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books

My Newest Book

December 29, 2009

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The Story of Mary Maclane“Napoleon was a man, and though sensitive, his flesh was safely covered”

Yes, but who was Mary MacLane? Mary MacLane was a truly extraordinary nineteen-year old with a “fine young body that is feminine in every fiber” and a brain that is “a conglomeration of aggressive versatility”. She is “a fantasy–absurdity–a genius!” with no parallel, “a genius, with a wondrous liver within”. But she lives in Butte Montana in 1901, and stuck there, she writes this “Portrayal” of herself, in which she is very honest (though she is also “a liar”) about her obsession with the devil, her desire for Fame and Happiness (always the Devil brings Happiness), her seventeen pictures of Napoleon that she stares at daily, her (then, and even now) unconventional views of marriage, her liver, her crush on the “anemone lady” and so on.

Mary MacLane circa 1911It may be tempting find her exaggerated way of phrasing things amusing and quirky, but they also communicate some incredible and unique insights. I do think she was a genius, in her own odd way, and I found myself agreeing to (and feeling deeply with) a lot of what she says. Her repetition bordered on poetic at times, and her mysterious use of certain phrases (her heart is always a “wooden heart” and her philosophy is always “peripatetic”, she lives in perpetual “sand and barrenness” and always the “red red line of the sky” is a symbol of Happiness to come). Mostly, she writes about how lonely she is, stuck in Butte Montana, and how she would give anything for 3 days of Happiness. For some more history on Mary MacLane’s life before and after this book, visit this website.

“But no matter how ferociously pitiable is the dried up graveyard, the sand and barrenness and the sluggish little stream have their own persistent individual damnation. The world is at least so constructed that its treasures may be damned each in a different manner and degree.” p.16

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An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions Paperbook) An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

Part fiction, part non-fiction, part poetic description, part philosophy. Aira examines the depths of history, the meaning of repetition, reproductions and its role in art, compensation, and much more, and in the context of a very specific, relatable person and his predicaments. Often zooming into an idea or description with intense precision, then moving on, this book is able to contain big ideas without sounding pretentious, or bloated. In fact, the book is less than 90 pages, though it tells a story that could be told in 500 pages. It’s really some of the best writing I’ve read. Also, I had no idea it wasn’t a completely true story, because it was told as if it was pieced together from accounts and letters. But there were points where he could not have been so intimately in the character’s head. Only after I read it did I find out that this is a perfect combination of history and novelistic invention. Some excerpts:

Peaks of mica kept watch over their long marches. How could these panoramas be rendered credible? There were too many sides; the cube had extra faces. The company of volcanos gave the sky interiors. Dawn and dusk were vast optical explosions, drawn out by the silence. Slingshots and gunshots of sunlight rebounded into every recess. Grey expanses hung out to dry forever in colossal silence; airshafts voluminous as oceans.
p. 14

A drove of mules the size of ants appeared in silhouette on a ridge-top path, moving at a star’s pace. The mules were driven by human intelligence and commercial interests, expertise in breeding and blood-lines. Everything was human; the farthest wilderness was steeped with sociability, and the sketches they had made, in so far as they had any value, stood as records of this permeation. The infinite orography of the Cordillera was a laboratory of forms and colors.
p. 16

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A High Wind in Jamaica

June 27, 2009

A great book I read recently was A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. Everyone should read this book. It’s got pirates! And tigers! And kids! Here is a passage that I especially loved:

In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.

It is true they look human–but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, every one recognizes they are animals–why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

Possibly the case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree–and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?

When swimming under water, it is a very sobering thing suddenly to look a large octopus in the face. One never forgets it: one’s respect, yet one’s feeling of the hopelessness of any real intellectual sympathy. One is soon reduced to mere physical admiration, like any silly painter, of the cow-like tenderness of the eye, of the beautiful and infinitesimal mobility of that large and toothless mouth, which accepts as a matter of course that very water against which you, for your life’s sake, must be holding your breath. There he reposes in a fold of rock, apparently weightless in the clear green medium but very large, his long arms, suppler than silk, coiled in repose, or stirring in recognition of your presence. Far above, everything is bounded by the surface of the air, like a bright window of glass. Contact with a small baby can conjure at least an echo of that feeling in those who are not obscured by an uprush of maternity to the brain.

Of course it is not really so cut-and-dried as all this; but often the only way of attempting to express the truth is to build it up, like a card-house, of a pack of lies.

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