Mesa, AZ, United States
McPhee is one of my favorites. I think his strongest form is the long-essay and I love his collections that are thematic. 'Uncommon Carriers' delivered exactly what I wanted with a bunch of surprises. Like always, McPhee is able to mix together great characters, fantastic observations, and a real sense of space and place and tell a story that illuminates some place or time that you have probably driven past without noticing a hundred times before.
McPhee has a a geologist's curiosity and patience (and a poet's pen) that allows him to spend an inordinate amount of time with a story to get that one detail that turns a good essay about boats into a fantastic essay about the craft of work, the beauty of place, the magnificence of the ordinary. The magic of McPhee isn't just that he writes new journalism almost better than anyone else on the planet, it is that he does more of it than almost anyone else. Up McPhee's other sleeve is his ability to make you want to follow him on his explorations. He isn't going to chase down your interests (rock stars, movies, money). Instead, McPhee is going to carefully let you follow him down his rabbit holes and help you onto his hobby-horses.
I would also be remiss if I didn't include a part of one of my favorite paragraphs. A barge McPhee is on, is flashed by a woman on a pleasure boat on the Missouri river. Here is McPhee's response:
...She has golden hair. She has the sort of body you go to see in marble. She holds her poise without retreat. In her ample presentation there is a defiance of gravity. There is no angle of repose. She is a siren and these are her songs. She is Henry Moore's "Oval with Points".
Franzen's freshman effort is striking. First, just gazing at the picture of Franzen on the back of the original novel and it makes me think this kid must have been gnawing on ideas for this book in his mother's womb. Seriously, he looks like he might be wearing the same deodorant his dad gave him at puberty.
Anyway, I was inspired to read this book because I was heading to St. Louis for a couple days and figured given the recent Ferguson-inspired race tensions, there might never be a more appropriate time to crack Franzen's novel about an Indian woman who takes over as the St. Louis chief of police. There is sex, violence, politics, intrigue, etc.. It is a thriller that aspires to be literary, or a thriller written by someone who is simply writing in the wrong genre.
The book is ambitious, messy (plot threads abandoned all over the place), inventive, cracked in places, but destined to stick around. I say that knowing that there are some serious Franzen haters out there. I also say that knowing this isn't his best work (by far). But in 1988, Franzen wrote a novel that seems to have almost perfectly captured the paranoid, xenophobic, social and race conflict that surrounds President Obama (birth certificate, etc). Imagine while reading this novel that Obama is Jammu and the United States is St. Louis and let the details slide from Ferguson to the Gateway Arch and there you are.
Franzen's fixation on the American family (both in its function and disfunction) is in pupae form here. Family dinners, tensions between spouses, extra-marital encounters, spoiled children, holiday tensions, they all germ here. His prose is great, if a bit uneven (brilliant in parts and boring in others). His plot is complicated. His setting masterful. Again, this isn't a masterpiece, but it was a clear indication of his future ambition and trajectory.
More of a tribute/essay/paean than a book, Coach is a relic. It is a reflection on Billy "Fitz" Fitzgerald, one of those influential and transformative men who through their character, courage and strength affect a large number of boys. Lewis recalls his memories of Coach Fitz and details the way both parents and children have changed (at least in the milieu of New Orleans and the Isidore Newman School). At heart it is a nostalgia tour of a great man and how lessons about adversity, strength, practice, resolve, respect and focus taught the right way to the right children can help children concur both fear and failure on the road to adulthood.
A slow soak in a bath of music, color, friends, loneliness, philosophy, creation and death. Murakami is a genius at writing with emotions swirling beneath the text. He gets the importance of the notes AND the silence of prose; of the unsaid, dreamy place that is both recognized and strange.
This isn't his most exciting work, but it is clearly not a throw-away either. It brings all the usual suspects to the Murakami table. Murakami writes best when he makes the reader feel like they are just near the surface of wakefulness. He bends the reader into a zone where it feels like a strange contractive tendency of the surface between sleep and wakefulness between musical, lucid dreams and surreal, philosophical nightmares.
It feels like you are balancing blind on the edge of a train platform; you feel the sound of the train and feel the compression of his words, but don't know if the Murakami train is going to hit you from the left or the right.
Like 'The Canterbury Tales', 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman', 'The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights', etc., 'The Decameron' is an early masterpiece of European literature. It is one of those books I've previously avoided because I thought it would be stilted and boring. Hells NASTY Bells was I wrong. Boccaccio is funny, flippant, irreverent, libidinous, provocative, inspiring, insulting, crazy and always -- always entertaining.
100 stories told during the the summer of 1348 as the Black Death is ravaging Florence (and Europe). Ten aristocratic youths take to the country to escape the death, stink and bodies of the City and to hang out and amuse themselves on stories of love and adventure and sex and trickery. Bad priests, evil princes, saints, sinners, and various twists and turns paints a detailed picture of Italy from over 660 years ago that seems just as modern and funky as today. Things have certainly changed, but lords and ladies it is incredible just how many things have stayed the same.
Ovid -- the David Bowie of Latin literature. I chewed on this book of myth-poems the entire time I was tramping around Rome. I was looking for the right words to describe my feelings about it. It isn't that I didn't like it. It is an unequivocal masterpiece. I'm amazed by it. I see Ovid's genes in everything (paintings, sculptures, poems and prose). He is both modern and classic, reverent and wicked, lovely and obscene all at once. It is just hard to wrestle him down. To pin my thoughts about 'the Metamorphoses' into words. Structure really fails me.
That I guess is the sign for me of a book's depth or success with me. It makes me wish I could read it in the original form. I'm not satisfied with Dante in English. I want him in Italian. I'm not satisfied with Ovid in English. I want to experience his poetry, his playfulness, his wit in Latin.
I still prefer the poetry of Homer and Dante, but Ovid isn't embarrassed by the company of the greats; so not Zeus or Neptune, but maybe Apollo.
Often, when writing about the Renaissance there is tendency among experts/writers/historians to focus on the well-plumed bird and ignore the nest. Burckhardt spends nearly 400 pages carefully detailing the Tuscan nest of the Renaissance that embraced, protected, and incubated the great Italian artists of the Rinascimento (Giotto to Michelangelo, etc).
Burckhardt first describes the state in Italy and carefully describes the rise of the despots, the energy of the republics, and the push and the pull of the papacy. He builds on this, describing the development of the individual, Italy's relationship with its Classical past. Finally, Burckhardt details the science, society and religion of Italy during those impressive years between 1350 and 1550.
I think Daniel J. Boorstin summarized it best when he said Burckhardt "offered a classic portrait of the men and institutions that gave the era its characters and made it the mother of modern European civilization."
Like Gibbon's fantastic 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' it is tempting to gloss over how drastically the craft of history was changed by this book. Burckhardt wasn't interested in a stale or utilitarian history. He wanted a nest that was just as beautiful as the bird it bore.
'The Stalin Epigram' is unlike any Littell novel I've read. It is sad, beautiful, complex. It is a writer not playing with words to earn a living, or to impress, or to get laid, or to sell one stupid book. It is a lonely poet casting a stone into a cave, writing a love note to a dead lover, or telling Stalin to take a flying leap. It is art and art is always a little mad.
Ross Macdonald might write Chandleresque noir as good or better than Chandler. Some of the lines from 'The Chill' were so sharp they could cut a day into dark chocolate, bite-sized hours. 'The Chill' had a pretty good twist at the end. The only downside to the novel was it almost needed an overcoat with extra pockets for all the characters. By the end, I needed a small pocket book to keep all femme fatales and dead women straight.
Like most Macdonald novels, the dénouement of 'the Chill' seems to snake into your pants, squirm and bite you before you are quite ready for the book to end. That is one thing about Macdonald: he ties up ALL the snakes at the end.
There is a popular trope (often attributed to Brian Eno) that the Velvet Underground's first album only sold 30,000 copies during its first five years but that “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” I think the same thing can be said about Macdonald. He was one of those writers who probably sold less than his talent deserved, but whose influence on the modern-day detective novel is practically unsurpassed. He was a writer's writer, the professor of pulp, the high king of hard-boiled, the prophet of classic myths retold as California crime fiction. He was a god and you bet you ass every single word was a sacred creation.
I normally don't gravitate towards abridged books (sorry folks on Audible, but this IS abridged), but Vasari's 'The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects' is a book that needs to be: 1) read by art history experts in its entirety (2000+ pages), 2) picked through periodically, like an encyclopedic “Garden of Delights”, 3) read abridged, in a version that focuses on the Renaissance's best (Vasari was interested in distinguishing the better from the good and the best from the better). My time here is limited. I only have so much time for the good. In my brief life here I want to hang with the Gods not with the minor prophets. I want Michelangelo not Niccolò Soggi. Sorry Niccolò.
The Penguin Classics/George Bull translation, was a great audio version. It had all the Teenage Ninja Mutant Renaissance artists, but still provided plenty of architects, sculptures and painters that I was either completely uninformed about or lacked much knowledge. Vasari has a natural narrative momentum, even if he does sometimes lose his narrative genius when he's consumed with listing and describing all of an artists works. It is a fine balancing act, to try and describe the artists' life, work, and importance and make the essay complete, without making the piece a laundry list of oil and marble.
One final note. This is one of those books that seems destined to become an amazing hypertext book or app. There were times while reading it I wished I was reading a digital copy that would provide links to pictures, blue prints, smoothly rotating statues, etc. What I wanted was a through the looking-glass, artist's version of 'The Elements' app by Theodore Gray. I want a multiverse of art, history, maps and blueprints. I want to fall into a hypertext of Renaissance Florence and Rome. Audiobooks or paper just fail to do justice to this beautiful subject.
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