HOLLY’S DOXOLOGIES* of Fave Books Read This Month
*I had to look it up too – a doxology means ‘I praise of’
For a whacking long time writers were timid about setting their stories in the late Sixties. They were especially punctilious about avoiding the hot zones: Greenwich Village, Haight-Ashbury, Laurel Canyon, Woodstock. In the direct aftermath, that whole period seemed so hokey and over-blown. Love beads? Leather fringe? Stoners drooling into cups of peyote tea as they listened to Led Zepelin, every so often wheezing, “grooo-vy”?
But finally enough eons have passed, and when we return to the scene of our cultural crimes – those of us who were there, or at least partially there — we may feel the fuzzy edges of nostalgia. So it is with Walter Mosley’s LITTLE GREEN (Doubleday) which brings irreverent and remorseless detective Easy Rawlins to the LSD-soaked Sunset Strip of 1967. Once again under Mosley’s vision we grasp the hideous constraints of being African-American on streets outside the narrow jurisdiction of Easy’s ‘hood in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Things have loosened up a bit, but not much, and far from enough.
Little Green marks Mosley’s most philosophically profound novel to date. In the run up to the current story, Blonde Faith, Easy Rawlins has crashed off a cliff in Pacific Palisades. He’s left for dead much as Sherlock Holmes was killed off and stayed killed for the remainder of Mr. Conan Doyle’s career. So . . . a modern readership must ask: was Mr. Mosley fed up and finished with his anti-hero?
Apparently not. Turns out Easy’s loyal and homicidal side-kick Mouse has located him far below his crashed car, exhumed him, and hoisted him over his back to get him to hospital. Two full months of coma later, restored to a demi-world of hazy recollection, the detective, while hardly able to prepare a cup of coffee, has a new case thrust upon him by his savior / psycho / buddy. Enter Voo Doo queen Mama Jo and her elixir “gator blood” to get him up and at ‘em. Easy takes off after a missing girl, while at the same time, as per usual, encountering an array of unsavory characters.
Through the arc of Little Green, Easy moves in a state of what the Buddhists call the bardo, the phantasmagorical afterlife before arrangements are made for the soul’s next iteration. As a result of his banged-up brain mixed with gator blood, he’s half-obliterated, half liberated, and all the while pondering the Mystery as if he himself were dictating a modern version of the Tibetan Book of The Dead. But setting aside all these engrossing metaphysics or, more accurately, in addition to them, Little Green is, to use a high-falutin’ literary term, un-put-down-able!
* * * I’ve read three out of the five of Russell Shorto’s non-fiction books, including the new one, AMSTERDAM (Doubleday), and all three take pride of place in my home library. Saints and Sinners explores that question dogging all spiritual seekers: How is it that St. Francis’s running dialogue with God is any less loopy than the man on Broadway and 23rd holding up his sign about Armageddon? Descartes Bones takes us on a journey beginning with the great philosopher’s sudden death in January in Denmark, a cold dark place where he most emphatically prefers not to spend his last hours, had he not been summoned by the king himself for a tutorial on Cartesian thought. The narrative follows the amazing trail of Descarte’s bones, picked apart and carried far a-field because it doesn’t pay to be a living legend when, once you’re dead, dodgy people scramble for your relics.
In Amsterdam, Shorto describes the city’s inception in Medieval times when common folk banded together to form polders of soil and intricate canals to keep the sea in its place, thus fostering, from the get-go, the spirit of community. This resulted in a precocious progressiveness until, with input from outlier philosopher / rationalist Spinoza, the Enlightenment was hatched, yes, right there in Amsterdam, leading at last to “the world’s most liberal city” (Shorto’s subtitle); its gaudiest examples: legal emporia of prostitutes, hashish cafes and, on a more upbeat note, a safety net without the social stigmata that shows up in places such as the, er, USA.
Shorto also asks the painful question: how did it come about that this shining city on a hill (or more accurately in a soggy lowland), with its noble tradition of tolerance, was so easily flipped by the Nazis at the start of World War II? The painful irony is that, throughout the Netherlands, the Gestapo culled the highest number of Jews; 87% to be exact, including the internationally beloved Anne Frank. (Hint: It wasn’t Dutch perfidy. The speedy round-up was the result of Dutch bureaucracy; city governments had long before issued identity cards with citizens organized by “pillars”. Jews fell under the socialist pillar. “Like everyone else, they were catalogued,” writes Shorto, “their addresses were on file. All of this made the Nazis’ work easier.”
A dark chapter, to be sure, but there is so much of which Amsterdamers can be proud, starting with Willem of Orange’s fight against King Phillip of Spain, the Inquisition, and the dreaded Duke of Alba. There was the city’s Golden Age kicked off by the comically inept voyage of a Capt. De Houtman who did indeed, despite his bungling, ‘discover’ a parcel of real estate in the East Indies. There’s the stunningly engineered canal system, an aberrantly benign brand of Calvinism, and towering artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. In the modern age, a triumph of the eco variety is Amsterdam’s bicycle usage which amounts to 40% of city transportation.
For all non-fictionados, Amsterdam is a must-read about a role model of a present-day town. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the library to track down Shorto’s two other books that have somehow eluded me: The Island At The Center of the World and Gospel Truth.
Send you own favorite reads to firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include the author’s name or else your aged, doddering, drooling reviewer will need to look it up.
Below are some of the favorite reads sent to Holly by her readers: