Yeah, I know I’m late, I been saving lives and putting together IKEA furniture. This is what I read the last two weeks.
Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge – Victor Serge was born the child of international communist revolutionaries, spent his youth and middle age trying to overthrow the ailing pre-war European states, fought in the Russian Civil War, was jailed and broken for refusal to bend towards the totalitarian currents of the revolution, wrote several tremendously good novels, in short, was one of the most extraordinary of the 20th century’s personages. His autobiography makes for predictably fascinating reading, particularly his insightful portraits of basically every major leftist figure, and his honest efforts to reflect on the failures of the revolution, bitter criticism by which his essential optimism stands out even brighter. If I was the sort of person who felt things about things I might have found this inspiring.
Sex & Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time by Eve Babitz – Reading Eve’s Hollywood a few months ago I found myself flabbergasted that such a vibrant, interesting, commercially viable force had more or less disappeared; this book, Babitz’s third and the first to fictionalize her experience as LA ingenue and rock and roll muse, goes a fair way towards explaining the mystery. It is utter shit—badly plotted, sloppily written, and more self-indulgent than second-rate fan fiction. I could go on for about ten more sentences to this effect but what would be the point? Better to move on awkwardly.
Facundo: or Civilization and Barbarism by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento – An essay about the struggle between urbane civilization and rural barbarism within post-independence Argentina, written by a man who would become president of the country, this came up as part of my ongoing study of ‘early’ South American literature as having had an almost defining effect out of the then nascent continental consciousness. The joke, basically, is that while Sarmiento was a bitter opponent of the Caudillos that had come to power in his native country (and forced him to flee to neighboring Chile), he kind of can’t help but be drawn to their raw masculine savagery, seeing in it mankind’s horrifying but captivating instinct for self-destruction. More abstractly interesting than enjoyable in and of itself, but then, that’s life generally.
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door by Etgar Keret – For my money, Keret might be one of the best short story writers of the age—always original, funny when he wants to be, critical of society’s foibles but sympathetic to us poor schmucks caught in the middle of the mess. This collection is a maybe a little darker than the rest (reasonable given it’s the most recent and, you know, the state of the world and everything) but it’s still a delight to buzz through, like downing a bag of potato chips except each one is valuable. Maybe it’s more like Kale chips. I’ve been in LA too long.
Hard to Be a God by the Strugatsky Brothers -- A far-future communist functionary goes undercover on an alien planet closely resembling medieval Europe/your classic fantasy setting, taking the role of a Robin Hood/Cyrano type, with the caveat being he and his cohort can’t kill anyone or take any active role in advancing their new country from feudal barbarism into enlightenment. The Brothers had a real talent for writing legitimately entertaining genre stories which still manage to grapple with more substantial political and historical concerns than most of their American counterparts, and if this isn’t as strong as the masterful Roadside Picnic, it ain’t bad reading neither.
The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Machette – A contract killer tries to get out of the business so he can spend his life with his long lost love—this enormously hackneyed premise, in the hands of a skilled crime writer so dark he makes James Elroy look like Agatha Christie, is reframed as a nihilistic commentary on the banal pointlessness of human existence, bitter, bleak, and hysterical. Machette is the French Jim Thompson.
Melville by Jean Giono – A short novella about the artistic burden incurred by Herman Melville prior to writing Moby Dick. I thought it was kind of overwritten and tiring, but I have a really, really low threshold when it comes to writers writing about writing, so you might dig it more than I did.
What Maisie Knew by Henry Miller – A young girl gets shuttled around London by her horrible, divorcee parents and her horrible divorcee parents’ horrible lovers, because innocence is a precious thing and yadda yadda yadda. Frequent readers of this blog (what? Really? Get a job) will be aware of my personal feeling that basically, with the exception of some Russians and maybe the Bronte sisters, no one wrote a good novel before the 20th century. The first Miller I’ve read since I was in college did not do much to shake that belief. This is the kind of book where a character will say a line of dialogue, and then that line of dialogue will be buttressed by a page of text describing the character’s emotional state, and how this line references previous themes, and so on and so forth. I kinda these kinds of books. It is also relentlessly unsubtle, and all the risqué bits are not that risqué 130 years on. I wouldn’t say there’s nothing here, but I didn’t love it and I absolutely felt the essential idea was dealt with better by other writers.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Weird that it took me this long to get to Joan Didion. Maybe if I had gotten to it earlier I’d have enjoyed it a bit more, but then again, maybe not. The strongest bit is the first third, a scathing critique of the 60’s West Coast counter culture which is funny but also cheap and kind of bitter – Didion hates these people with the sort of nakedness which makes any honest insight kind of impossible, and if you want to see a closet conservative tear apart the hippie beast you’d better go with Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The second, rambling two thirds lost my interest completely, portentous and tiringly bitter. God sakes, Joan, you didn’t eat a good sandwich in any of these places? The weather wasn’t ever pleasant? Life consists exclusively of omens of doom? There isn’t anything on this earth worthwhile beside John Wayne’s penis?
The Steel Crocodile by D.G. Compton – Social sci-fi about the struggle between the soulless tendencies of the modern technocratic state against individual idiot’s right to self-determination. Strong, basically well written, Compton has a legit talent for swiftly modeling complex social dynamics, not generally a common feature of sci-fi stories. Downside is a lot of it has to do with computers, which, if you’ve ever read anything about computers before the development of the personal computer, depicts a vision of the future so gloriously inaccurate that it’s kind of hard to take seriously. The fear of an omnipresent media desperate for any sort of emotional provocation which Compton deals with in Continous Katherin Mortenhoe seems much more on point.
Trials of a Respectable Family by Mariano Azuela – A fascinating if imperfect portrait of a aristocratic conservative family during the Mexican Revolution, written by a former revolutionary soldier. The first part, detailing the family’s evacuation in the face of revolutionary forces by the youngest son, a weak-willed milksop, is a little too mean, and the second part, about the patriarch learning the value of hard work, is a little too nice. Still, there’s a lot of good stuff here, Azuela combines an understandable political enthusiasm with impressive structural and narrative complexity.
Beetle in the Anthill by the Strugatsky Brothers —The Bros. continue their run of cleverly re-imagining classic genre tropes – in this case the spy story, although there’s some sci-fi and even post-apocalyptic stuff here -- into more complex discussions of the nature of humanity, and even the sort of veiled criticisms possible to Soviet writers. They all also tend to fall pretty to third act infodumps and unruly Deus Ex Machinas, this one in particular more so than the others I read.