Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: My Favorite Reads

I had so much fun summing up last year’s best reads, even though this will be a shortened version, I am giving it another shot.

I had a personal crisis this year regarding my salaried work, which impacted my reading. Depression and anxiety can leave you little ability, much less motivation, to discover, evaluate and experience new prose. And, too many of the new books I read failed to make a notable impression.
Seeking solace and inspiration, for much of the Summer into Fall, I re-read exclusively – Raymond Carver, Hart Crane, not to mention my northern stars – the King James, Whitman, Rimbaud and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.

Frederick Barthelme – Elroy Nights and Waveland were stand outs. I also reread Bartheleme’s Two Against One, which is such a great book, his best and equal to any post WWII American Novel still being kicked around. Raney by Clyde Edgerton, one of the most stylistically mischievous Southern novels of recent vintage, I reread for the third time. For the holidays, I delved back into A Confederacy of Dunces (for the untempt time),  that rare work of fiction that in addition to gaining more meaning with each encounter, is actually funnier the more familiar it becomes.

Waveland, Bartheleme’s most recent novel, which depicts the Katrina experience as felt by a small group of inhabitants of the titular Mississippi town, I read around the Sandy days. It’s about a group of people coping with a new reality, and the differences between that reality and the “Katrina Show” constantly on the news. Maybe out of all my re-reads, I recommend this the most. Barthelme, perhaps our greatest prose stylist, has sustained his comic gifts but now in his golden years, he has become more external. He has become more Lenny Bruce than Jerry Seinfeld, and it suits him, and him, it.  Don’t let the comedy fool you though, this book is about keeping what you got in the face of adversity, which is not just the natural disaster, but shifting your own personal morality when confronting an over-achieving brother and a wife who probably murdered her ex. I haven’t delved back into the Barthelme for several years. This time around he seemed more edifying and his newest book is as good as any other masterpiece in his oeuvre.

And, like I do almost every autumn, I dived into my annual Moby Dick immersion. One of the myriad messages in this greatest of all works is to be (like the whale) in this world but not of this world, a notion that seemed excruciatingly relevant during this time and what has proven to be a very trying year.

But reading continues. My obligation to text is as strong as a farmer’s devotion to the soil, even during those years when personal tragedies, disappointments and set backs leave you at a loss, you still fulfill those obligations even if the enthusiasm – not to mention concentration – levels are much depleted. You get behind the mule and plow!

Books included in my favorite 2012 reads are in no particular order

2030 by Albert Brooks

Published in 2011, I read the paperback upon its April 2012 release. I realize if I had an e-reader, I would not have to wait for the less expensive, more conveniently portable format. I guess I’m old skool.

I was expecting a comic novel, and while quite funny, there are only a few laugh out loud spots, which is meant as a compliment but in a novel by Albert Brooks one is justified in assuming it is a criticism. The novel surprised me with its literary qualities and its intelligent social insight.

You get a lot of Albert Brooks in the novel, but not as much as his better films. However,  if you want a Brooks fix you’ll be more satisfied with 2030 than some of his recent cinematic letdowns, like that dull-witted misfire about contemporary Islam. Which is to say, you get his voice. But, you also you have to go back to Reel Life for this amount of sharply drawn, cleverly subtle social satire. In a way, 2030 is better than his films but that might be due to the intrinsic superiority of the novel, when this expertly achieved, to film, but I digress.

In 2030 (the novel is named after the year in the not so far off future), cancer and everything else is cured. The Baby Boomers are living healthy lives into their 100s, sucking up the nation’s resources and giving no hope for young people. America is in debt to the Chinese, and there are no jobs for young people. An earthquake devastates Los Angeles and the Chinese offer to rebuild if they can own 50 percent of the city. A terrorist ring made up of people under 50 begin targeting groups of elderly, including a plot to assassinate the Nobel award winning doctor who cured cancer. And, America’s first Jewish president is having an affair with his 80 year old secretary of state. I read this book on a lark, expecting a few snickers as I pass PATH time. I could not put it down, and I muttered right on as much as I chuckled. Best Dystopian future fiction for people who normally read literature since Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson.

But can it make a good movie? Well, probably, although maybe consider an animated HBO miniseries, with Brooks voicing the mensch of a president, of course. I say animated, because creating the future might mean a very hefty budget, such as the Charge & Chew stations where people recharge the electric cars while they eat, so a Toy Story like cartoon movie would be economical (and really cool) and miniseries, because this may be a “lite” read, there were enough characters and episodes to really justify a miniseries.


Grammar school teachers dealt a near fatal blow to John Steinbeck when they introduced him by “teaching” Travels With Charley and the Pearl. These inexorable works may have their positive aspects, but not many of them and do not belong in classrooms. In my teen years, Grapes of Wrath, which I first read then, on my own, because it was the widely acknowledged  antecedent inspiration to On The Road and Kerouac was a major force in those Wonder Bread years.

Overall, Steinbeck’s reputation has never been what it should be, or what it used to be. I might hazard a guess that the reason those grammar school teachers forced Steinbeck upon us was that in mid-20th century, he had an esteemed place in the pantheon. But in spite of the Nobel, his best sellers and the fact that John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest films ever made, Steinbeck’s reputation waned.

 It took me decades and a dear friend who is a tireless Steinbeck promoter, to discover such sublime works as Cannery Row and to realize that no one quite universalizes the American experience like Steinbeck. He was also quite prolific, so alongside masterpieces like Grapes and mawkish misfires like Travels, there are forgotten gems in his oeuvre waiting to be read.

 Like Hemingway and Faulkner, Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize but he is rarely viewed as the literary artist that Papa and Bill are. All of them are in that American generation of white male writers between Sherwood Anderson and Norman Mailer, which also includes Fitzgerald and John O’Hara. Steinbeck seems declared an important writer solely by default. MFA students don’t study and unpack his style like they do a Hemmingway short story. I think this should change. Travels and Pearl are still cloying, but there’s a poignant realism and humanity to Steinbeck that when he is at his best, no other writer attains the same veracity. Literature of the people is still literature. The social is internal! We must restore his place among our best writers, at least an equal to the big mid- 20th century trio – Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald – (and their overlooked step-brother John O’Hara).

Grapes of Wrath might be a masterpiece, but it is long and at times a slog – especially when you read it the first time. The reason I’ve gotten my soapbox so I can embark on a Steinbeck restoration tour is that I read two of his thin novels – long novellas? – that are taut and entertaining endeavors.

In Dubious Battle is an organized labor thriller. I could not put it down. It is the story of a strike, union organizing and members of “The Party” who infiltrate the union and are as morally questionable as the strike busters. A very noirish novel – at one point a party member beats up a scab just enough to make him bloody but not to seriously hurt him. A chilling scene, as labor organizer assure the young man they just want him to be an “advertisement” as they proceed to surgically pummel him. I would bet good money that’s s where Jim Thompson got his inspiration for the similar “the Oranges” scene in The Grifters. If old Tom Joad leaves his family to organize workers, In Dubious Battle shows the dark road one hopes he was able to avoid. Steinbeck may have been a humanist, idealist and lefty, but he was no fool. Reading In Dubious Battle was like reading Sanctuary by Faulkner or To Have and To Have Not by Hemmingway. The excursions into thrillers by the so called lions of American literature, who were probably trying to prove they could be as much fun to read as their contemporary Dashiel Hammet.

To A God Unknown was my other 2012 Steinbeck revelation. This early novella contains, like In Dubious Battle, a darkness we do not associate with Steinbeck. Instead of a noir however, To A God reads like a gnarly fable, or one of those old folk songs filled with death and sorrow.

It takes place in some mythical 19th century American, where Joseph moves to California in search of better farm land. His brothers follow. Joseph marries a woman who his younger brother seduces, and there’s another brother, resentful of the older sibling, who girds a tree, essentially murdering the tree and the farm. The land of California is an unseen character propelling this this allegory as much as the people trapped in the narrative and unable to escape their fate. Reading, you are not sure what is symbolizing what, because you’re so caught up in the unfolding complex tragedy that touches on Christianity, Eastern Religion, Native American Culture and pantheism. It reminded me of Robert Hunter lyrics, especially ineffable ditties like Franklin’s Tower as well as Desire Under the Elms, a Eugene O’Neil play that was made into a great film staring Burl Ives, Anthony Perkins and Sophia Loren.

