Gerald Brenan: South from Granada: A Sojourn in Southern Spain (Kodansha Globe Series)
Although I won't go South of Granada this trip, Gerald Brenan's memoir of the seven years he spent living in a village called Yegen, which is on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, is a stimulating introduction to Andalucia.
Having served as a captain in World War I he set out with his (very small) service pay to find a place where he could begin to educate himself. Having become convinced that such instruction as he had received in university was worthless, he, followed by the two-thousand tome library he hoped to master, set out in search of an appropriate and affordable place to buckle down.
Yegen, an extremely remote village proved to be the place.
Unlike so many other travelers and expatriates of Brenan's generation and ours, he is not insufferable. Rather than attempting to remain aloof from the natives, he involves himself in the life of the village, and, in the long walks he takes (walking was often the most practical way of getting around), also in the life of the region. He lived better than the peasants in his village, but not quite as well as the local bourgeoisie.
And he writes with an easy elegance, neither attempting to make of himself one of those oh so (not) amusing characters that other travel writers thrust themselves forth as, nor trying to efface himself from the narrative entirely.
Brenan was, before turning his back on it, sort of a junior member of the Bloomsbury set. His accounts of visits to his Spanish fastness by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Carrington, and Lytton Strachey (however brilliant Lytton's table talk, one would never want to travel with him) impart to the account added value, unnecessary, but delightful just the same.
Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing: A Novel
I generally avoid novels that have their genesis in MFA programs, but I'm glad I happened to pick up this one, You Deserve Nothing. It's the story of Will, an American teaching at an international school in Paris-- reading about that city is always a pleasure--who has an affair with one of his students. That's a banal enough subject, but dividing the story into sections with different characters as the central focus works. There's also lots about teaching, and the relationships, healthy or otherwise, that can grow up between student and teacher. In this the book reminded me of many of Guy Davenport's fictions, which often have an older man mentoring young people at their center. With Davenport we're never meant to consider the sex that goes on between teacher and student as evil, and I think author, Alexander Maksik's stance is similar. Will is a good teacher: he cares about his students, including the one over whom he loses his job.
Josephine Tey: A Shilling for Candles
Another well written mystery by Josephine Tey. The three bucks I paid for her complete works is looking to be a good investment.
Donald C. Wood: And if Strangers Come to Supper
If, like Donald C. Wood, author of And if Strangers Come to Supper (and like the author of this review) you've lived in Japan for a long time one reason you've done so is that you find a lot of things about the place fascinating. Most of us learn early, though, that as inexplicable as this may be, not everyone finds Japan as fascinating as we do. This presents a problem for Japan obsessed novelists: how can they write about Japan without writing about Japan? Wood's solution is to write about an American whose Japanese-American wife has recently died leaving him with a newborn baby, and his increasing involvement--due largely to his curiosity about a gap in his wife's diary--with her family and their business, a Japanese restaurant in Texas. The novel is compelling enough, especially in the early pages before the protagonist reconnects with his wife's family--thus no need for info-dumps--but later, when he is living and working with them the constant explanatory digressions slow things down:
"What's that," I asked.
"It's a mixture of tonkatsu, onion, and egg, flavored mainly with soy sauce and sugar . . . .
and so on.
One does keep turning the pages, though, to learn the departed wife's secret, skipping over, if one is familiar with Japan, the guide book stuff. One enjoys, too, the subtle use Wood makes of the Japanese folktale, "The Crane Wife."
Christopher Isherwood: The World in the Evening
First published in the 1950s, Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening is a novel that seems many years ahead of its time in its treatment of sex, both homo- and hetero-. It follows the path of a rentier named Stephen Monk through his sexual and social entanglements moving from his present to his past and back again. The novel seems, for its time, particularly enlightened because Monk's forays into same-sex entanglements and also his heterosexual adventures, are neither condemned nor celebrated. Likewise, his sexuality--either kind--is never thought to be definitive. Rather, the sex he has is just something he does. The focus is more on how kind or unkind, manipulative or honest with himself and his partners, Monk is, and what is celebrated at the end is not that Monk has come out (he hasn't, really. Isherwood is never that crude), but that Monk has, finally, attained some sort of emotional maturity. That's right, folks. A novel from the '50s about a sexually ambiguous man who is neither destroyed by society or an icon of liberation. Who would have thunk it?
William T Vollmann: The Rainbow Stories (Contemporary American Fiction)
William Vollmann's imagination is protean, his eye unerring, and he's able to convey what he imagines and sees in prose that frequently astounds. This is true throughout Rainbow Stories (1989), his second book. I have only dipped into his other work, but I feel certain that my hyperbolic and deserved praise is true of all of it, and yet somehow I can't quite warm to him. Sucked into the stories he tells--of Tenderloin skinheads, prostitutes, and drunks, but also of ancient Babylonians and others--I'm then spit back out; astounded by his verbal prowess, but also eager to get to the end of the story, I find myself, finally, ambivalent. I'm sure that's my problem, not Vollmann's. I will read more . . . but not yet.
Richard Askwith: Feet in the Clouds: A Tale of Fell-Running and Obsession
From my vantage point as a back-of-the-pack duffer I keep an eye on what's happening in the world of trail running, and in the course of doing so I hear the odd word about an English variant called fell running, but only the odd word, because it seems that not too many of the best known European and American runners take part in it. Richard Askwith's account, in which he mixes his own attempts at finishing The Bob Graham Round--one must traverse forty-two Lake District peaks in twenty-four hours--with a history of the sport, has brought me up to speed. Trail running and mountain running are tough wherever one does them, but Askwith has just about convinced me that fell running and fell runners take it to a new level. I hope some of the best American and European runners will try themselves on some of the most challenging British rounds.
Iain M. Banks: Use of Weapons (Culture)
This meditation on the use of weapons, and how weapons are sometimes people, and how those people, those weapons, sometimes attack the mind as much as the body is formally the most complex of the three Culture novels I have read; so intricate and intriguing is the form that one immediately wants to read it again (a quick scan of the on-line commentary turns up several "I've just finished my sixth reading of . . . " posts). It is a detailed character study told in alternating chapters, one stream moving forward in time and one moving backward, of a man, a soldier, a weapon, who we find out, by the end of the novel, is not at all the man we think he is. Given the complexity of human beings the intricacy with which Banks presents this character is appropriate and at times astounding.
Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games (Culture)
If Borges can be seen as a metaphysicist, then Iain. M. Banks, at least in The Player of Games, might be seen as an applied metaphysician. He takes one of Borges's conceits--consciously or unconsciously (I suspect the former)--a society that is governed by the rules of a game, and puts material meat on the bones of the idea.
A game player from the advanced semi-anarchist society called The Culture--a society in which games are only games--is called upon to go to a more primitive imperialistic culture that is governed by a game called Azad, and engage in the game that determines pretty much every aspect of that society, most spectacularly who will be Emperor. The working out of this metaphysical conceit--the game is the society is the world--is a satisfying blend of action and idea.
Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas (Culture)
Iain M. Banks's Consider Phlebas is usually identified as a space opera, a play on the term soap opera, that suggests the dramatic, sometimes melodramatic, action that characterizes these kinds of books. If that's all Banks were offering us it would not be of much interest, at least to me. What saves it from action movie-style dullness is Banks's world-building, or more accurately, universe building. The book is the first of a series about "The Culture," a future society dispersed over the universe that is sort of Scandinavia on steroids, a society where all material needs (and wants) are met, where people are free to devote themselves to their pleasures, and where decision-making is done on a purely rational basis by sentient machines with much more brain power than mere human beings will ever have. The problem is, there is one desire the culture is unable to meet: the need human beings have not to feel useless. To address this the Culture practices what some of its members call "secular evangelistm": interfering in the histories of other cultures they encounter to bring them, willingly or not, around to the Culture's way of seeing and doing things. Unsurprisingly, this leads to war--though the Culture is ostensibly devoted to peace and opposed to the unreason that is war. This book is devoted to the war between the Culture and the Idirans, "a religiously inspired society determined to extend its influence over every technologically inferior civilization in its path regardless of either the initial toll of conquest or the subsequent attrition of occupation." And the war sets up the space opera in which the protagonist is actually an enemy of the culture with whom Banks skillfully makes us sympathize and who follows a winding path through a variety of worlds and adventures, worlds and adventures that are in every way satisfying.