California super blooms with color, bright spurts of orange and yellow poppies, drooping purple jacaranda, the proud crowns of the birds of paradise, the particolored speckled of unnamed wildflower. When I wasn't wandering through a lush spring the last two weeks (or working, or whatever) I read the following books.
The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector – The author's attempt to express the immediate present against the limitations of language, cognitive thought. Not my favorite of hers, but then I have read a lot of Clarice Lispector this month.
Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing by Donald McRae – A gritty, slightly too personal expose of 90's boxing stars, the general awfulness of organized violence as professional entertainment. Good sports writing, engaging if you have an interest in the topic.
Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood – Isherwood pals around with an amoral double-dealing masochist spy in Weimar Berlin. Good! Very good! I didn't like it as much as I have his later stuff, but he does the down-and-out-in-a-foreign-country thing really well, without reveling in the scuzz or exaggerating his own position overmuch. It reminded me a little bit of Patrick Modiano, except that it has (gasp!) an explicable storyline, and his character's feel like people rather than phantasms.
Knight's Gambit by William Faulkner – Six mystery stories about Faulkner's beloved, fictitious Yoknapatawpha county, and lawyer Gavin Stevins, Faulkner's middle-aged surrogate (as opposed to Quentin, who is his youthful surrogate). I think it's kind of hysterical that Faulkner spent so much time putting out pure genre stuff, pulpy narratives written in his rolling, masterful, occasionally exhausting prose. They aren't actually as good as his pure literary efforts, and I'm not really sure who to recommend this to beyond a Faulkner completest, but it kept me busy through an afternoon train ride.
Marshal of France: The Life and Times of Maurice de Saxe by John Manchip White – A genuinely engaging biography of the Marshal de Saxe, who won a couple of battles for Louis XV, when he wasn't courting Parisian actresses and hanging out with Voltaire. I'm not really sure who else shares my interest in relatively obscure corners of European military history, but if that's something you're interested in you could do a lot worse.
The Old Man Dies by Simenon – When the patriarch of a middle-class Parisian family dies, his heirs are turned into bickering, unpleasant assholes. Simenon is masterful as ever (except for his Maigret stuff, which I never got a taste for), and this is engaging, well-written and clever, if somewhat small.
Family Ties by Clarice Lispector – A collection of short stories about (mostly) women losing their mind when some small interaction forces a re-evaluation of the customs and intellectual conceits which constraint normal human experience. I really like Clarice Lispector, and admire her enormous talent, while also finding myself somewhat bored of reading the same thing over and over again. My favorite's in these tended to be the stories that broke from her mold, like the masterful 'The Chicken' about an eponymous avian's brief escape from captivity, which I thought was absolutely delightful.
Goodbye to Berlin – More on Isherwood's days spent as a bohemian in Berlin before the Nazi's came in and ruined everything. Fucking Nazis. Very good, Isherwood is a master, his characterization is off the chain, this is quick and fun and generally delightful.
The Little Saint by Simenon – The childhood and youth of an artistic genius, in the bosom of his incestuous, bitterly impoverished, somehow still sort of loving family. It's new territory for Simenon (or at least, the Simenon I've read), in so far as no one shoots anyone, but he handles it adroitly. The protagonist, an idiot-savant with an obsession for color and an indifference to immorality, is neatly drawn, and it still moves with the speed of solid pulp. That's a compliment, if it wasn't clear.
Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo – An aging academic and the old man of Argentinian letters try to solve a murder in an academic conference, sort of. Clever, engaging, a charming homage to one of my favorite writers, fun all around. Take a look.
The Getaway Man by Andrew Vachss – Your classic simpleton-defined-by-his-talent-gets-in-over-his-head story, but masterfully done. Really, really strong. I never read anything by Vachss before, but this is an exceptional entry into a pretty well worn genre. It's mean, its funny, it's propulsive, it resists the instinct to get sentimental in the last act, which for some reason most of these novels can't quite avoid. Worth your time, I'll pick up another by the author soon.
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple – A tour of the Christian communities of the middle-east, circa 1995. Dalrymple is an exceptional historian but only a competent travel writer, and the background discussions of late Byzantine civilization are more entertaining than his personal experiences. On the other hand it does have some really lovely descriptions of Mt. Athos, where I spent a few days years ago, feeding bread to stray cats and talking with the monks about tattoos. On the other, other hand, that probably won't actually do you any good.
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector – A woman kills a cockroach, is confronted with the brutal implacability of conscious thought, briefly manages to escape from it, eats the cockroach. Usually, after reading a novel, I have a clear idea of how I feel about it, but I'm still going back and forth on this one. There were passages of blazing, beautiful profundity, and also bits that read almost like parodies of this style of literature, droning and repetitious. That said, works of this complexity aren't really intended to be understood with a casual read, and there was enough here that was fabulous to make me think probably a lot of the things I didn't like were more on me than on Ms. Lispector. It probably didn't help that this is the fourth book I've read by her in the last two weeks, and so I'd already seen a lot of the ideas she's working with here in some form or another. Anyway, in sum, it might be one of the better books of the last century? Or, it might be an exercise in formalism more abstractly impressive than it is valuable. Happy for me that I'm writing on my blog that no one besides me reads, and I don't have to come to any sort of final conclusion on the matter.
Ask the Dust by John Fante – Arturo Bandini, impoverished narcissist, writer of debatable merit, starves on the streets of 1940's LA, writes a book, loses a girl. I got a little tired of the 'I am Bandini the genius/No I am a terrible person look how ugly my toes are', and his impression of the effects of marijuana on the human body are genuinely quite peculiar, particularly from a purported down-and-outer with some presumable knowledge of the underclass. But the writing is gorgeous, and charming, and by the end of this slim volume I found I was really enjoying myself.
The Bushwacked Piano by Thomas McGuane – A vagrant/poet/lunatic builds a bat house, woos a woman, gets into trouble. Something like if Charles Portis wrote Adventures of Augie March. Very funny, very sharp, the language is that sort of crooked which is a pleasure to unwind. I'd never heard of McGuane, which, based on this at least, is an injustice I feel keen to rectify.