2018 Book #11 - My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is the tale of the friendship of Elena & Lila, as they grow up in a poor neighborhood in Naples, Italy, in the 1940s and 50s.

Elena is the narrator. She's an exceptionally bright child and a good student, but she realizes that Lila's native intelligence easily outshines her own, which causes her no end of torment. It's a rich, complex, and deeply felt portrait of a lifelong friendship, one characterized in equal parts by love and rivalry. I love that about it, the way it lays bare the ambivalence that can exist in deep friendship, especially in adolescence. It's heartbreaking, the things that Elena never tells Lila, the petty digs at her she sometimes takes, her secret & shameful glee when she feels she's bested her in some way. I flashed back on the horrible claustrophobic intensity of adolescence. God, I' m glad that's over.

Not only are the characters vivid and complex; the portrait of street life in post-war Italy is also endlessly fascinating. For the girls, their neighborhood is the entire world. They take it all as given: the beatings and screaming fights at home; the factions and rivalries; the dominance of the nasty Solara brothers, who have a sports car. Lila's father repairs shoes in a dusty little shop and a great deal happens because Lila designs some highly original shoes, which threatens the established order, in that he is only a cobbler and not some fancy shoe maker, and girls are not supposed to do things like that.

I stayed up until 4 a.m. night before last finishing this, and then all the next day at work I was thinking about it. Elena and Lila haunted my mind. Like Elena herself, I kept replaying certain scenes over and over, trying to figure out exactly what they meant. If that's not the mark of a great novel, I don't know what is.

2018 Book #10 - Colonel Chabert, by Honoré de Balzac

Can't believe I've never read Blazac before. What a treat! I can see how he influenced Dickens. His characters have a vividity bordering on the hallucinatory. He's a bit less of a fever dream than Dickens, but still highly pitched.

This short novel tells the tale of a famous colonel in the Napoleonic wars who is given up for dead and thrown in a mass grave in Russia. After slowly recovering in the hut of some kindly peasants, he slowly makes his way on foot back to France, a vagabond. There, unable to legally establish his identity, he appeals to a brilliant young lawyer, who, surprisingly, takes his case. The scene where he tells his tale to the lawyer is unforgettable and was what put me in mind of Dickens. 

The tale moves pretty quickly but is not without detail. In fact, he tends to build up his characters by describing what they do, how they look, their surroundings, rather than talking about them, which I believe was a major innovation in the early 19th century.

"Balzac?" you may think, "That would be ponderous and slow." It's not. It's a ringing pleasure from start to finish. The older I get, the more I love 19th century novels. I expect Balzac to become one of my favorites, up there with Trollope and Dickens.

2018 Book #9 - The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela

Written in 1915, this is considered one of the great novels of the Mexican Revolution. It draws on his experiences as a doctor in the Revolutionary Army, which, in his telling, is less an army than a ragtag guerrilla group that devolves into a predatory gang, looting and killing sheerly for the hell of it.

There's very little politics involved. It's about the personalities of the gang, especially Demetrio Macias, a peasant  who becomes a "general" in Pancho Villa's Army through fearlessness and instinctive military skill. A couple of city slickers in the beginning are able to articulate some ideals for the revolution, but by the end of the novel the fighting is nihilistic. It's more brutal than any spaghetti western you've ever seen.

The characters, though sketched in stark strokes, are vivid and memorable, especially a fierce female fighter, (called in this translation War Paint), and the pensive Demetrio.

Although Azuela was sympathetic to the initial goals of the uprising, this is a dire warning to anyone who romanticizes revolution. Once the demon of violence is unloosed, it is the most ruthless who ride the chaos to power.

2018 Book #8 - The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Another American dystopia, quite similar to The Year of the Flood, which I read last year. A catastrophic economic collapse has led to mass unemployment, most businesses shuttered, millions of destitute formerly middle-class workers, roving gangs of drug zombies... not quite an apocalypse but a 21st century version of the Great Depression. All the money has been sucked out of the economy by the high capital overclass. So basically what we've got now, just more so.

Into this wrecked America comes a corporate model community offering a sanitized suburban fortress. All you have to do is qualify, sign up for life, and you can have clean towels and brussel sprouts and a yard to mow and all the andoyne 50s music you can stomach.  Stan and Charmaine, who have been living out of their car, jump at the chance.

As you can imagine, the project is not as benevolent as the infomercials promise. It gets very dark. I don't want to give out any spoilers, but imagine a sealed-off world run by a corporation with the power to shape consumers' identities to its own ends, (even more than they do at present), using any means its evil psychologists can cook up. There's really no way to describe what happens without ruining it for you because the twists and turns are essential to the way the characters evolve.

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2018 Book #7 - The Wind's Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. LeGuin

2018 A Book A Week #7

The Wind's Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

I've had this since I was a teenager. I think I read it back then, but it was way over my head. This is grown-up stuff. Deeply psychological at times, at other times mythical and dreamlike. (She calls those stories "psychomyths.")

My favorite stories were about a group of ten clones who work as a team on an alien planet (Nine Lives) and one about a planet with vegetative intelligence (Vaster Than Empires And More Slow.) After each story, I would pause before reading the next one. I let them resonate in my mind for a while. I didn't want to rush it.

Many of the stories tie into her novels, including one that gives some background to The Dispossesed, a book I absolutely loved.

You don't have to be a science fiction or fantasy fan to appreciate Ms. LeGuin's complex, poetic tales. You just have to love great stories that make you wonder, that unsettle and intrigue.

2018 Book #6 - Yanomamo, The Fierce People, by Napoleon Chagnon

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.

How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist

2018 Book #5 - A Cage of Ice, by Duncan Kyle

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.

2018 Book #4 - Margarito & the Snowman by REYoung

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.