Drawing of yours truly by Rebecca McConnell.
Book 6 - The Fierce People, by Napoleon Chagnon, Third ed., 1983.
This once-controversial book is an anthropological study of tribal people in the Venezuelan and Brazilian rainforest. From what I can tell, it was mostly controversial because it depicts systemic violence as part of the social structure, which conflicted with idealistic notions of primitive peoples that were more prevalent in anthropology in the middle of the last century. I think that debate is pretty much over and Chagnon has won.
Although there are some sections on genealogy, marriage patterns etc., with diagrams that I couldn't quite understand, most of the book is written in a narrative style that made it quite readable to me.
Although his portrait is unvarnished, it's highly sympathetic. He gets to know them very well and even goes native to some degree. He really hates the missionaries, or at least most of them, and one of my favorite bits was when he arrayed himself in tribal dress, snorted their hallucinogenic drug, chanted, danced, and howled. A Protestant missionary, who was really down on the drugs & talking to the spirits, stomped into the village square to denounce this demon worship. Chagnon gave him the finger and kept on with the ritual. The missionary left in a huff. This convinced the villagers that the white man's sky god would not punish them for engaging in their traditional rituals.
Chagnon returned many times to the jungle in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and was often accompanied by a filmmaker. I'd like to see some of those films.
Here's an article in the New York Times that gives an overview of Chagnon's career.
A Cage of Ice, by Duncan Kyle
Solid little cold war thriller from around 1970. There's a bit of espionage and the second half becomes more of an adventure tale, which I find less interesting. But in the first half, when the protagonist doesn't know what the hell is happening to him, there are some lovely Raymond Chandleresque turns of phrase. "His nose looked educated."
There's a great scene where the hero, an English doctor, meets all the CIA guys and is startled to find that, unlike the spooks he's read about in English spy novels, they're all clean cut suburban dads. He refers to them as the PTA.
Overall a fun, quick, easy read.
This book was written by my friend Ray. I haven't seen Ray in maybe 30 years, since we worked together at a bookstore on the drag. Truth be told, we only hung out a few times that I remember, though to be fair, there's a lot that I don't remember from that period of my life. I haven't always been the sober guy doing Qigong every morning that I am now, in my late middle age. But Ray is one of those people that I instantly and deeply connected with, a kindred spirit, a lifer, someone for whom art and life are inseparable. I loved our rambling conversations and the way he noticed my quirks. I have no doubt the next time I talk to him we'll pick up right where we left off. So I was delighted when his novel popped up in my Facebook feed.
What would I think of this book If I didn't know Ray? It's impossible to say, but I bet if I had just come across it in a bookstore and opened it at random I might well have bought it. "Damn," I would have thought, "this bastard's been reading my mail."
It's not an easy book to describe. It's probably not for everyone. But if you are the kind of person who has read more than one novel by William S Burroughs and made it all the way through Rushdie's Satanic Diaries, and don't need everything explained in the in the end, I think you'll definitely dig it.
It's the tale of a restless, self destructive, underachieving misfit who sees too much of what's going on around him and digs himself into a rut, slogging away at a crap night job, self-medicating, holing up, crippled by a deep loathing of both himself and the American dystopia.
I should mention that his job is driving around a truck that manufactures snow because the government and/or industry have decreed that every day is Christmas. One of the things I love about it is the strange centrality of the snow, a sort of mandated denial of the ugliness buried beneath it. A byproduct of the snow is a nasty drug called Icine that may be deliberately dumped on the populace.
The Snowman is a white guy, but all the guys on his snow-making crew are from south of the border. The city he lives in is called Osberg; Austinites will recognize their hometown through a distorted funhouse mirror. The snow stops right at the border with Mexico, on the Frio Grande. Some of the most powerful stuff is about Mexicans coming north, into the cold, (it's still brutally hot in Mexico) and suffering wretched conditions and abuse while doing the work Americans don't want to do.
The snowman's friendship with one of these guys, the enigmatic Margarito, is the axis around which the densely swirling narrative spins, but sometimes the focus breaks that orbit and one of my very favorite scenes is that of an old Mexican woman ruminating on her life.
Did I mention that the Snowman is endlessly, surreptitiously, filmed by a megalomaniacal director named Boone? Or else perhaps he's hallucinating the whole thing... I like that because I think the media sludge we have all been floating down our whole lives has infected our minds to the degree that even our dreams reek of video. You can turn off your TV, but there's no getting away from it. It's in your head now.
So this was a real pleasure. I look forward to reading Ray's other novel and talking about them with him when I next visit Texas. It's deeply gratifying that he has stayed true to himself and produced something substantial and impressive. I hope more people read it than listen to my CDs, haha.
You can get it at Malvern booksin Austin, or off Amazon. If you're in Austin, get it at Malvern. If it hadn't been for them promoting Ray's book reading in their store, I never would have heard about it.
Book number 3. The Waning of the Middle Agesby J. Huizinga.
I started this last May, I think. Possibly even earlier. It's very enjoyable but also very dense and presupposes familiarity with a very great variety of medieval sources, most of which I'm completely unfamiliar with. (I've read the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales, a few other things from the time, and only a couple of books on the Middle Ages, my favorite being A Distant Mirrorby Barbara Tuchman.) So I know I missed out on many of the finer points.
The overall thrust of the book is a consideration of the forms of thought in culture in France and the Netherlands in the 1400s. Despite the fairly abstruse material, I found his writing lively and persuasive. He's very keen to stress the complexity of his subject and how over-simplified our conceptions of the Middle Ages are. Here's an example of an observation that I underlined.
"Symbolism at all times shows a tendency to become mechanical. Once accepted as a principal, it becomes a product, not of poetical enthusiasm only, but of subtle reasoning as well, and as such it grows to be a parasite clinging to thought, causing it to to degenerate."
Assertions like this are supported by numerous examples.
So, not light reading, but I'm glad I stuck with it. It's invigorating to eavesdrop on the musings of someone brilliant, deeply immersed in their subject, even if you can't always keep up.
So it's official. My New Year's resolution is to read one book a week. The start of the year will be easy because I have a stack of books I've made headway on but haven't finished yet. I've already completed weeks 1 & 2 so here, for your thrill-a-minute reading pleasure, are my first two book reviews.
Week 1: Modern Man In Search of a Soul by Carl Jung, a series of lectures, elaborated into essays and translated from German, on the overall shape of his ideas--particularly as they relate to the intersection of spiritual or religious matters and psychiatry--for the general reader.
Jung's opinion that spiritual and psychiatric matters are deeply related was at odds with the dominant Freudian and Adlerian schools of his time. It's still a minority opinion outside of religious circles. This was one of my dad's books, so I got to see what he underlined in relation to his ministerial vocation.
He spends some time articulating his differences with Freud in particular. Even "light" Jung can be pretty heavy going... I wonder if some of his thought was lost in the translation. Still, certain sentences leapt out at me with a kind of ringing depth that one only gets in the presence of genius. He makes some observations on the creative life that I find salient, about the things one must give up in order to cultivate one's openness to unfettered inspiration.
If I was a real intellectual I would probably re-read this. I'm pretty nerdy for a drummer, but I'm not exactly writing columns for the London Review of Books.
Week 2: The Incurable Wound and further Narratives of Medical Detectionby Berton Roueché , which I found engaging and readable.
This book, written in the 1950s, is separated into chapters, each one dealing with a particular malady, looking at its diagnosis, history, and etiology through the lens of a particular case. He goes into some interesting history on the development of drugs and ideas in medicine, but my favorite parts were the ornate narratives of the patients' experiences when they didn't know what was wrong with them.
The descriptions of mental conditions are especially intriguing. There's a fellow who goes into an amnesiac fugue state and another who has a manic psychosis because of an excessive prescription of cortisone. Fascinating to me. Both cases involved married men and portrayed their distressing behavior both from their perspectives and those of their families. Fans of Oliver Sachs might like this one.
I started drawing this street scene and realized I had got stuff irepparably wrong-sized... (I do like the car on the right... you can feel the slumpy weight of it, parked there.)
So I started again from the lower right hand corner, but it got tedious, so I gave up. This is only a tiny corner of the image.
More from the same city scene. And then I got an idea for some lyrics.
I wasn't happy with his mouth... it was crooked. So I fixed it. I LOVE PENCIL. The old one is below.