Books I Read June 14th, 2019

I write things, I read things, I bike places. I saw a terrible play and an OK movie and one of the best concerts of my life. A lengthy vacation looms ahead of me, so I'm trying to pre-emptively make up for a lot of my bad behavior. Happy father's day, assuming you observe it. So far this month I read the following books...


Mrs. Eckdorf in O'Neil's Hotel by William Trevor – A mentally ill photographer forces her way into the lives of a handful of mentally ill people living in and around a dilapidated Dublin hotel. A brutal if someone unsubtle critique of the artistic semi-neccessity of using other people's lives for creative fodder. The anti-heroine is interestingly drawn, but the rest of the crew of miserables are kind of one note, and it's not quite funny enough to be a comedy.


The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff – An impressive collection of short stories, admirable both in execution and scope. Generally excellent, and it was nice to read one of these where every story wasn't a minor variation on the next.


Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Two Courts Era by William de Lange – What can I tell you, the thirteen year old inside me loved this title too much not to give it a read. Unfortunately it turns out we don't actually know anything about the lives of the two most famous duelists of the Two Courts Era, and so this ends up being an enormously tedious history of the general period, rather than the biography it claims to be. Alas.


What's for Dinner by James Schuyler – The unhappy misadventures of a collection of upper middle class small town elite. One of these 'beneath the happy facade of the American dream everyone is drinking heavily and masturbating' sorts of novels. Mean! Cynical! Like a lot of other books I've read! Not bad, but not particularly memorable.


The Devil's Yard by Ivo Andric – In the waning days of the Ottoman empire, a falsely imprisoned Orthodox monk befriends a mentally ill Turkish aristocrat. Quick, lyrical, sad, a minor work by an acknowledged master.

Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami – Two boys left for dead in a Tokyo train station grow up together, get into some nasty misadventures, decide the world is a cesspool, destroy it. More of the sardonic nihilism one expects of Murakami, but this kind of thing works a lot better in 200 pages than 400. The subplots, while fine on their own, go on too long, especially since the climax is pretty obvious from the early going.


Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – An eccentric vagrant raises her two young nieces in a small American town. This was one of those books I think I didn't like quite as much as it merited. Part of that was coming down from the high of Robinson's sublime Gilead, part of it was I am one of those people who just really can't stand bucolic imagery, no matter how lyrical. But it is beautifully written, Robinson is very talented, and I suspect other readers will enjoy it more.


The Flame is Green by R.A. Lafferty – A band of European revolutionaries fight an esoteric crusade against their demonic counterparts. An entertaining adventure story written in a quixotically odd fashion, impossible events incorporated without explanation (but in an engaging way!). Lafferty was really an original, he writes modern fantasy as satire and fairy tale. Strong stuff, alas that no one seems to read him any longer, or at least the LAPL doesn't have the rest of this series.


Marquise of O by Heinreich von Kleist – A German noblewoman gets pregnant unexpectedly, tries to find the husband. I didn't really get it. I know that's not much of a review, sorry, but there it is.


A Sun for the Dying by Jean-Claude Izzo – A Parisian vagrant travels to Marseille to die, recollects his youth and failures. There's a lot of good things about this; its humane and sad and sometimes sweet, and there's a crime thread that works pretty well, actually, but ultimately it was a little too sentimental for me personally. Still, I'd check something out by the author again.


Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice – A reservation in the far north of Canada survives an isolated winter after an undisclosed apocalypse wrecks civilization. Stronger in conception than execution.


Great Granny Webster by Caroline Webster – A woman traces a strand of familial madness to a brutal, cold-hearted matriarch. Quite marvelous. Funny, sad, a thoughtful exploration of how mental illness is passed down through generations as children, reacting against the sins of their parents, forge their own paths of self-destruction. Very good.


Recollections of the Golden Triangle by Alaine Robbe-Grillet – A post-modern Marquise de Sade. Which, I mean, if that appeals to you, have at it! There's actually a fair bit of artistry here, but beyond illicit erotic/horrific thrills I'm really not sure what the point was.


Fragments of Lichtenberg by Pierre Senges – The false history of an attempt to reconstruct a novel from the scattered posthumous writings of the Enlightenment philosopher/scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg functions as a meta-critique of the modern academy and a meta-commentary on how perspective alters truth. Really, that suggests more of a narrative than actually exists. In practice this is 450 pages of the author spitballing in any direction he feels like, which I don't object to on premises but which requires an enormous amount of genius to pull off, one which, sadly, Senges does not possess. Pedantic rather than erudite, sometimes clever but never funny, this is the kind of books where long lists of things are meant to serve as punchlines. There's no point in disliking a thing more than its importance merits, I know that, but by God I wish I had the time it took to read this back.


The Color of Blood by Brian Moore – The Cardinal of an eastern bloc country tries to avert a catastrophic showdown with the communist government. I admire how many different genres Moore can work in, and this is a skillful if somewhat derivative Greene pastiche.


The Open Sore of a Continent by Wole Soyinka – Some ten years ago, at the first (and as it turned out, only) Brasilia Biennal, I was somehow at a party with the writer/human rights advocate Wole Soyinka, growing long in the tooth but still a statue of a man, with a white mane and dark eyes and a weighty if friendly bearing. My handler, a lovely Brazilian woman whose job was to make sure none of the English-speaking authors wandered away and got bludgeoned to death, made an unexpected point of introducing us. “This is Wole Soyinka,” she said, “Nobel prize winner. And this,” she said, turning to me, “is Daniel Polansky. His book is being compared to Game of Thrones and Raymond Chandler.” It was clear that Wole Soyinka had no idea what this meant, but he fumbled forward kindly, and I did my best to follow.

Anyway, I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to Mr. Soyinka's work, or in retrospect why I chose this one, which ends up being, basically, a series of essays about the political situation in Nigeria during the early 90's. It assumes an intimate knowledge about the nation's history and then circumstance which I can't claim to possess, and so I don't really have anything useful to say by way of a critique. I'll try and pick up something of his that is of broader interest, if for no other reason than his having shared one of the more awkward moments of my life.


July's People by Nadine Gordimer – When Apartheid South Africa devolves into civil war, with the white establishment on the verge of collapse, a family of white liberals are saved by their black servant, who spirits them back to his village. A strange, discomfiting, very clever commentary on the vast gaps between peoples, and their painful struggle to bridge them. A magnificently vital portrait of South Africa as it might have been. Uncompromising, excellent, worth a read.


Castle Gripsholm by Kurt Tucholsky – A pair of lovers flee the coming Reich for a two-week idyll in Sweden, have a threesome, free a child from an evil orphanage, in this bittersweet threnody for a dying world. The small triumphs of joy and righteousness in a world growing dark, of moving poignance here in our own pre-apocalypse.

What is it about? I want to know right now!”

I sucked the end of a bitter fir-twig. “First of all,” I said, “I saw how it was. And then I understood why it was like that—and then I appreciated why it couldn't be any other way. But I still want it to be different.”


Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli – A damning if overwrote indictment of the Dutch administration in Java, book-ended by a hysterically bizarre commentary by a vigorously hypocritical coffee trader. The main story, of a too-decent administrator in a rural province, is well-meaning but kind of interminable, a lot of the emotive asides common to works of this era. The writer himself is presumably (?) aware of this, which explains the peculiar meta-story surrounding it, which is mean, clever, and worth your time.