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Shhhhh... Don’t Tell My Book Group

Okay it’s still summer so a lot of reading and attention to my book group going on here. Also, a month ago I turned in a major revision of my book about citizen science, the researching of which has been preoccupying my reading life for a good four years. I have been looking forward to this moment, when I can roam Friends of the San Francisco Library’s Book Bay Bookstore and hunt through the Marina Branch of the library itself in search of masterpieces my book group has somehow not gotten to yet. This isn’t easy, since we been convening since the mid-1980s, and have read 226 books together. It’s my turn to make suggestions for the next book.

Our last title was Out of the Dark, by Nobel Prize –winner Patrick Modiano. Oh, it’s fine! It’s a good book. It’s about anguish and identity. Fairly recently we read The Map and the Territory and the Modiano is like a short-cut through an alley in Michel Houellebecq’s bigger, more ambitious tome. But as with My Struggle, Karl Ove Knusgaard’s multi-volume opus, these books take place in supra human worlds of some ghostly historical context, but have almost entirely to do with an amplified Homo sapiens. Their anti-heroes are trapped in their own heads without much imagination, because there isn’t much around them to observe and interact with, aside from other people. There’s no nature, that’s for sure. I’m sick of this sort of thing.

On my list of books to maybe read is Giant, by Edna Ferber. Sheesh, whatever happened to her? She won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big, and her canvas is the lower 48 — capital U, capital S, capital A. Giant is about the wresting of Texas from the Mexicans and the colonization of its drylands by cattle. It’s a soap opera about ecological and imperial conversion – it’s fabulous.

Another title: Memel, My Hawk, by Yashar Kemal, a beloved Turkish author who died this past February, and perennially nominated for the Nobel. He should have got it. Here are some observations from his 2005 introduction to the reissued 1961 book:

“If I consider myself something of a writer, that is because I have knowingly integrated the myth and the dream within human reality. And yet I’m afraid that the way things are, we may have to take refuge in ancient myths. Confronted with the massacre of nature, that great scourge of our age, the dangers of which we have not yet been able to adequately understand, we will create myths of fear as our ancestors did.” And: “For years now…I have been insisting on this: in nature, each object has its own identity…the smallest particle of nature has…a peculiar personality…. If I seem to be groping, if I seem confused, it is because I cannot find the right name for this. One day, humanity, scientists, writers, will find it.”

I’m on his ride! The book is beautiful, swift, primal.

Another possibility is The 42nd Parallel, by John Dos Passos. As with the rest of the contemporary literary world, my book group has overlooked this vaunted American voice. The book is beautifully written.

Dos Passos also largely ignores nature, though conquering it is a major part of the American creation story. On an airplane last week, I chatted across the aisle with a PhD student in English lit, Sarah Papazoglakis, who subsequently e-mailed me a reflection from Fredric Jameson in re: the USA Trilogy of which The 42nd Parallel is the first volume. Jameson says that the trilogy represents a “democractic aesthetic form because ‘secondary characters move forward and eclipse the relationships of the main characters.’” Papazoglakis explains “the structure of the novel itself reflects democratic ideals of participation and pluralism that aren’t represented in the typical Bildungsroman. I thought you might be interested in that perspective given your interest in citizen science as a democratic space.”

Wow Sarah Papazoglakis, I have never actually put it that way but now I will: citizen science yes creates a democratic space! Maybe I’ll get the gang to at least read Manhattan Transfer, which is shorter Dos Passos and about everybody’s favorite city. I bet there ain’t a green thing in it, however, nor sentience except the mostly hairless kind walking upright on two legs.

[The group ended up picking Black Robe, by Brian Moore. It’s about the fateful intersection of a Jesuit missionary with Huron and Algonquin tribal people in what is now Canada in the 17th century, during the “Beaver wars.” This is the era in which nature was wrested out of cultural reciprocity and the rest is sorry ecological history – I’m into it! The novel was made into a very fine film by Bruce Beresford.]

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