Woohoo, the first day of spring and what –we’re expecting a snowstorm? Whatever, I’m proceeding as if only blooms are on the way.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. Published in 1947, the book is about the last hours of an alcoholic ex-diplomat in Mexico. The once great and utterly shattered British consul Geoffrey Firmin’s last days are told against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. An insane person finding beauty in the madhouse. He stands admiring the bottles, the beautiful bottles. The book’s title comes from the two volcanoes that overshadow Quauhnahuac.
Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by (longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair) Mark Seal.
The book is a story about British wildlife filmmaker and African conservationist, Joan Root, who was murdered in 2006. Root was devoted to saving the ecological system of Lake Naivasha, which she lived on the edge of, and which was invaded by the cut-flower industry. In addition to drying out the lake (sucking up water), the large flower farms put pesticides in the lake, and brought in migrant workers who brought crime to the area. In addition to trying to protect her beloved lake, she also waged a war against the poachers (attracted to work on the flower farms) who began to encroach on her land.
Her story is a remarkable one for many reasons, and quite sad. The book is wonderful in many ways, but lags where the author neglected to research the early colonizers of Kenya and instead chose choice information to include as it fit his story.
I encourage you to learn more about this wonderful woman and to not purchase carnations or roses in the future. Note to Whole Foods, really want to piss me off – keep advertising African roses!
The Bolter by Frances Osborne (the great-granddaughter of the book’s subject). This is the story of the wild, beautiful, fearless Idina Sackville, descendant of one of England’s oldest families, who went off to Kenya in search of adventure and became known as the high priestess of the scandalous “Happy Valley Set.” The gin flowed through her five marriages and Osborne shares much from her lengthy research. Here you get a glimpse I have not seen in non-fiction books about the time and place before including how the well-heeled went on safari, the decorating of the great Happy Valley houses, mention of Elspeth Huxley (one of my favorite Kenyan writers), race week in Nairobi, and the divine Denys Finch Hatton – otherwise known as the man Robert Redford played in the film OUT OF AFRICA. I may take issue with the way Ms. Sackville lived some of her life (abandoning her children), but I love her passion for books – she was called among other things the “Kenyan queen of books.” Well, then she can’t be all bad? A highlight of the book for me is Osborne’s insight into the importance of books – “they could be posted, carried, lent, and exchanged, forming a cultural currency.” One also learns a lot about the affairs and exploits of big-game hunter Bror von Blixen-Finecke, a Swedish baron best known to many today as the husband of Karen Dinesen (author of OUT OF AFRICA).
Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) by Jon Fine. Now executive editor at Inc. magazine, Fine was a member of the band Bitch Magnet among others. With his memoir he offers readers an insider’s look at thirty years of the American independent rock underground. I enjoyed the first half of the book, but felt the last half dragged. If you are really into music maybe you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more than me.
My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine by Kate Betts. OK. I love Paris and I was so excited to read this book, and maybe my anticipation got the best of me, but aside from making me wish I was in Paris I did not feel much. I certainly did not feel for her and her Upper East Side upbringing, prep schools, and certainly did not think her so brave to go to Paris when her godmother lives there and gets her an internship. I certainly did not feel sorry for her when her mother visits a few months after she has been there and buys her a fur coat. She doesn’t seem to realize how lame it is that she – and she writes about this for several chapters – is after 3 ½ years in the great city still trying to mimic Parisians. OK, I remember ardently trying to be more sophisticated when I lived/studied in Strasbourg and every time I go to Paris I pay attention to what the gorgeous stylish women are wearing – but at some point your protagonist needs CONFIDENCE.
When not lamenting her fashion choices, she writes about her love affair with a surfer named Herve and her job at Fairchild Fashion Media.
Note, you might be familiar with her name, she was the youngest editor of Harper’s Bazaar for about a minute and a half – during which she became known as brisk and arrogant, and ultimately was fired for declining readership.
The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr. Here is the NYT review from 1995 and this bit by Lena Dunham for The Paris Review. Karr has all the words and the memories. At time I didn’t know whether to be more stunned by her words, the intrinsic details of what was happening, or just the mere fact that she remembered every single one of those details about her childhood. Read this if you have not already.
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader (publisher’s description – Before his untimely death in 1982, Lester Bangs was inarguably the most influential critic of rock and roll. Writing in hyper-intelligent Benzedrine prose that calls to mind Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, he eschewed all conventional thinking as he discussed everything from Black Sabbath being the first truly Catholic band to Anne Murray’s smoldering sexuality.) I found out about Lester Bangs when I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman portray him in Almost Famous. Man, I get choked up just thinking about it – when I saw that film, what was going on in my life (some of the best years) and how much I MISS PSH. I didn’t know him, but I really could have watched him act forever and ever. I digress. Back to the real life Lester Bangs and his book.
The book reprints some of Bangs’s reviews for Cream, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and others. He put Patti Smith’s up there with Miles Davis, thought the Rolling Stones were the greatest rock and roll band in the world (but that could be “lazy, sniveling, winded motherfuckers”), that Stevie Nicks was a narcissist, and that the Dead Boys were pretending to be something they were not. A great read for anyone who appreciates the music of the 1970s and/or truly great rock criticism.
By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan (author of The Last Werewolf, which I loved, and Talulla Rising, which I didn’t). Jake, the main character of The Last Werewolf, is sophisticated, intelligent, and has a big heart. Duncan is an excellent writer, but a not so great storyteller. I made it through 45 of the 312 pages of By Blood and put the book down. I highly recommend The Last Werewolf.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I tried, I really did with this one. He is absolutely an incredible writer and man what an imagination and storyteller, but the book is so long and I just don’t have the time right now to dedicate to it. I plan to try reading it again when I do.
In case you are interested:
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. I LOVED this book. Not only is Wulf an exceptional researcher, she is a truly gifted writer. The New York Times listed this book in their top 10 Best Books of 2015. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the great Alexander von Humboldt, a man who approached botany like no other before him, who developed the idea of human-induced climate change, and who inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Jules Verne….the list of his accomplishments and those inspired by him goes on and on. He was the greatest scientist of his age and an intrepid explorer – nature was his teacher. I truly cannot say enough about how beautiful and educational this book is, and how much I think anyone interested in science, history, adventure, poetry, and nature will enjoy this.
Off to the Side by Jim Harrison. An enjoyable memoir by the man who wrote Legends of the Fall and the screenplay for WOLF. The first few chapters about his youth in Michigan are fantastic. His tales from Hollywood and hanging out with Jack Nicholson and his gang, well those are fun. I greatly appreciate the man for quotes such as this one “If books aren’t treated as beloved objects like the sports page or the television why would a child wish to read?”
Joyland by Stephen King. It was great until it wasn’t. King tells a great story until it isn’t and his dialogue is terrible. I recommend for a beach read. **I also read Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. A fine read. I learned much about King I did not know, about writing, and the publishing world.
Jack and Jill by James Patterson. Awful. Terrible. I could not make it past the first 50 pages.
M Train by Patti Smith. I just didn’t love this one the way I LOVED Just Kids. Maybe you will?
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. WOW. The Washington Times pretty much nails the quality of this book and O’Brien’s writing “Many people think this is the best work of fiction ever written about Vietnam. Some even think it is the best work of fiction ever written about war. Both are right, and they were right 20 years ago when this book came out for the first time.” The book is a sequence of stories about a platoon of young soldiers caught up in the madness of the Vietnam War. It is a privilege to even read a book such as this.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert. This is an excellent book about the story of the rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton. It is also the story of the making and remaking of global capitalism and with it of the modern world. The book follows cotton from fields to boats, from merchant houses to factories, from pickers to spinners to weavers to consumers.
Chances are you are wearing something woven from cotton. Do yourself a favor and read this book and learn about the world’s most significant manufacturing industry.
Dirt Work by Christine Byl, The White Road by Edmund de Waal, and Olives by Mort Rosenblum.
On my nightstand:
Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
Books coming out this summer, that I look forward to reading and sharing with you in my summer and fall lists: The Georgia Peach by William Okie, The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz by Mostafa Minawi, The Shaykh of Shaykhs: Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan by Yoav Alon, and Rights After Wrongs: Local Knowledge and Human Rights in Zimbabwe by Shannon Morreira.