Books I Read February 1 2017

A month into 2017 – Jesus, that went by in a flash, right? On the one hand, I am objectively among the most fortunate people, not only in the world today, but in the very history of the species, having the benefit of bug free linens, regular meals, and high proof alcohol. On the other hand you get to looking at the gray sky and the gray buildings and the gray people who populate them, and you gray also, no less gray, not even to yourself, and you start to think, hey, maybe we deserve what’s coming to us.

Days like that, I book a one way ticket somewhere. I’m out of the country for the foreseeable, and I cut the throat of my social media account like a suckling pig before a feast, so I guess I’ll see you when I see you. Keep your head down and your eyes sharp in the interim.

Chaos and Night by Henry de Motherlant -- About a Spanish anarchist living in Paris, having fled his country after the Civil War. This is a bone bleak depiction of a wasted life, in essence, of an enormously bitter man who antagonizes everyone close to him out of a deep-seeded personality disorder masquerading as an exaggerated sense of moral purity. Motherlant (no way in hell that was his real name) seems to be one of those infant terrible sorts who everyone grew to hate, a rightist in the Ezra Pound mold whom my introduction suggests was also a pederast (though I confess a quick internet search offered no evidence of this – any French folk who can enlighten me on this point, please do), and there is something rather straw-mannish here about writing so vicious a character study of a political enemy. That said, it is effective (if rather one dimensional), and the miserable final scene, w/ (SPOILER ALERT) our protagonist dying pointlessly, alone and unmorned is neatly done, though I confess I can’t actually imagine recommending it to anyone.
 


Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex -- I very much admire the sort of person who is able to start a book, realize they don’t like it, and not finish it. I’m not that sort of person. Even back when I was the sort of person who didn’t finish every book that they started I never seemed to give up for good reasons like I didn’t like the book, but rather for bad reasons, like the book was too hard, or I had impulse purchased another one. A friend gave this one to me intending an unexpected kindness, but in fact it just exhausted time that might have been better spent on other things. Thanks a bunch, Andy. Thanks loads.

Anyway, there’s nothing really wrong with this other than that I am the world’s worst language student and so most of the text, dealing with peculiar aspects of the Yiddish language, was largely lost on me. I found bits of it interesting in the abstract -- the pessimistic soul of Yiddish, its naked tribal allegiance, its curse construction – but this was tempered by the author’s Borscht Belt humor, with a lot of random pop cultural references in lieu of actual jokes, like being cornered by your least favorite uncle at a Bar Mitzvah. Still, I have found myself greeting strangers with ‘Vos Macht a Yid’ lately, so that’s something at least.

Chocky by John Wyndham -- About a child’s imaginary play mate who is not that. This is very much that early sort of sci-fi novel where you really don’t need much besides a modestly interesting premise, but it’s got an interesting English low-keyness which contrasts well with the broader American version, and the writing, while not on par to some of the other things on this list, didn’t make me physically ill. Better than anything I’ve read by Dick, I’ll tell you that much.

Last Words from Montmarte by Qiu Miaojin -- As a rule, ‘the Emperor has no clothes’ should be your review of last resort – not to say that the emperor is never wearing no clothes, sometimes the emperor is legitimately naked as a jay bird, but a lot of the time it’s as the magic tailors promised, and you’re just a country rube who can’t figure out the cut of his suit. What I’m saying is, before you decide a book is shit you should make good and god damn sure that the problem doesn’t exist, as I’m told the tech folk say, between keyboard and chair. And thus I gave a lot of thought to this one, which appears to be held in high regard and yet I confess to feeling was really, really not very good.

I began initially sympathetic to the premise – consisting of 20 ‘letters’ written by a Taiwanese woman in Paris to her ex-lover, the back promised not only a torrent of insight into the nature of love but hidden structural complexities (the letters can be read in any order! Characters appear and disappear and take on new names and genders!). I confess I found neither. Here is the thing – this is not a well-written book. By this I don’t only mean that the language is not in and of itself aesthetically pleasing, although with a few exceptions (some of the physical descriptions of romance are reasonably powerful) it is mostly not; what I mean is that the quality of thought, revealed word by word and line by line, is not particularly high. This really does read like a love letter from a wounded person to the person who they feel has wounded them – which is to say that it is a lot of soupy-sounding tautologies and unrefined emotion. As to the relatively minor structural flourishes – at one point the narrative seems to switch to a series of letters written by the protagonists lover to a sort of heroic self-image of the protagonist, which is not a bad touch, the spurned lover imagining themselves the recipient of her ex’s undying affection -- I get the sense that most of the people who enjoy this book do not enjoy it despite rather than because of them. That is to say that I think most fans essentially disagree with me about the quality of the prose/thought, seeing the commentary as being valuable on a surface level. Which, fine, fair enough, but if you open this book and read any random sentence or paragraph I suspect you’ll come away feeling, like I did, that these really aren’t worth your trouble.

It’s hard not to feel that a great deal of the popularity of this book stems from issues unrelated to the text itself. Qui Miaojin was, I gather, one of the first people to write openly about lesbianism in Mandarin, and her having committed suicide shortly after this book was released, an act which dovetails neatly with her protagonist’s mindset, certainly adds the book an added piquancy. But in and of itself, I’m gonna say hard pass.

Also, as a quick side note, while the letters can be read in any order to a greater degree than a novel with a conventional story, there was a clear narrative tempo to the text as presented, and thus one of the underlying hooks of the novel is kind of bullshit.

Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge -- Victor Serge had it worse than you and wrote about it better, a professional revolutionary who’s unflinching moral honesty put him just below Trotsky on Stalin’s hit list. Inspired by the 8 months Serge spent in prison, and the two years he spent exiled to a distant eastern town, Midnight in the Century is about that moment when the early, heroic supporters of the Russian revolution began to realize they were defeated, that their extraordinary efforts would be wasted and worse than wasted in service of a totalitarian state. It is a grim book but not one without hope, and in that it was a worthwhile thing for me to read this month. My personal feeling is that Serge’s later, more stylistically complex work (particularly the truly, truly marvelous Unforgiving Years) are superior to this, but it is a question of degrees of excellence. Serge’s relevance as a writer seems to only grow with the passing of the years, and I can recommend him to anyone looking at a bad situation, knowing it will get worse, and trying to figure out their place inside of it. Which is to say, all of us.



The Land Breakers by John Ehle -- Yeah, excellent. About the growth of ‘civilization’ in an untamed land, an adventure novel that succeeds on its own merits – there is some great bear hunting here – and also as a larger meditation about early America and humankind itself. Well-written, exciting and with considerable moral depth, a whole-hearted recommendation.

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall – A weird, disturbing, compelling novella, about two white American lost in the Australian outback who are saved from starvation by an Aboriginal youth on his eponymous journey. Small but lovely, compelling and evocative, recommend.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy -- Wow. Just jaw dropping. One of the best things I’ve read in a very long time, a masterpiece of 20th century literature. It reminded me a bit of Saul Bellow but more confined, more neatly drawn, less desperate in demonstrating its own genius. It’s the kind of book that I would talk about for a long time in the back of a bar, or while walking along a windy street with someone, gesticulating wildly, but that I find I’m not sure I have much to say about vis-à-vis a capsule review. A perfect novel, recommended in the highest terms.

Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker -- Hoo! Excellent! Wait, this is the same Baker who wrote the likewise excellent but otherwise in tone, structure, character and story entirely dissimilar Cassandra at the Wedding? Weird! Weird world! You haven’t even written one stellar novel, and she wrote two! WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?

Right, well, basically every jazz cliché was, so I gather, created in this book, so much so that later generations (this came out in 38) of Jazz aficionados were prone to look back on it with some contempt. Which is too bad, because it’s the rare sort of book which inspired a lot of imitators but still holds its original power. Baker understands jazz as an art form, writes about it intelligently, but more than that she understands what it is to be driven by the act of creation beyond the capacity of the human organism, to focus the entirety of your existence on the single, pointless activity of art, art for its own sake, art for its creators sake, art irrelevant to the audience. I’ll admit I’m just pretentious enough to feel like it had some relevance to my own life and trade.

Also, that’s a hell of a last line. Damn, but this woman could write.

 

Books I Read January 23 2017

The warmest January in recorded history was a mixed bag for yours truly, between general existential despair and my predictably poor slate of decisions. On the other hand, hell if I didn’t read some fire the last three weeks, as detailed below…

Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man by R. Ananthamurthy – Praneshacharyah is a righteous man, by the standard of his caste and creed, a pious Brahmin who’s religious and moral attainments have gained him wide fame. He is the leader of a colony of other Brahmin, mostly rather unlikable people as people tend to be. Far the worst of them is Naranappa, a blasphemer and troublemaker, whose death throws the community into chaos. Though he turned on his caste, violating constantly the tenants of his faith, still Naranappa was a Brahmin, and before his corpse can be immolated it needs to undergo a series of rituals, which only his fellow Brahmin can perform, the execution of which is at once a moral necessity and itself blasphemous in so far as Naranappa had fouled himself with alcohol and unclean living. His struggles to thread this needle drive Praneshacharyah towards madness, forcing him to reconsider essential aspects of his existence, all as the plague begins to ravage the land around him. There are no easy answers here, and while the hypocrisies of the Brahmin colony are cruelly skewered, still Praneshacharyah is a fundamentally sympathetic character, struggling to find clarity in a world which refuses it, seeking after righteousness without success. One can easily see why this is considered a classic of non-Western literature, dealing with particularly Indian concerns in a way that will have universal resonance to any serious reader. Excellent, well worth your time.



The Unknown Masterpiece by Honore de Balzac -- Fascinating, yeah. Two short stories about art, the eponymous of which seems to preface the development of non-representative visual art by about 70 years. Yeah, Balzac, I guess I can see why people keep talking about this guy, apart from the pun.



The Gallery by John Horne Burns -- Interesting. Burns worked in intelligence during WWII, and his job appears largely to have been trying unsuccessfully to keep his fellow soldiers from selling their equipment and rations to the starving Italian population which surrounded them. In this curiously structured novel – consisting mostly of sketches of characters that might have been found in Naples during the US occupation, smugglers, down on their luck GIs, syphilis victims, arrogant officers, club owners, etc. – Burns presents a vision of the war which seems utterly unfamiliar, miserable and resolutely unheroic, the mindless destruction of an ancient civilization by the brute force of modernity, and the human wreckage left behind. A closeted homosexual, Burns also offers a distinct view into the gay subculture which (flourished? Existed?) around the army at that time. His experience provides some really fascinating insights, and he’s a skilled writer, but he was also like 25 when he wrote this, and it reads like it. He tries to do to much, and actually one gets the sense that this would have been more effective if it had eschewed the peculiar format for a straighter narrative. It’s not at all bad, but it’s also pretty miserable and quite difficult, and so I can only offer a sort of mixed-recommendation.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman -- To my mind Gaiman is a talented epigone, reworking the writing of better authors into a package more acceptable to your average reader. This isn’t to say I don’t like him – I do like him, albeit kind of grudgingly. His prose is generally not terrible, and he has an undeniable talent for the sort of throw away fantastical bits which I love (here, for instance, the bucket itself, and the broken toys, that sort of thing). That said, to me there can be no serious comparison between say, Little, Big and American Gods, or for that matter The Jungle Book and The Graveyard Book. Gaiman’s imagination runs within a comfortably modest preserve, never really piercing genre conceits, nor confusing the reader with complex language. Where Gaiman’s genius lies – and it can only be called genius – is in the art of self-promotion. For most of his vast sea of readers, Gaiman has come to be irreparably confused with be Morpheus, Dream Lord etc. of the Sandman (still his best work, IMHO). There is a certain grandeur to this – Gaiman had a dream and made the world believe it. That is no mean feat, and as an honest man I tip my hat to him.

Anyway, on to the book. It’s a work of mediocrity. There’s not much getting around that. Gaiman is in the privileged position of being able to get the market to accept formats which less popular writers would never be able to shove across, in this case passing off a long-ish novella as a full novel, a fairly rare structure for a story and one that is useful in keeping the reader a bit unmoored. The plot is sketch-like in its simplicity -- boy enters wardrobe (or neighbors farm, in our case), endangers himself through foolishness, must be saved – and it moves along at a brisk pace. And although the whole thing is a bit deus ex machina, with each new event, creature, spell and counterspell being revealed more or less at the moment, still I basically felt it was effective enough as an adventure story. But the framing device – about Gaiman going back to his childhood home, and nostalgia, and art, and etc, mostly fell quite flat for me. I kept stopping at lines and thinking, ‘that’s remarkably unclever’, or even, ‘no, that just isn’t true at all.’ There’s just so much Goddamn excess sentimentality, I couldn’t get past it.

On the other hand it’s only like 150 pages, and it wasn’t like an entirely unpleasant go, so if you can snatch it up for not the cover price (which is just unreasonable given the length of the book) you could do worse for a pleasant afternoon idyll.

Gabriele D'Annunzio by John Woodhouse -- I’d been doing nothing but fiction for a few weeks, and I wanted to shake it up with something fact based and concrete, and I’ve got this friend talking up D’Annunzio, and I saw this randomly and picked it up. But I never actually read any of D’Annunzio’s writing, which in retrospect is an odd way to be introduced to the life of someone who, despite a vibrant but essentially trivial political existence, was primarily a writer. Anyway, yeah, D’Annunzio was a really, really terrible person, and I came away from this book really wanting to smack him in that fat, bald head of his with a shovel. There seems to be a stronger case than I appreciated for seeing him as the link between actual Nietzschean thought and the fascist gibberish which Mussollini gifted, with such disastrous intent, to Hitler himself. As to the book itself, it’s not great. I gather that these days D’Annunzio is mostly famous for his peculiar sexual appetites, and that there is something of an academic cottage industry in Italy consisting of chronicling his exploits, and that Woodhouse himself is reacting against this by writing a deliberately dry text. The language itself is workmanlike but uninspired, and while I can appreciate a biographer wanting to avoid too much overt moralizing (especially on such a controversial figure), but the result is a text which seems to consist of recitations of concrete facts about D’Annunzio’s life, without much of an effort to tie him to the larger intellectual currents of his age. I’m honestly not exactly sure who this would appeal to, in so far as your average reader will be bored and any D’Annunzio scholars will likely already be familiar with the events herein.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami – Ooooh! Ooooh! This was a nasty one, damn. Kenji is an aimless 20 year old who eeks out a living taking foreign tourists on tours of Tokyo’s sex clubs and brothels. Frank is his newest customer, a terrifying, sympathetic American who…well, you can probably put it together by the cover art and the first couple of sentences. This is a brutal existential noir, Kenji as the everyman forced to stare at the bleak heart of modern Japanese society. It is…not for the faint of heart, and even horror fans are likely to find some of this prose too much for them. Recommendation wise, I’ll put it this way – if this is the kind of thing you want to read, I would go ahead and read it. That is to say, it delivers on what it promises.

The Town and The Mansion By William Faulkner – Let me preface this by saying, on the extremely off chance that someone from Vintage International reads this, whoever wrote the back copy of this should be yelled at, fired, and then run out of town on a fucking rail. HOW FUCKING STUPID ARE YOU TO SPOIL THE END OF THIS ENTIRE TRILOGY ON THE BACK COVER OF THE BOOK. Seriously, I want to find this person and beat them upside the head with something (assuming they’re a man of appropriate beating age.)

End of rant. Right. So, I’m going to just review both of these together, since I read them one after the other and my thoughts apply to both. Faulkner’s prose is, for my soon-to-be-rapidly-depreciating-US-dollar, about as good as you’re going to find. It’s like jumping into cold water, painful at first, and then innervating – the compulsive sentences rolling downward, the bits that are deliberately left unsaid, the clever obfuscations, the profane jokes. And his plotting is fiendishly clever, something which you one very rarely finds oneself saying about ‘literary’ writers. In his big reveals, in his nested secrets and sudden murders, there is a whiff of the genre ghetto to Faulkner (no surprise he wrote the screenplay for Big Sleep, even if he kind of fucked the pooch on the ending). And both of these qualities are on display in these two, the second and third books in the Snopes Trilogy, which details the life of one Flem Snopes, an amoral backwoods savage with a genius for a sharp trading and a desire to attain respectability.

I devoured these, laughed loudly at them in bars, kept yelling at acquaintances about it. And yet…well, obviously, when one is reading one of the great writers of the age, as indeed I believe Faulkner to be, one is not just asking ‘is this a good book’, because of course it’s a good book, even the shit Faulkner tossed out just for money (The Reivers, I’m looking at you) are really good. What one is asking is, ‘is this one of the works which cements the authors place in the canon’, and the answer to this trilogy is, no, not quite, not to my mind. The main characters in the book – Lawyer Stevens, Eula and Linda, and of course Flem himself – never quite come together. Various smaller bits, about the rest of the Snopes clan and pitiful folk they abuse, are far stronger, but the motivations for the major characters felt, ultimately, either vague or kind of unconvincing.

Which is to say, I suppose, that if you haven’t read Faulkner, read Faulkner but maybe don’t start here, and if you’ve already read Absalom, Absalom, etc. then you could do a lot worse than counting on with the Snopes trilogy.

My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes -- Yeah, just fabulous. About a middle aged Hollywood hack who makes a bad decision with a young woman. Short, and the plot is simple, but it feels authentic and honest in its despair. Also pretty fabulously written. Reading it, I found myself thinking of Mulholland Drive, the themes of which – innocent woman in trouble, or is she – are on display here. So, yeah, if anyone knows David Lynch, maybe ask him if he’s read this? And if he hasn’t, you know, tell him he should, cause I think he’d like it. You can also read it if you aren’t David Lynch. You don’t have to be David Lynch to read it, obviously.

 

Ten Things I Thought About Books I Read in 2016

During the 366 days or 2016 I saw some places I had never seen before, I forget myself for moments and sometimes even hours in the company of friends and family, I wrote words that sounded sweet to my ears at least, I was (perhaps once or twice, ever so slightly) brave, I drank more than I probably should have, I obsessed over trivial personal considerations and ignored the well-being of my fellows, I lamented my failings and my inability to overcome them. Also (according to Goodreads) I read 139 books, which is not 150 books, the round if arbitrary ambition which I had set myself. And some of those were omnibus editions so like, you could probably count Parade’s End 3 more times or whatever, and I read a few things I disliked too much to review, so maybe you could add 6 or 7 on top of that 139 but still, but still, but still, any way you look at it I did not read 150 books. Bad Daniel. That’s a bad, bad Daniel.

Anyhow, when I sat down to try and do a top 10 list it ended up being like a top 18, and then I got kind of bored with the idea of a top 10 list, and then I just wrote out the following.   
 

  1. Flat Out Nastiest Book I Read in 2016: Would have been Nightmare Alley in a walk, a prohibition era noir about the rise and fall of a circus con man which serves simultaneously to condemn religion, psychology, and love. Except that in 2016 I also read High Rise by J.G. Ballard, which makes Nightmare Alley look like a tween romance novel, complete with shiny vampires and dry humping. Can there be any real dispute at this point that Ballard was the most prescient writer of the second half of the twentieth century, both in his savage criticism of modernity and in his astonishingly far-sighted concern for environmental collapse?
     
  2. Two ‘A’ authors we all should stop reading: Paul Auster, because he’s just, I mean he’s just the worst, are we all even reading the same books? Do I have a congenital brain defect which somehow distorts my vision when I pick up one of novels, making genius look like limpid, pointless prose, Borges denuded of its wit and puffed out interminably? And Isabella Allende , who, again, I mean, really people, come on, this is the very apex of mediocrity. The plateau of mediocrity? Whatever, don’t waste your time. Bonus Overrated ‘A’ Author: Jane Austen.
     
  3. And two ‘A’ authors we all should start reading: Renata Adler, one of the best comics writers of the age, a writer’s writer, and J.R. Ackerley , strange and clever and funny and sad.
     
  4. Best work of genre fiction, fulfilling expectations category: Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is everything you could want in a horror novel – strange, frightening, well written and better paced, with the most singularly effective opening you’ll ever stumble across. Read it in a day, be kept awake for a week.
     
  5. Best work of genre fiction, superseding expectations category: John Crowley’s Little, Big tells a tail of lost love, fairies, changelings, sorcery, and the collapse of America that also speaks to essential experiences of human existence. Comparable in its scope (though arguably superior) to Hundred Years of Solitude, this is a book to be savored and returned to. Bonus: Peace by Gene Wolfe, which doesn’t win because I read it last year, but still always kind of wins, if you can dig it.
     
  6. Book Society Somehow Got it Right On: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is that rarest of things, a popular novel deserving its millions of sales. Weird and scary and mean and well written and etc, if you somehow avoided reading this you should rectify the situation.
     
  7. Best Book about Nazis I read in 2016: Diary of a Man in Despair, Friedrich Reck’s tragic, timely, ennobling journal which he kept while living through the rise and collapse of Nazi Germany. If you read one thing on this list, read that. Bonus Book about Nazis I read in 2016: While A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar cannot be compared to Reck in terms of clarity of prose, profundity of thought, or the moral stature of the writers themselves, it does have way more scenes of Hitler being pissed on.
     
  8. My Least Favorite NYRB Classics Book that I Read in 2016: Just so you don’t get the idea that they’re paying me off, or whatever, I didn’t particularly care for Memed, My Hawk, which ends up being a not altogether fascinating adventure novel.  
     
  9. Best Book I picked up on a stoop in 2016:  A Tie (gasp!) between Donald Westlake’s hysterically frantic comic-crime novel Dancing Aztecs and Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John   Helyar, about late 80’s Wall Street shenanigans.
     
  10. Best Book to Explain the 2016 Election: Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy, about a menopausal woman riding a sudden wave of testosterone to the head of the bank which she works, perhaps higher. Fabulously mean, fabulously clever. Bonus Book to Explain the 2016 Election: Diary of a Man in Despair a second time.

 

Books I Read December 31st 2016

Yeah, 2016. That happened. 2017 will, I very much suspect, happen also. I hope it happens for you in a way more joyful than despairing. I’ll try and do a year end wrap up next week, I know you’re all just panting to read my top 10.

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – what an odd, lovely little book. Nescio, who, according to the forward, is required reading in the Netherland (on the off chance there are any actual Dutch folk reading this, please do inform me if this is true) was that very rarest of breeds, a part time writer of value. He spent most of his working life as a manager of the Dutch East India corporation, and wrote, basically, only the five short stories which are contained in this book. They are really, really beautiful, especially the second in the collection, The Young Titans, about a gang of immature Amsterdamites (did I get that right? Theoretical Dutch person, advise) and the feverish intensity with which they experience their youth in a Netherlands long lost. It is the sort of book certain to leave you gazing out the window and remembering sunlit afternoons through which you once walked, ruminating on past loves, on friends never seen but not yet forgotten, that bittersweet burn of nostalgia, tossed straight with no chaser. I very much enjoyed it. Between this and the release of the Dutch edition of the Straight Razor Cure (aforementioned Dutch phantasm, purchase swiftly) it had me thinking about the bookshops near the Spui, and fog in the Jordaan, and of the strange flatlands which abut the north sea. Very much worth reading.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy – A sharply written comic novel detailing the romantic misadventures of a recently graduated American living in Paris at the start of the 50’s. Dundy is laugh out loud funny, and most of this book reads as a hard-eyed romantic comedy taking place among a fascinating post war community of Eurotrash and wannabe artists. But there is a very odd tonal shift in the last quarter, in which the farce veers into a sort of noir, and that straight on into melodrama. The failure to stick the landing not only keeps the book from reaching minor classic status but also kind of wastes the excellence of the prose. That said it’s short and readable and quite funny, and I would happily recommend.

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A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr -- about a WWI veteran who spends a summer in the north of England, rehabilitating the mural of a medieval church. Amid the bucolic scenery and the pleasant rhythm of his work, revealing the brilliant creation of an ancient, unknown artist, our hero begins to recover, in part, from his recent trauma. A sweet, small novel, at once melancholic and life-affirming, uplifting without being in the least bit saccharine. Lovely.

The Iron Heel by Jack London – A fascinating failure. Written in 1905 or so, this is sci-fi before there really was such a thing, and in certain structural senses remains fresh more than a century after it was written. It purports to be the biography of a communist revolutionary sometime in the 1930’s, after the United States and the rest of the world were under the rule of the eponymous organization, a set of oligarchs who have overthrown the world’s democracies. Peculiar enough, but the interesting bit is that the meta-conceit is that the manuscript has been ‘rediscovered’ at some point six or seven centuries later, and the text is footnoted by a historian of that age. With our privileged position we know that our protagonist, who wrote the book before what was to be their climactic victory over the oligarchs, fails, and that the world spends several centuries in the grip of despotism before the final permanent victory of labor over capital. It’s an interesting enough idea for me to spend several sentences describing it, but the book itself is kind of crap. The first hundred pages consist of these incredibly didactic dialogues which will bore to tears anyone who reads them, irrespective of your political position. The second half, which details the struggle against the iron heel, is better only in comparison. Squinting, there are indeed similarities between the oligarchic regime which London describes and the European fascism which arose roughly in the same period he predicts, but there are also a lot of disparities (like most Marxists of the period he underrates the ethnic/national questions then defined (and indeed still does define) international politics). But really I cannot much imagine anyone enjoying this except as a peculiar literary artifact.

Reveille in Washington - 1860-65 by Margaret Leech– – yeah, fun. The intimate history of the city of Washington during the American Civil War, this is a compelling if not quite breezy cultural history, with lots of juicy bits about the events of the day, interesting characters, peculiar misadventures, etc. I’ve read a lot about this period but it’s always fun to revisit different corners of it – how absurd is it that you used to just be able to walk into the White House and ask the President for a job? What the fuck was everyone doing on that account? Hell. Also, I had forgotten all about General Thomas a.k.a. the ‘Rock of Chickamauga’, which is the best nickname for a general in the civil war. Actually really what this made me want to do was go back and re-read Shelby Foote, which is on my list of ‘books I would re-read if I was to be told I would be dying of cancer in six months.’ But, till that happy day, this will have to do.

 

Books I Read December 15th 2016

Do you know how much God damn trouble I had to go through this week because of an errant arm gesture and an unfortunately placed cup of coffee? Merry Christmas!

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese By Patrick Leigh Fermor – Basically just a long series of digressions centering around Greece, and particularly the wild, little visited Mani region. While framed around the trip, relatively little of the text is devoted to his actual misadventures. Mostly what you’re in for is a brilliant, widely traveled, hyper-literate man dumping all his theories about the history, culture and mythology of Greece onto a page. When Fermor is on, his prose is scintillating in its over abundance. When is off, it can be quite a slog. To my money he was on more often in this than in any of the Time of Gifts trilogy, where his tendency to spend two pages describing the features of Gothic churches occasionally threatened to drive me insane.

A Man Lies Dreaming By Lavie Tidhar – Look, I didn’t want to read anything else by Lavie Tidhar, OK? I felt like I’d sort of done my duty as a very casual friend of by reading A Violent Century a month or two back, but he just kept on and on and fucking on. Read my book about Hitler, he said. I already read it, Lavie. No, he said, a different book about Hitler. And then he called me a bunch of unrepeatable names and then he sent me a review copy of A Man Lies Dreaming.

A Man Lies Dreaming is the story of a writer of Yiddish pulp fiction, who, while dying in Auschwitz, envisions a vengeful alternative reality in which the Fuhrer is forced to make ends meet as an exile in London. A low rent private detective, Wulf, as Hitler is called, is forced into tracking down a Jewish woman who, it is suspected, has been kidnapped by the rest of his Nazi cabinet, who have set themselves up as basically a criminal underworld in this alternate world version of England. Part of the joke is that Hitler, as written by Tidhar, maintains the essential features of the classic noir hero—he is incorruptible (if utterly evil), as resistant to the temptations of money and society as was the Marlowe himself. Part of the joke is that our eponymous dreamer is using this fantasy to torture this version of Hitler according to the vulgar traditions of his sub-genre – Hitler is beaten, drugged, tortured, raped several times, urinated upon, and forcibly circumcised, broken down by the cruelties of society until he comes to resemble the broken creatures he created in such numbers.

My first instinct upon reading this book was to wonder, quite simply, how in the name of God Lavie got it published. It as resolutely uncommercial a novel as I have ever read. Far too peculiar for the vast majority of genre readers it is also pulpy and deliberately vulgar in a fashion which seems calculated to likewise annoy more literary types. I also can't possibly imagine the Goy getting anything out of it – it is so distinctly a product of a certain very distinctly Jewish sense of humor, at once lyrical, ironic, and puerile. Readers who persevere through its peculiarities will discover a book which, astonishingly in this day and age, manages to grapple with the moral ramifications of the Holocaust in an original way. It also has a really, really good Eichman joke.

It is an imperfect novel – the footnotes which accompanied my addition are unnecessary, adding a meta layer to an already complex book. They seem to exist only to offer a sort of intellectual cover for the book, to disassociate the author from the material. There are also, anyway you slice it, too many scenes of Hitler erotica. But in a book so idiosyncratic, such excesses must be forgiven. I don’t really know who reads these reviews, and thus I can’t, in good conscience, actually recommend this book to you. The vast majority of people will probably not enjoy it in the slightest. But it doesn't take away from it being a work of authentic merit.

Congratulations, Lavie – you’ve written the last word in alternative reality Nazi fiction. Could we maybe move on to something else now?

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne -- Yeah, this was a cheery one. Our eponymous heroine is one of life’s unfortunates, ugly, callow, not particularly intelligent, a woman of limited capacity whose ambitions are foiled by cruel circumstance. Well-written, keenly insightful, really, really sad. Judith is the sort of person one has met all too often, who we usually don’t see and whom we look away from when she makes herself known. A very strong novel that I confess I was in a hurry to get away from.

Scandalmonger By William Safire – Anther stoop book, and in retrospect I’d have been better of leaving it there. A novelization about the muckrakers who came to prominence in the first few years of America’s history, and their effects on and interaction with the great men of the age. It’s a fascinating episode badly treated. Safire’s fictionalization of the events, to my mind, offers the worst of both possible worlds. Most of the text consists of fake dialogue cribbed from the letters of the major characters, and so it sounds overly formal and jarring. But here and there Safire feels comfortable departing abruptly from history, inserting (to my count) two ahistoric love affairs and a murder. Essentially, any time anything interesting happened in the book I would flip to the end to inevitably discover that it was something Safire had whole-cloth invented. There are interesting things that have been done blurring the boundaries between fiction and fact (Simon Schama attempted something similar with Dead Certainties etc. but Safire doesn’t do them. Better off grabbing one of the many readable histories of the era if you're interested.

We Think the World of You J.R. Ackerly – Oooh. Ooo! Really excellent. Frank is an upper class Englishman in love with Joe, a married, working class laborer sent away for housebreaking in London in the 1960s. Through a peculiar series of events Frank becomes obsessed with Joe’s dog, which he tries to look after while Joe is in prison. The novel tilts initially in a sloppy, melodramatic direction (my hackles get up in any book in which a dog is a major character), but this is a feint, and the book soon pivots in distinctly darker directions. It's not that there is a mystery to it exactly, but watching the way in which the small cast of characters develop is too much of a joy to spoil it by giving away much more. It’s beautifully if simply written, and Acklery’s understanding of the human psyche, of our strange jealousies, of the foul underside of love, is really masterful. Strong recommendation.

December Tenth, 2016

M slammed the door of the bar behind him, uttered seventy-three syllables in a hiccuping staccato and limned shapes into the air. Then he turned and hurried to the counter. His face was wan, and his eyes were wide with recent horrors.

Boy sat a lethargic counterpoint to M's desperation. She had just finished eating a croque madam, and was then focused on making a dent in the establishment's theoretically bottomless supply of bloody Marys.

“Thank God,” M said, “it hasn't gotten to you yet. My ward should hold them, but I don't know for how long. We need to move fast.” He reached behind the counter and grab a bottle from the well.

“What's your problem?” Boy asked.

How long have you been in here?”

'Here' was a fairly typical gastro pub in a North Brooklyn, eight drafts and cute things on the walls.

“Couple hours,” Boy said. “Why?”

“Christ, it must spreading faster than I'd thought.” M poured himself a stiff few fingers of what turned out to be tequila. “Can't think like that now – no time for despair. Call Stockdale, and tell him to get down here with whatever outdated melee weapon's he's been saving. Then call Abilene, and tell her it's time to take care of her queenly duties and chase the devil the hell out of North Brooklyn. I'll see if I can do something to slow it down in the meantime. There's this elder god owes me a favor from way back – might be the only chance we have left. Burn out anything in a few mile radius, better then letting it spread further. Excuse me, sir?” M asked the bartender loudly, “do you have any alcohol which is more than a hundred and fifty proof? And, also, I'm going to need you to start clearing out some of these chairs.”

“What are you talking about?” Boy asked, growing slightly concerned despite being weighed down pretty heavy with clamato juice and bechamel. There were a lot of things to be said against M – she could have run you an easy twenty without pause, and crowd-sourced the litany long after – but to his dubious credit, he was generally too flighty and self-involved to get that concerned over anything. “What the hell is going on?”

“They're everywhere,” M said, taking his drink, pouring himself another. “Shambling mindless through the streets, bleary-eyed, mumbling inanities, fornicating baldly in alleyways, vomiting light beer with abandon.” M drank his third shots in ninety seconds. “The things I saw walking up Bedford – reindeer horns soaking in pools of urine, crimson sweatpants stretched tight to breaking, bile drying on fake beards. This is the end of days, Boy, the whole thing unspooling and us left as witness.”

Boy slumped back down into her seat. “Oh. That's just Santacon.”

“What?”

“Santacon. They do it every year. It'll be gone tomorrow, don't worry about it.”

M looked somehow worse than he had when he supposed themselves to be on the cusp of the apocalypse. “You're telling me those people are doing this on purpose?”

 

Books I Read December 4th, 2016

Life continues apace. I spent Thanksgiving burning off calories by chasing my nephew around my parent's house, and reading about Nazis for an article I was thinking of writing. Back in the city the temperature is nearly appropriate to the season, and it would require a deeply sick person not to feel some dim twinge of joy at being able to spend the Christmas season in New York. Happy to report I am not (yet quite so diseased.

The Fountain Overflows By Rebecca West – I consider Rebecca West's brilliant, idiosyncratic, fifteen hundred page pseudo-travelogue Black Lamb and Gray Falcon to be one of the great works of 20th century literature, a book of abiding genius, one which inspired me as a youth and continues to do so to the present day. Despite this reverence I have never actually gotten around to reading anything else by the Dame, in part because she is not particularly well read any longer (to the shame of the modern literary establishment) and thus it is relatively difficult to but probably mostly because I regard the aforementioned with so much reverence that it was unrealistic to suppose I would enjoy anything else she had written as much. Nor would I suggest that this novel reaches such peaks of brilliance, but then again very few things ever have. The story of a family of (mostly) misguided geniuses – a mother of faded musical genius, two daughters blessed with similar gifts, a mercurial father who's utter failures as a parent do not cancel out an intellectual and moral brilliance. It is rich in its detail of an England before World War I, an England long vanished, of its mores and customs, of its follies and its small joys which will never again return. I confess it took me a while to get into, but I was glad I stuck with it by the end. West is a unique talent, and if it is somewhat less evident here than it is in Black Lamb etc, still this is more than worth your time. The writing is fabulous, the observations of true merit, and the storyline, which seems at first to sprawl out a bit pointlessly, comes together gloriously in the end.

Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrech Reck – A work of abiding moral brilliance, I hope to discuss it a bit more in the future.

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori – So I read Ermine in Czernopol a few months back, and it was one of those books that I didn't exactly enjoy but which made me want to read something else by the author. Rezzori, a German-speaking mutt hailing from what is now a rather barren and homogenous portion of Ukraine but what was, before the fall of the Dual Monarchy, a vibrant ethnic stew of Eastern Europeans, essentially does a Proust here, recalling, in vivid and glorious detail, the events of his childhood. Framed as recollections of five people who played critical roles in his childhood, his wet nurse, his mother, his father, his sister, and a governess, Rezzori takes us to a world in its death throes, dismantled by World War I and about to be wiped away completely by World War II. It is an audacious task, to mimic one of history's supreme literary luminaries, but Rezzori does not shame himself. The writing is brilliant, a bit flowery perhaps but that's part of the fun of the thing, its loving descriptions of a vanished world. He manages to walk the most glorious tightrope here between romanticism and cold-eyed cynicism, and his descriptions of his loved ones, all long dead by the time he was writing this book, are loving but entirely unsentimental. These were deeply flawed people, as was Rezzori (as are all of us (let's not get off topic)), and though he looks back upon them with a love only deepened by time he in unsparing in his criticism of their follies, and his follies, and the follies of the age. Haunting and beautiful, one of my favorites of 2016.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner – This was a cheery one. About a cast of hard luck sorts trying to make a bit of money in the squalid, despairing world of semi-pro boxing in southern California in the early or mid 60's, I guess. An uncompromising though not cruel view of an impoverished sub class, living on the bare fringes of society. Actually sort of an unintentional theme of books this month has been a strong sense of place, and this one is no exception. I'm actually not entirely sure of Gardner's background but one feels not only that the specifics of this are right, the worn gyms and the routine of the fruit and vegetable pickers who cannot find more solid work, but that the spirit of the characters, their misery and the of necessity endurance with which they survive it. There's a funny joke in the intro to the effect that Gardner is a real writer's writer sort, which is indeed true – the bleakness of this vision it not one likely to find favor with many readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. It's also not real long.  

Books I Read November 21st, 2016

I'd rather just not go into the whole thing right now, if it's all the same to you, thanks so much. Maybe I'll have something to say about it later. I will see my nephew for Thanksgiving, from our calls I gather he has mastered the chaining together of words to make phrases and sentences, is being indoctrinated into that happy cult of language which sets as superior to the beasts of the field (and the air as well, though some of them can comfortably mimic it.) He is ever-laughing, my nephew, and often dressed in seasonal outfits. That is to say I have things for which to be grateful. I hope that the same is true of you, reading this.

City of Light, City of Poison by Holly Tucker – A visitor – the inhabitant of a sad, distant metropolis, one bound in fog and rain 15/16ths of the year, one talking constantly of past glories, dead poets, half-forgotten heroes, a city in which no amount of money will enable you to find remotely decent Mexican food, and I'm not even talking great Mexican food, just, you know, a tolerable fucking quesadilla – anyway, was shocked to be introduced to the New York custom of stoop side recycling, that is to say, putting something you do not want outside and returning to find that it is no longer there, whatever it is that you have left, and however brief your sojourn, as if the entirety of the five boroughs was inhabited by a race of morlock like creatures, cowering in the sewers and living off our refuse. Suddenly this ritual seems less charming.

But no, it's nothing to do with any of that, and only that there is always someone here in the city who views your refuse as prize. Passing through a corner of Brownstone Brooklyn, coming across a discarded library I forced upon my aforementioned visitor the collected short works of Graham Greene, a hardcover the weight of a brick that he graciously accepted. I took this one, meanwhile, not realizing at first that it was an ARC copy, that is to say, not really meant for public consumption. But by the time I realized I was too far along to stop reading. Anyway, I promise I'll go out and buy a copy of it when it comes out next spring, and if you wanted to do the same also that would go some way towards assuaging the bloody remnants of my conscience. Thank you.

End of prelude. This is a thoroughly enjoyable work of popular history, dealing with a wave of poisonings which shocked the court of Louis the XIV, and which, rumor long held, involved his most intimate acquaintances. Drawn largely from the secret files of the chief of the Paris police, Ms. Tucker has a sharp eye for the sort of vivid detail which engrosses a reader, and the backdrop – of high society and of the very lowest slums of the Parisian underworld – is devilishly entertaining. Take this with a grain of salt because my commercial instincts are unerringly bad, but it wouldn't surprise me to see this being a break out hit in about 9 months.
 


The Hawkline Monster by Richard Brautigan – Right. The last of these Brautigan shorts, and I think my least favorite. Not that it's bad, it's not at all. It's weird and savage, a truly original work of genre fiction, sort of a sci-fi True Grit, about two murderers who get hired by two sisters to kill a monster their professor father had created in their laboratory. I liked it, and its influence is clear (Sister's Brothers, lots of other books, I'm looking at you) but for my money Brautigan's genre pastiche is less entertaining then the raw humor of his prose. Not surprisingly I enjoyed Confederate more than this or Babylon. Still, the three of them collected present a strong argument for spending more time with Brautigan, something I plan on doing once I read about two dozen other books in the queue.

 

Barbarians at the Gate – Another winner I pulled up off a stoop. Oh man, this was fun – like a true life Bonfire of the Vanities, an intimate portrait of the leveraged buy out of RJR Nabisco, business at the height of the Reagan Era, just before the crash. Riveting, just absolutely riveting, I was up at three in the morning learning about the development of junk bonds. Readers of Game of Thrones and these sorts of world spanning epics will feel right at home with the large cast of corporate raiders, dishonest bankers, arrogant business leaders, masters of the universe politicking against one another endlessly, driven mad by greed and sheer machismo. Strong recommendation.

 

Aegypt by John Crowley – I appreciate Crowley as a truly original writer of speculative fiction, innovative and influential in. Little, Big and Engine Summer I regard very, very highly, particularly the former which I think probably belongs in the first ranks of 20th century novels, but I confess I found this to be the sort of books one more endures than enjoys. Aegypt (excuse the incorrect spelling, I don't feel like researching how to make the A and the e come together properly) is the story of a failed historian who becomes convinced that there is an alternative history of the world, one which exists in myth and the collected unconscious. An alternate history which, if it was put down in words, might see the return of magic and the realignment of the world. As this book is the first of a tetrology, a fact I belatedly discovered about two-thirds of the way through, our hero does not actually write this book, nor even start it, but just sort of thinks a lot about starting it, sharpens his pencils and whatnot. I'm not kidding as much as I'd like. Even a sympathetic reader is likely to find this immensely dull in parts. When Crowley can reign himself in a bit he is an absolutely first rate writer, but there is sadly not much of that restraint on evidence here. The text is always spiraling, higher and higher, a conscious and deliberate affectation but one which grows exhausting all the same. And while Crowley eschews most of the conventions of the genre – there are no villains, and the only conflict to speak of is existential – he remains faithful to that most loathsome of errors common to works of fantasy, that is to say, not having an ending. There is clearly a lot of genius here, Crowley's is an intricate and brilliant mind, and I imagine if I stuck with the next three books there'd be a pay off. But I also can't help but feel it's unlikely I'll ever make the attempt. Who knows.

Books I Read November 7th, 2016

Right. The last week! It was Halloween, that was fun, I stuck to my usual Halloween tradition of going to Dive Bar in park slope and drinking something seasonal and watching ninja turtles etc. strut down the avenue in search of chocolate. Working like a dog, but towards something, you know? Or don't we all think. I had a friend from out of town visit over the Weekend, and got to do that thing where you walk around your neighborhood and go, 'oh, this old place? Yes, we do have a Korean-Fusion restaurant.' So that was fun. Is something going on tomorrow? Gosh, I can hardly remember.. No, you're the one checking 538 twice-hourly. Shut up, no one even likes you.

Peace by Gene Wolfe – Yeah, so I re-read this over Halloween, and I've got thoughts. I'm going to type them up and see if I can't get someone to publish them. In the meantime, read my first review of it, here...

Speed Boat by Renata Adler – Wow. Holy shit. Woo-hoo. Similar expressions of enthusiastic delight which don't translate as well read as they do spoken. I loved, loved this book, even slightly more I think then I did Pitch Dark, which I would also very highly recommend. There is no narrative to speak of, the text consisting of very brief stories, observations and one-liners, provided courtesy of our loosely drawn protagonist, a reporter and jet setter pushing towards middle age in the early 1970's, trying to make sense of the wreckage of her youth. The disparate passages collectively offer a vivid view of the (admittedly narrow) world of the highly educated, culturally sophisticated, faintly progressive east coast bourgeoisie, and they do so with the most masterful comic touch. In her deftness and rhythm, as well as her general savagery of tone, Adler reminds one of of Kingsley Amis and even, bear with us kids cause the praise doesn't get much higher, Waugh himself. Sentences veers back and forth against themselves, an anarchic mess of sustained hilarity but with the most admirable precision of language. Adler is unsparing in the pretensions of her set, but not embittered or hateful – they are silly, arrogant, sad, clever, funny, slightly more decent than you might expect. It's not really like I keep a running list of these things but I have to say with this book Adler has entered the tiniest inner circle of my favorite authors.

Dreaming of Babylon By Richard Brautigan – Brautigan's gonzo comic voice over with the bare bones of a classic Hammet/Chandler PI plot. If I don't write much about it that's because there's not a ton to write, other than that Brautigan is laugh out loud funny, and this was a delight.

Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson – A nemesis is someone whose funeral you would attend in a black suit with red hands, mourning quietly and without histrionics, tossing your handful of dirt upon the coffin, offering honest condolences to the bereaved. In that spirit, and with his blessing, I will hereby offer an honest review of Rjurik Davidson's Unwrapped Sky (my second, in fact, though the first was tendered without having actually read the book.) Doing so goes against my own instincts and the code of our shared guild, one of the tenants of which is, to my mind at least, that a non-professional review ought to be entirely and unequivocally positive. In an age where novels are rated along side coffee machines the slightest expression of dislike echoes loud as a thunderclap, and it is a cruel bastard indeed who would do anything to lessen the likelihood of a sale.

I suppose I am that cruel bastard.

To mention all of the ways in which Davidson eschews standard fantasy tropes is to damn the novel with faint praise; at the same time, they deserve a brief mention, if only because it is sadly still so rare. Here you will find no golden children, no forgotten sons of gods, no magic swords, no Tolkien-inspired races, and no satanic analogues. The themes being handled are of weight and import, are more than the standard sad masculine power fantasies which tend to define most of the other books being shelved in next to his, 'what if I could shoot fire out of my hands!?! Everyone would have to listen to me then!'

Knowing Rjurik, I expected all of this going in, and so accord him no particular points for not putting out drivel. Where I do credit the man, where the book does deserve praise, is first and foremost in its lively and original world building. Davidson has a fertile if rococo imagination, and innumerable small bits of Caeli-Amur proved memorable to me – the watery wonderland in which an aristocrat takes his siren ingenue, the endless shifting castle of the House of Technic. The minotaurs were were cool. The magic system is likewise deftly sketched, believable without being intrusively elaborate, and from one specialist to another, I tip my hat. Within the framework of a relatively traditional narrative, Davidson likewise manages to juke left a couple of times when I figured he was moving right. The secret plan of the demonic overlords (I'm not going to look up the real names of these, he is my enemy after all) was weird and cool and different, and so was the resolution of the Boris storyline.

Davidson is, of course, an unreconstructed Marxist (isn't that adorable! It's like someone wearing a cowboy outfit, I want to take a selfie to chronicle the anachronism) and there are points in the novel which will seem, shall we say, over-familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the Russian revolution. But Davidson's politics, though informing his world, do not become didactic or deform the story. His revolutionaries are flawed, imperfect figures – they would not make it past the scrutiny of the Politburo without serious revision.

Enough with the kindnesses, lets make with the knives. When I told Rjurik I was reading his book he suggested I read his second. This is a common reaction among clever people to their first book (Get me drunk some time and ask me to name all the things wrong with A Straight Razor Cure, I could write a book of all but equal length). I felt at times that he relied too much on inner monologues to express the point of view of his characters, rather than revealing it in some subtler fashion. His scenes of physical violence did not thrill me, though it must be said that scenes of physical violence very rarely do.

On balance, the pros far outweighed the cons, from my POV at least, though it's only fair to point out that I am more or less the exact target audience for this, as someone who has read Victor Serge and also knows the feel of a D20. Rjurik and I hold quite similar slates of obsession –can a person truly be called free, given the historic circumstances which limit our choices? What is personal morality in a world going rapidly off a cliff? Are human relationships defined exclusively by power?

It's worth your time to ask these questions in the company of Maxamillian, Kata et al. I guess what I'm saying is this – if you were to read one pasty, bald-faced Marxist, you would be better off picking this up than say, Perdido Street Station.

Your move, Rjurik.

Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman – Yeah...not bad. The conceit itself is clever enough – the collected jottings of the relatives, friends and acquaintances of Beethoven in the year before his death, after his hearing had depreciated to the point where all communication needed to be written down and passed to him. As Beethoven mostly spoke his responses, our picture of the maestro is drawn largely in negative space, that is to say, from the way the other characters interact with him. What develops is a portrait of an irascible, tormented genius, in whom kindness, wit and self-sacrifice are intermingled with hypocrisy, misogyny, and bitterness. The nuanced depiction of the characters, each offering a contrary perspective on each other and on the maestro himself, works excellently, but the individual personalities do not sparkle particularly. I couldn't help but compare it to other polyphonic novels I've read, in which I felt the individual perspectives to be more captivating.

My Pointless Contribution

For long years I have held in high reverence Dame Rebecca West's indelible masterpiece Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. In it, West turns an excursion through Yugoslavia on the eve of WWII into a grand meditation on humanity's shared instinct for self-destruction, and on the continual need to resist that urge. It is marvelous, beautifully written and filled with stark profundity, and there is one line in particular I would like to share with you here:

Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.

I generally keep my political opinions to myself, and would prefer others did likewise. The internet has given everyone a very large microphone, but few use it to any valuable purpose. Social media is a continuous tableau of remarkable stupidity; the left is sanctimonious and unoriginal; the right, coarse-minded and thoroughly mad. I sincerely hope you can forgive me for adding to this cacophony. At the very least, please understand that I am not operating under the misimpression that this post will have the slightest effect on the votes or beliefs of anyone reading it. It is simply that we have reached a point where one wishes to state clearly where one stands.

Hillary Clinton is a political operator without the slightest honest conviction, trimming her sails to the day's winds. Her indisputable intellect and long experience have sadly not led to any great capacity for judgment, and as Secretary of State she was often prey to that affection, seemingly ubiquitous among our elected officials, for dropping bombs on distant countries to no useful purpose. As a rote supporter of the status quo she will do very little to alleviate the worst problems facing our society, and is more than likely to introduce a few more on her own.

She is, none the less, so far superior to her opponent as to make any comparison between them seem as between an over-cooked meal and a bottle of undiluted arsenic. Trump is so utterly unfit for the position of President that any notion of giving it to him can only be seen as a manifestation of that madness of which Dame West spoke, or perhaps as singularly effective two finger salute by a relentlessly disenfranchised portion of the American population. Tragically, he is only the symptom and not the cause of the long-growing political rifts which exist in our society, rifts resulting from a rapid collapse of common standards among an electorate held together chiefly by material wealth. He represents a disorder which goes far beyond either party and points rather towards a general, probably unsolvable, trend.

Under these circumstances, it it easy to feel that any individual act of civic participation is irrelevant and even slightly absurd– who voted in the last election for consul, one wonders, depositing a ballot with the Vandals knocking at the gates of Rome? This apathy is surely folly; we are called upon to influence events to whatever dim degree we are able. Recall that we are never but a few precious steps from the precipice; there is no guarantee of tomorrow's prosperity. Perhaps these elections pass as a peculiar blip in American history, a minor embarrassment which our children, happy and prosperous, laugh about on late night comedy shows. Perhaps future generations will look back upon us with contempt and sorrow, cursing us for failing to properly steward their inheritance. If it is the latter, I would like it to be known that I am for maintaining the house, to return to Dame West's quote, and perhaps even starting in on some modest repairs if at all possible.

My personal dislike of her having not the slightest bearing on the matter, I have cast my vote for Hillary Clinton.

PS. I will not be responding to comments.

Books I Read October 30th, 2016

A fine week, a solid week, largely uneventful apart from the unseasonable heat. I finished a draft of a book you might one day read, and an idea for another came in hard Monday afternoon, muscling aside its siblings, demanding attention. I ate and drank well, I walked distances, I saw interesting things, I read well (as you'll see). Depending on tomorrow, next week, next month, slave to the perverse subjectivity of memory, I may well look back upon the 17th to the 23rd of October as the quiet peak of my happiness on earth, walking blissfully and all unknowing the final few steps towards the precipice. In retrospect, given the crushing weight of misfortune looming ahead, I might have enjoyed it more. Ah, well, there's always next week. Or, potentially, not.

Editors Note: I wrote the above and most of the following the night before my REDACTED went into the hospital for REDACTED, hence the broadly apocalyptic theme. But REDACTED turned out fine, oh happy day. Anyway, excuse last week's absence, I promise to be more consistent in the future, but not really.

The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky – Regarding a group of brilliant novelists who have forsaken their craft to devote their energy to weekly meetings of the eponymous society, during which each tells a story that is meant to in some way upend traditional narrative conventions. The short stories themselves are peculiar but broadly entertaining, most containing a speculative element of some kind – probably the most memorable is about a government-engineered virus which eliminates free will, a clear predecessor to Orwell and Huxley, though coming out more than a generation earlier (roughly coterminous with Zamyatin's We). I dug them mostly, and the meta-narrative engenders a sort of growing horror, though I confess I could make neither hide or hair of the club's guiding philosophy, indeed am not altogether clear if I was supposed to. Krzhizhanovsky is odd and brilliant and doesn't read like any other Russian writer of the age, let alone any of his occidental counterparts, and his hits make up for his misses. I think I would probably still recommend his collection of short stories, but this is worth a view.

The Gate by Soseki Nastume – About a Japanese clerk circa 1910 whose fortunes and mental health have been ruined by a scandalous marriage, living in a small house in Tokyo with his wife. On the one hand, Nastume's style is very deliberately subtle – there is little plot to speak of, the narrative being driven by the protagonist's apathy and inability to affect his circumstance. At the same time, stylistic peculiarities of the novel at the age, in particular the English novel of which Nastume was one of the earliest foreign imitators, insist on fairly elaborate descriptions of the mental state of the protagonist. Between the two I found that Nastume's personal aesthetic was sort of in conflict with the story he was trying to tell – I felt like I knew too much about the protagonist in some ways, was offered insight into his psyche that he himself did not possess. On the other hand the loving, intimate description of post Meiji-Restoration Japan is a delight, and Nastume has a talent for language. I enjoyed this and will keep an eye out for another.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker – The story of a half-mad undergrad attempting to ruin the wedding of her identical twin sister. You can see why this is an acknowledge mid-century classic – Baker's writing is excellent, funny and clever while still remaining the chaacter's distinct voice. Indeed, I enjoyed the first two thirds of the novel so much that I found myself rather keenly disappointed by the ending which is, in the words of a woman who saw me reading it in a restaurant the other day, 'too tidy.' But still it's the sort of disappointment where you feel like the thing goes from being a masterpiece to just super, super good, that is to say, one that I can live with. Strong recommendation.

Oh, yeah, one last note – while I bow to no one in my esteem for the NYRB Classics folk, whoever wrote the back cover for this absolutely fucked a dog. Cassandra's homosexuality is a plot point which shouldn't be revealed in the summary. So, yeah, change that.

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar – Reading a book by a person you know is a lose/lose proposition. Either you like it, which is damaging to the ego and corrupting to any similar ideas you may have had, or you don't like it, and are forced to mouth lies to them at gatherings. I've known Lavie Tidhar for, I dunno, four or five years now, quite casually, we send each other mean twitter messages and meet for drinks on extremely infrequent occasions. I have a short story in his for-charity anthology Jews Vs. Zombies. I do a really severely good impression of him, it's just savage, ask me at a bar sometime.

Anyway, having never read anything else by the man I still get the sense this is one of his more commercial works, which is to say that it is resolutely noncommercial. The plot itself is relatively simple – a bit of John LeCarre, a pinch of Dashiell Hammet (anyone who has read this and my own Low Town trilogy, please take note that the 'Old Man''s appearance in both is an independent act of appropriation on each of our parts) but mostly just straight up WWII era Marvel Comics, Captain America knocking out Hitler, that sort of thing. But the style is, if not Finnegan's Wake, more dificult (seemingly) than most of what you will see in genre fiction – there are no quotation marks, for instance, and the story breaks with some frequency between descriptions of past events and characters commenting on these events in the present. I say seemingly because, in fact, the style is all cleverly slanted so as to provide the narrative a ferocious momentum, with expository information peppered in between the action. I really devoured this thing over the course of a short bus ride. The point being, I'm glad I didn't have any ideas for writing something about superheroes, because I'd probably have to chuck them. Good on you, Lavie.

A Confederate General From Big Sur – A totally entertaining comic novel, about a couple of Beat-era wastrels in Northern California. Or novella, really, it can't be fifty thousand words. Anyway, I quite enjoyed it, though I'm not sure there I would pretend there was a tremendous amount there. My first Brautigan, I've got two more to go through before I commit to any broader decisions on the man, I know you're all just mad with anticipation but you'll still have to wait.

Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven – A middle-aged Israeli woman becomes obsessed with taking vengeance on her uncle, who molested her sister years earlier as part of an effort to plumb the mind of Adolf Hitler. It's...extremely dark. Ms. Hareven is clearly very talented – the prose itself is uncomplicated, but the moral questions she raises – about guilt, and evil, and the possibility of redemption, are of the highest order. Raised, but never answered. The ending – THIS IS SORT OF SPOILERY, SORRY – seems to so nakedly praise the healing power of vengeance as to suggest that either our unreliable narrator is being unreliable, or the writer is making a broader ironic commentary. And while both of those notions seem possible I confess I struggled to discern strong evidence for either, or at least not significantly stronger than for a blunter reading of the text. Page to page it also drags about, particular during the long third portion during which the (anti-)heroine is talking herself into violence which I found rather tiring. That said, sometimes you can not like a book but still like the writer, if that makes sense, and I'll keep an eye out for something else by Ms. Hareven.

Books I Read October 18th, 2016

And another week down, never again to return. What profundities, what life lessons, what insights has the passing of these last seven days settled upon my soul? What scars can I display to you, gentle reader, which might prove of interest? Let me think. There must be...surely, there must be...all of those hours stacked atop one another, by God, just look at them, something of value should be squeezed out, even given the meager material, like coal weighted into diamond. Wait...wait...yes, there we are

Even the best mozzarella sticks in the world are, at the end of the day, still mozzarella sticks.

And now, on to books.

The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krudy– To judge by my recent acquisitions, 'surreal works of fiction by 20th century central European authors' is starting to eclipse 'elevated genre fiction' as my reading brand of choice. Much of this is the influence of (here we are again) the New York Review of Books Classic's Editions (did I get the nomenclature right without checking? I've heard people just say NYRB Classics, which is objectively an aesthetic misstep, what with the the awkward 4/5 abbreviation), part of it is because a little bit of my heart remains, forever, in a curl of land running from the Curonian Spit down to Kotor. Forgive the exaggerated prose, this was not my first beer. Where were we? Yes, The Adventures of Sindbad. A curious, winding, lovely little book, consisting of the ruminations of the ghost of Sindbad (no relation) a cad and great lover in, roughly speaking, Duel Monarchy Hungary. Ruminations aren't exactly accurate, as his character is a ghost that pays pilgrimage to the sites and participants involved in his great acts of seduction, love making, and folly. A note of eerie nostalgia lies over the whole thing, as does a benign contempt for the lies and passions of men and woman. But at heart it is keenly life-affirming novel, despite the spectral protagonist, and Krudy displays a lovely style, sideways and funny, faintly but pleasingly erotic. Apparently it is widely considered a classic in its native Hungary, and good on the Hungarians. It fits in well with what I remember of them, a funny, caustic people, a peculiar little island of pony-riding steppes folk stuck slap-dash in the great surrounding circle of Slavs and Teutons. Oh, to see Budapest again, to lay beside the Seva in the green grass, to stare up at St. Stephens, to eat something liberally spiced. Did I mention I'm writing this in a bar? Yes? Very well, then.

Wake of Vultures – Full disclosure, Ms. Dawson (AKA Lila Bowen) and I are internet acquaintances, that is to say, she seems like a very nice person for whom I would one day like to stand to a beer, but who, alas, I have never actually met. Damn you, vagaries of space and time! On to the review.

Being, as you are, dear reader, a person of keen wisdom and deep insight you have no doubt already read Wake of Vultures, and are, I can only assume, right now curled up with a copy of the sequel, released last week, Conspiracy of Ravens, and good on you. Well, I suppose not right now, right now you are reading this blog, but presumably you have just finished it and are only glancing up now. In any event, I am not as clever as you are, and so my desire to read Conspiary of Ravens was stymied by my not yet having read its prequel, one that was remedied by a trip to The Strand. Now that we're all caught up.

The story of Nettie Lonesome, alias Rhett Butler, whose miserable life as horse breaker for her abusive not-parents is interrupted when she kills a vampire and becomes privy to a supernatural world which exists beneath the west in which she lives. From there, a great deal of adventure ensues as Lonesome (shades of the cattle outfit?) accepts her destiny as a hero and the peculiarities of her personhood (did I get that nomenclature right?) Given my affection for the genre, it will be small surprise that I devoured this tail of outsider derring do. Dawson (when I'm talking about her as a writer I talk about her without the honorific – take that!) does fabulous work in expanding the franchise for this sort of protagonist. It was distinct and fast-plotted and I would tell you to buy it if you did not, as we have previously established, already own a copy. But I know you you did already, so there would be no point. Instead I'll say you should buy a copy for a friend, and then give it to that friend. No, wait, buy the new one, first week sales are important. Wait, no, buy both. Yes, that's what I'm settling on. Buy this one, not the others. Turgenev doesn't need the sale, Jesus.

Virgin Soil by Ivan Turganev – That said, I really liked this. A story about revolutionaries in the Russian provinces circa 1880, I guess.There is, of course, an odd sort of formalism which is characteristic of this era of novel, in particular a tendency for the author to describe, basically without obfuscation, the intimate personality of their characters. I have previously lamented this quality in Austen, and though I think she is particularly brutal, it has to be said that it seems fairly ubiquitous – thinking on it now Hugo was pretty bad with that also, as was Zola. Or, maybe I'm wrong, I never really took an English lit class. In any event, it is striking that, while Turgenev certainly illuminates its characters to a degree which is generally not seen in modern novels, or at least not good modern novels, there still is room for surprising scenes of pathos – witness, for instance, the forced confession of Paklev (sp) by Simoygin (also sp), which is really fabulously well executed, and feels horrible and sad even though you know exactly what's going to happen. Finally, from being quite beautifully written – its descriptions of the Russian countryside inspire a visit – Turgenev, unlike some of his compatriot geniuses, has a light touch in his descriptions of human character and conduct, more an observer, it seemed to me, than a didact. It won't displace War and Peace for me any time soon, but then again, that's kind of a silly bar.

Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations – In retrospect I'm surprised I'd never heard of this odd pseudo history, or historical criticism, or what have you, by renowned historian Simon Schama, having been a long time fan and also enjoying these sort of exercises. The peculiar narrative structure revolves around (I am simplifying the matter significantly) short pieces of fiction recounting 1) the death of Wolfe at the gates of Quebec, as well as the veneration which followed and 2) the murder of a relative of a renowned historian of the French and Indian War, and the trial which followed that relative's death. The meta-joke is that Schama, whose books Citizens, about the French Revolution, and The Embarrassment of Riches, a cultural history of the Dutch Golden age, are broadly regarded as masterpieces, is calling into question the reliability of any historical narrative as being dependent upon the perspective of the individuals involved. I confess that, with all the respect that I have towards the man, this does not strike me as an altogether devastatingly clever commentary, though it deserves being said that apparently it went over the head of many of its initial critics, who reviewed the works as non fiction though it is obviously not so. What this leaves is, basically, some very well written bits of historical fiction by one of the great historians of the age (am I overselling that? I'm not sure I feel qualified to say either way). I enjoyed it, though if you put a gun to my head and said, tell me what Simon Schama book I should read, I wouldn't say this one. Also, quit holding a gun to people, what the heck is wrong with you. Gosh.

Books I Read October 10th, 2016

Things mostly come down to the weather and the music they are playing in the bar you are in: cool but sunny and very clear, and Smashing Pumpkins, but the first more than cancels out the second. Still, I feel compelled to complain to the management. Speaking of, obliquely, did you know I had a book come out last week? A City Dreaming, is the title, and I would urge all of you, all of you yes, every one of you, the ones in the back as well, to sprint out to your nearest book store and purchase a copy.

War and the Illiad by Simone Weil, Rachel Bespaloff and Christopher E.G. Benfey – a collection of wide-ranging essays discussing the Illiad, ranging in quality from mostly excellent to good, save for the meta-take tacked on at the end, which was the sort of exhausting drivel which makes me grateful I never really did more than tuck my toe into the fetid waters of the academy. Kidding, slightly. The first essay in particular, by Weil; which argues that the genius of the Illiad lies in its naked observation that violence, its inflicting and its suffering, is the defining feature of human existence; was very good, if perhaps not altogether confirmed by the text. As a rule, I find anything which encourages me to think about the Illiad to be valuable, a foundational text endlessly capable of offering new insight into the whole human condition thing. I spent much of Monday wandering around thinking about Hubris and Eudaimonia and that one – what is that one, where for a brief moment you are the shining equal of the gods themselves, except not quite, not quite, and then you overstep your boundaries and the crushing horror of your own mortality becomes, usually quite literally, thrust again upon you? --anyway, thinking about that one. 'Sing, O Muse!' Ooooo, enough to give a fellow shivers.

Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe -- Frequent readers (Surely there must be some better use of your...that is to say, one might learn Spanish or perhaps do a puzzle...well, you're here already, might as well stay) will know that I have a complicated relationship with Gene Wolfe. For The Book of the New Sun, his marvelous short fiction, and the truly masterful Peace, I would argue that Wolfe is one of and probably the foremost living writer of speculative fiction, that is to say, fiction. And yet the rest of his work I confess to finding generally impenetrable, even viewed with the most positive possible spin. (I feel comfortable writing bad things about a beloved literary hero of mine because a) he will never, ever read this and b) Wolfe is of that class of writer who deserves to be discussed not simply with enthusiasm but with serious, studious contemplation, contemplation which may led to criticism.) Soldiers of the Mist and Soldiers of Arete are the story of the falsely-named Latro, who suffers a wound during the Persian Wars which renders him lose his memory each evening but which also allows him to see the ways in which the gods interact directly with humanity. He wanders about Greece and Asia Minor, trying to find a way to restore his memory and interacting with the heroes and gods of classical Greece. The clever conceit with Latro's memory allows Wolfe to indulge in a late period tic he developed, that of roughly ending a chapter and using the bulk of the next to explain, in his loose way, to the degree that Wolfe ever explains anything, what exactly happened in the preceding entry. In Book of The Long Sun this tendency drove me absolutely apeshit, but here it works much better, and Wolfe does (as he always does) some clever things with Latro's memory and observations. Wolfe is an intentionally frustrating writer, and when that works, it works to great effect. But often it comes off as over coy, his refusal to describe any character in useful detail, or shoving a critical but not particularly clever clue into a dull front half of a paragraph. Here also, in true Wolfe fashion, we have his predilection for long digressions about what are clearly specific interests of his, sword fighting or siege craft, that drag down the narrative and just generally seem unacceptable in a book which often refuses to provide basic information on far more relevant concerns. Finally and most critically, Wolfe's characters here seem terribly thin, really the faintest of possible sketches. One gets the sense that he is not really interested in them, nor for that matter in the prose itself, but only in the skeleton beneath it, in his own love of riddle.

But of course, it goes without saying that he has a genius for said riddles, a genius which few other writers, certainly no one who is considered a direct competitor, can honestly claim. When one of the more significant puzzles does work, and when you are clever enough to understand it, the sensation can be quite thrilling. Which is, I suppose, to say that this is another book which I did not like particularly but reconfirms (needlessly) my faith in Gene Wolfe's unique powers.

Going to the Dogs: The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kastner – Yeah, quite good. Sort of a Vile Bodies written by a rake living in Berlin in 1933, though Kastner's literary powers, while impressive, can't really be compared to Waugh. It is still very clever. The language quite crackles, and its sentiments are pulpy without veering quite into melodrama. If it is not quite brilliant, it was still enjoyable and cruel, and I'll pick up another Kastner at some point down the line.

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler – Oooo. Ooo! Wow! What fabulous, fabulous prose. Adler is a tremendously skilled stylist, I can't even say how much I enjoyed this. About a woman in early-middle (?) age reminiscing on a long time affair, and on a misadventure in Ireland, and about many, many other events that have happened to her. It is written in this peculiar, discursive style, with the first and third sections in particular consisting of memories and observations which have no real narrative link, but maintain a certain continuous theme of confusion, error, passion, nostalgia and occasionally a bit of hope. Adler is working without a net her, and to pull off this sort of novel requires the most enormous gifts – no slacking, like you get to do with a plot. Each paragraph and sentence has to be clever on its own merits, indeed, has to be more than usually clever because the reader is always secretly a little annoyed when they have to reset their thinking and grasp some new character, story, or idea. But succeed Adler does, and with high marks. I roared through it in about five hours interspersed with walking, laughing loudly at a coffee shop, on a park bench, and in a quiet bar. I'll be picking up something else by Ms. Adler shortly, and strongly recommend you check this one out.

Books I Read October 3rd, 2016

This last week the city turned the color of smoke, the sky and the cement a fabulous monochrome. Despite years of evidence there is some part of me which remains skeptical as to the changing of the seasons, thrills anew at each discovery of the passage of time; the changing leaves, the black-haired sons of Abraham surveying my heritage outside the public library (Shana Tova to the chosen people, as a side note). Did you know I have a book coming out tomorrow, or Thursday, depending upon where in the world you live? It is called A City Dreaming, and I am forced by the peculiarities of my trade to become an absolute boor about it for at least the next couple of weeks, my apologies. Perhaps consider purchasing it. On now to books I did not write...

The Engagement by Georges Simenon – Obviously, Simenon has an enormous reputation both in his native France and throughout the world (I read something somewhere that he was the best selling author of the 20th century. This cannot possibly be true, can it?) Prior to this I'd only read a few of his Maigret stories, about a taciturn giant who investigates crimes, and thought they were acceptable though not exceptional entries in the detective sub genre. The Engagement is very much not in that vein, being more comparable, I suppose, to that brand of noir which is, basically, about bad things happening to unsavory people, sort of a James M Cain or Jim Thompson (though stylistically they have nothing in common, Thompson is all fire and Simenon all ice.) The plot is simple: a weak, lonely loser is set up for murder by a woman with whom he is obsessed. The anti-hero himself is masterly drawn; a mincing, obese pervert who we none the less find preferable to the society who finds him so loathsome. As to the rest – the plot, the motivations of the other characters – these are opaque and less skillfully rendered. But Simenon's genius lies in offering a brutally unflinching portrait of humanity without falling into sanctimony or glibness, and this gives that to us in spades. The final scene, which I won't describe for fear of spoiling, well pays for the rest.

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor Von Rezzori – Interesting. About childhood in a a provincial capital in a post WWI Romanian, and also about the end of the patchwork, multi-ethnic fabric of the Hapsburg Empire which would be torn asunder during WWII. This is a sly, subtle, sidelong sort of work, digressions and side stories dominating the hint of plot. As a writer Rezzori is a pressure boxer, like Proust or Stephen King, relying for narrative effect on a cavalcade of observations and analogies, and I often felt that many of his lines examined individually did not hold closely together. But there is a way he has of using negative space, of slipping essential details sidelong, which I very much enjoyed, and his earthy, ironic humanism is a treat. I mean I liked it enough to pick up another one of his while I was out this week.

Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau – A phantasmic nightmare of a novella, about a brother and sister so obsessed with their imaginative games and theatrical poses that they destroy each other rather than reach adulthood. Haunting, disturbing, very strange. Give it a shot.

Butcher's Crossing By John Williams– This is about the myth of the unspoiled west, and of our desperate, all-consuming need to spoil it, of an innate fear of death which drives us to unsparingly destroy the environment around us. It is...haunting and disturbing. Between this and Stoner (I enjoyed but did not love Augustus, despite its acclaim) the critical re-evaluation of Williams seems well-deserved. His prose is excellent but unassuming, and the complexity of his thought reveals itself slowly. Recommended.

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Seven Churches by Milos Urban – Cool! Weird! About a bloodless, socially uncomfortable loser and failed police officer who gets embroiled in a series of murders which have something to do with the Gothic churches of the Prague New Town. Excellently combining the usual bloody horrors to be found in this sort of horror novel with a grander, existential loathing of the modern age, a compelling repudiation of contemporary western civilization which will leave you empathizing with...well, I won't spoil it. But it's real solid, and the writing is quite strong, especially for this sort of thing. Definitely pick it up if you get the chance.

Books I Read September 29, 2016

The temperature has finally started to drop. Pumpkin beer has been around for about 6 weeks but only a few days ago did it become appropriate to drink it. October will be a rough month, and I luxuriate in the interim, taking long walks to Bay Ridge and the Far Rockaways, swallowing the last of the summer sun

The Fortunes of Africa by Martin Meredith– I am that peculiar sort of person for whom a single-volume, political/military history of some fair swathe of the planet is about the most enjoyable form of literature. I LOVE these sorts of things, I could eat them up like candy. This is a very good example of the form, detailing African history from Ancient Egypt to the modern-age, with a primary focus on the exploitation of its resources, which essentially ends up being the interplay between 'foreign' and native African forces. At eight or nine hundred pages it is, of course, much too short for so vast a topic but still choc full of insight to any non-expert. The writing is skillful if not particularly memorable, but then again only a very small number of historians are capable of writing truly captivating prose in its own right (Barbara Tuchman and Simon Schama come to mind). All the same, Meredith excels in clearly ordering vast quantities of information into a coherent narrative, the most difficult and essential task in a book of this sort. Depressing, of course, as histories generally are, but you can hardly blame that on the author. Strong recommendation, if you share my affection for this sort of thing.

The Year 200 by Agustin de Rojas– Right. So, apparently de Rojas was sort of the grand old man of Cuban science-fiction, and this is regarded as his finest work – though I confess a quick Google search found scant information in English that was not put out by the publisher, so maybe this exaggerates his position, I have no idea. If any Cubans or Spanish speakers generally want to help clear up my ignorance in the comments, that would be much appreciated. In any event, this was more interesting than it was good. It reads a lot like a 60's American sci-fi novel, which if you have been following along you will know is not a swathe of the sub-genre for which I have much affection. On its own merits, as a future thriller about a swathe of (basically) evil Americans having their consciousness re-awoken several hundred years after the total victory of the communist world, it is at best modestly effective. Rojas has a predilection for large-scale info dumps, some of which never seem to become directly relevant, and there's a lot of deus ex machina style reveals, with sudden plot shifts that fall flat because they've never been signaled earlier in the narrative. As a work of, if you will, intellectual sci-fi, it is didactic and not altogether clever, that is to say I saw little useful echo of our own world in the future society Rojas has created. The characters themselves, as inevitably in these sorts of books, are utterly one dimensional, impossible to sympathize with. There are a few interesting bits here and there, but I confess to coming away disappointed. Avoid.

Love in a Foreign City by Eileen Chang – Hell, was this good. Chang was a wealthy socialite in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and these series of long short stories about the years before and during the Japanese Occupation, of a China developing rapidly in uncertain times, are fabulous. Chang has a subtle touch and an appreciation for the complexities of human motivation comparable to any of the great English masters of the period, and her insight into an upper crust of coastal, Chinese elite, is truly fascinating. Imagine Somerset Maugham if he had been going to cocktail parties overlooking Kowloon Bay and you'd have something of the flavor. Strong recommendation.

Dancing Aztecs by Donald Westlake – Ha! Ha! Boy, I liked this. I think the only other thing I read by Westlake was the Parker thing, which I admit left me a little flat, but this is far better, a blisteringly paced comedy about a cast of dozens chasing a MacGuffin. Actually the plot is fabulously detailed and deftly complex, but really what you're in it for is Westlake's insulting but affectionate take on New York City and its inhabitants, as well as an enormously enjoyable use of language. One feels a certain degree of compulsion, however, to admit that some of the politics of 1976 are not those of the current age, and although Westlake is reasonably even-handed in his abuse of New York's various social milieus, one would have to admit that (as in most things) the darker races get the worst of it. That said he had some Jew jokes in there that cracked me up, so who knows.

 

Books I Read, September 19 2016

Here in the city the light is fainter and jackets have again become fashionable. The summer seemed like it would go on forever but has not done so. I read the following books while the trees lost their monochrome, on soon-to-be-shuttered patios..

Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano – I keep thinking I've read all of Bolano's fiction and then I keep finding little bits I haven't – I hope this trend continues on indefinitely. The recollections of a would be gun moll, though of course Bolano's plots cannot really be reduced to thumbnails, this is one of the best of Bolano's 'lesser' works, here indicating length and not quality, for in fact I think his strengths might be, first and foremost, in the novella and the novelette. In any case, he is is in top form here; his writing is at once brilliant and insightful without ever breaking out of the character's voice. It feels absolutely natural but also terribly, terribly clever, which should be impossible but somehow isn't. Sexy, scary, always vital, a minor masterpiece which once again confirms Bolano's status as one of the greatest writers of the modern age.

The General in His Labryinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A novelized history of the last days of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, who freed the entirety of Spanish South America only to see his dreams of a single nation running from the Carribean to Patagonia dashed by his own intransigence and the parochialism of his fellow citizens. Really, you should just know who Simon Bolivar is, I shouldn't need to give you a description. Anyway, it's not bad. Marquez is working in muted colors here (no magic, sorry) and he seems to have largely made up most of the details of Bolivar's exile from Bogota to Santa Cruz, but Bolivar feels richly believable as a great man in the last act of his tragedy.

Motherless Brooklyn By Johnathan Lethem – Look, we all have prejudices, OK? If you think you don't it's because yours are so firmly ingrained that you've ceased to be able to recognize them. Some people hate the Jews, some people hate the gays, some people hate the Inuit. I, personally, have an irrational dislike of hipster fiction. It's foolish, it's straight bigotry, but there it is. I never made an attempt at Infinite Jest, I crinkle up my nose when I hear Franzen's name mentioned, I don't know Dave Eggers from Adam. Lethem has long been on said list, but this was cheap and there was a quote on the front comparing it to Chandler and I figured, what the hell. The story of an orphaned mook from Central Brooklyn with tourette's syndrome, and his attempts to get retribution for the murder of the man who raised/corrupted him. It's totally serviceable elevated noir, the writing is not bad, the hero's illness is portrayed authentically, there is enough action to keep an audience entertained without tipping over into outright absurdity. Crime is, of course, the most absurd of all of the genres, torn as it is between demanding an extreme sharpness of prose (Chekhov's gun is never more in evidence) while also finding some way to mislead an attentive reader as to the culprit. In the hard-boiled American tradition (Chandler, Hammet, etc) the pacing and the excellent prose are meant to distract the reader from any inconsistencies of plot. More modern noir often utilize an unreliable or, in particular, an incompetent narrator, and to describe the mystery itself in such terms that the reader can't jump ahead of the hero. This sometimes gets a little kitschy (Our hero is blind! Our hero is autistic! Our hero drinks lead paint!) but it works well enough here. I'm not, frankly, altogether clear why this has quite so much critical reverence, being enjoyable but to my mind not altogether more than that. Still, I'll keep my eye out for another Lethem next time I'm hanging around the Strand.

Kingdom Come By J.G. Ballard – Sort of a less horrifying High Rise, Ballard's last novel is about a shopping center in the exurbs of London, and also about the horrifying meaningless of modern consumer driven society. Of course, being a Ballard it is beautifully written at parts, but the plot never quite hangs together and it's too similar to his earlier stuff not to invite unfavorable comparison, and I couldn't help but find a lot of the middle-England bashing to be kind of nasty in spirit. Not his best, but not terrible either.

The Hot Kid By Elmore Leonard – The entire time I spent reading this novel (admittedly, only like 4 or 5 hours) I was trying to figure out if I had read it before, but never exactly coming to a conclusion. In and of itself this actually isn't the most terrible thing you could say about a book – Ross McDonald's Lew Archer stuff are one big morass of genius in my mind – but Leonard is, bluntly, not Ross McDonald. The story of a US Marshall in the twenties who's really, really good at shooting people, and of all the people he shoots, it's readable as hell and there are some funny lines, but basically the plot is lazy and doesn't make much sense and the character's are lamentably unformed. Is Leonard actually very good? I sort of don't have the heart to go back and reread him and find out.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – It's really weird that it took me this long to get to this, but here we are. It's probably difficult for a modern reader to appreciate how original and wacky this book must have been when written – it holds such a place in the popular consciousness as to render banal what was once utterly unique. The mad scientist, the creature itself, these things have passed into cliché but of course they've done so because Shelley invented them. Some parts of it, namely the sort of grand guignol elements with the creature hunting down Frankenstein's friends, don't hold up as well. But the sheer imaginative genius of the thing remains potent, as well as the withering critique of human society. The centerpiece of the book, with the creature describing his time spent observing humanity, remains potent, as does Shelley's refusal to depict either creator or child with much affection.

The Graces by Laure Eve – (Full disclosure, Laure is a friend, in so far as we get a drink on those rare occasions when we're in the same city, and tweet mean things at each other. This was why I bought the book, but it isn't why I'm reviewing it, if I didn't like it I'd just wouldn't have said anything.)

The story of a new girl moving to a new town and becoming embroiled in the lives of a crew of beautiful, fabulous strangers is one familiar to me as even an infrequent reader of young adult fiction, but in the Graces Ms. Eve cleverly the Mary Sure archetype in a variety of clever ways the enumeration of which would constitute a spoiler. Suffice to say that it is the sort of book that functions simultaneously as an excellent example of a particular sub genre and of a meta-critique of that genre. It's fun, its surprising, pick it up.

By Mark Helprin – Ugh. Reading was like eating an entire meal made our of marzipan, and a very large meal at that. Helprin's heroic paen to the greatest generation, about a love affair between a returning serviceman and a rich socialite, and the evil men who seek to destroy them, this is 700 pages of treacle. In his immensely superior Winter's Tale (my affection for which is the reason I picked this up) Helprin's moralizing tendencies are rendered more forgivable by the fairy tale like nature of the narrative, but without that crutch to lean on it becomes tedious in the extreme. This is the sort of book in which characters are constantly agreeing with one another, in which one hero (they are mostly heroes) will give a speech and a second hero will say, “yes, I agree” and then the first hero will talk a lot more. For a man so obsessed with his racial identity Helprin seems never to have actually met a Jew, and the wit and irony for which we are justly famed are nowhere to be found in his paladin protagonist, the most tiring, didactic, exhausting moralizing hero to be found outside of a golden age comic book. Helprin has talent, obviously, and there are plenty of excellent lines to be found, excellent lines which are, sadly but inevitably, surrounded by half a dozen other, less excellent lines, saying exactly the same thing. Helprin likes good things and dislikes bad things. He likes his men heroic and his woman heroic but in a more feminine matter. He dislikes racism and rape. Who could quibble with a moral view so starkly black and white? Who, likewise, gains any benefit from a morality expressed in such juvenile terms? Avoid.

The Other by Thomas Tryon – That I figured out the twist more or less immediately did not remove the stark thrills of this novel, about an innocent thirteen year old and his sociopathic twin. Fun, creepy, generally well written, NYRB classics edition killing it as ever.

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor – Again, really, really weird that I haven't read this yet. O'Connor is justly revered for her prose, which is at once simple enough for a an adolescent to grasp (there is a reason we teach A Good Man Is Hard to Find in high school) and evocative and strange enough to leave one in modest awe. There is something very Slavic about O'Connor, a thick vein of Dostoevsky in her holy fools and desperate atheists. This was funny and disturbing and humanistic in its deepest sense. It reaffirms one's sense of the justice of human existence (a dubious premise, but still) to discover that a revered literary genius is deserving of such acclaim.

Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Ha! Ha! Sort of a crueler Red Harvest, about a woman who makes her living going from town to town and discovering a prominent citizen willing to pay her to kill another prominent citizen. Bloody, funny, richly and joyously amoral, a bright and thrilling read.

Mehmed, My Hawk by Yasar Kemal – Basically a Turkish adventure novel, about a Robin Hood sort of character who's mistreatment at the hands of an evil land owner leads him to become a mountain brigand, struggling with his desire for vengeance and his moral concerns. Kemal seems revered both in his native land and abroad, but I confess that apart from an authentic feeling of experience (Kemal grew up in the area the novel takes place in, and supposedly all of his uncles were bandits) there really isn't a ton here that impressed me. Can someone help me out? Is there something better of his that I should be reading?

The Outward Room by Millen Brand– Small and lovely. At the height of the great depression, a woman escapes from an insane asylum and makes a life with a laborer in the city, their quiet love proving to be more recuperative than Freudian therapy. Writing it out like that, this seems like really bad advice, but it works in the context of the story. Uplifting without being cloying, worth your time.

Books I Read 9/12/2016

I read so much good shit the last few weeks, it's been awesome. Books! Books are so great! Books are one of like three things that if, for some inexplicable reason, I was no longer able to enjoy, I'd probably think about jumping off one of the bridges in New York that have low railings (Hi GW!). Take that as an overwrought expression of my love of literature, as intended. We're tailing through the end of Summer here, we had a couple of miserable days but all in all it's not so bad, it could be worse, we're standing above the ground, ain't we? You are reading, this, are you not? Q.E.D. Let's get on with it, then.

An Armenian Sketchbook By Vasily Grossman – Yeah, really lovely. The collected memories of Vasily Grossman, one of Soviet Russia's finest writers, during a trip he took in Armenia towards the end of his life. Grossman is most famous as, essentially, a chronicler of human misery – as a war correspondent he saw the terrible sieges on the Eastern front as well as liberating Treblinka with the Red Army, and speaking out against the Soviet regime meant that most of his writing could not be published in his lifetime – but An Armenian Sketchbook is an earthy, life-affirming read, if one that carries clearly in it the knowledge of the terrible misery possible in human existence. Though visiting Armenia as an interpreter of a beloved Armenian epic, he did not speak the language, and his experiences are that of a foreigner in a country which takes hospitality as being of enormous importance. Sketchbook is once a loving description of how food and drink, beauty, art generally, are capable of checking the horrors of life, both existential and political, and Grossman's affection for the Armenians becomes a thundering approbation for the human species, in its diverse and multifaceted glory.

Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy – Revelatory. The description of how a post-menopausal bank clerk, through amorality and sheer personal brutality, swiftly amasses an empire, Ride a Cockhorse is at once a hysterical and an intensely disturbing vision of the rise of fascism. I am burying my political convictions deep in the second paragraph of a blog which no one reads when I say that the personal style of the antihero, which consists of gross dishonesty expressed in a contemptuous and exaggerated masculinity, is one which presages that of one of our own current presidential candidates, though you're welcome to guess which one on your own. In any event, very much worth reading.

Ghost Story by Peter Straub – Fabulous! One of the best horror novels I've ever read, maybe the, although I'll need to wait a few weeks for the afterglow fades before I can give a confident answer. In any event, very, good, like a subtler, better written It (King and Straub collaborated on the Talisman and on a faintly remembered, far weaker sequel the immediate name of which escapes me). In broad strokes, it resembles King's classic an ancient evil preying upon a small town, a group of ordinary-ish individuals forced to confront it; but I have to say I think this is stronger than anything similar I can remember reading in King's ouvre. Straub's characters are richer and his horror subtler (though I didn't feel less effective), a stiletto, rather than a cudgel. Also, the opening is just one of the most effective things you'll ever see in terms of immediately unsettling the reader. I basically dare you to open it and read half a page and then put it down. I double dare you.

Tough, interestingly, it suffers from the essential problem which exists in writing horror novels, one which I'm going to reveal in a couple of jumps since it sort of spoils the ending

(SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT)

OK, so a horror story requires, as part of an honest completion of its ritual, a bad end for the main characters. Note that this is not necessarily to say that the main characters need to die, but they cannot triumph. This is critical; as a reader we have to get to the end and go, 'boy, wouldn't want to trade places with this guy.' But, interestingly, readers will generally not accept a mostly bad ending in a novel, especially not a genre novel – they feel annoyed to have spent 500 pages with a group of characters only to have them dismembered or whatever. Most writers essentially try to split the baby, knocking off a couple of ancillary characters but the heroes managing to survive or at least to defeat the main evil, which works to a degree but not as well as coming to the final sentence and then ripping the carpet out from a reader's surrogate. Still, gave me a pretty good nightmare last week while I was sleeping in an abandoned house. But that's another story.

The Hugenots Geoffrey Treasure – well researched, decently written, essentially not that riveting by my lights. It gives you a pretty good overview of the history of French Calvinism, from the man himself to the edict of Revocation. If this is a really specific interest of yours than have at it but in retrospect I'm not exactly sure why I decided to pick it up. I do like the Wars of Religion as a time period, I mean, not like it like I want to be in the wake of an invading Swedish army but like it like it's fun to read things about it. Also, I think I thought it would be shorter than it was.

The Interview by Herta Muller – Looking at my library I appear to be a real glutton for experimental writing about communist totalitarianism; in the Romanian sub-category alone a few months ago I read Manea's A Black Envelope. This is, by the standards of the strange sub-genre, fairly readable, the nightmares and past history of a woman in Bucharest going to one of an endless seeming but potentially fatal interview with a communist apparatchek. It was really quite good, as you'd expect from a Nobel prize winner, or not really because that's an absolutely asinine award. The prize for literature and the prize for peace make rather embarrassing reading for the committee, as a quick side note, but we're getting off topic. The Interview is swiftly paced and well-written and definitely worth your time.

The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, A History By Jean d'Ormesson – A history of the Holy Asian Empire, which never stretched from Iberia to Korea, indeed which never existed at all, save in the mind of the author and his readers. Meticulously if falsely documented, d'Ormesson mostly does a fine job of mimicking the tics and style of Gibbons' and his various followers, albeit it for an entirely fictional place. Honestly, I found I wanted to enjoy this more than I did – the idea of history as myth, the peculiar attempt to stuff a false nation into the actual historical record, all of this is appealing, but the actual plot is just not that interesting. Much of it, to me at least, read like a not altogether enjoyable fantasy novel, with heroes and priests winging in and out of the narrative. More clever in theory than practice.

The Hot Spot Charles Williams – Call it Jim Thompson light, about a used car salesman who gets an idea to rob a bank, and the ineveitable trouble that arises. Not as brutal or as brilliant as the master, but essentially the same milieu, foolish people doing bad things to their own certain injury. A fine way to while away a few hours, but I didn't feel it much more than that.

The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle – Ha! Ha! Very odd, very funny. Like a modern John Fante, though LaValle's protagonist is more narcissistic than insane, while LeValle's antihero, is skirting (?) clear madness throughout. The writing crackles, and almost every page gave me a chuckle, even as the horror-laced imagery disturbs. Recommend.

City of Saints and Madmen By Jeff VanderMeer – Four shorts which are loosely connected as being about, in some way, the fantastical city of Ambergris, sort of a 1920's New York built atop a Lovecraftian abyss, although this is to exaggerate the degree to which the stoplacery ever really becomes clear. Each story is sufficiently different as to make a general review sort of useless – two have a normal-ish narrative structure, one purports to be a historical pamphlet regarding the early years of the city's existence. I applaud anyone who attempts to do anything innovative in the fantasy genre, stale as it tends to get, and while none of these stories blew my brains out of the back of my skull they were weird and sometimes scary and generally enjoyable. I'll keep my eye out for something else by VanderMeer next time I'm wondering through the Strand.

The Thief By Fuminori Nakamura – Is there a difference, really, between existential noir and other noir? Isn't all good noir existential? This excellent tale of a Tokyo-based pick pocket, so detached from his own humanity as to be virtually nameless, is very much in the Le Samourai sort of vein, an individual defined entirely by his profession. It's spare if a bit predictable, and more (to my mind) an enjoyable genre thriller than a particularly brilliant work of literature. That said, I enjoyed it and would pick up something else by this guy.

Nightmare Alley By William Lindsay Gresham – Ooooh. Ooooooh! Our tale of horror begins with the protagonist, a slick-talking, amoral stage magician watching a side show geek bite the head off a chicken, and swearing he would never fall so low. You can probably guess how it ends. In the middle is a narrative which makes the Hot Spot seem absolutely light-hearted by comparison, one in which faith of all kinds – in stage magic, in clairvoyance, in Christianity, and, most fascinatingly, in the practice of therapeutic psychiatry – is ridiculed mercilessly, and the world is reduced to a zero-sum game of staggering brutality. Legitimately disturbing, but worth your time.

Books I Read 8/30/2016

Books and books and books and books. Anyway, here are some.

Neuromancer by William Gibson – I was born in 1984, the same year that Neuromancer dropped, and so for me the future was always going to take place in some Asian-influenced megacity (sidenote: it's a funny 80's holdover that it was supposed to be Japan, with a rapidly declining population of 180 odd million people, and not the billion+ strong PRC), with street samurai roaming the back alleys, corrupt super corporations strangling the planet, wacky computer stuff, and lots of black leather. Sometimes there were even Elves, if memory serves. But still, one can imagine how new and fresh this must have felt upon arrival, coming as it did when most people didn't even own a computer and the internet was still something contained inside of Al Gore's mind. And it mostly holds up, with a rapid-fire pace and a hip sensibility that, unlike pretty much all of it's successors, isn't trying to hard. Of course, the ending doesn't make any sense, but with so much clever stuff in here – the downloaded consciousness of the protagonist's dead mentor, the Rasta space pilots – it seems almost churlish to mention it. Unfortunate that, like Tolkien, it spawned such endless varieties of absolute shit, but you can't hardly hold Gibson responsible for it. All in all a ton of of fun.

Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny – I remember really loving Zelazny when I was a kid, the Amber books are a ton of fun, and what was the one about the demon killing gods, or something? That was cool too. Dick, frankly, I keep reading feeling like I should like, and then finding myself annoyed when I actually stop to look at him. So we'll say this one split the difference – there are some clever throw aways here, in this story about a post-apocalyptic religious cult which is based upon the worship of violence (or something like that: despite a lot of rather sophomoric moralizing, basic tenants of the faith never become clear). But there's a lot more that fails – the plot itself just doesn't hold up at all, the characterization is the sort of thing where you know the authors themselves weren't really all that interested in them, except as interlocutors for some, again, not all that clever discussions about faith, religion, and Christianity. One had the sense that this grew out of a couple of bowls in some late 60's fantasy convention, and bluntly put it would have probably been better if it stayed there.

Farewell Song Rabindranath Tagore – A sweet little tale of romance and the idea of romance. Slight but lovely, and well worth it for this line, which had me howling in bitter agreement on a plane to Toronto – 'all my books attain moksha in single editions, liberated from the cycle of rebirth, never to appear again.

The Drought by J.G. Ballard – Yeah, I mean, basically I have the same review of this as I have of Ballard's other books about the apocalypse being brought about by some human engineered environmental catastrophe, and the mental collapse of the people trying to survive it. The Drought, the general plot of which you can probably put together yourself, is disturbingly prophetic, well-written, and did not work for me quite as well as the other Ballard stuff I've been reading, although that's probably not because it's a step down in quality so much as they're all a bit similar. Still, well-worth a read, if just for the whole wacky water-harvesting sequence, which was dope as all hell.

Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier – So, so good. I've read a lot of the English WWI autobiographies (although this is technically a fiction, it's obviously informed by Chevallier's own experience in the trenches), Goodbye to All That, etc., and I have to say this blows it out of the water. As the title indicates, Chevallier seeks to strip bare the pointless horror of mechanized warfare, and to redefine the doughy infantrymen as one who, with the rarest exceptions, is defined largely if not exclusively by a desperate, all consuming, immediate physical terror. If you've ever wondered about what you would look like if you were forced to grab a rifle and hold a trench at the Somme, pick this one up and feel bad about yourself. Strongly recommended.

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – So, all in all I liked this. It's readable and melancholic and the notion that the third book in the series if meant to serve as sort of an ur-text for the first two is quite clever. It's my first of Auster's and later this week I went out and bought two more, which, concretely, is as good a recommendation as you could kind of ask for. Admittedly, it manages to do in 350 pages what Borges does better in about 9, but fine, we can't all be Borges, and mostly I enjoyed myself while I was occupied with it. All the same, I'm going to spend a few hundred words trashing it, or, more accurately, trashing the literary establishment which loves it so much.

So, this might reasonably be described as a sort of anti-mystery novel. It takes the tropes of the genre, with which Auster is clearly familiar, and subverts them. There are private detectives and people pretending to be private detectives, there are investigations and there are even (sort of) femme fatales. The set up is familiar enough, but the pay off goes loopy, with each of the first two stories (the third is a bit more complicated) basically mocking the idea that mysteries can be solved, that there is such a thing as identity, etc.

Well and good—but it leaves one wondering, why is this considered superior to the classic formula? Even the biggest Auster fan could not, in good consciousness, pretend that this is a work of profound human insight. If pressed, one would say that it was about identity, and obsession, and the way in which our creations usurp us, and the unknowable quality of existence, but, I mean, honestly, so what? This is not the sort of book which enlightens some corner of our shared experience, which redefines our self-conception—it is essentially a form of entertainment, not, in the last gasp, much different from Hammet or Chandler. Why, then, is Auster considered a genius and the aforementioned writers talented hacks? Is not providing a pay-off evidence of brilliance? Let me tell you something, friends, as a writer, endings are hard as shit. Making things wrap up in a coherent or even semi-coherent way, that's a lot of work. Far easier to just kind of trail off at the end there, a few notes about walking down a dark alley and never returning, and who are you to say to that you aren't the person you're chasing, and blah blah. Honestly I'm less taking aim at Auster here, cause I actually liked this, then I am someone like, for instance, Murakami, who has essentially made a career writing mediocre pulp which gets elevated to high literature because it doesn't have an ending.

The 47 Ronin Story by John Allyn – I picked this up because it was by the same publisher as the really, really, really excellent The Ronin, which I can't highly enough recommend, but it was terrible and not worth reading. It's not well written and it's not interesting and these two sentences were more time than it probably warrants.

Timbuktu by Paul Auster – Uhhhh...not good. Kind of a pretentious Marley and Me. I mean I didn't actually read Marley and Me but that's the sense I get of the thing. It's about a dog in search of an owner. I kept waiting for it to get way more clever but it never actually did. Avoid.

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Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant – this is someone's favorite book, I'm sure, but it wasn't mine. Ms. Gallant is a talented writer of prose but, except for a few exceptions (the late returner and the couple of ones about the aging French novelist, the titles of which I find I can't be bothered to go back and look up) I was left cold at her work. They're skilled but bloodless, and I kept getting to the end of each and being glad I was done and faintly annoyed with the effort it took to get there.

The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell – very, very peculiar, and not altogether excellent, though interesting just to see Woodrell's development. These three very early books detail (sort of) the life of Rene Shade, a Cajun police detective in a corrupt, slightly fantastical version of Baton Rouge. The first of the three is a straight police thriller, competent but utterly rote. Rene is a two-fisted, hard-drinking investigator who straddles the line between cop and crook, trying to do the right thing in a world which so manifestly does not reward the righteous. All of the usual cliches are here, and the writing is a long way from the excellence Woodrell shows in the vastly superior Winter's Bone. The second in the trilogy is a step up from the first, has some well-written scenes of violence and a meaner, tighter ending, but is likewise essentially unmemorable. Shade himself is just not interesting; we've seen him too many times in too many other stories, it's a struggle to give a shit about what happens to him.

Which, perhaps Woodrell knew, which is why he is, unexpectedly and inexplicably, relegating to a minor participant in the third book, replaced by his previously mentioned but never seen father, John X. Shade, a pool-player and general scum bag, who is forced to return to the bosom of his family while escaping a sociopath whose money he sort of stole. Gone are the conventional mysteries of the first two books in the trilogy, and the various hooks which are raised—the corrupt mayor, a crime boss against whom Rene had sworn vengeance, etc. – are never answered. It's a very peculiar narrative decision, frankly, and one which comes completely out of left field. One wonders how Woodrell's editors felt about him handing in a book which only very tangentially relates to the other two. In any event, it is objectively much better than the first two; weirder, better written, more in the 'southern Gothic' style than the classic detective mode. A one-off episode in which the pursuing sociopath gets entangled with a pair of milk-fed cornhuskers with less than savory motivations is particularly fun. Still, it's got a lot of flaws. Too much is happening too quickly, and while I didn't care particularly for the first two books it was still annoying not to have some sort of resolution for the narrative questions which were raised. Probably only interesting to a Woodrell completist, and even then barely.

The Book of Illusions By Paul Auster – This sucked. Sucked sucked sucked sucked sucked. Utterly mediocre. Shoddily written, never pretty and often not even competent (a rough third of the book consists of the narrator describing movies which don't exist). The characters are paper thin, their motivations largely nonsensical. Its got Auster's usual obsessions about identity, and writing as a form of creation, and blah blah blah, but it doesn't lead into anything meaningful. This was my third Auster book, as mentioned, and I feel confident it's going to be my last. One more exhibit that the modern critical establishment just doesn't have a goddamn idea what they're doing.

Books I Read 8/13/2016

Right, the last few weeks. Summer in the city, well, it's balls, it's just balls, man, it's balls all around. New York is (to the best of my knowledge) the only city in the world that does not require, which indeed demands it's citizens eschew the use of trash cans, and between the rotting fetid filth spilling out of punctured glad bags, the swamp-sweat of B.O., the gas fumes, etc., everyone who can flees to beaches or mountains or what have you. I followed suit for a bit, which is why this entry is heavy on genre stuff, because really, who wants to read anything dense while listening to the ocean lap against the waves. Although I did in fact end up reading a few, cause I'm such a glutton for punishment. In any event, on to the show...

Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford – A tetralogy detailing the end of the British Empire through the life of one Christopher Tietjens of Groby, the Englishest Englishman who ever ate a crumpet or watched a cricket match or had passionless sex with his forebearing wife. It straddles a curious spot in English literature, somewhere between the romances of the pre-war era and the more complex novels which would become prevalent later on. Chronicling the years just before to just after the Great War, long-suffering Tietjens attempts to survive the machinations of his faithless, lustful, brilliant wife Sylvia, his obsession with the forward-thinking, suffragette Valentine, and life in the trenches, which was a pretty nasty business so far as I can gather. It's interest in the upper classes, as well as the rather tiring conceit whereby Tietjens is endlessly in the wrong place at the wrong time and refuses, out of sheer Torie pique, to ever explain or defend itself, owes more to the generation of novels proceeding it. The structure is the more interesting part of the work, with each book in the series taking place over the span of several hours or at most days, as the protagonist (mostly Tietjens, though other characters take over narrative duties on occasion) thinks their way through the events of the moment as well as their ore recent history. It's very clever, if not quite so clever as some of the more adventurous writers who Ford would be instrumental in bringing into the public consciousness as the century wore on. Still, if you've got a thousand pages to read you could do a lot worse.

High Minds by Simon Heffer – Writing a cultural or intellectual history is a difficult task to set yourself; lacking concrete action or often, even, a clear chronology of events, the best manage to weave a narrative of an age through the ideas and creations of its artistic and intellectual champions. Alas, despite the enormous praise lavished on it, to my thinking High Minds, Simon Heffer's attempt to identify how the barbarians of the 1830's became the proto-moderns of the 1880's, does not meet the bar. Rather than express a coherent tableau, Heffer essentially ends up writing many dozens of small biographies about the prominent thinkers of the early and mid Victorian-age – Carlyle, Mill, Disraeli, etc., some of which are interesting, some of which aren't, none of which end up being more than puzzle pieces which never quite come together into a single picture. Some of the chapters – about the building of the Prince Albert Hall, and the World's Fair in particular – are so tedious and unrelated to the greater plot that it seems unbelievable that no editor swooped in to cut them. Like any large work of non-fiction, reading it will learn you things you didn't know, so it wasn't entirely a waste of my time, but still I can't imagine recommending to anyone, or at least to anyone I liked.

Little, Big by John Crowley – this one, by contrast, I've found myself recommending to basically everyone who will listen to me—to strangers at bars and social media acquaintances and every friend who has ever read anything. And now I'm going to recommend it to you as well, though with the caveat that it's the sort of book that cannot be neatly explained. It's about fairies, and also about everything important in human existence. It's beautifully written, its evocative and strange, it is, without any question, one of the very finest fantasy novels of the 20th century. Really, that's not enough praise to heap on it—it compares favorably, in my mind, not only to say, Neil Gaiman, but to Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well. Indeed, the fact that it is not even more highly praised can only be held as one more failure of the American critical establishment to give proper respect to the literary creations of its own countrymen. The perfect summer read, one that I have no doubt I will return to again and again as the years go by, a more than minor masterpiece, strongly, strongly, strongly recommend.

Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Ballard has a way of elevating what would be an interesting but not brilliant genre trope into high literature by focusing on the psychological journey of the protagonists more even than the actual events of his narratives. In this case, the story of a handful of scientists in the wreckage of a water-logged London, a generation after the ice caps have swamped human civilization (madness! Who could ever suppose such a thing would ever happen!) is enriched by a progressive (regressive?) atavism which takes place in the minds of its main characters. Fun, quick, weird, depressing.

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende – Here, dear reader, you will find every cliché of Latin American magical realism; virile, violent men; sultry, mystical woman; precocious children; fantastical happenings described in a banal fashion, giant animals, war and lust and violence. What you will not find, anywhere, is a recognizable human character, or indeed a story which feels authentic or honest in any way. This is, in short, a simpering mediocrity of a novel, and its critical popularity is inexplicable (or, more accurately, entirely and sadly explicable). The prose is fine, you won't be writing down any passages to look at but nor does it embarrass itself; indeed, if you hadn't read Marquez or Cortazar or any of the previous generation of writers who Allende is so clearly cribbing from, you might almost (almost) think this was a work of talent if not genius. But seen in context, it's impossible not to see her as a sad epigone of other, better writers. Pick up 100 Years of Solitude, or better yet, Savage Detectives.

You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Selected Stories of Elizabeth Taylor by Elizabeth Taylor – Why, oh why, has Ms. Taylor's work been so comprehensively forgotten? Is it solely her unfortunate choice of nom de plume? Maybe. 450 pages of short story, and every one of them good to excellent. Admittedly, her range is rather limited, dealing all but exclusively with the social happenings of upper middle class Englishfolk in the years after the 2nd World War—but each one is excellent, her writing is taut, disciplined, mean and wry. Lots of good stuff in here, but The Flypaper, the lone horror story, deserves particular mention. As always, great to see New York Review of Book Classics bringing a deserving writer back to popular attention.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins – Hell of a crime novel, just a hell of a crime novel. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the story of Eddie Coyle, a small-time Boston fixer, and his attempts to get out of going to prison by selling out anyone and everyone he can. The story is strangely structured, and Higgins demands the reader do a lot of their own work in keeping track of the characters—but doing so is well worth the time, especially because the lack of a strong narrative presence serves to illustrate the degree to which crime is a meaningless, banal activity, nasty people doing nasty things. It's ferociously paced, it's mean, it's excellently written, it feels absolutely authentic. Strong recommendation.

Collected Short Fiction by V.S. Naipaul – Right, well, look, any honest list of the 10 best authors of the 20th century will have Naipaul on it. Top 20 certainly. There probably is not another writer alive who can claim so impressively diverse a body of work. These are good particularly the first part, his Miguel Street stories, about the lives of his neighbors in a Trindad side street. That said, some of the later ones flag a bit, and, to be blunt, this is probably not Naipaul at his best. If you haven't read him yet, and you really should, start with A Bend in the River if you want fiction or basically any of his non-fiction, particularly the ones having to do with India and Trinidad itself. Really this is more for the Naipaul completist, but still it's far from a waste of anyone's time.

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell – Top notch, jet black hillbilly noir. The story of a young woman in the bleakest sort of Ozark poverty and her attempts to discover what happened to her unreliable, meth-cooking father, this is genre writing at its very highest point. No word here is wasted, the language is brutal and lovely, the dialogue incredibly sharp while still seeming authentic to the characters voicing it. It's really well plotted also, I can't really explain why without giving away essential points of the story, but it manages to avoid the whole it's-impossible-to-construct-an-authentic-mystery-without-constantly-lying-to-the-reader problem that all of us working in the genre struggle with. Just generally kick ass, give it a look.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene – Yeah, I mean, I read a lot of good stuff the last few weeks. Greene is just great, he's part of that generation of English novelists whose writing is a lot wittier than anyone else's ever was, and he used his significant life experience, in this case the time he spent working for British intelligence, to bleak and effective use. The story of a vacuum cleaner salesman who seeks to milk the secret service to pay off the debts of his profligate daughter, Our Man in Havana is laugh out loud funny, both in the its language and in its general condemnation of the pointless absurdity of the cold war and spying generally. Admittedly it feels a bit slight, particularly at the end (which wraps itself up rather too neatly), but still, tons of fun and definitely worth your time.

Enter A City Dreaming

As a general rule, I hate the metaphors and allusions which accompany most discussions about writing. Writers are, broadly, self-serious, sanctimonious, lazy people, who like to give the impression that sitting in an air-conditioned coffee-shop and hashing away at a lap top is an activity comparable to say, breaking rocks on the chain gang in the Alabama sun. My least favorite of all these is the 'a book is like a child' thing. Writing a book is nothing like having a child. This is an insane and foolish comparison. Having spent the last week looking after my brother's 20 month old son has really hammered this home. My book does not, for instance, take off all his pajamas in the middle of the night and then hose down his bedding with urine. My book does not demand that you play him the Raffi record when you are already playing him the goddamn Raffi record