Books I Read October 18th, 2016

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

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

And now, on to books.

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

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

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

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

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

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