Books and Tunes January 31st, 2019

What wisdom do I have to offer from the last few weeks of walking around the city, and looking at things and listening in on stranger’s conversations and attending art fairs where everything looked alike and of speaking with friends? What nuggets of truth, what weighty predictions for the future?

Rams 31, Patriots 24.

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Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones – A collection of short stories about the African-American experience in Washington, D.C. during the post-war era. Subtle and well-observed, with an understated and honest focus on the lives and feelings of archetypes and characters rarely portrayed in fiction; elderly churchwomen, store clerks and failed fathers. I also get excited by anything that namechecks Florida Avenue Grill and half-smokes, but that might not do as much for you personally.


Trick by Domenico Starnone – An elderly, self-absorbed painter enters into a battle of wills with his precocious grandchild, is forced to confront his mortality. A minor masterpiece; funny, sad in the sad places and happy in the happy places, condemning of the vanity of artists in a way I always enjoy. Not to mention, pleasantly brief. Check it out.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories – A son and his father save the land of stories from an evil wizard, or something like. It’s been a week or two since I read it. Basically Phantom Tollbooth in a faintly Persian setting. Nothing objectionable, but probably this shouldn’t have been my introduction to Salmon Rushdie.


Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell – A shiftless, failed criminal enters into skullduggery and foolishness on behalf of his white trash adopted family in this bleak pseudo-comedy by the writer of Winter’s Bone. It was somehow less than the sum of its parts, with a lot of funny asides and miserably humorous shenanigans shoehorned not altogether successfully into a loose crime narrative.

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In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul – A novella and three short stories making a succinct case for Naipaul’s enduring if brutal genius. I genuinely wonder what history will make of Naipaul – no one had such insights in the minds of the colonizers and the colonized, or wrote as compellingly about the fundamental impossibility of cross-cultural transference. And yet this is such an unpalatable truth, in an age which must, for its very existence, hope for some form of union or at least cooperation among the disparate peoples of our baking planet, that I can easily imagine him being quietly pushed out of the canon. In any event, he’s very much worth reading, and this is a good point of entry into his voluminous catalog.

Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell – Bushwackers fighting over Bloody Kansas. There’s some good bits here, Woodrell is funny and he can write, but it’s basically a literary retelling of the Outlaw Josey Wales, and being a good Union boy (by fiat of Abraham Lincoln but nonetheless) this kind of southern apologia makes me a little uncomfortable.

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Such Fine Boys by Patrick Modiano – A loose collection of reminiscences from the graduates/survivors of an expensive French boarding school, an achingly nostalgic paean to lost youth, broken innocence and the slow rot of dream. Which is to say, basically the same as every other thing I’ve read by Modiano, though here at least it was stripped of some of the narrative conventions which he tends to utilize but not abide by in his other books, resulting in a stiffer draught of pure ennui. I actually quite enjoyed it, but even his biggest fans couldn’t argue that the man paints in monochrome.

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The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk – An Italian engineer is captured by Ottoman slavers, begins to work for a Turkish polymath who is also somehow sort of his twin. Also, it’s a metaphor for being a writer. I read a bunch of Pamuk when I was bumming around Turkey years ago and I didn’t really like it but I thought I’d read some more to figure if it was my fault or his fault but I’m still not sure. It’s the kind of book which feints towards having a real narrative but page to page it’s pretty interminable, like there’s three sentences on invading Hungary and five pages about a dream one of the characters have (Umberto Eco does the same thing). Anyway it wasn’t really for me.

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Dirty Snow by Simenon – The child of a madame seeks damnation/redemption in occupied Paris. Dostoevsky by way of Jim Thompson (or is that just to say Jim Thompson?), with an anti-hero that makes Pinkie Brown look like Harry Potter. Brisk, bleak if moralistic, Simenon’s Detective novels never did anything for me but the few straight noirs I’ve read have been very strong, of which this is a real standout. Have a read, if you’re looking for an existentialist gut punch.


Ties by Domenico Starnone – The history of an unhappy family, structurally interesting and thoughtful, and with a reasonable wallop of an ending, but I couldn’t help but feel it lacked a little depth,. My opinion might be colored somewhat by how much I enjoyed Trick, however, and in any event although I didn’t love it I think I really like Starnone more generally, if that makes sense.


Diary of a Madman by Lu Xun – A collection of short stories from a (the?) giant of 20th century Chinese letters. Much of it functions as a veiled if comprehensible satire of a civilization in rapid upheaval, and even if you don’t get all the references to Romance of the Three Kingdoms there’s still a lot of fun to be had in watching the author tweak the evils and pretensions of his age (traditional medicine comes in for a lot of abuse). But beyond political parody there is a sad joy in watching Lu describe the tragedies of his fellow citizens, grappling with his own failures and the failures of his age. In short, this is a master of the form reworking the Western-style short story into his own vernacular. Strong rec.


Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o – A polemic parable about the evils wreaked on Kenya by colonialism and capitalism, written in Thiong'o’s native tongue and smuggled out of prison on sheets of toilet paper. A fascinating back story but it is doggedly didactic, and even agreeing with all the major points I still can’t imagine many readers actually enjoying the work itself. 


Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick – Scattershot recollections of the narrator’s life, brief vignettes on ex-lovers ad dead friends and cleaning women and Billie Holliday. Much seems to be made of its peculiar structure, though to me there was nothing fabulously complex, observations and histories linked by mood, basically. Hardwick does it very well, however, the language feels biting and original, wistful without being overbearing.


The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders – A parable about modern immigration with robots. There are some funny lines and it lasted me through a bottle of sparkling water but it did kind leave me thinking Jesus Christ, is this really the best we got?


The Virginian by Owen Wister – A noble western cowhand shoots some bad dudes and finds a lady love, in what I gather is sort of the ur-text for the American western. Its basically Walter Scott in Wyoming, shlocky, overwritten melodrama with the most endless descriptions of the natural world (not often my bag), but there are some funny lines and a bristling brio to its eponymous heroic creation.