Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Something Old, Something New

There was a time when book talk was a regular feature of this blog. For one reason or another the last book post was nine months ago when the view out my windows was still pelicans and blue ocean and not yet a forest of twisted live oaks with dangling beards of Spanish moss. The drift away from book talk has been too long and some readers might have wondered what happened to dislodge the periodic “book reports.” Easy answer for that; nothing more than a change of scene, adjustments to that change and preoccupation with thoughts curving in a different direction. High time for a return to earlier topics.

The “new” remote country setting far from the tumult of traffic, tourists and malls has if anything boosted the time allowed for reading. A tiny local library, a multitude of online booksellers and minimal interruption provide the opportunity to explore or reconsider heaps of books, writers both new and old. The words ‘new and old’ should suggest that reading is a hand-off between new writers, new books and older, established or deceased writers and their work. Am I alone in thinking that reading pleasure includes not only books newly published, but on occasion an old book gone back to a second time, and other times a dusty and battered paperback picked up for 25¢ at a yard sale?

Here are a few of the books in my reading stack the past few weeks, three of them new and two going back a few years. Nothing like a comprehensive review for any of the five, only a few brief remarks which depending on taste, might encourage or discourage.

Light of the World (July 2013) by James Lee Burke
Long a fan of James Lee Burke and rarely disappointed, this one failed to make the grade. Few would argue that Burke is a writer of great talent, often touching on the sublime. His descriptions of south Louisiana are without compare and bring to life a setting that ripples across the skin with tactile expression. Burke is best known for his ongoing series of novels featuring police detective, Dave Robicheaux as the major character, most of them set in and around New Iberia, Louisiana. Not for the first time, Burke has moved Dave Robicheaux northwest to Missoula, Montana for a clash with bad folks in that neck of the woods. While the setting is Montana, the story still adheres to the established parameters of a Dave Robicheaux story but this time the writer has fallen overboard into a deep trough of moralizing, pondering too long the nature of evil and it’s origins. A heavy-handed  bee-in-the-bonnet about the overall hopelessness of us regular folks against the barons of industry and their environmental scourge is another weight to the novel. With Light of the World, I found myself murmuring for the first time, “Get on with your story and stop with all the preaching.” A highly recommended writer stumbling a little off track. 

Dissident Gardens (September 2013) by Jonathan Lethem
If you’ve never read Jonathan Lethem, run to the bookstore or dial up Amazon now. This guy is one of America’s best young writers and it will be no surprise if this latest book wins either a Pulitzer or the National Book Award. Lethem writes of Brooklyn like nobody else and Dissident Gardens is right in his backyard. The story covers a stretch of years in the lives of 1950s communist, Rose Zimmer, her black policeman lover, Rose’s radical daughter and son living in a 60s East Village commune, and Professor Cicero Lookins, son of the black policeman. Always top notch, Lethem has outdone himself with this one.

Lookaway, Lookaway (August 2013) by Wilton Barnhardt
A novel of the American south, Lookaway, Lookaway centers around the dissolution of a once wealthy aristocratic family in Charlotte, North Carolina. Scandal and mishap work their ruin in the family of Jerene Jarvis Johnston and her husband Duke and their four children. The novel includes a moderate dose of Civil War history but don't misunderstand that to mean it bogs down in long passages of dull history. On the contrary, Barnhardt’s tale is a laugh out loud romp, alternately funny, poignant and disturbing. Despite their foibles and weaknesses, the characters are people we can’t help empathizing with.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970) Gabriel García Márquez
Since it’s publication, this Márquez classic has been put by many readers, critics and scholars among the best books of the twentieth century. No argument from this reader on that claim. It came to me last week that it was time to give this book a second read and no surprise that a second reading is every bit as rich and telling as the first. A book of this depth offers the assurance that a second or third reading will uncover nuances and insights that slipped past the first time. Not quite finished with my second reading, I’m starting to regret there aren’t more pages to the story. One Hundred Years of Solitude should be on your ‘have to read’ list. Hard to imagine how anyone could be disappointed or bored by this book, one that is even more enchanting than the later Márquez diamond, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Rivalry (1916) by Nagai Kafû
I will be honest and say from the start that this is not a book that will attract a great many American or Western readers, unless they have an interest in the details of life in the early twentieth century Tokyo demimonde. It is a tale of geishas and their patrons and the intrigues that colored the lives of a small segment of Japanese society in that age. Beautifully written, with lyrical passages describing the city and its people, Rivalry (Udekurabe in the original) is only one of Nagai Kafû’s (1879-1959) several paeans to a vanishing culture. The writer is best remembered for his short novel The River Sumida (1911).


  1. I can't believe you wrote about James Lee Burke, too. Must be something in the air. Nice to see you back.

  2. Aaahh, yes, for some of us reading is one of greatest pleasures in life. Like some other followers perhaps, I have missed the occasional quick review of books. Unfortunately, like I do with any review of a book I plan to read, I read only the reviewers opinion and skip the nuts and bolts of what the book is about. Good to know something of these titles though.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America