2017 will be the worst year for reading, in terms of hourly effort/number of books, that I can ever remember having. This is a galling, bitter pill to take, one of many I’ve been trying to stomach these recent weeks. But still, castor oil at least strengthens the digestion, and failure offers endless opportunity for self-reflection.
Why didn’t I read more? Laziness? Maybe laziness. I seemed often to lack the necessary presence of mind to sit comfortably and read a book this last year, various other anxieties proving too strong. Generally speaking I can make myself write but not read, the former requiring a sort of all-consuming mental effort which tends to void away most other , while reading is a more reflective activity, and easily spoiled by outside concerns.
Also, I just couldn’t be bothered to getting around to putting these all up on goodreads. My computer is kind of a piece of shit, and I’m pretty lazy. Wait, I mentioned that already.
Anyway, below are my scattershot, fairly haphazard recollections of the books I read these last—six months or whatever, I dunno.
EDITORS NOTE: I WAS SO LAZY I DIDN'T EVEN GOT THIS DONE DURING THE YEAR IN QUESTION. On the other hand, who cares..
After Claude by Iris Owens–Half a year later and this one still stings when I look at it. The absolutely relentlessly nasty recollections of a shallow, meaningless Manhattanite and the endless injuries she does herself and others, presented with extraordinary bitterness. I’ve been thinking of this one a lot lately, for one reason or another. Suffice to say it’s sharply written and devastating, but also I suspect too mean for most readers. I don’t think its misogynistic, exactly, but if a man had written something which so savagely plumbs the depths of a woman’s psyche they would have a hard time at cocktail parties, let’s just put it that way. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s enormously clever, however. Keep, and I’ll see what else I can dig up by Ms. Owens likewise.
Black Spider by Jeremiah Black Spider –A horror story grounded in an authentic belief in Christianity (been a while since we’ve seen one of those), the plot is simple but it works all the same – small town in Switzerland makes a deal with the devil, the devil makes them pay for it. Horror (genre fiction generally) tends not to age that well but this one still mostly worked for me, there are some disturbing little bits and the pre-Freudian erotic/satanic frisson is a lot of fun. Keep.
The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt – the classic detective novel is the modern update of the passion play, in which the sins and evils of humanity are writ on the body and soul of a sainted martyr, their shining example serving to shame our petty, quotidian immorality, the endless tiny concessions which are demanded of us. Lovitt’s excellent debut effort is very much in this realm, his sympathetic-bordering-on-masochistic hero a spiritiual a successor to Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer (the third of the holy trinity as regards detective fiction, though for some reason never having gotten quite the same shine as Hammett or Chandler). An episodic series of misadventures in the life of an Australian PI, building finally to a reasonably thrilling crescendo, the language is brisk and competent and the structure skillful. I don’t actually know anything about Lovitt but his storylines at least feel authentic in the way that good crime writing does, his villains are nasty and stupid and unexpected things happen unexpectedly. Strong stuff. Keep.
The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror by William Sloane –Pre-war horror seems to have needed to be, essentially, less horrifying than its modern version. That is to say that you’re much more likely (as in these) to have a story framed around something more uncanny than violent or terrifying. These two short novels are skillfully constructed, the writing is definitely a notch above most of Sloane’s contemporaries (damning with faint praise) but probably most readers will find the underlying revelations, not to put too fine a point on it, not that scary? It’s an interesting counterpoint to Lovecraft, for instance, whose prose is pretty squalid but whose nightmares were so horrifying that they somehow managed to compensate for his lack of professional comptence. These are better in all regards, except for not having enough sting. Then again, the sting is the point of a horror story, isn’t it? Still, it holds up better than 90% of horror fiction of its time. Keep.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – Gillian Flynn is a very mean, very talented writer. This tale of a broken woman investigating the horrific murder or her white trash family by her brother (?) is not quite so strong as Gone Girl (magnificent) but it’s still pretty fabulously tight. Flynn has that enormously rare gift of being able to write in a voice which is at once appropriate to the character and also clever line by line, and her world of miserable millennial Midwestern losers feels lived in and authentic. Keep.
Slade House by David Mitchell – Masquerading for three-fifths of its brief length as an entertaining if unoriginal haunted house story, the back-chunk veers suddenly into deeper corners of Mitchell’s shared universe, tying into the same world of feuding magical groups which he detailed in the Bone Clocks (and introduced retroactively to 1000 Autumns of Jacob De Zoet). From an aesthetic perspective, this seems an error, muddying up the essential purpose of the story with a lot of info-dumping, and moving the thrust of the narrative away from a series of doomed, human protagonists and onto a supernatural savior (drawn from previous books) who swoops in to save the day. I didn’t care for it, but more then that I feel kinda compelled to object to a story which can only function effectively if the reader has read some prior text without making this point explicitly clear on the cover and in related materials. Slade House is presented as if it were a stand-alone work, but it simply isn’t– it is a prequel or a sequel or an addendum to The Bone Clocks. At best, this should have anchored a collection of short stories, and I find its release in this fashion kind of distasteful. Drop.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – A relentlessly unsubtle novel masquerading as the exact reverse, The Remains of the Day is the story of the last of the great English Butlers reminiscing on a life ill-spent. Ishiguro has the voice right, at once in keeping with the character and pleasantly readable, but mostly the book is a critique of a certain strand of English culture which ceased to exist some half century before Ishiguro wrote the book, and there’s something cheap about taking a dump on your grandparents (not literally in this case but still). It’s all a little sanctimonious – did you know the Nazi’s were bad? You did? There were thoughtful people making similar critiques fifty odd years before this. All the same it’s a skillfully crafted book, he’s obviously really talented. Keep.
Kiss of the Spider Woman Manuel Puig – A dialogue between two men in an Argentinian prison, one sent for leftist activities, the other for being a homosexual, whose growing love is sublimated through the elaborate description of fake movies which they collectively recollect. I sort of thought the thing worked better during the first 2/3’s when the love affair is unrequited rather than during the last, tragic bit, but still it’s a very odd, clever, vibrant little novel. I’ll keep an eye out for Puig going forward. I borrowed it from someone and already gave it back, but in principle I would keep this.
Mating by Norman Rush – I didn’t love it. Rush is very smart, and this is an ambitious novel, but it didn’t fundamentally come together for me. The narrator, who might be unnamed or whose name I just might not remember, is a reasonably brilliant female academic working in Botswana who decides to fall in love with a more brilliant male academic working in Botswana on a secret experimental city in the hinterlands where woman hold all political power, with the notion being the twin narratives intertwining to make a profound statement about male/female relations. This is the sort of novel in which the protagonist is a very smart person and the narrative consists mostly of her engaging in elaborate intellectual conversations, either with her partner or just acting as her own interlocutor. It reminded me a bit of some of the denser Saul Bellow, but then again I haven’t actually read a book by Saul Bellow in probably ten years so that’s not real useful. Anyway, I found the protagonist essentially believable as a character, which is a difficult accomplishment given the style of the book, but I was also bored a lot, and I think probably just tend to prefer a tighter aesthetic. In practice, it seemed like an awful lot of intellectual effort for relatively little pay off, and I don’t really think I’d recommend it. Drop.
The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler – Actually it might have been this book I read or it might have been another collection of Chandler shorts, it doesn’t really matter. When I went out to LA for a couple of weeks for different reasons and I obviously decided I needed to read a Chandler, and I picked this one up at the Last Bookstore in downtown LA (which is fine but quite frankly, yo, LA friends, if this is your answer to the Strand you don’t have an answer to the Strand.), and it’s fine. I had forgotten that Chandler reworked all of his short stories into his novels (incidentally, this is the reason for the famous (maybe not that famous) ‘who killed the chaffeur’ question in the Big Sleep, which is basically that he kept a previous story whole cloth without realizing that his changed made this plot point irrelevant) which was kind of fun anyway because I got to relive my favorite of his novels without having to re read them altogether. Chandler is, you know, Chandler, he writes like nobody’s business but the plots don’t make any sense. Drop, but only cause I have all the novels that he reworked these into.
Next Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko – I have a real soft spot for these, going back probably a decade or something. In and of itself its really pretty rote urban fantasy, about a heroic, tortured young man working as a sort of supernatural police in Moscow, but somehow it just kind of hangs together for me. There’s some silly bits in here – I have despised the transcription of song lyrics since the Hobbit – but underlying it is some fairly substantive ethical contemplation, as well as a number of surprising narrative choices which I generally enjoyed. Also, magic fights! Keep.
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories by Tove Jansson -- I have great esteem for Janson (despite never having actually read the Moomen. Moomin?) as (ugh) a writer’s writer, in the sense of having ferociously on point language, a complexity and peculiarity of viewpoint, etc. My expectations might have been a little unrealistic given how much I loved loved loved Fair Play, but not all of these quite hit for me. There are a couple of masterful cuts – The Squirrel, for instance, I really liked – but there were a fair few that didn’t have quite the tightness of theme that a really good short story requires. But, again, my expectations were very high, I still enjoyed these and read them real fast. Keep.
Paris Vagabonds by Jean Paul Clebert– A transient’s tour of Paris in the years shortly after WWII. If the idea of this appeals to you (it appealed to me) double down on it. Clebert was a real, no shit, homeless dude, and his recollections of slophouses, cheap bars and whores is cleverly, even beautifully written, and are accompanied by a series of haunting and beautiful photos. I really liked it, it made me miss Paris and feel nostalgic period of time long ago where I was, I mean, not a transient obviously but, you know, familiar with a lot of strange characters. Not as strange as the ones documented here but still, I get to be nostalgic about whatever the fuck I want to be, go fuck yourself. Asshole. Fuck you. Keep.
The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout – You get to carry a book around with you, you see, and you get to read it in between doing other things, and sometimes these other things (whatever they are) are very happy or very sad or just very, in some way, and then always afterward (not always but for a while) you get to take it off the shelf and dust it a bit and sigh wistfully and then put it back on the shelf.
All of which is to say am glad that I am able to take in human letters some small source of rejuvenation, occupying space in my bag beside my computer and some receipts. This was a very lovely novel, magical realism (ugh, sorry, sorry, you know what I mean, a book with impossible activities not organized along usual genre lines) set in Dutch Indonesia, every little bit of this beautiful and sad and strange. It’s episodic and moody and there’s little real thrust of narrative in it, only the passing of the generations, death and life, violent and tragic love, loss, yearning. That kind of shit. I’m pretty sure that I really, really loved this book, but I’ll have to give it six months or so to see. Keep, in either event.
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories by William H. Gass – Yeah. So, I would regard this book as being, line by line, one of the more difficult things I ever read. Gass writes like I imagine people who don’t really like literature imagine everyone writes, a stream of consciousness ramble which obfuscates basic facts, tends towards little by way of narrative, and doubles back on itself endlessly. I don’t regard any of those as being bad things, to be clear, it’s a style like any other style, sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t, depending on its execution--though of course, in practice it’s so difficult a ‘genre’ that only enormously talented writers can manage it with even a pretense of competence. Gass manages it. He has an enormously rare gift for striking and unexpected sentences; you will not find, in its 200 pages, I think a single familiar metaphor. When this works it works fabulously, and already some of his lines – ‘lonely as overshoes, or someone else’s cough’—have wormed their way into my memory. I will admit that not all of the stories punched for me, and there were a lot of annoying bits where you have spend an amount of mental effort to deduce some quotidian detail. But the last two stories; one about bugs, basically, I can’t put it better than that, and the eponymous finale, were really, really masterful. Keep.
Young Once By Patrick Modiano – I confess I don’t pay a lot of attention to the Nobel prize for literature because I have this curious medical condition where I’m gonna die one day, and thus my time on earth is limited, but my vague sense is that they seem to warble between awarding it to incandescently difficult stuff the purpose of which is to make you think the Nobel Prize people are very smart and sort of mediocre crap the purpose of which is to make you think the Nobel Prize people are hip and approachable (oh shit I just remembered Dylan got it last year! How could I have blocked that out!?!). Anyway, I’m going to go ahead based on this one that Modiano is the latter. This is basically a brief, not brilliant pseudo-noir about a pair of people falling in love in and getting into occasional minor trouble in Paris in the 60’s or 70’s I guess. The prose is fine but unremarkable, which indeed would be an apt description of the book generally. It’s very much in that drifty, Paul Auster/Murikami sort of vein (though in fairness, better than either of those two), long on ennui and short on much else. Drop, I mean I didn’t hate it but I can’t see any reason for keeping it and I’m moving to LA and I’m afraid even some of my beloved NYRB Classics won’t make the cut.
Peace By Gene Wolfe – Yeah, I read it fucking again, so sue me.
