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The Bookshelf

Doug's bookshelf: read

AntwerpWarsaw BikiniIcelandHow the Soldier Repairs the GramophoneThe Original of LauraBrief Interviews with Hideous Men

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  • 1067 days, 19 hours, 50 minutes, 3 seconds ago

My Year In Reading: 2010

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  1. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, Álvaro Mutis
  2. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, Saša Stanišić
  3. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee & Walker Evans
  4. Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky
  5. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño
  6. Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas
  7. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  8. The Sonnets, Ted Berrigan
  9. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens
  10. The Book of Frank, CAConrad

 

The list above represents my top ten favorite reads of 2010, a la the The Millions‘ ‘year in reading’ series.  A couple of salt grains for you: 1) these books, obviously, were not all published in 2010 (in fact, only CAConrad‘s wonderfully humorous, sad, intense poetry collection, The Book of Frank, meets that criterion); 2) I’m not a professional author or literary critic and do not possess a single credential that qualifies me as someone who should be recommending a book to anybody.  Of the 27 books I read this year – a number I am desperate to improve upon in 2011, by the way – these were the most enjoyable. 

The reasons vary.  I think, for example, that even if Álvaro Mutis had written about twenty or thirty more volumes chronicling the journeys of Maqroll the Gaviero, it still would not have been enough.  I adore this book.  The stories are ageless meditations on the joy, sorrow, romance, desperation, philosophy and drive of the endless searcher – the traveler with no destination.  I lost myself here and it was pure bliss.  I want to be the Gaviero. 

Where Maqroll submerges you for a lifetime, Stanišić’s Gramophone is a great split-second burst of ecstatic inventive energy.  His protagonist/narrator, Aleksandar, and the way he copes with the tragedies of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict of the early 1990’s by escaping into his imagination and the magic of storytelling, is at the same time heartrending and life-affirming. 

I found a used hardbound copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on the shelves of the Housing Works Bookstore Café – my current favorite place in all of New York City.  James Agee and Walker Evans traveled into the Heart of Dixie to live among and document the lives of three Alabama sharecropper families during the Great Depression.  Both Agee’s prose and Evans’ photography are masterful achievements of their respective forms and paint an achingly true and empathetic portrait of the lives of white tenant farmers in the old South.  A delightful surprise.

Judith Schalansky‘s Atlas is another delight.  On the surface, as its title and subtitle suggest, the book is an atlas of "50 Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will."  Two pages are devoted to each island.  On one page is a map.  The other page includes some vital statistics (population, size, location, etc.) and a short page-long poetic narrative of the island’s semi-fictionalized history.  There is a beauty here that is impossible to define without holding it in your hand.  It is, like Maqroll’s adventures, a love-song for the life-long children in awe of the vastness of the world and the overwhelming need to explore, find, chart and continue on. 

All of the praise you continue to hear for Bolaño and Wallace in modern literary discussions, forums, blogs and so forth is true and richly deserved.  In the mood for a memoir?  Perhaps some insight into the oppressive Castro regime or the plight of homosexuals and/or intellectuals in communist Cuba?  Arenas.  Where CAConrad succinctly pushes the boundaries of poetic content, Ted Berrigan‘s sprawling Sonnets reinvents, experiments and wrestles with poetic form.  And Hitchens is Hitchens.  Agree with him or not, God Is Not Great is passionately written and is an important work at the forefront of the modern theological debate.  (Get well soon, Hitch.)

Below you will find the complete population of my 2010 books listed in the order in which they were read, along with the publishing house and original publication date.  What can I say?  I like lists

 

books_2010

El Cabezón

 

 

photo gallery is not current.

A Few Notes About College Football

First: Congratulations to all my friends, my family and my darling wife who are Auburn University alumni and fans.  On the playing field (1), your Tigers annihilated all of the competition and deserve to be in the BCS Championship Game.  Here, in the cold, clear light of day, and one week removed from the heart-rending agony of inexplicably and inexcusably blowing a 24-point fucking lead in the Iron Bowl (2), I can say unashamedly that I hope you beat the Oregon Ducks and continue the Southeastern Conference’s current trend of football superiority — I, in fact, intend to be there in person to see you do it (3)

Second: I would have had it another way, obviously, but I can draw solace in the certainty that the back-to-back national championships of Alabama and Auburn will swell our already epic rivalry to biblical, end-of-the-universe-as-we-know-it proportions for years to come — as it should be.


