The Best of the Rest The Summer of '95, Part 2

Do you believe in magic? Silly question. You're human. You obviously believe in magic. Now you may not call it magic. You may call it science or religion or politics or rock & roll or art or even baseball. But you do believe in magic. You believe you can be transformed, transported, changed by a process that is outside yourself, your woefully inadequate self: a good fairy, a spell, three magic wishes, coins in a fountain, a formula, a program, a chance meeting, the lucky fall - Providence. That is magic, pure and simple, hard and fast and deeply embedded in the human psyche. In Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest by Daniel Quinn (Bantam, $19.95 hard), the author of Ishmael (the $500,000 winner of the Turner Tomorrow Award) uses his life story and the story of the origins of Ishmael, a 50-year process of dreams, visions, writing and re-writing, of burning 100,000-page manuscripts and starting over, of facing rejection after rejection, to explore that magical bridge between the person inside and the other outside, whether that other be parent, lover, neighbor, enemy, or even nonhuman others.

Providence, as was Ishmael, is essentially a monologue, the conceit this time being that a fan of Ishmael (and there is a large, almost cultish following for the environmental-cry-in-the-wilderness novel) has broken into Quinn's house and demanded to know how Ishmael came to be written. This conceit initially annoyed me more than Ishmael the talking gorilla of the original, but I quickly realized that this was perhaps the best way to "break into" this philosophical mystery/autobiography.

Again, as in Ishmael, Quinn manages to be crisp and bracing in his unraveling of a seemingly simple tale. Few autobiographies have such novelistic timing, keeping the reader hungry for climax. His telling of his adventures with a talking dream insect at the age of six, his one-month stay as a 19-year- old with Thomas Merton and the Trappists (Merton apparently thought one of Quinn's visions, one that eventually led to Ishmael, was, in fact, a psychotic episode and therefore refused Quinn's admittance into the order), as well as with Midwestern bookies and the education industry is by turns poignant, acerbic, treacly, pompous, matter-of-fact, mystical. But Providence is always compelling and excruciatingly truthful, in short, terribly, wonderfully human, and, as in Ishmael, replete with new ideas, yes, new ideas on how we live our lives and how we must come to understand that there isn't a bridge to cross between me and you, only a joyous, very much alive relationship to be explored, a magical union that is of the life of the planet itself. - Ric Williams

"My mind is crazed by Homo- sexuality," Allen Ginsberg writes in late 1955, almost halfway through his now-published journals from the mid-Fifties. Oh, really?

Excavated from the archives of Columbia University where they were held hostage for a time, one is hard-pressed to find a page in these Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958 by Allen Ginsberg (HarperCollins, $27.50 hard) of literary history where sex is not described, alluded to, or internalized by one of the most famous poets alive. A testament to every aspect of sex - psychoanalytical, romantic, physical, and philosophical - Ginsberg's musings not only display sex as a motivational factor permeating every realm of our thoughts but also as a vehicle to something higher. At first titillating, at times tiresome and self-pitying, but always seemingly honest, Ginsberg's personal writings are fodder for his world-class poetry, alive with sensitivity, silliness, and common human frailty.

Though not easy to follow chronologically and not rife with frequent appearances from other Beat icons (save Neal Cassady, with whom he was in love), these journals deliver a sense of Ginsberg that his character in literature sells short. It gives substance to the caricature of the sex-crazed intellectual nerd, grasping at Eastern religion, shipping off with the merchant marines, and playing in a literary league that for him doesn't seem to come as easily. Fastidious is not the word that comes to mind to describe Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassady or William Burroughs. But Ginsberg was the hardworking glue of the Beat generation, chronicling and corresponding, and not just toiling for his own ends, either. He was responsible for the publication of many of his friends' literary works, namely Naked Lunch, which he collected sporadically through the mail and kept in a binder until it was complete, and On the Road, which he peddled for years until its publication in 1957.

Ginsberg's Journals are most interesting as a character study. As the young poet grows and matures before our very eyes, so does his poetic voice. How gratifying for the reader to spend an average day in the life of Ginsberg, with smart friends who provide endless sexual possibilities, informed debates, and the unwitting inspiration for poems with tenfold the glory. A longtime love affair with Peter Orlovsky gives him the courage to explore more deeply the American homosexual psyche, and his signature work, Howl, takes shape with each entry as he experiences life and literature. (Monthly reading lists are documented, well-stocked with the classics.)

Allen Ginsberg had sex on the brain all right; he was neurotic with it. Although he contemplates the self over and over with words on the page, his insecurity is vanquished in a work not meant for public eyes. The lack of self-awareness which emanates from the pages of these handsomely published journals is lovely - not a tribute, but an uncensored piece of an important literary mind. - Jennifer Scoville

This summer, I'm going to dive into two books with titles almost as long as they are - 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy (And Other Misheard Song Lyrics) by Gavin Edwards (Fireside, $8.95 paper) and The Fairly Incomplete & Rather Badly Illustrated Monty Python Song Book (HarperPerrenial, $14 paper). I'll even be learning things, like the complete lyrics to "Penis Song (Not Noel Coward)" and what exactly the hell it is Michael Stipe is saying in "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" (It's "Call me when you try to wake her"; now, say it five times fast). There probably isn't even a word for books like these, because nobody ever brings them home; they just nose through them while they're waiting on their girlfriends at BookStop. But these are fine examples of summer reading: light, lots of pictures and drawings, not too many words on a page - real in-one-eye-and-out-the-other stuff.

