Friday, June 11, 2010

For Pleasure (winter/spring 2010): Hadn't realized that since last spring I've failed to note books I've read for pleasure, so I'm now not going to remember them all. The best I can do is a recent sampling, from winter and spring, starting with the most recent: Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. Yes, I've read this entire 1018 page novel, published posthumously in 1942. An essay on utopian fictions by Ursula LeGuin put me on to it, but it is more than the standard tour of an imagined better place--it's a richly imagined novel--a thoroughly imagined place, but also a thoroughly imagined story and main character, who is the narrator. It is set in very early 20th century, in an imaginary society that seems to be geographically around New Zealand? In any case, it is in many ways ahead of its time, in others time-bound, but in essence, timeless. The many descriptions of the physical world, particularly on voyages--climbs, rides, etc. in a society without machines--remind me not a little of Kim Stanley Robinson.

I read Islandia in a 1958 hardback edition from the local university library. Finding traces of earlier readers--their notes and bookmarks, even their food stains--adds to that reading experience. I also read a book discarded by that library, which I picked up at a library sale: Master Minds: Portraits of Contemporary American Artists and Intellectuals by Richard Kostelanetz, and by "contemporary" he means from the 1960s, when this book was published. The portraits, ranging from the still-well-known (Marshall McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg) to the little remembered (historian Richard Hofstadter, pioneer consultant Bernard Muller-Thym), and including unusually thorough portraits of figures known today mostly as names attached to a few ideas, like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Cage. I especially enjoyed his perspective on Glenn Gould and Ralph Ellison, but really, all the portraits were fascinating, both in themselves and as a snapshot of an important time that especially grips me.

A chance find at a bookstore sidewalk sale got me The Zoo Where You're Fed to God, a novel by Michael Ventura. I knew Ventura from his book with James Hillman and two volumes of his newspaper columns and essays, and I even exchanged emails with him a few years ago. I'm not sure when I acquired this book, but I finally read it this spring, and was dazzled. Some of the dialogue is a little mannered but it works as a narrative as well as offering insights beyond what you're likely to find in most literary novels.

Just in time for Jim Harrison's latest collection of novellas, I read his last one: The Summer He Didn't Die. A Brown Dog story (I'm sure all of these will appear in one volume someday), female POVs in "Republican Wives" (which in an odd sad way reminded me of Salinger's "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut"), and an autobiographical piece. Harrison sets a high standard, and this didn't disappoint. Part of the fun of this one was the actual book's origin: it is a hardback I bought off the Internet, and came to me via "U.S. Army Libraries Korea."

Another novel off the pile of "meant tos" was Author, Author by David Lodge, a novel about Henry James. Surprisingly absorbing (I'm not that into James), with the additional interest of a different sort of way to do a historical novel. Interesting also in light of current theories/gossip about James. Lodge makes a good case for James' failure to marry as a conscious choice, to keep him free to write. There is no suggestion of the fashionable assumption of his homosexuality--even a scene in which he is repulsed by the opportunity. There are other equally absorbing characters in the book, such as his friend George Du Maurier. It's much a book about the vagaries and ironies of literary success and/or failure.

In the areas where science, mind and larger contexts may or may not meet, I read Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time (actually contemporary this time--published in 2007.) I was attracted to it because Lynn Margulis was a co-editor, but it seems she wasn't all that involved in conducting the interviews. I found it more uneven and diffuse than I'd hoped.

I'd started to read a new book from Yale, Paradoxical Life by Andreas Wagner, and found another book that seems to complement it: Emergence by Steven Johnson.

I dipped into some classics, read some plays and theatre criticism but that was at least tangentially work-related. A guilty pleasure was the first half of The Thurber Carnival, and the second half is likely to be a guilty pleasure of the summer. It's a paperback I've had since high school, so this is definitely a re-read, but it's been a long time. I'm currently reading another library discard, an autobiography by television news pioneer David Brinkley (titled simply David Brinkley.) It's delightful, but I guess you have to know who Estes Kefauver is to appreciate the revelation of the way he picked up girls while campaigning for vice-president. But Brinkley was close to major events and people of the 50s and 60s etc., so there's insight and informed recollection told with the clarity and wit that first made Brinkley famous.