Darkness Visible: A Memor of Madness – A lucid account of a severe depression, particularly terrifying in so far as the affliction came unexpectedly late in life to Styron. It’s about 90 pages, its well written, I'm not sure it's going to knock your head off particularly, though. Drop. I’m throwing out all my books kinda so drop, but don’t feel bad about it Styron it’s cool, you ok. No man, it’s fine calm down. Don’t look at the window like that, it makes me uncomfortable.
The Sun King by Nancy MIttford– yeah, this was a brisk, pleasant history of the life of Louis the XIV. I’ve been getting rid of most of the books on my shelves and I probably have about 5-6 which cover this topic, so it was hard to get quite that excited about it but it was breezy and fun and also a lot lighter than most of the other books I have regarding the Sun King and so Keep.
The Door by Magda Szabo – A Hungarian intelligentsia’s recollections of her tumultuous friendship with her elderly maid, a peasant woman of enormous vitality and a rigid, idiosyncratic moral system. It was good and I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it but confess it did not strike me down like a literary bolt of lightning. Maybe that’s a high bar to put for every work of fiction you come across. It seemed a little…pat, I guess? A bit too simple, a bit too straightforward, a bit too, I dunno, easy. Keep anyway, it's solid.
Victorine by Maude Hutchins – Uhhhh…Shit. When did I read this one? I think it was…winter? Or maybe I was traveling somewhere? No, it couldn’t had been winter I don’t think. Could it? This is not useful. It’s an episodic series of recollections from a mid century farm house, with the girl sublimating a lot of sexual energy into a relationship with a retard who thinks he's a horse, and a cheating father, and I think the brother masturbates. The vagueness of my recollection is a pretty strong argument for trying to write these reviews down in a timely fashion, but probably also speak to the fact that this one didn't hit me real hard. Drop.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro – Since I first came to New York, I was looking out for a copy of Caro's beloved biography of city builder/ruiner Robert Moses, which, half a century after its first printing, remains so popura that it literally took me five years of searching to find a copy of this massive, million word tome that didn’t cost 30$. It came too late. By the time I finally found one, and by the time I got around to reading the one I had found, I was getting ready to say goodbye to New York, putting my cheap furniture onto the stoop and saying whistful farewells to old watering holes. The 1200 very large pages of this tomes thus became a trial, an unhappy and despairing reminder of a place I loved and hated and am in any event leaving, of the endless catalog of errors that I made during my time here, of the occasional moments of happiness, more bitter still than my mistakes.
So, with the substantial caveat that my reading The Power Broker was an enormously elaborate exorcise in masochism, both figurative and literal (I consider myself something of a pack horse but having this brick in my backpack for last two weeks was half-crippling), what did I think of it? I thought it was too fucking long. Yup, that’s what I thought. It’s just too goddamn long. Moses was a fascinating figure and his impact on New York was enormous, but for a casual reader a lot of this stuff could be condensed. The beginning of the book, chronicling Moses’s transition from honest reformer to the power mad monster, is interesting, but once he makes that switch (around 1935, or so) the narrative starts to feel pretty repetitive. There’s something very personal to this biography – Cairo has a real sense of the injustices committed by Moses during his concrete transformation of New York, and a desire to tell the long untold stories of his victims. But it’s the same story, mostly, Moses using the powers he carefully accumulated and the indifference of the city and state elite to destroy nice things in New York and replace them with upper class amenities and hideous highways. Which is terrible and everything but basically it’s the same story whether its East Tremont or the Throggs Neck bridge or whatever, political chicanery leading to the eradication of natural beauty and the destruction of all things good. Will I keep it? No, I’m not gonna fucking keep it, it’s heavy as sin and I’m through with New York anyway, man, I’m done, I’m gone, you gone have her, I don’t miss her, I won’t think about her at night, I won’t count her hideous flaws as secret virtues, I won’t let her grit down in my soul. Editors Note: Nah, fuck it, I'm keeping this one.
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards – Yeah, this was really lovely, I'm surprised I hadn't heard of it earlier. The recollections of the Guernsey's Guernsey-man to ever Guernsey his way out of a Guernsey hole, or something like that. An old man looking back on the twentieth century and his various misfortunes, accomplishments and small tragedies, really beautifully written, NAME has that peculiar ability to write in the voice of a semi-literate country farmer but still strike upon passages of great humor and kindness. Keep.