Books I Read April 14th, 2019

California super blooms with color, bright spurts of orange and yellow poppies, drooping purple jacaranda, the proud crowns of the birds of paradise, the particolored speckled of unnamed wildflower. When I wasn't wandering through a lush spring the last two weeks (or working, or whatever) I read the following books.

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The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector – The author's attempt to express the immediate present against the limitations of language, cognitive thought. Not my favorite of hers, but then I have read a lot of Clarice Lispector this month.

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Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae – A gritty, slightly too personal expose of 90's boxing stars, the general awfulness of organized violence as professional entertainment. Good sports writing, engaging if you have an interest in the topic.


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Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood – Isherwood pals around with an amoral double-dealing masochist spy in Weimar Berlin. Good! Very good! I didn't like it as much as I have his later stuff, but he does the down-and-out-in-a-foreign-country thing really well, without reveling in the scuzz or exaggerating his own position overmuch. It reminded me a little bit of Patrick Modiano, except that it has (gasp!) an explicable storyline, and his character's feel like people rather than phantasms.

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Knight's Gambit by William Faulkner – Six mystery stories about Faulkner's beloved, fictitious Yoknapatawpha county, and lawyer Gavin Stevins, Faulkner's middle-aged surrogate (as opposed to Quentin, who is his youthful surrogate). I think it's kind of hysterical that Faulkner spent so much time putting out pure genre stuff, pulpy narratives written in his rolling, masterful, occasionally exhausting prose. They aren't actually as good as his pure literary efforts, and I'm not really sure who to recommend this to beyond a Faulkner completest, but it kept me busy through an afternoon train ride.

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Marshal of France: The Life and Times of Maurice de Saxe by John Manchip White – A genuinely engaging biography of the Marshal de Saxe, who won a couple of battles for Louis XV, when he wasn't courting Parisian actresses and hanging out with Voltaire. I'm not really sure who else shares my interest in relatively obscure corners of European military history, but if that's something you're interested in you could do a lot worse.

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The Old Man Dies by Simenon – When the patriarch of a middle-class Parisian family dies, his heirs are turned into bickering, unpleasant assholes. Simenon is masterful as ever (except for his Maigret stuff, which I never got a taste for), and this is engaging, well-written and clever, if somewhat small.

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Family Ties by Clarice Lispector – A collection of short stories about (mostly) women losing their mind when some small interaction forces a re-evaluation of the customs and intellectual conceits which constraint normal human experience. I really like Clarice Lispector, and admire her enormous talent, while also finding myself somewhat bored of reading the same thing over and over again. My favorite's in these tended to be the stories that broke from her mold, like the masterful 'The Chicken' about an eponymous avian's brief escape from captivity, which I thought was absolutely delightful.

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Goodbye to Berlin – More on Isherwood's days spent as a bohemian in Berlin before the Nazi's came in and ruined everything. Fucking Nazis. Very good, Isherwood is a master, his characterization is off the chain, this is quick and fun and generally delightful.

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The Little Saint by Simenon – The childhood and youth of an artistic genius, in the bosom of his incestuous, bitterly impoverished, somehow still sort of loving family. It's new territory for Simenon (or at least, the Simenon I've read), in so far as no one shoots anyone, but he handles it adroitly. The protagonist, an idiot-savant with an obsession for color and an indifference to immorality, is neatly drawn, and it still moves with the speed of solid pulp. That's a compliment, if it wasn't clear.

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Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo – An aging academic and the old man of Argentinian letters try to solve a murder in an academic conference, sort of. Clever, engaging, a charming homage to one of my favorite writers, fun all around. Take a look.

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The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss – Your classic simpleton-defined-by-his-talent-gets-in-over-his-head story, but masterfully done. Really, really strong. I never read anything by Vachss before, but this is an exceptional entry into a pretty well worn genre. It's mean, its funny, it's propulsive, it resists the instinct to get sentimental in the last act, which for some reason most of these novels can't quite avoid. Worth your time, I'll pick up another by the author soon.

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From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple – A tour of the Christian communities of the middle-east, circa 1995. Dalrymple is an exceptional historian but only a competent travel writer, and the background discussions of late Byzantine civilization are more entertaining than his personal experiences. On the other hand it does have some really lovely descriptions of Mt. Athos, where I spent a few days years ago, feeding bread to stray cats and talking with the monks about tattoos. On the other, other hand, that probably won't actually do you any good.

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The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector – A woman kills a cockroach, is confronted with the brutal implacability of conscious thought, briefly manages to escape from it, eats the cockroach. Usually, after reading a novel, I have a clear idea of how I feel about it, but I'm still going back and forth on this one. There were passages of blazing, beautiful profundity, and also bits that read almost like parodies of this style of literature, droning and repetitious. That said, works of this complexity aren't really intended to be understood with a casual read, and there was enough here that was fabulous to make me think probably a lot of the things I didn't like were more on me than on Ms. Lispector. It probably didn't help that this is the fourth book I've read by her in the last two weeks, and so I'd already seen a lot of the ideas she's working with here in some form or another. Anyway, in sum, it might be one of the better books of the last century? Or, it might be an exercise in formalism more abstractly impressive than it is valuable. Happy for me that I'm writing on my blog that no one besides me reads, and I don't have to come to any sort of final conclusion on the matter.

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Ask the Dust by John Fante – Arturo Bandini, impoverished narcissist, writer of debatable merit, starves on the streets of 1940's LA, writes a book, loses a girl. I got a little tired of the 'I am Bandini the genius/No I am a terrible person look how ugly my toes are', and his impression of the effects of marijuana on the human body are genuinely quite peculiar, particularly from a purported down-and-outer with some presumable knowledge of the underclass. But the writing is gorgeous, and charming, and by the end of this slim volume I found I was really enjoying myself.

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The Bushwacked Piano by Thomas McGuane – A vagrant/poet/lunatic builds a bat house, woos a woman, gets into trouble. Something like if Charles Portis wrote Adventures of Augie March. Very funny, very sharp, the language is that sort of crooked which is a pleasure to unwind. I'd never heard of McGuane, which, based on this at least, is an injustice I feel keen to rectify.



Books and Tunes March 31, 2019

The weather turned bright and I got back to walking long distances, wearing out the leather on some shoes. I wrote some things. I waited in line for two hours to get fried chicken only to discover I don’t think I like fried chicken so much anymore. Such is life. Also, I listened to and read the following…

 




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The Man Who Watched Trains Go By by Simenon -- A stolid Dutch banker finds his firm has gone bankrupt, breaks from bourgeois society into selfish anarchy, kills some people. I’m not sure how many times I can tell you to read Simenon. It’s Camus meets Jim Thompson, but probably better than either. He’s spare, brutal, and funny, even working with a relatively lazy premise, as he is here. Grim and fabulous.

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Cabot Wright Begins by James Pardy – A cuckold and his friend’s wife set out to write the biography of a famous Manhattan rapist, in what feels like American Psycho fifty years before American Psycho. It didn’t quite work for me. It’s audacious and savage but unfocused, with too many targets of abuse for any specific critique to gather much momentum. It was mean but kinda muddled.

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The Tree of Man by Patrick White – Two uneducated introverts hack a life out of the Australian wilderness, have a family that disappoints them. Pretty marvelous. It reminded me a little of Stoner, sad, stoic individuals struggling with unfulfilling lives and their own essential inability to realize happiness. But it’s more ambitious, with a broader narrative focus. White’s writing remains fabulous, difficult and enervating (innervating? The one that means means to instill liveliness, not to drain strength. It’s pretty weird that those are so close together), and he has this profound sense of respect for the struggles of his characters, something which I think few others manage. I’m not sure how many people I can recommend a novel this long and dense to, but if you’ve got the ambition this is an undertaking more than worth your while.

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The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken – A waspish librarian falls in love with a dying teenage colossus. The premise sounds hackier than it actually is, and the writing is really, really strong, thoughtful ruminations on love and youth and pain and death and so forth, intelligently epigrammatic. Odd and lovely, have a read.  

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The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector – A writer writes a story about an unhappy, virginal typist, writes about writing about that story. Clarice Lispector! Clarice Lispector! Hoo! Oooo! Hoo! Post-modernism at its finest, with every sentence strange sounding and propulsive, a riddle worth puzzling over. There’s not much plot to speak of, and my general tolerance for meta-commentary about the nature of writing is usually pretty low, but whatever, with language this fabulous she could narrate a bowel movement and I’d sit in rapt appreciation. Fabulous.

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The Quiet American by Graham Greene – A jaded English journalist and an upright CIA agent feud over a woman, help destroy Vietnam, in this classic text on early American imperialism. I try and make a habit of not exhausting any particular writer, so I can come back after a few years and see if I still like them, but all the same it seems odd that having read so much Graham Greene I hadn’t got around to this. Anyway, it’s fucking amazing, Graham Greene combines masterful prose with a genuinely compelling narrative, not to mention a keen understanding of international politics and the complexities of the human spirit. My past self was right to love Graham Greene. Good job, Daniel of five years ago! Thank you, Daniel of today.

Also, while I’ve got an excuse…



Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake  – A novella in the Gormenghast universe and a couple of short nightmares. I like Peake more in theory, when considering his innovative adaptation of the fantasy genre, then I do in practice, when I’m actually reading long descriptions of crumbling masonry. Some lovely illustrations, though.

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Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American by B.H. Liddel Hart --  Few works of military history have had as much real world effect as this biography of the Union’s greatest soldier, which developed the author’s theories of movement and strategic malleability that, though largely ignored at the time in England, found fertile reception among inter-war German generals and led (in some admittedly debatable fashion) to the development of the Blitzkrieg. Peculiar history aside, it’s an excellent discussion of an interesting subject, making a compelling case for Sherman’s unique grasp of grand strategy and strategy in a conflict marked (at the highest levels, at least) by orthodox thinking.

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Other People's Worlds by William Trevor – A dishonest cad leads a sentimental dowager into destruction. William Trevor is a delight. The prose is clean and tight, and he has the rare ability of telling a conventional story in a tantalizingly original way, focusing on seemingly sidelong pieces of the narrative which come suddenly to climax. The sting at the end had me howling enthusiastically at my bedroom walls. Good stuff.

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The Sebastopol Sketches by Lev Tolstoy – Three short pieces written while the author was at the siege of the eponymous city, which brought to an end the Crimean war. There’s an interesting progression of thought here, with the first piece being well-written wartime propaganda and the last being a fairly comprehensive indictment of war, Russia, and human society. This Tolstoy guy, he’s pretty good, how come no one ever heard of him?

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This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian  – An oral history of the Sri Lankan civil war. Brutal and captivating, Subramanian is a talented writer, skilled in conveying a complex, decades long conflict succinctly while remaining even-handed in tallying the atrocities of the various participants.  Worth your time.

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Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling by David G. Schwartz  – A lengthy although somehow uncomprehensive history of gambling, focusing on the methods of play and the means of wager, without much thought given to the need for or the evils of gambling. I thought it was pretty odd to read a book that has 100 pages about the growth of vegas but nothing about, say, gambler’s anonymous, but the real problem for me here is just that I quickly realized after starting that I just genuinely don’t really give a shit about the subject matter. Which is my fault, obviously, I’m not trying to lay that one on the author. Still, not for me.

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It's a Battlefield by Graham Greene – The execution of a communist centers this somewhat scattershot depiction of the existences of a number of repressed individuals in 1930’s London . One of Greene’s earlier works, his prose is already down, and he maintains a keen understanding of how politics and governments muddle with personal morality, but there are a few too many characters and the whole thing doesn’t come together as neatly as his later masterpieces.

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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalyrmple – A history of the First Afghan War, which saw the East India Company try and force a leader on a factitious Afghani populace, wins a bunch of battles, loses the war, goes home in ignominy and shame. It resembles most other Afghan wars in this fashion. Dalrymple is an absolute master, one of the most engaging living historians. A genuinely talented writer, something enormously rare in his profession, the prose here is crisp, clever, and propulsive, a compelling page turner. He has, moreover and for what I gather is the first time in English, identified a number of contemporary Afghan histories of the war which provide a fascinating counterpoint to the traditional Western texts, revisionist history in the best sense of the word. In scope and excitement its like top tier epic fantasy, except having actually happened is madly more interesting. Strong rec.

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Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson – The episodic misadventures of a junkie. The territory is well worn but Johnson does it well, these stories are mean, sad, funny, and abrupt. If he wasn’t at some point a scumbag transient he gets himself into the mindset well.

Books I Read March 14th, 2019

So far this month I buried a friend, held a baby, was reminded of winter, got my father to eat at a vegetarian restaurant for what I suspect was the first time in his life, attended a tennis tournament, and read the following books…

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The Enlightened Army by David Toscana – An embittered teacher sets out with a handful of halfwits to reconquer Texas for Mexico. Less Quixotical satire and more slap-sticky depictions of the developmentally disabled, this felt like a misstep from a talented novelist, but it also seems reasonably possible it would resonate more for another reader.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim – Four women escape from banal existence to an idyllic foreign locale, find love, in what I gather is the ur-text for this enormously popular sub-genre. The premise is shlocky as hell but Arnim is a good writer, there are some funny lines, and the whole thing is so deliberate in its absurdity that you’d have to be an utter ass not to forgive the melodrama. 

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The Evening Wolves  by Joan Chase – The episodic reflections of two girls seeking to escape the pull of their mercurial father/the potent danger of men. Joan Chase is an almost excessively talented writer, and this is an ambitious book in both structure and language, but it didn’t quite come together for me. The competing complexities ended up feeling awkward and inharmonious, less than the sum of its parts. Still, I admire the attempt, as well at the raw talent, and I’ll pick something up by Chase again soon.

A Long Way from Home by Peter Carey – A haus frau, her husband, and a quiz show winner enter a competition to drive around Australia, discovering an unknown country and their own hidden secrets. I didn’t love it; the premise itself is a little too much of an elevator pitch, and it sprawls out in a lot of different directions. Another book by a talented writer that I didn’t actually like very much.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami – A band of failed adolescents engage in a bloody feud with a pack of shallow middle-age women, with both sides finding meaning in escalating acts of savagery. So many books have explored this sort of territory, murder as a reaction against modernity, that it seems almost to be a noir sub-genre, but rarely can I recall an entry this strong. Murakami is genuinely funny, a distinction few of his competitors can claim, and although his characters are utterly awful they’re also sympathetic enough that you feel complicit in their crimes. Strong recommendation, if the subject matter doesn’t immediately put you off.

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – The story of several generations of Koreans struggling to survive immigration to Japan. It’s….OK. It’s readable and the subject matter is interesting, but the prose is workmanlike at best, with every character speaking in the same too-clear voice, and themes and motivations being clarified by a sort of oppressively obvious narrator.

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Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood – A novelist pens a shlocky period piece with an Austrian refugee in the days before the Anschluss. Sweeter than the normal ‘writer sells his soul to Hollywood’ story, it was also funnier and generally more thoughtful, a sweet, optimistic depiction of the genuine capacity for creation to lead to hope. Regarding writing as being primarily a form of mental self-hygiene which keeps me daily adrift, I admit I was probably particularly charmed by the moral, but I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. My first Christopher Isherwood but not my last.

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The Strangers in the House by Simenon – A reclusive lawyer is forced back into the hurly burly of existence when a murder takes place in his house. Simenon is really, really good, and this is fabulous, at once a genuinely compelling noir and a serious take on the common impulse to retreat in contempt before the banal idiocy of human contact. Loved it, strong rec.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahmi – A wife reveals her secrets to her comatose, war-wounded husband, in this sincere if somewhat didactic lament for the circumstances of Afghani woman. I thought it lacked the pulse that the best of these sorts of confessional novels tend to have, and the heroine was too nakedly an archetype, but the structure was interesting and some of the fantastical/esoteric bits worked better.

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Gork, the Teenage Dragon by Gabe Hudson – Sometimes I wonder if my determination to read every book I start is less a life hack to get me to explore literary corners I’d otherwise ignore and more an exercise in intellectual masochism. Anyway, I read this.

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates – A faintly gauzed re-telling of that time Ted Kennedy ran his car off the Chappaquiddick ferry, killing a woman he met at a cocktail party. I never read anything about Joyce Carol Oates, and I feel like we’re all supposed to have an opinion about her, but I can’t remember what it is. Anyway, apart from the rather sordid premise, this is excellent, the heroine deftly and grimly sketched, the language taught, its evocation of a certain yuppie east coast set done fabulously, even in a very slender volume. I hope my opinion of Oates maintains the common wisdom, because I liked this quite a bit and will grab another of hers directly.

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – A false autobiography of Australia’s most famous freedom fighter/bank robber, told in a breakneck vernacular. Carey can write, and the idiom he works out here is accomplished, but it kind of lost my interest in the back half. Which is weird because the back half is where most of the shooting takes place. Anyway it’s not bad, it just didn’t block me out of my shoes.

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A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood – A day in the life of an aging academic, struggling with the death of his longtime lover and his own mortality. Fabulous—a beautiful commentary on love, loss, modernity, California, universities, youth, aging, death, basically everything. Every line is clever, Isherwood creates vivid characters in a handful of sentences, his meditations on existence lyrical and profound. Strong rec.

Books and Tunes February 28th, 2019

The sun is finally out again here in Los Angeles, thank God. Be good to the people you love. Find people to love and then be good to them.

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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase – The recollections of a family of adolescent girls in a small town in mid-century Indiana.  The characters are vivid and complex, warped and self-contradictory in a way that feels poignant and real, and the conflict between the sexes is cruel and erotic and rich. The lyrical pastoralism, rarely my bag, is lovely, and its portrayal of childhood vibrant and honest. Really liked this a lot, strong recommendation, check it out.

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Complicity by Iain Banks – A journalist gets framed for the torture/murder of a number of awful Tories. It hints at subverting the genre framework into something more philosophically thoughtful, but to my way of thinking, never really does. It’s well written but the mystery itself is thin as paper, and ultimately it does seem to come down pretty unstintingly on the political/moral utility of violence in a way which seems both 1) false and 2) kinda banal? Didn’t love it, but this was my first by Banks and I’ll give him another show somewhere down the line.

Points of Departure – An anthology of stories from recent-ish Mexcian authors. I’m not sure how you review an anthology, frankly. Some of these were very good. Some of them were less so. Generally, the quality was very high, I picked up a couple of authors whose works I’ll be exploring in the weeks to come.

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By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano – The stream of consciousness recollections of a priest and literary critic, complicit in the crimes of the Pinochet regime. Everything which would make Bolano (to my mind, but then, it is my blog) one of the greatest writers in recent memory is on display here; the manic pace of his prose, like a stone rolling down hill; the pitfalls and subterranean absences, the virility and intensity of the vision. It’s a little simpler, maybe blunter even than his later stuff, and certainly it doesn’t bare comparison to his more substantial works, but its still a hell of a read.

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The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago – A copy-editor writes a fictitious retelling of the eponymous engagement, finds himself in an unanticipated romance with his new editor. I think I’m just not a fan of Saramago. His rolling, unpunctuated prose has a certain force to it, but when I bothered to work through the various sub-clauses I tended to find myself unimpressed, and the broader themes of truth and memory and so on felt uninspired. Maybe it’s me. 

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Fletch by Gregory McDonald – A rebellious SoCal reporter investigates drugs, criminal shenanigans. I have my own internal metric when it comes to these sorts of two-fisted noirs, much of which boils down to 1) sparseness of prose and 2) and a minimal use of heroic violence, and by that peculiar standard Fletch is a minor masterpiece of the genre. The narrative is pretty close to perfect in its structure, and the prose is taught and generally funny. Alas for the strands of misogyny which are somehow both banal and vigorous, but if you can squint through that it’s a pretty fun work.

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Grendel by John Gardner – Beowulf’s nemesis confronts the eye-burning meaninglessness of existence, the crassness of love and beauty, the futility of art, the absurd cruelty of time and death in this cunning, bleak, funny, uplifting (?) novel. Was I assigned this in high school, but refused to read it on general rebellious principal? Can’t remember. Anyway it was good.

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Thy Hand, Great Anarch: Indian 1921-1952 by Nirad C. Chaudhuri -- The follow up to Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, during which Chaudhuri chronicles the final years of the Raj and his life during it. Chaudhuri is a brilliant, cantankerous, original thinker, a peculiar mix of Burkean conservative and unreformed Nietzschean, and his take on the tragic inevitability of partition is compelling if odd. Amounting to his final testament (he was 90 when he wrote it), it probably could have used some editing of its bible-like length (a 50 page biography of Tagore, a slightly shorter section on his love of European orchestral music), and no doubt there are many who would quibble with his affection for the British Empire and his general contention that imperialism is a positive mechanism for human development. For all that, it is a document of genuine value, both for its critique of Western civilization from a sympathetic but foreign perspective, and as the chronicle of a decent man trying to survive morally in a corrupt and chaotic age.  

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Fear of Animals by Enrique Serna – A reporter turned corrupt police officer investigates the murder of a minor writer, discovers the Mexican literati to be marginally more vile than narcotraffickers. I’ve always been open with my belief that writers are, generally speaking, pretty shitty people, and the society in which they inhabit utter cesspools of pretension and crass favor trading, so this is the sort of thing to which I’m generally amenable, and the writing is good, but it goes on too long and its kind of on the nose.

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Voss by Patrick White – A German Ahab on an expedition to cross Australia, his white whale an idiosyncratic woman he falls in love with in Sydney and the limitations of the human spirit. I really, really like Patrick White. He can summon a character in a couple of sentences, and portrayals of both Sydney high society and the outback ruffians Voss encounters are rich and potent. He has a million clever throw away lines, summary depictions of individuals and complex thoughts reduced to witty pith. I did, at times, find some of the soaring, divinely inspired imagery to be less effective than in last week’s Riders in the Chariot, but still this is a powerful epic, lyrical and brutal. White is a genius.

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Tula Station: A Novel by David Toscana – A failing novelist writes a potentially fictitious biography of a man who is probably not his Great-Grandfather, becomes obsessed with a woman as men are bound to do, leaves his wife. Or maybe not, a lot is left unresolved in this strange, playful novel about love, and the hope for love, and its destructive and redemptive power. I quite enjoyed it, then again I am a self-destructive romantic in the classic mold, more reasonable people might cotton to it somewhat less.

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Heaven is Hard to Swallow by Rafael Perez Gay – A collection of reasonably strong shorts in what I’m coming to think of as the modern Mexican school of storytelling, meaning a lot of grit, faint hints of the fantastic, and a couple of references to sodomy.

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After the Circus by Patrick Modiano – A lost youth falls for an older woman, maybe commits various crimes. I find Modiano less enjoyable the more he relies on a deliberate narrative structure, and found myself more bored than enthralled with his vague allusions to shadowy dealings and endless dangling threads. But I mean, that’s on me, I’ve read enough of him by this point to know what I’m getting. A glutton for punishment, what can I say.

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The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye – A European wastrel finds himself lost and broke in an unnamed, dreamlike west African country in this brilliantly odd take on colonialism. Sort of an anti-heart of darkness, a critique not only of African literature but of the west’s entire view of Africa, but subtle and without cruelty or even much bitterness. I genuinely can’t recall ever reading anything like it; strong rec.

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The Continent of Circe by Nirad C. Chaudhuri– A compellingly idiosyncratic if viciously negative history of the Indian sub-continent. Chaudhuri is very, very smart, and completely unrestrained by conventional wisdom or ethnic loyalty; some of this is so unhesitatingly mean-spirited, however – for instance his contention that Hinduism is the result of the immigrant Aryan’s revulsion at India’s climate and general squalor – as to make for cringy reading. Interesting, at least. It made really curious as to what his reputation is in academic circles, not that he would have given a withered fig as to the matter.  

Books I Read February 14th, 2019

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.