What Are ‘Barbarian’ Days?

This week’s California Book Club newsletter: William Finnegan, Alexandra Huynh, and James Ellroy.

william finnegan, barbarian days
IDRIS SOLOMON

The title of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is largely inspired by a phrase that appears in Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk and is featured in the memoir’s epigraph: “He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page.”

Barbarian Days—which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss at its July 15 gathering (at 5:30 p.m.)—charts Finnegan’s enduring passion for surfing, from his childhood in California and Hawaii to his adult years, as he sought out the perfect wave across the world. Finnegan’s autobiography is replete with delightful and enchanting details of the most formative waves he’s encountered and the nitty-gritty mechanics of riding them.

Barbarian Days attempts to capture the raw feeling of those “barbaric days”—the electric euphoria and luminous difficulty of surfing—while also being wary of its ability to do so. The project is a remarkable threefold acknowledgment that some experiences cannot be reduced to words, that experience alone is enough (i.e., there is no need for grand or mawkish flourishes), and that it is still noble to try to trace the shape of near-ineffable periods of our lives. “I watched the tattered pages float away in a glassy lagoon. I closed my eyes,” Finnegan writes. “I felt the weight of unmapped worlds, unborn language. This was what I was chasing: not the exotic, but a broad-beamed understanding of what is what.”

Even as Finnegan braids together his experience of surfing to arrive at complicated topics of memory and what it means to be in the world, he reminds us that surfing is not merely a metaphor or lens but that very thing—a practice that allows for a kind of enlightenment and one that, in many ways, brought Finnegan to writing.

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Finnegan on July 15, click here. I also invite you to join your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about Barbarian Days:

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new july books
Alta

JULY RELEASES

Check out our list of highly anticipated books coming out this month by writers from California and the West, including Matt Bell’s Appleseed, Michelle Richmond’s The Wonder Test, and many more. Alta


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Spiegel & Grau

UNEXPECTED PAIRING

In a review, William Deverell considers how Catherine Raven’s Fox & I balances redemption and solitude with “the darkness that lurks and lingers.” Alta


recommended surfing books
Alta

RECOMMENDED READING

Have you been enjoying Barbarian Days? Here are seven titles that pair well with the memoir. Alta


alexandra huynh
Jennifer Vargas Esquivel

YOUTH POET LAUREATE

Congratulations to Alexandra Huynh, who will become California’s next youth poet laureate, following Amanda Gorman’s extraordinary term. Los Angeles Times


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Hakeem Oluseyi

REMARKABLE TALE

“The stars can save you: If you can really see them in all their beauty and mystery, they can lift you up and give you solace in even the worst times,” Adam Frank says of Hakeem Oluseyi’s memoir, A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars. NPR


widespread panic, james ellroy
Knopf

HOLLYWOOD’S UNDERBELLY

In a review, Louis Bayard describes how James Ellroy’s latest novel, Widespread Panic, offers a “retro” tale of Hollywood’s underbelly, full of corrupt cops, grifts, and crime. Washington Post


twilight man, liz brown
Penguin

UNTOLD LOVE STORY

“She avoids forced pity or rendering Post and Clark as tragic heroes. She leaves them pure and simple,” Vesper North says in a review of Liz Brown’s Twilight Man. Los Angeles Review of Books


bolinas
LITERARY HUB

ACTIVIST POET TAKEOVER

“Imagine a city of about 500 people basically run by poets. No, it was not as dysfunctional as the image that just flashed into your brains,” Lytle Shaw says of the impact and legacy of Bolinas, where a group of poets cultivated community. Literary Hub


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Alta

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