I read so much good shit the last few weeks, it's been awesome. Books! Books are so great! Books are one of like three things that if, for some inexplicable reason, I was no longer able to enjoy, I'd probably think about jumping off one of the bridges in New York that have low railings (Hi GW!). Take that as an overwrought expression of my love of literature, as intended. We're tailing through the end of Summer here, we had a couple of miserable days but all in all it's not so bad, it could be worse, we're standing above the ground, ain't we? You are reading, this, are you not? Q.E.D. Let's get on with it, then.
An Armenian Sketchbook By Vasily Grossman – Yeah, really lovely. The collected memories of Vasily Grossman, one of Soviet Russia's finest writers, during a trip he took in Armenia towards the end of his life. Grossman is most famous as, essentially, a chronicler of human misery – as a war correspondent he saw the terrible sieges on the Eastern front as well as liberating Treblinka with the Red Army, and speaking out against the Soviet regime meant that most of his writing could not be published in his lifetime – but An Armenian Sketchbook is an earthy, life-affirming read, if one that carries clearly in it the knowledge of the terrible misery possible in human existence. Though visiting Armenia as an interpreter of a beloved Armenian epic, he did not speak the language, and his experiences are that of a foreigner in a country which takes hospitality as being of enormous importance. Sketchbook is once a loving description of how food and drink, beauty, art generally, are capable of checking the horrors of life, both existential and political, and Grossman's affection for the Armenians becomes a thundering approbation for the human species, in its diverse and multifaceted glory.
Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy – Revelatory. The description of how a post-menopausal bank clerk, through amorality and sheer personal brutality, swiftly amasses an empire, Ride a Cockhorse is at once a hysterical and an intensely disturbing vision of the rise of fascism. I am burying my political convictions deep in the second paragraph of a blog which no one reads when I say that the personal style of the antihero, which consists of gross dishonesty expressed in a contemptuous and exaggerated masculinity, is one which presages that of one of our own current presidential candidates, though you're welcome to guess which one on your own. In any event, very much worth reading.
Ghost Story by Peter Straub – Fabulous! One of the best horror novels I've ever read, maybe the, although I'll need to wait a few weeks for the afterglow fades before I can give a confident answer. In any event, very, good, like a subtler, better written It (King and Straub collaborated on the Talisman and on a faintly remembered, far weaker sequel the immediate name of which escapes me). In broad strokes, it resembles King's classic an ancient evil preying upon a small town, a group of ordinary-ish individuals forced to confront it; but I have to say I think this is stronger than anything similar I can remember reading in King's ouvre. Straub's characters are richer and his horror subtler (though I didn't feel less effective), a stiletto, rather than a cudgel. Also, the opening is just one of the most effective things you'll ever see in terms of immediately unsettling the reader. I basically dare you to open it and read half a page and then put it down. I double dare you.
Tough, interestingly, it suffers from the essential problem which exists in writing horror novels, one which I'm going to reveal in a couple of jumps since it sort of spoils the ending
(SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT)
OK, so a horror story requires, as part of an honest completion of its ritual, a bad end for the main characters. Note that this is not necessarily to say that the main characters need to die, but they cannot triumph. This is critical; as a reader we have to get to the end and go, 'boy, wouldn't want to trade places with this guy.' But, interestingly, readers will generally not accept a mostly bad ending in a novel, especially not a genre novel – they feel annoyed to have spent 500 pages with a group of characters only to have them dismembered or whatever. Most writers essentially try to split the baby, knocking off a couple of ancillary characters but the heroes managing to survive or at least to defeat the main evil, which works to a degree but not as well as coming to the final sentence and then ripping the carpet out from a reader's surrogate. Still, gave me a pretty good nightmare last week while I was sleeping in an abandoned house. But that's another story.
The Hugenots Geoffrey Treasure – well researched, decently written, essentially not that riveting by my lights. It gives you a pretty good overview of the history of French Calvinism, from the man himself to the edict of Revocation. If this is a really specific interest of yours than have at it but in retrospect I'm not exactly sure why I decided to pick it up. I do like the Wars of Religion as a time period, I mean, not like it like I want to be in the wake of an invading Swedish army but like it like it's fun to read things about it. Also, I think I thought it would be shorter than it was.
The Interview by Herta Muller – Looking at my library I appear to be a real glutton for experimental writing about communist totalitarianism; in the Romanian sub-category alone a few months ago I read Manea's A Black Envelope. This is, by the standards of the strange sub-genre, fairly readable, the nightmares and past history of a woman in Bucharest going to one of an endless seeming but potentially fatal interview with a communist apparatchek. It was really quite good, as you'd expect from a Nobel prize winner, or not really because that's an absolutely asinine award. The prize for literature and the prize for peace make rather embarrassing reading for the committee, as a quick side note, but we're getting off topic. The Interview is swiftly paced and well-written and definitely worth your time.
The Glory of the Empire: A Novel, A History By Jean d'Ormesson – A history of the Holy Asian Empire, which never stretched from Iberia to Korea, indeed which never existed at all, save in the mind of the author and his readers. Meticulously if falsely documented, d'Ormesson mostly does a fine job of mimicking the tics and style of Gibbons' and his various followers, albeit it for an entirely fictional place. Honestly, I found I wanted to enjoy this more than I did – the idea of history as myth, the peculiar attempt to stuff a false nation into the actual historical record, all of this is appealing, but the actual plot is just not that interesting. Much of it, to me at least, read like a not altogether enjoyable fantasy novel, with heroes and priests winging in and out of the narrative. More clever in theory than practice.
The Hot Spot Charles Williams – Call it Jim Thompson light, about a used car salesman who gets an idea to rob a bank, and the ineveitable trouble that arises. Not as brutal or as brilliant as the master, but essentially the same milieu, foolish people doing bad things to their own certain injury. A fine way to while away a few hours, but I didn't feel it much more than that.
The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle – Ha! Ha! Very odd, very funny. Like a modern John Fante, though LaValle's protagonist is more narcissistic than insane, while LeValle's antihero, is skirting (?) clear madness throughout. The writing crackles, and almost every page gave me a chuckle, even as the horror-laced imagery disturbs. Recommend.
City of Saints and Madmen By Jeff VanderMeer – Four shorts which are loosely connected as being about, in some way, the fantastical city of Ambergris, sort of a 1920's New York built atop a Lovecraftian abyss, although this is to exaggerate the degree to which the stoplacery ever really becomes clear. Each story is sufficiently different as to make a general review sort of useless – two have a normal-ish narrative structure, one purports to be a historical pamphlet regarding the early years of the city's existence. I applaud anyone who attempts to do anything innovative in the fantasy genre, stale as it tends to get, and while none of these stories blew my brains out of the back of my skull they were weird and sometimes scary and generally enjoyable. I'll keep my eye out for something else by VanderMeer next time I'm wondering through the Strand.
The Thief By Fuminori Nakamura – Is there a difference, really, between existential noir and other noir? Isn't all good noir existential? This excellent tale of a Tokyo-based pick pocket, so detached from his own humanity as to be virtually nameless, is very much in the Le Samourai sort of vein, an individual defined entirely by his profession. It's spare if a bit predictable, and more (to my mind) an enjoyable genre thriller than a particularly brilliant work of literature. That said, I enjoyed it and would pick up something else by this guy.
Nightmare Alley By William Lindsay Gresham – Ooooh. Ooooooh! Our tale of horror begins with the protagonist, a slick-talking, amoral stage magician watching a side show geek bite the head off a chicken, and swearing he would never fall so low. You can probably guess how it ends. In the middle is a narrative which makes the Hot Spot seem absolutely light-hearted by comparison, one in which faith of all kinds – in stage magic, in clairvoyance, in Christianity, and, most fascinatingly, in the practice of therapeutic psychiatry – is ridiculed mercilessly, and the world is reduced to a zero-sum game of staggering brutality. Legitimately disturbing, but worth your time.