what i’ve been reading…

in addition to art & auction, the artnewspaper, art forum and national geographic…

i’ve started writing about what i’m reading within the main body of my blog.   but i’m leaving this stuff here as an archive…

b/c of my “storytelling” show and our reading series in san francisco, i’ve been reading a lot of short stories.   notably, yiyun li’s “a thousand years of good prayers,” which i liked very much.    they’re quiet, beautifully-told stories set in china or the lives of recent immigrants to the u.s. from china.   i’d recommend this one.   her question-and-answer was particularly interesting at the gallery.    one idea she espoused (i’m paraphrasing poorly)  – that short stories are kinder than novels as they allow the characters a life beyond the few pages of the story – was particularly thoughtful and provoking…

lorrie moore‘s 1998 collection, “birds of america” was a book group assignment, suggested, i think, by beth.     i loved this.   tweaky stories of (mostly sad) lives.   uncannily insightful and really, really funny.   but  not in a mean-spirited, cheap-shot sort of way.    i got several raised eyebrows on airplanes laughing a bit too often and loudly reading this.   the second-to-the-last story, about a baby with tumor, is wrenching.  not for the faint-of-heart…

“the history of vegas” by jody angel (part of our readings program at the gallery) is well-written and she gave a great reading.    i found the stories too bleak (or too bleak for me in the current economic, environmental and political climate) and repetitive.   i would have loved one of these stories in a magazine.    one after another was just plain painful.     the pattern:  young person in disadvantaged situation faced with a decision that will be a turning point in their lives.   they always, always make a bad decision.    bummer.

3 november 2008

“music through the floor”  by eric puchner

i’ve been reading a lot of short stories (even though i haven’t been writing about them – sorry) because of the program of writers reading their stories at the gallery in conjunction with our narrative drawing show.  sharon won’t read short stories “because they’re always so fucking tragic” and pam has gone so far as to write and article and speak on michael krasny about why good story tellers shouldn’t be pressured by publishers to write novels…     i like the economy of a well-done short story.    they’re like flashes of insight.

“music though the floor” is an impressive debut collection.   most impressive for the wide range of narrators — from a several disaffected young men and pubescent boys (easy) to a teen-aged girl (not-so-easy)  — all drawn beautifully.    my favorites are “leda and the swan” – ostensibly an essay about yeats by a girl failing (in school and life).    and “animals here below” & “children of god” because while realistic, he allows his characters to act irrationally.   “diablo,” “childsplay,” and “mission,” all left me squirming in discomfort (for different reasons).    bravo.    the flannery o’connor endings of “legends” and “a fear of “invisible tribes” kinda bugged me.    though i loved the portrayal of the uc berkeley art history grad student in “tribes.”

while all of them are (you’re right, sharon) tragic to some extent, this is a great group of stories.     8 1/2.    eric puchner will be reading at the gallery on october 15th.

21 august 2008

“theft: a love story” by peter carey

what’s with all of the subtitled novels?

fun read.   along the lines of orson welles’ “lady from shanghai” and a book i read several years ago by christopher baer called “kiss me judas.”    classic femme fatale meets a narrator who’s angry and dense and easily manipulated.   carey’s writing is smart and complex and often really enjoyable for it’s gymnastic grace.    but it can also be too, too much in a salman-rushdie-showing-off sort-of-way.   the story is 1/2 love story/con job and 1/2 indictment of the artworld and art markets.   carey has, as everyone who isn’t really doing (in some way) (visual) art for a living, romanticized and cannonized “the artist.”   but his portrayal of the opacity and corruption of the art market, the fickleness of taste and fleeting nature of success are pretty dead-on.    i loved the detailed technical descriptions of the main character painting, both his own work and his forgery.   the book suffers a bit from trying to do too much, but it’s a pleasure to read.

an 8.

11 july 2008

“history: a novel” by elsa morante

another revelation.    this is an important book –  published in 1974 — but one i’d never heard of…

it’s the story of ida — a mousy, widowed school teacher in rome. it’s 1941 and a drunken german soldier about to be deployed to north africa, meets ida on a quiet street. in frustration/ loneliness/fear, he rapes her. the soldier is killed within days. ida becomes pregnant and has the child. this is the story of ida, her family and those around them in war-time rome.    a complicating factor:   ida is partly jewish.

each section of the book begins with a chronology of international events:


june: germany unleashes its great operation barbarossa against the soviets, guaranteeing its triumphnt concluion befre the winter (“stalin’s russia will be wiped off the map in eight weeks”). italy decides to participate in the venture. at verona, mussolini reviews one of the divisions setting off for the new front

july: japan occupies indochina, formerly a french possession.

in yugoslavia, the resistance struggle against the nazi-fascist occupation begins.

german forces advance triumphantly across soviet territory.

september: the german government decrees that all jews above the age of six are required to wear a yellow star of david on their chests.

october: mahatma gandhi of india urges recourse to passive resistance (which he has already declared among his own people) for all peoples subject to the british colonial empire.

in poland, the obligatory segregation of the jewish population, already established with the nazi occupation, is followed by the decree of the death penalty for any jew caught outside the ghetto.

the victorious advance of the panzerdivisionen and the german infantry continue to win soviet territory. in the four months since the beginning of the operation, three million russians are already out of combat (by the führer’s order, the fate of prisoners of war, as of other subhumans, is extermination. all international war conventions are considered void)…

the remainder of each section of the book follows the minutiae of lives lived during the war.   orinary people doing ordinary things to survive during an extraordinary time.    these are the little people that make up history and are crushed by great events and forgotten — ida’s older son, nino (first a black shirt, then an anarchist), ussepe (her blue-eyed baby), davide (nino’s jewish friend), neighbors and fellow refugees, partisans, deported jews…

the correlation between “great events” and the desperation of ordinary people is extraordinarily powerful.   the writing style is realistic.  documentary.  bleak,  but not without poetry.    the only respite comes near the end of the book when morante gives voice to the thoughts of the family dog –  an odd but surprisingly acceptable affectation.

i have two issues with the book.    first is the frequent telling of dreams — a cheap way, i think, of developing character.      the second was the 25-page diatribe about the fate of the common man that morante puts in the mouth of davide.   she’s already shown us everything he tells us.  history moves unrelentingly… its wheels greased by the blood of ordinary people.

like “all quiet on the western front” and “the things they carried” this should be required reading…

an 8 1/2.

21 june 2008


i stayed up until 2 this morning finishing the new ursula le guin novel. wow. i’ve never read le guin before, nor have i read the aeneid. i intend to correct both deficiencies.

this is the story of lavinia, daughter of the king of a prosperous but simple 8th century b.c. italian people – latins – the precursors to the romans. in virgil’s poem, lavinia never speaks. le guin gives her a tongue and a soul and beautifully imagines “an austere people who spent half the year in the army, women who ran the farm meanwhile, extended families whose worship was of the fire in their hearth, the food in their granary, the local spring, the spirits or place and earth, women were not set apart as chattel … they were coarse, they were brutal, and they were tremendously different from us, but it is hard to feel them as essentially foreign when so much of our cultural heritage comes directly from them, half our language, most of our concept of law… and perhaps also certain homely but delicate values, such as the loyalty, modesty, and responsibility implicit in vergil’s idea of a hero.”

lavinia tells us that virgil “slighted my life in his poem. he scanted me because he only came to know who i was when he was dying.” le guin says she is not attempting “to change or complete the story of aeneas,” this is a “meditative interpretation suggested by a minor character… the unfolding of a hint.” the novel is gorgeously written. lavinia is as compelling and complex a character as you could hope for.

this is a 9.

5 june 2008


in evelyn waugh’s novel (published, 1945) the character of the narrator/protagonist, charles ryder, is revelaed through his description of his relationship to the aristocratic flyte family. charles, who as an oxford undergraduate becomes infatuated with sebastian flyte, is subsequently seduced by sebastian’s family, their position and their religion.

be warned: the prose of brideshead is as baroque as the tacky chinoiserie bedroom in which the marquis of marchmain finally expires. if you’re not up for it, it’ll be an irritant. and god forbid you try to read passages aloud. but if you can relax into it, this is an exceptionally good read. it’s evocative and complex and not at all what it seems at first.

the novel is a story within a story. the recollections of a middle-aged ryder, who during the second world war finds himself stationed at the requisitioned manor house “brideshead,” triggering his telling…