Sibling Rivalry, adulterous love triangles and the inescapable power of nature – To A God Unknown is the stuff of Greek tragedy or the Old Testament. This novel is awash in the same blood as antiquity. That just makes it all the more terrifying, because the lethal fable is placed in a familiar, oft-idealized America. Steinbeck questions the optimism that drove our westward expansion. California now has another layer of metaphor for me.


I was lucky enough to see Harold Bloom speak in the spring. He mentioned his “orphan” book The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post Christian Nation, an early 90s work that is indeed, notably unlike his other works. As the title implies, Bloom looks at all the native forms of Protestantism that have sprung up in America and finds out how different they are than the Protestant sects that sprouted in Europe during the reformation. His use of “Post-Christian” in the subtitle is due to his thesis that, without knowing much less acknowledging it, American Protestantism actually is a form of gnostic Christianity. In Bloom, gnosis is a big deal, and is derived from speculation about the Gospel of Thomas and other Dead Sea texts and Christian Sects two millennia  ago that existed before and during the Council of Nice. With Gnosticism, I know enough to understand and follow but not enough to separate fact from hypothesis. With Bloom though you’re always hanging on to the edge of your intellectual seat as you take the ride and after reading a few of his books, you learn to trust the master and follow along, knowing that his trails of excess will eventually lead to a place of understanding.

Where American Religion really diverges from his other books of “religious criticism” – such as Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine – is that Bloom awakens his inner historian, tracking the unique evangelical nature of American protestants to the “Cane Hill Revival,” where some 20,000 mainly farmers gathered in 1820 Arkansas and expressed their faith together, giving birth to a Pentecostalism utterly distinct from the Episcopalians, Lutherans and Calvinists. He looks at the various iterations of American protestants—including Christian Scientists, Southern Baptists, 7th Day Advantest,  Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as profiles of some key leaders – Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart.

And while critical, in a general sense, he is objective in his analysis and respectful of their views. His intention is to analyze distinct theologies and why they emerged in America at certain periods of our history. Within just a few decades of the American Revolution, American Protestants had their own reformation, resulting in several new variants of Christianity. Bloom looks at what were the beliefs that resulted from this theological upheaval.

In addition to the insight and wit that accompanies his essays, Bloom’s book is informative. In the year of Romney, his chapter on Mormonism proved astutely relevant. He rightly points out that Mormon’s relationship to Christ really has more in common with Islam – Christ, the Son of Mary, is a revered prophet as depicted in the Koran – than with Christianity, who sees Christ as God in the trinity.

Bloom sees another strain of belief peculiar to many of these American born and bred sects – the personal relationship with a Jesus Christ, specifically, with the Resurrected Christ – the post-Crucifixion, pre-Ascension Jesus, who according to the Gospels, existed for forty days and nights. Although as Bloom points out, little is known or written about in the Gospels. The main teachings of Christ’s, the parables, the Sermon on the Mount and even the miracles, take place before the crucifixion. The resurrected Jesus doesn’t talk about caring for the poor or doing unto others. He is the perfect Christ for believers in the American experiment to project their own notions upon. As Bloom applies his observations about the beliefs and biblical interpretations of these Christian sects to their growing allegiance with the Right Wing in more recent times, the reader not only better understands the Great Awakening movements of the 19th ceuntry, but comes with new insights about America. Christianity helped shaped our history, culture and legal system. Bloom shows us how America returned the favor.


Creole Belle. Any year there’s a new Dave Robicheaux novel by James Lee Burke means there’s going to be a new novel worth reading. He comes out with one every other year, always in the Summer. Perhaps the last Great Robicheaux was Jolie Blon's Bounce (2002) which featured a memorable villain, Legion Guidry, an unreconstructed prison racist prison guard who was diabolically unforgettable, but to say truly great may be more opinion than an objective fact since Burke always delivers.

While I’m mostly unimpressed with Burke’s other work, the Robicheaux series I love. Some may seem better than others, and there are times Burke seems to be running out gas and recycling his tropes – how many times can you describe moss or a sunset on the bayou – but the novels are always so well written. His lyrical sentences lack all pretension and resound with authentic regionalism.

 Besides the craftsman-like sentences, Burke deserves to be considered alongside Chandler and Hammet. He is one of the best practitioners history of the genre. If you’re a fan, immersing yourself in his world is an eagerly anticipated biannual reading pleasure. That anticipation was higher after the preceding novel, The Glass Rainbow, a taut thrill-ride that had an unusually abrupt finale. The story ended in a bloody shoot out,  our favorite Knight Errant and his cohort Clete Purcell, are riddled with bullets and holding on to each other for dear life. Saving the day and enabling good to triumph is never easy in Burke’s fiction, but the heroes are rarely this banged up, even so, the novels always conclude with a coda where all the loose ends are tied up and life returns to New Iberia with its slow and humid pace. No coda in for The Glass Rainbow, just the sudden realization that our two main characters are barely alive. It was the closest thing to a cliff hanger Burke has ever wrote. He was playing with our expectations.

 This led me to believe the next novel, Creole Belle, would be fare-thee-well, maybe even killing off of Robicheaux, which would be honorable, something not granted to Spade or Marlow. Besides, how long can Burke keep it up?  Would Burke be willing to kill off this beloved and profitable protagonist and end his series with a satisfying conclusion?

No, at least apparently not. In an audacious meta-move (it would not be meta if it was done on say a television show, but leave that for another discussion), Alafar Robicheaux gets a bigger role – she is now a lawyer/novelist, much like Burke’s real life daughter – and he introduces a new character, the never known to exist daughter of Clete Purcel, who like Purcel, is damaged, great in a fight, but has a good heart. Guess what, the two daughters hit it off and help solve the crime, hit men and/or hit women are after Dave and Clete, one of whom may be Purcel’s daughter. The climax takes place in a comeback concert by a musician who is so blatantly based on Jerry Lee Lewis that Burke steals a real life incident twixt The Killer and Chuck Berry, which is known to even casual fans and amateur rock historians. The reference is hiding in plain sight, as is Burke’s grin.

Write sentences like Burke and you too can get away with sheer audacity and even pure commercial motives. This installment is at least 100 pages longer than even the longest previous Robicheaux and instead of ending the series, it basically sets up Dave Robicheaux-The Next Generation.  As long as this writer has breath in his body – he’s 76 – there still stellar, lyrical prose to be found in those foggy swamps and humid streets.

Zola is one of my favorite novelists and this year I discovered the most-Zola American novel ever, The Octopus by Frank Norris. A an acolyte of the great Emile, Norris combines both The Human Beast, Zola’s masterful train drama, with The Earth, his study of farmers (yes, I’m using the English translated titles because I love Penguin Classics you snob), in this story of, well, trains and farms in California. The main character is a poet seeking to write about the west, another character seeks vengeance for the murder of his lover. The rail road men are the bad guys, who are looking to take back land farmers have been leasing for more than a decade. Melville and to a large extent Zola as well, can be seen as chroniclers of the human condition under early Capitalism; Norris writes about the next chapter, the so-called gilded age of post-Civil War America where early industrialization, especially with the proliferation of steam engine locomotives, cross continental railroad companies and the telegraph, nurtured capitalism and its unforeseen consequences on humanity. Rail Roaded, a terrific though slog of a read by economic historian, Richard White, about the growth of the transcontinental railroaded and how its greed inspired partnerships between corporations and government prefigured our current financial crisis mess. White praises Norris’s novel for its contemporary accuracy, but The Octopus is as much about the human condition as the social history. He’s a lefty to be sure, but more of a poet than Sinclair Lewis or Upton Sinclair. The other novels of his I’ve read are McTeague (turned into that Stroheim silent classic, Greed), and The Pit: A Story of Chicago – the second in an unfinished trilogy of which The Octopus was the first installment – which is about commodity trading and high finance, both are worthwhile reads but The Octopus is the classic.. Besides lots of trains, there’s a shoot out and the working class hero sets off a few explosives, where innocent people die – they played it rough in 19th century class war America. The bottom line though, if you love Zola, reading this near-forgotten book by his American grown progeny is a must. Regrettably, some spots of casual anti-Semitism, endemic to the era, crop up and cause reluctance in declaring this novel to be an unmitigated masterpiece.

