Books and Tunes May 31st, 2019

May continued on its curiously gray way. I've been biking a lot and trying harder to notice the flowers. Not while I'm biking, just in general. May's playlist, and brief reviews of the books I read during the second half of the month follow.


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Road-side Dog by Czelaw Milosz – An arrangement of short essays, poems and aphorisms about language, death and Catholicism. I enjoyed it but can't say it stuck with me to any particular degree. Then again, I read a lot of books this month.

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Karate Chop by Dorothe Nors – A collection of short stories in the faintly-ominous-but-nothing-actually-happens vein. Didn't do anything for me at all.

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Tree of Smoke by Dennis Johnson – American intervention in Vietnam turns out to be a bad thing in this very long, very serious book. It's engaging moment to moment, the various view points are mostly well-juggled, Johnson is a solid writer and has a knack for knowing what details to avoid offering the reader to make the narrative more powerful. But there's nothing really new here, either structurally or conceptually, and I couldn't help but feel like we've probably got enough big books about Vietnam, some of them written by veterans of the conflict, and mostly released in a more timely fashion. Don't we have enough current overseas conflicts to use as literary fodder in illuminating the shady underside of the American dream? Answer: yes.

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The Devil is Dead by R.A. Lafferty – A wandering drunk finds himself entangled in a strange web of mystical doings, to give much more of the plot would be to ruin the thing. Another book I picked up because of a mention by Gene Wolfe, and you can see the influence. Stylistically its extremely peculiar, it takes half the text before you realize what genre you're dealing with, but it still manages to offer some narrative thrills. Cool, weird, I'm trying to pick up more by Lafferty but alas, he seems to be largely forgotten.

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A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene – A famous architect flees the world to take up residence in a African leprosarium, thinks about God. I didn't love it. Greene's books can generally be divided intwo two camps; books about Imperialism, and books about Catholicism, and I tend to prefer the first. Like Waugh (though somewhat less so), Greene has a tendency to imagine his faith as a form of moral masochism, basically, in which suffering is elevated over empathy, misery is portrayed as an essential good, and Christ is reduced to his stigmata.

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L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin – An engaging look at crime in 20th century Los Angeles, choc full of weird, memorable moments. Did you know the guy who started Cliftons, once a cafeteria, now my favorite bar in LA, helped fight police corruption? You do now. Fun stuff.

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Hellbox by John O'Hara – A collection of stories about over the hill drunks, small time criminals, cheating husbands, etc. Very of its time, but well-written and engaging as hell. O'Hara has a real feel for dialogue, and despite its masculine preoccupation, doesn't have that authorial intrusion you get in Hemingway and Mailer and writers of that ilk. Fun stuff.

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Passing by Nella Larsen – A member of the black bourgouise has her life ruined after a chance meeting with a childhood friend passing as a white woman. What begins as a commentary on race relations during the Harlem Renaissance morphs into a larger critique of the compromises and concessions we all take part in while building an adult existence. Very good.

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A Kind of Anger by Eric Ambler – A depressed journalist gets involved in a scam to sell the intelligence gathered by a murdered Kurdishman. Taught, extremely clever, very nearly a masterpiece but the landing doesn't quite hit like it should. Still, the usual excellence from Eric Ambler.

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Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft – A pedantic school master travels through a vertical steampunk city to find his lost love. An engaging adventure story with a charmingly weird setting.

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Disquiet by Julia Leigh – A woman returns to her childhood home with her children and a dark secret. Competently written, atmospheric, unexceptional.

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A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka – I spent ten minutes trying to find that clip from Metropolitan where the pretentious protagonist describes a book as 'Kafkaesque', and the heroine replies, 'yes, it was written by Kafka.' But I couldn't find it. Then I was going to post that clip from Annie Hall where Shelly Long and Woody Allen are in bed together, and Shelly Long goes, 'sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience,' but I don't think we're supposed to think Woody Allen is funny anymore. Anyway, this was a pretty good book.

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Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag – A family is corrupted by wealth in this story of moral decay in modern India. Sharply written and mean, but the characters feel authentic and honest. Very good, I'll get more by Shanbhag shortly.

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Kim by Rudyard Kipling – A boy's journey to adulthood through a vibrant, magical India that never was. There's a lot wrong with this book – apart from the imperialism, I mean – it doesn't really hang together as a complete narrative, and the ending is pretty weak beer. But Kipling's genuine love for his adopted homeland rings through, and manages to redeem both the moral and aesthetic issues. Hell, even Edward Said liked it.

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What I Lived For by Joyce Carol Oates – A self-important mover and shaker in a fantasy version of Buffalo faces political corruption, comes to grips with his own moral failings in this very, very, very long book. Shades of Tom Wolfe, in the depiction of hyper masculine identity, and Saul Bellow, in a 'this takes place over the course of three days but also half the narrative is filled with past memories' sort of way, although it occurs to me I haven't read either of those authors in closer to twenty years than fifteen, and I probably should be more careful with the comparisons. Anyway, this is competently written but it just goes on forever, like, forever, with scenes and thoughts and images repeated to a point beyond tedium. It's not bad, but I can't possibly imagine recommending it to anyone.

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Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata – A wealthy young man deals with the consequences of his father's infidelities. Also, there's lots of stuff about tea. It's finely tuned but very spare. If it was a restaurant, it would be one of those small plate places you go to to impress a girl and then when your food comes you're like, that's it? Fifteen bucks for one squash blossom? Anyway I didn't love it.

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The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene – A botched kidnapping by Panamanian guerrillas leads to a lot of philosophizing about God. Another one of Greene's religious works, though superior to the Burnt-Out Case. The plot is still a little too neat, almost sanctimonious in its confirmation of the author's religious leanings, but it is a thoughtful meditation on evil and redemption.

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Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – An old man contemplates his life in a letter to his young son in this luminously profound meditation on life, God, and love, one of the best books I can remember reading in a very long time. It isn't enough to say that it's thoughtfully constructed and beautifully written; lots of books are both of those things. This is a work of great wisdom, of penetrating insight, a compelling argument for the existence of God and the fundamental if tragic dignity of the human condition. I didn't think it would be possible to write a book like this, so honest and yet so hopeful, in an age as awful and despairing as ours. I'm really glad I was wrong. A towering accomplishment that confirms the purpose of fiction, lucky me that I picked it up at random from the library.

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The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor – Six African American woman living in the eponymous tenement. The prose is very strong, although the stories wrap up a little too neatly, and its a bit...sentimental, I guess. Still, a strong debut novel, worth a read.

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Rapture by Susan Minot – A man and a woman reconstruct their romantic history over the course of the world's longest blowjob. Actually pretty good, despite the premise. A thoughtful and largely accurate depiction of the romantic mindset of 21st century proto-hipsters. It was actually a little too close to home for me, a scarred survivor of love in our tarnished time, but I think most readers would find it more compelling.