What are you reading lately?
It's another Juke contributor smorgasbord and you're invited to join in!
A year ago, I asked the Juke contributors to celebrate our three-month anniversary by telling me what they were reading. The result was such a joyous mélange of voices that I continued asking everyone more questions. Last Fall, we talked about music. In January, the topic was food. This April, for our one year anniversary, all of us shared "Where we are lately.” This was as far-reaching and philosophical and funny as you can imagine with this motley group.
Three months have gone by, and I’ve decided to turn the wheel and ask everyone the same questions over again. I know I'm not reading the same things I was reading a year ago. I’m not listening to the same songs I was in the fall, or eating the exact same food as January. And nothing makes a bunch of writers happier than talking about books. So, we're back to the original question.
"What are you reading lately?"
And I'll begin by breaking my own rules. Yes, the question is "what are you reading LATELY?" and the "lately" is deliberate, but I don't want to talk about any of the books I've read lately. They were all fine. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton was actually pretty great... but I’m not in the mood to discuss it.
Milan Kundera died last week, and even though I haven't read him lately, I'd rather talk about that. I haven't read him in years, really. I could lamely skirt the question and pull The Book of Laughter and Forgetting off a shelf right now and say it's what I'm reading… except that I don't have it on a shelf. It's packed in one of the boxes with the other 90% of my book collection, awaiting a final decision on where, exactly, I live. Still, even without the torn, well-thumbed paperback in my hand, I can summon the book—Tamina and the laughter of angels and the thin border beyond which life loses meaning...
It's funny. I tried to re-read The Unbearable Lightness of Being a couple years ago, and I just couldn't get back into it. It was almost embarrassing, the way I couldn't connect with the words anymore. Like the disenchantment of running into an old boyfriend. I still remember when I first pulled it off the shelf—I was sixteen or seventeen—in the fiction section at the Rapid City Public Library. I opened the cover, read the first few sentences, then plopped right down on the carpet and read it in one long, delicious sitting. Later, I went to a bookstore and bought my own copy. I still have it somewhere, in one of those boxes, its pages stained with pencil marks and underlined sentences.
I found The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in college. I had devised an entire Independent Study course for myself on the topic of the Prague Spring, just so that I could talk and write about Milan Kundera, and during that semester I fell rapturously in love with that book. The last time I read it, though, a few years ago, I felt a little differently. I wondered whether I should have spent years telling all my friends and family how extraordinary it was. Did I really want so many people associating me with such an odd, unnerving book? I still recognized myself in it, but I was less comfortable with that recognition than I had been at 20.
The thing is, I may never read those books again, but it wouldn't matter. They altered me profoundly, just at the age when I was ready to be altered. Each of them gave me words for ideas I hadn't considered, but immediately knew to be true. I'm thinking of Thereza's dreams, her sacred privacy, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I'm thinking of the eerie innocence of children in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting... I couldn't possibly explain either of those books to you, not in any way that makes sense. But the way I write, and the way I think, is tied up forever with the words inside them. And isn't that the peculiar danger of opening a book? You may never be the same.
Juke World Headquarters - many time zones away and millions of light years away - sent out another call to action, so here is my response. The staff at HQ said, “Hey, what are you reading now?” This brought up a strange sense of deja-vu, both the question and the answer.
I could just say, “Print what I sent in last year,” but it’s not quite the same. I could also say, “You should have asked me what I was reading six months ago,” but I won’t say that either. I’ll just be honest for a change.
I’m again in the world of the gulag, specifically things about Stalin and his genocidal famines. Who knows why I am drawn to this stuff, but I am. When Martin Amis died recently, I belatedly realized I wanted to read something of his, so I ordered “Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million.” There was a run on the book, so I had to find a used copy on eBay and this took 25 days to arrive because the US Postal system seems to be slow lately.
BUT, I’m also re-reading the Isaac Babel stories - all of them - along with a book about how Leo Fender, Les Paul and Paul Bixby all knew each other back in the day - “The Birth of Loud.” Geoff Emerick’s story on recording the Beatles - “Here, There and Everywhere,” and a few other things. I also just downloaded the complete Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck and some other stuff. It’s going to be a good summer. I’m also feeling a tug towards some good, old Bronze Age comic books again. Sigh
What am I reading lately? I am reading about creativity.
I am about half way through Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act - A Way of Being. And, next up will be the fourth expanded edition of Song Writers on Song Writing, by Paul Zollo. I am new to this book, but, it has a huge following since its first publication in 1991. The Rubin book was just published in 2023, it’s fantastic.
Rick Rubin is a music publisher. And he seems to be a master at bringing out the best in his artists. The book is almost like a stream of consciousness of random thoughts on what it means to be an artist, how to think as an artist, keep the creative juices fresh and flowing. He speaks to the role of creativity in all our lives, whether you are an artist or not. In his opinion everyone creates. “To create is to bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. It could be a conversation, the solution to a problem…a note to a friend.”
Here are some things I have underlined from the book, “talent is the ability to let ideas manifest themselves through you”, “its helpful to remember that when you throw away the old playbook, you still keep the skills you learned along the way”, “The reason to make art is to innovate and self-express, show something new, share what’s inside, and communicate your singular perspective.” This is a book I will earmark, underline passages from and make notes in the margins.
Song Writers on Song Writing is a huge book, over 700 pages of interviews done over the past six decades between Zollo and the giants of song writing; Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Randy Newman, Neil Young, David Crosby, Brian Wilson, to name just a few. From the introduction to this edition, “Many songwriters said that their greatest songs were written in a flash, words and music arriving simultaneously, like uncovering something that was already there.” That is a lot like what happens in painting.
The creative process is a mysterious thing and reading about other artist’s experiences I find very motivating and validating in my practice. I will keep these two books close and return to them often for inspiration and escape into some amazingly genius creative minds.
The reads go on, and presently, I am facing a stack of six volumes. These books include: The Greek Islands by Lawrence Durrell, Cruising Paradise: Tales of Sam Shepard by Sam Shepard, Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Letters Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak Marina Tsvetayeva Rainer Maria Rilke, with a preface by Susan Sontag, Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, and Novel and Other Poems by George Sefferis. The list doesn’t make sense to me either.
Austerlitz will be a re-read. The Brothers Karamazov will be filling in a gap. Tender Is the Night will be to vanish into Fitzgerald’s lyrical dreams. I don’t know which of them will stick. However, I do this after finishing a covey of books. I throw a new stack in the air and see what lands. Lately I’ve completed Arthur Miller’s Timebends, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s Grand Hotel Europa, The Half-Finished Heaven by Tomas Transtromer, and A Ted Hughes Bestiary selected by Alice Oswald. I’ve also been on a Philip Roth tour for the past couple of months, finishing The Human Stain back in May, which is the third volume of Roth’s The American Trilogy. I have not read the first two volumes, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. But I will read them. Soon enough.
It’s summer in Alabama. Time to (re)turn to some of my favorite subjects, all of which emanate from the kaleidoscope that is China. From T’ao Ch’ien’s drunken poetics, to rural revitalization via architectural acupuncture, to aligning with the season’s intense heat via qigong, there’s much ground to cover. That we can now indulge in the refined poetry of ancient Chinese Taoist women is remarkable in its own right. And yes, architectural acupuncture is a thing. So many books, so little time…..
1. A Hero Born, Legends of the Condor Heroes, vol. 1. (Jin Yong)
2. Qigong and the Tai Chi Axis (Mimi Kuo-Deemer)
3. How to Grasp the Bird’s Tail if You Don’t Speak Chinese (Jane Schorre, Margaret Chang)
4. Yin Mountain - The Immortal Poetry of Three Daoist Women (Rebecca Nie, Peter Levitt)
5. The Songyang Story: Architectural Acupuncture as Driver for Socio-Economic Progress in Rural China. (Projects by Xu Tiantian, DnA_Beijing)
6. T’ao Yüan-ming, His Works and Their Meaning (A.R. Davis) (Also recommended, David Hinton’s The Selected Poems of T'ao Ch’ien)
What Am I Reading Lately?
Madly, Deeply, The Diaries of Alan Rickman
I enjoy reading biographies. Recently, I trudged through the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. She wrote from Alice's point of view, but ends up focusing more upon herself. Alice becomes Narrator. Also, the plot drifts from one gossipy tale to another about the visitors to their home at 27 de Rue Fleurus in Paris.