Lydie Salvayre is the best novelist writing in French today. I don’t read French and can’t name another living French novelist worth reading, but I still stand by that statement. Browsing a book store may be an activity whose days are numbered, so I indulge in it at every opportunity as the end times approach. I rarely find anything that catches my fancy so discovering Salvayre is truly a rare event. I picked up Everyday Life, a thin, almost-novella length novel, started reading and had to buy it. Narrated in the first person, this manic and claustrophobic work is probably the best (this best I can substantiate) depiction of office culture I’ve read. The narrator is delightfully unreliable, a nut-case obsessing about the new secretary and rival at the job. Perhaps imagined pettiness is ultimately the most destructive. I had to pick up another of Salvayre’s, which was The Writer as Domesticated Animal, which dealt with a ghost writer of a jet setting billionaire’s autobiography who gradually becomes seduced by the lifestyle. Equally entertaining writing, and also in a first person, unreliable narrator format, it was not as moving as this sly work. With Salvayre, you escape entirely into somebody’s head and there’s no way out until the last page, but by then all you want is more.

Full disclosure: Eric Berkowitz is a buddy of mine. He is a lawyer, wrote this legal history book, that I began without enthusiasm – legal history, really? – but could not put down or stop thinking about. His scholarship has implications for us all. On the basis of relevant subject matter, if there's any book you have to read on this list, this may be it. Eric's not just a good writer for a lawyer, he’s a good writer.

Otherwise, I’m just reprinting my Amazon review.


Hypocrisy, Tragedy & the Illegal Libido

"Sex & Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire" by Eric Berkowitz is that truly rare animal: a scholarly work that is fun to read. In fact, a book of legal history has no right to be this entertaining. Perhaps the fact that it is so enjoyable has to do with the subject matter - Sex - and while there are plenty of opportunities to get attention through prurience, Berkowitz thankfully prefers to showcase the inherent absurdity of sex law, which is based on what is ultimately a misbegotten notion, that personal choices in sexuality jeopardizes society as a whole.

 Since the dawn of time, or least recorded civilization, society has attempted to restrict sexual practices. Attempt is the key word, because Berkowitz points out that at every turn, the astonishing amount of corruption, hypocrisy and non-compliance accompanying every new sex law - not to mention the tragedies of the victims of this blatant injustice. In addition, he shows how arbitrary sex laws tend to be. What outrages law makers in one society - same sex relations, the age of consent for instance, even incest and bestiality - are treated indifferently by another.

 Beginning in the ancient world, the combination of the ancient Hebrews, who Berkowitz credits not just with inventing bans against incest, homosexuality, and sex with menstruating women, but creating the concept of sin: "...the moral strictures of the ancient Jews, held together with the molasses of shame and the terror of God's punishment, have been more influential on Western sexual attitudes than any other collection of ideas."

 Of course Hellenic culture of the ancient world eventually became intermingled with Hebrew thought, creating Christianity and Western Civilization. While Greek culture may on the surface seem more permissiveness than the Torah, they had their own immeasurable contribution to sex laws, or as Berkowitz credits the "...Greek Obsession: Litigation... the Greeks loved nothing more than a good sex trial."

This book may be about law, but it reads like a ripping good - and yes sometimes bawdy - yarn as Berkowitz applies his sardonic 21st century perspective to analyze ancient Rome, the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, ending with a splendid look at Flaubert's obscenity trial for Madame Bovary, Anthony Comstock's crusades against vice and obscene material in United States and Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for the love that dare not speak its name.  In spite of society becoming more enlightened - advances in science, public education expansion, ending of serfdom and slavery and the growth of a working and middle class - it is stunning how sex laws gained momentum in the 19th century. No matter how ineffective to their stated purpose, and how often tragedy resulted from the hypocrisy required to enforce penalties, new zealots gained public support for new laws and sadly, as more and more repressive laws were enacted, the only thing they spawned were more new victims, and more lawbreakers. 

Throughout the breadth (he's not kidding when he says 4,000 years) of this immensely readable narrative, Berkowitz echoes 20th century incidents, including lingering miscegenation laws, Bill Clinton's lying about sex under oath and the advent of same sex marriage, but he wisely stops short of looking at the gnarly sex laws that, as he puts it, "roiled" the last century up to the present day. Now that he has set the stage, the reader is left wanting more. "Sex & Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire" makes you desire the sequel. Berkowtiz comprehensively tells us how we got here:  where we are in terms of regulating the private - sex - in the public sphere - the legal system; let's hope next time he tells us more about the here and now so we can end at least some of the mistakes that have plagued humanity for so many millennia. An important book and great read.





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