Saturday, May 28, 2005
Books are emerging from boxes and with them the recollection that I have not yet noted them here though the reading has gone on. Reading in the midst of upheaval is an odd combination of skittering through books--the idea of reading is a comfort and seems like it should help shape the world back into order, but I lack fundamental purchase and find eyes passing merely over words--a page passes or ten, or a sentence. Books drift as a set of words and even the idea of reading seems grasping. And then there is a strike--word, image, idea--that in the middle of the shallow jostling stirs something raw, and whole shapes emerge into understanding again.

I am on the early end of that--still in the idea-of-reading stage, looking for solace, shape, end to this time of beginnings, terrible beginnings. So this will not be full of revelations, but some of progress for the idea of progress as a good, as ground passing beneath the feet with the faith that such movement must bring new worlds into view (I kept trying to use "hove" in that sentence, but couldn't wrestle it in).

So, in descending order from the really excellent to the powerful but flawed:

The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins is a great book (5 stars). He traces the history of human evolution back to the origins of life with great clarity, insight, and poetry. I have already written a recommendation of it for the fine folks at Post Road magazine, so you can find more there, but a taste: Dawkins has an eye for the poetic incongruity of life in evolution, and he draws our gaze in on wonderful moments in this our fecund history:

Here is a line that could easily launch a thousand novels:
Everything about an animal or plant, including its bodily form, its inherited behavior and the chemistry of its cells is a coded message about the worlds in which its ancestors survived; the food they sought; the predators they escaped; the climates they endured; the mates they beguiled.

The book constantly provokes us to understand our selves and the world around us differently, more richly and oddly, more humbly--we are all drawn from shrew-like nocturnal insectivores who snuck out when the mighty dinosaurs fell asleep--the whale gallops through the sea--40,000 years ago the human population shrank down to a mere 15,000 individuals. Full of delights.

A much more peculiar book--powerful and beautiful and often incomprehensible, Nightwood is a shadowy book that has moments of dazzling electricity, and undeniable currents of force. Here is the opening:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapporval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein--a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms--gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

Djuna Barnes, like a lot of the modernists, seduces our sense of our own intelligence with obscure, dense writing that is laden with meanings but never resolves. This lets us draw in as many shapes as we have the energy to bring--a thousand women's studies theses--sub-industries of exposition.

It put me in the mind of the refreshing, but unsettling, pleasure of swimming in ponds--of extending a cautious foot down with no idea what you might find at the bottom.

She writes beautifully, and the book is flourless--short but so dense it feels heavy--dense with pleasures and more than an edge of madness. Here is a line that is a novel of its own, had someone the patience to write it:

I will love what she has loved, and then I will find her again.

3.5 stars

And. AND. I told you it had been a while.

Continuing in that flawed-with-power vein, Tapping the Source is alternately called the best surfing novel ever and "surfer noir". It may be either or both of those things. It's a good read--violent, with odd depths and shallownesses--almost always better than you are expecting it to be, with all of the limitations inherent in that, but good. It collapses in the end under its own implausibilities, but that doesn't do it much harm--it is so far gone at that point. The opening:
Ike Tucker was adjusting the Knuckle's chain the day the stranger came asking for him.
2.5 stars

More to come, with sleep and rainy days....


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