The Highs

Bandinini trilogy by John Fante

3. ‘Ask the Dusk’ 9/10

2. ‘The Road to Los Angeles’ 7/10

1. ‘Wait Until Spring, Bandini’ 9/10

 I read this series in reverse order, but the stories are stand-alone with no real plot-crossover. When I talked with people about my reading list normally the first question would be something like ‘Which was the best book?’ The first that came to mind would always be ‘Ask the Dusk.’

 It’s probably not for everyone. I enjoyed its unconventional style and terse, straight-to-the-point language. It’s written in a cross-over of third and first person, almost reading like a third-person journal. Fante wrote the novels in sequential order, the reverse of what I read them in. I imagine he honed his craft over the trilogy. However, I found the middle book the worst of the three. The rage and grandiosity of Bandinini is taken a little over the top, but amusing. I think it loses some credibility and authenticity. He tones it down again by the third book.

 The series is about a poor Italian-American named Arturo Bandini (an alter-ego for Dan Fate) starting in book 1 with his youth and family of origin in Colorado. It’s a poignant book about family loyalty, being immigrants and poverty. In book 2 he moves to Los Angeles. It covers his angst and frustration, raging against his Catholic family and his mundane job at the fish factory. By book 3 Fante has really developed the character and style. He is a wannabe writer in L.A., living in cheap motels and falls for a psychotic, pot-smoking Mexican waitress.

The Whale

‘Heart of the Sea’ by Nathaniel Philbrick

9/10

The first book I read for the year. I found it fascinating, probably because of recently (2012) reading Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘the Whale.’ Philbrick’s book is a non-fiction account of the actual maritime event that inspired Moby Dick. A nineteenth century whaling ship is struck and wrecked by a large sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The crew take to the life-boats, turning into a survival story of navigation, starvation and cannibalism. Only a handful of the original crew survived to tell the tale. The book is thoroughly researched and very well written. With truth often being stranger-than-fiction, it reads more like an adventure novel than historical non-fiction.

 ‘Why Read Moby Dick?’ by Nathaniel Philbrick

7/10

 I stumbled across this little book in the Mt. Albert library and recognized the author. It’s a brief, easy to read book that gives an introduction to the fascinating characters and interweaving, dark themes of Moby Dick. It was interesting enough to inspire me to hunt the Whale a second time.

New Zealand

‘Mutuwhenua’ 8/10 &

‘Potiki’ 8/10 by Patricia Grace

I read Mutuwhenua near the beginning of the year. I had previously not heard of Patricia Grace and found this book in a small library where I was staying at the time. I gave it a go and was pleasantly surprised.

At face value it’s about a rural Māori woman who has a relationship with a visiting Pākehā teacher. Grace writes in a deceptively simple style, almost like a children’s story. But like in so much literature (and life) there’s all the unsaid, the between-the-lines, where she’s drawing deep on cultural themes. Using rich yet subtle metaphor and connotation she weaves mythology and Māori culture into the novel, elegantly showing differences between urban Western and rural Māori views.

Potiki uses the same style to highlight similar issues. This story focuses on a rural Māori community, describing their way of life and struggles over land & poverty issues. A developer arrives and tries to negotiate land purchases and access to build a development. A dispute naturally ensues. Once again, Grace writes very simply and concisely – it’s a short novel/novella – but manages to cover a huge amount of thematic ground using the same myth-narrative, non-spatial-time style.

‘Autumn Testament’ by James K. Baxter

8/10

 A mixture of prose and poetry. Some of the prose is pretty much letters written to others describing the Jerusalem commune established by Baxter. An interesting glimpse inside the commune. Baxter was a mystical visionary and the descriptions of Jerusalem show he truly lived-out, lived amongst and breathed his work. A rich combination of religious/Catholic and Māori imagery flows through this work.

‘Mihaia – the prophet Rua Kenana and his community at Maungapohatu’ by Judith Binney

8/10

 Rua Kenana is a fascinating character in New Zealand history. He was a separatist leader and Tūhoe prophet (some would say a cult leader) preaching a variant of the Ringatu faith. He established a community in the heart of the Ureweras at Maungapōhatu, the sacred mountain of Ngāi Tūhoe, as a response to ongoing land confiscations and harassment from the Crown. Following Crown/government suspicion, a large police force conducted a misguided invasion of his pacifist community, turning into a violent shooting. He was charged with sedition but found not guilty and harshly jailed on a minor charge, which many of the jury protested.

Binney was one of New Zealand’s top historians and this is a well-researched and sympathetic history of the events and Rua’s movement. It sheds much light on the historical significance of the Ruotoki ‘terror raids’ and disputes between the Crown and Ngāi Tūhoe. Being a historical study, it’s dry going but rich in NZ history and well worth it if the subject matter interests you.

‘Moriori: A People Rediscovered’ by Michael King

8/10

 A thorough history by one of New Zealand’s top historians. Destroys and buries a lot of common, publicly held misconceptions and myths about Moriori. Sad reading in places. Covers a dark chapter in New Zealand’s history. On the positive side, supports the identity and culture of Moriori, and tells their story. Wouldn’t recommend for entertainment purposes alone, but worthwhile if you’re interested in the particular subject or N.Z history in general.

The Classics

‘Cannery Row’ by John Steinbeck

7/10

An hilarious, riotous novella describing a community of bums, winos and prostitutes that live around Cannery Row in the early 1900s. Not much in the way of deep thematic content or character development, but a highly entertaining and funny read. Laughed out loud in places. Some uncanny scenes, such as a couple moving into an old, discarded boiler, the wife wanting to ‘make it pretty’ by hanging up curtains even though they have no windows, and renting out other sections of discarded industrial machinery to homeless single men.

‘Tender is the Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

7/10

 Set in Switzerland, Paris and the French Riviera in early 1900s. A European psychoanalyst begins working with a young wealthy female American patient. They begin a romance, he marries into incredible wealth and opulence. Tension builds amidst decadence and luxury. Covers Fitzgerald’s classic themes of booming wealth and alcohol fuelled self-centred desire. Complex and intriguing characters. Left feeling slightly confused and weird at the end. Not entirely sure what the book was driving at.

‘Sophie’s Choice’ by William Styron

7/10

 Set in New York following WWII. A young writer gives up his day-job, moves into a rooming motel and meets a crazy Jewish couple, his neighbours. He gets caught up as a third-wheel in their psychotic relationship, where the female (Sophie) is a holocaust survivor. He in turn acts as rescuer and persecuted in the triangular relationship, and as the novel unfolds discovers dark secrets carried by the others. Rich development of characters. Pretty heavy themes of dysfunctional relationships spiralling out of control, resulting from trauma carried from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and mental illness / psychosis. Definitely not an uplifting, happy read.

‘The Trial Franz’ by Franz Kafka

8/10

 I’m pretty sure Kafka was completely mad, but brilliant. This short novel is centred around an ordinairy office worker who wakes up one day facing a trial. The specific crime is never disclosed and irrelevant to the story. It has an intense atmosphere of paranoia and chaotic confusion, often echoed by the strange settings the absurd events unfold in. Shows the absurdity of the legal system and representation, where having a good lawyer is more important than innocence and guilt – where no one is truly innocent, after all – there are only degrees of guilt. Mind-bending read. Will probably read again one day.

‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

8/10

 Set in St Petersburg, Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. The central character commits a crime and then wavers between covering it up or confessing amidst an hilariously odd-ball set of interweaving, overlapping characters making up his friends, family and associates. One of those books where I kept reading just to find out what happens next, what bizarre scenario would arise  as characters are thrown together. Great character studies and existentialist themes of morality, identity and freedom of choice.

‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce

either 1 or 7.5 or 0 or 10/10.. I really don’t know.

 The overrated-(or-is-it?) cryptic tome of definitively Modernist literature. Follows the journey of Leopold Bloom through Dublin, all in one day described over 600+ pages. Heavy in allegory and allusion to classical myth and literature. Full of crazy, wild tangents of stream-of-consciousness type thought. Startlingly explicit and obscene in places. Each section is written in a different experimental style mirroring the progression and particular point-of-view of different characters.

It’s incredibly dense and formidable. There were times I wondered why I was bothering with it, but at others times totally spell-binding. At the end I felt like I could go back to the start, begin again. The kind of book that could be read numerous times in trying to comprehend it. Will possibly read again one day.

Fun fact: is approximately 265,000 words and contains a lexicon of 30,030 words.

Essays

‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ 8/10

and

‘The White Album’ 7/10 by Joan Didion

I’m not normally into reading essays but these collections were entertaining, partly due being interested in much of the subject matter: 1960s California and the counter-culture. Didion is an elegant writer and is subtly scathing in places of the people and movements she is reporting on. She has an odd, off-beat, distant attitude that at times feels like reading a neurotic’s personal diary. Excellent writer, great crafter of prose. Probably not that entertaining unless you’re either interested in the subject matter or enjoy well-crafted prose. I found Slouching Towards Bethlehem slightly bettter than the White Album. In terms of quality, they’re on a par, but I think the first one had subjects I found more interesting.

‘Consider the Lobster’ by David Foster Wallace

7/10

 I found this one in a St Vincent de Paul’s shop in Kingsland for $1 so there was no way I was not buying it. Hadn’t read anything of DFW but knew of the door-stopper ‘Infinite Jest’. A bizarre collection of essays. DFW surely is one crazy verbose genius. A broad range of topics spanning: Maine lobster festivals and the ethical questions of lobster consumption, the weirdness of the American porn industry, a long review on a book about the usage of words (possibly the most wordy essay I’ve read), John McCain’s presidential campaign, and conservative talk-back radio hosts.

Music

‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’ by Steve Earle

7/10

OK, so this one isn’t technically a music book. But it is written by Steve Earle and features the ghost of Hank Williams as one the characters. Set amongst the underworld of San Antonio, Texas and the general TexMex border area. A morphine addicted doctor (named Doc) who has lost his license for giving Hank his fatal morphine overdose, performs illegal abortions and patches up gunshoot wounds for drug-dealers. Doc meets a young Mexican girl with stigmata and miraculous healing powers. They make an unlikely pair of saints as Doc tries to turn his life around.

Steve Earle is a reasonable writer, but the book is prone to being cliched and predictable in places. Many of the characters are flat and cartoonish. The weirdness and Hank Willaims-esque plot carried it enough for me to enjoy. This one haunts the borders of the ‘Highs’ and ‘Inbetweens’.

Just Kids Patti Smith

8/10

Patti’s memoirs of getting started in New York and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is gritty in places dealing with topics like sexual identity, homelessness, HIV, sycophants in the art world.

I enjoyed the stories of pursuing art at all costs, the birth of New York punk, her hunt for the ghost of Rimbaud, and characters like William Burroughs and Sam Shepherd making appearnces. Patti Smith’s writing is good if a little pretentious at times. Would recommend to those with an interest in Patti Smith’s music & story or the general NY punk scene.

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