It's frighteningly hard to tell where one book ends and the other begins. Is "Hey, wait, I've got a naked plate" part of "Spam Song," or is it just misinterpreted Nirvana? What about "You're like a German parakeet?" Is that Robert Plant or Eric Idle? Either way, both books are extremely lightweight and extremely fun. Python maniacs will enjoy the complete words and music (there are instructions on how to play the piano) to classics like "Lumberjack Song," "Never Be Rude to an Arab," "Knights of the Round Table" and "Every Sperm is Sacred," while rock & roll trivia nuts will freak when they see the sheer volume of insignificant minutiae (and misheard lyrics from Beck's "Loser," "Stairway to Heaven," and the entire R.E.M. catalogue) in 'Scuse Me. Fun reading, many pictures, no intellectual investment. Ahhh... the joys of summer. - Chris Gray

What a beautiful place a golf course is. From the meanest country pasture to the Pebble Beaches and St. Andrews of the world, a golf course is to me a holy ground. I feel God in the trees and flowers, in the rabbits and birds and the squirrels, in the sky and the water. I feel that I am home. With these words from For All Who Love The Game, Lessons and Teachings for Women by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake (Simon & Schuster, $20 hard), the late pro reminded us that he was not only the greatest golf teacher of all time, he created the true vision of what the game of golf is. Pure and simple.

Until recently, only his students had the opportunity to "study at the feet of the master," but thanks to his son Tinsley Penick and local author and golfer Bud Shrake, Penick's words will live on forever through their series of golf books. Lessons And Teachings For Women combines the mental guidance from the Little Red and Green books with the physical guidance to make it work for female golfers. Penick's love of teaching women golfers shows through on every page and every story throughout this book. Besides remembrances of teaching pro golfers Betsy Rawls, Kathy Whitworth, and Sandra Palmer, Penick's recollections of helping all women golfers feel better about their game is what strikes you as his most cherished attribute.

There have been thousands of golf instruction books written that clog the mind with pictures and swing thoughts until you forget why you are on the golf course in the first place. Penick's swing thoughts are basic, the mental image of the act made as simple as ...Swing the club like a weed cutter, it's like swinging a bucket of water, clip the tee and of course, take dead aim.

The last line of his foreword for this book is, "The day I stop learning is the day I quit teaching." Harvey Penick may have passed on, but a lifetime of knowledge has been left for all to learn from. Thank you again, Mr. Penick. - Louis Jay Meyers

Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento by Maitland McDonagh (Citadel Press, $18.95) nicely utilizes a line of beautiful and appropriate dialogue from Argento's ownSuspiria for its title and finds smart fantasy movie critic Maitland McDonagh diving head-first into the twisted landscape of Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento for an in-depth examination of the common themes and symbols that make up his wild filmography. The result is a telling piece of work that, while not always wholly supportive of Argento's films (for that, one must turn to John Martin's equally intriguing Dario Argento: A Deep Red Opera), does treat them with the respect and intelligence not often afforded this unique talent.

The book opens with a highly literate introduction, in which everyone from Dashiell Hammett to Stephen Heath is quoted, so complex in its allusions that it almost immediately warrants a second reading before the reader can comfortably move into the main text, which presents a blow-by-blow analysis of each of Argento's 11 feature films, starting with 1970's A Bird With a Crystal Plumage to 1990's Two Evil Eyes. Each chapter, as filled as they are with detailed cinematic allusions and startlingly astute observations, prompt those familiar with Argento's pictures to view them in a new light, and should raise more than just an eyebrow of interest in those who haven't seen them, or who have been unfortunate enough to view only the butchered stateside versions that pass for domestic releases.

However, although both Tim Lucas and the aforementioned John Martin have covered this territory before, what's different here is the sheer scholastic nerve, not to mention the daunting willingness to challenge the incoherence and slight characterization that arguably mars Argento's movies - particularly in a closing interview. This occasionally leads to some uncomfortable stand-offs, climaxing in a memorable moment in which McDonagh's obnoxious questioning ("Do you lie on the beach and think up disgusting ways to kill people?") prompts Argento's vicious response: "Why don't you just make up a reason for me?"- that manage to set McDonagh's writing apart from her peers.

Despite these drawbacks, which seem designed solely to tick Argento off in order to get a extreme reaction, they can't fully mask what is obviously a deep enthusiasm for the films of the Italian director. Previously available only in England, the Citadel version contains an added "Afterword to the American Edition," which sports a disappointingly simplistic critique of Argento's most recent film Trauma that seems especially bland in lieu of the detailed commentaries preceding it. Otherwise, it's the same great book, and beyond its occasionally smug attitude, proves to be a fascinating, wildly intelligent examination of an equally fascinating subject. - Joey O'Bryan

If you've ever felt the fanciful urge, like former Austinite Steven Saylor, to visit ancient Rome, The Venus Throw (St. Martin's Press, $22.95 hardcover) should transport you there with spellbinding effectiveness. The fourth installment in Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries, The Venus Throw finds the Roman milieu that Saylor sketched and colored in over the three previous volumes bursting into a full-blown alternate reality that the reader visits with a sense of excitement and awe.

Of course, one couldn't find a finer guide to the Forum, the gardens, the villas, the baths, and the back alleys of Imperial Rome than Saylor's hero, Gordianus the Finder, a true moral actor in an immoral world, and a figure whose wisdom and humanity makes him feel, by this point for loyal readers of the series, like a beloved family member. To wit, Saylor has enhanced a classic lone ranger like the Finder each time out with a growing family of his own, all of whom play their own surprising parts in this cannily drawn tale. Mixing mystery fiction with actual historical figures and events, The Venus Throw draws ancient Rome out of the parched texts and cinematic myths into a tangible realm where the sights, smells, and even the touch of the cobblestone streets seem as real as everyday modern life, inferring parallels that are undeniable. Drenched in the intrigue and turbulence of the day, and perfumed with strong whiffs of eroticism, The Venus Throw and the books that precede it form an engrossing time machine where both scholarship and storytelling unite in a masterful and entertaining collection.
- Rob Patterson

Nothing excites a child like a sense of discovery; finally, a publishing company has hit on a truly enchanting way to ignite that sense. One of a series of such sets, The Ancient Rome Discovery Kit by Joseph Farrell, Ph.D (Running Press, $19.95) comes with a small paperback book on the life of ancient Romans and a mini archaeological "dig." Following two families through a day in their lives in ancient Rome, the book has some amusing information, but is still quite dry, at least for my eight year-old. The activity part of the kit, though, is anything but. This kit comes with the pieces of a bisque pottery sundial embedded in a block of porous gypsum. The child's task is to play the archaeologist, carefully scraping away the gypsum with the provided tool (a popsicle stick) to unearth the pieces of the sundial and then to put them together to make a working sundial.

It was slow going, but the first time my daughter hit a piece of the sundial, she did everything but shout "Eureka!" While physically tedious (she had to take several pauses to rest tired fingers), the "dig" completely absorbed her for nearly two hours. And though I read the book to her while she dug, her questions were not so much about the early Roman life as they were about the life of an archaeologist or paleontologist. We even had to get a paintbrush to carefully whisk the dust away. As a book, Life in Ancient Rome gets only mediocre marks. But as a hands-on learning tool and a fun way to while away an afternoon (important to both children and parents), The Ancient Rome Discovery Kit is a winner. At $19.95, it's a bit pricey for a birthday party present, but it is a wonderful special gift. With this kit, you get a process and a prize in the same package. - Hollis Chacona

The clean, reserved colors and misty black & white photo of seashells on the book jacket for Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $20 hard) bespeak simplicity, the casting off of whatever is extraneous and hampering. But Shulman's memoirs of life after 50 are more than just another get-back-to-nature book; Drinking the Rain combines ecological questions with a feminist sensibility, a human search for meaning and endurance, and the sense of life lessons being related. It's a slow walk down a long road with a favorite, trusted aunt.

After 30, the saying goes, most people begin to live off of their intellectual fat. At 50, activist and writer Shulman left a life dense with family and political and literary activity for a summer alone on an island off the coast of Maine. "This was in the early Eighties, years of glut and greed," she writes, "when we who had come alive in one of the great liberation movements of the century, the liberation of women, watched helplessly as much that we had hoped to accomplish seemed arrested, forgotten, on the verge of being lost." More than political frustration prompted her retreat, however. At 50, her children grown, her marriage dissolving, Shulman felt what every woman, I suppose, fears: empty, unsure of how to conduct her life. Her summer alone in a cottage without electricity or plumbing provided her not with a vacation, but with hard, joyous, sometimes enigmatic instruction in how to live. "I've come here not to vacate my life, but to fill it."

Drinking the Rain is written in the tradition of philosopher naturalists such as Thoreau and Annie Dillard. Shulman's descriptions of nature are luminous, leaping from page to mind with the strength of simplicity. But it is her descriptions of the changing seasons within herself that raise the memoir to the level of numinous. Shulman relates how she confronted external and internal disapproval and fear not only during the summer in the cottage but in her attempt to integrate what she learned into her life beyond that time. Notably, some of the strongest opposition came from other women activists, women who had internalized images of a solitary woman as dangerous (And it's certainly true; a woman alone is dangerous, just not necessarily to herself).

As a woman in her twenties, I feel that Shulman's is the older voice I have been waiting to hear. Raised in the decades before second-wave feminism, Shulman can recount incidents that portray the difficulty of being a woman in that time, and her brief descriptions of herself and her fellow activists lend a wonderfully human perspective to the women's movement. But her feminist sensibilities serve to clarify a larger human context, the context of a search for individual meaning at a time when most women and many men begin to consider themselves meaningless - this is a book that anyone can read and enjoy. Alix Kates Shulman's clarity, compassion, and bravery make Drinking the Rain a document of joyous living and change.

- Barbara Strickland

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle