Books I Read February 14th, 2018

So I read a lot of books the last two weeks, and some of them I thought were fabulous, reminders of the eternal value of art in our grim and foolish world, and some of them I thought frankly were kind of garbage, and I guess the dichotomy got me thinking about these capsule reviews I’ve been throwing up the last year or so. Mostly I do this for my own benefit, because it helps me keep track of the things I read, and to clarify how I felt about them—I’m obviously not reviewing for a publication, and thus consider myself under no particular obligation to anyone reading it. That being the case, I’m wondering why I bother to write about books I didn’t like? I’ve generally tried to abide by a policy of never throwing shade on any writer who might potentially be negatively impacted by my criticism, but who’s to say if that’s the case? I sometimes stumble across some negative review of my own stuff put out by some stranger on the interwebs, and it generally doesn’t improve my mood.

On the other hand, it is my blog, so I’m going to split the difference; from now on, I’m not going to put any negative reviews up on Goodreads (to which I’ve been cross-posting these), but I’ll continue to write what I want up here, just so I can keep track of what I’ve been sifting through. Which, the past two weeks, was…

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The Pasha's Concubine and Other Tales by Ivo Andric – A series of savage, lustful, horrifying stories about the last days of the Ottoman Empire in Bosnia and the years beyond.  I really like Andric (apologies but I’m not going to bother with trying to figure out how to add the accent) – these are strange and beautiful, they remind me a little bit of Marquez in terms of their visceral passion, and of course I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the Balkans. Even if you aren’t, though, these are worth your time. Andric is due for a full-scale revival, I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened yet.

Drive by James Sallis – A professional get away driver breaks his self-imposed rules, kills a lot of people. A stylish, serviceable thriller, fast and readable, but it has a lot of flashback that don’t add much and its one of those noirs where you’re like, man for an unsentimental killer you are sentimental as fucking shit.

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Cain by Jose Saramago – Cain kills Abel, gets angry at God, wanders through the Old Testament parables making trouble. I did not like this book. This was one of the books I didn’t like. Honestly a lot of it felt like listening to that guy in your Freshman philosophy class who just got around to reading a bit of the bible and is like, ‘Oh shit did you know God is mean?’ And you’re like ‘yeah boss, thanks for playing.’ It’s got a nice last sting, though.

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Pal Joey by John O’Hara – An epistolary novella about a down-on-his-heels crooner. I liked some of the vernacular but wasn’t blown away apart from that.

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Immobility by Brian Evenson – In the post-apocalypse a post-human is tricked into trying to help a band of survivalists. As a work of genre this didn’t work for me, I was never surprised/horrified/excited etc. Philosophically I found it tiringly nihilistic; I get it, humanity is monstrous, our consciousness an error, I sing this song to myself most nights around 2 AM, I don’t need any help with the refrain.

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Almost Never by Daniel Sada – An engineer visits prostitutes, woos a village sweatheart, occasionally has incestuous fantasies, in this peculiar, sly take on conventional Mexican sexual mores. Funny, erotic, Sada seems like a fascinating link between Juan Rulfo’s parochial brutalities and the urban savagery of Bolano. I dug it, I’ll read more by the man.

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The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel – A biography of the author’s journey from bourgeoise splendor in pre-WWI Middleuropa, to the heights of the Weimar theater scene and finally to Hollywood. Viertel led a fascinating, vibrant life, and seems like an admirable and intelligent person, but alas this is pretty flat. Most of the text consists of naked recitations of events – ‘I met Brecht at…’, ‘Greta Garbo came by to…” with relatively little by way of grander insight. And much as I like any optimistic portrayal of my adopted homeland, the latter bit of the book is domestic trending towards banal; at one point, Viertel notes the death of a dog. Not for me.

Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders –  A selection of uncomfortably identical stories about unfortunate idiots living in a vague post apocalypse, a lot of cringy humor and shallow nihilism. Mostly this was one note and weirdly lazy – literally 2/3 of the story’s deal with characters working in ironic amusement parks – except when it veers into occasional frantic mawkishness.

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Fools of Fortune by William Trevor – The brutal tragedy of the English domination of Ireland is played out in this complex and fabulous novel, about a child ensnared by the violence of the rebellion. Trevor is a beautiful writer, each incident is deftly sketched and feels original, structurally it’s consistently surprising, and there is that indescribable but undeniable quality of moral insight which elevates it into the highest ranks of novels. Marvelous, really sublime.

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Testing the Current by William McPherson – An eight-year-old in an idyllic, midwestern youth comes to grips with the sexual and moral misdeeds of his elders. McpHerson has a real genius for replicating the mindset of childhood, there’s a ton of stuff in here that echo my (and I suspect, your) dim memories of that age, the odd traditions our young minds grasp onto, our fears and obsessions, the enormous enthusiasms which only children are capable and for which adults are ever envious. Lyrical, beautiful, lots of fun. Check it out.

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First Execution by Domenico Starnone – A professor is embroiled in an act of terrorism by an old student; a metatext allows for the author to investigate the craft of writing, and the great guilt any honest individual feels when facing the world’s misfortunes.  A difficult, strange, contradictory book, elusive in its complexity but still sincere. This was another book which dealt with the tragic misery of the human condition, but unlike some of the other things I read this week did so honestly, without a pretense of humor or excessive nastiness. Very strong, Starnone is a great talent.

The Adventures of Mao on the Long March by Friedrich Tuten – A generic description of the long march is intercut with literary fragments and parodies of 20th century authors as a metacommentary socialism, love, and art as an independent work of existence. Your tolerance for this sort of high-falutin’ experimentalism will probably determine your enjoyment of the work, but for my part I thought it was funny and odd and the chopped texts fit together nicely (really never thought I’d be reading anything from Jack London’s Iron Heel again). Admittedly its sort of a one note joke, but I laughed at it so at least there’s that. 

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The Warren By Brian Evenson – Shifting personalities in the post-apocalypse, to give much more would ruin the story. Creepy and weird, shades of Harlan Ellison, I like Brian Evenson even though I don’t like everything he writes.

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Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White – In a small Australian town, four holy fools; the Lamed Wufnik of legend, righteous souls who secretly uphold the universe; do spiritual combat with the terrible darkness of modernity and human indifference.

I want to trumpet this book to the heavens; I want to drop copies of it on strangers (though I will not, because it’s very large). Aesthetically it is a masterpiece. White has that rarest of gift of making each sentence seem like a sentence no had ever written before, and yet the narrative remains compulsively readable. It lyrical, tragic and uplifting; it feels like the visions which are given to its protagonists, a searing insight into the painful wonder of the human condition. It is the sort of book which nearly makes one believe in God.

I’m always skeptical of my first impressions of things I really love, but twenty-minutes after finishing it I can’t help but feel this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Books and Tunes January 31st, 2019

What wisdom do I have to offer from the last few weeks of walking around the city, and looking at things and listening in on stranger’s conversations and attending art fairs where everything looked alike and of speaking with friends? What nuggets of truth, what weighty predictions for the future?

Rams 31, Patriots 24.



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Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones – A collection of short stories about the African-American experience in Washington, D.C. during the post-war era. Subtle and well-observed, with an understated and honest focus on the lives and feelings of archetypes and characters rarely portrayed in fiction; elderly churchwomen, store clerks and failed fathers. I also get excited by anything that namechecks Florida Avenue Grill and half-smokes, but that might not do as much for you personally.

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Trick by Domenico Starnone – An elderly, self-absorbed painter enters into a battle of wills with his precocious grandchild, is forced to confront his mortality. A minor masterpiece; funny, sad in the sad places and happy in the happy places, condemning of the vanity of artists in a way I always enjoy. Not to mention, pleasantly brief. Check it out.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories – A son and his father save the land of stories from an evil wizard, or something like. It’s been a week or two since I read it. Basically Phantom Tollbooth in a faintly Persian setting. Nothing objectionable, but probably this shouldn’t have been my introduction to Salmon Rushdie.

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Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell – A shiftless, failed criminal enters into skullduggery and foolishness on behalf of his white trash adopted family in this bleak pseudo-comedy by the writer of Winter’s Bone. It was somehow less than the sum of its parts, with a lot of funny asides and miserably humorous shenanigans shoehorned not altogether successfully into a loose crime narrative.

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In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul – A novella and three short stories making a succinct case for Naipaul’s enduring if brutal genius. I genuinely wonder what history will make of Naipaul – no one had such insights in the minds of the colonizers and the colonized, or wrote as compellingly about the fundamental impossibility of cross-cultural transference. And yet this is such an unpalatable truth, in an age which must, for its very existence, hope for some form of union or at least cooperation among the disparate peoples of our baking planet, that I can easily imagine him being quietly pushed out of the canon. In any event, he’s very much worth reading, and this is a good point of entry into his voluminous catalog.

Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell – Bushwackers fighting over Bloody Kansas. There’s some good bits here, Woodrell is funny and he can write, but it’s basically a literary retelling of the Outlaw Josey Wales, and being a good Union boy (by fiat of Abraham Lincoln but nonetheless) this kind of southern apologia makes me a little uncomfortable.

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Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano – A loose collection of reminiscences from the graduates/survivors of an expensive French boarding school, an achingly nostalgic paean to lost youth, broken innocence and the slow rot of dream. Which is to say, basically the same as every other thing I’ve read by Modiano, though here at least it was stripped of some of the narrative conventions which he tends to utilize but not abide by in his other books, resulting in a stiffer draught of pure ennui. I actually quite enjoyed it, but even his biggest fans couldn’t argue that the man paints in monochrome.

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The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk – An Italian engineer is captured by Ottoman slavers, begins to work for a Turkish polymath who is also somehow sort of his twin. Also, it’s a metaphor for being a writer. I read a bunch of Pamuk when I was bumming around Turkey years ago and I didn’t really like it but I thought I’d read some more to figure if it was my fault or his fault but I’m still not sure. It’s the kind of book which feints towards having a real narrative but page to page it’s pretty interminable, like there’s three sentences on invading Hungary and five pages about a dream one of the characters have (Umberto Eco does the same thing). Anyway it wasn’t really for me.

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Dirty Snow by Simenon – The child of a madame seeks damnation/redemption in occupied Paris. Dostoevsky by way of Jim Thompson (or is that just to say Jim Thompson?), with an anti-hero that makes Pinkie Brown look like Harry Potter. Brisk, bleak if moralistic, Simenon’s Detective novels never did anything for me but the few straight noirs I’ve read have been very strong, of which this is a real standout. Have a read, if you’re looking for an existentialist gut punch.

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Ties by Domenico Starnone – The history of an unhappy family, structurally interesting and thoughtful, and with a reasonable wallop of an ending, but I couldn’t help but feel it lacked a little depth,. My opinion might be colored somewhat by how much I enjoyed Trick, however, and in any event although I didn’t love it I think I really like Starnone more generally, if that makes sense.

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Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun – A collection of short stories from a (the?) giant of 20th century Chinese letters. Much of it functions as a veiled if comprehensible satire of a civilization in rapid upheaval, and even if you don’t get all the references to Romance of the Three Kingdoms there’s still a lot of fun to be had in watching the author tweak the evils and pretensions of his age (traditional medicine comes in for a lot of abuse). But beyond political parody there is a sad joy in watching Lu describe the tragedies of his fellow citizens, grappling with his own failures and the failures of his age. In short, this is a master of the form reworking the Western-style short story into his own vernacular. Strong rec.

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Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o – A polemic parable about the evils wreaked on Kenya by colonialism and capitalism, written in Thiong'o’s native tongue and smuggled out of prison on sheets of toilet paper. A fascinating back story but it is doggedly didactic, and even agreeing with all the major points I still can’t imagine many readers actually enjoying the work itself. 

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Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick – Scattershot recollections of the narrator’s life, brief vignettes on ex-lovers ad dead friends and cleaning women and Billie Holliday. Much seems to be made of its peculiar structure, though to me there was nothing fabulously complex, observations and histories linked by mood, basically. Hardwick does it very well, however, the language feels biting and original, wistful without being overbearing.

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The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders – A parable about modern immigration with robots. There are some funny lines and it lasted me through a bottle of sparkling water but it did kind leave me thinking Jesus Christ, is this really the best we got?

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The Virginian by Owen Wister – A noble western cowhand shoots some bad dudes and finds a lady love, in what I gather is sort of the ur-text for the American western. Its basically Walter Scott in Wyoming, shlocky, overwritten melodrama with the most endless descriptions of the natural world (not often my bag), but there are some funny lines and a bristling brio to its eponymous heroic creation.

Books I Read January 14th, 2019

It’s been cold (sort of) and rainy (ish) here the last two weeks, and I’m going to come right out and say it; weather is bullshit. Weather sucks. All that crap about the leaves changing and the smell of fresh snow but you really only enjoy it for a couple of hours and then your shoes are wet with sludgy ice or your underwear sticks sweaty up against your skin, season depending. Fuck that noise.

The last two weeks I read the following.

Missionary Stew by Ross Thomas – A war-junkie journalist and a political fixer on the trail of a conspiracy which could alter the 1984 election. Shades of Elmore Leonard and George MacDonald. Sharply written and enjoyable, but I found the climax lacking.

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City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun – A faintly-drawn corporate stooge goes to work as a rat killer in a foreign country, finds himself embroiled in a Kafkaesque nightmare of moral and environmental collapse. Utterly predictable literary unpleasantness. I didn’t get a lot from this, except for a few facts about rats.

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Mudbound by Hillary Jordan – Racism turns out to be a bad thing in this book club melodrama of two southern families, one white, one black, and the well-telegraphed tragedies that befall them. Middlebrow shlock.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa – A collection of atmospheric if somewhat vague nightmares. They’re stylish and creepy but I found too many to be of the ‘my landlord used to be an old woman/she was spooky and I thought she might have killed her husband/we never found out for sure’ variety.

Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxieties by Sigmund Freud – I genuinely don’t understand why I keep reading these. Some fetish for completionism?  

The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki – In the years just prior to WWII, a fading family of Kyoto patricians tries to get honorably married off. It feels in some ways strange dated, reminiscent of Western novels from a half century or more before it was written – shades of Henry James in the elaborate descriptions of the character’s (seeming) motivations, and of course the subject matter is pure Austen – although Tanizaki himself had made his name as a bold, even deviant stylist. That said it’s quite masterfully done, the characters lushly rendered, the prose subtle, the array of characters wide and rich. A justifiable classic, worth your time.

Pure by Andrew Miller– An engineer tries to clear a possibly haunted Paris graveyard in the years just before the Revolution. At once an eerily disturbing work of horror and a strange and sly satire of Enlightenment thought, part Poe and part Zola. Unpredictable and entertaining.

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett – A Thai cop tries to find his partner’s killer in this gonzo Buddhist neo-noir. There’s an admirable effort to resolve conflicts without the simple expedient of physical violence, though in places it got peculiarly moralizing in its politics, and I wonder what a native would make of some of its depictions of Thai society. Still, this is pretty much everything you could ask for in an airplane book, fast-paced and wacky enough to warrant the price of admission.

The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Lê Thi Diem Thúy – A dream-like depiction of the childhood and early adolescence of a Vietnamese immigrant in South California. Lyrical and evocative, I’ll keep my eye out for more from the author.

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One Out of Two by Daniel Sada – Two identical twin sisters prolong a courtship in rural Mexico. Weird, strange, well-written, too short for me to make much judgment on whether Sada’s reputation as one of the recent lights of Mexican literature is deserved, I’ll have to grab another.

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Running Wild by JG Ballard – A psychologist investigates a mass murder in an elite English housing estate. Intermittently hysterical and horrifying, Ballard had a unique genius for identifying the fault lines of late-Capitalism, intuiting horrors generations before they would come to fully flower. Alas for how unpleasantly prescient this book feels.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James – There is a core of genius in this polyphonic retelling of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley; James’s characters are deftly-sketched, and his mastery of an elaborate range of patois generally impressive. But its bloated, with viewpoints overlapping one another, unnecessary repetition, pointless complexities and an exhausting tendency for characters to recapitulate previous events. Which is too bad, really, because shortened by about 300 pages it would be something of a masterpiece.

Best of 2018

In 2018 I moved to Los Angeles, rode a motorcycle badly and surfed worse, signed some new work, ate less meat, made more friends, lifted things, smoked too much, did very little to halt the ravages of global warming, slept a lot more than I should have, managed the occasional act of decency. I also read 266 books, of which the traditional ten are highlighted below.

But first, my 2018 playlist, carefully cultivated after hundreds of hours walking aimlessly around Los Angeles with headphones on so. Why aren’t you listening to these? Counterpoint: why are you readin gany of this? 

The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West – West’s 50 page assault on the pretensions of artists is savage and utterly unique.

Flight to Canada by Ishamel Reed – Hysterically funny, masterfully weird, Ishmael Reed’s anachronistic fantasy of a slave’s escape from bondage is part James Baldwin and part Mark Twain and altogether its own unique beast.

Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart – The story of three generations of women growing up in Guadeloupe is bitterly sad, beautiful and ultimately enormously uplifting.

God's Country by Percival Everett – Revisionist racial satire, the funniest western since True Grit.  

The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp – The howlingly humorous autobiography of a homosexual London bohemian. Outsider art, clever and keenly insightful.

Eve's Hollywood by Eve Babitz -- Eve Babitz’s recollections of a halcyon Los Angeles childhood and the decadent sixties which followed make for 200 really excellent pages.  

Three to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette – A savage satire of the classic hyper-masculine revenge story, Manchette is the French Jim Thompson, as mean a noir writer as ever sharpened a pen.

Omensetter's Luck by William H. Gass – Gass’s masterpiece, a work of enormous complexity and real moral weight.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich – A polyphonic recounting of the last days of the Soviet Union, and the erosion of modern capitalism on a once great dream. Gun to my head the best thing I read this year.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman – Tolstoy meets Solzhenitsyn, a vast and stunning tableau of soldiers, workers, scientists, artists and prisoners trying to survive amid the horrors of the modern age.

Books and Tunes December 31st, 2018

Note that this is not my best of 2018 post, which if I have the energy I’ll do tomorrow. Just the usual scattershot recollections of the books I read the last two weeks, and a collected playlist of December’s favorite tunes. They might be less coherent this time than normal, since I have to rush out to get a tuxedo so I can go to the Magic Castle tonight. Cause New Years, baby!

Try and kiss someone if you can tonight, it’ll bring you luck for 2019. But only if they want to kiss you, obviously. I shouldn’t need to say that, you should just know.


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The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays by Simon Leys – A wide ranging collection of essays, something of a mixed bag. I wasn’t blown away by the literary criticism (although anyone who shit-talks Christopher Hitchens can’t be all bad) but the writing on China and Mao were excellent, informative and thoughtful.

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Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler – A bourgeois technocrat is targeted for assassination by Nazi agents. As I said last week, Ambler wrote the best spy novels of anybody ever. The plot is airtight, he has a real gift for the internal mechanics of the story. His everymen almost hero is thoughtful and human in a way we don’t normally see in this type of book, and he has an admirable subtlety in his character building. Lots of fun.

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The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney – A magical circus arrives in a small Arizona town; something like if Charles Portis had written Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s not really a story so much as a peculiar collection of jokes and strange asides, but it was weird and funny and a quick read. Also the illustrations are fabulous.

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Killing Mr. Watson by Peter Matthiessen – A polyphonic retelling of the foul deeds of the eponymous Watson, a gunhand and would be industrialist, basically Absalom, Absalom in the Florida Keys. Its good, its very well written but there’s also shooting and murder and mystery and whatnot. I felt that the various viewpoints read too similarly and lacked the disparate stylization necessary for this style of writing, and the author’s own (admirable) moral viewpoint came through too strong. Which makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, but I did like the book, I just felt it didn’t quite manage to fulfill its enormous ambitions.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – The ghosts of a Washington, D.C. Graveyard try to help Abraham Lincoln’s newly deceased son pass into the next world, and his father grapple with the tragic futility of existence. Cleverly written, fairly breezy as far as this sort of thing goes. I thought the philosophizing and the supernatural stuff was much stronger than the political bits, which largely came down to ‘war is bad, but slavery is worse, and so war is OK.’ Still it wasn’t bad, I’m sure there were a lot of worse books up for the Mann Booker in 2017.

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Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick – Essays about lady writers and ladies who knew writers. I can’t remember a fucking thing about this book, usually not a great sign, but then again I’ve been reading a lot of literary criticism the last few weeks so it might be that they’re running together.

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman – Grossman’s epic masterpiece, a spiritual successor to War and Peace, stolen by Soviet secret police and long thought lost, has been on my list for a while now, and I spent the last ten days reading it, when I wasn’t eating too much food or playing with small children. In the Fox and the Hedgehog, Berlin has a funny throw-away line where he says Tolstoy thought he was a hedgehog but was really a fox—the point being that the enormous narrative genius of War and Peace, it’s unique world-building and rich cast of characters, is put in service of a philosophical argument about the nature of history just doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense. To apply that rubric to Grossman’s spiritual sequel, it might be reasonable to say that he’s more hedgehog than fox. Much of the vast crowd of characters only appear briefly, and whereas some are fabulously rich –  in particular Grossman’s morally muddled authorial surrogate, Viktor – a lot of the others fell flat. But whereas Tolstoy’s essential thesis is bunk, Grossman’s celebration of what is essentially human – that is to say idiosyncratic, flawed, unique – against the all consuming force of the state, and the bitter, mercurial indifference of destiny, resounds profoundly. A good book to end 2018 on.

 

 

Books I Read December 14th, 2018

What’s all this bullshit with early end of the year lists? I got ten books to read (and one to finish writing) before the 31st. Eggnog ain’t no excuse for slacking off, son, and you got miles to go before you sleep. Miles and Miles!

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Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri – Four hundred pages of Proustian recollections of the childhood and adolescence of an upper class intellectual from rural Bengal, and a hundred and fifty outlining a vigorous and wide-ranging critique of Indian culture. For so substantial a work, it feels somehow unfinished. The author’s recollections stop just as he enters adulthood and a role in the Indian independence movement which, if minor, seems like it would have been fascinating. His final thesis, while a brilliant trolling of the pretensions of his class, is so negative that it feels a little difficult to take seriously. Still, it is a extraordinary work, a depiction of an unfamiliar existence by a genius whose comprehensive familiarity with the intellectual history of Western civilization allows for fascinating comparative insight.

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Last Days by Brian Evenson – A private eye investigates a cult of deliberate dismemberees (I get to portmanteau words, I’m a published author). The first half is icky but funny and scary. The second half is a lot of slapdash shooting. It reads like a first novel by a talented writer, and even though I didn’t really like it I’d look for something else by Evenson.

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The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton – Bickering in an English boarding house during WWII. Competent and unobjectionable, but I’ve read an awful lot of novels about small-souled Englishfolk dealing with early middle age and having arguments over tea and this one didn’t really break out of the pack for me.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – A morally suspect surgeon, recovering from a role in the Sepoy Rebellion, joins an ill-fated whaling expedition. It’s a totally enjoyable historical thriller, if ostentatiously nihilistic. It’s really peculiar how the critical establishment will accept a genre novel as high literature if it offers some smack of queasy sadism, as if in penance. Cormac McCarthy I’m looking at you.

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Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford – I didn’t actually remember who Madame de Pompadour was before I got this from the library. She was Louis XV’s long mistress. Louis XV is the Louis no one really cares about. Nancy Mitford is a fabulously readable historian and it’s not her fault I had no interest in her subject matter. That’s my fault. That’s on me. I’ll own that.

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An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro – A fascist artist comes to grips with his past in post-war Japan, in what reads an awful lot like a dry run for Remains of the Day. Ishiguro is, and there’s no other way to put this, real middle-brow, simplifying the mechanisms of the modern novel in a skillful but shallow way. His protagonist is the most reliably unreliable narrator I can remember reading, with every failure and secret clearly signaled, as if demonstrating the concept to a high school English class. It’s very pleasant, and totally readable, but that’s as much as you could say for it.

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The Zebra Colored Hearse by  Ross MacDonald – Ross MacDonald > you.

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Hello America by J.G. Ballard – A crew of European explorers trek across a post-climate catastrophe (not the real one, a different one) America, only to face an apocalyptic despot in a hollowed out Las Vegas. A second-rate effort by a first-rate novelist, probably only worth looking at if you’ve already read a Drowned World and the other one, where the world isn’t drowned its dried up.

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The Final Solution by Michael Chabon – A very old Sherlock Holmes investigates his last mystery, involving a parrot and a German war refugee. Chabon is a skillful stylist, and I generally enjoy all of his weird forays into genre fiction. Not quite Gentleman of the Road (a secret favorite) or Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a minor masterpiece) but fun nonetheless.

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The Quest for Corvo by by A.J.A. Symons – The author’s attempts to track down the eponymous Corvo, a cantankerous, self-destructive, minimally successful writer of debatable genius. I never read the book which sets Symons off on his mad obsession (if by mad obsession you mean, traveling around England and asking for people to show you old letters), so probably some of this was lost on me.  All the same I can’t say I found Corvo’s story particularly fascinating in and of itself; he was a bitter man with a probable personality disorder, and they’re dime a dozen. Peculiar that the lunacy of brilliant men tends to resemble the lunacy of everyone else; one thinks of Bobby Fisher’s banal Anti-semitic ramblings, or Ezra Pound’s banal anti-Semitic ramblings. That’s a hard sub-genre when it comes to originality.

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Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler – In a pre-war resort town, a stateless Hungarian is forced into service by French secret intelligence. Me and everyone else agree that Ambler is the best spy novelist who ever wrote spy novels; he makes John LeCarre look like Tom Clancy. Not only are the actual mechanics of the plot sharp and believable, but they are framed by a genuine understanding of injustice, both the Machiavellian cruelties of great states and our own internal prejudice.

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Spunk! Selected Short Stories of Zora Neal Hurston by Zora Neal Hurston --  I was assigned Zora Neal Hurston at some point in high school, but I didn’t read her, because I didn’t do anything anyone told me to do when I was in high school, because I was (?) an asshole. In any event—this was lots of fun. Hurston has a gift for the vernacular (I loved her Harlem Bible), an idiosyncratic viewpoint, and a knowledge of an overlooked (at the time) aspect of Americana. Sorry, Ms. Cox, you were right all along.  

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Moderan by David R. Bunch – A kaleidoscopic chronicle of a post-human future, in which robot warlords fight endlessly over a plastic landscape. This is more Brave New World than Heinlein, short stories largely free of an overarching narrative, ferocious satire of capitalism, imperialism, etc. It’s held together with this really buoyant, peculiar style of prose, with our robot-warlord antihero speaking in this clipped, imbecilic vernacular. It probably would stand stronger at about 200 pages instead of 350, but it’s still unique and weird and worth your time.

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Heat by William Goldman – The greatest killer in the world at under 20 feet tries to survive his 5000th day in the hellish wasteland that is Las Vegas. One of Goldman’s less remembered novels, although a personal favorite of mine. There’s a shit-ton wrong with this book; the plot is a pointless mish mash, characters are introduced and disappear without rhyme or reason. But it’s just so much goddamned fun. An epic action scene midway through the book, the nested revelation of the hero’s madness, the sheer brio and verve Goldman gets out of the concept. It frankly should have gone through a few more drafts, but it holds a spot in my heart all the same.

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The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan – After the death of their parents, four children curdle with madness alone in their house. McEwan has real talent, managing to create a deep sense of discomfort and unease without resorting to much explicit awfulness. That said, one is sort of left wondering at the point of all this artistry. It’s too unpleasant to qualify as good genre fiction, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a point behind all the nastiness. I appreciated the skill involved, and it was short enough that I didn’t mind forcing myself through the discomfort of reading it, but I’m not really sure to whom I could recommend the book. Readers interested in body-horror and incest? Is that a large demographic?

 

 

Books and Tunes November 30th, 2018

For Thanksgiving, I worked a shift on the crisis hotline, ate at two vegan dinners, briefly explored Jumbo’s Clown Room, and finished up at an all night Thai spot, because I vegan food kind of sucks. But, in fairness, regular Thanksgiving food kind of sucks also. Apart from that I also read and listened to the following.

Notes on Music:

  • Yeah, that’s a Grease cover on there, and it’s dope.

  • All the music I listen to lately is such predictable indy stuff.

  • Except Billy Woods.

  • Or is that likewise on brand?

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Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson – A surreal collection of stories set in New York and a fictional suburb in the first half of the 20th century. I thought the more directly supernatural ones were somewhat hit or miss, but the heart of it—a novella entitled Girl with the Golden Hair, about a cad wandering around New York and making bad decisions-- was thrillingly modern-feeling, sad and poignant and rung with things that still feel true. Except for some surprisingly odd depictions of heterosexual intercourse, the specificity of which was responsible for getting the book banned upon release (though this might have been intended as an aesthetic punishment, I can’t say.) Anyway, it made me feel wistful and warm for chilly Manhattan, it might do the same for you.

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The Hansa by E. Gee Nash – Oh for the age of the gentle(wo)man historian, when any minor aristocrat with a C-level from Oxbridge could write a wide-ranging, faintly researched tome about whatever peculiar aspect of European history suited her fancy. I learned frankly very little about the Hansa, the league of German merchants which controlled much of the North Sea during the late middle ages, but upside this was one of those books that was printed on that really stiff, dry parchment paper, where little bits flake away like erudite confetti. I used to read a lot more of those.

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Beast in View by Margaret Millar – A miserable heiress is plagued by a series of mad, threatening phone calls; when her aging stock broker is hired to find the source, he uncovers a great chunk of misery and misfortune. Probably there would not be much argument that no genre so effectively skewered the superficial morals and staid mores of mid-century America like the classic noir, and Beast of View does very well in that vein—in its cruel but convincing dissection of its characters foibles. The plot itself is a little scattershot, but it’s got a sharp ending.

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric – The history of the town surrounding the eponymous bridge, which links the Turkish East from the Christian West, from the structure’s erection until the start of World War I. I’ve had a fascination with the Western Balkans, which is to say the former-Yugoslavia, since my brother gave me Rebecca West’s superlative Black Lamb and Gray Falcon when I was in high school. (Which, if you haven’t read, is one of the best things ever written). With joy do I remember being escorted through Belgrade by a blue-eyed Slav; with gratitude do I recall the pair of Romani who let me rest in their antique shop in Kotor, the father plying me with oranges and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Anyone can love anything, and any particularly idiosyncratic affection, carefully nurtured, can offer insight into the nature of the species. Still I am glad my particular passion lay in the Land of the Southern Slavs; its slate peaks and bright blue bays and winding rivers. In so far as one can speak of a national character (about which I am always uncomfortable) the southern Slavs always seemed to me to be the most bi-polar of a bi-polar people; possessed of a rich, life-affirming passion and also of an undeniable capacity for savagery. These are, in any case, the essential themes of this beautiful book. The horrors and joy of human existence, and our capacity for kindness and cruelty. As the centuries turn, the inhabitants of a small town in Bosnia find the implacable hand of human events bearing them from misery towards destruction.

Impossible not to note with sadness that the presumable basis for the bridge, the Stari Most, an arch of silver, was destroyed during by partisans in the ’93 war (though rebuilt after). Oh, pitiable world of which we are a part.

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Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino – Three short stories, out of a proposed five celebrating one of the physical senses. I don’t know how to review three short stories. I liked the second more than the first, and the third more than the second. My initial feelings about Calvino have softened, but I’m still not sure I’d include him in my top rank of fantasists.

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Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones — An adolescent follows his family of white trash werewolves on a episodic series of misadventures through the American south. The mechanics are clever, and it feels honest in its depiction of poverty, but I thought some of the stylistic flourishes could have been toned do and the broader plot doesn’t quite do service to the underlying idea.

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Gustavus Adolphus by Michael Roberts – I went through a Wars of Religion phase, as do, I assume, all red-blooded American males, but it had been a little while since I’d spent any time with Wallenstein and Tilly, with the White King and the Emperor. This was a short but thoughtful and genuinely well-written discussion of the life of the Swedish Thunderbolt, Protestantism’s great champion and one of the foremost military geniuses of his age. Not sure who shares this interest besides me, but you could do worse.

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Girlfriends, Ghosts and Other Stories by Robert Walser – A scattershot selection of commentary from everyone’s favorite late dual-empire stylist (fuck you, Stefan Zweig!) There’s a lot of stuff in here about happy walks in sunlit woods, and the joy of a beer and a good pretzel, threaded through with the sort of melancholy which saw the author spend the final quarter of his life in a mental institution. Sometimes I bought into it, often times I felt that the writing was over-precious, like I was making a meal out of marzipan. I don’t love Walzer, but I appreciate how other, kinder readers would.

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The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan – An English couple on a tryst in a foreign city get embroiled with a strange couple. A savage and vigorously disturbing exploration of sexual sadism. I can’t recall reading something and feeling so disgusted afterward, which, given how much I read, is a compliment. Which is to say, this was extremely discomfiting, but not without artistry.

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To Marry Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon – A single polyp of a vast alien intelligence lands by chance in a drunken bum, frustrating its attempts at world domination. Like last week’s More Than human, I thought this was clever and well-written and undermined by a lot of third-act philosophizing, truly the bane of mid-century science fiction. Still, for a genre I don’t really enjoy, I kind of enjoyed this.

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Mochette by Georges Bernanos – A series of miserable things happens to a girl in rural France. This is an example of that sort of very self-consciously ‘Catholic’ novel, possessed of a morbid affection for misfortune and portraying despair and salvation are flip sides of the same coin. The older I get the less sympathy I have for this peculiar form of self-indulgence, which seems uncomfortably close to masochism. I’m pretty much with Orwell on Waugh, and even Flannery O’Connor’s immense genius stumbles against her endless parade of limbless unfortunates. But, like both of those authors, I wouldn’t dream of denying Bernanos’s talent and skill. Not for me, maybe for you.

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The Temple of Gold by William Goldman – Goldman’s sad passing propelled me to check out this coming of age story, to the best of my knowledge the only non-genre novel he wrote. It’s Goldman’s first book, and not his best, and while there’s probably an interesting few hundred words to get here about the way in which Goldman’s genius as a crime/horror/western/fantasy/etc/writer don’t lend themselves to this more traditional task, I’m not going to bother with them cause I got other shit to do. Nil nisi bonum, and all that.

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The Balkan Wars by Andre Gerolymatos – A discussion of the national character of the Balkan peoples as developed by the last half-millennium of more or less constant warfare. I thought the arrangement was a little peculiar—it’s almost but not quite chronological—and there is an uneven dedication to the specifics of the various conflicts which are kind of confusing. But it’s well-written and pretty-even handed, almost an impossible task when discussing the dozen competing national groups taking part in the tableau.  

Modern Man in Search of a Soul by CG Jung – Rather than waste a lot of time discussing the development of psychology, the rest of the review is going to be a scattershot series of impressions about a (fairly) seminal text in modern culture.

·         As a therapist, I’d take Jung over Freud, but in terms of scathing observations into the nature of humanity, I’ll take the Austrian.

·         Still, Freud was completely batshit, I’m glad someone got to point that out.

·         Then again, collective memory is also garbage and I don’t know how anyone could seriously hold to it. That, for instance, the ancient Greeks associated horses with the sea is of no relevance to a patient’s dream unless your patient happens to be a classicist.

·         I am skeptical of trying to force narrative coherence on the output of the unconscious mind; you can barely do it with the output of the conscious.

·         Also, magic isn’t real.

·         Still, there’s a joy to the thing, an honest affection for the human species, an acknowledgement of ignorance combined with a willingness to improve the lot of others that I could get down with.

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Henri Duchemin and His Shadows by Emmanuel Bove – A collection of lovely, sad, strange short stories. I particularly liked the one where a man destroys everything in his life just to prove he can do it.

The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales by Patrick K. Ford (trans.) – This is of anthropological interest but, apart from a comically long and peculiarly engrossing description of the knights of Arthur’s court, I can’t imagine anyone enjoying it for its literary merit.

Books I Read November 14th, 2018

The smoke from the coming apocalypse is, quite literally, hanging in the sky here in sunny Los Angeles. This was the kind of few weeks where every bit of personal good fortune seem shameful, odious, in light of the planet’s impending demise and the terrible misery of the human species. Also I went to Vegas for the first time which did nothing for my mood. Vegas makes Nairobi look like Amsterdam and Belgrade look like heaven. Amid this self-indulgent melanchol, I read the following.

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The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide – The existential travails of a cadre of wealthy Parisians, with much philosophizing and an occasional uneven structural flourish. This is the sort of archaic feeling novel in which no character acts or speaks in any remotely human fashion, and occasional hints of frowned upon sexual activity are meant to resound like fireworks in a closed room. I did enjoy the occasional Emersonian uplift, but I can’t say it did much for me.

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The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings by Juan Rulfo – More tales of Post-Revolution Mexico, some fantastical, all very grim. Rulfo is a talented, nasty writer, and one can clearly trace his earthy, blood-soaked influence throughout modern Latin American fiction.

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Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson – A portrait of an aging academic and his wide if unloved circle of family and colleagues, with an engaging through line regarding the destructive effects of falsity. Three weeks in England was enough for my Anglophilia to rub thin, but reading this on the flight back to LA was nearly enough to make me buy a return ticket to Essex. Haha—I’m kidding, the sun never comes out and they’re all weird looking. Anyway, this was clever and enjoyable, I liked it more than I’d figured.

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The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky by John Hornor Jacobs – Lovecraft meets Bolano in the waning days of the Pinochet regime. Fair warning, John is a friend or at least an associate, but all the same this was creepy and evocative, and indisputably better written than 95% of the genre. Good stuff.

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Matasuburo the Wind Nymph by Kenji Miyazawa --- A collection of pleasant if unspectacular modern Japanese fairy tales, sort of Neil Gaiman meets Studio Ghibli. I didn’t love this but I imagine a lot of other folk would. That’s kind of the theme of this months’ reading so far.

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More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon – A misfit collection of psychics might just be (are) the next form of human evolution. If you are thinking this is not the only time this idea has been explored, you are probably correct—off the top of my head I can think of Odd John and that one Roger Zelazny (I think it was Roger Zelazny) wrote with the demons and the UN. Anyway, the first 2/3 are weird and well-written but then it devolves into that peculiar form of mid-century sci-fi which reads like a philosophical essay from a well-meaning but verbose college freshman.

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The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forstyh —Frederick Forsyth wrote a book called Dogs of War that I liked so much I decided to rewrite as The Builders. He was also a journalist, pilot, spy, and general bad ass, stories of which he traces in this thoroughly entertaining pseudo-biography. The early bits reminded me a bit of Patrick Leigh Fermor, except for the endless descriptions of churches, and all the ‘I-would-have-been-killed-by-the-German-arms-dealer-if-not-for’ stuff was a lot of fun.

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Missing Person by Patrick Modiano – An amnesiac traces his identity through the dark days of the French Occupation, with the joke being that everyone he interacts with proves equally obsessed with their past. I liked this more than any of the other Modiano I’ve read. The actual mystery is shamefully slapdash, but at least he’s trying a little here, and the hint of actual shame and menace provided by Vichy France gives his usual nostalgia more of a charge.

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Dawn By Octavia Butler – A woman survives WWIII only to be awoken aboard an alien ship hundreds of years in the future, forced to come to terms with her rescuers/captors, an alien species of monstrous visage and unknown aims. This is a solid entry into that genre of sci-fi which consists of a lot of blunt exposition in service of a broader commentary about the nature of humanity/existence. Probably you can tell that this isn’t really to my taste, but others

Books and Tunes October 31, 2018

A paltry 8 books the back half of this month, but then, I was busy with my whirlwind tour through Baltimore, Oxford, London, and, as of about four hours ago, Minsk. Ahh, beloved Minsk, where a younger me once walked through parks and ate very sparingly and thought constantly of a blond haired woman. Thank God for old friends in foreign countries, warm welcomes, cold beer, hot tea (inferior to coffee but we won’t argue that point), and good books.

Music I Done Liked This Month

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The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers – Seven men flee a concentration camp in the early-ish days of the Nazi regime; six are swiftly captured, but the seventh proves elusive, dragging old friends and family into his desperate escape. At once a very good thriller and a wide-ranging depiction of fascist society, I wondered if the first didn’t somewhat conflict with the second—it’s a little too bright and cheery for my tastes (I’m a very grim individual), and gun to my head I enjoyed Transit more than this. Still quite strong.

The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo – A collection of searing tales from the wilds of early 20th century Mexico. This reminded me somewhat of Horacio Quiroga, in its focus on desperate and impoverished men on the edges of society, and its fascination with the brutality of the natural world. I quite enjoyed it, I’ve got another one in my bag waiting to be read.

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The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink – A purposeless American ex-pat follows her unlovable (?) husband to Europe, obsesses over the inevitable destruction of the environment, finds herself, etc. Brisk, quite humorous, valuable in its portrayal of the impossible necessity of environmentalism and a moral code of some kind more generally, somewhat unfocused, essentially enjoyable.

The Savages by Don Winslow – Two friends sell marijuana and get into trouble with a Mexican Cartel. There’s a girl. They shoot people. Readable if unexceptional, overladen with cultural commentary (Americans are wasteful! People are mean!) of a less than brilliant stripe.

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The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing – An aging intellectual attempts to make sense of post-war England with a fragmented series of recollections. This is a very big book, both in size and intellectual scope, and it would require a lot more time and effort to unpack than these brief capsule reviews allow. That said, I didn’t like it – for all the stuff about the decay of communism and imperialism in Africa the vast majority of the book is narrowly focused on the tedious, repetitive sexual exploits of Lessing’s mouthpiece/narrator, little of which felt interesting or relevant to me personally. It reminded me a little of Updike or Roth, one of those writers who imagines the through line for understanding modernity rests in their pudenda. It also goes on fucking forever. Avoid.

The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald – After 650 pages of Lessing I needed a femme fatale and a guy getting sapped and an overly elaborate criminal plot and I got it here. Yay!

 ‘I’m just another fruit fly. If I don’t care about what happens to fruit flies, what is there to care about? And if I don’t care, who will? It makes no difference to the stars.’

Indeed.

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Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska – A rather mawkish series of short stories about life in the Jewish ghettos of lower Manhattan in the turn of the century. Melodramatic and less than fabulous, though it was useful enough to be reminded of immigrant history of my own people in these dark times, as well as to be re-familiarized with the brilliance of Yiddish cursing. A black year upon Donald Trump! May he have a thousand house, and in every house a thousand rooms, and in every room a thousand beds, and may he be driven sleepless from each. May he live a hundred years beside the shadow of himself! (That last one was mine).

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The Profession of Violence by John George Perason – A history of the criminal Kray brothers, who ruled London’s underworld in the post-war years. I picked this up in Gatwick and put it down in Kiev international – first time I think I’ve ever bought a book in an airport, but the thought of having to go back to the French existentialist literature I have in my backpack at the moment proved too frightening a task.

Books I Read October 14th, 2018

Life tip toes happily towards the apocalypse. I ate a seitan French dip sandwich. I saw Courtney Barnett at the Greek and it was great even though she didn’t play Sunday Roast which I was pretty sad about. It rained the other night, that was exciting for us here in Southern California. I saw a play in a mausoleum in Pasadena but it was pretty terrible—weird theater is something New York does better, credit where due. I wrote and walked and tried my honest best to improve the world in a meager way, or at least not to make it any worse. I also read the following…

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Endgame by Ahmet Altan --  A middle aged, not particularly successful writer moves from Instanbul to a small resort town on (presumably) the Black Sea and is destroyed by its erotic secrets and nefarious crime lords. At its core a solid if unspectacular crime novel in the James M Cain vain, its gussyed up with a lot of theological/philosophical ramblings which I confess I couldn’t quite feel were on par with, say, Ecclesiastes. Altan, also a journalist, is currently serving a life sentence basically for pissing off Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial leader, but his personal heroism aside I can’t say I loved this.

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The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald – Although I can’t remember anything about the plots of any of the Lew Archer books a week after I’ve read them, they do leave behind a thick residue of noirish good feeling. Truthfully, I’ve never read another series which sustained such an impressive average. MacDonald was a real talent. 

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Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo – A monstrous Wall Street big shot takes a limo ride across a future-ish New York. Erotic couplings, murder, and starkly unoriginal satire take place. I’ve read three books by DeLillo and at this point my question is not is he a good writer (he is not) but why do people think he’s a good writer? Rather than engage in cheap Bulverism, however, I’ll point you over to JG Ballard, who did everything in this novel much better and some thirty years earlier.

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That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilia Gadda – A sprawling murder investigation highlights the hypocrisy and injustice of Mussolini’s Rome. This is the kind of book where the plot itself takes distinct second seat to the style – Gadda favors page long, enormously complex sentences which resemble elaborate riddles, your enjoyment of which will determine your enjoyment of the book more generally. It was kind of hit or miss for me, frankly, though I gather a lot of the author’s portmanteaus and linguistic jokes are untranslatable.

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Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley – The challenge in writing a classic detective novel (part of it, anyway), thrown down by Hammet, carried forth by Chandler, etc. etc., is to create a compelling protagonist through the use of negative space, so to speak; his reactions to the world around him, other character’s reactions towards him. Most readers, I think, don’t actually like this; they prefer their heroes with meaty back stories, lofts of ex lovers and lost friends and bitter enemies, but the aesthetic ideal of the genre is always towards an almost brutal lack of excess. There’s a lot to like in this story of a black ex-soldier in post-war LA who gets embroiled in murder, sex, the usual, but for my money Mosley takes too many narrative shortcuts to call it a classic. I like his Socrates Furlow (SP) stuff more, but this was perfectly serviceable to read in between exhausting foreign tomes and I’d pick up another.

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The Cleft by Doris Lessing – A disgraced Roman Senator, working from lost primary documents, retells the origin of the human species as being one of lust and warfare between men and woman, then (and still, the joke runs) foreign tribes. Basically the idea is to replaced Eden with a recapitulation of the youthful sexual explorations of boys and girls. The idea is clever, and Lessing is absolutely savagely mean about it – this is the kind of book which doesn’t hew to any kind of political program, and about which devotees of any school of gender philosophy will find plenty to be annoyed about. The framing story doesn’t really work, and it goes on a lot longer than it should, but still I found the underlying idea to be so potent that it made up for its narrative missteps. This is my second Lessing book and I’m really enjoying here so far; as indisputable original.

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Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil – The lives and deaths of a handful of drug users in Bombay, from the 70’s to (I guess?) the 90’s. It’s weird and vibrant and disturbing and set in an unfamiliar environment (for this reader, at least) and if I didn’t find its insights into the human condition to be absolutely heart-rendingly brilliant I didn’t beat my head against the wall in annoyance and it was pretty compellingly readable.

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Spoon River Anthology  by Edgar Lee Masters – Epitaph-like poems from the interned ex-citizens of the eponymous midwestern town, whose tragic episodes come together into a larger story about greed and small-town hypocrisy. Structurally this is really innovative, a pre-cursor to Sherwood Anderson/Willam H. Gass. The poems themselves were kind of hit or miss, though, with some really lovely stuff about nature and living life intensely and so forth and then a lot of other less effective ones which were basically ‘everyone thought I was a good church goer and nice to my kids, but / I was drinking a point of moonshine every morning before breakfast’.

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In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano – The nostalgia ridden recollections of several people who once spent time in or around a dive bar in Paris in the 50’s. Modiano is a decent enough writer, most of us half-intellectuals enjoy the fantasy of having spent time in a great world metropolis during some or other halcyon period, there’s nothing objectionable about this at all, but for the life of me I can’t understand how it has come to merit the international recognition which it seems to receive. There’s nothing here you won’t find elsewhere.

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The Blue Hammer by Ross MacDonald – See my review of the Doomsters, above, or pretty much any other review of a Ross Macdonald book I’ve written, below.

Books and Tunes September 30th, 2018

The last two weeks I went to Tahoe, I went to a moon festival in Chinatown, I wrote a lot and studied a little Spanish and did some other things also, I mean that wasn’t the entirety of it, for instance I also listened to and read the following.

Tunes for September

·         Oooh, Ted Hawkins where you been all my life.

·         I want to have something bad to say about Mac Demarco but I don’t really.

·         Also Jonwayne is pretty solid for a white rapper.

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Bomb Squad: A Year Inside the Nation's Most Exclusive Police Unit by Richard Esposito and Ted Gerstein – An interesting subject but the writing is shlocky as hell and its badly structured.

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Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu by A.L. Sadler – Most of my knowledge of Japan’s pre-eminent conqueror comes from the book Shogun, which it turns out wasn’t 100% accurate, so this was a useful corrective. I’m not sure I would recommend it more than any other book written on the subject, but it’ll give you an overview.

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Katalin Street by Magda Szabo – Beauty, tragedy, and memory among a trio of families living on the eponymous boulevard in Budapest in the years before WWII. This is another one of those where I can’t really say anything bad about it except that I’ve read a number of similar works, that is to say, attempt by central Europeans to grapple with the destruction of an idyllic pre-war world using fractured narratives and fantastical elements. Actually, thinking about it, this is one of my preferred genres, along with world noir. In any event, it’s well-written and clever, and you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did.

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Zinky Boys by Sveltana Alexievich – More of Ms. Alexievich’s trademark multi-voiced histories, this time focusing on the Soviet Union’s war with Afghanistan, ill-fated as wars with Afghanistan tend to be. Alexievich is a fabulously talented historian, this is horrifying and excellent.

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Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley – Episodes from the life of one Socrates Forlow, an aging con, recently out of prison, trying to find a way to survive without compromising his late-developed moral code. Anyone who’s read City Dreaming will know I have a thing for genre stories told in non-traditional formats, and though some of these, presumably because they began their life as short stories, fall a little too hammer-heavy with the moralizing, the stranger ones – a first visit to the beach, euthanizing an old friend – are really fabulous. Overall this was quite strong, I mean I went out and grabbed the sequel pretty quick.

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Sand by Wolfgang Hernndorf – An amnesiac finds himself at the heart of international political intrigue in the Sahara. An anti-genre novel which utilizes classical tropes as aesthetic weapons, basically, forcing the reader to confront the absurdity of the format. I found the essential nihilism – this is the sort of book where every success is immediately followed by a reversal, and no one ever, for instance, enjoys a sandwich – exhausting. Not that I disagree with it on principal, particularly, but it’s limiting for a narrative of this length.

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The Barbarous Coast by Ross MacDonald – The uniformly strong nature of the Lew Archer novels make it kind of pointless to write much about any specific one. Here you’ve got what you’ve usually got – very strong writing, a powerful moral viewpoint, some clever character work, and one too many twists.

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Tolstoy, Rasputin, Others, and Me: The Best of Teffi by Teffi – A rather scattershot collection of stories and recollections from Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, a highlight of the pre-Revolution literary scene in St. Petersburg. The writing was lovely, her stories about the eponymous interesting, this was a pleasant way to kill a subway ride to Santa Monica.

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An Outline of Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud – Freud would have a field day on why I spend so much time reading Freud, given I think most of it’s nonsense. But it’s not all nonsense, and the parts that aren’t are pretty entertaining.

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The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing – An over fecund bourgeois family pays a horrifying price for their familial bliss with the birth of their fifth child, who might be autistic or might be a goblin. There’s a certain faint theme of political commentary here, of which the reviews seem to have made too much, but really this is pure horror, playing to that underlying feeling in all of us that we don’t deserve the good things we get, that our happiness is thin tissue for the nightmare of human reality. In any event, one of the most effective horror stories I can remember reading in a long time, disturbing and weird and masterfully well-written. I’m excited to try out more by Ms. Lessing, and while I do I would highly recommend you grab a copy of this and scare yourself awake, season what it is, and all.

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The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty – A woman returns to her small Mississippi town to bury her father, with appearances by her father’s nightmarish second wife and various awful townsfolk. One peculiarity one runs across as a writer is that stupid people are so stupid that the stupid things they say are too stupid to be written into the narrative—they have to be made more intelligent, or at least more comprehensible, or a reader will find them unbelievable. The early parts of this book, and the second wife in particular, feel too close to the real thing, but the final section, in which our heroine’s rambling mind comes to grips with the past, was very strong.

Warner: Selected Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner – This thing sat on my night table for like two straight months before I could bring myself to finish it. Part of that is just that I find this format – very long short story collections – particularly difficult to push through. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, Townsend is a talented writer, but except for the last five stories or so, which are about fairies, they did tend all to be rather exhaustingly English, tiny and over refined, and there was an awful lot of It was a terrible amount of trouble to bring our wretched grandmother these scones but at least she’s happy cut to Grandma thinking God I hate these scones.

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Walkin' the Dog by Walter Mosley – More episodes in the life of Mosley’s ex-con/philosopher, struggling to adjust his savage temper and bitter moral sense to a corrupt America. There are a couple of clunkers, but basically this is some really weird, well-written, insightful noir.

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Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov – Observations and episodes from the six years the author spent in the most far flung of the Soviet gulags. Beautiful observations about the natural environment of his distant prison, bleak depictions of the reality of gulag life, a scathing but sincere moral viewpoint, I guess you can figure out why it’s considered a classic.  

Books I Read September 14th, 2018

Happy new year to my Hebrew friends, happy everything else to everyone else. The weather in the evenings in LA is indescribably perfect. My life kicks along at a reasonably pleasant pace, despite it all. The last two weeks, I read the following.

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The Bitterest Age by Raymond Kennedy – A precocious adolescent Berliner struggles to hold her family and life together during the last days of WWII, with the Nazi regime collapsing and the Soviets soon to arrive. There’s a lot of good stuff here, the heroine is well-drawn (if somewhat superhuman), but I think I might have felt it to be a bit too simple to meaningfully capture the inconceivable horrors of wartime, both in terms of the language and the underlining moral focus. It’s not a bad book by any means, but I couldn’t help but feel that the basically bourgeois moral structure Kennedy seeks to showcase was a little too neat, a little too clean. Which was sort of the point of the thing, but still.

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A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe – I think Gene Wolfe is probably the best living fantasist, but this didn’t do it for me.

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The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza – Chronicling the lives of two generations of Iranians in the first half of the 20th century, Reza packs a tremendous amount into this slender novel. Perhaps too much? Her depiction of romantic love, and particularly of romantic love from the female end of things, is beautifully rendered, really a delight to read. A lot of the rest of it – dealing with the political developments in the years leading up to the CIA backed removal of Mossadegh, and the character of modern Iran – I thought was somewhat weaker. Not weak, but not as strong as romantic bits. Still, good stuff all in all, I’ll see what else I can find by the author.

