Books I Read August 14th, 2019

Got back to the city and back on my grind, pumping out pages, lifting things, helping folk, reading books (actually I didn't read as many books as I should have but the rest I stand by). They say you can't swim in the Pacific but they're liars, it's not really that cold. Lassens > Erehwon, the Greek > Bowl, Mexican food > everything.


The Manticore by Robertson Davies – In the second book in the Deptford Trilogy, an alcoholic Canadian lawyer engages in a year's worth of Jungian therapy in Switzerland. It's an easy read, the language is concise and a lot of the throw away observations are worth your time, but Davies' naked affection for Jungianism (sp?) ends up feeling advertorial. There's a lot of 'Don't you see that this is a reflection of your Shadow entering the therapeutic process / why yes, yes I do! How penetrative!'


Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut – A fictionalized retelling of the life of E.M. Forster, primarily his time in India and fumbling, forbidden attempts at homosexual romance. It's OK? I didn't really like Passage to India (do people still life Passage to India?) so part of that was lost to me, but also the writing was a little too distant, passionless, for the essential eroticism of the subject matter.

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The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson – An elementary school student takes a long walk through a small city to visit a friend, in this charming, funny, nostalgic depiction of youth in middle America. It does an excellent job of recapitulating the peculiar mental state of childhood, its obsessive tendencies and strange rituals, and I found myself in uncanny agreement with the protagonist's moral code – keep to your word, never steal marbles, and be extra nice to the weird kids. Lots of fun.


The Big Time by Fritz Leiber – A war rages across time, fought by unknowable alien powers with time-displaced human slaves as cannon fodder; in between missions they decompress at an interstellar recreational establishment. I enjoyed it more in theory than execution.

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World of Wonders by Robertson Davies – In the third book in the Deptford trilogy we are finally privileged to hear the life story of the world's greatest illusionist, an infrequent though critical participant in the previous two novels. After all that build up I was expecting more than a rather tedious depiction of life as a Canadian carnie and a minor theatrical participant, and honestly the thematic heart of the trilogy – that we create meaning in our lives by casting ourselves as heroes in our own stories – is bluntly presented and ultimately not that clever.


Byzantine: The Imperial Centuries by Romilly James Heald Jenkins – A readable history of the high points of the Empire, a useful reminder of a bunch of Byzantine particularities that I'd forgotten.

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City of Crows by Chris Womersley – A mother who might be a witch pursues her kidnapped son through 17th century France with the aid of a charlatan who might be the devil. Discomfiting, fast-paced and with a mean sting. Excellent genre fiction, worth your look.


Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote – A sensitive southern child goes to live in a dilapidated mansion with a cast of freaks. The writing is excellent if flowery, but southern Gothic as a style peaked with Flannery O'Connor, and I found the procession of incestuous grotesques and descriptions of pungent foliage and rotting masonry interminable even at two hundred pages.

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Dreams from Bunker Hill by John Fante – Fante's alter ego tries to make it as a screenwriter, has some misadventures, makes poor some lamentable life decisions, in what felt like kind of a stale retread of Ask the Dust. I might have come a little too late in life to John Fante, he feels like a young man's writer if ever I read one.

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez – An effectively disturbing selection of horrifying short stories. The comparisons to Bolano here are obvious, with most of the narratives being first person south American gritty little nightmares, though for my money the more overtly genre stuff are far more effective than the looser, somewhat unfocused literary efforts. On balance, however, there's more than enough here to warrant your time, provided you want to spend said time discomfited and slightly nauseated.

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Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – Bad things happen to a western roustabout. It was fine, it was 120 pages, I didn't mind it, I read it yesterday and can't remember anything about it, which to me is usually not indicative of a classic of world literature but what do I know.

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Flying Home and Other Stories by Ralph Ellison – Largely posthumous stories from the writer of Invisible Man. Not all of them are absolutely stellar, but Ellison has a rare knack for writing about childhood, and a lot of the stories about being young and black in the south felt like things I hadn't quite seen before. Good stuff, all in all.

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Old Filth by Jane Gardner – An elderly English barrister recalls his childhood in the far east and a miserable youth in England, reaching catharsis via a series of tragi-comic misadventures. This kind of thing is pretty well worn territory, frankly, but Gardner manages to offer something excellent if not entirely new. She has a rare gift for giving a lot of narrative heft to brief encounters, and the narrative is pleasantly kaleidoscopic, with characters and previous events intruding only to be concluded with surprising swiftness. Some of these feel insubstantial, but the total effect is grander than any individual strand, and the whole thing is packaged together with becoming sweetness. I dug it!

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Buried Treasures of California by W.C. Jameson – Getting a library card since coming to LA has so genuinely improved my overall reading experience, I can't even tell you. Gone are days of carefully curating my purchases at the Strand, weighing the merits of one NYRB Classic against another. Now I just run in and run out laughing maniacally, able to pursue any random strand of learning (or semi-learning, or entertainment, or whatever) without needing to justify it to my purse. Buried Treasures of California! I mean, come on, who can resist? It's got this horrible, Velvet Painting cover and the title is the aesthetic equivalent of getting smacked in the face by a 2x4. Buried Treasures of California! That's what this book is about! Abandoned gold claims, the forgotten caches of bank robbers, the death curses of silver-mining hobos! The 12 year old in me enjoyed it immensely.