What Are ‘Barbarian’ Days?

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

william finnegan, barbarian days

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:


new july books


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

fox and i, catherine raven
Spiegel & Grau


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


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

alexandra huynh
Jennifer Vargas Esquivel


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

hakeem oluseyi
Hakeem Oluseyi


“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


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


“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



“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

california book club bookplates

Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.


Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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