(Drawing of Lawrence DiStasi by Vanessa Waring)
A monthly interview with Bolinas Library readers.
Lawrence DiStasi is a long time Bolinas Resident and author. His most recent book is Earth Breath: Selected Blogs, 2009-2006. He is also the author of Mal Occhio (evil eye): The Underside of Vision; Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II; Esty: A Novel/Memoir; and Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became ‘Enemies’ During World War II.
What are you reading now? What’s in your pile of books? Do you read one book at a time or several?
My Italian Bulldozer, Alexander McCall Smith. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein. Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word, Matthew Battles, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker. I just finished The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts, Philip Kitcher and Evelyn Fox Keller. I used to read one book at a time, all the way through, but more lately, I’ve been a multiple book reader.
Do you like to read paper or ebooks? Audio books?
Paper always. Don’t like ebooks. Don’t drive enough for audio.
Are you a browser in the library or do you know in advance what you are looking for? Do you browse the library catalog or pick specific books? If so, how do you find out about them?
I usually find books featured in new fiction or new non-fiction. Then often I follow up with more books by that author. Also books I hear about on KPFA and in book reviews.
Do you have a favorite genre? Any genres that you never read?
What was your reading experience as a child? A favorite book?
I read anything I could get my hands on. Lots of animal books: The Black Stallion, dog books.
Were there any books that made a big impression on you in your 20s?
Most of what I read in college. Having always thought to be pre-med, I had never read serious world literature before. So Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mann, Joyce, Steinbeck, Freud, Kafka made big impressions.
Is there a famous author that you ever wanted to meet? Maybe back in time?
Not really. Maybe Tolstoy. Maybe Beckett. Would like to have been in Paris in the 1920s if I could have been a writer then.
What’s the last book that you recommended to a friend?
Why We Sleep. I think it’s revelatory about so many aspects of sleep we never knew, especially what’s revealed by neuroscience. I’ve also recommended The Betrothed to many, and taught it here recently. Great, almost unknown-in-America novel. What I often do is write blogs about books I’ve read that impressed me or should be known. Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, for example.
Is there a book that you always meant to read but still haven’t. Any highly rated books that you thought were over rated?
First, not really. I’ve caught up with all the books I neglected to read fully in college. Finally read War and Peace carefully when I taught the course—probably the greatest novel ever written. Actually, I re-read the Brothers Karamazov a few years ago, and was a little disappointed. I had thought it was the greatest novel ever when I read it in college. Not so much anymore. Same with much of Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe. Doesn’t hold up too well. One surprise recently was Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. Really a good piece of work, but looked down upon in English departments. I’m not sure why. I also recently read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, I was impressed with some of the risks he takes, but I wasn’t sure he was able to bring it off successfully.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently? Let’s start with fiction.
I’ve read so many. All good in different ways. But for fiction, I’d say My Struggle (the whole series of 6 books) by Karl Knausgard is the best thing I’ve read in a while, and the funny thing is, it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly. He’s not a great stylist, but his narration and concerns just grab you. Nearly as good is Elena Ferrante’s Naples trilogy, starting with My Brilliant Friend, real, honest and gripping.
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land, about Bulgaria, a country we never hear about, was pretty good for a kind of mystery yarn. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West was also gripping in the sense it gives of what is happening right now and will happen more often very soon: mass migration.
I also loved A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, for its style, its sort of zen underpinning, its wacky young character, its take on modern Japan. And finally, Han Kang, Human Acts, about the horrors of the student uprising in South Korea in 1980.
As for non-fiction, Why We Sleep is still fresh in mind. Terrific material and insights into something we all do all the time. The Color of Law, too, for its stunning revelations of the US government’s complicity and responsibility for segregated housing in this country. Infuriating. Not de facto at all; fully de jure. I also enjoyed Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright; being a practitioner myself. I thought it had a clarity you don’t usually find, especially from a modern psychological point of view. I also liked John Gennari’s Flavor and Soul: Italian America at its African American Edge. My problem with it is that I’m not at all sure that pop culture deserves the close inspection he gives it; but for what it is, it’s good and path breaking. And out of that book, I got to Louise DeSalvo’s Crazy in the Kitchen: Foods, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family—a really refreshing take on the stereotype of Italian Americans and food. In her house, food was a point of conflict between a grandmother who was old-school and a mother who wanted to cook American when she cooked at all. The result was the kind of craziness we all know about, but few hear about in the standard memoirs. Oh, and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, about the radical right’s long-range plan to take over the country, mostly accomplished. Deeply disturbing. And Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl—a great take on the fascinating mysteries of botany or geo-botany by a woman who practices the science.
What books do you return to? Are there any books you like to re-read?
I re-read Shakespeare periodically, regularly. It always stands up no matter how often you’ve read any play. I think I’ve read King Lear 5 or 6 times; never flags. I’ve also re-read War and Peace several times, and watched the BBC 14-part production too. I can never tire of that.
What kind of characters draw you in as a reader?
I can’t really say, though mostly its characters that have a quirky take on reality. Characters who are thinkers. I like fiction that has some depth, some philosophical depth to it. That’s the main problem with American fiction I think: it’s sort of bad form to write books that have deep thought in them. American writers have to hide that stuff. European authors feel no such constraint; readers are expected to know the literary and philosophical tradition they’ve been raised in. That’s liberating to a writer—to be able to expect some knowledge from a reader.
When and where do you like to read? Describe your ideal reading experience.
I read everywhere. But routinely I read afternoons, ideally after I’ve got some good writing work done in the early part of the day. Reading is, in a real way, part of my work. So I don’t think of it as leisure; it’s what I do.
It’s my favorite pastime. I love to get caught up in a new book—the enthusiasm, the sense of discovery, of finding a mind that’s worth listening to and following, getting caught up in a life, a time. And I think reading is really the best way to learn anything. I’m always disappointed in documentaries that purport to teach something. Somehow the material just doesn’t stick. Reading gives you more time to dwell on new revelations, on what you’ve just read, or read it over. No comparison. And books made into films are almost always disappointing. Reading forces you to imagine scenes and characters. Film does all that for you, and too often violates the image you’ve created yourself.