Monday, May 17, 2010

A second visit to the unilateral virtual bookclub

Last month, flagellating myself a little for not writing anything about fiction I did a post on it (4/11/10) - A visit to a unilateral vitual book club (the only one I belong to - consisting of me, myself and I so I don't have to sit impatiently through anyone else's opinion). But, it grew too long and I realized I had to break it in half. This is part two.

Next to my bed sits a 6 foot book shelf, packed with books stacked at least another foot on top with my favorite fiction (the larger non-fiction collection is in the living room). There sit my Tolkiens - 22 volumes by him or about him and his work, the Dumas collection - only three of this word machine's work - The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years later and The Man in the Iron Mask - but what a three, Fenimore Cooper's wonderfully wordy but adrenaline producing Last of the Mohicans, Deerkiller and Pathfinder, the Chandler's and Hammets, the Rex Stout novels comprised of 38 Nero Wolf volumes - my largest collection, my beloved Flashman novels and a few other unsung gems by George MacDonald Fraser, the 29 Lawrence Block novels - second largest collection, Adam Hall's Quiller novels  - with more fast paced derring-do in any one of them than in two James Bond novels, a few Agatha Christie's, the Sherlock Holmes books and John Mortimer's Rumpole books. A bunch more. Too many to ever dream of re-reading.

Last month I pulled five off this shelf and wrote about Matt Lewis' brillian gothic classic The Monk, Twain's Letters to the Earth, Jim Thompson's gruesome pulp fiction, Eric Eddison's pre-Tolkien fantasy classic The Worm Ourobos and the irrepresible short stories of Damon Runyon who I am incapable of reading without smiling.  I think, if I can bloganalyze myself, the point was to choose wonderful but relatively little read works - even if the writer was famous and the book has some fame in a literary sort of way - it deserve more notice because of great writing. That wasn't too hard because I'm pretty sure that is the point of half the non-political posts I write. Maybe three quarters.

I thought I'd start with an author I doubt you've heard of, even if you are an English major. He's written only a handful of books. 

The name of the author is Abraham Rodriguez - an intriguing name because the first part sounds Jewish and the last Hispanic - and how many of them are running around? Actually, I have no idea of his religion or clue if he's part Jewish.  He barely exists in our collective consciousness. I can say that because the Wikipedia article about him says almost nothing except he wrote four books. I can tell you the first book was published in 1993 and the last in 2008, neither of which I have read. The middle two I did read and the first of them, I didn't like so much - Spidertown

I just know that he is capable of magic as when he wrote the The Buddha Book, his third, a tale about teenagers, but not teenagers like I grew up with. They live in the South Bronx and they are full of murder and mayhem and tantalizing talents. Teenage boys writing a comic book that is mysterious but all too true, a murderous and sexy villainous, the constant pounding of young hormones doing just the stupidest things.

Here's how we open the novel:

The fight led them into the bathroom. the tub was full of water. She had just stepped out of the bath when he came.
She ended up under the water.
Jose couldn't say how it happened. All of a sudden Lucy was under the splash frantic rocking. He had been thinking about how it all had to end somewhere and here it was, no way out. Even mouthed the words as Lucy's moves went slow motion and bubbles streamed past her lips. The, the sudden sinking down of everything. The eyes straight up, forever.
And then the quiet, dripping.

The man understands how to write for the senses - "the bubbles streaming passed her lips," "the sudden sinking", "the eyes straight up, forever." I can see that. Forget the usual - oh, more violence against women - rap - like most great pulp writers (which he is imitating, but is not really) you won't think that after you finish - there's violence for everyone and the women aren't all so innocent. In fact . . . 

Deep strangle. Black pouring. The change in her eyes. She was not there with him. She was someplace else.
"Anita, stop."
I can't.
But'chu gonna kill me.
You're so sweet.
The faster he moved the tighter she squeezed. She wanted him slow. To feel it leaving him in waves.
A tremor spasm. Shook her happy. Her vague, throaty laugh."

And that, my friends, is the sex scene.

But along with the violence is friendship and the kind of things that just reminds you of being young, of doing secret fun things with your friends that you don't tell your parents about:

Jose waited. It occurred to thim that a pitch was coming, some sort of deal. Barbara waited too. She pulled the tape out of the VCR and held it. Just held it like she might give it to him-if. Jose dug into his bag and pulled out the folder. Handed it over. Inside was the master for BUDDHA BOOK #4, ready to be printed up.
"'This is too much," she whispered, examing every page as if she were proofing them.
The tick-tock of some big clock. her fingers caressing those LUCY panels, running over those ANITA pictures as if sher were reading Braille. Touching the images like she longed to get inside of them. She lit that joint like a housewife reaching for a Valium, sitting up against a stereo speaker."

Sitting up against a stereo speaker - makes me feel young again.


I forget an awful lot that I learned in college but I remember the things that were most fascinating to me. There were a handful of books I was introduced to which are still special to me, and one author in particular. I am partial to British authors and although this one is Indian, he wrote in English, short little books he intended you to read in a sitting or so.

They all involved a mythical town called Malgudi and the stories were more about character than plot. Always it involved the tension between the old ways and the modern. Always they were delightful and I loathed to leave his world when it ended. You could smell the spices on the street and feel the benevolent stress of the inhabitants of Malgudi as they went through their day.  I read a lot of his books, all I could find in fact. The author was R. K. Narayan and he probably makes my pantheon of top ten or twenty all time authors. According to Wikipedia his real name was Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami (Tamil: ராசிபுரம் கிருஷ்ணசுவாமி அய்யர் நாராயணசுவாமி), which I never knew until now, and am sure I will forget as soon I click "publish". But those Indians sure write real purty.

Narayan, who died in 2001, was actually quite successful in his day after his mentor Graham Greene got him started. He wrote for 60 years, garnering numerous awards in India. He was read in England and much less so here, but if you go to Barnes & Noble or Borders, they will likely still have one or two on the shelf. If one of them is The Guide, choose that, as it is the greatest of his achievements, and I would say a wonderful book (it was not only made into a movie, but also made Broadway). It involves a con artist tourist guide who gets out of prison, is mistaken for a holy man, and begins to live the part. There is an unorthodox love story, which is the type I prefer in books.

And, if you happen to be interested in eastern religion, as I have always been since I can remember, there is an added dimension that you will grip you, one quite subtle yet cosmic in scope.

I see I have only one Narayan on my shelf as I believe I read him in my library days. But my copy of The Guide is not my first. The first one fell apart and so did this one. I keep it anyway.

I'll give you a taste of Narayan, from The Guide, but since it is really about characters, families and relationships it is difficult to convey. Nevertheless, skipping around:

Gradually arguments began to crop up between us, and that, I said, put the final husband-wife touch on our relationship.

After Raju spends the night admitting his fraudulent swamiship to a follower:

Raju asked, "Now you have heard me fully?" like a lawyer who has a misgiving that the judge has been woolgathering.
"Yes, Swami."
Raju was taken aback at still being addressed as "Swami.""What do you think of it?"
Velan looked quite pained at having to answer such a question. "I don't know why you tell me all this, Swami. It's very kind of you to address at such length your humble servant."
Every respectful word that this man employed pierced Raju like a shaft. '"e will not leave me alone,"Raju thought with resignation. "This man will finish me before I know where I am."


I was considered a model prisoner. Now I realized that people generally thought of me as being unsound and worthless, not because I deserved the label, but because they had been seeing me in the wrong place all along. To appreciate me, they really should have come to the Central Jail and watched me.

The end is controversial. You'll have to decide for yourself what happens.

For those who are interested in mythology, Narayan also wrote a very short version of the Ramayana and one of the Mahabharata (an impossibly long and ancient Hindu work), making easy and enjoyable two Indian classics.


Another one of my favorite authors is from far Norway, and is of quite a different disposition than the lighthearted Narayan. That is Knut Hamsun, once a Nobel prize winner and unfortunately also a nazi-phile.  Readers and writers respect him in spite of that, but for a while in Norway he was hated and his books were burned after the war. Treason charges were brought and dropped (they thought he was insane, but probably not). He was sued civilly and fined a huge sum of money though for his membership in the local fascist party. He was born a hundred years before me and lived almost until I was born. He traveled in America when he was somewhere around 30 and wrote a critical memoir about it - I hear it can be funny, but also pretty mean. Life's too short to read it, but maybe next lifetime. Sometime in the 90s, the Norwegian actor Max von Sydow played him in the film Hamsun, which I have no desire to see. I love his writing, like I love Wagner's music, and do not want either of their disturbing social beliefs to affect that.

His books are bleak, usually about men enduring poverty, sometimes agonizingly so. His heroes are tough, usually wanderers and often grim, and more than a little mad. If that doesn't sound enticing, there was something unique about him and he was fairly acclaimed by people as diverse as H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway (who recommended them to F. Scott Fitzgerald), Andre Gide and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Herman Hesse called him his favorite writer (at one time at least, he was mine as well - still high up there). His use of the inner voice prefigured Joyce, although, unlike Joyce, you could read it and no what the hell was going on. His descriptions of nature are marvelously evocative and I felt like a was walking beside his quiet angry men. I would not be surprised if the author of Out Stealing Horses, the recent acclaimed novel, was a big fan. Actually, I just remembered I am living in the 21st century and googled it. Sure enough, that is the case. If you like Out Stealing Horses, which I thought just okay, you should love his inspiration.

Despite Hamsun's infuriating love of the Nazi's (he actually wrote a eulogy for Hitler and gave Goering his Nobel medal) I am entranced by him and have on occasion thought that it would be easier for people to understand me and my love of nature if they read him.

His most famous novels are probably Hunger and Growth of the Soil, but they are not the ones I would recommend. Pan, which actually has some parallels to Narayan's The Guide, now that I think about it, is by far my favorite, followed by Under the Autumn Star, which is actually a little funny. Frankly, I don't think most of his works are translated, or always available, but they are worth it if you can get it and like this type of stuff. I'd recommend Dreamers and The Wanderer too.

Singer, writing of Pan, said "A work neglected in our time . . . . It is as gripping as ever, and its descriptions of nature remain original. The work contains a harmony found only in the highest types of poetry; it is actually poetry set in prose, and boasts the best traits of each . . . ." and of Hamsun in general said “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun". That is certainly to some degree true.

Here's a little bit from Pan:

A MILE below me I see the sea. It is raining and I am up in the hills; an overhanging rock shelters me from the rain. I smoke my pipe, smoke one pipe after another, and every time I light up the tobacco curls up from the ash like little glowing worms. So is it also with the thoughts that teem in my head. In front of me on the ground lies a bundle of dry twigs, a shattered bird's nest. And as with that nest, so is it also with my soul.


But now, in the night hours of the forest, great white flowers have suddenly opened out, their chalices spread wide, and they breathe. And furry hawk-moths bury themselves in their petals and set the whole plant quivering. I go from flower to flower; they are in ecstasy, and I see their intoxication.

As I sit outside my little country house, listening to the quiet broken only by the shrill chorus of gently croaking frogs and looking up at the stars, I know just what he means.


From Hamsun we go easily enough to the German writer who loved him, Herman Hesse. I cannot get into everything Hesse wrotef and I gave up trying decades ago. But two of them are shining stars, Siddhartha, his fictional account of the life of Buddha, and Steppenwolf, a work which has favorably haunted my mind since I read it in the 70s. The style may be too thick for modern readers - this isn't Robert Parker or Elmore Leonard you'd be reading. The paragraphs are long and filled with contemplative navel gazing. In fact, some paragraphs go on for pages.

We must read a translation (unless, of course, you speak German), but even the one I have, published in 1970, but however it reads in German, I found the writing beautiful (I was in my young 20s when I read it) and passionate. More, at risk of over-generalizing the book, he had put his finger on the pulse of a psychological insight - the question of who is running the show - the mind or the body, or is it an indivisable synthesis.

Hesse was an intellectual who understood he was not for everyone. In fact, in the part of the book where the Steppenwolf wrote a little treatise on himself, he entitled it: "Treatise on the Steppenwolf. Not for Everybody." As time goes on, and even MTV is antiquated, that must be increasingly true. But, here is a little bit from Steppenwolf itself, the first paragraph of the treatise:

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however, was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life. The cause of this apparently was that at the bottom of his heart he knew all the time (or thought he knew) that he was not a man, but of the Steppes. Clever men might argue the point whether he truly was a wolf, whether, that is, he had been changed, before birth perhaps, from a wolf into a human being, or had been given the soul of a wolf, though born as a human being; or whether, on the other hand this belief that he was a wolf was no more than a fancy or a disease of his. It might, for example, be possible that in his childhood when was a little wild and disobedient and disorderly, and that those who brought him up had declared a war of extinction against the beast in him; and precisely this had given him the idea and the belief that he was in fact actually a beast with only a thin covering of the human. On this point one could speak at length and entertainingly, and indeed write a book about it. The Steppenwolf, however, would be none the better for it, since for him it was all one whether the wolf had been bewitched or beaten into him, or whether it was merely an idea of his own. What others chose to think about it or what he chose to think himself was no good to him at all. It left the wolf inside him just the same.

That may seem a little too analytical for you, but the book itself is about is about relationships, relationships, suicidal thoughts, murder, a magic shop, loneliness, fidelity and even sex, although in not in the graphic style we would have today. However, for me, in writing about sex, less is more. Ironically, although Steppenwolf became Hesse's most famous work, however little read today, he thought it was grossly misunderstood. It may have been, but when you cross reality and fantasy to the degree he did, such that it is hard to tell them apart, you have to expect that. In fact, you read it and tell me if the murder actually happened. A little knowledge of Buddhism might help too, but that is perhaps easy in the days of Google and Wikipedia.  Hesse was writing in the late 20s. Frankly, Siddhartha, at first appearence a more accessible work, and obviously concerning eastern thought, is not so easy to understand either. But great writers often offer us questions and mysteries and don't solve them for us. And that, grasshoppers, is the key to much eastern philosophy.

By coincidence, and that is all it is, the lead in the movie version of Steppenwolf was also the very same Max von Sydow who played Knut Hamsun in that film. 
Speaking of eastern philosophy, my last discussion in this unilateral virtual bookclub is a book that seems to have nothing to do with it - The Legend of Bagger Vance (which I'll just call TLBV) which I first read in 2000 in paperback about 5 years after it was first published. 
Stephen Pressfield is a magnificent writer who I feel deserves great renown, but has little. His subjects are often mythological or historical in nature combining action with great learning. Most of his books feature characters and scenes from ancient Greece, including The Gates of Fire (about the battle of Thermopylae) which, according to Wikipedia, is now required reading at a couple of military institutes and a cult classic in the marines. It should be a cult classic for everyone. I recommend that and The Last of the Amazons, as his best works.
But TLBV is not about Greece at all. It's about a golf match between the legendary Bobby Jones, Jr., Walter Hagen and a fictional character back in the days of the depression. I'm not a golf guy, and wasn't going to read it. But, one day I picked it up in a book store, read a few pages and said, hey, this looks like fun.
I took it home with me and started reading it. On the first page, before even the Note to Readers, he introduces the story with one of those quotes which sometimes stand at the head of a chapter or book - there's a word for that, but I can't remember what it is. It goes like this:
Tell me, Sanaya, of the warriors' deeds
On that day when my sons faced the sons of Pandu,
Eager to do battle on the field of Kury,
On the field of valor.
                                        - The Bhagavad-Gita
Now, the Gita, as it is sometimes called, is an Indian classic, and a part of the much, much longer Mahabharata, which I mentioned before discussing Narayan. I have read it three times, and twice slowly. And, I have to tell you, I just don't get it. I mean I can tell you what it is about, and discuss the philosophy (don't worry, I won't), but I don't understand why it is so beloved. Just in general, it is about the Indian Wheel of life and Karma and all that stuff you can google if you feel like it.
I had no idea why that quote was there in a book about a golf match (actually based on a real one between Jones and Hagen) but I figured it wasn't too important. So, I turned the page and started reading.
And 17 pages in (I just checked) is the first mention of the local golf champion who gets to compete with the golf legends in a 36 hole tournament. His name is Rannulph Junah. I looked at the name, certainly unusual, and something clicked for me. I went back and looked again at the opening quote. R. Junah sounded an awful lot like Arjunah, who was one of the two protaganists of the Gita. 
A coincidence? I didn't think so. I looked at the back of the book and then at all those quotes from authors, publishers and book reviews saying what a great book it was, and there was no reference to Hinduism or the Gita.
I read on. And, despite my absolute non-interest in golf, it was a great story. You don't need to know the first thing about karma or samsara or Vishnu/Krishna or the Gita to love it. Pressfield is just a great writer. And the golf tournament itself was mesmerizing and kept me on the edge of my hammock.
But, Pressfield also introduced a third main character (the narrator, who was 10 at the time of the story), Junah and then the real star - Bagger Vance, an old mysterious black caddy. You know right away there is just something a little magical about him. For me, that was the clincher though. The Gita is basically one long discussion between Arjuna, a warrior, and his chariot driver, Krishna, who is an incarnation of the god Vishnu (another incarnation being Rama). I had no doubt that TLBV was a rendering of the Indian classic. And it was, even if you can't find that many places and you don't need to know the first thing about it to appreciate the book.
Am I sure. Well, yeah. Somewhere in the story, the humble Bagger Vance reveals himself in all his universal glory exactly like Krishna does in the Gita. If you haven't read the Gita, and it was mere coincidence I had, it would just seem like a weird surreal interlude between two characters but if you've read the classic, it makes perfect sense. Just like The Lord of the Rings can be immensely enjoyed without knowing anything about Norse mythology or languages, LTBV succeeds on its own. But, I have to add, knowing something about it (even if I didn't really get it) added a lot too.
What really surprised me was that the publishers, who must have known, made nothing of it. Perhaps they thought it would scare readers away ("Oh, God, religion? No way am I reading that.") It was so little known that even on Amazon, which existed when I got around to reading the book, had nothing about it on the professional or reader reviews at the time. I tried to add one explaining it, but my computer inabilites got in the way and it never happened (I think). Eventually, some on got around to writing a book about LTBV and the Gita, the title of which I can't remember, but I'm sure it was not exactly a best seller. I just visited Amazon again and now there are a number of reviews that mention it. I don't know if modern versions of the book itself do. But, the Wikipedia articles on Pressfield and the book have no reference to it, although there is an external reference to another site called The Buddhist Interpretation of Bagger Vance, which I wouldn't bother with as it is completely wrong - the Gita is Hindu in the first place and TLBV is an interpretation of it, not visa versa.
I haven't seen the Disney version of the movie starring Matt Damon, and not sure I want to, as if they make it a love story. I would ruin the essence of the book to me.
Anyway, if you like golf or just great sport stories, or eastern philosophy and religion, or you've read the Gita (and would you explain to me what is so great about it?) you will probably love TLBV. In fact, out of all my choices above, I'm sure it is the one most people would like the best.
I do notice, having now finished the post, that unconsciously, I chose books which almost all have something to do with eastern religion. In fact, the only one that you could argue doesn't, is Pan, and you could make an argument that it does as well. Huh, go figure. I really did not intend that. Tells you something about me though, doesn't it?

That's it for the book club. I'll visit with this again some day as I can see from ransacking my bookshelf there are many more books I'll want to talk about.


  1. Loved reading Hesse and arguing with myself about it. Those were good days. Rodriguez is intriguing, but too many books, not enough lifetime, haven't read him yet. It may speak to my defects of character, but there are enough great books to read without a Nazi-lover like Hansum. You probably won't like this, but he and Cormac McCarthy have much in common (The Road and No Country for Old Men, especially). I can't listen to Wagner any more either. Oh well. It's fascinating when you play literary detective, give us more.... bravo, Frodo, bravo.

  2. I tried The Road. Couldn't get past 50 pages. I keep telling myself to give it another chance (I used to give books 100 pages, but found if I didn't like it after 50, nothing got better). I loved the movie No Country . . . and maybe I'd like the book. We always agree there's not enough time to read (and watch) everything, so we have to pick and choose. But, The Buddha Book maybe one of those books you and others might think about. It is different and fun. I'm actually going to get his latest and give that a try. Hamsun is definitely not for everyone. I know one other fan but the one person I lent it to didn't finish it.

    Thanks for commenting.

  3. The Road is one of my favorite books. The movie wasn't too bad either. Give the book another chance, it does start out slow but picks up.

  4. I suppose I will.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .