So I read a lot of books the last two weeks, and some of them I thought were fabulous, reminders of the eternal value of art in our grim and foolish world, and some of them I thought frankly were kind of garbage, and I guess the dichotomy got me thinking about these capsule reviews I’ve been throwing up the last year or so. Mostly I do this for my own benefit, because it helps me keep track of the things I read, and to clarify how I felt about them—I’m obviously not reviewing for a publication, and thus consider myself under no particular obligation to anyone reading it. That being the case, I’m wondering why I bother to write about books I didn’t like? I’ve generally tried to abide by a policy of never throwing shade on any writer who might potentially be negatively impacted by my criticism, but who’s to say if that’s the case? I sometimes stumble across some negative review of my own stuff put out by some stranger on the interwebs, and it generally doesn’t improve my mood.
On the other hand, it is my blog, so I’m going to split the difference; from now on, I’m not going to put any negative reviews up on Goodreads (to which I’ve been cross-posting these), but I’ll continue to write what I want up here, just so I can keep track of what I’ve been sifting through. Which, the past two weeks, was…
The Pasha's Concubine and Other Tales by Ivo Andric – A series of savage, lustful, horrifying stories about the last days of the Ottoman Empire in Bosnia and the years beyond. I really like Andric (apologies but I’m not going to bother with trying to figure out how to add the accent) – these are strange and beautiful, they remind me a little bit of Marquez in terms of their visceral passion, and of course I’m a sucker for anything having to do with the Balkans. Even if you aren’t, though, these are worth your time. Andric is due for a full-scale revival, I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened yet.
Drive by James Sallis – A professional get away driver breaks his self-imposed rules, kills a lot of people. A stylish, serviceable thriller, fast and readable, but it has a lot of flashback that don’t add much and its one of those noirs where you’re like, man for an unsentimental killer you are sentimental as fucking shit.
Cain by Jose Saramago – Cain kills Abel, gets angry at God, wanders through the Old Testament parables making trouble. I did not like this book. This was one of the books I didn’t like. Honestly a lot of it felt like listening to that guy in your Freshman philosophy class who just got around to reading a bit of the bible and is like, ‘Oh shit did you know God is mean?’ And you’re like ‘yeah boss, thanks for playing.’ It’s got a nice last sting, though.
Pal Joey by John O’Hara – An epistolary novella about a down-on-his-heels crooner. I liked some of the vernacular but wasn’t blown away apart from that.
Immobility by Brian Evenson – In the post-apocalypse a post-human is tricked into trying to help a band of survivalists. As a work of genre this didn’t work for me, I was never surprised/horrified/excited etc. Philosophically I found it tiringly nihilistic; I get it, humanity is monstrous, our consciousness an error, I sing this song to myself most nights around 2 AM, I don’t need any help with the refrain.
Almost Never by Daniel Sada – An engineer visits prostitutes, woos a village sweatheart, occasionally has incestuous fantasies, in this peculiar, sly take on conventional Mexican sexual mores. Funny, erotic, Sada seems like a fascinating link between Juan Rulfo’s parochial brutalities and the urban savagery of Bolano. I dug it, I’ll read more by the man.
The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel – A biography of the author’s journey from bourgeoise splendor in pre-WWI Middleuropa, to the heights of the Weimar theater scene and finally to Hollywood. Viertel led a fascinating, vibrant life, and seems like an admirable and intelligent person, but alas this is pretty flat. Most of the text consists of naked recitations of events – ‘I met Brecht at…’, ‘Greta Garbo came by to…” with relatively little by way of grander insight. And much as I like any optimistic portrayal of my adopted homeland, the latter bit of the book is domestic trending towards banal; at one point, Viertel notes the death of a dog. Not for me.
Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders – A selection of uncomfortably identical stories about unfortunate idiots living in a vague post apocalypse, a lot of cringy humor and shallow nihilism. Mostly this was one note and weirdly lazy – literally 2/3 of the story’s deal with characters working in ironic amusement parks – except when it veers into occasional frantic mawkishness.
Fools of Fortune by William Trevor – The brutal tragedy of the English domination of Ireland is played out in this complex and fabulous novel, about a child ensnared by the violence of the rebellion. Trevor is a beautiful writer, each incident is deftly sketched and feels original, structurally it’s consistently surprising, and there is that indescribable but undeniable quality of moral insight which elevates it into the highest ranks of novels. Marvelous, really sublime.
Testing the Current by William McPherson – An eight-year-old in an idyllic, midwestern youth comes to grips with the sexual and moral misdeeds of his elders. McpHerson has a real genius for replicating the mindset of childhood, there’s a ton of stuff in here that echo my (and I suspect, your) dim memories of that age, the odd traditions our young minds grasp onto, our fears and obsessions, the enormous enthusiasms which only children are capable and for which adults are ever envious. Lyrical, beautiful, lots of fun. Check it out.
First Execution by Domenico Starnone – A professor is embroiled in an act of terrorism by an old student; a metatext allows for the author to investigate the craft of writing, and the great guilt any honest individual feels when facing the world’s misfortunes. A difficult, strange, contradictory book, elusive in its complexity but still sincere. This was another book which dealt with the tragic misery of the human condition, but unlike some of the other things I read this week did so honestly, without a pretense of humor or excessive nastiness. Very strong, Starnone is a great talent.
The Adventures of Mao on the Long March by Friedrich Tuten – A generic description of the long march is intercut with literary fragments and parodies of 20th century authors as a metacommentary socialism, love, and art as an independent work of existence. Your tolerance for this sort of high-falutin’ experimentalism will probably determine your enjoyment of the work, but for my part I thought it was funny and odd and the chopped texts fit together nicely (really never thought I’d be reading anything from Jack London’s Iron Heel again). Admittedly its sort of a one note joke, but I laughed at it so at least there’s that.
The Warren By Brian Evenson – Shifting personalities in the post-apocalypse, to give much more would ruin the story. Creepy and weird, shades of Harlan Ellison, I like Brian Evenson even though I don’t like everything he writes.
Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White – In a small Australian town, four holy fools; the Lamed Wufnik of legend, righteous souls who secretly uphold the universe; do spiritual combat with the terrible darkness of modernity and human indifference.
I want to trumpet this book to the heavens; I want to drop copies of it on strangers (though I will not, because it’s very large). Aesthetically it is a masterpiece. White has that rarest of gift of making each sentence seem like a sentence no had ever written before, and yet the narrative remains compulsively readable. It lyrical, tragic and uplifting; it feels like the visions which are given to its protagonists, a searing insight into the painful wonder of the human condition. It is the sort of book which nearly makes one believe in God.
I’m always skeptical of my first impressions of things I really love, but twenty-minutes after finishing it I can’t help but feel this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.