The days pass. I write a lot. I listen to Warren Zevon. I explore weird parts of the city. I’m trying not to eat meat, which is a miserable experience. I hate being a vegetarian. I really don’t want to be one. I think I did some other things the last two weeks but honestly I can’t really remember right now, it’s been a long day and I still got a lot of it left. Anyhow, this is what I read the last two weeks.
The Minotaur by Benjamin Tammuz – A Mossad agent falls obsessively in love with a much younger woman, writing her letters and surrounding her with surveillance without the two ever meeting. Part psychosexual drama, a metastasized reckoning of the effects of obsession, part unconventional but recognizable spy story. Midway through I was getting ready to declare the thing a masterpiece, but the second half kind of cheapened the thing for me. I prefer my mysteries unsolved and my passions unfulfilled, thanks so much. Still, weird and sexy and worth a read.
All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski – An upper-class family in Eastern Germany during the final days of World War II, trying to survive the coming collapse of their society, a long overdue reckoning, the terrors of which are certain to fall indiscriminately among the population. Interspersed with a surreal absurdism is an acute appreciation of the meaninglessness (?) of individual morality against the nightmarish circumstances. Surely it is only coincidence that I’ve been lately drawn to the works of post-war German writers, their attempts to puzzle out how a society can go mad so quickly, and what responsibilities can be demanded of those unfortunate souls caught within its net. Recommended, in any event.
Winesburg, Ohio – The citizens of the eponymous town, the apex of Americana, tell their stories of unfulfilled hopes and endless restlessness to the ear of a sympathetic everyman (boy) preparing for his journey into the wider world. The justly famous John Lingan (have you read his book? ? No? Why not? I told you to read it! Sometimes I get the feeling I’m just screaming nonsense into the ether, that maybe you don’t even care about my literary ramblings) claims this as among his favorites, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It’s good. Its very good. It’s poignant and beautifully written, and for those of us born in the bloated gray sprawl of the eastern seaboard places like Ohio or Missouri have their own peculiar foreign joys. Occasionally I did find myself thinking that the stories hewed a bit too close to one another, that surely there must be someone in this town who just, you know, likes their job at the pharmacy or thinks their husband is a swell enough guy. But this is a pretty minor quibble, and ultimately I’d offer up a very strong recommendation.
Omensetter's Luck by William H Gass – The story of the battle for the hearts and souls of a small town between Beckett Omensetter, all innocent righteousness and innate joie de vivre, and his nemesis, the Reverend Jethro Farber, bitter and impassioned hater of life. The first two books by Gass I read – On Blue, and In the Heart of the Heart of the City – were enough to establish the man as a monumentally talented writer of prose, but at the same time left me somewhat cold. It was technically amazing but didn’t ring with me in any way, it seemed more like a writing exercise than true art. I started this then with some trepidation, anticipating 350 pages of linguistic riddles and lots of children’s rhymes. I got these in spades, but what I also got was a profound and sympathetic moral viewpoint of the sort I didn’t find in Gass’s other works. This is a very, very good book, beautiful and sad, literary genius married to authentic insight. Strongest possible recommendation, provided you don’t mind the inherent difficulty of the prose.
Blood on the Dining Room Floor by Gertrude Stein – Gertrude Stein wrote a mystery novel!?! Sort of! I mean, it’s not exactly Chandler, and there are most hints of a plot than there is an actual storyline, but there’s certainly a strong whiff of nefariousness in this, as well as a ton of absolutely fabulous writing, as would be expected. I mean, it is a little much, the endless reliance on pronoun and repetition, but when it works, as it often does, one is left gasping enthusiastically at Stein’s brilliantly precise language. Lots of fun. (PS the Butler did it.)
In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes – A lonely ex-pilot may or may not be a killer of woman in Dorothy Hughes’ rivetingly nasty novel. Hughes has very solid noir chops, and is a generally competent plotter, but the really stellar stuff here is her insight into the savagery of the male psyche – a brooding cruelty mixed with an obsessive capacity for love, surrounded by the most petty, childlike selfishness. Jim Thompson himself couldn’t have done any better, strong recommendation.
The Midnight Folk by John Masefield – Lavie Tidhar wouldn’t stop ranting on about this, which after I got from the library turned out to be a cutesie y/a book from the 1920’s about a typical plucky everyboy protagonist-orphan pursuing a lost treasure in the face of his evil governess who is also a witch. I liked its indifference to making any sense, which is an aspect of y/a literature that’s largely been lost these days, and it went by pretty quick. Obviously I’m not the target audience. Then again, neither is Lavie?
The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes – These recollections of an inconceivably miserable upbringing of the eponymous author, first in the slums of Bogota, then in the miserable stolidness of a Catholic convent, are so horrifying and peculiar that the book seems a work of fantasy, in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez who championed the work. They are not, however, or apparently not, only an authentic history of sordid misery and the heroism needed to escape from it. Very strange, very sad, very good. The bit about the doll, in particular…strong stuff, man. Just strong stuff.
Black Swans by Eve Babitz – I pretty much thought I was done with Eve Babitz after last month’s debacle, but then whoever runs the twitter feed for NYRB Classics – who I’m sure has a name and a life and like, pants, and whatnot, but whom I personally prefer to think of as an incorporeal literary force, a divine oracle, if you will – told me I should try Black Swans, and so I did.
But I didn’t love it. Babitz first two books are marvelous fun – she stakes out a unique space as a sort of sage of shallowness, able to write about her youthful escapades in a fresh and witty way. Three books later, one can’t help but wonder if maybe this pose of superficiality is not a pose. The fundamental unseriousness which was part of the fun of her earlier work is not nearly as much fun, and in particular the essay twinning the LA riots to a week of sex with a new lover is so howling tone-deaf it made this reader actively uncomfortable. Oh, well. At least we still have Eve’s Hollywood.
The Best of Connie Willis by Connie WIllis – Willis is the reverse of a lot of the other writers I’ve been reading lately, who tend to rely on esoteric prose to paper over narrative holes. Her internal mechanisms work really well—sometimes too well, bluntly, with the jokes too clearly telegraphed, and the plot getting wrapped up too neatly. She’s also a little too friendly for my tastes, but then I’m a miserable person. I did really like Death on the Nile, though, and the one about there being no more dogs.
Borrow the Night by Helen Nielsen – Very strong if somewhat unoriginal noir by the apparently (though, based on the strength of this, unjustly) forgotten Helen Nielsen. Good stuff.