10 Books from the 2010s – Desultory Notes Notable Books

Note – selections mine, descriptions taken from Amazon.

Rat Girl, Kristin Hersh
In 1985, Kristin Hersh was just starting to find her place in the world. After leaving home at the age of fifteen, the precocious child of unconventional hippies had enrolled in college while her band, Throwing Muses, was getting off the ground amid rumors of a major label deal. Then everything changed: she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found herself in an emotional tailspin; she started medication, but then discovered she was pregnant. An intensely personal and moving account of that pivotal year, Rat Girl is sure to be greeted eagerly by Hersh’s many fans.

Talk Show, Dick Cavett
For years, Dick Cavett played host to the nation’s most famous personalities on his late-night talk show. In this humorous and evocative book, we get to hear Cavett’s best tales, as he recounts great moments with the legendary entertainers who crossed his path and offers his own trenchant commentary on contemporary American culture and politics.

Pym, Mat Johnson
Recently canned professor of American literature Chris Jaynes is obsessed with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe’s strange and only novel. When he discovers the manuscript of a crude slave narrative that seems to confirm the reality of Poe’s fiction, he resolves to seek out Tsalal, the remote island of pure and utter blackness that Poe describes with horror. Jaynes imagines it to be the last untouched bastion of the African Diaspora and the key to his personal salvation.

How Music Works, David Byrne
How Music Works is David Byrne’s incisive and enthusiastic look at the musical art form, from its very inceptions to the influences that shape it, whether acoustical, economic, social or technological. Utilizing his incomparable career and inspired collaborations with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and many others, Byrne taps deeply into his lifetime of knowledge to explore the panoptic elements of music, how it shapes the human experience, and reveals the impetus behind how we create, consume, distribute, and enjoy the songs, symphonies, and rhythms that provide the backbeat of life. Byrne’s magnum opus uncovers ever-new and thrilling realizations about the redemptive liberation that music brings us all.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt
Why can’t our political leaders work together as threats loom and problems mount? Why do people so readily assume the worst about the motives of their fellow citizens? In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores the origins of our divisions and points the way forward to mutual understanding.

Mo Meta Blues, Ahmir Questlove Thompson
Mo’ Meta Blues is a punch-drunk memoir in which Everyone’s Favorite Questlove tells his own story while tackling some of the lates, the greats, the fakes, the philosophers, the heavyweights, and the true originals of the music world. He digs deep into the album cuts of his life and unearths some pivotal moments in black art, hip hop, and pop culture.

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, David Henry and Joe Henry
Richard Pryor was arguably the single most influential performer of the second half of the twentieth century, and certainly he was the most successful black actor/comedian ever. Controversial and somewhat enigmatic during his life, Pryor’s performances opened up a whole new world of possibilities, merging fantasy with angry reality in a way that wasn’t just new–it was theretofore unthinkable. Now, this groundbreaking and revelatory work brings him to life again both as a man and as an artist, providing an in-depth appreciation of his talent and his lasting influence, as well as an insightful examination of the world he lived in and the myriad influences that shaped both his persona and his art.

What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund
A gorgeously unique, fully illustrated exploration into the phenomenology of reading—how we visualize images from reading works of literature, from one of our very best book jacket designers, himself a passionate reader.

The Courage to Be Disliked: The Japanese Phenomenon That Shows You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga
Is happiness something you choose for yourself? The Courage to Be Disliked presents a simple and straightforward answer. Using the theories of Alfred Adler, one of the three giants of nineteenth-century psychology alongside Freud and Jung, this book follows an illuminating dialogue between a philosopher and a young man. Over the course of five conversations, the philosopher helps his student to understand how each of us is able to determine the direction of our own life, free from the shackles of past traumas and the expectations of others.

How to Get Successful by F*cking Up Your Life: Essays on Addiction and Recovery, Anna David
Anna David was, in every way, groomed for success. She grew up in an affluent community and came from a family that prioritized SAT scores, Harvard attendance and high-paying jobs. The problem was, she had low SAT scores, was rejected by Harvard and spent her early life feeling like the family’s great disappointment.Concluding that success was not for her, Anna focused her energies on an area where she excelled: drugs, alcohol and general mayhem. Washing ashore on the beaches of recovery at the age of 30, she begrudgingly entered a world of sobriety. That’s when she discovered that there were all sorts of ways to define success—and what’s more, that it was never too late to find it.The stories in this collection document her journey from self-indulgent party girl to sober and only semi-indulgent woman.

. . . we would assume that what it was we meant would have been listed in some book set down beyond the sky’s far reaches, if at all there was a purpose here. But now I think the purpose lives in us and that we fall into an error if we do not keep our own true notebook of the way we came, how the sleet stung, or how a wandering bird cried at the window. . . – LOREN EISELEY

Epigraph from True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall, Mark Salzman

SUSAN SONTAG: Ten Neglected Novels

Charlotte Bronte
VILLETTE

George Meredith
THE EGOIST

Machado de Assis
EPITAPH FOR A SMALL WINNER

Alfred Döblin
BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ: The Story of Franz Biberkopf

Witold Gombrowicz
FERDYDURKE

Knut Hamsun
HUNGER

Venedikt Erofeev
MOSCOW TO THE END OF THE LINE

Randall Jarrell
PICTURES FROM AN INSTITUTION: A Comedy

Italo Calvino
INVISIBLE CITIES

Jiri Grusa
THE QUESTIONNAIRE

from – The Reader’s Catalog: An Annotated Selection of More Than 40,000 of the Best Books in Print in 208 Categories (Reader’s Catalogue)

TONI MORRISON: Books for Fiction Writers

“Beginning fiction writers ought to find the following 13 books helpful in a number of ways.”

Flannery O’Connor
THE COMPLETE STORIES

William Faulkner
THE SOUND AND THE FURY

Jean Toomer
CANE

Italo Svevo
THE CONFESSIONS OF ZENO

George Meredith
THE EGOIST

Eudora Welty
ONE WRITER’S BEGINNINGS

Marilynne Robinson
HOUSEKEEPING

Louise Erdrich
LOVE MEDICINE

Franz Kafka
THE METAMORPHOSIS

Toni Cade Bambara
THE SEA BIRDS ARE STILL ALIVE

James Dickey
DELIVERANCE

Marguerite Duras
THE VICE-CONSUL

James Wilcox
MODERN BAPTISTS

from – The Reader’s Catalog: An Annotated Selection of More Than 40,000 of the Best Books in Print in 208 Categories (Reader’s Catalogue)

Ivan Ilych’s life was the most simple and most ordinary and therefore the most terrible.

The self that dies is radically separate, not only from the material world but also from other selves. My consciousness is essentially private; I cannot directly experience the mind of another. I may know everything public about another conscious being, but I cannot experience being that other. Knowing from direct experience is one thing, and knowing about, from an outside perspective, is quite another. Mortality therefore entails unspeakable loneliness.

Itself a narrativized apothegm, Tolstoy’s novella contains several of his most-cited lines. Ivan Ilych has lived as if his public role exhausted his identity, but in his mortal illness he discovers the private self, inaccessible from the outside, that he has overlooked. He senses with horror that his role will go on but his “I” will die.

None of us can really grasp this fact, but for Ivan Ilych it is all the more terrible because he is losing the self just as he realizes he has it. He has thought of himself as his “place” (mesto), a word that means not only physical location but also job (position) and social role (place in society). He has assiduously avoided doing anything “inappropriate” (literally, out of place). But the self is not a place, and so he has missed it until, when dying, he recognizes that besides what is here and now, there is something else.

What Ivan Ilych takes to be the glory of his life, his amazing ability to “fit in” with others, depends on a “virtuoso” erasure of self. But as he will learn, nothing can be worse than success in such a venture. That is the meaning of the frequently cited apothegm that begins Chapter 2: Ivan Ilych’s life was the most simple and most ordinary and therefore the most terrible. (GSW, 255)

Morson, Gary. The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel

A. Alvarez – RIP

A. Alvarez, a British poet, critic and essayist who played a pivotal role in bringing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to the public, and whose acclaimed book on the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas helped transform high-stakes professional poker from a cult to a televised sport, died on Monday at his home in London. He was 90.

Mr. Alvarez’s enormously influential anthology “The New Poetry,” published in 1962, brought the poetry of Mr. Hughes, Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill and the American confessional poets John Berryman and Robert Lowell to a wide audience in Britain. Ms. Plath and Anne Sexton were added to the 1966 edition.

In his polemical preface, Mr. Alvarez railed against the genteel tradition in English poetry and what he called “the cult of rigid impersonality.” The new poetry, he argued, took emotional risks. It embraced “experience sometimes on the edge of disintegration and breakdown.”

William Grimes, Sept. 23, 2019,  nytimes

 

From Alvarez’s book Night:

Apart from the ‘organised and steady system’, something else hasn’t changed since Dickens went out with the police: the ‘individual energy and keenness’. But police take on the character of their territory. In London, the energy and keenness are masked, like the city itself, by a certain reticence; in Manhattan, they come with a New Yorker pace and appetite. When I called Lieutenant Raymond O’Donnell, the head of media liaison at Police Plaza, the NYPD’s downtown redbrick fortress, to arrange a couple of nights as a ‘ride-along’ in the back of a patrol car, I asked to go to precincts where I might see some action.

A gravelly voice at the other end said, ‘Whaddya want, drugs or whores?’
‘How about both?’
‘You got it!’

 

Feodor’s Guide: Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, David Foster Wallace Review

from the footnotes:

8) Somebody has only to spend one term trying to teach literature in school to realize that the quickest way to kill a writer’s vitality for potential readers is to present that writer ahead of time as “great” or “classic.” Because then the author becomes for the students like medicine or vegetable, something that the authorities have declared “good for them” that they “ought to like,” and then the students’ nictitating membranes come down, and everybody’s dead. Should this surprise anybody? We could learn a lot from bored students who hate to read, in my opinion.

Whole article here:
Village Voice

Tolstoy on History and Causation

When an apple ripens and falls—what makes it fall? Is it that it is attracted to the ground, is it that the stem withers, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it?

No one thing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions under which every organic, elemental event of life is accomplished. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue degenerates, and so on, will be as right and as wrong as the child who stands underneath and says that the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it. As he who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted to, and perished because Alexander wanted him to perish, will be both right and wrong, so he will be right and wrong who says that an undermined hill weighing a million pounds collapsed because the last worker struck it a last time with his pick. In historical events the so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as with labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself.

Their every action, which to them seems willed by themselves, in the historical sense is not willed, but happens in connection with the whole course of history and has been destined from before all ages.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace (Vintage Classics) , translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Danilo Kiš

What is it? What’s it about?

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is a collection of seven short stories by Danilo Kiš written in 1976 . The stories are based on historical events and deal with themes of political deception, betrayal, and murder in Eastern Europe during the first half of the 20th century (except for “Dogs and Books” which takes place in 14th century France). Several of the stories are written as fictional biographies wherein the main characters interact with historical figures.

wikipedia

davidovich (2)

Excerpt:

Like so many provincial children, the pharmacist’s son, Karl Taube, dreamed about that happy day when, through the thick lenses of his glasses, he would see his town from the bird’s-eye view of departure and for the last time, as one looks through a magnifying glass at dried out and absurd yellow butterflies from one’s school collection: with sadness and disgust.

In the autumn of 1920, at Budapest’s Eastern Station he boarded the first-class car of the Budapest-Vienna Express. The moment the train pulled out, the young Karl Taube waved once more to his father (who was disappearing like a dark blot in the distance, waving his silk handkerchief), then quickly carried his leather suitcase into the third-class car and sat down among the workers.

What did you think?
It had some poetic writing, but as far as storytelling it left me bored. It was hard to follow and it lacked continuity.

Note what wikipedia said: “Several of the stories are written as fictional biographies.” That technique was why it was hard to follow. Also, this is the second book in a row that I’ve read that did this fictional form thing. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum was a fictional investigative report. Both of them leave out character introductions and make reference to things the reader is assumed to know.

Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Thumbs down from me dawg.

Desultory Notes International Book Club

Welcome to Vietnam

That night we had an alert. I found out later it was just a probe on the perimeter, but I didn’t know this while it was going on and neither did anyone else. The airfield had already been hit by sappers. People had been killed, several planes and helicopters blown up. It could happen again. You know that an attack is “just a probe” only after it’s over. I stood outside with other fresh arrivals and watched bellowing, half-dressed men run by in different directions. Trucks raced past, some with spinning lights like police cruisers. Between the high, excited bursts of M-16 fire I could hear heavy machine guns pounding away, deep and methodical. Flares popped overhead. They covered everything in a cold, quivering light.

No one came to tell us what was going on. We hadn’t received our issue of combat gear, so we had no weapons or ammunition, no flak jackets, not even a steel helmet. We were helpless. And nobody knew or cared. They had forgotten about us—more to the point, forgotten about me. In this whole place not one person was thinking of me, thinking, Christ, I better take a run over there and see how Lieutenant Wolff is doing! No. I wasn’t on anybody’s mind. And I understood that this was true not only here but in every square inch of this country. Not one person out there cared whether I lived or died. Maybe some tender hearts cared in the abstract, but it was my fate to be a particular person, and about me as a particular person there was an undeniable, comprehensive lack of concern.

Wolff, Tobias. In Pharaoh’s Army

Castle Building, Two Types – C.S. Lewis

A pleasing imaginative construction entertained incessantly, and to his injury, by the patient, but without the delusion that it is a reality. A waking dream—known to be such by the dreamer—of military or erotic triumphs, of power or grandeur, even of mere popularity, is either monotonously reiterated or elaborated year by year. It becomes the prime consolation, and almost the only pleasure, of the dreamer’s life. Into ‘this invisible riot of the mind, this secret prodigality of being’ he retires whenever the necessities of life set him free. Realities, even such realities as please other men, grow insipid to him. He becomes incapable of all the efforts needed to achieve a happiness not merely notional. The dreamer about limitless wealth will not save sixpence. The imaginary Don Juan will take no pains to make himself ordinarily agreeable to any woman he meets. I call this activity Morbid Castle-building.

The same activity indulged in moderately and briefly as a temporary holiday or recreation, duly subordinated to more effective and outgoing activities. Whether a man would be wiser to live with none of this at all in his life, we need not perhaps discuss, for no one does. Nor does such reverie always end in itself. What we actually do is often what we dreamed of doing. The books we write were once books which, in a day-dream, we pictured ourselves writing—though of course never quite so perfect. I call this Normal Castle-building.

Lewis, C. S.. An Experiment in Criticism (pp. 51-52).

The Power of the Press, Ted Conover on the Impact of Newjack

Did my book result in any reforms in the corrections system? I like to think so, but I’m sure of only one. In Newjack I describe B-Block, the immense building where I worked. Housing six hundred inmates, it is one of the largest freestanding cellblocks in the world. Horrific and very dim inside, it seemed as if the windows hadn’t been washed in fifty years. I included that detail in the book. The wife of a B-Block inmate sent me an e-mail after visiting her husband and wrote, “My husband just wanted you to know that a month after your book came out, they washed the windows.”

So there’s the power of the press for you.

Ted Conover, on his book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, quote taken from Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University

Why Hunt Moby Dick? Starbuck and Ahab Discussion.

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again— the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event— in the living act, the undoubted deed— there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends’ glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn— living, breathing pictures painted by the sun.

The Pagan leopards— the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. ‘Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck. What is it more? From this one poor hunt, then, the best lance out of all Nantucket, surely he will not hang back, when every foremast-hand has clutched a whetstone. Ah! constrainings seize thee; I see! the billow lifts thee! Speak, but speak!— Aye, aye! thy silence, then, that voices thee. (Aside) Something shot from my dilated nostrils, he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion.”

“God keep me!— keep us all!” murmured Starbuck, lowly.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick: or, the White Whale

FOMO and Chekhov

When I first heard the expression “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out), I immediately thought of Chekhov. He based his entire life’s philosophy on questioning our obsession with comparing ourselves to others, imagining how richer our lives would be if only we had taken a different path and daydreaming about how someone somewhere else must have it better than we do.

This quality is summed in the refrain of “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!” in Three Sisters, where the protagonists constantly hunger for life in a city they can barely remember and are completely unable to see that the good life they are actually missing out on is the life that is going on around them.

The Weirdos of Russian Literature On the Foibles of Genius, From Tolstoy to Akhmatova
Viv Groskop, Literary Hub

Fernando Pessoa visits a barbershop and reflects. Book of Disquiet quote.

“I went into the barbershop as usual, with the pleasant sensation of entering a familiar place, easily and naturally. New things are distressing to my sensibility; I’m at ease only in places where I’ve already been.

After I’d sat down in the chair, I happened to ask the young barber, occupied in fastening a clean, cool cloth around my neck, about his older colleague from the chair to the right, a spry fellow who’d been sick. I didn’t ask this because I’d felt obliged to ask something; it was the place and my memory that sparked the question. ‘He passed away yesterday,’ flatly answered the barber’s voice behind me and the linen cloth as his fingers withdrew from the final tuck of the cloth in between my shirt collar and my neck. The whole of my irrational good mood abruptly died, like the eternally missing barber from the adjacent chair. A chill swept over all my thoughts. I said nothing.

Nostalgia! I even feel it for people and things that were nothing to me, because time’s fleeing is for me an anguish, and life’s mystery is a torture. Faces I habitually see on my habitual streets – if I stop seeing them I become sad. And they were nothing to me, except perhaps the symbol of all life.

The nondescript old man with dirty gaiters who often crossed my path at nine-thirty in the morning… The crippled seller of lottery tickets who would pester me in vain… The round and ruddy old man smoking a cigar at the door of the tobacco shop… The pale tobacco shop owner… What has happened to them all, who because I regularly saw them were a part of my life? Tomorrow I too will vanish from the Rua da Prata, the Rua dos Douradores, the Rua dos Fanqueiros. Tomorrow I too – I this soul that feels and thinks, this universe I am for myself – yes, tomorrow I too will be the one who no longer walks these streets, whom others will vaguely evoke with a ‘What’s become of him?’ And everything I’ve done, everything I’ve felt and everything I’ve lived will amount merely to one less passer-by on the everyday streets of some city or other.”

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet (Penguin Modern Classics) .

What did you read in translation over the past year?

Prisoner of the Caucasus, Tolstoy
The Forged Coupon, Tolstoy
Galileo, Brecht
Inferno, Dante
In the Penal Colony, Kafka
The Marquise of O, Kleist
Madame Bovary, Flaubert
Pierre Menard, Borges
Diary of a Madman, Tolstoy
The Iliad, Homer
Miss Julie, Strindberg
Ghosts, Ibsen
The Cafeteria, Singer
My Life, Chekhov
Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Bernhard

Past year – beginning of summer 2018 to beginning of summer 2019.

Kitchen sink realism

Kitchen sink realism (or kitchen sink drama) is a British cultural movement that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in theatre, art, novels, film, and television plays, whose protagonists usually could be described as “angry young men” who were disillusioned with modern society. It used a style of social realism, which depicted the domestic situations of working class Britons, living in cramped rented accommodation and spending their off-hours drinking in grimy pubs, to explore controversial social and political issues ranging from abortion to homelessness. The harsh, realistic style contrasted sharply with the escapism of the previous generation’s so-called “well-made plays”.

List of films
Look Back in Anger (1959)
Room at the Top (1959)
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
The Entertainer (1960)
A Taste of Honey (1961)
A Kind of Loving (1962)
The L-Shaped Room (1962)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
This Sporting Life (1963)
Billy Liar (1963)
Sparrows Can’t Sing (1963)[11]
The Leather Boys (1964)
This is My Street (1964)
Alfie (1966)
Georgy Girl (1966)[12]
The Family Way (1966)
Poor Cow (1967)
Up the Junction (1968)
Kes (1969)
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)[13]
Spring and Port Wine (1970)

List of plays
Look Back In Anger (1956)
My Flesh, My Blood (Radio play, 1957)
A Taste Of Honey (1958)
Sparrers Can’t Sing (1960)
Alfie (1963)
Up the Junction (TV play, 1965)
Cathy Come Home (TV play, 1966)

via wikipedia

Thomas Bernhard – Mr Restless

“Once in Nathal I ask myself what I am doing here, and I ask myself the same question when I arrive in Vienna. Basically, like nine tenths of humanity, I always want to be somewhere else, in the place I have just fled from. In recent years, this condition has, if anything, become worse: I go to and from Vienna at diminishing intervals, and from Nathal I will often to to some other big city, to Venice or Rome and back, or to Prague and back. The truth is that I am happy only when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to. I am happy only when I am traveling; when I arrive, no matter where, I am suddenly the unhappiest person imaginable. Basically I am one of those people who cannot bear to be anywhere and are happy only between places.”

Bernhard, Thomas, Wittgenstein’s Nephew 

The Art of the Probable: Literature and Probability – Course Description

“The Art of the Probable” addresses the history of scientific ideas, in particular the emergence and development of mathematical probability. But it is neither meant to be a history of the exact sciences per se nor an annex to, say, the Course 6 curriculum in probability and statistics. Rather, our objective is to focus on the formal, thematic, and rhetorical features that imaginative literature shares with texts in the history of probability. These shared issues include (but are not limited to): the attempt to quantify or otherwise explain the presence of chance, risk, and contingency in everyday life; the deduction of causes for phenomena that are knowable only in their effects; and, above all, the question of what it means to think and act rationally in an uncertain world.

MITOPENCOURSEWARE