It’s always fascinating to see what writers read, where they find sustenance and inspiration for their own work. A few Skylight authors have graciously agreed to let us in on what they are currently reading, whether for guilty pleasure or for current research. In no particular order…
My reading at the moment is very much geared up to writing. Still plugging away at translating another book by Andre Lebey – l’Initiation de Vercingetorix – following the enthusiastic reception of my translation of his romance of the Melusine of Lusignan. This one is on Druid rites at the time of Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and their preparation of the great Celtic leader who nearly defeated him. Shall probably retitle the translation Druids against Caesar. With the imminent publication by Skylight Press of my book The Book of Melusine of Lusignan I have probably said all I can about the famous Faery and so have shifted my researches into the male of the species, and the traditions of Oberon, the Faery King. This has meant polishing up my Old French to trawl through a couple of 13th century romances Huon of Bordeaux and Le Romans d’Auberon – whether this will make up into a book remains to be seen. However, the desk has been cleared of Druids and Faeries at the last moment with the invitation to write a commentary on Dion Fortune’s Rite of Isis and Rite of Pan as originally performed by her, and which buttress her novels The Sea Priestess, Moon Magic and The Goat-foot God which I have been re-reading along with other relevant material.
Literature is only occasionally my most impassioned reading. More often, I search out historic or scientific texts that end up feeding my own literature. Toward the end of last year, in the midst of the worldwide new age hysteria regarding “the end of the world according to the Maya calendar,” I returned to the Maya. My partner and I made a trip to five of the great Maya sites in Central America. Before and during that trip I reread some of the important literature on the subject, and didn’t stop when I returned home. I was working on a long poem, “Daughter of Lady Jaguar Shark,” that Wings Press will bring out in text and photographs later this year. And I was looking to answer certain questions, especially about the mysterious glyphs the Maya left us and which for centuries have remained unreadable.
Michael D. Coe is probably one of the leading experts writing about the multi-faceted breaking of the Maya code, an endeavour that has spanned continents and decades and involved ethnographers, anthropologists, artists, adventurers, and even a couple of children. His book of that title (Breaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, with editions running from 1992 to 2012) unravels a complicated history, yet is written in such a way that a layperson can follow it. In recent years great leaps in this story have been made, and I was thrilled to be able to buy a feature documentary of the same name by David Lebrun. This beautifully filmed and extremely evocative film is 116 minutes long. It can be ordered from www.nightfirefilms.org. I have watched it several times, and recommend it to anyone interested in the development of complex language and the effects of colonialism on the destruction of cultural memory.
Another fascinating book I read recently is Malinche’s Conquest by Australian writer Anna Lanyon (Allen & Unwin, 1999). This is a hard one to find; a friend was able to get it for me from one of those online sources for used books. La Malinche, a young girl from Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec who was sold by her family and ended up a concubine to Hernán Cortéz, has been despised in her culture for having “slept with the enemy and thereby betraying the race.” Traitors in Mexico are referred to as malinchistas. But who was the offended one in that story, the mixed-race nation or the child sold into slavery against her will? La Malinche spoke several languages: Nahuatl, Maya, and Spanish among them. She became Cortéz’ interpreter with Moctezuma and others. It seems her vilification began some 300 years after her death, when an eminently male Creole nobility found it useful to scapegoat a woman for the shame of conquest. Although several Latin American feminists have written brilliantly about this historic figure, Lanyon’s book adds a layer of well-researched detail to her life. And it reads like a good novel.
Wings Press recently published Sublime Blue: Selected Early Odes by Pablo Neruda. William Pitt Root spent years working on the English translations, which are indeed sublime. Facing page texts, beautiful design, and careful editing make this, like all Wings books, something to cherish. I’ve enjoyed reading these translations of poems I know intimately in the Spanish original, and know I will go back to this collection often.