“i had been there before; first with sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in june, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of god; and though i had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest…”

on one level, the story is about longing for youth and love and recollections of the lives lived by the english nobility in the “good old days.” the first chapter of the book (the part that becomes almost the entire book in reader’s memories) is full of multi-course, all-afternoon luncheons, “silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and… naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins…”

it’s no wonder charles ryder falls in love with sebastian. everyone is in love with him. “i knew sebastian by sight long before i met him. that was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour which seemed to know no bounds, my first sight of him was as we passed in the door of germer’s, and, on that occasion, i was struck less by his looks than by the fact that he was carrying a large teddy-bear. “that,” said the barber, as i took his chair, “was lord sebastian flyte. a most amusing young gentleman.”

sebastian is charming and novel and rich. when ryder is picked up by sebastian, he’s introduced to a world of society and luxury that is completely beyond his upper-middle-class experience. his association with the flytes, socially tarnished as they are, gives him entrée into the world of titled aristocracy, country estates and palazzos in venice.

the gay thing. there’s a lot of back-and-forthing about whether or not charles and sebastian have a sexual relationship. unquestionably, they are fixated on one another. is their love platonic? waugh reveals enough coded evidence to make anyone inclined to believe a physical relationship exists to be certain of it, while being ambiguous enough to allow a reader who doesn’t want to go there to plausibly deny it.

however, knowing that waugh himself had sexual relationships with at least three men while at oxford and that writing openly about a romantic attachment between men would have made brideshead unpublishable in 1945, i think it’s a safe assumption that charles and sebastian are intimate.

“on a sheep-cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine — as sebastian promised, they were delicious together — and we lit fat, turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind…” has anything more post-coital ever been written?

and if you need further evidence, look to the name sebastian — namesake of the homo-erotic icon — st. sebastian. while the original legend of the 3rd century saint has nothing to do with homosexuality, typical representations of sebastian during the renaissance showed a virtually nude youth pierced by arrows. at a time when art was made almost exclusively for the church, there weren’t many opportunities to depict (or view representations of) a nude male. the consequent fetishistic approach to imagery of sebastian resulted in his becoming an object of desire and by the beginning of the twentieth-century, firmly associated with homo-erotic longing.

so what of the character of sebastian, the peter pan-ish boy/man waugh tells us from the beginning is doomed? sebastian is “magically beautiful, with that epicene quality which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.” self-destructive and guilt-besieged, sebastian begins his downward spiral in earnest in his second term — as he recognizes his homosexuality is something more than a game between the boys at an all-male school. at first, each visit to the ancestral home, brideshead (for whom he will never provide an heir), and the catholicism of his mother prompt drunken binges. sebastian eventually is yanked out of school and runs away to morrocco where he first hooks up with an opportunistic german, kurt, and eventually dies the crazed and drunken (but beloved) caretaker of a monastery.

sebastian, as his name implies, is a martyr. like the saint, in agony, yet beautiful. as his youngest sister, cordelia (think king lear) says, “no one is ever holy without suffering.”

the main conflict of the novel is religion. the flyte family is catholic because of lady marchmain. charles is a modern man who can’t quite believe anyone still takes religion seriously. he’s at first dismissive, then, as the lord marchmain nears death, down right pushy.

and charles ryder? he’s at first the dull (relative to the flytes) narrator that the reader gets swept along with as he (and you) fall in love with the brideshead set. i was well into the novel before i realized that charles ryder is a shit.

he is seduced by sebastian, who provides access. then, when cut off from the flytes, he marries well — charles says out of ” loneliness, missing sebastian” — but he’s also creating an alliance with someone who will further his artistic career and solidify his social standing. he is a failure as a husband and an even worse father.

he dumps the wife to take up with sebastian’s sister, lady julia. she has a lot to offer. socially, she’s several rungs up. she offers escape from his wife, the responsibility of fatherhood and his failure as an artist. and julia provides an object for redirecting his passion for sebastian…

finally, it’s not only sebastian who finds redemption through sacrifice and suffering.

this one’s a strong 8.

4 june 2008


salman rushdie is obviously a very intelligent man. and one who writes beautifully. through most of the reading of “shalimar” his clever use of language, ravishing descriptions (particularly of life in pre-partition kashmir) and inventive story-telling held me tight. those are the pleasures of the novel.

this is another of rushdie’s sweeping books in which the lives of individuals mirror socio-political upheaval. as a history lesson, replete with folklore, recipes and fantastical digression, you’re as sated reading it as if you’d been at one of the fabled kashmiri banquets of 36-courses-minimum. but once finished, you’re left wanting (proud of me for resisting the chinese food metaphor?).

the characters are four. noman sher noman, or shalimar the clown. rushdie’s intended cipher, is in fact a thin character. he’s a man motivated to terrorism and murder by his private need for revenge. ok, killing for honor looks to westerners to be a big motivator for muslim extremists, but rushdie doesn’t illuminate the mind of terrorist. he sets him up, trains him to kill then allows him to careen, unthinking, through the novel… max ophlus, the charming war-hero is boringly unaware. unaware of himself, his motivations, his place in history, and most un-convincingly for a character who is supposed to be a womanizer, of the thoughts/needs/feelings of those (mostly women) in his life. i know, i know, the symbol of the colonial… but geeez, couldn’t someone as smart as rushdie come up with something more interesting? the beautiful and doomed boonyi pays for her desire to flee her village and teenage marriage (though it is a love match) first with her beauty and grace, then her child, then her family, friends and home and finally with her head. pretty tough. kashmir neé india, whose beauty is but one of her gifts, grows up unloved, becomes the crack-whore of a jamaican drug dealer (why is being the crack-whore of a jamaican drug dealer always the way men imagine women hit bottom?), is saved by her father max, witnesses shalimar butcher max like an animal, discovers the mother she never knew and almost immediately learns that shalimar also slaughtered her, before finally herself becoming the instrument of vengeance. hmmmmmmmm. do they all have to be so beautiful and so damned? and must they all (except boonyi) end up in los angeles? rushdie, despite his enormous skill, can’t pull off l.a. sorry. he needs to read nathanael west. and sometimes his writing is just too clever for his own good. in his weak moments, rushdie is a show-off. those are the weaknesses of the novel.

the description of the destruction of kashmir is heartfelt and moving. that is the sincere and important aspect of the novel.

this is an inter-continental flight read –approximately 8 page-turning hours (with enough time left over for 2 meals and a movie). it’s a story of love and loss and revenge. it’s sex and violence served with enough history to make you believe that you’re getting something of substance.

better than “the moors last sigh” but not nearly as good as “midnight’s children.” another 7 out of 1o.

15 may 2008




image: michael light, from “some dry space”

i’d sworn-off mccarthy after seeing the coen brothers adaptation of “no country for old men.” yeah, yeah, the cinematography and acting were great. but all just too relentlessly brutal for me… do i need to see something else to remind me how senseless and violent and unfair the world is? i’m getting that from the news 24/7… and i certainly don’t need to see one more person rewarded for stopping to help someone in trouble on the road by having their brains blown out… exiting the film, a woman behind me said “what was the point?” and i agreed. so my copy of “no country” was shelved without being opened.

don’t get me wrong, i’ve been a big fan of the coen brothers. and of mccarthy (ten years ago i sobbed uncontrollably as i finished the border trilogy in the waiting area of the airport in el paso. the embarrassed friends i was with kept telling me to stop reading and get control of myself, but i just couldn’t). i decided the combination of coen and mccarthy may be overwhelming.

but the book group wanted to read “the road” even though “suttree” continues, after approximately 100 books read, to be the unanimous “most tedious” read (though not worst book) to date (sorry steve).

the premise of “the road” is no secret — you know pretty much exactly what’s going on by reading the inside flap. a man and his son travel through a post-apocalyptic america. everything is dead. no plants. no animals. no food. (almost) no people. the people they meet are mostly cannibals. ash in the air and covering the ground. and it’s really cold.

the nameless father believes that by getting to the coast his son will have a greater chance for survival… seems doubtful.

it’s a short, austere book composed of short, austere sentences. i like the writing – it’s not nearly as well-done as yasunari kawabata’s “snow country” – but minimal in the same way. it’s as much about what isn’t said as what is. and the people who are making fun of the writing style are ignoring the fact that the physical and emotional landscape being described is as relentlessly without frill as mccarthy’s prose. it’s a world without colors. without smells other than burnt or dead. and rare and brief pleasures.

louis asked “did anything happen in the end, or are you just dropped into their bleak journey?” “yes,” i said.

what’s the point? before i became a father i think i would have answered differently. the instinct to survive, even when there is nothing to survive for, is strong. the desire to insure the survival of your genes is overwhelming. now, i’d say, it’s possible to love so much that you can’t give up.

“the road” is a worth-while read. on a 1-to-1o, i’d say a 7.