r e c o m m e n d e d    r e a d i n g


In vain had books taught him of human perversity and the disasters that clung like shadows to man’s fate; his heart refused to believe what his eyes read.

Gustaw Herling


Several readers, friends of Archipelago, suggest some good books:

James Wintner (Publisher, JHW Editions; Colophon Page ; PhotoArts):

“An understanding of some essential America derives, for me, from two literary masterpieces that ‘bookend’ this century: Sinclair Lewis’s BABBITT and John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy. When I proposed to a discerning French friend that Updike was our generation’s worthy successor to Lewis, she replied swiftly: ‘Isn’t it obvious: Rabbit/ Babbitt—Babbitt/ Rabbit?’

“Shortly thereafter, during the questions following a reading from his LILIES OF THE FIELD (a pale volume in every respect), when I was able to ask Updike whether he had intended this homonymic acknowledgment, he said that he had not read BABBITT until after writing the second ‘Rabbit’ novel [RABBIT REDUX]. He had avoided Lewis, believing him a writer who had only made fun of the middle classes.

“How deeply wrong Updike was (I’m sure he saw that) in thinking Lewis made fun of Babbitt. Both writers are fiercely protective of their poor protagonists and their struggles to make their way in a miasma of American hocus-pocus. Both struggle valiantly, and unsuccessfully, to rise beyond their fates as mere pawns in a game they do not control, and can barely discern the rules of. Perhaps Harry Angstrom’s anguish is the more palpable, for he starts further down the social ladder than Babbitt does, and we watch his journey to almost-consciousness through several volumes that, more self-consciously than Lewis’, explore our American century. (But, then, we meet Babbitt at age 46).

“While Lewis pitied Babbitt, I believe, Updike loves Rabbit. Like God: watching and recording, pitying his bafflement at being a man; unable to intervene. I feel closer to Harry Angstrom than to George Babbitt, but that may be because the symbols that control Rabbit’s life are not very far from my own.

“It seems to me that Updike identifies more with Harry Angstrom than Lewis did with Babbitt. He is also able to be more honest about the mysteries of sex, the greatest ineffable. BABBITT is Lewis’s finest book: he wrote about America through Babbitt. For Updike, America is Rabbit: he is the Everyman, the sacrificial son. Rabbit’s is, certainly, a religious journey or vision quest. In every mirror he sees himself lacking. He is restless. When he goes up for that lay-up that explodes his heart (RABBIT AT REST), it’s the explosion of all that relentless dreaming, Rabbit’s desire to comprehend and master. There is no doubt, Harry Angstrom died for our sins.

“What we learn from these book are variations on the American mythos (our poor replacement for an ethos), as the culmination of the end of culture and community and, hopefully, the beginning of something new. Yet, it’s easier to capture the ‘heart’ of Rabbit. When I read the first book I was fairly amazed that a 28-year old could understand so much. Though it lacks the polish of the remaining ones (the volumes are pretty much separated by ten years, and the energy slacked off in RABBIT AT REST), the Rabbit novels are just an amazing streak of good writing. And, they are written in iambic pentameter: try reading one aloud. Once, unexpectedly, all I had to hand was a copy of RABBIT IS RICH. I had just finished reading it; so, I started again and read right through, aloud, with equal pleasure.” Sinclair Lewis, BABBITT (various publishers; first pub. 1929). John Updike, RABBIT RUN (Knopf, 1960); RABBIT REDUX (Random House, 1970); RABBIT IS RICH (Knopf, 1981); RABBIT AT REST (1990; all volumes in paper from Ballantine)

Michael Rothenberg (Poet and songwriter; publisher, Big Bridge Press; Big Bridge Review):

“This book is a significant work that tracks down the beginnings of song. And to understand the beginnings of song is also to understand the beginnings of poetry. The poet and songwriter should find this book enlightening. The troubadour, the story teller, song accountings of history of the tribe, and the rituals of daily life are encompassed in one body: Song/Poem. You don’t agree? Okay, don’t. But read this book and consider the possibilities.” C. M. Bowra, PRIMITIVE SONG (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1962)

“America is a candy store for music: Blues, Rock & Roll, Pop, Rap, Country, Classical, Bluegrass, R& B, Jazz, Native American, Gospel, Broadway, Soul, Heavy Metal. You want to eat it here, or have it wrapped to go? How did this diversity evolve in such a short time from one common soil? AMERICA’S MUSIC is a big, scholarly book. Its structure is its beauty: small chapters, bite-size servings, broken down with each musical movement, so that ingredients can be savored and understood to get the big picture. This is the greatest book on music I have ever come across, and makes it easy to get an in-depth survey of the glorious landscape of music in America.” Gilbert Chase, AMERICA’S MUSIC From the Pilgrims to the Present (Chicago and Normal: University of Illinois Press, 1992)

“Did you ever think that the best music is the music we get to hear on the radio? Sorry to break your heart. The music we get to hear is the music the Music Industry wants us to listen to. Though there has been reform, the forces of capital, monopoly, mega-entertainment conglomerates, have continued to choke spontaneity and experimentation from the heart of music-makers. Music changed for America when the entrepreneur found out how much money there was in popular music consumption. Drugs, payola, you name it and we bought it. And we’re still buying it. This book is 25 years old and still tells it like it is. The names have changed but it’s the same old game. Take this picture and extrapolate to Music, Books, Film, and then you might be ready for the really bad news.” Frederic Dannen, HIT MEN (NY: Penguin Books, 1975)

“This is a fascinating book by the percussionist for the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart. It follows the origins of the drum in history, through myth, legend, and the personal quest of the author to unlock the power of percussion. Great pictures of drums from ancient times and faraway places. The first instrument seems to have been two bones knocking against each other, a drum. And the first drummer, appears to have been the daughter of a Sumerian King.” Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens, DRUMMING AT THE EDGE OF MAGIC, Journey into the Sprit of Percussion (Harper San Francisco, 1990)

“Alan Lomax breaks it down. Co-founder, with folklorist/father John A. Lomax, of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Alan Lomax takes us on a sensual and moody journey through the south in search of the Blues. In books I have suggested so far, I have looked at: the origins of song; the evolution of musical forms in the history of American culture; the history of a particular instrument, the drum, in the traditions of world cultures. Now, in THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN, we can take a deep look at one musical form native to America. The hardships and humor that survive in The Blues, an integral part of African American culture, are vividly retold by interview and story. We can understand why the Blues transformed mostly all forms of American music, from American Classical to Rock & Roll. This story is told by a master.” Winner of the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction.” Alan Lomax,  THE LAND WHERE THE BLUES BEGAN (NY: Pantheon Books, 1993)

Odile Hellier (The Village Voice Bookshop, Paris; by phone):

“One book I loved very much: ADA, by Nabokov. What a wonder, the writing! Reading Russian, I’m all the time tuning into the Russian mind; and, reading him, I see the playfulness of his Russian mind translating itself into English. It comes through in the irony, the ridiculousness of the world, the distance between the character and what happens to him. How he plays: puns in three or five languages: French, English, Russian, sometimes German, sometimes Italian — and the language of the entomologist, with his complicated, ornamental descriptions of plants and insects: a Baroque playfulness, combined with tenderness and a totally subversive love. This book is about culture, society of course, with an ironical eye on the upper classes of France, England, and America, which he knows because that was his milieu. I cannot tell you the pleasure I had reading this book, how it stimulates the imagination: it takes you above the ground.” Vladimir Nabokov, ADA (US: Vintage; UK: Penguin; paperback)

“It’s incredible that Grace Paley would be in Paris just now, reading [at the Village Voice] these essays written over the years, given the political climate of the last week, the bombing of Kosovo, because these essays also dealt with political activities of the past. She’s certainly against the bombing, as she was against the war in Vietnam, but although she did not speak about Yugoslavia, she understands that it is necessary to get rid of evil. Her life as an ecologist, woman, feminist, pacifist, an activist in many issues: it is meaningful for me to have her here, now.” Grace Paley, JUST AS I THOUGHT (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999)

“Barbara Kingsolver’s new book is a quantum leap up from her previous novels — the scope, the canvas, the destiny: enormous; really wonderful. The book is about the imposition of cultures on other cultures. The title says it all: the preacher who carries his guilt with him to Africa, to the Congo of Patrice Lumumba. In a small village where the people speak Kilonga he wants to baptize the children by immersion, because he feels they live in darkness, though the river is filled with crocodiles! He speaks about ‘Patajesus,’ drawing on the Kilongan word for ‘truth’; but he pronounces it as ‘poisonwood,’ and so is totally wrong: he preaches not that Jesus is ‘truth’ but ‘poison.’ This is a real novel, of ‘real’ lives: the preacher, his wife, and their three daughters. Five different lives lived with humor and tragedy in moral, cultural and political situations; a masterpiece.” Barbara Kingsolver, THE POISONWOOD BIBLE (US: HarperCollins; UK: Faber paperback, 1998)

“I read a British book which you may want to know about, by a man who was in prison and then worked in a slaughterhouse. Despite the fact that it was a little bit difficult for me to enter that world at first, I found the author is very, very generous with his rather picaresque, rather deformed characters. A very generous book, funny at times in spite of the very, very, very dark world. It’s really a beautiful book.” Jimmy Boyle, THE HERO OF THE UNDERWORLD (UK/US: Serpent’s Tail, 1999)

“Jake Lamar is an African-American writer living in Paris who is best known for BOURGEOIS BLUES. His third novel, CLOSE TO THE BONE, is just out. His novels are always contemporary and interesting, about the African-American middle class which has money and education and goes back and forth between Europe and the States. He is a subversive kind of writer. He writes about African-American characters, but he’s not protecting them at all: he blurs borders, frontiers, lines between white and black. He debunks the polarization and, though he certainly speaks about racism, undermines it all the time. Racism is an issue, but not treated as we’ve been used to seeing it dealt with in novels. This is a new kind of African-American literature. He’s not carrying the banner of race, but describing a generation across colors.” Jake Lamar, CLOSE TO THE BONE (NY: Crown Books, 1999)



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