a beat, picked themselves up and – mincing along on their pink shields of nails, vaulting high into the air with great arpeggio-like leaps – hared toward the hall’s exit.’

Because Krzhizhanovsky just didn’t fit the mold, his work was censored in Soviet Russia. His work was finally published in 1989.

 

The September Book Choice Is:

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee


This is a real meat and potatoes kind of book, and centers on one Korean family spanning the 20th century. Prejudice and racism, obstinance and perseverance, food culture and family life, and sacrifice, they all play a part here. Lee’s characters are torn between the logic of self-preservation and the beauty of an ideal. The conflict between these two themes is salt and peppered throughout the book.

During the first part of the 20th century, government corruption and mismanagement drove many Korean citizens out of their country. Many settled in Japan as strangers in a strange land and settled into a second-class tier. Japan became rife with racism and it became nearly impossible for a Korean to make any gains. The poverty is tangible:

‘At the crowded bar, men were drinking and making jokes, but there hadn’t been a soul in that squalid room — smelling of burnt dried squid and alcohol — who wasn’t worried about money and facing the terror of how he was supposed to take care of his family in this strange and difficult land.’

Japan was no Shangri-La for the Koreans. It is the real world, in all its hardship. ‘Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge.’ More like survival of the fittest on steroids. But even the thought of fitting in was repellent to some Koreans: ’You think I’m an animal, Moazsu thought: Then I can be an animal and hurt you.’

A decent job or education are things that every person should have a right to. With resolve, and a striving for beauty in life, (‘Once tender-hearted people seemed wary and tough’) Lee’s characters make a concerted effort to break the chain.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans

“…this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats…”

Thus, James Agee presents his theme for this masterpiece of Southern non-fiction. During the 1930s, documentary literature was a popular avenue for a writer to take. Writing of sorrows makes for a better read than happier fare, and there was plenty of sorrow to write about during the decade of the Great Depression.

Agee and photograph Walker Evans stayed a summer with three tenant families in Alabama, and found them hard-working but weighted down with day-to-day endurance, pushed down to Job-like living:

“Why is it things always seem to go against us? Why is it there can’t ever be any pleasure in living? I’m so tired it don’t seem like I ever could get rest enough. I’m as tired when I get up in the morning as I am when I lay down at night. Sometimes it seems like there wouldn’t never be no end to it, nor even a let-up. One year it’ll look like things was going to be pretty good; but you get a little bit of money saved, something always happens.”

The book reads poetically; Agee breaks into verse at times. He was influenced by the modernist lit movement, and particularly Joyce and Faulkner, memorable for that long, drawn-out written thought. At times, I felt I was reading Faulkner; I was just waiting on the word apotheosis to appear:

“and when the women are through, they may or may not come out too, with their dresses wet in front with the dishwashing and their hard hands softened and seamed as if withered with water, and sit a little while with the man or the men: and if they do, it is not for long, for everyone is much too tired, and has been awake and at work since daylight whitened a little behind the trees on the hill, and it is now very close to dark, with daylight scarcely more than a sort of tincture on the air, and this diminishing, and the loudening frogs, and the locusts, the crickets, and the birds of night, tentative, tuning, in that great realm of hazy and drowned dew, who shall so royally embroider the giant night’s fragrant cloud of earthshade…”

The writing continues uninterrupted from paragraph to paragraph. Almost, I wanted to add the second stress and read it as ‘drown-ed’ because the writing reads so much like poetry.

James Agee was tentative of writing of the sharecropper life and its hardships. He was convinced that Walker’s photographs should tell the story:

“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.”

The photographs that Walker Evans recorded for this book are available at the Library of Congress here:

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003656560/

The July Online Book Choice Is:

Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson


This book is a complete study of Leonardo’s life. Isaacson examines Leonardo’s anatomy and engineering studies to his observations on architectural principles to his artistic greatness. Like Shakespeare as center of the canon, Leonardo was the archetype of artists. Each chapter is an in-depth examination and there are many. It’s an art history course rolled into one book.

The most wonderful thing about Da Vinci was his desire to always learn and to improve on what he did and could accomplish. He became the first artist to successfully use shadowing and chiaroscuro to create depth and fullness, essentially mimicking 3-dimensional objects. One of Da Vinci’s biographers noted:

‘The glory of being an artist, [Da Vinci] realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain.’


A major Da Vinci achievement was Vitruvian Man. Named for the Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, an engineer in Caesar’s army around 50 B.C.E., Vitruvius speculated that the perfect architectural building, or temple, could and should be the dimensions of a human male.

He wrote:

‘In a temple there ought to be harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the whole. In the human body, the central point is the navel. If a man is placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a compass centered at his navel, his fingers and toes will touch the circumference of a circle thereby described, And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of a perfect square.’

Leonardo and his architect friends thought and worked together to come up with their own solutions to how this could be artistically and mathematically represented. And also how to combine the circles and planes into a geometrical perfection. Only Leonardo came up with  the symmetry of a perfect representation, the Vitruvian Man, who, it is speculated, is a self-portrait of Leonardo himself. And Leonardo improved on Vitruvius’s calculations, and made his drawing scientifically accurate; thus, perfect.

Isaacson writes of this perfection:

‘…He used delicate lines and careful shading to create a body of remarkable and unnecessary beauty. With its intense but intimate stare and the curls of hair that Leonardo loved to draw, his masterpiece weaves together the human and the divine.

The book is filled with these insights into Da Vinci’s artistry and his search for mathematic and architectural precision. You will be the better for it after reading it. Ready for my Da Vinci final now.

The June Online Book Choice Is:

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill


Hamill grows up in a New York Irish ghetto in the middle part of the 20th century, surrounded by poverty and alcohol. His father is disabled, and soothes his depression with alcohol, which lends to hardships at home. Hamill learns early in his life about the bar scene, where his father his king:

‘One Sunday when I was almost eight, he said to me, Come on, McGee. I walked with him up to the corner and for the first time entered the tight, dark, amber-colored, wool-smelling world of a saloon. This one was called Gallagher’s … In that room, the men were jammed together at a high three-sided bar, talking, smoking, singing, laughing, and drinking. They drank beer. They drank whiskey. There was no television then, so they made their own entertainments … Hey Billy, give us a song! someone yelled. And then he started.’

Fortunately for Hamill, he relied on and learned from the wisdom of his mother. But the influence of his father and his environment overwhelmed him:

‘And so the pattern had begun, the template was cut. There was a celebration when you got drunk. There was a victory and you got drunk. It didn’t matter if other people saw you; they were doing the same thing. So if you were a man, there was nothing to hide. Part of being a man was to drink.’

Parts of the book are funny, funny in that characters revolve in a state of drunkenness; so, inevitably, sad. Hamill has a run-in with the law in Mexico:

‘And how did I get here? In the black closet, as I gazed at that sliver of light, the night played out in my mind. If I hadn’t gone to the party, or if nobody had cut in when I danced with Yolanda, or if I’d said no to Manny, said, Manny, I don’t want to go anywhere, if I’d gone home and read a book or made some pictures; if I’d had some money to bribe the cops; if. If, I said. If. I wondered what time it was too. What day. Wondered what my mother would think if she heard I was spending my life in a Mexican prison.’

Hamill eventually gave up drinking. His work as a New York city editor must have demanded it. His family was suffering from it. And the body will demand that costs be paid.

‘Much of my memory of those years is blurred, because drinking was now slicing holes in my consciousness. I never thought of myself as a drunk; I was, I thought, like many others — a drinker.’

The lines between alcoholism and social drinking and drinking for pleasure can be blurred as well.