January 21, 2011


In life, and on our little planet, we have to learn to co-exist. We will cross paths with many different lifestyles and experience human nature through the studies of strangers in conversation and observation. Through these connections with others we learn to know ourselves.

"The City of Your Final Destination" by Peter Cameron is about just such a fusion of different lives. The book has the feeling of an idyll, the languor of late afternoon summers, when the passed thrill of youthful hope seems to go hand in hand with the wit of a more seasoned perspective on life. It's on such afternoons as these, surely, that the best of Shakespeare's comedies take place and that a little girl sitting on a riverbank is most likely to spot a rabbit carrying a pocket watch as it vanishes under a hedge.

The rabbit holes in this book have to do with Jules Gund, a writer who has been dead for several years. The son of wealthy Jews who fled Germany just before World War II, Gund grew up on Ochos Rios, an estate in Uruguay, wrote an acclaimed novel and then, according to one character, "spent twenty miserable years trying to do it again, and failing over and over," until he finally walked into the woods to shoot himself. Gund has left behind, in his family's remote manse, a wife, Caroline, a mistress, Arden, and an 8-year-old daughter, and his elderly brother Adam who lives with his younger lover, Pete.

They are the executors of Jules' estate and guardians of his fading reputation, so it's to them that a doctoral student from the University of Kansas appeals, requesting authorization to write a biography. They tell him no, but the student, one Omar Razaghi, has gotten himself into a complicated fix and shows up at their door to plead his case. It's a scenario that echoes Henry James' "The Aspen Papers," only in this version the impressionable naif is Omar, the literary acolyte, and instead of serving the cold-blooded cult of Art he finds himself waylaid by unruly emotions.

What this involves is conversation, some of the best dialogue to be found in any novel published in a long time, whether it's Adam's remarks ("There is something a little pathetic about winding up old and beautiful and charming, I think; it indicates, to me at least, a waste of resources, or at the very least a serious misappropriation of them") or Caroline's implacable frankness ("I have noticed this: this hesitation to speak about anything outside of one's field. This caution.How boring it makes everything"). Even the less formidable characters emerge effortlessly whole in the course of a few pages; after a single telephone conversation between Omar and Dierdre, his nudging girlfriend, it's possible to chart the entire arc of their relationship.

This is an amusing quadrille of shifting allegiances, indiscretions, and gambits, but as Adam observes, "It has been my experience that sooner or later things always get messy or dangerous."  Cameron is a writer of strange and sneaky allure; he can tell you more by not telling you something that ought to be humanly, or at least artistically, possible. "City of Your Final Destination," transpires like a dream and ends on an unexpected grace note. It's a generous book with just enough shadows to hint at the mysterious territory that lies beneath its surface.

We cannot engineer our own happiness, Cameron suggests here with terrific subtlety, for love has a way of taking us on unexpected detours. That, after all, is how this curious coterie of souls wound up displaced in Uruguay. Cameron develops his theme with a gentle hand, and in so doing, he draws this book to one of the most satisfying denouements in my recent (airport waiting lounge) reading memory.

January 18, 2011

To Kindle,or not to Kindle…♬

There, I’ve bought an electronic reader, but I’m feeling guilty towards my library!

I am a shameless bibliophile but also an “adapter” of new technologies. Yet, I have not been schlepping the device around with me, even so it will store a big chunk of my library and the neighborhood's newsstand.

I am tactile and love touching books feeling the pages, the type, smelling the paper and the ink. Too many books have remained favorite reads. I have read them in different languages over the years (talk about obsession!) and I can’t imagine getting the same pleasure from an electronic reader.

Could I have appreciated Apollinaire’s poetry without these delicious covers?

Or, La Fontaine's?

No paper? Would they relish being read on a gadget? Knowing them, I would say, NON!

The art of bookmaking-of printing and paper making-is one of the most respected of the many crafts in which artisans excel. I often have observed them, and I am pleasantly surprised to see that this beautiful art is not dead. Restoring old books—resewing the pages, making new covers —with a lot of love, attention, and reverence is a bibliophiles delight.

Don’t these beautiful editions feel/sound/look better on paper? 

See...gone digital…

Jiri Slíva «SATIRIKON’80» (Karikaturen aus sozialistischen Ländern)
Berlin Eulenspiegel Verlag

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich