The always readable and enlightening Clive James has given us his musing on TV’s renaissance in a series of “notebooks” wrapped around the idea of “binge watching,” which I translate to passionate appreciation. James is one of the great essayists and critics of our era and TV is lucky to have his interest.
A quick rundown on recent reading, just to get the ball rolling again.
In the past three months, I’ve read:
1 Advertisements for Myself by Mailer (for the second or third time), and what can I say, it’s Mailer at his best and his worse. That’s not a negative review, it’s just a reflection of what you get with an original artist who talked out his issues and interests in public to make it real. Someone said Mailer can be good and bad in the same sentence, much less a book, but overall I’m struck by his core artistry which by my lights never left him during his 50-odd year career, including his worse outing in Barbary Shore. He had to get that dialectic, intellectual writing out of his system and he did it in that book. What value does Advertisement’s offer? His fascination with God, Manichaeism, orgasm, a belief that each person is engaged in a spiritual struggle in life, a belief that America is geared to become totalitarian and to engage in wars – it’s all there in bits and pieces which are developed in full later. You get the tone of the times in the ’50s. Mailer was a young bear in a cage and from the 60s on to the end of his career (his death) he broke out and roamed the American times like no one else. He was basically fearless with a huge ego. The story of how his The Naked and the Dead came together is a lesson in itself. Such discipline at such a young age; 25 years old when it was published, one year younger than Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, and Naked is a much larger, more ambitious work. Mailer’s heros were Hemingway (as the elder) and James Jones, his young contemporary, who he said probably wrote the better war novel and who made Mailer feel inferior as a person. Jones had great magnetism.
2 William Empson by John Haffenden. I completed the 1,700-odd pages of the two–volume biography in about two weeks. Empson, a poet and language/word-lover, is a new love of mine. The first volume is perfect. The second volume is good, but it has a jagged edge in the prose, very poor editing and proofreading that threw me off. For the Oxford Press, it’s a weak show of editing skills, really embarrassing. But Empson’s story is good, compelling, and adventuresome. The private school section is vivid; he was so precocious. People used the word genius when he was still in his teens. At Oxford, his teachers were in awe of him. He taught in Japan, China and later Brittain. His literary criticism is original, and I like his turn of mind and phrasing. Earlier, I read his Seven Types of Ambiguity and On Complex Words. He would have made a good AP writer, so direct and clear – one of the clearest writers I’ve ever read. He had a bohemian, free style of living, a beautiful wife, and he made most English eccentrics look middle-class normal. A line in one his poems: “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.” You have to love his mind. Next on my list are his Selected Letters and Argufying, his essay collection.
3 Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson is a classic of nonfiction reporting, a plunge into the gut and heart of Hemingway, the man, the image, the failure, the tragic hero, the dissembler, and the enduring saint-like writer. I’ve read everything Hemingway wrote, and most of what’s been written about him: fiction,biographies, et al, and this book forged new ground in so many ways – it’s a cliche to say it’s a rounded, fair portrait of the man, but it is. What you don’t know, you don’t need to know; what you know will make you defend him against all possible criticism. If you want to study fame, read the book. It sends a cold chill through your mind. And yet, he wrote well throughout his life, despite unfair pot shots at his later work. Even the posthumous books, the so-called worse books, are far, far better than 90 percent of the serious fiction and nonfiction published. Many critics have a tendency to talk down real talent in order to lift themselves a little higher (in their own mind). I know his books will read even better, stronger as time goes on. They’re specific yet they all carry a large frame of universalism in the language and stories. When his public image fades and people again read the words fresh, they’ll cherish the record he left. At heart, he was a master reporter of his life, both in fiction and nonfiction. Hendrickson’s book is a classic, no question.
4. After the Boat, I re-read Papa by Gregory Hemingway, the wayward son. It surprised me. I couldn’t remember the book from my first read a long time ago. I was prepared for some insights and revelations, but they never came. The writing was commercial and coy, and I felt he wrote the book (if he did write it) without real interest. Read Hendrickson on Gregory Hemingway and you’ll be enthralled by Gregory’s life and the strange dance he and Ernest put together. Of more interest was the book by Gregory’s wife, Valerie Hemingway, Running with the Bulls; it completes the portrait of that wing of the Hemingway family. Strange fruit, but like the Old Man brave and strong each in their own way.
5. Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison. Jim is my kindred spirit poet-novelist-bear-man trail blazer, raw-souled writer. He writes poems as journal jottings. I relish his words. His whimsical cast of mind. This poetry book is right up to the present day, reporting on his illness, his life, his wife (who recently died) and the insults and pleasures of old age. I shudder to think about his life going forward and hope he can hold up and hold on to give us a little more of his heartening, everyday wisdom and brio, his realism: he says, ok, gang, just pay attention and get your work done while observing and living your life as truly as you can.
Galaxies are grand thickets of stars
in which we may hide forever
6 The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Larry, next time you publish a book at least get someone to proofread it before it’s published. Clumsy repetition and typos run through the sentences like stray yearlings. Otherwise, it had some potential but it came up woefully short in the dust. Cardboard characters. Bang, Bang, Blank… It’s best to read it as a big joke – on the reader.
7 Paris Dream Book by Lawrence Osborne. Osborne wrote a wonderful nonfiction book, Bangkok Days, about his life in Bangkok that reads like fiction. Paris is nothing like it. It’s like going through a florid garden of the past and present, Paris as muse, as lover, as sensual friend, as a palpable state of mind with roots and branches coming out of the past and going into the future. There’s no story, or maybe a tiny bit of story (Turkish baths), there’s unfurling fields of description written in a twisted brew with shades of Lawrence Durrell, Oscar Wilde and one hallucinating tour guide. It’s not a travel book. It’s a language-tour book of the streets, buildings and neighborhoods of Paris. Very original, non-repeatable, the work of a young writer intoxicated by language as he responds to his life of the senses.
8 Norman Mailer: A Double Life by Michael Lennon. This is an important book. It captures Mailer’s genius and his swashbuckling approach to life. He would have been a hell of a sea captain when the unknown world was new. An outright genius. Hemingway repressed his sexual nature; Mailer expressed it, lived by it, and strangely it seems not to have inhibited his energy or creativity but only increased it. I loved the description of how he approached his wide body of work, what triggered his demon. Lennon is understanding, because he knew Mailer intimately and it comes through in the steadiness of his prose, its subtle way of capturing Mailer’s thoughts and reasoning at important moments. If you pair up the books by Hemingway and Mailer from the ’20s to the first decade of this century, you have an arresting narrative of the past 100 years. For any would-be writer, you should study their lives and writing as early in your life as you can. Lasting lessons.
9 Graham Greene: A Life in Letters by Richard Greene. This is a selected overview of the decades of Greene’s life, the earliest to the end. He comes across differently from the impressions you get from his books. He’s less angst ridden, less depressed (at least he doesn’t express his depression much, he just mentions it in passing), morbid, selfish and he’s more attentive to his friends and family than you might have expected. You get the feeling that he’s observing himself and his life in the letters – there’s a strange distance here for a book of letters. That may be a key to the man. There are many, many more letters to come, which may change the picture considerably, especially if some letters address his life with his mistresses and his nocturnal jaunts through the brothels and opium dens of Saigon, Cuba, Europe and Africa. This book has none of that, but those other letters must exist unless, of course, his secret nature prevented him from writing such accounts in letters. I doubt it; at least there should be journals with those details at some later date.
10 Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Robert Lindsey. I grew up fascinated by Brando and I’ve followed his career and his evolution from farm kid to mythical American presence to Orson Wells-like obsolescence. This book gets us fairly close to who he was and gives us some understanding of how he became what he ended up to be, a failure in his eyes. There’s a connection between Brando and Mailer that’s interesting: where their lives crossed. A key is Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, or Mr. Peepers, if you remember him from TV. They came out of the same little town and they were young buddies and gave each other some sanity as they lived out their lives in Hollywood. Cox created that Mr. Peepers character as an actor, and he died young of alcoholism.
11. The Rhetoric of Religion by Kenneth Burke. A deep, revealing look at the words in the Bible, the Logos and the language, the specific words that account for the lasting spell of the story, especially Genesis. You see how the story is lashed together by words that are the bedrock of our innermost self. The hallowed words. The book has a strange parallel to the work of William Empson, who was an atheist, but who admired the book and thought it was excellent work as a study of language. Burke is not concerned with theology or religion as subject, only the way the words convey the message that is conveyed. He calls his interest “logology.” It’s a clumsy term, but it provides a description of his approach.
12 The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. In the tradition of his crime noir novels, but set in high-octane Africa. It has the clarity and intensity of his Nobody Moves. He follows two erstwhile adventurers who’ve lost their way, their morals, their sanity almost, and are in the deepest of dark times with a scheme to rip off intelligence agencies and fellow spies and mercenaries with an outright con. Only idiots would believe and do what the do, but they do it with a sense of “this can be done,” a feeling that takes many people over the edge. There are many people walking the streets and living bizarre fantasy lives, crazy, twisted people trying to con crazy, bad people. The writing is beautiful. There are few laughs. Only paralyzing grins.
13 Finding Them Gone by Bill Porter (Red Pine). This is a travel book masterpiece for lovers of Asian poetry. Porter’s prose is light and fine and imbued with a Taoistic topping of pure joy as his days unfold touring the temples, homes and home ground of China’s greatest poets from earliest times to the last century. You get a sense of how it feels to travel in rural and urban China today. The book is a capstone of a great career by a master-layman-practitioner of Zen and Taoism, a follower of Cold Mountain, Stonehouse, and a host of worthies who he has translated and wrote commentaries about, not to mention his translations and commentaries on the core Buddhist sutras and the Tao Te Ching. I’ll write more about this book in a coming post.
Thomas McGuane has never received anything less than the highest praise as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. I’ve read him since his first novel, picked up at a remainder bin. For me, his essays shine brightest. With an essay, you can’t leave the writer’s side. In a novel or story, you trail along with the characters with an ear cocked for the pyrotechnics of the writer’s voice. The essays spotlight McGuane’s unique voice, his sensibility, in a way fiction cannot allow. A Sporting Chance, his first collection, and his other nonfiction books The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing and Some Horses are examples of the most personal art. My hand reaches out for them often.
An essay in Some Horses, titled On The Road Again, takes on one of the most anti-intuitive subjects imaginable for a first-class writer who has been called an heir to Hemingway. The topic? A long drive with his wife in a pickup truck, pulling a just-bought 38-foot horse trailer with special built-in, mini-living quarters, around a great circle of the West. In this quintessential American home-on-wheels, christened a “Horseabago,” he writes, “We simply pictured ourselves at one end, and Delta, Sassy, Zip and Lena, in the other, and wheels underneath.” After a few pages, you’re assured of his mastery to take on this tale, and carry it to sublime heights. His sensibility, or whatever it is that frees words to rise above themselves into something approximating quotidian reality, is on full display.
A Girl In Winter is British poet Philip Larkin’s second novel. The book is the story of a 16-year-old European girl, her country is never named, who is prematurely mature and intellectual. She accepts an invitation to visit a young English boy and his family. She falls in love with the boy, but they lose touch. Six years later, she returns to Britain as a war refugee.
It’s a remarkable psychological portrait, in the vein of Larkin’s poetry, which is nihilistic, in almost stoic celebration of the ordinary, unexceptional, ultimately disappointing bits that give life its bitter taste.
What’s most interesting to me is Larkin’s very deep minutia describing the meeting of Katherine and Robin, in which he uses the sort of details that belie someone – meaning Larkin – who runs away from life, from the desire to understand others’ in hope to better understand themselves. Larkin’s austere poetry, even in its most gorgeous sensibility, keeps life at bay, at a safe distance that cannot disappoint, while this novel shows Katherine as a person who is probing and open to understanding, or trying to understand, the complexities of other souls. That she and Robin are ultimately unable to capture any of the romantic shavings that surround all lives, even if ungrasped, is all the more tragic. Larkin’s poems couldn’t display such depth of tragedy because he wrapped them in a polished shell of art, singular gems that, no matter their content, bespoke excellence even in the face of tragedy. The novel shows whereof the poems arose.
Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne is the best novel about Bangkok ever written. But, for clarification, it’s written and marketed as a nonfiction account of the author’s life in the city. The book reeks of novelization with the first-person author surrounded by a cast of fiction-like foils (and at least one real person) who capture the spirit and ambiance of the most sensuous, textured, layered city in the world.
Osborn, the author of the recent Ballad of a Small Player, which is set in the casinos of Macau, excels at romantic, slightly desperate characters and settings full of people who recognize each other for their individual élan in the face of life’s fragility. They are people who are unwilling to give up the fight for life and feeling. That such people in unusual numbers are drawn to Bangkok is no accident. Osborn’s tale of living in Bangkok displays a colorful subset of people of the city who refuse to forsake the quixotic in return for sleek, cosmetic urban wallpaper. The book serves equally well as a novel or one man’s guide to Bangkok, suggesting how to absorb and live within its refreshing disparities.
The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Early Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China by E. Zurcher.
This work of high scholarship looks at the social and cultural factors that led to the eventual adoption of Buddhist principles and practice in Chinese culture. It brilliantly captures the chaotic nature of how Buddhist principles were scattered piecemeal over two centuries by Buddhist monks and lay parties that included foreigners, the Chinese gentry, the court, and the intelligentsia. The beauty is the thousands of details it shares about monks and others from late 300AD through the fourth century. It was a perilous time of ferment, and it would be 200 years, in the Tang Dynasty, before Buddhism took on a more recognisable, coherent form eventually leading to the distinct Chinese Buddhist doctrine that we know today. It underscores the cultural fragmentation and difficulties a foreign doctrine of religion has in finding a place in a totally separate and distinct culture, with a different language and already established theories of religion, cosmology and metaphysics. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of transplanting a “foreign” religion, even one with obvious parallels in Chinese religious writings, is manifest throughout this work. It helps put in context the subsequent official elimination of Buddhist temples and practice in revolutionary China, when viewed from the rocky path that Buddhism walked in medieval times.
For a PDF copy of Zurcher’s book, go here.
Here’s a Times Literary Supplement review of Begley’s biography of John Updike. It exposes elements of Updike’s life and character (most complex) that I suspected, but failed to fully understand. His muse was Eros. Elements of ecstasy and self-punishment abounded, all, of course, springing from a most privileged talent and, perhaps even, a full understanding of his source of power as a unique novelist. The writer as eager betrayer writ large. Alas, the complexity of self, art, creativity: it’s all spotlighted in this revealing review. The photograph: An empty page in the foreground, books in the background…an enigmatic, sly look.
An earlier version of this review originally appeared in The Bangkok Post on January 29, 2008.
By Roy Hamric
Not many novels are set in Laos these days, but Colin Cotterill is fast changing that with his series of crime novels set in the former Southeast Asian kingdom. The first novel begins just after Laos fell to the Pathet Lao Communists in 1975.
The unlikely hero, Dr. Siri Paiboon, is a sharp-witted, 72-year-old former jungle surgeon and Communist Party member. He’s surrounded by a cast of loveable characters. He wants to be left alone in his old age, but, to his chagrin, he’s appointed the national coroner of Laos – which really means he’s the only coroner in Laos. A unique twist is Siri’s ability to commune with powerful spirits who dwell in Laos, one of whom has entered his body.
The novels’ tone – read colourful, warm and smart – hit a home run with The New York Times’ reviewer, who called his first book “a perfect balance between the modern mysteries of forensic science and the ancient mysteries of the spirit world”; The Washington Post reviewer said it was “an impressive guide to a little known culture”; Entertainment Weekly cooed “magically sublime, tragically funny”; and Kirkus Reviews called the series, “an embarrassment of riches.”
For Cotterill, who lives in a small village south of Bangkok on the coast of Thailand, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, with each novel followed by glowing reviews – a writer’s dream come true. His gift as a novelist is that he makes it all look so easy. The fluid prose, the intricate plotting, the exotic Laotian setting and the earthy, wry, characters are all far superior to the average crime novel – or almost any novel for that matter.
Before his Siri novels, he apprenticed himself by writing two novels that were published only in Thailand. They were flops, in terms of attracting readers. Evil in the Land Without (2001) and Pool and Its Role in Asian Communism (2002) earned “a total of about $500 in royalties,” he said. Little did he know that international success was waiting just around the corner.
To find an agent for the first Laotian novel, “The Coroner’s Lunch,” he sent a short letter and a few pages of the first chapter to 120 US agents. He got several nibbles. Then an email appeared from a New York agent who asked to see the manuscript. He wrote back, “I can sell this for you.” Suddenly, it felt like fate had adopted him. Before long, he had a contract with Soho Press for a series. “I think getting published is a quirk of fate – getting to the right person at the right time,” he said, in his typical, self-effacing way.
Other novels in the series include Thirty-three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick (“That’s my Hmong book.”), Slash and Burn and The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die.
Born in Wimbledon on the outskirts of London, he arrived in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s and started a series of NGO jobs, at one point working with refugees from Burma, Laos and Vietnam. He met a circle of Laotian ex-royalist and refugees who had vivid stories about the Communists, the fate of ordinary Laotians, the ethnic groups and the mass education and propaganda campaigns.
In 1990, Cotterill joined a Unesco project, working with the Laotian government to train English teachers at a college in Pakse, where he lived for two years. “It’s different to live in Laos and know what’s really happening,” he said. He learned, for instance, that one group of Laotians who wanted to study English used an East German language textbook, requiring them to first learn German to learn how to speak English. His notebooks filled up with stories, anecdotes and character details. But then he tripped up badly, ending up on the wrong side of a dispute with the military over who should be allowed to take English training classes.
“I went out of the country, then found out the government wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “I didn’t really know who to blame. It took me a little while to get over it.” Starting in 1994, he began revisiting the country. “Every time I went, I thought, ‘I’m going to write about this.'”
In the late autumn of each year, he goes to Koh Samui to write a first draft of a new Siri novel in about four weeks. “I don’t like to know where the story is really going,” he said. “I know some of the things that occurred during the year I’m going to write about, so I get a few ideas and then just put Siri into a situation and ask, ‘How do we get out of this?'”
The spirit world plays a key role in each novel. Spirits are engaged in a sort of Manachean battle, inflicting their power for good or bad on lowly humans.
Within Cotterill’s exotic, mysterious world looms every-present bureaucracy, Communism, corpses and death. For Siri, death is but the beginning of the story. He uses his brain like a scalpel to cut through the mysteries of strangulation, stabbings, shootings, drownings, poisonings—and possessions.
On the serious side, one feels the crushing weight Communism has had on one of the most gentle, sublime cultures in the world. Siri is determined – what else is there to do? – to undermine the Communist ideologues whose mission is to discourage free-thinking and individual initiative––the exact traits possessed by Siri’s flesh-and-blood gang.
Another pleasure is Cotterill’s ability with dialogue. Many readers have commented that it’s the first time they feel as if they are hearing the way Asians really talk and think. “I had to defend the way my characters talk,” said Cotterill, who speaks Thai and Laotian. “If I have a character call someone a ‘bubblehead,’ well, there’s no exact Laotian equivalent for that English expression, but there are many similar Laotian expressions, so I feel I’m actually giving a closer approximation of the way my characters really talk.”
Cotterill has drawn cartoons and illustrations since he was a child, and he still enjoys working as an illustrator and cartoonist. He published a cartoon book, “Ethel and Joan Go to Phuket,” in Thai, and his unique website features his drawing.
“I write very visually,” he said. “I’m walking through the scenes with the characters. I’m seeing the characters, the weather, the land. I think I write more as an artist than as a writer.”
Two unpublished non-Siri novels sit on his desk; One is set in New York and Vietnam in 1952; the other is a contemporary thriller set in Chiang Mai involving the search for a 13th-century buried treasure.
Back in business…it’s been a while since I last posted. What’s happened? A lot and not enough. I finished The House of No Mind, my travel-memoir, tried to get an agent/publisher, etc., and hit the “No go” sign, which wasn’t a good way to end the Fall season but there it is. I like the book, but you know the story. I had a range of feedback, but no takers. I don’t have the energy or the brilliant idea right now about what to do to make it work (other than find an agent/publisher who would take it on as is…), so I’ll let it rest for now and come back to it later. If you know of a good small press that might like a vivid travel/memoir that ranges across Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, drop me a line. Meanwhile, I’ve read a score of books in the past six months. Right now I’ll mention only one: Philip Larkin’s Jazz Writings. It’s a great education on the transition from the old-time jazz to the modern jazz that most people know today. The great Louis Armstrong is the key symbol of the transition (and a Larkin idol). Of course, he was one of the original giants, but his great experimentation, freshness and techne was left behind as he slipped into the image that became the later day, worldwide iconic image of American jazz. Larkin knew his jazz, and he couldn’t comfortably ride the Coltrane/Davis/et al dominance over older, original masters who created the art form (and languished in later life, forgotten). The moderns took jazz to more abstract levels with greater individuality. The crazy spontaneity that Larkin cherished had disappeared: the feeling that makes you tap your feet and snap your fingers when a big jazz band or ensemble cranks it up. Check out these tunes on Youtube, one slow and one fast. If you have one hour, listen to this compilation track featuring Armstrong with notables such as Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and others. Rare and wonderful…
The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus: What a bracing wake-up call. I would have forever been prepared for the ways of the world had I read Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny when young. The perfect time would have been while I was a lowly volunteer in the Army, and prior to the mesmerizing days of the Kennedys and the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, I was taken in by the American myth, and the Romans are the perfect antidote to keep one balanced and aware that the struggle against tyranny, dictators, totalitarianism, corruption and human duplicity, and, yes, evil, is part and parcel of humankind. Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia says the same thing, using the example of World War II and Communism. At any rate: a word to the would-be wise. Read Tacitus and Suetonius.
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius: The Emperors of Rome show the whole range of human proclivities from monstrously evil to sublimely enlightened. Depravity and democratic principles existed simultaneously in the same city and state, and yet the structure of the government itself and the influence it wielded across its Empire had a lasting effect in jump-starting the spread of civilization. If only all the great libraries could have been saved.
The Letters of the Younger Pliny: Pliny offers a window into the mind and culture of relative normalcy in imperial Rome. A lawyer and literary man, he shows the workings of power, influence, a passion for justice, administrative efficiency, wit and friendship. The voice is wrapped in reason and civility and shows that power needn’t be self-serving, vengeful or disrespectful. His letters demonstrate the power of the individual who can personalize their professional and daily life in words, therein creating a record of their time rivaling any historical narrative. Without such writing we are forced to rely on a storybook reading of history. As Emerson said, “All history is autobiography,” because he saw it as the best history.
Alfred Kazin’s America: (an anthology) by Ted Solotaroff. One of the critics-as-artist, Kazin’s views on Twentieth Century American literature are part and parcel of the dream of American uniqueness and “democratic contentiousness,” and I’m still a sucker for this view, a blend of realism and romance. He does it well, and the man can put together streams of sentences that coalesce like honey around clear thought. Read him with Edmund Wilson and you’re well prepared to know wherein to read deeply and fully in American letters, from Jefferson to Mailer.