[For this issue's No Sound, we managed to corral Tex Kerschen, aka Nikki Texas, singer/frontman/whatever of ultra-weird rockers Swarm of Angels and Nikki Texas + The Electric Sex (and formerly of Japanic, as well), art curator, and one of the most literate musicians we've run into in the city of Houston. We asked him to talk a bit about what good stuff he's been reading lately, so here goes...]
United States, Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal is the ne plus ultra of American writing, if only for these essays. I have spent most of the summer bent around this largish heavy book. His tone is charming, his scope sweeping, and his attention to detail is recursive in the best way, that is, he circles ideas like a cat does a mouse, with an unpredictable consistency and very little of that wooden earnestness that afflicts much of the literature of dissent. Vidal is an ironist, a doomsayer, and an aesthete. His literary criticism is unaffected and clearheaded. He champions the underknown Paul Bowles. He wrestles with the devils of French literary theory and announces, very early on and without much regret, that television and the movies have killed the novel. He has sympathy for fading stars like Norman Mailer and John Dos Passos, and little for overblown literary celebrities like Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway whose pretensions don't include wit. Vidal's various missives abound with insider gossip, often firsthand. He knew a wide variety of figures including Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Orson Welles. He kept tabs on Ronald Reagan before he was anybody, and he knew exactly how and why such an opportunist became king of a media manipulated country. A few lines of Vidal's gossip reveals more about the individual figures running wild in history than most historians' books.
The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, Emile Habiby
This is the Candide of Palestinian literature, a tour-de-force of comic historical fiction in which a wide-eyed Palestinian naïf provides a first hand account of Al Nakba, the expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine in 1948. The innocent Saeed stumbles through a succession of catastrophes. He is mistreated by Israeli soldiers and unlucky in love. This story is quickly and cunningly told. Habiby is groundbreaking. He is also fastidiously direct. He makes no recourse to apocalyptic imagery, confessionalism, or any other junkshop religious motifs.
Free Martin Zet, Martin Zet
Martin Zet is a Czech artist obsessed with systems of control. Since the collapse of the communist Czech state, he has metamorphosized, turning from sculpture to performances, video, and epistolary forms of expression, and writing extensively about his own changing life as an artist and a person over the past several years. He's self-published several small books about his travels, his art, and the exchange of currency. His ruminations fall between established genres. They are poetic essays or essaying poems. At their root, however, is a melancholic sense of humor. In Free Martin Zet, he tells the stories of various different people, in each case substituting his name for their own. The effect is Borgesian without having the stale air of a literary specialty.
War and Peace, Tolstoy
There's no excuse for anyone living not to read this novel. It is not only an epic war chronicle but also a parable of vanity and redemption and a satire of human ambition. It moves quickly and covers a lot of territory, most importantly the spiritual development of its protagonists.
The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao's Personal Physician, Zhisui Li
How else can you find out about Mao after dark? Mao Tse-Dong was a sex freak who thought he could only preserve his health by dipping into young women. The best account in this completely absorbing tell-all recounts the time about when Mao, thinking his personal staff of advisors, physicians, and commissars had gone too soft, ordered them to work as manual laborers on the construction of a dam. He himself was there the first day shoveling rocks. After a photo-op and a strenuous hour of work Mao retired from the site, leaving the rest of his staff there for the remainder of a month.
The Delicate Prey, Paul Bowles
Bizarre, probing, and gothic stories set in a number of international, usually sub-tropical, locales. A boy seduces his father on a hot night. A priest is reduced to playing hot jazz records for a demanding heathen village. Or the much anthologized title story, in which a trinket-collecting anthropologist is transformed into a slave clown for a Bedouin tribe in Saharan Africa.
Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan
The book JD Salinger would have written had he anything to say about life. This is a funny autobiographical telling of Behan's time in British jails and reform institutions after his arrest as a teenager IRA would-be bomber.
Among the Missing, Dan Chaon
A collection of sick and funny stories scored in a tonal range between Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme.
Rainbow Stories, William Vollmann
Vollmann is probably the most deservedly over-rated hard-boiled writer living today. He joined the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, met with international druglords in Southeast asia, rubbed elbows with skinheads, prostitutes, and other hard cases. His prose is terse, but not in the affected Hemingway manner. His narrators are openly sentimental, world-weary, and well-traveled, and his writing is an alternative to hermetic salon literature.
The Book of Embraces, Eduardo Galeano
Short, ironic vignettes observing the sacking of South American cities. Poignantly, the narrator has the honesty to bewail the loss of his hair as much as the bitter changes in public life.
Suttree, Cormac McCarthy
O man. No way that I want to forget this one. A de-landed Faulknerian bum anti-hero loafs in the outskirts of a Southern Gothic Bowery. He does a lot of fishing and befriends a boy who shoots bats to sell back to the local hospital disease control center.
The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Greg Palast
A collection of exposés of the World Bank, G.W. Bush's vote-fixing schemes, military-industrial corruption, and other fast-paced muckraking articles and warnings that in a better world would herald the joyful beginning of a worldwide anti-capitalist revolution. This, of course, probably won't happen soon enough. Cassandra couldn't say it better.
An up-to-date compendium of news related to Palestine.
A daily compilation of topical leftist essays, satires, and editorials from estimable thinkers like Edward Said, Tariq Ali, Alexander Cockburn, and many others.
Like CounterPunch, but slightly more scholarly. Features and reprints by Noam Chomsky, Ali Abunimah, Amira Hass, Uri Avnery, Robert Fisk, John Pilger, and Howard Zinn.
Post script: I don't know why there aren't any women authors above. My bad. I'm looking forward to reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible and Arundhati Roy's War Talk.