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Gordon W. Dale -- Night Table Recommendations

Friday, Dec 09, 2011 at 11:29am

I mostly read fiction, memoirs, and poetry--preferences that are reflected in my night table choices. I've selected books that have been published relatively recently, because I believe it's important to support new works. (I've allowed myself one exception, The Smoking Diaries, by Simon Gray, which I excuse on the grounds that it's new to me.)

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Just Kids, by Patti Smith (HarperCollins Publishers).

I was tempted to describe this book with the single word, "Wow!" and leave it at that, but of course it deserves far more. Patti Smith grew up in South Jersey and at 19 struck out for New York to find herself as an artist. Just Kids describes her life at the fringes and then the inner circle of the New York art and pop culture scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with walk-ons by Alan Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Sam Shepard. But most of all it's about Smith's (What adjective does one choose here? Loving? Intense? Destructive? Twisted?) relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, who she meets by chance on the street during her first days in the city, and with whom she remains intertwined for years to come.

What struck me most while reading Just Kids is the distance Smith maintains from her main subject: herself. There's a matter-of-fact, almost journalistic element to the writing. She was there, you know she was there, and she describes her experiences in detail--months on the streets and in filthy tenements, with Mapplethorpe turning tricks to pay for their next meal; years of squalid splendor at the Chelsea Hotel; the almost accidental beginnings of Smith's career as a rock and roller--and yet there's a coolness to it, a separation I found troubling at first. Then, halfway through the book, there's a line that fully illuminates her approach. Smith is sitting on the floor of Janice Joplin's room at the Chelsea while Janis and Kris Kristofferson sing "Me and Bobby McGee". Smith writes of it: "I was there for these moments, but so young and so preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognized them as moments."

Has anyone more perfectly described the experience of youth?

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman (Doubleday Canada).

The reviewer at the Financial Times got it exactly right: "Each chapter is so finely wrought that it could stand alone as a memorable short story."

Rachman, a journalist himself, weaves the seemingly disparate lives of several employees of a 1950s international newspaper in Rome into a tapestry of rich and complex character studies. It's astonishingly well written, with prose that's wonderfully tight and clear-headed. And the dialogue! It?s been a very long time since I read a book with so much captivating and character-revealing dialogue. Put it on your night table. Read it as a study in characterization, a study in style, or simply as an engaging literary experience.

The Smoking Diaries, by Simon Gray (Granta Books).

I'm currently working my way through the diaries of the late British playwright Simon Gray, of which there are several volumes. If you decide to embark on a similar journey, I suggest starting with The Smoking Diaries, even though doing so will drop you into Gray's life in late middle age (he was sixty-five when he wrote it). Still, it's a good introduction to his style, and gives perspective to both the earlier and later works. What I enjoy most about Gray is how fearlessly opinionated he is in this time of lukewarm prose and tiresome political correctness. He turns an acerbic, curmudgeonly, and very British eye to the theatre world on both sides of the Atlantic, detailing at length his friendships with the likes of Harold Pinter and Alan Bates. Best of all, he's willing to turn that eye on himself, describing his many triumphs and disasters, both theatrical and personal, with self-deprecating charm and intelligence. It's great fun and I strongly recommend it, particularly for theatre buffs and anglophiles.

Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey, by Robert Bly (WW Norton).

Robert Bly is eighty-four now, and this past May I heard him read from Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey to a rapt audience at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. He was on stage for almost two hours, accompanied by two musicians, one on sitar, the other on tabla. As part of the performance, he read his English translations of poems by Galib, in counterpoint with his son-in-law, Sunil Dutta, who first recited each selection in the original Urdu. (I know this sounds terribly pretentious, but Bly was very down-to-earth and engaging, and poked gentle fun at many of his own lines.)

If you turned away from Bly during his prominence in the Expressive Men's Movement, now might be a good time to revisit his work. Talking into the Ear of a Donkey is poetry at its most accessible, the pieces short and direct, the rhythms clear, many influenced by the Mid-eastern ghazal form. I believe the 1999 edition of The Best American Poetry, under Bly's guest-editorship, is the best of the series (meaning only that he chose poems more in sympathy with my own sensibilities than have other editors). And his translations of Neruda and Vallejo have been my faithful night table companions for many years.


Born in Winnipeg, Gordon W. Dale has lived in such disparate regions as the Sub-Arctic, the Canadian prairies, and Central-East Africa, and currently lives in California. He has written travel, adventure, and humor articles for various North American magazines and in 2007 was a finalist for the British Crimewriters Association Debut Dagger Award. His first novel, Fool's Republic, was awarded an Honorable Mention by the 2011 San Francisco Book Festival and was a finalist for the USA Best Books 2011 Award. Visit Gordon online here.

Categories: Reviews, Discussions, Authors, Winnipeg, Night Table Recommendations

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Fool's Republic

- Gordon W Dale

Trade paperback $22.95 - Add to Cart
Reader Reward Price: $20.66

Citizens' stories of state abuse, from secret wiretapping to unjust imprisonment and worse, make headlines daily. In the hands of novelist Gordon W. Dale, they drive a masterful political thriller. As Fool's Republic opens, Simon Wyley floats in a tiny all-white cell. A short-order cook with a genius-level IQ, Wyley has had a steady job for twenty years, paid his taxes, kept to himself. A dedicated husband and father, he's a model citizen. So why is he being held?
Wyley is accused of committing crimes against the state--the charges are always implied, never specified--and is being held without formal charge, benefit of counsel, or due process of law. He confuses and confounds his interrogators using the only weapons at his disposal, irony and whimsy, to challenge their arrogance and false assumptions. As Wyley's journey proceeds, we develop a deeper understanding of the man behind the wisecracks and of the society that has imprisoned him.
Exhibiting a crackling narrative energy and vivid prose, Fool's Republic is about freedom--freedom of action, freedom of thought and, ultimately, the freedom to be human. It is the story of a man's struggle to come to terms with himself and the culture in which he lives.