I'm familiar with Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso already. Who isn't? Stein brings in all the wayfaring souls along with wives, mistresses, models, and assorted associates. It was a drudgery for my monkey brain to track. So, it landed in the thrift store bag.
That decision dispatched … with glee … I snapped up Madly, Deeply: The Dairies of Alan Rickman. What a pleasure! Not only does Rickman's charisma upstage many lead actors, his daily life shines with wit and just enough information to reveal what's going on behind the scenery. Editing by Alan Taylor and a lovely, spunky Foreword by Emma Thompson makes this biography a stellar achievement.
Perhaps the chronological order lovingly worms its way into my distracted mind just right at this time. It doesn't belabor me with vast explanations about people I don't care about. Instead, Rickman recorded his life between 1993 and 2015 in pocket dairies the size of a cell phone. Some of these dairies only give a few short lines of space, but Rickman's dairies provided a full page per day. Granted that page measured a few square centimeters, but his choice of words tell a rich story I could piece together as I followed along each entry. What's more, that structure urged me to flip page after page without getting mentally exhausted. It was allowing me to fill in the blanks, to help create the story. What fun!
Typical of a lot of his entries is this: "8 p.m. Groucho Club to meet with Peter Richardson and Stephen Fry to talk of the film project. Stephen looks ashen -- he's been experiencing the Rottweiler element of the press. A kind of blooding."
Another snippet describes his feelings after his wife, Rima, returns home to London after visiting him on set in Paris: "Oh, the freedom and emptiness of waking up alone in a king-size bed."
Of course, many writings are longer, talking of major events. Still, what can be said in a small space is a tribute to his mastery of language and insight.
While reading Rickman's work, I couldn't help thinking of my father's pocket dairies, which he collected in a long metal desk drawer. I found the drawer, with several dozen dairies packed tight, shelved in the back of my childhood closet. He slept in my old room after Mom died. Much like Rickman, he recorded the mundane: car maintenance, the day's weather, birthdays, etc. He also managed to tell stories, ala Rickman -- day, by week, by month.
After his funeral when my sister was cleaning out the house, I asked where the dairies were. She laughed at me in her usual derisive tone. "Oh, we just threw those in the garbage. They're not worth anything." Somehow, I stuffed my rage deep inside and went about helping her move things to her car. I didn't bother telling her how, one day, Dad recited a few entries from one of those dairies.
· Day 1: "Left door open while getting paper. Cat got out, ran across the yard meowing "I'm free I'm free!"
· Day 2: "Heard cats yowling in the yard all night."
· Day 6: "Cat came back inside. Seems to be content to stay home now."
· Six weeks later: "Cat gave birth to four kittens. 1 black and white, 2 orange, 1 calico."
While my father's life was nowhere near as sophisticated as Alan Rickman's, I would've treasured those junky little books. For one thing, I wanted to graph out all the weather data he notated over thirty-plus years. He often told me how things were changing every year as he grew his tomatoes. "They just aren't as good as anymore. There's something in the air," he said. "Probably some toxic stuff from Dugway." (The Dugway Proving Grounds released poisonous gas in the early 1960s that killed thousands of sheep in northern Utah.)
My heart aches for the loss of those stories and the data lost. Thank goodness, Alan Rickman's friends didn't throw his little pocket dairies in the trash. We all get to read the magnificent day-to-day stuff of this extraordinary man.
I read a lot of memoirs now.
I just finished A Waiter in Paris, by Edward Chisholm.
Edward Chisholm is a writer’s writer. In this book, Chisholm finds himself in Paris alone, destitute, no friends, no home, no job, no money, with poor French language skills.
He survives by becoming a Parisian waiter as he strives to keep his hopes of becoming a writer alive.
This is Chisholm’s first book and written post pandemic. It’s a ballsy, genuine look inside the Parians way of life, in the setting of a restaurant.
I’ve played and worked in Paris and Chisolm has it down. I’ll never look at a French Bistro the same way again. And I promise to l leave a hefty tip on my “l'addition”.
Born Standing Up By Steve Martin. It’s the good, bad, and the ugly of a standups life.
18 years on the road, and he walks away on top.
Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, & Butter. Her book is so much fun to read. Her grace under pressure is amazing.
The honesty of these books is what gets to me.
The photographer Tim Carpenter’s short but compelling essay with digressions, To Photograph is to Learn How To Die, has helped me to think through what it means to create photographs in a time when “the photographic” has shifted ever more into excess and endlessly repeated familiar tropes. Carpenter is interested in how the photograph mediates between the Self and the external Everything Else, and in doing so marks both time and being in profound ways. Although other writers have identified links between photography, memory and our shared mortality, I found Carpenter’s essays a brilliant reminder that through the negotiation of interior and exterior worlds, photography allows the conscious practitioner an opportunity for deeper engagement, agency and meaning-making in the world.
I went to buy a book by the Substack writer Sara Peterson, author of In Pursuit of Clean Countertops. Her book about influencers called Momfluenced, sounded fascinating, and so I decided to purchase it from a local bookstore (#virtuesignaling) who also sell these little caramels that go with good coffee and make me feel like life is worth living.
While waiting for my Momfluenced book, which I thought I’d take a picture of and ironically post on instagram in the hopes of being influential, I found a delightfully bite-sized, quirky-covered book called Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. This one I devoured the next day - the story of a neurodivergent, Japanese convenient store worker who unironically loves her job and spends most of her time trying to understand why everyone else is disappointed for her. Doing this job makes her happy -why does she have to dream bigger for everyone else’s sake? I enjoyed this woman’s certainty about who she was and where she belonged in the world. I’m sure some of the Japanese culture was lost on me but I know for a fact that now I need to go to a Japanese Convenience Store.
I’ll put that on my to-do list, stacked up in my brain like the books on my nightstand. This summer, they happen to all be by or about women. These books I glean in stolen chapters, half finished in various swim bags, car nooks and coffee tables - The Rosemary Clooney autobiography, Girl Singer, the momfluencers of said bookstore purchase, a half-read book of Colette’s stories and on audible, Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds which has started out to be as quirky and poetic as I would have hoped the voice of Marcel the Shell with Shoes on would be.
Having lived in Texas for the past 18 years, I recently figured it was high time I read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. For those unfamiliar with this novel, it is certainly among the most beloved books in Texas—despite the fact that my paperback copy is a hefty 945 pages. It was published in 1985 and won the Pulitzer for fiction. I’m only a couple hundred pages in, and so what I know about the story is that it is (so far) about a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana (Montany).
You may know Larry McMurtry for writing Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show, and the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. (Previously, I knew Larry McMurtry as the father of James McMurtry, the greatest songwriter in Texas.)
Here’s what I find most fascinating about the book and its author: McMurtry is on the record as being disappointed and confused and frustrated with Lonesome Dove’s reception (including the television miniseries that came from it). You see, McMurtry had contempt for Texans and anyone else who romanticized the cowboy-and-cattle era of Texas, which barely lasted a generation following the Civil War. It certainly included rugged characters and adventurous travel, but it was hardly glorious, McMurtry insisted. The period (which overlapped with Reconstruction, one of the most lawless, dangerous periods of Texas history) was filled with unscrupulous thugs, lots of murder and theft, and betrayal, fear, and fever up and down the cattle trail. And yet, Lonesome Dove was and continues to be cited as one of the greatest Western novels that idealized the myth of the cowboy to unprecedented levels. McMurtry had set out to do the exact opposite.
What I know is this: After reading only 200 pages, I find this novel enthralling. I have to admit to occasionally daydreaming of playing a couple hands of poker in a dusty saloon before mounting my horse and riding toward the sunset. But mainly, when it comes to this book, I stand amazed at how McMurtry composes his prose, creates unforgettable characters, and conveys the heavy stillness of a time and place without electricity, cars, planes, equality, computers, Uggs, Crocs, and the music of James McMurtry.
I may have mentioned this in my last piece about ‘What I’m Reading Now,’ but one of the great pleasures of my life these days is doing a podcast about Montana books called “Breakfast in Montana.” It often introduces me to writers I probably wouldn’t even know about, like D’Arcy McNickle, a Native American writer who published an incredible novel called The Surrounded in 1936, or Black Cherries, a wonderful collection of short stories by Grace Stone Coates that never got the attention it deserved. What I’m reading now for the podcast is a heartbreaking memoir by poet Mary Jane Nealon, who grew up back east but has lived in Montana for a couple of decades now. The book is called Beautiful Unbroken, and although Nealon’s poetic tendencies sometimes show in her beautiful prose, the real strength of this book is her unflinching account of working as a nurse for AIDS patients in New York back in the ‘80s. Nealon refused to follow in the footsteps of many of her fellow medical workers, who made a conscious effort to maintain an emotional distance from their patients. Instead, she immersed herself in the work and felt the pain of every loss. What is most powerful about this book is that she also gives us an honest appraisal of how that decision impacted her own life as she sought comfort from the relentless grief in meaningless affairs and occasional drinking and drug use. But this is not a book about someone escaping into addiction. It’s about someone who decided to live her life to the fullest, and writes honestly about both the costs and rewards of that decision. It's an incredible book.
I just finished Ross Gay's Book of Delights. The author, starting on his birthday, spent a year documenting every day delights from the mundane to the extraordinary. I found it an inspirational reminder that poetry exists everywhere and does not cease.
Botticelli’s Secret: The Lost Drawings and Rediscovery of the Renaissance by Joseph Luzzi
I am finding space to enjoy this deep dive into the world of Renaissance Florence. It was a gift from my students who attended the author’s lecture earlier this year.
Abandon by Pico Iyer
Classified as a romance, this novel is a dervish with Rumi at its center.
Mani & Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor
As I only brought two books with me for the summer, I was glad to see these editions available in English at the bookstore.
I'm in Greece this summer, and though there's never as much room for books as I'd like, I always pack a handful. This trip, I set myself the task of walking the mountain on the island every morning. My companion on those hikes—aside from the cats in the churchyard where the trail begins, a few goats, and Λέον, the golden behemoth of a dog at the monastery—has been Rilke's Book of Hours. It's a collection I've carried for years, particularly the translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. "When gold is in the mountain / and we've ravaged the depths / till we've given up digging, / it will be brought forth into day / by the river that mines / the silences of stone. / Even when we don't desire it / God is ripening."
Most days, I return to the house around 8:00. Beka is painting. Our boy is still asleep. I like to read a bit from a copy of Cavafy's Collected Poems. It was a fortunate last minute addition to my bag. "As one long prepared, and full of courage, / as is right for you who were given this kind of city, / go firmly to the window / and listen with deep emotion, / but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; / listen—your final pleasure—to the voices, / to the exquisite music of that strange procession, / and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing." Yes. Soon. But not just yet.
Other reading keeps me rooted here. I'm doing a bit of course prep for the fall, and for that I'm re-reading Sophocles's Theban Plays in a translation by Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff. The cover of this edition, oddly, carries a photo of JFK standing at the Resolute Desk, as if readers might need some sort of special assistance to find contemporary application for these lines. Note the key word below, according to the translators, is δεινός (deinon), something like "terrible-marvelous".
Many wonders, many terrors, (332) But none more wonderful than the human race Or more dangerous. --- For he is Man, and he is cunning. (347) he has invented ways to take control Of beasts that range mountain meadows: Taken down the shaggy-necked horses, The tireless mountain bulls, And put them under the yoke. --- He has the means to handle every need, (360) Never steps toward the future without the means. Except for Death: He's got himself no relief from that... --- He has cunning contrivance, (365) Skill surpassing hope, And so he slithers into wickedness sometimes...
Some times. I've also been keeping up, as much as possible, with Paul Kingsnorth's substack The Abbey of Misrule, where he's been working for a couple of years to articulate The Tale of the Machine. In a summary of those many essays, he writes: "The ultimate project of modernity, I have come to believe, is to replace nature with technology, and to rebuild the world in purely human shape, the better to fulfill the most ancient human dream: to become gods. What I call the Machine is the nexus of power, wealth, ideology and technology that has emerged to make this happen."
I'm looking for something else, something lighter to balance all the rest. Beka suggests I read Abandon by Pico Iyer. There's a long stack upstairs of what looks like histories of the island, except they're in Greek. There is also a shelf of things left behind by travelers. I'm not so desperate, yet, as to open Erma Bombeck, and I've never gotten into Agatha Christie. There is Douglas Adams's The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. Always good, but this one's in German. I see Madeline Miller's fantastic Circe, but I just finished it and The Song of Achilles before leaving home. That leaves a 1940s copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which might work, Requiem for a Dream, and a well thumbed The Old Man and the Sea. I'll keep digging.
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