Bedside books

Jan Reid’s  Comanche Sundown is a beautifully imagined novel with two real-life quintessential Americans at its core, the Comanche half-blood chief Quanah Parker and a half-blood black named Bose Ikard, the son of his slave-owning father. This book should be a contender for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It’s in the ranks of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.  Quanah and Bose are blood brothers engaged in living their lives as men at a pivotal moment in history when Whites are turning the Comanche ranging ground into cattle country. The story is also an intoxicating tale of the Indian women who shared their lives. The novel puts flesh on two real-life figures and their time, not so long ago. Reid’s re-imagining of the Comanche way of life and Quanah’s shamanistic aura and fearlessness is a masterful feat of story-telling. His recent biography of Doug Sahm, the Texas Tex-Mex rocker, is also a good one for the road. His The Bullet Meant for Me defies easy description. It’s an autobiography of a writer who took a pistol shot in the stomach that passed on to lodge against his spine––paralyzing him for months until he regained the partial use of his legs: bracingly tough-minded, inspiring, beautifully written, a portrait of an artist in mid-flight who refused to go down for the count. In Comanche Sundown, he’s written a masterpiece  on the richness and tragedy of frontier life.

Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia is encyclopedic in scope, his summing up of a lifetime of reviewing, 851 pages that cover a daunting range of literature with a particular nod to European writers, historical and  modern. The more I read James the more I’m reminded of his rare qualities, the mind of a poet blended naturally with the hard-earned wisdom of someone at home on the streets, who can’t and doesn’t want to put literature behind academic walls but keeps it rooted at the forefront of lived life, as it was when it was created by writers struggling with the temper of their  time. He writes with the assurance of someone who knows that literature, poetry and the lives of writers can teach truths far beyond the esthetic sublime.

Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence just came in the mail. What can I say. I love what his critics find irritating about his prose,  the  quick-wrapped lightning illuminations that fearlessly strike at the quick of a writer’s essence. If they would only accept  that Bloom is a Jewish mystic writing not so much from a historical view but from a point of revelation, they wouldn’t be so vexed by his approach. He’s the most inspired, broadly visionary critic in American history, and his books will rest on a shelf reserved for uniquely American writers, close beside the three mentors who gave him the courage to be himself––Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.

Larry McMurtry’s Hollywood and Literary Life. I always fall for McMurtry’s quirky nonfiction voice. What I like about these two memoirs, the first was Books, is their lack of personal or literary pretension, his tendency to dodge any serious discussion in mid-course and go off to eat a burger and fries or some such ordinary undertaking. I know underneath it all is a reader and storyteller of the first magnitude, but taking himself too seriously in these memoirs isn’t in his nature. At any rate, the memoirs feel honest. They have a diary feel by a diarist who knows pretension is the kiss of death.

Theroux-Naipaul shake hands

paul theroux

Talk about social media, the ubiquitousness of cameras and instant communication: Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul unexpectedly encountered each other at a literary festival in England, which led to a long handshake and a smiling exchange. Here’s a post of the video. I’ve always admired Theroux’s “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” for its evocation of their early encounter in Malawi and the unknowable, dramatic course friendships can take. Here’s part of the post on The Book Bench:

“Talk about being in the right place at the right time: Reza Aslan was at the Hay Festival last weekend, where he gave a talk about his latest project—the gorgeous, comprehensive “Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East,” a collection of Middle Eastern essays, fiction, and poetry from the past hundred years in English translation—and was in the green room when Paul Theroux and V. S. Naipaul had their encounter. Aslan happened to be taking a video with his phone, when, to his surprise, Theroux approached Naipaul and offered his hand.  Aslan put it on his Twitter feed (@rezaaslan): “Holy Cow! I caught first face-to-face reconciliation of Paul Theroux & VS Naipaul. Magical moment.”

Read more

Ian McEwan on Updike

McEwan was interviewed on some of his favorite books, and he launched into an appreciation of John Updike. He’s called him  ‘the greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death’.

Interviewer: What is it about Updike that deserves that praise?

Rabbit At Rest

McEwan: Great sentence-maker; extraordinary noticer; wonderful eye for detail; great fondler of details, to use Nabokov’s phrase. Huge comic gift, finding its supreme expression in the Bech trilogy. A great chronicler, in the Rabbit tetralogy, of American social change in the 40 years spanned by those books. Ruthless about women, ruthless about men. (Feminists are wrong to complain. There’s a hilarious streak of misanthropy in Updike). He reminds us that all good writing, good observation contains a seed of comedy. A wonderful maker of similes. His gift was to render for us the fine print, the minute detail of consciousness, of what it’s like in a certain moment to be another person, to inhabit another mind. In that respect, Angstrom will be his monument.

And it goes on…click here to read the full interview.

Name dropping

Check out page 295 of Jim Harrison’s newest novella collection, The Farmer’s Daughter, when you see a copy. He kindly slipped my name into one sentence in this force majeure book, particularly the first two novellas: The Farmer’s Daughter and Brown Dog Redux. There’s simply no writer like Jim Bear. He shares his buddy Thomas McGuane’s luminous language plus an always beating, warm heart, making for characters that are the closest you’ll ever get to pulsing human blood on the printed page. Plus funny, out loud laughing.

Naipaul: the calypso rambler

The V.S. Naipaul biography (The World Is What It Is) is done, confirming the tiresome personality which has become so much of his myth. Fortunately, his biographer chose to treat the negative aspects of his personality as matter of fact; he had no choice; from Naipaul’s beginning as a teenager, it was apparent he was destined to be insecure, egocentric and cruel, seeing himself as privileged. He is impervious and unconcerned about his failings as a human being. He’s cultivated, and had it cultivated for him by others, a myth that he sacrificed all for his art, but I don’t see it that way. To say that, is to say you have no responsibility to the people around you, whether casual strangers or loved ones. He is routinely awful to too many people. About the only thing positive that can be said for his cruelty and rudeness is that he does  it to people face to face, with no pretension. There’s an element of sadism here, the small boy who enjoys torturing the weak and unsuspecting. But enough of that. “Enough,” in fact, is his biographer’s , Patrick French’s, last word in the book, which stops at 1996. In a footnote, French writes, “but more later.” It must be said, I have nothing but admiration for Naipaul’s cooperation with his biographer, allowing him full access to all his papers, etc., and in his comments to his biographer admitting his failings in so many areas regarding those who he loved and who loved him. His mother died estranged from her son. It’s one of the great tragedy’s of his life, which he didn’t comment on.

But I don’t care about Naipaul’s personality. Many people are loaded down with flaws that make them pretentious and unpleasant. But none of them, and few others in the world, can come even close to touching  Naipaul’s artistry and vision. It’s perhaps a small stretch to suggest that he changed, at least among a certain circle of intellectuals (left), the way people looked at the third world, and the so-called responsibility of the West. I read A Bend in the River when it was published in 1979 and thought it a masterpiece, which it is. It was written in the period of his great nonfiction books. I was first attracted by his nonfiction writing, which still holds me, and, because of its structure, mostly still holds together, still offering great lessons through its weaving of history, exacting details, personalities and, most essentially, Naipaul’s hardcore distrust of shibboleths and the fashionably correct. At bottom, I guess, it’s his very distrust (and lack of compassion) of other human beings for not taking greater responsibility over their lives that he uses to color his point of view regarding the West and the so-called third world or emerging nations, or the rest of the world. Anyway, his books have been a necessary corrective,  truly a monumental achievement, in the literary sense.  So now I’m reading his newest book, A Masque of Africa, which starts off with some of the most awkward prose ever written, at least the first 40 pages or so. At the same time, I’m reading his essay on Conrad in Literary Occasions. It’s as if the writing is by two different people. More on this later. There are some signs that Naipaul is mellowing a bit in old age. As his ego melts down, he’ll have much to reckon with, but he can also say  that  he’s created an unmatchable body of world-class literature. The books will stand for a long time, the rest is soon dust, and eventually the books will be too.

New Cormac McCarthy movies

first edition cover

Good news. Two more Cormac McCarthy novels, Cities of the Plains and Blood Meridian, are scheduled to be filmed in 2012 and 2011, respectively.

This bodes well for his Border trilogy being filmed complete. There hasn’t been a novelist who has had such a string of successful films from his novels  in my memory. We can  hope these two movies are done as well as All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men and The Road. See the McCarthy website here.

McCarthy wisely decamped from Knoxville in mid-life and hid away in El Paso where he found a city, a landscape and a people, past and present, that were equal to his majestically precise prose.

Global Portraits 2

No. 2 in a series of short fiction sketches that say something about the cultural mix that’s going on in Asia. To see all the fiction pieces, go to “Categories” and click on the “fiction”  link.


The guy has a chicken neck, soft rolls of fat under his chin, wispy white hair­­.  He’s like a boy in front of the most beautiful girl in the village. His eyes never leave me. He says go out, go to room. I think: Go out with this old animal again? I tell myself––Pai, if pay enough, go. I test his money. A little bar-fly girl in a black and white school uniform walks by in her white sneakers, bouncing up and down, like this, to Proud Mary.

“I see that little girl likes you,” I say, using my best smile. “I help you. You want her? Only $60.”

He said the name of Jesus, the God. “No, honey. I like you. Don’t you want to go with me?”  he says.

“I want to go,” I say, “but I have to ask for a lot of money. I have to pay rent. I have two children.”

“I seen the scar,” he says.

My head was a broken plate from tequila the night before. All the dancers went to Mr. Spicy’s after work. Men went crazy buying us drinks. We had a lot of fun. Now I feel like somebody kick me in the head. He says again, “Don’t you like me, darlin’? I need another tequila.”

“Me, too,” I say. I start to feel better because that was my 74th  drink this month. I made 65 drinks before the twelfth day. Now the mamasan knows I work hard to make money. $1 a drink for me. $3 for the bar. Then the old animal who is covered in tatoos says he needs another tequila to make his carrot grow. When I don’t understand, I smile and laugh. “Me too,” I said. One more dollar. He smiles and nods. Momasan walks around the dance floor, “Tomorrow, everything 50 percent off,”  she says. “Not me,” says Blue.

The old animal says it’s time to put up or shut up. I know shut up means to keep quiet. Finally, he says, “Well? Let’s go, honey…”

I say, “You give me $100, Ok? We go now.” That’s how I got $30 to send to my mom yesterday. My mom’s in jail in Burma. Two more years. I want her with me. I need her close. I’m a baby too, really. I want to cry all the time.

Tomorrow night Blue and I go to the temple for Macha Bucha––about the Buddha talks to people. I will pray to take care of my mom and to live to be old with my children.

The next night all the temples in the town filled with people. The moon rose big and red like millions of nights before on this night in May. Pai and her two children prayed for her mother, and she prayed to be a good mother and to have a good heart.

favorite novels list

Here’s a favorite novels list from a close friend. I post it because I have read only three of the novels, and it opens up new possibilities for me.

Camus, The Stranger
McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
DeLillo, Libra
Dickens, Dombey and Son
Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Banks, Affliction

––By Jim Giles, who taught English at what’s now The University of North Texas when I was student there.