Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hermann Hesse -- STEPPENWOLF

Hermann Hesse's fame has lasted, though he is surely not quite as highly regarded as he once was.  My three dollar mass-market paperback copy of Steppenwolf, for instance, asks and answers a question about his once massive popularity: "Why has one European writer, Hermann Hesse, captured the imagination and loyalty of a whole generation of Americans? Because he is a vital spiritual force . . ." Of course, maybe the "whole generation" phrase hints that even the writer of the book's copy (I should note that my edition is from some forty years after the original German publication) knew that Hesse's fame would not stay quite so immense forever. Nowadays he is regarded as a J.D. Salinger for a deeper crowd, the discontented adolescent who sees phoniness everywhere but, instead of whining humorously, turns to the things of the spirit. 

Steppenwolf is maybe his best known novel, though at this point in time, it's hard to know if that's just well-known because so many people like the songs "Magic Carpet Ride" and "Born to be Wild," songs by the band Steppenwolf, both still mainstays of classic rock radio (and the latter, I just learned, the source of the phrase "heavy metal"). Those song titles, incidentally, seem perfectly in line with the Hesse's fascinations with man's complicated inner nature and with the wisdom of the East. What is fascinating is that Hesse's novel, growing out of his own history in early twentieth century Germany, should have so much resonance the mid-century American generation. Steppenwolf was, I read, Timothy Leary's favorite, and one guesses that Timothy Leary was popular among many who were reading Hesse in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Peter Handke--The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

Peter Handke is an Austrian modernist writer, primarily known as a playwright and the author of several novels. His name came to my knowledge after reading an interview with Don DeLillo (whose Libra I just finished). The book is actually mentioned by his anonymous questioner, who puts it in a short list of "slim but seminal European works of fiction" that also includes books by Albert Camus and Max Frisch. At about 130 pages, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is indeed pretty slim, and I have to take my source at his word that it is a seminal text. The book is not an enjoyable read in any usual way. It is not full of poetic language or a gripping plot or beautiful description or inspirational themes. I read it rather as a case study in the style and the concerns of modernism.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Don DeLillo--LIBRA

Imagine for one second that there is a spectrum of writing that runs from poetry on one end to novels on the other. Poetry requires attention to individual words and even to the details smaller than words, while novels require the ability to manage and organize large sections of information and text. In that spectrum  you might put short stories right in the middle and perhaps you could even argue that they are the most artistic type of literature because they combine the strengths of both, or that they are the most difficult to write because they require overcoming the difficulties of both. On that spectrum I would put Don DeLillo way out on the novelist's end. His prose is notable for its flatness, its total drabness, while his books as a whole are notable for his skill in managing huge amounts of information.

I don't mean to say that DeLillo crams in a lot of facts are that his novels are extremely complex (though Underworld is a pretty complicated set of plots and subplots), but that his characters, motivated by mental quirks, tend to generate a lot of theories and assertions and pseudo-facts that pile up and need to be organized somehow. DeLillo's characters are not bundles of repressed emotions and desires. They are the embodiments of something that DeLillo calls "paranoia" but which has only a slight connection to what is normally meant by the word. For DeLillo it summarizes complex set of beliefs that his characters tend to exhibit. One is that everything in the world is connected. Two is that these connections are usually hidden, visible only to individuals with a special gift for sensing them. A third is that these connections become visible through "coincidence." For DeLillo, a paranoiac is one who tells stories that end with the classic line, "Coincidence?!?! I think NOT!" as though the mere idea that two things might have some secret connection is intrinsically fascinating, regardless of what the connection may be. It's not exactly delusional, but it's certainly different.

Dry prose and paranoids, then, are the stuff of a DeLillo novel, and take them as far from poetry as one could go. His writing has been described as "postmodern" for the way it captures a kind of anomie of modern society, especially in the conversations between people who don't have anything to say, full of questions and exclamations punctuated undramatically with periods, full of stock phrases and quotations from advertisements, conversations where people wonder what other people might say in a similar situation. This from Libra:
"I wonder," she said. "What do other people say to each other?"
"Now. I want to know what people say. Maybe there are things we haven't thought of." Laughing at herself. "Things we out to be saying."
"While having sex or afterward?"
"While having sex is not interesting. Moany-groany love talk. No, afterward, now."
"Do you think we've been saying the wrong things all these years?"
"Wouldn't you like to overhear? I don't want to watch other people. I want to listen."
"They talk about wanting a cigarette."
"Who was that on the phone?"
" 'Where are my cigarettes' That's what they say."
"He wouldn't tell me his name."
"Larry Parmenter. . ."

Friday, July 15, 2011


It would be easy to dislike this book. The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe opens with vivid descriptions of pilgrims who have come to Lourdes to healed juxtaposed with memories of Tóibin's Irish Catholic upbringing, hinting at mysteries and beauties that the rest of the book will, one hopes, elaborate on. This is not that book, though.The purpose of this book isn't to illuminate the Church or a part of Europe. Its stories of finding bars and beers and lunches and flights and hotels and interviews with whatever English speakers he happened to run into, it feels at times like a look behind-the-scenes of the making of that book.

But gradually it becomes clear that the book is actually about Tóibin's failed struggle to understand what he is seeing, whether a pilgrimage site, an abandoned church in the former Soviet Union, or the mass appeal of Pope John Paul II, who makes frequent appearances.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I had to get this since I enjoyed Harl's other Teaching Company course (Rome and the Barbarians) so much. This lecture series is a bit shorter (24 lectures) and not as complex, nor as hard to follow. Harl's true expertise is in the Roman Empire and so in this series he is not quite as passionate or opinionated, and these lectures are generally less dense than those on Rome. Of course, Harl's lectures can get overly dense and his opinions often carry him on long digressions, so these aren't necessarily negatives. And where his thinking about Rome represents a highly distinctive view of history, these lectures stay pretty close to the typical presentation of Greek history. It is a relatively straightforward trip through the long struggle between Sparta and Athens, though Harl's perspective is, I think, colored by his Roman expertise. His views on the of nature of classical empire and the nature of Mediterranean power come from the Romans, making him more comfortable with the hard facts of empire, and causing him to emphasize the Spartan and Athenian relationships with allies more than their internal histories and cultures. He sees the war as a struggle between two ideas of how to manage the Greek world, treating Athenian democracy and Spartan traditionalism as something like two political positions that were present in varying degrees in all city-states throughout Greece.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kenneth Harl – ROME AND THE BARBARIANS (Lecture Series)

I am a guitar instructor and spend a great deal of time in my car driving from one student's house to another, and a lot of time getting from my home near Stanford to the homes scattered around the South Bay, all the way down to South San Jose. It's more time in a car than just about anyone, except of course delivery drivers. The teaching itself is all fun but the car time can be tiring. It has at least one benefit, though, which is that I have tons of time to listen to lectures from The Teaching Company, a truly wonderful company that records lecture courses by university professors around the country and sells them in convenient packages of 24 to 48 half-hour lectures (some course are up to 72 lectures, and some have 45 minute lectures). I can't say enough about how great these things are. The quality of the lectures is uniformly top-notch, and they are a cut above most audiobooks in intellectual level as well as ease of listening. They are intended for listening, and so unlike an audiobook professors will repeat important points and usually organize their lectures to be understood on first listen. For me, trapped in my car for hours a day, they've been something like life-savers for me. I think I've been through something like thirty, which I suspect may be as much as anyone else in the country, unless someone can refute that claim). So, thinking that this gives me some good perspective on them, I thought I might start writing about them as I go through them, starting with my favorite, Kenneth Harl's Rome and the Barbarians.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Music for Francisco Goldman's SAY HER NAME: Julieta Venegas -- MTV Unplugged

This is my first attempt working with a new concept for this blog. I'm a musician, as I've maybe mentioned before on this blog, and I listen to a fairly wide range of music. I've been looking for a way to talk about some of the music I really like and a way to present some of the results of my continual search for great music that I've never heard. So I'm going to try as best I can to pair every book with an album of music that I think shares some of the tone and the mood of that book. Sometimes it will be music that was mentioned in the book, sometimes it won't be. Sometimes it'll be music I know something about, other times it'll be something I just found in the process trying to match some music with the book. It'll be sort of like coming up with a hint of a soundtrack for a book, only I mean to get some the tone of the prose more than music that would be appropriate for the movie version of the book. I want it to also be a way to think differently about a writer's style, putting in some kind of cultural perspective. We'll see how it goes. First up is Julieta Venegas' live album from 2008, MTV Unplugged, as music to go with Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name, the tragic story of the death of his wife Aura.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Francisco Goldman – SAY HER NAME

In May of 2005 Aura Estrada and Francisco Goldman were married near San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. It was a huge outdoor wedding, suited to the long distance that the guests had travelled to be there. I only dimly remember the particulars of that day: large tents housing the dinner tables, the never ending supply of tequila, the bride and groom floats that cheerily danced above our heads after the more serious march down the aisle. I can vividly recall Frank grinning so widely as to look even less real than the float, more like a child's drawing of a happy face than an actual person. Leading him around this happily entranced figure was the youthful Aura, who, in contrast to Frank's otherworldly look, was very much in her element, dancing lightly around the grass and among the guests as though in her own home.

That was the first and last time I saw Aura Estrada. She died on July 25, 2007, in the unlikeliest of accidents on a beach in Mexico, just after her thirtieth birthday and just before her and Frank's second anniversary. This is the tragedy that opens Say Her Name, a book that that serves as a memorial to Aura, a memoir of love and loss and a meditation on the mystery of other lives.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Americano Book Review!

I just finished a stint as a guest editor of a very special issue of The American Book Review devoted to Mexican-American literature of the West. My introduction, along with a contribution from Dagoberto Gilb and a table of contents, are available at the ABR website. To read the whole thing you'll have to find a copy on a newsstand or order one from the web. It's worth it, though, as it's a pretty interesting read. We put together a pretty broad range of work in the issue--from a discussion of graphic novels by Hector Cantú (the man behind the comic strip Baldo), a piece about Gary Soto by Michael Jaime-Becerra (a novelist) and even a piece by screenwriter Josefina Lopez (of Real Women Have Curves fame). For a taste, there are a couple things available online. Oscar Villalon (formerly books editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and currently managing editor of Zyzzyva) has posted his piece--a reflective piece on living in the Latino literary world--on his own blog and it's definitely worth a read. And, my own review of a recent book called Migra! by Kelly Lytle-Hernandez, is printed after the break. (As a warning, I should say it's a slightly more personal essay than what's been on this blog so far--though only slightly.)

Saturday, April 30, 2011


I keep finding myself picking up these Heinrich Böll novels. This latest one, titled And Never Said a Word, was a real let-down, yet I know that I'm still going to move on to the next one. This makes me aware of the value of Böll, which lies somewhere beyond the actual qualities of his writing or his ability to come up with plots and characters. What comes through all his books, a deep moral concern and a deep moral seriousness which it gives him the ability to infuse significance into the smalles of activities, from drinking coffee to interacting with neighbors. Even when, as I suspect would happen to anyone reading this book, one gets terribly bored, one admires the man who produced it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Max Weber's great essay of 1904 has suffered from its own success. It does have a catchy title. People throw around the phrase "the Protestant ethic" constantly. It is written with an appealing (though for some, off-putting) combination of simplicity and grandiosity. And, I think, people just like they idea they think the work represents, the basic version of which is familiar to everyone. It is usually put rather crudely: Protestantism somehow led to capitalism. For many it explains how we good Protestants became good capitalists. So it provides an explanation of how, in general, we've gotten just so darn good. But this version, an optimistic description of the progress that led inevitably to our own time, misses a large part of the value of this book.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


The Lost Honor is a very short novel, maybe not quite long enough to truly be a novel. At a little over a hundred rather sparsely filled pages, it meets the old Edgar Allan Poe requirement for a short story that it be able to be absorbed in a single sitting. Against Poe's recommendations, though, it doesn't aim at a single effect. Instead confronts the big ideas that motivate much of Heinrich Böll's work. In this book, as in The Clown and Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Böll sneers at the veneer of public respectability that hides immorality, shows the ways that people can use their power to manipulate others, and also betrays a general cynicism about the officialdom of postwar German society.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


In this book, Steven Ozment has attempted a new look at the history of the very earliest phase of the Reformation, running from 1517, the date of Luther's famed 95 theses, up to about 1520-21, when reforms started to be instituted in the German towns. His concern is to find out the why Luther's ideas were so appealing to city dwellers of Germany, and his answer is that it appealed for positive worldly and "urban" reasons. In doing this, Ozment paints a particular picture of Protestantism, making it free of its later religious excesses, its Calvinist strictness, its occasional Messianism, its later concrete forms with their organized rituals too reminiscent of Catholicism. He is sometimes overly eager to separate this undeveloped, early phase from the later developments within the churches.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro: THE UNCONSOLED

I went into The Unconsoled having read The Remains of the Day a number of years ago and enjoying it immensely. I obviously wasn't the only one who enjoyed it, as it won the Booker Prize in 1989 and was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Having read that book, I was prepared for the extremely dry, unsentimental style that is uniquely Ishiguro's. His prose verges on the pedantic, yet it is kept alive by humor and originality, by a certain silliness that pervades his work. The book, as well as the film Never Let Me Go of a couple years ago (made from his book of the same name), also attuned me to his thematic concerns: the way that polite gentility, especially of the British sort, can hide sadness and even horror, even from oneself; the feeling of being lost in a culture obsessed with such gentility; and attention to the subtleties of the class system. In Remains, with its aging butler struggling to understand the decline of the ritualized formalities that he has lived by his whole life, these ideas are used to comic effect, and one only very slowly realizes the serious issues and serious emotions being conveyed. In Never Let Me Go, the comedy is mostly gone, changed into absurdity but conveying much the same feelings, this time through a class of people raised entirely to be organ-donors, who barely realize the horror of their own lives because they stick so closely to the rules that have been laid out for them. All of this, I imagine, has roots somewhere in Ishiguro's confusion at an England that he wasn't born into and that he finds at the same time funny, sad and weird.

So, I was prepared for The Unconsoled, and I was even ready to like it a ton, especially since it promised to be about a musician. But there's no other way to say this: I hated this book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

William Styron: THE LONG MARCH

The march at the center of this book is 36 miles long, a truly horrendous length. It is probably even more horrendous in the imagining than in the walking, though, and it is the imagination of the march that the book focuses on. The walking itself takes up only the last third of the book, which is only about thirty or so pages of this very short book.

The book is set in Georgia in a marine training camp, where Colonel Templeton has ordered that his soldiers, who are primarily reservists, must make a 36 mile march, which will start in the night and go for some thirteen-plus hours, in order to toughen them up, since, he says they have been acting like reservists, when in fact they need to remember that they are, first and foremost, Marines. The Long March is narrated by Lieutenant Culver, a former Marine, who got married and had a child back before being called back into the service for the Korean War. He struggles with his return, but not nearly as much as his friend Captain Mannix, whose struggle we watch throughout the book. Culver has difficulty complaining about anything, even in directing any ill will towards Templeton, or hating the idea of the march, since he can make sense out of both of them. Templeton, with his perfect Marine simplicity, is perhaps too simple to hate. Mannix, however, has no end of complaining. He hates that he's been called back, complains about the silly forced recreational times he has to suffer through as an officer, and complains especially about Templeton and this long, long march.

For Culver, and one imagines for Styron as well, what makes this struggle so awful is the inability to connect it to any meaning, or the difficulty in figuring out how to meaningfully protest.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Heinrich Böll: THE CLOWN

I confess that I didn't pick up The Clown for any literary reason at all. I was interested in this book entirely because the book promised to be about a mime. It was only after that I learned anything about Heinrich Böll. The essentials on Böll are that he is a German novelist, Nobel Prize 1972, grew up in a respectable Catholic pacifist family in World War II. From this book, it seems that he has inherited his parents' distaste for war, though they also seem to have turned him against certain aspects of Catholicism and respectability.

The Clown, in spite of its title, is a rather dreary book, punctuated only rarely by moments of comedy, which sometimes come simply from the dreariness reaching such heights as to be comical.