A quick riff on the first 30 pages of Quiet Creature on the Corner, João Gilberto Noll’s nightmare novella (Book acquired, 5.03.2016)

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In today’s mail I found a small package from Two Lines Press containing João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner, freshly translated into English from Portuguese by Adam Morris.

I started into the Noll. Each sentence made me want to read the next sentence. What is it about? you ask, perhaps. Well. I’m not sure. Let’s say the style, the tone, the mood are what matters here: Dark, nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal. There’s a picaresque bent to Quiet Creature: one damn thing happening after another. Dare I drop the K wordKafkaesque? Sure. (The opening pages remind me much of the opening sections of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, for some reason—the dark dream logic). Okay, but what is it about? Gosh. Wait, there’s a blurb on the back of the book:

Quiet Creature on the Corner throws us into a strange world without rational cause and effect, where everyone always seems to lack just a few necessary facts. The narrator is an unemployed poet who is thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. but then he’s abruptly taken to a countryside manor where all that’s required of him is to write poetry. What do his captors really want from him?

I’ve just gotten to the countryside manor part myself, so I can’t say. I know that in the 30 pages before that all kinds of weird dark disjointed shit happens. For example, on the third page, in the novella’s sixth paragraph, our poet narrator, leaving the public library, observes that “soot was falling, and nobody could really say where it came from—in certain places so thick that you couldn’t see the other side of the street.” This is like maybe an early little metaphor of the image-logic of Quiet Creature on the Corner (I love the crunch of the title). At the end of the paragraph, the narrator goes to a pornographic film which he describes to us.

Or another example—and here is where the book zapped me. Our narrator is taken from jail to a clinic, where he is given a nice clean bed and decides to sleep, finally:

I dreamed I was writing a poem in which two horses were whinnying. When I woke up, there they were, still whinnying, only this time outside the poem, a few steps a way, and I could mount them if I wanted to.

And then, for a few pages, Quiet Creature enters into a semi-bucolic reverie, as our hero lives another life, complete with farm, kids, a wife. Hay. I apply semi- to bucolic; sinister vibes underwrite every line so far of this novella. The poet doesn’t so much wake up out of this reverie as he leaves it to walk into another dream/nightmare.

More to come.

Books acquired, almost for their covers alone, 4.25.2016 (Elkin, Fine, Michaux)

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I swung by my favorite used bookstore this afternoon; it’s right near the grocery store and I needed to pick up some mint and some ricotta. I was hoping to pick up Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend at the bookstore. I started the audiobook of My Brilliant Friend today, after finishing the audiobook of Adrian Jones Pearson’s novel Cow Country  this weekend. (Full review of Cow Country forthcoming but a real quick review: great performance/reading of a very strange book which I enjoyed very much, but which I also suspect will have very limited appeal. Cow cult classic to come). But so anyway, I’m really digging the Ferrante, and decided I wanted to obtain a physical copy to reread passages (and maybe share some on this blog). My store had several copies of four of Ferrante’s novels–but no Friend. While scanning the section, my eye alighted (alit?) on a strange-looking hardback spine—Warren Fine’s Their Family. I turned it around and the cover…well, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Knopf, 1972—a few years before Gordon Lish was to become editor there, sure, but interesting bona fides I suppose. Fine does not seem to be beloved by anyone on the internet, and his books seem to have failed to go into second printings of any kind. The Fs are near the Es, and I glanced over the works of Mr. Stanley Elkin, who has his own section there, somehow. I finally broke through the second chapter of his novel The Franchiser this weekend (it’s all unattributed dialog, that chapter, sorta like Gaddis’s JR); I’m really digging The Franchiser now that I’ve tuned into the voice. (It also helps to not try reading it exclusively at night after too many bourbons or wines). Again, the spine of the novel looked interesting so I flipped The Dick Gibson Show around and, again, I knew I was gonna leave with it. Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle I found in the “Drugs” section—which I was not perusing (because I am no longer 19)—well I guess I was perusing it, but that’s only because it happens to be right next to this particular bookshop’s collection of Black Sparrow Press titles, which I always scan over. Anyway, the Michaux’s Miserable Miracle was turned face out; NYRB titles always deserve a quick scan, and the cover reminded me of a Cy Twombly painting. Flicking through it revealed a strange structure, full of marginal side notes and doodles and diagrams and drawings. And oh, it’s about a mescaline trip, I think. You can actually read it here, but this version is missing all the drawings and sidenotes.

Oh, and so then I forgot to go pick up the ricotta and the mint.

Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies (Book acquired, 4.16.2016; consumed 4.17.2016)

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I was a big fan of the last novella I read by Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (also from publisher And Other Stories, and also translated by Lisa Dillman). So I was psyched when his newest offering (in English translation) The Transmigration of Bodies arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters this weekend. I read the first half of Transmigration yesterday lying in the hammock, just enjoying the hell out of it. Herrera’s style condenses the mythic with the real; Transmigration begins with a surreal plague, flies buzzing over blood—or just some other filth?—and our (anti-)hero, a fixer who goes by The Redeemer. (Everyone in Transmigration gets a hardboiled name: The Dolphin, Three Times Blonde, Unruly, Neeyanderthal. Etc.). Anyway, the book isn’t out until July, so I’ll wait to do a full review until then, but here’s And Other Stories‘ blurb:

A plague has brought death to the city. Two feuding crime families with blood on their hands need our hard-boiled hero, The Redeemer, to broker peace. Both his instincts and the vacant streets warn him to stay indoors, but The Redeemer ventures out into the city’s underbelly to arrange for the exchange of the bodies they hold hostage.

Yuri Herrera’s novel is a response to the violence of contemporary Mexico. With echoes of Romeo and Juliet, Roberto Bolaño and Raymond Chandler, The Transmigration of Bodies is a noirish tragedy and a tribute to those bodies – loved, sanctified, lusted after, and defiled – that violent crime has touched.

Romeo and Juliet, Roberto Bolaño and Raymond Chandler” — yes, absolutely — and I would add Nicolas Winding Refn to that list. Herrera’s vivid neon noir is of a piece with Drive and Only God Forgives, and the grime here recalls his wonderful Pusher trilogy to me. I dig it.

The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde, featuring Illustrations from Paintings by James Hill (Book acquired, 3.25.2016)

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The Heritage Press collection The Short Stories of Oscar Wilde (1968), featuring paintings by James Hill.

Tom Clark stories (Book acquired, 4.09.2016)

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Extinction: A Radical History (Book acquired, 3.28.2016)

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I’ve been looking forward to this one. Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History is forthcoming from OR Books. Their blurb:

Some thousands of years ago, the world was home to an immense variety of large mammals. From wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers to giant ground sloths and armadillos the size of automobiles, these spectacular creatures roamed freely. Then human beings arrived. Devouring their way down the food chain as they spread across the planet, they began a process of voracious extinction that has continued to the present.

Headlines today are made by the existential threat confronting remaining large animals such as rhinos and pandas. But the devastation summoned by humans extends to humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies. Researchers generally agree that the current extinction rate is nothing short of catastrophic. Currently the earth is losing about a hundred species every day.

This relentless extinction, Ashley Dawson contends in a primer that combines vast scope with elegant precision, is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.

This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, Dawson argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system. To achieve this we need to transgress the boundaries between science, environmentalism and radical politics. Extinction: A Radical History performs this task with both brio and brilliance.

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe (Book acquired, 2.22.2016)

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Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer (in English translation by Sarah Prybus) is new in hardback this month from And Other Stories. Their blurb:

Award-winning journalist Wolfgang Bauer and photographer Stanislav Krupař were the first undercover reporters to document the journey of Syrian refugees from Egypt to Europe. Posing as English teachers in 2014, they were direct witnesses to the brutality of smuggler gangs, the processes of detainment and deportation, the dangers of sea-crossing on rickety boats, and the final furtive journey through Europe. Combining their own travels with other eyewitness accounts in the first book of reportage of its kind, Crossing the Sea brings to life both the systemic problems and the individual faces behind the crisis, and is a passionate appeal for more humanitarian refugee policies.

Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (Book acquired, 3.07.2016)

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 I picked up Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights yesterday. (I was browsing the “H, classics” for something else, which I did not find, but I found this). Here’s the beginning of Joan Didion’s 1979 review in The New York Times:

“I have always, all of my life, been looking for help from a man,” we are told near the beginning of Elizabeth Hardwick’s subtle new book. “It has come many times and many more than not. This began early.” . . . “Sleepless Nights” is a novel, but it is a novel in which the subject is memory and to which the “I” whose memories are in question is entirely and deliberately the author: we recognize the events and addresses of Elizabeth Hardwick’s life not only from her earlier work, but from the poems of her husband, the late Robert Lowell. We study in another light the rainy afternoons and dyed satin shoes and high-school drunkenness of the Kentucky adolescence, the thin coats and yearnings toward home of the graduate years at Columbia, the households in Maine and Europe and on Marlborough Street in Boston and West 67th Street in New York. We are presented the entire itinerary, shown all the punched tickets and transfers. The result is less a “story about” or “of” a life than a shattered meditation on it, a work as evocative and difficult to place as Claude Levi-Strauss’s “Tristes Tropiques,” which it oddly recalls. The author observes of her enigmatic narrative: “It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.”

This strikes an interesting note, a balance of Oriental diffidence and exquisite contempt, of irony and direct statement, that exactly expresses the sensibility at work in “Sleepless Nights.” “But after all, ‘I’ am a woman.” Triste Tropique indeed. By way of suggesting his own intention, Levi-Strauss quoted Chateaubriand: “Every man carries within himself a world made up of all that he has seen and loved, and it is to this world that he returns, incessantly.” In certain ways, the mysterious and somnambulistic “difference” of being a woman has been, over 35 years, Elizabeth Hardwick’s great subject, the tropic to which she has returned incessantly: it colored both of her early novels, “The Ghostly Lover” in 1945 and “The Simple Truth” in 1955, as well as many of the essays collected in 1962 as “A View of My Own” and all of those published in 1974 as “Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature.”

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure (Book acquired, 2.22.2016)

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I’m pretty excited about Hideo Furukawa’s Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure (new this month from Columbia University Press in English translation by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka). Columbia UP’s blurb:

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a multifaceted literary response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that devastated northeast Japan on March 11, 2011. The novel is narrated by Hideo Furukawa, who travels back to his childhood home near Fukushima after 3/11 to reconnect with a place that is now doubly alien. His ruminations conjure the region’s storied past, particularly its thousand-year history of horses, humans, and the struggle with a rugged terrain. Standing in the morning light, these horses also tell their stories, heightening the sense of liberation, chaos, and loss that accompanies Furukawa’s rich recollections. A fusion of fiction, history, and memoir, this book plays with form and feeling in ways reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn yet draws its own, unforgettable portrait of personal and cultural dislocation.

Read an excerpt here.

Three Books

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Professor Noah’s Spaceship by Brian Wilsdsmith. First edition hardback by Oxford University Press, 1980; distributed through Macmillan Book Clubs. Design, cover, and art by Brian Wildsmith. This book is too beautiful.

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See Again, Say Again by Antonio Frasconi. First edition oversized hardback published by Hacourt, Brace and World, 1964. Cover design, fonts, and woodcuts by Antonio Frasconi.

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Do You Hear What I Hear? by Helen Borten. First edition hardback reprint by Flying Eye Books, a division of Nobrow; the book was originally published in 1960. Illustration and design by Helen Borten. Nowbrow kindly sent me a copy of Do You Hear What I Hear?—the book is beautiful, the text is lovely—Borten’s technique is to represent sound—or rather the feeling of sound (which is to say, the feeling of the feeling of sound) through language and art. Like any great children’s book, Do You Hear What I Hearis best read out loud, and my five-year-old son loved it so much that I had to read it again to him immediately after the first reading. We’ve read it a few times since then. Great stuff.

He Wants (Book acquired, some time in February 2016)

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British author Alison Moore’s novel He Wants is getting a release on this side of the Atlantic from Canadian publisher Biblioasis.

From novelist Rachel Cusk’s review of He Wants two years ago in The Guardian:

Following her Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse, Alison Moore’s artistically pleasing second novel is a sort of Midlands Death in Venice, a story of ageing and thwarted desire in which a man drifts away from his moorings into Dionysian impulses, after a lifetime spent serving the values of the humdrum contemporary community in which he lives.

He Wants evokes a world that is purposefully pedestrian – the Dionysian impulses pertain to halves of shandy and the desire to taste a Swiss liqueur called Goldschläger – but its themes of self-realisation, identity and mortality are grand enough. Moore’s protagonist, a widower RE teacher who is approaching retirement, is intimately captured in the midst of a disintegration brought about by the loss of the structures that have thus far formed and maintained his personality: work, marriage and certain relationships that have created or reinforced his sense of existence.

William Golding’s The Inheritors (Book acquired, 2.19.2016, and pretty much finished this week)

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I picked up William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors last week on a colleague’s recommendation. It’s the story of a band of Neanderthals and their eventual encounter with predatory Homo sapiens. Golding’s Neanderthals seem to possess a near-telepathic power–they share “pictures,” comprising memory, sentiment, words, and ideas. The Neanderthals live fully in the moment, often struggling to recall “pictures” of past events. The viewpoint character Lok is something of a holy fool. His quest to retrieve a missing comrade often finds him laughing in terror.

Golding’s prose is, for the most part, an evocation of concrete contours—sure, there’s a metaphysical dimension to these Neanderthals (they worship Oa, a female spirit)—but Golding’s concern is primarily with capturing how the physical world might be understood through the senses and then converted into “pictures.” A longish passage to showcase Golding’s technique:

The bushes twitched again. Lok steadied by the tree and gazed. A head and a chest faced him, half-hidden. There were white bone things behind the leaves and hair. The man had white bone things above his eyes and under the mouth so that his face was longer than a face should be. The man turned sideways in the bushes and looked at Lok along his shoulder. A stick rose upright and there was a lump of bone in the middle. Lok peered at the stick and the lump of bone and the small eyes in the bone things over the face. Suddenly Lok understood that the man was holding the stick out to him but neither he nor Lok could reach across the river. He would have laughed if it were not for the echo of the screaming in his head. The stick began to grow shorter at both ends. Then it shot out to full length again.

The dead tree by Lok’s ear acquired a voice.

“Clop!”

His ears twitched and he turned to the tree. By his face there had grown a twig: a twig that smelt of other, and of goose, and of the bitter berries that Lok’s stomach told him he must not eat. This twig had a white bone at the end. There were hooks in the bone and sticky brown stuff hung in the crooks. His nose examined this stuff and did not like it. He smelled along the shaft of the twig. The leaves on the twig were red feathers and reminded him of goose. He was lost in a generalized astonishment and excitement.

Lok encounters a new kind of being (a human) wielding a new technology (a bow and poisoned arrows), and tries to fit them into his schema—but his “pictures” are insufficient. The concrete, sense-driven passage concludes in the abstraction of “astonishment and excitement.”

I’m about forty pages from the end of The Inheritors, and I’ve enjoyed it so far. It’s something like a sci-fi novel, really, or even something in the mode of Robbe-Grillet’s nouveau roman. Good stuff.

Why the hell did I buy William Vollmann’s Argall? (Book acquired, 2.12.2016)

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I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

First, I bought an ebook of William T. Vollmann’s really really long new novel The Dying Grass a few weeks ago.

I bought this ebook rather late at night, after rather many drinks, against rather better judgment—or, rather, no judgment. If I can reconstruct my thought process: I think I rationalized paying so much money for an electronic file would like, necessitate a commitment to reading The Dying Grass that I might not feel if it were, say, a review copy, or a copy obtained via store credit at my favorite local book shop. Well I’ve been reading the ebook, putting a little edent in it in little eincrements, but it’s still damn long, and our narrator William the Blind can be awfully opaque at times (not to mention the shifts in narrative).

Anyway, I’ve been reading the ebook, which does, I think (?) a nice job of preserving Vollmann’s occasional indulgence in Whitmanesque free verse (prose) style—but well, I sort of want the physical thing too. So I went by my local bookshop in the hopes of securing a copy (and also pick up some Valentine’s books for my kiddoes). No luck in the new hardback section, so they directed me to Historical Fiction, an area I rarely browsed. No luck for The Dying Grass, but there was a hardback copy of Argall there. All 736 pages of it.

Reader, I acquired it.

Why? I don’t know. I love the faux-Elizabethan prose that Pynchon deployed in Mason & Dixon (and I tolerated Barth’s in The Sot-Weed Factor)—and Vollmann’s has a different flavor that’s intriguing (and difficult). The story, the base story, is the Pocahontas story, which in Vollmann’s telling might go past the Pocahontas myth (more than Malick, more than Disney).

But when oh when am I going to get to the thing?!

I’ll close with a selection from Vollmann’s own review of his novel;  the review originally ran in the October 7, 2001 edition of The Los Angeles Times, and was later collected in Expelled from Eden:

“Argall,” whose story emblematizes a personified and of course feminine Virginia, is no better or worse than any of the other “Seven Dreams.” That is why nobody reads “Argall.” No one looks for “Argall.” No one can find “Argall.” Good riddance, say I. To quote from “Argall” itself (the reference is to a fellow who’s searching for Pocahontas’ skeleton), “had the critic found her, what would he have done? Coffined her, borne her back seaward to some brown Virginian marsh crowned by grey and yellow weeds? Locked her into his cabinet of curiosities? All he discovered was a menagerie of human and animal remnants. What power could have swallowed her so thoroughly, but ooze?”

Enough. Holding our noses, let’s try to take this menagerie of remnants on its own terms.