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Back by Henry Green – A soldier returns from WWII, becomes obsessed with the half-sister of his dead wife, sort of loses his mind, sort of gets it back. I complained that the other two novels I read by Green – Loving and Doting – were masterfully written but too narrow. Here I couldn’t help but feel the opposite. There is some fabulous language – the first few chapters, which are more impressionistic, even experimental, are very strong – but the narrative is rather shaggy, and didn’t exactly pull together for me.

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Based on a True Story by Norm MacDonald – There are a lot of good throw away lines in this anti-celebrity memoir, but the main joy is seeing MacDonald’s parodying of literary styles – a few chapters of Bukowski, a pitch-perfect if horrifying pseudo-Faulkner – which are fabulously spot on. A librarian in the Silver Lake library wearing a Tom Waits t-shirt shushed me for laughing too loudly while I was reading it, so I guess you should probably take that as a solid recommendation.  

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Dreams in Folklore by Sigmund Freud – Freud has this tendency to over-complicate even stone simple things, preferring elaborate explanations for what are fairly obviously mental processes; case in point, this slim tome, which searches desperately through the scatological stories of Central Europe, finding in them all sorts of deep seeded impulses while somehow missing the fact that people think poop is funny and like to write stories about it. I mean, I don’t take any of Freud’s stuff that seriously, but this one was real goofy.   

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Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – Jamie is a precocious adolescent living in Shanghai, who becomes separated from his parents when the Japanese invade and is forced to live out the war on his own, first in a sort of Peter Pan-esque interlude among the wreckage of the Anglo-Chinese households, then as a prisoner of war. Here as elsewhere, Ballard is a master of conjoining clashing experiences, narrating the joy which Jamie takes in his acts of survival, daily horrors made easier by a child’s incapacity to entirely understand the world around him, and the shifting uncertainties of a brief experience. But unlike his savage social commentaries/science fictions, which have the occasional tendency to tilt self-indulgently, the biographical nature of the content – the book is based, one sense accurately, on Ballard’s own experiences in the war – keeps the narrative tight, if horrifying. Very, very strong recommendation.

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The Alexiad by Anna Comnena – It’s always fun to read history written by a historical figure, so to speak, and this overview of the life of the Emperor Aleixus, who did a pretty good job of rebuilding the shattered prestige of the Eastern Roman Empire, by his daughter Anna, was…reasonably engaging? Somewhat interesting? It was sort of vaguely for a project I’m working on, otherwise I’m not sure I’d have bothered.

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My Marriage by Jakob Wasserman – The loosely fictionalized life history of a woman with narcissistic personality disorder, written by a her manipulative, selfish husband, who also happens to be a pretty famous early 20th century Austrian novelist. Really, really good – the portrait of Ganna within will resonate with, I can’t help but imagine, anyone who reads it – she is your cousin, your best friend’s ex-girlfriend, maybe an individual you yourself were foolish enough to allow into your life. Her endless struggle against the world’s refusal to bend to her every whim is chronicled with blazing clarity, albeit by an author whose own self-obsession itself borders on the pathological. Other readers – was your impression that Wasserman is writing himself in as a particularly noxious character, or that he simply didn’t understand the degree to which he was betraying himself within the narrative? I think it was the latter. Absolutely fabulous, in any case, strong rec.

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Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego by Sigmund Freud – Usually there’s a point in Freud’s essays where he’ll fiat some flatly incorrect premise, and then rush past in hopes you won’t notice. Here it comes in identifying a ‘leader’ as an essential pre-condition of the ‘group/herd’, which brings us back to his father-as-first-sacrifice thesis which he articulates in Moses and Monotheism, but sidesteps the most fascinating aspect of group psychology; namely, that it often operates without any such patriarch, but as a faceless, blameless mass, giving vent to the sublimated desires of each individual. Whatever, there are still some fun brain teasers in here.

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Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich – A polyphonic reconstruction of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Long interviews with distinct ‘types’ – an embittered soldier, a hollow advertising exec, winners (but mostly losers) in the New Russia – with each section being distinct genres in and of themselves; mystery, horror, tragic romance. The scope and depth of this project, the profundity which Alexievich mines from the lives of her subjects, disparate voices but uniting themes – the universality of pain, the awfulness of death (and sometimes life), the redeeming and damning power of love – are immeasurable. One ought to be careful of making too pronounced a judgment on a book one has just finished, but ignoring that rule entirely I’m going to go ahead and say this is one of the finest things I’ve ever read, a magisterial work of human insight, an enormous accomplishment, fucking breathtaking, give it a go.

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Love's Lovely Counterfeit by James M. Cain – A clever, amoral chiseler aims to overthrow the crime boss of a small midwestern city – so, Red Harvest, but with Cain’s nasty, sexy sheen. Like most of the rest of the stuff I’ve read by Cain, this goes on 30 pages longer than it really needed to, but you can’t quite bring yourself to complain.

Books and Tunes August 31, 2018

August Ends. I gradually grow acclimated to not eating exclusively red meat. Do you know dates are pretty good? Also, labneh. One afternoon I surfed badly. One evening I got a drink on top of a rotating tower. Things which would be tacky and awful in other places are lots of fun in LA.

Tunes for August

·         Houndmouth – bad name, good band

·         I’m not saying Townes Van Zandt is the best song writer who ever lived, but if you said it, I wouldn’t run over and slap you in the face

·         Do the Fruit Bats sound like the Bats deliberately? They’d have to, right? Yeah.

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I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon – Constructed from interviews and scrap of Zevon’s journal, this is as down and dirty as you’re going to get – every petty rivalry, debauched episode, every misbehavior of a brilliant artist with some very serious character issues. Despite which, Crystal Zevon manages an enormously impressive even-handedness, particularly given that Warren seems to have beat the hell out of her a couple of times. A ravenously engaging read, the best rock and roll biography I ever read, hands down.

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The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino – A wonderous little morsel about a teenager who climbs into the trees and refuses to come done, living a long life of romantic adventure and noble self-denial. Extremely charming. I’m starting to think I maybe really like Calvino, but just wasn’t grabbed by Invisible Cities.

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A New Hope For the Dead by Charles Willeford – A cop and his people in 80’s Miami. There was some good slice of life stuff here, and I didn’t find the narrative (such that it was) entirely unengaging, but two weeks after I read it I can’t remember anything that really happened, which usually isn’t a great sign.

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Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis – A comic overview of the rise, fall, and sort of rise of a mid-20th century cult – the peculiar and dishonest characters it attracts. All the usual pleasures of a Portis story are here – the deft sense of irony, the brilliantly funny dialogue – but operating along a narrative structure which, while loose, is outside of the ‘first person southern idiot voice’ he does in a lot of his other books. Lots and lots of fun, not quite True Grit but still well worth your time.

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Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper by Ishmael Reed – I love Reed’s early novels but this is…pretty weak beer. A collection of editorial and essays about controversies long forgotten, and inter-academic feuds which could never have been of much interest to anyone.   

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The Varangians of Byzantium by Benedict Benedikz -- If you want to read a narrow academic history of an obscure military unit within a long decayed empire, you could do worse than this.   

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Sun and Steel by Yukio Mishima – Literature, not to say life, offers no shortage of brilliant people dithering around in the most incoherent or radically destructive directions, but even still, you would be hard to find a more perfect encapsulation of genius put to the most startling stupid ends than Mishima’s grand self-statement. Individual lines are beautifully written, certain thoughts are articulated with heart-aching grandeur, taken in sum its worship of unthinking physical force, that is to say violence, in a nation then recovering from apocalyptic destruction (and responsible for a great deal of the same), must be judged either indescribably stupid or nightmarishly vile. One need not be aware of Mishima’s comi-tragic attempt to put this philosophy into practice to hold it in contempt. In short, this is every bit as rational as one would expect from a man who chose to be photographed for the book jacket in a speedo, wearing a katana.

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Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber – A delightful children’s story about a magic prince and whatnot. Lots of fun nonsense language, and some very clever lines. I’ll pick one up for my nephew.

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The Butterfly by James M. Cain  – Appalachian incest, clan rivalries, moonshining, all the erotic and horrific thrills one would expect in a Cain novel. A good way to burn an hour.  

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The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II by Svetlana Alexievich – When I was about twenty-two or so I went on a military history kick, superseding my hyper masculine literature kick, which itself was the successor to my years of reading nothing but epic fantasy. Progress is gradual. In any event, there was a time when that was really my bag – Tacitus to John Keegan, Basil Liddel Hart, Shelby Foote, Napoleon and Frederick, Rommel, we can go on. I was never altogether interested in the strategy, not the sort of war nerd who geeks out on weapon’s specs and memorizes orders of battle. I was interested in lived experience; loose buttons, snatches of song from opponent’s trenches.

In time that passion was eclipsed by others, but still I want to make clear that when I say this is one of the best book’s ever written about war, I’m comparing it to, at the very least, three or four hundred books. Alexievich’s painstaking collection of interviews with Soviet female soldiers, both frontline and support, who saw service during ‘the Great Patriotic War’, is heart-rending, beautiful, and profound. Her contention – that woman interpreted and remembered war in fundamentally different ways than men – holds true, offering insights not only into WWII but into the very nature of combat which I can’t remember being yielded in other texts. Apart from an intimate sympathy with her subjects, Alexievich’s brief meditations about war and memory are themselves heartfelt and valuable. Really, really, really good. It turns out even a bunch of old Danes get one right once in a while.

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Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees – A gothic romance that simultaneously manages to give birth to the ‘living next to fairyland’ sub-genre, that is to say, John Crowley sure as shit read this before he wrote Little, Big. Absolutely delightful – clever and gorgeously written, with just the right dash of melancholy. How lovely fantasy was, before it became hardened into genre! Thanks to Kurt Busiek for the rec.

Books I Read August 14th, 2018

The days pass. I write a lot. I listen to Warren Zevon. I explore weird parts of the city. I’m trying not to eat meat, which is a miserable experience. I hate being a vegetarian. I really don’t want to be one. I think I did some other things the last two weeks but honestly I can’t really remember right now, it’s been a long day and I still got a lot of it left. Anyhow, this is what I read the last two weeks.

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The Minotaur by Benjamin Tammuz – A Mossad agent falls obsessively in love with a much younger woman, writing her letters and surrounding her with surveillance without the two ever meeting. Part psychosexual drama, a metastasized reckoning of the effects of obsession, part unconventional but recognizable spy story. Midway through I was getting ready to declare the thing a masterpiece, but the second half kind of cheapened the thing for me. I prefer my mysteries unsolved and my passions unfulfilled, thanks so much. Still, weird and sexy and worth a read.

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All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski – An upper-class family in Eastern Germany during the final days of World War II, trying to survive the coming collapse of their society, a long overdue reckoning, the terrors of which are certain to fall indiscriminately among the population. Interspersed with a surreal absurdism is an acute appreciation of the meaninglessness (?) of individual morality against the nightmarish circumstances. Surely it is only coincidence that I’ve been lately drawn to the works of post-war German writers, their attempts to puzzle out how a society can go mad so quickly, and what responsibilities can be demanded of those unfortunate souls caught within its net. Recommended, in any event.

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Winesburg, Ohio – The citizens of the eponymous town, the apex of Americana, tell their stories of unfulfilled hopes and endless restlessness to the ear of a sympathetic everyman (boy) preparing for his journey into the wider world.  The justly famous John Lingan (have you read his book? ? No? Why not? I told you to read it! Sometimes I get the feeling I’m just screaming nonsense into the ether, that maybe you don’t even care about my literary ramblings) claims this as among his favorites, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It’s good. Its very good. It’s poignant and beautifully written, and for those of us born in the bloated gray sprawl of the eastern seaboard places like Ohio or Missouri have their own peculiar foreign joys. Occasionally I did find myself thinking that the stories hewed a bit too close to one another, that surely there must be someone in this town who just, you know, likes their job at the pharmacy or thinks their husband is a swell enough guy. But this is a pretty minor quibble, and ultimately I’d offer up a very strong recommendation.

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Omensetter's Luck by William H Gass – The story of the battle for the hearts and souls of a small town between Beckett Omensetter, all innocent righteousness and innate joie de vivre, and his nemesis, the Reverend Jethro Farber, bitter and impassioned hater of life.  The first two books by Gass I read – On Blue, and In the Heart of the Heart of the City – were enough to establish the man as a monumentally talented writer of prose, but at the same time left me somewhat cold. It was technically amazing but didn’t ring with me in any way, it seemed more like a writing exercise than true art. I started this then with some trepidation, anticipating 350 pages of linguistic riddles and lots of children’s rhymes. I got these in spades, but what I also got was a profound and sympathetic moral viewpoint of the sort I didn’t find in Gass’s other works. This is a very, very good book, beautiful and sad, literary genius married to authentic insight. Strongest possible recommendation, provided you don’t mind the inherent difficulty of the prose.

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Blood on the Dining Room Floor by Gertrude Stein – Gertrude Stein wrote a mystery novel!?! Sort of! I mean, it’s not exactly Chandler, and there are most hints of a plot than there is an actual storyline, but there’s certainly a strong whiff of nefariousness in this, as well as a ton of absolutely fabulous writing, as would be expected. I mean, it is a little much, the endless reliance on pronoun and repetition, but when it works, as it often does, one is left gasping enthusiastically at Stein’s brilliantly precise language. Lots of fun. (PS the Butler did it.)

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In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes – A lonely ex-pilot may or may not be a killer of woman in Dorothy Hughes’ rivetingly nasty novel. Hughes has very solid noir chops, and is a generally competent plotter, but the really stellar stuff here is her insight into the savagery of the male psyche – a brooding cruelty mixed with an obsessive capacity for love, surrounded by the most petty, childlike selfishness. Jim Thompson himself couldn’t have done any better, strong recommendation.

The Midnight Folk by John Masefield – Lavie Tidhar wouldn’t stop ranting on about this, which after I got from the library turned out to be a cutesie y/a book from the 1920’s about a typical plucky everyboy protagonist-orphan pursuing a lost treasure in the face of his evil governess who is also a witch. I liked its indifference to making any sense, which is an aspect of y/a literature that’s largely been lost these days, and it went by pretty quick. Obviously I’m not the target audience. Then again, neither is Lavie?

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The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes – These recollections of an inconceivably miserable upbringing of the eponymous author, first in the slums of Bogota, then in the miserable stolidness of a Catholic convent, are so horrifying and peculiar that the book seems a work of fantasy, in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez who championed the work. They are not, however, or apparently not, only an authentic history of sordid misery and the heroism needed to escape from it. Very strange, very sad, very good. The bit about the doll, in particular…strong stuff, man. Just strong stuff.

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Black Swans by Eve Babitz – I pretty much thought I was done with Eve Babitz after last month’s debacle, but then whoever runs the twitter feed for NYRB Classics – who I’m sure has a name and a life and like, pants, and whatnot, but whom I personally prefer to think of as an incorporeal literary force, a divine oracle, if you will – told me I should try Black Swans, and so I did.

But I didn’t love it. Babitz first two books are marvelous fun – she stakes out a unique space as a sort of sage of shallowness, able to write about her youthful escapades in a fresh and witty way. Three books later, one can’t help but wonder if maybe this pose of superficiality is not a pose. The fundamental unseriousness which was part of the fun of her earlier work is not nearly as much fun, and in particular the essay twinning the LA riots to a week of sex with a new lover is so howling tone-deaf it made this reader actively uncomfortable. Oh, well. At least we still have Eve’s Hollywood.

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The Best of Connie Willis by Connie WIllis – Willis is the reverse of a lot of the other writers I’ve been reading lately, who tend to rely on esoteric prose to paper over narrative holes. Her internal mechanisms work really well—sometimes too well, bluntly, with the jokes too clearly telegraphed, and the plot getting wrapped up too neatly. She’s also a little too friendly for my tastes, but then I’m a miserable person. I did really like Death on the Nile, though, and the one about there being no more dogs.

Borrow the Night by Helen Nielsen – Very strong if somewhat unoriginal noir by the apparently (though, based on the strength of this, unjustly) forgotten Helen Nielsen. Good stuff.

Media I Consumed July 31, 2018

Another month in the can. Lasts two weeks I wasn’t reading like I supposed to, please don’t yell at me Dad, I’ll work harder, I promise. It’s hot here in LA. It’s probably hot where you are likewise. Maybe you noticed the world is on fire? Try and put out whatever you can.

Music For July

·         Cigarettes After Sex sound exactly like their name would indicate.

·         Warren Zevon has some of the most vivid, apocalyptic lines in all of pop music – even his outtakes are fabulous

Books I Read

The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello – When an amiable reprobate is incorrectly identified as a suicide, he sees an opportunity to escape his awful wife and the horrid tiny Italian town in which he lives, only to discover himself isolated and empty without his network of obligatory relationships. I did not like this book as much as I anticipated, or to the degree that Pirandello’s reputation merits. I found it a pleasant idle, occasionally humorous but bluntly I couldn’t quite see what the fuss is about. I’ll pick up another by Pirandello down the line and see if I can out which of us is at fault here.

The Chill by Ross McDonald – Lew Archer’s hardened moral super-man investigates a byzantine network of family relations and tragic back stories. All of them basically have this plot, but I thought this one was simpler, harder, and better written. Like this little gem-

…”It’s really amazing, you know? You really can make a decision inside yourself. You can decide to be one thing or the other.”

The only trouble was that you had to make the decision every hour on the hour. But he would have to find that our for himself.

What the shit have you written today, you two-bit penny-scribbling hack?

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Norwood by Charles Portis – A well-meaning hick travels to New York City in pursuit of a 70$ debts, with various misadventures arising en route. Very funny, like everything else Portis writes, though my absolute and unswerving commitment to honesty in all things compels me to admit I do wish Portis demonstrated a bit more ambition in this and last month’s Dogs of the South, both of which are kind of lacking in plot or even much by way of point.

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Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes – Look, man, they can’t all be fucking experimental narratives and lost classics of world noir, OK? Sometimes you just want to read some dirt about one of your favorite childhood rock and roll stars. Juicy gossip being my only real barometer for celebrity memoir, I would say this was fine, but not as good as Keith Richard’s autobiography (Why did all these fires keep cropping up around Keith? Poor bastard!). It did make me really want to nab a copy of Wildflowers on vinyl, though.

The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon M. Williams – An effeminate American professor and his shrewish, beautiful wife, find themselves besieged by inbred English peasants. It can be a thin line between examining our instincts for violence indiscriminately glorifying in them, and this taught little thriller, the basis for the Peckinpah classic Straw Dogs (and, apparently, a no doubt horrible remake), doesn’t quite meet the line. The first three quarters are a razor-sharp dissection of the fears and anxieties which are the core of masculine self-identity, as well as being relentlessly plotted and bitterly funny. But the end wraps the thing up in so neat a package that one almost feels uncomfortable – of course, everyone dreams about saving their wives from rampaging savages – that there are, these days, so few savages (or perhaps so many) is one of the essential problems of modernity, how to excise masculine energy in a healthy rather than self-destructive fashion. Then again, that might be asking a lot of an awfully slender text. Still, the it starts a lot stronger than it ends.

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The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan – A polyphonic retelling of the failed Irish rebellion of 1798, which saw a small army of French revolutionaries and Irish militia put down with brutal severity by the English Crown. This is historical fiction in the Raj Quartet mold – no noble charges, no romantic retellings, only desperate men doing the best they can under terrible circumstances. Flanagan has some fine prose, and each of the many viewpoints – from Lord Cornwallis to a roaming poet/schoolteacher – feel honest and fully fleshed. It goes on for quite a while, but then, it is historical fiction, that’s kinda to be expected.  

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Heed the Thunder Jim Thompson – Chronicling the downfall of the Fargo family, the Snopes of Kansas, basically, inbred, amoral, fiercely loyal to clan. A lot of what would make Thompson what Thompson was (one of the greatest American noir writers of the 20th century, which is to say, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century)  is on display in this, his first book and to the best of my knowledge the only attempt he made at ‘literary’ rather than ‘genre’ fiction. His prose is brutally mean but very funny, and his lived experience shines through the pages. Also here is the stark moral outlook which a lot of reviewers seem to have missed—on the front cover the New York Review of Books proclaims ‘Thompson’s books are palpably evil..’ which is both 1) not really a compliment and 2) completely untrue, indeed so obviously and clearly untrue that one wonders if whoever reviewed this bothered to read the damn thing. Thompson is not a nihilist, not at all – Thompson is moralist, albeit one concerned with the doings of very bad, very sad people, people who inevitably get their tragic and miserable end. Heed the Thunder functions clearly and unambiguously as a critique of American capitalism, indeed of the American way of life, which Thompson (with uncomfortable accuracy) identifies as, basically, an obsessive desire to get yours before your neighbor gets his. It’s not a perfect first novel, but it is very good, well worth the time of any fan of Flannery O’Connor or rural gothic generally.  

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Compulsory Games by Robert Aickman – Aickman is a fabulous, inventive, peculiar writer, and this collection of his short fiction is so good I’m going to write a paragraph talking about what I don’t like about it. Aickman’s pattern in most of these are, basically –> individual in a highly charged emotional situation + uncanny or surreal situation = mysterious denouement which deliberately fails to clarify things. Sometimes this works marvelously, with the peculiar subtleties of each story’s theme submerged in rhyming narrative madness. Other times I felt like the climax was too vague to live up to the full potential of the set-up, and some vary good set-ups are kind of ruined for want of a clearer, sharper focus. None of which should detract from the first part (and most relevant) part of this capsule review, which is to say that Aickman is excellent, and these are a good way to frighten yourself to sleep one stormy evening.

 

Books I Read July 15th, 2018

I returned to my native East coast for the first time since fleeing to California. I found the weather muggy, the Atlantic quite cold, Toronto pleasant but unremarkable, Baltimore its beautiful self, my family well or feigning so for my benefit, my friends surviving their traumas or celebrating their accomplishments, in short, that the world continues to rumble along despite my not always keeping an eye on it. I hope you are well, and kind to the people around you, and true to your word despite the difficulties that entails, and able to take some joy in whatever currently surrounds you. 

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The Wine Dark Sea by Robert Aickman – My feeling is that genre is only a useful concept in terms of longer fiction, where an author can variate on recognizable narrative beats, and doesn’t really have any meaning in terms of short stories. All short stories are jokes, basically, mean little one liners, and I don’t really see a distinction between your classic Borges reveal that the narrator was a minotaur and last week’s New Yorker where the hook is that the daughter and father will remain forever estranged, or whatever (I didn’t actually read week’s New Yorker but they’re all kind of the same). A lot of impossible stuff happens in this nightmarish, erotic and fantastical collection but the underlying themes – of environmental and technological estrangement, madness and love that is like madness – are grand enough in scope and executed with sufficient artistry that it doesn’t really seem fair to me that Aickman seems to have been shunted off into some horror-filled ghetto. Anyway it’s excellent, give it a pull.

Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret – I have really fond memories of carrying Proust around strange corners of Europe some ten years back but actually didn’t know that much about his life, and so this lengthy series of reminiscences by the author’s maid were a lot of fun. Reading of his deathbed creativity I couldn’t help but be reminded of the great James Dewitt Yancey, more popularly known as J Dilla, who’s final torturous months were given over to the creation of Donuts, in its own way as seminal a work as À la recherche du temps perdu.

RIP.

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Ivory Pearl by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Manchette’s final, unfinished novel, is an attempt to move beyond the classic hardboiled noir which he mocked/epitomized in his earlier work, in favor of a more overtly political thriller, John Le Carre rather than Jim Thompson. Honestly, it’s hard to say exactly how well he did, since this is really only about half a book, but then, 30 thousand words from Manchette is better than a door stopper from most other writers.

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Transit by Anna Seghers – Anna Seghers was a German communist who escaped the Nazi regime on the same boat that took Victor Serge to Mexico, fictionalizing her nightmarish escape from Europe in this beautiful, searing, tragic novel. Her protagonist, Seidel is a strangely upbeat German everyman, who escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way to Marseilles, joining a vast crowd of refugees desperate to escape the tangled bureaucracy and the coming certainty of death. Amid this chaos. Seidel finds a curious balance, stemming from his peculiar indifference towards his fate, until a romantic obsession unspools him. Beautiful, brilliant, tragically of the moment, given our own horrific, inhumane immigration policy. Lovely to see echoes of your nation in Vichy France! Anyway, strong rec.

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Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud – I don’t know why exactly I was driven to work my way through Freud but I’m glad I started. I remain skeptical of his therapeutic value, and he has a bad habit of being unable to recognize his good ideas from his very bad ones (in the fashion of Germanic geniuses generally (yeah, I’m looking at you, Kant, the Categorical Imperative is nonsense)) but all the same this is a work of penetrating insight into the human condition. I am pretty much on board with his idea that our conceptions of morality developed from our upright gate, and the ensuing transition from scent to sight-based organisms, and his brief explanation of why happiness is an impossibility is at once profound and, to my peculiar way of thinking, quite uplifting. There’s a moral vision articulated here which I don’t think Freud gets credit for conventionally, an appreciation for the implausible decency of the species, even an admiration for its bravery in the face of the pitiless existence to which its subject. Weird that he’s not better known!

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Crash by J.G. Ballard – Speaking of Eros and Thanatos! A bunch of pervs getting off on car crashes, more or less. Ballard is a brilliantly precise writer, and there is some fabulously peculiar stuff in his eroticization of technological violence, as well as some interesting stuff about  lust works to dehumanize us—but, like most horror, and most erotica, for that matter, it goes from being shocking to dull very quickly. I get it, man, you kind of want to fuck a car-- you sure this couldn’t have been a novella?

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One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta – 12 hours in the lives of a brutalized peasant family during the civil war in El Salvador. It’s always a dangerous thing for an educated person to write from an uneducated person’s perspective, it’s a very fine line to hit, and I’m not 100% certain I felt Argueta did it here. There’s a bit of a whip lash in the heroine’s internal monologue from earthy, personal concerns to too-precise summations of the political circumstances afflicting her and her family. I appreciated this more frankly for the moral weight than its actual aesthetic. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, really, it’s just not spectacular. This is why it makes no sense to write reviews about books, because at the end mostly you’re just like, yeah, this was fine, there are better books and worse books.

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Scoundrel Time by Lillian Hellman – All my books were done and I stole this from the beach house I been staying at for a bus ride to a plane (I already had a book for the plane, but heaven forbid I spend an hour not looking at printed text.) Anyway it’s fine, I’m not sure why I read it really or why anyone else would either. Hellman is interesting and upright in her refusal to cowtow to McCarthy etc but this isn’t particularly riveting or, really, that detailed.

The New Testament (King James Version) – Look, I don’t want to start a religious war here, and I’m not a believer so it’s not like I really have a dog in the fight, but there’s just nothing in this to match the sheer aesthetic genius of Genesis, let alone the brutal profundity of Job or Ecclesiastes. On the other hand, Matthew 6:17 is kinda my jam.

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Shoot the Piano Player by Dave Goodis – A tragedy struck piano player, allowing his personality and genius to rot beneath a friendly, superficial exterior, finds himself pulled into a violent underworld by cruel fate and his terribly family. The basis for Truffaut’s film, though I found the novel much stronger, far and away the best I’ve read of Goodis. This is classic American noir, sparingly written and savage, a grim gut punch of a novel from a man well-familiar with the human capacity for self-destruction. Lots of fun.

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Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard – Once upon a time I was a bad philosophy student, as I have been a bad waiter, TESL teacher, content developer, shelf stocker, etc. Most of the reason for my incompetence stemmed from an inability to sit still for any brief length of time and an absolute loathing of group work, but part of it also was because I didn’t really care about anything but ‘practical philosophy’ as it was at one point called, that is to say, ethics and whatnot. Pretty much I just wanted to understand how to act, or at least why I act in the fashion I was. Anyway, long tangent, who cares about that or what I think about Kierkegaard, but what I think is this didn’t really resonate with me. A discussion of the necessary absurdity of faith as a moral act with Abraham’s proposed sacrifice of Isaac as its particular, it was a bit too much soaring Teutonic tautologies to my taste, and honestly as a non-believer I couldn’t quite grasp the relevance of most of it. Am I supposed to kill a kid? Not kill a kid? SOMEONE LET ME KNOW.

The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei – Lost beneath a lot of the sanctimonious leftist polemics about reading writers outside of the old canon is that it’s actually really fun on its own merits to get a glimpse of a foreign life, or really just to be wading through a different set of cultural signifiers and thoughts. This short, strange, comic novel of an aging stereo salesman, a loser in the new China, is not on its own merits particularly spectacular. There’s a lot of that thing you often see in books translated from Chinese where metaphors and fragments of speech which are (one assumes?) nuanced in the original come off as cliché in English, and the earthy everyman protagonist is pleasant enough to spend a few hundred pages with but not much more than that. Honestly if it was set in Chicago or New York or whatever I probably would have enjoyed it a lot less, but the little details of a foreign city and culture were interesting enough to propel the story from basically mediocre to modestly enjoyable.

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Wine Dark Sea by Leonard Sciascia – Sciascia is famous for his crime novels which double as sharp critiques of mafia influence on his native Sicily, and the strongest of the stories in this collection refer to that subject. The rest focus around the lives of small town peasant Sicilians, and are rather a mixed bag. Nothing objectionable here but I generally didn’t find it as strong as his novels and it was, to my mind, not as good as the other book I read this month with the same name.

 

Media I Consumed June 30th, 2018

I took a walk around the Silver Lake reservoir at sunset, beside a silent, padding coyote; for a quarter mile, maybe, separated by a wire face. Passing joggers proved indifferent, as was their right.

Songs I Liked In June

·         Chastity Belt are killing it

·         I always kind of hated the song Dreams until I heard Electric Peanut Butter Company’s funk-psyche rendition of it

·         Back when I was living in DC and spending all my money at the DJ Hut (RIP (I was never a DJ)) I was all about the DV/MD/VA Lo-Budget productions hip hop scene, of whom I gather Oddissee kind of blew up the biggest. Anyway, revisiting Ken Starr/Kev Brown/etc. this month made me feel really old. What’s going on in DC anymore? Does Florida Avenue Grill still exist? Did the Kogood Gallery ever fix its water floors? Someone catch me up.

·         Compare Miguel and J. Cole’s Come Through and Chill to the Bilal/Mos Def/Common track Reminisce, then come back and thank me

·         Look, I was surprised as you are to discover I really liked another Andre Bird album but shit, son, here we are

Books!

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How to Become a Virgin by Quentin Crisp – An unnecessary though largely pleasant addendum to Crisp’s previous autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, dealing with the famed Bohemian homosexual’s life after he attained celebrity status. It’s not much of a book, really, and I suppose I could only recommend it to Crisp completists, which I guess as it turns out, I am, because I thought there was a lot of funny stuff in here. 

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Schlump by Hans Herbert Grimm – An earthy if unspectacular story of an everyman German youth enlisting in World War I. One upside of decimating the intellectual flower of Europe to the horrors of modern warfare is that you got a lot of really good, really complex, really different fictionalized perspectives from those happy souls who survived it, by the standard of which Shlump is kind of middling. It has this sort of Teutonic sensitivity that reminded me a bit of Goethe or Hesse, but it can’t really be compared to a lot of other books on the topic, for instance, this month’s stand out Blood Dark, read down for more.

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The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa – To dislike a book it is not enough only to note that it has been well reviewed, and, despite all odds, there are some very fine writers who have won the Nobel prize. This fictionalized history of the final days of Rafael Trujillo, Panamanian dictator 1930-1989, is totally OK. It is an absolutely tolerable book. It’s a little longer than it should be, and the nested secret is no sort of secret at all, and I didn’t really find the prose scintillating, but there’s nothing intolerable about it. It probably would not crack my top ten list of books about tyranny; Latin America section, but there are a lot of fabulous stuff in that section so that’s not altogether shameful? I could probably do a few hundred words here about the peculiar phenomenon of the mediocre ‘literary’ novel, occasional hallmarks of which are modest structural complexity, relatively simple prose, and an emphasis on visceral horror which is for whatever reason codes as ‘important’ to many readers, but I’ll spare you. Wait, shit, I didn’t spare you at all. Sorry.

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The Time Wanderers by the Strugatsky Brothers  – I guess it turns out this is the (last?) in a ten book cycle dealing with a sort of future Soviet utopia’s attempts to colonize the galaxy, with last weeks Hard to Be a God in the same arch. This is not bad by any means, faux-collected documents about humanity’s attempts to reach further stages of evolution, more or less, but I don’t really like sci-fi, I mean I don’t have much of a tooth for it, and I think by this point I was just sort of at my quota, so to speak. I genuinely did not like any of these nearly as much as Roadside Picnic, which, in fairness is the acknowledged masterpiece.

Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud – Judaism is an offshoot of the heretical Egyptian monotheistic cult of Aten, all religion (and human society basically) comes from a man’s desire to kill his father, Freud is absolutely batshit entertaining, it is fucking certifiable anyone ever took any of this as being science in the slightest sense, let alone thought to use its tenants therapeutically. Fun, though!

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The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald – I really liked my last Macdonald, but this take on the classic two-fisted private detective fell pretty flat to me, as do most of these kinds of stories post-Ross McDonald.

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Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales –– The pitch is Dostoevsky meets For Whom the Bell Tolls, but to describe this as being a love triangle during the Spanish Civil War would be to exaggerate the degree of narrative here. Like the great Russian, there are a lot of long, somewhat stilted conversations about morality and the duality of man and so forth, which are…again, tolerable (that’s sort of been this week’s theme) but that’s a high bar to set for yourself genius wise and gun to my head I didn’t quite feel Sales met it. The earthier stuff about getting bread in wartime Barcelona and so forth was more interesting, but there was sadly less of it.  

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Equal Danger by Leonard Sciascia –An upright inspector investigates a murder in a fictionalized country, in the course of which he’s forced to confront the omnipresent corruption of his and, let’s be blunt, human society. Somewhere between Hammet and Kafka, this is Sciascia at his purest, an articulate expression of anguish at the state of post-war Italy, human weakness and insensitivity, wrapped in a reasonably compelling noir package. Pretty excellent, worth your time.

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Three to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette – A middling bourgeoise businessman is targeted for assassination, and finds himself forced to discover the tiger which has always lurked beneath his surface. Again Manchette shows an enormous genius for reconstituting hackneyed genre premise (in broad strokes this could be a very bad Liam Neeson movie) into a savage commentary on the hideous banalities of the modern age. At turns hysterical and horrifying, this is my favorite Manchette (no small praise), and something of a masterpiece. Strong recommendation.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – The dreamy, somewhat incoherent story of an American couple who go traveling in North Africa in the latter stages of Colonialism (though this bit isn’t that important) and gradually (actually not that gradually it’s a pretty short book) lose their personhood and sanity, this is a rough one to write a capsule review for. It’s beautiful, and strange, and its written in such a way at to evoke a mood rather then theme, or at least not a theme that can be easily explained—unless to say it deals with the sort of universal desire to desert the obligations, both social and internal, which make up our self-identity, and be diluted into some vaster tableau. Erotic, horrifying, very interesting, take a look at it.

The Instant Enemy by Ross McDonald – The story of sad-eyed tough guy Lew Archer’s attempt to save the life of a troubled young hooligan, and the endless spurt of tragic back story which comes out as a result. You know Ross McDonald is one of the greats because even though this book does not make any motherfucking sense it’s still fabulous. With a chalkboard I could not follow along with the labyrinthine complexities of this investigation, but the writing is on point, and the moral version defined within – a sadder, more sympathetic one then offered by his predecessors – is more than worth the price of admission.

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The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz – A sometimes sweet but generally nightmarish re-creation of the author’s youth in a small city in Poland. This reminded me a lot of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, in its mad little vignettes which spin off in unexpected directions, and a little of Felisberto Hernandez, in its eroticized obsession with non-human objects and creatures, and a little bit of Proust in its minute recreation of childhood experience. A beautiful little dream of a book, something strange to savor and get lost in.

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Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud – Enormously stimulating, if complete nonsense. Apart from the monomaniacal obsession with seeing Oedipus behind literally every aspect of human civilization, as well as what I can’t help but feel is an exaggerated emphasis on the defining importance of incest-avoidance as a societal bedrock, there’s the utterlyLouid absurd idea that the processes of an individual mind, dimly understood, could be transferred meaningfully onto the intellectual processes of the entire species. Again, it’s complete nonsense but boy was it fun.

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Blood Dark by Louis Guilloux – Extraordinary. A WWI novel without combat, a very early absurdist text, existentialism before existentialism, Blood Dark is another one of those novels that a couple of hundred words isn’t really going to do justice to. The story of a faded, miserable, deformed academic, whose existence is dominated by a pointless and vague but still in some sense admirable crusade against – what, exactly? His fellow man, the circumstances enforced upon them by a cruel circumstance or a still more terrible deity. The surrounding cast of hypocrites, sadistic false patriots, weak saints, elderly lovers and corrupt bourgeoisie offer a scathing comment on the state of the French nation in the last year of WWI, but our pseudo-hero’s crusade, indifferently and pointlessly pursued, is at the heart of this masterpiece. This is bitter black by not nihilistic, and in contrast to a lot of his successors, Guilloux works to mine some value out of the ludicrous awfulness of the human condition, rather than wallowing pointlessly in it. Very strong recommendation, assuming, you know, you have the energy and time to spare.    

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The Carter of 'La Providence' by Georges Simenon – I picked this up thinking it was one of Simenon’s gritty, miserable noirs, only to discover with some modest disappointment that it regarded another investigation his implacable, largely silent ogre Maigret. Since I actually don’t really care in the slightest about the internal plot mechanisms of mysteries, I find procedurals kind of tedious, which makes me not a very good judge of whether or not this is a good book. The stuff about the grand canal system was kind of a hoot, though, he’s got an admirable sense of place.

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Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Half a dozen stories, by turns humorous and rather horrifying. Akutagawa is a very sly writer, with a deceptively simple style, nested in a lot of traditional Japanese mythology but easily accessible to a Western audience. Yam Gruel – a mocking myth about a pointless, pathetic official whose existence is given meaning by a desire to gorge himself on the eponymous breakfast food – is a lovely little marvel in particular. Lots of fun. Quick sidenote – anyone want to tell me why Kurosawa mis-titled his famous film? This is not a rhetorical question, I’m confused.

 

 

Media I Consumed June 14, 2018

Yeah, I know I’m late, I been saving lives and putting together IKEA furniture. This is what I read the last two weeks.

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Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge – Victor Serge was born the child of international communist revolutionaries, spent his youth and middle age trying to overthrow the ailing pre-war European states, fought in the Russian Civil War, was jailed and broken for refusal to bend towards the totalitarian currents of the revolution, wrote several tremendously good novels, in short, was one of the most extraordinary of the 20th century’s personages. His autobiography makes for predictably fascinating reading, particularly his insightful portraits of basically every major leftist figure, and his honest efforts to reflect on the failures of the revolution, bitter criticism by which his essential optimism stands out even brighter. If I was the sort of person who felt things about things I might have found this inspiring.

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Sex & Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time by Eve Babitz – Reading Eve’s Hollywood a few months ago I found myself flabbergasted that such a vibrant, interesting, commercially viable force had more or less disappeared; this book, Babitz’s third and the first to fictionalize her experience as LA ingenue and rock and roll muse, goes a fair way towards explaining the mystery. It is utter shit—badly plotted, sloppily written, and more self-indulgent than second-rate fan fiction. I could go on for about ten more sentences to this effect but what would be the point? Better to move on awkwardly.

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Facundo: or Civilization and Barbarism by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – An essay about the struggle between urbane civilization and rural barbarism within post-independence Argentina, written by a man who would become president of the country, this came up as part of my ongoing study of ‘early’ South American literature as having had an almost defining effect out of the then nascent continental consciousness. The joke, basically, is that while Sarmiento was a bitter opponent of the Caudillos that had come to power in his native country (and forced him to flee to neighboring Chile), he kind of can’t help but be drawn to their raw masculine savagery, seeing in it mankind’s horrifying but captivating instinct for self-destruction. More abstractly interesting than enjoyable in and of itself, but then, that’s life generally.

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door by Etgar Keret – For my money, Keret might be one of the best short story writers of the age—always original, funny when he wants to be, critical of society’s foibles but sympathetic to us poor schmucks caught in the middle of the mess. This collection is a maybe a little darker than the rest (reasonable given it’s the most recent and, you know, the state of the world and everything) but it’s still a delight to buzz through, like downing a bag of potato chips except each one is valuable. Maybe it’s more like Kale chips. I’ve been in LA too long.

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Hard to Be a God by the Strugatsky Brothers -- A far-future communist functionary goes undercover on an alien planet closely resembling medieval Europe/your classic fantasy setting, taking the role of a Robin Hood/Cyrano type, with the caveat being he and his cohort can’t kill anyone or take any active role in advancing their new country from feudal barbarism into enlightenment. The Brothers had a real talent for writing legitimately entertaining genre stories which still manage to grapple with more substantial political and historical concerns than most of their American counterparts, and if this isn’t as strong as the masterful Roadside Picnic, it ain’t bad reading neither.

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The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Machette – A contract killer tries to get out of the business so he can spend his life with his long lost love—this enormously hackneyed premise, in the hands of a skilled crime writer so dark he makes James Elroy look like Agatha Christie, is reframed as a nihilistic commentary on the banal pointlessness of human existence, bitter, bleak, and hysterical. Machette is the French Jim Thompson.

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Melville by Jean Giono – A short novella about the artistic burden incurred by Herman Melville prior to writing Moby Dick. I thought it was kind of overwritten and tiring, but I have a really, really low threshold when it comes to writers writing about writing, so you might dig it more than I did.

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What Maisie Knew by Henry Miller – A young girl gets shuttled around London by her horrible, divorcee parents and her horrible divorcee parents’ horrible lovers, because innocence is a precious thing and yadda yadda yadda. Frequent readers of this blog (what? Really? Get a job) will be aware of my personal feeling that basically, with the exception of some Russians and maybe the Bronte sisters, no one wrote a good novel before the 20th century. The first Miller I’ve read since I was in college did not do much to shake that belief. This is the kind of book where a character will say a line of dialogue, and then that line of dialogue will be buttressed by a page of text describing the character’s emotional state, and how this line references previous themes, and so on and so forth. I kinda these kinds of books. It is also relentlessly unsubtle, and all the risqué bits are not that risqué 130 years on. I wouldn’t say there’s nothing here, but I didn’t love it and I absolutely felt the essential idea was dealt with better by other writers.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Weird that it took me this long to get to Joan Didion. Maybe if I had gotten to it earlier I’d have enjoyed it a bit more, but then again, maybe not. The strongest bit is the first third, a scathing critique of the 60’s West Coast counter culture which is funny but also cheap and kind of bitter – Didion hates these people with the sort of nakedness which makes any honest insight kind of impossible, and if you want to see a closet conservative tear apart the hippie beast you’d better go with Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The second, rambling two thirds lost my interest completely, portentous and tiringly bitter. God sakes, Joan, you didn’t eat a good sandwich in any of these places? The weather wasn’t ever pleasant? Life consists exclusively of omens of doom? There isn’t anything on this earth worthwhile beside John Wayne’s penis?

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The Steel Crocodile by D.G. Compton – Social sci-fi about the struggle between the soulless tendencies of the modern technocratic state against individual idiot’s right to self-determination. Strong, basically well written, Compton has a legit talent for swiftly modeling complex social dynamics, not generally a common feature of sci-fi stories. Downside is a lot of it has to do with computers, which, if you’ve ever read anything about computers before the development of the personal computer, depicts a vision of the future so gloriously inaccurate that it’s kind of hard to take seriously. The fear of an omnipresent media desperate for any sort of emotional provocation which Compton deals with in Continous Katherin Mortenhoe seems much more on point.

Trials of a Respectable Family by Mariano Azuela – A fascinating if imperfect portrait of a aristocratic conservative family during the Mexican Revolution, written by a former revolutionary soldier. The first part, detailing the family’s evacuation in the face of revolutionary forces by the youngest son, a weak-willed milksop, is a little too mean, and the second part, about the patriarch learning the value of hard work, is a little too nice. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here, Azuela combines an understandable political enthusiasm with impressive structural and narrative complexity.

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Beetle in the Anthill by the Strugatsky Brothers —The Bros. continue their run of cleverly re-imagining classic genre tropes – in this case the spy story, although there’s some sci-fi and even post-apocalyptic stuff here -- into more complex discussions of the nature of humanity, and even the sort of veiled criticisms possible to Soviet writers. They all also tend to fall pretty to third act infodumps and unruly Deus Ex Machinas, this one in particular more so than the others I read.

 

 

Media I Consumed May 31, 2018

I got moves, boy, you don’t know about him. I don’t broadcast them on the gosh dang internet. You’ll hear about them when it’s time to hear about them. When they finished bletting, and whatnot. What follows is May’s playlist, and the books I read and the films I saw last week.

Music For May

·         Billy Woods always kinda kills it

·         For droning, maudlin folk music you can’t get much better than Sam Amidon. Wasn’t he Samamidon a while ago?

·         Who is this Lord Echo character and why is he straight killing shit? This album is ludicrously upbeat Summer pop.

·         Call it shtick if you want to, but CW Stoneking sings a damn good shango.

·         I listened to Angel Olsen’s Never Be Mine about 50 times after I heard it, but I listened to Courtney Barnett’s Sunday Roast 100.

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Other Men’s Daughters by Richard G. Stern – I don’t know about the rest of you but I learned to read off my father’s bookshelf, a vast-seeming library which consisted more or less exclusively of raw, pulpy fantasy and a lot of heavy, hyper masculine 20th century authors – Hemingway, John Barth, that sort of thing. Some of these guys – Saul Bellow, for instance – I would totally unhesitatingly describe as geniuses. Some of these guys were not. In any event, most of the literature I was exposed to as a youth had magic swords or brilliant, angst-ridden narrators with unhealthy relations towards woman. At 18 I thought like, half of all books were about professors at Ivy league colleges dealing with problems brought on by an exaggerated testosterone and general jackassery. This was probably a lot of the reason I stopped reading fiction between like, 20 and 25, frankly, and in recent years I’ve been kind of gun shy about dipping my toe back into the waters.

But I’m more or less happy I set aside that prejudice for this one, an excellent entry in the Roth/Irving/Updike milieu, about an affair between a professor and a co-ed which ends his marriage. Stern has a pretty extraordinary gift for prose, as well as a real insight into character’s beyond the protagonist, who come across as fully realized and human in a way that the weaker novels in this genre tend to fail it. There is a peculiar lack of tragedy to the story which, one feels, goes hand in hand with Stern’s ability to empathize with his characters If the narrator is an authorial surrogate, than at least Stern has forgiven himself. Which, I mean, depending upon how much of a moralist you are might piss you off, but at least it felt a little new.

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Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry – Another collection of stories about drunkards in Wests Coast bars, lost children and occasional nightmares. I really like Barry’s style, he has a great ear for dialogue and a fabulous feel for male custom and behavior. It’s dark but not monochromatic, and the handful that verge into horror have fabulous stings.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed – Part alternate world fantasy, part meta-critique of the aesthetic values of Western Civilization, Mumbo Jumbo is probably best understood as an evocation, a Working, to use the book’s own vernacular, mockingly(?) supposing itself to herald or call forth a leveling of the white power structure and the birth of a new, multicultural age. This is Crying of Lot 49 meets The Fire Next Time, fascinatingly clever, innovative in a dozen ways. There’s so much great stuff in here that the missteps, in particular an abrupt third act switch in the narrative style, are particularly frustrating, but even still anyone reading it will come away with the certainty that Reed is an absolute original. Between this and the (somewhat superior) Journey to the North I really cannot fathom why he seems to be little read.

Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois – A solidly written history of a fascinating period of human history about which I knew relatively little and now want to learn more. There’s nothing particularly striking about the style but it’s a competent overview of a series of extraordinary events. Definitely made me want to pick up something more substantial on the subject.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor– Right, well, you know what you’re going to get; a lot of Gothic freaks and an advertisement for Catholicism so blisteringly break it might as well be a condemnation. Prose wise, this woman is untouchable, just untouchable, but I will say that the singular focus robs the narrative of much potential for surprise. At any point in any of the stories you can pretty much figure out what’s going to happen by assuming the most miserable and grotesque outcome. I mean she’s still amazing and even when I knew what was coming I still found it pretty howlingly funny.

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Salt in the Wound Leonard Sciascia – A historical overview of a semi-imaginary, prototypical Sicilian village – its long legacy of corruption, governmental incompetence, poverty and constant feuding.  Sciascia, who became beloved in his native Italy for a brand of crime novels excoriating the real-life brutalities of the mafia, offers a similar vison here. There’s some good lines and Sciascia has a bracing moral weight, but a lot of this did boil down to in-jokes about the Social Democrats that kinda went over my head.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow – Gritty LA werewolves, Urban fantasy/modern horror by someone with legit prose chops. The peculiar stylistic conceit is maybe a little on the nose in terms of staking out ground as literature, but basically, I thought Barlow had the skill to pull it off, and anyway apart from that it’s pretty resolutely unpretentious. Top shelf genre stuff, well worth a read.

Third Man – Yeah, I mean, maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s kinda the best movie ever. Couldn’t resist seeing it at a midnight showing even though I know most of the dialogue by heart. Seeing it on the big screen I was struck particularly by the sets which are amazing, all of these shadowy, vertical structures around which Holly always seems to be running. Chills! Chills! 

 

Media I Consumed May 22nd, 2018

I had a birthday party at a barcade and I beat the 6 person X-Men game, which I never got to do as a child because it is a frivolous, stupid activity and my father, being a reasonable man, would not give us enough quarters to accomplish the feat. Anyway I still enjoyed it.  

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The Exiles and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga – I really like this guy, I can see how he became (as I gather) a pivotal figure in South American literature. Like Kipling without all the uncomfortable imperialism, with an earthy, authentic understanding of the Argentinian/Brazilian frontier, and the desperate men who inhabit it, or who inhabited it some century back. There are some pulpy thriller type stuff here, almost Robert E Howard like (except that Robert E Howard never went anywhere or did anything) but there’s also some reasonable social critique, and a lot of nightmarish stories about the sort of men who go vagabonding and get lost in out of the way places and drink themselves to death or find some other means of suicide. There’s nothing explicitly impossible in most of these, but you can see how his hyper-realism (I don’t think I ever read a writer who had so many stories which end with the narrator dead) was an influence on later generations of magical realists.

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Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys – The story of a young woman who leaves the West Indies to come to England to become an actress, only to end up a miserable, impoverished semi-prostitute. Rhys has great natural talent as a writer, and her experience (which broadly mimics that of the narrator, not that I’d comment specifically on her romantic engagements) is used to grim if fascinating effect. That said, I kinda did feel like we were basically going over the same territory here as I did in the other books I’ve read by her—the protagonists are despairing and listless, and a lot of the themes remained similar, if expressed to a slightly less impressive narrative standard. Then again, I might have liked this more if I started here. Still, speaking generally she’s a very impressive writer and this is good stuff. 

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Blood on the Forge by William Attaway --  The story of the Moss Brothers, who come north from Kentucky to work in a hellish steel mill in the Alleghany, is a rare wonder which deserves to be rediscovered. Attaway came from a well-to-do family and his life seems to have very little resembled that of his protagonists but reading this book you’d swear he had toiled away in a foundry. There is an honest rawness here, not only in his intimate-seeming knowledge of the conditions of his character’s lives, but in the sort of even-handedness which few writers can offer about a foreign milieu. The prose is potent, biblical almost, with Attaway working (successfully) to imbue the story with enormous, mythical force. Very, very strong rec.

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Balcony in the Forest by Julien Gracq – A dreamy, lyrical work about a soldier’s pastoral idyll along the Belgian border during the fall and winter of the Phony War, operating rather unsubtly as metaphor for the French nation. My tolerance for descriptions of bucolic settings tends to be pretty low, even if those descriptions are very good, so I probably liked this one a little less than it deserved. On the other hand, it’s pretty rare to read a book about war which takes a new slant on the thing, which this definitely does. Worth your time, even if it wasn’t one of my absolute favorites.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – Between this and Jean Rhys, it was a big week for of underprivileged female Londonites suffering from patriarchal abuse. Which, fair play, is Comyns jam, though she shakes things up a bit here by withholding her usual flavor of gothic horror in favor of a dash of comedy in the narrator-is-innocent-to-the-point-of-being-absurd type. I liked it a little bit less than her nightmarish stuff, or maybe 3 of hers in two weeks was a bit too much for me.

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The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery – I intensely disliked this book. The plot is paint-by-numbers high fantasy, without even the usual narrative tricks offered by competent genre writers. The prose is frankly just awful, a goopy mess, lots of tumbling sentences but if you break off any fragment and look at it up close it’s nothing. The character’s do not exist beyond their names, and its veneration of bucolic Europe seemed stale when Tolkien did it.  

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Sunset Boulevard – An aging film star in a decaying mansion, gone mad from memory of her lost fame, this is the kind of movie you feel like you’ve seen even if you haven’t (as I hadn’t), the archetypes and even the catch phrases sunk into the public consciousness. Still, sometimes those movies don’t end up being good, so it was nice to see that this one holds up pretty masterfully. Swanson is amazing, having herself been a silent film star obviously adds a lot of piquancy to the thing but she just nails it generally period. Only strike against it is an over-reliance on voiceover which is totally unnecessary given the simplicity and general excellence of the every other aspect of the movie. Often the flashback lines are really good but they’re pointless, the rest of the film venting the themes more artfully. Still, fabulous.

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Porco Rosso – In an alternate world Adriatic, a confederation of seapilot pirates hire Charles Lindburg to face off against the eponymous bounty hunter, an irascible, anarchic humanoid pig. This movie was so goddamn fun I can’t even tell you. I’ve always been of the position that Ghibli’s enormous genius lies in the visuals and the general aesthetic, rather than the plots themselves which are kind of goofy, and the simplicity of the plot, along with the gorgeously imagined pre-WWII Europe, play to those strengths. It has that dreamlike, inexplicable quality which I tend to really love in fantasy. There is, for instance, no explanation of how our hero became a pig, nor are there any other non-human characters, nor did any of the human characters make a particular point of him being a pig. Long and short I loved it and I’m really glad I got to see it on the big screen.