Books and Tunes February 28th, 2019

The sun is finally out again here in Los Angeles, thank God. Be good to the people you love. Find people to love and then be good to them.

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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase – The recollections of a family of adolescent girls in a small town in mid-century Indiana.  The characters are vivid and complex, warped and self-contradictory in a way that feels poignant and real, and the conflict between the sexes is cruel and erotic and rich. The lyrical pastoralism, rarely my bag, is lovely, and its portrayal of childhood vibrant and honest. Really liked this a lot, strong recommendation, check it out.

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Complicity by Iain Banks – A journalist gets framed for the torture/murder of a number of awful Tories. It hints at subverting the genre framework into something more philosophically thoughtful, but to my way of thinking, never really does. It’s well written but the mystery itself is thin as paper, and ultimately it does seem to come down pretty unstintingly on the political/moral utility of violence in a way which seems both 1) false and 2) kinda banal? Didn’t love it, but this was my first by Banks and I’ll give him another show somewhere down the line.

Points of Departure – An anthology of stories from recent-ish Mexcian authors. I’m not sure how you review an anthology, frankly. Some of these were very good. Some of them were less so. Generally, the quality was very high, I picked up a couple of authors whose works I’ll be exploring in the weeks to come.

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By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano – The stream of consciousness recollections of a priest and literary critic, complicit in the crimes of the Pinochet regime. Everything which would make Bolano (to my mind, but then, it is my blog) one of the greatest writers in recent memory is on display here; the manic pace of his prose, like a stone rolling down hill; the pitfalls and subterranean absences, the virility and intensity of the vision. It’s a little simpler, maybe blunter even than his later stuff, and certainly it doesn’t bare comparison to his more substantial works, but its still a hell of a read.

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The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago – A copy-editor writes a fictitious retelling of the eponymous engagement, finds himself in an unanticipated romance with his new editor. I think I’m just not a fan of Saramago. His rolling, unpunctuated prose has a certain force to it, but when I bothered to work through the various sub-clauses I tended to find myself unimpressed, and the broader themes of truth and memory and so on felt uninspired. Maybe it’s me. 

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Fletch by Gregory McDonald – A rebellious SoCal reporter investigates drugs, criminal shenanigans. I have my own internal metric when it comes to these sorts of two-fisted noirs, much of which boils down to 1) sparseness of prose and 2) and a minimal use of heroic violence, and by that peculiar standard Fletch is a minor masterpiece of the genre. The narrative is pretty close to perfect in its structure, and the prose is taught and generally funny. Alas for the strands of misogyny which are somehow both banal and vigorous, but if you can squint through that it’s a pretty fun work.

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Grendel by John Gardner – Beowulf’s nemesis confronts the eye-burning meaninglessness of existence, the crassness of love and beauty, the futility of art, the absurd cruelty of time and death in this cunning, bleak, funny, uplifting (?) novel. Was I assigned this in high school, but refused to read it on general rebellious principal? Can’t remember. Anyway it was good.

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Thy Hand, Great Anarch: Indian 1921-1952 by Nirad C. Chaudhuri -- The follow up to Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, during which Chaudhuri chronicles the final years of the Raj and his life during it. Chaudhuri is a brilliant, cantankerous, original thinker, a peculiar mix of Burkean conservative and unreformed Nietzschean, and his take on the tragic inevitability of partition is compelling if odd. Amounting to his final testament (he was 90 when he wrote it), it probably could have used some editing of its bible-like length (a 50 page biography of Tagore, a slightly shorter section on his love of European orchestral music), and no doubt there are many who would quibble with his affection for the British Empire and his general contention that imperialism is a positive mechanism for human development. For all that, it is a document of genuine value, both for its critique of Western civilization from a sympathetic but foreign perspective, and as the chronicle of a decent man trying to survive morally in a corrupt and chaotic age.  

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Fear of Animals by Enrique Serna – A reporter turned corrupt police officer investigates the murder of a minor writer, discovers the Mexican literati to be marginally more vile than narcotraffickers. I’ve always been open with my belief that writers are, generally speaking, pretty shitty people, and the society in which they inhabit utter cesspools of pretension and crass favor trading, so this is the sort of thing to which I’m generally amenable, and the writing is good, but it goes on too long and its kind of on the nose.

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Voss by Patrick White – A German Ahab on an expedition to cross Australia, his white whale an idiosyncratic woman he falls in love with in Sydney and the limitations of the human spirit. I really, really like Patrick White. He can summon a character in a couple of sentences, and portrayals of both Sydney high society and the outback ruffians Voss encounters are rich and potent. He has a million clever throw away lines, summary depictions of individuals and complex thoughts reduced to witty pith. I did, at times, find some of the soaring, divinely inspired imagery to be less effective than in last week’s Riders in the Chariot, but still this is a powerful epic, lyrical and brutal. White is a genius.

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Tula Station: A Novel by David Toscana – A failing novelist writes a potentially fictitious biography of a man who is probably not his Great-Grandfather, becomes obsessed with a woman as men are bound to do, leaves his wife. Or maybe not, a lot is left unresolved in this strange, playful novel about love, and the hope for love, and its destructive and redemptive power. I quite enjoyed it, then again I am a self-destructive romantic in the classic mold, more reasonable people might cotton to it somewhat less.

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Heaven is Hard to Swallow by Rafael Perez Gay – A collection of reasonably strong shorts in what I’m coming to think of as the modern Mexican school of storytelling, meaning a lot of grit, faint hints of the fantastic, and a couple of references to sodomy.

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After the Circus by Patrick Modiano – A lost youth falls for an older woman, maybe commits various crimes. I find Modiano less enjoyable the more he relies on a deliberate narrative structure, and found myself more bored than enthralled with his vague allusions to shadowy dealings and endless dangling threads. But I mean, that’s on me, I’ve read enough of him by this point to know what I’m getting. A glutton for punishment, what can I say.

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The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye – A European wastrel finds himself lost and broke in an unnamed, dreamlike west African country in this brilliantly odd take on colonialism. Sort of an anti-heart of darkness, a critique not only of African literature but of the west’s entire view of Africa, but subtle and without cruelty or even much bitterness. I genuinely can’t recall ever reading anything like it; strong rec.

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The Continent of Circe by Nirad C. Chaudhuri– A compellingly idiosyncratic if viciously negative history of the Indian sub-continent. Chaudhuri is very, very smart, and completely unrestrained by conventional wisdom or ethnic loyalty; some of this is so unhesitatingly mean-spirited, however – for instance his contention that Hinduism is the result of the immigrant Aryan’s revulsion at India’s climate and general squalor – as to make for cringy reading. Interesting, at least. It made really curious as to what his reputation is in academic circles, not that he would have given a withered fig as to the matter.