Books I Read This Winter (Part 3)

I am getting as tired of writing these are you are of (not) reading them. What is it that keeps me doing these review? Just some peculiar, unfortunate tendency on my part towards cataloging everything I do? Am I secretly a hoarder, with last week's bowel excretions neatly labeled in jars in my closet? How did we get in this direction? Can I write exclusively in interrogatives? Did I drink several IPAs before writing this?

Dunno, probably, no, dunno, no, yes. What follows are the books I read, roughly, since returning from Africa at the end of February till like last week.

Mapuche by Caryl Férey – This book was just a steaming pile of shit, no way around it. Absolutely rank – it's bizarre the degree to which literary mediocrity can be forgiven if it's sort of nominally in the service of a leftist ideal. Don't take that last sentence as evidence of any particularly political leaning on my part. Anyway, this thing is just awful, it makes Girl With a Dragon Tattoo look like high literature by comparison. Maybe not quite. But they have a lot in common – a foreign setting; in this case, Buenos Aires. A weirdly outdated political background; the Dirty Wars of the 70's and 80's which, look, if you were unaware of it the proto-fascists were awful and to the degree to which the US provided support both tacit and outright, that's pretty shameful, but on the other hand, it is the rough equivalent of writing a thriller set in DC in which the bad guys are Ollie North and the other Watergate cronies, not exactly cutting edge. Sexual politics; this is a book which nominally stakes out feminist territory but also has just a ton of sexual violence towards women, intimately described, to the point where it's hard not to feel like you're just reading chapters of BDSM erotica. And, most importantly, aesthetics, in so far as every line is badly written, the dialogue is atrocious, the characterization is beyond one dimensional, the mystery itself is non-existent, violence is used again and again to lazily resolve conflicts. It's just awful, stay away from it.

The Ancient City by Fustel De Coulanges – This one was pretty fascinating, actually. The essential idea is that no one living in the modern age (although actually the book was written in the 19th century) can adequately understand the thinking of the citizens of early Classic Greece and Rome, whose lives were entirely structured around a very primitive form of Indo-Aryan ancestor worship. To Coulanges's mind, every facet of early Classical civilization needs to be explained from this fundamental core, that is to say according to sort of magical thinking about the ability of the dead to bless or curse their descendants, and a reverence for the hearh and home which is in no way symbolic but entirely concrete. All the duties and responsibilities of the citizen grew out of the initial concept of this priesthood, in which the male head of the household is the only person capable of performing the obeisances and sacrifices required to satisfy the dead. It's hard going but extremlely interesting, and to my very limited knowledge of that period of history, seems coherent, but to be blunt I am nowhere near sufficiently versed in Classical theory to know if it is still held in high regard. Anyone want to help me out on this?

The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to Ad 1300: Volume 1 by Romila Thapar – Pretty much what the title says. Reasonably readable given the complexity of the subject matter.

King Charles III of Spain by Sir Charles Petrie – A reasonably competent history of one of Spain's relatively few reasonably competent Kings. How did Spain manage to take over most of the world having had like, three monarchs that weren't complete shit in their entire history? Anyway – apart from a tendency towards long, unrelated digressions about British diplomats credentialed to the court at Madrid, and an exaggerated view of the importance of Spain during this ear (mid-late 18th century) this was fine. If that doesn't sound like an overly passionate recommendation, I guess it probably isn't.

The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton – Essentially an attempt to recreate the mindset of the French proletariat and petit bourgeoisie during the 18th century. I thought it was enjoyable and interesting but then I love this sort of investigative history. Although I will admit the subject is a bit abstract and I can imagine for a lot of people it would be dull to tears. But screw those people, I dug it.

The Police of Paris 1718-1789 by Alan Williams – An interesting topic which is lamentably undercut by the author's unfortunate tendency towards an ornate, even rococo, academic style. A lot of simple sentences made opaque. Which is too bad because there's a lot of fun stuff in here regarding Parisian coppers in the years before the Revolution, during a period of time when they were basically responsible for overseeing all the features of civil government in the city, from trash collection and torch lighting to the censorship of books and putting out fires. It could certainly have benefited from a bit more by way of anecdote by then, as we established in the first sentence, this seems very deliberately to be written in a fashion so as to squeeze all the fun out of the topic. The flaws of modern academic writing are so peculiar because they are learned failures, that is to say, no one starts out writing this bad. At some point, basically, entire generations of students are taken aside by some professor and told, 'hey bud, if you want to turn this Masters into a PHD you need to do a better job of making what you're saying less clear.' Still, not without its merits.

Envy by Yuri Olesh – Look, I've probably just read too much Soviet-era magical realism. Between this and The Foundation Pit and like a dozen other one's I can't remember, they've all kind of run together in my head. My fault entirely, the book deserved more diligent study, but I just couldn't bring myself to offer it right now. I'm sorry. I'M SORRY. STOP YELLING AT ME, PLEASE PLEASE STOP YELLING AT ME.

The Dark Tunnel by Ross MacDonald – Ross MacDonald is a fabulous crime writer, his Lew Archer stuff is right up there with Chandler and Hammet's best, but this book, a Nazi-thriller in the cheapest possible mold, is not very good. MacDonald presumably knew this as well, which is why it was originally released under a different name. It very much has the feel of something thrown together in about two weeks to pay off a bar tab. In fact, thinking up the circumstances of how so talented a writer ended up writing something of such abundant mediocrity is of more interest than reading the actual book. Maybe a relative had been kidnapped, and he needed a thousand dollars or they'd be shot? Maybe it was a bet that he lost? Maybe he met a young child dying of cancer who was like, 'hey mister, mister, can you write me a Nazi novel? One where an incoherent chase scene makes up most of the 2nd third of the book, and the ending is weirdly telegraphed? Cough-cough?' and Ross MacDonald, being a decend fellow was like, '...sure, Timmy' (the kid's name is Timmy) 'and then we'll get you that new lung you need. You''ll be out of here by Christmas!'

Also, I love how on the front cover of the Goodreads picture (not my cover, sadly) the tag line is 'The Story of a Homosexual Spy!'

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry – One of these books that you start and immediately know you're going to love, one of those books where you go, 'right, this is why I spend all of my time and most of my money reading.' What genre writing could be if we were all smarter than we are. Written in this bizarre but understandable future slang, the story of an imaginary city in a post-collapse era on the West Coast of Ireland and the criminal gangs which feud there. Violent, nostalgic, lovely, sad, beautiful, I just loved this book. You should absolutely read it. I wish I had gotten to it before I had written Low Town, I could have stolen a lot from it.