Books I Read February 1 2017

A month into 2017 – Jesus, that went by in a flash, right? On the one hand, I am objectively among the most fortunate people, not only in the world today, but in the very history of the species, having the benefit of bug free linens, regular meals, and high proof alcohol. On the other hand you get to looking at the gray sky and the gray buildings and the gray people who populate them, and you gray also, no less gray, not even to yourself, and you start to think, hey, maybe we deserve what’s coming to us.

Days like that, I book a one way ticket somewhere. I’m out of the country for the foreseeable, and I cut the throat of my social media account like a suckling pig before a feast, so I guess I’ll see you when I see you. Keep your head down and your eyes sharp in the interim.

Chaos and Night by Henry de Motherlant -- About a Spanish anarchist living in Paris, having fled his country after the Civil War. This is a bone bleak depiction of a wasted life, in essence, of an enormously bitter man who antagonizes everyone close to him out of a deep-seeded personality disorder masquerading as an exaggerated sense of moral purity. Motherlant (no way in hell that was his real name) seems to be one of those infant terrible sorts who everyone grew to hate, a rightist in the Ezra Pound mold whom my introduction suggests was also a pederast (though I confess a quick internet search offered no evidence of this – any French folk who can enlighten me on this point, please do), and there is something rather straw-mannish here about writing so vicious a character study of a political enemy. That said, it is effective (if rather one dimensional), and the miserable final scene, w/ (SPOILER ALERT) our protagonist dying pointlessly, alone and unmorned is neatly done, though I confess I can’t actually imagine recommending it to anyone.

Born to Kvetch by Michael Wex -- I very much admire the sort of person who is able to start a book, realize they don’t like it, and not finish it. I’m not that sort of person. Even back when I was the sort of person who didn’t finish every book that they started I never seemed to give up for good reasons like I didn’t like the book, but rather for bad reasons, like the book was too hard, or I had impulse purchased another one. A friend gave this one to me intending an unexpected kindness, but in fact it just exhausted time that might have been better spent on other things. Thanks a bunch, Andy. Thanks loads.

Anyway, there’s nothing really wrong with this other than that I am the world’s worst language student and so most of the text, dealing with peculiar aspects of the Yiddish language, was largely lost on me. I found bits of it interesting in the abstract -- the pessimistic soul of Yiddish, its naked tribal allegiance, its curse construction – but this was tempered by the author’s Borscht Belt humor, with a lot of random pop cultural references in lieu of actual jokes, like being cornered by your least favorite uncle at a Bar Mitzvah. Still, I have found myself greeting strangers with ‘Vos Macht a Yid’ lately, so that’s something at least.

Chocky by John Wyndham -- About a child’s imaginary play mate who is not that. This is very much that early sort of sci-fi novel where you really don’t need much besides a modestly interesting premise, but it’s got an interesting English low-keyness which contrasts well with the broader American version, and the writing, while not on par to some of the other things on this list, didn’t make me physically ill. Better than anything I’ve read by Dick, I’ll tell you that much.

Last Words from Montmarte by Qiu Miaojin -- As a rule, ‘the Emperor has no clothes’ should be your review of last resort – not to say that the emperor is never wearing no clothes, sometimes the emperor is legitimately naked as a jay bird, but a lot of the time it’s as the magic tailors promised, and you’re just a country rube who can’t figure out the cut of his suit. What I’m saying is, before you decide a book is shit you should make good and god damn sure that the problem doesn’t exist, as I’m told the tech folk say, between keyboard and chair. And thus I gave a lot of thought to this one, which appears to be held in high regard and yet I confess to feeling was really, really not very good.

I began initially sympathetic to the premise – consisting of 20 ‘letters’ written by a Taiwanese woman in Paris to her ex-lover, the back promised not only a torrent of insight into the nature of love but hidden structural complexities (the letters can be read in any order! Characters appear and disappear and take on new names and genders!). I confess I found neither. Here is the thing – this is not a well-written book. By this I don’t only mean that the language is not in and of itself aesthetically pleasing, although with a few exceptions (some of the physical descriptions of romance are reasonably powerful) it is mostly not; what I mean is that the quality of thought, revealed word by word and line by line, is not particularly high. This really does read like a love letter from a wounded person to the person who they feel has wounded them – which is to say that it is a lot of soupy-sounding tautologies and unrefined emotion. As to the relatively minor structural flourishes – at one point the narrative seems to switch to a series of letters written by the protagonists lover to a sort of heroic self-image of the protagonist, which is not a bad touch, the spurned lover imagining themselves the recipient of her ex’s undying affection -- I get the sense that most of the people who enjoy this book do not enjoy it despite rather than because of them. That is to say that I think most fans essentially disagree with me about the quality of the prose/thought, seeing the commentary as being valuable on a surface level. Which, fine, fair enough, but if you open this book and read any random sentence or paragraph I suspect you’ll come away feeling, like I did, that these really aren’t worth your trouble.

It’s hard not to feel that a great deal of the popularity of this book stems from issues unrelated to the text itself. Qui Miaojin was, I gather, one of the first people to write openly about lesbianism in Mandarin, and her having committed suicide shortly after this book was released, an act which dovetails neatly with her protagonist’s mindset, certainly adds the book an added piquancy. But in and of itself, I’m gonna say hard pass.

Also, as a quick side note, while the letters can be read in any order to a greater degree than a novel with a conventional story, there was a clear narrative tempo to the text as presented, and thus one of the underlying hooks of the novel is kind of bullshit.

Midnight in the Century by Victor Serge -- Victor Serge had it worse than you and wrote about it better, a professional revolutionary who’s unflinching moral honesty put him just below Trotsky on Stalin’s hit list. Inspired by the 8 months Serge spent in prison, and the two years he spent exiled to a distant eastern town, Midnight in the Century is about that moment when the early, heroic supporters of the Russian revolution began to realize they were defeated, that their extraordinary efforts would be wasted and worse than wasted in service of a totalitarian state. It is a grim book but not one without hope, and in that it was a worthwhile thing for me to read this month. My personal feeling is that Serge’s later, more stylistically complex work (particularly the truly, truly marvelous Unforgiving Years) are superior to this, but it is a question of degrees of excellence. Serge’s relevance as a writer seems to only grow with the passing of the years, and I can recommend him to anyone looking at a bad situation, knowing it will get worse, and trying to figure out their place inside of it. Which is to say, all of us.

The Land Breakers by John Ehle -- Yeah, excellent. About the growth of ‘civilization’ in an untamed land, an adventure novel that succeeds on its own merits – there is some great bear hunting here – and also as a larger meditation about early America and humankind itself. Well-written, exciting and with considerable moral depth, a whole-hearted recommendation.

Walkabout by James Vance Marshall – A weird, disturbing, compelling novella, about two white American lost in the Australian outback who are saved from starvation by an Aboriginal youth on his eponymous journey. Small but lovely, compelling and evocative, recommend.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy -- Wow. Just jaw dropping. One of the best things I’ve read in a very long time, a masterpiece of 20th century literature. It reminded me a bit of Saul Bellow but more confined, more neatly drawn, less desperate in demonstrating its own genius. It’s the kind of book that I would talk about for a long time in the back of a bar, or while walking along a windy street with someone, gesticulating wildly, but that I find I’m not sure I have much to say about vis-à-vis a capsule review. A perfect novel, recommended in the highest terms.

Young Man With a Horn by Dorothy Baker -- Hoo! Excellent! Wait, this is the same Baker who wrote the likewise excellent but otherwise in tone, structure, character and story entirely dissimilar Cassandra at the Wedding? Weird! Weird world! You haven’t even written one stellar novel, and she wrote two! WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?

Right, well, basically every jazz cliché was, so I gather, created in this book, so much so that later generations (this came out in 38) of Jazz aficionados were prone to look back on it with some contempt. Which is too bad, because it’s the rare sort of book which inspired a lot of imitators but still holds its original power. Baker understands jazz as an art form, writes about it intelligently, but more than that she understands what it is to be driven by the act of creation beyond the capacity of the human organism, to focus the entirety of your existence on the single, pointless activity of art, art for its own sake, art for its creators sake, art irrelevant to the audience. I’ll admit I’m just pretentious enough to feel like it had some relevance to my own life and trade.

Also, that’s a hell of a last line. Damn, but this woman could write.