Wot am I reading? Erm…. D-Day and Stalingrad by Antony Beevor. Shane by Jack Schaeffer (one of my favourites, read it at least once a year). Imagining the World into Existence – Normandi Ellis. Flashman and the Redskins – G.M. Fraser
I’ve just cracked the spine of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which was accorded a Man Booker Prize shortlisting last year, and which has immediately seduced me with its sprawling seven page-long opening sentence. From what I can discern from the book’s blurb, Thayil’s novel is a work of hallucinogenic historiographical fiction, which recalls the rise and fall of the opium den as a microcosm for community and industry in 20th-century Bombay. Thayil’s prose is pretty mercurial stuff, and albeit I’ve only just embarked on this reading experience, his style demonstrates a consummate facility with word-wrangling, enough to provoke reminiscences of early Rushdie or Bolaño. I’m generally not one to read or invest much passing interest in the titles bestowed recognition by the Man Booker committee of judges — I believe the always ludic & lucid China Miéville coined the neologism “Middlebrowaggedon” to indict the inclination of the contemporary Anglophone prize-wrangling/publishing apparatus to shy away from difficult literature — but I did recently finish reading the discontinuous narrative, Communion Town, which is the début novel-in-stories from a British scribe named Sam Thompson, and I must confess I was struck asunder by the delirious invention of his sentences.
I generally prefer works of literary fiction in which the elements of style, tone and register are afforded priority over plot, accessibility or function; it means that most of what I read isn’t necessarily representative or reflective of the English-language reading public (albeit I’m aware how such a phrase is both problematic and deceptively reductive). What I do know is the visceral power of a perfectly-wrought phrase, and there’s enough examples of consonantal cadence, consecution, catachresis and linguistic craziness in Sam Thompson’s Communion Town to satisfy a wayward lust for any new foray into contemporary experimental literature. Finally, another book which demands an immediate readership is The Alligators of Abraham by emerging Massachusetts-based raconteur Robert Kloss, which has (thus far) offered me my favourite read of the new year. If you’re seeking a novel that introduces an eschatological plague of alligators into pre-Reconstruction war-torn America, whilst Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed corpse is wheedled about from town to town like a sordid carnival attraction for historically-amnesiac Gettysburg patrons, then there can be no book I’d recommend more highly. It instils hope in me that there’s still lifeblood in the pumping artery of contemporary literary art.
For research I’m currently reading The Noetic Universe by Dean Radin, and Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna. Suggested to me was The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington, I bought that. I discovered Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson recently – simple explanations of difficult concepts. I’m re-reading Aldous Huxley Antic Hay and Barbara Pym Glass of Blessings for pleasure. A great failing of current novels is that they have no rhythm or music in the writing. For the sake of nostalgia I’m looking at Stoned – Andrew Loog Oldham.
I just read Michael Flatt’s excellent Absent Receiver from SpringGun Press, located less than half a block from my house in Denver. When it turned up in the mail I realized I should have probably just walked across the street and picked it up. I plan to offset this environmental mishap by planting flowers on the highway median both north and south of town. I just started Seth Landman’s Sign You Were Mistaken from Factory Hollow Press. This book contains some of the most deeply affecting writing I have experienced in quite some time, I might pick out the wrenching “A Secret Sympathy.” That may sound like a throwaway remark, but those who know me may attest to how grumpy I am about poetry in general, and as such how rare it is for me to say anything nice about anyone, let alone their writing. Although I have not read Emily Toder’s Science from Coconut Books, I have listened to her reading the poems on the internet and they are sharp, meticulous, beautiful. One of them (my favourite “On Sequins”) even contains my first name, although I am sure this is coincidental. Regardless, Science is next up.
I also await The Year of the Rooster, Noah Eli Gordon’s new book from Ahsahta Press. One might deduce from the striking, oversized, and multi-headed cock that adorns the cover that the work is a cautionary tale of scientific hubris in the tradition of Michael Crichton’s chef-d’oeuvre Jurassic Park. A swift look at the publisher’s website informs me that this is (of course) not the case. I’ve been waiting to read this book since Noah told me about it on my porch 6 years ago. I recommend you join me.
Michael Ledeen’s The First Duce about Gabriele D’Annunzio, for research; a James Salter novel, Light Years; and just finished Antonio Tabucchi’s marvellous Pereira Declares, a novel about fascism in Portugal in the 30s. I’m now reading Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and John Woodhouse’s biography, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Defiant Archangel.
I have my head firmly stuck in the early 13th century at the moment, working on some of the esoteric and Faery lore found in the early Holy Grail literature. My focus is on Le Haut Livre du Graal, an Old French text (edited by W.A. Nitze and T.A. Jenkins and sadly out of print) which provides one of the most eccentric but fruitful Grail adventures, written some time between 1190 and 1220. One of its main protagonists is the ever-rewarding Gawain, who is a very ancient figure and indeed was probably the earliest Grail-seeker before squeaky-clean Perceval and mincing Galahad arrived on the scene. There is a compelling body of evidence linking Gawain to Celtic myth as a pre-Christian solar hero (he crops up in the Mabinogion under his Welsh name, Gwalchmai) and even as a British version of the Irish hero Cúchulainn. Although this idea originated with Victorian scholars, by far the best development of it is by John Matthews in his book Gawain: Knight of the Goddess. In this very enjoyable and well thought out study he shows how Gawain belongs to Celtic tradition in his service of the goddess of sovereignty. But as the Arthurian stories gradually became more Christianised, so Gawain made an increasingly uncomfortable fit with the pious values of the medieval period. And so his character evolves through the romances, from the courteous and near invincible son-of-a-sun-god to an ever more thuggish and hot-headed chancer, until he winds up as something of a Victorian cad in Tennyson’s excruciating Idylls. Of course it’s not just Gawain who originated in Celtic tradition; the whole of the Arthurian mythos is steeped in it, often in complex and obscure ways. One of the best attempts to sort out the tangle is The Grail: from Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol by R.S. Loomis. This wonderful book unravels all the threads, and attempts to show how the original concept of the Grail was by no means chalice-shaped and had nothing to do with the Cup of the Last Supper until relatively late in its evolution. Similarly the spear-that-drips-blood, which forms such a fundamental part of the Grail Hallows, goes far beyond the spear of Longinus and represents a vivid and fiery mystery in its own right.
Currently I am reading Stoning the Devil by fellow Skylight author Garry Craig Powell and I’m finding it a fantastic read – entertaining and educating in equal measure. I like the way it blends an episodic narrative into a seamless whole. Before that I read Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle which I enjoyed greatly but found a little uneven – it’s very fragmentary and parts feel a bit bolted on – there are some wonderful passages of prose but it seemed to me to lack the overall vision and sense of unity that marks out the very best novels. I’d still recommend it though.
There are a number of wonderful books I have read recently, just out: Taiye Selasi’s first book: Ghana Must Go which is wildly engaging; unforgettable; Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala who lost her family in the tsunami that hit Thailand and Indonesia to such devastating effect; she is a terrific writer and one of unusual courage and humanity. I fell in love with both these writers. And Roberto Calasso; I have been reading everything. Calasso has an astounding handle on mythology, Greek and Hindu; I have read his KA twice in the past year. Also reread the latest translation of Prince Genji and currently, as I am writing here in Marfa, Lucretius: Of The Nature of Things. Loving Cesar Vallejo as translated by the wonderful Rebecca Seiferle–a book that I found in my library here in one of the well furnished Lannan houses; Bin Ramke’s astounding Aerial has been like a tincture of deep being, beautiful and unsettling, that I sip daily.(It has been nominated a Book of the Year by the LA Times. ) Laird hunt’s marvelous new novel, Kind One, I read very recently and admired greatly
Much of my reading is for professional reasons these days but I still manage to do a bit of private reading, which I confess is all over the place. Regarding fiction, I finally got around to reading the brilliant David Mitchell – and Ghostwritten is a truly marvellous novel. Also enjoyed Rikki Ducornet’s Netsuke – and just started The Plato Papers by a favourite author of mine, Peter Akroyd. My poetry reading is very spotty – as I tend to dip into collections rather than read them cover to cover. I’ve recently been perusing Lissa Wolsak’s Squeezed Light, Elizabeth Robinson’s Counterpart, and Jack Collom’s new anthology, Second Nature. I also finally found an old copy of Kathleen Raine’s William Blake, which is a wonderful book.
Most of my reading tends to be non-fiction, circling around a wide range of interests. As I’ve read much of Elaine Pagels’ work – I recently went through Beyond Belief, which is not her best but still quite provocative. Also, finally got around to reading The Underworld Initiation by R.J. Stewart, after seeing it cited so many times in Skylight books (and for good reason). Another esoteric work that I really enjoyed was Alex Owen’s The Place of Enchantment, which is the best book I’ve seen so far on the occult in literature, here focusing mostly on Modernist texts. I recently came back to Templar history after exhausting myself on the topic a few years ago to read perhaps the most informative account to date, The Templars and the Grail, an excellent work by British historian Karen Ralls. This interlaced with recent smatterings of H.L. Mencken, Bachelard, Ricoeur and Borges.
Stoning the Devil. I’m a slow reader and good books are hard to come by. I’ve enjoyed all the Skylight books I’ve read so far, including Diddle by Daniel Staniforth and Immortal Jaguar by Hugh Fox. And I was interested to learn that Hugh Fox had helped Oscar Lewis in some capacity or other with his Children of Sanchez. Great book, Children of Sanchez.
I tend to read several books at once over a period of months. With some friends, we’ve had a project to read Dante’s Divine Comedy. We’ve finished the Inferno; now it’s on to Purgatorio. The three versions I read around in for the Inferno were by Allen Mandelbaum, Michael Palma, and Ciaran Carson. I’m also reading Shards by Nicholas Rawson which was published in 1973 by Calder and Boyars. He was first discovered by Samuel Beckett and George Devine. I haven’t been able to find much else that’s been published by him except for a piece called Texts that was published in New Writers 3, which I have yet to acquire. Shards is one big, long, wonderfully rambling poem the tone and language of which make me realize why Beckett was drawn to Rawson’s writing. I have also been reading Chinese Notebook by Demosthenes Agrafiotis, translated by John and Angelos Sakkis, whose short, fragmented lyrics are just what I need to shake my mind out of accustomed ways of thinking into something unexpected; 130 Poemsby Jean Follain translated by Christopher Middleton, whose quiet, short lyrics provide something tender, shimmering, and dark, simultaneously; Armies of Compassion by Eleni Stecopoulous, that dives courageously into the many times unknown world of the self, its body, its pain, and its redemption; The Rova Improvisations by Clark Coolidge, that skitters and peals and rides and tears through linguistic solos that take the words you use every day unconsciously and blows them anew through imagination’s horn; various poems by Murilo Mendez, a sweet, tender, imaginative Brazilian poet, translated by Chris Daniels, and only available privately, but whose yet to be recognized poetry has something in common with Apollinaire and William Carlos Williams in a visionary manner; Circles Matter by Brian Lucas, whose long poem, “Blaze,” ranges peripatetically through the landscape of fire as well as innumerable other unnameable landscapes; Speech! Speech! by Geoffrey Hill, whose hermetic, piling up of images, sounds, and knowledge is both scholastic and stochastic; Trance Archive by Andrew Joron, whose philosophical alliteration and transmigration of sound spills spells; and Poems of Pierre de Ronsard, translated by Nicholas Kilmer, whose poetry is an inexhaustible font of lyricism and music.