1:  I hope that playing field was a level one.  I hope the disgusting off-the-field decisions of your quarterback’s father truly end with him and do not spill over the Mississippi state line to taint your season, your quarterback, your university, and the game of college football.  Contrary to what internet message board and talk radio caller filth would have you believe, no true, passionate supporter of college athletics wants the allegations against that kid to be true.  I am reserving judgment, and I hope that we got our asses beat fair and square.

2:  On my hard drive there is a 1000-word essay describing my feelings on the 2010 Iron Bowl fiasco in the form of an open letter to Coach Saban and the University of Alabama coaching staff.  It will not see the light of day, mostly because it reads like a third-grader wrote it while simultaneously crying and bashing his head against a brick wall.  In summation, Point A: We aren’t paying those hefty salaries for an unimaginative offense and an uninspired defense to spend an entire season not living up to their potential.  Point B: Conference and national championships and season kickoff games and bowl appearances and individual award winners: they’re just the icing on the cake.  We expect you to beat Auburn.  (We also expect our team to hold on to 24-point advantages… over anyone.)

3:  Don’t expect me to wear orange or blue or sing anything or clap very loudly.

Rio Grande Gorge

 

 

photo gallery still not up and running… laziness.

NM 117

 

 

photo gallery is not current… but soon.

New Mexico (Act I, Scene 1)

Perfection and getting this blog going again are two priorities that do not go hand in hand.  I started writing the ramble below nearly two weeks ago, and have just been toying with it ever since.  So now, even though it isn’t at all, it feels very far removed and out of context to me now.  I am still in Los Alamos living out of a suitcase for the better part of the week — the same as it has been for the past four weeks in a row.  There is something romantic about it, of course.  I audit by day.  The night I have completely to myself to read and write.  It is a deathly quiet nondescript business-class hotel in a quiet little town, especially at night, which is perfect for reading and writing the hours away.  Television and internet are sucking the soul out of my body though.  It feels so good to disconnect, but it is hard work pulling myself away from idle distractions.  So anyway, I’m just going to publish this thing to get it off my plate so that I might be able to move on to another rambling, wordy, never-finished egotistical diatribe.  So it goes. 

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So what, at long last, of this New Mexico?

I struggle to find words that would both do justice to readers back east who might be eager (somewhat) to hear abundant descriptions of  the landscapes and the culture and the cuisine here and also treat any new New Mexican blog browsers with some manner of respect above that of the naive condescension of the Southern bumpkin interloper bragging on his escape from the old Confederacy.  This will be an imperfect beginning… but it is only that: a beginning of a long tale of a longer and unfinished journey, told by an inferior storyteller and an even more unworthy journalist.  But we have to begin at some point, do we not?  It must be here.

Last Sunday, Leslie and I woke late and slowly readied ourselves for a pleasant lunch out (we, I am afraid, have yet to fall into the better rhythm of shopping at one of the within-walking-distance grocery stores and dining at what is, at present, our home: a little two-bedroom apartment in Albuquerque’s Far Northeast Heights, and have also fallen back into the old hardwired habit of, when having no work and nothing on our weekend morning schedule to force us out of bed at a particular time, pressing the snooze button repeatedly and lingering beneath the covers as long as we possibly can).  We made our way, a little past noon, to the village of Corrales that runs north from the city along the weird, lovely trickle that is the Rio Grande.  We ate what has to be one of the freshest versions of huevos rancheros possible at the Apple Tree Cafe inside the Wagner Farms market, underneath the dense strings of red chiles hanging from the breezeway — and within wafting range of the green chile roasters at the northern end of the bustling marketplace.  Our meal was accompanied, I must mention, by plastic solo cups of fresh, pure, unsweetened watermelon juice over ice.  Quite unique and extremely satisfying under the brilliant New Mexican sun and sky. 

From there we traveled North along the colorful bosque, meandered westerly beside the edges of Rio Rancho’s bland suburban sprawl, and hit US 550, the wide highway that leads, finally, away from the state’s lone metropolis and out into the Native American lands — the Pueblos of the Zia and then, further, the Jemez nations.  The land changes.  The dry grey-green scruff and beige sand and stone giving way to pink, then red, flatlands, mesas and, then, strong-sided sculpted mountains bold against a raging mid-day blue.  We veered onto NM 4 and into the western half of the Santa Fe National Forest toward Jemez Springs, where we paused long enough to fortify ourselves with coffee and cookies (at, I believe, the Highway 4 Coffee Stop) before resuming our gentle climb into the northern hills.  The road here is lined with vibrant yellow aspen trees, I more than once bemoaned the fact that my camera was carelessly left at home. 

At some point, conifers appear.  There is a chill in the air at this new altitude, even while the vegetation has become reminiscent of our left-behind Alabama pine forests.  These, I would make a stabbing guess, are fir and spruce trees, and the spare thickets quickly grow dense and tall around the narrow roadway.  At irregular intervals, firewood is being cut for the coming winter by solitary mountain denizens in weathered old pickup trucks.  The path steepens and snakes up and up and up into the mountains until at our impromptu journey’s zenith we can glimpse, in the still higher distance, the lightly snow-blanketed and rolling glades at elevations beyond our reach.  They wait for another day.  But soon.

Such is our new adopted home state. 

It is this variety, the landscape’s mood swings, that more than anything else sets this place so jarringly apart from what was familiar.  Tonight, as I write this, is the final night of a three-week auditing stretch (note: so I thought… I have returned for an encore) in Los Alamos, that birthplace of bombs, atop a lonely mesa thirty minutes by car above Santa Fe and nearly 2000 feet higher above sea level than the Albuquerque average elevation.  The mountains in the near-distance are already, in late October, capped with white.  Indeed, two days ago we walked out of our temporary workplace into a bone-chilling snow-flurried windstorm that would, later that night, knock out the electricity at the hotel for the better part of an hour.  The golden aspens that line this hamlet’s quiet main street are already nearly bare.  In contrast, just last weekend we were trudging around Albuquerque’s Sandia foothills underneath a relentlessly burning sun, wearing too much clothing and carrying not nearly enough water.

Regarding our little central northwest slice of New Mexico: in less than two hours you can drive from speckled desert to lush mountain forest, and from pleasantly warm autumn to the first aching tendrils of winter.  You can live, as we do, in a thoroughly modern, bustling and artsy (yet charmingly unpretentious) city and then drive, bike or hike to rocky outcroppings where you can look down at Albuquerque’s distant streets and hear no city noise at all; birds chirping and breezes whisking the leaves and needles of Sandia Crest. 

The culture, too, is refreshing, diverse, lively and inviting.  To be fair, I have read forum posts and blog comments to the contrary, but in my experience the people here are uncommonly open and friendly.  I am  certain that here, as is the case anywhere in this country of ours, there are class struggles and race issues and barriers to peace.  I know that ‘Burque has its share of violence and poverty.  But there is a harmony here — perhaps seemingly louder to these ears used to the thinly veiled cross-cultural contempt of the Deep South — there is a harmony among people that transcends class and race, for the most part.  I am greeted more often than not, in establishments that range from upscale eateries and boutiques to rough urban dives and convenience stores, with smiles that are not surface-only smiles but smile smiles deep in warm inviting voices that I would challenge anyone with any human empathy at all not to smile back at with the same genuineness of spirit.  People here are warm and bright.  It makes me want to be warm and bright right back.  Warmth breeds warmth.

And I would (and will, I assure you) need to devote a separate piece solely to the food.  Chiles — green and red — are my new drug of choice, I’m afraid.  Just today I had a carne adovada burrito loaded with chopped green chiles that would make me, if forced to make such an unfair decision, swear off collards and cornbread for life.  The chiles go inside and on top of every dish.  Huevos rancheros?  Yep.  Pizza.  Uh huh.  Cheeseburgers?  F*ck yes.  I had green chiles on my sushi roll the other night.  Delightful.  Exercise has become essential, because dieting is out of the question.  Across Central Avenue from the University of New Mexico is a Shangri-La called Frontier.  If I am ever missing, look for me there first.

The short version: I really dig it here.  There are shallow pangs of homesickness every now and then, what with my family and friends so many miles away.  But technology being as pervasive and advanced and user-friendly as it is now, we are never really far apart emotionally.  Physically it is a long haul, but human touch is only a phone call or an email or a facebook message away.  Heck, I get emails from my father now, and this from a man who has trouble with the dials on the kitchen stove.  So the technology makes the homesickness easier to bear, I suppose.

And, truly, I believe I have — totally by accident — found a new home in a place where it is very hard to be homesick.  The locals are sweet and kind.  The meals are the best kind of comfort meals.  For the first time in a long time, I work with people who feel like "my kind of people," whatever that means.  And it took a while, but my little family — my wife and the little dog and cat — are all together again.  We make the new normal and we embrace the new weird and wonderful.  And life goes on.  And on. 

Finally… if you know anyone who wants a cute, cozy home in a fun and funky Birmingham neighborhood, I’ve got your slice of heaven right here: the grammaticasa!  Vivir como un rey.  ¡Vivir como los grammaticaster!