A paltry 8 books the back half of this month, but then, I was busy with my whirlwind tour through Baltimore, Oxford, London, and, as of about four hours ago, Minsk. Ahh, beloved Minsk, where a younger me once walked through parks and ate very sparingly and thought constantly of a blond haired woman. Thank God for old friends in foreign countries, warm welcomes, cold beer, hot tea (inferior to coffee but we won’t argue that point), and good books.
The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers – Seven men flee a concentration camp in the early-ish days of the Nazi regime; six are swiftly captured, but the seventh proves elusive, dragging old friends and family into his desperate escape. At once a very good thriller and a wide-ranging depiction of fascist society, I wondered if the first didn’t somewhat conflict with the second—it’s a little too bright and cheery for my tastes (I’m a very grim individual), and gun to my head I enjoyed Transit more than this. Still quite strong.
The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo – A collection of searing tales from the wilds of early 20th century Mexico. This reminded me somewhat of Horacio Quiroga, in its focus on desperate and impoverished men on the edges of society, and its fascination with the brutality of the natural world. I quite enjoyed it, I’ve got another one in my bag waiting to be read.
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink – A purposeless American ex-pat follows her unlovable (?) husband to Europe, obsesses over the inevitable destruction of the environment, finds herself, etc. Brisk, quite humorous, valuable in its portrayal of the impossible necessity of environmentalism and a moral code of some kind more generally, somewhat unfocused, essentially enjoyable.
The Savages by Don Winslow – Two friends sell marijuana and get into trouble with a Mexican Cartel. There’s a girl. They shoot people. Readable if unexceptional, overladen with cultural commentary (Americans are wasteful! People are mean!) of a less than brilliant stripe.
The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing – An aging intellectual attempts to make sense of post-war England with a fragmented series of recollections. This is a very big book, both in size and intellectual scope, and it would require a lot more time and effort to unpack than these brief capsule reviews allow. That said, I didn’t like it – for all the stuff about the decay of communism and imperialism in Africa the vast majority of the book is narrowly focused on the tedious, repetitive sexual exploits of Lessing’s mouthpiece/narrator, little of which felt interesting or relevant to me personally. It reminded me a little of Updike or Roth, one of those writers who imagines the through line for understanding modernity rests in their pudenda. It also goes on fucking forever. Avoid.
The Way Some People Die by Ross MacDonald – After 650 pages of Lessing I needed a femme fatale and a guy getting sapped and an overly elaborate criminal plot and I got it here. Yay!
‘I’m just another fruit fly. If I don’t care about what happens to fruit flies, what is there to care about? And if I don’t care, who will? It makes no difference to the stars.’
Hungry Hearts by Anzia Yezierska – A rather mawkish series of short stories about life in the Jewish ghettos of lower Manhattan in the turn of the century. Melodramatic and less than fabulous, though it was useful enough to be reminded of immigrant history of my own people in these dark times, as well as to be re-familiarized with the brilliance of Yiddish cursing. A black year upon Donald Trump! May he have a thousand house, and in every house a thousand rooms, and in every room a thousand beds, and may he be driven sleepless from each. May he live a hundred years beside the shadow of himself! (That last one was mine).
The Profession of Violence by John George Perason – A history of the criminal Kray brothers, who ruled London’s underworld in the post-war years. I picked this up in Gatwick and put it down in Kiev international – first time I think I’ve ever bought a book in an airport, but the thought of having to go back to the French existentialist literature I have in my backpack at the moment proved too frightening a task.