Media I Consumed February 16th, 2018

I dunno. I dunno. A lot happened this week. Some good. Some not. I dunno. I hate the internet and don't ever want to be famous. I doubt there's much danger of that. Since I wrote the last post I read the following books, and watched the following movies. I'm going to start writing things about them now, because it helps me remember them later on.

The Bridge of Beyond By Simone Schwartz-Bart – Fabulous, just fabulous. Several generations of woman growing up in Guadeloupe, this is magical realism (I know, I know, sorry, sorry) at it's very best, that is to say an ecstatic (though not at all improbable) hyper-vivid storyline, filled with various folk beliefs and hints of fantastical activities, the purpose of which being to intensify the readers own reactions to the essentially very reasonable, human emotions of the cast. An enormously life-affirming novel, exceptional in its empathy. Oh, lovely, lovely! A very, very rare find. I have read a lot of fabulous books lately and gun to my head (please don't put a gun to my heard) this was the best. Absolutely beautiful. Obviously, keep.


The Dead-Mountaineer's Inn by the Brother's Strugatsky A police investigator arrives at a (possibly haunted) winter cabin, various mysteries occur, to say much else would spoil things. You can probably assume by it being written by the two greatest Russian sci-fi writers (one of the best period) that there is more here than the usual locked door mystery, and that part of it I really liked, but at it happens I fucking hate locked door mysteries, and so the part of it that is an example or perhaps a parody of the that style of book really bored the shit out of me, and so I probably didn't love this as might as much as I might have. On the third hand (?) there is a sense of moral seriousness, evident likewise in last week's Roadside Picnic, which put it firmly in the keep column.


Invitation to a Beheading by Vladamir Nabokov – (Quick sidenote – this is not the first time that Vintage International has flat shit the bed on back copy (I'm looking at you, William Faulkner's The Mansion) directly spoiling the ending. Admittedly the ending is nonsensical but that's not the point, someone over there needs to fix this shit)High literature has its cliches as assuredly as does genre fiction, and among their number there is surely no hoarier conceit than 'man is put to death for the crime of being an individual,' every bit as banal as the beautiful broad walks into a private detective's office/scullery boy draws a sword from a stone. Here you will find the usual slate of grotesque side characters and tragi-comic interludes, done very well, so far as they go, I mean Nabokov can write, obviously, there are some laugh out loud funny bits, but basically it seemed like a lot of absurdity for absurdities sake, and it just felt tiringly similar to a lot of other things I've read. This is the first book I got from the LA Library (I joined a library! Woo-hoo for me!) and so the keep/drop dynamic doesn't really work as well, but if I'd bought this I'd have gotten rid of it.


God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam – Ooo. Oooh! Excellent. A summer in north England between the Wars, a precocious young girl and the horrible adults who surround her; a puritanical father, a weak mother, a lascivious nanny, a bunch of other less than lovely, though sympathetic and understandable, characters. This is very well written, but rarer (at least among a lot of the books I find myself reading) it is masterfully plotted, offering the sort of narrative anticipation that high literature often feels like it doesn't need to bother with (sidenote: it is generally wrong). Excellent all around, I'll definitely keep an eye out for more by Ms. Gundam. Another library book, but I'd keep this in principal.


The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – Basically, this is a very good, grim noir/novel of existential despair in the Jim Thompson/Camus mold. I particularly liked the weird sadomasachistic sex, and the twisted sense of love which arises between the leads. On the other hand it's over complicated, and the legal drama and the various side-stories which come after the initial murder only serve to muddle the ferocious erotic nastiness of the plot. Still, fabulous, I'd keep it if I didn't need to give it back to the library.


Invincible Vol. 23 Full House – For my money, Invincible is the best superhero comic ever written, and one of the best comics period. A hundred plus issues in and Kirkman still manages to keep the story fresh, with surprising plot developments and solid character development. I guess it's coming to an end soon, apparently, and that's kind of a bummer but also I'm looking forward to seeing these evil Vultrimites get their what for. Fucking Vultrimites. Keep.


God's Country by Percival Everett – Absolutely fucking fabulous. Some peculiar crossbreed between Nathanael West and Charles Portis, an absurdist revisionist Western serving double (triple?) duty as a grand comment on racial injustice. Our antihero protagonist, Curt Marder, a cowardly, immoral fool, has his wife kidnapped by white men masquerading as Indians, and hires on the services of Bubba, a black tracker, heroic and taciturn, to find her. A series of tragi-comic misadventures ensues, exposing the hypocrisies of the mythology of the American West mythology and making me laugh with such frequency and intensity that I began to make the people at the bar around me uncomfortable. Brilliant, obviously a keeper



Harold and Maude – It's funny to see the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl spring full-grown from Hal Ashby like Athena from the head of Zeus, down to Harold learning a quirky instrument, and the Cat Stevens soundtrack. The original is much better than its descendants; the fake suicide attempts are, at first at least, legitimately funny, and every scene with Harold's mom made me laugh out loud (the bit where she's filling out his dating profile is a howler). Also, obviously, the age difference is legitimately transgressive, and Harold's gradual realization that he is sexually attracted to Maude is done in a really unsettlingly excellent way. The end is still kind of shticky, but then again romantic comedies by their nature kind of have to be. I quite liked it, all in all.

Being There – About a gentle retard who manages to stumble his way into the highest echelons of power by repeating things people say back to them and muttering the banal idiocies he learned from watching television. It's a brilliant conceit, and Peter Sellers is fabulous, although to my mind we could have shaved about 20 minutes off. But really that's a minor complaint, and this is a pretty great movie, particularly Shirley McClaine's hysterically funny sex scene and the brilliant final shot. Hal Ashby had a peculiar genius for creating films which future generations would steal from entirely while somehow completely missing his obvious ironic intent. Zach Braff saw Harold and Maude and figured, hey, what if Maude was young and beautiful and the ending was happy, and I guess Rob Zemeckis saw Being There and thought, hey, what if the inane platitudes of this halfwit did contain some seeds of wisdom, and he made Forest Gump. Weird. Weird. Anyway, this is great, watch it if you haven't.


Last Detail – Fabulous. About a pair of Navy-lifers who are charged with delivering an 18 year old boy to spend 8 years in prison for a minor crime, and the misadventures they gin up in en route. It's really, really well written, funny and mean, the dialogue and the interaction always feeling honest. Jack Nicholson plays one of the two guards, and he nails it- 'screamy' actors tend to age really badly, their intensity inevitably descends into schtick as they get older (I'm looking at you, Al Pacino) but this role really shows Nicholson at his best—there's a raw authenticity to him, a mad passion that bubbles off the screen, whether he's screaming at a mouthy bartender or lamenting the loss of their charge's innocence. Really, really liked this movie.


Shampoo – Mainly what I liked about this is there are no easy villains. Characters who would be throw away villains in worse movies – a commercial director who swoops in on Goldie Hawn, a sleazy industrialist played brilliantly by Jack Warden (there's a character actor, shit) – they're sympathetic, even likable. For that matter Beatty's womanizing prick is drawn with understanding awfulness. Oh, and 18 year old Carrie Fisher has got gigantic eyes and solid comic chops.


Lost Highway – I basically want to avoid giving any actual interpretation of the film, or even much of a description, because I fear they'll just spoil the thing, and if you haven't seen it you ought to, but this seemed very much to me to be a sort of practice run for Lynch's superior Mulholland Drive, having much the same basic set up – a pair of stories reflecting one another, with the illusory half functioning as an attempt by the protagonist to overcome the evils brought about by their obsessive, violent, destructive love. So far as Lynch goes, this is pretty coherent, closer to say, Blue Velvet than Inland Empire, but all the same if you like your films with, you know, clear plots and whatnot you might want to stay away. Obviously I'm kind of a obsessed with Lynch, indeed I have no idea why I haven't seen this movie already, and am glad I rectified that failing. Also, more fun to watch Lynch now that I've moved out to LA, but obviously that's not going to be much for you one way nor tother.

Books I Read February 8th, 2018

LA is warm and weird. I went to a Taiwanese Night Market last week and ate stinky tofu for the first time since I used to live in Taiwan, as well as a couple of other things that I actually liked and wasn't just eating for nostalgia. The flowers bloom in the winter, out here. In New York there weren't really any dive bars anymore but there are some proper dive bars here.Yo estudio espanol por uno o dos horas a dia, y progresso despacio. Escribe estos libros;


The Damned by John D MacDonald – Excellent and peculiar. About a handful of people who get stuck at a ferry crossing near the Mexican/American border, and the misfortunes which befall them. I picked up one of MacDonald's at some point earlier, something which was a bit more straight detective-y and I liked it but didn't love it. This was much better. The writing is really on point, each of the different characters feels well-realized (mostly; in keeping with the noir tradition the assholes and villains are better drawn than the more decent characters.) MacDonald's writing is astute in its depiction of sexual mores as well as casual racism. The structure is likewise really peculiar, with each short chapter taking place from the POV of one of the different characters, ranging from casual gangsters to emasculated husbands. A lot of other mid-century noir writers – Chandler, Hammet, the other McDonald, etc. – had the prose chops to go toe to toe with more or less anyone (almost) but were hampered by having to stick to the usual genre conventions, which are fun but limiting. It's interesting to see what can be done out of those boundaries, kind of like what Highsmith was doing with Price of Salt. Hey, is this out of print? Because if so, it would slot neatly into the NYRB classic's catalog. Keep.


Central Station by Lavie Tidhar – Mushy. Mushy all over. Yeah, I know you gave it to me for free, Lavie, but I still didn't like it. Go back to writing about Nazis. Drop.


Pnin by Vladamir Nabokov – Yeah, I mean, there's a reason that Nabakov is widely regarded as one of the best writers of the 20th century. This is a small book, both in page count and scope, about the life of an indigent, unimpresive Russian professor, but the prose is masterful, funny and original, and more importantly than that there's a sweetness to him, he doesn't give in to the easy temptation, common to good writers and geniuses generally, to hate the people around him. Keep.

The Sagas of Icelanders by Assorted Icelandic Folk – Prose stories detailing the various misadventures of man and woman who were born or exiled to or who died in Iceland from, roughly speaking 900-1200 AD. What's the point of reading ancient works of world literature? 1) it gives you some insight into a past culture, and into the broader sweep of history. 2) it's difficult, and strange, and not like reading anything written in the last few centuries, and there's a value to that in and of itself. 3) there are always a handful of peculiar concepts which are fun to steal and run with – here I really liked the Scorn Pole, which is when if you challenged another dude to a fight and he agreed and then punked out you'd go to his land and put a rotting horse head on a stick in front of his house. 4) it's always fascinating to see these pre-modern societies grapple with emotional issues which are outside of appropriate social norms. But, mainly 5) because it's one of the unique joys of literature to stumble across intersections between the past and present, when the life of a raider/merchant from a thousand odd years ago reflects some similarity with that of a shiftless LA lay-about.

There's enough of them here to make it worth your trouble, though the general quality varies a lot. Egil's Saga, about a whiny poet/lunatic warrior in particular is really good, as is the Saga of the People of Laxardal, which details the bloody, endless, self-defeating vengeance of a woman scorned. Probably I'd be better served if I had read them one at a time, rather then altogether, because the blood feuds and voyages to Greenland kind of run together, but by and large I would admit to having felt like this was a pretty good use of my time. Keep

Books I Read February 2nd, 2018

Right. I moved to Los Feliz, which is the sort of neighborhood which like, if you were making fun of my cliché, you'd go, 'I bet you live in Los Feliz, don't you,' and I'd have to hang my head. But, it does have a million cool bars and restaurants and coffee shops and there's a big park nearby and some good bookstores and what more does a person really want. I walk around the neighborhood and point at things and say their names in Spanish. El piso! La Ventana! Un habitacion. Etc. Also, I read these books.


Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein –I'm trying to get someone to pay me to write about this so I'll just use this as a placeholder, but in case I forget to fill that place I didn't love it. There's a freshness to Heinlein which is characteristic of that era of sci-fi writers, where the territory is so uncharted that things don't feel cliché, but I thought ultimately its moral vision is likewise kind of infantile, and some of the writing is just not great, any way you look at it. Drop.


Flight to Canada By Ishmael Reed – Oh man, I loved this. L-O-V-E-D. I like, walked into lamp poles reading this. I tripped on the beach reading this. A brilliant, bizarre comic satire of race relations during the civil war and a hundred years after, taking place in a nonsensical wonderland where Gettysburg is overlapping with rock-and-roll music and our protagonist, Raven Quickskill's eponymous escape from slavery might take place on a jumbo jet. Like Nathanael West (peculiar that I just read him last week, as Reed's debt to West is clear throughout) the plot really is just thin cover for an endless barrage of side characters, misadventures and narrative asides. The best satirists are hedgehogs, all points, and Reed is one of these, with every facet of American society being pitilessly, savagely, hysterically skewered. There are no easy answers here, no clear political program, just a fabulous writer exposing the underlying hypocrisy endemic to the human character. Also, you could basically read any sentence in this book and just laugh your ass off-- all this great wordplay and dead pan humor. Obviously I'm keeping this.


Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles by John Mack Faragher– I had forgotten that part of the fun of moving to a place is you get to submerge yourself in the history of the place you've moved, and this was a good way to start, a brisk six hundred pages about the slow development of the rule of law in Los Angeles. There's a bit about its early incorporation into the Spanish monastic system and then a swift overview of secularization and then a bit about the American 'liberation' Southern California during the Mexican-American war which is entertaining (in the fashion of all American conflicts prior to the Civil War, there's a lot of half-assedry as modestly incompetent military men struggle against the inconceivably vast distances involved, teams of shoeless marines being dispatched by a charge of vacqueros with horses, everyone getting drunk and running away after there's a fight, that sort of thing) but probably goes on a bit too long, after which it settles into the heart of the story, a discussion of how lynch law rose and fall in Los Angeles, and the creation and strengthening of societal norms against violence. That was a long fucking sentence. That kind of thing is right up my alley, and there were a lot of fun descriptions of horrible crimes sufficiently dated as to offer one frisson rather than nightmare. As it happens I actually bought this one for my phone, cause it was a lot in paper and also I'm trying to keep fewer books but if we're going to keep to my binary, if I owned it, I'd keep it.


Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky– Damn. Damn! Wow! Damn! Between Flight to Canada and this, I had a pretty fabulous week for books. How come the Russians are better than everyone else when it comes to novels? I don't know why this is the case but it's true, they're been ahead of the West at every stage since the creation of the novel, pretty much. When did this come out? '71? For some reason I thought it was a little earlier. Still, dope, really, really dope. So, there's this town, and these alien's come and visit it, and a lot of weird shit happens, and everyone runs away, and the UN tosses this cordon around the town's the alien's visited called the Zone. And people sneak into these zones and they steal shit because this shit's worth a lot of money to the outside world, because this shit that the alien's left behind or whatever, they're like toys to the aliens (maybe) but to us they violate the laws of physics and shit. These dudes are called Stalkers. This is a pretty ill set up for a book just starting out buy the Bros. Just nail it, man, it's written with this really excellent patter which 1) sounds like you think future people would talk 2) is totally easy to understand and 3) somehow gives a broader sense of the world without bogging you down in a lot of explanation, except for one bit 4/5ths in, and even that's pretty fun. The Bros. Do the best job of making the 'alien' feel really horrifying of anyone I think I read besides Lovecraft but unlike Lovecraft, who was obviously a bigoted, desperate man, the Bros. Offer an bleak but not despairing moral vision which only very good works of fiction offer. I also got this online but I'm going to keep my eye out for a version to BUY-- THAT'S HOW MUCH I LIKED THIS BOOK. Not only am I not going to drop it, I'm going to buy it!



Japanese by Spring By Ishmael Reed – Weird. I can't remember having such a case of a literary whiplash since reading Annie Proulx. The story of a black professor of literature who sells his soul first as an anti-affirmative action advocate, then as a pro-Japanese quisling after the Japanese take over the university, I was so shocked by its bitterness and general incompetence that I spent a lot of the book thinking I must have been missing something, before coming to the decision that no, I didn't, it just sucked. There is a joke somewhere to be made about the inherent racism endemic to most all cultures and people, our secret belief that whatever we are must be better than whatever everyone else is by virtue of our being it, but it doesn't come together here. Reed's depiction of Academia as being a bastion of Nazidom is from my experience, peculiar and inaccurate. (admittedly this was written in 91 or so, but still I cannot imagine things have changed so much between then and my undergraduate experience in the mid 2000's. True, there has been a recent and disturbing 'mainstreaming' of right wing pseudo-fascist ideology, but that's sort of the point—Academia is not the main stream, it is its own peculiar niche, and not one in which you will see many individuals wearing swastikas). Likewise almost hysterically dated is the early 90's fear of a resurgent Japan, which is, in retrospect, about as silly a boogieman as you're apt to find.

There are a lot of skills required of a satirist, most of which Reed seems to have lost in the quarter-century or so between writing Flight to Canada and writing this. His powder is dry, his assaults either toothless or taking place on straw men. Worse yet, Reed gives in to the single most unacceptable fault in a satirists, which is to allow his own personal feelings to dictate the vent of his spleen. Whoever it was that popularized the 'punching upward' school of satire is a fucking idiot who understands nothing about humor in the slightest (as if it were an Excel formula – 'make sure you exclude any underserved populations from your comic sum!'). A good satirist carries a machine gun, not a rifle, and he takes aim at everything he sees, and, most importantly, he makes sure to keep one in the clip for himself. Flight to Canada does a great job with this, skewering the pretensions and hypocrisies of everyone it lays its eyes on. Japanese by Summer does the exact reverse. Reed frequently slips into an omniscient third person that comments in what, by all appearances, is mean to be an objective fashion, pointing out the failures of the various characters and telling the reader what they're supposed to believe. By the time we get to Reed's introduction of the character 'Ishmael Reed', who takes over the last quarter of the book and engages in fairly naked sock-puppetry, one cannot help but feel that Reed the author has shat the bed altogether. As a single if sterling example; there are at least half a dozen asides mocking a character named Dgun da Niza, a Neo-Conservative of Indian descent meant, obviously, to be Dinesh D'Souza. Fair enough, D'Souza is as rancid a festering pile of of shit as was ever stuffed into a suit and shoved on television, but he's 1) not really worthy of being called out directly and 2) making fun of another person's name is the lowest form of humor that can be stumbled upon.

In short, despite having some fabulous throw away lines, there was so much of Reed's own persoal issues shoved into the narrative that one comes away with the awkward feeling of having caught someone masturbating. I suppose its possible that this was all some incredibly subtle joke that I just didn't get it, but if so, I didn't get it. Drop.



Books I read January 28, 2018

Right. So, I live in Los Angeles now. Above a tattoo parlor in Venice, which is a little too on the nose, all thing's considered, but I guess I'll take it. Anyway I'll be moving out soon enough. LA is cool, it's warm during the day but cool at night and its weirder and wackier than New York, and everything is jumbled all up together in an appealing way. Anyhow it's been too long since I didn't have any idea what I was doing next; that's kind of my preferred MO. Oh, also, I'm trying to learn Spanish—Duolingo says I'm 25% fluent but I say Duolingo and I have pretty different ideas of what fluency entails. In any event, these are the books I read this month.


The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – What's there to say about Chandler that hasn't been said? One of the best pure prose stylists in the English language, and his genius is on evidence here, but he also has no idea how to structure a plot, and that likewise is evident. Even if you can forgive the two narrative strands being forced together under a set of circumstances which would make Dumas blush at the coincidence, you're still left with a book which would be seriously improved by dropping about 75 pages, particularly towards the back half, which is padded out unmercifully. I mean it's still spectacular, and justly beloved, but gun to my head I think I would take Farewell, My Lovely, which has a more coherent pacing. Still, man, the sting at the end, and the meta-joke where Marlowe is working for a miserably depressed alcoholic who writes cut-rate genre fiction which he feels beneath him—I mean, Chandler is Chandler man. He's the one and only. I already have this in some back back East, so I'm not actually going to keep it but obviously it's worth keeping.

Dashiell Hammet: A Life by Diane Johnson – As far as biographies go, this was fine? Hammett had a fascinating and extraordinary life, from impoverished Baltimorean Youth (Go Ravens!) to Pinkerton Agent to Tuberculosis patient to beloved novelist and bon-vivant to political dissident, and Johnson offers a nuanced and basically well-written view of the man. I found myself sort of annoyed at the brevity with which Hammet's time time as private investigator was given, which of course is more interesting than him being, say, an elderly alcoholic armyman in the Aleutians during WWII, but that might be because there isn't a lot of information on Hammet's life at that point, I'm honestly not sure. I'll keep it for the moment because I might have an idea for a Hammet related project, but as a rule only the most exceptional biographies tend to make my cut and I don't this will survive another move.


Tristiana by Benito Perez Galdos– Eh. The story of an aging Don Juan and his eponymous adopted daughter/lover, this is basically well-written and there are some clever narrative decisions at the end but for whatever reason I found myself kind of bored. A lot of the narrative consists of love letters between Tristiana and her lover, and these are supposed to be saccharine and overwrought (in the fashion of young lovers) which, fair enough, but I still had to read them and I didn't love reading them and so I will probably drop, though in fairness to Galdos, long dead, he accomplishes what he sets out to do here.


Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West – Hysterical. Oh man, did I like this. A (mocking? Sincere?) story of a journalist taking on the role of advice giver for a daily rag during the Great Depression, whose forced familiarity with the full range of human despair and idiocy brings about religious epiphany, this is a hysterical, gorgeous, strange little novella. Like a funnier Dostoevsky (not that Fyodor wasn't funny—to the mines, to the mines!). Loved. Keep.


Naked Earth by Eileen Chang – Ooooh! A masterful, sprawling epic somehow condensed into about 300 pages, Chang's depiction of an idealist Commissar (that's not quite the right term but here we go) trying to survive Land Reform, the 3 anti campaign and then the Korean war manages to be vast in scope and also beautiful line to line.Stylistically, Chang's particular genius lies in her depiction of erotic romance (I think gun to my head I might have enjoyed Love in a Fallen City, which deals with this subject primarily, slightly more), but there are some really fabulously clever plot choices here which allow for a depiction of the horrors of Mao's China while still allowing for some rough glimmer of optimism. Keep. Chang is a rare talent.


A Cool Million by Nathanael West – Basically an anti-Horatio Alger, about an upright, heroic young man who sets out in search of the American dream and finds himself jailed, abused, dismembered, killed, and then used as the posthumous champion of a proto-fascist group. West is...really, really funny, and really, really mean, and between this and Miss Lonelyhearts (which was slightly better) I'm kind of shocked it took me this long to get to him. Keep.


A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor – About a small, English beach town fading in post-War modernity. In so far as there's a plot, it revolves around an affair and the ways in which said affair affects the town's various persona; an aging sailor, an elderly gossip, a miserable widow, a couple of other people, but really this is one of these books in which very, very little seems to happen. I quite like Taylor, her novel Angel is a lot of fun and her collection of short stories that NYRB released has one of my all time favorite horror stories (something about a fly? Or maybe the number 3 is in it? You'll know it if you read it) and her talent for prose is on evidence here but all the same I was mostly bored while reading it. Drop.


Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagi By Donald Richie – Interesting. Odd. A false biography ostensibly written by a minor character in the Genpei Wars, immortalized in the epic Tale of Heiki, one of the foundational texts of Japanese literature which is sometimes (falsely, nonsensically) described as being an Eastern Illiad. In recounting his life, Kumagi seeks to come to grips with the false narrative which surrounded his slaying of a minor noble of a rival clan, as well as, more generally, to assess the way in which legend comes to replace fact not only in the minds of the public but in our own as well. It's breezy and odd, with a talky, informal style very deliberately at odds with the traditions of Japanese chivalry and the literature of the time, and I got a kick out of it. Keep.


Day of the Locusts by Nathanael Hawthorne – My least favorite of the 4 of his that I read this month. Part of this is that it's the one which comes closest to having an actual narrative, about a painter newly come to Los Angeles who tries to woo an unscrupulous actress/prostitute, but the story meanders and doesn't go anywhere and doesn't offer anything really by way of a pay off, which, again fine, but I'd rather it just be dispensed with altogether so Hawthorne could make more silly jokes. Also, as for said silly jokes, I didn't find the ones in this as funny as the ones in the other three. But, again, all this negativity is by comparison to his other stuff, and taken alone this is weird and funny and quite mean and I would keep it.


Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte – I met a Fraulein on a beach in Lithuania, once upon a time. She had very blonde hair and very blue eyes and a smile like water on an electrical fire, and for that too-rare grin I left my home and moved to a city on the North sea where the sun did not shine and there was nothing very good to eat. Talmudically speaking, a Goy, I was nonetheless the closest she and most everyone else I met there had ever come to seeing a Jew, an and it was a rare social gathering which would not find me cornered by some or other well-meaning Deutschlander, anxious to assure me that, had they been in the place of their grandparents, they would have shown the utmost regard for my person and property, irrespective of the risk to their own

Among Germans, I found this unearned moral certainty to be a harmless, indeed faintly admirable attempt to deal with the peculiarity of being burdened by inconceivable crimes which were committed a rough half century before your birth. But for all other peoples it taught me to despise any kind of unearned moral certainty as a particularly disgraceful form of Boenhoffer's 'cheap 'grace', and when occasionally I hear it being bandied about I have to bite my tongue to keep it civil. 'Would you have chosen death above dishonor?' I want to ask. 'Are you so certain? Would you have shielded the Goldstein's from next door, knowing that the penalty for doing so was your murder and the murder of everyone else in your household? Would you have slapped anti-Hitler propaganda on the walls of Munich, as did the sainted Scholls? Are you so confident in your righteousness

I am getting somewhere with this, I promise.

Malaparte was a war reporter attached to the Italian army and thus able to travel widely throughout the Axis controlled areas during World War II. Already something of a literary star in his home country, Malaparte became part of an international socialite set which saw him welcomed throughout wartown Europe. His account—published long after the war, allowing for unknowable sorts of post-facto revisions—has him lamenting the terrible brutalities of the Nazis from deep within the belly of the beast, observing with distaste the evils of the Nazis and their supporters, though never to such a degree that he arouses their ire. He sits at table with the German overseer of occupied Poland, he slights Himmler in a hotel in neutral Finland, he does his best to hide the desperate Jews of Moldova. Welcomed because of his boundless wit (which Malaparte details with comprehensive thoroughness), Malaparte laments the inability of a single individual to do anything amid the horror of modern warfare, horror which, it must be said, he chronicles with insight and stylish prose.

I did not like this book. I did not like this man. I did not like sharing space with him, I did not like carrying him in my bag. The long intro to the contrary, I could not make my peace with a fellow who would call a Nazi friend, or even allow one to mistake him as such. Perhaps there was nothing that Malaparte could have done, within the context of his circumstance, to effect the evil going on around him. Perhaps in his shoes I would have done even worse; I can't say. But I do not think I would have eaten dinner with a man responsible for the murder of countless Poles, however clever or subtle my insults over the desert course. I do not think I would have shared that man's salt. I do not think I would have slapped that man on the back. Maybe this is false righteousness, but in any case I would as soon not have Malaprte sharing room with my other books. Drop, obviously.


The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West– Hysterical, vicious. An elaborate series of very cruel jokes about the pointless futility of writing and of art more generally. There's nothing really by way of story, just a lot of peculiar asides and a pretty fabulous Dostoevsky impression. West is one of the better comic writers I think I ever read, laugh out loud funny. Keep.




Book Reviews Last Six Months of 2017

2017 will be the worst year for reading, in terms of hourly effort/number of books, that I can ever remember having. This is a galling, bitter pill to take, one of many I’ve been trying to stomach these recent weeks. But still, castor oil at least strengthens the digestion, and failure offers endless opportunity for self-reflection.

Why didn’t I read more? Laziness? Maybe laziness. I seemed often to lack the necessary presence of mind to sit comfortably and read a book this last year, various other anxieties proving too strong. Generally speaking I can make myself write but not read, the former requiring a sort of all-consuming mental effort which tends to void away most other , while reading is a more reflective activity, and easily spoiled by outside concerns.

Also, I just couldn’t be bothered to getting around to putting these all up on goodreads. My computer is kind of a piece of shit, and I’m pretty lazy. Wait, I mentioned that already.

Anyway, below are my scattershot, fairly haphazard recollections of the books I read these last—six months or whatever, I dunno.



After Claude by Iris Owens–Half a year later and this one still stings when I look at it. The absolutely relentlessly nasty recollections of a shallow, meaningless Manhattanite and the endless injuries she does herself and others, presented with extraordinary bitterness. I’ve been thinking of this one a lot lately, for one reason or another. Suffice to say it’s sharply written and devastating, but also I suspect too mean for most readers. I don’t think its misogynistic, exactly, but if a man had written something which so savagely plumbs the depths of a woman’s psyche they would have a hard time at cocktail parties, let’s just put it that way. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s enormously clever, however. Keep, and I’ll see what else I can dig up by Ms. Owens likewise.


Black Spider by Jeremiah Black Spider –A horror story grounded in an authentic belief in Christianity (been a while since we’ve seen one of those), the plot is simple but it works all the same – small town in Switzerland makes a deal with the devil, the devil makes them pay for it. Horror (genre fiction generally) tends not to age that well but this one still mostly worked for me, there are some disturbing little bits and the pre-Freudian erotic/satanic frisson is a lot of fun. Keep.


The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt – the classic detective novel is the modern update of the passion play, in which the sins and evils of humanity are writ on the body and soul of a sainted martyr, their shining example serving to shame our petty, quotidian immorality, the endless tiny concessions which are demanded of us. Lovitt’s excellent debut effort is very much in this realm, his sympathetic-bordering-on-masochistic hero a spiritiual a successor to Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer (the third of the holy trinity as regards detective fiction, though for some reason never having gotten quite the same shine as Hammett or Chandler). An episodic series of misadventures in the life of an Australian PI, building finally to a reasonably thrilling crescendo, the language is brisk and competent and the structure skillful. I don’t actually know anything about Lovitt but his storylines at least feel authentic in the way that good crime writing does, his villains are nasty and stupid and unexpected things happen unexpectedly. Strong stuff. Keep.


The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane –Pre-war horror seems to have needed to be, essentially, less horrifying than its modern version. That is to say that you’re much more likely (as in these) to have a story framed around something more uncanny than violent or terrifying. These two short novels are skillfully constructed, the writing is definitely a notch above most of Sloane’s contemporaries (damning with faint praise) but probably most readers will find the underlying revelations, not to put too fine a point on it, not that scary? It’s an interesting counterpoint to Lovecraft, for instance, whose prose is pretty squalid but whose nightmares were so horrifying that they somehow managed to compensate for his lack of professional comptence. These are better in all regards, except for not having enough sting. Then again, the sting is the point of a horror story, isn’t it? Still, it holds up better than 90% of horror fiction of its time. Keep.


Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – Gillian Flynn is a very mean, very talented writer. This tale of a broken woman investigating the horrific murder or her white trash family by her brother (?) is not quite so strong as Gone Girl (magnificent) but it’s still pretty fabulously tight. Flynn has that enormously rare gift of being able to write in a voice which is at once appropriate to the character and also clever line by line, and her world of miserable millennial Midwestern losers feels lived in and authentic. Keep.

Slade House by David Mitchell – Masquerading for three-fifths of its brief length as an entertaining if unoriginal haunted house story, the back-chunk veers suddenly into deeper corners of Mitchell’s shared universe, tying into the same world of feuding magical groups which he detailed in the Bone Clocks (and introduced retroactively to 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet). From an aesthetic perspective, this seems an error, muddying up the essential purpose of the story with a lot of info-dumping, and moving the thrust of the narrative away from a series of doomed, human protagonists and onto a supernatural savior (drawn from previous books) who swoops in to save the day. I didn’t care for it, but more then that I feel kinda compelled to object to a story which can only function effectively if the reader has read some prior text without making this point explicitly clear on the cover and in related materials. Slade House is presented as if it were a stand-alone work, but it simply isn’t– it is a prequel or a sequel or an addendum to The Bone Clocks. At best, this should have anchored a collection of short stories, and I find its release in this fashion kind of distasteful. Drop.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – A relentlessly unsubtle novel masquerading as the exact reverse, The Remains of the Day is the story of the last of the great English Butlers reminiscing on a life ill-spent. Ishiguro has the voice right, at once in keeping with the character and pleasantly readable, but mostly the book is a critique of a certain strand of English culture which ceased to exist some half century before Ishiguro wrote the book, and there’s something cheap about taking a dump on your grandparents (not literally in this case but still). It’s all a little sanctimonious – did you know the Nazi’s were bad? You did? There were thoughtful people making similar critiques fifty odd years before this. All the same it’s a skillfully crafted book, he’s obviously really talented. Keep.


Kiss of the Spider Woman Manuel Puig – A dialogue between two men in an Argentinian prison, one sent for leftist activities, the other for being a homosexual, whose growing love is sublimated through the elaborate description of fake movies which they collectively recollect. I sort of thought the thing worked better during the first 2/3’s when the love affair is unrequited rather than during the last, tragic bit, but still it’s a very odd, clever, vibrant little novel. I’ll keep an eye out for Puig going forward. I borrowed it from someone and already gave it back, but in principle I would keep this.

Mating by Norman Rush – I didn’t love it. Rush is very smart, and this is an ambitious novel, but it didn’t fundamentally come together for me. The narrator, who might be unnamed or whose name I just might not remember, is a reasonably brilliant female academic working in Botswana who decides to fall in love with a more brilliant male academic working in Botswana on a secret experimental city in the hinterlands where woman hold all political power, with the notion being the twin narratives intertwining to make a profound statement about male/female relations. This is the sort of novel in which the protagonist is a very smart person and the narrative consists mostly of her engaging in elaborate intellectual conversations, either with her partner or just acting as her own interlocutor. It reminded me a bit of some of the denser Saul Bellow, but then again I haven’t actually read a book by Saul Bellow in probably ten years so that’s not real useful. Anyway, I found the protagonist essentially believable as a character, which is a difficult accomplishment given the style of the book, but I was also bored a lot, and I think probably just tend to prefer a tighter aesthetic. In practice, it seemed like an awful lot of intellectual effort for relatively little pay off, and I don’t really think I’d recommend it. Drop.

The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler – Actually it might have been this book I read or it might have been another collection of Chandler shorts, it doesn’t really matter. When I went out to LA for a couple of weeks for different reasons and I obviously decided I needed to read a Chandler, and I picked this one up at the Last Bookstore in downtown LA (which is fine but quite frankly, yo, LA friends, if this is your answer to the Strand you don’t have an answer to the Strand.), and it’s fine. I had forgotten that Chandler reworked all of his short stories into his novels (incidentally, this is the reason for the famous (maybe not that famous) ‘who killed the chaffeur’ question in the Big Sleep, which is basically that he kept a previous story whole cloth without realizing that his changed made this plot point irrelevant) which was kind of fun anyway because I got to relive my favorite of his novels without having to re read them altogether. Chandler is, you know, Chandler, he writes like nobody’s business but the plots don’t make any sense. Drop, but only cause I have all the novels that he reworked these into.


Next Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko – I have a real soft spot for these, going back probably a decade or something. In and of itself its really pretty rote urban fantasy, about a heroic, tortured young man working as a sort of supernatural police in Moscow, but somehow it just kind of hangs together for me. There’s some silly bits in here – I have despised the transcription of song lyrics since the Hobbit – but underlying it is some fairly substantive ethical contemplation, as well as a number of surprising narrative choices which I generally enjoyed. Also, magic fights! Keep.

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson -- I have great esteem for Janson (despite never having actually read the Moomen. Moomin?) as (ugh) a writer’s writer, in the sense of having ferociously on point language, a complexity and peculiarity of viewpoint, etc. My expectations might have been a little unrealistic given how much I loved loved loved Fair Play, but not all of these quite hit for me. There are a couple of masterful cuts – The Squirrel, for instance, I really liked – but there were a fair few that didn’t have quite the tightness of theme that a really good short story requires. But, again, my expectations were very high, I still enjoyed these and read them real fast. Keep.

Paris Vagabonds by Jean Paul Clebert– A transient’s tour of Paris in the years shortly after WWII. If the idea of this appeals to you (it appealed to me) double down on it. Clebert was a real, no shit, homeless dude, and his recollections of slophouses, cheap bars and whores is cleverly, even beautifully written, and are accompanied by a series of haunting and beautiful photos. I really liked it, it made me miss Paris and feel nostalgic period of time long ago where I was, I mean, not a transient obviously but, you know, familiar with a lot of strange characters. Not as strange as the ones documented here but still, I get to be nostalgic about whatever the fuck I want to be, go fuck yourself. Asshole. Fuck you. Keep.


The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout – You get to carry a book around with you, you see, and you get to read it in between doing other things, and sometimes these other things (whatever they are) are very happy or very sad or just very, in some way, and then always afterward (not always but for a while) you get to take it off the shelf and dust it a bit and sigh wistfully and then put it back on the shelf.

All of which is to say am glad that I am able to take in human letters some small source of rejuvenation, occupying space in my bag beside my computer and some receipts. This was a very lovely novel, magical realism (ugh, sorry, sorry, you know what I mean, a book with impossible activities not organized along usual genre lines) set in Dutch Indonesia, every little bit of this beautiful and sad and strange. It’s episodic and moody and there’s little real thrust of narrative in it, only the passing of the generations, death and life, violent and tragic love, loss, yearning. That kind of shit. I’m pretty sure that I really, really loved this book, but I’ll have to give it six months or so to see. Keep, in either event.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories by William H. Gass – Yeah. So, I would regard this book as being, line by line, one of the more difficult things I ever read. Gass writes like I imagine people who don’t really like literature imagine everyone writes, a stream of consciousness ramble which obfuscates basic facts, tends towards little by way of narrative, and doubles back on itself endlessly. I don’t regard any of those as being bad things, to be clear, it’s a style like any other style, sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t, depending on its execution--though of course, in practice it’s so difficult a ‘genre’ that only enormously talented writers can manage it with even a pretense of competence. Gass manages it. He has an enormously rare gift for striking and unexpected sentences; you will not find, in its 200 pages, I think a single familiar metaphor. When this works it works fabulously, and already some of his lines – ‘lonely as overshoes, or someone else’s cough’—have wormed their way into my memory. I will admit that not all of the stories punched for me, and there were a lot of annoying bits where you have spend an amount of mental effort to deduce some quotidian detail. But the last two stories; one about bugs, basically, I can’t put it better than that, and the eponymous finale, were really, really masterful. Keep.


Young Once By Patrick Modiano – I confess I don’t pay a lot of attention to the Nobel prize for literature because I have this curious medical condition where I’m gonna die one day, and thus my time on earth is limited, but my vague sense is that they seem to warble between awarding it to incandescently difficult stuff the purpose of which is to make you think the Nobel Prize people are very smart and sort of mediocre crap the purpose of which is to make you think the Nobel Prize people are hip and approachable (oh shit I just remembered Dylan got it last year! How could I have blocked that out!?!). Anyway, I’m going to go ahead based on this one that Modiano is the latter. This is basically a brief, not brilliant pseudo-noir about a pair of people falling in love in and getting into occasional minor trouble in Paris in the 60’s or 70’s I guess. The prose is fine but unremarkable, which indeed would be an apt description of the book generally. It’s very much in that drifty, Paul Auster/Murikami sort of vein (though in fairness, better than either of those two), long on ennui and short on much else. Drop, I mean I didn’t hate it but I can’t see any reason for keeping it and I’m moving to LA and I’m afraid even some of my beloved NYRB Classics won’t make the cut.


Peace By Gene Wolfe – Yeah, I read it fucking again, so sue me.


Darkness Visible: A Memor of Madness – A lucid account of a severe depression, particularly terrifying in so far as the affliction came unexpectedly late in life to Styron. It’s about 90 pages, its well written, I'm not sure it's going to knock your head off particularly, though. Drop. I’m throwing out all my books kinda so drop, but don’t feel bad about it Styron it’s cool, you ok. No man, it’s fine calm down. Don’t look at the window like that, it makes me uncomfortable.

The Sun King by Nancy MIttford– yeah, this was a brisk, pleasant history of the life of Louis the XIV. I’ve been getting rid of most of the books on my shelves and I probably have about 5-6 which cover this topic, so it was hard to get quite that excited about it but it was breezy and fun and also a lot lighter than most of the other books I have regarding the Sun King and so Keep.

The Door by Magda Szabo – A Hungarian intelligentsia’s recollections of her tumultuous friendship with her elderly maid, a peasant woman of enormous vitality and a rigid, idiosyncratic moral system. It was good and I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it but confess it did not strike me down like a literary bolt of lightning. Maybe that’s a high bar to put for every work of fiction you come across. It seemed a little…pat, I guess? A bit too simple, a bit too straightforward, a bit too, I dunno, easy. Keep anyway, it's solid.

Victorine by Maude Hutchins – Uhhhh…Shit. When did I read this one? I think it was…winter? Or maybe I was traveling somewhere? No, it couldn’t had been winter I don’t think. Could it? This is not useful. It’s an episodic series of recollections from a mid century farm house, with the girl sublimating a lot of sexual energy into a relationship with a retard who thinks he's a horse, and a cheating father, and I think the brother masturbates. The vagueness of my recollection is a pretty strong argument for trying to write these reviews down in a timely fashion, but probably also speak to the fact that this one didn't hit me real hard. Drop.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro – Since I first came to New York, I was looking out for a copy of Caro's beloved biography of city builder/ruiner Robert Moses, which, half a century after its first printing, remains so popura that it literally took me five years of searching to find a copy of this massive, million word tome that didn’t cost 30$. It came too late. By the time I finally found one, and by the time I got around to reading the one I had found, I was getting ready to say goodbye to New York, putting my cheap furniture onto the stoop and saying whistful farewells to old watering holes. The 1200 very large pages of this tomes thus became a trial, an unhappy and despairing reminder of a place I loved and hated and am in any event leaving, of the endless catalog of errors that I made during my time here, of the occasional moments of happiness, more bitter still than my mistakes.

So, with the substantial caveat that my reading The Power Broker was an enormously elaborate exorcise in masochism, both figurative and literal (I consider myself something of a pack horse but having this brick in my backpack for last two weeks was half-crippling), what did I think of it? I thought it was too fucking long. Yup, that’s what I thought. It’s just too goddamn long. Moses was a fascinating figure and his impact on New York was enormous, but for a casual reader a lot of this stuff could be condensed. The beginning of the book, chronicling Moses’s transition from honest reformer to the power mad monster, is interesting, but once he makes that switch (around 1935, or so) the narrative starts to feel pretty repetitive. There’s something very personal to this biography – Cairo has a real sense of the injustices committed by Moses during his concrete transformation of New York, and a desire to tell the long untold stories of his victims. But it’s the same story, mostly, Moses using the powers he carefully accumulated and the indifference of the city and state elite to destroy nice things in New York and replace them with upper class amenities and hideous highways. Which is terrible and everything but basically it’s the same story whether its East Tremont or the Throggs Neck bridge or whatever, political chicanery leading to the eradication of natural beauty and the destruction of all things good. Will I keep it? No, I’m not gonna fucking keep it, it’s heavy as sin and I’m through with New York anyway, man, I’m done, I’m gone, you gone have her, I don’t miss her, I won’t think about her at night, I won’t count her hideous flaws as secret virtues, I won’t let her grit down in my soul. Editors Note: Nah, fuck it, I'm keeping this one.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards – Yeah, this was really lovely, I'm surprised I hadn't heard of it earlier. The recollections of the Guernsey's Guernsey-man to ever Guernsey his way out of a Guernsey hole, or something like that. An old man looking back on the twentieth century and his various misfortunes, accomplishments and small tragedies, really beautifully written, NAME has that peculiar ability to write in the voice of a semi-literate country farmer but still strike upon passages of great humor and kindness. Keep.




Books I Read July 27 2017

You should feel absolutely free to assume that my not having updated this in the last 6 months or whatever, and for that matter the scarce paucity of books which I’ve read in that time, are the consequence of my being mind-numbingly busy with a truly bewildering array of successes professional, artistic, and romantic. I’ve come to a lot of pretty heavy personal decisions in the last few weeks, major life changes, the main one for our purposes being I’m getting rid of as many of my books as I can possibly convince myself to get rid of, as well as a firm no-shit commitment to not keeping books I don’t really like or feel a need to own in the future. I’m 33, but like a really foolish 33, so it’s a big step for me, back the fuck off. The end result of all of this is that my previously light hearted rating system will now turn pitiless as the thumb of a degenerate Roman emperor, all books to be either enshrined on my hallowed shelves as works of profound genius or consigned to the stoop as mediocrities unworthy of attention. Alas, it’s been a while since I read a lot of these, dating back to the implausibly distant period of February last (ahh, were we ever so young?), and I don’t remember them so well as maybe I ought to for making the final aesthetic decision these novels will ever receive. Ah, well, life’s not fair.


Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Short Stories by SIlvina Ocampo – This one I do remember, however. Ho ho, there are some that you do remember, that scar their notch against your brain, and she was one of them – sexy, funny, utterly unconcerned with genre or literary distinctions, and savagely, cuttingly, mean. Having read these, I was shocked I have never hear of Ms. Ocampo -is this simply a facet of my unknowably vast, indeed, by all-appearances ever growing swell of ignorance, or does she simply not receive her just due? Based on these short stories, the latter at least seems all but impossible. Strong recommendation. Will I Keep it: Obviously.


The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis – Jesus, I carried this one around forever. It’s fine, it’s not bad, it’s like 20 other Kingsley Amis books, an aging academic and a cast of oversexed women and a hint of espionage. Will I Keep It: Doesn’t seem like it, no.


The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys– Yeah… uhhhh….Napoleon’s last attempt to free France from the tyranny of perfidious Albion falls apart and Napoleon is forced to live out the final brief shred of his life as a humble Parisian fruit seller. It’s slight and sweet and short. Will I Keep It: It’s an NYRB classic, they just look so goddamn pretty on my shelf I can’t help it.



Southern Reach Trilogy – Yeah, these were cool. I mean I got nothing bad to say about them. New weird I think kind of doesn’t quite do it for me, I tend to want my genre stuff a little rawer. I’m a really fucking weird guy, I either want like, the most oddly abstract, nonsensically complex stuff, or I want to have my face straight up shoved into a gun wound. Or something. I dunno. Mainly all this made me think about is the degree to which, like, Lovecraft still looms so utterly preeminent in horror, no one seems really to have been able to come up with a creepier idea than his ‘what if there was no god but only a devil and also the devil has tentacles and also the devil doesn’t care about you’. I guess maybe what sort of I didn’t altogether love about this, and obviously this is ceding like, technical skill, a reasonable degree of originality of thought, is that I maybe couldn’t quite figure out what exactly is it’s point? It feints a lot at having a broader critique but doesn’t exactly arrive at much beyond, like, secretive government technocrats are shitty, and empathy is good? Which, maybe that is enough of a point, I dunno. I dunno about a lot of things lately. Will I Keep Them: I think I just convinced myself, yes.


New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson – Being, like anyone not a complete fucking retard, terrified at the prospect (certainty) of climate change, I really wanted to like this, which essentially is an optimistic view of a post-sea level rise American as encapsulated by a handful of occupants of a water-logged Manhattan apartment building. Robinson is a good science writer, and a thoughtful guy, and I admire his willingness to try and conceive of the actual effects of climate change rather than just feel super sad like I do (Wah!), I think that’s a valuable goal for the science fiction of this generation, but this is a little bit of a mess. The characterization is sloppy and the story lists kind of plotlessly and the ending is so oddly perfunctory you feel like even the author is kind of bored with the thing. Also, I fundamentally think the world is a much worse place than Robinson does, humanity a sin-ridden, vile species, self-awareness a mistake and perhaps one best fixed by a vigorous bathing, as to remove lice from a dog.

                Haha I’m just kidding we’re OK. Anybody watching Ozark? It’s not bad.

                Will I Keep It: No.



Will You Please Be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver – I’m sorry but this just bored the living fucking shit out of me, I respect the craft but I kept wanting to bang my head against the wall, these discrete suburban madnesses SOMEONE FUCKING SHOOT SOMEONE JESUS GODDAMN CHRIST. It’s been like 6 weeks since I read this but I can’t remember any specific story in it. Good title, though. Will I Keep It: No, it turns out I really just don’t like Raymond Carver.


Close Range by Annie Proulx – Not to get like I just ate a bag full of madeleines, but to square the memory of a thing with the broader narrative that thing played in your life is an impossible difficulty -- inevitably the knowledge of the cliff to come imprints itself on your recollection of the road leading to it. I’ve been drinking. The point is, I really quite liked this book, but my second Proulx (Accordion Crimes, as it happens) I found at once so comically awful and peculiarly reminiscent of this that I now struggle to gin up much affection for it. There is something…kind of shlocky about Proulx, an exaggerated commitment towards nastiness less within the storylines themselves, maybe (though there is plenty of this) than in the writing itself, the metaphors and asides all tending in these very specific directions. Is it possible that it was just maybe the moment, the day, some trick of the light, that I never loved her, that it was not real at all?

No, fuck that, I’m an optimist, a romantic, I tell you. There are some good ones in here, some real winners – I quite liked 59 miles to the pump, I think it was called, and the one about the belt buckle.  Will I Keep It: You’re God Damn Right.



Gun With Occasional Music By Johnathan Lethem: Yeah, I mean, it’s fine. I enjoyed reading it, and I’ve been so pathetically fucking lazy lately when it comes to my reading that this kind of mean something, I have all the moral strength of a…haha, well of a weak person, the slightest mental effort and I just veer off into something else, whoosh. Anyway. It’s funny and it goes by quick but it didn’t dig into me in any particular way and I sometimes found him guilty of that thing ‘literary genre’ authors do of kind of half assing plot details cause you know no one really gives a shit. Will I Keep It: Nah, man, this profound journey of self-discovery I’m on, only kind of casually not disliking a book is not a good enough reason to keep it. Three cheers for me!


Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar -- Did you? When I said three cheers for me, did you do them, or did you just say you were going to do them! Liar! Liar! Oh, God, how can I ever trust you again. This book is about…a woman who gets an inheritance and uses it to buy a house in a town outside of London and the ability to recreate herself outside of her usual milieu along with a sudden influx of money allows her to go progressively more insane. Actually, this was good, and weird, I liked it. Will I Keep It: Yeah, I am actually, but also it’s small and obviously I fetishize NYRB Classics.


Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier – Yeah. Uhhh…I can’t really remember if I had so much trouble finishing this because I’m a lazy, miserable person or because they weren’t the most riveting collection of stories. It certainly should have fit the bill, forgotten mid-century American magical realism (or whatever), and there were some strong ones now that I pull them out of my memory…I was reading these when I was in Utah, I was faculty at this beautiful resort in the mountains there, I had like a cabin, in the morning I would drink coffee and write some of a book I will never publish and listen to the silence (it is not silent in New York, this is part of the reason I am going to leave, not that I hear LA is so quiet neither) and sometimes I would hold this up and peek at the mountains over top of it. And then I guess I carried it with me when I drove to Denver unexpectedly, God there’s some beauty out West, and I hadn’t known I was going to do it and that’s the main thing really, not to know, to remind yourself that you don’t know, you can never know, there are things waiting around the corner for you. Will I Keep It: Yeah, I guess so.


Things I Like About America by Poe Ballantine – For a long time I held as my life’s ambition to be lost, to look at unfamiliar scenery and strange people, a very tiny thing carried onward by the wind, counting each mile and footstep. It’s not at all a rare preoccupation, and Poe Ballantine, and the fellow who gave me this Poe Ballantine book, are likewise devotees of this smiling, silent god. These are a collection of shorts about being on busses and working shitty jobs so that you have the money to get on other busses. They are well enough written but mostly I can’t say I found myself stopping in awe at the prose. Ballantine’s hook is that he is/was a real no shit legitimate vagabond, not a put on, and I respect that even if I can’t do it anymore.  Anyway, I liked this fine. Will I Keep It: Yeah, but only because it a friend’s favorite book.

The Vintage Mencken H.L. Mencken – Yeah, I mean, he’s funny and he’s got some fabulous one liners but on balance he’s a classic troll, cantankerous for its own sake and to prove his individuality, obsessed with personal vendettas which were likely pointless at the time and are now utterly opaque (how much do you know about the American political scene of say, 1926? Because it turns out I don’t actually know anything either). It’s sort of illegitimate to compare a newspaperman to a ‘straight’ writer, their primary obligation is to be constantly saying shit of some kind, but his record as revealed here is pretty weak and that’s coming from someone essentially sympathetic to pre-WWII ideas of American isolationism. Will I Keep It: No.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso – My older fucking brother frankly has been talking this book up forever, but like forever forever, like a decade forever, and I really went in like oh shit, what you doing son, which is generally a bad way to go into a book, or to visit a place, or to meet a woman. Where was I? I didn’t like this like I had intended myself to. It’s basically just the author spitballing endlessly about Greek myth, and some times I was like ‘cool, clever’, and other times I was like ‘what, no, that’s…what?’ that doesn’t make any sense at all. To my mind it was a poetic but not particularly illuminating and indeed in some cases seemed outright false in its depiction of classical Greek myth. I was also bored a fair bit. Will I Keep It: No.

Count Zero By William Gibson – He’s not really trying on the plot, and probably you could shave off say…20-30% of the fake proper nouns and you’d maintain the same effect, but it’s weird and original and Gibson warrants his spot. That said, it’s pretty damn similar to Neuromancer which likewise does not include plot as a great strength but is cleaner and more coherent. Will I Keep It: Uhhhh…yeah, I will, for the moment, but I think I probably the day will come when I feel like I need to own one William Gibson book and when it does this one will go.

The Queue by Vladamir Sorokin – Hahhahahahhahahahahahhahahhahahahahhahahahahhahah. Will I Keep It: Yes.


The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Cesares – Uhhhhh. Nah. It would have been not my favorite short story and it didn’t improve as a novella. If you are going to enjoy one book by a friend of Borges that I mention in this post read Ocampo, I already fucking told you. Will I Keep It: One of the rare few NYRB Classics that I dump.

The Mangan Inheritance by Brian Moore– Shit! Damn! I love a book that really truly subverts genre stuff, where you’ve got no goddamn idea what’s happening next. Legitimately, disturbing, weird, erotic, dope, totally read this. Will I Keep It: I done just told you I was, didn’t I?

Black Wings Has My Angel  – A second rate Jim Thompson. Will I Keep It: Yup! Even a second-rate Jim Thompson is worth a read.


Anyway, friends and associates and anyone else who somehow wondered in here, that’s what I read barring a few I can’t remember and a few I’d rather forget. Good luck with what you got going, even if you don’t quite deserve it.



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.


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.”


“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.


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.