Happy new year to my Hebrew friends, happy everything else to everyone else. The weather in the evenings in LA is indescribably perfect. My life kicks along at a reasonably pleasant pace, despite it all. The last two weeks, I read the following.
The Bitterest Age by Raymond Kennedy – A precocious adolescent Berliner struggles to hold her family and life together during the last days of WWII, with the Nazi regime collapsing and the Soviets soon to arrive. There’s a lot of good stuff here, the heroine is well-drawn (if somewhat superhuman), but I think I might have felt it to be a bit too simple to meaningfully capture the inconceivable horrors of wartime, both in terms of the language and the underlining moral focus. It’s not a bad book by any means, but I couldn’t help but feel that the basically bourgeois moral structure Kennedy seeks to showcase was a little too neat, a little too clean. Which was sort of the point of the thing, but still.
A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe – I think Gene Wolfe is probably the best living fantasist, but this didn’t do it for me.
The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza – Chronicling the lives of two generations of Iranians in the first half of the 20th century, Reza packs a tremendous amount into this slender novel. Perhaps too much? Her depiction of romantic love, and particularly of romantic love from the female end of things, is beautifully rendered, really a delight to read. A lot of the rest of it – dealing with the political developments in the years leading up to the CIA backed removal of Mossadegh, and the character of modern Iran – I thought was somewhat weaker. Not weak, but not as strong as romantic bits. Still, good stuff all in all, I’ll see what else I can find by the author.
Back by Henry Green – A soldier returns from WWII, becomes obsessed with the half-sister of his dead wife, sort of loses his mind, sort of gets it back. I complained that the other two novels I read by Green – Loving and Doting – were masterfully written but too narrow. Here I couldn’t help but feel the opposite. There is some fabulous language – the first few chapters, which are more impressionistic, even experimental, are very strong – but the narrative is rather shaggy, and didn’t exactly pull together for me.
Based on a True Story by Norm MacDonald – There are a lot of good throw away lines in this anti-celebrity memoir, but the main joy is seeing MacDonald’s parodying of literary styles – a few chapters of Bukowski, a pitch-perfect if horrifying pseudo-Faulkner – which are fabulously spot on. A librarian in the Silver Lake library wearing a Tom Waits t-shirt shushed me for laughing too loudly while I was reading it, so I guess you should probably take that as a solid recommendation.
Dreams in Folklore by Sigmund Freud – Freud has this tendency to over-complicate even stone simple things, preferring elaborate explanations for what are fairly obviously mental processes; case in point, this slim tome, which searches desperately through the scatological stories of Central Europe, finding in them all sorts of deep seeded impulses while somehow missing the fact that people think poop is funny and like to write stories about it. I mean, I don’t take any of Freud’s stuff that seriously, but this one was real goofy.
Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – Jamie is a precocious adolescent living in Shanghai, who becomes separated from his parents when the Japanese invade and is forced to live out the war on his own, first in a sort of Peter Pan-esque interlude among the wreckage of the Anglo-Chinese households, then as a prisoner of war. Here as elsewhere, Ballard is a master of conjoining clashing experiences, narrating the joy which Jamie takes in his acts of survival, daily horrors made easier by a child’s incapacity to entirely understand the world around him, and the shifting uncertainties of a brief experience. But unlike his savage social commentaries/science fictions, which have the occasional tendency to tilt self-indulgently, the biographical nature of the content – the book is based, one sense accurately, on Ballard’s own experiences in the war – keeps the narrative tight, if horrifying. Very, very strong recommendation.
The Alexiad by Anna Comnena – It’s always fun to read history written by a historical figure, so to speak, and this overview of the life of the Emperor Aleixus, who did a pretty good job of rebuilding the shattered prestige of the Eastern Roman Empire, by his daughter Anna, was…reasonably engaging? Somewhat interesting? It was sort of vaguely for a project I’m working on, otherwise I’m not sure I’d have bothered.
My Marriage by Jakob Wasserman – The loosely fictionalized life history of a woman with narcissistic personality disorder, written by a her manipulative, selfish husband, who also happens to be a pretty famous early 20th century Austrian novelist. Really, really good – the portrait of Ganna within will resonate with, I can’t help but imagine, anyone who reads it – she is your cousin, your best friend’s ex-girlfriend, maybe an individual you yourself were foolish enough to allow into your life. Her endless struggle against the world’s refusal to bend to her every whim is chronicled with blazing clarity, albeit by an author whose own self-obsession itself borders on the pathological. Other readers – was your impression that Wasserman is writing himself in as a particularly noxious character, or that he simply didn’t understand the degree to which he was betraying himself within the narrative? I think it was the latter. Absolutely fabulous, in any case, strong rec.
Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego by Sigmund Freud – Usually there’s a point in Freud’s essays where he’ll fiat some flatly incorrect premise, and then rush past in hopes you won’t notice. Here it comes in identifying a ‘leader’ as an essential pre-condition of the ‘group/herd’, which brings us back to his father-as-first-sacrifice thesis which he articulates in Moses and Monotheism, but sidesteps the most fascinating aspect of group psychology; namely, that it often operates without any such patriarch, but as a faceless, blameless mass, giving vent to the sublimated desires of each individual. Whatever, there are still some fun brain teasers in here.
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich – A polyphonic reconstruction of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Long interviews with distinct ‘types’ – an embittered soldier, a hollow advertising exec, winners (but mostly losers) in the New Russia – with each section being distinct genres in and of themselves; mystery, horror, tragic romance. The scope and depth of this project, the profundity which Alexievich mines from the lives of her subjects, disparate voices but uniting themes – the universality of pain, the awfulness of death (and sometimes life), the redeeming and damning power of love – are immeasurable. One ought to be careful of making too pronounced a judgment on a book one has just finished, but ignoring that rule entirely I’m going to go ahead and say this is one of the finest things I’ve ever read, a magisterial work of human insight, an enormous accomplishment, fucking breathtaking, give it a go.
Love's Lovely Counterfeit by James M. Cain – A clever, amoral chiseler aims to overthrow the crime boss of a small midwestern city – so, Red Harvest, but with Cain’s nasty, sexy sheen. Like most of the rest of the stuff I’ve read by Cain, this goes on 30 pages longer than it really needed to, but you can’t quite bring yourself to complain.