Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Lists: Read This!

Read This! is a nifty little volume, though it isn’t really the kind of book you’d pick up and read. It contains lists of favorite books you might like to pick up and read, compiled by bookstore owners, book buyers, and employees of independent bookstores around the country. It also has a few choice anecdotes and personal remarks from the contributors about individual choices.

Thumbing through the book, I was once again reminded how little I’ve read in recent years—and how many books I’ve started but failed to complete. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of quite a few of the titles listed. I also spotted a number of titles that I was meaning to read at some point in the past but had long since forgotten about—for example, The Leopard. And I also came upon a few titles that I did read and love…and then forgot about entirely. It’s like running into a long lost friend, very nice.

This happened to me, in fact, as I glanced at the first list in the book, compiled by editor Hans Weyandt of Micawbers Bookstore in St. Anthony Park. Number 6 on his list is Running After Antelope by Scott Carrier. Now there’s a brilliant, humorous, and very low-key collection. Thanks, Hans, for reminding me!

It occurred to me that I ought to return the favor by compiling a list of my own. I have never worked in a bookstore but perhaps warehouse work might qualify me. Categorical thinker that I am, I thought I might divide up my selections by type, so the reader (presuming there is one) would find it easier to apprise unfamiliar selections.

Literary Non-fiction (my favorite category)
Literature and the Gods: Roberto Calasso
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Larry McMurtry
Islands and Books in Indian Country: Louis Erdrich
Voices of the Old Sea: Norman Lewis
The Gameskeeper at Home: Richard Jefferies
Vertigo: W.S. Sebald
Son of the Morning Star: Evan S. Connell
Rameau’s Nephew: Denis Diderot
Six Memos for the Next Millennium: Italo Calvino
Running After Antelope: Scott Carrier
The Book of Disquiet: Fernando Pessoa
Keeping a Rendezvous: John Berger
London Journal: James Boswell
In Bluebeard’s Castle: George Steiner
Desert Solitaire: Edward Abbey
Essays: Montaigne (the motherload)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Geoff Dyer
Thinking the Twentieth Century: Tony Judt
Prague Pictures: John Banville
Around the Day in Eighty Worlds: Julio Cortazar

Long Novels
Parade’s End: Ford Maddox Ford
Your Face Tomorrow: Javier Marias
The Makioka Sisters: Junichiro Tanazaki
Don Quixote: Cervantes
Vanity Fair: Thackerey

Repetition: Peter Handke
A Heart So White: Javier Marias
Out Stealing Horses: Per Petterson
Montauk: Max Frisch
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Milan Kundera
The Periodic Table: Primo Levi
Far Afield: Susanna Kaysen
Growth of the Soil: Knut Hamsun
Philosopher or Dog: Machado de Asis
Lord Grizzly: Frederick Manfred

Short Novels
Runaway Horse: Robert Walser
Solo Faces: James Salter
The Connoisseur: Evan S. Connell
Pan: Knut Hamsun
Wittgenstein’s Nephew: Thomas Bernhard
The Assault: Harry Mulisch
Farmer: Jim Harrison
A Thousand Cranes: Yasunari Kawabata

Short Stories
Sketches from a Hunter’s Album: Ivan Turgenev
The Interpreter of Maladies: Jhumpa Lahiri
Dance of the Happy Shades: Alice Munro
The Moccasin Telegraph: W.S. Kinsella
Collected Stories: Frank O’Connor
Five Tales of Ferrara: Giorgio Bassani
By Night Under a Stone Bridge: Leo Perutz
Once in Europa: John Berger

The list betrays an obvious bent toward postwar European literature. Well, what can I say? I’ve read quite a few of Willa Cather’s novels—My Antonia, A Lost Lady, Shadows on the Rock, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, Obscure Destinies—but I’m not sure which one I ought to include. The same goes for Conrad and Chekhov.

I’ve become a dabbler, dipping into Thoreau, Audubon’s Journals, books of poetry scattered around the house. Recent triumphs (meaning I got to the end) include Darwin’s Lost World (Martin Brasier), The Bullhead Queen (Sue Leaf), Falling Man (Don Delillo), The Round House (Louise Erdrich)  A New World (Amid Chaudhuri), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid).

What next? Looking over at the bookshelf, I suddenly spot a book I forgot I had. It has a pale green binding, easily lost in the mix. Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge.

But there are also plenty of half-read books sitting in a pile beside the bed…

Friday, October 26, 2012


A round of applause is due to any documentary that makes it into general distribution. Hence, our hats go off to Samsara, a non-verbal film shot in 70-mm by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. It’s part documentary, part cinematic coffee-table book, on the order of Baraka and those films of our youth, Koyanasqatsi and Powaqqatsi.

If you haven’t seen at least one of these films, you should. And to get the full effect, you really ought to see it on the big screen. That leaves you with only one option: Samsara.

But if you have seen one of the films mentioned above, do you really need to rush out and see this one? I think not.

Samsara offers a long string of gorgeous scenes, beginning with a Thai landscape littered with temples, seen from above in the evocative light of the setting (or rising?) sun. There follow extended sequences of Balinese dancers with immobile, doll-like faces; Tibetan monks crouching over sand paintings; African tribes-people staring angrily into the camera, their faces dotted with leopard spots; lovely sand dunes stretching to the horizon; moonlight penetrating an abandoned pueblo dwelling as the stars streak by; and so on.

The Sanskrit word Samsara refers to the wheel of life, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the film does have an “arc” of sorts. As it progresses, the images get more troubling: A heavily-muscled man, tattooed from head to foot, cuddles a little baby. Instead of the windswept emptiness of Tibet, we get the raging highways of Los Angeles, filmed at night. The camera looks down on the bizarre millionaire housing developments on the fan-shaped ocean dunes of the United Arabic Emirates. Before long we’re deeply immersed in Asian chicken factories, milking operations, and the assembly lines of massive manufacturing plants.

All of these images are interesting. And nearly all of them are lovely. The inmates in the Filipino prison have a great dance step. Even the slum-dwellers scavenging the dumps in Mumbai seem to have hired an art director, just for the day.

One spiritual blog wrote of the film:
“Experiencing Samsara, we are challenged to leave behind our passive and isolated role of spectators and to step into the incredible energy streams of the wheel of life. For each of us, in our own way, is caught up in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. And our journeys are connected to those of the people on the screen: we are rich and poor, happy and sad, hurried and at peace, open to change and locked in service to authoritarian leaders, filled with lust and dutifully spinning prayer wheels, searching for security and coming to terms with impermanence. Samsara shows us in no uncertain terms that the movements of creation and dissolution never stop.”

Yet watching the film, I came to the conclusion that the individuals who made it don’t know much about life…they just happen to have a very nice camera. There are no births or deaths in the film, at least none that I can recall. (Yes, there is a funeral and a baptism sequence.) Worse yet, there is no dialogue, and little interaction between people. The rendering of natural phenomena exposes almost no familiarity with natural processes or forces, or the inter-connectedness of things. The soundtrack carries an atmospheric, New Age portentousness that sweeps us up in anticipation of a cosmic enlightenment that never quite arrives, thought the ride is a nice one.

Yes, Samsara remains a worthwhile film. It’s interesting to see how a modern chicken-factory works—though it would have been more illuminating if they hadn't sped up the film. And the views of Mecca during the Haj, seemingly taken from a blimp hanging over the city, are remarkable. Watching the LA highway at night (once again in fast motion) I had a sudden urge to watch Ironman II again. Perhaps I wasn’t getting properly into the spirit of the piece.

I can admire a film where the director asks you to connect the dots (Babel?) even if the result is feverish and out of balance, but in Samsara, I’m afraid there aren't enough dots to connect. Between the timeless religious imagery and the pell-mell portrayal of industries, poverty, and firearms, we need more of a middle ground. 

Watch the trailer here to get the effect.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Different Shakespeare

Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays?

It’s a question that won’t go away. Why not? Because many who have read, seen, or acted in the plays can’t believe that a semi-literate, mean-spirited corn-merchant from a rural backwater could have produced the most compelling and erudite drama in history.

Countless tenured academics and popular biographers, not to mention the folks who benefit from the billion-dollar tourist trade at Stratford-on-Avon, have a vested interest in casting ridicule on attempts to re-examine the question. Yet doubts about authorship of the plays date back to the eighteenth century, and John Quincy Adams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, and Derrick Jacobi are only a few of the literary and theatrical luminaries who have felt that the corm merchant from Avon was not a playwright. (The evidence suggests he could hardly write his name, much less write a play.)

Scholars, too, have weighed in on the question, with J. Thomas Looney presenting the first well-reasoned argument almost a hundred years ago in defense of  Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the “real” Shakespeare. In 1984 Charlton Osburn gathered together all the main threads of the argument in his well-written The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare. The question was given a pop-culture twist not so long ago in the fictionalize film, Anonymous (2010) which brought widespread exposure to the authorship question while also offering further material for academics to ridicule.

Now, in Last Will. andTestament, Lisa Wilson and Laura Wilson Mattias have followed the main threads of the issue in a well-paced 85-minute documentary. The talking-heads format features eminent scholars of the conventional persuasion, including Stanley Wells, as well as tweedy literary types who propose an alternative. The film is enlivened by fifteen minutes of costume-drama footage from Anonymous, scattered here and there, and the musings of Redgrave, Jacobi, and Mark Rylance (former artistic director of the Globe Theater in London) on behalf of DeVere certainly add to the sparkle.

The Wilson sisters have done a good job of avoiding most of the highly speculative detours and subplots to which Oxfordians are sometimes prone. What we are left with, in a nutshell, is this: There is no contemporary evidence linking the man from Stratford with the plays of Shake-speare (as it most often appeared at the time). Nothing about his life is interesting. And neither Wells nor any the other Stratfordian scholars involved have any real evidence to bring forth in defense of their candidate—except tradition.

The second half of the film examines the life of Edward DeVere, which makes a far better story, questions of authorship aside, than the "must-have-done" and "probably-went"s that pepper the official story . He translated Ovid (Shakespeare’s favorite Roman poet) at 13, and was captured by pirates and left for dead on an island. (So was Hamlet, you may recall.) He was raised by a domineering guardian of Polonian fatuousness, spent a good deal of time in Italy, owned the Globe Theater, was considered by many as the heir apparent to Queen Elizabeth—and even signed his name as such without being hauled in on charges of treason.(Why not?)

The film will make its official premier in Austin in a week or two, and it will be available on pay per view soon afterward. Meanwhile, you can study up on the pros and cons of the Oxfordian position on Wikipedia. Seeing this choice little film, made by two former Minneapolitans, is sure to whet your appetite for more.