Books I Read December 31st 2016

Yeah, 2016. That happened. 2017 will, I very much suspect, happen also. I hope it happens for you in a way more joyful than despairing. I’ll try and do a year end wrap up next week, I know you’re all just panting to read my top 10.

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – what an odd, lovely little book. Nescio, who, according to the forward, is required reading in the Netherland (on the off chance there are any actual Dutch folk reading this, please do inform me if this is true) was that very rarest of breeds, a part time writer of value. He spent most of his working life as a manager of the Dutch East India corporation, and wrote, basically, only the five short stories which are contained in this book. They are really, really beautiful, especially the second in the collection, The Young Titans, about a gang of immature Amsterdamites (did I get that right? Theoretical Dutch person, advise) and the feverish intensity with which they experience their youth in a Netherlands long lost. It is the sort of book certain to leave you gazing out the window and remembering sunlit afternoons through which you once walked, ruminating on past loves, on friends never seen but not yet forgotten, that bittersweet burn of nostalgia, tossed straight with no chaser. I very much enjoyed it. Between this and the release of the Dutch edition of the Straight Razor Cure (aforementioned Dutch phantasm, purchase swiftly) it had me thinking about the bookshops near the Spui, and fog in the Jordaan, and of the strange flatlands which abut the north sea. Very much worth reading.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy – A sharply written comic novel detailing the romantic misadventures of a recently graduated American living in Paris at the start of the 50’s. Dundy is laugh out loud funny, and most of this book reads as a hard-eyed romantic comedy taking place among a fascinating post war community of Eurotrash and wannabe artists. But there is a very odd tonal shift in the last quarter, in which the farce veers into a sort of noir, and that straight on into melodrama. The failure to stick the landing not only keeps the book from reaching minor classic status but also kind of wastes the excellence of the prose. That said it’s short and readable and quite funny, and I would happily recommend.


A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr -- about a WWI veteran who spends a summer in the north of England, rehabilitating the mural of a medieval church. Amid the bucolic scenery and the pleasant rhythm of his work, revealing the brilliant creation of an ancient, unknown artist, our hero begins to recover, in part, from his recent trauma. A sweet, small novel, at once melancholic and life-affirming, uplifting without being in the least bit saccharine. Lovely.

The Iron Heel by Jack London – A fascinating failure. Written in 1905 or so, this is sci-fi before there really was such a thing, and in certain structural senses remains fresh more than a century after it was written. It purports to be the biography of a communist revolutionary sometime in the 1930’s, after the United States and the rest of the world were under the rule of the eponymous organization, a set of oligarchs who have overthrown the world’s democracies. Peculiar enough, but the interesting bit is that the meta-conceit is that the manuscript has been ‘rediscovered’ at some point six or seven centuries later, and the text is footnoted by a historian of that age. With our privileged position we know that our protagonist, who wrote the book before what was to be their climactic victory over the oligarchs, fails, and that the world spends several centuries in the grip of despotism before the final permanent victory of labor over capital. It’s an interesting enough idea for me to spend several sentences describing it, but the book itself is kind of crap. The first hundred pages consist of these incredibly didactic dialogues which will bore to tears anyone who reads them, irrespective of your political position. The second half, which details the struggle against the iron heel, is better only in comparison. Squinting, there are indeed similarities between the oligarchic regime which London describes and the European fascism which arose roughly in the same period he predicts, but there are also a lot of disparities (like most Marxists of the period he underrates the ethnic/national questions then defined (and indeed still does define) international politics). But really I cannot much imagine anyone enjoying this except as a peculiar literary artifact.

Reveille in Washington - 1860-65 by Margaret Leech– – yeah, fun. The intimate history of the city of Washington during the American Civil War, this is a compelling if not quite breezy cultural history, with lots of juicy bits about the events of the day, interesting characters, peculiar misadventures, etc. I’ve read a lot about this period but it’s always fun to revisit different corners of it – how absurd is it that you used to just be able to walk into the White House and ask the President for a job? What the fuck was everyone doing on that account? Hell. Also, I had forgotten all about General Thomas a.k.a. the ‘Rock of Chickamauga’, which is the best nickname for a general in the civil war. Actually really what this made me want to do was go back and re-read Shelby Foote, which is on my list of ‘books I would re-read if I was to be told I would be dying of cancer in six months.’ But, till that happy day, this will have to do.