This book’s first sin, as you might have already gathered from the foregoing, consists in its so-called Elizabethan language, whose archaisms, variant spellings and preposterous figures of speech substantially impede the reader in any attempt to envision the ball in any uniform fashion. Here is a sentence plucked at random from the mess: “He search’d for an issue of fair water, there to make another well, for he misdoubted him not that the river they drunk from was somehow tainted with disease, yet could discover no convenient place to make his diggings.” Much time and trouble would have been saved, had this so-called novelist written what he meant: “In order to get more healthful water, he intended to dig a well, but couldn’t.” The arch apostrophe, the ignorant substitution of “drunk” for “drank,” the ink-wasting double negation, well, really all this makes me crave to spew.

American Candide (Book acquired and consumed this past week, like early-mid February 2016)

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So I ate this one up: Mahendra Singh’s American Candide is terribly funny, except when you stop and think about the satire and why the satire works, and you think, Aw hell, this is terribly sad. I consumed the thing in more or less three sittings. There’s a cliché, right—Better than it has any right to be—I mean, this thing could fall flat on its face, this transposition of Voltaire’s Candide to 21st century America (excuse me, Freedonia)—but Singh’s prose is adroitly devastating; like Candide, he offers a subject, a verb, and then pivots the object or next clause in some darkly satirical direction. Fun fun fun smart smart smart. My only quibble is that I wish Singh’s marvelous illustrations (with nods to Gustave Dore and William Blake, among others, I’m sure) we’re reproduced on full pages.

Back cover blurb:

Voltaire’s most famous literary creation, Candide, is now rebooted for the better-than-best of all possible worlds, 21st-century America. The globe-trotting misadventures of American Candide and his wingnut tutor, Dr. Pangloss, his totally hot BBW Cunegonde plus sundry suicide bombers, illuminati global warmers, insurance cults, sex-crazed illegal aliens and even the Senate Sub-Committee on Homeland Furnishings provides sufficient belly laughs to make exile, destitution, rape, murder and torture into something that happens to other, mostly foreign people, thank God.

 From the jungle slums of darkest Africa to the lily-white McMansions of American suburbia, the human condition wreaks havoc upon Candide and his friends as they search for an American Dream being held against its will in an undisclosed location. College-boy sissies will call it a Juvenalian satire upon America’s penchant for mindless optimism and casual racism but Candide says it’s really ‘rage against the rage, Voltaire-dude!’

United States of Japan (Book acquired, 2.02.2016)

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Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan — a “spiritual sequel to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle” — -is forthcoming from Angry Robot. Their blurb:

Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons — a group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest terrorist tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something…kind of. He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.d

A Splendid Savage (Book acquired, 1.29.2016)

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Steve Kemper’s biography of Frederick Russell Burnham, A Splendid Savage, is new in hardback from Norton. I interviewed Kemper a few years ago about A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, his biography of Heinrich Barth.

Norton’s blurb for A Splendid Savage:

A life of adventure and military daring on violent frontiers across the American West, Africa, Mexico, and the Klondike.

Frederick Russell Burnham’s (1861–1947) amazing story resembles a newsreel fused with a Saturday matinee thriller. One of the few people who could turn his garrulous friend Theodore Roosevelt into a listener, Burnham was once world-famous as “the American scout.” His expertise in woodcraft, learned from frontiersmen and Indians, helped inspire another friend, Robert Baden-Powell, to found the Boy Scouts. His adventures encompassed Apache wars and range feuds, booms and busts in mining camps around the globe, explorations in remote regions of Africa, and death-defying military feats that brought him renown and high honors. His skills led to his unusual appointment, as an American, to be Chief of Scouts for the British during the Boer War, where his daring exploits earned him the Distinguished Service Order from King Edward VII.

After a lifetime pursuing golden prospects from the deserts of Mexico and Africa to the tundra of the Klondike, Burnham found wealth, in his sixties, near his childhood home in southern California. Other men of his era had a few such adventures, but Burnham had them all. His friend H. Rider Haggard, author of many best-selling exotic tales, remarked, “In real life he is more interesting than any of my heroes of romance.”

Among other well-known individuals who figure in Burnham’s story are Cecil Rhodes and William Howard Taft, as well as some of the wealthiest men of the day, including John Hays Hammond, E. H. Harriman, Henry Payne Whitney, and the Guggenheim brothers.

Failure and tragedy streaked his life as well, but he was endlessly willing to set off into the unknown, where the future felt up for grabs and values worth dying for were at stake. Steve Kemper brings a quintessential American story to vivid life in this gripping biography.

Jowhor Ile’s And After Many Days (Book acquired, 1.27.2016)

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Jowhor Ile’s novel After Many Days is new in hardback next month from Tim Duggan Books/Penguin Random House. Their blurb: