Right, the last few weeks. Summer in the city, well, it's balls, it's just balls, man, it's balls all around. New York is (to the best of my knowledge) the only city in the world that does not require, which indeed demands it's citizens eschew the use of trash cans, and between the rotting fetid filth spilling out of punctured glad bags, the swamp-sweat of B.O., the gas fumes, etc., everyone who can flees to beaches or mountains or what have you. I followed suit for a bit, which is why this entry is heavy on genre stuff, because really, who wants to read anything dense while listening to the ocean lap against the waves. Although I did in fact end up reading a few, cause I'm such a glutton for punishment. In any event, on to the show...
Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford – A tetralogy detailing the end of the British Empire through the life of one Christopher Tietjens of Groby, the Englishest Englishman who ever ate a crumpet or watched a cricket match or had passionless sex with his forebearing wife. It straddles a curious spot in English literature, somewhere between the romances of the pre-war era and the more complex novels which would become prevalent later on. Chronicling the years just before to just after the Great War, long-suffering Tietjens attempts to survive the machinations of his faithless, lustful, brilliant wife Sylvia, his obsession with the forward-thinking, suffragette Valentine, and life in the trenches, which was a pretty nasty business so far as I can gather. It's interest in the upper classes, as well as the rather tiring conceit whereby Tietjens is endlessly in the wrong place at the wrong time and refuses, out of sheer Torie pique, to ever explain or defend itself, owes more to the generation of novels proceeding it. The structure is the more interesting part of the work, with each book in the series taking place over the span of several hours or at most days, as the protagonist (mostly Tietjens, though other characters take over narrative duties on occasion) thinks their way through the events of the moment as well as their ore recent history. It's very clever, if not quite so clever as some of the more adventurous writers who Ford would be instrumental in bringing into the public consciousness as the century wore on. Still, if you've got a thousand pages to read you could do a lot worse.
High Minds by Simon Heffer – Writing a cultural or intellectual history is a difficult task to set yourself; lacking concrete action or often, even, a clear chronology of events, the best manage to weave a narrative of an age through the ideas and creations of its artistic and intellectual champions. Alas, despite the enormous praise lavished on it, to my thinking High Minds, Simon Heffer's attempt to identify how the barbarians of the 1830's became the proto-moderns of the 1880's, does not meet the bar. Rather than express a coherent tableau, Heffer essentially ends up writing many dozens of small biographies about the prominent thinkers of the early and mid Victorian-age – Carlyle, Mill, Disraeli, etc., some of which are interesting, some of which aren't, none of which end up being more than puzzle pieces which never quite come together into a single picture. Some of the chapters – about the building of the Prince Albert Hall, and the World's Fair in particular – are so tedious and unrelated to the greater plot that it seems unbelievable that no editor swooped in to cut them. Like any large work of non-fiction, reading it will learn you things you didn't know, so it wasn't entirely a waste of my time, but still I can't imagine recommending to anyone, or at least to anyone I liked.
Little, Big by John Crowley – this one, by contrast, I've found myself recommending to basically everyone who will listen to me—to strangers at bars and social media acquaintances and every friend who has ever read anything. And now I'm going to recommend it to you as well, though with the caveat that it's the sort of book that cannot be neatly explained. It's about fairies, and also about everything important in human existence. It's beautifully written, its evocative and strange, it is, without any question, one of the very finest fantasy novels of the 20th century. Really, that's not enough praise to heap on it—it compares favorably, in my mind, not only to say, Neil Gaiman, but to Gabriel Garcia Marquez as well. Indeed, the fact that it is not even more highly praised can only be held as one more failure of the American critical establishment to give proper respect to the literary creations of its own countrymen. The perfect summer read, one that I have no doubt I will return to again and again as the years go by, a more than minor masterpiece, strongly, strongly, strongly recommend.
Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Ballard has a way of elevating what would be an interesting but not brilliant genre trope into high literature by focusing on the psychological journey of the protagonists more even than the actual events of his narratives. In this case, the story of a handful of scientists in the wreckage of a water-logged London, a generation after the ice caps have swamped human civilization (madness! Who could ever suppose such a thing would ever happen!) is enriched by a progressive (regressive?) atavism which takes place in the minds of its main characters. Fun, quick, weird, depressing.
The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende – Here, dear reader, you will find every cliché of Latin American magical realism; virile, violent men; sultry, mystical woman; precocious children; fantastical happenings described in a banal fashion, giant animals, war and lust and violence. What you will not find, anywhere, is a recognizable human character, or indeed a story which feels authentic or honest in any way. This is, in short, a simpering mediocrity of a novel, and its critical popularity is inexplicable (or, more accurately, entirely and sadly explicable). The prose is fine, you won't be writing down any passages to look at but nor does it embarrass itself; indeed, if you hadn't read Marquez or Cortazar or any of the previous generation of writers who Allende is so clearly cribbing from, you might almost (almost) think this was a work of talent if not genius. But seen in context, it's impossible not to see her as a sad epigone of other, better writers. Pick up 100 Years of Solitude, or better yet, Savage Detectives.
You'll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Selected Stories of Elizabeth Taylor by Elizabeth Taylor – Why, oh why, has Ms. Taylor's work been so comprehensively forgotten? Is it solely her unfortunate choice of nom de plume? Maybe. 450 pages of short story, and every one of them good to excellent. Admittedly, her range is rather limited, dealing all but exclusively with the social happenings of upper middle class Englishfolk in the years after the 2nd World War—but each one is excellent, her writing is taut, disciplined, mean and wry. Lots of good stuff in here, but The Flypaper, the lone horror story, deserves particular mention. As always, great to see New York Review of Book Classics bringing a deserving writer back to popular attention.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins – Hell of a crime novel, just a hell of a crime novel. Written almost entirely in dialogue, the story of Eddie Coyle, a small-time Boston fixer, and his attempts to get out of going to prison by selling out anyone and everyone he can. The story is strangely structured, and Higgins demands the reader do a lot of their own work in keeping track of the characters—but doing so is well worth the time, especially because the lack of a strong narrative presence serves to illustrate the degree to which crime is a meaningless, banal activity, nasty people doing nasty things. It's ferociously paced, it's mean, it's excellently written, it feels absolutely authentic. Strong recommendation.
Collected Short Fiction by V.S. Naipaul – Right, well, look, any honest list of the 10 best authors of the 20th century will have Naipaul on it. Top 20 certainly. There probably is not another writer alive who can claim so impressively diverse a body of work. These are good particularly the first part, his Miguel Street stories, about the lives of his neighbors in a Trindad side street. That said, some of the later ones flag a bit, and, to be blunt, this is probably not Naipaul at his best. If you haven't read him yet, and you really should, start with A Bend in the River if you want fiction or basically any of his non-fiction, particularly the ones having to do with India and Trinidad itself. Really this is more for the Naipaul completist, but still it's far from a waste of anyone's time.
Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell – Top notch, jet black hillbilly noir. The story of a young woman in the bleakest sort of Ozark poverty and her attempts to discover what happened to her unreliable, meth-cooking father, this is genre writing at its very highest point. No word here is wasted, the language is brutal and lovely, the dialogue incredibly sharp while still seeming authentic to the characters voicing it. It's really well plotted also, I can't really explain why without giving away essential points of the story, but it manages to avoid the whole it's-impossible-to-construct-an-authentic-mystery-without-constantly-lying-to-the-reader problem that all of us working in the genre struggle with. Just generally kick ass, give it a look.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene – Yeah, I mean, I read a lot of good stuff the last few weeks. Greene is just great, he's part of that generation of English novelists whose writing is a lot wittier than anyone else's ever was, and he used his significant life experience, in this case the time he spent working for British intelligence, to bleak and effective use. The story of a vacuum cleaner salesman who seeks to milk the secret service to pay off the debts of his profligate daughter, Our Man in Havana is laugh out loud funny, both in the its language and in its general condemnation of the pointless absurdity of the cold war and spying generally. Admittedly it feels a bit slight, particularly at the end (which wraps itself up rather too neatly), but still, tons of fun and definitely worth your time.