Books and Tunes June 30th, 2019

In Toronto, visiting my brother and his wife and their adorable, loud, occasionally well behaved children. It really hammers home the degree to which all childless people are essentially frivolous creatures, dedicated to their own interests, pursuits, and petty pleasures. To whit, here are the 22 books that I read in the back half of June, and the music that I really liked...


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Three Christ's of Ypsalanti by Milton Rokeach – What happens when three schizophrenics, all claiming to be the heir of God, are forced by an ethically dubious social scientist to interact? Not much, perhaps predictably – reason has very little effect on the insane, that's kind of the point of being insane, and our three Christ's maintain their sad delusions despite the best efforts of their therapist/tormentor. There's a certain sterile fascination to the fantasies of the severely mentally ill, as anyone who has had much interaction with them can attest; primarily as a a strangely complex (if endlessly repetitive) form of world-building. I'm not sure how much relevance it has to the mental structures of more fully functioning human specimens however, and have often wondered (as a sort of meta-critique on psychoanalysis and its various children) if living in a leprosarium might give one confused ideas about the nature of a healthy man. That aside aside, it's an interesting read.

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The Invitation by Claude Simon – A lyrical, satiric depiction of a visit to the USSR in the late 80's by a group of public intellectuals, which, if you can get over the author's refusal to ever use a period, a stylistic peculiarity which is either due to some innate defect (virtue?) of the French language or, potentially, the influence of Proust on his countrymen, but in any case results in these endless seeming, though not altogether unpleasant, sentences, sentences which kind of just go on and on and on and include endless sub-clauses, allusions, asides, though very few semi-colons, which is fine, the semi-colon is the punctuation mark of cowards, for people too lily-livered to choose a proper dash, but anyway its actually a pretty good read, with some lovely language and a reasonably healthy dose of contempt for these sorts of expeditions, and indeed the concept of a public intellectual, which to my mind is a definitional oxymoron of the most embarrassing sort.

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Home by Marilynne Robinson– A spinster returns to her childhood home to watch her wastrel brother pay a final call on his dying father. A companion book to Robinson's Gilead, this is a haunting, beautiful, sad novel. Robinson has a genius for conveying the bitter complexity of familial relations, the way in which every word and sentence can contain such an endless raft of references, and the constant prevalence of miscommunication even (especially?) among people who are deeply intimate with one another. It works as a stand alone but also molds perfectly with Gilead, offering another layer of complexity to the subtle, gorgeous characterization of that masterpiece. The depiction of Jack, the prodigal son, whose character failing and ill-fortune hang forever over his head, is tragic and affecting, and as always the language is sublime. Marilynne Robinson, man, Hooo-ey.

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69 by Ryu Murakami – A callow youth utilizes Japan's late 90's dissident movement to try and meet girls. A Ryu Murakami book without any body horror! I kept waiting for like, someone to eat someone else's tongue but it never happened. Funny and poignant, if resembling a lot of other books you might have read.

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Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz – A strangely unemotional Hungarian youth is sent to Auschwitz, based on the author's own experiences. Unpleasant, thoughtful, stylistically distinct within the unpleasantly large realm of holocaust autobiography.

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The Soft Voice of the Serpent by Nadine Gordimer – A selection of early stories from this Nobel prize winning South African. Uneven, but there are some gems in here, particularly the titular short.

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A Haunted House and Other Short Stories by Virginia Woolf – Short stories from a giant of the 20th century that I actually don't think I ever read before. After the predictable initial impression of banging your head against a wall, the prose starts to cohere into a masterpiece of thought and rhythm. I liked these very much, except for one or two which felt a little unsubtle. Still, quite marvelous.

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The Player by Michael Tolkin – The prototypical soulless Hollywood exec is losing his job, maybe his mind in this bitterly satirical neo-noir. It bogs a little in the last act, but the prose is fabulous, mean and funny and reasonable, and he has a writer's contempt for writers and the vapid suits making an excessive living siphoning from our talents (I'm just kidding, all of my suits are awesome people, I genuinely enjoy their company).

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The Children of Men by P.D. James — Twenty-five years after the last child was born, a reclusive academic gets embroiled in a conspiracy against the fascist English state. But you know all of that, you saw the movie. The book is not as good; it's a clever premise, it's mostly quite well-written, but the narrative structure is kind of a mess, and it ends as an unsatisfyingly simplistic parable.

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Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams – Esoteric flash-fiction. The language is pleasantly difficult to decipher, but once you get down to the nub there usually isn't much beyond a simple scene or statement of feeling, obtuse but sort of insubstantial, even banal. Complexly expressed trivialities.

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The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson – A bold and vigorous attack on modernity by one of America's better living novelists. An anti-capitalist environmentalist conservative Christian (or something like that), Robinson is a serious enough intellectual to take the originators of contemporary society – Mssrs. Nietzsche, Darwin and Freud – seriously, which is to say, with understanding and dislike. Some of the stuff about Calvin kind of missed me, but basically Robinson's diagnosis of our lurid moral and philosophical collapse seemed uncomfortably accurate.

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Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – A priest falls in love with a maltreated, depressed adolescent girl. I'm a sucker for Garcia's house style ('one day the white goat with the human looking forehead whom we called Pablo fell down the well, and for all the albino clockmaker's crying, we could not save him'), but how many books romanticizing pederasty did this guy have in him? Was it only last week I read Memoirs of my Melancholy Whores? Whole thing felt a bit on the nose.

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A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn – A dying author writes a book about human consciousness, goes a little crazy during his final months on earth. Didn't love it—the funny parts were not funny, and the philosophical bits are pointless and uninteresting, as the nature of individual consciousness is an insoluble mystery which cannot be reduced to logic and swiftly decays into intellectual masturbation (which in fairness, is the sort of meta-joke about the novel he tries to write, but so the fuck what I still had to read it).

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The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman -- A dark-skinned woman tries to make her way in a post-war black society of uncompromising color consciousness. Thoughtful and well-written, of surprising subtlety for an overtly political novel. Good stuff.

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Lila by Marilynne Robinson – A woman tries overcomes her miserable childhood in accepting the love of an aging preacher, God, in the third book of the Gilead series. I didn't love it as much as the first two, but it's not bad. Also I've been doing an awful lot of Marilynne Robinson lately, I might have gotten a bit full up by this point.

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Reading Turgenev by William Trevor– A woman in a provincial Irish town goes mad. This one didn't do a lot for me.

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter – A magic crow takes up residence with a writer and his sons to help overcome the unexpected death of their wife/mother. Entertaining and mostly well-written, quick enough that the absurdity of the premise and the occasional flights of literary fancy don't get exhausting. Good stuff.

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My House in Umbria by William Trevor – A writer of romances takes in the survivors of a train bombing in what seems like (but is not) a sweet-natured meditation on loss and love. Mean, clever, strange, a curveball coming in high and fast, be careful you don't get plunked. By which I mean you should probably read this book.

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Driving on the Rim by Thomas McGuane-- The lengthy recollections of a small town doctor having a nervous breakdown. Meandering and flabby.

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The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam – A woman loses her mind when the X. Meandering. I know I said the last book was meandering also, but what can I tell you? I felt they both meandered. You should be sympathetic to my trouble, rather than judgmental of my word choice.

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The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley – An attempt to construct pre-literate Greece through the Homeric oral epics. Broadly interesting, though one does get the sense that an awful lot of this is riding on what might have been a throw away line by an itinerant half-drunk poet (most poets are half-drunk most of the time, I don't see why it would have been any different in ancient Greece.)

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The Concept of the Political by Carl Schmitt –

Schmitt: Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.

Me: Republicans, neo-liberals, anarchists, academicians, people who underline things in library books, people who ride their bikes on the sidewalk, people who think Pearl Jam are a serious band, anyone who ever liked Forest Gump, people who are rude to waiters, e-sports enthusiasts, celebrity gossip journalists--

Schmitt: ...I think I left the oven on.

Books I Read June 14th, 2019

I write things, I read things, I bike places. I saw a terrible play and an OK movie and one of the best concerts of my life. A lengthy vacation looms ahead of me, so I'm trying to pre-emptively make up for a lot of my bad behavior. Happy father's day, assuming you observe it. So far this month I read the following books...

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Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neil's Hotel by William Trevor – A mentally ill photographer forces her way into the lives of a handful of mentally ill people living in and around a dilapidated Dublin hotel. A brutal if someone unsubtle critique of the artistic semi-neccessity of using other people's lives for creative fodder. The anti-heroine is interestingly drawn, but the rest of the crew of miserables are kind of one note, and it's not quite funny enough to be a comedy.

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The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff – An impressive collection of short stories, admirable both in execution and scope. Generally excellent, and it was nice to read one of these where every story wasn't a minor variation on the next.

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Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Two Courts Era by William de Lange – What can I tell you, the thirteen year old inside me loved this title too much not to give it a read. Unfortunately it turns out we don't actually know anything about the lives of the two most famous duelists of the Two Courts Era, and so this ends up being an enormously tedious history of the general period, rather than the biography it claims to be. Alas.

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What's for Dinner by James Schuyler – The unhappy misadventures of a collection of upper middle class small town elite. One of these 'beneath the happy facade of the American dream everyone is drinking heavily and masturbating' sorts of novels. Mean! Cynical! Like a lot of other books I've read! Not bad, but not particularly memorable.

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The Devil's Yard by Ivo Andric – In the waning days of the Ottoman empire, a falsely imprisoned Orthodox monk befriends a mentally ill Turkish aristocrat. Quick, lyrical, sad, a minor work by an acknowledged master.

Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami – Two boys left for dead in a Tokyo train station grow up together, get into some nasty misadventures, decide the world is a cesspool, destroy it. More of the sardonic nihilism one expects of Murakami, but this kind of thing works a lot better in 200 pages than 400. The subplots, while fine on their own, go on too long, especially since the climax is pretty obvious from the early going.

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Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – An eccentric vagrant raises her two young nieces in a small American town. This was one of those books I think I didn't like quite as much as it merited. Part of that was coming down from the high of Robinson's sublime Gilead, part of it was I am one of those people who just really can't stand bucolic imagery, no matter how lyrical. But it is beautifully written, Robinson is very talented, and I suspect other readers will enjoy it more.

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The Flame is Green by R.A. Lafferty – A band of European revolutionaries fight an esoteric crusade against their demonic counterparts. An entertaining adventure story written in a quixotically odd fashion, impossible events incorporated without explanation (but in an engaging way!). Lafferty was really an original, he writes modern fantasy as satire and fairy tale. Strong stuff, alas that no one seems to read him any longer, or at least the LAPL doesn't have the rest of this series.

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Marquise of O by Heinreich von Kleist – A German noblewoman gets pregnant unexpectedly, tries to find the husband. I didn't really get it. I know that's not much of a review, sorry, but there it is.

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A Sun for the Dying by Jean-Claude Izzo – A Parisian vagrant travels to Marseille to die, recollects his youth and failures. There's a lot of good things about this; its humane and sad and sometimes sweet, and there's a crime thread that works pretty well, actually, but ultimately it was a little too sentimental for me personally. Still, I'd check something out by the author again.

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Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice – A reservation in the far north of Canada survives an isolated winter after an undisclosed apocalypse wrecks civilization. Stronger in conception than execution.

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Webster – A woman traces a strand of familial madness to a brutal, cold-hearted matriarch. Quite marvelous. Funny, sad, a thoughtful exploration of how mental illness is passed down through generations as children, reacting against the sins of their parents, forge their own paths of self-destruction. Very good.

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Recollections of the Golden Triangle by Alaine Robbe-Grillet – A post-modern Marquise de Sade. Which, I mean, if that appeals to you, have at it! There's actually a fair bit of artistry here, but beyond illicit erotic/horrific thrills I'm really not sure what the point was.

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Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges – The false history of an attempt to reconstruct a novel from the scattered posthumous writings of the Enlightenment philosopher/scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg functions as a meta-critique of the modern academy and a meta-commentary on how perspective alters truth. Really, that suggests more of a narrative than actually exists. In practice this is 450 pages of the author spitballing in any direction he feels like, which I don't object to on premises but which requires an enormous amount of genius to pull off, one which, sadly, Senges does not possess. Pedantic rather than erudite, sometimes clever but never funny, this is the kind of books where long lists of things are meant to serve as punchlines. There's no point in disliking a thing more than its importance merits, I know that, but by God I wish I had the time it took to read this back.

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The Color of Blood by Brian Moore – The Cardinal of an eastern bloc country tries to avert a catastrophic showdown with the communist government. I admire how many different genres Moore can work in, and this is a skillful if somewhat derivative Greene pastiche.

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The Open Sore of a Continent by Wole Soyinka – Some ten years ago, at the first (and as it turned out, only) Brasilia Biennal, I was somehow at a party with the writer/human rights advocate Wole Soyinka, growing long in the tooth but still a statue of a man, with a white mane and dark eyes and a weighty if friendly bearing. My handler, a lovely Brazilian woman whose job was to make sure none of the English-speaking authors wandered away and got bludgeoned to death, made an unexpected point of introducing us. “This is Wole Soyinka,” she said, “Nobel prize winner. And this,” she said, turning to me, “is Daniel Polansky. His book is being compared to Game of Thrones and Raymond Chandler.” It was clear that Wole Soyinka had no idea what this meant, but he fumbled forward kindly, and I did my best to follow.

Anyway, I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to Mr. Soyinka's work, or in retrospect why I chose this one, which ends up being, basically, a series of essays about the political situation in Nigeria during the early 90's. It assumes an intimate knowledge about the nation's history and then circumstance which I can't claim to possess, and so I don't really have anything useful to say by way of a critique. I'll try and pick up something of his that is of broader interest, if for no other reason than his having shared one of the more awkward moments of my life.

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July's People by Nadine Gordimer – When Apartheid South Africa devolves into civil war, with the white establishment on the verge of collapse, a family of white liberals are saved by their black servant, who spirits them back to his village. A strange, discomfiting, very clever commentary on the vast gaps between peoples, and their painful struggle to bridge them. A magnificently vital portrait of South Africa as it might have been. Uncompromising, excellent, worth a read.

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Castle Gripsholm by Kurt Tucholsky – A pair of lovers flee the coming Reich for a two-week idyll in Sweden, have a threesome, free a child from an evil orphanage, in this bittersweet threnody for a dying world. The small triumphs of joy and righteousness in a world growing dark, of moving poignance here in our own pre-apocalypse.

What is it about? I want to know right now!”

I sucked the end of a bitter fir-twig. “First of all,” I said, “I saw how it was. And then I understood why it was like that—and then I appreciated why it couldn't be any other way. But I still want it to be different.”

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Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli – A damning if overwrote indictment of the Dutch administration in Java, book-ended by a hysterically bizarre commentary by a vigorously hypocritical coffee trader. The main story, of a too-decent administrator in a rural province, is well-meaning but kind of interminable, a lot of the emotive asides common to works of this era. The writer himself is presumably (?) aware of this, which explains the peculiar meta-story surrounding it, which is mean, clever, and worth your time.

Books and Tunes May 31st, 2019

May continued on its curiously gray way. I've been biking a lot and trying harder to notice the flowers. Not while I'm biking, just in general. May's playlist, and brief reviews of the books I read during the second half of the month follow.


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Road-side Dog by Czelaw Milosz – An arrangement of short essays, poems and aphorisms about language, death and Catholicism. I enjoyed it but can't say it stuck with me to any particular degree. Then again, I read a lot of books this month.

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Karate Chop by Dorothe Nors – A collection of short stories in the faintly-ominous-but-nothing-actually-happens vein. Didn't do anything for me at all.

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Tree of Smoke by Dennis Johnson – American intervention in Vietnam turns out to be a bad thing in this very long, very serious book. It's engaging moment to moment, the various view points are mostly well-juggled, Johnson is a solid writer and has a knack for knowing what details to avoid offering the reader to make the narrative more powerful. But there's nothing really new here, either structurally or conceptually, and I couldn't help but feel like we've probably got enough big books about Vietnam, some of them written by veterans of the conflict, and mostly released in a more timely fashion. Don't we have enough current overseas conflicts to use as literary fodder in illuminating the shady underside of the American dream? Answer: yes.

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The Devil is Dead by R.A. Lafferty – A wandering drunk finds himself entangled in a strange web of mystical doings, to give much more of the plot would be to ruin the thing. Another book I picked up because of a mention by Gene Wolfe, and you can see the influence. Stylistically its extremely peculiar, it takes half the text before you realize what genre you're dealing with, but it still manages to offer some narrative thrills. Cool, weird, I'm trying to pick up more by Lafferty but alas, he seems to be largely forgotten.

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A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene – A famous architect flees the world to take up residence in a African leprosarium, thinks about God. I didn't love it. Greene's books can generally be divided intwo two camps; books about Imperialism, and books about Catholicism, and I tend to prefer the first. Like Waugh (though somewhat less so), Greene has a tendency to imagine his faith as a form of moral masochism, basically, in which suffering is elevated over empathy, misery is portrayed as an essential good, and Christ is reduced to his stigmata.

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L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin – An engaging look at crime in 20th century Los Angeles, choc full of weird, memorable moments. Did you know the guy who started Cliftons, once a cafeteria, now my favorite bar in LA, helped fight police corruption? You do now. Fun stuff.

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Hellbox by John O'Hara – A collection of stories about over the hill drunks, small time criminals, cheating husbands, etc. Very of its time, but well-written and engaging as hell. O'Hara has a real feel for dialogue, and despite its masculine preoccupation, doesn't have that authorial intrusion you get in Hemingway and Mailer and writers of that ilk. Fun stuff.

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Passing by Nella Larsen – A member of the black bourgouise has her life ruined after a chance meeting with a childhood friend passing as a white woman. What begins as a commentary on race relations during the Harlem Renaissance morphs into a larger critique of the compromises and concessions we all take part in while building an adult existence. Very good.

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A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler – A depressed journalist gets involved in a scam to sell the intelligence gathered by a murdered Kurdishman. Taught, extremely clever, very nearly a masterpiece but the landing doesn't quite hit like it should. Still, the usual excellence from Eric Ambler.

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Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – A pedantic school master travels through a vertical steampunk city to find his lost love. An engaging adventure story with a charmingly weird setting.

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Disquiet by Julia Leigh – A woman returns to her childhood home with her children and a dark secret. Competently written, atmospheric, unexceptional.

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A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka – I spent ten minutes trying to find that clip from Metropolitan where the pretentious protagonist describes a book as 'Kafkaesque', and the heroine replies, 'yes, it was written by Kafka.' But I couldn't find it. Then I was going to post that clip from Annie Hall where Shelly Long and Woody Allen are in bed together, and Shelly Long goes, 'sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience,' but I don't think we're supposed to think Woody Allen is funny anymore. Anyway, this was a pretty good book.

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Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag – A family is corrupted by wealth in this story of moral decay in modern India. Sharply written and mean, but the characters feel authentic and honest. Very good, I'll get more by Shanbhag shortly.

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Kim by Rudyard Kipling – A boy's journey to adulthood through a vibrant, magical India that never was. There's a lot wrong with this book – apart from the imperialism, I mean – it doesn't really hang together as a complete narrative, and the ending is pretty weak beer. But Kipling's genuine love for his adopted homeland rings through, and manages to redeem both the moral and aesthetic issues. Hell, even Edward Said liked it.

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What I Lived For by Joyce Carol Oates – A self-important mover and shaker in a fantasy version of Buffalo faces political corruption, comes to grips with his own moral failings in this very, very, very long book. Shades of Tom Wolfe, in the depiction of hyper masculine identity, and Saul Bellow, in a 'this takes place over the course of three days but also half the narrative is filled with past memories' sort of way, although it occurs to me I haven't read either of those authors in closer to twenty years than fifteen, and I probably should be more careful with the comparisons. Anyway, this is competently written but it just goes on forever, like, forever, with scenes and thoughts and images repeated to a point beyond tedium. It's not bad, but I can't possibly imagine recommending it to anyone.

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Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata – A wealthy young man deals with the consequences of his father's infidelities. Also, there's lots of stuff about tea. It's finely tuned but very spare. If it was a restaurant, it would be one of those small plate places you go to to impress a girl and then when your food comes you're like, that's it? Fifteen bucks for one squash blossom? Anyway I didn't love it.

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The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene – A botched kidnapping by Panamanian guerrillas leads to a lot of philosophizing about God. Another one of Greene's religious works, though superior to the Burnt-Out Case. The plot is still a little too neat, almost sanctimonious in its confirmation of the author's religious leanings, but it is a thoughtful meditation on evil and redemption.

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – An old man contemplates his life in a letter to his young son in this luminously profound meditation on life, God, and love, one of the best books I can remember reading in a very long time. It isn't enough to say that it's thoughtfully constructed and beautifully written; lots of books are both of those things. This is a work of great wisdom, of penetrating insight, a compelling argument for the existence of God and the fundamental if tragic dignity of the human condition. I didn't think it would be possible to write a book like this, so honest and yet so hopeful, in an age as awful and despairing as ours. I'm really glad I was wrong. A towering accomplishment that confirms the purpose of fiction, lucky me that I picked it up at random from the library.

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The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor – Six African American woman living in the eponymous tenement. The prose is very strong, although the stories wrap up a little too neatly, and its a bit...sentimental, I guess. Still, a strong debut novel, worth a read.

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Rapture by Susan Minot – A man and a woman reconstruct their romantic history over the course of the world's longest blowjob. Actually pretty good, despite the premise. A thoughtful and largely accurate depiction of the romantic mindset of 21st century proto-hipsters. It was actually a little too close to home for me, a scarred survivor of love in our tarnished time, but I think most readers would find it more compelling.

Books I Read May 14th, 2019

Today I can make honest claim on 35 years of life, during which I have never lied to a friend, broken faith with a lover, or cheated anyone who didn't really, really deserve it. In the first half of May, I read the following...

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Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene – A vacuum cleaner salesman becomes embroiled with British intelligence, discovers a genius for dishonesty in Greene's just beloved parodical (isn't a word, should be) spy novel. Somehow I'd kind of forgotten I'd already reda this, which ending up OK because by the time I realized it I was having so much fun I couldn't stop. The writing glitters, and it has that feature of the best satire, in which the absurdity of the premise showcases the absurdity of the institution being mocked. I read a lot of people trying to be Grahame Greene, but none of them ever are.

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The Secret Agent by Josef Conrad – The misfortunes of an agent provocateur, his wife, mother-in-law, allies, handlers, etc. I am on record as generally not having a lot of fondness for pre-20th century novels (except for the Russians) but Conrad is really very good, and apart from describing rooms in too much detail mostly avoids what I consider to be the stylistic failures of his age. The language is penetrating and insightful, and his cynicism bleak but thoughtful. Strong stuff.


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Evil Eyes: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates – Four novellas about love and death. Predictable and flat, this should have been better than it was.

Starwater Strains by Gene Wolfe – I confess to finding a lot of Wolfe's later novels not to my taste, but his short fiction remains a clear cut above his competitors. 'The Pope's Head' is as nightmarish a 5 pages as you'll ever read, and there's this one about a guy locked in jail/exploring a pulp fantasy world which I likewise loved, though I guess not so much that the name stuck in my head.

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Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe – Nil nisi bonum.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman – A boy and girl fall in love in a magical New York, except then everything gets really sad, but I can't explain anything else without ruining the plot. This is a very good book that I would have liked if it didn't despair for the future in exactly the way that I despair for the future, leaving me in a deep state of melancholy forty-five minutes before I was set to answer calls on the suicide hotline. I also didn’t think the internal mechanics of the thing worked as neatly as they might have, there’s some unnecessary explanation. Still, it is strong, and I gather other readers don't find it quite so terribly harrowing.

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The Traitor's Niche by Ismail Kadare – Albanian magical realism – a kaleidoscopic depiction of the late Ottoman empire mourns the corrupting effect of totalitarianism on ruler and ruled. Kadare is a real talent, his stories are evocative and awful, and he manages in a few hundred pages what less talented writers fail to complete in five times the space. Good stuff.

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The Investigations of Avram Davidson by Avram Davidson – Stories of wonder from a largely forgotten mid-century fantasist. I picked this up on a recommendation from Gene Wolfe (not a personal one, sadly) and there's something interesting to the construction (particularly the one about the dad picking his son up from boarding school) but mostly they left me a little cold.

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Judgment on Deltchev by Eric Ambler – An English playwright covers a show trial – or is it?? – in Bulgaria during the opening days of the cold war. Ambler is about as good at this as anybody not named Graham Greene. He has a real talent for misdirection, and obscuring the motivations of his characters without drifting into outright narrative dishonesty, as well as a deeper feel for the human condition than these sorts of cheap novelettes generally offer. God stuff.

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Twenty-One Stories by Graham Greene – Early works from a master. 'I Spy' is very strong, and a few of the others likewise merit recognition, but probably there are about 15 Greene books you should read before this one.

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Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – An old man finds love, meaning, in the catatonic arms of an underage prostitute. If that description doesn't turn you off immediately, have at it! It's beautifully written, generally charming, and quite short! The characters are all sufficiently fantastically drawn that you know you're never really supporting pederasty, but it's still a little queasy. The accompanying text compares it to Lolita, but there's not really any evidence of ironic intent. One does sort of wonder when the inevitable backlash against Marquez is going to arise, and why it hasn't already—is it just that he didn't write in English?

Flood by Andrew Vachss – A superman beats up child molesters in an unrecognizable New York. I was skeptical of the premise on principal, but I really liked Vachss The Getaway Man, and thought I'd give it a shot. My optimism offered slim return, alas, and while I could write a lot here about the stylistic deficiencies of action novels, and also why we should really all stop using evil pedophiles as character tropes, it's my birthday (as I mentioned) and frankly I don't really have the energy.

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Oxygen by Andrew Miller – A pair of adult sons return home to tend to their dying mother; a Hungarian playwright hopes to redeem himself for a youthful moment of weakness. Very good. High literature without a cheap hook, sincerely written, thoughtful, sad, hopeful. A serious man trying to grapple honestly with the terrible despair and occasional joy of human existence. Very good.

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Chronicles of Bustos Domecq by Jorge Louis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Cesares – A pedant reviews a series of imaginary (though plausible) artistic trends; unreadable books, indigestible food, uninhabitable buildings. Basically a series of clever jabs at post-modernism, the sort of conceptual art which imagines itself superior to form and has been turning out clones of DuChamp's fountain for going on a century. It's a little one note, but then again I can get down with anyone taking a fat crap on Le Corbusier. Fuck that dude. The poor citizens of Brasilia, forced to grapple forever with the conceptual monstrosities of an aesthetic cripple. I'm getting off topic.

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The Innocent by Ian McEwan – A British technician works for Allied intelligence in postwar Berlin, falls in love. I disliked this less than other Ian McEwan books I've read. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, you get an A on today's reading comprehension quiz.

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The Malady of Death by Marguerite Duras – A man and a woman in a hotel room; it might be me, but I've never enjoyed any explicitly erotic writing, or none created for public consumption. It seems a form of art which suffers the further it passes from a lovers lips.

Books and Tunes End of April

Several days late, but I've had friends visiting the last ten days, and I've been busy going to tourist attractions and trying to make them jealous. Have you seen our avocado? They're amazing. We have beaches and mountains. Your Mexican food tastes like someone defecated into a rubbery tortilla. How do you live, man? How do you even get by?

These are the tunes I liked and the the books I read during the back half of April, 2019, a fine month, now sadly behind me.


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Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – I picked up the first book of these, Shadow of the Torturer, from the Edgartown public library when I was twelve or thirteen, because it had cover where the hero held a sword, and that was the only sort of book I read when I was twelve or thirteen. A thousand pages later I was left in awkward awe at the journey; twenty years later, I feel similarly.

Book of the New Sun is, for my money, the only work of high fantasy which can be justly called literature. It functions, first of all, as an enjoyable if peculiar genre exercise; there are sword fights (lots of them! Good ones!) horrifying monsters, strange sorceries, etc. One can (and I imagine many have) give it a surface read and come away confused but generally having enjoyed the experience. But of course it is vastly more than that, a mad bildungsroman, a crookedly complex work of moral theology.

There is genuinely so much genius in this book that even a much larger review could not take adequate note of them; Wolfe gives himself joyful freedom to wander into strange corners of his imagination, and no one reading this book will soon forget his re-telling of the Minotaur's Labryinth or the Kipling's Jungle Books. Admittedly, these side adventures can feel somewhat jarring, coming from nowhere and disappearing as quickly. The narrative structure is peculiar to say the least, but the flip of that is you genuinely never know what's going to happen in the next chapter.

I could go on; the prose is masterful, with Wolfe's famously odd use of archaic language functioning to further unsettle the reader's directions. It's sexy and confusing and horrifying; it has my favorite magic sword in all of literature. But I frankly don't have the energy right now to give a proper review right now, so I'll end with just telling you to take a few weeks out of your life and work through it.

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The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron – The stylized recollections of Nat Turner; slave, preacher, failed revolutionary, in the days leading up to his execution by the state of Virginia. Beautifully written, at once sympathetic and horrifying, a formidable attempt to conceptualize the limitless evil of American slavery. Very good.

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The Laughing Monsters by Denis Lehane – An American intelligence agent and his frenemy, a native mercenary, get into trouble in Africa in what wants to be an updated Graham Green novel. It's...fine. It's not badly written, there are a few touches here and there that let you know Lehane has spent some time on the continent (the little baggies of high proof liquor, trying to find a working internet cafe), but it has some unnecessary stylistic flourishes and plot wise it doesn't hang together that well. Another one that doesn't seem to quite satisfy the conditions of high literature or effective genre stuff.

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Down Below by Leonara Carrington – A description of the author's descent into madness and imprisonment in a Spanish insane asylum in this slim but valuable volume. The peculiar obsessions, the quasi-religious mania, the abiding sense of persecution, all have the undeniable ring of genuine insanity. It's good, but what's more astonishing than the book itself is having undergone this experience Carrington was capable of regaining sufficient sanity to write it.

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Picture by Lillian Ross – The compelling tragedy of 1950's Red Badge of Courage, an ambitious attempt at high art torn down by a foolish public, a crass studio system, and the artists' own personal weaknesses. Ross works with fabulous restraint, chronicling the film from enthusiastic inception to sad failure, leaving the dramatis personae to reveal themselves in asides and casual comments. Being a Hollywood hanger-on myself these days, I probably got a particular kick out of the content, but this is thoroughly enjoyable even if you aren't having your face shoved daily into the fetid bowels of film making. Worth your time.

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I Am Not Sidney Poitier – The childhood and youth of a man who is not, but looks quite a bit like, Sidney Poitier. Structurally this is maybe a little unsound, and it doesn't quite hang together perfectly, but on the other hand I think Percival Everett is a genuinely fabulous comic writer. There is a recurring bit about Ted Turner which had me howling pretty consistently, and felt more than worth the price of admission.

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The Thief and the Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz – A thief gets out of jail, seeks revenge on his wife/friends in this noir/allegory for the disillusion of Egypt post-Nasser. It's competent but a little one note, and I'd be lying if I said I saw the sort of genius which I gather the author is generally credited. Maybe I'll try him again somewhere down the line.


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Latin Blood – A selection of short mysteries from Latin American writers. Really I just picked this up because it was the only thing I could find in the LA library system with a story from H. Bustos Domecq, a joint pseudonym under which Borges and Adolfo Bioy Cesares wrote classic Holmes-style mysteries. Anyway it was fine, I don't really like this style of writing so I'm probably not the best person to render judgment on the quality of these particular iterations.

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The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky by Victor Serge and Natalya Sedova – A biography of Soviet Russia's flawed hero by a man I regard as one of the better writers of the 21st century should probably be better than this. It's competent, but coming shortly after Trotsky's death seems to serve more as anti-Stalin propaganda than a genuine attempt to grapple with Trotsky's life. There's a (predictable) tendency to understate the horrors of the early portion of the Russian Revolution (Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy offers useful counterpoint), and Serge is clearly reigning in the linguistic complexity and brutally honest observation which characterizes his best work.

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Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima – A woman divorces her husband, raises a young child in 70's Tokyo. It's a pleasant read, generally well-written and with some clever stylistic contrivances, but it doesn't really go anywhere and ultimately it felt kind of ephemeral.

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ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano – A lengthy and ludicrously overwritten history of the cocaine trade. Saviano's self-obsession was clear in his earlier Gomorrah, but seemed excusable based on the scruffy first-person reporting to which he subjected himself, and the fact that his outrage, emotive and self-referential as it tended to be, was directed at the cadre of criminals actively corrupting his birthplace. It feels entirely out of place in ZeroZeroZero, which in practice is just a high-level take on the cocaine trade, of the kind any non-fiction writer might put out, interspersed with endless observations about Saviano's deteriorating mental state, tedious on its own merits and absurd given his distance from the subject. The last quarter in particular felt like being cornered at a party by someone on the eponymous narcotic, nodding along at their pointless and rapid speech until you can find some excuse to break away. Avoid.

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Nothing but the Night by John Williams – A young man doesn't like his Dad, has a mental break down in 50's New York. An early work from a very talented writer, the material is strong but the scope is quite limited, particularly when compared against Williams' later work.

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In Love by Alfred Hayes – A man narrates the story of his broken relationship to a woman at a bar. Short, pithy, powerful, anyone who ever experienced heartbreak (haven't you? What the hell have you been doing with your life?) will find themselves nodding along at Hayes's insight into the universal misery of said condition. Good stuff.

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Amsterdam by Ian McEwan – Rich assholes behave badly, get their comeuppance. I preferred McEwan's straight nightmares to this rather flimsy attempt at satire, which, though readable and occasionally funny, is predictable and kind of sanctimonious.

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Fifth Head of Cerberus and Other Tales by Gene Wolfe – A masterful suite of novellas about identity, 'humanness' and two planets in a distant solar system in some unknowable future. Each of the three somewhat interlinked stories are written in radically different styles, showcasing the extent of the author's genius. Each are strange and beautiful and frightening and sad. I've sad it before and I'll say it once more; Wolfe was one of the best writers of the 20th century. We lost a giant this month.

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Once and Forever by Kenji Miyazawa – A collection of children's stories by what I gather is Japan's most beloved children's story writer. They're fine, they're good, I'd read them to a kid, it doesn't quite fall into that rare category of literature which works for children of 7 and adults of 35, but then again that's basically just Kipling.

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Children's Act by Ian McEwan – A judge decides whether a teenage Jehova's Witness will get a blood transfusion. Sometimes it takes a couple of books to decide if you like a guy, and I think I don't really like Ian McEwan. He's a peculiar sort of middlebrow; the language is fine, its breezy and not awful, but he has the infuriating habit of writing a sentence of dialogue and then writing a paragraph explaining what that sentence is supposed to mean, which is always, always, always bad writing. And the ubiquitous nastiness (everyone is terrible, all decent-seeming acts are secretly done for selfish reasons or will result in some unanticipated awfulness) feels lazy and narratively unsatisfying, a performance put on for that sort of reader who assumes high literature has to be cynical.







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.